Language Barrier

Language Barrier

By Kate Thornton

I hadn't really wanted a cat on the trip - I never asked for one, and I knew how much extra trouble a small animal could be, especially one that wouldn't stay put in a cage like, say, an iguana or something.

I knew about iguanas. Clean, quiet, primeval-looking. Not much in the way of cuddly, but sometimes you just want something you can talk to who won't answer you back or come equipped with an attitude.

Not, for example, like a cat. Having a cat on board was almost as bad as having another person. You had to be careful about your habits, remember to feed it, do that whole litter-box routine - it was just a major-sized hassle. And for what? So it would turn its nose up at you and refuse to let you pet it.

It blinked its golden eyes at me and just stared, several pounds of cat muscle in a velvety black coat. It was indeed beautiful, and even if I didn't have any real use for it, its decorative qualities might excuse its inconvenience.

Okay, Cat, I thought, resigned to its presence. There was really no sense in talking aloud to myself this early in the trip. The time would come when the craving for conversation would steer me to my own slightly schizophrenic gabfest. But not yet.

I checked the control panels for the umpteenth time since lift-off. Everything was fine. Everything would be fine. Trips from the station at Southwest Terminal to the Biosphere Ventures Domes outside of the government facility at Mars Colony were now almost routine. After all, we had shuttled nearly six thousand colonists over the last couple of years. The Domes were a thriving city now, expanding like a fungus over the surface of the Red Planet.

I guess I could have made my living in some more orderly and sane fashion, say as a nude dancer at a sex club in Mare Tranquillitatis. Shuttle operators tended toward short lives, burned out at the end by the long silence of the trip and the stress. But I liked the combination of absolute peaceful quiet punctuated periodically by the life-threatening horror of take-off and landing. The extremes suited me.

A cat. Okay, maybe it would work. But if the damned thing became too much of a nuisance, it was going into the regenerator with the rest of the trash.

I got out my favorite book. It was my favorite on that particular trip, anyway. Each trip I read something new. I know, I could have had movies, games, music, holographic images, you name it, for entertainment. Practically anything the inventive geniuses at Sony and Toshiba and Apogee could come up with, I could have. But I liked the idea of books. And I particularly liked the pictures in my head, much more vivid and real than anything a programmer could dream up. Of course, the company shrinks thought I had a screw loose, but doesn't every shuttle pilot?

The trip from Earth to Mars took twenty-four days. This sounds like a long time, especially since it only took two minutes to go by hub from Southwest in California to Sord L'Abbaye in France. But while there were advanced travel methods between the large hubs on Earth, space was a different story.

The hubs, located in or near major cities of North America, Europe, Asia, the Indian sub-continent, Australia, Africa and Central America, could whisk groups of people from one place to another in minutes. The millennium war isolated South America, and space travel, while possible, wasn't anything like the efficient mass transit available everywhere else on Earth.

The shuttle was carrying almost four hundred people on that particular trip, most of them families of four to six persons each. This lot was destined for the mining village at the far end of the Domes. They had all been paid handsomely and had gone through some minor biological modifications to make life in the Domes a little easier. Colonization then was still a strictly volunteer enterprise, with thousands on the waiting lists.

Shuttle passengers usually elected to make the trip in a sleeplike trance, to avoid the monotony of twenty-four days in space. But there were always a couple of hardy souls who wanted to experience every moment of the ride. They usually regretted this choice bitterly at take-off, and once again upon landing.

Take-off had been a little shaky. I got everything up and running just fine, but as usual there were a hundred computer glitches that I had to use the manual override on. We swung wide, then back again in a stomach-churning motion which made me sweat and left the two gentlemen who had elected to forego twilight sleep heaving up their breakfasts. I saw them through the Plexiglas window, but paid no attention. The craft yawed dangerously during atmospheric escape and I had visions of us slamming into the Rio Norte mountain range.

We lost about two or three shuttles a year to take-off and landing problems. You'd think the designers would get busy and iron out a few of the big ones, but with potential colonists practically beating the doors down, the company just racked it up to 'acceptable losses' and moved on. Beside, who would you get to work the problem? Everyone with any brains worked for the big corporations and space travel, even to the established colonies on the moon and Mars, was not a priority.

I was just getting comfy with my book and the cat had perched a few feet away and was at least pretending to sleep when I felt rather than heard the two ambulatory passengers attempting to pry open my door.

I jumped up in a panic and the cat disappeared, scuttling into some corner or other. I grabbed my weapon, a clumsy old-fashioned Glock stingray, and pointed it at the sealed edge of my doorframe where a long metal object was being worked through.

"What the fuck you guys think you're doing?" I screamed. My hands shook as I found the trigger of the gun and pressed lightly, too lightly to fire but hard enough to know I could do it if I had to.

The intruders were the same two guys who had thrown up on take-off. They'd had enough time to get cleaned up and either get angry over something or go completely crazy. I didn't know or care which. It was strictly forbidden to have any contact with the colonists, ostensibly for their protection as their immune systems were altered slightly to accommodate the prevailing dangers of the air in the Domes. I liked it that way. I always felt it was for my own protection, too. Protection from mindless chatter, unnecessary noise and self-righteous twaddle.

Now it was also for protection from a large metal bar which had successfully loosened my door. Bony white fingers grasped the door and pulled on it. It opened. It wasn't really designed to withstand an assault of any kind.

One old dude brandished the bar. I took aim as the other one screamed, and I pressed more firmly on the trigger. The gun vibrated in my hand as a stream of something - some kind of ray or quanta or particle, I don't know, I'm not a physicist - shot out and struck the bar-brandisher in the chest. He flew backward out of my space and into the passenger area.

The other one, the screamer, turned his attention to his fallen comrade and bent to help him, babbling in some tongue foreign to me.

I jumped through the jagged doorway and aimed the weapon at the second man. "You!" I shouted. "Get away from him!" I motioned with the gun, but Babblemouth didn't hear or care. Or maybe he didn't understand. He looked up at me and tears streamed down his face. I pushed him with my foot and he backed away. I kept the gun on him as I examined the one I had shot.

He was okay. He was breathing and from the little scorch marks on his shirt, I could tell that I had hit the target perfectly, but since I had the weapon on its very lowest setting, there was no harm done. The old guy had just fainted with the impact of the weapon stream.

His buddy didn't know that, though, and wept audibly. It got to me. I like absolute quiet, remember? And these two had just got my heart pounding so loudly I could hardly stand it. I took a deep breath and motioned for Babblemouth to stand up. He did so, still whimpering.

I kept the gun on Babblemouth as I bent over the other one and shook him a bit to revive him. He groaned and sat up and rubbed his arm. "Jeeze, lady," he said. "You didn't have to shoot me!"

Babblemouth went nuts and started jabbering like a wild man, leaping toward the other one. A motion of my gun kept him in place.

"Okay, buddy," I said to the recovering one, "sit up nice and we'll have a little talk. And tell your pal there to shut up."

He said something to Babblemouth who promptly went quiet, then he turned to me. "There's really no need for the weapon, Miss." His voice was calm and dignified and very persuasive, but I kept the Glock on him anyway. I didn't say anything, trying to regain my sense of calm.

"I know this looks bad," he continued, "but it's not what you think. If you'll just listen to me. . ."

I saw the wary look on Babblemouth's face. I didn't like it. I motioned them both into my quarters with the gun. I kept a few paces behind them, and turned the dial up a bit on the Glock. If I had to blast them, they would stay down for a while.

I put Babblemouth in the recliner and the other one in the console chair, and tied them in with tape from the repair box on the wall. Once I was satisfied that they couldn't get away, I perched on the low table.

"Okay, guys," I said in a friendly tone, "what's the story?" Whatever it was, it would be an interesting break. I wasn't sure what I would do with them, though. I mean, I probably had to deliver all the bodies at the other end, Geneva Convention rules and all, but they didn't necessarily have to be alive.

"I am John Huntington Scharf," the persuasive one said, "and this is my colleague, Dr. Romero." He gestured toward Babblemouth. Dr. Babblemouth.

"I deeply regret what we have been forced to do here. You see, it just seemed like a good opportunity." He smiled, an engaging smile for a guy who had to be seventy if he was a day. I knew he had to be somebody important. They don't send out seventy-year-old colonists unless there is a compelling reason to do so. This guy, and his pal for that matter, had to be big shots of some kind.

"Opportunity for what?" I asked. "This is a shuttle to the Mars colony. You are colonists. What other sort of opportunities did you have in mind?" Something clicked, but I pushed the thought out of my mind. These guys were too old to be thinking of things like subduing a female shuttle pilot for a few days of slap and tickle.

"Maybe we got off to a bad start," Scharf said. "Maybe we should start over."

"Maybe without a pry bar this time," I agreed. "And with you two where I can keep an eye on you. I hope you're comfy because this is where you'll be spending the next twenty-three days." I said that last part just for the effect it would have on them, but they both smiled.

"So Dr. Romero understands English?" I asked. I had to be faster with these two.

"But of course, Senorita," he replied, grinning and bowing his head a bit in a courtly gesture.

"Dr. Romero is a linguist," Scharf explained, "and I have studied astronomy. We are both retired, but we keep busy." Colonizing Mars would keep anyone busy, I thought, especially a pair of seventy-year-olds.

"So start at the beginning. You two didn't just get bored after take-off and decide to poke around with a stick." Their stick, the metal pry bar, was still lying in the doorway where Scharf had dropped it. I jumped down from the table and scooped it up. It was a nifty device - a real pry bar, made for the purpose, not some stray piece of junk from the passenger cabin floor. They had planned to break in to my quarters.

Scharf shot a glance at Romero, allowed the cat to settle on his lap, then told me their story. They were just puttering around on Earth, in Buenos Aires, as a matter of fact, at the old radio telescope there. Scharf had been a visiting professor or something in the old days and had retired to a part of the world not easily accessible anymore. He liked the idea of living a sort of stone age existence, where a tiny home computer and some sort of gasoline-driven cart were the only modern luxuries available.

"I took my car up the hill every morning to the telescope and continued to send signals and record my observations. Old habits are difficult to break," he explained. "But it wasn't until I met Romero that things began to fall into place."

"It was my good fortune to meet Dr. Scharf," Romero picked up where Scharf had left off, "and we began to develop a project together. At first, it was just coffee and conversation in the park every morning, but soon Dr. Scharf gave me a tour of the observatory and showed me his work. I, too, had been retired for a while, but had never lost my academic habits. I was very impressed with his ideas, but I could see a different application for them, one that would incorporate my work, too."

A linguist and an astronomer, I thought. What were they going to do, talk to the stars?

They waited for me to say something, but I had lost the habit of conversation after my first couple of shuttle trips. Scharf petted the cat and resumed.

"It became clear that communication with species other than our own was not only possible, but necessary," he said. "We spent many days and long evenings working on the methods to be used."

"Wait a minute," I broke in, "we already have inter-species communication. You know, dolphins, primates, that sort of thing." And everyone also knew that it didn't make any difference in the scheme of things. Someone figured out that it took more to communicate with a dolphin than teaching it English, and made the next great leap. But the results were not what everyone expected. Communication was achieved on one level, that is, we could sort of talk back and forth, but the way dolphins saw the world and their own existence was so different from anything we as humans had ever imagined, that real communication was simply not possible. And it was the dolphins who gave up trying. It was even worse with primates - but the phenomenon was dubbed "The Dolphin Paradigm" and the name stuck. Inter-species communication was no longer the ticket to a brilliant academic career.

"Yes, that sort of communication was a great disappointment," Romero agreed. "But it was not the end of my work. I continued to experiment with communicatory methods beyond language, and found that as long as the individual species' worldview roughly paralleled that of our own, true communication was possible. I had my greatest success with dogs," he admitted modestly.

Dogs! I remembered. So this was the guy who made the talking dogs possible. Well, the dogs couldn't really talk, since their vocal anatomy wasn't conducive to human speech, but they sure could understand human language. It was weird. Once you communicated with something, it didn't seem so foreign. Communication was a humanizing sort of thing - one of the reasons it didn't work with the dolphins was that they were just too far from human in the way they thought. But dogs thought pretty much like people.

"When I met Dr. Scharf," Romero continued, "we were just a couple of old duffers messing about with what we used to do, hanging on to the tail end of our careers, living quietly in the backwater of the world. But the spark was still there. Our age had not diminished our capabilities, although it was impossible to generate any interest in our work or to obtain any funding. So we made a simple decision. If our work reached a point where we must leave the observatory and actually go out into space to continue it, we would do so, by whatever means we could."

Romero said this with finality and Scharf said nothing, but continued to stroke the sleeping cat in his lap.

"So you decided to volunteer as colonists?" I asked. It seemed like a pretty dramatic step for a couple of old researchers to take, not to mention the companies usually wanted younger, breeding-age families. Colonies could live just fine without retired old guys cluttering up the place. "How'd you get accepted?"

Scharf grinned. He seemed to have all his teeth, but the image of the toothless aged was really just an outdated stereotype anyway. No one actually lost their teeth anymore, not for a couple of hundred years. "We lied," he said. "We told them we were younger and had the forged papers to prove it."

"Didn't they look at you?" I asked incredulously. "Couldn't they tell?"

"It's the company bureaucracy," Romero explained. "No one talks to anyone else in person. As long as our computer records matched, the only people who actually saw us were the medics. And by the time we went in for medical alterations, we were already signed up. The company thought they were getting a couple of very experienced and academically qualified young men."

"Well, younger than us, anyway," Scharf said. "I think we told them we were thirty-five. It seemed like a good age."

"So then what?" I asked. "What were you going to do?"

"Well, you might have already guessed that we weren't going to work in the mining domes of Mars," Scharf continued. "We needed to get off-planet, and since our space program is limited to the Moon and Mars shuttles, your craft was the most likely for our purposes. How was I to know that it would be so difficult to overpower you? You look like just a slip of a girl." Scharf shook his head sadly. "We were so close." His hand rested on the cat's glossy black fur.

"When you shot Dr. Scharf," Romero said, his voice cracking, "I thought you had killed him. I was devastated. The work gone, our chances gone, everything gone." His eyes watered up a bit. He was an emotional sort.

"Wait a minute," I said. "Tell me exactly what your work is. Maybe I can help you in some way." I knew that I had one job as far as the company was concerned, and that was to deliver a shuttle-load of colonists and then get my cute little ass back as fast as possible and do it all over again. There was no room for any side excursions. But I wanted to know what it was that was so important that a couple of septuagenarians would try to hijack a shuttle craft with three hundred and eighty four other people on it, counting myself.

Scharf and Romero exchanged those weird glances again. I guess they had been communicating with each other for so long that they didn't really need to say anything anymore. But Scharf spoke up. "We need to get to a point just between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, I have the coordinates. I thought we'd be able to fly the shuttle there, do what we have to, and then send it back in the right direction. It might take a couple of extra days, and you'd have a bunch of hungry, angry people awake before you landed at the Domes, but no one would be seriously hurt."

"Why?" What the heck was out in the middle of empty space?

"We can't tell you," Romero said.

"Then you stay here for the next twenty-three days," I snapped. Only I didn't like the idea much. I didn't want them around, taking up space in my quarters for that long. Besides, they had to eat and everything. I just didn't want the hassle.

Besides, every day they spent in my quarters was another chance for them to break free and overpower me. And I had a whole ship load of people to think about. I made a quick decision, one I hoped I wouldn't regret.

I took the emergency injector out of the tool kit and shot them both up with enough twilight sleep to keep them out - and out of my hair - for the rest of the trip. Then I dragged their inert bodies back out to the passenger area, dumped them into a couple of recliner beds, and wished them nighty-night.

I repaired my door, fed the cat, and went to sleep.

I spent the rest of the trip reading up on the space between Mars and Jupiter, but frankly, there wasn't much to read about. There was nothing out there, the companies weren't interested in exploration beyond the only habitable and exploitable planets, and no one except Romero and Scharf had the slightest interest in the place.

When I got near Mars and started preparing for the landing, I decided to do something that could cost me my job. I hid the sleeping doctors in my quarters. They weren't cut out for colony life anyway.

The Domes appeared first on my instruments, then on my observation screen, and I went into the landing dance and hoped for the best. I didn't crash the shuttle and everyone on board survived so I guess it turned out okay.

The crews came in to revive the colonists and clean the shuttle, and this was the part where I usually went to one of the hot spots to unwind for a while before the return trip. Only this time I stayed on board and didn't let them mess around in my quarters. I waited until my successful, if jolting, take-off to get the old guys up. They were bleary-eyed, confused and hungry, so I showed them the shower while I fixed a meal.

I explained that I had failed to deliver them to Mars. I thought they might be angry, but they weren't, they were just glad to still be alive and kicking.

Maybe I was glad to have a couple of nut cases on board, gladder still that the ship was empty except for the three of us and the cat. At any rate, I invited them to expand on their less-than-satisfactory explanation of why they had gone to such extraordinary lengths to get out to a spot in the middle of absolute nowhere. You see, I had it within my limited power to actually take them to that spot on the return trip. It would be stretching the fuel situation a bit, and the craft was pretty old and worn to be taking joyrides through the solar system, and I would almost certainly be fired for it, but it was possible.

I just needed a good reason.

I guess I have to admit that I didn't believe them at first. The tale they told me was so improbable that I put it right up there with stories about flying saucers and little green men. But I was curious, too. I mean, what could it hurt to just check it out?

So I set the coordinates manually and we headed out away from the familiar Earth-Mars path toward a point in empty space.

Scharf had practically adopted the cat, whom he called "Twinky" on account of what he thought were its twinkling eyes, but it was Romero who spent hours trying to talk to the little beast. They were happy and excited and kept jabbering at each other in half-snatches of English, Spanish, and what have you. It was enough to get on my nerves, but I kept telling myself that a little noise and conversation was probably good for me.

We reached the point in four days. I had turned off the radio connection with the company so I wouldn't have to listen to them telling me my craft had deviated from the standard path. They wouldn't care after a while anyway, as it was an empty return flight. They would chalk it up to instrument malfunction or pilot error and send up another old bucket to take its place on the run.

I looked out through the observation screen and didn't see anything. I didn't know how to tell the guys. I didn't want to see their disappointment. I had already offered to take them back to Earth after our little journey, but they kept insisting that it wouldn't be necessary. As much as I was convinced that we would find nothing out there, I was also scared they might be right.

The first transmissions scared the shit out of me. I screamed when the voice communicator crackled on and a whining, sing-song voice asked for "Rrrrowwmeeerowww."

I put him on. He spoke in the same whining voice. Scharf was right there with him, dancing around excitedly. Even the cat was alert. It had jumped up on the console and was adding its two-cents worth of yowls to the babble of conversation.

I flipped on the observation screen and gasped. The ship was unlike anything I had ever seen. It was large and oddly-shaped, iridescent and seemed to pulse somehow.

Dr. Scharf turned to me and managed to tear me away from the screen. "I said, the captain of the other ship is requesting permission to take us aboard. As captain of this ship, do you agree to it?" I nodded. Yeah, sure, whatever.

Dr. Romero took me by the shoulders and got my attention. "As captain, first contact is your privilege."

I shook my head. "N-no, you guys go ahead," I stammered, "It's your project."

They both grinned. It was what they wanted more than anything.

The shuttle craft shuddered as the big alien ship locked on. Then the hiss of the airlock told me we had company. Dr. Romero stood at attention in front of the airlock door, Dr. Scharf by his side with Twinky in his arms. I flipped the door switch and stood behind them.

The creatures were large, mammalian-looking, covered in dark, glossy fur. I could see no expression on their faces, although they had two eyes, a nose and a mouth. They walked gracefully upright and carried some sort of weapons or maybe ceremonial things in fur-covered hands not that much different from my own. They went to Dr. Scharf and bowed. Dr. Romero spoke to them in their own language and they bowed to him, too.

They saw me and gave a little half-bow. Romero must have told them I was the captain or something, and they presented me with a scroll. I bowed back.

Then Romero turned to me and gave me a hug. "We're going with them," he said. "Can you get back alright?"

I nodded. Dr. Scharf put Twinky down and hugged me too. "Thank you, my dear," he said kindly. "You have done humankind a wonderful service."

Twinky walked to the aliens and they prostrated themselves before him. "Is he a god?" I asked. The cat yowled and they rose.

Romero laughed. "No, but he's going to be a translator, and that's a very important position. When you get back, give the scroll to the company president. We'll be in touch, you know. Just keep an eye on the communicator screens."

I watched them stand formally in the airlock, all of them, and I waved as the door shut. The locks hissed and screeched and the shuttle craft lurched, then they were gone.

I set the course for the shuttle docking bay on Earth and spent the next twenty-eight days thinking about what had happened and trying to make my food last.

Landing was worse than usual, and I crashed somewhere to the south of the docking bay.

When I woke up in the hospital, the autonurses were going full blast and I could see my condition in the monitor. I was still alive, but my feet had been burned off and the new ones were still little weird things in the nutrient solution. I wasn't going to be walking anywhere for a while.

The company sent a representative to find out what the hell I had been doing on the return trip. I told them I had equipment malfunctions and ended up way off course. I didn't mention Romero, Scharf, the aliens or Twinky. The company believed me, since the shuttle had been totaled in the crash landing.

The scroll was lost.

When I tell this story, usually in some crappy bar for the price of a cheap drink, most of my listeners chalk it up to the deranged ramblings of a shuttle-rat. I show them my feet, pretty as a child's, a little mis-matched to the rest of me, as proof. And I wait for Dr. Scharf or Dr. Romero to get in touch with me. They don't know I can't fly anymore and that the scroll was never delivered.

I live on my company pension in the abandoned observatory so they'll know where to find me when they come back. Every night I watch for them. Oh, and I got a cat to keep me company. You never know.

Copyright 1997 by Kate Thornton

About the writer in her own words:

"I write in Pasadena, CA and have enjoyed several successes this year including "Just Like in the Movies" - Blue Murder; "On the Other Hand" Cozy Detective; and "The Chinese Tinker Belle" - Dream Forge; and a forthcoming story, "After the Fall Comes Winter" - Titan.

I look forward to hearing from you."

Kate can be contacted at

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