148 Words

It only took an hour to check the perimeter. But it was a boring hour. Standing and steering the sled over the snow that never melted, the kinetic shotgun on his shoulder, Peter always hoped he would not find a corpse on the fence, or anything else that would require paperwork. The little flips of the steering lever had become habitual; sometimes he would perform a trick or two with the sled, swinging it down the hill at a forty-five degree angle, just to break the drudgery. Usually the Garbage were all inside their wooden huts; occasionally one or two stood outside, their scrawny bodies and big eyes too familiar to make much of an impression. Everything had worn out in Peter in nineteen years: the shock he had originally felt in seeing the scarred bodies of the young men and women who now (those who remained) looked old and emaciated; also the cruelty, which in the beginning had manifested itself in curses and occasional blasts from the shotgun, when he had seen them outside the huts at nightfall in the early years. It was against regulations; the Garbage were not supposed to be seen after dinner. But Peter no longer cared.

Sometimes he took little Peter, his grandson, with him. The boy stood in front, sheltered from the cold, and sometimes he too placed his hand on the lever and old Peter let him steer. The boy, now eight, had stopped asking questions about the Garbage; he had not been curious about them in almost two years. When he saw the men standing outside the huts, his eyes would flick to them, then away again. The sight of a snow slither, or a vaca flying overhead, would cause his eyes to light up, but the Garbage had become an uninteresting feature of the landscape.

Something had happened in the war eight years ago, around the time the boy was born, and Prison Eight had lost touch with Home and with the General Command. The annual orbiter, with its supply parachutes, had stopped showing up, and there had been no more radio messages. It was impossible to tell if Home had lost the war; no enemy had shown up either; Eight was simply cut off, by itself in the void. At the time, he sat down with his son and daughter-in-law, little Peter's parents, to decide what to do; after three months without contact an inconclusive debate had begun, which had continued for years, and which had never settled the two basic issues: Did Home still exist in any recognizable form? Should they continue running the prison as they always had, or should they open the electric fences and let the Garbage out?

There was irony in the fact that they spoke about such things while sitting by the speakers which allowed them to listen to the Garbage. The inmates spoke rarely--the most common noises were the clattering of cookpots, and the cry of one of the babies born within the camp--and when they did speak, it was boring to hear them, because they only used the 148 words permitted by Order 475228, a language which included only gross and utilitarian expressions, mostly verbs compacted into nouns and doing double duty. For example, "eat" was both "to eat" and "food". The irony was that the speakers, hanging on the wall of the dining room, always reminded the guardians as they spoke that General Command might be listening to them, that at least it was likely that their speech was being recorded by devices they had never yet found, broadcast to the satellite and stored, against the day when someone from General Command would wish to determine if they had been faithful. So, when the ideas of defeat or of opening the gates came up, they were always couched in extremely careful euphemisms; the guardians spoke only of "events" on Home, and a casual listener would have thought that they were talking about maintenance of the fences, not tearing them down. No-one actually advanced the idea; at least, no-one championed it; it was merely placed on the table, as if for the sake of thoroughness, and examined from every angle. The advantage of fence "maintenance" was that it would free them from the daily routine of watching, threatening, punishing, corpse disposal, and the now very occasional killing; there were possibilities of founding a society somewhat like Home, but of course they would be working with very unsatisfactory raw material, which Home had rejected. The negatives-- reasons for the inertia which ultimately prevented them from ever doing anything--were that the inmates would still have to be watched, might try to kill them, and anyway, someone might turn up one day from General Command and immediately have them executed for disloyalty. They never stopped talking about it, but life went on as before.

Sometimes, old Peter looked around the room in the evening, the firelight flickering on his son, who was reading a book he had read many times before, and Genna, staring into space, and little Peter, who typically was looking at a toy rather than playing with it, and he thought: we have lived so long in the ice that we are ice people. Everyone was terribly calm and polite all the time. They had not screamed at one another in years, not since the day the orbiter failed to show up. It was impossible to imagine Victor and Genna making love with any passion, indeed, making love at all. Little Peter never cried. Bundled up in their parkas, in the fierce cold in which they and the Garbage lived every day, the guardians of Eight saved all their energy, dispensed none either as love or anger.

Life had been slightly more enjoyable in the old days, when the orbiter still came, and before Order 475228. The orbiter was a robot--there were never people aboard--and it wasn't even an AI; it only broadcast canned messages, along the lines of "Prepare for parachutes. Descent in ten minutes at scheduled coordinates". But it brought books, news, new clothing, tapes and food. They could get by without it; they had ten years of canned goods; they hunted vacas and tildebeasts; and snowroots grew under the ice which Genna and young Peter pulled up and boiled.

In the old days, before the language of the inmates had been restricted to only 148 words, old Peter would sometimes stop the sled in the morning or the evening and exchange a few words with the Garbage capo, a big man, strong as a rock, who had beaten and wrestled the others into accepting him, and who served both to maintain order and to mediate with the guardians on behalf of the Garbage. This brutal man, of whom old Peter was originally very wary, had in some respects become a friend over the years. It was a strange phenomenon; the inmates were not even officially human; but of course, against a background of wind, rock and ice, the few moments of speech, of contact, were welcome each day. Old Peter had once or twice even gone so far as to venture a comment about Victor's lack of respect, or Genna's coldness, and the capo had laughed, showing his strong white teeth, and had said he didn't care about the warmth, but was himself vigilant for the possibility of a lack of respect.

Order 475228 had arrived, via the orbiter, about three years before the orbiters stopped coming. Young Peter had never heard the inmates speak their original language; he had been born afterwards. Old Peter remembered reading the new order with some surprise and dismay; he knew it would mean killing, and he had not had to kill anyone in some years.

The order was written in the classic bureaucratic-sociologic language of General Command. Academics seconded to the military, with too much time on their hands, had come to the conclusion that the Prisons, which, due to the shortage of men and the necessities of a long and cruel war, must be run by a very few guardians, would operate more efficiently if the inmates were only allowed to speak about immediate necessities. Linguists had spent many months tailoring a language of noun-verbs that would allow discourse only about food, heat, and physical danger.

The elegance of the noun-verb compaction meant that certain concepts could only be expressed regarding a particular subject, but could not be transferred to others. For example, "A tildebeest is threatening us" was now expressed by the mere use of the word "Beast", which was in itself subject and verb. Therefore, there was no way to say, "A man is threatening us", because the word closest to man was "guardian", and there was no distinction between the latter and "We obey the Guardian." The word for the inmates themselves was "Garbage", and its use was indistinguishable from "The garbage obeys". Thus every dialog with an inmate began as follows:

Old Peter: "Garbage!" (Pay attention and obey, inmate.)

Inmate: "Guardian! Garbage." ("We obey the guardian. The garbage obeys.")

There was no word for "I", none for man or woman, love, friendship, hope, tears, duty, hatred or suffering. There were no words for kill, die, hurt or death. Much had to be accomplished by pointing; old Peter waved the shotgun to indicate a threat; inmates pointed at corpses that needed to be hauled away. In the months after order 475228, he had had to kill thirteen men, three of whom had shouted forbidden words at him, and ten whom he had overheard on the speakers whispering illegal words late at night within the huts. The very first man he had killed was the capo, who was insisting that Peter and he had an arrangement. The capo's surprise had been very poignant, even to stolid Peter, given the age of the war and the coldness of the planet.

Then the orbiter had stopped coming and the conversations, every night opposite the fire, had begun. When it became clear that no-one felt it was safe to change anything--General Command could turn up again at any moment, even after three years--the conversation shifted to the question of whether someone should take the lander and go looking for General Command. And, if so, whom?

The lander was a small, winged shuttle that could be flown through the atmosphere and into space. Both old Peter and Victor had qualified to fly it, in the months of training just before their transfer to Eight, but there had been no opportunity for them to use those skills in the years they had been here. The problem, besides a shortage of fuel for more than one take-off, was that the lander launched straight up but was designed to land on a runway, and there was no runway. There had been a promise that a crew would come to build one in the first year of their residency on Eight, but the needs of the war had sidetracked everything and no crew had ever come. Then the orbiter never brought more fuel for the lander; when Peter inquired, he was quite reasonably told that because there was no runway, they did not need fuel.

Although they had done their best to maintain the lander, even firing the engines for thirty seconds once a year, there was no guarantee that it would fly properly, or that whoever flew it would find anyone, or be able to return. Old Peter realized, after a few weeks of this desultory conversation, that he himself would not fly the lander. Life had certainly proved to be very narrow and stark, but nonetheless he had become used to the daily routine, and there were even moments that were quite pleasant; the snow could be beautiful in the mornings; snowroot soup at the end of a long day was good. He had no real desire to go Home, to search for a world that might no longer exist and end up starving to death or suffocating in the lander in deep space; or to arrive on a planet that, for all he knew, might now be inhabited by beings more primitive than the Garbage, scratching for violent survival amid sands and ruins. Then, as more weeks passed, Peter had an insight that made him feel foolish and redundant: it had never been a question of him flying the lander, anyway. Genna, beneath her icy reserve, was going mad. Peter had never noticed it. Victor explained that he must take his wife off the planet, no matter what the risks. She had reached the point where he feared she would blow her own head off, or little Peter's, with a heat blast from the shotgun. It was now simply a matter of a political and physical calculus. Although they could all fit in the lander, leaving the planet together would be treason, while at least one adult remaining behind would be sufficient to run the camp. The more people in the lander, the sooner they would starve or suffocate. Victor and Genna would go. For a few weeks, the issue became whether little Peter would join them. The boy was silent; he watched the others as they spoke about him. Genna did not seem to love her son very much; she had more pressing problems. Victor did not want to leave him, but old Peter did not want them to risk the boy's life. Nor did he want to be left alone. Victor finally acquiesced. The old man helped clear the dilapidated tarpaulin which covered the lander, and smooth the snow around its jets. He held little Peter up to kiss Victor and Genna, and retreated to the house. Pale-eyed Garbage watched the unusual spectacle, for which they had no words, from their side of the electric fence.

The lander exploded a few thousand feet up. Two strands of smoke slanted off toward the horizon, and a startled flock of vacas pelted by overhead. Old Peter thought the two strands were the souls of his son and daughter-in-law, flying into the west; young Peter told him, much later, that he imagined that his parents had turned into the vacas and flown away from the disaster.

The Peters now became a community of two. Old Peter was fairly certain, all these years later, that Home was finished and that General Command would never return; he thought sometimes about turning off the electric fences and inviting the Garbage to come and live with them. But Order 475228 had been successful, probably beyond its authors' expectations; the inmates had become animals; it was hard to see the humanity in their eyes; many years had elapsed since he had heard a forbidden word over the speakers. Many of them had been born since the Order, and the older ones appeared to have forgotten their former language. He did not think he had the energy to teach them, and he feared they would hurt the boy. He did not know what would happen to little Peter after his own death; it was hard to imagine him living alone, maintaining the fences, driving the sled around the perimeter; it was impossible to imagine him marrying a girl from among the dirty Garbage, or creating any kind of a life for himself. There was a terrible evening when old Peter looked at the heat shotgun, and briefly imagined killing himself and the boy; but it was only for a moment; he had never been a depressed or suicidal person, and he still enjoyed his grandson, the beauty of the snow, and warm root soup. So he determined to carry on; perhaps General Command would still show up; perhaps something else would change.

Then, one evening, he was driving the sled, when he hit an imperceptible wire--a strand of the fence--which had been tied between two dead trees that flanked his usual path. Old Peter flew fifteen feet and smashed into the rocks; he lay in the snow, in terrible pain in every part of his body, almost swooning, and saw a group of Garbage, standing outside the electric fence, and watching him with mad, hopeful eyes. Peter had to fight the pain, force himself into clarity in order to speak to them. "Please don't hurt the boy" was all he said, and then had another moment to realize, before he fainted and died, that he had not said one word which existed in their 148-word language.

Ninety years later, a ship landed in the snow, carrying an excited group of scientists and political envoys from a world which had barely heard of the Home war. They found a thriving population of three hundred and fifty thousand people, who called themselves the Gar Buj, and whose culture was in transition from the Stone Age--they used carts with stone wheels, pulled by domesticated tildebeasts--to a quasi-iron age where they made tools and weapons by smelting an ore they had located under the ice.

Nightly sessions were held in a lounge aboard the parked ship, where anthropologists, linguists and politicals compared their findings. The breakthrough session was the one held at the end of the fifth week, when three scientists reported on separate inquiries they had made.

First, Jenny Richardson, a linguist, reported on the language of the Gar Buj. "It definitely includes a melange of Standard," she said. "So far, I have found approximately one hundred forty recognizable nouns, and several other probables. But the rest of it--tens of thousands of words, including all the verbs, and the grammar and syntax-- are entirely new to us." Gar Telwitz, an anthropologist, spoke next. His job was to analyze the political and religious infrastructure of the Gar Buj. "Their origins on this planet, though fairly recent according to the archaeological evidence--they have been here less than two centuries, possibly only 125 years--are lost in silence. Until we know the language better, it will be hard to know if they were castaways-- people whose ship crashed here, and we don't have any hard evidence of such a crash--or were literally people who were 'cast away'--thrown out--by the culture from which they came." The Gar Buj had an animistic religion; holiness resided in the snow and rocks, and in the slithers, tildebeasts, and vacas. A very confusing element, one which might represent either a political or religious phenomenon or both, was the presence of a senile man about 100 years old, who called himself Little Peter, who was feared and avoided by the Gar Buj.

Little Peter lived in a house on a hill. The house was very old and was obviously built using offworld technology; it was very different from the work of the Gar Buj. In the house were the remnants of electronic devices which had failed and which Peter had taken apart over the years.

The Gar Buj had built a stone wall around the hill on which Peter lived. It was a low wall, one he could climb over if he wanted, but even when he was much younger, Peter had never crossed it. He dug roots on his property, and the Garbuj brought him food. A few of the bolder ones would stay to exchange a few words with him--for ninety years, there had always been a few willing to speak with him--but when they did, they were careful to use the 148 words of Standard, and none of the rest of their language.

And Peter knew only the 148 words. If he had ever known more, or any other language, he had forgotten it. If you spoke to Peter in normal Standard, he did not understand. If you spoke to him in the Gar Buj language, he was lost. Little Peter was able only to speak of snowroots and ice and vacas. The ship's doctor ascertained he was not stupid, though he had fallen into senility; there was an intelligence still working within that creased his brow, and caused him to stare wildly when you spoke to him; there were thoughts within that could never now emerge, not through the medium of the 148 words.

No-one among the Gar Buj could (or perhaps would) explain to the ship's crew who Peter was. Telwitz believed he was not a leader; he could not give commands, though it appeared occasionally he tried, barking his few words in an imperative tone, and sometimes waving the shell of a heatgun, which had not fired a blast in many decades.

"We think," Gar Telwitz said, "he may be a holy man, a sort of mad monk, feared and respected by the Gar Buj."

Hobe Uman, ship's engineer, had the report that allowed them to put all the pieces together. Reconnoitering the continent from the air, he had observed scarring; something had crashed into a frozen lake. A work crew on the ground was able to grapple it 150 feet under the ice, and bring it to the surface; it was a satellite. It contained so many gigabytes of data that it would take many weeks to run through and understand it all; some was encrypted; luckily, much was clear, and in a fine old Standard. All that they knew so far was that the presence of humans on Eight had something to do with military operations conducted by the people of the late planet Home, during their final war with their neighbors. Hobe had the satellite's databanks downloaded into a secure area of memory, where no virus within it could affect the ship's programs.

He fell silent and everyone's eyes naturally went to the grey eminence in the room, Lija Hunt, the senior emissary who commanded the scientific and political element of the ship as surely as Captain Hartsman commanded the ship itself. Her job for many years had been to make contact with the lost cultures who had been cut off by the numerous wars in this part of the galaxy; but she had never found one as primitive and strange as the Gar Buj. Hunt had a double reputation: she was a diplomat and a problem solver, someone who through long experience could suggest connections not obvious to the others.

She was silent for a few moments, thinking.

"Hobe," she said, "can you do a full text search on the data from the bird?"

"Certainly," Hobe said. "It won't pop up anything we haven't decrypted, but I can find any occurrence of a word or phrase in the clear part of it."

"Its not a word I want," said Lija. "Try a wildcard search on the number 140, in digits or spelt out."

Hobe typed "14* OR ONE HUNDRED FORTY*" and tapped the COMMENCE key.

"There are thirty seven hundred documents," he reported.

"Narrow it," said Lija. "Try occurrences where its juxtaposed with 'language' or 'words'."

Hobe obeyed, and found General Command order 475228, from which they were soon able to deduce the rest of the story.

Later that night, Jenny and Hobe--they had been keeping company for some months--went out on the rocky shelf below the ship. In the distance they could see the Gar Buj town, with its flickering fires.

"Its a beautiful language," Jenny told Hobe. "There are more than three hundred words for snow and ice. There is a word for every different type and shape of snowflake--regular and jagged, large ones and small. There's one word for the fire when it burns bright and another one when it dies towards the embers. They have fifty different words, all overlapping, for the human soul. They have seventy words for every gradation of friendship from pale mutuality of interest to passionate love. Its a mad language"--she was crying now, and hardly knew why--"full of endearments. They have two hundred different words they call their children, all of which mean the same thing, only that they are children and are loved...."

Up on the hill, Little Peter slept, fitfully dreaming about ice.