Hexagrammaton

Translated by Julie Nováková

Each man has a measure of luck given by destiny, but not a drop more. Has the luck of an unusual guide responsible for the passage of visitors into the deep buried bellies of alien ships just run out? His newest client, a young woman named Janita, proves to be a member of the resistance carrying in her body an alien civilization’s gift to humanity. Will either of them become the devil’s martyr? One story gives life to another, waiting all along…

 

“Let us remind ourselves of our destiny.”

The captain approached the command console slowly. Characters of the Vaían alphabet lit the screen. Clusters of the crew stood in the front cabin patiently, hiding in the dimness of the large space. Their bowed faces were not only disfigured by the inexorable signs of the virus; submission had erased the gleam from their eyes, humiliation had engraved deep wrinkles in their skin. What followed resembled a bitter elegy.

“We live in stillness and darkness,” the captain read.

We live in stillness and darkness,” fifty voices echoed.

“. . . deep under our conquerors’ boots.”

. . . deep under our conquerors’ boots.”

A narrow line of the ship’s front windows ran behind the captain’s back. The faint lights of the cabin reflected from the surface of the thick glass. Beyond it, the shields glinted dark blue, those heavy lids of vanadium steel closed five years ago, never to open again.

“But in ourselves, we bear the legacy of those who came to raise us up,” the captain continued.

But in ourselves, we bear the legacy of those who came to raise us up,” the crew whispered mechanically.

“. . . and thus our enslavement has meaning.”

. . . and thus our enslavement has meaning.”

In the short periods of silence, the quiet song of the running engines could be heard. Their sound wavered with the rhythm of the crew’s words. The virus mediated the crew’s feelings to the engines, just as it opened their minds to the engines’ distant thoughts.

“Even though our gift became a burden . . .”

Even though our gift became a burden . . .

“. . . we still can pass its power unto humanity . . .”

. . . we still can pass its power unto humanity . . .

“. . . as Vaían asked us and as we promised Vaían.”

. . . as Vaían asked us and as we promised Vaían.

They all knew the words by heart and long ago had ceased searching for solace in them. They only found the unrelenting truth about what they really were.

“That is our destiny,” the captain concluded the ritual.

That is our destiny,” fifty bowed heads repeated after her.

She touched the screen with her fingertips. It went dark again.

“This is how we remind ourselves of our destiny, as well as that of all the other crews. You may return to your posts. Thank you.”

 

1.

Threads of rain drummed relentlessly on the car’s roof. Streams running down the windows merged and went separate ways again. The air suffocated with water and the smell of wet earth. I stopped where the muddied road met a tall razor wire fence. I almost couldn’t see the gate in the thick rain; if it weren’t for the guard’s booth, it would have seemed that the fence crossed the road ruthlessly and gave no one from the outside a chance to reach the peak of the towering cone.

A soldier in a green-gray raincoat walked to the car and waited for me to roll down the window. Splashes of freezing water fell upon my arm. The soldier looked inside, at me and then Janita crouching in the passenger seat, and finally at the cigarette box I handed to him along with a file in a waterproof folder. He took both in his cold, calloused fingers. I saw him checking the small bundle of wrinkled banknotes amidst the cigarettes; not a bribe, just a token of gratitude for limiting the personal searches and interrogations of my clients to the necessary minimum. He grunted approvingly, pocketed the file and box under his raincoat, and hurried to the booth.

We remained silent. My gaze traveled to the rearview mirror. The wiper fought the assaults of water tenaciously and at times, I could recognize the outline of a village crouching by the cone’s base. From this far, it resembled a stone battleship on a dark sea of the fields, the crows a parody of its gulls. The cone itself could have been a freak wave about to sweep the ship into the muddy depths. But the scene was motionless, still like the lives of those buried deep underneath.

“Is everything all right? Is it supposed to go like this?” Janita was studying me with her Europan eyes the color of sesame seeds. I nodded.

 

When Janita first came to my office two weeks ago, I found nothing unusual about her. She was a little sleep-deprived and disoriented by the change in gravity and the openness of spaces on Earth; like all my clients. She introduced herself; I glanced through her application and gestured at her to sit down. By the rules, I had to first ask her a couple of questions to make sure that she wasn’t just impersonating the real Janita Paltev. Like her birth date.

“June third, year seventy-one.”

Or her nationality.

“The Free Republic of Europa and Ganymede.” (Oh, the mixture of bitterness and pride in all of their voices! Some even answered Vaían. As long as they didn’t daringly write it in their forms, I ignored it. I don’t look for trouble.)

The next question was necessary: “Whom are you visiting?”

“Corporal Petr Paltev. My father.”

“On which ship?”

The Destroyer of Seven Villages,” she replied without hesitation, though the answer wasn’t simple. Each of the ships’ names consisted of five Vaían symbols whose meaning depended on the three-letter cipher key used to read them. By applying the trigrammatons, The Destroyer of Seven Villages could also be called The Obsidian Snail, Deep Slumber, Embrace of Aldebaran, or Devil’s Martyr. The cycle was closed; by applying the next key, Devil’s Martyr would change back into The Destroyer of Seven Villages. It remained difficult for people to shake off the feeling that one of the ciphers of the cycle is the basic one, and they obstinately insisted upon it. However, the Vaían civilization saw no difference in them; the cycle didn’t begin or end anywhere and the ship bore all the names at once. More complex ciphering loops built upon the trigrammaton cycle. But Vaían didn’t have the time—or will—to give humans all the four- or five-letter keys to the tetra- and pentagrammaton cycles, therefore their extent and structure remained unknown despite all the government cryptologists’ best efforts.

“Reason for the visit?”

She shifted in her seat. “Death in the family. My father’s sister succumbed to cancer a month ago. I want to tell him in person. Anyway, he needs to sign papers regarding the inheritance; she had no children . . .”

I was leafing through the file. Everything seemed to be in order.

“Do you have a statement of health from an approved physician?”

She handed me a folded piece of paper. I looked at it and felt the tickle of complication.

“This is just an unverified copy. You need an original or a certified copy.”

“Oh,” she breathed out. “But the original is on Europa. Can’t you certify it?”

I gave her the copy back. “I could but won’t. There are three army hospitals with the necessary certification in town and they can give you a new statement in any of them. With some luck, you can get it today and we can resume tomorrow. What do you say?”

I really don’t look for trouble. Janita, however, morphed into one big trouble at that moment. “I can pay you. A lot. More than you’d think. Just certify the copy, please, and take me to the Destroyer.”

She was still the shy girl with speckled skin and slumped shoulders. Yet whereas five minutes ago, I’d thought she was afraid of me, now I felt afraid of her.

“Please,” she insisted. “It’s the most important thing in my life. And even though you don’t realize it now, yours, too.”

I should have called the guards. Or I should have soothed her somehow, waited till her departure and then informed the police or my superiors. Instead, I watched in silence as she raised her pale, sinewy arm, as if made of glass noodles, and pulled aside her hair. Her bared temples revealed what they had to reveal.

“Oh, damn,” escaped me. I hadn’t seen anything like this for four or five years. After the last refugee camps on Earth had closed, I hoped never to see it again. The viral incubant was swirling among her hair roots, drawing spirals, symbols, labyrinths of images, resembling the dark Maori tattoos. I did not dare to guess how many people Janita had to bribe, blackmail, kill, or sleep with to get here, into the comfortable chair in my office. The Europan guerrilla army extended its fingers to me across half the system and grasped my throat. Opposite me sat a true pro-Vaían fundamentalist, and on her body, she was carrying the alien civilization’s gift to humanity.

 

Thursday, August 30, 2192

I finally succeeded in cadging some writing accessories from the guards. For the first time after more than a year of trying, they didn’t dismiss me with a touch pad limited to Earth alphabets. I received a plain pencil like I haven’t seen since childhood, and a thick pad with lined paper. It smells of glue and ancient times. I kept leafing through its empty pages and smelling it all afternoon. Now I’ve finally decided to start writing.

In those endless requests, I always stated that I would like to keep a diary. I will try to abide by that and each day record what I felt or thought. I cannot bring testimony of much else; the days here are monotonous, neatly outlined from the cell lights turning on in the morning, through the grueling walk in the corridors, to the allowed hour of univision in the evening. I don’t talk to anyone. Sometimes when I thank the cook for her soup in the canteen, she smiles but stays silent. I visit the gym but I haven’t made any friends there. I take the dumbbells from their racks in silence and return them also in silence. Without a word, I browse through the books in the small library. It’s maddening. Now I can hardly control the surge of words flooding to the tip of my pencil. Someone is finally listening to me, though he cannot answer—but he will remember my words, undistorted.

I’ve been thinking about luck during today’s lunch. Long ago I read somewhere that each man has a measure of luck given by destiny. He will use it fully but cannot expect a drop more. That’s supposed to be why healthy, happy, and resilient people succumb to fast fatal illnesses or accidents; or why the unfortunate barely making a living, cast out by the society, almost miraculously make their way through the maze of freezing nights, dirt, and street wars. If there’s any seed of truth in it, I believe we have already used all our luck. How else could one describe those unbelievable four years of contact other than luck? How else can I describe the feeling spreading through all of Europa and the other moons? I do not regret any second I had the honor to enjoy Vaían’s presence in the solar system. I don’t regret any unfulfilled dream, any false expectation. When the revolution came, we were still so amazed by our luck that we were unable to fully grasp its impact. It was like a windstorm, perversely beautiful in its force of destruction. It broke everything we had hoped for and separated us and Vaían forever.

Under the pretext of saving humanity (but what is humanity if not the courage to explore the unknown?), the revolutionaries woke us from our happy dreams and made us monsters, freaks. They took no shame in stealing everything Vaían had given us, did not hesitate to distort its legacy in their interest. Still, my heart fills with joy when I recall those four years, and no prison can ever change it. I keep writing in Vaían symbols and using my tautogram for my name. And if I cannot personally deliver my testimony of the star travelers to the generation of my children, this notepad hopefully may.

 

2.

Janita quickly refuted my notion that all infected civilians ended up either incarcerated or executed.

“You’re placing too much faith in the inner planets’ propaganda,” she replied, and sipped her coffee. We were sitting in a small, clean bistro under a marquee, shielded from the fine rain. Janita wore a fine knitted cap covering her forehead and temples. She looked very pretty in it but that wasn’t the reason I agreed to another meeting. Nor the money, even though I’d kept pretending I cared about it. The bistro was empty and the waitress carefully avoided our table, perhaps repelled by the symbol of a federal agent on my lapel.

“As the revolution grew into a war,” Janita explained quietly, “lots of volunteers tried to relieve the suffering of the crews of destroyed ships, and accepted their incubants, especially in field hospitals and refugee camp infirmaries. The government mostly tracked down the doctors but not the auxiliary staff. I was in the first semester of a nursing school and helped out as a nurse in the Saint Cross Hospice.”

I didn’t know that place but could imagine it: dirty, bloodied beds; dim lights; overworked doctors. The agony the crews suffered away from the engines, their feeling of separation and missing an integral part of them, so strong that they truly bled from their nonexistent injuries. Although the presence of the other infected relieved their pains, the Europan fleet members would die after a couple of weeks without their ships.

“Our viral codes had never been compiled through longer than three-letter keys and never entered Vaían technology’s fields,” she concluded. “That’s why we were able to last away from the other carriers. A week of fever, headache, and cramps and the infection faded; only the original incubant remained.”

She kept talking in plural but I could not imagine how many of these voluntary carriers could outlast the war. A dozen? A hundred? A few dozen could be enough for rekindling the long conflict’s fire, especially now, when the inner planets’ attention faltered.

Just a few years ago, our conversation would have been impossible. The whole system crawled with spies and everyone watched everyone else for a sign of anything Vaían in the gleam of their eyes. But the war sucked money out of all of us, and without it, it was a long journey to Jupiter. The repressions, resistance, and confused political situation out there could stay out of Earth’s interests. We were on the victorious side without admitting that actually we only prevailed over ourselves. Of the whole war, only seven clay cones remained on Earth, burying the crews of seven Europan ships alive. And, of course, the unceasing terawatts of energy their engines kept spewing out.

I forced my face into a casual smile. “And what about me? What’s the chance I get infected when we descend into the throat together?”

I knew the crew presented no danger to me. The virus in their bodies was old, ingrained in their biomagnetic fields like a wood stain. It had brushed against me many times. Yet the maze of Janita’s hair could hide a much more aggressive Minotaur.

She shook her head. “The virus doesn’t spread so easily. An incubant cannot infect you. Even if I allowed it to expand to all of my body, the transmission is not easy. You would have to want it.”

The most fundamental question remained unasked, unanswered between us. We kept playing the game that Janita was really a dutiful daughter wishing to visit her father and I’d look away from her missing medical statement. She could never get one as a carrier. “But the meaning of what she’d said earlier still haunted me. “The most important thing in your life.” That didn’t bode well.

 

The station on the cone’s apex resembled a starfish. Endless lines of pylons stretched in all directions, laden with garlands of cables. Some junctions gave off little sparks in the unceasing rain.

I sent Janita, tired from the long travel in Earth’s gravity, to sleep and went to look into the mouth of the cone. I knew the guard stationed there well. When we sat on the edge, legs dangling to the rim of the first collar of coils, he produced a bag of roasted peanuts.

“Want some, agent?”

The throat underneath us faded into distorted distance. Nine hundred meters of shielding and high-voltage filters, nine hundred meters of paranoia, not letting even a shred of the virus reach Earth’s surface. The descent took a day and a half, including two eight-hour acclimation stops. The throat wasn’t a place created for people. It was a dangerous tangle of field lines and dipoles. The difference between the electric potentials by its mouth and base, inside near the ship, constituted hundreds of millions of kilovolts. The throat pumped air into the buried ship so that the engines wouldn’t waste their energy on recycling, and all rations, water, and medicine went down through it. In the opposite direction, the energy of Vaían engines surged up the outer collars of the throat; that energy which had rendered most power plants on Earth useless. Janita had been right; it was barbaric.

“Some pretty young girl again, eh, agent?” the soldier asked me, and crunched another peanut.

“I don’t pick them,” I smiled sadly. “It’s they who pick me.” Janita knew very well whom to pick. I had worked on Ganymede for a long time, so long that I almost became a Jovian. I was alone on Earth. Only a small stack of divorce papers divided me from the family left out there. I’d managed to screw up my life and return to Earth just before the contact. Before the Jovian moons became the promised land—or Vaían’s slave, depending on the point of view. Surprisingly, my personal connections to Ganymede didn’t impede my rise in the career hierarchy. I went through the training for work in the throat and took a medical course for first aid to people under the influence of strong electromagnetic fields. I became a government-approved guide in the sporadic journeys of relatives and friends to the ships’ crews. But deep inside, I have never been a textbook earthling protecting Humanity (with a capital H) and loathing everything Vaían. I could be swayed. Yes, I could be bribed.

“Whom has she got there?”

“Her father.”

The soldier sighed. “Sometimes I add a box of cigarettes to their rations. Secretly, so that no one else would know. It’s against the rules but I always thought it might cheer them up. Only yesterday it occurred to me that I don’t know if they’re allowed to smoke there at all.”

I took a peanut shell between my fingertips and tossed it to the center of the throat. We both watched it fall and zigzag under the nudges of the varying field. Like a Brownian particle in a drop of water.

 

Friday, August 31, 2192

My fingers spasmed last night. Yet I wrote only a few lines yesterday! My hand must be unused to the pencil. I’ll try to pause longer when writing.

Before the spasms woke me up, I was dreaming, like almost every night, of the time before the revolution. (I think there are so few stimuli here that my subconscious doesn’t use even the simplest of images. My dreams stem from my memories.) I was standing on a shining white promenade in one of Ganymede’s subterranean cities. Crowds of happy people passed me and the air was thick with the smell of some exotic flowers. There were the flags of the Republic and ribbons with Vaían symbols everywhere. All of a sudden, a tall, ceremoniously clad Elder appeared before me. He walked straight to me. The half-moons of his eyes shone like emeralds. We stopped. He took my hands in his and said one word: “Gratitude.”

The more I think about the dream, the less I understand it. What gratitude? Humans couldn’t have acted more ungratefully toward the Vaían. We all remember the selflessness and generosity with which the Vaían offered—but did not coerce us into—participation in an interstellar community. We remember how they warned us that accepting the virus was an irrevocable decision. We remember how they so casually started building the engines for our ships. And what have they gotten from us in return? I secretly hope the dream continues tonight.

One more thing from today is worth writing down. I’ve noticed a new inmate during lunch. Either they transferred him here today, or I’ve been too self-contained lately to notice him. By his shy gaze and slumped shoulders, I’d guess he ended up here for reasons similar to mine. He has heavy, sleepy eyes, and constantly covers his mouth, as if ashamed of his missing teeth. He reminds me of myself five years ago. Dare I hope now that I could have someone to talk to, or even become friends with?

 

3.

“The yellow cone of light flickered through the dark as I quietly approached Janita’s bed, a flashlight gripped tightly in my hand. I knew the Europans slept heavily in the thick Earth air, strong Earth gravity, and hard Earth beds. I probably couldn’t wake her up even if I tried. Despite that, I knelt by her bed cautiously and even more cautiously pulled aside a strand of hair falling over her forehead. The incubant started quivering in the light. I extended my fingers to it and held their tips just a few millimeters away from Janita’s head. The biomagnetic fields of our bodies merged and the code’s symbols started passing to my skin. They ran through my fingers and tickled my palm. But when I withdrew, they obediently returned to the Europan skin where they felt at home. I resisted the temptation to play with the virus, to try to catch its segments in the trap of curled fingers. I let it slide into my palm again and calm down, get used to the structures of my hand and reveal its own. The Vaían symbols never ceased to move slightly in the flashlight beam, but the basic flow of the algorithm was clearly recognizable.

“When people need to write a procedure with ten functions,” a coder once said to me, “they write ten short codes and build walls of conditionals and choices in front of them. The Vaían can do the same with one short code and ten keys to compile it.” The program has all ten functions at once, just as a ship has all five names. The trick is using the right cipher key. The Vaían virus was just a program, only instead of instructions for a computer processor, it contained instructions for a nervous system of a living being.

As I shifted my fingertips near Janita’s bare forehead, the virus rolled across my palm slowly. With it, conflicting memories through my mind. What have I been searching for, anyway? Janita may have held a four- or five-letter cipher key inside her body, and needed to enter the engines’ fields to go through a new compilation. That would make some sense. Does she want to become a part of the crew? But why? My eyes searched for the encapsulated shell of an unused compilation key: symbols divided from the rest by an impermeable line whose dissolution could be ordered only by Vaían technology. Its breach would mean that the virus would gain control over Janita’s life and death. If the encapsulated symbols were just four, Janita would understand the engines’ language and wouldn’t be able to live without them after the compilation. If they were five, she would start obeying their orders. I wasn’t sure what I’d do if I found the tetra- or pentagrammaton. I just felt curious, understandably, about whether Janita planned to return to the surface from the Destroyer. At last, the dark, gleaming shell slid onto my forefinger and into my palm.

I moved the flashlight to it to discern the details of the key.

The world trembled with me.

 

Saturday, September 1, 2192

The new prisoner was eluding me whole morning. I glimpsed him in the library but before I got to him through the maze of bookshelves, his chair was empty. In the lunch queue, he was standing far ahead of me but I didn’t see him later in the canteen. Perhaps he always sits in another dark corner, searching for a place no one will kick him out of, where no one will spit in his soup and he’ll be able to eat without enduring the others’ suspicious glances. Finally, I used my small savings of cigarettes and medicine to exchange them for a few minutes’ time with one of the local informers. He promised me to get as much from the guards as possible.

Later: I was right! The man’s name is Arvin and his soul really is unburdened by any mugging, murder, or fraud. He’s a scientist, a cryptologist. He studied Vaían ciphers right on Europa during the contact. After the revolution, he started working for the Earth government. But a few years later he allegedly started secretly aiding the Europan resistance. He was supposed to trade results of the government research to the fundamentalists. But some say it has been a show trial, because Arvin uncovered something that didn’t fit the government’s perspective on Vaían. In any case, I must speak to him! I’m trying to comb my memory for everything I know of Vaían ciphers. It’s not much, sadly. I can draw the cipher matrix and decipher the original text if I know the key , but those are the basics anyone willing to fully communicate with the Vaían Elders had to learn.

I also hazily recall how to find tautograms: texts that remain unchanged during the application of all known keys—tri-, tetra-, and pentagrammatons—because they decipher back into themselves. Using those, it was possible to communicate with the Elders without a previously given key. Mathematicians called them “eigenvectors of ciphers,” but I never fully understood what they’d meant by that. I was pleased to discover that I still remember the longest known tautogram. It is an oath of sorts, a vow composed by the captains of the seven remaining ships when it had been decided to bury those ships alive and let Earth devour their energy by the thirsty straws of the cones. The tautogram reads: “We live in stillness and darkness, deep under our conquerors’ boots. But in ourselves, we bear the legacy of those who came to raise us up, and thus our enslavement has meaning. Even though our gift became a burden, we still can pass its power unto humanity, as Vaían asked us and as we promised Vaían.” The words make me shiver.

 

Maybe Janita woke from her deep slumber at that moment and looked at me with her Europan eyes. Maybe she spoke to me. I don’t know. I wouldn’t have noticed. I sat heavily, extinguished the flashlight, and stared into the darkness. The shell contained six letters. A hexagrammaton.

I’d heard legends of it. I’d heard crazy men babble prophecies of it. I’d read about it in files marked Top Secret when I still worked for the expert committee. Six letters that could change the course of the war. The longest possible compilation key that could transform the crew and engines into one being and enable travel across the galaxy. The crew would abandon their humanity, become like the Vaían Youngers, whose thoughts circulated through the ship’s command systems. And after approximately sixteen years the energy of the engines would deplete and their power decrease. Only then the ship being would dissolve and the crew members would be reborn as individual beings and full members of the interstellar community: as Vaían Elders.

But that never happened. As the virus had been spreading through Europa and new ships had been built in the Ganymedan ports, suspicion took hold of a part of the Republic. Was the transformation of people into the Youngers a path into an interstellar community, or was it a rejection of humanity and acceptance of Vaían’s rule? How big a part of their nature did the volunteers throw away and how much would be returned to them when they’re released from their long service?

Citizens of the Republic languished. There were water and energy shortages, quarrels, problems nobody cared about because all resources were being devoted to the Vaían program. This was the substrate the revolution had grown on. With the support of the Vaían Elders, advocates of the space program would perhaps have suppressed the uprising without great trouble. But Earth and Mars joined the conflict with their large armies and firepower capable of turning both moons into clouds of dust in Jupiter’s rings. The inner planets followed the doctrine: “If we don’t have the viral technology, no one should,” disguising it as care for the integrity of humanity. They considered themselves the cradle of this humanity. The Republic ships with Vaían engines weren’t built for combat. Nor were the original Vaían ships. Moreover, the Vaían Elders didn’t feel the need to interfere. They suspended the process of gradual compilation of the virus inside the ships, supposed to prepare the crews for the eventual acceptance of the hexagrammaton, and left our solar system—perhaps forever. The crews were frozen halfway between humans and Vaían Youngers. They couldn’t live apart from the engines but were unable to reach for the stars with them.

My thoughts swirled and flickered not unlike the symbols of the virus that had flown through my palm moments ago. The government cryptologists claimed that human knowledge of Vaían ciphers wasn’t sufficient to find the hexagrammaton. The Vaían alphabet consisted of one hundred and thirteen symbols, enabling two and a half billion six-letter combinations. But only millions of them translated some sequences of the virus into executable programs. Without knowing the engines’ functions, there was no criterion upon which to choose from the combinations. Yet what if someone on Europa had managed it? What if Janita truly carried a key for a new era of human civilization inside the compilation shell? Could this be the most important thing of my life? The ship had been buried under millions of tons of clay and rock and no force, Vaían or not, could move it. The throat had been such a perfect electromagnetic trap that the expanded hexagrammaton could never escape to Earth’s surface.

I rose and stumbled into the next room. My bed accepted me with a creaky sigh. Now I knew what my client carried to The Destroyer of Seven Villages. However, until I knew why, however, I still remained the same swayable, bribable civil servant. Questions kept circling in my mind, passing each other in still-new conjunctions like Jupiter’s moons. I only fell asleep long after midnight.

 

Sunday, September 2, 2192

I managed to talk to Arvin briefly. When I introduced myself and shook his hand, he stared at me with puzzlement for a moment. I’m not surprised; if he truly studied ciphers on Europa, he was bound to know my name, maybe even my face. But after five years in prison, one changes a lot. So far he approaches me with suspicion. I understand it. He’s probably afraid the government set me on him. I will try to convince him that’s not the case, but it won’t be easy. However, he can’t control himself completely: when I mentioned cryptology, his eyes lit up and he drew a breath as if to start talking. But then he covered his mouth again and mumbled some apology. We parted with a Vaían goodbye, as naturally as if we spoke it all the time. Perhaps I haven’t used up all my luck yet.

Later: I discovered a live snail in my cell after dinner. It has a gleaming obsidian shell and measures no more than two centimeters. I must have brought it with me on my boots or clothes from the canteen or bathroom. I let it climb my hand and thought about what I’d do with it. Never before has another living being kept me company in this cell. But I cannot keep it; there is nothing for it to eat here (though I only have a foggy notion of what snails eat). I’ll try to carry it to the yard tomorrow and set it free in the grass. For now, I can keep studying it and feel amazed by its perfection.

 

4.

“I was there,” I told Janita as we descended about a third of the throat. We were carefully climbing the rope ladders down from one tier to another. The coils around us buzzed disconsolately. The service lights flickered without any apparent pattern. Instead of air, a mixture of burnt dust, ozone, and bluish sparks tried to force its way down our lungs. Sometimes we could glimpse the resilient throat fauna and flora: fungi growing in spirals around the coils, spiders building absurdly formed webs in the small anomalies of the field, moths with asymmetric wings deformed by their lifelong fight with the vortices of the toroids. Ant paths following the line fields. Chiral stalactites of dust particles growing on the coils, disintegrating whenever the relays inside the walls changed the current’s flow with a deafening click.

“Where?” Janita asked, and sat beside me on the small platform protruding into the throat’s abyss.

“The decision of the ships’ fate. I’d been an assistant to one of the expert committee’s members.”

“I know. You recommended that he vote against their destruction. The proposal for building the cones came through by one vote—also thanks to you.”

A blue-white discharge suddenly crackled above our heads. Janita looked up, startled. A thin veil of burnt dust and ash from the lichens and small flies fell upon her face.

“It wasn’t an easy decision back then,” I said, almost apologetically.

“It certainly wasn’t,” she remarked. “It’s never easy to save almost four hundred lives, is it?”

I didn’t tell her that the committee spent lots of time pondering the question of whether the infected crews still constituted human lives.

Janita drank her depolarization solution thirstily. Small beads of sweat ran down her forehead, swirling as they followed locally meandering field lines. The human body is one big electrolyte tank. Little change is needed for it to become a charged monocell in the throat’s field.

“How do you feel?”

She looked at the almost empty flask. “Okay.”

“The truth.”

“I feel dizzy. I hear buzzing in my ears. And it’s very hot in here. But I can put up with that.”

I touched Janita’s forehead. She didn’t protest or pull away, just looked at me suspiciously. Her cold sweat ran down my palm and, amidst its beads, the viral symbols sometimes flowed too.

“It should be all right,” I said. “Let’s go another hundred meters and make an acclimation stop.”

She nodded.

Strong electromagnetic fields can be like high altitudes. Some can grow used to them quickly, some cannot. The body needs time to adapt its electrochemical processes.

We passed a toroid of absorption coolers with their heat exchangers glistening with frost. Spirals of water vapor rose from there into the dry air. The mist condensed on the coils around the toroid. Tassels of small water droplets, each black with the burnt dust, hung from them. The insect-like buzz of the coils and the deep tones of the exchangers, resembling the growling of a distant storm, mingled in our ears.

Just above the halfway point into the throat, there was a service platform where I usually spent the first acclimation stop with my clients. Janita grew very slow during the last meters, so I descended first to prepare the bends. An irritated hiss of self-inflating mattresses added to the throat’s sounds.

Janita finally staggered to me and sat on the ribbed floor heavily. The whites of her Europan eyes were full of broken veins. Her light brown irises almost couldn’t be discerned in the red-and-white maze. She let me touch her forehead again. From my expression, she understood something was not right.

I pulled another flask out of my bag. “Drink it, all of it.”

The flask was supposed to last for the journey back but the entire plan was tumbling down like a house of cards. I watched Janita drink thirstily. Sweat dripped from the wet strands of her hair.

“Have you ever worn chrome watches? Or steel jewelry?”

She stopped drinking and looked at me in surprise. “No. I mean, for a little while, but I had to return them.”

I nodded. “They went black on you.”

“How do you know?”

Less than one percent of people have overly acidic skin. The depolarization solution works well enough inside their bodies, but it changes into nanocrystals of metallic salts in their epidermis.

“That hot feeling . . . that’s not from being overheated. It’s the electroosmotic pressure being misinterpreted by your thermoregulation system. Your skin is becoming a capacitor. It’s called the Faraday disease.”

She gulped. “What does it mean?”

“We’ll see,” I lied. “You’ll drink a lot and we’ll rest here for eight hours.”

Without objections, she let me help her out of the coverall, which was heavy with sweat. Her breathing was quick and shallow. With her blanket pulled to her chin, her exhausted eyes stared up into the distorted throat.

I felt waves of irony wash over me along with the pulsing fields. Unbelievable. In all those years of guiding my clients into the ships, not one had been diagnosed with Faraday disease. The acidity of their skin had been closely scrutinized. But Janita avoided her medical examination because of the virus. It was funny, in a way, but I couldn’t laugh.

This platform was our final station, no matter what gift Janita carried on her body. The coils mocked us with their persistent buzzing.

 

Tuesday, September 4, 2192

Unbelievable! I held a longer conversation with Arvin today and I’m still feeling fazed from what I learned. On one hand, I cannot believe it. But nevertheless . . . it could mean a giant step in our understanding of the Vaían civilization.

Arvin says that the language and writing itself are the basis of Vaían ciphering. Human linguists and cryptologists have always been amazed by the Vaían Elders’ ability to spontaneously create texts with several simultaneous meanings. According to Arvin, they had no choice! The Vaían language has a self-ciphering tendency, he says; it’s a closed algebra, a self-contained universe of texts. Whatever is written in it necessarily has several meanings. The Vaían didn’t create texts containing multiple meanings. They wrote one and then searched for the cipher keys using simple algorithms. Have they created all of their cipher culture unintentionally, built on texts originating simultaneously with others? Is the virus also one simple code, whose other functions the Vaían discovered by applying more and more cipher keys? Is the basic trigrammaton cycle just a minimalistic approximation of the real functionality of the written Vaían?

Arvin confided to me that the government stopped financing his research because he did not get closer to communicating with the Vaían technology. Instead, he rose higher and higher in the abstract plane of the theory of symbolic languages. His obsession with the possibility that Vaían could be self-ciphering made him return to Europa in search of the guerrilla army cryptologists. He was looking for people able to write fully in Vaían, and explored how, with the growth of a text, other ones also evolve, how the number of meanings and keys increases, how the cipher key and deciphered text itself both change with rewrites of the original text. It’s simple up to five letters, he explained to me. Pentagrammatons still result in a comprehensible cycle. If the author is well versed in it, he should be able to imagine the sentences parallel with those he’s writing at the time, he can intentionally compose with more meanings. The breakthrough comes with hexagrammatons. The sequence of cipher keys doesn’t close, it grows through the alphabet like a spiral, like a snail’s shell. For any longer text we write in Vaían, Arvin claims, there exists at least one hexagrammaton. If we find it, we can decipher the text into a new meaning. Suddenly we’re faced with two texts, different from each other, and must choose which branch to continue along. There is no ciphering back to the original and the cycle is not closed, so if we choose to continue writing the new branch, we cannot return to the old one. In other words, we cannot find out how the original text evolves if we’re writing the new one. At any moment, we can find another key for deciphering the new text; the number of meanings therefore grows constantly, up to infinity.

Later: The notion that I’m writing another meaningful text simultaneously with this diary scares me. Should I discover it and continue it? What can it be about? I’ve torn ten blank pages from my notepad and started copying my diary so far. I’ll try to give the pages to Arvin tomorrow. I’ve broken my only pencil into two halves. Whatever awaits me on the other side of my own notes, I won’t face it alone.

 

I opened my eyes. Janita was kneeling by my mattress, blanket wrapped around her naked body.

“Are you asleep?”

I stared at her, unable to speak.

Her tired eyes shone red-white from a face transformed into a swirl of ornaments and thin lines. The viral labyrinth followed the outlines of her cheekbones and jaw, extended its distorted fingers to her nape, coiling around her neck like a hungry constrictor. The expanded virus gave Janita a demonic appearance. The flowing code resembled dancing flames, the sharp lines of symbols on her cheeks were like war paint.

“You don’t need to explain to me,” she continued when she saw I was awake. “I know I can go no further. I’ve known it for several hours, but it took me some time to accept it.”

“But why . . .” I managed.

“I lied to you, but only in part. My father really does live down there in the Destroyer. And I really do want to give him something. Something I carry in my viral code, something my friends on Europa wrote into it. A hexagrammaton. You saw it. It walked your body when I was asleep.”

“How do you know?”

“He told me when I let him grow from the incubant into his full beauty.”

Into beauty. Facing what the virus transformed Janita into, my understanding for the Jovian tumbled down. It was fascinating, true, but also unbelievably, overwhelmingly repulsive. Janita must have been mad.

“I cannot deliver the hexagrammaton to my father or anyone else from the crew,” she said quietly, and suddenly I knew with a horrifying certainty what she’d say next. She did: “But you can.”

I didn’t speak. My silence bore neither agreement nor refusal; just waiting.

“Have you ever thought what it would be like if you had reconciled with your wife and stayed on Ganymede? You were a successful young diplomat. Everyone thought of you as the future ambassador. If you truly became him, whose side would you choose? You’ve seen the poverty the Jovians lived in. You’ve seen both moons extend their hands for the merest crumbs from the tables of the inner planets. You’ve seen us eat junk from Earth and drink waste from Mars. Only five weeks remained. If you had stayed on Ganymede just five weeks longer, you’d have seen another Jupiter. No longer a stinking periphery of the system. The arrival of Vaían ships changed everything. Suddenly we were at the center of human future. The inner planets started revolving around Jupiter. You could have been their representative in the Republic. Do you understand all that you missed?”

“Janita . . . that’s all the past.”

She shook her ghostly head. “Thanks to people like you, the past still remains in our reach. What draws you to the ships? Why have you chosen a profession that enables you to enter them? Why have you listened to me? Why have you not denounced me? For me and my friends on Europa, you are the ambassador of Earth in the Republic. The real Jupiter lies not behind the belt, but right here on Earth, buried under clay and rock. We trust you. I trust you.”

Her sesame seed eyes were hypnotizing me.

“Maybe what you say is true. But I don’t want to be a . . .”

“Martyr?” she finished. “Are you asking for meaning? Don’t you realize what would change if you deliver the hexagrammaton to the ship? In eleven years, the engines will deplete and their power over the crew will fade. The virus will weaken and allow my father and fifty other people to reach the Earth’s surface again. They can climb up the throat as defeated men, used, humiliated. Or they can emerge enriched and return to the Jovian moons bearing a new hope. As Vaían Elders. Do you understand? Fifty beaten dogs change nothing. Fifty Vaían Elders can change everything. Even your past.”

The silence between us lasted for an agonizing moment.

Janita leaned closer. Her face, scarred with the virus, stopped just next to mine.

“Devil’s martyr,” she breathed, and it sounded like a question.

“Devil’s martyr,” I whispered, and it sounded like an answer.

Then she pressed her forehead, covered with sweat, to my brow. Our fingers intertwined and our lips met.

 

Wednesday, September 5, 2192

I almost cannot write anymore. I’ve been copying the last lines of my diary just by sheer force of will. I managed to give the papers and half the pencil to Arvin during breakfast.

I feel as if the whole prison just disappeared. The whole universe disappeared. There is only the text and the two of us: A scientist whose hunger for knowledge drove him into prison, and a former ambassador from Earth to The Free Republic of Europa and Ganymede, sentenced for treason.

I cannot wait for tomorrow. I hope I don’t disappear before then, too.

 

5.

I descended only so far as to disappear safely out of Janita’s sight.

Then my will left my body, evaporated like a cloud of smoke in the dimness of the throat. My arms and legs refused my commands. I toppled to a protruding rim of a coil. The buzzing resonated through my whole body.

I felt emptiness. Darkness. Compared to the moment of the transmission of the virus, my whole life had been just an unceasing emptiness and darkness. Janita merged with me, revealed her nature transformed by the virus to me. No carrier ever spoke of an infection or control by the virus; now I finally understood why. I’d been blessed, urged to join something far bigger than I was, bigger than Janita, The Destroyer of Seven Villages, Earth, Jupiter, the revolution. I received a gift. At first it felt like jumping into deep, freezing water. My heart gave a few arrhythmic kicks; a spasm seized my body. But then seeds of a new structure started emerging from the cold. Like the Milky Way come alive, they spread through my mind. The most important thing in your life, Janita had said some time ago. No, I countered now, the most intimate thing in my life. But the galaxy of the virus in my mind also contained its black holes.

I’d rest a little, I decided. Five, ten minutes before I continued.

A small snail crawled around my head, leaving a path of slime behind. Its dark shell was malformed by the fields, distorted like a bull’s horn.

Everything was wrong. The viral incubant swirled amid my hair roots. I was descending into a world trapped in dimness and stillness, a world buried alive. Why? Because of a chimera, a dream, an unborn child fated to wait eleven more years in its womb. I could either become a part of this grim world, or deliver the hexagrammaton and return through the throat bearing the uncompiled virus; to the guards’ rifles, the unforgiving gazes of the judges, the dissection tables of government labs.

Janita would be facing certain death. In a few hours, she would run out of the depolarization solution and nothing would prevent the charging of her body anymore. When the voltage went above critical, her tissue would discharge. She’d burn like a faulty electron tube in an old radio.

Over and over again, I’d been asking myself what I cared about, and couldn’t answer. Once already, I’d run from someone I had loved. Once before, the Jovian moons had invested their hopes in me. And once before, I had disappointed them. Now I could choose which I would repeat. Janita was wrong; I’d been no ambassador of Earth on Jupiter, not even the one buried in the cones. That part of me that perhaps had the courage to be him had stayed on Ganymede with my wife. Only a coward had returned to Earth, Mr. Path of Least Resistance, Mr. I Don’t Look for Trouble.

A communication cable climbed the wall just beside where I sat; a bundle of ceramic fibers functioning as ultrasound waveguides. No electromagnetic signals could escape the throat’s shielding and potential traps. Mechanical pulses in the ultrasound could.

The small silvery connector slid into my hand. It felt like someone else had risen, extended his arm, and let the piezoelectric interface of the connector latch onto the fibers.

The display brightened and flickered alarmingly under the attacks of the fields.

JANITA PALTEV WORKS FOR EUROPAN RESISTANCE SHE IS INFECTED BY VAIAN VIRUS ALSO INFECTED ME WE ARE BOTH IN DANGER SEND A RESCUE TEAM

So much ruination in the limit of a hundred and fifty characters. Martyrs are not good diplomats. And diplomats are not good martyrs.

 

Saturday, September 8, 2192

Finally! It took Arvin three whole days to find the cipher key. I couldn’t write a word in the meantime. Now I’m looking at the papers scribbled by Arvin and holding my breath. Arvin deciphered the first paragraph of my diary to test the key. I had written this almost two weeks ago: “I finally succeeded in cadging some writing accessories from the guards. For the first time after more than a year of trying, they didn’t dismiss me with a touch pad limited to Earth alphabets. I received a plain pencil like I haven’t seen since childhood, and a thick pad with lined paper. It smells of glue and ancient times. I kept leafing through its empty pages and smelling it all afternoon. Now I’ve finally decided to start writing.”

After applying the hexagrammaton, the text changes into: “Threads of rain drummed relentlessly on the car’s roof. Streams running down the windows merged and went separate ways again. The air suffocated with water and the smell of wet earth. I stopped where the muddied road met a tall razor wire fence. I almost couldn’t see the gate in the thick rain; if it weren’t for the guard’s booth, it would have seemed that the fence crossed the road ruthlessly and gave no one from the outside a chance to reach the peak of the towering cone.” What can it mean?

I’m tearing other blank pages and starting to draw cipher tables. The pain in my hand has eased but I’m afraid it will soon return in all its strength.

Later: I’ve gone mad. There is no other explanation. I’m going through the text slowly and my confusion grows. I’m reading some story about a girl from Europa who travels into one of the buried ships to visit her father. The narrator is a federal agent providing the visit. His thoughts are alien to me but his choice of words, his way of speaking seems so familiar! As if I’ve written the text. That’s beyond my imagination. But I have! Everything is going in circles. Deep slumber, obsidian snail, seven villages at the bases of seven cones.

As if, beyond the looking glass of the cipher, I’ve been writing about what could have been if I had not stayed on Ganymede until the Vaían arrived. What could have happened if I left my wife during our biggest crisis and ran to Earth like a coward.

As if, beside my reality, another one existed, separated only by the cipher key. Is that possible?

I cannot go on any longer today. I hope to understand more tomorrow.

 

A soft, short thud, like a hand slapping a table. No one from the crew heard it, but it did not escape the engines. They let it enter everyone’s minds.

The captain stood in the infirmary’s door and looked at the white blanket covering the body with the same confusion as everyone else. Suddenly the crew was everywhere, emerging from the dark insides of ship and clustering around its captain.

“She must have fallen from high up,” the doctor said. “The left half of her body is completely shattered. A part of her skin is burnt from when she flew quickly through the fluctuating field.”

The girl who landed on the hatch separating the throat from the airlock might have been about twenty-two. Europan, the doctor said. A carrier.

She hasn’t come alone, the engines sang. Look what she has brought.

The virus on Janita’s body was dying silently along with the diminishing biomagnetic field. The symbols were fading, lines breaking. The medical probes lifted the black shell of the hexagrammaton gently and copied it with the greatest caution into the ship’s systems.

The crew obeyed the engines’ requests and formed an uneasy crowd. In the middle of it stood Corporal Paltev. He didn’t see the body up close, and even if he did, he wouldn’t have recognized Janita. Only somewhere in the deep corners of his subconscious, a thought emerged: My daughter would be the same age now. He learned the truth many years later. But not that Janita hesitated for a long time as she saw through her tired eyes the black coveralls of the rescue team’s soldiers, approaching by the rope ladders. The jump wasn’t so much a jump as a fall. A flight. She stood on the edge of the platform, her arms spread and breath held. The blanket slid off her and had torn a few symbols of the virus along with it. Janita fell with her eyes open, and so she glimpsed—maybe a second after her bare feet abandoned the cold platform—a man sitting on the rim of a coil. And though it could have been only a slight, hardly noticeable moment, Janita was sure their eyes had met.

 

“We don’t know what may happen. But we must try,” the captain said as she leaned her head to the soft cradle of the scripting interface. Fifty crewmen followed her movement. One after another, they received the encapsulated cipher key inside their viruses, as if they each knelt by the bier with Janita’s covered body during a funeral ceremony. Instead of flowers, bouquets of surgical steel decorated the room. But everyone who accepted the hexagrammaton seemed suddenly younger. They stopped slouching. They still talked quietly, but passionately now. All of a sudden, they had something to tell each other, though they could communicate through the engines’ minds. Their hands shook with surprise and expectation, the unrest of the calm before the storm.

Like when sunbeams melt the ice in the arriving spring, the crew hurried through all corridors to the command room. The engines shared their excitement and emitted trills of enthusiasm. The beast of a compilation panel was waking up from its hibernation under the captain’s hands.

Compatibility control in progress, the engines told them.

They were all looking at each other; confused, full of joy. The hexagrammaton interrupted the grueling stillness of their days.

Compilation ready.

The captain pressed her lips together. At first she wanted to talk to her crew, lift their mood, but now she saw it wasn’t necessary. “Captain affirming compilation.”

Just a second, two, five before the half-forgotten feeling of tingling arrived. The virus changed its structure, the incubant once again expanded through whole bodies, but according to a new key. At the same time, the engines’ virus also changed. Their song wavered, the melodies merged and tones lifted. All the gazes were firmly fixed on the captain.

And then? Slowly, creepingly came what they feared most: emptiness, disappointment. Nothing. The compilation slid into the path paved by the one before. No merging of all the minds. No new control over the engines. Deep silence fell in the room. It lasted for long, arduous minutes. Even the still engines respected it. The fifty members of the crew withdrew into their shells of despair, one after another lowered their gaze to the ground.

The captain’s eyes burned. Long ago she’d read somewhere that each man has a measure of luck given by destiny. They may have used theirs up. They stood there for impossibly long before the engines finally broke the wall of silence and expressed by their monotonous, contented whir that everything was back in order, that the unceasing terawatts of energy still continued surging up to Earth.

“Let us remind ourselves,” the captain read in a voice she hardly recognized, “of our destiny.”

She laid her hand on the panel and looked upon the Vaían symbols appearing there.

Read, the engines said, read and have no doubts.

And she read: “We live in the emptiness among the stars.”

We live in the emptiness among the stars,” the crew repeated hesitantly.

“ . . . many light years from our homes.”

. . . many light years from our homes.

Hexagrammaton doesn’t respect tautograms of the shorter cipher keys, the captain realized. She read on and her voice gained certainty.

“We’re coming to the cradle of those who came to raise us up . . .”

We’re coming to the cradle of those who came to raise us up . . .

“. . . to continue learning how to use their gift.”

. . . to continue learning how to use their gift.

“And when they accept us into their celestial community . . .”

And when they accept us into their celestial community . . .

“. . . we too will travel the vast expanse to spread their glory . . .”

. . . we too will travel the vast expanse to spread their glory . . .

“. . . as Vaían asked us and as we promised Vaían.”

. . . as Vaían asked us and as we promised Vaían.

“That is our destiny,” the captain read the last line.

That is our destiny,” the crew almost cried out. As if the same words with another meaning sounded altogether different. The room was filled with an excited hum of fifty voices.

“Mr. Dagasian,” the captain called, “man the navigation panel.”

The command room’s stations were coming alive one by one.

“Madam,” an awed voice near one of the screens breathed, “Probes report our current speed of three hundredths c and slowing gradually.”

“Mr. Zimov, the controls!”

The officers were abruptly returning to their stations as if they had left them just hours and not years ago.

“Madam, I’ve got the engines’ data for the last five years here. They were running on full power for that time, yes, but in flight mode.”

“What?”

“As if . . . as if we flew the whole time underneath the cone.”

Only the engines understood what happened, and they told everyone: Now we are a part of a new story. If we continue it, we cannot return to the old one.

“Corporal Paltev! The windows!”

The ship quivered a little as the corroded shutters slowly uncovered the view from the control room. There was dirt crumbling from the first bared cracks. And then the eyes of the crew met with starlight.

“Madam, we really are flying. We’ve been flying for the whole time!”

“Mr. Dagasian, our location!”

The captain gazed out in fascination. The space around them was alive. Like branches of a tree, helical structures of cosmic stations expanded everywhere, meeting restless swarms of small ships. The inhabited space was spreading before them, as if to embrace them.

“Madam, I’ve found our location. The bright red star in front of us is Alpha Tauri. Aldebaran.”

The captain could no longer hold the tears coming to her eyes. The whole crew cried. Someone started clapping and everyone was hugging or caressing the others’ tormented faces.

“Yes, it is Aldebaran,” the captain said to the navigator. “We’re here. Vaían welcomes us.”

 

“Hexagrammaton” copyright © 2017 by Hanuš Seiner (translated by Julie Nováková)

Art copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey Alan Love

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