Tower of Babel

       Lynn Gazis-Sax / Science Fiction
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Tower of Babel

Published by Lynn Gazis-Sax at Smashwords

Copyright 2017 Lynn Gazis-Sax

1

“It’s the chance of a lifetime,” Steve Minas said, “to be the first one to understand an alien language.”
“It’s a pipe dream,” said his wife, Christina, “You know those people who see the Virgin Mary in a pancake? Denise is like that, but with aliens.”
“Denise is a solid astrophysicist,” said Steve, “SETI wouldn’t have hired her if she were a flake.”
“Denise?” said Christina, “She’s been starry-eyed about aliens since she was six. If anyone at SETI turned up with recovered memories about being abducted by aliens, it would be Denise.”
Steve reflected that Christina had no idea what his Denise had thought when she was six. But there was no winning an argument about his ex’s character, so he shrugged.
“If there are aliens, I get a first crack at their language. If there aren’t, I get to prove Denise wrong. Either way, it’s a win for science.”
“There won’t be aliens,” said Christina, “Aliens are the angels of our time. They’re a way to avoid solving our own problems.”
Steve didn’t care who else’s problems the aliens did or didn’t solve. They sure as hell looked like a great solution to his problem. If he wanted tenure at Stanford, he needed to publish or perish. Lately, his publishing rate hadn’t been up to snuff. What better way to fix that flaw than to tackle the linguistics challenge of a lifetime? And if he got the chance over others because the scientist with the goods was his ex-lover, well, why not? Success had always been about who you know, as well as what you know. As long as you delivered the goods, no harm in using any connection you could. So the next morning, he met Denise Takahashi, his ex, in the parking lot.
Denise yanked off her motorcycle helmet to show a buzz cut that Steve found unattractive. Pity, for he had loved her long hair. Any regret over Denise’s changed appearance left, though, when she led him inside and showed him the computer files.
“These signals,” she said, “have patterns of mathematical equations. As if someone’s trying to show us their signals aren’t just random noise. And this file has other signals, ones that seem ordered, but not in any pattern I can parse. I think this may be their language.”
“I can handle it,” Steve said, “though we might want to bring in Howard as well.”
Howard, Steve’s former roommate at MIT, was CTO at a small company that specialized in computer translation software.
“Once I figure out their language,” Steve said, “Howard can code it.”
“Whoever you need,” said Denise.

2

Tenure, here I come, thought Steve. As he headed to lunch with his friend Kemal Yilmaz, he sang an old song he’d learned from his father, the one about the little girl shaking the almond tree. It was a favorite of his, which he sang any time he was in a particularly good mood. “Etinakse tin anthismeni amygdalia.”
He was still singing when he reached the coffee house. Kemal offered his customary greeting.
“All this place lacks,” he said, “is the right kind of coffee.”
The two had met while buying phyllo dough at a local Middle Eastern grocery, and had bonded ever since over food, music, and films. And, of course, coffee.
“And a backgammon board,” Steve agreed, “of course, you Turks make some of the best Greek coffee around.”
He was dying to tell Kemal about his opportunity, for he knew his friend appreciate it more than his wife. But before he could begin, his neurologist friend had news of his own.
“It’s a brand new neurotransmitter,” said Kemal, “that no one else has found. We think, based on where it is in the brain, that it has something to do with language acquisition.”
On an ordinary day, Steve would be fascinated. Today, though, he could hardly listen, for wanting to spill his own news. It was only as he was leaving, news duly spilled, that he realized he’d found out almost nothing about Kemal’s research on the new neurotransmitter.

3

“With all their spiffy technology,” said Howard James, “are you sure they aren’t going to beat us to the punch with that translation software?”
Through the glass windows of Howard’s office door, Steve saw several of Howard’s software engineers in a cubicle, one of them bent over a computer screen and the others looking over the first one’s shoulder. The other office window looked down on a Mountain View street. Across the street, a young couple exited a frozen yogurt shop, as an older woman entered a Chinese grocery.
“You’d be surprised,” said Steve, “They’re remarkably bad at languages.”
“But we’re not the first species they’ve met?” Howard raised his eyebrows.
“They’ve sent photos and videos of encounters with several species,” said Steve, “but I guess they always let others interpret. Languages aren’t their thing.”
Howard shook his head, “You’d think a species that could manage star travel could learn a new language.”
“Why?” said Steve, “We can’t do everything dolphins can.”
“Probably just lazy,” said Howard, “Or it’s some kind of status thing. Anyway, what have you got so far on their language?”
“It’s pitched high for human ears,” said Steve, “There are some sounds that my undergraduates find grating, but that I can barely hear at all.”
“Like that buzzing sound on that web site I once showed you, that only teenagers can hear?” asked Howard, “Only I have teenage ears and could hear it just fine.”
“You can have your teenage ears,” said Steve, “I can still run like I did in college.”
“Only because you couldn’t run worth shit in college,” said Howard, “Anyway, adjusting voice recognition software for that pitch is trivial. What about their written language?”
“They do have a kind of alphabet,” said Steve, “The trick is the grammar. It’s highly inflected. As best I can tell, they have twelve cases for their nouns, and maybe five different genders.”
“Five genders? Their bar scene must be a bear.”
“I don’t know how many genders physically,” said Steve, “and I still haven’t figured out their verb declensions. They seem to have half a dozen different kinds of past tense.”
Steve handed Howard a thumb drive.
“Your notes?” asked Howard, and as Steve nodded, he said, “Good. I’ll keep you posted.”

4

“Behold,” said Howard James, bringing up a window on Steve’s home PC, “the new alien translation software.”
Steve, Christina, Denise, and Kemal crowded around the screen to see. Several months after Denise’s and Steve’s conversation about the alien communications, Howard’s software had already had its official unveiling at SETI. But Steve wanted a more personal show for friends, and so he and Christina had invited the others to dinner.
“So,” said Christina, “now that we’ve seen the top secret software, can you dish about the top secret things the aliens are saying?”
Denise shot Steve a “this is classified” warning glance, but Steve ignored her. After all, this was his wife, and his two best friends.
“Great news,” said Steve, “they have a fabulous source of energy for us.”
“Beware of Greeks bearing gifts,” said Kemal.
“It’s on the level,” said Steve, “we’ve seen it work. And all they want in exchange is this substance in our air that does nothing for us, totally biologically inert, useless really.”
“We’re the ones snookering them,” Howard agreed, “not that I mind. I think they want the substance for some religious rite or other. And that’s about all it’s good for.”
“Steve,” said Kemal, “How many times, in our history, has some more powerful country come in and robbed a smaller country blind? How many times do the other guys really have your best interest at heart?”
“You should know,” said Steve.
His voice was teasing, for it was an old joke between them, to rib each other about their ancestors’ feud. But it was his wife who replied.
“He’s right,” said Christina, “We have no reason to trust them. We may need that useless substance more than we know.”
“We don’t,” said Denise, “and every government on the planet is champing at the bit to sell the aliens harvesting rights to it.”
“We sure as hell aren’t getting left out,” Howard agreed.

5

“They’re late,” the army officer by Steve’s side frowned.
Steve and Denise stood among a knot of people at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, waiting for First Contact. Denise’s eyes shone, but Steve could feel knots in his stomach. He ought to feel triumphant, but instead he recalled his wife’s words. Could he to trust the aliens? Heck, why would they trust humans? To fight off the thought, he turned to the officer.
“Give them a break,” Steve said, “They’ve traveled eighty-five light years. What’s a few minutes, at that distance?”
“Half an hour,” said the officer, “Just how much of an error margin are we talking about, on this arrival time? Days?”
“Eighty-five light years?” a stout woman to Steve’s left spoke. “Just how long do these creatures live?”
Steve tried to recall who she was. The mayor? A Foreign Service Officer? A Presidential aide? Christina would have remembered these things. But Christina had stayed behind in Palo Alto.
“We don’t know,” said Denise, “They may live a long time, or perhaps they made this trip their
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