Escape Pod 278: Written on the Wind
- Feedback for Episode 270
- Next week… A groovy strange kind of love
Written on the Wind
By David D. Levine
Thuren Nektopk peered down at Luulianni from above his massive desk. “I suspect you know why I’ve called you to speak with me in person.” He spoke in his native language, Ptopku Dominant, using the form of address for a subordinate or a child. It was a constant reminder that the Ptopku had built and largely staffed this station, and was one of the most powerful species in the Consortium.
“Yes, Supervisor,” Luulianni replied in the same language, knotting her tentacles.
“And that would be…?”
“Because of my side project.”
“Yes.” Nektopk suddenly released the bar from which he hung, caught himself on another handhold, and with two swift strokes of his arms swung down to where his six slitted eyes were level with Luulianni’s. “Your little side project.”
Luulianni cringed. “I don’t understand why it’s so much of a problem.” She straightened and tried to meet his gaze. “I put in my full quota of time every day.”
“Yes, you do, and not one moment more. But I know you are capable of so much more than that. Any work you do on this pointless little side project of yours constitutes theft of resources from the Section — from the whole Project!”
“Theft?” she squeaked. Angry at herself for the loss of control, she brought her voice down. “Theft of resources? But I don’t use any data storage space, or any other Section resources! I write my notes on the backs of old printouts.” She did not mention how much more natural it felt to work on paper.
“You are stealing the most valuable resource of all!” Nektopk pointed at her with one limber foot. “Your own time and attention!”
“But it’s my time!”
“You have been sent here by your people — at considerable expense, I might add — to assist in the Project, to learn the ways of the Consortium, and to demonstrate your species’ unique skills.” He leaned closer to her. His smell was bitter. “And if I find that your species, as represented by yourself, does not demonstrate any unique skills, your application for Consortium membership could very well be denied.” He swung himself up to the edge of his desk, the better to glare down at her. “Therefore, your time is not your own. You owe it to the Section, to the Project, and to your own people to put every bit of available time into your assigned task.”
Luulianni hung her head. “Yes, Supervisor.”
“You may return to your work.”
“Thank you, Supervisor.”
Luulianni’s scales prickled with anger as she made her way back to her workspace. If she was to demonstrate her unique skills, why did he not listen to her ideas? And if her time was so valuable, why did Nektopk insist that she come to his office, halfway across the station, rather than using the screen?
She straightened her shoulders and forced herself to walk down the middle of the corridor. The Muuli were a burrowing species; her instinct was to cling to the wall, to hide from the harsh, bluish light and the Ptopku swinging from handhold to handhold far above. Luulianni consoled herself that some day her people would build their own stations in space, with low ceilings and narrow corridors. They would be dark, and warm, and smell of dirt and of many long-nosed Muuli.
But that day was a long time away. And if she didn’t prove herself here, it might never come.
She knew she was one of the best linguists of her species. Her work had been invaluable in establishing communication with the many races of the Consortium when they had arrived on her world. Jun Dal-Nieri, the highly respected head of the Contact Team, had insisted she join the Eight Degrees Project — said her skills would be invaluable in decoding the Message that was the riddle of the age.
But when she had arrived at the station, she found herself a lowly Second-Level Linguist in the Language Three Section, working for a rigid, procedure-bound, manipulative…
“Eek!” she squeaked, her head pulling back against her shoulders as she nearly slammed into a wall of hard white skin.
“Sorry, Luu! I thought you saw me.”
Geeni Rount was an imposing figure — over twice Luulianni’s height, roughly tetrahedral, with a flexible limb at each of the four corners and an eye in the center of each of the four sides. His species, the Turundi, had rebuilt themselves for work in space. At the moment he was deeply involved with an open maintenance panel.
“My fault. I was kind of distracted.” She spoke in Consortium Trade Language. She had been studying Turundi Modal, but at the moment she didn’t feel up to the challenge of conversing in it. It was a complicated language, with inflections for such things as sincerity and direction.
“Thinking about Language Eight again?”
“Not any more. Nektopk has told me to focus all my attentions on my assigned task.” She waggled her tongue over her shoulder in the direction of his office, a gesture of disrespect that always made Geeni laugh. But this time he didn’t even smile. “What’s wrong?”
“My government has withdrawn our representative from the Consortium Grand Council.”
“My President says there’s no point trying to negotiate with the Ptopku any further. If they don’t back down, he’ll send our fleet to englobe the Ptopku homeworld.”
“But that’s against the law!”
Geeni rocked in sad acknowledgment. “There hasn’t been a war within the Consortium for centuries. But the President says the Ptopku need to be stopped before they can complete construction of this ‘super weapon.’ The Ptopku deny everything, of course.”
“This must be very hard for you.”
“Well, you know what they say — a Turundi always has multiple viewpoints. As a member of the Project, I trust the people I work with… besides, if someone really had found plans for a weapon in the Message, I’m sure we would have heard rumors. But as a Turundi, I know that’s just the kind of secret the Ptopku would do anything to keep. And as a citizen of the Consortium, I just wish both governments would stop this scary nonsense.”
“I may be just a provisional citizen, but I wish the same thing.”
They said their good-byes and moved off in opposite directions.
Arriving at her workspace, Luulianni climbed awkwardly into the tall chair that brought her up to the screen. Even with threats of war in the air, she still had to do her job. Her species was counting on her.
But her official assignment was deathly dull. She tried to remind herself that comparing the character frequencies in the Message against all known languages might provide some hints at its structure, or at least directions for study, but it didn’t help. Her mind kept drifting to the problem of Language Eight.
Consortium astronomers had known for centuries about the cosmic background radiation, eight standard degrees above absolute zero, that was the visible remnant of the hot compressed state of the universe over three billion standard years ago. Slight fluctuations had been observed in this radiation for over a century, but it was just thirty-one years ago that the great Puhst astrophysicist Shimustli had recognized a definite and complex pattern — a Message that dated from the very beginning of the universe.
Many people felt this must be a message from the Creator; many others believed it to be technological or philosophical information from an enormously advanced and ancient species. It could be the plans for a source of limitless energy, or an ultimate weapon, or the key to universal happiness — there was no way of knowing, but surely a Message embedded in the structure of the universe itself must be of vital importance. So the Consortium created the enormous Eight Degrees Project, administered by the Ptopku, to study the Message and work towards a translation.
Great progress had been made in the first few years. The Message consisted of just over two billion binary digits, grouped into “cells” of sixteen digits each. It was divided into seven sections, each with a different data pattern, labeled Language One through Language Seven. Each language section was in turn divided into three subsections.
And there the work had stalled for over twenty years. The problem of decoding an alien language with no common referents had been faced and overcome again and again in the history of the Consortium, but always there were living users of the language, or related languages, or associated artifacts, or some other clues to provide context and hint at meanings. Here there was nothing — just the single Message itself.
Billions of trade credits had been poured into the problem. Astronomers looked for similar messages from other points in the cosmos. Archaeologists searched for artifacts on the planets of the oldest stars. Statisticians sifted the digits of the Message for clues. Linguists attempted to reconstruct the first languages in the galaxy from evidence in the oldest known languages. None of these had had any success.
Finally, just a few months ago, a breakthrough had been made: a group of religious statisticians on Wufung Elirundi determined that there were blocks of a distinct statistical pattern embedded in the first two sections of all seven languages. This pattern had become known as Language Eight.
Luulianni was fascinated by this new language, as was every other linguist, statistician, archaeologist, and crackpot in the Consortium. She made charts of its patterns and trends. She talked about it long into the night with the other linguists. She even dreamed about it — rows and columns of symbols sliding back and forth, now blocking her view, now revealing glimpses of meaning that, frustratingly, slipped away when she awoke.
And now she had been barred from this work, condemned to slog through thousands of statistical comparisons of Language Three with known languages. Even more frustrating, this work had all been done before — but it had to be repeated with the blocks of Language Eight removed. It was like measuring the holes in a shuuliuntu cheese, ignoring the cheese itself that she would love to nibble.
Luulianni tapped and scratched the screen with her tentacle-tips, running one comparison after another. She knew that others, such as Geeni, could write complex instructions so that the screen itself could perform repetitive tasks like this, but she didn’t know how — and, besides, Geeni had told her that the data was too inconsistent for the comparisons to be completely automated. So the afternoon passed in repetitive drudgery.
Finally the time displayed in one corner of the screen caught up with her stomach — days here were longer than on her home world — and she climbed slowly down from her chair.
Luulianni fixed herself a simple dinner of grubs. The angry Ptopku and Turundi faces on her screen made her lose her appetite, so she canceled the news and called up the Message data in its place. As she ate, she scribbled on a piece of paper. Surely my meal time is my own, she thought.
With the blocks of Language Eight removed from the other seven languages, it became obvious that the numerical cell values of all the others clustered in the low end of the range of possible values, while the values of Language Eight were scattered all over the range. It wasn’t video or audio data, but to Luulianni it didn’t smell like a natural language either. What else could it be?
One of the frustrations of working with the screen was that all work had to be done in the alphabet of the Consortium Trade Language, each cell value being represented by an arbitrary and unpronounceable triplet of letters. But on her own, on paper, Luulianni used notations of her own invention. She had developed a different writing system for each language, constantly revising each to reflect her growing understanding of its shape and smell. Language Five, for example, used over a thousand different cell values — it seemed to be a pictographic language, so she had developed an enormous library of pictograms for it. She knew the little symbols she drew had no relation to the actual meanings of the cells, but staring at them was more natural, more intuitive, than staring at letter triplets.
For Language Eight, which used tens of thousands of cell values, she was currently using a notation based on the sixteen binary digits of each cell. She drew a grid of lines on her paper, mentally divided each square into four by four, and placed a dot or a line in each location corresponding to the zero or one value of the corresponding digit. It was tedious work, but by doing it with a pen held in her own two tentacle-tips she felt connected to the language in a way the screen could never allow.
Her cup of grubs sat half-eaten on the table beside her as she reached the bottom of the sheet and started on another one. One of the grubs made it to the edge of the cup and fell with a small, soft sound to the tabletop; absently she slurped it up with a flick of her tongue and kept writing. As long as I haven’t finished my dinner, she thought, I can keep working on this.
A long time later, well after she should have gone to sleep, three grubs lay forgotten in the cup. But when she reached for another sheet, there wasn’t one. She had exhausted her pile of used printouts.
Frustrated, she flipped her current sheet over, but the other side was already densely covered with print. She looked on the backs of some previous sheets — the same. Finally she came across one that had an unmarked strip running down one side. She drew a grid of tall narrow rectangles, instead of squares, in the empty space, so there would be the same number of cells in each line as before. But when she found her four-by-four arrangement of dots and lines was illegible in that space, she switched to a simple linear arrangement, writing the dots and lines vertically for each cell.
She was halfway down the page when she saw something peculiar out of the corner of her eye. She blinked and sat up from where she had been crouched, nose to the page.
It looked like a circle. A loose, ragged circle of lines in a field of dots. She squinted a little and it became clearer.
There was another circle. But this one had a line across its center. And over there, a triangle.
She sat stunned. A grub crawled across the page; her tongue snatched it up without tasting it.
Pictures. Crude, simplistic, but recognizable.
Language Eight was pictures!
Early the next morning a haggard, rheumy-eyed Luulianni stood at the foot of Nektopk’s desk. Scattered on the floor around her was an assortment of old printouts, flattened boxes, paper wipes, and even her Letter of Commendation, pulled from its frame on the wall — all covered with dots and lines in a variety of colors.
“But don’t you see?” she wailed. “This could be the key to all seven languages!” She swayed a bit on her feet, and she realized she had accidentally addressed Nektopk as an equal.
“You’re simply misleading yourself,” he replied, stressing the pronoun that indicated her status. “These little pictures are the product of selective reasoning, wishful thinking, and lack of sleep. A few apparent patterns here and there are only to be expected in any data set of this size.”
“But look at this circle! And here’s another one, with a dot in the center! And here, and here, and look, here’s a very clear cross!”
“Yes, but what about the tens of thousands of cells that do not display such clear pictures?”
“They may be in a more complex notation. The simple pictures could point the way to decoding the rest of them.”
Nektopk lowered himself gently to the floor next to Luulianni and took her lower set of tentacles in his feet. They were warm and rough. “Dear child, surely something so obvious would have been discovered by other researchers before this?”
“Maybe they did, then dismissed it like you just did. Maybe they missed it because it was too obvious. But it needs to be studied, not just discarded!”
“You’re tired. Go back to your quarters and get some rest, then wash yourself and come back in the afternoon. It’s obvious you’ve been working too hard — I’ve misjudged your abilities. I’ll see if I can come up with a simpler assignment for you.”
His eyes narrowed. “Go.”
Miserably, she began to gather her papers.
“Leave those here. I don’t want you wasting any more time on them.”
Luulianni felt her scales rising with rage. She struggled to keep her voice level. “These are my papers.”
“Everything on this station is the property of the Project. If you insist on compounding your theft of services with theft of property, you will make it very
difficult for me to continue to shield you from the consequences of your actions. Now go!”
They stared at each other for a moment, her two eyes trying and failing to meet his six. Finally she pulled herself to her full height and said “Very well. But this Letter of Commendation is my property. It was given to me by Jun Dal-Nieri herself.”
“Take it and leave. But you must be prepared to account for your behavior. I want to see you here at twenty-nine this afternoon.”
Exhausted though she was, Luulianni was too angry to sleep, too angry to eat, too angry even to stop moving. She paced back and forth in Geeni’s workspace, knotting and unknotting her tentacles.
“I wish we’d never invented radio!” she fumed. “I thought it was so wonderful the first time I heard voices from the air. If I’d known we were broadcasting our existence to the universe I would have personally smashed every transmitter! Maybe I could have stopped it before anyone noticed.”
“It doesn’t work that way. By the time that first broadcast was over, the beginning of it was already halfway across Consortium space.”
“And three years later we were thrust into a universe of rocket ships, idiot screens, and six-eyed bureaucrats who wouldn’t recognize an idea if it fell on them! We never had a chance to get to our own feet before the Consortium came and scooped us up like bad little children! And now they’re going to blow themselves up, and us with them!” She stopped pacing as she realized what she’d said. “Oh, I’m so sorry, Geeni…”
“Don’t be. I’m worried too.”
Luulianni stared at the Letter of Commendation still crushed in her lower tentacles. She began to tremble with sorrow and exhaustion. “I was the lead translator for Contact. I helped make it all happen. I was so proud when I was invited to join the Eight Degrees Project! And now look at me.” She curled into a defensive ball, her words barely audible. “I’m a Second-Level Linguist, my supervisor hates me, and I’m probably going to lose my job. And keep my people from joining the Consortium. If there is still a Consortium to join.”
Geeni reached out a hand and stroked her trembling scales. “It’ll be all right,” he said. But he said it in Turundi Modal, and the inflection of the verb indicated he didn’t really believe it.
Twenty-nine in the afternoon, and Luulianni stood with bowed head at the foot of Nektopk’s desk. Hanging to the left and right of Nektopk were two other Ptopku, even older and darker and surlier than he. “I have asked Kutotop and Epotkup here to observe these proceedings and verify their fairness.”
Luulianni’s tentacles contracted with dread at the words. “You were specifically instructed on more than one occasion to stop expending Project resources on work unrelated to your specific assignment. Do you confirm that this is true?”
“Yes,” she muttered.
“Please speak up,” said the one on the left — Kutotop — addressing her as an equal.
Luulianni swallowed, then repeated more firmly: “Yes, but…”
“You also,” Nektopk interrupted, “came to my office in a state of disarray, and presented to me a series of improperly formatted and unauthorized works on the topic of Language Eight.”
“‘Improperly formatted’?” Her toes curled in indignation.
“Do you confirm that this is true?”
“I did present to you my work on Language Eight.”
“And do you deny that Language Eight is entirely outside your specific assignment?”
“I am a trained linguist! I was asked to join the Project because of my unique skills!”
“That is irrelevant to the current discussion. Does your assignment include Language Eight?”
“Very well. Therefore, since you admit you have repeatedly disobeyed specific job-related instructions, I have no choice but to discipline you.”
“You are hereby demoted to Third-Level Linguist, effective immediately. Your personal screen access to Project information will be revoked, and your workspace access will be limited to data immediately relevant to your work on Language Three.” Luulianni opened her mouth to protest, but Nektopk held up a toe to silence her. “Furthermore, you are placed on probationary status, and any further disobedience may result in dismissal from the Project. Do you understand the effect this would have upon your species’ evaluation for membership in the Consortium?”
“Yes.” She managed to squeeze the word out between teeth held firmly together. It was the only way to keep them from chattering visibly in anger.
“Finally, you are specifically instructed not to do any further work of any kind on Language Eight, nor are you to discuss your previous unauthorized work with anyone. Do you understand?”
“You may return to your quarters. You will receive a new and less taxing assignment tomorrow morning.”
Luulianni turned and walked out without saying a word. She didn’t trust herself to say anything that wouldn’t get her in even more trouble.
She filed a protest, but the grievance committee was headed by Nektopk’s friend Epotkup. She contacted her homeworld, but the government of a provisional species had no clout within the Project. She sent a message to Jun Dal-Nieri, but received a noncommittal reply encouraging her to keep her spirits up. Finally she resigned herself to her situation and tried to make the best of it.
She did as she was told for eight days. Eight days of boring, repetitive, interminable work that she wouldn’t even have asked her students to do when she was teaching. But on the eighth day she got a private message from Geeni: “Don’t tell anyone else, but I saw something while I was doing maintenance on the main data store. The Senior Redactor for Language Four has made some kind of breakthrough on Language Eight! They’re going to call a big conference to discuss the breakthrough and its implications.”
Luulianni sat rigidly at her screen as she read the message, trembling, scales rising all along her back.
The Senior Redactor for Language Four was Doun Epotkup, who had been present at Luulianni’s demotion.
The sound of her chair clattering to the floor was cut off by the door closing behind her.
“You’ve got to take your suspicions to your supervisor,” Geeni said.
“My supervisor is the one who stole my idea in the first place! He’s just using Epotkup as a shield.”
“What makes you so sure he stole your idea? We don’t know what the breakthrough is. It could be completely unrelated.”
“Epotkup has never done any work on Language Eight before.”
“Talk to the head of the Section, then.”
“All the Section heads are Ptopku. Who are they going to believe? Two Senior Redactors, or a recently demoted Third-Level Linguist from a provisional species? And I’ve already exhausted all my protest options.”
“There must be someone who will listen…”
Just then Geeni’s screen sounded an incoming video call. Luulianni ducked out of the camera’s view.
“This is Station Security,” said the Ptopku voice from the screen. “Ordinator Rount, do you know a Third-Level Linguist by the name of Luulianni?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Linguist Luulianni is wanted by Security on a matter of gravest importance. Do you know her current location?”
“No.” Luulianni was glad that Consortium Trade Language did not indicate a statement’s degree of sincerity. If they had been speaking Turundi Modal, Geeni would surely have given himself away through the habitual honesty of his grammar.
“If you see her, or if she contacts you, please call Security immediately. Do not attempt to talk to her or restrain her yourself. She is extremely dangerous.”
“Thank you, Officer.” Geeni terminated the call.
Luulianni’s scales prickled with rage. “It’s a lie,” she said in Turundi Modal, with the highest sincerity.
Geeni stared at her for a time, the one eye facing her unblinking as always. “I believe you. But what can you do now?”
“I can prove myself. But I need your help.”
“What kind of help?”
“You know your way around this station better than anyone I know. There must be a place I can burrow in for a few days. I need screen access, a little food, and plenty of paper. That’s all I ask.”
Geeni’s eyes never closed, and with eyes on every side he could not look away, but Luulianni had learned to tell when he was concentrating his attention in a different direction. She waited in anxious silence while he drew away within himself. Then, at last, he returned his gaze to her.
“I can help you. But you aren’t going to like it.”
The stars were very small and very bright and very far below. Luulianni shivered violently from cold and fear, tentacle-tips clutching the tough transparent plastic of the bag that enclosed her. Her own breath was the loudest thing in the universe.
Geeni swung himself from handhold to handhold on the station’s outer surface, the two of them turning over and over together as he went. She tried not to remember that only the firm grip of his hands kept the two of them from falling away from the rotating station, dropping just as fast as they would in real gravity — but with no bottom.
She reminded herself again that this was part of Geeni’s job and that he was good at it. He said he even liked it.
She couldn’t imagine liking it.
The only thing more terrifying than too much sky above was too much sky below.
Finally Geeni stopped, pulled open a hatch, and thrust her inside. As he’d instructed her, she waited for the light on the hatch to turn blue before unzipping the bag. She felt a pain in her ears, but she swallowed several times and it went away. The air in the tiny space was even colder than the air in the bag, if that were possible, and stank of oil and metal.
She looked through the tiny window in the hatch beneath her feet. Geeni waved a hand, and his voice came from the short-range radio in her pack. “How are you doing?”
“It’ll warm up soon. Check the systems like I told you.”
The compartment was a maintenance access point that could also be used as an emergency refuge in case of space suit failure. There was plenty of air and water, and a box of multi-species survival food. And most important, when she attached Geeni’s small portable screen to the data port, she had full access.
“Everything checks out. And it is getting a little warmer.”
“Remember, keep the window covered and use the screen for reading only. If you write anything they’ll know you’re here.”
“Got it. And Geeni?”
“Thank you.” She said it in the most sincere Turundi Modal.
“Good luck,” he replied in the same language and mode.
The floor creaked alarmingly as Geeni swung away. Once he was gone there was a pinging and tapping as various metal and plastic parts warmed up, occasional rushing sounds from some of the pipes that ran through the compartment, and the continuous wheeze of the airmaker. The air grew warmer, but not very, and it still stung Luulianni’s nose with the reek of rubber and electricity.
But the space was blessedly, refreshingly, small. And she had brought as much paper as she could fit in her pack.
She set to work.
Luulianni threw her pen at her paper in disgust. It bounced off, leaving a small mark, and rattled out of reach behind a pipe in the corner. She sighed, then growled and crushed the paper into a wad with all four tentacles.
Maybe Nektopk had been right in the first place. The vast majority of the blocks of Language Eight refused to resolve themselves into any understandable pattern. And the more she stared at the shapes she had found, the more she started to wonder whether she had been fooling herself all along. This circle, for instance, was a patchy, ragged thing, full of gaps. She knew some species saw pictures they called “constellations” in the night sky, imposing meaning on the random patterns of the stars. Had she done the same with the digits of Language Eight?
Experimentally, she tried writing out only every other cell, skipping the cells with the apparent gaps. If there were a real pattern, surely removing half the data would destroy it. Alternatively, removing the gaps would make clear that the circle she’d thought she’d seen was only a mirage.
It didn’t do either of those things. With the gaps removed, the circle was much crisper and clearer, although now it was an oval. And furthermore… she kept transcribing. Leaving out every other cell, the remaining data in the block formed a series of lines.
Now she was curious about the data she’d left out. She went back and transcribed only the missing cells, and was amazed to find they also formed a clear set of lines. And not only that, but… she tore the paper in half and placed the second picture above the first.
The two sets of lines connected up very tidily.
She sat and stared at the resulting single picture. The oval was accompanied by lines that might be interpreted as indicating motion in a left-hand curve. It was simplistic, but quite clear. There was no possibility of wishful thinking — this picture was definitely and unambiguously present in the data.
It was probably the most meaningful thing anyone had ever found in the Message. Even though she had no idea what it meant.
Some time later she had covered almost every surface of the compartment with paper. There were ovals and circles and squares, lines and curves and dots. It was a spare, concise graphical system. She was strongly tempted to interpret the pictures literally, but she knew that a picture of a square falling might indicate the sound of the word for “falling” rather than the concept “falling.” Or perhaps just the first phoneme of that word. And there were many pictures whose meaning was not at first apparent.
Just then the floor creaked, and her heart nearly stopped. But it was only Geeni.
“The Turundi Third Fleet is on its way to the Ptopku homeworld,” he said.
“Oh, Geeni, that’s terrible!”
“There’s worse news. They’re also planning to englobe other major Ptopku planets and facilities… including this station.”
“But we’re unarmed!”
“The Ptopku are sending ships of their own to defend us.”
“Just what we need… we’ll be right in the middle of a war zone!”
“There’s still some hope for a peaceful settlement.”
“What are they going to do with you, and the other Turundi on the station?”
“They’re leaving us alone as a show of Consortium solidarity… and because there are too many of us in important technical positions. They’re also proceeding with the conference on Language Eight, to demonstrate their sincerity about the Message not being decoded yet. Which reminds me… Epotkup has released his findings. He says Language Eight is a syllabic language encoded with eight-digit cells. That’s different from what you found, isn’t it?”
“That means he didn’t steal your idea at all.”
“But it’s wrong.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s plausible. But the pictures are really there. Look!” She pressed some papers against the window so Geeni could see them, and explained what she had found.
Geeni was amazed, especially when he realized she had done all this work with pen and paper. He said he would write a code to translate all the blocks of Language Eight into pictures she could see on the screen. “I’ll leave the pictures in my personal data storage area. You’ll be able to see them, because you’re using my access permissions, but nobody else will.”
She thanked him profusely, but she barely even noticed the sounds the floor made as he swung away.
Epotkup must have seen her work on Language Eight. Why else would he suddenly announce a breakthrough in a language he’d never shown any interest in before? But if he had seen her work, why were his findings so very far off the track?
It was as though he were trying to lead other researchers astray.
But why would a Senior Redactor do such a thing?
Her brooding was interrupted by a message from Geeni indicating that the first batch of pictures was available for her use, and soon the problems of Epotkup and the impending war were the furthest things from her mind.
Having the pictures on the screen was an enormous help. It rapidly became clear that the first subsection of each language had many more pictures, and simpler pictures, than the second subsection. And though most of the pictures were unique within a language, many of them repeated in some or all of the other languages.
When she finally realized what she was seeing she laughed out loud. Then she slapped her tentacles across her mouth, afraid she might give away her hiding place. Then, as the implications of what she had seen began to sink in, she sat down hard and began to tremble.
The pictures were meant to be interpreted literally.
The first section of each language was a primer: each picture was followed by a word or words with the same meaning. Read in order, the pictures built up a graphical vocabulary that, together with the increasing sophistication of the words, led up to the second section: a formal dictionary of the language, with more pictures to help the reader along. And, since there were so many pictures in common between the seven languages, each language could be used to bridge gaps in understanding that might occur in the others.
The third section of each language was a long passage of text with no pictures. That section had to be the end goal of all the other content: the real message in the Message.
When Luulianni was a child she had accidentally tunneled through the wall of her playroom into her neighbor’s home. The familiar feel of dirt under her tentacles had suddenly given way to air, a terrifying feeling of falling, an opening into an exciting new world of unexpected sights and smells.
This felt just like that.
The air in the compartment was very dry, and her lips and her tentacles chapped and then began to crack. She did not sleep. She did not eat. Sometimes she realized just how thirsty she was and drank some water.
Everything took on an amazing lucidity. Occasionally her parents would come by and ask how she was doing, but she waved them away impatiently. It was only later that she remembered her parents were dead.
Geeni appeared at the window again and again, increasingly frantic. Luulianni was being accused of horrible crimes — datajacking and drug smuggling and slavery — and Station Security had interviewed him repeatedly. They obviously suspected he was hiding her.
She waved him away too.
Word by word, the Message emerged from its three-billion-year sleep like a tiny plant cracking its seed and thrusting toward the light. She was frustrated by her clumsy, chapped tentacles. They could not write as fast as she could read, now. She even knew the real name of Language Three — or at least she knew the symbols in her own notation that made up its name. At times she even felt she knew how to pronounce it.
At last there came a point where she sat back and just read the sentences she had successfully translated, read them over and over, let their meaning soak into her.
And then she trembled with sorrow, in a way she had never done since her mother died. All the anger she had felt toward the Consortium drained away, replaced by gratitude — the regretful gratitude of an adult child who realizes at last just how much her parents have done for her — and by sadness for the lonely race that had sent the Message.
She only hoped it had not been received too late.
An unknown time later she was jerked from her stupor by Geeni’s insistent pounding on the hatch. He said there was an important meeting she must not miss. She knew she needed to go, but it was hard to remember why.
Moving as though underwater, Luulianni gathered her papers and forced them clumsily into her pack, then climbed slowly into the bag she had come in.
“Are you sure you’ve sealed it properly?” Geeni shouted. His voice in the radio was tiny and funny. Had he said that before?
“Yes, I’m sure,” she said. She looked at it again. Was she really sure? Maybe not.
She pulled the zipper shut the last few tentacle-widths just as Geeni opened the hatch. The bag puffed out and she felt a horrible pain in her ears. Forgotten papers rushed out the hatch like students released from class, dragging her bag along with them. Then she was through the hatch and the stars were all around. She tumbled, falling freely, for a long long moment until Geeni’s hand snagged one of the carrying loops on the bag and she fell with a squeak to the bottom.
The trip back to the airlock was much easier than the trip out, because she was unconscious.
Geeni smuggled her through service corridors to the big conference room. All the Section heads and many important linguists from off-station were there to hear Doun Epotkup present his findings on Language Eight. Even Jun Dal-Nieri was there, her sleek black form seated imposingly in the place of honor on the left side of the podium. Luulianni was nearly certain it was really Jun and not just another mirage brought on by lack of sleep.
At first, nobody noticed the small disheveled figure making its way slowly up the center aisle toward the podium. But then Epotkup stopped speaking, his words trailing off in the middle of a sentence, and every eye in the room turned to her.
Nektopk shouted “Call Security! This person is a dangerous criminal!” But before anyone else could move, Jun Dal-Nieri sprang to the microphone. Her people were predators, and her powerful limbs commanded as much respect as her position and reputation.
“I have never known anyone more talented or trustworthy than Linguist Luulianni,” Jun said as Epotkup sidled hastily away. “We should at least listen to whatever she has come here to say.”
Nektopk’s fur bristled in fear, but he stood his ground. “You don’t know the harm she could do.”
Just then Kutotop, the third Ptopku from Luulianni’s demotion, rose from his seat. “Let her speak,” he said. Nektopk sputtered an enraged sentence at him in some Ptopku dialect, but Kutotop replied in Consortium Trade Language. “I have grown very uncomfortable with our handling of this situation, Nektopk.”
“This could mean the end of the Project!”
“It could mean the conclusion of the Project. But perhaps the time has come.”
Nektopk shouted again in Ptopku dialect.
Kutotop waved a hand in negation. “It is not worth the risk of war.”
Nektopk’s eyes darted from Kutotop to Jun to Luulianni, his gaze hard and cold as the stars outside her little window. “I refuse to be party to this disaster,” he said, and in three great swings of his arms was out the door.
Luulianni shuffled to the podium and climbed awkwardly up to the lectern, with Kutotop and Jun’s help. As Kutotop placed his microphone around her neck, he said “I’m so sorry we treated you this way, Linguist Luulianni. Nektopk’s faction believed we could win a war with the Turundi. They blocked progress on the Message and spread false intelligence about a super weapon to provoke an attack, hoping to get the rest of the Consortium on our side.”
Jun’s ears were flattened in shame. “I owe you an apology too. We suspected they were deliberately prolonging the Project, but we didn’t know why. I feared if I shared my suspicions with you on a Ptopku-controlled channel it could jeopardize you. I didn’t realize how much trouble you could get into on your own!”
Later, Luulianni did not remember her speech, but those who had heard it told her it was quite coherent and very moving. She began by thanking Jun and the whole Consortium for the help they had given her and her species. The audience rumbled when she explained what she had discovered about Language Eight, and made a shuffling and mumbling sound as the sample pictures that Geeni had printed out were passed around. Luulianni explained the structure of the three sections of each language and gave a few examples.
Then she read the portions of the Message that she had translated.
Pandemonium. The conference fragmented into a hundred individual, indelible memories…
— Jun sat stunned, tears leaking slowly from her eyes, overwhelmed by the poignancy of the Message itself…
— Epotkup covered his head with his hands, muttering in Ptopku Dominant: “Lost, all lost…”
— Kutotop argued excitedly with the other linguists…
— Geeni bounded out of the room, tumbling end over end, rushing to tell his government that the Message held no military secrets, that the war could be called off…
— Nektopk, in his quarters, turned a small black pill over and over between his fingers, thinking that the new Ptopku government would have to find another scapegoat…
…but Luulianni saw none of them. She slid to the floor and passed out.
One hundred Consortium Standard years later a monument was dedicated at the spaceport on the Muuli homeworld. There was a statue of Luulianni, of course, showing her as she had looked in her later years as the Muuli representative to the Consortium Grand Council. But the largest part of the monument consisted of the text of the Message, in its seven original languages and all the languages of the Consortium.
It read as follows:
Greetings from the species once known as Homo Sapiens. You who read this are, in a way, our children. We hope that you will forgive us for what we have done to you.
We lived a long time, as a species, but in that time we spread over only a small portion of a single galaxy. In all that time we met only one other intelligent species, and that was nearly dead. We heard messages from two others, but they were so far away that conversation was impossible.
We learned much about our universe, and we learned how to break many of the rules of physics. But the speed of light was one rule we never could break. So, in the end, we died.
We died of loneliness.
Before we died we scattered many tiny machines into the void. These machines broke some of the rules, and made more of themselves to break them further. Eventually they caused our universe to collapse, to return itself to its initial state. And, in the final moments of that collapse, these machines changed the rules for the new universe that was to follow.
If we succeeded, your universe is smaller and hotter and faster than ours. You have many different life forms and they can talk with and visit each other.
You may hate us for the wars that easy travel and communication make possible, and for the stars that burn themselves out so quickly, and for interfering with your universe before it was even born. But we did it because, like all parents, we wanted our children to have a better life than we did.
The window between universes is small, and this Message is our attempt to preserve a small part of our language and culture. Please remember us. Please forgive us.
About the Author
David D. Levine
David D. Levine is the Hugo- and Nebula-winning author of three novels, including the Andre Norton Award winner Arabella of Mars, and over fifty short stories. If you enjoy his reading of this story, his short story collection Space Magic, read by the author, is available on Audible.com.
About the Narrator
Mur Lafferty is the co-editor and sometime-host of Escape Pod.
She is an American podcaster and writer based in Durham, North Carolina. She is the host and creator of the podcasts I Should Be Writing and Ditch Diggers. Her books have been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, Philip K. Dick, and Scribe Awards. In the past decade she has been the co-founder/co-editor of PseudoPod, founding editor of Mothership Zeta, and the editor or co-editor of Escape Pod (where she is currently).
She is fond of Escape Artists, in other words.
Mur won the 2013 Astounding Award for Best New Writer (formerly the John W. Campbell Award), and the 2018 Hugo Award for Best Fancast for Ditch Diggers. She’s been nominated for numerous other awards and is always doing new things, so check her website for the latest.