Escape Pod 520: Singing to the Stars (Artemis Rising)

Show Notes

Welcome to the 2nd Annual Artemis Rising, a celebration of women and non-binary authors.

Singing to the Stars

by Alanna McFall

Aisha sighed and stared down the pile completely obscuring her in-tray. Maybe if she glared at it long enough, it would shrink under the full power of her frustration. She could see scraps of different alphabets scrawled across the pages, everything from the swooping curves of Arabic to the dots and jagged spikes of Ortaxaben. A small cube on the top of the pile was a form written in three-dimensional Kem script, and would take over an hour to get into English. If she had to translate it into Sssstip it could take all day, taking concepts with a million shades of grey built into the letters themselves and synthesizing it into a language with less than two hundred words.

It was days like these that she dreaded even coming into the office. Everyone had told her that she was crazy to take a job at the Extraterrestrial Community Outreach and Legal Assistance Bureau, had told her that she could get a much better job somewhere else, but had she listened? No, she had been all starry eyed, almost literally, about helping the visitors to Earth and representing her planet. Five years later, she was tempted to shove everything that wasn’t strictly confidential in a box, take it home, and do her work in her pajamas while eating cereal. She hadn’t entirely ruled out that option for the day. But for the moment she was here, and there was nothing else to it but to buckle down and get to work.

Near the top of the pile there was a notice on a Shess Global Languages refresher course being held in two weeks; Aisha rubbed her temples. She couldn’t really complain, when being even just familiar in SGLs would guarantee her bills were always paid. But the reason almost no other translators bothered with them, the reason there were such frequent refresher courses, was that the languages changed on an almost daily basis. In a sentient, advanced species with a lifespan of little more than a decade, the Shess youth learned fast and made their own indelible marks on the dialects in the few years it took them to reach adolescence. Dialects shifted and melted together and moved apart, slang came into and went out of style before it could be studied, and at best estimation, the SGL set contained at least four hundred different languages. Aisha could just barely claim fluency in the three most spoken on Earth, and it was a fight to keep up.

But she knew it was an important fight. So many of the cases she was brought in to translate for were a complete mess. Humans gouging Shess at every turn because they knew the legal proceedings could drag out over years. Why charge your Shess tenants a fair rent when they could literally grow old and die in the time it took to cut through the legal jargon of the alien amnesty laws? Anything that could make matters go faster was a godsend to the legal aids.

Aisha just did not want to think about this today: about unfair practices and abuses and the mundane worsts that any species could offer. She looked at the pile of paper and all she saw was a mess of trouble, waiting for her to start to untangle it. Even if she wasn’t the one to deal with the next steps, even if she would be handing it over to the social workers and paralegals once it was translated, it still tired her. She was so, so tired.

“Excuse me? Aisha?”

Mallory’s voice was hesitant. Aisha could only imagine what she had looked like sitting there, eyes closed and pinching the bridge of her nose half an hour after walking in the door. She opened her eyes to see the younger woman in front of her desk. Her floral dress fell just past her knees; a little informal, but just fine for a place where eighty percent of their clients did not wear clothing at all. She had a piece of paper clutched to her chest; more work for Aisha, obviously, but she could never bring herself to be mad at Mallory.

It was probably different for the generation that had come of age in the middle of the first wave. Mallory had told her once that she had gone straight from wanting to be a ballerina princess to wanting to learn all about the family of aliens that moved in down the block. And for a caring, hopeful girl like her, social worker had seemed like a perfect fit. Aisha quietly hoped that she wouldn’t still be in this office in five years, because when this girl burned out, it was going to be messy.

“What’s up, Mallory?” she asked, trying to put a little life in her voice.

She drummed her fingers on the piece of paper, sending it crinkling. “Hey, so I know you’re busy. And this isn’t a huge priority, it doesn’t have to be at the front of your queue or anything.”

“What is it?”

Mallory held out the single sheet to her; Aisha held back a smile at her pastel pink nail polish. “So I’m holding a seminar series next month on Inter-Species Etiquette. I don’t know if you heard anything about-“

“Hey, come on, of course I remember your project.” She had been buzzing around the office for months, putting up posters about how to “Make Respect Your Guidance System” and how “’Polite’ Translates in All Languages”.

Mallory’s smile quirked at the edges. “I know, I’ve rambled about it a lot. But a publicity campaign is going out next week, and I was wondering…if it’s not too much trouble…could you please translate this flier into Wrak?”

Aisha took the flier from her hands, actually feeling the stirrings of interest inside her. When was the last time she had translated anything into Wrak? Would there be any close matches for the concepts on the flier? Did the Wrak do seminars? Did they do etiquette? Not to criticize Mallory’s PSA poster, but sometimes “polite” really didn’t translate. But what an interesting challenge it would be. She felt as if she had kicked back a dozen cups of terrible break room coffee at once. This sort of thing was why she had become a translator in the first place.

Mallory was watching her, shifting back and forth on the office carpet. “So, do you think…I mean, I know it’s a silly idea. I was just thinking that maybe-“

“I’ll be on the roof at nine o’clock. You’re free to join me if you want.” Her eyes were already glued to the paper as her brain provided a dozen different options for how to convey the concept of “invited”. One form of the phrase would imply that they had not been welcome before, while another was too vague for a specific event. It had to be done just right. She glanced up to see Mallory beaming at her.

“Thank you. Thank you so much. I’ll be there.”

“See you then.” She would have to work fast to have it all ready, but she was riding high on a wave of creativity and adrenaline. If she started warming up her throat around six, she would be good to go just in time.

The last light was just disappearing behind the line of the city when Aisha got up to the flat roof of the government building. She had poked at some of her other assignments throughout the day, but most of her focus had been devoted to the little flier; she had bent over it while eating lunch, taken it with her for the short walk to the coffee machine, even scrawled ideas in her notepad during a bathroom break. Hours later, she was sure it was as good of a translation as she was able to make. And now it was time to sing it into the night sky. She stared up at the stars and took in the sheer strangeness of what she was about to do, even by the standards of her everyday job.

When the Sssstip and Shess first came to Earth and spoke about the Wrak, few people had believed them. It was not always easy to understand the terrestrial aliens, but it was easy to believe in them. They ate solid and liquid materials, they breathed gases or fluids, they reproduced through physical means. The Wrak, in contrast, sounded more like figures from a religious system than a real species. But when Earth became a sudden crossroads, thrust into the galactic consciousness, they arrived, several of them floating in a ring around the planet, comfortably nestled between Earth and the moon.

The Wrak had no planet. They never had. The Wrak floated out in the void of space, travelling wherever they found most interesting. They didn’t eat, they didn’t breathe, they didn’t gather materials in any quantities. Their society was vague and indecipherable by human standards, a loose collection of beings spread across the cosmos. All they had that humans could reasonably believe in was language. Oh, did they ever have language.

Sssstip diplomats had offered humans the devices they used to detect and collect Wrak communications, large satellites to pick up the strange vibrations they sang down to the planet. The people manning the satellites would decipher the messages and send them out to their intended earth-bound recipients. But all one had to do to talk up to them was sing their language into the sky. Wherever they were, they could hear it, in a way no scientists had been able to pin down yet: it was more like a channeling than a real conversation. With an unassisted voice, a human could speak to aliens that might as well have been angels. It gave Aisha chills just to think about.

Mallory opened the door out onto the roof, jolting Aisha out of her reverie. She smiled sheepishly and offered out a bottle of water from the break room vending machine.

“Sorry I’m late. I’ve heard that speaking Wrak is hard on the throat, so I thought-“ She blushed when Aisha took the bottle.

“Thank you.” She cracked it open and took a gulp right away; the night was warm and dry, tricky conditions for the vocal work ahead. She toyed with the cap, debating her next words while watching Mallory’s expectant face. “You know…I don’t doubt that you’ll hear back from them.”

Mallory nodded. The Wrak were fairly chatty with anyone who bothered to learn their language, as so few people did, or were even able to. “But?”

“I just want to say, I think it’s pretty unlikely that you’ll get any coming down to visit.” She said it quickly, like ripping off a bandage. “There have been, what, a couple dozen planet-side visits in the last decade?” And for things more important than a free seminar by a social worker, she chose not to add. If she had to wear full-body protection in order to withstand the force of atmosphere, she probably wouldn’t take a lot of urban vacations either.

Mallory nodded again. She turned her gaze out to the stars, like Aisha’s had been. How many Wrak were out there looking down at them? How many other things too, that humans didn’t know about yet? Aisha watched her take in a deep breath of the night air and exhale slowly. “I know.”

“You do?”

Mallory snorted. “I’m optimistic, not dumb. I know it’s a million to one shot. And I know it’s probably a waste of both our times. But I just need to try.” She glanced at Aisha, then back up to the heavens. Strange how Aisha was still able to think of them as that. “This job is so…mundane. It’s important work, and someone needs to do it, and that someone might as well be me. But seeing how small and petty people can be, every day? I just end up so-“

“Tired?” Aisha supplied.

Mallory chuckled, not looking at her. “I was going to go with exhausted, but sure. It’s all so small. Every now and then, I just need a reminder that there’s something bigger. To try and touch something bigger. Do you know what I mean?”

“I think I just might.” Aisha blinked rapidly when Mallory finally met her gaze again. She took another drink of water to have something to do. She rolled her shoulders and cleared her throat. “As long as we’re on the same page with expectations, let’s try this.”

“Thank you.”

After one last sip, she set the water bottle down and walked to the edge of the roof; not strictly necessary, but it made it all feel more dramatic. Feeling Mallory’s eyes on her, she tipped her face towards the sky and began to sing into the night.

And in that moment, on that roof, they felt less like two bureaucrats toiling away in a giant machine, and more like two points in a vast web, stretching across thousands of cultures, millions of miles, and more languages than there were human names for.

And Aisha would speak, write and sing in as many of them as her brain could hold, just to be able to touch a bit more of that web. She slid through the soaring high notes and diving depths of the Wrak language, confident of the fact that somewhere out in the sky, she was heard. One woman’s words and another woman’s voice, together they were heard.

About the Author

Alanna McFall

Alanna McFall is a writer who specializes in the paranormal and fantasy. Her debut novel, The Traveling Triple-C Incorporeal Circus, comes out on June 4th, 2019 with Atthis Arts.

She have traveled across the US for the past few years, working on a variety of projects in Minnesota, Massachusetts, and New York. She is now working out of the Bay Area in California, and getting a taste of what the west coast can offer an artist. She is a member of the Monday Night PlayGround Writer’s Pool and a company Resident Playwright. She was honored in 2019 with the June Anne Baker Prize for female playwrights.

Find more by Alanna McFall


About the Narrator

A. J. Fitzwater

A. J. Fitzwater is a dragon wearing a human meat suit from Christchurch, New Zealand. A graduate of Clarion 2014, she’s had short fiction published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Crossed Genres Magazine, and other venues of repute. Look out for upcoming stories in Shimmer Magazine and The Future Fire. She has done narrations across all Escape Artist podcasts, as well as Redstone SF, Interzone, and Wily Writers.

Find more by A. J. Fitzwater