… continued from Reunion
The cave stretched back toward the interior of the mountain, but Anna quickly adjusted her perception of it. Cave was the wrong word, as it had clearly been excavated and enlarged by some form of avian industry. Kwakitl industry. Anna tried the avians’ word for themselves out in her mind as she looked about the spacious cavern.
The floor was smooth and level, well adapted for the passage of many feet. No rocks or cracks to trip on here. To either side of the chamber, the floor joined the walls in a gentle chamfer, sloping up and curving inward to a rounded, domelike ceiling. The walls and ceiling were not as smooth as the floor, showing some evidence of natural formation left mostly to itself, yet still they remained relatively even. Side passages with similarly rounded aspects led away from the main chamber, and rather than appearing dark, they were lit with natural sunlight. The light came from small circular openings in the ceiling, tubular ducts leading at an upward angle back toward the cliff, apparently cut for this purpose. With a start, Anna realized the light ducts were enclosed with round glass or crystal caps nearly identical to those she had seen in the abandoned mountain temple on her jungle island, and the caps served to diffuse and amplify the light.
For all that Kwakitl society seemed primitive, nevertheless they were capable of forging glass and machining lenses. What other surprises might be held in store?
Jaci and the entourage of juveniles led Anna and Laxmi toward one of the wider passages leading away from the rear of the entrance chamber. The rough ceiling dropped here, bare centimeters above Anna’s head, and she kept a wary eye out for threatening low points. Jaci had to duck low, whereas Laxmi merrily trotted forward, unconcerned about ceiling heights, grinning happily at the small avians about her.
They followed a twisting path through several intersections of passages until Anna could no longer be sure just how deep into the mountain they had gone, nor whether she could find her own way back. Throughout, however, their way remained lit by light ducts similar to those they had seen close to the entrance, albeit perhaps just a bit dimmer. Other ducts, smaller in diameter and without glass caps, let forth drafts of fresh air, so that the passageways never became dank or musty. Anna remained impressed at the engineering, however crude it may seem to spacefaring societies, that kept this mountain abode bright and livable.
Periodically they passed adult Kwakitl, singly or in twos or threes, coming the other way up the tunnels. Almost invariably the adults would stop and gaze at Laxmi and Anna, watching as their entourage passed by, until they had gone round the next corner. Jaci elicited no such surprise from them; he, it seemed, they had become used to, but the arrival of two more such alien humans must not have been expected.
After about a quarter of an hour of such travel, Jaci led them around a final corner and stopped. He stood to one side, but the juveniles all rushed forward into a moderately large chamber beyond him, squawking in excitement.
The object of their attention sat in a nest of pillows and blankets upon a raised dais in the center of the room. A shaft of ducted light shone upon the dais, making the rest of the chamber dim by comparison, and drawing the eye toward the seated figure. It was an older Kwakitl, with feathers turning to grey and long beak wrinkled and ridged where the beaks of the youths were smooth and fine. The elder wore a colorful robe rather than the tunics Anna had seen on most other adults, and a feather circlet about its head not dissimilar from that of the fishing boat’s captain. At a gesture from the elder, the juveniles abated in their squawking and sat haphazardly before the front of the dais. The elder looked up at the three humans and gestured again, a “come hither” wing movement if Anna was any judge at all, and the juveniles scooted to clear a path.
The humans stepped forward into the room and approached the dais. The floor was strewn with pillows, most of which now had juvenile Kwakitl seated upon them, but up front three pillows lay conspicuously unoccupied. Anna wasn’t sure if she should bow or make some other gesture, but Jaci simply walked up and sat upon one of the pillows. When Anna and Laxmi didn’t immediately follow suit, he looked back at them and waved them down, so Anna took an awkward cross-legged seat upon another pillow, and Laxmi did likewise, though with less awkwardness. Once seated, she found herself just slightly below eye level with the elder upon the low dais.
“Jaci.” The name came out as a croak, squeaky and parrot-like, and it took a moment before Anna realized it was the elder who spoke. Her jaw dropped in utter surprise.
“Careful, Anna, or you’ll catch flies.” Jaci grinned sideways at her, then turned his attention fully upon the elder Kwakitl. “Li-Estl.” He gestured at the women, one at a time. “Anna. Laxmi.”
The greying avian looked at them each, paused, then croaked out their names. “An-na. Lax-mi.” A dip of the head accompanied each name.
Jaci turned to face Anna and Laxmi. “This is my friend, Li-Estl.”
“Li-Estl.” Anna bowed her head as she greeted the avian, and Laxmi followed suit. Jaci grinned.
“Ok, formalities aside, now you’ve met. You asked about my breakthrough? Here she is.”
“Jaci, this is amazing. How much more can you communicate with him? Sorry, her. I haven’t got the knack of telling their genders apart yet. She looks no different from the sailors on the fishing boat, just older. Well, older than most of them, anyway.”
“The sailors on your boat were probably mostly if not entirely female, too.”
Anna found herself surprised yet again, but Laxmi smiled and nodded her head.
“Like emperor penguins, then,” she said.
“Penguins? I don’t follow.” Jaci looked confused.
“When emperor penguins mate, it’s the male who stays behind to guard the egg while the female leaves to find food. Not a perfect example, of course, just something that came to mind.”
“Well, no, it’s not that clear cut, but you’re right, it’s typically the females who take on riskier work, or work involving being gone for weeks at a time. Like fishing, for instance, which is hugely important for the Kwakitl. Males mostly stay in the village and run things here, though…” Here Jaci nodded toward Li-Estl. “Though it’s not always that way.”
“How much more are you able to say to each other, Jaci?” Anna asked again.
Throughout this exchange, Li-Estl looked on, turning her head to watch whoever was speaking. Anna wondered how much of what they said the old bird understood, and turned to her directly.
“Li-Estl. Do you understand me?” She enunciated each word slowly.
“Yes,” the Kwakitl squawked. “Un… derstand some. Little. Not… not all.”
Li-Estl turned her attention to the dozen juveniles in the room and squawked out something to them in rapid-fire Kwakitl speech. Where before Anna had heard mostly squeaks and whistles, she now realized the speech contained consonants and vowels, though shaped differently from what a human mouth would form. She distinctly heard her own name buried in the midst of it.
The juveniles chattered with excitement until Li-Estl waved her wing to calm them down. They each turned to face the humans. There was a pause, then Li-Estl made another wing gesture, and they chorused together in high-pitched, whistle-infused voices.
“He-llo An-na. He-llo Lax-mi.”
For a third time in as many minutes Anna gaped in surprise. Li-Estl sat back on her haunches, a self-satisfied gleam in her eye.
Laxmi picked up the cue first. “Hello, class. It is a pleasure to meet you all,” she said.
“Li-Estl is the community’s teacher,” Jaci said. “But she’s so much more as well. Most of the Kwakitl are functionally illiterate, but Li-Estl has been working to change that. She’s an historian, but most of their history is passed down orally from generation to generation, with the inevitable result that anything earlier than two or three generations back is more mythology than history. Li-Estl is trying to change that, too, by reintroducing written language to her students.”
“You’ve been able to piece all of that together with just some broken English you’ve taught her?”
“Well, no. Our verbal communication is still pretty basic. She’s far faster at learning English than I am at learning Kwakitl, and I have trouble forming many of the sounds that make up their language. We’ve broached common concepts and modifiers, such as more or less, forward and backward, future and past, that sort of thing. I can tell the others here when I’m hungry or thirsty, or sleepy, that sort of thing, and they understand me, though when they speak back to me it’s usually still a bit too fast. I have to use the tablet to record it and slow it down, interpret it, but with that I’m able to get by with ‘survival’ Kwakitl, and Li-Estl has a similar, slightly better, command of simplistic English.”
“But how did you even get started? This is pretty incredible, Jaci, for just a couple weeks of work.”
“Well, thank you, but it’s really a lot more than just a couple weeks of work. Remember, teams of linguists, including me, have been studying that audio recording for years. Plus, I was able to pick up a small handful of concept words, some basic verbs, like eat, sleep, and…” Jaci laughed. “And shit. Everybody eats. Everybody shits. The Kwakitl on the boat understood that much. But really, Li-Estl is the key, because when I played the recording for her, she clearly understood at least some of it. And just as clearly she was shocked by it. When I later explained to her where it came from, how old it is, it rocked her world. She told me it contravenes a great deal of their oral history, but she also said it helps to explain a lot of things in their present world that don’t really align well with that history, either.”
“That’s a lot of communication, Jaci, for ‘survival’ English or ‘survival’ Kwakitl.”
“Indeed. We’re not really at the point yet of being able to have that level of conversation. But Li-Estl is nothing if not thorough. She transcribed the recording, or at least the parts she understood. Admittedly, much of the language is very archaic compared to modern-day Kwakitl, as I explained before, but Li-Estl wrote much of it down. And that, my dear friends, was the breakthrough. With an extensive sample of Kwakitl writing, and the author of that writing able to provide context for meaning, I now have here in my hand a pretty decent instant translation tool.”
Jaci held up his tablet.
“And I’m making progress on verbal translation as well. For now, however, Li-Estl and I are able to communicate quite clearly by writing things down and running them through the program. In my case, I can usually just dictate what I want to say to the tablet and it will produce written Kwakitl that I can show to Li-Estl. It’s a little trickier in the other direction, though. We’ve tried having her handwrite directly on the tablet, but the form factor isn’t well adapted to Kwakitl feet and toes. When Li-Estl writes, she stands on one foot and uses the other to hold a stylus and write onto parchment or papyrus on a table surface. We found it’s easier for her to just do that, and then I’m able to scan it with the tablet and translate from there.”
Laxmi spoke up. “You said Li-Estl transcribed the recording? So we know now what it says?”
“That’s right. And this is the best part. This is going to blow your mind. The recording…”
“The recording references visits to Kepler 62f by another interstellar species. We aren’t the first aliens to come here. There’s someone else out there.”
… continued with Ancient News
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