Friday, January 17, 2014

Full-Throttle Ahrottl - Chapter 9

                Ahrottl smelled humans, old meals, and dust.  The smell of the ship.  She opened her eyes.

                She was lying on the beanbag in the bridge, arms splayed out, and a blanket over her.  Maria sat in one of the control chairs, watching a couple of live feed holos intently.  Mother Superior, hovering as always over the control panel, cleared her throat.

                “Ahrottl appears to be awake.”  She said.

                “Yes, yes she does.”  Ahrottl grumbled as she stretched and shook herself out.  She rolled off the edge as Maria rose to help her.

                “No, I’m okay.”  She said.  Maria’s face was tear-stained and her eyes were producing fresh moisture now.  She dropped to her knees and wrapped her long, gangly arms around her.  Ahrottl nuzzled under her chin.  “At least, I feel okay.”

                “We were so worried.  You … you seemed to just shutdown, go catatonic.  Then you started making strange noises… do you remember any of that?”

                Ahrottl closed her eyes and thought about it.  She fought the urge to Still.  “Yeah, I do.  Did you record what I said?”

                Maria frowned.  “What do you mean?”

                Ahrottl took a step back, still keeping contact but looking into Maria’s dark brown eyes.  “Right before I blacked out.  Something…  something made me speak.  Seriously, as in something forced my mouth to move and words to come out.”

                Maria shook her head, not comprehending.  “Gerry tried to get you to uncurl for a while, and then you started screaming and making noises – Mother Superior assured us that it wasn’t your language – and then you went limp.”

                “Wait, you didn’t understand that?”

                “No… should I have?”

                Ahrottl shook her head, staring through the port towards the grey, floating hulk.  “Where’s Algernon?” She asked.

                Maria nodded towards the station.  “He decided to go back and explore.  Clear up the bo… the things that upset you and see what he could find.”

                “NO!”  Ahrottl romped past Maria, at full speed, to the control board.  “Algernon, can you here me?  Get out of there!”

                “Yeah, I can hear you, Throttle.”  His head appeared, floating in space near Mother Superior.  She hated how humans often projected images of their heads alone when communicating through media like this; it made her think of decapitation.  “How’re you doing?”

                “Algernon, there’s something really wrong with that place.  Like, really, really wrong.  Neither you nor Maria understood it but something … told me.  Something spoke through me back there.  Like a, oh, I don’t know, a ghost or something.”  She looked around at Maria who just looked concerned and Mother Superior who had raised one eyebrow haughtily.

                “What?  What are you talking about?”

                Ahrottl sighed.  “Play back the noises I made before I went unconscious.”

                Mother Superior raised her other eyebrow.

                Ahrottl’s whiskers twirled in frustration.  “Please play them back, Mother Superior.”

                Mother Superior nodded slightly.  “Very well.”  She said.  An image of Ahrottl’s face, eyes bugged, her jaw and face moving jerkily as she spoke appeared beside Algernon’s head.  Ahrottl realized that she understood all of the words that she was saying, though she’d had no prior experience with the language.  Then something clicked in her mind.

                “Listen to it.  Listen carefully.”  Her eyes darted back and forth, watching the reactions of the two humans and their artificial intelligence.  Both Maria and Algernon’s eye widened simultaneously.

                “It’s the language from the recordings!  But how are you speaking it?”

                Ahrottl shook her head.  “I don’t know, but I have a couple of theories.  I do understand it, though.  At least, the part I said.  Here, try replaying one of the earlier messages that we heard.  Please”
                They all listened carefully to the message that played when the probe had failed to gain access before.  Ahrottl said, “Shoowul – formal plural second person.  ‘Sta – definite article.  Fush – leave, depart.”  She bounced in place, writhing in excitement.  “I don’t understand all of It, but I’ve got something that we can build off of at least.  I understand a few words.  “Misk – in the original message it meant “warn”.  Oomisk might mean warning.  Could you play it again?”

                “Wait, wait, Ahrottl, what was the original message?  What did you say, if you understood it.”

                Her bouncing and writhing stopped.  She swayed gently.  “Oh, right, you hadn’t heard.  ‘Leave this place.  It is diseased, not with a disease of poison or parasite but with a malady of perception and cognition.  Cling to your ignorance and stay and share our fate or leave and warn the others.  If this spreads all Raleli are doomed.  Quarantine and flee.’”

                She looked around again.

                “The name ‘Raleli’ does not match any information that I have access to.”  Mother Superior said after a long moment.

                Maria glanced at Ahrottl and then at her AI.  “What… what could make this happen?  What, was it like a psychic recorded message?”

                “I have very little information on psi, I’m afraid.  Much of it is either historical or related to theological musings.  Reviewing potential links…”  She was quiet for a moment.  Both the humans seemed to be holding their breaths.

                “The Awakener first  contact with a member of the Collective seems to be relevant.  There was a Zig terraforming outpost on a planet inhabited by a renegade Awakener sect, which spread infectious mental diseases psychically to the Zig colonists.  Many Zig are infected to this day.”

                “’… a malady of perception and cognition.’” Ahrottl quoted herself.

                “And they do look like Vessels.”  Algernon added, looking down at something.  Ahrottl glanced at the live feed holo coming from his suit.  Lying on the floor beneath him was a desiccated corpse, human-like but leaner and more angular, with more joints, dressed in a simple tunic and pants, its jaws pulled back in a rictus.

                “I think Ahrottl is right, hon.  I think that you should get out of there.  We’ll try something else.”

                Algernon frowned and shook his head.  “No, I don’t think that that’s necessary.  I haven’t felt anything strange since I came down here.  I certainly haven’t gone loopy at all.   We still need to figure out how to get back, don’t we?”

                “It was insidious, though, Gerry.  I didn’t know what was happening until I started to spiral out of control.”  Ahrottl insisted.

                “Look, Throttle, I can handle myself here.  I understand that you’re a pretty emotional creature, most of your species is.  Humans, though, we’re good at keeping ourselves centered, keeping a solid head on our shoulders.  We don’t…”

                “Frenzy like Taratumm?”  Ahrottl cut him off.  “Run and hide like Vislin?  Listen to what you’re saying, Algernon.”

                “Hey, I’m just pointing out facts.  We’re capable of being detached and level.  Hrotata are excitable creatures.  You’ve said so yourself.”

                Ahrottl was swaying very slowly, her eyes wide, her gaze darting back and forth between the two humans.  “Are you even listening to what you’re saying?”

                Gerry sighed.  “I know what I’m saying, Throttle.  I think you should probably go get something to eat, maybe take a shower, and settle down before we speak anymore.  We don’t need to continue this conversation.”  He turned his eyes towards Maria, who looked a bit surprised herself.  “I’ve found twelve more bodies.  I’ve passed what looks like it might have been a decontamination unit, with a desk to the side and a pair of…”

                Ahrottl turned and wandered away, almost stumbling.  She had never heard Gerry speak that way to anyone before.  Was he being affected by some sort of psychic plague?  Was he just under a lot of stress?  She numbly made her way to the kitchen and unfroze some cheese and sat nibbling at it and sipping a bottle of water, her mind spinning in place.

                Hrotata empathy was considered legendary around other species.  If you’ve spent a bit of time with a Hrotata, so it was believed, you couldn’t lie to them.  Ahrottl was keenly aware that she was not the most socially capable member of her kind; far from it.  Writers and other artists that did not perform publicly were always considered a bit emotionally stunted in Hrotata society, as though they needed filters between themselves and their audiences.  Ahrottl had no grasp on what was going on in Gerry’s head, and though Maria was clearly concerned she had a lot of confidence in her spouse.

                Was he going mad?  Were they all?  Away from contact with others, prospects of getting home growing dim, and a huge, floating bloodbath being their only hope of survival or information on how to find a way home.

                She couldn’t shake the feeling that there was more to it than that.  She had felt something move her mouth and body for her.  She had felt it in her mind – enough to be able to recognize the words that it had used later.  She had no real experience with psi, but she knew that something from outside of her had reached in and affected a change in her.  If it wasn’t psi, than what was it?

                If they lost Gerry to this, then what?  Down one member of the crew, and Maria’s mate no less.  She’d follow him in there if she had to, and if she did there would be no telling if she would make it back.  Ahrottl would be left alone, floating in a ship with two artificial intelligences.  She had frequently wished that Mother Superior had a body that she could bite in agitation, but Timmy wasn’t terrible company, even if he was a little naïve and unsure of himself.

                That was an idea.  “Timmy?”  She said.  “Can you hear me?”

                “Yes Miss Ahrottl.  Are you all right?” Timmy’s tremulous voice came over the kitchen speaker.
                She wiggled.  “Better now.  While Maria and Algernon are busy would you mind helping me with something?”

                “What is it, ma’am?”  He asked.

                “Help me compile and correlate the linguistic information that we have so far.  Have all of the letters, numbers, and voice recordings that we have available.  If Gerry finds anything new, beam it in here as well.  We need to figure out what we can of this language, and quick.”  This was something she could do, something that she knew how to do.  Archaeological forensics was not her specialty.  Language was.  “Let’s get cracking.”

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  1. The mark of a solid story is that you're left wanting more. Obviously, this one isn't 'done', so that's just a temporary irritation. I'll wait to complain until I've finished two whole stories myself.

    Outside of that, yay language as a plot point. I sometimes get irritated at the psychic links and babel fish and other Universal Translators that simplify things in 'softer' science fiction. They skip over the real challenge of past and future history when cultures meet: communication. Authors that don't compromise on this might have a harder time fitting in eloquent dialogue, but they get to address some really interesting conflicts as a result.

  2. p.s. and no fair using a 'Common tongue' to dodge the issue that way. I'm still not convinced grammar isn't species-specific, and you know phonology will differ along with vocal anatomy. Special exemption is made for Alan Dean Foster's Commonwealth setting, with its Symbospeech... something like an Esperanto evolved over a century of interaction between humans and the mantid Thranx. Again, embracing the problem and not escaping it.