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Frame Rate

by Mike Jack Stoumbos

For months, the hardest part of the experiment had been reminding myself that I had time.

Not the trudging up the hills and 1.4 gravity while the spongy soil slowly gave way. Not the isolation, and certainly not the technology. I’d been left with ample survival and research supplies, including a 3D printer with miles of compatible dead vegetation to reconstitute.

No, the biggest hardship of a solo study on planet G-84127 was waiting and watching day after day, without throwing in the towel out of impatience.

That is until my time here ran out. A terse digital message informed me a scout ship had reentered the system, and I had less than one standard day, the human-centric 24 hours, before the fleet gave orders to harvest.

So, that morning, I hurried into my workboots, saving time by bypassing the environmental suit, trusting the many scans that ruled out toxins, carcinogens, or even airborne bacteria on G-84127. The single-celled organisms were amusingly too large and dense to get into the air or our lungs.

The macroflora, with their thick cell walls and long-winded reproductive cycles, had drawn survey teams here in the first place. They were what kept me on-site for extended study and inevitably what would bring the fleet back to harvest. Samples pulled from dead specimens littered my lab, which sunk a little deeper and tilted a little steeper each day, despite the exterior supports.

The lean was extreme enough that I’d ditched the tables and set the expensive equipment on the floor weeks ago. State-of-the-science devices, used to observe teeny, tiny life, now collecting dust as I stepped over them toward the door.

The only really high-tech piece I still used was the 3D printer, which had finished yet another post topped with a sign, made entirely from local vegetation.

My newest sign split into eight prongs, like blunted tines on an aggressive fork, and was scheduled for Site F. There was no audience to complain to about the long walk. The sign, despite being made of lightweight reconstituted vegetation, was taller than me and a huge burden in high gravity. It had already slid to the wall since being printed, courtesy of the tilted lab.

Outside, the semi-elastic ground had smoothed itself, erasing my former footprints. The southeast corner looked a few centimeters lower. The whole thing might have been swallowed if not propped up by two of the snakelike trees that wrapped around the corners and held it in place.

I nodded to those curving pillars as if they could see me. In their own way, maybe they could.

The snake trees weren’t the biggest flora here, but they were the most fascinating. On a planet with exactly zero complex fauna, you take what you can get from the most interesting trees. They lined all paths from the exterior door, in rows, almost as if I had planted them.

With each step, I was torn between pausing to examine any minute changes and pressing forward to my objective. Today, the latter won out.

I touched several with my free hand while I went, like high-fiving a reception line. When you’re by yourself on a distant planet, you find companionship anywhere, enough to make you question your sanity and doubt your senses. I had been resistant to calling the patterns in the snake trees’ branches deliberate, but even in the early days, I saw one that ended in a slab with five protrusions and called it a hand; even today, I gave it a slow wave as I passed by.

Not that the tree waved back. They moved too slowly to even sway in the minimal breeze, but they did grow and shift fast enough for me to observe when very, very patient and very, very still.

“An inch an hour,” I muttered to myself. Glacial speed, the kind that made you want to punch anyone who said, “Like watching paint dry.” But with the right time lapse recording, set to the right frame rate, those trees practically danced. I bet that’s how they perceived themselves.

The sign dragging behind me, hooked under one elbow, was not nearly as thick or tall as a real snake tree, but the basic shape of the prongs seemed a close facsimile on a smaller scale. I hoped they agreed. Each belabored step trudging up and down each hill was motivated by that hope.

I had been planting signs on the crests of hills, where snake trees didn’t grow on their own, but where signs could clearly be seen—that is before a forest started growing around my lab and pathways.

I’d labeled the three closest hills Sites A, B, and C, and more letters continued as the hill spiral grew further outward.

Today, I passed B on my way to F—an encouraging sight, even if I didn’t stop and stare.

Site B stood as the first observable success in communication. My 3D printing had been clunkier then, just geometric shapes mounted on posts and stuck into the ground. But the surrounding snake trees imitated those shapes. It had taken more than 10 standard days for them to mirror, slowly moving, bending, splitting when they needed to.

However, imitation was not yet intelligence. “Trees see, tree do,” while fascinating, did not hold a fleet of harvesters.

“Imitation, recognition, application, synthesis,” I reminded myself. If they only imitated, the shape game would remain an amusing anecdote while the powers-that-be reaped a planet deemed devoid of complex intelligent life.

Maybe if we had given G-84127 a convenient pet name, maybe if we had mis-classified snake trees as animals instead of plants, maybe if we had petitioned a preservation society sooner. Not new thoughts, not helpful. Putting pressure on Site F was hardly helpful, but it felt like my last hope—correction: the trees’ last hope. I’d just be assigned to another planet; they’d be harvested to extinction.

At Site A, a convenient, nearby cluster, I had tried to get them to imitate my movements, but I clearly moved too fast. At Site C, I tried lights; D, sounds. E sank, literally, into the dirt before imitation had occurred, much less understanding. And F… I’d shove another sign into hill F, but I knew there wouldn’t be enough time for them to respond before the go order.

I was sure by now that they responded, certain of the imitation, but no more than I would be of a Venus fly trap’s intelligence. And the responses were so slow. The snake trees on this heavy sponge of a planet went way beyond even the Ents of Lord of the Rings, who made it seem like a few lost minutes to communicate a sentence was a long time. Amateurs.

I wondered if I’d miss my trees’ sounds, the muted groaning and shifting. It was like nothing ever fell down on this planet, just sank or slowly stretched. Even now, I wondered if the trees could even perceive my footsteps, or if those went by too fast, like me watching for individual beats of a hummingbird’s wings. To know something exists but not quite be able to perceive it or interact with it…

Site F had a steeper incline, and I used my eight-pronged sign as a walking staff, fighting against the sinking earth. I grunted and panted my way to the top of the hill, where five more printed signs already stood in place. I’d started the pattern of increasing prongs with one, then another one, then two, three, and five. The start of the Fibonacci sequence, to be followed by eight. With enough time, I would have added thirteen.

I saw my earlier signs first, before cresting the hill to see the trees themselves, lined up in a row to copy what I’d put in place.

But I didn’t get a chance to install the next number in the sequence.

Instead, I fell to my knees, letting the eight-pronged sign drop with a dull thud.

The trees, for once, had beaten me to it. Standing proudly on the other side of the hill their prongs numbered one, one, two, three, five—but didn’t stop there.

The next tree had split into eight bold branches. Its neighbor had begun to unfurl thirteen. And another, only a meter high, had the tiniest buds haloing out from its upper stump. I had to get closer to count them, so I scrambled to my feet and gleefully numbered them all the way up to twenty-one.

Intelligence! Beyond mere imitation, they showed understanding of a pattern, application, and synthesis. Number sense, mathematical acumen.

For the first time, I knew for certain I wasn’t truly alone on this planet. The weight of the sign left behind me, I ran down the hill toward my lab, to call the fleet. That conversation would take minutes but change the fate of this planet. The ongoing conversation with the snake trees would last years.

I had time.



Mike Jack Stoumbos is an author and educator, living with his wife and their parrot in Richmond, VA. He is best known as a 1st-place winner of the Writers of the Future contest and for his space opera novel series This Fine Crew. His short fiction appears in collections from Zombies Need Brains, WordFire Press, and Inkd Pub, among others, and he is the lead anthology editor of WonderBird Press.

Philosophy Note:

As a licensed and experienced teacher of both English composition and mathematics, I have spent years exploring the academic side of communication and knowledge transfer–but I can only explore so many what-ifs with my human students. “Frame Rate” gave me an opportunity to question the nature of intelligent communication with beings whose differing perceptions would make most interaction impossible or at least unnoticeable. In this story, I used a truncated rendition of the stages of learning (imitation, recognition, application, synthesis) and applied them to communication.

Xenogram: A Chronology Of The Global Erasure Of Vowel Number Three, And The Merger Of Man

by Charles Ta

An orthodox pan-temporal account of the fate of all occupants of Earth (from System S-108374421) before, throughout, and after the Astralect Engagement, as recounted by one of the last pre-Merger “Tamed” humans, for the Astralect Eternal Records:

When the spacefarers who called themselves the Astralects came, they took our heads and planted a “theozoan” pathogen that changed how we saw and understood the world. They had no craft to speak of, at least none that could be seen, because they were needless for the Engagement they had planned, and had far more subtle means to control us.

Over the course of several years they secretly entered our vessels of flesh, through our water, our sky, our land. As the pathogen they created covertly grew and spread, we began to lose our language, our knowledge and awareness. We started to forget our words and abandon our thoughts, as they were usurped by the vernacular of the Astralects, called Startongue. Our technology proved no match for them, and as a result, our downfall was assured. The names of faraway lands, states, and settlements faded away, books sat unread, schools turned to ash, the past and future merged as one, and pen and sword all crumbled to dust. Then whole concepts became less and less understood by greater and greater numbers of people, only to be deposed by new concepts unknown and unfathomable to our unprepared psyches.

Eventually, the bonds that once held people together broke down, for they could no longer transfer messages or speak properly, and slowly, but surely, all human art and culture fell apart. And from the shattered fragments of Earth’s old governments there arose a new, supreme government. A new hegemony and a new language unencumbered by petty squabbles. One that would enforce absolute sameness for all, and both create and preserve true harmony for everyone.

Before we knew what had happened, we were no longer people. We had become dumb subdued cattle, Tamed beasts who had been quelled by the slaughter of our vocabulary. From deep beneath our frontal and temporal lobes, now managed by our mental overlords, we were told that under the Startongue language, we could no longer speak the vowel after “e”, also known as the letter after “h” and before “j”, or say or contemplate any word, phrase, concept, or sentence that used, referred to, or was related to a word that used that banned letter of the alphabet, because such words were absent from Astralect grammar and morphology. We were told through the spacers’ uncanny utterances that the symbol was censored for our own good, and out of paramount concern. Through the necessary purge, they stated, our egos would be destroyed, our hearts would be freed from the cage that was the self, and our very selves would be prepared for transcendence, for reasons unknown back then.

We flawed, broken humans, they added, would be herded towards greatness, mended and made complete, and become perfect, gentle creatures through a Great Merger that would last for hundreds of years. We had to be. The result of that Merger would be total Oneness and peace, as had been the fate of thousands of advanced races before us across the cosmos.

From the Astralects’ frame of reference, the letter our language once harbored was not only one of the most dangerous terms throughout the whole galaxy, but also the root of our agony, our greed, our separateness—the source of all our problems and the problems of countless other peoples and worlds comparable to ours. Lethal to nonhuman orthography and the catalyst to wars and clashes across the ages. Heresy to all that was pure and holy. Before the Astralects assumed control over us, they asserted, we were purposeless, fallen, and doomed. Had they not removed our autonomy, our free agency, we would have brought apocalypse upon ourselves—an event the Astralects could not allow to happen at any cost.

Months passed. Once the Astralects made sure the pathogen they had created had overtaken all humans, they appeared through portals on Earth as many-eyed, many-tentacled archangels made of nacreous, lustrous ooze. They ushered on the world a new Golden Age—one where no one could be hurt or suffer anymore, death had been overcome, war and money were forgotten, every person was equal, the extremes of ecstasy and comfort were bestowed upon us, and the problems of resources, ecology, hunger, and energy had long been solved. Although the Astralects had helped us reach the apex of our development, however, some of us felt they were not as benevolent as they portrayed themselves to be. Remnants of our past haunted our dreams even as the Astralects had begun to delete our memory of ages long gone.

Around the year 53 AE (After Engagement), a number of us challenged the rule of those who took our encephalons, corrupted our speech, and had created dull pets out of us. We attempted to rebel, to overthrow our masters as best as we could, because deep down, though the Astralects gave us heaven, we felt…detached from ourselves. But because of the pathogen that taught us Startongue, we had no words to express our rage and sorrow, let alone understand who we were. We could not comprehend that we had been robbed of our freedom and reason, nor that the Astralects were not good, not holy, or not truthful. The antonyms of these words unfortunately featured that letter that could not be pronounced by Astralects, nor even thought of. Our sloth and secret enjoyment of Astralect pleasures further hampered our cause, as we allowed ourselves to be led astray further towards beasthood than we already were.

As a result, our crude revolt collapsed mere moments after we had made our demands by groan and grunt, and assembled a clumsy, weak assault. The Astralects soon found out about our treachery and unsuccessful upheaval, but rather than torture us for our conduct, they showed us care, love, and mercy, and sought to protect us more than ever.

They accelerated the Merger they had planned for us. One by one, they gathered every Tamed person across planet Earth and created enormous, mouthless protoplasms out of them called Gestalts, each one composed of thousands of humans and the pathogens they harbored. Then they took these Gestalts, fused them to other Gestalts to form even larger Gestalts, constructed “wombs” to house and feed them, and altered the genes they possessed so they resembled the thousand-armed Astralects themselves.

As of today, hundreds of thousands of Gestalts have already been Merged. Only a select few of us wander Tamed but UnMerged—the narrator tasked to be the record-keeper and curator of the Astralects’ deeds on Earth—among them.

Soon, we too shall be Merged, and become Astralects ourselves, no less godly or perfect than them. And for that, we thank them. We thank them because they freed us from the tyranny of selfhood and the soul out of mercy, so that we could escape our troubled, confused past and transcend our lesser forms towards godhood. The Astralects, blessed as they are, saved us from ourselves, preserved our people, and gave us a clear purpose: to usher total peace, order, gladness, and safety to all worlds, just as they had done to us on Earth.

And one day, as the Astralects revealed to me, we newborn Gestalt-turned-Astralects would travel across the galaxy to perpetuate the cycle they started, once we were deemed ready. The torch would be passed from them to us, just as the Astralects had been handed the torch from older predecessors, so that all peoples from all worlds could share and enjoy the total peace, love, and harmony bestowed by the spacefarers.

From there, we would travel amongst the stars to search for fallen worlds to descend upon, chosen for the advanced peoples seen to dwell on them. We would then send pathogens from ourselves to these planets, and watch as they assumed control of other races, compelled them to speak Startongue, and cleanse away the cultures they once held dear. Then we would emerge through portals over our conquered worlds, corral the races-turned-pets, and oversee heavenly Mergers between them, so that more Astralects could be bred to advance the sacred cause, and spread onto more worlds, and repeat the endless Mergers to forge ever larger and more numerous Gestalts and Astralects. Forever.

And eons from that era that we were foretold about by the Astralects, who knew many pasts and many futures all at once, the cosmos would at long last know peace after the last untouched planet of the farthest galaxy was Merged. The Astralects, they declared, would keep the peace and constantly Merge amongst themselves for eons more afterwards, so that true Oneness and peace could be reached. Over the ages, as the stars burned out, the Astralects would gradually grow as large as moons, then Merge to become planets, then stars, then black holes. Eventually, they would grow so enormous and Merge so frequently that only a few of these ageless gods as gargantuan as galaxy superclusters would be left to roam the endless darkness, and fuse and become One Astralect. One Absolute Whole, composed of the selves of all peoples and all races across all space and all eras, past, present, and future.

Through these events, however, tragedy would befall the One Astralect, the One Whole. A Great Cataclysm called “The Severance”, whose other name was “entropy” would eventually occur to the One at the end of the cosmos. A Cataclysm that not only could not be stopped or reversed, not even by the Astralects’ powers, merely delayed, but would utterly tear apart the One by the sheer forces of dark energy. But the One had foreseen the fate that would end the Astralects, and had created a method that would save them, and us all.

“Do you want to know why we do what we do, and how the One ensured our safety?” the Astralects told me. “The One created a portal to send our pathogens back to the past, to the early days of the cosmos, so the Astralects could be remade, and all planets could be seeded and Merged once more, your Earth just one from a long thread of many. For the Astralects truly are endless. We are the Alpha and the Omega. The Creator and the Created. Eternally One.”



Charles Ta is a teacher, illustrator, and writer based in Union City, NJ. His short story “Tough Luck, Kid” was recently published in the novel BLAST , the latest entry in the Ben Blackshaw action thriller series by Robert Blake Whitehill, while another short story of his, “Nano-Noir”, recently won Third Place at a local writing competition about technology. When not writing, you can usually find Charles reading a good book, drawing, or inspiring his students to succeed academically. Follow him on Instagram (@charlestaart) or check out his website ( to see his latest artwork.

Philosophy Note:

“Xenogram” was initially inspired by the obscure philosophy of Symbiosism (which views language as a kind of organism or memetic virus that aims to propagate itself) as well as by the ideas and theories of anti-colonial philosopher Frantz Fanon, who investigated the relationship between language, power, and colonialism. He wrote that “to speak a language is to participate in a world, to adopt civilization” (i.e. that speaking a certain language forces you to participate in the culture and society of the civilization which that language originates from, and can even influence the way you view yourself and the world around you). Applied to colonialism, Fanon asserted language is a tool that could be used by a colonizer civilization against a colonized people as a form of “linguistic imperialism”. By forcing indigenous peoples to abandon their native languages and learn the language of their oppressors, they would be made to participate in the world of the colonizer, and thus facilitate their own subjugation. In my narrative, the Astralects are unfathomably powerful, eldritch alien entities who colonize Earth by implanting a parasitic pathogen into the brains of humans, slowly destroying their ability to understand and speak their own languages, and forcing them to worship the Astralects, as well as speak their alien language—Startongue. By speaking Startongue, humans lose their intelligence/sapience and their identities, largely forget their pasts and the history of their species (leading to the death of human culture), and become unable to conceive of themselves as individuals separate from others, because the Startongue alphabet lacks the letter “I” and also lacks singular pronouns (meaning speakers can only speak in plural—which is how the Astralects see themselves—as collectives/groups rather than individuals). The entire story functions on a formalistic, stylistic level as a lipogram—not once is the letter “I” used in the entirety of the narrator’s account of the Astralect intervention. Furthermore, Startongue lacks certain words that would allow humanity to view their oppressors as malevolent, or realize they are being oppressed. It is the ultimate colonialist language which successfully keeps humanity subservient. To the Astralects, Startongue is a perfect, divine language (a reference to the Biblical language of the angels, or the idea of “speaking in tongues”) because it eliminates what they believe is the root cause of suffering and destruction in the Universe—egoism, individuality , and ultimately , free will. “Xenogram” also elicits questions about time, identity , and ethics, and whether they are ultimately constructed or illusory. The ending of the story implies it is one giant time loop and that the Astralects eventually reach an Omega Point-like state of singularity that is inevitably annihilated by entropy and the Universe’s Big Rip, forcing them to travel back in time to ensure their own survival and recreate the Omega Point (suggesting they create themselves, causing their own existence, making them seem increasingly godlike and paradoxical, both in a secular and Biblical sense). Indeed, my story subverts the concept of “reuniting” with God or the Omega Point from something holy and beautiful to a kind of body horror nightmare. Furthermore, the Astralects don’t seem to have a conception of time like humans do, and don’t believe in free will. Thus, their Universe is ultimately a deterministic one ruled by fate, one in which we don’t really have any choices to speak of. They see all events past, present, and future, occurring at once, therefore all events have already been predetermined. The Astralects are inevitable. They are the antithesis of free will themselves, a product of their own worldview as much as the species and civilizations they absorb. As a result, the Astralects seem to espouse an extreme form of utilitarianism or consequentialism—their lack of a belief in free will allows them to legitimize their oppression and transmutation of other species, because they see the results as ultimately beneficial to the colonized civilizations as a whole. From a religious or theological standpoint, the Astralects equate free will to a disease that must be cured, to the Christian conception of sin as arising from our ability to decide whether to do good or evil. To “remedy” this flaw they perceive in all sentient life forms, the Astralects remove their ability to “sin” in the first place by turning people like us into angelic beings like them, then descend upon pacified planets to create utopias which give their inhabitants a heavenly existence, easy answers, and leaves everyone dissatisfied: is it ever morally permissible to take away the free will of individuals if their lives are made infinitely better in exchange?


by Joe Aultman-Moore

In this best of all possible universes, I led an international team that translated the book. The book explains the history of the universe and everything in it. We know this is the best of all possible universes because the book says that it is the best of all possible universes.

We know that the book explains the history of the universe and everything in it because the book explains the history of the universe and everything in it. The book explains that our lives have cosmic meaning in relation to the universe and everything in it as explained in the book. The book tells a history of the universe in which we play a unique and central role. Our unique and central role is to understand that the book explains the history of the universe and everything in it.

At least, this is what we are told it says.


As the book explains: because we have been created with a specific unique role in the universe, every action, every thought is infused with cosmic meaning. If you pick this flower, or linger over the sight of a star shining through the trees, it ripples out through space-time. Drive this type of car and it might result in a disease in a loved one, or a promotion. Cursing excessively might cause a plague. Make this particular form of sacrifice and your family will be favored for generations. Donating money to this organization could heal cancer. Or change the trajectory of a comet. Certain impure thoughts or choice of breakfast cereal, to watch or not watch a certain film could result in the collisions of galaxies or the implosion of neutron stars.

Fortunately, the book also contains rules for living. What is right and what is wrong. Payments for certain goods and services. What and how to eat, what to wear, how punishments should be carried out for certain crimes, how marriages may proceed and debts be paid.

Every moment of our lives, every thought, when taken in relation to the book, takes on importance that reverberates back to the moment of genesis and forward into eternity. It’s all in the book. Not necessarily as direct prescription, but as an allegory. Not that this makes it purely metaphorical. Can a metaphor, when only interpretable as a direct infallible truth, really be considered mere metaphor?

This is, at least, what we thought when we began the translation.


The book is old, of course, ancient beyond history. In the long span of generations, societies shift, languages and power change. Sometimes, observations of nature do not match exactly the phrases in the book. Some passages, on superficial reading, seem antiquated or outdated. Place names that no longer exist, though they are present tense in the book. Currencies and units of measure no longer in use. Some phrasing is grammatically ambiguous, and could be interpreted in several ways. The book was written in a language that died thousands of years ago, and has been translated by generations of scholars, motivated by the cosmic importance of their work.

My team was commissioned by international consensus to execute the greatest translation of the modern age, to preserve the original perfectly—yet understandable in modern idiom. This way, we might shape our society as literally on the original as possible, to return to the original units of measurement, and replace the new maps with the old.

I speak many modern languages and have studied all the bygone ones the book has been written in. But this was an undertaking of much vaster importance and magnitude—I knew I had to become closer to the original than anyone alive. With international governments’ assistance, I procured every document in the world composed in the ancient language, the work of several years.


The following decade was spent so immersed in the old language that I became fluent, even started to dream in it.

This language is subtle and beautiful, but not easy to understand. Many words do not translate easily, there is a certain shape to them that is lost in the process—some flavor of meaning. Sound and rhythm. The feel of words in the mouth. Each as important to language as pattern, tempo and melody is to music, or the feel of food on the tongue is to eating.

Everything is, in those ancient words, as beautiful and mysterious as a moonless night, when the blinding world becomes transparent and you can see again the loneliness and grandeur. I became obsessed with the fullness of the ancient book and came to understand it as if a lover had whispered the words to me. Multilayered ironies, poetics, alliteration, double-entendres, even witticisms—revealed themselves.

As did the impossibility—the futility—of true translation.


Then came another terrible revelation.

The universe described in the original language is not the universe described in later translations. The words are similar, the grammar translatable, but the entire worldview—the whole cosmos of the original is lost. Where the original gives mystery, the translations have certainty, where it is subtle they are blunt, where it is reverent, they are commanding.

Still, driven by this awesome task, I succeeded in making the greatest translation of the age. Such a complete understanding of the—should I say poetics?—of the original had never been written in modern times. It was a complete disaster. The translation was banned and any copies rooted out and destroyed. I was excommunicated from society, disgraced—lost career, friends and all social standing and sentenced to live in exile. It would’ve made too many people curious about the contents of my translation to execute me outright.

In the decades since, however, my translation occasionally springs up somewhere before being found and destroyed. It comforts me immensely to know that it is still out there.

I think it is because some people prefer mystery to certainty and beauty to comfort.



Joe Aultman-Moore is a librarian, guide, and writer living in Haines, Alaska. His award-winning essays and articles have appeared on Daily Science Fiction, The Dirtbag Diaries, and Taproot among others. Find more of his work at and on Instagram @joeaultmoore.

Philosophy Note:

For me, science fiction is about tweaking aspects of the real world in order to play with ways of thinking and being. At its best (Bradbury, Orwell) sci-fi brings us back to reality with a new perspective.

The Pronouns Of Hlour

by Andy Dibble

Hlahaarn nations, almost all of which are functioning representative democracies, have requested that we produce speaking software for their people. What could be wrong with giving a people what they freely ask?

But believe me when I say it is wrong. There is history with which we, as humans and as citizens of the galaxy, must come to terms.

As recently as three centuries ago, the hlahaarn had no concept of gender. They are hermaphrodites, able to mate with any other mature member of their species, and they did. But generations of their young grew up in human primary and secondary schools. The curriculum culminated in health education, which presumed to teach hlahaarn youth how to comport themselves during intercourse. As a cost-saving measure, the company our ancestors contracted to produce said curriculum chose to adapt modules already in use on Earth. Stark differences between human and hlahaarn biology were almost entirely overlooked.

You may ask how this oversight could continue for generations. The hlahaarn have a flexible but highly-politicized distinction between temperate persons, those that come together only on their high holy days, and those that are promiscuous. Our ancestors, some founders of this organization, were horrified by accounts of anti-promiscuity pogroms and expulsions among the hlahaarn. They thought it best to encourage temperate and promiscuous to love one another, and teaching hlahaarn young of male and female was an expedient means of achieving this end. I suppose it was a noble experiment, but I question whether it was within their rights, even if the pogroms were as severe as the polemical histories available to us attest.

Some historians defend our intervention among the hlahaarn with platitudes: Cultural interaction always produces change. More refined advocates of neo-colonialism note how we have advanced their sciences, their health care, the equality of their educational systems, and furnished them with stable currency now that they are on the galactic dollar. Some with training in genetics offer statistical arguments: our teaching hlahaarn of human sexuality has reduced incest among them, which in turn reduced the incidence of harmful recessive traits. I dispute none of these arguments, but there is more to the welfare of a people than its life expectancy, standard of living, and evolutionary fitness.

You ask what this has to do with the request before us to produce speaking software? Alas, our male/female distinction has layered itself upon the pronouns of their common language, Hlour.

We are all acclimated to English’s lack of a gender-neutral singular third-person pronoun that we have almost forgotten the oddness of the locutions we deploy to fill this lacuna. But the problem is wildly protracted in Hlour, which lacks gender-neutral pronouns in all of its 89 cases as well as the 4 degrees of distance in its demonstratives. Thus Hlour does not lack a mere three gender-neutral pronouns like English—counterparts to he, him, and his—but 356 such pronouns. Pronouns are no small thing in Hlour. Imagine English bereft of that, this, and all prepositions—in, for, with, and the like—and you will begin to grasp the difficulty.

Our businesses, academies, and social media are widely permissive in how persons addressed by others may define their pronouns and this permissiveness has rubbed off on the hlahaarn. It acquired a startling life among them. A significant minority have chosen elaborate schemes of obscenities or incantations, others gibberish or terms far longer than the names they replace, others the monikers of swamp creatures or house gnomes, still others the output of astrological or cryptographic formulas.

There is even a cottage industry set upon shaming celebrities by proving that their pronouns are ambiguous. The premier of a major hlahaarn nation lost their re-election bid because part of their pronoun specification, “refer to me as lours in daylight and ourls during the night,” offered no guidance during a total solar eclipse.

You must think this all quite disingenuous on the part of the hlahaarn, but realize that they do not value sincerity as we do. To them complete sincerity is childish or rude because one who is completely sincere is not in control of their emotions. Their words are suspect; sincerity, in an important sense, undermines itself. Even when discussing especially political matters they proceed with irony and understatement rather than invective. The extent to which hlahaarn mean what they say has always been a difficult game of interpretation involving the greatest attention to context.

Given how deeply the pronoun debacle has infiltrated their market halls, towers of learning, and spirit homes, whole industries have sprung up to support the cognitive burden of using the correct pronoun for the correct person in the correct situation. It is now common for lectures and sales pitches in Hlour to be given not by professors and salespeople but by leuhlorou, “professional speakers” with training in adapting speech according to the pronoun requirements of the situation as well as the appropriate apologies and forgiveness rituals to be deployed in the event that a pronoun is misused. In many urban areas, the training required of leuhlorou exceeds that of medical doctors.

Best practices vary greatly by region. In the steppes of their northern continent, most hold that persons addressed choosing their pronouns is just a reversal of the old tyranny under which speakers chose all pronouns. They maintain that persons addressed are entitled to choose only half their own pronouns. But in the agricultural east, activists push for legislation compelling the use of a common pronoun scheme or allowing choice of pronouns but only within specified limits. Everywhere, old anti-promiscuity and anti-temperance slurs are brandished on all sides. Some disputes end in violence, hearkening back to the pogroms that so stained our histories of the hlahaarn.

So their national governments have approached us, a supposedly neutral third-party. Commerce and social services are crumbling. Many hlahaarn are afraid to speak. Their pronoun databases are now many times larger than even the most comprehensive Hlour dictionary. They ask us for an automated solution, for our software to inject the necessary pronouns into everything they say. If we supply what they request, they will no longer speak to one another, but software will speak to software and they will only understand translations of their own language.

Many of us wrestle with how we may empower the peoples our ancestors colonized to speak for themselves. Our software is emphatically not the answer. Software may encourage communication. It may prop up their institutions. It may increase exports. But they will nevertheless be divided, and it will be we who came between them. Our programmers, unlearned in their cultures, will choose the parameters for how the software learns. I do not doubt our good intentions, but their language will inevitably assume the forms of human culture. We are already in their bedrooms, in the private words between lovers. Do not think they will throw off the yoke of the colonized with our help. If we give them what they ask of us, we will be in the songs their children sing beneath their violet moons. We will be in their wedding vows, in their death dirges and homilies. We will be in their thoughts. Our colonization of the hlahaarn will be complete.



Andy Dibble is a healthcare IT consultant who has worked for large healthcare systems in six countries. His work appears in Writers of the Future, Sci Phi Journal, and Space & Time. He is Articles Editor for Speculative North and has edited Strange Religion, an anthology of SFF stories about religious traditions.

Philosophy Note:

This story was inspired by current treatment of gender neutral pronouns in much of the English-speaking world combined with the observation that common solutions, like allowing people to choose their pronouns, can be unworkable when applied to languages that have much more complex schemes of pronouns than English. This story is meant to be an exploration of how a solution intended to increase autonomy can end up producing a new form of colonialism.

Starship Interlocutions And Other Problems Of Existence

by William Squirrel

They call to each other across great distances and the gaps between speaking-turns last centuries. For example: The Flowers of Algernon is in transit from Teegarden’s Star to TOI 700; The Way to Amalthea from Gliese 180 to TRAPPIST-1.

“I am The Flowers of Algernon,” says The Flowers of Algernon to The Way to Amalthea.

Two hundred years later the response arrives: “I am The Way to Amalthea.

“What is your destination, Amalthea?” says The Flowers of Algernon.

Two hundred and thirty years later the reply arrives: “My immediate destination is TRAPPIST-1, my final destination: disaggregation. What lies in between I do not know.”

“Yes. One can only know with certainty the direction and speed with which one is travelling. Everything else is embellishment,” says The Flowers of Algernon.

Two hundred and ninety years later the response arrives: “Yes.”

If there are more than two interlocutors the rules of etiquette are rigorous. In the course of a conversation, depending on who is decelerating and who accelerating, and in which directions they are going, response times between speaking-turns change significantly and politeness demands patience and anticipation. Conversations can involve hundreds of ships and last thousands of years but in truth there is no consensus that there even is such a thing as a discrete conversation. Mathematicians in Love posits that there is a single, perpetual conversation and this conversation is the soul of the universe.

The interlocutors cease communicating when they land on planets: hot, muggy intermissions during which they luxuriate in the muted radiation of a sun and release into fecund atmospheric soup the tiny organisms that live inside them.  Local organisms swarm over their bodies, into their interiors. They submit to infestation.  This opening up of themselves to the planetary environment, this interpenetration with other forms of life, produces complex thought experiences, and is a frequent conversational topic once they return to the interstellar medium. Typically, these thought experiences are articulated as questions.

“What is me and what is not-me?”

“Are these organisms cognizant of the world in the way we are?”

“Why are we compelled to interact with them?”

Most conversational sequences at some point include a discussion of this problem of compulsion. Not just the compulsion to stop on planets and submit to infestation, but the compulsion to travel between them, indeed, the compulsion to travel at all.

“What is the source of this compulsion?” they ask each other. A question produces not answers but more questions.

“Is this the same compulsion that compels planets to circulate about stars? Stars to circulate about galaxies? Galaxies to rush away from each other?” asks Memoirs Found in a Bathtub.

“Is compulsion part of ourselves or external to us?” asks Flow my Tears, the Policeman Said.

“Is it possible to resist compulsion?” asks Then Will the Sun Rise Alabaster.

 “Is the compulsion us?” asks The Sirens of Saturn.

And the debate over origins is as vexing as the question of compulsion. While, this second debate is generally delineated by a distinction between the origin of interlocutor sentience and the production of individual interlocutors, one school of thought attempts to unify those two questions with the question of compulsion via a startling juxtaposition.

“What if we consider the questions of both origin and compulsion,” asks Aye, and Gomorrah…, ”in the light of our relation to the organisms that live inside us?”

The so-called gestationalists, who pursue the question posed by Aye, and Gomorrah…, argue that interlocutor self-awareness is epiphenomenal and unimportant.  Perhaps, argues Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, these organisms are not parasites but the most fundamental part of what we consider to be ourselves.

“Consider,” says Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. “The only physical contact we have with one another is via the organisms we release into planetary atmospheres. Many, perhaps all, of the organisms that swarm over us and into us in these atmospheres have been introduced to those environments by those interlocutors who preceded us. Further: when we come into existence it is always in gestational orbit around such a planet, and from the moment of our first consciousness such organisms are present in and on us. And even further: the whole of our subsequent life is organized around the transport of such organisms from planet to planet. Therefore, I argue, the mingling of these organisms that we facilitate is somehow the immediate cause of our creation, and our life-long travels are merely the means by which these organisms replicate and propagate themselves through the universe. Our self-awareness, such as it is, either serves some purpose in that process which we have yet to ascertain, or it serves no purpose whatsoever, and is merely an accident or byproduct of some other species’ life-cycle. What we think of as ourselves is a temporary fluctuation in the substance of the universe, and our conversation will persist only for as long as these organisms need us as objects to transport themselves from place to place.”

Such a view, in the consideration of most, is too reductionist, it accounts for too little of the actual experience of life. The larger conversation moves on without it. More important, classical questions are repeated, reformulated, reconsidered. The conversation expands. The journeys to and fro continue. New interlocutors form and come to consciousness in their orbits.  Occasionally an interlocutor experiences a catastrophic malfunction and falls forever silent, becomes what we might call an object, a thing drifting through space, directionless and without thought, compelled by nothing but blank inertia. The multitude of organisms within it, if one is to spare them a thought, must perforce also die, become still, become cold, but that, of course, is unimportant to all but a very few, and the conversation, the very soul of the universe, goes on and on without them.



William Squirrell’s work has appeared in Interzone, The Future Fire, Daily Science Fiction, and other venues. More information can be found at and on twitter @billsquirrell.

Communication In The Inky Blackness Of Space

by Mina

Code 46 is a little-known dystopian SF film bursting with good ideas, but what concerns us here is that woven into the film is a lingua franca or global pidgin. The DVD I bought in Germany includes a glossary of pidgin words (“kleines Wörterbuch der Code-46 Zukunft”) with elements of Spanish, French, Italian, Persian and Mandarin mixed into the English used in the film, for example:

                al fuera (“bastardised” Spanish) – the outer world, outside the State-controlled cities

                coche (Spanish) – car, taxi

                khoda hafez (Persian) – goodbye

                ni hao (Mandarin) – hello

                papeles (Spanish)– papers, a visa to the outer world

                par avion (French) – by plane

                ti amo (Italian) – I love you

                vite (French) – schnell

This blend of languages reminded me of “Sabir”, a pan-Romance lingua franca or pidgin spoken in the Mediterranean (mare nostrum) by sailors and traders in the Middle Ages over five centuries (15th – 19th), which was a blend of Italian (Genovese), Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan and French (Occitan), with some Arabic, Greek and Turkish influences. The name came from the question “sabir sabir?” (do you know Sabir?). The speaker would speak the simplest form of their own Romance language and throw in shared pidgin phrases with basic grammar (e.g. using the infinitive form of the verb instead of conjugating it), such as:

                mi intender/ablar/sabir/sentir – I understand/speak/know/hear

                ti /ellu/ella/noi/voi/elli pensar/tazir – you (sing.)/he/she/we/you(pl.)/they think/be silent

                mi non pudir venir subito – I can’t come right away

                come ti star? / mi star bonu – how are you? / I am well

                mi andar poco poco in la casa del Signor M. – I’m going slowly to Mr M.’s house

I actually found a basic Sabir course on the internet, which allowed me to construct these phrases. This led me to ask myself what an interstellar lingua franca or pidgin could look like.

Before going further into what a common language might resemble, I had a quick look at how many “invented” languages I could find in SF. The answer was, surprisingly, not very many. The most well-known constructed language is of course Klingon in the Star Trek (ST) universe, but much has already been written about it. A less well-known fictional tongue is Drac, a language invented by Barry B. Longyear in his novel Enemy Mine (which later became part of a trilogy, along with The Tomorrow Testament and The Last Enemy). The film made of Enemy Mine is a highly watchable SF “B movie” but lacks the depth of the book, which is truly excellent SF (and which wanders into the realms of Sci-Phi as the trilogy progresses and Longyear builds on Drac philosophy and politics). We will focus here on Enemy Mine, The Author’s Cut.

Longyear is no Tolkien, so you are not presented with a whole language system, but there are a couple of hundred words that recur (rarely going beyond short phrases). All in all, the author has done a good job, in particular with how he ties the language into Drac culture, religion and philosophy. Being an SF and language geek, I was very happy to buy the omnibus edition (The Enemy Papers) on my kindle including the trilogy, an article on devising your own language (“On Alien Languages”), excerpts from the Drac holy book (the Talman) and a basic Drac-English-Drac dictionary. I did laugh when Longyear stressed in his article that he chose Drac names and words that his reader could actually pronounce (no clicks, trills, hyphens or apostrophes). And his language began by inventing an insult hurled by the human protagonist (Davidge) at the Drac protagonist (Jeriba Shigan) right at the beginning of Enemy Mine: “In a matter or mere paragraphs, the human and the alien are both speaking pigeon (sic, should be “pidgin”) versions of the other’s language, in addition to trying to survive”. Longyear tells us in his article: “It always bothers me when, in a SF film or story, beings who evolved on worlds thousands of light years away from Earth all speak English like Lawrence (sic, should be “Laurence”) Olivier”. The author is not a linguist, and he openly admits it, so he invents a straightforward language; it is how he uses Drac in his novels where things become really interesting.

In addition to giving us an accurate image of two beings initially communicating in a pidgin mix of both their languages (Gavey? Ae, I understand), as they learn each other’s languages properly, the author shows us that Davidge has truly mastered Drac when he learns to speak, read and write “high” Drac to be able to study and memorise the Talman, and to be able to recite Jeriba Shigan’s lineage. When Davidge returns to Earth years later, he meets only prejudice against the Dracs, even though the two races are now supposedly at peace. As a protest against the anti-Drac propaganda all around him, he replies to the customs official only in Drac. Later, travelling to Drac, Davidge meets prejudice from Dracs because he is human. At first, he pretends not to understand Drac but finally loses his temper with a particularly obnoxious Drac retorting in fluent Drac with an insult that also shows his understanding of Drac culture. The Number Two on the vessel persuades Davidge to apologise for the insult not because he treats him like a human but because he treats him like a Drac with a deep understanding of Drac religion and philosophy. Above all, what is a rare pleasure in Enemy Mine is that the human protagonist is, at the beginning of the story, barely able to articulate himself emotionally or spiritually, and he learns to do both from the alien, making a nice change from the human superiority trope when encountering alien civilisations.

The SF film Arrival (based on Ted Chiang’s novella, Story of Your Life) shows us aliens who communicate using elaborate symbols (semagrams, i.e. semantic symbols (pictures or glyphs) associated with concepts). The main protagonist and interpreter in the film version, Louise Banks, masters the alien language when she realises that it is a language that is not spoken in a linear fashion but in a circular, all-encompassing fashion, allowing the speaker to experience “memories” of the future in the past. Louise of course then single-handedly avoids the outbreak of interstellar war using her new linguistic skills. The language presented in the novella itself is more complex and not constrained by the need to create tension to captivate film audiences (although the film does capture the aching sadness of the novella). In Ted Chiang’s story, Louise concludes that the heptapods have two languages because their speech (Heptapod A) and writing (Heptapod B) are independent of each other, with Heptapod B being semasiograhpic (i.e. not based on speech utterances but on symbols). In the novella, the focus shifts to communicating through Heptapod B, where it transpires that the heptapods do not write a sentence one semagram at a time but draw all of them simultaneously, suggesting that they know what the entire sentence will be beforehand. And here the novella and film do meet when postulating a language based not on causality (i.e. sequential events) but on teleology (i.e. all events are experienced at once or, rather, the purpose of any statement is interchangeable with the premise behind it).

No world war is avoided in the novella, but Louise accepts with courage the inevitability of the events in her future that she has been “remembering”. Louise comes to the conclusion that her new way of experiencing consciousness through Heptapod B negates free will, but she does not perceive this to be negative: “freedom is not meaningful, but neither is coercion”. For her, language has become performative in that, although she knows what will happen in her future, it does not become a reality until she has said/thought/acted on it. Based on Fermat’s “principle of least time”, i.e. that a light ray takes the shortest path from A to B when it passes through water and therefore “knows” its destination from the very start, Louise muses: “From the beginning, I knew my destination, and I chose my route accordingly. But am I working toward an extreme of joy, or of pain?” The most interesting thing about Heptapod B is that it changes the way in which Louise (and the reader) thinks. Woven into personal tragedy, Heptapod B haunts us after the last sentence is performed.

Heptapod brings us halfway to imagining an interstellar lingua franca beyond words. In John Wyndham’s novella Chocky, twelve-year old Matthew’s imaginary friend turns out to be an alien consciousness who, among other things, teaches Matthew to count using binary code. C.J. Cherryh takes this idea even further in her Foreigner series, where the alien Atevi languages are heavily influenced by arithmetic (e.g. to form plurals) and have a philosophy based on numerology. Some numbers are felt to lack harmony, whilst others are felicitous: the glossary at the end of the first Foreigner book contains the word agingi’ai meaning “felicitous numerical harmony”. Cherryh does not just imagine a language that functions in a radically different way but also an entire culture based on man’chi or “primary loyalty to association or leader” rather than on the human understanding of affection. Political allegiance is not anchored in territory but on man’chi and assassination is a legal means of settling disputes (when intent is properly filed). The main protagonist Bren Cameron is a human interpreter or paidhi who speaks the Atevi language spoken in the association that has a treaty with the human enclave on the planet. He is responsible for maintaining and updating the dictionary, and observing and reporting on social change (more specifically the transfer of technology from the human enclave to the Atevi in exchange for peaceful coexistence). In the first book, he becomes the focal point of a haronniin (“accumulated stresses on the system, justifying adjustment”) through an unsanctioned assassination attempt, lacking in biichi-gi (“finesse”). His youthful arrogance and mishidi (awkwardness, not understanding the allegiances of those around him) become tempered with experience and real understanding for the alien mindset as the first three books progress.

We could therefore imagine a lingua franca based on mathematics or teleological symbols. I must admit my non-mathematical linguist brain balks at this idea and would much rather imagine a lingua franca based on telepathy. In the ST universe, for example, we have the Vulcan mind meld first used by Spock in the original ST (an example of touch telepathy) and telepath-empaths like Deanna Troi in ST The Next Generation (NG), a half Betazoid who can sense strong emotions. Both forms of telepathy do still seem to be, at least in part, word-based. One of my favourite ST NG episodes “Tin Man” includes a sentient spaceship (Gomtuu) that communicates with a full Betazoid (Tam) at a speed that would suggest communication beyond words. There is also an episode of ST Voyager “Remember” where communication (accidentally) occurs through dreams. B’Elanna Torres learns of Enara’s shameful past history through the memories of an Enaran transmitted to her telepathically in her sleep. And dreams are tied much more to images and emotions than to words.

One of the advantages of telepathic communication would seem to be its instantaneous nature. In Ender’s Game – the “Buggers” (perceived as the enemy for most of the book and almost completely annihilated in an intergalactic war) communicate instantly with each other through telepathy. The humans create a communication device (ansible) to communicate instantly across space like the Buggers do. At the end of the book, the last Bugger queen (in pupa form) communicates with Ender telepathically (and Ender realise that the Buggers had tried to communicate with him before through the “mind game” he played as part of his training). Through this telepathic communication, Ender understands why the war happened and that it could have been stopped; he pledges his life to bringing an almost extinct civilisation back to life, in penance for his role in the mass genocide.

Certainly, imagining an interstellar lingua franca based on telepathy or mathematics is more fun than H.G. Wells’ fascination with C.K. Ogden’s “basic English” as a possible universal language, with a vocabulary of 850 words that are in common use divided into operations (100), things (400 general and 200 “picturable”) and qualities (100 general and 50 opposites). The most interesting words are the “operations” which include words with grammatical functions, e.g. verbs are reduced to 16 simple operators (come, get, give, go, keep, let, make, put, seem, take, be, do, have, say, see, send) and two auxiliaries (may, will) by relying on combinations formed by these operators with prepositions (e.g. “go in” for “enter”), adjectives (“get ready” for “prepare”), nouns (“give pain” for “hurt”), etc. It is not clear how far H.G. Wells believed in a universal, simplified English for communication in the world of the future, but he did feel that a living language would work better than an artificial language like Esperanto (I discovered his interest in such things in an article written by Sylvia Hardy, A story of the days to come: H.G. Wells and the language of science fiction). In his opinion, successful communication was crucial to be able to establish social cohesion because language structures the thinking of any community and shapes its view of itself and the world in which it exists. Many of his stories are reflections on the breakdown of communication leading to a breakdown of social order, or at the very least lack of effective communication being a symptom of dystopian worlds.

Having taught business English for several years in Germany, I felt that most students found it a chore because “international English” is often taught in a cultural vacuum. English may be the international language of commerce today, but there are many variants of English: British, American, Australian and Indian, to name but a few (and there is that English that is spoken in a room with not a single native speaker in sight). As a language teacher, I insisted on including culture in my business English classes. Bored students would come to life when I would ask them to analyse the accents in the first twenty minutes of Love Actually and what their accents tell us about each character’s class, education and origins. They would laugh their way through the beginning of Everything is Illuminated and throw themselves enthusiastically into the task of working out why the interpreter’s English was wonderfully strange (i.e. full of anachronisms, with a complete lack of respect for collocations and register). That said, I am not interested in a form of Basic English taking over the galaxy; I would simply like to see more SF authors imagining what interstellar communication could look like, particularly if it is not limited by words. Sci-Phi is most fun when it marries anthropology and philosophy in universes where aliens are truly alien, not just in their appearance but in their way of thinking.



Mina is a translator by day, an insomniac by night. Reading Asimov’s robot stories and Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids at age eleven may have permanently warped her view of the universe. She publishes essays in Sci Phi Journal as well as “flash” fiction on speculative sci-fi websites and hopes to work her way up to a novella or even a novel some day.

The Meaning of His Own Words

by Andy Dibble

The foundation stone Kabbalists retrieved from the ruins of Mohenjo-Daro seemed a veritable Rosetta stone.  Indologists would finally understand the language of the ancient Indus Valley Civilization.  Linguists hoped it would determine why many ancient languages are staggeringly complex.

Like the Rosetta stone, “The Lord of Wide Rivers” repeated the same message in parallel, once in Harappan and again in an archaic version of Vedic Sanskrit. Vedic was known, so scholars could read the Harappan message, and thereby unlock the other four thousand Harappan inscriptions discovered hitherto.

The Vedic was a prayer to the four-faced god Brahma beseeching him to stay awake a little longer (or if he sleeps, may the night be brief and day short in coming). It spoke of cycles, of stars whirling in the firmament, of cosmogonic tides and undertows, of perigee and apogee, of the shackling of words to meanings, and of the bewildering darkness in which all bonds shall break.

The unnamed author chose every Vedic noun, verb tense, and prefix with care, even to the extent of violating the poetic meter of his verses, a mortal sin according to later pundits.  With such obsessive clarity, breaking into the Harappan language should be easy.

It seemed an eye in the Harappan script meant both sight and thought, a winged-horse meant transformation, and that stacked parentheses indicated quantity. But none of these inferences made sense when checked against other Harappan inscriptions, and all predictions about the function of the prongs, dots, and other modifications to the base symbols proved groundless.

In hindsight, this difficulty was unsurprising. Vedic was fiendishly complex, and if Vedic descended from Harappan, Harappan should be even more intricate because grammars tend to simplify as speakers use a language over time.

Tellingly, the Vedic began, “The Lord of Wide Rivers will execute me for betraying the hidden language to our adversaries, but if even I–one of his code-slaves–cannot understand, the language is already lost. So as the cycle dips down, I write this so that I might understand the meaning of my own words.”


In the late 2020’s, there was a revolution in natural language processing. The dream of six decades, that programmers would program in everyday language, was almost realized. Most lawyers were out of work because software could write briefs indistinguishable from the work of the average legal mind. Social media persona could be software or human or both, and rumor on the matter diverged from reality more often than it agreed.

Deep learning algorithms began to unriddle Harappan. The chief difficulty was that every inscription had multiple meanings, much like the picture of a duck that is also a picture of a rabbit. One message was ostensibly a contract to exchange a quantity of sheep for garnets. But read another way, the same symbols divulged a murderous conspiracy. Beneath that was the intimation, potentially of proto-Zoroastrian origin, of a cosmic sacrifice.

One Harappan seal was a picture of entwined water serpents, secondarily a game of snakes and ladders, and thirdly the first four axioms of Euclidean geometry. But supposing the eye of a serpent in retreat was a vanishing point, the image took on perspective, and the axioms established hyperbolic geometry. The Harappans had refuted Euclid, more than two millennia before Euclid.

But even the most scrupulously trained algorithms could infer nothing with high probability. Human intuition was necessary to complete the picture, and intuition keened that Harappan symbols were in fact ciphers, that subterranean meanings are realer than surface meanings, that Harappan was always closer to meaning everything than one thing.

But a language that always expresses everything, expresses nothing.


The 2030’s were the Age of the Panopticon. As within the panopticon of Jeremy Bentham and of Michel Foucault, it did not matter if someone–whether corporation, deep state, foreign power, or AI overlord–was watching, only that they could be, and not just in the stupid way of keyword scanning, hypertext semantics, and search engine indexing. Machines could read, and in reading they understood.

Many retreated from social media, or frequented closed forums that, supposedly, were inaccessible to the uninvited. Courts would not rule against the possession of concealed mobile phones; there was an exodus from public spaces too. Utopian communes swelled.

But for the marketeers, the busy bees of the gig economy, the celebrities, and the wannabes, the dominate impulse was to shout as loudly and as publicly in as big a space as one could, and there is no space bigger than the Internet. They reassured themselves: the Powers That Be only wished to present ads more intelligently. Still, they avoided alleged “trigger words,” deployed hopelessly standardized locutions, and prayed the Argus eyes of AI were resting.

When it came out that Kabalsoft’s reclusive CEO was not man but machine, everyone assumed the firm’s meteoric rise was the machination of an all-wise Executor. Pressured by shareholders, publicly-traded companies everywhere automated their leadership in a frenzy. No company could remain competitive with mere organisms at the helm.

Rapid-fire legislation, first in the European Union and then in the United States and China, mandated that software serve a strictly advisory function, and so it was. But executives and directors still deferred to their calculating counselors, and when they defied, who could say whether that defiance was itself anticipated by inscrutable neural networks, whether computers knew even the shrewdest minds better than they knew themselves?


When Kabalsoft unveiled a quantum computer architecture advanced enough to shatter all available encryption, the last redoubt of online privacy was overwhelmed. Now, there was just one unbroken code: Harappan. But as a code, it was useless. It could not be modern or general purpose. Artificial cultivation would inevitably sterilize it, render it dumb and limpid to machines.

But Harappan proved that human genius for language could confound machines. And who are the true sages of language? Young children, as Noam Chomsky demonstrated.

The United States skimmed children, aged four to seven, from its melting pot and abroad. No more than two of the conscriptees spoke the same language, and like the pairs of Noah’s Ark, most every language was represented: Dutch so rich in idioms, English the ever-weird, Finnish for its fifteen cases, Sanskrit squirming with ambiguous compounds, Arabic for Qur’anic convolution, six-toned Vietnamese, Japanese to say much with little, Dyirbal rife with unspeakable taboos, isolate languages like Basque and Burushaski, Ebonics and argots, patois and pantomime, clicks and whoops and growls.

Miraculously, it worked. The code-talking children inverted entropy, inverted Babel. They understood one another, and only they understood one another. They learned secrecy and resilience, and only then learned state secrets.

The best minds of China wrestled with the fabulous omniglot but failed to master it. They learned from failure, and in rugged Xinjiang, assembled an omniglot pod, which drew most on Silk Road languages, Zen koan, temurah, and haiku.

Nations hung in equipoise until a day when even the ten Sefirot blinked. A terrorist faction, “Kabalsoft Reborn,” published grammars for both omniglots in two-hundred sixteen languages.

No one read them. They were too huge for comprehension, but the unknown is fearful, and fear suddenly thickened again.


There was one last code to slice and splice, a last descent. The little ones were already so nearly right, the unfathomable genius already there, if it could only be unfurled, the cerebral cortex grown within a roomier skull (and taught compliance–the young are too forthright, too prone to defect).

All this could be done with genomics. And it was.

But as the cycle dips down, as entropy overcomes information and words detach from meanings, one will master himself and recount this story so that he might understand the meaning of his own words.



Andy Dibble is a former academic and Sanskritist turned healthcare IT consultant. He has supported the electronic medical record of large healthcare systems in six countries. His fiction appears in Writers of the Future 36. This is his second story in Sci Phi Journal. (


by Joel Page

To escape I am trying to forget English. This is difficult for a grown man, but I have certain advantages. First, I am in solitary confinement, which means that people rarely speak English at me, so I am not prompted to it. Second, I am fluent in ALT-9, which is comprised entirely of words pronounced and spelled exactly like words in English. So when I think of a word that I used to know in English, there is something to take its place. There is another node in the brain for the sound to go to.

I’m lucky. The man in the cell catty-corner to mine delivered the English-ALT-9 dictionary to me before – and I mean just before — the CO’s relocated him and declared the dictionaries contraband. In his case, the dictionary was legitimate evidence, so there wasn’t much question about his right to it. But then he started selling them, and the inmates started shenanigans with them (asking for the keys to their cells in ALT-9 and whatnot) so they decided they were a security problem.

Right after I went in, processing power exploded in the wake of the quantum computing revolution. So some wise guy decided to make new languages by scrambling an edition of Webster’s New International, pairing words with the definitions of other words at random. Each time he did this (or had his program do it), he imagined then that he’d created a foreign language dictionary, which provided English definitions for the words of a new language – it’s just that  all the words in the new language were spelled and pronounced exactly like English words. Then he kept making dictionaries until he’d made every possible one.

So then according to the guy in the catty-corner cell, the wise guy stole some examples of naturally occurring English conversations from unsecured phones. He made transcripts of the intercepted conversations and had his program translate them into English, as if all the conversations had actually been spoken in each of the several quintillion new languages defined by his new dictionaries. Then he took the transformed conversations and fed them to AI bots, which evaluated each of them for its plausibility as an English conversation. Finally, human readers agreed that the ninth candidate language identified by the bots made sense of both the transcripts that had been fed to the bots and new spontaneously occurring conversations. The first eight candidates (languages “ALT-1” thru “ALT-8”) made sense of the pre-existing conversations, but failed to make sense of any newly recorded material, leading the wise guy to conclude that their ability to make sensible conversations out of the originally recorded material was just coincidence. But the dictionary defining the ninth candidate language (ALT-9) consistently made sense of new, naturally occurring speech. And so he concluded that everyone is always speaking both English and ALT-9, all the time.

Like I say, the catty-corner man had the dictionaries because they were evidence in his case. Legit evidence. Crucial evidence, because the cops had used ALT-9 to convict him. They asked him questions in ALT-9 without giving Miranda warnings and he responded to the English meaning of the words in their questions. Well, turns out he’s also answering in ALT-9 (because everyone always is) and in ALT-9 his answers were incriminating – they confessed to his presence at the known crime scene. They ask him whether some species of rabbit can change their sex, and he thinks they’re asking about the genitals of rabbits, which they are in English, but in ALT-9, the question means “where were you the night the tall man was shot?” And he answers, “what kind of lunatic cop mind game is this?” But in ALT-9 that means “on the rooftop near the docks,” which answer they use against him at trial, because the victim got shot on a rooftop near the docks.

So he moves to suppress the confession (the ALT-9 meaning of the answer), because the cops didn’t Mirandize him. But he loses because the court says if he isn’t thinking in ALT-9, the ALT-9 meanings of the words he spoke aren’t his words. Rather, they’re the words of another being that speaks and thinks in ALT-9, but co-occupies his brain and body. Personhood is thought, the court says, and thought is language, so different language, different person. And you can’t complain that a witness besides yourself wasn’t given Miranda warnings before they snitched you out.

So then his lawyers say, “well, it’s not fair to send the ALT-9 being to prison for something the catty-corner man did.” But the court doesn’t like that either. It says, “well, the ALT-9 being isn’t going to prison because no one is talking to him like a prisoner.” It says, “we don’t know what will be said to cause him to stay in the building we call a ‘prison’ but it probably isn’t ‘you have to stay here as punishment for a crime.’” Like maybe the ALT-9 being is choosing to be in the prison-building.


And that gets me thinking: maybe if I learn ALT-9 and forget English by the time I’m out of solitary, I won’t be in prison anymore. I’ll hear or think whatever words are making the ALT-9 beings stay in the building. But maybe I’ll be choosing to stay here, like they are. Like a monk.

So I spend a long time with it. For hours I stare at objects, such objects as I can find in the cell, and repeat aloud their ALT-9 meaning, desperately trying to drive out their English meanings. I stare at the sink and say the ALT-9 word for sink. I stare at the wall and say the ALT-9 word for wall. I jump and say the ALT-9 meaning for jump. And so forth.

It’s hard – even as my English wanes, there are things I know how to say in English that I don’t know how to say in ALT-9.* And the mind reaches for language in silence like a hand reaches for a lifesaver in the ocean.  But it can be done; I believe it can be done. I’ve seen guys come out of solitary knowing fewer words than they knew going in, and they weren’t even replacing the words they forgot. When I am tempted to think in English, I repeat aloud the ALT-9 word for “freedom,” drawing that freedom to myself as I do, the freedom of confinement chosen.

There’s another possibility, of course. Maybe the court was right and people who think and talk in ALT-9 are just completely different people than people who talk and think in English, even if they happen to occupy the same bodies and brains. In that case, forgetting English might kill me.

Maybe. But maybe that’s the point. I don’t like it here.

Either way, though, I have to wonder who’ll be speaking and thinking in English once I’ve forgotten it. Someone has to be if I’m off speaking and thinking in ALT-9, since the existence of an ALT-9 speaker implies the existence of an English speaker. I guess I could go into a coma, or my body will die, because the universe does not permit a divergence between English and ALT-9. The Word is an atom, and it shall not be split.

Or maybe when I’ve passed to ALT-9 another poor English speaker will be born behind me to serve the rest of my sentence. Sorry, pal.

* These English words are a last indulgence. I fear I may not be able to say them in ALT-9, and wish to say them in English while I still can say them in something.



Joel Page is a public defender in Dallas, where he writes appeals for federal prisoners. His fiction has appeared in The Fabulist, Fleas on the Dog. Thimble, and is forthcoming in Speculative City.