Hana Canales is a half-Japanese linguist in an Asian mainstream world. Her chance of a lifetime comes when she is picked to accompany other scientists to study alien ruins. Once there, she finds it difficult to figure out the strange, hieroglyphs covering every inch of wall space. Then she finds it difficult to understand anything at all… (see Frank Wu’s brilliant illustration on his website)
The other two don’t know I am still awake out here. I can’t remember if I am naturally secretive, or if I was ashamed for some reason? Whatever the real story, I am out here covered in alien dust from my carvings, and they are inside medical pods in cold sleep. The breeze caresses my hair, and I am lost for minutes, maybe hours in the sensation.
Ours was the second expedition sent to this planet which circles a dying star. Shana Lee discovered the abandoned city thirty years ago on her famous survey mission out to the Kathra system. That historic mission, which ended in the discovery of the alien skeletons on Kathra Four, caused such uproar that this site was temporarily forgotten. Arias was ignored until a United Terran Academy astronomer pointed out that a nearby star was showing signs of going nova.
From the moment Lee 2 awakened us, Struthers never let us forget how much she resented the expedition, we three scientists, and even the beetles crawling in the dust.
“I was that close to getting co-pilot on the next Kathra system run,” she complained over nutra-meal and orange juice. Just wakened from sleep, all of us were feeling groggy and irritable, the patina of three years in stasis tasting like copper on our tongues.
“After Kathra, I‘d have my pick of the commercial traders.” Struthers’ gym-hardened biceps flexed as she crossed her arms behind her neck and stared at us scientists in disdain. It amazed me that, even on such a small expedition, the frictions between United Terran Academy scientists and the space industries they controlled were so apparent.
“With this run under your belt, you’ll definitely be up for Kathra next time,” said Gessen from his science station, ever conciliatory.
“Maybe that’s true for you brain-pickers,” Struthers answered in disdain, “but ever since UTA started recruiting from the Asian tech schools, we Anglos don’t have a chance at the big assignments.” I looked over at Yamaguchi, but she was enthralled by her nutra-meal.
Gessen and Yamaguchi were the only ones with a chance to make the site pay off for their careers. He was in charge of overseeing and documenting Lee 2’s work on the ruins. The importance of confirming UTA’s newest technological marvel far overshadowed my own role as a backup sociolinguist. UTA didn’t actually expect the alien glyphs that covered the outer walls of the ruined city to be translated. They just wanted field testing of their android’s reaction patterns, to see if they truly mimicked the incredible brain imprint of their media darling, Shana Lee. Yamaguchi’s career was on the rise in the Asian top-heavy UTA echelons; this mission was one more step on the ladder to success.
I, on the other hand, was thrilled to be here, despite the fact that UTA would consider any advancement to be Lee 2’s contribution rather than mine. My presence here was a personal dream come true. Ever since I picked up the first of Lee’s scientific diaries, I yearned for a chance to experience with my own eyes, my own hands, evidence of the long gone, primitive beings who inhabited this corner of space with us.
Since I was old enough to understand the difference between Nihongo and Espanol, I knew what it was to be alien. I was too loud and abrasive a daughter for my mother’s quiet dignity and too rigid for my Peruvian father. Maybe, by seeing the world through a truly alien set of concepts, I could find my own place in humanity.
“So who wants to walk out to the city?” I asked, eager to change the subject.
“It looks like Lee 2 is ready to go if you are, Canales,” Gessen said. He looked up from his screen, brushing a strand of dark hair from his eyes. “I checked the neurological connections in her biomechanics this morning. The chemical-producing nanites showed comparable activity to Shana Lee’s when I ran free associations.”
“Does that mean she has the same mental pathways between her neurons as Shana Lee?” Yamaguchi said. The diminutive woman was purposefully calling attention to her own gene-manipulated intelligence just to annoy Struthers.
The Japanese-Sino Alliance was one of the only Terran factions so far with the money and scruples to put that controversial technology into wide use. Gene manipulation was the tip of the ideological iceberg that caused friction between Asian and non-Asian members of UTA expeditions. I, being a halfbreed, was exempted from the Asian-Anglo power struggles, but Yamaguchi and Gessen, both from New Hong Kong, were not so lucky. Struthers sneered and stared hate at Yamaguchi’s forehead.
“Lee 2’s reactions to stimuli in the lab so far equal—”
“Uh, Gessen, shouldn’t we get started on the alien writings?” I cut him off, hoping to forestall another spat between Struthers and Yamaguchi. “Don’t you want to begin your field experiments with Lee 2?”
“I’ll go, too” Yamaguchi said. The battle lines were drawn. Struthers found herself, the sole Anglo, with only the ship for company.
How long did the silky feel of the fine dust on my fingers keep me in thrall? Concentrate, Hana, I told myself firmly. You only have a little bit more to etch into this wall. See, it’s easy to carve the letters. Mother would be so proud at how balanced the lines are. Mother. Memories of her large hand guiding mine in the pattern of a Kanji character fire one after another across my overloaded synapses.
The first sight of the alien ruins had my toes crinkling in excitement. This was my dream; to walk along narrow streets cobbled with blue- and gray-veined rocks, run my hands over walls covered in strange markings left by alien fingers. Within the hour we walked the length of the entire city, Lee 2 making visual recordings of the rounded buildings huddled in no discernible pattern along the main street.
Yamaguchi tucked a piece of black hair behind one ear, squinting into the distance.
“Looks like there’s nothing here for me. I’ll walk further out, maybe check out the local flora in those hills.” She jerked her chin to the west. “Meet you back at base for dinner.”
“Be careful,” Gessen said with a worried frown. “Make sure you check in with the ship at regular intervals.”
Yamaguchi smiled at Gessen’s unnecessary concern. The original orbital survey of this continent showed no life form larger than the cracker-sized, gray-flecked Arias beetle. Yamaguchi could hardly run into trouble here. She had no smile for me as she walked away. I sighed. Just my luck to get stuck with a prejudiced Medical Officer. Gessen turned back to me.
“Lee 2 seems to be fine so far. I’ll check her subroutines and enzyme levels tonight after we’ve downloaded her recordings.”
“Sounds good to me,” I replied. “We can’t start trying to break these glyphs until she sets up a database framework of the most common glyphs, anyway.”
“Then if it’s okay with you, I’ll head back to camp. I’m going to start preparing theorems.”
I waved goodbye to Gessen and turned to face the city. I was alone now, in the middle of alien ruins, walls covered in their spiky characters. The reddish light from Arias cast mysterious shadows in the corners, and a spicy, dusty smell teased my nostrils. What insights would be revealed to me here about our mysterious, vanished neighbors?
“Get your cameras rolling, Lee 2, we’re going to check out the inside of one of these buildings.” The open archway of the nearest building beckoned to me. If I could just find some pictorial representation inside the dwellings that could shed light on the basic ovoid motif I found repeated so frequently in this section of the ruins, maybe Lee 2 could begin extrapolating other basic shapes. I was soon lost in musings about universal grammar and meaning clusters.
The third week, Lee 2 and Gessen managed to create a database of the strange, glyph-covered walls for half the city. I was out of the initial honeymoon phase of research when possibilities seemed endless, and all faults were soon forgiven.. Now I was just irritated with the city’s refusal to give up its secrets. Gessen’s reserved nature may have made him a great fledgling professor, but it did not match my need for stimulating companionship. Yamaguchi withdrew deeper into her ideological shell, only venturing out to make snide comments about Struthers’ genetic inferiority.
To tell the truth, I was sick of our ship’s pilot, too. Not only was her complaining getting old, she had taken to wandering around at odd hours of the night in some kind of drug-induced haze. The three of them were driving me crazy.
I sighed. Maybe this project was too much for a mere half-Asian linguist. I flirted with the idea of giving up. After all, nobody expected any revelations from this expedition. I imagined the look in Abuelita’s eyes if she knew about her granddaughter’s self-doubt. She’d roll her eyes in disgust and deliver a twenty-minute tirade in Spanish about the ancient pride of the Incas. How dare you forget your ancestors! Our proud heritage will not be remembered by your quitting when the job gets hard!
The idea tickled me into a better mood for a few hours, but after slogging through file after file of data with no breakthroughs, I was utterly discouraged with the project and myself.
“I’m going out to the ruins, stretch my legs a little,” I told Lee 2. “When Gessen checks in, tell him to meet me over in the west corner of the city. I think we should dig out some of the debris-filled dwellings there.” The simulacrum extracted her sensor appendage from the ship’s computer.
“After a spectral analysis of the Beetle dust patterns, I have found . . . the glyphs can be clumped into twenty basic shapes denoting color, frequency, time . . . the clouds over the western hills show an increasing likelihood of rain.”
“Lee 2, replay my instructions to you.” The android obediently replayed my voice. After a moment’s pause, the android turned its face towards me.
“I will give your message to Gessen, Linguist Canales.”
Struthers bumped into me as I walked out the entrance.
“Watch where you’re going,” she spat at me. She looked distracted and jittery. For a moment, her unfocused eyes gave me the impression she didn’t even recognize me.
“Lay off the inhalants, why don’t you,” I muttered under my breath.
Her bad humor made me forget about the strange episode with Lee 2. Even Struthers’ increasing crabbiness was overshadowed the following week, however, when we discovered writings in the newly excavated west corner dwellings. When the dust and debris were cleared away, I couldn’t contain my excitement. It was the Rosetta stone. I was looking at a crude but recognizable pictorial representation of a dust beetle, with accompanying ovoid glyph. More excavation revealed twenty other identifiable pictures. I was on the brink of making the first confirmed semantic connection between shape and meaning.
The taste of victory washed over my tongue and down my throat with an acrid sweetness akin to my grandmother’s spicy mole sauce. I saw myself, barefoot in her adobe kitchen, trying to explain why I was leaving to spend the rest of my life in UTA’s far away main campus. She would be proud of me now. Her accusations that I was forgetting my roots to live in the Asian mainstream culture would turn to praises. This was my gift to her for all those years of care after my mother’s death. My life would be remembered for its contribution to the world.
The last sentence remains unfinished in front of me because I can no longer remember the day my father finally left the house that echoed with the absence of my mother. I place my hands against the warm stone, willing it to keep my deteriorating attention. It’s no use, the clicking of beetles, a faint whiff of cinnamon, the rough scratch of my regulation overalls all capture me. I can’t think! There is so much left unrecorded in my life. I can feel the panic well, over and over again, inside my stomach, but there is nothing left to come out.
Our first carefully constructed deep grammar confirmed that the residents of Arias 7 must have perceived the world very similarly to humans. The concepts of shape and size were not so far removed from human language paradigms. Even a similar sense of forward movement in time was displayed in the underlying structure of their verbs. This was no surprise. The crumbling humanoid remains discovered on Kathra prepared us for the resemblance of alien life to our own biology. The challenge for me was not the translation of concrete, identifiable images, but the tentative, stumbling attempts to understand the more abstract glyphs.
First Yamaguchi—having catalogued the several hundred species of insects alive on Arias—and then Gessen joined in the effort to fully translate the abstract, scientific concepts surrounding the beetle glyph all over the city. Only Struthers, spending more and more time isolated in her bunkroom, refused to join in the process of laborious data collocations and intuitive leaps of logic involved in trying to crack the code.
“Canales, have you considered that this curly tailed symbol found in shape-clustered glyphs denotes something chemical?” Yamaguchi asked. We three scientists were hours into another guess-a-thon.
“I considered that possibility already,” I explained, “Lee 2 ran possibility equations on that a week ago. No dice.”
Gessen looked over at us with a crease between his eyebrows.
“No, she didn’t.”
“What are you talking about? I distinctly remember giving her the parameters for that glyph when we cracked the insect glyph from quadrant four.” Gessen twisted his overall cuffs with pale hands.
“Actually, I’ve been meaning to tell you that Lee 2 has been somewhat, uh, erratic recently.” I was momentarily fascinated by a nervous tic on Gessen’s left jaw. Then the implications of his pronouncement finally filtered down into my consciousness.
“Explain ‘erratic,’” I said. If Gessen was hiding malfunctions to save his own chances for UTA promotions, this was serious.
“I don’t know exactly how to explain. It’s almost as if Lee 2 gets distracted sometimes. Yesterday I double-checked the android’s work on the ship’s log. I found several missing searches.”
I tried not to let the irritation I felt show in my voice. Gessen did have higher rank and his project was the UTA priority.
“Why didn’t you tell me!” It frustrated me that I had to deal with the stupidity of officers who owed their rank solely to birth in an Asian country.
“I still haven’t figured out what the problem is.” Gessen’s voice became defensive. “I didn’t want to mention it until I could figure it out.” His lanky frame straightened visibly in the chair. Uh, oh, I thought, his scientific pride is on the line.
“Well, can you run it now, then?” Only a little bit of my frustration came through the sugary sweet tone I employed. Gessen’s fingers became a blur as he began inputting the equations to Lee 2.
Yamaguchi stood up with a yawn. “Well, I can’t think of how I can be of any use while the android’s thinking it all over. I think I’ll get a cup of coffee.” She strode over to the entrance and had one foot out of the room when Struthers erupted from the hallway.
“Fire! Everyone get out!” She was wild with panic. I grasped her upper arm firmly and tried to capture her frantic gaze in mine. Struthers’ pale eyes darted around the room, down to the floor, settling in one place no longer than an instant.
“Where’s the fire?” A vision of the ship in flames distracted me long enough for Struthers to get away.
“You!” she spat, striding over to a suspicious Yamaguchi. “You left your damn dishes in the dispose-all last night. How many times do I have to. . . .” A slap that left an angry, palm-sized mark on Struthers’ cheek silenced her. Yamaguchi looked at her own hand in shock. Struthers’ lifted one hand to her face, incredulous eyes still dancing around the room.
“No freakin’ mutant scientist lays a hand on me and—”
“Where’s the fire?” I said, more forcefully this time. Struthers silently indicated the direction of the mess. I looked to Gessen for leadership, but his eyes held only panic.
“Okay, Yamaguchi, take everyone outside, I’ll see what’s going on.” I checked the emergency storage for a foamer and headed towards the mess. Smoke poured from the entranceway to the ship’s mess. I sprayed foam ahead of me in a protective shield as I entered the room, verbally invoking ship emergency commands. The fire was out within a few moments.
The others soon joined me to survey the damage, a belligerent Struthers in tow. Yamaguchi took only two seconds to find the cause of the fire, a cooking pot half-melted to a heating implement attested to Struthers’ negligence.
“What is wrong with you! You could have caused permanent damage!” Yamaguchi was in Struthers’ face and I knew the inevitable confrontation had arrived.
“I don’t. . . .” Struthers looked uncharacteristically confused. She took a jerky step towards Yamaguchi, then simply collapsed into a twitching heap on the floor.
A tense hour passed as Yamaguchi, Gessen, and I waited the autodoc’s diagnosis of Struthers’ sudden collapse. All of us had visions of unknown alien microbes dancing in our heads.
“She is suffering from the advanced stages of Parkinson’s disease,” Yamaguchi finally told us, the autodoc’s display flickering red over her worried eyes. “Her neurons are being overloaded with synaptic flashes. Her muscle control is deteriorating, and her attention to the outside world is sporadic and short.”
Gessen straightened up in his seat. Realization flooded his pale features in a wave of fear.
“Those are the same symptoms Lee 2 has been experiencing. Her enzyme producers have gone haywire for some reason. The production of chemicals that regulate memory and muscle control are being over-produced.”
“Are you saying that Lee 2 and Struthers both caught the same disease?” I was incredulous.
“That’s impossible,” Yamaguchi said.
“Lee 2 is largely immune to diseases that affect humans. She is only vulnerable in her memory and processing units. The organic, chemical-regulating components of her brain are vulnerable to human viruses.”
“But Struthers had the genetic tendency for Parkinson’s disease already in her genetic makeup. Lee 2 doesn’t.”
I looked at Yamaguchi in surprise. Usually a ship’s Medical Officer didn’t access that kind of information about a crew. I wondered what genetic inferiorities she found out about me.
Gessen and Yamaguchi argued over neurological processes for a good ten minutes. I stood up in frustration.
“So are we going to find out what caused this, or what?” For a moment, Yamaguchi and Gessen stared at me with blank faces. My blood pressure mounted. I saw my foolish dreams erode in front of me. Oh Abuelita, maybe you were right. I am losing myself here among these gringos.
“We have to send word to UTA. Tell them our mission is aborted until we can find out what’s happening here,” Yamaguchi said.
Gessen and I shouted “No!” in unison. Neither of us wanted to return to face UTA Board members with so little to show for ourselves.
“Why don’t we just calm down and see if we can figure out what’s going on? We know that the problem has to have something to do with chemicals in the brain,” I said, “Isn’t that enough to start on?”
We finally got Yamaguchi to agree to a carefully worded message to UTA about Struthers’ collapse and a complete quarantine from Arias’ atmosphere. While Gessen and Yamaguchi spent the next few days narrowing down the disease vectors in our ship lab, I spent marathon hours with Lee 2’s databases and the enticing pictorial representations. I couldn’t concentrate, however. At times it was all I could do to keep the teasing glyphs in focus.
The ovoid glyph haunted my sleeping hours, taunting me.
“I think we’ve found the problem,” Yamaguchi said, breaking into my reverie. There was no triumph in her eyes. Gessen, following close behind her, looked on the verge of tears. “There’s a parasite living on the dust beetles. It carries a virus that stimulates the overproduction of amphetamine-like chemicals in the brain.”
Hope bubbled up for an instant.
“So you’re saying it’s like we’re on drugs? That’s what’s causing Struthers to wig out and Lee 2 to act so erratically?”
“It’s not that simple. Amphetamines force the brain’s chemical-producing neurons into overproduction of dopamine. When levels of dopamine in the brain get too high, the misfiring of neurons makes motor control difficult. It also interferes with attention span and memory by making the brain record and pay attention to stimuli it wouldn’t normally give priority to.”
“Well that’s good news, isn’t it? All we have to do is take dopamine depressors and we should all be all right.” I wondered if they caught the note of hysteria I felt rising from my roiling stomach.
“We don’t have a dopamine regulator available to us at this time. Everything we have completely blocks production.” Yamaguchi’s pronouncement made Gessen’s eyes shine brighter with tears.
“And that’s bad?”
“No dopamine,” said Yamaguchi, “means no communication between nuerons at all. You want to be a vegetable?”
“Then what can we do?” I still wouldn’t entertain the possibility that all our work was doomed, that we might all end up like Struthers, locked into an autodoc bay under constant sedation.
“I’ve already put in an emergency call to UTA. The rescue ship will be here as soon as possible. Until then, I recommend that all of us voluntarily submit to a prolonged sleep stasis so that dopamine levels don’t reach critical levels.” Yamaguchi paused, looking to Gessen for help. He refused to meet her gaze. Her eyes did not return to mine. “It might not be too late for you.”
But it is too late for me. I am distracted by the sensation of heated sunlight on the baked walls. A whisp of wind tugs my hair, and I clench my fists in frustration. I have so little time left. I can’t afford these lapses. Of course, I left all my findings in the ship computer, but some part of me no longer trusts the ephemeral substance of digital wires and data chips. My message, my life, is too important not to take concrete form. I need to carve evidence of my existence into stone.
While Gessen and Yamaguchi slept, sure that their manipulated genomes saved them from permanent damage, I was making a last-ditch attempt to leave my mark on the universe. Struthers and I were beyond repair, our faulty genetic tendencies for cancer, Parkinson’s, and other human diseases uncorrected, making us as vulnerable to the beetle virus’ devastating effects as Lee 2’s neural pathways. Lee 2 now rested in a corner of our dining hall, her idle processors and slowly eroding biomechanical nanites pronouncing a death sentence on Gessen’s career.
I cry out in frustration as the screwdriver slips again. I can no longer control my hands well enough to etch the walls with my mother’s script. I switch to the broader tracings of the Roman alphabet. I refuse to think of the damage accruing in my brain.
The ship’s computers cracked the code a week after Yamaguchi and Gessen went into sleep stasis. I couldn’t stop laughing when the first complete translations flickered, mockingly, on my screen.
By the time I translated the endless meters of scrawled writing on almost every inch of the city, there was no one awake with which to share the sharp irony of it. The crowning discovery of my career was that the same virus that is eating at my own memories obliterated the humanoid beings of Arias 7. They were so hyperactive, so easily distracted from a task by a noise or color, that all the rhythms of daily life failed. With the last of their fading concentration, the victims began to write their stories, their last wills and testaments, their prayers and cries for help on the walls of their dwellings.
Yesterday morning, I couldn’t remember the color of my grandmother’s eyes or my UTA serial number. I am sure by the time rescue comes, a month from now, there will not be enough of Hana Canales for my family to cry over. I am glad my grandmother won’t be able to shake her head in disappointment at the end my dreams have made of me. She never really understood why I sacrificed so much to UTA’s petty regulations. Then again, I am sure that she would understand this desperate attempt to leave something of myself here. She always understood the importance of being remembered.
I sit against the wall of a small dwelling near the western edge of town. The crumbling walls comfort me. I wonder why I am cold. I wonder why there is dust all over my coveralls. Looking up, I see the striking wrongness of Japanese Kanji next to the alien glyphs. Fingers trembling in disbelief, I trace the story of the last few days.
I remember for a short while who I am, a desperate sister to the ones who lived here. I can almost see them gathered around me, the hundreds and thousands of us recording our lives on the dead stone, so much more solid than our own fading memories.