Principles and Parameters
by Meredith L. Patterson
Originally appeared in The Children of Cthulhu, from Random House, 2002
The fluorescent lights are blinding me, and I'm walking through the largest toy store I've ever seen. If I don't look up, the light isn't quite as strong, so most of what I see are people's knees and shoes. Beside an endcap of bicycle tires, a cluster of children are playing a card game on the floor, and it occurs to me: there are an awful lot of adults here. Some older kids, teenagers, but a surprising number of twenty- and even thirty-somethings, arguing over movie action figures and who gets the next turn at testing a video game. I keep my head down. When I look up I can see their eyes narrowing: What the hell are you doing here?
I don't want any of this. Why am I here?
Farther back in the store, now, the crowds are just as thick but the toys are different. Through a knot of guys in suits, I can barely see a flash of shiny rubber and gleaming red fiberglass — sports car? Just beyond them, damp sand spills across the scuffed linoleum, spreading into the distance off to the left of me, and tall middle-aged women in bathing suits and enormous sun hats walk back and forth across it, barefoot.
It's all boring as hell and I need to find the bathroom.
There's not going to be one on a beach, so I head right instead, ducking and weaving through aisles full of golf clubs, stereo speakers, expensive kitchen gadgets, nothing that I want. It's hard not to bump into people, and every time I do I get another angry look. But no one talks to me.
Finally, just past the end of the aisle, in what must be the far right corner of the store: a stairwell. I brush past the shoppers at an endcap of boat horns, head down to the first landing and follow it around.
Sixty-eight, sixty-nine, seventy steps to the bottom. And in fact there is a door, complete with woman-slash-man silhouettes, and it's even unlocked. Probably the employees' —
Or probably not.
Bathrooms usually echo when the door bangs into the wall. This one booms, reverberates, and I flinch and let go of the door. The wall it hit — all the walls, I notice — are either uncut or badly cut rock, greeny-grayey-brown. Around the corner to the left, where I'm still thinking there should be stalls, something must be casting the orange glare that lights up the — some part of my brain insists — bathroom.
Okay. I'll go with it. It's a bathroom.
Such a simple realization, but such perfect sense. At least from where I'm standing. So I head into the (cavern? bathroom!) proper. And stop just before walking face-on into a column of fire that reaches from floor to ceiling. Not a burning column of wood: a translucent flaming cylinder that burns without heat, without sound.
"K'neseshti, kulayr," says a man's voice just past the pillar. I look up: no, not a man, two men, in layered, flowing robes and small, flat caps. With long, oily-shiny beards, tied with cords partway down and again at the ends. Egyptian?
"Ph'n elukuri v'ni trl' tsak'n?" says one of them, extending a hand, and I don't know what to say. Babylonian? Cushitic, maybe, but the morphology's all wrong...
He's just looking at me, they both are, like they're expecting me to tell them something, but that language doesn't register as anything I've ever heard.
Is it getting hotter in here? The room's starting to swim, but I don't feel warm.
The vowels sound like Greek, I suppose it might derive from Indo-European, though with all the glottal stops I'd think it would have to be Semitic in origin...
"Putoru, nasht," says the other one, shaking his head. He looks disappointed, like an upset teacher, but he also looks so insubstantial, as if he's mapped onto the wall behind him. I sidestep around the column for a better look, or try to, but it seems to follow me — the whole room does, and the only change in my perspective is that everything looks flatter. I try running forward, toward the men, but my steps take me nowhere while they flatten out more and more, pasted on the wall now like portraits, stretching rubberlike into caricatures, icons, then meaningless markings on a sheet —
And then I woke up.
Which was why I was doing my damnedest to catch at least a little nap during my office hours the next day. For once, none of my Introductory Theoretical Linguistics undergrads felt compelled to try to talk me into just a few more points on the last pop quiz, nor did any of the educational-sciences graduate students need a shoulder to cry on about the strict department regulations which forced them to take either Fundamentals of Propositional Logic or my generative-syntax course. Even the one applied-linguistics Ph.D candidate who genuinely enjoyed my Thursday-morning computational methods seminar had disappeared right after class, rather than dropping by for a chat like he usually did. Which was a shame; last week we'd had a really interesting discussion about language acquisition and whether, as Chomsky argued, it would be impossible for a computer or a non-human species to fully understand human language, or for us to understand a non-human one. But he'd just smiled and said "Catch you next week," leaving me to enjoy a quiet afternoon.
So I was awfully proud of myself for not screaming when Dr. Latour barged in without knocking.
"Oh, did I catch you with a few minutes free? That's great!" she crowed. She had a bulging manila envelope with her, and a far too friendly smile. "I'm flying out to Orlando this afternoon for the Women in the Humanities conference, so I wanted to pass this on to you before I left." She pushed a stack of Lingua back issues off to one side of my desk and spread the folder out in front of me. It was open to the middle of a printed manuscript. From the top of the page I read
which signify the not dichotomous, but rather holistic hermeneutics of the pre-Aryan indigenous people. In specific, the author posits the use of a non-binary logic which was later suppressed by the patriarchally imposed social constraints. The author's methodology will be substantiated with exemplary passages drawn from the heretofore unsuccessfully translated documents which....
before she picked up the loose facedown pages and flipped them on top of the stack. The new face-up page was covered in hand-copied symbols, interspersed line-for-line with characters from the International Phonetic Alphabet. The symbols looked vaguely familiar, but not exactly like any script I'd ever seen before. At the top of the page was the title "Pnakotic Manuscripts."
"Sanskrit?" I guessed.
She wrinkled her nose. "Nothing so passe, Claire. It's in Brahmi script, with an interlinear for you. I need you to translate it."
This was a new one on me. "Why me, though? You know I don't do Dravidian." Her shoulders dropped, and she looked disappointed. She'd played this game with me before — most of the department had. Keep tabs on your neighbours, spend more time kibbitzing about their research than working on your own, and wait for the tenure-track appointments to drop into your lap. Probably why I was still just an instructor. With no real way to say no to the department head.
Not Aryan and not Dravidian. "Tocharian?"
This time she smiled. Patronizing or pity? Probably both. "Ooh, closer," she said. "Same area, the Taklamakan desert. I'm sure it predates the Aryan invaders, though. Bill Pinckney translated the script into IPA when I gave it to him a few months ago, though he only just now got it back to me." She flicked a glance across the hallway to Bill's office door, covered in clippings from The Nation and the Times Literary Supplement. "He swears he doesn't recognize the language, though he says the phoneme set is right for Tocharian. But you can decode it, right? With your computers?"
I sighed and pushed the folder back. "Jane, you need a cryptologist. I can give you a syntactic pattern analysis, if there's enough material for Alex P. to sort through, but after that? Bill's our expert in Proto-Indo-European derivative languages, and if he couldn't parse it out..."
That sweet smile came back. "Then maybe your theory needs room for different ways of knowing, Claire."
That's what she was up to.
I shoved my chair back, stood up and picked up the folder. "Don't give me this again, Jane," I snapped, and held it out to her. "We don't know where Basque came from, or Finnish, but that doesn't mean they operate on a completely hypothetical system." I shook the folder toward her again. She didn't take it.
"Two theories. Both unproven." She looked down, brushed at a fold in her skirt, then glanced up at me. "I'm just looking for evidence to fit mine."
"But that's not the way to — "
"Thanks so much, Claire!" she announced before I had a chance to go on. "I really appreciate your input on this, however it turns out. Gotta go, though! Keep me posted!" And she turned and left. I was still holding the folder.
God damn her.
I plopped back into my chair, sending it rolling backward, and ran straight into a box of audio cassettes. It fell over.
"Shit," I said, and spiked the folder onto the floor. Pages spilled out across the carpet, along with a floppy disk. I was beyond caring.
She had me over a barrel. On the one hand, if I couldn't translate it, she'd hold it up as "evidence of a thought system unfettered by our binary-logic constraints." And on the other, if I could, she'd doubtless find some passages to take out of context, explain as "holistic hermeneutics" (whatever that meant) in practice, and thereby skew the mindset of everyone who read her work thereafter. Either way I was screwed, and so was the manuscript. Neither one of us would get a fair, objective shake. And I didn't want to give her any grist for the mill, but I didn't want to wimp out on the challenge, either.
About the only scrap of silver lining was that it would be a revealing test for Alex P.'s capabilities. I had designed it — "it" meaning the Advanced Lexical Processor — in lieu of a doctoral dissertation, testing its algorithms using reams of data from generative and computational linguists across the field. After three years of work, I had a parser that could analyze a passage in most languages in the world's major language families, identify its formal characteristics, and determine what language the passage was in — and provide a detailed parsing diagram of the passage, just by analyzing the ordering patterns of sounds, words and parts of words: if all the vowels were nasalized, there was a good bet it was French; if most sentences placed a verb-inflected word at the end, chances were it was German; and so on. With about 92% accuracy. Maybe it wasn't a true first-language understanding of human speech, but it certainly looked like it so far.
Still, I'd only been able to feed it comprehensive patterning rules for the Indo-European family — that was all I could find complete data for. So if the language of the Pnakotic Manuscripts belonged to the Semitic family, or Sino-Japanese or one of the dozen other families which I only had partial analyses of, it would be a crapshoot.
Hell, it was a crapshoot anyway. But it might pinpoint a language for which I could track down a translator. A reliable translator.
I swivelled my chair around to face the workstation kitty-corner to my desk, shuffled the printouts sitting on top of the keyboard into a more-or-less coherent stack, and added them to the stack already on top of the monitor. While it powered up, I chased down the disk that had fallen out of the folder and slipped it halfway into the floppy drive. The screen read:
DEC/Alpha Personal Workstation 500au Digital UNIX rev4.0d Copyright 1984-2000. All rights reserved. #/alexp/>
I pushed the disk the rest of the way into the drive and hoped I wouldn't have to scan the entire document into a format that Alex P. could use.
#/alexp/> chdir floppy #/alexp/floppy/> ls Path: /alexp/floppy/ [.] [..] pnakotic.txt 799048 bytes free. #/alexp/floppy/> vi pnakotic.txt
Score! Bill had done me a hell of a favor by converting just the International Phonetic Alphabet material into a plain-text file, which was all Alex P. needed to begin tagging the Manuscripts into a file that it (or any other corpus-analysis program) could use. I closed the editor and exited back into the shell.
#/alexp/floppy/> chdir .. #/alexp/> ./alexp/process /floppy/pnakotic.txt Advanced LEXical Processor v0.87a Reading into memory ... All text read. Option?
I set it to perform as exhaustive an analysis as it could, marking recurring words and morphemes and attempting to identify any basic syntactic patterns. With 700 kilobytes of raw ASCII to work on, though, that would take a while — overnight, at least, even on a high-efficiency UNIX machine.
It occurred to me that I probably wasn't the first person to have run across this manuscript before. I might not have kept the closest eye on Jane's world-travelling, but I'd think the department would have made a bigger deal about it if she'd discovered an entirely new language artifact all by herself. If she had gotten it from somewhere else, there had to be some previous information on it — journal articles, an announcement in one of the archaeology trade rags, the name of the discoverer, anything. Maybe someone else who wanted to see the Manuscripts translated for their own sake, rather than a political gambit.
So, off to the library it was. I rummaged briefly through the papers on the floor to find the first few pages of the Manuscripts, in case I needed to compare them to a portion of an article, and headed out.
It was about three in the afternoon when I left the building. Outside, it was hot and damp, the kind of sticky-humid that makes you feel like you're being squeezed dry to make the air even wetter. I could have gone straight to my car across the Humanities quad, if I'd really wanted the air conditioning, but I figured it'd be better not to lose my parking space. Instead, I took the shadiest route I could find, under the cypress trees that grow in front of the steam tunnels in the little park next to the overhangs of the administration building. It was even wetter there, especially from the fountains that fed into the screened-off tunnel openings, but green and cool. The mockingbirds there had sounded like car alarms for as long as I could remember, but I noticed they were making a different call now. It sounded a little like meep!
It's true what they say about libraries: you really can find everything you need if you look long enough. Sometimes, "long enough" is no more than fifteen minutes. I didn't even have to check in Archived Journals to find a substantial body of research on the Manuscripts, already in book form. So much for revolutionary new discoveries.
A catalogue search across the Georgia Library Exchange turned up four texts: one in 1895, another in 1922, followed by a 1931 monograph and the most recent work in 1958. Only the 1922 edition was in our catalogue, so I copied the titles of the others onto the back of the first page of the Manuscripts, filled out an interlibrary loan form at the circulation desk, and joined a crowd of students waiting for the elevator up to the humanities wing.
Once it arrived, we all squeezed in. Buttons for every floor lit up — not surprising — and I stayed wedged at the back, picking at the splintering fake-wood panels on the elevator wall, as the car creaked its way up all five stories. Finally it let us all out, and I headed for the stacks. The book wasn't too hard to find. In a larger library, a tiny — almost paperback-sized — blue cloth-covered volume might have disappeared on the shelves, but here it stuck out in contrast to the glossy folio editions of Poststructuralism Today on the shelves next to it. I pulled it off the shelf and looked at the cover. The gold leaf was almost entirely chipped away, but I could still make out the title: The Pnakotic Manuscripts: A New Revised Study. I flipped it open, skimmed the table of contents, and checked out the introduction:
In the analyses of our collective mother-tongue undertaken by notables such as Drs. Berthold Delbruck and Karl Brugmann, much attention has been given to the idioms of western Asia, namely the languages of India and its environs; but little study has been devoted to dialects native to farther Eastern climes. One such language, records of which are preserved on wood-and-palm-leaf tablets known as the Pnakotic Manuscripts, had been the object of the attentions of Dr. J.T. Schwarzwalder, who in 1895 compiled his Analysis of the Manuscript of the Pnakotoi. As I shall demonstrate, however, his characterization of the Manuscripts' language as an offshoot of Greek proves highly inadequate....
In other words, it was a response. Not the sort of thing I wanted to start out with; it wasn't much good to me unless I had the original book to compare the two criticisms. So I wasn't going to get a whole lot done today.
Before I closed the book, I flipped to the very back to check the withdrawal record. The little paper pocket was there, dingy and worn like the book itself. So was the withdrawal record. It had never been stamped.
So much for academic rigor, too.
I took the stairs down this time, checked out the book from the undergrad on duty at circulation, and went home early.
The sun is almost all the way down and I'm drenched with sweat from having walked so far. My parents are going to have my head for this, whether they believe I missed the bus or not. I could just kill Jimmy Esterhaus.
One more block to home, and then I can at least sit down. The streetlamps are coming on, turning the road and sidewalk hazy orange. Up the front walk of one of the houses, a pool of yellow light spills into the half-darkness: somebody's front door is open.
My front door is open. And my parents are standing there waiting for me. With someone behind them.
"Where've you been, Claire?" demands my mother, arms crossed over her chest, as I blunder into the yard. This backpack is killing me. "Rebecca says she saw you go off with James Esterhaus this afternoon after school."
Is that Jimmy in the front hallway, then? I can't see. "We didn't do anything!" I shout, jockeying with the straps of my bag to lift some of the pressure off my shoulders. "Jimmy came up to me at the bus stop and said there was something he had to talk to me about, but not in front of anyone, I don't know why. So he made me follow him out behind the gym, and he just stood there stuttering for, like, fifteen minutes, until he finally asked me if I wanted to go to some stupid homecoming dance with him. And I said I'd think about it 'cuz I knew I had to get to the bus, but when I got back it had already been and gone. None of the teachers would let me use the phone or anything, so I had to walk. But we didn't do anything!"
"Why not?" asks my dad, with his thumbs hooked through his beltloops. Is he kidding? He must be.
He's not smiling, though.
"We're worried about you, Claire," my dad goes on. My back hurts so much. I don't want to be standing here any more. "It's not like a healthy teenage girl to be alone all the time. Rebecca's three years younger than you are and she's never had this sort of problem." It's not her back there, is it?
"What are you talking about? I don't think Rebecca wants to sit at a lunch table all night watching all the other kids dance country-western while Jimmy Esterhaus talks about Star Trek, either."
"Oh, Claire," sighs my mother. "All we want is for you to have a normal, happy life. Would that really be so bad?"
"Mama, I'm tired. And I have a paper due next week. Can I please just come inside?"
She steps to one side, and for a moment there's that figure again, but it moves off behind her, and I can't make it out. But I take the opening and stumble up the front steps and through the door, sweat dripping into my eyes so I can barely see. My mother stops me in the foyer and rests a hand on my shoulder while I blink the salt away. "There'll be plenty of time for that," I hear her say, sweet and reassuring. "But we've got a visitor here for you. Your dad was over reviewing Chief Harland's life-insurance policy this afternoon, and they thought it'd be so nice if you and Richard were to spend some time together..."
I shake my head fast and my vision clears up. Richard Harland? Starting-lineman Richard Harland, the guy who's taken out every dancer on the drill team, with all those things written about him on the girls' bathroom wall — is standing just behind my mother. And staring at her butt. Then he glances over at me with a weird sort of smile on his face, just as my mother says, "Why don't you take him up to your room while I get dinner on?"
"What the hell, Mom?" I start to backpedal, but her hand closes on the strap of my backpack. Fine. I shrug the damn thing off and let it fall, ducking forward past her and Richard Harland while she fights with my ton of books. Serves her right — he's the last kind of guy I'd want to hang around with.
Find the basement, is the next idea that pops into my head. Let 'em all act nuts somewhere else. So I dash past the staircase and around to the other side of it, yank open the utility-closet door beneath the second-floor stairs, and barrel down the wooden basement steps as fast as I can.
Sixty-eight, sixty-nine, seventy steps to the bottom — and this is definitely not my basement. Even before I reach the ground, I realize that even if these are my family's old moving boxes and gardening equipment, the walls are wrong: that greeny-gray rock (again?). The moment I set foot on the basement floor, the furnace erupts into a giant pillar of orange flame. I flinch back against the wall, wrapping my arms around my head, and it takes me a second to realize that there is no heat.
"K'neseshti, kulayr," says a voice — a voice I know.
I peer out from between my crossed arms. Two robed and bearded men stand to either side of a column of flame. The rest of the floor is empty.
"Who are you?" I ask, glancing back at the stairs, which are now made of marble. "What's going on? This didn't happen...did it?"
One of the men spreads his hands, palms up. In every language I've ever heard of, that means only one thing: Don't ask me.
"Who are you? Can you understand what I'm saying?" There's got to be a way to communicate with them. Sign language? Helpless, I gesture at myself, then back up the stairs, and look around and shrug my shoulders. Where am I? How did I get here?
A sorrowful look passes over the face of the one whose hands are open, and he opens his mouth as if to speak, but the other hisses "Nasht!" and glares at him. Then he turns, regards me for a long scornful moment, and waves a hand.
And then I woke up. Again.
Lucky for me, the next day was Friday, so I only had an early-morning intro-linguistics lecture to give. Since I'd woken up from that weird dream around four-thirty A.M., I'd just stayed up and read a little more of The Pnakotic Manuscripts: A New Revised Study until it was time to shower and get ready for work. I got to campus early on purpose, so I could drop by my office to find out what kind of headway Alex P. had made.
The hard drive was chattering away when I opened the door, so I turned on the monitor to see what was up. According to the progress bar on the bottom of the screen, it was only 67% done. That struck me as more than a little weird. It had had over eighteen hours to work on it already, on a powerful UNIX machine with nothing else running to eat up CPU cycles, and it was still only two-thirds of the way through? If this had been a language Alex P. had the rules for, a tagging operation for a file that size should have taken maybe ninety minutes at the outside. Even an unfamiliar language shouldn't have needed more than three times that; there are only so many ordering patterns a human language can take, and once Alex P. had figured out which one the Pnakotic Manuscripts used, it should have been able to apply that rule-set relatively quickly.
All things considered, it looked like I had a lot more programming to do before I could even think about taking Alex P. into beta-testing.
I switched the monitor back off, then cleared some exams in need of correcting off the extra chair beside my desk so I could set my briefcase down. I rifled around in it for a while, looking for the papers I needed to hand back to my intro students, then realized: I hadn't graded them yet. Damn Jane and her stupid agenda. At this rate, neither my undergrads nor I were going to learn anything.
Apart from that, though, class went smoothly enough. I went back to my office afterwards — 70% complete, the progress bar read — and plowed through some more of the little blue book. After about an hour, thanks to the dense prose and the lousy sleep I'd had, I was feeling pretty draggy, but it was eleven A.M.: time to meet my friend Chandler, from the art history department, in the park for our usual Friday lunch.
He was sitting on a bench by the time I got there, with a brown paper bag beside him and a huge gray-cloth-bound book spread open across his lap. The mockingbirds were meeping like crazy in the trees, flitting between the branches and the grates over the steam tunnels. "Hey!" I called, and he lifted his head, sunlight glinting off the thick silver frames of his glasses.
"Better timing than usual!" he shouted back, and waved. "My, you're looking perky."
"Har har," I said, drawing up to the bench, and plunked down near him. "Take it up with my subconscious mind and get back to me. I woke up from this really creepy dream about my parents setting me up on a blind date, and couldn't get back to sleep."
"Ew. You have my sympathies." He wiped his forehead with one sleeve. "Anything like that time you told me about, when they dragged you to that restaurant with your sister's boyfriend's brother?"
"Kinda," I answered, lamely, and left it at that. "Anyway. What've you been up to?" The fountains burbled and gibbered, echoing through the tunnel entrance.
"Oh, the usual. The department's getting ready to do a retrospective on the early Expressionists, so I'm preparing the gallery catalogue, including revising it every time Parker and MacAdams have another argument over who they want to exclude from the canon this week." He shook his head glumly. "Plus, Pride Week is coming up soon, and elections for next year's Faculty Senate. Who's running from your department?"
I looked down, trying to get interested in the book on his lap. "I don't know. I don't pay much attention to those things. Probably won't even vote."
He chuckled. "Claire, I'll never understand you. I've never met a professor so completely uninterested in university administration."
I forced a smile and kept peering at the colour plate he'd turned to: a painting of the inside of a tumbledown building, with some shabby-looking figures lurking. His arm covered most of it. "I dunno. Office politics just bore me, I guess." I leaned forward and reached for the edge of the book. "Hey, what's the picture there?"
That brightened him up considerably. "Oh! This showed up from one of the publishers up north." He turned to the title page and showed me: New England Gothic Artwork, 1830-1930. "Miskatonic University Press. There's some fascinating stuff here, early Hudson River School up through the Roaring Twenties realists."
I paused. "Weren't you saying most of the big artists around that time were Impressionists, though?"
"Most of them, certainly." Chandler was really getting into his element, paging back and forth through the book to point out full-colour illustrations. "Absolutely the case in Europe, and for the most part in America. But there was a bit of a regression in Massachusetts for a little less than a decade." He stopped at the same plate he'd had open before and pointed at the text beneath it. "Mostly involving this guy, Richard Upton Pickman, and a few people who took after him. This book calls them the Macabres."
Without his arm in the way, I had a much better view of the painting. It was a practically photorealistic view of a gaping hole in a run-down interior wall, with water pooled in front of it. Hunched-over figures hovered around the edges of the painting, facing the hole. Something was emerging from it, still too far back to see, but the artist had captured its reflection in the water. All I could make out was the outline of the body and a snoutlike face. Below was a caption: GHOULS, EMERGENCE I (of a series).
"They were a strange bunch," continued Chandler. "More of an outgrowth of the Impressionists than a backlash, according to this. They claimed they were also painting exactly what they saw, and insisted it was vital that their work be as realistic as possible — 'the awful clarity of human perception,' that's a quote from one of Pickman's letters they included here." He pointed at the excerpted passage on the page opposite the plate. "Except that just about all their work contained obviously imaginary beings — goat-headed men, people with gigantic dog-like teeth carrying chewed-up bones, all kinds of strange bestial stuff."
I'd been thinking about opening my lunch bag, but suddenly I wasn't so hungry any more. "How lovely. I can see why it was a short period."
He chuckled again. "Indeed. Not exactly a commercially viable movement. Apparently Pickman himself quit painting around 1926, and the last of his imitators moved on to other things in '28."
"Does it say what?"
"Let me check." He turned the page and skimmed the first few paragraphs. "Ah. Expressionism." He sat up, closed the book and set it aside. "I guess by then there wasn't much of a career in giving a straight picture."
"The more things change," I said, and spent the rest of the hour watching Chandler eat and listening to the meeping sounds echoing off the steam vents.
After Chandler went back to his office, I hung around the park reading until about three in the afternoon. By then it was getting oppressively hot, so I packed up my things and headed to the English building to check on Alex P. When I got upstairs, there was a note tacked to my door: the 1958 book had arrived via interlibrary loan. I unlocked the door, stepped in, and noticed that the hard drive wasn't making noise any more. Great!
I set my briefcase down and moved a stack of library books out of the way of the printer tray. I turned the monitor on, chdir'ed over to Alex P.'s output directory, and typed "ls" while the screen was still warming up.
As soon as the directory listing faded into view, I realized I was going to need a lot more paper.
The output directory had not one, but five syntax-tagged files in it, each one almost a megabyte long. Instead of something simple, like "pnakotic.svo.txt," which would've meant that Alex P. had concluded it followed subject-verb-object word order, it had given me "pnakotic.svo.txt," "pnakotic.osv.txt," "pnakotic.vso.txt," "pnakotic.vos.txt" and "pnakotic.ovs.txt." For some reason, it hadn't managed to work out a verb-subject-object interpretation, not that that did me any good.
One by one, I opened the files and checked through the header information that Alex P. had prepended. "Probable language of origin: Variant of Mongolian," said one. "Variant of Romany," read the next. "Inuktitut," a third concluded. Inuktitut? Not only had it managed to jump from central Asia to the Yukon, it was positive that was a correct interpretation! Yet, according to the fourth one I opened, the program was equally convinced that the language was Cornish. Almost any other result it could have given me would've been better than this.
I got up, stalked over to the door, and banged it shut. One of the thumbtacks fell out of my world map, which curled halfway up the wall. Shit. This was worse than bad. Obviously I'd screwed something up and put a critical bug in Alex P.'s code somewhere. Why else would it feed back such absolute crap? Alex P. had a far-better-than-average chance of recognizing any major human language, and an awful lot of minor ones. All I could conclude from the evidence at hand was that the Pnakotic Manuscripts belonged to a culture that had been extremely isolated, bad about keeping records, and dead for a very, very long time.
Which meant that Jane, who took the phrase "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" to a greater extreme than anyone I'd ever heard of, would find nothing in my work to conflict with whatever she felt like concluding. Baffling language? "Alternate modes of thinking." Obliterated civilization? "Victims of patriarchal oppression." It wasn't an impossibility, but it wasn't the only possibility, either; not as if that mattered in the rat race to tack your name onto a theory that might make you famous, though. It made about as much sense as believing that Sir Walter Raleigh was Shakespeare, yet there'd been New York Times bestsellers proclaiming just that.
I might even have laughed if I hadn't been the one whose hands were tied.
Still, there was that book. I looked over the note again — "interoffice package for you at the library," it read, in bubbly cursive handwriting on the department secretary's personalized notepaper. I shut down Alex P. and left to pick up the book, hoping it would suggest a good place to start over.
I could've sworn I was just lying in bed reading the book I'd taken out, but my memory's so foggy. I remember going through the first three chapters, where the author attacked the previous attempts to translate the Manuscripts...down through history into his own argument, something about the undeciphered Indus Valley scripts...strange how everyone keeps trying to push closer to the cradle of civilization. I'd like to read more, but the book's gone. I'm gone. I was only about sixty-five pages in, give or take a few, and now I'm blundering around in the dark.
Literally, I realize. All around it's pitch black, but my feet are on something solid. I inch forward, socks on cold hard floor, and the back of my neck goes all prickly as my toes slide past an edge where there's not a floor. My breath catches in my throat and I step backward. WHANG! Now I'm seeing light, from the stars shooting across my field of vision after slamming my heel into a hard shelf behind me. I crumple, biting back the pain, and squat on the narrow ledge where I'm standing. One leg slides out and skips off the edge — and then another edge.
Hell of a difference four inches makes, in the dark.
I scoot forward and lower myself a step. It may be unceremonious, but it works. One bump, two bumps, then my foot lands again on something solid-and-not-an-edge — and then it's light again, the hazy orange flicker of the cavern of flame. My head ducks toward the wall, dizzying me with afterimages.
"K'neseshti, kulayr," says that voice I'm really getting to know. I unsquint one eye, blinking to clear out the ghost-images, and just as I'd figured, it's the two robed men again.
"Hello?" I call, picking myself up off the floor. No answer. "Wie geht's du?" Nothing. "Quo vadis?" One of them might have flinched at that. Random phrases start pouring out of my mouth: Gaelic, Tagalog, Japanese, Cherokee, greetings and questions and simple textbook sentences I don't remember having picked up intentionally.
"Ura'n tlu nekophori tok'ari li nakotos!" I blurt out, and stop there, trying to figure out where that sentence came from. It takes a moment to hit: it's the first line of Bill's IPA transcription of the Manuscripts. This is the first time I've said it out loud.
As I'm staring, surprised, at my own feet, a flat clapping erupts from the other side of the room. I look up. One of the robed men is applauding.
"We had wondered when you would begin using it to communicate," he says, in perfect BBC English.
A good couple of seconds go by in silence. "I've got to be dreaming. You mean you've understood what I've been saying all along?"
"Correct on both counts," replies the other, in a graver voice. "We speak all the languages of dream."
"Who are you?" I step to one side, getting the cavern wall behind me.
"I am Nasht," the first one says, folding his hands, and inclines in a bow from the waist. "My companion is Kaman-Thah." Kaman-Thah bows too.
Nasht. I've heard that word before. I heard it here. "And you've been...calling him by name, this entire time?"
Nasht's beard dips below his clasped hands when he nods. "So he has. And you as well, Kulayr."
Okay. Now I really feel dumb. "What am I still doing here, though? Don't you wake up when you hurt yourself in dreams?" My heel's still smarting from the whack it took.
This time Kaman-Thah lowers his head, turning toward the column of flame. "Indeed. But not at the Gate of Deeper Slumber, or beyond it. From this point onward, it is in your province to remain within dream until something sends you away." He pauses. "Or you question the dream and send yourself."
That sounds fishy. "Then what's this Gate? What's on the other side?"
Neither one of them moves to answer. Seconds go by, then minutes. Did I do something wrong? Am I questioning the dream?
A ripple goes through the room, like a TV with bad horizontal hold. "Wait!" I shout. "Let me try that again. Please!"
Nasht's face is so patient. "There was nothing wrong with the question you voiced, Claire. It is a question for you to answer, though."
"I don't get it."
"Dreamers come to the Gate of Deeper Slumber because something on the other side draws them in. It is simply our task to guard the gate, and let the worthy and willing cross over."
"But how am I supposed to know what's — "
"Three times you have come before us, Claire Meyer," interrupts Kaman-Thah, "and twice you have not deigned to tell us why. So now we shall ask of you: what is it you want?"
That stops me cold, and when I start to speak I have to fight for the words.
"I — I don't know. It'd be nice to know what's in that manuscript, I guess, but..." I just know my face is going red. "That's not it. I'm willing to put in the work to figure it out on my own, but I want — I want — " My fists are in tight little balls, and I smack one into the wall behind me. "I want to not have to defend what I'm interested in, goddammit. I want to not have to be for anything."
Nasht and Kaman-Thah gaze at the column for a long moment, until Nasht finally breaks the silence. "Ulthar."
"What you look for is in Ulthar. It is within our privilege to send you there, if that is indeed what you seek. We have faced more forbidding requests before this."
Don't question the dream.
"All right," I hear myself say, the same way I heard myself say the words from the Manuscripts. "I'll go to Ulthar."
"So be it," pronounces Kaman-Thah, and gestures toward the pillar of fire. "To the Great Library at Ulthar we send you. What you seek will be deeply buried, but not beyond your grasp." And before I have time to second-guess myself, I step forward to the column.
"Go on," whispers Nasht, and points an ancient finger at the flame which does not scorch. I reach toward it, sinking my hand in up to the wrist, and there is no pain, no burning. Just a door, like any other; and like that, I'm through it, out the other side, and standing on a cobblestone plaza in a city like I've never seen before.
It's a bit like the Agora in Athens, I guess, a huge open-air square, although this one is ringed in buildings. Most of them are small, maybe one or two stories, with low half-walled porches, each one of which looks to be the preferred sleeping grounds of its own complement of cats. A full side of the square belongs to the dark stone facade of an immense building. Two columns rise up from squared-off pilasters on either side of a staircase leading up to a pair of double doors. And one of the doors is open.
It can't hurt to look, I guess.
I pace across the plaza, feeling cobblestones under my socks, and up the stairs to the door. It's incredibly thick wood, banded with iron, but it's open wide enough for me to get a look inside. So I poke my head through the entrance.
There is absolutely no way this building could be anything but a library.
There's a short foyer which opens to the left and right, each exit leading under impossibly tall peaked and buttressed archways. Through either vault, even from just outside the front door, it's easy to see rows upon rows of packed, towering bookshelves, some wall-mounted and some free-standing, stretching into the distance as if reflected in a facing pair of mirrors. Brackets off the sides of the shelves hold glowing clear-glass spheres, lighting the entire place with a crisp, fresh gleam. Above the shelves, there's even more — at least three more floors, so far as I can tell, of open-air galleries likewise replete with bookshelves. Human figures pace along the balconies, poring through books.
I guess they decided to send me someplace where I could find a translation of the Manuscripts after all.
So I slip inside, feeling awfully underdressed in sweatpants and a T-shirt, and scout around for some sign of an information desk. Or at least a filing system. Aisle after aisle of shelves carry books of every shape and size, some with titles in Roman characters, some Cyrillic, some Arabic, some in alphabets that don't look even remotely human. Not a one of them has a tag on the spine, either, and I can't imagine they're in alphabetical order if they're not even in the same alphabet. The patrons look completely absorbed in their business, and I haven't seen anyone who could pass for a librarian.
I look down the shelf-delineated corridor, trying to see the end of the building, but it doesn't look any closer. Yet when I turn around and look back to the entrance, it's farther away too. Looking up is no better, either; there are only six more floors, but the galleries line the room on both sides, and they also stretch off as far as I can see.
That can't be right. It has to be finite in some direction.
The room wavers, and one of the patrons nearby thumps his book closed and looks around, angrily. I flinch and duck into an empty row of shelves, looking left and right. One possibility duly presents itself: it looks like there's another archway in the wall opposite the entryway. No, not just an archway: a staircase.
I make my way over to it, and sure enough, it's a staircase. Detailed marble steps lead up in a graceful spiral, but there's also a narrow, straight flight heading down.
What you seek will be deeply buried, said Kaman-Thah.
So I plunge forward and down the stairs, counting as I go. I'd expected seventy, but it's more than that — more than twice seventy as well. I lose track before I reach the bottom floor, and I'm kind of glad to see that it isn't a cavern. It's stone, but it's dark smooth stone like the building, and the floor is made of huge regular slabs. It's a big room, but not dizzying like upstairs. The lit globes here are frosted, and dimmer, too, illuminating the vaulted ceiling better than the floor. Shelves line the walls, a long stone table takes up much of the floorspace, and one plain doorway leads out at the far end. Over by the door, there's a wiry, blond-haired man browsing through a row of books.
"Need something?" he asks, not turning around.
Something in here smells really ripe.
"Uh," I manage, genius that I am. "I don't guess this is where I could find...um...a copy of the Pnakotic Manuscripts? In English?"
"Can't do English," he says, still facing the wall. "Greek okay?" God damn, he's having a hard time pronouncing r's and l's, but that's nothing to complain about!
"That's fine," I blurt out, not caring so much about seeming geekily eager any more. "Which shelf is it — "
"Table," he cuts in, and waves at the end nearest him. I skirt up the other side of the table, breathing through my mouth, and indeed there's a collection of pages there — a proper manuscript, not bound into a book. A heavy paper (papyrus?) cover sits to one side. The title reads "PNAKOTOI."
I turn to the open manuscript and start making out the lines, word by word:
...Thus do the ancient ghuls, eaters of the dead, keep their counsels in the lightless vaults far below the surface of the world. There do they meep and glibber to one another, amid their collections of human bones and flesh. They delight in pools of standing water, mounds of reeking filth, and the hoards of mysteries they scavenge from human lives. The brave man who descends to the ghuls may bring back secrets, but not without some change to himself....
"Who translated this?" I ask aloud. The man at the bookshelves grunts.
"Nah. Dictated. Long time 'go."
I turn the page and keep reading, though I wish I had some notepaper with me. The manuscript goes on to talk about ghouls preserving meticulous records of writings from all over the globe — some names that I recognize, like Thera and Pompeii, and others, like Lomar, that I've never heard — but as I read farther, it's hard to remember what I saw on the previous pages. "From a language that died out before Ancient Greek?"
"Nah. Not dead. Just real old." Owd, he says, like a Yorkshireman or someone with a full mouth.
"How do you know it's not dead?"
His shoulders shake, and he lets out a whuffy sort of chuckle. "'Cos I'm not."
I set the page down a little too quickly and stare at him. "You speak this? What language is it?" My head feels awfully fuzzy all of a sudden. "Is there a copy in the original? Can you show me?" I've got to remember it all, but it's so hard to keep it all sorted out in my head! I flip the papyrus sheets back and forth two or three at a time, searching for key phrases to remember, but the world is swimming before my eyes and it's hard to make out the words. "Please!" I call out. "Please, I just want to understand how it works, that's all I care about!"
Reeling, I lean against the table for support, but it sags like modeling clay under my weight. "I have to learn what I can before I wake up!" I shout, while the room twists and warps around me. Two things pass before me, so fast and similar I can barely tell them apart: high up against one of the vaults, a painting of a wall marred by a gaping hole surrounded by half-human creatures; and turning to see what's wrong, the blond-haired man, a puzzled "What?" escaping from his impossibly canine jaws. Somewhere beyond the dark doorway, there erupts a chorus of frenzied meeps —
And, once again, I woke up.
Fifteen minutes. It was only 11:49 P.M. I couldn't have been asleep longer than fifteen minutes. Half an hour at the outside. Such an incredibly vivid dream, yet it already felt like it was decades old. All I could still recall clearly were the sounds — deep grandfatherly voices, that rough guttural speech, the wild meeping noises.
Then the connection went click in my head.
Mockingbirds don't make their own calls. They have to mimic something.
It was completely impossible, of course. Whatever was echoing up out of the steam tunnels couldn't be from an actual living thing. Especially not with those teeth, all I could remember of the face in my dream.
But Pickman was a realist...
I lay back down and closed my eyes; better just to go back to sleep and forget about it. Time passed while I listened to the cicadas outside. Looking at the inside of my eyelids was getting really dull.
I glanced over to the clock again. Five after midnight. Lying in bed wasn't getting me anywhere, particularly not back to sleep.
"Fine, then," I said, threw the covers back, and got up. I dragged a pair of hiking boots and a big Mag-Lite out of the closet, pulled on the shoes, shoved the flashlight into my briefcase, and headed back to campus to shut my overactive imagination up.
The tone of the meeping was different when I got to the park: deeper, more resonant, not so birdlike any more. I slung my briefcase over one shoulder, pulled out the flashlight and played the beam over the trees and benches. Those looked the same, but one of the tunnel grates was swiveled out of alignment, leaving a crack just big enough for a person to get through. Holding the light like a police baton, I dragged a bench one-handed over to the open vent, climbed up and shone the light down.
Something down there leapt away into the darkness.
"Hey!" I shouted, waving the light around the bottom of the shaft. "Who's there?" Must be some kids from the dorms, I thought, but then another sound welled up from below: a burbling, trilling sound undercut with low grumbles. All in all, "glibber" wasn't a bad name for it.
"Hey!" I shouted again. "Come back!" And in the single stupidest moment of my life, I clambered onto the top of the shaft, grabbed the first rung of the ladder and climbed down.
The tunnel headed off in a straight line, vaguely toward the admin building. In the distance, by flashlight, I could still see something loping away. "Come back, dammit!" I called one more time, and chased after it, briefcase knocking against my legs as I ran.
It wasn't quite as fast as me, but it had a good lead, and more than once I thought I'd lost it around a corner. It ducked right, then right again, then left in quick succession, and I realized two things: one, it was following a pattern, and two, the tunnels were sloping downward. It turned again sharply down a fetid-smelling tunnel — this one with no overhead steam pipes. I rounded the corner after it, maybe only twenty feet away by now. It didn't run like a human. "Slow down!" I called, just as it turned once more, and this time it spun left instead of right — straight into a blind alcove. I trained the flashlight onto it and sprinted up to look at it. Him. He was blond. His face, the part he wasn't shielding from the light, looked like someone had grafted a dog's lower jaw onto it. His teeth were enormous. I'd seen him before.
"Turn it off," he whimpered.
"And have you rip me open and eat me? Not hardly." I gripped the barrel harder.
"Won't." He rubbed his lips with one wrist. "You're too fresh."
...amid their collections of human bones and flesh.
"I'm remembering the dream from last night," I said, trying to hide the note of surprise in my voice. "You were there. Tell me what you said. Prove it's you."
"The records. Showed them to you in Greek. Didn't have English." His voice was muffled against the wall from trying to cover his eyes. I twisted the nose of the flashlight just a little, to diffuse some of the spot of light on him.
"I couldn't remember what it read after I woke up. Why is it coming back to me now?"
He peered back at me with crimson eyes. "You followed me. Down a bolt-hole." I jiggled the flashlight, and he hissed. "Through steam tunnels, back into the dream."
"So I'm dreaming now?"
"Then where are we?"
"Going to the vaults."
What am I even doing here? I asked myself, fully expecting the scene in front of me to waver away into nothing again. I'm not really underground, am I? Isn't this just a recurring dream?
The world refused to spin.
"I don't understand what's happening," I said, reaching for my briefcase with my free hand. "It started with that manuscript, all I wanted was a proper translation, and I haven't found a single person who could do that."
He crossed his arms, still squinting. "People can't."
"Then was the version in Greek a fake one?" He shook his head once, hard. "So who dictated it?"
As Chomsky argued, it would be impossible for us to understand a non-human language.
Thus do the ancient ghuls, eaters of the dead, keep their counsels in the lightless vaults far below the surface of the world....
"And you're a...
"Do you have a name?"
He slipped a paw into his back pocket and pulled out a beat-up cloth wallet. He opened it under the light and pointed to a Georgia driver's license — unexpired. "Lewis Wilson," it read. The face was perfectly human.
"Where'd you get this?"
He snatched it away and stuffed it back into his pocket. "'S been mine." I looked hard at his face again. The hair was right, as were the eyes and ears. If it weren't for the impossibly large fangs and jaw, it would have been the exact same person.
"And you're saying you used to be a..."
He nodded again.
He pointed to the flashlight. "Turn it down? I'll show you."
Ghouls could read the Manuscript. They could even show me how. And if all of them were this light-sensitive, the flashlight was insurance for getting me back to the surface. I nodded, slowly, and dimmed it.
He reached out a hand. "Hold on. Gets slippery from here." So I did, and along we went, deeper into the bolt-hole into dream.
"Why're you so interested?" he asked as we walked.
I thumped my briefcase with the flashlight handle. "I've got my copy of the Manuscripts with me. I want to find out what's really in it."
"Just...to know what's really there," I said. "I can't think of anything I'd do with it, except that."
He glibbered something softly, and we kept on going.
Finally, after what felt like miles of walking through silent ripe-smelling darkness, the tunnel opened up into a small den of a cave. Lewis squeezed my hand and stopped, then let out a series of meeps. Seconds later, crimson eyes blinked into view in the shadows. I pointed the flashlight down again, and two voices meeped back.
"C'mon," said Lewis, and led onward.
The rear of the cave narrowed into a passage only wide enough for one person. Three sets of glowing eyes moved single-file into it, and apart from the rocks lit by ambient flashlight glow, they were all I could see. We moved about thirty paces along the rough floor, and then I saw dim light felt smooth stone under my feet again. "Here," said Lewis' voice, and he stopped. I blinked, looked around, and saw chiseled floors, ceiling-vaults and crammed shelves, just like the underground of the Library at Ulthar. And ghouls by the dozens, all of them more or less dog-faced, some glibbering quietly in small groups, some reading alone by candlelight, some gnawing on lumps of meat. I couldn't smell anything at all any more. Our guides meeped softly and trotted off to the back of the gallery.
"'Scuse," said Lewis, and let go of my hand. He loped over to one of the others, glibbered briefly, picked up a meat-covered bone and went after it teeth-first, even though it was the size of a human arm. When he came back, carrying the remains, he looked brighter, more refreshed — maybe also a little more flat-nosed and pointy-eared, too.
"That's how you...become like this? Eating raw meat?"
"Dead. For a while now. Grave meat. 'S good."
I shuddered slightly, though less than I expected myself to. "That's inhuman."
Something else clicked into place then. "Then you can't show me how this language works after all."
Lewis cocked his doggy head to the left. "Can translate it for you..."
I shook my head. "It's not the same, though. I want to know how it actually functions — what all the rules are. Like in school. Is that something you can explain in English?"
His face twisted into an impossibly large, thoughtful frown. He pursed his lips a few times, as if about to speak, but finally shook his head no.
So this was what it had come down to. Perhaps Lewis and his fellow ghouls weren't quite human any more — but they were still human enough to retain a command of English, not to mention dozens of other human languages, judging from the books I'd seen last night. Yet they were not-human enough to understand a communication system that a mind specialized for human speech could never grasp.
And, the thought occurred, not-human enough in other ways, if the Manuscript was right. Being a human scholar meant claiming an agenda and clinging to it tooth and claw — had meant that for centuries, though it seemed so much worse these days. There just wasn't room for someone who only wanted to learn, collect and preserve. Not on the surface, anyway.
That's not what I want. But there's more. I know what I do want, now.
"It's all right, Lewis," I told him, putting a hand on his forearm. "Don't feel bad. I still want you to show me. It's just going to take a while." And I patted his wrist for comfort, took the meaty bone from his hand, and raised it to my lips.
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