The Deepest Rift

 In the deepest canyon in the inhabited worlds, giant mantas soar through the air and leave patterned structures behind. A team of sapiologists seek to prove that these delicate filaments are true language, not just bee’s dance. But time has run out, and their reckoning is upon them. Will they prove that their research is valid, or will they be scattered to the corners of the galaxy?

Titan’s Rift is the deepest canyon in the inhabited worlds—deeper than Earth’s Tsangpo Gorge, deeper than Isagard’s Yotungap. Sheer faces, tall as mountains, dally only briefly at piled shale outcroppings before plummeting to the mist leagues below. Unseen walls stretch on beneath the mist, rock eaten into smooth abstraction by millennia of water droplets. Deeper still, rock crumbles to fine soil, and dark rivers twist among darker roots. There are forests down there that have never been dry. I dangle my legs over the precipice, and lean back into the wind that kisses my neck.

The wind slides out over the sea of mist, lifting the soaring mantas from the abyss. They glide and loop, seeming to draw a rich cursive across the sky. But there is no greater meaning in the pattern of their flight. If I’m wrong—if my team is wrong—there is no greater meaning in the mantas at all.

One manta banks close. Breath catches in my throat; then I scrabble frantically in my cloak pockets. Triumphant, I find the projector before the gray-white arrow passes. I shine the holo across its path: the intricate whorls of a manta “sculpture,” recorded two hundred kilometers further along the rift. If this one can read it, learn from it, we’ll have evidence that the sculpture is something more than a spiderweb.

The manta flies through the projection without pause, dozens of eyes squinting against the light.

Seven more times in the next hour, one of the great thick-winged aliens comes close enough for me to test. Seven more times, they ignore the image, or treat it as an irritant. Meanwhile the sky darkens, thickening tendrils of cloud lowering toward the mist. At the first lightning flash, the mantas cant their wings and drop as one into the depths. I pack slowly, delaying my report. A touch on my earring activates the cochlear implant in time to catch the next peal of thunder. The sweet basso profondo caresses my ears, a welcome interruption to the serene silence of my birthright. It rolls on below the limits of auditory input, the last rumble lingering in my bones.

The comp vibrates against my wrist then, displaying a message: Storm just as pretty inside. Probability of lightning strike much lower –Y. As though the phrasing could be anyone else’s.

Within our prefab cabin, Nitra and Meical wrestle with their computational model. Yevgeny runs a sampler along one of the original sculptures, still hunting missed data points. I come alongside and he steals my hand for a kiss, never pausing his scan. I flick off my implant against the high-pitched whine.

“Any luck?” I sign. He pinches three fingers in negation, and turns so I can read his lips. It’s that or interrupt the scan to talk with his hands—not tonight.

“What have you got?”

I shrug, signing my displeasure broadly. “Nothing. They fly right through it.” Twined fingers dip toward my chest, mimicking a manta’s path. “We’re missing something.”

“Wrong hypothesis?” He says it reluctantly, touching my waist with his free hand.

“Nitra!” I raise my spoken voice, trusting her to understand through my accent. She turns, and I continue in sign: “We’ve forgotten our initial data again.”

She gives the model a final glance and joins us at the sculpture. She touches the wirework, less fragile than it looks, with caution. It gleams faintly: slick black or rainbowed as I shift position. The “wires,” no thicker than my pinky, weave around each other, patterns like wind and wave, or the dance of hands in epic poetry. The mantas produce these out of their own bodies, leaving them on broad ledges or wrapped around rocks that are scarcely handholds. They do not use them to nest, trap food, or attract mates. They light on them in passing, then fly on.

Nitra signs across the sculpture. “The mantas change their behavior in response to the sculptures. They fly in new directions, or new patterns. They find other mantas and send them back to read the same sculpture. It’s either language, or art.”

“It could be like the bees’ dance.” I play devil’s advocate now; Yevgeny rolls his eyes.

“Bees communicate a very limited set of symbols. Distance and direction and quality; not even the specific type of food.” We’ve all seen the films in class: I imagine bright insects bobbing and weaving against the sharp blue of the Terran sky. “Our stats haven’t shown any correlation that simple. There’s no one thing that they always find afterwards, no consistent response.”

Yevgeny sets down his scanner, glaring. “The proctor from the Collegium is coming tomorrow. And she will say that it could be like a bees’ dance, but more complex. That we have no evidence that they use the sculpture to talk about new things, or add to their lexicon. And she’ll point out that whether it’s a language or just instinctive communication, we haven’t so much as one word of vocabulary.”

“And if we don’t have an answer by the time she leaves,” I admit, “it won’t matter if we’re right. We’ll all be sent to new thesis teams, new projects.”

Nitra comes around the sculpture, slips an arm around each of our shoulders, and spares a kiss for either side. She shakes her head, the best reassurance she can offer.

Meical appears beside us, the vibration of his footsteps masked by the storm. “We’re not getting anywhere tonight. Come to bed?”

Yevgeny pinches air and shrugs out of the embrace. I catch the twitch of his jaw as he says something aloud, then belatedly signs, “Not even sleeping tonight—nor anything more fun. Sorry.” He retrieves his scanner.

Momentary pleasure gives way to the slight chance of maintaining our collaboration long term. I catch Meical’s hand. He mouths, “Hey,” and pulls me into a quick embrace. Then I begin my analysis of today’s data: looking for something, anything, but the null results I know I’ll find.

Late into the night we work our separate stations. Wind shakes the cabin walls; warm hands brush shoulders on the way to the kitchenette; familiar body language tickles my peripheral vision. We speak rarely. Still, it matters that we are in the same room, on the same world.

 

The automated landing pod touches down precisely seven minutes past sunrise. We’re all there to greet it, bleary-eyed and hyped on overclocking chemicals. The ceramic-lined egg isn’t much bigger than our usual food-and-supply drop-offs: no room for life support or even the most spartan of comforts. At least, if we’re recalled to our home campuses, we’ll have a little extra time while we wait for a real transport.

The hatch snaps open. A projector robot scurries out, bounces on arthropodic legs to test the gravity. Diagnostic lights blink. Delicate receptors flower and taste the lingering ionization from the storm. Yevgeny stands a little apart from the rest of us, unconsciously bouncing on his toes in response. I hold myself still through the whole display, close to Meical and Nitra but not touching.

Finally the projector flickers, coughing light and color into the surrounding air. They coalesce into the image of a gray-cloaked woman, gray-haired and gray-eyed. Her belt is braided leather: gold denotes a first-iteration AI mind-clone, red denotes the high rank of her professorial template, and black confirms that both her existence and her judgment were authorized by the human in whose image she was created.

Meical bows his head and signs, “Welcome to Duranga, proctor.” His lips move, so I presume he says the same aloud.

“Thank you. Please call me Professor Tro.” I can just read the shape of her holographic lips; on a lesser projection I’d get only static. I suppress a flash of irritation. It would have cost her nothing to download my native sign. But then, the cochlear implant was at the Collegium’s insistence, that I might better learn and understand their more common tongues.

Meical bows again. “Welcome to Duranga, Professor Tro. Please allow me to introduce our trial sapiology team.” He manages not to stumble when he names me Sapphire Iones—as I’m listed in the Collegium’s records—rather than my sign-name of Star-Eye.

She looks at each of us in turn: a long moment of evaluation or psychological intimidation. At an AI’s clock speed, it’s no accident.

My hindbrain can’t resist reacting to her expressions as if she were human; my frontal lobe can’t forget that every detail of her image is calculated. I wonder what she really perceives as she scans us. They are so familiar to me now, but I try to see my team as another might. Yevgeny, with his exotic pale skin and sharp features shocking against his black hair, always so thoughtful in his movements. Meical, darker and shorter and with a confident strength that goes deeper than his gravity-adapted muscles. Nitra, more ordinary-looking, but with graceful hands that captured my attention from the first. But Tro’s sensors, no doubt, see with different biases.

She smiles at last. “Your thesis proposal described a potential first contact. Let’s return to your site, and you can show me what you’ve discovered.”

 

After we’ve played her the films and laid out the sculptures, she scans us again, informs us that humans need sleep, and settles by the computer with a laser reader pointed at the data port. Her human façade wavers and subsides, leaving only the projector bot to commune with our records.

In the back room, we’ve tessellated our sleeping pads into a single wide bed. The other three lean pillows against the wall while I lie across the foot, watching their mouths and hands through blurring eyes. Toes stroke my side, and I gather the nearest foot—Yevgeny’s—into the crook of my arm.

“She’s not going to be impressed,” signs Nitra. Everyone shifts, uncomfortable, not offering any useful argument. The evidence exists. All our instincts tell us so, and our baseline data was enough to get us a year’s support. A year just hasn’t been enough.

“Do you ever wish you were—less ethical—as a researcher?” Yevgeny asks.

I drop his foot. “We can’t!” I shape my hands hard, knife-like.

“I didn’t say we would. I just said it’s tempting. We know that we’d find what we were looking for, if we just had a little more time.”

“It doesn’t seem fair,” admits Meical. “Losing you guys, losing a real chance at first contact, over wanting to do the research right. But I don’t think I can bear to do it wrong.”

I imagine Yevgeny’s temptation: tweak the model a little, show a clear pattern, an instance or two of the sculptures being clearly modified in response to our presence. Get another year or two of support, time to back the lie with real findings. Take that extra time, and use it to establish our reputations and our right to work permanently as a team. A life together.

You can’t build on that kind of foundation.

Minutes pass as we all come, privately, to our inevitable conclusions. My eyes are heavy, flickering, when Nitra signs, slowly, “There are other options.”

Meical: “Such as?”

“The Collegium’s rules aren’t universal.”

“You’re suggesting we leave our work for one of the irrational worlds?” I sign, haltingly.

“My homeworld is ‘irrational,’” she signs. “It’s not as terrifying as they tell you in class.”

Meical ducks his head. “I’d almost rather Yevgeny’s way.”

Yevgeny’s lip quirks. “Because you’d be cheating by the rules?” Of us all, he’s the only one neither born nor converted to rationality. His home polity runs itself on the principles, but he believes in spirits and invisible guardians, worships them privately in the interstices of our work together.

“You left,” I sign to Nitra. “You came to the Collegium.”

“I wanted to travel the worlds and discover new cultures. But it’s not the only thing I want.”

“Even if we were all willing,” signs Yevgeny, “the Collegium sends quitters back to their homeworlds—they won’t just give passage anywhere you ask. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t the fare to go elsewhere.”

“We’d have to save up, during our next posting.” Nitra pauses to calculate. “Or our next two postings. We’d have to be patient. And we’d have to remember.”

“And then run out on our new teams, even if we’ve done great work together.” The thought of betraying these imaginary future people, whom I don’t love, makes my stomach clench. I pinch my fingers reluctantly. “I’m a psycholinguist. A scientist.”

“You’re Star-eye,” signs Nitra.

“I’m more than my name. And more, even, than my love for all of you.”

“But not less.”

Eventually, we sleep—or at least I do. I dream of the wind above the rift. I cut through its layers with broad wings, brushing it aside as I stoop and turn. Mist clings to my smooth gray skin, ribboning past as I plummet into the darkness. Vees of air stream around my sisters ahead and behind. The taste of moss and mud rises to meet me, and then the wind carries it away.

I wake to thin light streaming through the window. Duranga’s short day is not quite over. The others sleep fitfully. I watch their faces, wanting to touch, but not ready to wake them. I grab my cloak and slip out to the main room, setting my feet carefully to avoid vibrations.

Professor Tro is still, or again, connected to the computer. She must have finished looking at our data hours ago, and is probably making reports of her own, or working her way through our entertainment library. Still, it feels as though she’s simply been waiting the whole time, perfectly and inhumanly still.

I perch on the desk chair, drawing my knees up, and try to see her as a subject of my anthropology. I know her template’s work: the human Tro has been dead twenty standard years, and her two first contact cases are still impeccable classics. So are her papers on debunking—on evidence that provides only the illusion of sapience, and on the biases that lead researchers to trust that evidence anyway. This AI, created in Tro’s professional prime, has had a long time to diverge from her original. All that’s certain is that she thinks faster, can bring together more complex patterns—and is forbidden from doing the thing her template loved. AIs are generally supposed to be too inflexible for fieldwork, though not incapable of judging its worth. How does it frustrate her, traveling from world to world, evaluating the work of young research teams, never permitted to take part?

The bot stirs and withdraws from the data port. The gray-haired human façade flickers to life. Her lips move.

“Am I interesting?”

I consider leaving my implant off, then remember that I am not supposed to provoke her. “Sorry,” I say. “Just thinking.” I force the words awkwardly between my teeth, still self-conscious about speaking aloud in front of a stranger.

“About your mantas?” She stretches, wincing at the flex of muscles. The impression of a fit but aging academic, recovering from rest, is hard to resist.

“Always.”

She cocks her head and narrows her eyes, and I realize that my galvanic skin response and heart rate are as clear to her as my dreaming grunts to my team-mates.

“About your work,” I amend. “And your template’s. Do you miss it?’

She snorts, but her muscles relax. Blunt honesty pleases her. “No one does their best exploratory work at a hundred thirty-two. Now I help others do theirs.”

It doesn’t escape me that this is hardly an answer to my question. Though it is bluntness of its own kind. And I also realize that she is resource as well as antagonist. “What would you do here that we haven’t yet? If you had to do something?”

She smiles, thinly, doubtless aware that I’m dangling the best bait I know. She shakes her head and begins pacing. Faint thumps mark her tread on the floor, hollow without the accompanying vibration. I wonder if anyone other than me would notice.

How well evolution and experience prepare us to know our own species. We are so arrogant, who hope to approach creatures entirely outside those millennia of coexistence. And yet, it has been done.

She stops at last and turns to face me. Her expression is perfectly neutral. “The data are very bad.”

Blunt, but unprovoking. I try not to be provoked, aware of how little politeness can gain us. “I know. So far.”

“If I did not give up entirely, I might examine other kinds of data.”

My voice rasps against my eardrums, loud enough to make me wince. “We have tried! We have studied what kinds of input the mantas respond to, and we have tested their responses to the image of their sculptures, to the radar reflection, to replica sculptures themselves, even to the scent of the things. We’ve looked for consistency in any of their responses.”

“And found none. Perhaps it is time to give up. Humans are very good at apophenia—at imagining patterns where there are none.”

I’m disappointed to find an AI playing dominance games with vocabulary, though I have no doubt it’s merely a bad habit carried over from her template. “I know the term.” I punctuate with the translated sign: my little finger draws something out of my temple, then returns it to my eye. “And how to guard against it.” I catch my breath, by force. “You haven’t said yet what you would do. Not specifically. Unless you really would give up on a good hunch that had even preliminary support, after only a year, if you had any options.”

Staccato vibration through the floorboards heralds Yevgeny as he steps out of the bedroom, cloak thrown hastily around his shoulders and a look of alarm on his face. Sometimes I forget that my partners can hear raised voices even while sleeping. As if wide-flung hands on the other side of the house could force one’s eyes open in the dead of night. I hold up a single finger: wait. Now that I have committed to provocation, I would rather see what it yields.

Tro raises her eyebrows. “My hunches are well-proven; yours are not. But always, I would lay out my assumptions, and question each in turn. I would have done that six months ago.”

I sink into the chair, weary. “We did. But maybe we have missed something that you will catch.” I count assumptions with taps on the aluminum desktop. “If an artifact causes behavior change in those who perceive it, it communicates information. Complex and varied behavior changes mean the communication is also complex and varied. Complex, varied communication is probably deliberate.”

Yevgeny comes further into the room, shaking his head. “Even more basic: language is recognizable as such, even if you can’t understand it. Language means the same thing from moment to moment. If I repeat a sentence, you ought to understand it the same way both times, and that’s a good way for me to tell it’s really a sentence if I wasn’t sure. These are assumptions that aren’t ours alone; they are taught by the Collegium and shared by all contact teams. But they could be wrong.”

Tro nods, looking pleased—more with Yevgeny than with me. “I have often worked with such assumptions. But language can be contextual: the simplest sentences mean different things depending on what surrounds them. Languages are only shared within subpopulations, so what is meaningful to one person may be nonsense to another. Your problem, though, is that it’s very hard to absolutely disprove sapience. That is why lack of disproof doesn’t constitute an assumption that proof will be found—too many resources have been wasted chasing such fantasies.”

“But a year…” I say.

“Arbitrary. As all such limits must be.”

“What percentage of early contacts were definite within a year?” asks Yevgeny.

“Seventy-three percent.” Tro frowns, perhaps at some perception that he is treating her like a database. “A serviceable number. And the Collegium’s resources are not unlimited. The costs of interstellar travel must be reserved for teams that have proven not merely their research ability, but their skill in identifying plausible candidates for sapience, at a distance and based on preliminary evidence. I am not in a position to revise this policy even if I wished to.”

I force a deep breath in place of the outburst I might have preferred. Here, on a world where the gas mixture approximates humanity’s home atmosphere, the inhalation focuses my attention as intended. I taste the metallic tang of our tools, and yearn for fog and moss.

“Your hunches are good, as you said. Will you at least come out to the canyon with us, and see what we have seen? I would be curious to hear your opinion.”

“Of course.” Tro nods calmly. I wonder if she simulates the experience of breathing in times of stress, or if she no longer fears losing her temper accidentally.

Yevgeny returns to the bedroom and retrieves my cloak, leaving the others resting unaware. Outside, fog glows faintly where the world turns away from its star, and brightly but more diffusely above, where two moons reflect that light back on us. Damp air caresses my skin.

Yevgeny and I tread cautiously as we near the canyon. Tro, of course, can sense the edge to the thousandth of a millimeter. I feel the wind from the depths, the whole texture of the air changing to mark the drop.

Like humans, mantas are not fully at ease with the cycle of day and night. Here in the moonglow, a few of the smaller—younger?—ones cavort in spirals, even daring to dart out over the shallow land to which we cling. Yevgeny slips his arm around me.

Tro watches for long minutes, impassive. At last she points to one of the darters, as it slides out over the cliff edge and instantly circles to return to its fellows. The others join formation above and below, circling their adventurous comrade.

“If they were to speak, it would be then, when one does something dangerous, learns something new. But your ‘sculptures’ cannot be made in flight, correct?”

“That’s right,” says Yevgeny. “Only when they light on something.”
“An odd sort of communication, to be unavailable for their most important activities.”

I shrug off Yevgeny’s touch so that I can better move my hands to match my spoken words. “Carrying things is important for humans. But sign is still a language.”

Tro raises an eyebrow, just visible in the moonlight. “Are you proposing that this population is deficient in some fashion?”

I hold back my first response, and my second and third. This woman can take everything from us. Then again, she already seems inclined. Another forced breath, and I choose my second response. “I was taught at the Collegium not to judge some languages, or sensory sets, more worthy than others.”

“Yet you wear an implant.”

Not by my own will, but I let that pass. “So that I might share a wider range of sensory sets.”

Tro turns back to the canyon—or her projection does. “I can sense magnetic fields, air currents, bio-signs, radiation across the spectrum. But in-species communication generally evolves to fit the species’ standard senses and common activities. That’s all I meant; you needn’t twitch so.”

This time I don’t bother to share any of my responses. I want to point out that for all her advantages, she works without touch, kinesthesia, all the subtle senses that aid human reason. And yet she judges me deficient. But it’s the wrong argument, and I hold my fingers and tongue still.

Yevgeny puts a hand briefly to my back, then picks up the necessary thread. “We don’t know what their most important activities are. For all we can observe them most easily up here, they spend most of their time in the depths. The rift goes down a long way.”

“How deep have you been?” Tro shifts topics easily, unshaken.

“Almost two kilometers. As much as we can manage without more specialized equipment. The sculptures start about twenty meters below the edge, and get more frequent with greater depth. Something’s happening down there.”

“Interesting.”

I wish Tro had bio-signs: skin, breath, pulse, markers of her mind’s vicissitudes. But for all that we share language, I can read her little better than the mantas.

 

“A good researcher must be careful about relationships,” she says as we are returning to the cabin. “It’s hard to trust someone and not automatically accept their hypotheses.” I say nothing in response, and Yevgeny only thanks her for the advice. It’s enough: she has seen what we have together, the four of us, and considers it another mark against our research.

Later, I look up more of the original Tro’s history. She audited nine ambiguous contacts; one falsely identified by a team that included her brother. Or perhaps her cousin: families are strange and complex on her homeworld, but tightly bound. Her choice of evidence over household bond was a scandal at home, lauded as rationalist triumph elsewhere. In interviews, she never expressed the least feeling of conflict.

 

Over the next two days, we show Tro our samples, demonstrate our methods, lay our failures open. I lace my fingers, trying to hide twitches born of an irrational conviction: that if we could spend this time on new studies rather than repetition, we would finally find what we seek.

“Maybe she’s right,” I sign to myself, in a corner, hoping that a teammate will notice, will argue. “Maybe we’ve fallen too deep into our own hypotheses.”

But I don’t say it where they can actually see, and my fears don’t keep me from wandering out, late in the evening, to stare into the rift and wonder what, down there, I’m missing.

Tro, less distracted than my lovers and less welcome, joins me. Her projector robot safely low-slung, she stands at the edge, appearing to gaze down.

“What do you see?” I ask. Then I correct myself. “What do your senses show you?”

She hmphs, an oral tick I suspect of being original to her template. “Air currents and moisture content, and a few dim shapes.” After a moment: “The currents are very beautiful. The rift is remarkable; this world needs more geologists.”

“Yevgeny’s a biogeologist.”

“How place shapes organism. But not how place shapes itself. A different thing.”

There are two other teams further down the rift, older and more established, who’ve long since surmounted these tests and are thoroughly supported by the Collegium. They will send messages and small samples with Tro, when she leaves tomorrow. But the questions they study are those Tro refers to now: about the rift’s own patterns and formation.

“When you’re climbing—” I start. “When I’m climbing down there, I can feel the currents, and the fog. Little eddies against my skin.” Nitra says that the rift is caressing us, and the mantas: running fingers through our hair, along their wings. I don’t share this with Tro. Poetry, after all, is a source of bias as well as insight.

“That, I miss.”

I look up at her, surprised. She shrugs.

“I would not trade my new senses. But it would be folly to deny the value of those in my memories.”

I consider that for a moment, trying to connect with the AI as I would with a newly discovered species. “At home, we say that constrained senses help people focus. And sometimes focus is what I really want. But I can’t regret learning the thunder.”

Her eyes—her image of eyes—flick towards me, narrowing. “Humans evolved to work best with a particular sensorium. AIs are programmed for another.”

Irritated, I sign my response. Then, inevitably, I speak aloud. “Humans are tool-users. We pick up tools and put them down all the time. We string words on grammar. Everything else is optional.”

She turns back to the rift, clearly dismissing any need for argument about such a well-studied organism. “For the mantas—down where you cannot sense them, what do you suppose they find necessary?”

I don’t respond, and she stays, thankfully, silent as well. We stare into the rift until it grows dark, waiting for the depths to give us something in return.

 

We gather in the morning for our formal reckoning: no overclocking this time, just our own sleepless anxiety. We talked together long into the night. For once, we said nothing of our work, but instead shared childhood memories and philosophical musings. The topics of our early, easy conversations, much loved and lately missed.

For a formal reckoning, Tro looks most informal. Her robot crouches by the transport, fussing at its inner workings with delicate manipulators. At last it straightens and her image appears. Her dress is ordinary, not the academic gown proper to the occasion.

“An access panel was not closed properly after I arrived,” she says without preamble. “I will need your help to move the transport to shelter so that it may dry out properly. My departure being delayed, it would be inappropriate to give your reckoning now.” She smiles thinly. “I regret waking you early—you have a day or two’s grace yet.”

My eyes flick to meet the others’, and I can see that they, too, take this as its own sort of judgment. Our relief is subdued. A month’s grace, perhaps, might gain us something, but two days…

We use the tractor to move the transport undercover, into the equipment cube behind the cabin. We place heaters at strategic points. No one offers to examine it more closely, nor does Tro ask.

Afterwards, we mortals relieve our fatigue in the cabin, sprawling at our work stations with mugs of spiced cocoa. Unfazed by physical effort and uninterested in appearing so, Tro stands with arms clasped behind her, gazing at the manta sculpture. It is some time before she speaks.

“With regard to the canyon, you mentioned a lack of specialized equipment. As it happens, I have a packet of pressure rappels due for delivery to the team at the Latitude 40 camp. With some discretion, they might be borrowed for your purposes. I am also reasonably well armored against extremes of humidity.” Projected lips quirk. “I would like to perceive the canyon’s depths directly.”

So her own curiosity drives her now. I suppose it makes sense that, bound even more tightly than we are by the Collegium’s strictures, an AI might well grasp at moments of flexibility.

We gather our standard equipment along with the purloined additions, and head for the canyon. We are still tired enough to make such an expedition unwise—our energy spent in the previous days’ rush—but willing to let adrenaline carry us through this final opportunity. Even amid the fog’s caress, my eyes feel parched and swollen.

At our base camp, Tro checks Yevgeny’s anchors, and all the parameters as we enter them in. Nitra snaps at her, but I am privately relieved. I leave my implant on without hesitation. The canyon rewards any additional sensoria one can bring to bear.

Finally, I snap on my belay harness. I check Yevgeny, and he checks me; Meical and Nitra do the same. Tro’s bot fidgets with the harness until she finds an acceptable configuration; we all test it and she checks our harnesses in return. Does she draw on old skills long disused, or did she download the procedures last night?

I push away from the cliff, and let out the line. Feeling my way against the wall by touch, I sink slowly into the fog. The others’ shapes are dim beside me. My bracelet pulses steadily, five beats and a pause, reassurance that they are near and safe and that the base computer is tracking our descent.

A few meters down, another human figure appears beside us: Tro has turned on her projector. Droplets swirl through her image, dust-motes in a sunbeam. In the canyon’s shadow, she glows faintly. Reminded, I turn on my headlamp before the darkness becomes complete. At first the projection is ludicrous, a standing human where there is nothing to stand on. But the image modifies to show her robes caught up in the harness, and she reaches wraith hands to brush against the cliff. She bends her knees gently, letting her feet dangle.

Sign is impossible here, and even sound is muffled. I force clarity from my throat: “Why the image?”

Her silhouette shifts as she cocks her head. “It’s an interesting challenge. This is not something the first Tro ever did.”

I smile, trusting the mist to hide it. “A new experience. Those must be rare.”

“Yes.”

We descend slowly, giving our ears time to adjust. The air cools and the shadow deepens. Mist roils in the warmth of our lamps and in Tro’s aura. It seems unlikely that we have anything still to learn from these shallows, and it would be easy to slip into meditative timelessness. But still, faithfully, I take readings.

We find our first sculpture on a rough ledge forty meters down, nestled against the cliffside.

“This one’s a few days old,” says Meical, pointing. Fractal vines have already begun to thread it with their slender, split-leaved stems. A single blossom, deep purple in the unaccustomed light, curls tightly around the wire.

Tro runs sensors over the sculpture. “The plants may be a variable. Also the moisture, of course.”

“Of course,” says Yevgeny. Both things we’ve tried, in the endless permutations of our tests. We record this latest pattern dutifully.

At one and a half kilometers, Tro twists and lights the mist with a wide beam from her bot. A moment later, one of the biggest mantas I’ve seen glides through the light, its seven-meter wingspan dappled with scars. It banks toward us before canting its wings and dropping below the limit of vision, so close that it leaves me breathless with the wind of its passing.

Two kilometers deep, the edge of our previous explorations, we pause for rations of dried meat and dried fruit.

“What makes the scars?” I ask.

“Scars?” Nitra’s voice comes through the fog.

Mist coats my lips and insinuates itself into my throat. “We’ve seen a lot of mantas. With different—different kinds of scars. But we haven’t found—predators.”

“Maybe further down?” suggests Yevgeny. His headlamp glints off the knife that’s a standard part of the exploration toolkit. It’s probably of limited utility while hanging from a kilometers-long cord. Even with the ultrasonic screamer we may have to depend, ultimately, on our alien shape and smell. But I fear the depths not for what they may hold, as much as for what they may not.

As we let out the lines, we start to see the full texture of the ecology. Tiny sleek-winged flyers coruscate with blue and gold bioluminescence. Spiny things cling to the cliff with six sharp-clawed limbs, arch long necks, and hiss at us as we pass. Topside, where we have made camp, is almost a desert by comparison; here every crumbling protrusion is rich with vines and leaves and funnels and flowers, eking energy out of the darkness in ways we don’t yet understand.

Some of these life forms were in the preliminary reports. Some, so far as I know, are new. Duranga may need more geologists, but it also needs more biologists. Many worlds do. The Collegium’s methods produce research teams that are skilled at finding results, but such teams are inevitably limited in number. And unproven teams are often more cautious than we’ve been about choosing trial sites.

Suddenly Meical cries out, and a moment later the same thing draws a squawk from my own throat. I swat, helplessly, at an unseen attacker that stings and slashes every side of me. Before I think to reach for knife or screamer, the attack ends, and a flock of something paper-thin and silvery is flashing away and upward through the beam of my headlamp.

“Ow,” says Nitra. “Were those our predators?”

“I don’t know,” says Meical. “If they are, they didn’t eat much of me. I think. ”

I open my medkit, sample a stinging drop of blood to confirm that we haven’t been poisoned, and am about to apply a liberal smear of healing salve when the updraft hits. The force of the wind flings me away from the cliff and then tosses me up toward it. The lines manage some small compensation, because I don’t break against the rock. I catch myself with a thunk that vibrates through my body, and stone and roots abrade my already-bleeding hands before the line tightens and holds me steady.

My bracelet pulses quickly, and with my own blood racing it’s hard to count the beats. I take a shuddering breath, and sweep my beam in search of teammates. I find Tro first, illusion dropped to focus on holding her bot in place. In the moment I spot her, she restores the image and nods down at me. Whether in empathy or automatic mimicry, she’s given herself a few cuts and bruises. Nitra clings further down and to the side.

“I’m okay,” she says hoarsely. “Now we know what those things were running from, anyway.”

“I guess the wind is one of the more dangerous ‘predators,’ down here.” To the right, I find Meical, still dangling away from the cliff.

“I’ll say.” Yevgeny’s voice. And finally I find him, crouched below us on a small plateau. “I think maybe we’re not the only ones who don’t like it. Look.”

Along the plateau, not one but four sculptures. All unusually large, and full of angular swoops that, to my human eyes, suggest excitement or anger.

I rappel down, cautiously, and the others begin moving as well. I bump against Yevgeny as I land on the berm of flat land. He flinches and grimaces.

“What’s wrong?” Both hands and mouth race to ask.

“It’s nothing. I hurt my arm in the wind.” He pauses. “Do you have a splint? I unclipped my medkit, and I think I dropped it.” I pull out a capsule and he presses it carefully against his left forearm. Foam surges out and around, hardening into a brace that will last until we return to the surface. Standard operating procedure would be to do that now, but no one argues for departure.

“Interesting,” Tro says, and she sounds like she means it. Her human façade vanishes, replaced a moment later by a topographical surface that could be cousin to the sculptures beside us. “This is what I perceived in that updraft.” The graph surges as she plots the wind over the few seconds of its onslaught.

“So these sculptures are warning signs?” For a moment I tense with excitement, bruises and scrapes forgotten, and then I slump. “So it is a bees’ dance. Just records of the wind and air currents.”

“No.” Tro’s human image returns, shaking her head. “I have seen your data. If I lay it over this new insight… their responses are still too variable. The higher sculptures, especially, don’t match the air currents, or I would have noticed before.”

“But these ones—” says Yevgeny.

“There’s a warning sign on the landing pod, telling you not to stick your hand in the engine,” says Meical. He squats by one of the sculptures. “It doesn’t mean that’s all language is for.”

“Then why don’t they respond to replicas?” Nitra wraps her arms tightly around her body.

I join Meical by the sculpture and run my hands around its contours, not quite touching. What are my hands saying, following these curves? I think about how I talk to my team, how different it is from trying to explain myself to Tro—different even from my family, who share my language and culture. All these things will be left unsaid, for the rest of my life, if Yevgeny and Meical and Nitra are not around to say them to.

Things that I can say to one person, in one place, I can never say elsewhere.

“Wait!” My hands dance, and I try to keep my lips and tongue under control, get the ideas where all can understand them. “Suppose this comes first. Like apes grunting and waving for danger. Their language starts as maps—dangerous winds, currents that lead to food. And then you get more—maps of emotions, ideas. But it only makes sense in one place.”

Nitra, the other linguist, follows the map I’ve made. “A hypercontextual language. Absolutely dependent on the environment where something is said—maybe the environment is even part of it. Move it, replicate it elsewhere, and it’s ungrammatical nonsense!”

Meical and Yevgeny join us around the sculpture, full of suggestions and new routes of study, and I can tell that we all feel the same—that this is the thing we were missing, this is the breakthrough. Of course, every eureka means months and years of follow-up. But once you’ve had that moment, you know that everything follows.

Months. Years. I turn back to Tro, and see her smiling fondly at us, but shaking her head.

“This is a remarkable insight, perhaps even an important one. But you are reasoning far in advance of your data.”

Four beams of light sweep the cliffside and converge on Tro. Her image pales in their crosshairs, swirled through with mist.

“We are hypothesizing,” I say. “From our data.”

“This is more than we had before,” agrees Meical. There is a desperate note in his voice. “It should be enough to justify more work. More time.”

“Perhaps,” says Tro. “This is very unusual. If you’re right, their language may be unique—so unique that it might be stretching to call it a language, to call what they have sapience. And if you’re wrong—if I’m wrong about how this fits the rest of the data, as has been known to happen—it may indeed be just an extremely impressive bees’ dance.”

“Isn’t the risk worth it?” I ask. “If this could be something unique, we don’t want to just leave it here.”

“No, we don’t. But given all the things it could be, this isn’t simply a question of sapience. Some might argue for a more experienced team, one with a different mix of expertise.”

“Some might,” says Yevgeny. “But isn’t it up to you? You’re the proctor, after all. You get to decide.”

She shakes her head again. “I’m a proctor for sapiology teams. On that basis, I can and will make a reckoning—and I’ll even recommend an extension for your team. But as soon as the data gets to the Collegium, they will have it audited by those of other specialties. In a situation like this, I’m not the final word. You could be recalled in as little as two weeks.”

I glance at the others, and our beams weave together across the sculpture. Under those circumstances, we’d be considered an unsuccessful team, and reassigned. Successful sapiology teams are those that correctly identify possible new sapient species. Discovering something else, no matter how exciting, might make us valuable picks for our next teams, but won’t be enough to keep us together.

“But they could,” says Meical quietly. “They could decide that this is evidence of possible language, strong enough to at least give us a little more time.”

Tro smiles fondly again. “They could.”

 

As our lines wind slowly upward, I think about the Collegium professors. Old, experienced, rational, hungry for new understanding and distrustful of any failure to find it. They could, as Meical says, see our insight as reason to leave our team here, the mantas as potential new research partners whose perspective will help us more fully comprehend the universe. Or they could see it as an illusion of bias, of desperation on our part and nostalgic sentiment on Tro’s.

Or they could see the mantas’ uniqueness as a chance too precious for novices. I’m not so orthodox as to believe their rationality perfect: they each have favored teams whose offerings of fresh discovery they repay with ever-grander opportunities to gather more.

I say as much to the others, later. We are in our sleeping room once more, and I switch off my implant with a sigh of relief. The constant susurrus of the wind and the forced reliance on my teammates’ voices, followed by hours discussing possible lines of inquiry with each other and Tro, have left my ears buzzing and sore.

Tro has promised to share our plans, and her support for them, with the Collegium—but she still looks less than confident. On this, at least, I trust her judgment fully.

“They wouldn’t,” says Meical. Even reading his lips, I can tell how quietly he speaks. He makes sure I can see his face, but his eyes shift away. “It wouldn’t be right. It wouldn’t be rational.”

Nitra’s lips quirk, unhappily. “It’s never rational to believe other sapients are entirely rational. They taught us that.”

Yevgeny shapes his lips carefully, and signs as well as he can with his good arm. “Star-Eye isn’t saying they’re going to do this. Just that they could. And that we have to decide what we’d do. Because I don’t know about you, but I’m convinced now that we’re a good team. Not just that we love each other, but that we’re good at working together. That we found something amazing, whether or not anyone else agrees.”

Meical brings his head up, eyes wide. He lifts his chin, and I can see the moment when he decides, amazed. “Yes, we did,” he signs. “Whatever they say, however they judge us.”

“Yes,” signs Nitra. She drops her eyes. “That wouldn’t make it easier, if we decided to leave.”

“I still don’t like the idea of running out on my next team,” I sign. “But this isn’t choosing between love and work, now. It’s choosing the people we need to be with, for both.”

Nitra reaches her foot to stroke my side. I lean against it. The others move in as well, drawing closer. It’s a careful dance, sharing warmth, shifting position so we can still see to speak. “This could all be moot,” she signs. “They could let us stay together, and we wouldn’t have to do anything.”

“They could,” I sign.

“It will still make a difference,” signs Meical. His movements are small and nervous, but his eyes are bright. “We’ll always know that we didn’t wait on their judgment. That we decided on our own that we were enough.”

Together, late into Duranga’s night, we plan our possible futures together.

 

“The Deepest Rift” copyright © 2015 by Ruthanna Emrys

Art copyright © 2015 by Victor Mosquera

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