How are your studies progressing? The liaison asked, once he was within range of the professor. The professor, a hoary man whose moustache seemed to be made of white wire, glanced up before placing his stylus on the desk beside his tablet.
They’re progressing, he answered, taking full advantage of the psychotonal range of telepathy. He seemed frustrated, rushed, annoyed to be interrupted, but ultimately hopeful and satisfied with the development of the project. It was a lie: the professor was not at all satisfied. As someone who had spent decades studying telepathic linguistics, however, he was more than qualified to fake it.
We’re still waiting on your report, the liaison reminded. The Department of Communications is-
The Department of Communications can wait. It took a great deal of skill to interrupt a thought, but fortunately, the professor possessed a great deal of skill. This is a sensitive matter, and I’ve only been given enough funding to test on English speakers and Japanese speakers. If I had more linguistic diversity in my test pool, the research would progress much faster.
Two native languages should be more than enough, the liaison argued. Your language isn’t related to either of them.
It’s not just a matter of language. Come here.
The liaison stepped to the desk, where his eyes followed the professor’s moving stylus across the glowing tablet. A fresh line of symbols made their meaning apparent: language is only the beginning.
You can read that, the professor observed, and the liaison nodded. How?
That’s your field, he replied.
It’s because your concept of beginning and your concept of language fall within the range of understanding. Your lifestyle and experiences contextualize the meaning. What’s a beginning, to you?
The start of something.
The start of what?
I don’t know. A project, maybe.
Like a research project?
Or development. The beginning is the blueprint, the business plan.
To some people, the beginning is the spring in the mountain that feeds their village’s river. In order for those people to read this and find the same meaning that you did, the word “beginning” has to represent both of those concepts.
The liaison nodded. But why would we need to communicate with people like that?
The professor blinked, answering with mental silence.
We have no reason to trade with them.
Language is for more than trade.
You’re being paid to create a written form of telepathy that can be used for international relations. International relations means commerce.
The professor etched a quick note that was immediately swallowed by the tablet.
If you want funding, you have to produce something useful. Talking to jungle tribes is all well and good, but this is applied linguistics, not theory.
I’ll redirect my research, the professor replied without psychoinflection, again scrawling something onto the glowing surface.
What are you writing?
I’m reworking the symbol for language, the professor answered. Apparently, I’ve been misinterpreting it for years.
The Terran ambassador arrived in a richly decorated shuttle, bearing several barrels of unfiltered ayula and decked in fabrics that shimmered under the Ryexian sun. The visit was unexpected, so no troops met him at the spaceport to ensure his safety, but he spared no expense and immediately summoned an aristocoach which he paid for with glimmering stones and coins fashioned of yellow metal. When he produced his credentials at the palace gate the guards were appalled: why had he not sent a courier ahead? He had been received as a plebeian, a mere businessman. The ambassador’s reasoning was intact, however. Too much fanfare would have aroused the attention of dissenters, and his three bodyguards were more than enough to ensure his safety. Now, however, in the comfort of the castle, he did not oppose to being treated like the Terran rulers he served.
The ambassador lounged in his luxurious guest room, sampling the Ryexian pleasure women and drinking the finest gallawine. His gifts spoke wonders of his native land: jewels, perfumes, and spices so fine they made the Ryexian seasonings profane by comparison. Little was known of the Terran homeworld, as the Ryexians had not yet developed interstellar technology. Among the most exotic of gifts was a bird with plumage that fanned into a shimmering wall of color. A peacock, the diplomat explained. He had come to negotiate trade arrangements, and was prepared to bring samples of Ryexian production back to be inspected by his ruler.
There was no shortage of businessmen and merchants eager to offer their products, hungry for export profits and desperate for the prestige of being affiliated with such an advanced world. They refused the ambassador’s offer of payment. These were gifts, gestures of goodwill towards the Terran ruler. When the ambassador left, his shuttle loaded with riches and sample products, he was seen off by a crowd of the most important names on Ryexia. He swore to return in three months’ time, bearing contracts and more gifts to show the limitless resources of his homeland.
Three months passed, then four. Five, six, before word from the Terrans. “We have been waiting for your highness’ response to our gifts,” the Ryexian king said with deference.
“Your gifts?” asked the Terran ruler.
“Given to your ambassador.”
“Our ambassador has not yet contacted you,” said the ruler.
And that was how the Ryexians learned the Terran way.
Herbert Mumble was proud of his house. He had every right to be: he’d spent nearly a decade compiling it. Most of his friends had bought discount single-structure mansions in the Midwest and used a portal to get to work, but Herbert wasn’t the type to buy pre-fab. Herbert was an artist.
It started as a studio in Key West, which was expanded to a one-bedroom when he purchased another studio in Calcutta. While his coworkers were deciding on whether they wanted one or two stories, Herbert Mumble was choosing continents. Now, nearly completed, his house spanned twelve countries and existed in every hemisphere, providing views that included the Eiffel Tower, the shores of Thailand, and the vast expanses of the still-rural Australian Outback. Herbert took pleasure in hosting business dinners in Beijing, or entertaining dates on his balcony in Madrid.
All of the research had been done on his own time: Herbert didn’t hire an agent. He learned the patterns of the market and bought when the time was right, and because of his patience, the house was worth nearly twice what he paid for it. Still, it hadn’t come cheaply.
“It’s beautiful,” a friend said when she came over for dinner. She’d been standing at the window of the living room, looking out over Brazilian beach. “But why didn’t you just install viewscreens?”
Herbert leaned past her and grabbed the edge of the window, pulling up. A gust of hot air pushed through the crack, carrying with it the crisp, salty smell of the sea. “Feel that?” he asked with a smile. “You can’t buy weather like that. Somewhere, it’s always sunny and it’s always summer. The trick is to find that place and build a house.”
All through college, the three of us were best friends. When we graduated in ’18, Bob and I joined the Galactic Defense Force and got shipped off to the Sirius Sector, but Dmitri’s calling was Postdoctoral research, studying Xenobiology in the Vega system. We tried to keep in touch, but you know how those things work. It’s bad enough to write letters when you aren’t in the Force, and all that moving around really kills the motivation.
Anyways, I think it was Bob’s idea to drop in on Dmitri during our extended leave. Old time’s sake and all, he said, and I wasn’t going to argue. It would be nice to see the guy, so we rented a shuttle and picked up a couple cases of Sirian slurry and warped over to the coordinates we had from his last letter.
As usual, Dmitri was extremely enthusiastic. Unfortunately, it wasn’t because of our visit. Apparently, the Bugus whogivesacrapus (I don’t remember the actual name, but I think I’m pretty close) was just hours away from the beginning of its mating cycle. This bug only mates one night in the 377-day year (poor bastards), and tonight was the night (lucky bastards). Dmitri had to leave immediately, but he told us to make ourselves at home, and he said he’d be back in time for supper the next day. After a quick hug and another apology, he disappeared into the woods with his sample pack.
For Dmitri, “home” was a five-room hut in the middle of a dense forest. It was primitive but livable, like something out of an old documentary. We cracked open the slurry and started a campfire in a pit out back, but when we reached the end of the first case, we realized we were pretty hungry. Of course, we hadn’t brought anything to eat, and when we searched Steve’s home we couldn’t figure out what was food and what was research.
We weren’t going to let that stop us. We were soldiers. Armed men trained in the art of survival. Despite the case of slurry, it only took us a couple minutes of tromping through the forest before we bagged a large, flightless bird with our phasers. One thing was certain: if people lived on this planet, they’d never go hungry. The thing must have weighed fifty kilos. While Bob prepared the “bird,” I constructed a spit and support over the fire. Three hours later, we were deep into our second case of slurry and feasting on roasted alien meat.
You know, during my years in the force, I’ve learned that there is one sure constant in the universe: extraterrestrial meat always tastes like chicken. There’s a scale of chicken, too. Good chicken, bad chicken. This was most definitely the former. In fact, it was so good that Bob and I tossed around the idea of bringing a couple back for the other guys in the Force. It took a few hours and a few more rounds of slurry, but eventually, we smothered the fire and called it a well-fed, well-drank night.
The next morning, we carved up the excess meat and hauled the bird carcass deep into the woods for the scavengers (Another constant: all life bearing planets have scavengers.) True to his word, Dmitri returned at about 1600 hours, and the reunion got into full swing. Bob and I shared our tales of adventure and interstellar conquests (complete with body measurements and, if we remembered them, names) while we sat by the campfire, eating leftovers and drinking the last of the slurry. Later, Dmitri chimed in with his boring stories of the indigenous flora and fauna of Vega-4. Scientists lead such wasted lives. We let him ramble for a few minutes, maybe an hour. It’s tough to tell when you’re half-asleep, but when he started telling us about his paper on the development of Vegan Civilization, we stopped him right there. “Whoa, hold on. Civilization?” Bob said. “Are you telling us this planet has intelligent life?”
“Absolutely,” replied Dmitri. “Although the Vegans are less technologically advanced than us, they are probably more advanced, socially. In fact, I’m living with a Vegan. This is the home of Meleagris Prime. He’s an “elder” here. I’ve been studying under him for the last three years. He’s a fascinating individual. Man, can that guy tell a funny story.” He held out his hand, palm down, approximately one meter above the ground. “He’s only about this tall. I can’t believe you haven’t met him yet. He’s usually home. Let me see if I can find him.” Dmitri jumped up and headed toward the hut. “You guys will love him. But be prepared, he’s not humanoid. He looks like a really fat turkey.”
It’s my first time at the Persomod. Tann, who’s been my best friend since my family moved to Set, took me as a surprise gift for my birthday. We planned it carefully; Mom and Dad are traditionalists, static to the core. Let their only daughter get a personality graft? No, thank you.
I sliced through the snooper circuits on the security system and snuck my way out into the communal garden across the street. Tann was waiting for me, smiling as she perched on her aquamarine bike, the color clashing horribly with the deep red of Setian skin. “Ready for the new you?” she asked with that mischievous smile I had quickly come to associate with my friend.
Personality additives developed about a century ago, but it wasn’t until the last twenty years or so that the technology really became safe. Back then, unbuffered transplants got slapped directly into the mind, an instant fuse. Sometimes it worked. But other times, people just shut down. Or they went crazy. You know, messy stuff.
Inside the pristinely white store, I wander around aimlessly, trying not to feel lost as I study the clear plastic display units that each heralded the qualities of the personalities within. I can’t quite control my excitementâ€”a small smile keeps sneaking onto my face as I browse, almost like being in a toy store as a child.
Today, templates are used for personality grafts. People choose their dummy personality, an artificial construct specifically designed for the grafting process. The dummies are safe to useâ€”they have no memories so no one goes crazy. It’s a lot better.
“This one.” Tann stated definitively, her finger lingering on a display. She smiled at me. “It’s perfect for you.”
“Are you sure?”
The girl’s smile didn’t waver. “This one’s good. Trust me.”
I do trust Tann. She’s an expert on grafts and had her first when she was twelve. Since then, she’s had a lot more, maybe six or seven, I’m not quite sure. I asked her once what she was like before but Tann just smiled and shook her head. It didn’t matter, she said.
Everyone says you’re a lot happier with the grafts. You can be what you want. Who you want. And it’s still you, only better. Tann thinks I’m too shy, that I don’t make enough friends. She says this will help. I agree; I wouldn’t mind being better.
Tann handles the credits while the technician leads me into the grafting chamber. I sit in the soft white chair, my hands pressed flatly against my thighs. I’m not scared. Just nervous. The technician nods to me and leaves the room. I wait.
There’s a vibration in my head. It’s faint and annoying, like a small hover engine. It grows louder and louder. Is this what’s supposed to happen? My hands clench tightly. I’m having trouble thinking.
A bright light flashes.
When I wake up, Tann is standing in front of me. “Well?” she asks softly, her face leaning directly into my field of view. “How do you feel?”
I smile back without hesitation. I know that something in my smile echoes something in Tann’s. I’m different now. I know it. “Better.”