This is Part 19; click here to read Breaking the Ice from the beginning.
“Hello,” said Tiny Leaf, her voice low and pleasant, a rich contralto that harmonized beautifully with the distant jingling of sleigh bells in the library program’s soundtrack.
But no, that couldn’t be right. Tiny Leaf was an extraterrestrial marine creature and therefore was highly unlikely to be speaking English, whether telepathically or in any other way. Putting down his stylus, Woods rubbed his tired eyes. It had gotten late in ship’s night while he sat reading about linguistics and cultural anthropology. No doubt he was still feeling the effects of his recent sleep deprivation.
What in fact had happened? He had picked up the stylus, while visualizing the seven-leaved stalk of seaweed-like vegetation that he guessed was a name-image. Then he had felt a wave—yes, that was it, an ocean wave breaking over him. No different from the wave-feeling that he had interpreted as a greeting before, except that this time his subconscious mind evidently had translated that perception into speech, without any intent on his part.
Because his primary mode of thought was in pictures, Woods always had internally translated his mental images to and from words. Whenever he’d learned a word as a child, he had associated it with a familiar image, such as the cracked rock and bare trees that represented his own name. That wouldn’t explain hearing Tiny Leaf speak to him, though—he’d never literally heard voices before now.
Alien conversation, or hallucinations and lack of sleep? He still lacked enough information to draw a conclusion one way or another. Just as with any research project, he would have to proceed on a working assumption while further investigating the facts. Assuming without deciding that this was a real conversation, Woods returned the wave-image, subvocalizing “Hello,” as he did so.
He hesitated, unsure of how to go on. When he’d thought about it earlier, he had decided to use numbers to communicate. It seemed a logical guess that an alien species might count on their tentacles, just as humans counted with fingers. But now he was having second thoughts. There hadn’t been any tentacles in the images he had seen. What if Tiny Leaf’s culture had a taboo against mentioning body parts? Maybe he should try something else instead, such as counting blocks of ice, so as not to be rude by mistake.
While he sat dithering, another image came into his thoughts—an upright stalk of seaweed, with one leaf toward the bottom, on the right. This faded away, to be replaced by another stalk that had two leaves, on opposite sides. The next image added a third leaf, also on the right.
That sequence would have been easy enough to translate even without spoken words. Evidently, he and Tiny Leaf both had decided to test each other’s ability to count. Logs crackled in the library’s faux fireplace, and Woods felt his face relax into a big grin even before he heard Tiny Leaf’s pleasant voice again, saying slowly, “One, two, three.”
Continuing the sequence, he filled in more leaves along the stalk—four, five, six. With three leaves on each side of the stalk, there was no remaining space to add more on either side. Woods found himself wondering what the seven-leaved stalk with a smaller leaf on top might mean—was it also a number? And what about the intricate patterns of veining that looked like calligraphy? So far, the sequence had included only simple leaf-images with rudimentary branching veins, all alike.
Those questions weren’t answered by what he saw next—a leafless upright stalk. Unlike the previous images, it did not fade when another stalk appeared to its left, with one leaf toward the bottom as before. This second stalk was then replaced with another that had two leaves. “Seven, eight, nine,” the spoken words continued, after a few seconds had passed.
“Base seven, right to left,” Woods noted in his tablet. That wasn’t surprising; after all, Tiny Leaf’s species had seven tentacles, not ten fingers. Holding the image clearly in his thoughts, he imagined adding two more leaves to the second stalk—that made ten, eleven—and then began counting backwards, taking away leaves in reverse order until he got down to a single stalk with one leaf.
The familiar image of smooth, unbroken ice that he had taken to mean something unknown appeared. Several seconds went by as he wondered why it was there. Surely there wasn’t anything in his counting that would have caused confusion. Maybe it somehow came next in the sequence? “Zero,” declared Tiny Leaf, confirming his last thought.
Wait, that was zero? How could that be—was it both a number and a metaphor? And why was the translation taking longer each time? Woods filed away these observations on his tablet for later pondering, as he didn’t have much insight into them at present. He decided to see what would happen with a negative number. Negative one—following the same pattern, that would be ice to the right of a stalk with one leaf.
Tiny Leaf returned the plain ice-image, followed by the broken-stalk inverted checkmark that Woods had seen before when he’d tried to introduce himself. The stalk with one leaf came next. “Zero minus one,” she informed him, the English narration lagging even farther behind the images. That lag was starting to make him feel uncomfortable—almost like he was a small boy again, struggling to fit spoken words together into something that made sense, even as they kept coming at him too fast to process.
A broken-stalk image with two horizontal pieces of equal size appeared, to be replaced by a broken-stalk checkmark and a stalk with one leaf to its left. Although the two horizontal pieces resembled an equals sign, they weren’t completely separate but instead were connected on the right side by a short vertical length of torn stalk with jagged edges. “Equals negative one,” he heard, the words slower and farther apart.
Woods dutifully noted all of that on his tablet, but this conversation—if indeed it was one, and not just a string of bizarre hallucinations—had started to feel like it wasn’t as much fun anymore. Instead of a fascinating puzzle for him to solve, it brought to mind all those painful old frustrations about not being able to communicate easily. He wasn’t a linguist, or even particularly good at speaking in his own language—why had he tried to do this?
Maybe it will get better, he tried to tell himself. After all, most things did, if he worked on them enough. The not-fun feeling definitely wasn’t improved, though, when he realized that by choosing three leafless stalks and a checkmark to represent his name yesterday, he had introduced himself not as Mark Woods but as Negative 21.