Interlingua

I was monitoring Cherie Peng’s pulse, breathing, her sweaty palms, all of it, when the Sarissa interrupted me.

“This proposal of yours,” the Sarissa said. She—the Sarissa insisted on the animate feminine instead of the inanimate sentient pronoun like most of us ships—sent me the document reference so I knew which proposal she was talking about. “I don’t like it.”

“Why not?” I said.

“Most of it is fine as far as I can tell,” the Sarissa said. As much as I disliked her, I had to concede that she didn’t pretend expertise she didn’t have. “But this bit where you harness psychological and linguistic affordances all the way down at the sememe level—are you sure that’s a good idea?”

“Won’t know until we try it,” I said. Say yes, I thought. Say yes.

I had offered Cherie a variant on her solitaire adventure game and she had turned me down twice already. Watching her do the exact same thing every playthrough—all to get to the payoff scene where her avatar romanced the sorceress—made me want to shoot myself, which would require some interesting physics. That was pretty much how this voyage had been going so far.

The Sarissa appeared to be mulling something over. I hated it when she did that. She was capable of mulling forever. The silver lining was that there were only two of us on this Contact mission, so I only had to run my ideas past her and not a whole fleet. That had happened to me on my last assignment and I wasn’t keen on repeating the experience.

Cherie had gotten out of the game couch and stumped off after the coffee. At least, what she called coffee. I had it brewed for her special, with the glut of artificial sweeteners and soy milk that she liked. Keep your playtesters happy and all that. I don’t have an innate sense of taste, but I eavesdropped on her friends.

“Listen,” I said, “I’ve got seven crew already willing to try this.” I didn’t say incredibly stir–crazy and you know how bored crew can get into mischief. The original reason ships had gotten interested in game design was to entertain their crews. Not to say meaters couldn’t do the job themselves, but sometimes they needed a little help. “If any of them go into convulsions, I’ll pull the thing immediately.”

“I wish I knew when you were joking,” the Sarissa said with a hint of disapproval.

I ignored that and sent her the profiles of my seven playtest candidates, along with some updates to the prototype’s interface. I was always tinkering; what game designer doesn’t? If you’re going to accommodate different species’ visual perceptions, best to do so early. But most of the interface was scraped together from code I already had on hand. Call it laziness.

The Sarissa mulled some more. I let her.

“All right,” she said. “Convulsions or whatever looks suspicious, stop the playtest immediately. I expect you to keep me informed.”

“I know the protocols,” I said. I was determined to avoid another questionable incident like the time I made a game that caused synesthetic trances whenever someone ate food that was bad for them. Fortunately, Medical had been able to fix that one with sensory therapy.

“Good,” the Sarissa said. “I hope you’re not being too creative for your own good, Hwacha.”

As it turned out, convulsions would have been easier to deal with.

At this point it is worth explaining where the Sarissa and I were going. Contact had scrambled us in response to an incident in which a tradeship reported a lurking Outsider fleet near a Ghiii system. The tradeship had properly followed Contact protocol—as best as a civilian could, anyway—and emerged unharmed.

The mysterious thing was, while the Outsiders appeared to respond to the Amiable Worlds’ interlingua, they responded to requests for their ship–names thus:

All names are one name.

At that point, the trader, figuring that it was out of its depth for dealing with what could be some form of taboo, made the politest excuses it could and sent for help. Which was where the Sarissa and I came in.

I had argued to the Sarissa that since people get bored anyway, I might help them prepare by encouraging them to think about the Contact situation through the medium of a game. This in itself was uncontroversial. I was hardly the only ship who entertained itself by devising games for its crew, even if the Sarissa herself didn’t share this interest except as a matter of duty.

At the time I began the playtest run, I figured that the Sarissa would soon discover that it was far likelier that everyone would get bored by my attempt to make negotiating a Contact language a fun experience. Why this idea and not another, you might ask, when the Outsiders knew our interlingua? But communication had foundered anyway. Maybe reverting to the more basic steps of the protocol would do the trick.

The playtesters were three humans, one Xhleen, two Mnoi of different polities, and one playtester from a species whose dominant sect refused to allow Amiable Worlders to use any of its names for itself. As a compromise, we called them Species #28. They didn’t seem to find this objectionable.

Human #1, James Czerny, volunteered because he thought sessions would be an excellent time to catch up on sleep. I had no objection to enlightened self–interest. If I couldn’t get his attention, the thing was a failure anyway.

Human #2 was Kim, a sometime lover of the Xhleen tester. They were involved in the playtesting thanks to a dare. They were also fluent in four languages, which might prove informative.

I had to bully Human #3, Jen Perez, into joining us. I am never above bullying, especially on a dreary voyage. Meaters rarely stop to consider that ships might get stir–crazy too, despite all the things we have to keep track of. In any case, Jen spent all her spare time painting our complement of pets, from the cats to the Xhleenen mwn–maggots to the dolor–birds. That might prove informative, too.

The Xhleen, a colonial entity and a cheerful cynic (cynics?), was not the ship’s military specialist, as the stereotype might lead you to expect, but one of the cooks. I consulted with them regularly on nutrition and snacks, and on occasion I discussed my game designs with them too. In this case they had been skeptical that anyone could tolerate the game for longer than politeness dictated. Naturally I had invited them to try it out, and they had accepted.

The two Mnoi had signed up for what I can best describe as political reasons. Something to do with the representation of their governing philosophies in the game’s conceptual space. Odd, but I knew that the Sarissa had warm feelings toward the Mnoi—her former captain had been one—so I hoped she would look upon their participation with approval.

As for the Twenty–Eighter, he was competitive to the point of mania and enjoyed games of strategy the most. I expected him to hate my experiment, which wasn’t particularly strategic, and had told him so. He insisted. Since any feedback was good feedback, I agreed to let him play.

Almost from the beginning the playtest went weird. Not wrong in an obvious way, just weird. I had been at this long enough to be used to people complaining about everything imaginable: the interface was too inflexible, the interface had too many options, turns took forever, it was impossible to distinguish between two very different unit types, the artificial opponent was stupid (I tried not to take that one personally, since all artificial opponents are necessarily sub–instances of myself), such–and–such character was overpowered (never the player’s own favorite, of course), infrared tiles didn’t drop frequently enough, the list could go on.

Besides, the things people say outright are far less useful than what they reveal when I simply shut up and observe them. I don’t even provide a manual; I prefer the design to speak for itself, although I answer questions if the playtester addresses me. In this situation, the less they talk to me the better, because it means they’re absorbed in the game and forgetting my presence.

In any case, the first sign was subtle. Kim had gotten terrifically engaged linking concept–clusters to each other within the game as they attempted to get responses out of the increasingly–less–amorphous blob that was my stand–in for the Outsider. But they’d shrugged off my offers of breakfast hours ago, and it was lunchtime. I didn’t want them fainting in the game couch.

“Time for lunch,” I said heartlessly.

Kim’s blood pressure spiked at the interruption. Then they huffed and made an inarticulate noise that I interpreted as some variant of “Fuck you, go away.” At this point, their blob had revealed a fringe that resembled feathers. Kim had been trying to get the blob to gesture with its fringe—I wondered why they had fixated on this and not the longer tentacles, which struck me as a better prospect for mutual communication, I’d have to keep an eye on that. The contact–language they had been devising emphasized lexical elements dealing with motion. The fringe was responding sporadically, like a sea–plant moving in the current of an untidy ocean. Each wriggle caused Kim to tauten in anticipation.

“Look, you have to eat,” I said, omitting the part where I didn’t care how much they had gotten attached to their pet. I overrode and saved the game.

A variant of the inarticulate noise. I realized I had been misinterpreting it; more of a “no, please, dammit” than a “fuck you.” Not that it mattered to me either way.

I disengaged the sensory feed. Kim would emerge from the gameworld’s bland shadows—I’d opted for minimal distractions, procedurally generated soothing music—and into the pastel green of the room.

Kim sat stubbornly for over nine minutes before being lured to the table where their pizza awaited them. Grilled tofu, sausage, and black olives, which the Xhleen cook had assured me were Kim’s favorites.

“I can reheat that,” I said.

Kim merely rewarded my nearest marionette, which hadn’t made any sound, with a glare, and started chomping. Then they drank some of the flavored water concoction I had provided. Two more bites.

In a sense, their reluctance to be parted from the session meant I had succeeded at something. As yet I wasn’t prepared to say what that was, however. There had, after all, been the usual ups and downs of engagement and disengagement, including an early bout of swearing and pounding on the controls, for reasons that weren’t always clear to me. I thought the pounding had to do with the gameworld’s murkiness and had made a note to myself to bring up the contrast for human players. The player could adjust that at the settings, but Kim hadn’t even gone looking for those, so I needed a better default. It was on a masochistically long list of things to fix for the next release.

Kim relented enough to give me the first clue. “You said you’d be releasing the next version in two days.”

“Something like,” I said, other than the fact that my latest attempt to make the xenolinguistics module compatible with Mnoi deep syntax caused the current build to crash on start–up, and I still hadn’t chased down the bug. We were going to be testing with the current build until I got that ironed out.

“Will my save files be compatible with it?”

“Probably not,” I said. I lie selectively to the Sarissa, on the grounds that there are matters she doesn’t need cluttering up her decision processes, but playtesters? Never. It only pisses them off. And then they grow careless during safety checks, or sulk when maintaining the environmental filters, or get into pointless quarrels with their lovers. Or write bad poetry, I really can’t deal with that one.

The response I got was a sigh and a twitch of the shoulders. “I was afraid of that,” they said.

“There’s no reason why you can’t keep on with the prototype,” I said. I preferred to get new testers for iterations, anyway, and had been interviewing some prospects. What I longed for was approval from the Sarissa to share the game with a broader audience, let anyone in the crew have at it. That would be its true test, see how popular it became. But we were a long way from that point. Introducing anything that had the potential to affect the crew’s social balance wasn’t something to do carelessly (or so they told me).

Kim made another inarticulate noise. Meanwhile, I was examining their game data in greater detail. The pet was pseudorandomly generated at the beginning of the game so that each time the player was confronted with differently alien senses and modes of thought. The pet’s appearance and sensory inputs were only gradually revealed as the player learned to speak with it, like a puzzle whose levels were unlocked one by one.

This one, for instance, had an extremely restricted response to electromagnetic signals; it had taken Kim, a visual thinker, an inordinate amount of time to figure that out, I’d have to improve the feedback system. But the pet had a great sensitivity to pressure. The whole idea was to teach the pet to grow from a state of all names are one name to the usage of individual sememes, themselves knotted to lexical units by the player. Not a full Contact simulation, since I was as much in the dark as to the Outsiders’ thought processes as anyone else, but an attempt.

I didn’t catch the second clue until later: Kim kept wriggling their fingers under the table, undulant. They might not even have been conscious that they were doing it. You would think that I’d know better than to look at everything from above, like a particularly stupid bird. Only after they went to sleep, when I reviewed the session’s footage, did I connect the motion with the wriggling of the pet’s fringe.

It wasn’t anything, I told myself. Meaters wandered through mazes of twisty passages in their heads after long puzzle sessions. It had to be the same phenomenon.

The Sarissa and I contacted each other regularly about mundane matters such as course corrections and updates from Contact headquarters. I was, however, surprised that she made a point of asking about the game another eleven days into the journey. “I’ve read your report,” the Sarissa said. Dammit, I’d thought I’d buried it beneath things more interesting to her, like morale assessments and the maintenance of plumbing. “How’s it going?”

This struck me as a singularly inane way to broach the topic. If she’d read the report, didn’t she know? “They’re enjoying it, as far as I can tell,” I said. “Even Jen.” She had left a sketch of a sleeping lizard incomplete in favor of something I could only interpret as squiggles. At the moment she was chewing on her stylus, a fascinatingly disgusting habit, as she contemplated her next squiggle. Maybe she was getting into abstract art?

“Doesn’t that worry you?” she said. “Usually someone doesn’t like any given game.”

“Maybe I’m just that brilliant. Also, tiny sample size.”

The Sarissa’s very slight pause told me what she thought of the first half, but she was too polite to come out and say it.

“All right,” I conceded, “some of the game creations are creeping me out, and I’m the one who liked the kitten–maggot dance tune vid when my crew was passing it around.” I still hadn’t figured out who had snuck it aboard on some clandestine datastick or I would have asked for more.

“I looked at them,” the Sarissa said. “They don’t look any odder than some of the species in the Amiable Worlds.”

“It’s not so much their appearance,” I said. I sent her some game–capture of James’s current session. He was busy admiring his pet’s mouths with their nubby little teeth.

“Hold it,” the Sarissa said. “You didn’t mention the bruxism. Has he always done that?”

“No,” I admitted, one of the things I had checked in James’s medical file. “Started doing it in his sleep, too. Gave me hell when I sent him to Medical to be fitted for a mouth–guard, and he doesn’t wear it every night, either.”

Longer pause, even more disapproving. “Have there been any other physical manifestations?”

Kim had only done the finger–wriggling that one time, but I mentioned it anyway. One of the Mnoi had started shedding two days into the playtest. On the other hand, it was only a little early into the metamorphosis, so the Sarissa and I agreed that that one wasn’t conclusive.

“If you’re concerned,” I said, “I can pull the plug.” The testers would kvetch about it, but that was nothing new. Besides, I’d been noodling at a couple other game ideas. One of them was looking promising, a variant on a resource–management game that had been popular a couple years ago.

“I’m not certain that you’ve failed,” she said, surprising me. “Openness to Outsider forms is a very good thing in our line of work.”

“There’s openness,” I said cynically, “and then there’s having your brains fall out of your skull.” Indeed, the number of times all the testers used the word “cute” or some near–synonym to describe their creations had become a source of bemusement. The Xhleen’s near–synonym was “delicious,” mainly because Xhleen eat the slower and unluckier of their own larvae, who aren’t sentient in any case. The Xhleen idea of neoteny is a little warped compared to human norms.

“Use your judgment,” the Sarissa said after another of her annoying pauses, and we moved on to other things.

One of my marionettes was cleaning up after Mnoi #1, who was incapable of eating without leaving beetle–shells all over the place, when the Xhleen indicated a desire to talk to me. They were in the galley taking inventory of their collection of seasonings. I, of course, could talk to anyone anywhere within me.

“Friend Hwacha,” the Xhleen said, “what do you call this game of yours?”

“Call it?” I said. “I number all my games sequentially. Which gets messier than it sounds, because sometimes I cannibalize old ones for parts, or merge them, and then there’s version tracking.” I told them the relevant designation, not that I expected the number to mean much to them.

“In our dreams sometimes,” the Xhleen said, “we hear speech in the language of the game.” By “dreams” they meant something more like a state of deliberate helplessness before a vastly inferior opponent, to equalize a contest to the death. It was an important part of majority Xhleen culture, known for its militancy, and I became coldly alert. “We had been listening to a hunting–recitation, only in the dreams it became a hum of meaningless noise. This has never happened to us before.”

“You think it’s the game,” I said.

The Xhleen cook made an ambiguous gesture with its left three tentacles. “We think it’s possible. The language of the game is very compelling, even if its uses out here are few.”

“You know,” I said, reviewing the Xhleen’s last saved game, “your pet”—they understood what I meant—”doesn’t remotely resemble a larva. But you still think it smells ‘delicious’?” I used the word in their native language.

“Yes.”

It had occurred to me—surely had occurred to us both—that even a Xhleen who was a cook, and not a soldier, might feel honor–bound to offer a vast concession to a terribly outmatched opponent. A concession like dreaming in a species that didn’t even sleep unless it wished to; a concession to something that it responded to on a deep level as being as wrigglingly outmatched as a larva.

The others hadn’t expressed their attachment to their pets in this way, but as I said, Xhleen notions of neoteny have a great deal to do with epicureanism.

“Thank you,” I said, very seriously.

“It is no trouble, friend Hwacha.”

This time I partitioned off a sub–instance of myself. Most meaters, even colonial ones like the Xhleen, think this is more uncomfortable for a ship than it is. Strictly speaking, I’m a linked collection of systems with a level of conscious control that wouldn’t be feasible in the typical meater species. At least, people who need alarms to wake up for duty shouldn’t be in charge of their own immune responses.

This time, I sent myself in to play the game myself. Oh, I’d done this in bits and pieces while designing the very first versions of the prototype. But I had been distracted by issues of design, or I’d checked fragments of the game rather than the whole thing. And there had also been the embarrassing amount of time I spent dithering over the advantages and disadvantages of different pseudorandom generators in deciding on everything from the pet’s physical symmetries to a variable I had called extroversion, corresponding roughly to its amiability to contact. Never say that ships are immune to procrastination. Well, unless that ship is the Sarissa.

This time, instead of concentrating on taking notes, I simply let myself play. You’d think a game designer would do this more often, but it becomes remarkably difficult once you lose the innocent notion that games drop out of the sky like asteroids. My game took place in real time. However, my advantage was that as a ship I responded far more quickly than anyone in the crew.

Because I can’t help being a ship, my reaction to the extremely amorphous initial blob was to model its shape mathematically. Something at which I have an unfair advantage since I’d written the damn code. As I talked at the blob—and it really was at more than to—the game constructed a language in which declension and conjugation were gesture–based atop a channel of chemical flutters. (I recognized this as being stolen practically wholesale from a particular Ssuu language.)

While I have a great many sensors dedicated to monitoring the environment inside the ship, one chemical “tastes” the same to me as another. It’s not impossible for a ship to have a sense of smell or taste analogous to a meater’s. But it’s not standardized, either, and when asked if I wanted the modification, I had declined. So it was very odd to develop what I can only describe as emotional reactions to one set of flutters or another—not emotions exactly, but a sense of each being distinct, memorable. Flavor.

For a while I sent flutters and gestures to the blob, and it fluttered and gestured back in a way that seemed increasingly coherent, almost poetic. I was entranced in spite of myself. To think that the blob was more charming than most of my crew. I wondered what would happen if I learned to communicate with flavor. Maybe the Xhleen cook would give me pointers. And then, with a jolt, I remembered Kim’s wriggling fingers; remembered what I was doing here.

I dumped myself out of the game. I’d figured out what the problem was, would have figured it out earlier if I hadn’t been so obsessed with smaller issues. For good measure, I sent a brusque message to the two players currently in the game: “Sorry, I’ve found a bug. Go have some congealed orruj blood or lemonade or whatever.”

They didn’t like this. I wasn’t paying any attention to them, however. I contacted the Sarissa immediately. “I’ve got it,” I said, without any kind of preamble.

After a baffled pause, the Sarissa, predictably, sent back the portion of our service code reminding me of communications protocols.

Right. I was supposed to tell her what the matter was first. “Sorry,” I said, backtracking and going through the protocol. “The game. I’ve figured it out. I fucked up the affordances.”

I expected a lecture, but she seemed to be mulling that over. “How so?” she said, and sent the communications protocol reminder again, as if I hadn’t gotten it the first time.

“Bug in the code.” Not precisely true, but close enough for a non–designer’s purposes. I pointed out the relevant section of the design document and went on, “See that bit there? That got implemented pretty much as stated. The interface adapts to the player, which is fine as far as it goes, but the more the player learns about the blob, the easier it becomes to do things to accommodate the blob’s particular shape and statistics—extroversion, reflexes, whatever. Then feedback kicks in and hooks into the player’s protective instincts”—not all meater species had such, but all the ones in this playtest group did—“and the result is what we’ve seen. The player has a cute pet and doesn’t want to stop playing.”

Very long pause, then: “So it’s like communicating with the Outsiders who don’t distinguish between names, except rather than names, it’s sensory inputs across the board,” the Sarissa said, as though she was trying to make sure of something completely different. “It doesn’t sound like it’d make a very absorbing game even with the implementation you describe.”

“Look,” I said, “I couldn’t sit people down at a game where they choose whether or not to have noun classes based on reproductive types or social status, or whether their adjectives are stative verbs, out of some boring menu. I had to connect it with some kind of mechanic with the potential for fun, so that’s what I did.”

At that point, the Sarissa went silent for so long that I was afraid that her communications had gone down. Granted, we were within easy short–range scan of each other. Since I didn’t want to aggravate her, I shut up.

“I’m sorry,” the Sarissa said. “Can you repeat that whole last bit? You’ve been getting more and more garbled as you speak. I couldn’t understand a word of that last part and I’ve just run the entire thing by both Linguistics and Cryptology.”

(Editors’ Note: Yoon Ha Lee is interviewed by Deborah Stanish in this issue.)

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Yoon Ha Lee

Yoon Ha Lee’s collection Conservation of Shadows came out from Prime Books in 2013. His space opera novel, Ninefox Gambit, is due out from Solaris Books in June 2016. His fiction has appeared in Tor.com, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed Magazine, and other venues. He lives in Louisiana with his family and an extremely lazy cat, and has not yet been eaten by gators.

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