Max Morris Federlicht taught Etruscan Studies at the University of West Dakota when I was a student there. I was studying Engineering, so the fact that we even met, let alone talked together, was somewhat of a miracle. UWD, as you know, is a huge school, very proud of its twenty former Harvard faculty members who survived, in various ways, the Boston Impact of 2041. Max was one of those lucky twenty.
We met when I was a senior. It was seven p.m., after dark. I had been working alone in the spooky basement of the Fusion Lab in Bush Hall, and was approaching the roseate glow of the nuke-a-nosh machine in the Engineering offices when Dahlia, the department secretary, sang out, “Hey, Robert! Do you know how to open a locked desk? I’ve got some dork on the phone over in LAS that can’t get into his own drawers. Hahahaha!”
I volunteered, grabbed a screwdriver, and rushed out into the foggy darkness. The rest is history. No, not history, since the incident was hushed up later and all evidence of Federlicht’s
tenure at UWD put down the memory hole.
Max had forgotten that the top drawer of his antique desk (actual wood) had to be ajar before you could open the side drawers. I had them open in seconds. He grabbed a bulging folder from one drawer and sailed out the door without thanking me. “Lecture! Two minutes,” he muttered as he left.
I sat there, wondering if I should go back to the gloomy and depressing fusion lab or down to the warm, well-lit commons for a real dinner. I rose, headed for the latter and coed company, and immediately ran right into Max, who had returned at full tilt.
“Forgot my pointer.” He grabbed the laser from atop his desk and started away again. “You! Come along. You might as well see what the fuss is about. Come!”
I trailed along in his wake, alert for sudden U-turns, in case he’d forgotten some other widget.
There was a hush as we entered the LAS main lecture hall. He motioned me to a seat in the back and took his place on the podium. The place was jammed from several weeks of publicity unseen and unheard at my end of the campus. According to a note on the classroom display, the topic was, “Translation of Benwood Etruscan Documents CXXVI-a, b & c.” Exciting, huh?
But this translation, it seems, was a VBD: a Very Big Deal, in Etruscan Studies circles. Not so much in Engineering, I was telling myself, wondering if I could just sneak out the back of the room when Max next turned his back to the audience.
“You probably can’t read this next slide, but…” he began.
There’s my cue, I thought, as Max launched into reading the entire frigging slide. I glanced at it. It was a photo of a piece of vellum or parchment, with an overlaid translation. “The Songs and Secrets of the Elder Gods…” began Max.
I was still sitting there an hour later when he showed the last slide and turned off the projector. The applause was loud and long. It seems that until Max came along, no one had ever read any of the surviving Etruscan documents or inscriptions. He had come up with a method that involved comparing late writings with earlier writings, and, using “stochastic content analysis” (that means lucky guesses), had broken the language with the assistance of a huge computer and a few very early Roman historical documents.
Max and I sat in the Grill over coffee afterwards. He beat around the bush for a few minutes, then said, “How would you like to be the only Etruscan Engineering Studies major in the world?”
“Uh, why would I want to do that?”
“As you can see, I’m breaking new ground.”
“In Etruscan Studies. Not Engineering.”
“How long would you have to practice as an engineer before you did anything new? Really new, not just doing what the guy before you did?”
He had a point there. I’d been warned by grad students that their first real-world engineering directives had consisted of nothing but “make it like the existing.”
“Years,” I admitted.
“This is a chance to grab the brass ring.”
“Have you ever met my grad students? Or any of my ES majors?”
“I need someone with mechanical aptitude.”
“You have more desks to break into?”
“I have more inscriptions to break into. Harder ones than Benwood. None of those clowns in my department have the necessary intellect, or the computer skills, or the mechanical training.”
“Wait,” I said. “I can see how my computer training would help you. But mechanics?”
“It has to do with this.” He took out a scroll and unfurled it on the cafeteria table between us. It was a photo of a mechanical drawing of some sort. “Viola!”
“Vwallah, even,” I said.
“That, too. This document is unique. It’s a drawing of an early Etruscan musical instrument. An automaton, a self-playing viola, unlike anything ever found.”
“You want me to replicate this…instrument.”
I looked at the drawing. Dark patches obscured it in places, indicating holes in the original. “I’m not sure I can, based on just this.”
“I have a sheaf of documents, Federlicht Etruscan Documents 2 through 7, that were found along with this. I have every reason to believe they hold all the necessary information to construct it.”
“Why don’t you just translate them, then?”
“Two reasons. One, by building the instrument, we’ll possibly discover clues to the contents of FED 2 through 7.”
“Which will give us more clues for completing the viola.”
“Exactly. And then around again.”
“You said two reasons.”
“Yes. The FED documents are earlier than Benwood.”
“Is that a problem?”
“There are no Latin analogues for them.”
“And the earlier alphabet differs from the later one.”
“And you’ll be famous,” Federlicht concluded.
We worked out the details, which involved some money coming my way, and delaying graduation for a semester.
While I built the “viola,” Federlicht busted his buns finding more Latin documents, religious writings almost contemporaneous with the late Etruscan period. He let me see some of the translations. It was weird stuff, apparently including songs, believe it or not. The musical notations, if that’s what they were, would differ from modern notation. I knew we were going to have a hell of a time duplicating them.
Federlicht was sanguine. “We don’t need to translate the notes, themselves. All we need to do is build the viola. I think it will generate tunes from these disks shown in the corners of the drawing.”
My progress with the mechanical side gradually slowed to a halt. Federlicht was no further along with the translations. We were stuck.
“Why don’t you let me look at the translation side?” I asked him. “Maybe I can help.”
He pulled out copies of the original documents. “Here’s what I have, so far. These words in green are known from my earlier work. These in red are unknowns. They contain similar characters, but don’t seem to match anything. They aren’t long enough for stochastic content analysis.”
There were more red words than green. I noticed that the red words contained four additional characters not found in the translated Benwood material.
“You need a bigger sample,” I said.
He looked at me and nodded. “You’re right, of course.”
“Could any of these words be notes? Chords?”
“Let me see the translations.”
He hesitated. “I’m not sure I should…”
“If you want me to finish the viola, you’d better pull out all the stops.”
He turned to his computer and entered a password. I watched him flex his fingers as he typed it in. A screen came up with the red and green Etruscan words and a blue translation above them. I looked over his shoulder and read:
There were many gaps. “Most dangerous… time… sing song… outside… inside… Dys…” And so on. No mention of details of constructing the viola.
I pointed at the first line. “Dangerous?” Are you sure about that word?
“This passage details some superstition to do with Etruscan religious practices.”
The next morning, Max was in his office. I stuck my head in. “Any progress?”
He nodded without turning around and pointed at the screen. “These strange letters. I’ve figured out three of them. They’re digraph variants, quite easy, once you see it. They’re really old combination characters, just a shorthand.”
“That’s odd, isn’t it? You’d think the shorthand version would come later. What about the other letter?”
“That? It’s this one.” He put his finger on a squiggle on the screen. “The ‘drelb’ character.”
“What is it? Another digraph, perhaps? A click? A whistle?” I’d exhausted my philological knowledge.
“It appears nowhere in late Etruscan. It’s rare, even in early Etruscan, and then vanishes altogether past a certain date, never to be seen again. None of these unknown words containing it appear again, either.” He waved a hand, then smiled. “Perhaps for a good reason.”
I indicated the words on the screen. “Look, if those aren’t some form of musical notation, I don’t see any connection between them and what I’m working on. Maybe I don’t need to translate the unknown words. I’ll just do some stochastic physical alignment.”
“Stochastic physical alignment?”
“Cut and try. I may discover something.”
Federlicht stared off into space for a minute. “Go ahead,” he said finally. “But don’t operate the viola until I’ve had a chance to examine what you’ve created.”
A few weeks later, I’d put together a complete viola, along with circular “bows,” rosin treated wheels to rub the strings, and “strokers” that moved up and down the frets to vary the tone of each string. I’d also completed the program box, a device that would hold one of the four disks and control the position of the strokers and bows. I made a number of guesses along the way, unsure which holes in the disks operated the bows and which the strokers. But it would do for a first pass.
It was late by the time I’d assembled the instrument. I hunted up Max in his office, hunched over his keyboard, running a language decryption program on the computer. “What is it, Robert?”
“The viola is ready to try.”
We ran back to my lab. Federlicht tried one of the strings, using the manual keyboard that bypassed the program box. As he pressed the button, a “bow wheel” descended onto the G string, producing an eerie tone, halfway between a celeste and a violin, reminiscent of the vox humana on an organ. It sounded for all the world like a woman moaning. I shivered.
Each of the strings gave a similar sound, the exact tone rising and falling in pitch as the strokers were operated. Max exercised all of the known functions of the instrument, then stopped abruptly.
“Very well. We’ll continue in the morning.”
“We could just put a disk in the box and give it a rip right now.”
“In the morning will do. Get some rest.”
We entered the lab early the next day and checked the instrument. I dropped a disk into the control box and closed the lid, while Max turned on the motors that operated the box, creating a steady hum.
He turned to me. “Damn! I forgot my camera. We should record this. Nip down to my office and get it would you?”
I complied. As I rushed back toward my lab I heard the most awful sound imaginable. It took me several seconds before I realized it was the Etruscan viola, now transformed into the voice of a screaming, moaning semi-human entity, chanting hideous imprecations. Above the sound, I heard Max Federlicht, shrieking in agony. I found the circuit breaker in the hall and threw it. Silence.
When I got to the lab, there was blood everywhere. Something had gouged claw marks on the ceiling, the walls…and Max. He was almost dead. I knelt beside him
His last words were, “…the forbidden letter.”