In two weeks it will all be over, he thought. Reassignment. Failure. He did not want to go. He closed his eyes for a second, seeing the inscriptions like neon signs on the insides of his eyelids.
“Set one,” he said, and opened his pale blue eyes to see those same inscriptions on the wallscreen.
It might as well have been set two, three, five, or ninety — he could not read any of them. Hell, he could hardly make the Irnu understand him. Two years of study and he knew maybe a hundred words — and they changed from day to day.
But he had to try. The planet’s whole history might be right here, incised into two hundred stone cubes half buried in the rainforest. Each as big as a house, monolithic, and crowded with incomprehensible wisdom. Each weighed two and a half thousand tons and came from a cliff face over fifty kilometers away.
And Marek called these people primitives.
He might as well go and talk to Irnu-Sho. His most recent approach looked promising — for what that was worth now.
The screen flicked to a picture of the Irnu village, and then to a composite image of Sho’s hut. A ghost wavered like smoke across the screen. Wynne pulled on his boots and stepped into an evening as crisp as the ones he remembered, or maybe thought he remembered, from his youth in Lithgow. Livia’s sun sat on the horizon like a fat blood orange.
The old Irnu was crouched on his haunches by his fire pit, the local equivalent of a cigarillo in his fingers. Wynne gave the two-fingered flicking gesture he thought meant “Hello.” Sho returned it.
Wynne hunkered down, folding his two-century-old legs, thin like a carpenter’s rule. Shadows pooled in the deep folds of Sho’s skin. Wynne smelled smoke and the rich, horse-like odor of the Irnu wise man. The sun died.
Sho pulled the earphones from his tufted ears and looked at Wynne, flicking the tip of his thick tail once, twice.
“Thish slanguage slow linear,” he said in the supple tones of the Irnu. He looked into the fire.
“We do our best.”
Sho held something to the fire and, without looking up, handed Wynne a smoking rolled-up leaf. “Wick on time.”
Wynne’s liver-spotted right hand brought the joint to his lips and he drew a deep breath. How could smoke be so soft? He forgot about the red cross on his calendar. Only the red flames fingering the firewood existed. If tharo had been found in the new world or the East Indies, instead of on a planet orbiting Epsilon Indi, tobacco, hemp, and cocaine would never have gained a market.
“Is Rak well?”
“Obstrepboysterous. Smother clingstone.”
He guessed. “Methren is not happy?”
Sho nodded, a gesture borrowed from Wynne. “Pri shell too Rak well. And bread true and beplaintiful; tail heft a heard of smell wons. And gods own ’em!”
Wynne thought he detected satisfaction in the tones. “She is strong.” What am I missing?
They squatted in comfortable silence for a long time. The drug kept the cramps in Wynne’s calves from troubling him. The coolness of night remained at a distance.
Abruptly, with no more than another gesture (“Goodnight”) and a swish of the tail, Sho vanished into his hut. Wynne creaked upright and kicked the air with his legs. The fire, nothing more than a dull red glow now, slumbered at his feet. Twisted constellations looked down into the clearing. No Sol. His left knee made a startling cracking sound as he took his first step home.
Well, not home; back to the outpost.
When the outpost door shushed closed behind him, Wynne found the matronly figure of Maribelle Jones mumbling at her workbench and swearing to herself. The workbench said something about dendrites. Wynne’s feet thudded loudly on the plastic tiles.
Maribelle hooked her heels into the base of her stool and spun around. “Wynne!” She sniffed the air. “Been to see Sho?”
“I only smoked one. To be sociable.” He gestured theatrically with open hands. “It’s all about the science.”
She turned back to the workbench. Images covered the surface. “Look at this. It’s nothing like the people at Lake — ”
“Don’t say it!”
“Sorry…anyway, it’s complicated…”
The biggest image looked like a spherical rainbow cake in which the three colors had been swirled together yet remained distinct. These were the interpenetrating networks of the Irnu brain. No neocortex with layers down to a spinal column. No left and right. Just an interweaving that trailed out into the rest of the body. No localized functions. Everything did everything. For Wynne, that meant no Broca’s area or Wernicke’s area. He had tried taking the portable fMRI to the village and putting a willing Irnu through a range of linguistic exercises, and every time everything was active. He knew that the activity within each of the three networks was much more pronounced than that between. But that was all.
Yawning, Wynne said, “What’s new?”
“The latest results from your drinking buddy.”
The image rotated and started glowing; a bar up the side indicated the passage of time. Metrics scrolled past.
She said, “There’s some evolution.”
Wynne’s eyelids woke up. “Since when?”
“Last scan compared to second last.”
“I was going to look at that tomorrow. That last scan is the only one I’ve done since I started seriously teaching him English. What’s the change?”
“Increased localization of activity when he speaks English.”
Wynne clenched his fist. “The language uses his brain differently.”
“I guess you could put it that way.”
She looked up at him, bemused, and raised an eyebrow.
“Well, as I see it his brain can handle English whereas mine can’t handle Irnu. Their language is tied to the wetware. The best way to communicate with them is to teach them English.”
“Sounds like European cultural imperialism to me.”
For the first time in months Wynne noticed her dark skin. He felt his face flush. “What I mean is…”
“Take it easy. Joke! Joke.”
“Anyway, it’s a compliment — I’m saying he’s smart enough to learn my language and I’m too dumb to learn his.”
“Wynne, I said it was a joke.”
He frowned, put a hand to his head. “Sure, sorry. I guess I’m a little off balance.”
“And I bet you’re not wearing your filters.” She was a foot shorter than him but one look put him right back into fourth grade.
He muttered, “Ruins the taste. Anyway, two hundred years has got to be enough for anybody.”
Maribelle’s lips thinned. “Will this be enough for Marek?”
“I doubt it. I’ll put it to him, but it would take a major breakthrough before he’d stop the pull-out. Especially in linguistics. Anything that isn’t — ”
” — botany — ”
” — botany just doesn’t seem to…”
“Count. I know, I know. Am I botanist?” She gestured at the workbench. “These guys are fascinating. There are all kinds of questions about structure shaping function and vice versa.”
“As far as I can tell, they always say what they mean, if you can figure out what they mean. I think there’s something in their wiring…ever noticed anything that might relate to that?”
“Where would I look? And anyway, would that make Marek sit up?”
“No, I guess not.” Wynne rubbed his large, angular nose and yawned. “I think I better turn in.”
She watched him leave the lab for his quarters. He pretended not to notice.
For the millionth time, Sho frowned. Wynne wanted to scream at the old Irnu, a desperate “What does it mean?”
As always he stomped on that feeling.
The tall arap trees, whose branches began fifteen meters up and then spread laterally, made a cavernous green roof. The slender trunks, the color and texture of banana skin, tapered upwards like so many pencils. Their leaves filtered the light, leaving emerald. Some animal whose name Wynne had never learned chirruped. He felt trapped, a flat, engraved face of rock before him, Sho beside him, and failure behind and most likely in front of him as well.
He saw a shape — pictogram? — that looked like a flame. He checked it against the chart on his datasheet and said what he thought was Irnu for “fire”.
Sho laughed and, maddeningly, shrugged. “Manny fathirstories faunever noneknown noutside,” he said in Sholish.
“Nobody knows, then?” Wynne sighed.
“Knows them, not noughtside.”
Wynne pressed his eyes closed. “Time for me to go.” He shook the screen limp and stuffed it into his trouser pocket.
“Strumbles home.” Sho patted his stomach, pointed towards his village. “Yeast?”
“No, I’ll eat at my own camp.”
Sho nodded. Wynne took it as its Earth meaning; it also had an Irnu meaning, something like “You offend me, I am about to head butt you.” They did, after all, look like bipedal rhinos.
Wynne spent the next two hours drinking soup from a cup and scrolling through endless images of symbols and squiggles. His image processing algorithms found the most common sequences of symbols across the hundreds of square meters of close writing. He knew what groups appeared near others, how old they were (all carved within a fifty year window about 1000 Earth-years ago, making the construction of the 200 cubes even more remarkable) and all the variations of every symbol. He knew every useless parameter.
He made a few desultory notes on his screen and stalked from his office to his meeting with Marek. As always, Marek’s office seemed to be in the forest, with the east and north walls completely tiled with windows looking out at the undulating forest floor. Green light poured in from three sides, including the huge screen covering the west wall of the room. Wynne wondered how Marek could get any work done when the light danced with the moving leaves.
“Hi, Wynne,” said Marek, the ghost of a Polish accent lurking in his voice. He indicated one of the armchairs around his low coffee table, and took a seat. “I thought we needed to talk.”
Wynne sat. “Yes, I guess so.”
Marek put his fingertips together and looked through the gray-dyed-black beard ringing his face.
“Wynne, as you know we will be pulling out in twelve days.”
“I thought it was thirteen, but yes.”
“Yes, twelve. I understand you are not happy with this.”
“I — I don’t think that’s a secret.”
Marek tapped his fingertips together. “It is a big — ”
Wynne burst. “I know the party line. It’s a big planet, lots to know, the thousand specialists on the Cook might sound like a lot but etcetera etcetera… But come on! The monoliths are the only written records we have discovered on Livia. They should be the first priority! We have no idea what secrets they might tell us.”
The tapping hastened, but Marek’s voice droned, carefully level. “And we have complete records of every cube. Images, physical properties measurements, surface topology recordings, density maps. These can be studied at leisure.”
Wynne fought off a feeling of being trapped. “Look, the Irnu are the key to reading these stones. We need to stay here to work with them.”
Pity washed across Marek’s face. “I think that time is passed.”
Wynne leapt up. “You have no idea how complex their language is. I need more time before you call this a failure!”
Marek did not leap up, did not even look up. “More complex than at Lake Ty, then?” He pushed a piece of paper back and forth on the table top.
Wynne’s fists clenched. “Yes, damn it. That was bad luck.”
“We end up sending in Marines to stop an intertribal war started by a linguist? And you call it bad luck? You’re not having much luck.”
“That was bad luck, and this is just incredibly hard. I know what I’m doing.”
Marek did look up. “And I have heard you supplied the natives with advanced technology and trained them to use it.”
Wynne pointed at the ceiling with his right index finger. “One native! And he’s their wise man. And it’s a music player, not a gun or something. And it’s worked. He’s speaking English!”
“Uh, yes. More or — ”
Is he smirking? “No,” said Wynne. “More or more. He’s using English to make something new.”
“Even so.” Marek’s tone did not even try to suggest that he believed Wynne. “You’ve contravened several ordinances. I am entitled to pull you out right now.”
“But — ”
Marek arched an eyebrow. Wynne desperately wanted to greet it with his fist.
With deliberation, Marek said, “But?”
“Sho is beginning to read the monuments. If we work together we can… we can decode them.”
Marek sat back, suspicion jostling with resignation. “Really?”
Wynne nodded, not trusting his voice.
“Really. Well. That does push me into a corner. I’ll… be sure to inform Southwest Hub and see if it changes anything.”
Wynne felt dizzy and queasy. He remembered to breathe. “I see.” He took a step towards the door.
“Of course,” said Marek, finally standing up. “I’ll need a full report from you, and the preliminary translated passages. Is two days enough time?”
“Fine.” Wynne grabbed the door handle.
Marek held his voice so flat its very expressionlessness said everything. “And please indicate why there is no evidence of this progress in previous communications.”
Wynne nodded and fled.
He passed a handful of colleagues as he retreated to his office. The last one was Maribelle.
“Wynne!” She smiled. “I was just coming to see you.”
Reaching for his own door handle, he worked to keep edginess out of his voice. “Great.”
Her smile wilted.
“Oh… um… how did the meeting with Marek go?”
“He has his opinions. His — uh — job is to lead.” Wynne managed to smile crookedly.
“Well, I guess we’ll do the best we can in the last few days. We’ve done a lot here, really.”
“You have. Maybe we can talk later?”
He went in. A dozen heartbeats passed before he heard Maribelle walk away, her footfalls quickly fading.
He saw his muted reflection in the satiny black screen hanging on the wall. He looked into the vague self-image.
“Dickhead,” he said.
He used his full allocation on the Livia QuCom to slog through the monument texts yet again. Quantum computers were first created as code crackers, yet something about the Irnu language eluded even them. It lacked fixedness. Context was everything.
The day slipped away. In the failing light he slunk out to find Sho again. The scan showed a ghostly horizontal figure lying down behind the flimsy hut walls, and Wynne marched through the forest at a dizzying rate, leaving himself breathless and aching in the calves. He paused outside the heavy cloth that covered the doorway.
“Brearth man,” came the rolling voice from inside. “Enterattent.”
Behind the cloth the hut smelled like a stable. Sho’s gray-hided bulk rose dome-like over the rough bunk. Beside him loomed a huge young Irnu who eyed Wynne with blunt hostility. Sraj, the wise-man-in-training.
Sho said something in Irnu and Sraj frowned and walked out, bumping Wynne heavily. Wynne crossed to Sho’s side.
“Are you not well?”
“Agedging darkwards, ill be whell sun up. Whets your busibodyness?”
“I need to know; can you read the inscriptions on the rocks?”
Sho’s deep-set brown eyes looked fixedly at the ceiling.
“Can you read the scratches on the big square rocks?”
“I wilt not stay.”
Wynne was stopped short. “You won’t tell me and… you’re dying?”
“Note the morrow.”
Just one straight answer, please! “‘Yes, but not yet’?”
Sho grunted and rolled to face Wynne. “In deed.”
“Can I help? We have learned a lot about Irnu biology.”
Sho’s ears twitched in amusement. “No.”
Sho made the gesture that asked for silence, and Wynne honored it. He had been told to shut up but not to go, and so he crouched by Sho’s great wise head until the Irnu’s breathing grew steady and slow in sleep.
In the morning, the combinatorics yielded nothing, except that his usage of the QuCom was noted by the climate modelers and became common knowledge. Wynne wrote his report, despite its hollow center.
He had one day to cadge something out of the Irnu wise man, but fretted more over Sho’s health. To think that the old Irnu might be dying, and that Wynne could not explain how the Earthmen could help — and probably not understand Sho’s answer when it came — left him empty. That Sho would take the secret of the Irnu writing to his grave merely compounded Wynne’s impotent anger. So he told himself.
He packed his portable fMRI rig, a second music player with some new material, his screen, and a day’s supply of food bars, and sat down to a breakfast of cereal and toast in the outpost cafeteria. He ate quickly, but not quickly enough; Maribelle arrived beside him, her tray bulging with scrambled eggs and hash browns.
He said, “And you tell me off for smoking a joint.”
She smiled and dug her fork into the yellow mountain. “I’ve got my absorbers in.”
He saw the backpack she dropped beside her chair and lost his appetite, such as it was.
“Well, better go.” He put his hands either side of his tray to push himself to his feet.
She waved her fork and swallowed. “I’m sorry, you’ll have to wait for me. Marek has — ”
” — asked you to baby-sit me, I see.” He flopped back into the chair.
“He’s got his reasons, I guess, but I have mine too. Wynne, I’m worried about you.”
She seemed to mean it. She put her free hand on top of his. It was warm and dry, and soft. How long since he had touched another human being beyond shaking hands? He left his hand there, palm down beneath hers.
More harshly than intended, he said, “Let’s get out of here.”
They returned their trays and dishes and pushed through the doors and into the forest.
Their feet thudded into the earth of the trail, the still air carried a scent of some native blossom just a little like gardenia. The air, the greenish light, the space; he wanted to be out here. Here, in the forests of Livia, and nowhere else.
He said, “You can help me with the fMRI, then. It’ll be good to have an expert on the spot.”
“Glad to. Though you’re a bit of an expert yourself by now.”
“Maybe on a couple of really specialized applications.”
Sho was in his hut when they arrived. They watched Irnu stomp about the village, piling logs, old seed pods as big as Wynne’s forearm, even dried brambles, into the communal fire pit. The heavyset Irnu seemed well-suited to such work. Long, burbling syllables boomed across the space, punctuated by whuffling noises.
Maribelle said, “What are they saying?”
I don’t know! “I think they are talking about an event to happen over the next three or four days. I think.”
She nodded towards Sho’s hut and lowered her pack to the ground. They stood outside the door.
Sho’s leathery face, with its deep, cross-hatched folds of mottled skin, eyed them through a half-drawn curtain.
In Irnu, Wynne said. “Sho — this is Maribelle.”
Sho grunted. “Affender yours?”
Wynne also shifted to English. “A friend, yes. She’s come to help us read the stones.”
The Irnu’s eyes closed for a moment. His ears flicked away a fly — or an unwelcome thought. He pushed through the doorway, looked around the village. “At last time.”
“But — ” Wynne’s voice shut off. He had never seen such humorlessness in Sho’s eyes.
Sho tossed his head. “But.”
And he started to walk. Wynne had to stride out to keep up, and Maribelle resorted to jogging.
Sho muttered, “Sick hungred years along, awaity ennow. Wisdown end huppiness, Methren and Rak dwell enough. Wisendom!” He barked, an angry noise that Wynne had never heard before. “Sraj connivit! Sraj connivit forgotand ilk. Now, these inkscriptures — led us to this think pore dunce morand that will be overt tyou.”
The nearest monolith soon became visible as a solid shadow beneath the leafy sky.
After Sho shooed Maribelle’s attempts away Wynne fitted the fMRI headset over the broad, lumpy skull. Maribelle sat on the loam, her back against the monolith, her screen on her knees, examining the signals in real time.
At first, Wynne and Sho made small talk using Wynne’s limited Irnu. Rak was still well, Methren still angry. Wynne asked whether the preparations going on in the village were for Rak and Pri’s wedding, but did not appear to be able to make Sho understand the question.
Wynne signaled to Maribelle and switched to English. “Is the big fire for Rak and Pri’s joining?”
“Not all lonely.”
Wynne ran his fingernails around the creases of the curving symbols on the stone wall. “For something else as well?”
Wynne turned to the stone wall. Its smooth, dark-gray surface reminded him of a war memorial from his hometown, though back there, a hundred and sixty-five years ago, the words had been names and gold leaf had lain in each incision.
“Are these names of the dead?”
He knew it was unlikely. The writing did not look like a list but like an endless unpunctuated sentence, a single long stream of thought that spiraled around the stone cube and vanished into the undergrowth.
Wynne chanced a look at Maribelle; puzzlement showed on her face.
“Sho, I need a translation.”
Sho stood with Wynne. A series of symbols at head height caught the Earthman’s attention, tugged at his memory. He was again chagrined at his guess of “fire.”
“What is this?”
Sho looked hard at Wynne. The gaze coming from the Irnu’s glossy brown eyes seemed to have weight and heat.
Wynne swallowed. Desperation, forgotten as he walked through these green woods, surfaced in his mind. He glanced again at Maribelle.
“I need something to show my boss.” He heard Maribelle’s intake of breath. In his mind he heard her saying, “But you’ve already told Marek — ” and he thrust a hand at her, palm out. To Sho, Wynne said, “I have told him I can read a few of these words.”
Sho was frozen. “Sorried them.”
“I can’t, but I know you can. I know it. Please. Can you read them?”
Sho’s eyes narrowed.
Wynne’s heart fluttered with hope. “Please give me the meaning.”
Sho looked away from the wall and away from Wynne. When he turned his head back, his face held a blankness Wynne had not seen since their first meeting.
“Breakwords, forgewords, yorewords unfixed end meaningless.”
“I have never lied to you!” Wynne interlocked his hands. “We have done so much together!”
“Counter feats alternathing with lies. Awfings end end know I answer nonymore.”
Sho turned his broad gray back and walked away, his tail swishing angrily. Wynne stared at the wrinkled figure and then the speckled stone wall, both as impenetrable as ever. Eventually, he sensed Maribelle’s gaze on him. Blood pulsed in his face. He turned to her, eyes burning.
“Yes! I have no translations. I know — ” The hopeless anger drained away, leaving an old, old man. “Forget it. I was gone anyway.”
She looked at him with a terrible sadness.
“Sho’s over,” he said, smiling wanly, refusing to blink.
She said, “fMRI lit up like Livia’s Great Southern Aurora when he looked at the inscriptions.”
The outpost manager’s face was white with grimly enforced calm. He stalked back and forth, more like a pudgy tomcat than a tiger. Wynne sat in a straight-backed chair seemingly designed for administering dressing-downs.
“You are a disgrace.” Marek brandished a stapled handful of paper. “Here it is, this ‘report’ of yours.” He threw the report down in a theatrical way that suggested he had printed it out for just that purpose.
Like all official disciplinary hearings that might lead to dismissal — or as it was officially known, given that nobody could be sent home, “summary reclassification” — this interview was being recorded, in this case by a neat unit mounted on Marek’s desk; a red light flashed on it periodically.
Wynne turned a little in his chair and waved to the tiny camera.
Marek narrowed his eyes.
Wynne said, “The only section that is not correct is the statement that I have translated passages from the inscriptions. And I had every reason to believe that I would get those passages. And our recent fMRI results show that Sho could read the inscriptions, but for some reason would not tell me.”
“Your report to me two days ago indicated that you had translations. Had them. I forwarded that to the Hub. They were impressed and were ready to resource maintenance of a dedicated outpost. Now they’re calling you a fraud … You’ve made the whole base look bad. I should have known, after Lake Ty.”
Wynne reddened, twitched. “You might as well just drop it. We both know my career’s over.”
“You are going to Southwest Hub tomorrow, on the returning supply truck. Pack what you can and box the rest; those are your only duties in your last day here. Now get out of my sight.”
Wynne left the office to find Maribelle waiting for him. He gave her a tired smile; she hugged him lightly.
“He’s dead, isn’t he?” Wynne asked, though he knew.
“The bonfire was a pyre.”
He pressed his hands to his stubbly face and slid them down until his fingertips rested on his jawbone. “‘In deed’ indeed.”
They walked out into the forest, two old people. The long shadows of the arap trees marched in front of them, making the ground a great zebra hide. They followed the worn path to the village. Wynne did not go in. Something had ended. The two humans looked past Sho’s hut to the ring of stones and the pyre within. Sho’s profile, charcoal gray atop the accumulated wood, was like a mountain horizon, vast, unmoving, and eternal. Yet now the flames began to light the feet of that mountain, to engulf the foothills and encroach upon the flanks. The weeds crackled when they burned, releasing oily smoke. The seed pods popped and gave off a smell like cardamom. Wynne smelled tharo.
“He was six hundred local years old,” said Wynne. “That’s around three hundred of our years. Enough to travel between the stars without the Surgery.”
Humans could live long enough to cross the stars — at a cost. A trillion manufactured molecules searched for defective or damaged cells and neutralized them. Maribelle and Wynne could live to be two hundred and fifty, maybe more. But, as the official reports noted, the treatment was “incompatible with reproduction.”
He put an arm around Maribelle’s shoulders. She leaned into his ribs.
He said, “Nobody I’ve ever met, anywhere, had his gift for language.”
The flames leapt higher than Sho’s bulk. A smell like a burning horse blanket filled the air. The firelight turned the acrid smoke orange and it hung above the village like a new sky.
Wynne said, “Their language — it grows straight out of the nature of their brains. What would that say about a liar?”
“Wynne — you’re a good man. I know it.”
“You know about Lake Ty. And now this.”
She looked up at him but he did not meet her eyes. He put his other arm around her and held her tightly.
He squeezed her once, as if to say “thank you.” Then he stepped back, looked away into the darkness, and started walking.
|Darren Goossens has been publishing occasional pieces of short fiction for over twenty years. His work has appeared in Aurealis, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine and anthologies including Looking Landwards, Insert Title Here and The Never Never Land. By trade his is a Physicist and lecturer and hails from Australia. Find out a little bit, but not much, more at darrengoossens.wordpress.com.|