The Thousand Tongues of Sara’, Jonathan Olfert

Art © 2023 Cécile Matthey

 [ Away from Earth, © 2023 Cécile Matthey ] Humans, the matriarch Sara understood, experienced time as a thing to be counted, as if days were hyenas guarding a watering hole.

They’d used only numbers (310 days each way, plus 40 on the alien world, all carefully translated) to tell her how long she’d be away from Earth.

What they should have said, if they cared, was that she’d miss family and sky as long as any of her pregnancies had been, with just as many tears.

Almost a year: she spent that long in a virtual reality chamber on the FTL ship, pretending she was back in the savannah, as if empty holograms were family. At landfall she burst from the checkpoint gate—rushed ahead of the humans comprising the rest of Earth’s delegation—and found herself in a luxurious multispecies hotel.

The Gesht hosts promptly ushered her to a large and private room with robust VR capabilities to keep her busy. Delegate or not, Sara was perilously close to a zoo exhibit, like so many Loxodonta africana had been once upon a time. The human negotiators would bring her out as the representative of Earth’s only other surviving sapient species—one of the few points of alien protocol that made it through translation in any meaningful way. Language, she well understood, was power. A few poorly-understood words at the wrong moment could, say, bind you to an interstellar diplomatic mission for 660 days. For example.

Outside those meetings she was restricted to the VR-equipped bedroom, and one beautiful courtyard suitable for—and smelling of—a range of very large species. (There’d also been a well-meaning afterthought offer to arrange sightseeing in the local equivalent of a national park, as if half a day in an alien jungle could heal the monotony that might very well kill her.)

So she developed a slim strange hope for something interesting.

The multispecies hotel’s conference rooms offered an enticing, albeit blurry, view of interstellar commerce at its liveliest. The open-air courtyard let her catch a thousand fascinating scents that eased her heart after the FTL ship’s ugly little smells.

In theory, as an official representative, Sara was free to leave. In practice, neither the Gesht Unity nor the human delegates would want a four-thousand-kilo Loxodonta africana matriarch to go shopping. Therefore she would need to be sneaky.

She had a small local-currency room service account in the care of Hobbie, her translation unit. Hobbie was as close to true AI as humanity had figured out, and eager to please. No, Hobbie wouldn’t be an obstacle.

Neither would her suite’s door. The resort catered to a hundred species, some of them much larger than Sara. And while the humans disliked the idea of Sara having free rein, they couldn’t very well lock her in without signalling that, wait, maybe Homo sapiens hadn’t grown past its condescension toward Loxodonta africana. In certain interstellar circles, the optics could be crippling.

Her door hissed open—a subtle mismatch of air pressure and composition—and gave her access to a stretch of corridor, then the large courtyard. Hobbie rolled along on soft treads, casting holographic warnings or ‘go ahead and taste this’ symbols across the courtyard’s plants. Sara stuffed a radiant fern in her mouth in passing. Her stomach growled at the beautiful smells of the market outside the walls.

Yesterday she’d noted a rollup utility door behind iridescent potted plants. She wrapped her trunk around a huge planter, braced it with her tusks, and shifted it carefully aside.

She rattled the padlocked door with the tip of her trunk. <How heavy is it?> she asked Hobbie in newlox. Even after Homo fucking sapiens killed 99% of her species, African elephants’ original language—context-dependent combinations of gestures, postures, interactions, vocalizations, pheromones, long-range subsonics—still retained the equivalent of a few hundred lemmas, comparable to some human languages. In the family groups with the least interrupted line of grandmothers, anyway.

For most elephants, the mother tongue (so to speak) was a fragmentary memory. Newlox was part pan-generational linguistic revitalization, part well-meaning underfunded research project. Unprofitable—until the Gesht raised humanitarian (so to speak) concerns about the relationship between Earth’s two surviving sapient species.

Using a small holoprojected elephant to speak/gesture newlox, Hobbie provided an estimate of the service door’s mass and thickness. By long experience with Loxodonta africana, he also volunteered that Sara would cut herself badly if she shouldered through the door.

Tough plastic rods supported the potted plants. Sara shoved a rod through the squareish alien padlock and twisted.

The door rolled up to reveal a market that held the wares of a hundred worlds. Long-haul 0.8c freighters ran across the Gesht Union, bouncing between stations and Strigari nomads. Purlanni sidestep motors powered smaller and more expensive FTL ships like the one that had carried Earth’s delegation. High orbit held a Quezyn gate, so fast it made the Purlanni look incompetent. The Gesht had never developed faster-than-light travel, but they’d managed to make their homeworld into an interstellar crossroads.

Sara ducked through the service door. Instead of a sameness of human scent and motion and aesthetic taste, the alien city bombarded her with the unique. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply through an upraised trunk, relying on her powerful sense of smell instead of her weak eyes. Her stomach growled again, but this place had so much more to offer than food.

Things Hobbie couldn’t order for delivery. And things the human delegates would prefer she didn’t know about at all.

They’d never explicitly said she was here to nod and keep quiet as humanity negotiated Earth’s place in interstellar economics, but the message—all translation challenges notwithstanding—had come through clear as day.

 [ Hobbie, © 2023 Cécile Matthey ] Everyone who shopped or hawked here was either bulkier than a human or used to getting out of the way. With Hobbie trundling along beside her, translating trade languages into audiovisual newlox with his little holo elephant, Sara headed deep into the market.

She lingered at a street-meat booth, less interested in the meat than the huge leaves wrapped around it. Once Hobbie made himself understood to the caterpillar-like vendor, Sara stuffed sauce-soaked leaves in her mouth gleefully. The sauce was peppery and heavy with burnt sugars. It reminded her of her few visits to human bazaars back home. It had more taste than everything she’d eaten in the past year put together.

Sara drank her fill at a grand fountain and hurried on through multispecies crowds that didn’t care about her in the slightest, unless she was buying. And she was.

She’d spent much of her adult life pondering interspecies communication. For humans and Gesht alike, the value of communication came down to money. She’d come to terms with that strange thought not long after she learned about money itself. It explained, among other things, Hobbie’s limits as a translator. She couldn’t talk to the Gesht alone, or the Purlanni, about anything of substance. She couldn’t do much of anything except order room service and change the channel. And that left her deeply, but perhaps temporarily, alone.

Between an arms dealer and a pseudopod-friendly bathhouse, Sara found an interchange facilitation kiosk. Analog phrase books, assistive technology, exotic currency exchange, multispecies prophylactics in case that special someone had trilateral symmetry and too many limbs.

That, and plentiful translation tech.

The merchant was a Quixnix, a pillbug the size of a dog. They chittered excitedly, too fast and commerce-focused for Hobbie to offer a reasonable equivalent in pure newlox. The little holographic elephant shivered, clips coming unspliced, as Hobbie fought for real-time translation. Sara squinted at a symbol-heavy English ticker-tape across the bottom of Hobbie’s holo-display, a simultaneous secondary translation feed. She got the general idea.

Newlox, like the traditional language behind it, offered nuanced options for managing conflict and building connection. As Sara moved, spoke, gestured, almost danced, Hobbie chittered back at the Quixnix merchant to the effect that, no, he was not for sale—but Sara would pay well for an upgrade.

To ease things along, she had Hobbie purchase a multifunctional heads-up display, the kind of thing you’d sell to a customer from a world with an ultraviolet sun, or a half-blind matriarch. The HUD hovered beside her head, just below her field of view, and moved with her. The HUD’s edge-detection outlined people and structures to bolster bad vision. Sara’s world expanded rapidly as the HUD made it sharper. It reminded her of the first time she’d seen a slow zoom-out from the savannah to the solar system.

The hotel and other large buildings loomed over the market district. The human delegates might not even know she was gone. They always had so much on their xenocidal little minds.

Carefully, Sara gave Hobbie a clear—if complex—request to the happy Quixnix vendor. Who promptly said that, of course, what they were after was a common package, pricey but ready to go.

True AI. Context-intuitive, very strong interpretation, something that said what you meant. Not bought: hired to piggyback on Hobbie and use him as a Rosetta stone. He’d stretched his capabilities to the limit for this shopping trip, cannibalizing diplomatic phrasebooks and meeting minutes. But to really make herself heard, Sara needed better help.

As the freshly hired translation AI settled into Hobbie’s body and not-quite-sapient programming, the little robot went silent. His eyes flashed inert blue, the mark of a potentially dangerous restart. The Quixnix made reassuring chitters. A pang of fear shot through Sara, the thought of being alone without a translator.

Hobbie turned her way on his soft treads. She thought she detected a silent, eager readiness.

“Hello, world,” he said, simultaneously in English and Gesht and Purlanni and Quezyn and a thousand other tongues. Some of that was barely audible or used Hobbie’s holoprojector to mimic gestures, grand or strange or beautiful. He spoke in ways that couldn’t help but be heard, that could force others to understand. Ways that could, in the coming weeks, let Sara understand and leverage her ostensibly token seat at the table.

Sara trumpeted a laugh and ambled off to explore the meaning of something called a ‘pedicure.’

© 2023 Jonathan Olfert

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