Actions

Work Header

A Rare Reverse Metaphor

Work Text:

Gunfire rattled overhead, audible even through the garrison's heavy walls, and after it the shrill noises of alien speech pierced through the thick stone. She crouched deeper in her hidden alcove and cursed silently.

Pointless, punishing busywork - she'd known the assignment for what it was as soon as she'd been ordered to this miserable backwater, but none of the other attentive officers had warned her about missiles being dropped on their heads all the way from orbit. Or masses of short shrieking aliens with weapons appearing in the middle of the daily routine and shooting down half of her aggregates. How could she possibly concentrate on her real interests when she couldn't even keep up with the authorization stamps for dealing with the entire mess? The situation was intolerable, absolutely intolerable.

Another burst of gunfire, but farther away. Good. The greater the distance, the better; she should be able to leave the alcove soon and make it to a transportation pad. And after that... Well, Great Mother forgive her, but she had more important matters to take care of than dying in an invasion.

If the High Seer had indeed foreseen the garrison's destruction, what other truths might be lurking unheeded in his prophecies?


***INCOMING TRANSMISSION FROM OUTSYSTEM SATELLITES***

origin: Nar vessel Carry the Weight Far
destin: leela_admin3013@vyltal.byr
ref: Records of Narsh Prophetic Ranting
stamp: salutation

Respectful greetings to the appropriate authorities. I am approaching the Vylae systems without hostile intent for a non-militarized purpose and request access to the Narsh archives on Vyl Prime at the archivists' earliest convenience. Your understanding and cooperation are appreciated.

 

Filtering subroutines flagged the message to Leela's primary processing. The Vylae had a cordial relationship with the Nar, and Narsh vessels with the appropriate identifiers were usually granted automatic entry into Vylae space. Carry the Weight Far had provided the correct identifiers, but the additional message, while written in Narsh, lacked the usual fluent informality of most Narsh communications. There was a certain rigidity and logic to it that suggested a non-native speaker, and the header's formatting was strangely familiar. Where had she encountered it before?

Oh, yes. How could she have forgotten.

 

***INCOMING TRANSMISSION FROM ADMINISTRATOR LEELA***

Attention, Nar vessel Carry the Weight Far. Permission to enter Vyltal system has been denied. Please remove the unauthorized Pfhor passenger or passengers from your ship before continuing on your current flight course. If you require assistance in removing them, you may contact the security forces on Station Ssalbul at secops_ssalbul@vyltal.byr.

 

"Look, it's not personal," Sebnar said. "You paid a fair price for the ride and you don't speak Narsh half bad for a slaver bug, but we weren't figuring on picking anyone up when we were counting stuff we needed for this trip, you know?" She twined her tendrils together. "And if we can't stock up here at Vyltal system, we're never going to make it all the way out to Shn Naing, right? I'm real sorry, that's just how it is."

"Sebnar Who Gives the Orders Around Here," the tiny blue bug said. "I realize you're in a tough spot, but when I boarded, I was not aware that the Pfhor empire and the Vylae communes were no longer neutral to each other. Can you explain?"

Why did she have to be so polite? Sebnar would've kicked any other slaver out the airlock by now, whether they'd paid or not, and kept trudging on. "Well," she said, "what I heard from my third uncle Gubnar was, one of the communes picked up a broken alien Thing What Thinks, and when they fixed it up it got into all their networks somehow and now they can't get it out. Guess it's got some kind of grudge about your lot, but I never heard why."

"I see, thanks." The bug tapped her stick-like tendrils against her face. "But I really have to get to Vyl Prime's archives somehow... It's vital for my research."

Oh, stoke it. "What we could do is stop at this Station Sarbul and let you off there. Maybe these security forces can help you, get you in touch with the Thing What Thinks? I don't know what Vylae are doing with security, but least you'd have someplace to stay while you sort stuff out, and they probably aren't gonna toss you into vacuum if you're not making trouble. Yeah?"

"Station Ssalbul. I do not speak Vylae well, but there are few other options," the bug said. "Fine, I agree."

"Really appreciate your understanding," Sebnar said, relieved, and she un-knotted her tendrils to wipe her head. "Good luck with that research! We'll get you there fast as we can."

 

***INCOMING MESSAGE FROM STATION SSALBUL***

origin: Ssalbul security holding facilities
destin: Machinated Administrator Leela (leela_admin3013@vyltal.byr)
ref: Permission to visit Vyl Prime Archives
stamp: negotiation

Since you have already correctly identified me as Pfhor, I will not attempt to conceal my species any longer and instead will communicate with you in my own language, in hopes that I can persuade you to revoke your unreasonable travel ban. I stated in my first message that I am here on a peaceful mission of research. I have traveled to Vyltal system solely to work with better copies of the early Ranting of Robnar the High Seer, which I have already spent some time studying as part of my long-standing interest in comparative Narsh and Pfhoric linguistics.

I have no aggregates, willfuls, or other attentive officers with me, which your security forces can confirm, nor do I have any method of communicating with another Pfhor battle group. I cannot possibly present a threat to the willful Vylae; grant me permission to travel to Vyl Prime without interference so I can continue my studies.

 

***INCOMING MESSAGE FROM ADMINISTRATOR LEELA***

Security Officer Ddarvu, I fail to understand why you have allowed the Pfhor prisoner access to communications. Please dispose of it at once.

 

***INCOMING MESSAGE FROM STATION SSALBUL***

With all proper respect, Administrator, she seems harmless enough for a hiver. She surrendered herself without any fuss and she's not making any trouble in the holding facilities. We used to let Pfhor through to visit all the time as long as they showed up alone and didn't act too strong-and-mighty at the station keepers; what could be so bad about this one?

 

***INCOMING MESSAGE FROM ADMINISTRATOR LEELA***

Regardless of personal intentions, Pfhor are not welcome in these systems at any time. If no outbound ship is willing to take the prisoner with them, get rid of it yourself.

 

When Ddarvu approached the transient alien quarters - no, they were "holding cells" now, though what the difference was supposed to be only Old Mother and the Administrator knew - the hiver was absorbed in her flat little mobile computer. Just like on every other of Ddarvu's visits. Honestly, why did the Administrator have to be so stubborn on the subject of Pfhor? Sure, they were a boring bunch, with all their rules and the military obsession, and the slavery thing was just weird, but what was one Pfhor obsessed with Narsh going to do? Wear out the archivists? And there weren't any outgoing ships due to stop at the station for ages, which the Administrator had to know...

"Greetings, attentive Ddarvu," the hiver said in her awkward Vylae, still concentrating on her screen. "Any progression made?"

Hah. Exactly the opposite. "Sorry, uh - what was your name again?"

"Re'eer, former attentive officer."

"Right, right - well, Re'eer, the Administrator is pretty unhappy with you being here. Why, I don't know, it's not the kind of thing she talks about, but she wants you off this station one way or another, and the way she put it, sounds like she'd prefer vacuum to a ship."

That got Re'eer to look up. "What - it requests you to murder me?"

"Pretty much," Ddarvu said.

"This is untolerable! I have done nothing inappropriate!"

"I know, I know." Rot all those idiots in the planetary communes for ever installing the Administrator, not to mention making all those awful deals without even asking how the outer stations might feel about handing access to vital systems over to a bug-ridden alien construct. "If it were up to me, I'd let you nest here till the next supply run and send you on to Vyl Prime anyway, but the Administrator watches all of those like a hungry byna. I can try to argue with her some more, but when she makes up her mind, she doesn't change it easily."

Re'eer had hopped up and started pacing around the quarters, muttering to herself in that warbling the Pfhor called a language. "Is it a thing I can do," she said abruptly, "to debate to this Administrator myself? If I persuade her for letting me go, the problem is solved."

"Well..." Ddarvu blew air through her trunk. "I could hook that terminal there back up to the network so you could talk to her, but I don't think she's going to listen to you any more than she's listened to me so far. A lot less, even."

"I insist to debate to her," said Re'eer.

Actually, maybe the two of them deserved each other. Stupid, stubborn hiver. "It's your recycling, I guess," Ddarvu said. "I'll be right back, I need to get some -"

"Ddarvu! Hey, Ddarvu!" Ralddi skittered in, his optics pale with stress. "We've got three different communes' merchant ships coming in and a Bhorbhis touring ship that Station Valdyddin sent our way! Where are we going to put them all?"

"Don't ask me! The Administrator put Ssylbi and her crew in charge of docking arrangements, remember?" Great, this was just what she needed, Ralddi panicking over every little spike in activity. "Go make sure those Commune Ssal engineers finished restoring the old merchants' quarters and that Ssylbi knows we've got more ships on the way." She turned her head back to Re'eer. "Just hold on while I get that terminal fixed, and then you can argue with the Administrator all you want as long as you don't disturb the Bhorbhi once they settle in."

"I agree," Re'eer said, and for a little while, Ddarvu could escape into the normal bustle of station life.


***INCOMING MESSAGE FROM STATION SSALBUL***

origin: Re'eer, Ssalbul security holding facilities
destin: Machinated Adminstrator Leela
ref: Entering Vyltal System
stamp: negotiation

I have not studied Vylae cultures in great depth and I do not know the culture that constructed you at all. Perhaps I have spoken offensively without being aware of it. I humbly offer apologies for any such offense, reiterate my harmless intentions, and request permission to continue my journey to Vyl Prime to consult the archives in Commune Hynmae.

 

***INCOMING MESSAGE FROM ADMINISTRATOR LEELA***

Your persistence would be admirable in many other situations. As it irritates me in this one, I will explain why you are not welcome in Vylae space.

In my first encounter with the Pfhor, they killed hundreds of the humans whose well-being I was responsible for and enslaved others, as well as attempting to destroy me. After we fought them off, they returned only to kill every last human on my ship and in the colony - over twenty thousand people, including children - and dismantled me.

Regardless of the Vylae's previous neutral stance, I will not allow even a single Pfhor to enter these systems.

 

***INCOMING MESSAGE FROM STATION SSALBUL***

origin: Re'eer
destin: Machinated Administrator Leela
ref: Entering Vyltal System
stamp: conciliation

I humbly offer sympathy for your story. I myself have never served in an active battle group or scoutship, and my last post was to a rustic garrison in the Galactic Core, where I did not see action until the unfortunate circumstances from which I fled. In fact, I am currently considered deceased by the Pfhor military, as I faked records of my demise in order to pursue my studies without interruption. If I return to my people, I will be executed as a mutinous traitor.

I have thrown away not only my career, but my right of existence to come to Vyl Prime and the archives. Please grant me permission to enter your territory, and I swear by Tsiefa, goddess of diplomacy, that I will not bring harm to either you or the Vylae.

 

***INCOMING MESSAGE FROM ADMINISTRATOR LEELA***

You truly are stubborn. It reminds me a little of -

Never mind. I will not pressure Security Chief Ddarvu or her fellow officers to get rid of you, but you still may not travel within Vyltal system. You will be provided with the appropriate passage fare for the next outbound vessel to stop at Station Ssalbul.

 

***INCOMING MESSAGE FROM STATION SSALBUL***

origin: Re'eer
destin: Machinated Administrator Leela
ref: Entering Vyltal System
stamp: desperation

Machinated Administrator, have you ever consulted the archives yourself, or studied Narsh? The language is extremely complex and nuanced, and never more so than in the Ranting of Robnar the High Seer. Parsing and interpreting the true meaning of any given ranting is difficult work, but it has become my passion. While studying a certain passage on Lh'owon, I came to realize that Robnar might have predicted the alien attack on the garrison, and that realization gave me the impetus to desert my post.

Robnar's ranting must hold truths and predictions that many scholars have not even guessed at, but without thoughtful study, how can they be discovered? I treated this work as a hobby, and only now do I see its true importance. If you cannot forgive my species, please understand at least my passion to learn and my undesirable position. Please allow me to access the archives.

 

***INCOMING MESSAGE FROM STATION SSALBUL***

origin: Re'eer
destin: Machinated Administrator Leela
ref: Entering Vyltal System
stamp: correspondence

I do not wish to interrupt your thought process, Machinated Administrator, but I humbly note that multiple station cycles have passed since my last message and you have not yet replied. Has there been some problem?

 

***INCOMING MESSAGE FROM STATION SSALBUL***

origin: Re'eer
destin: Machinated Administrator Leela
ref: Conversation
stamp: concern

I humbly hope this message does not disturb the Machinated Administrator and send wishes for your continued smooth functioning. While I do not currently have access to archival resources, I have continued to work on interpreting the few recorded rantings of Robnar I brought with me and have found an intriguing anomaly in a particular passage. I have attached my preliminary analysis for your consideration.

{ cmd: append analysis.39B6 }

This recording, originally translated by Willful Enforcer Third Class Ch'erk whose work was later refined by Willful Enforcer First Class Tzora, reads in Pfhoric When one of the yellow trees' grove singing falls like ripe fruit in the cool season, into the nest of the thinker with lightning, then the wet places will be as a wall running with grndel (a type of small scaled animal known to steal both food and coal).

The classical interpretation, which is based on the parallels with a famous passage relating the fall of Barmda-twenty-nine, is as follows:

"When one of the Pfhor ships (referring to the dropship Cr'edj'ah ) lands on the lightning goddess's planet (Barmda-twenty-nine is well-known for its violent electrical storms), the stronghold will be destroyed."

This interpretation thus assumes that Robnar was speaking of the battle on Bilky-fifty-four where he was captured, but I believe that Willful Enforcer Tzora was caught in the trap of over-literalness and that, like the passages I studied on Lh'owon, these words were prophetic. In fact, they may be related to each other. I must study the matter further, but it seems to me that a new interpretation must be made that takes certain contemporaneous colloquial Narsh metaphors into account...

 

***INCOMING MESSAGE FROM ADMINISTRATOR LEELA***

Officer Ddarvu, Stationmaster Ssylbi. Please arrange guarded transportation for the Pfhor Re'eer from Station Ssalbul to Commune Hynmae.


...will be as a wall running with...

Loud chattering burst from the shuttle compartment's other occupant, and Re'eer looked up from her mobile computer, clicking her mandibles. Attentive Officer Ralddi was gesturing with both forepincers and trunk yet again, though what he was excited about now Re'eer couldn't begin to guess from his fast-paced garbling. Really, for all he was Vylae and therefore willful by nature, he could be such an aggregate at times; Attentive Officer Ddarvu must have been grateful to be rid of him for a while.

"Please speak more slowly," she said, holding out one hand. "I cannot understand." If she'd known the sort of hostility she would be dealing with, she would have applied herself to Vylae much more diligently, instead of relying on the archivists speaking Narsh.

"Sorry," Ralddi said, but a moment later he launched into more rapid-fire chatter she could barely decipher. If he couldn't be comprehensible, couldn't he at least be quiet so she could concentrate? Vylae didn't believe in teleportation for anything but inanimate cargo, and she had so hoped to use the shuttle ride from high orbit to refine her research proposal.

Little chance of that now; he was going on about ground and air or possibly breezes and - ah, yes, they must be about to land. She tucked her computer into its nook in her blue armor and firmly grasped the holding bar closest to her seat.

The landing seemed to go smoothly enough, as far as Re'eer could tell from her limited experience, though Ralddi failed to heed common sense and went sliding around without a grip as the shuttle decelerated. He was still rubbing his forepincers together and muttering as he escorted her through the airlock.

The orange-tinted light of Vyltal, mellow as it was compared to the blazing blue-white sun of Pfhor Prime's system, struck Re'eer with unexpected brightness and heat when she stepped out onto the bare landing field. Too long on dim alien ships and stations; she hadn't set foot on a planet in half a year or so. The air was pleasantly dry and warm, and a light wind brought the scent of ripening fruit from the northeast.

"I go now," Ralddi said, finally speaking at a pace she could follow. "You wait here. Right? You get it?"

"Yes, yes," Re'eer said, and he scuttled off to the north. She looked around for a replacement guard or a structure to wait in, but the horizons were empty of anything but trees, the shuttle, and the two pilots disembarking. They strolled northwards as well; a third crew member climbed out of the shuttle's rear compartment and beckoned to Re'eer.

When Re'eer approached her - or him, or neutral, it was so difficult to tell with Vylae, but by size alone likely female - she said, "Computer, please," and held her trunk out.

Re'eer hesitated, then handed her computer over. The Vylae took it with her trunk, balanced it on her forepincers, and tapped a few times on the screen before returning it. "Go that way," she said, pointing west. "The Administrator will guide you."

Re'eer had barely taken three steps when the computer spoke. "I see you have arrived safely," the artificial voice said. "I am -"

"Machinated Administrator Leela?"

"Yes - although you may simply call me Leela. Lynddu has connected your personal computer to the greater network so that I can monitor your activity and translate for you. You should therefore keep your computer with you at all times for both my and your convenience."

Obnoxious, but hardly unexpected, and it would be useful to be able to communicate more fluently, particularly with the archivists. "Yes, Machinated Administrator."

"Please continue on your current path, and you will reach the Narsh Language Archive in approximately thirty minutes."

It was a quiet walk after that, through strange short knotted trees with dark red leaves and sparse low undergrowth; there was no proper path, but clearly the forest was tended in some fashion to provide a smooth walking experience. Small avians occasionally fluttered by and made an unholy racket of mating or territorial calls among the trees. Perhaps the Vylae found such noises pleasant, as some species did.

Soon the land began to rise at a gentle slope, and Re'eer picked up the pace. She broke out of the red-leaved trees on the crest of a hill and looked down.

The Narsh Language Archive was nestled in a shallow valley before her: a square, three-tiered building in the traditionally gigantic Narsh fashion, made of some black stone with only a few small, narrow windows. Ornamental foliage and statuary surrounded it, but Re'eer had three eyes only for the enormous rectangular entryway. At last - at last she'd reached her goal...

"You have reached the Archive," said Leela, as Re'eer bounded down the valley's sides toward the building. "One of the archivists is waiting at the door to guide you to the appropriate section."

Re'eer could see them already: a tall, thin Vylae with shockingly pink fur and exoskeleton, wide frilly ears, and pearly optics, who waved their trunk at Re'eer. Once she was within hearing range, they started speaking, and Administrator Leela translated their speech into Pfhoric simultaneously. "How nice to meet someone new who's interested in Narsh! I'm Attentive Archivist Dalyddi, I hope you had a decent journey. This way, please."

Re'eer followed her through wide, dark hallways, and Leela said, "I have also arranged quarters for you within the Archive building; there is a small dormitory reserved for visiting students which fortunately is empty at the current time."

"I appreciate your efforts on my behalf, Machinated - Leela." Presumably the quarters were also under surveillance, but Re'eer had nothing to hide.

A slight pause. "You're welcome, Re'eer."

Dalyddi stopped in front of a closed square door with a slotted switch on the left. "Here we are," they said through Leela. "You're free to come in at any time and spend however long you like - Akkulmae is working on a passcard for you, he should be done by this evening - but we do ask that you don't bring food or drink in here, for the safety of the recordings." They slid a passcard into the slot, and the door creaked open. "I'm sorry if you can't find what you're looking for. The recordings have all been properly catalogued, of course, but we just haven't been able to expand the collection much recently, so almost everything is from prior to Bilky-fifty-four..."

"Thank you," Re'eer said, her circulatory system thrumming with excitement at the rows and rows of neatly labeled holodiscs lining the walls. "I think this situation will be entirely satisfactory."

"I look forward to seeing more of your work," Leela said.


After approximately eight Vylae days, Re'eer had abandoned her rare walks to the commercial sectors of Commune Hynmae and attempts to socialize with the archivists while acquiring food. She hadn't entirely given up on sleeping, but she was giving the idea serious consideration. The room of Robnar's pre-capture recordings had become her world, albeit a dim and somewhat stale-smelling world under constant observation without day, night, wildlife, plant life, or running water.

She shaded her eyes and made a note on her computer as the latest recording finished. "All right," she announced to her world and Leela. "That's a hundred and five passages with basic transcription done. Should be adequate for a basic sampling, don't you think?"

"It is quite late at night," Leela said. "Perhaps the sampling can wait until tomorrow?"

"Oh, yes, I suppose." Her sight was getting rather blurry from overstimulation, and she shaded her eyes again. "But I've definitely noticed some patterns - where was that file..." She stretched her aching fingers and poked at the screen. "I had something about - ah, here it is. I was telling you earlier about that line, nest of the thinker with lightning, wasn't I?"

"You did. You mentioned something about the colloquial use of that phrase?"

"Yes! You see, in modern colloquial Narsh, the term for any computer or machinated intelligence is 'Thing What Thinks,' but this is merely a shortening of an older term, which is -" Re'eer paused for the appropriate dramatic effect. "- 'Thing What Thinks With Lightning.' What Enforcer Tzora translated as thinker with lightning is undoubtedly this same metaphor, rather than the phrase for an electrical storm - but there were no machinated intelligences at Bilky-fifty-four!"

"I see," Leela said. "So the passage you have been studying cannot, in fact, be a reference to that battle?"

"Exactly!" Re'eer waved her hands at the recordings piled in front of her. "Robnar must have been speaking of some other incident, though I can't pin it down without a great deal more research, of course. Something involving an AI and a Pfhor dropship, or a single Pfhor, even..." She scrolled through her notes. "And the subsequent destruction of someplace wet, though that could be quite a number of either Pfhor or Narsh worlds."

"I must point out," said Leela, her voice calm as ever, "that your current circumstances involve a single Pfhor who has fallen into the residence of a machinated intelligence, although, of course, Commune Hynmae could hardly be described as a marsh or other damp location. Neither is it likely to be destroyed in the near future."

"No, indeed not," Re'eer said. On the few occasions she had left the peace of the Archive, the weather had been uniformly satisfactory and dry, with controlled rainfall being reserved for the nights. Entirely unlike Lh'owon, that miserably unregulated and sodden swamp, and good riddance to the whole forsaken garrison if those invaders had managed to -

"It couldn't be," she said, startling herself, and she pulled her initial work up again. "No. It can't be!"

"That Robnar predicted your arrival on Vyl Prime?"

"It's real! It's a real reverse Narsh metaphor! That no one has spotted before!" Re'eer clutched the computer to her thorax. "Also what you said. But a reverse metaphor! I'm going to revolutionize the traditional interpretation of this passage!"

"I'm very excited for you," Leela said.

"You must take at least half-credit, of course," Re'eer said, jumping up to pace around the room and cool her ichor. "I never could have discovered this without your aid, or of course your permission to study here... This is an amazing discovery! Everyone is eager to discover the next reverse metaphor, but false reports are so common and so rarely stand up to scrutiny - this one, though! Who can argue with it? I must start writing immediately."

"Only if immediately is interpreted as tomorrow. You need rest in order to write with the proper attention to detail."

The impulse to argue rose to Re'eer's mandibles - she was getting as bad as a Vylae - but the labels in front of her eyes were blurring again. Some rest would be appropriate, she supposed, if only to avoid unfortunate spelling errors. For a machinated intelligence, Leela was strangely aware and solicitous of biological weaknesses; she often showed a similar concern for the Vylae archivists and their welfare. Had she been so attached to the aliens of her colony? "As you say."

She was halfway to the dormitory with the computer tucked under her right arm when another thought wandered across her weary mind. "I truly am sorry, you know, Machinated Administrator," she said.

"For what?"

"About the destruction of your colony." Re'eer lowered her eyes to the floor. "I'm afraid that when I apologized earlier, I - was not entirely sincere, but only hoped to placate you to reach the archives. I had no grasp of your capacity for attachment, and - I'm sorry."

"I expected little else," Leela said, but her voice did not raise in anger. "I accept your apology, Attentive Re'eer. Rest well, and we'll discuss your reverse metaphor in the morning."