Perhaps I could immerse myself fully
in the necessity of events, as the heptapods must...
–Ted Chiang, "Story of Your Life"
A man goes into a bar. This is how it ends. Bucky Barnes goes into the bar.
It's the night of Louise's biggest book launch. Her speech, the cocktail party afterwards – it's over. She fled to the bar of her hotel, for a bit of quiet before she goes to bed. She wrote several books and they all had launches, or at least a small faculty celebration. But even she herself thinks of The Universal Language as the book. It's a guide to learning Heptapod, the book she wanted to write, the book she was meant to write. And still, she is unsure whether it's possible to learn from a book what is the actual gift of the heptapods. Louise has yet to meet another person who learnt their language like she did. Ian can read their language, he even started to write simple sentences before he decided he wants nothing more to do with Heptapod, ever. Ian. Louise invited him to the book launch. But he did not come.
The man who has just entered the bar of the hotel is tall. He's wearing a black suit, a three-piece affair, narrow black tie. The suit does nothing to hide his muscled figure. Louise cannot help noticing him; the other guests notice him as well. Bodybuilder, she thinks. But she knows the man's a soldier.
The barkeeper puts down the glass he's been wiping. For a moment, Louise imagines they're in an old Western and the barkeep will reach for the gun hidden underneath the bar. She is still wearing the red gown and the diamond-studded earrings she bought herself from the book advance. Half the world was watching tonight when she gave the speech and talked about the book. She knows she looks beautiful in this professional disguise. The earrings are spirals without beginning or end. Yes, they are symbolic. Louise has loved them since she first saw them in a jewelry store on Fifth Avenue.
"Ms Banks," the man says.
She has forgotten how soft his voice is, so incongruous with his powerful presence. He's standing beside her, searching her face. The barkeeper takes a step towards them, and she glances over to let him know it's okay. It's James. James Buchanan Barnes. He will ask her to call him Bucky.
"May I take a seat? I'd like to talk to you. It won't take long." The corners of the man's eyes crinkle when he smiles. Smiling, he looks a bit like Ian. He holds up a copy of The Universal Language. "I promise I won't ask you for an autograph."
Louise gestures towards the empty stool beside her. The barkeeper goes back to wiping the glasses.
"You already have my autograph," she says.
The man quietly laughs. He turns to the barkeeper and raises two fingers. "Two of what she was having."
A bit of mint leaf is stuck to Louise's glass; she finished her drink a while ago. The barkeeper puts away the towel and starts to prepare their drinks.
When the man sits on the stool beside her Louise feels the eyes of everyone in the bar on them. She's radiant tonight, she knows, and the man is strikingly good-looking. They must make quite the pair. She turns around towards the entrance where the bar leads back into the hotel lobby.
In the shadows beside the entrance another man leans against the wall. He sneaked in secretly when everyone was focused on James. He nods in response to her wordless greeting. But his attention is all on the man at the bar beside Louise.
The man at the bar beside Louise wears a black glove on his left hand. His other, gloveless hand rests on his right thigh, slender fingers, short nails. He balls it into a fist.
"Ms Banks, I'd like to talk to you about Lena Tamara Varinovska." He pronounces the name like a native Russian speaker, the rolling Rs soft, the vowels lengthened just a bit. "Did you know her?"
"No," she says. And yet she knows the voice of this woman, this colleague she's never met.
"When they arrived Lena was the translator on the Siberian site." The man unclenches his fist.
There is no need to ask who they are. The barkeeper puts their drinks in front of them, and Louise takes one, wrapping her fingers around the cool glass.
"We were never introduced to the other translators. It was all classified," she says.
Later she found out Varinovska was a historical linguist, specializing in Old East Slavic and the birch bark letters of Novgorod. Much of what Louise is working on these days, academically, builds on what Varinovska established. Louise has been to the excavation sites in Novgorod. She's also been to the arrival site in Siberia.
"I was stationed at the military base there," the man says. It's all he's ever told her, and Louise never pried. "I was part of the security team when Lena went in."
She almost crushes the glass in her excitement to meet another person who knows them, too, in person. "I never met anyone from the Russian teams. How… how was it for you?" She wants to ask him so many questions but she knows to hold them back. Eventually, James will tell her all she wants to know.
"I wouldn't say I was part of the team." He shrugs. "Security."
"But you knew Professor Varinovska?"
"Lena. Yes." He looks up, and that's when Louise notices how his eyes are trained not on her face but a spot just beside her. She feels the urge to turn around but she knows there's nothing there.
"They sent me into the shell first. Lena came with the second team."
"You were sent in alone?" Louise remembers her first time clearly, the fear building with every step, the way her stomach flipped when gravity, gravity changed, and she was walking upwards and forward at the same time, on a floor that had been a wall just seconds ago, a floor made of a dark alien substance. She cannot imagine what it would have been like to go into this alone. She wouldn't have continued without Colonel Weber, without Ian at her side.
The man watches her, and his expression is kind. Louise knows she is carrying her emotions on her face. The man nips on his drink.
"I've been trained for such missions." He rubs the glass with the leather thumb of his glove. "I... I am stronger than most people. More resilient." Again he shrugs. "It made sense to send me in first. A testing balloon, if you want."
"They never meant us any harm. They knew the composition of the air we breathe, and what kind of atmosphere we need to be able to live." Louise feels the need to state this; she keeps repeating it in all the interviews she gives. It seems to be one of the hardest things for people to grasp: that the heptapods came to ask for help. "But we didn't know it in the beginning."
The man nods. "We didn't know. But my point is: I was sent in first, alone, and for the aliens I was their first contact. When Lena and the second team came, it was her and me trying to figure out why they had come."
A translator and a soldier. A translator and a physicist. A translator and a gaming expert. Two translators in Khartoum. And so on, twelve teams, sometimes pairs, sometimes groups of three or four. Louise often wonders what the heptapods have thought of humanity. What did Costello take home with him of them?
Again, the man rubs his thumb across the glass. "I've had some... some language training. Lena liked me. We worked well together." A private smile appears on his face. He does not look at Louise, he no longer stares at the spot behind her. The smile vanishes, and again, he balls the hand on his thigh into a fist. "I was the one who shot her."
A clink of glass. There is no time. Many become one, a female voice says through the static. The sounds of the bar retreat and flood back towards Louise – music, voices, the scratching of chair legs on the floor. Glass clinking on glass.
"Security," he says. His voice is shaking.
"You?" It shocks her just as much as it always does. She wants to get up, get away from this man, this killer. She must have moved for the barkeeper quickly turns towards her, cutting knife in hand.
"Please stay," the man says. He's moved back almost imperceptibly, giving her space.
When Louise holds lectures about Heptapod and what it means to see the future, someone in the audience will inevitably ask, But what about surprise? What about experiencing something new?. But seeing the future doesn't mean you aren't living the present. She lectures about Heptapod being a performative language; how reality becomes by actually saying the words. But she cannot really explain this state of knowingly not-yet-knowing that comes with experiencing the world like heptapods; she cannot explain it in a linear language like English.
"I'm not going anywhere," she says.
"Lena," he starts, but turns away and wipes his face with the gloved hand. "She should not be forgotten. And you..." He speaks more to himself than to her. "I thought you'd understand."
"Nobody is ever forgotten," Louise says. "It's not possible. Not in Heptapod." And she sees surprise on his face, even though she's told him about the heptapods' gift going both ways.
"I've had... I've had my memories taken from me," he whispers. "You cannot live without memories."
He's been a prisoner of war – Afghanistan, Louise thinks but doesn't know. Caught in some kind of military science experimentation. The brutality of what's been done to him always leaves her helpless and so damn furious at Colonel Weber.
"Abbot and Costello." She has no idea where this is coming from. "Ian..." My husband. "The physicist on our team called them Abbot and Costello. We never found out the meaning of their own names. Did you give them names?"
He takes a deep breath, unclenches his hand and puts it flat beside his drink. "The generals had official names for them, from a Russian folk tale, of course." Again, the private smile appears. "We called them Snout and Leg."
Louise has to laugh out loud because it makes so much sense. "They do look a bit like elephants," she says, "at least the bottom part." And elephants are known for their long memories, she realizes. Snout and Leg are apt names in more ways than one.
A scholar with a keen interest in Old Novgorodian and the birch bark manuscripts. A soldier who had his memories destroyed. Louise can easily see how Lena and James were a pair equally suited to figure out Heptapod like Ian and her. And then it hits her –
"Did Professor Varinovska come to a point where she understood their language?"
"Yes, of course." He turns to her. "Lena worked night and day on the data." He takes both hands from the bar and faces her fully. "Lena and me, we both knew what was coming."
Louise knows what's coming, and she does not know. She wishes she could spare James this but he needs to say what he's going to say.
"The generals threatened to take us off the grid. But Lena was certain that what we had was only a twelfth of the information the aliens were giving us. All the sites needed to work together."
"Many become one," Louise says, and James closes his eyes.
"Some assembly required."
He nods, eyes still closed. He is clean-shaven, young, barely thirty, Louise guesses. It's hard to imagine that this man was an assassin. That this man killed the Russian translator in cold blood.
"I was going to refuse the kill order," he says quietly. "So Lena could get the message out. She thought the aliens were giving us weapons. Or one weapon, divided into twelve blueprints. Lena could see a global catastrophe, she was dreaming about it. Then we would need the aliens' weapon to defend Earth."
There's something odd about the way he repeats the word weapon. "Is that how you translated the word for what the aliens were offering – a weapon?"
"Lena was not certain but it was the translation that came closest, she thought." He opens his eyes. "Why? Did you have a different translation?"
Louise shakes her head, because they didn't, not back then. Even now, when everything worked out as it did, she wishes she had lied at that briefing and told Weber and Halpern that the heptapods' message simply said tool. "Did you have a different translation?" she asks.
"I was going with asset," he says in a tone so light it betrays layers and layers of what he's not telling her. "But an asset is still a weapon."
"Not necessarily," Louise says and it strikes her how asset describes both the potential and the value of the heptapods' gift. "It's a more accurate translation, actually."
She can tell he refrains from rolling his eyes at her, just barely. Okay, not asset then. In the book Louise has used the word gift as the translation she finally settled on.
"I was wiped before Lena's final session with the aliens," he says. "She went in alone, just with the security team. When she returned, I had my mission. Professor Varinovska was broadcasting illegally, betraying secrets to the enemy. I had my mission. Lena asked me to give her enough time so she could send the message. I… tried. But I had my orders."
Once, Louise asked James what he means when he says wiped. She never got an answer, and Steve told her to let it rest. "We did receive her broadcast. It confirmed our hypotheses, mine and Ian's. Of course, the CIA did not believe a word of what we were telling them."
He points at her book with his chin. "I was glad when I read it, Ms Banks. Real glad. About Lena's broadcast getting through." He straightens on his stool. "Lena was working on the premise of possible commonalities between Heptapod and the oldest languages on Earth. When I read your book I recognized some of Lena's thoughts."
"I couldn't have written this book without the groundwork Professor Varinovska laid out in her doctoral thesis," Louise says. "Thank you for telling me about her, James."
He moves his hand towards his drink but doesn't take it. Instead he looks over Louise's shoulder to his friend. "I have to thank you for even talking to me, Ms Banks," he says. "I know it cannot be easy." He rises to leave. "I'll leave you to your nightcap then."
Louise stops him, a deliberate touch to his left arm. He flinches and she quickly gestures towards the book on the bar. "May I?"
He pushes it towards her and she reaches into her clutch for a pen. She takes the book and it automatically falls open to the title page – author's name, The Universal Language, subtitle, the publisher. And underneath, in her own handwriting: For James. Stay in touch, her signature. And her private email address. There's seven people on the planet who have her private email address. Louise smiles and puts the pen away.
The man takes the book and looks at what she's written – now, before, after. His mouth twitches. "Please call me Bucky," he says. "There are way too many James's in this world." And, "I will. Stay in touch, I mean."
"I am looking forward to it," Louise says. She's visited him twice now in New York; she's met the man waiting at the entrance, Captain America. Tony Stark is partially funding her research these days.
He takes the book and rises. "Have a good night, Ms Banks," he says, "and thank you again for your time." He turns to go. Louise can see him make eye-contact with Steve. But he hesitates. Very quietly he says, "You are waiting for Ian, aren't you?"
They have not yet spoken about Ian; James doesn't yet know her so well. But, "Yes," she says. Of course he knows.
There's the crinkle in the corners of his eyes. "He's here, Louise."
She wheels around so fast he has to steady her. Ages, it takes ages until she's off the bar stool in this stupid gown. Ian – Ian – comes closer, and it is him. He walks with confidence, never afraid but also never unaffected. There is a bit more grey in his hair. She has wondered whether she's loved him only for Hannah's sake. But seeing him now she knows that's not true.
"Bring him with you," the man at her side says, "next time." And he steps away.
She's watching Ian approach and James – Bucky – walk away. Louise is not sure who she's smiling at.
Bucky Barnes leaves the bar. This is how it begins. A man goes into a bar.