On the Planet Adnusii there is a College of Astrolinguistics. In fact, it is more accurate to say that the Planet Adnusii IS the College of Astroliguistics. It’s a nice place, as far as planets are concerned – nice trees, red skies that reflect blue water in a dizzying sort of way, gigantic clams that cause a great deal of distress when they open and close their mouths because of all the people who have built houses on them, and linguists wandering about consulting with hypercomputer data streams that flow languidly into several large seas. The seas themselves, filled with astrolinguistic data from all across the universe, make for some very nice surfing for tired or frustrated Astrolinguists from all across the universe. It’s very convenient, surfing on these data waves because it means you never have to stop working unless you really just want to hang ten that day.
Of course some of the species studying and working at the college are not very adept or even capable of surfing and they have, in good course, invented a host of cocktails brewed from the liquid datastreams – most of which cause whatever biological language processors species possess to go quite wrong along with whatever language is stored in the head, and the head itself. The traditional Hangover from a Phoneme Cocktail is that the linguist in question must take the next month off relearning their native language or risk speaking gibberish for the rest of their lives. This, in and of itself is confusing because to the untrained observer it would seem that the entire population of Adnusii has never bothered to sober up after drinking the Phoneme cocktails and just continue drinking them. This is not true, of course, as an Adnusii Clam would tell you if it had ever learned to use it’s tongue for anything other than walking (though residents of the clam occasionally use the gigantic miles long tongue to slide down and into the Data seas.)
Whether you sit idly on the beach wishing you had feet to provide a good balance on a surfboard or spend your time gargling interstellar syllables in one of the many unintelligible bars one of the most common conversation topics you are likely to hear is of the nature of the phrase ‘Fortune is a cruel mistress’.
It turns out that this phrase exists in one form or another in every species in known space and quite a few species to whom space is something they only have a passing acquaintance with. It’s permutations are vast – the city of Lifsabit on Adnusii is devoted to storing these permutations and calculating a suitable word that can be spoken in all languages to stand in for all of the phrases – some of which can be enormously complicated: Shit Happens is one of the simplest but there is also “Rocks pressed into small plates after millions of years under pressure and oceans that were created to support life sometimes raise themselves to the surface after geologic time and volcanic reactions and then are discovered by civilizations that pulled themselves from a primordial ooze only to extinguish themselves or go for a nice long swim only to be eaten by a primordial alligator that has opted not to pull itself from the ooze. These plates sometimes contain food that the civilization has made from various means and according to their own devices and tastes and seasoning and sometimes that food is really not that good and sometimes someone’s uncle who is visiting and has drank too much beer dashes the plate against your skull for no apparent reason.”
There are theories that ‘Shit Happens’ is one of the first phrases ever calculated by civilizations of any size and nature no matter if they pulled themselves from primordial ooze or the much more common ordial ooze and as such it is granted the status of a universal concept and an astrolinguistic foundation. There are further theories that this phrase alone could unlock any language encountered in known space (or, they add hastily, unknown space – which is far more common) So long as you know for certain that the speaker is uttering his species variety of this phrase anything can be translatable.
The great project that the city of Lifsabit embarked on nearly two hundred years ago was to simplify all of the phrases and cultural nuances of the phrase into a simple, agreeable utterance that could be used everywhere. Unfortunately, as so often happens when a scientist (or worse yet group of them) has a great idea that they think everyone should quite rationally follow for the benefit of all beings, their suggestions have all been not just ignored but not even blinked at – as though they are the proverbial invisible elephant in a very very large universe sized room. This, of course, has led to a very large drinking problem in the city of Lifsabit which has, circularly, produced an even greater number of these words and a definite decrease in the publication of research papers from that city.
It all goes round, you see? Which, incidentally, is actually another permutation of the phrase in question.
Also incidentally Captain Townes Martin Conifer had recently blown his nose on an old copy of the Journal of Lifsabit Metaphonetics and quite unexpectedly uttered the phrase “Soap” which is only a phrase when you consider its amalgamated phonetic cultural context.
What is not incidental is the fact that he meant it. Every word of it.
Sophie looked at him, pretty certain that he had just swore somehow but having never heard the word before she could not adjust it to any sense.
“Excuse me?” She said.
The captain looked past her at the derelict ruins of the old colonial lifepod she lived in. In the gaping hole that should have been where a door might want to be he saw a three hundred year old poster from some rock band he’d never heard of. There was a bed made of something he hoped was dead that had been fashioned from the old shelves. It was horrifying to consider just how many generations of humans had called this thing home. It looked like an egg that had not just cracked but smashed, rusted, groaned and would prefer not to be looked at for shame.
That said, the porch was pretty nice.
“Do you mind if we sit?” He said finally, indicating what he thought might be a chair on the porch.
“Why? Is there a problem?”
He scratched his floppy sandy colored hair then did the same to his sandy colored handlebar moustache. One of his sparkling blue eyes jumped it’s socket nervously and propped up an eyebrow at an angle it was uncomfortable with. He didn’t want to seem ungenerous or mean-hearted or un captain like the thought of being any of those made him feel a bit queasy and un captain like.
He tugged at one of her more prominent arm tattoos, trying to drag her away from the prying ears of Ernesto as though he were about to conspire which in one way he was. He knew that the Computer would be more than pleased to have a unique and LIVING colonial specimen rather than the virtual ones he had to deal with. Though there had been absolutely no detectable change in Ernesto’s stoic expression he could tell that the thought of letting a Colonial loose on The Turtle was the computational equivalent of puppy dogs at Christmas.
He sat on the thing that might have been a chair. It looked like a cross between a squashed piano and a rotten tomato.
“Look.” He said. And she complied much to his growing discomfort. “It’s not that we can’t take you with us. In fact, in a way, we intend to do just that – just not quite in the way you think, you see?” In fact she did not. All she saw was the pained look on his face but she couldn’t identify if that was because he was saying something he didn’t like or that she didn’t like or simply due to sitting on her kitchen table. It was, of course, due to all of these factors.
“What do you mean? So you’re going to take me with you but you’re not?”
“Yes. Something like that. Only you won’t actually move.” That didn’t seem to cheer her up at all. “I just don’t think it would be proper. I mean, to have someone like you wandering around our ship. It’s really a big ship, you know, and I wouldn’t want you to get lost, or, or, or, smell up anything.”
She looked at the ship. It was about the size of a football field but of course she didn’t know that as she had never seen a football field in her life.
“It doesn’t look so big to me. I don’t think I could get lost in it if I tried.”
“Why would you try?”
“Why not? Getting lost can be a lot of fun once you catch the knack for it.”
He did. What he saw was not very promising. The girl was a wreck. In fact wrecks would complain bitterly of the comparison. Both of her arms were well tattooed or at least he thought they were. It could be that it was just another layer of grime. It was hard to tell at that distance which was actually really close – close enough that you should be able to tell. Her hair was a variety of color, all of them brown and it looked as though it was allergic to water. More accurately water was probably allergic to it and caught the plague whenever it came into contact. He found himself wishing she was telepathic because every time she opened her mouth to speak his teeth cowered in fear.
“You take me with you or you don’t get the carrot. That’s it. I need to get off of this piece of shit. Seriously. I’ve been here for, well, forever. And it’s time. Time to get out. Really. I’ll say please.”
“Please don’t. It’s just very irregular. I don’t think Earth would approve not to mention I don’t think Susie would appreciate…” He thought of her wandering around the gardens. His stomach churned a moment. ‘Somewhere underneath all that… whatever it was… she might be pretty.’ Some part of his brain said helpfully. The other parts thought it was a good joke and had a hearty laugh. The first part insisted, petulantly.
He looked around at the remains of the life support pod again and the human impulse towards compassion shined mournfully in his sparkling blue eyes.
“I’m not sure if I’m allowed to… Besides, we’d be moving you from your home. I mean, this is your home and all and…” The thought, though vaguely horrifying, was kindly meant.
“Look, if it’s illegal or anything I won’t go. I mean, I’d hate to put you out or anything.” Colonists had a distant but convincing pull towards illegality in that very few of them did anything that wasn’t but all knew with a certainty that to be caught was to be put to death. Colonial Law was arbitrary, quixotic, foolish, delusional and extremely unforgiving. It was also portioned out by anyone who thought it might be a good idea at the time or hadn’t quite had enough booze to suit themselves.
“I legle? What’s that?”
“illegal as in, against the law? You know what the Law is don’t you?”
The captain considered the Law. It had been thoroughly defeated by sense centuries ago and was now whispered of only in circumstances where you wanted children to do something they had no inclination of doing. Even in that diminished role it was far less effective than ‘wolves might get you’.
Hundreds of miles above them, appearing suddenly out of deep space, something that looked remarkably like Sophie’s Kitchen table pulled to a screeching and menacing halt in the atmosphere.
“No it’s not against the law it’s just… irregular.” He said finally. “I’m not sure if it can be done. It’s complicated.”
Of course it wasn’t. The truth was he didn’t want a foul smelling filthy human aboard his ship. It was not a kind thought and for a human from earth unkindness was an event of some note and discomfort – like putting your face in a pit of vipers. It was starting to alarm him how unkind he was being.
With great effort he took a few deep breaths, trying to wade through the waves of stink surrounding him. He was about to say something definitive. He knew it because of the expectant look in the girl’s mud caked eyes. He just wasn’t sure what it would be yet.
“All right. Fine. Deal.” He heard someone say.