In the deepest canyon in the inhabited worlds, giant mantas soar through the air and leave patterned structures behind. A team of sapiologists seek to prove that these delicate filaments are true language, not just bee's dance. But time has run out, and their reckoning is upon them. Will they prove that their research is valid, or will they be scattered to the corners of the galaxy?
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About the Author
Ruthanna Emrys lives in a mysterious manor house in the outskirts of Washington DC with her wife and their large, strange family. She makes home-made vanilla, obsesses about game design, gives unsolicited advice, occasionally attempts to save the world, and blogs sporadically about these things at her Livejournal. She is the author of The Litany of Earth. Her stories have appeared in a number of venues, including Strange Horizons and Analog.
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The Deepest Rift
By Ruthanna Emrys, Victor Mosquera
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2015 Ruthanna Emrys
All rights reserved.
Titan's Rift is the deepest canyon in the inhabited worlds — deeper than Earth's Tsangpo Gorge, deeper than Isagard's Yotungap. Sheer faces, tall as mountains, dally only briefly at piled shale outcroppings before plummeting to the mist leagues below. Unseen walls stretch on beneath the mist, rock eaten into smooth abstraction by millennia of water droplets. Deeper still, rock crumbles to fine soil, and dark rivers twist among darker roots. There are forests down there that have never been dry. I dangle my legs over the precipice, and lean back into the wind that kisses my neck.
The wind slides out over the sea of mist, lifting the soaring mantas from the abyss. They glide and loop, seeming to draw a rich cursive across the sky. But there is no greater meaning in the pattern of their flight. If I'm wrong — if my team is wrong — there is no greater meaning in the mantas at all.
One manta banks close. Breath catches in my throat; then I scrabble frantically in my cloak pockets. Triumphant, I find the projector before the gray-white arrow passes. I shine the holo across its path: the intricate whorls of a manta "sculpture," recorded two hundred kilometers further along the rift. If this one can read it, learn from it, we'll have evidence that the sculpture is something more than a spiderweb.
The manta flies through the projection without pause, dozens of eyes squinting against the light.
Seven more times in the next hour, one of the great thick-winged aliens comes close enough for me to test. Seven more times, they ignore the image, or treat it as an irritant. Meanwhile the sky darkens, thickening tendrils of cloud lowering toward the mist. At the first lightning flash, the mantas cant their wings and drop as one into the depths. I pack slowly, delaying my report. A touch on my earring activates the cochlear implant in time to catch the next peal of thunder. The sweet basso profondo caresses my ears, a welcome interruption to the serene silence of my birthright. It rolls on below the limits of auditory input, the last rumble lingering in my bones.
The comp vibrates against my wrist then, displaying a message: Storm just as pretty inside. Probability of lightning strike much lower –Y. As though the phrasing could be anyone else's.
Within our prefab cabin, Nitra and Meical wrestle with their computational model. Yevgeny runs a sampler along one of the original sculptures, still hunting missed data points. I come alongside and he steals my hand for a kiss, never pausing his scan. I flick off my implant against the high-pitched whine.
"Any luck?" I sign. He pinches three fingers in negation, and turns so I can read his lips. It's that or interrupt the scan to talk with his hands — not tonight.
"What have you got?"
I shrug, signing my displeasure broadly. "Nothing. They fly right through it." Twined fingers dip toward my chest, mimicking a manta's path. "We're missing something."
"Wrong hypothesis?" He says it reluctantly, touching my waist with his free hand.
"Nitra!" I raise my spoken voice, trusting her to understand through my accent. She turns, and I continue in sign: "We've forgotten our initial data again."
She gives the model a final glance and joins us at the sculpture. She touches the wirework, less fragile than it looks, with caution. It gleams faintly: slick black or rainbowed as I shift position. The "wires," no thicker than my pinky, weave around each other, patterns like wind and wave, or the dance of hands in epic poetry. The mantas produce these out of their own bodies, leaving them on broad ledges or wrapped around rocks that are scarcely handholds. They do not use them to nest, trap food, or attract mates. They light on them in passing, then fly on.
Nitra signs across the sculpture. "The mantas change their behavior in response to the sculptures. They fly in new directions, or new patterns. They find other mantas and send them back to read the same sculpture. It's either language, or art."
"It could be like the bees' dance." I play devil's advocate now; Yevgeny rolls his eyes.
"Bees communicate a very limited set of symbols. Distance and direction and quality; not even the specific type of food." We've all seen the films in class: I imagine bright insects bobbing and weaving against the sharp blue of the Terran sky. "Our stats haven't shown any correlation that simple. There's no one thing that they always find afterwards, no consistent response."
Yevgeny sets down his scanner, glaring. "The proctor from the Collegium is coming tomorrow. And she will say that it could be like a bees' dance, but more complex. That we have no evidence that they use the sculpture to talk about new things, or add to their lexicon. And she'll point out that whether it's a language or just instinctive communication, we haven't so much as one word of vocabulary."
"And if we don't have an answer by the time she leaves," I admit, "it won't matter if we're right. We'll all be sent to new thesis teams, new projects."
Nitra comes around the sculpture, slips an arm around each of our shoulders, and spares a kiss for either side. She shakes her head, the best reassurance she can offer.
Meical appears beside us, the vibration of his footsteps masked by the storm. "We're not getting anywhere tonight. Come to bed?"
Yevgeny pinches air and shrugs out of the embrace. I catch the twitch of his jaw as he says something aloud, then belatedly signs, "Not even sleeping tonight — nor anything more fun. Sorry." He retrieves his scanner.
Momentary pleasure gives way to the slight chance of maintaining our collaboration long term. I catch Meical's hand. He mouths, "Hey," and pulls me into a quick embrace. Then I begin my analysis of today's data: looking for something, anything, but the null results I know I'll find.
Late into the night we work our separate stations. Wind shakes the cabin walls; warm hands brush shoulders on the way to the kitchenette; familiar body language tickles my peripheral vision. We speak rarely. Still, it matters that we are in the same room, on the same world.
* * *
The automated landing pod touches down precisely seven minutes past sunrise. We're all there to greet it, bleary-eyed and hyped on overclocking chemicals. The ceramic-lined egg isn't much bigger than our usual food-and-supply drop-offs: no room for life support or even the most spartan of comforts. At least, if we're recalled to our home campuses, we'll have a little extra time while we wait for a real transport.
The hatch snaps open. A projector robot scurries out, bounces on arthropodic legs to test the gravity. Diagnostic lights blink. Delicate receptors flower and taste the lingering ionization from the storm. Yevgeny stands a little apart from the rest of us, unconsciously bouncing on his toes in response. I hold myself still through the whole display, close to Meical and Nitra but not touching.
Finally the projector flickers, coughing light and color into the surrounding air. They coalesce into the image of a gray-cloaked woman, gray-haired and gray-eyed. Her belt is braided leather: gold denotes a first-iteration AI mind-clone, red denotes the high rank of her professorial template, and black confirms that both her existence and her judgment were authorized by the human in whose image she was created.
Meical bows his head and signs, "Welcome to Duranga, proctor." His lips move, so I presume he says the same aloud.
"Thank you. Please call me Professor Tro." I can just read the shape of her holographic lips; on a lesser projection I'd get only static. I suppress a flash of irritation. It would have cost her nothing to download my native sign. But then, the cochlear implant was at the Collegium's insistence, that I might better learn and understand their more common tongues.
Meical bows again. "Welcome to Duranga, Professor Tro. Please allow me to introduce our trial sapiology team." He manages not to stumble when he names me Sapphire Iones — as I'm listed in the Collegium's records — rather than my sign-name of Star-Eye.
She looks at each of us in turn: a long moment of evaluation or psychological intimidation. At an AI's clock speed, it's no accident.
My hindbrain can't resist reacting to her expressions as if she were human; my frontal lobe can't forget that every detail of her image is calculated. I wonder what she really perceives as she scans us. They are so familiar to me now, but I try to see my team as another might. Yevgeny, with his exotic pale skin and sharp features shocking against his black hair, always so thoughtful in his movements. Meical, darker and shorter and with a confident strength that goes deeper than his gravity-adapted muscles. Nitra, more ordinary-looking, but with graceful hands that captured my attention from the first. But Tro's sensors, no doubt, see with different biases.
She smiles at last. "Your thesis proposal described a potential first contact. Let's return to your site, and you can show me what you've discovered."
* * *
After we've played her the films and laid out the sculptures, she scans us again, informs us that humans need sleep, and settles by the computer with a laser reader pointed at the data port. Her human façade wavers and subsides, leaving only the projector bot to commune with our records.
In the back room, we've tessellated our sleeping pads into a single wide bed. The other three lean pillows against the wall while I lie across the foot, watching their mouths and hands through blurring eyes. Toes stroke my side, and I gather the nearest foot — Yevgeny's — into the crook of my arm.
"She's not going to be impressed," signs Nitra. Everyone shifts, uncomfortable, not offering any useful argument. The evidence exists. All our instincts tell us so, and our baseline data was enough to get us a year's support. A year just hasn't been enough.
"Do you ever wish you were — less ethical — as a researcher?" Yevgeny asks.
I drop his foot. "We can't!" I shape my hands hard, knife-like.
"I didn't say we would. I just said it's tempting. We know that we'd find what we were looking for, if we just had a little more time."
"It doesn't seem fair," admits Meical. "Losing you guys, losing a real chance at first contact, over wanting to do the research right. But I don't think I can bear to do it wrong."
I imagine Yevgeny's temptation: tweak the model a little, show a clear pattern, an instance or two of the sculptures being clearly modified in response to our presence. Get another year or two of support, time to back the lie with real findings. Take that extra time, and use it to establish our reputations and our right to work permanently as a team. A life together.
You can't build on that kind of foundation.
Minutes pass as we all come, privately, to our inevitable conclusions. My eyes are heavy, flickering, when Nitra signs, slowly, "There are other options."
Meical: "Such as?"
"The Collegium's rules aren't universal."
"You're suggesting we leave our work for one of the irrational worlds?" I sign, haltingly.
"My homeworld is 'irrational,'" she signs. "It's not as terrifying as they tell you in class."
Meical ducks his head. "I'd almost rather Yevgeny's way."
Yevgeny's lip quirks. "Because you'd be cheating by the rules?" Of us all, he's the only one neither born nor converted to rationality. His home polity runs itself on the principles, but he believes in spirits and invisible guardians, worships them privately in the interstices of our work together.
"You left," I sign to Nitra. "You came to the Collegium."
"I wanted to travel the worlds and discover new cultures. But it's not the only thing I want."
"Even if we were all willing," signs Yevgeny, "the Collegium sends quitters back to their homeworlds — they won't just give passage anywhere you ask. I don't know about you, but I haven't the fare to go elsewhere."
"We'd have to save up, during our next posting." Nitra pauses to calculate. "Or our next two postings. We'd have to be patient. And we'd have to remember."
"And then run out on our new teams, even if we've done great work together." The thought of betraying these imaginary future people, whom I don't love, makes my stomach clench. I pinch my fingers reluctantly. "I'm a psycholinguist. A scientist."
"You're Star-eye," signs Nitra.
"I'm more than my name. And more, even, than my love for all of you."
"But not less."
Eventually, we sleep — or at least I do. I dream of the wind above the rift. I cut through its layers with broad wings, brushing it aside as I stoop and turn. Mist clings to my smooth gray skin, ribboning past as I plummet into the darkness. Vees of air stream around my sisters ahead and behind. The taste of moss and mud rises to meet me, and then the wind carries it away.
I wake to thin light streaming through the window. Duranga's short day is not quite over. The others sleep fitfully. I watch their faces, wanting to touch, but not ready to wake them. I grab my cloak and slip out to the main room, setting my feet carefully to avoid vibrations.
Professor Tro is still, or again, connected to the computer. She must have finished looking at our data hours ago, and is probably making reports of her own, or working her way through our entertainment library. Still, it feels as though she's simply been waiting the whole time, perfectly and inhumanly still.
I perch on the desk chair, drawing my knees up, and try to see her as a subject of my anthropology. I know her template's work: the human Tro has been dead twenty standard years, and her two first contact cases are still impeccable classics. So are her papers on debunking — on evidence that provides only the illusion of sapience, and on the biases that lead researchers to trust that evidence anyway. This AI, created in Tro's professional prime, has had a long time to diverge from her original. All that's certain is that she thinks faster, can bring together more complex patterns — and is forbidden from doing the thing her template loved. AIs are generally supposed to be too inflexible for fieldwork, though not incapable of judging its worth. How does it frustrate her, traveling from world to world, evaluating the work of young research teams, never permitted to take part?
The bot stirs and withdraws from the data port. The gray-haired human façade flickers to life. Her lips move.
"Am I interesting?"
I consider leaving my implant off, then remember that I am not supposed to provoke her. "Sorry," I say. "Just thinking." I force the words awkwardly between my teeth, still self-conscious about speaking aloud in front of a stranger.
"About your mantas?" She stretches, wincing at the flex of muscles. The impression of a fit but aging academic, recovering from rest, is hard to resist.
She cocks her head and narrows her eyes, and I realize that my galvanic skin response and heart rate are as clear to her as my dreaming grunts to my team-mates.
"About your work," I amend. "And your template's. Do you miss it?' She snorts, but her muscles relax. Blunt honesty pleases her. "No one does their best exploratory work at a hundred thirty-two. Now I help others do theirs."
It doesn't escape me that this is hardly an answer to my question. Though it is bluntness of its own kind. And I also realize that she is resource as well as antagonist. "What would you do here that we haven't yet? If you had to do something?"
She smiles, thinly, doubtless aware that I'm dangling the best bait I know. She shakes her head and begins pacing. Faint thumps mark her tread on the floor, hollow without the accompanying vibration. I wonder if anyone other than me would notice.
How well evolution and experience prepare us to know our own species. We are so arrogant, who hope to approach creatures entirely outside those millennia of coexistence. And yet, it has been done.
She stops at last and turns to face me. Her expression is perfectly neutral. "The data are very bad."
Blunt, but unprovoking. I try not to be provoked, aware of how little politeness can gain us. "I know. So far."
"If I did not give up entirely, I might examine other kinds of data."
Excerpted from The Deepest Rift by Ruthanna Emrys, Victor Mosquera. Copyright © 2015 Ruthanna Emrys. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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