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Every mind on earth capable of understanding the problem was focused on the spaceship and the ultimatum delivered by its occupants. Talk or Die! blared the newspaper headlines.
The suicide rate was up and still climbing. Religious cults were having a field day. A book by a science fiction author: "What the Deadly Inter-Galactic Spaceship Means to You!" had smashed all previous best-seller records. And this had been going on for a frantic seven months.
The ship had flapped out of a gun-metal sky over Oregon, its shape that of a hideously magnified paramecium with edges that rippled like a mythological flying carpet. Its five greenskinned, froglike occupants had delivered the ultimatum, one copy printed on velvety paper to each major government, each copy couched faultlessly in the appropriate native tongue:
"You are requested to assemble your most gifted experts in human communication. We are about to submit a problem. We will open five identical rooms of our vessel to you. One of us will be available in each room.
"Your problem: To communicate with us.
"If you succeed, your rewards will be great.
"If you fail, that will result in destruction for all sentient life on your planet.
"We announce this threat with the deepest regret. You are urged to examine Eniwetok atoll for a small display of our power. Your artificial satellites have been removed from the skies.
"You must break away this limited communication!"
Eniwetok had been cleared off flat as a table at one thousand feet depth ... with no trace of explosion! All Russian and United States artificial satellites hadbeen combed from the skies.
All day long a damp wind poured up the Columbia Gorge from the ocean. It swept across the Eastern Oregon alkali flats with a false prediction of rain. Spiny desert scrub bent before the gusts, sheltering blur-footed coveys of quail and flop-eared jackrabbits. Heaps of tumbleweed tangled in the fence lines, and the air was filled with dry particles of grit that crept under everything and into everything and onto everything with the omnipresence of filterable virus.
On the fiats south of the Hermiston Ordnance Depot the weird bulk of the spaceship caught pockets and eddies of sand. The thing looked like a monstrous oval of dun canvas draped across upright sticks. A cluster of quonsets and the Army's new desert prefabs dotted a rough half-circle around the north rim. They looked like dwarfed outbuildings for the most gigantic circus tent Earth had ever seen. Army Engineers said the ship was six thousand two hundred and eighteen feet long, one thousand and fifty-four feet wide.
Some five miles east of the site the dust storm hazed across the monotonous structures of the cantonment that housed some thirty thousand people from every major nation: Linguists, anthropologists, psychologists, doctors of every shape and description, watchers and watchers for the watchers, spies, espionage and counter-espionage agents.
For seven months the threat of Eniwetok, the threat of the unknown as well, had held them in check.
Toward evening of this day the wind slackened. The drifted sand began sifting off the ship and back into new shapes, trickling down for all the world like the figurative "sands of time" that here were most certainly running out.
Mrs. Francine Millar, clinical psychologist with the Indo-European Germanic-Root team, hurried across the bare patch of trampled sand outside the spaceship's entrance. She bent her head against what was left of the windstorm. Under her left arm she carried her briefcase tucked up like a football. Her other hand carried a rolled-up copy of that afternoon's Oregon Journal. The lead story said that Air Force jets had shot down a small private plane trying to sneak into the restricted area.
Three unidentified men killed. The plane had been stolen. Thoughts of a plane crash made her too aware of the circumstances in her own recent widowhood. Dr. Robert Millar had died in the crash of a trans-Atlantic passenger plane ten days before the arrival of the spaceship. She let the newspaper fall out of her hands. It fluttered away on the wind.
Francine turned her head away from a sudden biting of the sandblast wind. She was a wiry slim figure of about five feet six inches, still trim and athletic at forty-one. Her auburn hair, mussed by the wind, still carried the look of youth. Heavy lids shielded her blue eyes. The lids drooped slightly, giving her a perpetual sleepy look even when she was wide awake and alert--a circumstance she found helpful in her profession.
She came into the lee of the conference quonset, and straightened. A layer of sand covered the doorstep. She opened the door, stepped across the sand only to find more of it on the floor inside, grinding underfoot. It was on tables, on chairs, mounded in corners--on every surface.
Hikonojo Ohashi, Francine's opposite number with the Japanese-Korean and Sino-Tibetan team, already sat at his place on the other side of the table. The Japanese psychologist was grasping, pen fashion, a thin pointed brush, making notes in ideographic shorthand.
Francine closed the door.
Ohashi spoke without looking up: "We're early."
He was a trim, neat little man: flat features, smooth cheeks, and even curve of chin, remote dark eyes behind the inevitable thick lenses of the Oriental scholar.
Francine tossed her briefcase onto the table, and pulled out a chair opposite Ohashi. She wiped away the grit with a handkerchief before sitting down. The ever present dirt, the monotonous landscape, her own frustration--all combined to hold her on the edge of anger. She recognized the feeling and its source, stifled a wry smile.
"No, Hiko," she said. "I think we're late. It's later than we think."
"Much later when you put it that way," said Ohashi. His Princeton accent came out low, modulated like a musical instrument under the control of a master.
"Now we're going to be banal," she said. Immediately, she regretted the sharpness of her tone, forced a smile to her lips.
"They gave us no deadline," said Ohashi. "That is one thing anyway." He twirled his brush across an inkstone.
"Something's in the air," she said. "I can feel it."
"Very much sand in the air," he said.
"You know what I mean," she said.
"The wind has us all on edge," he said. "It feels like rain. A change in the weather." He made another note, put down the brush, and began setting out papers for the conference. All at once, his head came up. He smiled at Francine. The smile made him look immature, and she suddenly saw back through the years to a serious little boy named Hiko Ohashi.
"It's been seven months," she said. "It stands to reason that they're not going to wait forever."
"The usual gestation period is two months longer," he said.
She frowned, ignoring the quip. "But we're no closer today than we were at the beginning!"
Ohashi leaned forward. His eyes appeared to swell behind the thick lenses. "Do you often wonder at their insistence that we communicate with them? I mean, rather than the other way around?"
"Of course I do. So does everybody else."
He sat back. "What do you think of the Islamic team's approach?"
"You know what I think, Hiko. It's a waste of time to compare all the Galactics' speech sounds to passages from the Koran." She shrugged. "But for all we know actually they could be closer to a solution than anyone else in...
The door behind her banged open. Immediately, the room rumbled with the great basso voice of Theodore Zakheim, psychologist with the Ural-Altaic team.
"Hah-haaaaaaa!" he roared. "We're all here now!"
Light footsteps behind Zakheim told Francine that he was accompanied by Emile Goré of the Indo-European Latin-Root team.
Zakheim flopped onto a chair beside Francine. It creaked dangerously to his bulk.
Like a great uncouth bear! she thought.
"Do you always have to be so noisy?" she asked.
Goré slammed the door behind them.
"Naturally!" boomed Zakheim. "I am noisy! It's my nature, my little puchkin!"
Goré moved behind Francine, passing to the head of the table, but she kept her attention on Zakheim. He was a thick-bodied man, thick without fat, like the heaviness of a wrestler. His wide face and slanting pale blue eyes carried hints of Mongol ancestry. Rusty hair formed an uncombed brush atop his head.
Zakheim brought up his briefcase, flopped it onto the table, rested his hands on the dark leather. They were flat slab hands with thick fingers, pale wisps of hair growing down almost to the nails.
She tore her attention away from Zakheim's hands, looked down the table to where Goré sat. The Frenchman was a tall, gawk-necked man, entirely bald. Jet eyes behind steel-rimmed bifocals gave him a look of down-nose asperity like a comic bird. He wore one of his usual funereal black suits, every button secured. Knob wrists protruded from the sleeves. His long-fingered hands with their thick joints moved in constant restlessness.
"If I may differ with you, Zak," said Goré, "we are not all here. This is our same old group, and we were going to try to interest others in what we do here."
Ohashi spoke to Francine: "Have you had any luck inviting others to our conferences?"
"You can see that I'm alone," she said. "I chalked up five flat refusals today."
'Who?" asked Zakheim.
"The American Indian-Eskimo, the Hyperboreans, the Dravidians, the Malayo-Polynesians and the Caucasians."
"Hagglers!" barked Zakheim. "I, of course, can cover us with the Hamito-Semitic tongues, but..." He shook his head.
Goré turned to Ohashi. "The others?"
Ohashi said: "I must report the polite indifference of the Munda and Mon-Kmer, the Sudanese-Guinean and the Bantu."
"Those are big holes in our information exchange," said Goré. "What are they discovering?"
"No more than we are!" snapped Zakheim. "Depend on it!"
"What of the languages not even represented among the teams here on the international site?" asked Francine. "I mean the Hottentot-Bushmen, the Ainu, the Basque and the Australian-Papuan?"
Zakheim covered her left hand with his right hand. "You always have me, my little dove."
"We're building another Tower of Babel!" she snapped. She jerked her hand away.
"Spurned again," mourned Zakheim.
Ohashi said: "Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech." He smiled. "Genesis eleven-seven."
Francine scowled. "And we're missing about twenty percent of Earth's twenty-eight hundred languages!"
"We have all the significant ones," said Zakheim.
"How do you know what's significant?" she demanded.
"Please!" Goré raised a hand. "We're here to exchange information, not to squabble!"
"I'm sorry," said Francine. "It's just that I feel so hopeless today."
"Well, what have we learned today?" asked Goré.
"Nothing new with us," said Zakheim.
Goré cleared his throat. "That goes double for me." He looked at Ohashi.
The Japanese shrugged. "We achieved no reaction from the Galactic, Kobai."
"Anthropomorphic nonsense," muttered Zakheim.
"You mean naming him Kobai?" asked Ohashi. "Not at all, Zak. That's the most frequent sound he makes, and the name helps with identification. We don't have to keep referring to him as 'The Galactic' or 'that creature in the spaceship'."
Goré turned to Francine. "It was like talking to a green statue," she said.
"What of the lecture period?" asked Goré.
"Who knows?" she asked. "It stands there like a bowlegged professor in that black leotard. Those sounds spew out of it as though they'd never stop. It wriggles at us. It waves. It sways. Its face contorts, if you can call it a face. We recorded and filmed it all, naturally, but it sounded like the usual mish-mash!"
"There's something in the gestures," said Ohashi. "If we only had more competent pasimolgists."
"How many times have you seen the same total gesture repeated with the same sound?" demanded Zakheim.
"You've carefully studied our films," said Ohashi. "Not enough times to give us a solid base for comparison. But I do not despair--
"It was a rhetorical question," said Zakheim.
"We really need more multi-linguists," said Goré. "Now is when we most miss the loss of such great linguists as Mrs. Millar's husband."