The patient sat stiffly in the leather chair on the other side of the desk. Nervously he pressed a coin into the palm of one hand.
“Just start anywhere,” I said, “and tell me all about it.”
“As before?” Without waiting for an answer, he continued, the coin clutched tightly in one hand. “I’m Charles J. Fisher, professor of Philosophy at Reiser College.”
He looked at me quickly. “Or at least I was until recently.” For a second his face was boyish. “Professor of Philosophy, that is.”
I smiled and found that I was staring at the coin in his hand. He gave it to me. On one side I read the words: THE STATEMENT ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THIS COIN IS FALSE. The patient watched me with an expressionless face; I turned over the coin. It was engraved with the words: THE STATEMENT ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THIS COIN IS FALSE.
“That’s not the problem,” he said, “not my problem. I had the coin made when I was an undergraduate. I enjoyed reading one side, turning it over, reading the other side, and so on. A fiendish enjoyment like boys planning where to put the tipped-over outhouse.”
I looked at the patient. He was thirty-eight, single, medium build, had an M.A. and Ph.D. from an eastern university. I knew this and more from the folder on my desk.
“Eight months ago,” he continued, “I read about the sphere found on Paney Island.” He stopped, looking at me questioningly.
“Yes, I know,” I said. I opened my desk drawer, took out a clipping from the newspaper, and handed it to him.
I read the clipping before putting it back in the drawer.
Manila, Sept. 24 (INS) Archeologists from University of California
have discovered in earth fault of recent quake a sphere two feet in
diameter of an unidentifiable material.
Dr. Karl Schwartz, head of the group, said the sphere was returned
to the University for study. He declined to answer questions on the
cultural origin of the sphere.
“There wasn’t any more in the newspapers about it,” he said. “I have a friend in California who got me the photographs.”
_He looked at me intently. “You won’t believe any of this.” He pressed the coin into the palm of his hand. “You won’t be able to.”_
“The photographs,” he continued, as if lecturing, “were of characters projected by the sphere when placed before a focused light. The sphere was transparent, you see, imbedded with dark microscopic specks. By moving the sphere a certain distance each time, there was a total projection of three hundred and sixty different characters in eighteen different orderings. Or nineteen different orderings if you count one which was a list of all the characters.”
I made a mental note of the numbers. I felt they were significant.
“As I said,” he continued, “I obtained the photographs of the characters. Very strange shapes, totally unlike the characters of Oriental languages, but yet that is the closest way to describe them.” He jerked forward in his chair, “Except, of course, ostensively.”
“Later,” I said. I wanted to get through the preliminaries first. There would be time later to see the photographs.
“The characters projected by the sphere,” he said, “weren’t like the characters of any known language.” He paused dramatically. “There was reason to believe they had origin in an unknown culture. A culture more scientifically advanced than our own.”
“And the reasons for this supposition?” I asked.
“The material ... the material of the sphere. It could only be roughly classified as ferro-plastic. Totally unknown, amazing imperviousness. A synthetic material, hardly the product of a former culture.”
“From Mars?” I said, smiling.
“There were all kinds of conjectures, but, of course, the important thing was to see if the projection of characters was a message. The message, if any, would mean more than any conjecture.”
“You translated it?”
_He polished the coin on his jacket. “You won’t dare believe it,” he said sharply._
He cleared his throat and stiffened into a more rigid posture. “It wasn’t exactly translation. You see, to us none of the characters had designation. They were just characters.”
“So it was a problem of decoding?” I asked.
“As it turned out, no. Decoding is dependent on knowledge of language characteristics--characteristics of known languages. Decoding was tried, but without success. No, what we had to find was a key to the language.”
“You mean like the Rune Stone?”
“More or less. In principle, we needed a picture of a cow, and a sign of meaning indicating one of the characters.
“For me, there was no possibility of finding similarities between the characters and characters of other languages--that would require tremendous linguistic knowledge and library facilities. Nor could I use a decoding approach--that would require special knowledge of techniques and access to electronic computers and other mechanical aids. No, I had to work on the assumption that the key to the sphere was implicit in the sphere.”
“You hoped to find the key to the language in the language itself?”
“Exactly. You know, of course, some languages do have an implicit key? For example hieroglyphics or picture language. The word for cow is a picture of a cow.”
_He looked at the toes of his shoes. “You won’t be able to believe it. It’s impossible to believe. I use the word impossible in its logical sense._
“In most languages,” he continued, looking up from his shoes, “the sound of some words themselves indicates the meaning of the word. Onomatopoetic words like bowwow, buzz.”
“And the key to the unknown language?” I asked. “How did you find it?”
I watched him push the coin against the back of his arm, then lift it to read the backward letters pressed into his skin. He looked up at me and smiled.