Omnilingual - Cover


by H. Beam Piper

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Earth scientists investigating the remains of a Martian city.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Martha Dane paused, looking up at the purple-tinged copper sky. The wind had shifted since noon, while she had been inside, and the dust storm that was sweeping the high deserts to the east was now blowing out over Syrtis. The sun, magnified by the haze, was a gorgeous magenta ball, as large as the sun of Terra, at which she could look directly. Tonight, some of that dust would come sifting down from the upper atmosphere to add another film to what had been burying the city for the last fifty thousand years.

The red loess lay over everything, covering the streets and the open spaces of park and plaza, hiding the small houses that had been crushed and pressed flat under it and the rubble that had come down from the tall buildings when roofs had caved in and walls had toppled outward. Here, where she stood, the ancient streets were a hundred to a hundred and fifty feet below the surface; the breach they had made in the wall of the building behind her had opened into the sixth story. She could look down on the cluster of prefabricated huts and sheds, on the brush-grown flat that had been the waterfront when this place had been a seaport on the ocean that was now Syrtis Depression; already, the bright metal was thinly coated with red dust. She thought, again, of what clearing this city would mean, in terms of time and labor, of people and supplies and equipment brought across fifty million miles of space. They’d have to use machinery; there was no other way it could be done. Bulldozers and power shovels and draglines; they were fast, but they were rough and indiscriminate. She remembered the digs around Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, in the Indus Valley, and the careful, patient native laborers--the painstaking foremen, the pickmen and spademen, the long files of basketmen carrying away the earth. Slow and primitive as the civilization whose ruins they were uncovering, yes, but she could count on the fingers of one hand the times one of her pickmen had damaged a valuable object in the ground. If it hadn’t been for the underpaid and uncomplaining native laborer, archaeology would still be back where Wincklemann had found it. But on Mars there was no native labor; the last Martian had died five hundred centuries ago.

Something started banging like a machine gun, four or five hundred yards to her left. A solenoid jack-hammer; Tony Lattimer must have decided which building he wanted to break into next. She became conscious, then, of the awkward weight of her equipment, and began redistributing it, shifting the straps of her oxy-tank pack, slinging the camera from one shoulder and the board and drafting tools from the other, gathering the notebooks and sketchbooks under her left arm. She started walking down the road, over hillocks of buried rubble, around snags of wall jutting up out of the loess, past buildings still standing, some of them already breached and explored, and across the brush-grown flat to the huts.

There were ten people in the main office room of Hut One when she entered. As soon as she had disposed of her oxygen equipment, she lit a cigarette, her first since noon, then looked from one to another of them. Old Selim von Ohlmhorst, the Turco-German, one of her two fellow archaeologists, sitting at the end of the long table against the farther wall, smoking his big curved pipe and going through a looseleaf notebook. The girl ordnance officer, Sachiko Koremitsu, between two droplights at the other end of the table, her head bent over her work. Colonel Hubert Penrose, the Space Force CO, and Captain Field, the intelligence officer, listening to the report of one of the airdyne pilots, returned from his afternoon survey flight. A couple of girl lieutenants from Signals, going over the script of the evening telecast, to be transmitted to the Cyrano, on orbit five thousand miles off planet and relayed from thence to Terra via Lunar. Sid Chamberlain, the Trans-Space News Service man, was with them. Like Selim and herself, he was a civilian; he was advertising the fact with a white shirt and a sleeveless blue sweater. And Major Lindemann, the engineer officer, and one of his assistants, arguing over some plans on a drafting board. She hoped, drawing a pint of hot water to wash her hands and sponge off her face, that they were doing something about the pipeline.

She started to carry the notebooks and sketchbooks over to where Selim von Ohlmhorst was sitting, and then, as she always did, she turned aside and stopped to watch Sachiko. The Japanese girl was restoring what had been a book, fifty thousand years ago; her eyes were masked by a binocular loup, the black headband invisible against her glossy black hair, and she was picking delicately at the crumbled page with a hair-fine wire set in a handle of copper tubing. Finally, loosening a particle as tiny as a snowflake, she grasped it with tweezers, placed it on the sheet of transparent plastic on which she was reconstructing the page, and set it with a mist of fixative from a little spraygun. It was a sheer joy to watch her; every movement was as graceful and precise as though done to music after being rehearsed a hundred times.

“Hello, Martha. It isn’t cocktail-time yet, is it?” The girl at the table spoke without raising her head, almost without moving her lips, as though she were afraid that the slightest breath would disturb the flaky stuff in front of her.

“No, it’s only fifteen-thirty. I finished my work, over there. I didn’t find any more books, if that’s good news for you.”

Sachiko took off the loup and leaned back in her chair, her palms cupped over her eyes.

“No, I like doing this. I call it micro-jigsaw puzzles. This book, here, really is a mess. Selim found it lying open, with some heavy stuff on top of it; the pages were simply crushed.” She hesitated briefly. “If only it would mean something, after I did it.”

There could be a faintly critical overtone to that. As she replied, Martha realized that she was being defensive.

“It will, some day. Look how long it took to read Egyptian hieroglyphics, even after they had the Rosetta Stone.”

Sachiko smiled. “Yes. I know. But they did have the Rosetta Stone.”

“And we don’t. There is no Rosetta Stone, not anywhere on Mars. A whole race, a whole species, died while the first Crò-Magnon cave-artist was daubing pictures of reindeer and bison, and across fifty thousand years and fifty million miles there was no bridge of understanding.

“We’ll find one. There must be something, somewhere, that will give us the meaning of a few words, and we’ll use them to pry meaning out of more words, and so on. We may not live to learn this language, but we’ll make a start, and some day somebody will.”

Sachiko took her hands from her eyes, being careful not to look toward the unshaded light, and smiled again. This time Martha was sure that it was not the Japanese smile of politeness, but the universally human smile of friendship.

“I hope so, Martha: really I do. It would be wonderful for you to be the first to do it, and it would be wonderful for all of us to be able to read what these people wrote. It would really bring this dead city to life again.” The smile faded slowly. “But it seems so hopeless.”

“You haven’t found any more pictures?”

Sachiko shook her head. Not that it would have meant much if she had. They had found hundreds of pictures with captions; they had never been able to establish a positive relationship between any pictured object and any printed word. Neither of them said anything more, and after a moment Sachiko replaced the loup and bent her head forward over the book.

Selim von Ohlmhorst looked up from his notebook, taking his pipe out of his mouth.

“Everything finished, over there?” he asked, releasing a puff of smoke.

“Such as it was.” She laid the notebooks and sketches on the table. “Captain Gicquel’s started airsealing the building from the fifth floor down, with an entrance on the sixth; he’ll start putting in oxygen generators as soon as that’s done. I have everything cleared up where he’ll be working.”

Colonel Penrose looked up quickly, as though making a mental note to attend to something later. Then he returned his attention to the pilot, who was pointing something out on a map.

Von Ohlmhorst nodded. “There wasn’t much to it, at that,” he agreed. “Do you know which building Tony has decided to enter next?”

“The tall one with the conical thing like a candle extinguisher on top, I think. I heard him drilling for the blasting shots over that way.”

“Well, I hope it turns out to be one that was occupied up to the end.”

The last one hadn’t. It had been stripped of its contents and fittings, a piece of this and a bit of that, haphazardly, apparently over a long period of time, until it had been almost gutted. For centuries, as it had died, this city had been consuming itself by a process of auto-cannibalism. She said something to that effect.

“Yes. We always find that--except, of course, at places like Pompeii. Have you seen any of the other Roman cities in Italy?” he asked. “Minturnae, for instance? First the inhabitants tore down this to repair that, and then, after they had vacated the city, other people came along and tore down what was left, and burned the stones for lime, or crushed them to mend roads, till there was nothing left but the foundation traces. That’s where we are fortunate; this is one of the places where the Martian race perished, and there were no barbarians to come later and destroy what they had left.” He puffed slowly at his pipe. “Some of these days, Martha, we are going to break into one of these buildings and find that it was one in which the last of these people died. Then we will learn the story of the end of this civilization.”

And if we learn to read their language, we’ll learn the whole story, not just the obituary. She hesitated, not putting the thought into words. “We’ll find that, sometime, Selim,” she said, then looked at her watch. “I’m going to get some more work done on my lists, before dinner.”

For an instant, the old man’s face stiffened in disapproval; he started to say something, thought better of it, and put his pipe back into his mouth. The brief wrinkling around his mouth and the twitch of his white mustache had been enough, however; she knew what he was thinking. She was wasting time and effort, he believed; time and effort belonging not to herself but to the expedition. He could be right, too, she realized. But he had to be wrong; there had to be a way to do it. She turned from him silently and went to her own packing-case seat, at the middle of the table.

Photographs, and photostats of restored pages of books, and transcripts of inscriptions, were piled in front of her, and the notebooks in which she was compiling her lists. She sat down, lighting a fresh cigarette, and reached over to a stack of unexamined material, taking off the top sheet. It was a photostat of what looked like the title page and contents of some sort of a periodical. She remembered it; she had found it herself, two days before, in a closet in the basement of the building she had just finished examining.

She sat for a moment, looking at it. It was readable, in the sense that she had set up a purely arbitrary but consistently pronounceable system of phonetic values for the letters. The long vertical symbols were vowels. There were only ten of them; not too many, allowing separate characters for long and short sounds. There were twenty of the short horizontal letters, which meant that sounds like -ng or -ch or -sh were single letters. The odds were millions to one against her system being anything like the original sound of the language, but she had listed several thousand Martian words, and she could pronounce all of them.

And that was as far as it went. She could pronounce between three and four thousand Martian words, and she couldn’t assign a meaning to one of them. Selim von Ohlmhorst believed that she never would. So did Tony Lattimer, and he was a great deal less reticent about saying so. So, she was sure, did Sachiko Koremitsu. There were times, now and then, when she began to be afraid that they were right.

The letters on the page in front of her began squirming and dancing, slender vowels with fat little consonants. They did that, now, every night in her dreams. And there were other dreams, in which she read them as easily as English; waking, she would try desperately and vainly to remember. She blinked, and looked away from the photostatted page; when she looked back, the letters were behaving themselves again. There were three words at the top of the page, over-and-underlined, which seemed to be the Martian method of capitalization. _Mastharnorvod Tadavas Sornhulva_. She pronounced them mentally, leafing through her notebooks to see if she had encountered them before, and in what contexts. All three were listed. In addition, masthar was a fairly common word, and so was norvod, and so was nor, but -vod was a suffix and nothing but a suffix. Davas, was a word, too, and ta- was a common prefix; sorn and hulva were both common words. This language, she had long ago decided, must be something like German; when the Martians had needed a new word, they had just pasted a couple of existing words together. It would probably turn out to be a grammatical horror. Well, they had published magazines, and one of them had been called _Mastharnorvod Tadavas Sornhulva_. She wondered if it had been something like the Quarterly Archaeological Review, or something more on the order of Sexy Stories.

A smaller line, under the title, was plainly the issue number and date; enough things had been found numbered in series to enable her to identify the numerals and determine that a decimal system of numeration had been used. This was the one thousand and seven hundred and fifty-fourth issue, for Doma, 14837; then Doma must be the name of one of the Martian months. The word had turned up several times before. She found herself puffing furiously on her cigarette as she leafed through notebooks and piles of already examined material.

Sachiko was speaking to somebody, and a chair scraped at the end of the table. She raised her head, to see a big man with red hair and a red face, in Space Force green, with the single star of a major on his shoulder, sitting down. Ivan Fitzgerald, the medic. He was lifting weights from a book similar to the one the girl ordnance officer was restoring.

“Haven’t had time, lately,” he was saying, in reply to Sachiko’s question. “The Finchley girl’s still down with whatever it is she has, and it’s something I haven’t been able to diagnose yet. And I’ve been checking on bacteria cultures, and in what spare time I have, I’ve been dissecting specimens for Bill Chandler. Bill’s finally found a mammal. Looks like a lizard, and it’s only four inches long, but it’s a real warm-blooded, gamogenetic, placental, viviparous mammal. Burrows, and seems to live on what pass for insects here.”

“Is there enough oxygen for anything like that?” Sachiko was asking.

“Seems to be, close to the ground.” Fitzgerald got the headband of his loup adjusted, and pulled it down over his eyes. “He found this thing in a ravine down on the sea bottom--Ha, this page seems to be intact; now, if I can get it out all in one piece--”

He went on talking inaudibly to himself, lifting the page a little at a time and sliding one of the transparent plastic sheets under it, working with minute delicacy. Not the delicacy of the Japanese girl’s small hands, moving like the paws of a cat washing her face, but like a steam-hammer cracking a peanut. Field archaeology requires a certain delicacy of touch, too, but Martha watched the pair of them with envious admiration. Then she turned back to her own work, finishing the table of contents.

The next page was the beginning of the first article listed; many of the words were unfamiliar. She had the impression that this must be some kind of scientific or technical journal; that could be because such publications made up the bulk of her own periodical reading. She doubted if it were fiction; the paragraphs had a solid, factual look.

At length, Ivan Fitzgerald gave a short, explosive grunt.

“Ha! Got it!”

She looked up. He had detached the page and was cementing another plastic sheet onto it.

“Any pictures?” she asked.

“None on this side. Wait a moment.” He turned the sheet. “None on this side, either.” He sprayed another sheet of plastic to sandwich the page, then picked up his pipe and relighted it.

“I get fun out of this, and it’s good practice for my hands, so don’t think I’m complaining,” he said, “but, Martha, do you honestly think anybody’s ever going to get anything out of this?”

Sachiko held up a scrap of the silicone plastic the Martians had used for paper with her tweezers. It was almost an inch square.

“Look; three whole words on this piece,” she crowed. “Ivan, you took the easy book.”

Fitzgerald wasn’t being sidetracked. “This stuff’s absolutely meaningless,” he continued. “It had a meaning fifty thousand years ago, when it was written, but it has none at all now.”

She shook her head. “Meaning isn’t something that evaporates with time,” she argued. “It has just as much meaning now as it ever had. We just haven’t learned how to decipher it.”

“That seems like a pretty pointless distinction,” Selim von Ohlmhorst joined the conversation. “There no longer exists a means of deciphering it.”

“We’ll find one.” She was speaking, she realized, more in self-encouragement than in controversy.

“How? From pictures and captions? We’ve found captioned pictures, and what have they given us? A caption is intended to explain the picture, not the picture to explain the caption. Suppose some alien to our culture found a picture of a man with a white beard and mustache sawing a billet from a log. He would think the caption meant, ‘Man Sawing Wood.’ How would he know that it was really ‘Wilhelm II in Exile at Doorn?’”

Sachiko had taken off her loup and was lighting a cigarette.

“I can think of pictures intended to explain their captions,” she said. “These picture language-books, the sort we use in the Service--little line drawings, with a word or phrase under them.”

“Well, of course, if we found something like that,” von Ohlmhorst began.

“Michael Ventris found something like that, back in the Fifties,” Hubert Penrose’s voice broke in from directly behind her.

She turned her head. The colonel was standing by the archaeologists’ table; Captain Field and the airdyne pilot had gone out.

“He found a lot of Greek inventories of military stores,” Penrose continued. “They were in Cretan Linear B script, and at the head of each list was a little picture, a sword or a helmet or a cooking tripod or a chariot wheel. That’s what gave him the key to the script.”

“Colonel’s getting to be quite an archaeologist,” Fitzgerald commented. “We’re all learning each others’ specialties, on this expedition.”

“I heard about that long before this expedition was even contemplated.” Penrose was tapping a cigarette on his gold case. “I heard about that back before the Thirty Days’ War, at Intelligence School, when I was a lieutenant. As a feat of cryptanalysis, not an archaeological discovery.”

“Yes, cryptanalysis,” von Ohlmhorst pounced. “The reading of a known language in an unknown form of writing. Ventris’ lists were in the known language, Greek. Neither he nor anybody else ever read a word of the Cretan language until the finding of the Greek-Cretan bilingual in 1963, because only with a bilingual text, one language already known, can an unknown ancient language be learned. And what hope, I ask you, have we of finding anything like that here? Martha, you’ve been working on these Martian texts ever since we landed here--for the last six months. Tell me, have you found a single word to which you can positively assign a meaning?”

“Yes, I think I have one.” She was trying hard not to sound too exultant. “Doma. It’s the name of one of the months of the Martian calendar.”

“Where did you find that?” von Ohlmhorst asked. “And how did you establish--?”

“Here.” She picked up the photostat and handed it along the table to him. “I’d call this the title page of a magazine.”

He was silent for a moment, looking at it. “Yes. I would say so, too. Have you any of the rest of it?”

“I’m working on the first page of the first article, listed there. Wait till I see; yes, here’s all I found, together, here.” She told him where she had gotten it. “I just gathered it up, at the time, and gave it to Geoffrey and Rosita to photostat; this is the first I’ve really examined it.”

The old man got to his feet, brushing tobacco ashes from the front of his jacket, and came to where she was sitting, laying the title page on the table and leafing quickly through the stack of photostats.


“Yes, and here is the second article, on page eight, and here’s the next one.” He finished the pile of photostats. “A couple of pages missing at the end of the last article. This is remarkable; surprising that a thing like a magazine would have survived so long.”

“Well, this silicone stuff the Martians used for paper is pretty durable,” Hubert Penrose said. “There doesn’t seem to have been any water or any other fluid in it originally, so it wouldn’t dry out with time.”

“Oh, it’s not remarkable that the material would have survived. We’ve found a good many books and papers in excellent condition. But only a really vital culture, an organized culture, will publish magazines, and this civilization had been dying for hundreds of years before the end. It might have been a thousand years before the time they died out completely that such activities as publishing ended.”

“Well, look where I found it; in a closet in a cellar. Tossed in there and forgotten, and then ignored when they were stripping the building. Things like that happen.”

Penrose had picked up the title page and was looking at it.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt about this being a magazine, at all.” He looked again at the title, his lips moving silently. “_Mastharnorvod Tadavas Sornhulva_. Wonder what it means. But you’re right about the date--Doma seems to be the name of a month. Yes, you have a word, Dr. Dane.”

Sid Chamberlain, seeing that something unusual was going on, had come over from the table at which he was working. After examining the title page and some of the inside pages, he began whispering into the stenophone he had taken from his belt.

“Don’t try to blow this up to anything big, Sid,” she cautioned. “All we have is the name of a month, and Lord only knows how long it’ll be till we even find out which month it was.”

“Well, it’s a start, isn’t it?” Penrose argued. “Grotefend only had the word for ‘king’ when he started reading Persian cuneiform.”

“But I don’t have the word for month; just the name of a month. Everybody knew the names of the Persian kings, long before Grotefend.”

“That’s not the story,” Chamberlain said. “What the public back on Terra will be interested in is finding out that the Martians published magazines, just like we do. Something familiar; make the Martians seem more real. More human.”

Three men had come in, and were removing their masks and helmets and oxy-tanks, and peeling out of their quilted coveralls. Two were Space Force lieutenants; the third was a youngish civilian with close-cropped blond hair, in a checked woolen shirt. Tony Lattimer and his helpers.

“Don’t tell me Martha finally got something out of that stuff?” he asked, approaching the table. He might have been commenting on the antics of the village half-wit, from his tone.

“Yes; the name of one of the Martian months.” Hubert Penrose went on to explain, showing the photostat.

Tony Lattimer took it, glanced at it, and dropped it on the table.

“Sounds plausible, of course, but just an assumption. That word may not be the name of a month, at all--could mean ‘published’ or ‘authorized’ or ‘copyrighted’ or anything like that. Fact is, I don’t think it’s more than a wild guess that that thing’s anything like a periodical.” He dismissed the subject and turned to Penrose. “I picked out the next building to enter; that tall one with the conical thing on top. It ought to be in pretty good shape inside; the conical top wouldn’t allow dust to accumulate, and from the outside nothing seems to be caved in or crushed. Ground level’s higher than the other one, about the seventh floor. I found a good place and drilled for the shots; tomorrow I’ll blast a hole in it, and if you can spare some people to help, we can start exploring it right away.”

“Yes, of course, Dr. Lattimer. I can spare about a dozen, and I suppose you can find a few civilian volunteers,” Penrose told him. “What will you need in the way of equipment?”

“Oh, about six demolition-packets; they can all be shot together. And the usual thing in the way of lights, and breaking and digging tools, and climbing equipment in case we run into broken or doubtful stairways. We’ll divide into two parties. Nothing ought to be entered for the first time without a qualified archaeologist along. Three parties, if Martha can tear herself away from this catalogue of systematized incomprehensibilities she’s making long enough to do some real work.”

She felt her chest tighten and her face become stiff. She was pressing her lips together to lock in a furious retort when Hubert Penrose answered for her.

“Dr. Dane’s been doing as much work, and as important work, as you have,” he said brusquely. “More important work, I’d be inclined to say.”

Von Ohlmhorst was visibly distressed; he glanced once toward Sid Chamberlain, then looked hastily away from him. Afraid of a story of dissension among archaeologists getting out.

“Working out a system of pronunciation by which the Martian language could be transliterated was a most important contribution,” he said. “And Martha did that almost unassisted.”

“Unassisted by Dr. Lattimer, anyway,” Penrose added. “Captain Field and Lieutenant Koremitsu did some work, and I helped out a little, but nine-tenths of it she did herself.”

“Purely arbitrary,” Lattimer disdained. “Why, we don’t even know that the Martians could make the same kind of vocal sounds we do.”

“Oh, yes, we do,” Ivan Fitzgerald contradicted, safe on his own ground. “I haven’t seen any actual Martian skulls--these people seem to have been very tidy about disposing of their dead--but from statues and busts and pictures I’ve seen. I’d say that their vocal organs were identical with our own.”

“Well, grant that. And grant that it’s going to be impressive to rattle off the names of Martian notables whose statues we find, and that if we’re ever able to attribute any placenames, they’ll sound a lot better than this horse-doctors’ Latin the old astronomers splashed all over the map of Mars,” Lattimer said. “What I object to is her wasting time on this stuff, of which nobody will ever be able to read a word if she fiddles around with those lists till there’s another hundred feet of loess on this city, when there’s so much real work to be done and we’re as shorthanded as we are.”

That was the first time that had come out in just so many words. She was glad Lattimer had said it and not Selim von Ohlmhorst.

“What you mean,” she retorted, “is that it doesn’t have the publicity value that digging up statues has.”

For an instant, she could see that the shot had scored. Then Lattimer, with a side glance at Chamberlain, answered:

“What I mean is that you’re trying to find something that any archaeologist, yourself included, should know doesn’t exist. I don’t object to your gambling your professional reputation and making a laughing stock of yourself; what I object to is that the blunders of one archaeologist discredit the whole subject in the eyes of the public.”

That seemed to be what worried Lattimer most. She was framing a reply when the communication-outlet whistled shrilly, and then squawked: “Cocktail time! One hour to dinner; cocktails in the library, Hut Four!”

The library, which was also lounge, recreation room, and general gathering-place, was already crowded; most of the crowd was at the long table topped with sheets of glasslike plastic that had been wall panels out of one of the ruined buildings. She poured herself what passed, here, for a martini, and carried it over to where Selim von Ohlmhorst was sitting alone.

For a while, they talked about the building they had just finished exploring, then drifted into reminiscences of their work on Terra--von Ohlmhorst’s in Asia Minor, with the Hittite Empire, and hers in Pakistan, excavating the cities of the Harappa Civilization. They finished their drinks--the ingredients were plentiful; alcohol and flavoring extracts synthesized from Martian vegetation--and von Ohlmhorst took the two glasses to the table for refills.

“You know, Martha,” he said, when he returned, “Tony was right about one thing. You are gambling your professional standing and reputation. It’s against all archaeological experience that a language so completely dead as this one could be deciphered. There was a continuity between all the other ancient languages--by knowing Greek, Champollion learned to read Egyptian; by knowing Egyptian, Hittite was learned. That’s why you and your colleagues have never been able to translate the Harappa hieroglyphics; no such continuity exists there. If you insist that this utterly dead language can be read, your reputation will suffer for it.”

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