Preamble: This the tenth chapter of a serialized science-fiction novellette concerning failures of fidelity in the transmission of culture. (Previously: Chapter 1, and Chapter 2, and Chapter 3, and Chapter 4, and Chapter 5, and Chapter 6, and Chapter 7, and Chapter 8, and Chapter 9)
by Cheeseburger Brown
PART II, Chapter 10.
Let me tell you about these freaky sky-kids. Let me tell you about some.
We go frequently to the white tent so babby can be examined by Dr. Waterful and her mechanical nurse. Dr. Waterful devotes very little attention to smelling the cheese in babby's folds or sniffing her dung, even though I usually bring some dung in case she surprises me by electing to be more thorough. Dr. Waterful always smiles and is always kind but when she thinks I'm distracted she has Damian drop the dung into the white tent's fiery little oubliette, as if it were worthless.
The joke is this: inevitably she will ask me after babby's eating, which, of course, would be completely unnecessary if she had simply bothered to snarf the cheese and the poop. It's all written right there, clear as day.
People from outer space can be so stupid!
It turns out her proper name isn't Doctor but is actually "Six" which is the Go word for the number six. This name is only written and never spoken, for reasons I don't understand. Dr. Waterful does not attend occasions when the outlanders use their personal names -- like lunching in a group or playing sport -- so not only does her name remain unspoken but she also never speaks the name of any of the others. Universally they refer to her as "Dokuta" which means just what you would think: it's a loan-word that came to Go from English, and concerns healing and learning.
Of all the outlanders she is the douchiest.
The friendliest and least weird outlander is probably the chef, Mr. Kaseimoto, who walks with me in the fields of the outlander camp some mornings to poke around for herbs and roots to make the awful outlander food packages less awful. Mr. Kaseimoto calls the packages "survival retchings."
He is always interested to learn what I find edible, but he no longer tastes the things right away anymore ever since that time I gave him a pink cactus flower that almost made him die. It turns out some of the most delicious plants and fungi Causation Prime has bestowed upon the world make the outlanders very sick and they call them poison. Fortunately for the chef Dr. Waterful was able to minister to him in the white tent, and a few days later he was walking around and making little gentle jokes again.
Mr. Codeburg is one of the outlanders I seldom see, because he spends his days beyond the perimeter on scouting missions. Once a week or so he returns to camp all dusty and sun-red. He tells the captain what he's learned and then takes a long bath during which he sings songs in a gargling sort of language I can't yet fathom. I guess he goes out wandering because his outlander function is no longer a concern. The captain says he was the Chief Imaging Lead for the photographic survey, but now that all the cameras that aren't busted are dedicated to perimeter security Mr. Codeburg doesn't have his proper job to do.
His assistant is Mr. Americana, and since there's nothing to do to assist a man with no proper job to do Mr. Americana helps out anyone who needs a hand. During the golden hour before dusk he often sits outside on a high rock and uses his finger to paint pictures of the landscape on glass.
Mr. Americana is pale like a newborn. He has the same child-smooth skin of all the outlanders, but on top of this the colour of his skin is like the belly of a fish instead of the proper brown colour of healthy people, such as myself or Captain Gateway or Dr. Waterful.
If I am very quiet he lets he sit beside him and watch him work over his pictures. I am allowed to ask a few questions, and I am supposed to use his personal name at these times, and his personal name is Potassium or "Po." What he does is amazing. It's like a world your eyes might see comes dripping out of his fingers -- he pushes, dabs and smears until a little window of the world opens up on his glass.
After an hour he holds it at arm's length and squints. "What do you think, Jolly?"
"It looks just like the world."
He nods slowly, then gives the glass a series of hard shakes and the picture disappears.
The oddest thing about Po Americana is that he calls colours by the wrong names, even when you take into account translations. For example, when once comparing his picture to the sun-gleaming hilltops in front of us I mentioned to him that the green hills of Earth needed more green. Po argued that the hills were brown, and to demonstrate this he drew a long smear down the side of one hill on his glass. "See, brown?"
"My translator must be confused," he told me, cocking his head to listen to it. "I mix yellow, red and blue to make brown."
"But those are the green hills of Earth. Why would they be called the green hills if they aren't green? All people are well-acquainted with that song. Honestly, sometimes it's like you outlanders don't even pay attention."
Po plucked up a sprig of tough grass from the dirt. "This is green," he tried to tell me.
I snorted. "Even babby knows that's not green -- that's plant-blue."
"It's like the colour of the sky, but plantier. Don't you have plants on War?"
"Mars. And yes, they do. The trees grow very, very tall on Mars."
"I've seen trees as tall as two people."
"Oh yeah? On Mars they've got trees taller than two hundred people. It's the low gravity, you understand."
I frowned. "So you have trees on Mars as big as hills, which is why you call them hill-colour instead of plant-blue?"
"No, the hills on Mars are green, too. I've never been there but I've seen tons of images obviously."
I blinked. "So where have you been that you've never been to Earth or to Mars before?"
"Callisto. It's in the Joviat. Whole other world from Mars."
So just when I figured I was starting to get a grasp of the world somebody casually makes the boundaries fall, and lets it slip that there's more planets than I had guessed. Whole planets where they are mistaken about what green is!
Mr. Pumpworthy is the astrometricist. Instead of sitting outside before dusk he sits outside after dusk, and sets up his telescope for looking at the night sky. I have no idea what his personal name is because he has never told it to me or invited me to use it. Even though he has nothing to eat but survival retchings he's nearly as fat as a mayor. His skin is yellowish. If he was my patient I'd be worried about his liver.
Whenever I ask him what he's looking at he says "Hush!" without turning away from the eye-piece. Being a very advanced douche I am well-acquainted with all the dots in the firmament and their various behaviours, but Mr. Pumpworthy won't listen to me.
"If you're looking for the clock star you're pointed a tiny bit n'autocorrect," I once supplied helpfully.
"Clock star? What the fish are you on about, child?"
"The star who marks the watches of the night, who skates in a straight line that chases the sun. There are many clock stars but you're pointed at the best one because it flies four times each night. Or, pointed near it, instead." I looked up and focused my eyes keen. "There she is."
He grunted and adjusted the declination. "That's no star."
"It's a clock," I agreed.
"It's a satellite," he snapped. "It's the platform."
"You can't stand on a star," I pointed out.
But Mr. Pumpworthy is not the grouchiest outlander. The grouchiest outlander is certainly the engineer, Ms. Smith, whose lip curls when I approach as if I were a gangrenous dog. She does her utmost never to look at me. Certainly she never speaks to me. If I ask her a question she addresses her answer to someone else in the room -- anyone else in the room -- even if she's talking about me.
She has short hair and no breasts so she looks like a young boy. She only really likes to hang around with Mr. Chaudry the mechanic, and when they think they cannot be heard they speak a peculiar kind of Go with a lilting, sing-song accent the others don't use.
Everyone else calls her Smith but the mechanic calls her Genny which is short for Nitrogennifer. The mechanic is called Tarang by everyone except by me, because I call him Mr. Chaudry. He once held a tent-flap open for me, but when Smith saw him doing it he looked embarrassed and stopped.
Mr. Gao and Ms. Upsell are always at work at the rocket, which I am not allowed to go near. I only see them in the mess. They are always messy.
Ms. Lam is responsible for security. She watches me carefully. I have heard others call her by her personal name, which is Mu -- and sounds like a cow!
The ship-driver, Ms. Domer, built herself a bicycle that rides all around the perimeter. She was surprised that I recognized it right away. I'd never seen a bicycle with my own eyes, of course, but my line had seen them in the past. The memory worked its way into my working space accompanied by the smell of muddy leaves. "Bike!" I croaked involuntarily, then belched. "Excuse me."
After lunch I pick cactus flowers while nursing babby in her sling, because it's always lunch-time for babby. While I'm milky I crave the flowers markedly. There's nothing in the survival retchings that even comes close to scratching that itch.
If I encounter Mr. Kaseimoto he says, "I don't know how you can eat those things," and if he says that I say, "I don't know how you don't."
In the quiet, hot part of the afternoon before the day starts to spend out I might also come upon the captain. He has a habit of standing on a particular rock with his holds clasped loose behind his back, staring over the outlander camp spread out below him. To his right, the river delta and the cities of the mayoralty. To his left, the mouth of the plant-blue valley where the depraved barbarian bastards live.
When the other outlanders want to address the captain they touch their heads in a funny way, and so I try to do it, too. The captain looked down from his perch and squinted at me. "Was that a salute or were you warding off flies?"
I blinked and tilted my head at him but said nothing, because he said that part in Go.
"You pretend poorly," he said, letting his mouth fall open into that half grin he thinks allows him to fake an adult level of nonchalance. "Hiding your level of proficiency makes sense, I guess, from your point of view. But pretending you can't speak a word? Anyone would pick up that much in the time you've lived here. So this suggests to me you're hiding a very weak proficiency -- one so slight that the only way to fudge the appearance of fluency is total ignorance; or a very, very strong proficiency -- one so strong that you've lost perspective on what weak proficiency would even mean."
"Me no tink you. Talk talker, you. Talk talker you hard."
That infuriating half grin spread into a full grin. "No sale, kid. I watched your eyes while I spoke. You followed every damn word. You can act all you want, but I already know you speak Marsgo. It's a fact, Jolly. Can't you be candid with me?"
"It's a stupid language. Lacks fucking nuance."
Captain Gateway chuckled. "You've captured Kaseimoto's accent -- and Po's Jovian grammar. Purists would have a fit but I like the combination."
"You're mocking me?"
"No no no. I'm not. Really I'm not. But I want you to relax. I want you to stop pretending. You don't need to pretend. It's wonderful you've learned our language. I'm speaking quickly now, more naturally. You're still following?"
I rolled my eyes.
"I can't tell if that means yes or if it means no."
"It means yes."
"What if I were to employ an elevated vocabulary and formal syntax? Wouldst thou have the capability to veraciously decipher my intent?"
I snorted. "Yes. But those words are gay. As the old saying goes, never choose a gay word when a straight word will do."
The captain shook his head. "You've mismapped that term. You're mistranslating. That's not what gayness means in Marsgo."
"It doesn't connote homoerotic deviance, and therefore, figuratively, a self-defeating or pointless behaviour?"
The captain shook his head again. "I don't think you've understood."
"I read from your dictionaries."
"Reading and understanding aren't the same thing."
"I am a douche. I read to understand. You have a better way?"
"You must allow people to teach you, too."
"People are more fallible than books. Even books with missing pages. People say whatever they want. There's no way to know if it's worthwhile."
The captain stared out over the camp again for a silent moment, one hand idly rubbing the stubble on his cheek. When he turned back to me he said, "If you go around the camp speaking Marsgo and using ‘gay' as a pejorative, somebody's going to punch you in the jaw. Maybe tomorrow, maybe next week. But in that moment I hope you will come to appreciate the essential difference between dictionaries and people."
"People would take offence at my language skills?"
"Your use of language is an insight into your morality, Jolly. Your thoughts leak out between your words, just like the rest of us. They'll be able to tell you're a bigot."
I was startled. Babby lost the nipple and started to fuss. I petted her and cooed, then looked up angrily at the captain. "Why do you insult me?" I asked.
"Why do you insult me?" he asked back, that damned half grin returning.
I threw up my hands. "What do you even mean?"
He tapped his own sternum lightly three times. "I am gay," he explained in three clipped syllables, then held my gaze significantly.
I had to look away. I didn't want to but he'd won and put me to shame. If even estimable people could be gay, I was in a world that felt nonsensical. How could I feel confident that I knew anything about anything with no solid basis for judgement? I looked down at babby.
"I'm sorry I have disrespected you," I said.
He leaned forward. "I forgive you. Forget about it. But promise me one thing."
I looked up. "Yes, Captain Gateway?"
"Stop poisoning my chef, will you? I can't stand the taste of breakfast without him."
I saw from the lines around his eyes that we were allowed to laugh. I laughed. The captain laughed. Things were unbroken again between us. And then a piggish little squeal of delight joined in the laughter. I looked down. Babby had released the breast and was laughing her little ass off. I looked up at the captain, grinning, but his grin was gone. He looked confused. I said, "What's wrong?"
"I guess it's nothing," he said sheepishly. "I've just never heard a baby that young laugh before."
I shrugged, letting babby gum my finger while chortling to herself. "She's old enough."
"But, Jolly, she was only born ten days ago."
"Has it already been that long? Wow. Any time now she'll be starting with her words."
The captain seemed surprised. Obviously he hadn't spent a lot of time around infants. He had no idea what normal even was.
That's when Mr. Codeburg came sprinting up the hill. "Captain!" he shouted between breaths, sweat running down his brow. "We've found it." He drew out a square of glass and its face illuminated with a map. "Great big deposit, right near this cove."
Captain Gateway frowned over the map. "We'll have to move our mining rig across the mayoralty somehow."
"No, that's just the beauty of it, Conny. It's not a natural deposit, it's some kind of landfill. But it's got a few centuries worth of lanthanides buried in it. I'm guessing it was a disposal site for broken tech. The signature is clear as day. It's a solid source."
"More than enough. We can finish the rocket."
"So what's the catch? I see on your face there's a catch."
"Captain, I don't know how to tell you this, but there's a catch."
"Spit it out, Yoram."
"The lanthanide concentration's only access is between these low ridges -- and the ridges are populated. Looks like a suburb of the mayoralty. Little settlement, just two dozen structures. But they've got warriors."
I leaned over his shoulder and peered at the map. "I know of this village," I said. "I could negotiate access."
The captain straightened and drew in his breath slowly. "I don't think I want you out of the compound, Jolly. It's not safe. Not while mayoralty is howling for your blood."
"I would not negotiate with the mayor," I explained. "I would negotiate with his douche."
Mr. Codeburg and Captain Gateway looked at one another, weighing my suggestion. Mr. Codeburg was starting to nod but the captain still seemed leery. "Conny, if we go in without her it's nothing but a fight. We can't extract under those conditions. If we go in with her, maybe we can hold the fight off a few hours. Long enough to load up the skiff with a palette."
The captain's finger rasped over his chin. He looked at the sky over our heads. "What's our next best option?"
"For lanthanides? Our next best option is breaking down the robots Chaudry just finished getting back together again."
"We need the robots."
"I know we need the robots. That's why the next best option isn't really an option. We need those lanthanides, and we need them now. If the girl can make some kind of pact with the village's witch-doctor or whatever, just maybe we can pull this off without wasting ammo we don't have on natives we don't want to shoot. Conny, it's a plan. It's not a good one, but it is one. The question is: how much longer can we afford to wait?"
Captain Gateway looked up at me. "You really think you can do this? You could talk to this local...douche -- and work something out?"
"You've dealt with her before? You've met her?"
"No," I said. "But I know her well enough."