It took even him, with all his brilliance, some time to figure out what in hell had gone wrong after they stepped through the malfunctioning gate onto the planet.
He couldn't say the words, couldn't even think them, and the level of mind-control exercised by gates everywhere which that implied was frankly terrifying. Especially when the damn things stopped working.
Why was it just names? Ordinary common or garden nouns, improper nouns, any old goddamn nouns were fine. Just not names, not proper nouns.
None of the team could say them or even think the damn things. It had to be a virus in the gate's code or a similar glitch, randomly targeting that single aspect of language.
He stuck his hand out from where he was shoulder-deep in the guts of the dialing device and snapped his fingers blindly at his spiky-haired team leader. "Give me the, the..." But they'd named the tool, of course; it made repairs faster to be able to ask for a '30 millimeter spanner' or a 'Phillips screwdriver' rather than 'that long, thin metal thing with a cross at the sharp end.' He ground his teeth. "Hey! He who must be obeyed—pay attention!"
"Quit calling me that…...," there was a strangled silence, "O supremely annoying one." Huh. For some reason the...military man...beside him had opted for quite the flowery workaround in circumventing the names thing. Interesting.
"Gimme the electrical box thingy with wires coming out one–" He broke off as the current-checking whatsit was slapped into his hand with excessive force. Behind him, his helper growled in frustration.
The cute woman spoke up now, having presumably returned from helping the big hairy guy secure the perimeter. He tried to force his brain to just call her 'the woman', but it tended to embroider. In the absence of proper nouns his unconscious gleefully filled in the gaps unless brutally censored. He'd called her a 'hot warrior babe' once already, and he knew he'd be paying for it in bruises at stick practice for weeks.
Worse, he'd called his current helper 'sex on legs' before realizing in horror what he'd done, flushing darkly and burying himself in the innards of the device.
"It seems deserted......here," she finished, after a strangled pause. Of them all, she was finding it hardest to invent alternate phrases instead of names. He guessed that as a trader and diplomat, using names correctly was deeply ingrained. He and...the black-shirted soldier...were used to calling each other all sorts of weird shit, and the big hairy guy just grunted and poked them to get their attention. The big guy was marginally more monosyllabic than usual, but it wasn't all that noticeable.
"Well, that's cool, but we can't count on it staying safe for ever," his colonel-type minion replied. "Hey...mad scientist! You gettin' anywhere?"
"No." He wriggled out and sat up, wiping a sleeve across his sweaty forehead. "Busted crystals all through it; too many for me to replace. We're stuck here until...the city...checks in. They need to send a…dammit…a small space ship with its own dialer."
His irritated-looking colleague scowled at the dialing machine. "Crap. Which they're not gonna do 'til tomorrow morning, 'cause we were supposed to be down in the underground ruins by now and out of range."
The hairy giant wandered over and threw down a couple of dead rabbit-things. Other than the head-to-paw stripes they looked very like over-sized rabbits, anyway. "We should camp."
"Well, we could still explore the ruins." But even as he said it—and fuck, it was terrifying not even to be able to think of his own name, let alone anyone else's—he realized it was a very bad idea.
The woman shook her head. "No, doctor......no. We have spent too much time here to manage it on schedule, and it seems unwise to take any risks while we are hampered in this way. We would need clear communication if there were a crisis."
"What she said." Tall dark and spiky nodded and gripped his gun like he wanted to shoot the dialer. He grimaced. "Damn......um, sorry. Didn't mean to call you 'she'." He waved a hand, looking constipated.
"It is quite all right......oh, ancestor blood!" she snapped. "It will not even let me call you by your rank! This is most frustrating."
The hairy guy squatted down and started heaping up branches for a fire. There were other things he'd usually call him, linked with his height and well-muscled build, the mane of hair and his primitive-looking clothing, but they must all be names, stubbornly hovering just out of reach of his tongue.
He blew out a sigh and packed away his tools, then went to find more fallen branches and drag them back to the fire. The woman produced her fire-starter and in a while the big guy had the rabbit-things skinned and spitted on a branch, and was turning them over the flames.
"Smells good," he said, trying to cheer up the dark-haired annoyed guy who was still glaring at the dialing machine as though it had done him a personal injury. At least he'd set his gun aside, although not too far. Which was for the best, really, as even though they couldn't dial out, there was nothing to stop the…badly-dressed vampires…from dialing in. He shivered, and hunched closer to the fire. They were under the edge of the trees here, but it wasn't much protection.
He got his bedroll out, laid a foil blanket underneath to stop it getting damp, and sat on it, pulling his laptop out of his bag. A minute later he set it aside. Yeah, no. Anything with text was peppered with names, yawning like potholes of incomprehensibility. He supposed he could do pure math, but he wasn't in the mood. He got out a couple of…military rations…and peered at the packaging. More illegible labeling, but at least he knew they'd be safe—he never brought the ones with lemon pound cake. "Anyone need a spare ready-to-eat meal?" he asked, waving one of them.
"I have one, thank you," the woman said. "Do you have enough…energy chocolate bars?"
"Wow," he snorted. "That makes them sound vastly better than they taste. But yeah, I'm okay. Big guy?"
The freakishly large leather-clad dude was sitting cross-legged by the fire. He shook his head, matted hair swaying. " 'm gonna have barbecue." He waved at the ration pack. "Those things block me up."
"Yeah," the slouching soldier drawled. "Meals refusing to exit, the…troops…call 'em." He frowned. "It's, like, a joke on the name. Can't quite recall why right now." His frown deepened.
The woman touched his arm, her face sympathetic. "It is no matter……" She shut her eyes, face tense with frustration, then took a deep breath, looking up and smiling. "No matter, my friend."
The man in black grinned back at her. "Yeah, that works." He patted her hand awkwardly, then began rummaging in his own pack, pulling out four wrapped muffins and passing them around.
"Ooh, you scored these at breakfast!" He took one from his team leadery person, then paused, peering at it suspiciously. "You're sure these aren't the ones with orange zest in them?"
"When have I ever given you food with citrus in it?" The other man looked hurt, and he thought it over, realizing he'd been insensitive. Apparently he could manage that without any proper nouns at all, no surprise there.
"No, come to think of it, you really haven't, have you? In fact I haven't seen you eat anything with citrus in it yourself, not for years." The dark-haired guy nodded, looking mollified.
"None of us do—we would not take that risk with you." The pretty woman smiled reassuringly at him and took a small bite from her muffin. By the fire, the hairy guy chomped half of his in one go and grinned over at him, crumbs in his teeth. He felt suddenly very fond of all of them, his team.
Dusk was falling, and the fire was cozy. The rabbit-things were delicious and he found he was drowsy, leaning against the guy with ridiculous hair beside him, who leaned back.
They'd passed some time story-telling, the woman excelling at it as the tales she told were like fairy-stories, featuring 'the huntress' and 'the farmer' and suchlike. The temptingly good-looking guy he was leaning on had tried one of his re-tellings of B-movies from their old planet, but that was harder work without names—the characters weren't archetypal enough.
I-spy had been tricky as well, not that the big hairy guy had ever really cooperated. He called it the dumbest game ever invented, and teased them with obscure words in an archaic language from his planet that the gate didn't translate. It was as bad as playing with……that guy in the labs with the funny accent.
Then the woman had sung some traditional songs, mostly just the tune with the rest of them humming along, and that was nice. After, the big hairy man took first watch, sitting back against a tree, his ray-gun in hand, and they got ready to sleep.
When he was snug in his bedroll, yawning and wriggling to get comfortable, he found the guy with pointy ears had spread his own bedding very close alongside. Right, he thought. Probably the best thing for warmth, if the night gets chilly. He turned on his side and the other guy did the same, facing him, their faces only a foot apart. The fire cast a dim, flickering light across them both.
"Sooo, sex on legs, huh?" the man drawled softly, eyebrows raised.
He blushed. "It was probably shock," he explained in a whisper. "I'm not, um, exactly myself at the moment. I rely on language, as you know perfectly well."
"Yeah, yeah, I'm not complaining." The guy grinned. "I'll take a rain check on it, for now. Best to wait 'til you get those words of yours back and can really…do me justice."
"You, you want me to call you sexy?" That was unexpected. But welcome.
"Among other things," his friend whispered, voice gone low and sultry. "G'night, blue eyes." And he leaned over and brushed their lips together, before settling back into his bed.
In the better fairy-tales, that would have magically fixed the gate and restored their speech, but for now, in this galaxy, imperfect as it was, it was enough, even if he lacked the means to express it properly.
He slid his hand out of the bedroll and caught his much-loved and lusted-after best friend's hand and squeezed it, closing his eyes as he slept.
Some things didn't need to be named.
~ the end ~