Whistle, Hum, Parp

Jez Patterson

"The original is unfaithful to the translation." Jorge Luis Borges

"It's not what I expected."

"Let me guess: you were expecting a panpipe melody. Something exotic and wistful that would evoke empty craters, pink desolate mountains and a lake whose waters ripple onto a white, pebbled beach…"

"Yessss…" Dee breathed, seduced by the words. Or, rather, the large-lipped mouth they'd come from. Ironic, because a moment ago she'd been thinking it like some shucked shellfish. Now something complicated was happening with chemicals and hormones and she was wondering how those mollusc lips would feel pressed against hers.

"Well it's not." Samuels enjoyed the way he could raise and then guillotine a mood. "They're just like any living thing with the ability to communicate--they argue, they insult, they gossip, and occasionally they actually have something interesting to say." Which isn't often, he added mentally.


"You want to know what they're saying right now?"

Dee nodded, not knowing how else she was expected to respond. Samuels flicked a switch to listen in on the delegates and then said "That's not good" and Dee wasn't sure if he were translating the delegate's comment or making an observation.

"…whereas the Hono-yacks use a familiar as a conduit in order to communicate…" Doctor Yvette Readling told those gathered.

Samuels noticed Dee's frown and leaned over to whisper: "Think of someone speaking through a glove puppet."

"You're kidding…"

"Not even a very good one either. Think sock-on-a-hand. They have better ones for ceremonial affairs. But day-to-day usage? Well, not everyone can afford rhinestone mittens."

"Do you mind?" someone with insignia on their shoulder snapped. Whilst Dee blushed and mouthed an apology, Samuels merely stared back, transmitting an air of bemused disgust at the man's reaction. It was a peculiarly human trait to effect superiority by sporting an incremental number of stars or stripes on your attire. Most other species saw branding as punishment, ownership, or a warning to avoid the wearer--not as an indication of their higher status.

Samuels decided to yawn. Being a linguist meant he could yawn like no other. Well, except a fellow linguist. He watched Yvette spin her spiel and wondered why she was bothering with all the technical and background info. They weren't interested. They only wanted to know what they could do about the crisis he'd revealed at the Resource Exchange Conference. Finally, another star-studded military type cut to the chase: "Yes. But what about the Genfurrs?"

"Oh no: they communicate via tonology. Pitch, length of note... Like a complex Morse code combined with musical notology. We have an expert who-"

"I'm not interested in how they communicate--I want to know what we can do about the fact they're creating an artificial sun."

"Their own is burning out," Yvette said, as if it were the most reasonable course of action in the world. Samuels mock-winced, enjoying the spectacle. Whilst he'd listened to enough politicians to pick up a trick or two, Yvette was strictly academic: books, dust, and making statements that were nodded-over sagely rather than inviting instant contradiction and controversy.

Her last comment caused the rest of the room to carve her out of the conversation as they turned away from her to discuss the matter. She now wore that wounded look Samuels remembered from other occasions where she didn't know what she'd done to be excluded--but was still human enough to feel slighted.

Samuels waved her over.

"Oh, hi, Samms," she puffed, suddenly out of breath. "Who's the friend?"

"Yvette meet Dee. Dee meet Yvette. Dee is here to observe how communication multiplied by pomposity equals zero comprehension. I thought it would be useful preparation for the kind of drivel she'll be hearing and translating on the Conference floor. It's a good idea to build resistance to the coma-inducing effects of our work." There was an amused grunt from somewhere which Samuels was too slow to tie to one of those present.

"Why are you here, Samms?"

"Ahh… We were the ones unlucky enough to stumble over the Genfurrs' chat. Strictly speaking, we shouldn't have been listening at all because the Conference hadn't started. But they had their mikes switched on so we couldn't exactly unhear them. It's a grey area, ethics-wise, but since it was something we overheard and hadn't actually patched in to eavesdrop… Well, it could be argued that we weren't, at that precise moment, working as translators but were just ordinary citizens who got to hear a particular juicy bit of gossip." The grunt again. No doubt about it this time. Who was ear-wigging their conversation?

Those around the table were getting passionate about everything from all-out war to begging appeasement in order to persuade the Genfurrs not to pursue their work on sun-creation.

"Of course, the technology they're employing is fascinating…" Yvette said.

"It would have to be," Samuels agreed, not feigning any interest. In actual fact he had a pretty good grasp how all the science involved worked: symbols, whether mathematic or linguistic, were his stock in trade, after all.

"Turning a desolate planet into a sun? Incredible. And they've found such a simple method to do it. A colleague of mine has just seen her entire life's work gone up in smoke."

"Not the most apt choice of images in the circumstances," Samuels said.

"What? Oh. No, I suppose not." Not getting what he was saying at all. Bless her.

Yvette looked at the huddled groups of self-importance. "I wonder if they want us to stay around for anything else?"

"What? To see posterity made? Or 'past-territory', as the case may be. Well, I have to say: it's been fun… but I, for one, am out of here."

"Sit down," somebody told him, though not unkindly. A man from the group which had been discussing devices to disrupt the Genfurrs' communication systems was looking his way and smiling. The rest of the man's group crumbled into silence, indicating the individual held more than the usual amount of constellations. "If you've got something to say, Mr Samuels, we'd like to hear it."

The man's colleagues showed this was an interest they failed to share, but Samuels sat back down again.

"Say in relation to what?"

"Come on. You heard what was said, you know the Genfurrs better than any of us, you speak their language…" Over three hundred actually, Samuels thought and saw the man before him read it but just go on smiling his assured smile. "You've seen how they operate on the floor of this and other conferences. You know what their weak points are, their nastier habits... You also started this whole mess by reporting it."

"Would you rather I hadn't?" Samuels asked before being able to clamp his teeth on the retort.

"Actually, yes. I was due on furlough starting tomorrow. So, by the time this would have become common knowledge through the usual sources, it wouldn't have been spraying all over my desk. As a result, I'm missing my golf, and you're going to make it up to me by telling me what you know and what you think."

When Samuels had finished, all those in the room understood the Genfurrs far better than they had under Yvette's dry rendition of their customs and cultural idiosyncrasies. They hadn't known about the live consumption of small mammals that Samuels had delighted in explaining. Nor about the tooth on the roof of their mouths which they used to paralyse prey and then misused habitually in the sexual act to heighten longevity and stamina by numbing parts otherwise too sensitive to really get down to business.

Then there was the reason for the third and fourth eyes, the other uses they had for their panpipe nostrils--the same ones they blew over, narrowing and flexing to change the notes they used to communicate with each other.

The choicest revelation, though, was that the technology they planned to use to create the artificial sun was the same they were planning to market on a smaller-scale to planetary systems looking to offer other climates for their populations to enjoy.

And that several of those potential clients were Earth-based travel agencies who'd invested in the risky business of galactic real estate. Talk about egg on their faces, Samuels thought, seeing the glum expressions of the security specialists assembled. More like a mass, armless, omelette-eating contest.

"So, in summary, you're saying we should have known about all this a long time ago?" General Franks concluded. "And the fact we've done nothing about it…" He sent a circular glare around his colleagues.

"…rather makes it look like we've given the entire project our tacit approval?"

"That's how they're reading it," Samuels said. "There'll soon be more suns than planets out there."

"And the fact the same technology in the wrong hands could be the most devastating weapon we've ever encountered hasn't occurred to them?"

"I should say it's an added bonus. Particular to their salespeople."

"Ladies and gentlemen," General Franks began. "We need to rethink our strategy. As yet, the process hasn't been tried on the scale the Genfurrs are envisaging. It could, of course, turn out to be an utter fiasco. On the other hand, if it works, it could have serious consequences for my golf handicap. I, for one, am not prepared to take that risk.

"What are our choices?"

"There's not a single sensory faculty that isn't used on some planet in the act of communication," Yvette was explaining to Dee, who now found the theoretical study of extra-terrestrial languages far less alarming than their live operation. She realised she wasn't cut out for Samuels' type of work--wondered, in fact, if the doctor needed an assistant.

"Olfactory, visual, tactile, taste… Then there're those senses normally associated with the paranormal, but quite common in other species. Powers of prediction, psycho-kinesis, stigmata…"

"What about telepathy?"

Yvette and Samuels exchanged a glance. Dee gulped. "What? What did I say?"

"Well," Yvette said, far more sympathetically than Samuels ever would.

"Every culture we've so far encountered has their tales of other species endowed with mind-reading abilities. Just like we used to about little green aliens. Well, before we actually met them. Everyone's as terrified of it as everyone else. The irony is, that none of us have it. Oh sure, plenty have heightened senses, even a degree of empathetic understanding. But mind reading? Real telepathy? No. In fact, the human brain has a kind of natural defence, like a mental lead casing so its signals can't be read and vice versa. All living things have it as a necessary evolutionary development. Without it, we and every other living thing would be extinct."

"That's incredible…"

"Not really. Think of the inherent dangers of telepathy…"

"You mean you'd be able to read your enemy's mind and have the advantage over them?"

Samuels laughed. "Not at all. You'd hear everyone's thoughts and go utterly bonkers at the sheer tedium and drivel. You think this artificial sun business is the ultimate weapon? It isn't. Create telepathy, spread it like a plague to your enemies, and you'll reduce any solar system to a gibbering, dribbling mess."

He looked over at General Franks. "And don't even think about it, General."

Franks laughed then straightened his face out. "Okay, back to business."

"An ironic choice of words," Samuels observed.

"How come?" asked Yvette.

"Ahh…because none of this is a question of war or political diplomacy--it's a question of commerce," General Franks explained.

"But they need the artificial sun to ensure their survival."

"And no one disputes that. That's what galvanised them into actually developing and refining their technology. Why do you think so many advances are made during times of war? Because, for once, everyone's motivated to work towards a common goal and get it done. The threat of death is a great concentrating factor. Hence their breakthrough with the artificial sun.

"But once they've got it up there, burning nicely, do you really think they're just going to put all the blueprints away and dismantle everything that contributed to its construction? No way. There're billions… trillions and whatever the next -illion is, to be made. And that's why it's really a question of business.

"And, believe me, it's easier to stop an army than it is to stop people exploiting a lucrative deal. This one rates as the deal of the millennium. If they sold shares in the company, I, for one, would invest my life savings."

"Can't we just put an embargo on trading the technology?" Yvette asked.

"Firstly, embargos don't work--look at narcotics, rare species, artefacts, everything else. Secondly, it's going to be a bit difficult when every delegate here wants the technology. The only thing they don't want is for anyone else to have it."

"Then what can we do?" Dee asked.

"Well, we can't undo the advances they've made so far. We're not able to destroy it without starting a full-scale galactic confrontation--which would have about the same result as the artificial suns' dissemination--and we can't persuade the Genfurrs not to trade in it for the reasons just stated."


"It might actually work?" Samuels wanted to know and Yvette nodded.

"Pity, I was thinking about the Fratnip Gambit."


"Very noble in its way," General Franks agreed. "Planet was going to be destroyed by some natural disaster--the usual story: meteorite or asteroid plummeting into them."

"Meteor shower," Samuels said.

"Was it? Anyway, their government and scientists came up with a special shield that would save them. The energy needed was immense, so everything had to be switched off at a specific time so the power required could be directed into the shields. The whole planet was therefore in total dark and total silence when the shield zapped around the planet to save them, just seconds before the meteors struck." Franks looked down with a sad smile.

"What happened?" Dee asked.

"There was no shield. There was no way the planet could defend itself. They simply didn't want their people living their last moments in fear, but happiness. Their people barely had a moment or so to realise there was nothing up there before it was all over."

Dee imagined the solemn determination of the Fratnip government as they faced their fate. Franks was right: it was a noble vision.

"But that's not the case here," Yvette said. "This technology could actually work. I've seen the experimental data. There's no reason it wouldn't eventually be successful on a larger scale."

"Samuels?" Franks asked. "C'mon, don't bother wearing that surprised expression. You've been sitting there waiting for me to ask you. I expect you had an idea the first moment you heard your squeakers whistling about it. So, go ahead, this is your moment. You haven't got the conference audience I know you'd like, but you pull this off and I promise that one day you will."

Samuels blushed a little, uncomfortable that someone had been able to see through his façade of nonchalance. Not about having the answer, but his dreams of addressing just such a multitude.

"Okay…" He breathed out, collected himself. You have your moment, you have to make it memorable. Imagine if President Galore had announced the breakthrough in Light Speed Technology by standing up and saying "Yay! We can go real fast now. That's good, innit?" instead of: "Man has long held a dream, but now that dream is actually in his hands!" which amounted to pretty much the same thing once you got past the cryptic language, but was infinitely more quotable.

"Business is business," Samuels began, with a nod to each of them. "Man has attempted to sell everything from an invisible suit to an emperor, to his soul to the Devil…"

"…which is therefore the only viable option."

"But…" Dee couldn't find the words to express what she was feeling: Horror? Inadequate. Outrage? She felt too drained to actually feel that. Corrupted? Yes. Because something had reached in, pinched her soul between the points of its sharp, curved talons and yanked it out. "You can't do that… You simply can't…"

"We have no choice," Franks told her, saving Samuels the need to defend himself. If politicians had to face up to the consequences of their speeches, a lot less would be promised or suggested by them. That might be just as well, but it was also why people like Franks existed. Samuels was right--it was the only way.

"Amazing," someone at the table remarked. "I didn't think it would come off so…effectively."

"And this was all the brainchild of a translator?"

"A dangerous man," someone muttered. "Thank goodness he's on our side." Franks said nothing. He doubted whether Samuels was on any side really except…well, even saying he was 'on his own side' didn't make much sense after the incident with the Genfurrs. Sheer ego had made Samuels offer the solution: because he could and they, all the gathered experts and government representatives, couldn't.

The first step had been the purchase of the dead planet the Genfurrs needed for their sun. The owners were a Genfurr real estate company who couldn't resist the deal they were being offered. And because their government's plans for the planet hadn't been made public due to the secrecy of their research, no one could scream foul until it was too late. By then, the planet was already owned by a consortium spread across a hundred planets, making its final ownership impossible to trace. Those that were traced and contacted had no intention of selling, no matter how attractive the price. Which showed it couldn't have been a company behind the purchase--shareholders would gift-wrap their grandmas if the profit margin was sufficient.

Simultaneously, Artificial Starlight Inc. offered a process similar to what the Genfurrs themselves were working on…but at a significantly lower price. Even though the future of their species was at stake, the Genfurr government still had an eye on long-term economic survival. They therefore voted to abandon their own research and opted for that offered by Doctor Yvette Readling.

Yvette ensured the samples shown worked well enough, whilst Samuels provided all the right words to convince the politicians: both deliberately bypassing the Genfurr scientists. Yvette's process became infinitely more attractive as it didn't require another planet-her suns were manufactured by splitting space itself.

It didn't work outside the lab, but as with all great public works projects, the government didn't like to be seen as having made a wrong decision and so kept pouring resources into it in the vague hope that, once completed, everyone would forget how over-budget and behind deadlines it had become.

Nothing could be guaranteed to foul up solid business practices more readily than the business of government.

"Oh!" Dee said as she recognised the man at the bar. Samuels turned and she was relieved to see he had aged in the years since they'd last spoken.

"Dee. Long time no see."

"Quite. You're here for the conference then? Translator or insulter?"

"I gave up the political trail. Surprised?"

"Not really." But actually she was: she'd thought Samuels would excel in the political field. She wondered if it had ended because he couldn't give allegiance to any specific cause or his own contrary nature meant he forgot what he was pretending to protect on any given day.

"I saw Yvette a few months ago. She's retired." Dee remembered how she'd once, ever so briefly, considered working with the doctor. That was before everything they'd decided to do to the Genfurrs and Yvette's involvement with the sting.

"You're still a translator?"

"Reporter. Do you know the Kayhops' speech produces such sharp sonic booms it can kill an unprotected listener?"

Samuels nodded, his head seeming too heavy for his neck.

"Talk about sharp tongues," Dee said, "Words can really hurt you--isn't that what they say?"

"Only if the wrong person's listening," Samuels said, staring out a window to avoid looking at the delegates.

© Jez Paterson 2016 All Rights Reserved

Date and time of last update 14:16 Wed 24 Feb 2016
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