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There was nothing for me to do but stare at the one odd spot in the distance—and wish.
 
     
 
It was a lie and, like a lot of lies, it felt ugly.
 
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The Meaning of the Word
by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

Then I saw something odd, fuzzed with the sand glimmering in the coral sunlight, and I began to slog my way toward it.

"Jhirinki, get back here!" Wolton ordered from the skiff. He was sounding angrier by the minute.

"There's something out—" I tried to tell him but Almrid cut me off.

"Let him alone, Wolton. Your jurisdiction goes no farther than the skiff." Then, with scarcely a change in tone, he said to me, "You stay here until camp is set up. I want to know where everyone is."

Wolton gave him a sour smile and motioned me away. But it was important that they know about that irregularity. I tried again. "I saw something out there. It doesn't look—"

"Wait until the camp is set up. We need to get some more definitive readings before we go exploring. And"—Almrid added to Wolton—"we can't get those without the prowler."

Wolton jerked the hatch of the skiff open. "All right. Here's the prowler. You know that it can't get any better data from the surface than the monitors can."

"Look, Almrid—" I began.

"Not now, Peter. We'll talk later. When we have more accurate material to work from." This last was, of course, for Wolton.

It was useless. I stepped back as Wolton reluctantly put the prowler in action, letting it scuttle out over the hazy sand, scanners clicking contentedly to itself.

Sumiko Hyasu had barricaded herself behind her equipment, preparing to run soil tests. She and Langly, the biochemist, worked in silence, the remote sounds of their breathing murmuring in my earphones.

On the other side of the skiff I knew Parnini and Goetz were furling the sails of the weather unit. I could hear them swearing occasionally. They were busy. Wolton and Almrid were still arguing. My eyes were dragged back again to that irregular spot in the sand that might be what I wanted. That might be digs.

"I'm calling Captain Tamoshoe," Wolton declared to anyone who would listen. "I'm going to give him a status report."

"That is your responsibility," murmured Almrid as he watched the prowler set zig-zagging in a widening spiral. His heavy head was even larger in the Class Eleven uniform. His hands hung like paws, wholly unlike what one expected in a virologist. It was hard to think of him doing the minute manipulations that were the mark of his work—it was like trying to imagine Caliban or Quasimodo making watches or microcircuitry.

A yawning breeze wound a bit of dust on its finger and then sank back, too tired to hold it. That was the feel of the whole place—drowsiness. The wind barely breathed. The plain was heavy with dreaming, the sky unmarred by clouds where the greater of two suns hung about fifteen degrees above the horizon, a platter of polished copper. Our presence intruded on this somnambulistic landscape where even the rocks were softened and sometimes crumbling and in place of dirt there was sand that was not sand flickering in the monochrome stillness.

Yet I wondered and hoped. There had been indications of structures from the monitors on the Nordenskjold. I knew my digs were here to be found, if only I knew where to look.

"Jhirinki's been wandering around," Wolton was reporting and the sound of my name brought me back to the camp. He added in response to the captain's garbled question, "It was Almrid's idea to bring along an archeologist. Not mine. Ask him."

In the slow heat of the opalescent afternoon work was sluggish. There was nothing for me to do but stare at the one odd spot in the distance—and wish.

Goetz swore in my earphone as his equipment toppled for the second time, victim to the treacherous shifting of the sand. "Need help?" I asked him, not reluctantly.

"What I need is a foundation," came his answer, the words bitten out in frustration.

"According to the monitors," Almrid said icily, directing the insult at Wolton, "there's all kinds of rock around here. Or, maybe not rock. Maybe it once was buildings."

"Look, Almrid—" Wolton began.

Then, unexpectedly, Sumiko Hyasu cut in. "Leave him alone, Franz," she said softly to Almrid. "We have work to do."

"It looks like you've wasted your trip, Peter," Almrid said to me, a certain morose satisfaction in this statement. "Why don't you ride up tonight and forget it? There are other planets."

I wondered if my disappointment showed so much.

"I think I'll stick around for a while," I said.


· · · · · 


"I don't know, Sumiko," I was saying as we watched the second skiff settle onto the sand. "I can't give up the thought that there's something here."

Absently she made some answer.

"Don't you feel that?"

"I suppose so." She was only half-listening. This world was too unknown, too compelling for us to pay much attention to each other. Every one of us saw it through his/her eyes only. "Is any of this real, Peter?" she asked. "Or is the planet hiding from us?"

I had felt that from the first. Something was hidden here right under our noses and we hadn't the sense to find it. But all I could do was shrug. I didn't know then what she wanted to find, what it was she had been searching for with that terrible, fragile intensity that marked her more than her beauty.

"What do you want to find?" she asked me.

"Oh, I don't know." It was a lie and, like a lot of lies, it felt ugly. But I couldn't admit to her that I had longed for the chance to find a lost civilization here, to be the first to decipher its language. People could be known and understood by the way they used words, and to be the first to understand in that way had been an obsession with me since before I trained on the Probe Ship Magalhaes.

"You're going to do some exploring later?" It wasn't really a question, it was a dismissal.

"Whenever Almrid and Wolton get tired of fighting and give a general release, then, yes, I'll go exploring." Neither of them was willing to stop feuding long enough to let the expedition get moving and I was becoming riled at the delay. But Commander Markham would be in the next skiff and, knowing Josh, he would put an end to the sparring that had taken up too much time already.

"Good luck," she murmured and went back to her equipment. Then, as she started adjusting the sample breakdowns, her voice sounded again in my earphones. "Why wait? Why not do what you want to do?"


· · · · · 


By the time the base camp had been set up and the full complement of expedition staff had been ferried down the surface shelters were waiting. I had spent the long afternoon struggling with ring supports, emplacing the doughnut-shaped foundations for the inflatable buildings, but now it was night.

I walked away from the camp, watching the unfamiliar sky. There were more and brighter stars above me and some eleven dissimilar moons coursed overhead in a bewildering tangle.

In a while I found the irregular stone, although I had not consciously been looking for it—I had been drawn to it as surely as fur draws static. I knew that it would tell me what I wanted to know, if only I could puzzle it out before Captain Tamoshoe ordered us all back to the Nordenskjold. Yet, as I stood over it, not knowing where to look or what I was looking for, I could still mock myself for being so obsessed with wanting to find a language and a culture that obviously had failed in all this desolation.

So I paced the thing off nonchalantly. It was not too large, this oblong section of rock, rather like one of the old headstones in the landmark cemeteries.

I kneeled in the sand and rubbed at the side of the block—and touched what I thought at first was a flaw or chip in the surface. Curious, I bent closer, gently blowing the clinging dirt from the slab with my sweat valve, brushing the stone clear as I worked.

And then, there it was. Without any doubt, without any ambiguity, the glyphs appeared under my hands. I drew back to get a proper look at them.


symbol1




For several minutes I sat and looked at them. The stillness of the night was suddenly alien. Eight low relief marks on a rock—and I felt for the first time that all I am was justified.

I rose, wiping more of the block free of the sand, but I could find nothing more. The inexorable movement of the sand might have worn other markings away, or perhaps the stone reached deeper into the ground than I had thought at first, with more glyphs farther down. Almrid and Wolton had said something about erosion. Perhaps this had been high above the sand, once.

It seemed like a long way back to the camp just to get a shovel and some help. I stood, rubbing my hands together to free them of the dust that was clinging insidiously to them and to film of my surface suit. Was it worth it, going all the way back? I could do more here tonight even without tools. And if I went back, Almrid or Wolton would be sure to try to stop me from coming back. In the morning I could bring some of the expedition with me, but then this find would no longer be mine. I finally accepted the rationalization that left me alone with my particular dream for a little longer.

Setting to work, I scooped armloads of the soil away from the block, hoping to discover more glyphs. I felt that I had found the key to a larger discovery.

It was on the fifth armload that I fell through into the room.


· · · · · 


Dust spread out around me like a reverse halo against the shiny surface of the floor. I tasted grit—the suit must have ruptured somewhere. As I lay on the floor I took stock. No bones broken, but some dandy bruises. I gathered my knees beneath me and carefully stood up. It was dark down here except for the shine from the moons through the hole. There was no other light.

With uncertain fingers I grabbed for my litepak and found it undamaged. Thumbing it, I found that it could hardly reach beyond that sand on the floor. After a moment of thought I turned it off and began walking slowly in an outward spiral.

On the third round I bumped into a thing, apparently of stone, about the size of a half-chair with a shoe-shaped projection. It felt smooth and solid.

"Curiouser and curiouser," I said aloud to the unechoing blackness.

Slowly I wandered back to the sand haze on the floor, the site of my fall. I looked up at the rent in the roof. The realization rushed in on me then that I was truly cut off from the expedition. I had left my commkit at the camp and my litepak's trickle of beam could not have been seen by anyone at that distance. The sand filtered down through the hole, whispering.

And the light was failing. Two of the moons had set since I had fallen into my find and I could not get out without light.

Let's leave that alone for the moment, Jhirinki, I told myself for comfort.

Then, as I watched, the great heavy stone I had loosened by my fall gave a kind of sigh and, with deceptive languor, tumbled end over end to crash and shatter on the floor. If it had fallen straight down, that would have been the end of Peter Jhirinki.

Badly shaken, I went back to the object I had walked into earlier. My hands shook when I reached out to steady myself, and I drew them back.

Perhaps I should touch nothing here until I knew what had made that great stone fall. Were other stones still in the ceiling above me?

Anxiously I pulled out my litepak again and played its feeble beam over the ceiling. But the fact that I saw no other blocks of stone was actually small comfort. This room was an important find and I was without means to see it—and now too isolated to get the help I needed. I also remembered there was a tear in my suit, which might or might not mean anything on this planet.

Again I wandered back to the place beneath the hole, taking care not to get near the gently falling sands.

"Peter!"

For a moment, I didn't believe the sound in my suit phone. Then, as my name was called again, I realized that I had been missed and that a party was searching for me.

"Yeo!" I yelled, full of relief.

The stream of dust into the hole increased.

"Peter Jhirinki—" Now that the voices were closer I was able to pick out Markham's among the others—a large resonant sound that no commsystem could properly handle.

"Down here—" More rivulets of the soft dust were pouring down now and I wondered how strong the roof was. "Be careful—I don't know how long the roof here will hold."

"Thanks." Markham's voice. "We'll get you out of there. Dominguiz went back for the rig." After a moment's silence Josh Markham asked, "And did you find anything down there, Pete?"

It took me a little time to answer him. "I hope so," I said finally. Then, as I looked around the dark, I didn't want to leave. "Drop me a litepak, will you?"

"Right." And in a moment Markham's litepak in its crashcase thudded to the floor. "Dominguiz will be back any time, Pete. Make it short."


· · · · · 


But I knew that. I wrenched the litepak from its case and pressed the switch. The beam stabbed into the darkness, showing me the room for the first time.

It was large, low-ceilinged and shiny save for the place where I had brought in the sand. Two of the walls were a patchwork of designs, intricate embossed patterns on tilelike bricks. The other two walls …

The other two walls were covered with glyphs.

"Get ready, Pete." Markham cut into my discovery like razor into flesh. "I can't get this very steady. You'll have to guide it coming out."

There was a clank of the rig as the saddle hit the floor, then the purposeful clicking of the pulleys set in motion.

Quickly I straddled the saddle, grabbing the upper sling so that I could help control the lift.

"We're under way," Markham called as the rig hoisted me into the air.

I turned the beam of the litepak on the walls as I rose, letting the light linger on the marks for as long as I could.

I got my back scraped coming out of the hole, but I was too preoccupied to notice it until Josh Markham said, "Holy Mama, where did you get that?"

I looked at my arm, saw nothing and shrugged.

"Your back, man, your back."

As soon as he said it, the pain hit like a hammer. "Oh. That." For a moment I concentrated on the damage and decided that it wasn't that much. "Coming out of the hole, I think. Is it bad?"

Relieved, Josh said, "It's messy. Have Sanderson look at it back at the base. He'll want to check you for foreign bugs anyway. What the devil did you find down there?"

"Words," I said quietly. "A whole world of words."

"There are ruins down there?" He asked it incredulously, his big body slewing about in the sand. "A city?"

"I don't know about the city, but there sure as hell are words. Maybe a complete language. I'm going back down tomorrow and find out."

Markham eyed me suspiciously. "What if Wolton says otherwise? What if I say otherwise?"

"It wouldn't matter." As I said it, I knew it could make no difference what they said. Nothing anyone could say or do would keep me out of that hole now that I had seen the wall.

"All right, Pete. But don't push your luck. This place is still terra incognita as far as we're concerned."

I nodded. "That's just it. It won't be unknown if I can get a chance at that wall. There's the whole puzzle, right down there. Complete with solution."

"Hey, won't machines do as well?" Dominguiz put in, having listened to us as he stowed the gear in the crawler. "We got machines for that."

"No." I spoke harshly, but there was no way for me to say it kindly. "No machine wrote that, no machine is going to read it. That is what I'm trained for. That's why I'm part of the crew. And it's what I've wanted to do all my life."

"Sure. Sure. I don't care whether you get yourself ruined. I just want to know. Academics!" He sat down in the driving cockpit. "You two can ride in the back if you want." He didn't wait for an answer, preferring his machines to our company.

Josh Markham and I scrambled aboard as the crawler began its lurching way off through the sand. Only it wasn't sand.

"Josh," I said uncertainly as we clung to the rear platform of the crawler. "I think I know what this stuff is."

"The dirt? Damned persistent, isn't it?"

"It isn't dirt," I told him slowly, avoiding his eyes. "I think it's ash."


· · · · · 

 
 
 
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© 1973 Universal Publishing Company, © 1978 Chelsea Quinn Yarbro.