by Bill ‘Hafoc’ Rogers
©2007 Bill Rogers

Home -=- #15 -=- ANTHRO #15 Stories
-= ANTHRO =-

   The landing pod plunged into a downdraft. Whitemane squealed in terror. “Belt, may you break your legs in gopher holes!” he said, using the tiny fingertip motions of his herd’s secret language, Smallsign.
   “There is no reason to curse us. How did we offend?”
   The little ship shuddered and then rolled nearly inverted as the turbulence got even worse. Whitemane snorted and rolled his eyes. Their whites showed all the way around. His ears were folded back and his lips trembled. “How? How did you offend? You incompetent meat-eating idiotic machines! You’re trying to kill us! Stop trying to crash this pod. How do you offend us? Gods, how could even computers be as stupid as you!?”
   In the corner of his eye, Belt signed back, using the full-size gestures of Language, of course. There was no reason for Belt to use Smallsign. Belt projected its persona to Whitemane’s eye via a tiny mirror on the equitaur’s bridle. Nobody but Whitemane could see it.
   “It’s no surprise that we-the-computer-Belt are stupid. After all, you-the-stallion-Whitemane programmed us. We might have been geniuses if others had done the job.”
   Whitemane stopped trembling and perked up his ears. “That’s a joke. We-the-stallion-Whitemane never programmed you for humor. Are you sure you haven’t developed intelligence?”
   “How would we know? Could you prove that you yourselves are intelligent?”
   “And now philosophy! You surprise us. Are things really going well? Will we live?”
   “Calm your fears. You are not alone. Our trajectory is perfect. We have gone subsonic and are mere minutes from landing. Might we ask why, if you fear them so, you agreed to work for the Hukai? It seems illogical.”
   “They pay well, and quickly. They might enjoy killing us, but they’d much prefer to just stay away from us.” He shuddered. “That’s good. They are so ugly!”
   “You risk your lives just for money?”
   “Our herd needs it.”
   “We are only computers, but we think it is unfair that you must lead the wolves away when you yourselves get nothing for your courage. Tell them-the-mare-Herdleader to risk their own lives, and leave us to browse in peace.”
   “We will be granted our own lands, should we survive this.”
   “Ah! Congratulations! That explains much. Your mare-friends are worth the risk. We land in twenty heartbeats. There is a strong crosswind; this may be rough. Brace yourselves.”
   The buffeting let up a bit. Then everything went silent. Whitemane took a deep breath and started to relax. And the landing craft crashed into the ground, an impact nearly hard enough to break his ribs. He screamed, a horse’s high squeal of terror.
   “Calm yourselves! We’re down and safe.”
   “Down!?” Whitemane gasped. “But we still accelerate… no, that’s right. Truly, fear is the killer of minds. It shames us that we-the-stallion-Whitemane forgot this world’s excessive gravity. Won’t our hosts compensate for it? Surely even the Hukai wouldn’t expect us to work when we weigh so much we can’t even stand?”
   “Local gravity is about twice our standard,” the machine said. “They are compensating. Calm yourselves, they come!”
   The pod rocked a bit, and rocked again. The gravity faded to normal. A few moments later the little ship’s cabin split in half and swung open.
   Whitemane rose to his four hooves and blinked, astonished by the sheer normalcy of his surroundings.
   He faced a brightly-lit, grass-carpeted habitat colored in soothing greens and blues. At first glance, it resembled the sort of cheap but acceptable quarters a traveler might rent for a night or two. But everything about it screamed that none of the Herd People had designed this place.
   For one thing, there was the art collection. Even the most modest room needed a few choice artworks to calm the soul; these should be arranged in harmony with the lines of the architecture and the views of the gardens outside, with a care that made the arrangement as important as the art itself. But these rooms were cluttered with a haphazard assortment of inferior pieces that seemed to have been dumped at random.
   Speaking of views of the gardens, there weren’t any. Of course the Hukai would not have provided a habitat large enough for even a modest meditation garden, but Whitemane had expected some holographic fake windows at least. These rooms had only one small window. It looked out into darkness.
   He stepped out of the landing pod and around an inferior sound-garden, typical of those at bus stops. It sat incongruously in the middle of the floor. There was no breeze to turn its sails, no flowing water piped in to contribute sounds of nature and to operate the heavier chimes. That was a pity. He was very afraid; he could have used some soothing music just now, to help him meditate away his fears and to mask the roar of the methane wind blasting past outside.
   Stepping over an abstract sculpture of cheaply-synthesized marble, the kind you might see in a boiler room, he approached the window. Below it was a video display screen, showing an image of a horse-headed centauroid. Cartoon-like in its simplicity, it stood square on its four hooves with its arms hanging limp at its sides. It also faced Whitemane square-on.
   Whitemane twitched his fingers. “They seem to have tried to provide decent living quarters. Yet their translator-picture faces us directly. Estimate please: Is this threat to attack us deliberate, or are the Hukai merely ignorant of our etiquette?”
   “Insufficient data. We suggest you speak to them.”
   Whitemane snorted in amusement, even as his stomach clenched with fear. “That’s useless advice! What else could we possibly do?” But since there were no other options, Belt was right. Shrugging his shoulders, standing facing somewhere off to the side of the window as was polite, Whitemane switched from Smallsign to Language.
   “We have arrived as you requested. We are ready to work.”
   Lights flashed in the darkness outside, glowing from a Hukai’s body itself. They illuminated it enough that Whitemane could see its ugliness. It had six eyes and as many legs. It was a huge vomit-colored monster of a bug. The sight of it almost made him jump out of his skin.
   As its lights flashed, the image on the screen made the signs of speech. “You are being Whitemane, signal archaeologists wide known?”
   He tapped a hoof on the floor and bobbed his head. “We are.”
   “Retainer twenty thousand standard moneys as agreed being in account you now. Habitat adequate for you surviving?”
   “Living conditions are adequate for mere survival.”
   “Atmosphere storm strong, being danger. In distress press red button wall. Landing pod being safety capsule if breach. Second shelter capsule being in back sanitary room passage, brown doorway.”
   “Your concern for our safety touches our hearts. What do you want? What was so critical you couldn’t contract us over hyperlink?”
   “Alien transmission duration passage of time twelve hour six-tenths total, broken several pieces, plus repeatings. You translate.”
   “What sort of transmission?”
   “Standard Class One radio, being highly in frequency. We fear because it being beamed to us, aliens know of our location. You will understand and tell if making-transmit creatures being threat, being not threat, to Hukai.”
   Whitemane snorted, trying to force down his growing terror of being trapped inside this tiny space, deep in this poisonous atmosphere, dealing with a species whose cruelty was legendary because they valued no life—not even their own. Dealing with creatures who had so little concept of beauty that they denied it even existed. He must remain calm, he must remain professional! He forced himself to understand what the bug had said, and to form a logical reply.
   “Perhaps the aliens are a threat to all Treaty species. The aliens may have beamed their signal to us, not to you.”
   “If threatening you, you worry for yourselves. Hukai being worry for Hukai only. You will understand transmission?”
   “We can’t tell you whether the beings who sent the transmissions are a threat. We may be able to tell you the meaning of the transmission, but you have to decide for yourselves whether the senders threaten you.”
   “Your heart rate and blood chemistry indicate approaching panic attacks,” Belt signed in the corner of his eye. “You should breathe deeply and close your eyes for a moment. They-the-stallion-Lawgiver said: Emotion destroys our minds. Fear makes us all fools, anger makes us all killers. We will dream that we walk in green pastures. We will think on things of Mind and Beauty. The fear and the anger shall--”
   Whitemane shook his head and Smallsigned back, desperately. “We need no sermons! Stop speaking! Put your hands at your sides and keep them there! Do not distract us!”
   The bug hesitated for a few moments, flashing away. Other shapes stirred in the murk beyond the glass, lights flashing on them too; other bugs, a rolling swarm of things horrible beyond belief, surrounding him. Surrounding him everywhere. There was no escape at all. There was nowhere he could run. His heart raced. He couldn’t see the rest of his surroundings, he saw only the roiling mass of insects. He fought to control his breathing.
   The bug at the window seemed unaware of his growing terror, or perhaps it just didn’t care. “Acceptable,” the picture signed. “You will understand transmissions quick, before eight days, fee five million standards. Much quick! Your failure being unpleasant you.”
   Whitemane trembled. He felt his ears fold back against his skull, felt his lips tense to bare his teeth. He shifted his hooves until he faced the window directly. Belt’s persona signed desperately in the corner of his eye, something about stress hormones, neural overloads, and not doing anything stupid, but he didn’t feel like paying attention.
   “We can do our best. We-the-stallion-Whitemane are the best signal-archaeologists in Treaty Space, in the entire Cluster. If we can’t do the job for you, nobody can. If we fail, you need not pay us.”
   The bug flashed its lights. “No. You accepting contract, you being not fail. You will understand transmissions, yes yes! Before eight days for five million standards.”
   “We can’t do that. Not enough time!” Belt signed.
   Whitemane felt his heart pound. He could barely hold his head up, he was so frightened. He saw his reflection in the window, jittering on its hooves, stepping forward in the most threatening posture possible, making signs, promising something insane as he, the real Whitemane, looked on in helpless horror.
   “We will crack the signals in two days, for twenty million standard.”
   “Accepted. Being failure not!” The image on the video screen went motionless.
   Whitemane fell to his knees. He shook. His surroundings seemed to darken as he nearly fainted.
   “Well, now you have done it,” Belt signed. “We tried to tell you to calm yourselves, but you would not listen. There is no way out except to solve their problem. We suggest you get to work.”
   He panted and raised his head again. “We have been cornered-mad!”
   “Do you think we do not know? They should give us, your computers, drugs to knock you down when stress hormones approach the level of insanity. Your pulsebeat and blood chemistry were as if wolves were tearing out your throat. But stop trembling. Breathe deep, think on things of Beauty and of the Mind, and get to work. Did you have any ideas when you told the bugs we would have an answer in two days, or did you just rear up in panic?”
   Whitemane took a deep breath and picked himself up off the floor. The carpeting had spared him from any injuries; good. “It was panic. But if we thought anything, it was that a signal from a species primitive enough to use radio should be simple. Any encryption they might have used will be as rudimentary as the senders’ technology. If we can’t understand them in two days, we probably can’t understand them at all.”
   “True. We can hope that your stupidity was not quite as stupid as it seemed.”
   “Also, the Hukai said these signals were beamed toward our star cluster. That means the aliens sent them to us deliberately. There’s no reason for them to do such a thing unless they want us to understand their message. Therefore, the signals should be their version of plaintext—no encryption at all. Let’s find out. What is the form of the first message?”
   “Binary data. 1,679 values, at a carrier wave frequency of 1.47 gigacycles per heartbeat.”
   “The Fountain Frequency. They send their signals to us at the frequency defined by water. That could be coincidence, but it likely means they’re based on carbon, water, and free oxygen, as we are. What else? If they meant their signal to be understood, they would have used some obvious mathematical trick to make it easy for us to decode. What’s the numeric significance of 1,679?”
   “Analyzing. Results. 1,679 is the product of two prime numbers, 73 and 23.”
   “That old trick again! It’s probably a rectangular matrix; either 73 units wide by 23 high, or vice-versa. Show it to us.”
   In the corner of his eye, Whitemane saw Belt’s persona pull a scroll out of midair and unroll it for him. The patterns on it were interesting indeed. Nodding, he got to work. Anything was better than worrying about what the Hukai would do to him, when he failed to fulfill this impossible contract.

   Out of all the clutter of artworks in these rooms, the little bronze statuette he’d found hidden behind a particularly hideous bit of artificial topiary was the only good thing. It was more than just ‘good’: It was a miracle.
   It was a simple and elegant little figurine of a female race-dancer, on her belly on the ground, holding an injured foreleg. It had to be one of the sculptor Spindrift’s race-dancer series, masterpieces of art that were all the more remarkable because they found beauty in the raucous, passions-infested world of a mere physical contest. He’d seen other figurines in the series on display in museums. Here he could not only see one, he could touch it.
   It was a work he didn’t recognize. It might be a lost work, unknown at home, unseen by any of the Herd People for hundreds of years. And the subject matter was unique.
   Others in the series told stories of pride, action, and triumph. This race-dancer was different. He could feel her pain, her defeat, the tears in her eyes, and yet the sculptor had given her dignity and beauty. Perhaps more beauty than any of the others… She went straight to his heart in a way the Lawgiver wouldn’t have approved.
   What a wonder! And what stories this little statuette could have told. Surely, there was tragedy in it. How many good people must have died for this masterwork to have fallen into the hands of the Hukai, who were in all of Treaty Space the species least likely to understand it?
   “Yet that is not the greatest wonder,” Whitemane signed slowly.
   “What are you trying to tell us?”
   “We apologize.” Whitemane shrugged and tried to bring himself back to the job at hand, even as his free hand still caressed the little statue. “Our calming exercises had us lost in contemplation. We found ourselves struck with astonishment, thinking about what endures and what does not.
   “All these things we build, all the works of art like this masterpiece in my hands, all the great buildings, all the events of history; the lifespans of these are nothing compared to that of a simple radio beam. Did these strange creatures know, when they sent their transmission into space, that they might be creating their civilization’s longest-lasting artifact? Think on it: If this signal truly was beamed from its most likely point of origin, the Neighbor Galaxy, it’s been on its way to us for over ten thousand standard years. Perhaps as much as thirty or forty thousand.”
   “We are computers, and you did not program us for wonder. And yet even we can recognize that this information is exceptional.”
   “Have we decoded the message completely?”
   “We cannot tell you. We still do not know whether the central image is a picture of the senders’ body form, or another binary number. But probability is high that our interpretation is accurate enough to satisfy the Hukai.”
   “Now we know much of the aliens,” Whitemane signed slowly, musing. “As we suspected, they’re water and carbon-based oxygen breathers. They tell us they come from the third planet of their solar system. There are enormous numbers of them. They sent us this message using a radio dish; we’d have known that anyway, of course.
   “We don’t understand their biochemistry, but it appears the aliens might have a typical long-chain genetic molecule. As it seems to be a representation of a double helix, probabilities are high that it’s one of the DNA or RNA variants. That should reassure the Hukai. These aliens aren’t methane-breathers. They wouldn’t want Hukai worlds.” He shuddered as another blast of the eternal gale outside rocked the habitat, roaring. “Who would?”
   “Perhaps the Hukai are eager for war. War against a species not advanced enough to resist them.”
   “We-the-stallion-Whitemane believe the Hukai only want survival. Knowledge, beauty, and wonder seem lost on them; fortunately, the so-called ‘glory’ of conquest seems to be lost on them also.”
   “Perhaps. Speaking of survival, your fatigue and stress chemicals are reaching dangerous levels. You should sleep.”
   “But we still have most of the messages to decipher!”
   “We are your expert systems. We have already determined most of the remaining messages are two- and three-dimensional matrices, based on multiples of prime numbers, as the first message was. We can apply your methods to decode most of this material while you sleep. Only the last message seems to be beyond us; a continual sine wave with some tiny variations in frequency. That will require your full attention. You should be well-rested when you begin work on it.”
   “We should sleep, then. But we are afraid!”
   “Courage! The herd goes with you. You are not alone.”
   That was a lie! But Belt was almost as good as a person, and Belt was right about Whitemane’s fatigue. His legs were about to tremble right out from under him. Bobbing his head, Whitemane walked to his cushions and settled down to rest.

   “Have you been analyzing the last message in background while we finished the others?”
   “You ordered us to. Why then ask? Of course we did.”
   “Have you found any hints on how to crack it?”
   “Try a Class 6 cipher. The aliens like prime numbers; start a substitutional key based on the lowest primes and work your way up.”
   “A cipher on what? How? We cannot even determine the digital encoding of this signal! There must be bits of data, but we cannot detect them. The signal is merely a constant carrier wave, centered around a single frequency.”
   “Then it has no meaning. Yet the Hukai thought it did. They included it with the other transmissions. They must have determined that it contains some data.”
   “We-the-computer-Belt cannot detect any.”
   “Analyze the signal in detail.”
   “We can detect no binary data. We repeat, the signal is just a carrier wave. Its only property of interest is that the frequency shifts by a tiny percentage. The frequency shift is not consistent with ‘Doppler’ shift or any other natural cause. The frequency shift appears to be random. However, the entire pattern of frequency shifts repeats itself exactly each ten minutes. The pattern of frequency shifts must therefore be the message. Yet we analyze the shifts, and find no digital pattern to correspond with them in any meaningful way.”
   Time was slipping away, and he had no ideas. It was too much for Whitemane. “We are going to die here. We will fail, and the Hukai will collapse this habitat on us. We’ll be crushed like a mouthful of soft grain. Belt, record everything we have done here. Record to our mare-friends that we love them, and would have had them be our harem for life, had the gods allowed. Our regrets to the herd for failing in our duties to them. Put it in your permanent storage, multiple redundant copies. Use your disaster-hardened memory.”
   “We comply. But why?”
   “If we are to die, we would like something of us to remain. Perhaps when we die your memory will survive. Perhaps the Hukai will send it home, or someone else will find it some day.” He looked down at the bronze figure of the defeated race-dancer, still beautiful in her defeat. But a defeated race-dancer didn’t face death at the hands of soulless methane-breathing bugs. His own destruction meant the statuette’s too, most likely. That hurt, that brought the approaching doom to him with a clarity he had never felt before.
   “You are cornered-mad again. What are the chances such a message could ever reach people who cared? But take courage! There are still six hours. We have only the last message to decode.”
   Whitemane dropped the statuette, sprung to his hooves, and spun in circles, but there was nowhere to run. “It doesn’t contain data!” he signed, his arms flailing wildly in a shout. “We wouldn’t think it is a message at all, except it repeats itself again and again! We will die here, we will die!”
   He threw himself on the cushions and curled himself into a tight ball again, trembling all over. His foamy sweat broke out all over his body as he shivered.
   Suddenly Belt’s projected image became two, and then four, and then he seemed to be surrounded by a great herd. He felt something wet spray onto his nose, and he could smell them; dozens of people, crowded close around him. Slowly, his trembling eased. He took deep breaths, calming himself.
   “Thank you. Thank you for bringing us back.”
   “That is our most important function,” Belt signed. The phantom herd vanished from his eyes as quickly as it had formed, leaving only Belt’s persona signing to him. “Now, calm yourselves and think. Leave the last signal alone and consider other questions for a moment. The Hukai will want to know why the aliens sent this message directly to Treaty Space. How could they know we were here?”
   Whitemane snorted. “Why worry? No species primitive enough to use radio could threaten us, or the Hukai.”
   “But they must have known we were here. How?”
   Whitemane stood and started to spin again. Then he stopped, stock still. His eyes went wide in wonder.
   “We have it. We understand! They didn’t know.”
   “But they must have known! They beamed the signal to us!”
   “No. Employ basic thought-discipline. The aliens couldn’t know we were here. Logic, therefore, tells us they didn’t.”
   “You have fallen into a paradox. How could they know to send it here, and not know to send it here, at the same time?”
   ”They didn’t know,” Whitemane repeated. “They played the odds and got lucky. We know, mad as it seems, that they wanted to send a radio signal to announce themselves to aliens. With their crude technology, concentrating all power into a narrow beam was the only way they could project a powerful signal far enough out into the sea of stars for anybody to hear. Since they weren’t starfarers, as far as they knew each star they saw had an equal probability of harboring civilization. Given that level of knowledge, where was their best probability of success?”
   Belt pondered for a moment. Its clock speed was so fast that the hesitation was probably for effect more than anything else. “Given that the probability of success was equal for each star, logic suggests they would have sent their signal toward the highest concentration of stars they could see.”
   “Which, if they are in the Neighbor Galaxy, would have been here. This globular cluster : Treaty Space.”
   “Extraordinary! I estimate a high probability your analysis is correct. But why would they have announced themselves to a hostile universe? Were they such warriors they were sure they could defeat any comers? If so, the Hukai are right to fear them.”
   “Perhaps they thought interstellar war was impossible. It would be impossible, or nearly so, if the speed of light were the unbreakable barrier that most primitive races believe it to be. Thinking nobody could attack them, they wouldn’t see any danger in drawing attention to themselves.”
   “We think you are right. You surprise us with your insights.”
   “We thank you. But why the multiple messages later? Why the attempts to jam each others’ signals? That’s insane! Refusing to send messages to the stars is prudent, but jamming one signal with another, stronger signal, just makes the senders more obvious.”
   “It hints at herd-madness.”
   “Yes. The poor aliens must have had conflict on their world. Different herds, each with its own philosophy of rule, so cornered-mad with fear that each herd could see only evil in the others. Until they became so full of herd-hatred that they would oppose each other in all things, just for spite. Even to the stupidity of trying to jam an interstellar message.”
   “That is a high order of insanity, but historical files include 1,733 known examples of such behavior. In 95% of known cases such herd-madness led to war, as on our homeworld before they-the-stallion-Lawgiver created the Herd of Herds. In 62% of known cases, it led to extinction.”
   ”War…” Whitemane shuddered. “We dreamed of war last night. We dreamed of the screams of the dying. We dreamed of monstrous armored vehicles rumbling across the pasturelands, smashing everything. We heard fires roar and buildings collapse. We heard the mares of our harem we have yet to form, we heard our foals yet unborn, screaming as they died. We couldn’t see anything, or smell; we only heard. It was only sound, but our hearts nearly burst at the terror of it. We wouldn’t have believed mere sound could frighten us so.”
   In the corner of his eye, Belt’s projection shifted side to side on its hooves. Its body language showed approximately Level 3 uncertainty. “We would try to interpret your dreams, but they are too strange. Sounds. A dream of only sounds. We have never encountered that. Your mind’s deeper levels, and perhaps even the Herd-Souls themselves, must be trying to tell you something. There is truth there. Reach for it!”
   Whitemane froze in place, staring at nothing. “Sounds,” he signed.
   “Yes, you dreamed of sounds. What of it?”
   “Sounds! In the last signal the aliens sent, what is the frequency of the variations in the carrier wave?”
   “We do not understand your question.”
   “You know the center radio frequency of the signal. The radio frequency shifts around this center by some amount. But for now, ignore how much the frequency of the carrier wave varies. Instead, count the number of variations themselves. How many different variations in frequency pass by per heartbeat?”
   “Give us one moment… Done. The changes in frequency occur at different rates, varying from 10 to approximately 22,000 per heartbeat.”
   “We think we sense light in the forest. What if the last message is more primitive than we could have imagined? What if it’s analog?”
   “Then there is no way we can decode it.”
   ”If it is analog, there’s nothing to decode! 10 cycles to 20 kilocycles per heartbeat covers much of our own range of hearing, which is not unusual for creatures our size. If the variations pass at an audio frequency, they may in fact represent an audio signal. Assume this is so. On the hypothesis that this signal represents a sound wave, do you have the means of decoding it?”
   “It should be possible.”
   “Do it.”
   “Referencing archaeological library: Obsolete communications, subcategory analog signals. Analyzing… Programming to digitally simulate a modulated-frequency signal detector circuit from the Sixth Dynasty. Altering design to accommodate the observed carrier frequency and signal bandwidth. Calculating… Debugging… Ready.”
   Exotic sounds, alien and marvelous and musical, filled the habitat. Whitemane froze in place, his eyes wide with wonder, as he heard the gift the aliens had sent into the darkness of space.
   “Play it again.”
   Belt did.
   “No. Your life-signs indicate that this signal is causing you to experience dangerously strong emotional responses, in previously unknown patterns. Does this signal disable you? Is it overwhelming you and making you cornered-mad? Is it a weapon?”
   He shook himself. “No, not a weapon. We understand it. We understand!”
   “Then we suggest you prepare your report for the Hukai. They come soon.”
   Whitemane took a deep breath. Reluctantly, he tapped the floor with his hoof and bobbed his head.
   “Yes. They can never comprehend it. Yet we must try to explain it to them.”
   “We are ready to record your findings.”
   “No. We will give our findings to the bugs directly, by sign-of-hand.”
   “Is that wise?”
   “Play the signal again… No, it’s not wise, but we must do it.”
   Again the music played. The methane wind rocked the habitat, the darkness beyond the window held terror, but he was unaware of these things. He let the sounds carry his soul away from this place, as he decided what to have Belt check, what to analyze and have Belt analyze, and what to tell the bugs.
   He stooped low to pick up the fallen statuette, the race-dancer who was beautiful in her defeat. He stroked her bronze nose. “It’s all right,” he whispered. “We understand it all.”

   Something moved in the murk. The image of a person on video display came alive. “It being two days, and fulfillment of contract being due. Tell your understanding,” it signed.
   “Our computer is now transmitting our translation of every message but the last.”
   The bug paused half a minute. “Correct,” the image signed. “Our understanding is it being same. Tell understanding last message.”
   Rage gripped him. He was at the glass, baring his teeth, rearing to strike it with his forehooves, before he knew how he’d gotten there. The bug outside flinched back, as if it were about to run away.
   Whitemane screamed. He spun in a circle, three times around, grinding his teeth, spittle flying from his mouth. Somehow he forced himself to a stop, although every muscle in his body ached with rage, with the need to lash out.
   “You pack of meat-eaters! You understood all but the last message, but you made us waste time translating them all? In the name of the Herd-Souls and the nine hells, why!?”
   “Data redundancy check. Being need to know you understand. You understand goodly. Now tell understanding last message. Transmit.”
   Whitemane took a deep breath and turned to face not quite toward the glass. His rage faded away, replaced by a strange kind of pity. The poor, sad Hukai! They were as ugly inside as they were on the outside, and there was absolutely nothing they could do about it.
   “We understand the signal,” he signed, with gentleness in the motions of his hands and arms. “But we can’t transmit it as digital data, because it isn’t that at all. It’s a language of a type previously unknown, something completely new to us.”
   The giant cockroach stood dark for quite a long while. Finally it flashed a message. “Explain.”
   Whitemane twitched his fingers and his computer played the sound again. “This message confused us because it is analog, representing sound. It was too simple for us to understand, at first. The gods laugh at us for that. It was a message in sound, but sonic communication must have seemed natural to these aliens. It appears their form of speech may have been vocal.”
   “Sense of atmospheric vibration speak using are inferior oxygen-breather lifeforms, yes, sometimes.”
   “You are our clients. It would be impolite to contradict you. You can’t hear sound yourselves, can you? We know, we know, you won’t tell us anything about yourselves, but basic logic says a sense of hearing would be little use to beings who live in a constant methane gale.”
   The bug stood motionless and dark. The sounds of the alien transmission ended, and then started again from the beginning. Whitemane lowered his head, as if exhausted.
   “We have analyzed these sounds for you. As you say, some oxygen-breathers have languages based on sounds their bodies make; languages of the standard type, conveying words, concepts, requests, and thoughts. Perhaps these aliens did, too… but if so, this isn’t it. It’s a different kind of language altogether.
   “These sounds were generated by artificial devices, made of various materials including wood, brass, stretched strings and organic membranes. The frequency spectrum shows this clearly. These sounds aren’t speech from the throats of living creatures.”
   The sorrow in the alien sounds built. It was the agony of loss, given a language of its own, and it was the most lovely thing Whitemane had ever heard. It made him want to curl up and mourn all who had ever died, but the strong emotions didn’t drive him mad the way the Lawgiver said emotions always did. Instead, they filled him with a sense of beauty and perfection. They drove his emotions to the heights of insanity, yet calmed him and gave him strength at the same time. That was good, because he had to keep talking. His life depended on it.
   “There were perhaps a hundred or more sound-making tools, and tiny variations in their output indicate each was operated by a living being, not a machine. These aliens must have valued this activity as much as anything in life, to put so much effort into it.
   “We think these aliens achieved something unique. They had not one language, but two. What they sent us here, the very last of their works, their greatest achievement, was unique in the galaxy. It is a story written in their second language, their Language of Emotion.
   “Their other messages tell us about them. How they grew in number and power. Then they sent competing messages, and jammed each others’ signals. That speaks of herd-madness. They lost themselves in struggles for herd dominance. That can only end in war.”
   “War?” The bug shifted.
   “Yes, war. But you don’t have to worry. Listen to this: Sorrow. Then they climb out of sorrow, triumph, but sink back into the sorrow again. Everything is cut off by a sorrow so powerful we are surprised that even you soulless bugs can’t feel it. Everything ends.
   “The message couldn’t be clearer. They destroyed themselves. Their message says ‘We have vanished, and we have taken with us everything we dreamed, everything we created, everything we were, and everything we could have been. Mourn us.’”
   The bug flashed. There were other flashes in the murk. They went on for a long time.
   Finally the image signed “Agents instructed fund transfer. Leave now.”
   “They’re gone, bug. And whatever they were, they took great beauty out of the universe when they died.”
   “Worthless. Failed Second Great Test; built technology, yes yes, but destroyed selves with.” Then the video screen went blank, and the monster behind the glass went away.
   Whitemane spun. He grabbed the precious race-dancer figurine. Hugging it like a lost love, he leaped into the landing pod. If he tarried, they’d probably collapse the habitat on him, even though he’d given them everything they wanted, and more.
   “Is your data safe?” he signed to Belt as he shoved the figurine into a storage chamber and grabbed for his shock harness.
   “Redundant copies made. Launch in thirty heartbeats. Soon we will be back with our herd.”
   “Yes. But our-the-stallion-Whitemane’s world has changed forever. The Language of Emotion has changed us.”
   “We cannot see how an alien language could have any such effect on you.”
   “No? We believe otherwise. Time will tell.”

   Ruff tapped on his data pad, getting the story down for the folks back home. He kept the pad turned so it hid his claws from this leaf-eater. Whitemane was a nice enough fellow, but predators’ claws did tend to make the Herd People nervous.
   “But why? Why would they send this last message to us? How could it possibly have helped them, when they faced their own extinction?”
   Whitemane answered in handsigns, but the computer he wore around his waist translated these into sounds Ruff could understand. Whitemane’s belt said, “When we-the-stallion-Whitemane thought we would fail in our contract, when we thought the Hukai would kill us, we told our computers to record our story in their permanent memory. We wanted some tiny chance to be remembered. It must have been the same with these aliens. They sent us this, in the forlorn hope that somewhere, someday, somebody would hear it and remember them.”
   “That is a tremendous story. I’m astonished to discover that you, the Founder and Director of the Institute, didn’t invent High Music yourself!”
   “No; it was the gift of an alien race who went extinct twenty thousand years ago. We-all-of-us owe them much for the joy it brings us. We-the-stallion-Whitemane owe them far more.
   “We owe them our meaning in life, our purpose, our beloved harem, our foals. We owe them this land, these mountains and streams, lands where we-the-stallion-Whitemane can run for a day and a half in any direction and never see anything that isn’t ours. It is much to owe a race dismissed by our philosophers as worthless.”
   “I take it you don’t believe in the Three Great Tests, then?”
   “Philosophy simplifies the world for us; that is its purpose. But it simplifies things too much. When are real-world questions ever so clear-cut as philosophical ideals?
   “We do think the Three Great Tests have some truth. They warn us of the dangers we all face, even now. Can we develop technology? Can we avoid destroying ourselves with it? Can we live in peace, or at least mutual indifference, with other starfarers? There are few questions more important than these.
   “Yet by the standards of the Three Great Tests, the Hukai are worthy, even though they have never created anything good or beautiful. Even though their lives are mere existence, with no purpose, without even pleasure. And by the standards of the Great Tests, these poor dead aliens, who gave us so much, were worthless.
   “We-the-stallion-Whitemane cannot accept the judgment of the Great Tests. We say life should be more than just… brute survival.”
   Ruff tapped on his computer pad. “I agree with you.”
   “We knew you would. We saw you when the students played their new major-work this morning. We saw the light in your eyes. We know how high your hearts can soar.”
   At those words, Ruff felt a warmth he never would have thought he could feel toward a leaf-eater. He smiled. “It was wonderful. The emotions it raised took me to another world. It is what I imagined the First High Music itself must be like.”
   Whitemane turned his head and tossed his mane. “Have you never heard the First High Music? It is time you did. If you wish to understand, you must.”
   He twisted his upper torso to reach back and pull something from his left saddlebag: It was a complex device of steel strings and polished wood, and Ruff knew it was called a keyharp.
   Whitemane braced the instrument between the shoulder of his right foreleg and his chin. He fingered the chord keys with his right hand, took up the plectrum in his left, and began to play.
   The theme was simplicity itself; at first, just one note repeated again and again, unchanging for several measures. But beneath that one note, the alien composer had woven a progression of chords of impossible depth, as if trying to show that hidden in a single note, even in just one of the dozens of possible notes, there is more beauty than anyone could possibly know.
   And then the melody moved, and built. Whitemane’s computer began to produce the sounds of accompaniment as the equitaur himself followed the melody where it led; sorrow, triumph, the crashing, heartrending minor chord that ended it all.
   Ruff could hardly breathe. Shaking his head, he finally whispered “It is… beautiful. Beautiful beyond words.”
   Whitemane put his keyharp back in his saddlebag and looked off across his lands for a long moment. “Yes. As lovely as anything we can ever hope to create. Feel their sorrow and think on it. Marvel as we do at how these creators can still touch us, after so much time, across such great gulfs of emptiness.
   “We-the-stallion-Whitemane love the sounds of their last message. It makes us think about fate and the stars, and fills our hearts with a great joy and a great sorrow. In that lies the other message hidden in the transmission, the one we never told the Hukai.”
   Ruff blinked. “What? How could you possibly bring yourself to conceal a truth from those, those, those creatures when your life depended on what you told them?”
   Whitemane turned away again. He might be watching the sun set behind the mountains; it was hard to tell.
   “We didn’t tell them because they could never understand. They are true philosophers; they place no value on that-which-exists, and concern themselves only with abstractions, ideals. For the Hukai, an exchange can only be total win or total loss. Beings can only be worthy or worthless. Never both; never anything in between; never first one, then after a while the other.
   “These lost aliens taught us a greater truth. A truth that fills our hearts with great sorrow, yet also with great joy and hope.
   “For through their High Music, they tell us that space is great and eternity is long. They tell us that, as measured against the Universe, nothing lasts. All things rise to whatever glory they can reach. All things fade away again, and it is as if they had never existed.
   “The lost aliens tell us that in the end we all win, we all lose, and none of us are worthless. And thinking upon this in these sunset hours, we remember the poor, foolish creatures who invented the Language of Emotion… and we mourn them.”

Ludwig van Beethoven
Symphony No. 7 in A Minor, Op. 92
2nd movement allegretto

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