Friday, January 17, 2020

The Tongue by Ronald Schulte

A homeless bum starts talking in tongues, and soon finds out he's not the only one; by Ronald Schulte.

"Pardon me, ma'am... could you spare some change?"

The woman's reaction is classic. She almost trips over her own kid in her rush to get away from me. I grin as she fumbles with her keys at the top of the stairway. Finally they make it through the door. My smile fades, and I sigh.

Alone again.

What do they hear when I speak? I have no way of knowing for sure. My best guess is that they hear what I hear on those rare occasions when someone responds to me: nonsensical incomprehensible gibberish. Mostly I get funny looks when I speak. Some people, like the lady I just met, react with palpable fear. One dude even screamed at me, although I'm not entirely sure he wouldn't have screamed at me even if he'd properly heard the pleasantries I'd offered.

I don't know. Maybe this isolation is for the best.

"Mister?"

I nearly drop my backpack. It's the first thing I've heard in a long time that makes any sense. I look around for the source of the tiny voice behind this most unexpected communication. At first I don't see the child, because he's chest-deep in a dumpster a little further down the alley. I smile, beckon to him. He's skittish, but comes out eventually. He walks over, stops about five feet away, probably as close as he'll ever come. I don't blame him; I'm not much to look at.

"What's your name?" I ask, half-sure he won't understand.

"Frankie, sir. Frankie Forgione." My heart leaps. We're talking. I can't believe it.

"Hey there, Frankie. I'm Leo. I'm surprised you understand me. Most people can't."

"Most people don't understand me either." Frankie mostly stares at the ground as he speaks. "It's like everyone forgot how to talk but me."

"I know how you feel. When did this start for you, Frankie?"

He stares blankly at the gray wall behind me for a moment, then responds, "Two weeks ago maybe?"

I nod. It's been twelve days for me. I first noticed it at the McDonald's on a rare day when I was sober and had enough money for a hot meal. When I tried to place my order, the guy couldn't understand me at all. I had to point at a picture of a Big Mac to make him understand what I wanted. We managed to complete the transaction somehow, but I walked away shaking my head, wondering what the hell was wrong with the guy.

Except it wasn't him. It was me. And it wasn't just the talking. I couldn't even read the words on the menu that day.

"Can your folks understand you?" I ask.

"No. They kicked me out." A tear trickles down his cheek.

"Don't be mad at them." Pricks. "They're scared." Cowards. "People do stupid things when they're scared." People are stupid. I look him over, realizing for the first time how tired and emaciated he looks. "Have you been eating?"

The boy wipes the tear. "A little. Some people leave scraps if I don't talk too much. Otherwise I find stuff in the trash. I get water from bathroom sinks." He pauses, lifts his chin. "I ain't stolen nothin' yet."

"That's good, kid. Good for you. Here, take this." I reach into my dingy backpack, knock aside the empty flask, and pull out some beef jerky, a Gatorade, and a wad of singles. The boy is still nervous, so I step out and leave it all in a pile halfway between us. He grabs it after I've resumed my slouch next to the apartment stairs.

"Thanks, Mr. Leo," he says.

"Just Leo, kid. You're welcome. People still speak money, kid, remember that. They may not understand a word you say, but they'll take your money. Hang in there, someone will figure this thing out eventually. Okay?"

Frankie nods, then disappears around the corner. Just like that, the conversation is over. I miss conversation. I used to hate it, back when I was drunk and it made my head hurt. Now I crave it more than anything. More than food, even. Guess that's a good thing, as I'm now out of food due to my ill-advised generosity.

I get up with a sigh and walk over to inspect the dumpster Frankie just abandoned.



I'm jolted awake by loud gibberish and a not-so-gentle kick to the ribs.

I open my eyes and absorb the situation as rapidly as my bleary brain will allow. There are three cops looming over me. None have their service revolvers drawn, but hands are conspicuously close to holsters. Shouldn't have scared that lady. She ratted me out, I think to myself as I sit up.

"Kvbnp jhwe hwkn sgree, bpwls..."

The lead cop babbles on uselessly. I raise my hands, hoping this will placate him. He gestures for me to stand up. I nod and point at my backpack, attempting to communicate the question through my eyes. He seems to get it. He grabs the backpack, gives it a cursory search, then nods and tosses it back to me. I pull it over my shoulder and stand up.

"Jerpl wemke."

He turns and starts walking out of the alley. One of the other cops grabs my arm and drags me along, not painfully but not exactly gently either. The third follows a few steps behind us. At least they haven't handcuffed me. Maybe whatever trouble I'm in isn't too terrible.

We walk out to the avenue. I glance around and try to locate the police cruiser they're likely escorting me to. I do see a few of them parked down the street to the right, but the cops don't lead me in that direction. Instead we turn left, away from the cop cars...

Toward a large military transport.

My jaw drops.

The cops walk me over to a soldier standing casually near the back of the truck. They talk some gibberish to each other, then the cops abruptly leave me with the soldier. He gestures with the tip of his rifle for me to climb up into the transport. I do as he suggests but now I'm terrified.

There are a few other people sitting around the transport. I find an empty spot and sit down.

"You speak the Tongue, boss?" The question comes from a tough looking Latino guy, construction worker maybe. Everyone in the truck looks at me expectantly. My heart sinks. So that's what this is about.

"The Tongue?" I finally respond. "This has a name?"

"Yep. He's one of us," says the man. The others nod and murmur in agreement. He turns back to me. "That's just what we call it, man. The Tongue. Maybe it has a real name out in the world, but I don't think we're going to learn it anytime soon." Everyone chuckles nervously. I offer up a forced grin. It's the best I can do under the circumstances.

They load in a few more people over the next half hour or so, then they close the doors. The engine fires up, and suddenly we're moving.

"Any idea where we're headed?" I ask.

"Nowhere good," replies the tough guy.

My thoughts exactly.



They're rounding us up into camps. Isolating us until they can figure out what the hell's going on, maybe. At least I hope that's all this is about.

My camp is small, just a few dozen of us so far - my little truckload and a couple others. Looking at some of the other prisoners, I'm glad I came in on the truck I did. I see several people from the other trucks with black eyes. Some complain of bruised ribs, or of Taser marks on their buttocks. I make a mental note not to piss off any of the soldiers.

Some whisper of concentration camps, of Nazi Germany. Surely that's an exaggeration. The Japanese internment camps of World War II might be a closer analogy, but again I suspect we have it way better. The conditions are decent: plenty of space, clean rooms, ample food and water, clean clothing and access to showers. Also, there's no booze here, which might be a bummer for some but is a big plus for me. I've been clean for a month now, and I'm feeling okay.

It's better than I had it before, to be honest.

And it's great to be able to talk to people again.

I learn a little through conversation with my fellow prisoners. Not much, but a little. I learn that no one can translate between any known language and the Tongue. I learn this from a linguist, who ironically became afflicted with the Tongue while attempting just such a translation. He tells me that supercomputers have been crunching the problem for months to no avail.

The guards communicate with us via crude pictures and hand gestures. That much both sides can do. We draw pictures, we pantomime, we play-act; anything to make our intentions understood. It's like communication via Charades. In a flash of brilliance, I ask my linguist pal why we can't translate using the pictures as a go-between, like a sort of hieroglyphic cheat sheet. He shakes his head sadly and says it won't work. He says the Tongue changes constantly, with new patterns emerging and old patterns disappearing by the second. He says if we say "apple" five times in a row it sounds different every time. We don't perceive this, but non-Tongue-speakers do. His gut tells him it is a form of encryption, and we lack the keys to decipher it. I find this notion disturbing.

Encryption is for keeping secrets.



The whole thing stinks. It reeks of governmental intrigue, of the NSA, of Big Brother. We're pawns in some fancy game, and it infuriates me.

That's my half-witted conspiracy theory, anyway.

Some of the others I've heard are even nuttier than mine.

There's this kook in here, someone from a television show with a bit of a cult following. He tells anyone who will listen that the Tongue is the result of a shared experience, something we all have in common.

He claims we've been abducted.

Poked, prodded, probed.

Programmed.

Some of the others buy into it. Some even claim to remember. Personally I think he's just planting seeds in their heads, and their imaginations are doing the rest. It's a dangerous game. I wish he'd stop before this mass delusion spirals out of control.

He's entertaining as hell though. I have to give him that.

The disheveled appearance, the wild look in his eyes, the spittle that flies from his mouth as he shouts... the man has charisma. It isn't surprising that folks are flocking to him. It's boring as hell in here, and he's anything but boring.

I think he'd do well to stay alert as he delivers his spiel to the masses. He's making the soldiers nervous, that much is clear from their facial expressions and fidgety postures.

Last thing we need around here are nervous soldiers.



"Fresh meat!"

The voice belongs to Javier, the tough guy from my ride into the camp. Turns out he was a barber, not a construction worker. Who knew? I groan and sit up. It's early, but I can sleep later. Not like I have much on my calendar these days. And I don't want to miss out on any new scoops.

I trudge out toward the front gate with Javier and a few other bunkmates. It's been a few days since we've had new arrivals. By the time we get there, most of the passengers have disembarked from the transport. We mingle with the newbies a bit and ask the usual questions. One person sticks out like a sore thumb. Her name is Meghan, and she's unremarkable except for one very important detail.

She used to work for SETI.

We speak with her at length, and she has some disturbing news to share.

The signals started about four months ago. SETI pinpointed the source to a position just outside the orbit of Saturn before the government suits stormed their homes and offices. Meghan and a few of the others continued to monitor the signals together for a month or two afterwards, on the sly. But then Meghan stopped understanding English and French and Spanish and all of the programming languages she dabbled in, and she was no longer able to communicate with her colleagues.

On the flip side, she started understanding the signals.

They're numbers, increasing with each successive transmission. Kind of like the signals employed by the visitors in the movie Independence Day, but counting upwards instead of downwards (and without using our own satellites against us). Not quite as ominous as a countdown, perhaps, but clearly something's afoot.

I catch myself looking to the sky and force myself to stop.



Now there are a bunch of asteroids orbiting the moon. All in a row, single-file, like a very sparse Saturn-esque ring. I've seen pictures. They're all roughly the same size, fairly small, but the shapes vary. They look natural, not carved or constructed. I have no idea many how many there are. Hundreds maybe. Or thousands. Meghan claims they've defied several laws of physics to maneuver into their current orbits.

If these are spaceships, as the conversation implies, I have no idea how they plan to land the things, or even survive the atmosphere. I see no visible propulsion systems.

Yet these rocks look familiar, somehow. I've seen their ilk before, right here on Earth. The kook used to talk about them all the time on his show. He always said those rocks weren't human in origin.

Might be the kook ain't so kooky after all.

I stand near the back of a small crowd as the kook rants yet again and notice Father O'Neal, another recent arrival, standing nearby. I sidle over and stand next to him.

"Father," I say, nodding to him. He nods back but barely looks at me. He's just as enthralled as the rest of us.

"Seems like your job has gotten a bit more complicated," I say, nodding toward the heavens. He grunts but doesn't respond.

"What sort of knowledge might they possess? What if it isn't compatible with Church doctrine?" I press.

"The Church will adapt," he says absently, then walks away.

Will it? I wonder. I gave up on religion long ago. Still, I was hoping he'd have something a bit more comforting to say.



The guards have confiscated all electronic devices, cut our Internet and television access. Not sure what this means, but it doesn't make much difference. The websites were gibberish anyway, the press conferences incomprehensible. Whatever they know on the outside is lost on us here. The only useful bit of data was Meghan's hack of the signal from space; the number had reached almost one hundred and eighty thousand before her feed went down for good.

New arrivals are now my only source of information, and what little I can glean from them is inevitably a few days old before it reaches my ears. The only real update I've gotten lately is that there are camps like this one all over the world. Tens of thousands of Tongue-speakers incarcerated in dozens of countries. The fact that the same pattern is playing out in other countries, even in places like China and Russia and Iran, disturbs me greatly.

There are over one thousand of us now in this camp alone, and more arriving every day. Most of us have a roommate now. It wasn't cramped at first, but it's getting a little crowded now. Folks are butting heads a little. Tempers are flaring, fuses are getting shorter. The waiting is driving all of us nuts. What do they want with us?

What do they want with me?



Movin' day.

The troops arrive just before dawn. They carry automatic weapons and project infantile cartoonish instructions onto the sides of buildings. Stick figure arrow truck. Even a dummy like me gets it. We board the trucks in an orderly fashion. A few people ask the troops where we're going, and the troops answer with a calm dose of gibberish.

The people around me chat nervously. There's fear and trepidation, but also a sense of relief that something's happening. I close my eyes and almost manage to nod off before a shout snaps me wide-awake.

"What in the hell is THAT?"

I turn to see a woman staring out the window. Out and up. I crane my neck to see what she's looking at. Everyone else does the same, including the troops.

There's a dark ring up there. It wasn't there earlier. It's about the same size as the sun, but on the other side of the sky. Almost like a hole in the sky where someone dug up the sun, except for the fact that it's perimeter is slowly rotating.

No one is talking now.

I watch it for a few more minutes, then close my eyes. If it's something I need to worry about, I figure I'll find out soon enough.



The trucks pull into a large field. I have no idea where we are, or how long we've been driving. There are lots of other trucks parked here already, and I can see people streaming forward, forming up lines.

Beyond them, atop a little hill: Stonehenge.

Okay, it isn't the Stonehenge, not unless they've somehow repaired all of the broken parts, exposed the hidden outer rings, and driven these trucks across the Atlantic without even stopping for a piss break. But it's a dead ringer. I didn't know we had such things here in the States. Maybe it's brand new, built from scratch for this very purpose. I wonder how many other gatherings are underway, how many henges involved.

The troops prod us forward until we're packed in like sardines, and we wait as more press in behind us. It begins to drizzle, and folks begin to grumble.

"Where's the weed?" asks a geezer next to me. He has a big grin on his face. I imagine he's having flashbacks of Woodstock. I open my mouth to quip that human sacrifice is more likely at this venue, but a loud voice cuts me off.

"Grvl hubf, deefn burfl!"

The voice echoes from speakers scattered around the field. There are also a few large screens mounted up front, showing a soldier speaking into a microphone. From his decorated uniform and gray hair I assume he's high-ranking. I can't see where the man or the cameras are located. Maybe it's pre-recorded, or a live feed from some other location. Anyway, we have no idea what he's saying, and I'm sure they know this. I'm a bit confused why they're bothering with this meaningless exercise.

The video ends, and the screen goes dark for a moment. Then, from within the circle, I see movement. The crowd murmurs as a wheelchair rolls slowly from the shadows, between the rocks, out to the crest of the hill. A cameraman follows, stepping around and slightly beyond, then turns to film the speaker with the stones as a backdrop. A few seconds later the screens flicker back to life.

The crowd gasps.

We all sense it immediately, the wrongness of it. The un-humanness of it. We can't actually see a face, shrouded as it is within the hood of a raincoat. But the shape beneath the hood is just a little bit off: the width a bit too narrow, the length a bit too long. And there's a glow, a puke-colored glow emanating from within the hood.

I'm glad, suddenly, for the rain. I'm not sure I want to see what's under that hood.

Once the murmurs die down, it speaks.

I understand what it says, so I assume the whole crowd understands. It's different from human Tongue-speak; I don't really hear words from this creature. I receive fully articulated concepts, crisp imagery, understanding in a way that can't be achieved within the approximations and limitations of words. I listen, rapt, and absorb the information.

Unlike us, the ETs can communicate in both the Tongue and the Earth languages. They've given Earth's leaders an ultimatum: two hundred thousand hostages in exchange for leaving the planet well enough alone. That number rings a bell for me - Meghan's signal from space had been approaching two hundred thousand when last we were able to check.

Anyway, Earth's leaders have agreed to these terms, and so here we are.

The crowd roars angrily, myself included. I don't know if I'm angrier at the ETs for their demand, or at our own leaders for caving so easily. The speaker lets us grumble for a moment, then shrieks so loudly I fear my ears may be bleeding.

"Everything your leaders have been told is a lie."

Very firm, very clear, the data embedded within the creature's shriek. The crowd grows silent again. I'm confused, we're all confused, but the speaker certainly has our attention. New information begins to flow through the loudspeakers, and oh what crazy information it is. There's a lot to process, but the basic premise is simple.

"We messed up. Whoopsie. Our bad."

The speaker doesn't say it exactly like that, but that's the gist of it. The details follow fast and furious, almost as if the speaker is anxious to get it over with.

They've lied to Earth's leaders. The truth is for our ears only, which is why we've been "enhanced" to understand their encrypted language, and only their encrypted language.

Back in the 90's, their gravity drive misfired as they passed near our solar system. By the time they managed to fix the problem, they'd caused a major disturbance in our Kuiper belt. Asteroids, comets, very large chunks of rock and ice were flung in all directions, including inwards toward the sun.

Toward Earth.

I hear snorting. I glance to my right and see the kook doubled over, wiping his eyes, seemingly sobbing and laughing at the same time. I doubt I could express my feelings any better.

They've been tracking these objects ever since, and have concluded that several of the objects will hit Earth. One hundred percent certainty. Our scientists have detected some of these objects, but so far none have correctly calculated the trajectories or the risk. The ETs could communicate the errors to our scientists, but feel that would be cruel since we lack the technology to do anything about it.

The speaker sheepishly admits that they too are incapable of affecting the outcome, having expended too many resources in the repair of their gravity drive. If they had more time, they might influence the orbits via subtle gravitational adjustments with their own tiny space-rock-ships, but that would take hundreds of years, and the first comet will hit in less than five. They could, in theory, utilize their repaired gravity drive directly, Macgyver it up somehow, but after the debacle in the Kuiper belt they consider such a maneuver too risky.

By the time the speech has ended, we get the picture.

The Earth is screwed.

They can't save everyone on the planet, not nearly enough resources for that. They've eked out enough space, food, and water to accommodate roughly two hundred thousand individuals. As for other species - plant, animal, microbial - they have DNA samples for most, and we can try to bring them back later. I feel the guilt, acute, palpable, interwoven throughout the creature's entire speech. They wish they could do more. But this is the best they can offer.

That's it, then. A secret interstellar Noah's Ark for us lucky ones, and to hell with everyone - everything - else.

We're free to say no, of course. The creature makes that clear. We can stay here if we want. Go down with the ship, so to speak. They'd have to leave us in "Tongue mode" - they don't want anyone spilling the beans on the secret even after they've departed - so we'd be keeping our own company until the end of the world. But the choice is ours. The creature formalizes the question, waits to see if anyone from the crowd accepts the offer to opt out.

No one does.

"They pre-screened us," giggles the kook. "This is all for show. They already knew we'd all say yes."

The speaker rolls its chair back into the shadows of the rock circle. We stand in the rain and wish we could un-hear what we've been told.



The lines are moving, slowly but surely. It takes all afternoon, but I finally reach the inner circle of stones atop the hill. I stand on tiptoe and see the kook walking forward. He reaches the center, the air shimmers, the dark circle in the sky flashes, and he disappears.

Huh. So that's what these things are for.

Father O'Neal is in line in front of me, and it is almost his turn. I ask him, "Think their grass is greener than ours?" There's nothing left for me here, but I think briefly of Frankie and Javier and others who might be leaving behind something more meaningful.

Father O'Neal smiles sadly, squeezes my shoulder, and walks forward. I watch him disappear and wonder why they chose him. Why they chose me. Surely one of the non-Tongue-speakers deserves this more than I do.

There are billions of them, and only one of me.

"Mrkyn bgack!"

Time to go. I walk calmly forward and spend my last few seconds on Earth wondering where this damn contraption is going to send me.

9 comments:

  1. Interesting story. I thought at first it was going to be about how the more fortunate of us fail to communicate adequately with people who are homeless, but it took me somewhere different. Nice take on “the meek shall inherit the earth”.

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  2. Very good story. I like the way the mystery builds up to the conclusion. As each little bit of information was revealed I found myself guessing at the outcome. Left me, just like the narrator, wondering what's next. Thanks for sharing this.

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  3. Interesting plot. I wonder what qualities the chosen ones had to be selected...an alien "rapture." Interesting that religious type figures are featured.

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  4. Nicely told science fiction/horror tale. One way or the other, in the end, we're all doomed. Now if only we could actually communicate with each other here on earth before it's too late.....

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  5. This story works as a science fiction horror tale, but it is also an allegory for our current political situation--the text is great satire. In a world, particularly western democracies, where the divide among political parties is so acute, Mr. Schulte alludes to our contemporary Zeitgeist--people are not listening to one another, governmental distrust is pervasive, and an us-vs.-them sensibility has colonized the mind-spaces of many. Sadly, with this toxic climate, in my darker moments, I have fantasized about an asteroid or two wiping out the planet, as this tale suggests. Humanity is going through a dark period. Humans can be so disgusting. Schulte offers us some hope. Perhaps a Noah's ark of lucidity and right-minded people may save the planet after all.

    Great story. Works well on many levels and pointedly remarks on the anxiety and fears so many of us are experiencing. Thank you.

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  6. Enjoyable story, with many unexpected turns and twists. Not an allegory for anything, but just a good yarn.

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  7. Thank you commenters for taking the time to read the story and provide all of this thoughtful feedback. Much appreciated!

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  8. An intriguing concept developed in a compelling manner. It held me till the very end.

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  9. With apophis on the way, this might not be too far from reality. Great story.

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