"Three quarks for Muster Mark!
Sure he has not got much of a bark
And sure any he has it's all beside the mark."
--James Joyce, Finnegan's Wake
One fresh October morning when the wind was whipping the dark blue water of the fjord into whitecaps, Stenak arrived at the spaceport in Trondheim and realized that she had learnt the wrong language.
With her universal translator off, none of the sounds that she heard were familiar. As soon as the spaceport-master saw Stenak's confusion, she switched to Standard and welcomed her to Earth. Chagrined at her failure of research, Stenak responded only with a curt nod. She shivered, the wind blowing her hair away from her bare ears.
So it happened that the first thing she learned on Earth was the fact that Standard, only half a constructed language, was not native across the whole of this small planet. It had never occurred to her to think otherwise. Vulcan, with its long spacegoing history, had attained cultural homogeneity some millennia before. Other languages were for other planets, not for those who were one's own people, metaphorically not more than a stone's throw away.
(Humans, in all of their various languages, loved metaphor. This was the second thing that Stenak learned on Earth.)
Soon she was reassured that Standard was the lingua franca at Norges teknisk-naturvitenskapelige universitet, and indeed at universities throughout Europe. She was not to worry. She was to enjoy her exchange year. She was to settle in, spend a few leisurely days walking the streets of the city, visit the ancient cathedral. (Its unsettlingly grey, embellished stonework was a mere century younger than the foundations of her family home on Vulcan.)
Anxious to avoid implicit offense, she still labored to teach herself rudimentary Norwegian. Not suitable for the discussion of condensed matter physics, perhaps, but adequate to the small conversational rituals that constituted politeness in this corner of the galaxy.
Days when she was not wanted at the CERN laboratories in Geneva, she would take her PADD with its language software and walk by herself on the snow-dusted hills overlooking the city. Winter was coming in. In the low, golden light of midday she was reminded of that grateful, dim season in Vulcan's polar regions, but the cold was unlike anything that she had experienced. Stenak gazed down at the colorful buildings of the city. They were set amidst an impenetrable blanket of white snow and sloping shadows of trees that was broken only by the darkness of the winding river Nidelva.
Snow's starkness bore some similarities to the desert sands of Vulcan. It was only upon close inspection that it resolved itself into the exotic form of water ice, biting and changeable. It was painful to the touch. It was everywhere.
Adrift in this strange land, Stenak lost herself in her mathematical studies. The universality of the physical universe was a touchstone for her. Even if the terms with which it was discussed in Standard were just as alien, and just as slippery, as snow.
"Now that pair of quarks," said her graduate tutor patiently, "are called strange and charm."
Stenak was nodding, filing the terms away in the appropriate category of her memory, when it occurred to her that she had encountered them before. A delicately glazed tea set in the window of a shop on Dronningens gate. Herself, in a bar by the river, a warehouse where every beam was oppressively wooden.
"That word is also used to describe people," she said, then wondered whether she had, once again, been too brusque.
Unaccountably her tutor laughed. "Yes it is," he said. "So is strange."
Strange. She had heard this word, too, in the bar by the river. Her interlocutor had told her that he had believed all Vulcans to be--the remark was untranslatable. A color name in Standard, the color of snow, also used to describe a particular human phenotype. White. It was unclear how the term related to her. Vaguely aware that something unpleasant had occurred, she had not gone back to the bar.
"Bizarre," she stated.
"Exactly." Her tutor laughed again.
"Surely this is not meant to describe the properties of subatomic particles?"
"It was Murray Gell-Mann's little joke. Just a little joke."
Stenak's mind could not encompass any property that she might share with quarks, any analogy that brought macro and micro scales of reality together so tidily, without a feeling of existential disjuncture. Her head whirled with the thought of a society where names could be given so capriciously, seemingly without regard for the irreducible essence of things.
Or perhaps there was some cultural nuance that she was missing? Stenak kept the hypothesis open in her mind. That evening she returned by tram to her lodgings in a suburb high above the river. It was long dark when she stepped across the threshold. Her housemate, a jovial historian from Scotland, was busy cooking dinner. In response to an enquiry about the naming of quarks, she thought for a few moments, wiped off her hands, and transferred to Stenak's PADD a copy of Finnegan's Wake by James Joyce.
In a cafe in Bakklandet the following day, Stenak sat surrounded by wood panelling and laughing humans and deep, disturbingly fragrant bowls of fish soup. Snow was failing outside. All this was strange, if not charming, and Stenak's sense of dislocation intensified a hundred-fold when she began to read the text, which was more difficult by far than any of the reading that she had been assigned in her course. She drank two cups of cocoa--one human habit that she had embraced--and puzzled laboriously over the words and their annotations.
Finally, with an acceptance of defeat, she engaged her universal translator. All the conversations around her in the cafe snapped into sudden focus. Looking down, she found that Joyce's prose was impenetrable as ever in Vulcan. Possibly even more so.
Three quarks for muster mark.
Perhaps its impenetrability was the point? Perhaps the human embrace of absurdity was a sort of immature rebellion, an act of hostility against a universe which they seemed to perceive as capricious, destructive and utterly unfathomable.
More often than not, Stenak viewed humans in a similar light.
Disengaging the translator, she floated once again on the familiar, icy sea of literary incomprehension until her cocoa became cold. Musicians were setting up for a small performance in the next room of the cafe. Through the door, she could see that their instruments too were made out of wood. She found this unsurprising, if wearying. Stretching stiff muscles, she rose and prepared to depart.
In the pitch black of a Trondheim winter night she crossed the bridge back into town, pulling her coat more closely around her. Overhead, Starfleet's main spacedock was making its regular ninety-minute pass across the sky, a starship visibly stationkeeping behind it. USS Enterprise, she assumed, back from its five-year mission for a refit. She wondered that humans could develop the technological sophistication necessary to design and build such magnificent structures, while treating the fundamental building blocks with little more respect than they would a jumble of children's toys.
She reproached herself for xenophobia. She was here to learn, not to judge.
Stenak walked on, puzzling still. Snow settled where she had been.
One hundred years later, Stenak was the chair of a respected research group at the Vulcan Academy of Sciences. She had not been out of system since that long-ago winter in Trondheim. By Vulcan norms she was considered well-travelled, able to converse in Standard with visiting scientists and off-world colleagues. As such she was a natural host for two visiting scholars, Starfleet officers who had been detailed to assist with research into a new form of matter discovered by the Academy.
In her youth Stenak had voted without hesitation to keep Vulcan a part of the Federation. Nonetheless, like many of her colleagues, she had her doubts about the reputation of Starfleet as a vehicle for the spread of peace and scientific knowledge. More to the point, she had her doubts about the intensity of Starfleet's interest in her particular branch of condensed matter physics, and the motives behind it. Not that she expressed her reservations to the newest members of her research group.
Out of politeness she addressed Commander La Forge in her long-disused Standard. Out of politeness Commander Data addressed her in impeccable Vulcan, more perfect and classically pure than the temperate dialect that was most widely spoken at the Academy of Sciences. After a few mangled but appropriate words of greeting, Commander La Forge wisely chose to rely on his universal translator. In scientific discussions there were few nuances that could be lost by its use.
Between themselves, in the lab, the two Starfleet officers spoke Standard. Passing by on one errand or another, Stenak could not always parse their jokes but knew their laughter was an infallible indication that one had just occurred. Overhearing it gave her an uneasy feeling. She wondered whether it represented an expression of hostility towards the project that she had come to consider her own. But perhaps it was not the case.
Humor was important to humans. Among them it signified collegiality or bonding. Without it, like a plant without light or moisture, they ceased to thrive. Yet humor was not a common currency on Vulcan. Her research group formed bonds in different ways, stronger bonds than humans could know, and La Forge and Data were outsiders here.
More generously, Stenak surmised that perhaps jokes were a gift of friendship offered by Commander Data to his human colleague, a touchstone of familiarity amid so much that was strange.
Over mid-day meal in the refectory, Stenak sat with one of the few human scientists to hold a permanent post at the Academy, a member of her own research group. Naturally the conversation turned to their new colleagues.
"Commander Data has an emotion chip," said Dr. Tsai. "He could remove it, if he chose to. Don't you find it strange that he hasn't done so?"
It was that word again. Stenak did not think it strange, and said as much.
"If he removed it," she continued carefully, "he would be…"
"Less Vulcan too, I believe."
Her interlocutor cocked her head to one side. Kathleen Tsai had lived and worked on Vulcan for thirty years, aging more than twice as fast as her colleagues. During that time she had rigorously, committedly and optimistically practiced the disciplines for the mastery of emotion.
"To master emotion," Stenak said, "is not to triumph over it, nor to suppress it entirely. One must accept a thing before one can structure its flow. It is the practice of discipline that is meaningful. The pursuit of the unreachable goal."
In saying this, Stenak put forward her own understanding of the matter. There were a multiplicity of philosophical approaches to the discipline, refined and diversified across the millennia, and no doubt Tsai had studied them more seriously than Stenak had ever done. Kolinahr was controversial, and misunderstood, even among Vulcans.
"It may be so," said Tsai, polite disagreement in the Vulcan idiom.
What Stenak saw in her eyes, though, was not disagreement. It was disappointment. With a slow nodding of her head, Tsai returned her attention to her bowl of greens.
The burden of emotion weighed heavily upon Tsai. Stenak thought that her colleague would not willingly have accepted such an inheritance.
When Stenak first heard the phrase from the universal translator, she thought that Commander La Forge must be referring to the vistas of rolling hills that one could see from the cloisters as they walked through the Academy of Science.
She blinked, then considered the context and realized that a more faithful translation might be red matter. In other words, the epsilon pulsinator, which they had finally succeeded in synthesizing in macroscopic quantities. Back in the laboratory it floated rather threateningly in a Class I forcefield, looking nothing like the familiar sunset-colored sands of home.
He must have sensed her hesitation, because he shrugged nervously.
"Some of us just started calling it that. Rolls off the tongue a little easier than 'epsilon pulsinator,' don't you think?"
"Red matter," she said neutrally in Standard. It did not seem any easier on her tongue but then she was not a native Standard-speaker. 'Epsilon pulsinator,' on the other hand, was aesthetically satisfying. It was in keeping with systems of classification that Vulcan scientists had developed over the ages. The name tied this new substance into a chain of being that encompassed all that was.
"You don't like it?"
"It reminds me," Stenak said, "of human science fiction. It is the sort of name that humans create."
Her reply had been intended as a factual statement but she could see Commander La Forge drooping slightly as she uttered it. He had read it as disapproval.
And, she realized upon examining her own motives, he had been right to do so. That night after a long day at work, she meditated until dawn on questions of naming, and emotions, and the mysteries of human (and Vulcan) nature. She came to no firm conclusion.
Two days later, when even Dr. Tsai slipped and called the substance red matter in her hearing, Stenak knew very well what the Federation would choose as an official name. For a moment she felt white-hot, unreasoning rage at the trivialities of humans, their nervous, hostile laughter that seemed to pass carelessly over life, death and everything in between.
And then she took a long, deep breath and regained her control.
To know the other, she told herself. There is nothing more laudable than this.
After long years of learning, it was time that she finally accepted it.
It was thus that Dr. Stenak of the Vulcan Academy of Sciences came to write her highly-classified journal article announcing, on behalf of her research group, the discovery of red matter. She did so thinking of the strangeness of snow, and the taste of hot cocoa, and the immeasurable loyalties of one friend to another amidst the sunset-colored sands of Vulcan.
"He showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel-nut, in the palm of my hand; and it was as round as a ball. I looked thereupon with the eye of my understanding, and thought: What may this be? And it was answered generally thus: It is all that is made."
--Julian of Norwich