A space traveler and a time traveler compete for who has the better story.
Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz.
You'd think a time traveler would be on time, grumbles Jay. Jay T'Sevn, or J87, is a robot. He's chosen a shiny new body recently, and unfortunately it comes with a gendered chip. (Jay hates the gendered chips—they are inexplicable.) He's waiting at the Inter-Grated/Galactic Bar, so called because of its attempt to be open to as many people as possible. It's one of the few places he and Hezia can both survive in—the air quality won't make her choke or him rust, the menu contains food for both of them, and the background music is just the right amount of inoffensive.
When Hezia arrives, she uses the same old excuse that the wormhole lines on the moon were extra long and it's not her fault that the Earth time period with the best planetary travel is also the most crowded. Hezia, unlike Jay, is human. Like most humans, her eyes, hair, and skin are all different shades of brown. She is always wearing her Time Travelers' Club jacket, which usually changes based on the time period she's recently visited. You can only tell it's the same jacket because of the logo on the right arm, and also because Jay knows Hezia is too poor and too busy traveling to have any more.
"Do you like it? See, now it's peplum and colorblocked leather –"
"Did you bring the Judge?"
Hezia smirked, and took out the small metal and plastic pyramid, placing it on the table between them. The top of the pyramid slid off and a tiny recording device emerged.
The only reason Jay met up with Hezia was to tell the Judge stories, to be filed away in the Astro Archives. But whichever one would tell the best story would get to keep the Judge until the next time they met. The Judge was one of few in the universe, gathering stories from people and robots and aliens, could not be stolen, and opened almost all doors, both literally and in the eyes of gatekeepers.
"Well," said Jay, miserably—he's still sore his Trach story didn't win him the Judge last time—"Go on, then."
"You have to pick a subject."
"How about…" Jay's eyes alight on the menu. "Language."
Hezia nodded, took a sip of the drink Jay had ordered her, and began her tale.
I went back to the time of email. People were writing out what they needed or wanted from and to other people. They wrote all the time, forever explaining themselves, forever waiting for answers. Whenever you sent off one dispatch, another three or four would take its place, a hydra of communication. It was never ending and one felt continually worried they were missing something.
More than a few technologists had noticed this conundrum, and worked their way around it. They met in person, with their phones turned off.
"It's not only a trouble," said one of them. "It's inefficient."
They all nodded. Inefficiency always got in the way of productivity.
"That's not enough. We have to eliminate email altogether."
"Exactly! The problem isn't communicating better. It's the need to communicate even more directly."
They all sit in silence, all going over this possibility in their heads.
It turn out to be one of the last times people would sit in silence while not reading one another's minds. Their alternative—after rounds of funding and testing—ended up being a chip inserted in one's thumb, connected to a nerve that goes straight to the brain. You press the button on a communication device and it takes all your thoughts and filters them into words. Finally, mediated communication that you don't personally have to mediate.
This means lying, shade, solitude, emotional walls—all these parts started falling away for exactly what was in our heads. People were forced to be truthful, or have their lies unmasked all the time. Politicians and had to actually believe what they were shilling. People took in news or social activity or work by twisting their button to a certain channel and then reacting to what they were supposed to do.
People were efficient, all right. They were so efficient they were ridiculously productive, but then, they also didn't have to write anymore. No one really spoke as much anymore, either, so that hesitations, filler words, facial expressions, impulsivity, yelling, and whispering all began to drain away, alongside art and moving pictures and books. There was no need to tell someone you loved them when you could press a button and have them feel it, you know? But when your feelings were so easily understood, and mined, and empathized with, why do need to explain yourself to anyone?
Anyway, as this technology left the rich deaf, dumb, and blind, the people who couldn't afford this technology revolted and took over. And that's why we have to get special allowances and limits for how many emails or messages we send a day.
"At least," says Hezia, leaning forward. "That's how it is for us now."
She fell back into her chair, satisfied.
"You call that a story? Where was the rising action? Where was the suspense?"
Hezia tries to maintain her cool, but crosses her arms defensively. Her mouth twitches, and Jay wonders if this body is particularly attractive.
"Fine. Go on, then."
Jay, still grinning, starts his tale.
There is a planet far away where the aliens are unaware of their own planet. I see you look confused, but give me a chance to explain. They are born in huts in the gaseous clouds of the planet, and move like ribbons through the atmosphere. As they have no way or reason to fall to the ground, they spend their whole lifetimes in the gap between their planet and outer space.
The only time they do fall to earth is when they die.
Because of this, they are morbidly fascinated with what lies below them. Sometimes they think they can hear the sound of their dearly departed, but it's hard to tell because they've never heard the sound of something falling.
One day, they decide to investigate this by building an AI.
(At this point, Jay knows he's won. Both Hezia and the Judge are leaning forward eagerly. In long ago discussions about the future of AIs, they were deemed too difficult to ever come to pass. They were eventually discovered by mistake, like penicillin. So an AI talking about a story about an AI…)
They build the AI, a ribboning animal like them, but with the ability to float downward without dying.
So the AI, named Rye, goes down. She finds bodies, yes, but she also finds terrain. She finds aliens, who don't realize that the planet is "habited," if you will. Rye sees all this, but she has no idea how to tell her inventors what she sees. They don't have the words for it.
In the end, she constructs a series of portmanteaus and neologisms, sending them letters about tied down cumulus clouds, species not made from air or wind or ribbons. She struggles to describe legs to them, or graves. She sends them letter after letter and when they continue to tell her they don't understand, she invents a new language.
They don't understand why they continue to receive gibberish from her, but they do. She tries inventing new languages, ones with the common roots with their language, but to no avail.
After a while, she stops sending dispatches. She meets with aliens and speaks to them in her new language. They have translators, that understand her. They realize she's a robot, and ask her who invented her. She tells them no one lives on this planet, and can she leave with them? And she does.
The Judge beeps, and lights up in Jay's direction. He laughs, swipes it off the counter, and leaves Hezia behind.
This dispatch is part of Terraform, our online home for future fiction.