138. In Castle Inter Lucus
Marty entered the great hall alone. His watch, which he still reset at high noon once a week, read 2:12, with a tiny “am” in the corner of the display. As before, he had dreamed of Alyssa, but the details of the dream faded when he woke, leaving him, as always, with questions. Not the old guilty questions about his marriage and Lyss’s death, but unanswered questions about castle technology and the aliens who built it. Why did you bring people here? Why did you leave? Rather than wait for sleep to return, he slippered his way downstairs.
He tried to clear his mind before bonding. He didn’t want another late night chat with Mariel. Marty put his hand on the knob and the Latin list appeared.
I. Materias Transmutatio: operativa
II. Parva Arcum Praesidiis: operativa
III. Magna Arcum Praesidiis: operativa
IV. Cibum Preparatio Homines: operativa
V. Inter-Castrum Videns-Loquitur: operativa
VI. Extra Arcem0 Micro-Aedificator: operativa
VII. Potentia Fontes: operativa
VIII. Aquarum: operativa
IX. Intra Arcem Micro-Aedificator: operativa
X. Centralis Arbitrium Factorem: operativa
Videns-Loquitur did not open. Either Mariel was asleep or Inter Lucus correctly interpreted his desire not to speak with her. How do I ask what I want? The list suggested an idea to him. Marty lifted his hand from the knob, took paper and ink from the writing desk, and went to work at a table.
Latin, he knew, depended on inflections much more than English. So there was no chance that he could construct grammatically proper sentences. But according to Mariel, Inter Lucus could read his intentions, so maybe…
He started with words from the interface list that might prove useful: homines for humans, Centralis Arbitrium Factorem (Central Arbitrating Factor? = CPU), aquarum/aqua (water), and arcem/arcum/castrum (castle). He listed individual words in two left hand columns, leaving space to put together phrases on the right.
A key word came to him, freed from some forgotten lecture during a retreat: Cur Deus Homo? Why a God Man? Cur? had to mean “why?” Cur (why) joined the list.
Christmas carols sung with visiting crowds at Our Lady of Guadeloupe: Venite Adoremus, Come let us adore. Marty added venite (come) to his list.
After half an hour racking his memory, Marty felt he had reached the limits of his useful vocabulary.
Centralis arbitrium factorem (CPU)
Luna (moon) (lunas = moons?)
Eleison (have mercy)
Cogito (I think)
Sum (I am)
Further effort, Marty realized, would probably only yield more bits of church Latin. He could not by any effort think of a Latin word for “go” or “leave.” He strung together a few phrases that might be useful. Then he went back to the lord’s knob.
Marty bonded with his right hand this time, holding the paper in his left. He closed his eyes and let the soothing warmth of the knob spread through his arm into his whole body. He whispered, trying to make it a question: “Vobis est?”
He opened his eyes. The interface wall was totally blank.
“Cur homines venite Duo Lunas?” Nothing.
“Sum pro pacem.”
“Hoc est Duo Lunas.”
The interface remained blank. Marty tried to calm his mounting frustration. Ungrammatical Latin, no doubt mispronounced; there was no reason to assume the alien machine would understand him. Nevertheless, he felt tension and helplessness growing. How much did Mariel really know about castle “magic”?
Isen’s medieval version of fiber optics had accomplished some degree of repair to the violet hexagon in Centralis Arbitrium Factorem; that much could not be denied. Inter Lucus had shown him the galaxy map, which had to mean something. They brought us from the other side of the Milky Way. But I already knew that. Why show me what I already know?
“Damn it!” Marty whispered aloud. “All I want are some answers. Is that too much to ask, you alien masterminds? Give me some answers. You’re not gods.”
Marty looked at his vocabulary, and this time he shouted: “Tu est non deo! Vobis est non deos!”
The interface wall began to flicker.
“My lord! What is it?” Ora spoke from the top of the stairs. Her bedroom was one floor below, on the same level as the kitchen. Marty held up a silencing hand, waved her forward. She padded silently to his side.
He whispered, “Why are you out of bed?”
“I heard you shouting, my lord.”
“Anyone else up?”
“No, my lord.” Somehow it didn’t surprise him that of all the inhabitants of Inter Lucus only Ora had woken.
“Okay. Ora, I want Caelin, Whitney, Elfric, and Alf. Wake them; tell them to come quickly; but tell them to be quiet. Don’t wake the others if you can help it.”
“Aye, my lord.” She started away, but turned to look at the interface. “Are they the gods?”
“Aliens, Ora, remember. They are not gods. Go quickly.”
An alien race from a very different world, a shocking physiology, a culture with no ties to anything on Earth, and a language unlike any he had ever heard—for all that, it seemed plain to Marty that he was watching a trial. The aliens, who looked like an impossible combination of praying mantis, stork, and human, were gathered in a room far larger (higher, wider, and longer) than Inter Lucus’s great hall. On one side of the picture three aliens sat (knelt? stood? It was hard to be sure) behind a softly glowing wall that might have been ceramic or burnished metal. The wall concealed the lower half of their bodies, and Marty realized he could not be sure how tall it was or how tall the aliens were. The dimensions of Inter Lucus suggested very tall aliens, but there was nothing in the interface picture of unmistakably human scale, so no comparison was available. The three behind the barrier rarely spoke, but the others (there were lots of others) seemed to address most of their words to the three. Marty couldn’t help but think of them as judges.
The courtroom scene, if that’s what is was, occupied two-thirds of the interface wall. On the right, outside the picture of the courtroom, words in very large white letters scrolled from top to bottom; it was disorienting until Marty realized he was supposed to read up, not down. The caption language was Latin. Marty watched the words flowing by with some despair; his pitiful vocabulary would yield only the tiniest clue as to the meaning of the video.
And it was a video, a recording. He felt sure of that. Surely this meeting or congress or hearing or trial—whatever it was—had been recorded and left in Inter Lucus as an answer to questions like his. He was watching alien beings from hundreds of years in the past. The video had been waiting for some representative of Homo sapiens to repair Centralis Arbitrium Factorem. If Marty hadn’t come to Two Moons, the video would have waited another thousand years until someone learned how to access it.
“Lord Martin!” Caelin whispered, but his voice at Marty’s side carried excitement. “The strangers! What do you want me to do?”
Marty pointed to the Latin captioning. “Copy down as many of the words as you can.”
“But they move so fast!”
“I know. Do your best. Try to get groups of words if you can.”
Whitney Ablendan arrived to overhear the instruction. “Shall I copy too, my lord?”
“Aye. Groups of words, if possible. We’ll try to make sense of them later.”
The aliens’ speech was opaque to Marty, full of squeaks, clicks and whistles. They had to converse with the people they brought here. Did they teach their worshipers to speak alienese? Or could their voices manage Latin? Marty concentrated on the drama of the alien meeting rather than try to decipher their words. Presently, Elfric joined Caelin and Whitney in the copying task, receiving whispered instructions from Whitney.
Alf came to his side. “Shall I copy too, Lord Martin?”
“No, Alf. I want you to watch with me.” Marty pointed. “See the one with the red, ah, vest? I think we can call it a vest.”
“I see him, Lord Martin. He’s waving an arm, or maybe it’s a leg.”
“Right. He or she seems to be the main speaker for all the aliens on that side of the room. He or she has been speaking for a few minutes. Earlier, the one over in this corner with the bright string around his neck was speaking. I think he’s the speaker for those on this side.”
Alf speculated, “Maybe the string is a necklace. Maybe that one is a lady alien.”
“It’s possible, but we don’t know the difference between male aliens and female aliens. In fact, we don’t yet know if they have males and females.” Even as he cautioned Alf, Marty realized he had been doing the same thing, applying human categories to the aliens. The video seemed to Marty to be a scene from a trial or hearing, but how could he know that? For all he knew, the aliens were composing a menu or were engaged in some artistic event or were worshiping their god. Don’t assume. Observe.
The alien in the red vest finished his speech and then prostrated himself before the three. Red Vest lowered himself (herself?) slowly to the floor; sticklike arms and legs splaying out like a spider. It seemed to be a solemn moment (Do aliens recognize solemnity?), but the brief seconds of silence ended in a cascade of squeaks, whistles, clacks, and hoots from those on the near side of the picture. The alien with the bright string (necklace?) began walking back and forth between her group and the “judges,” waving his or her arms in wild gesticulations. Red Vest stood up—the long, sharp limbs again reminded Marty of an insect—and began dancing (marching? prancing?) in front of the aliens on the far side. Then, without any signal that Marty noticed, the two speakers changed sides of the room. Now Red Vest was waving his arms in front of the nearer crowd, and Bright Necklace was waving and hooting at the aliens on the far side.
Meanwhile, the Latin caption scrolled by relentlessly. Caelin, Whitney, and Elfric wrote furiously.
The three “judges” raised their arms (the “arms” looked much like the creatures’ “legs,” but seemed to be used like arms). Instant silence; both sides obviously took their cues from the judges. Red Vest and Bright Necklace returned to their respective sides. The video stopped, as if someone had pushed a pause button. With a still picture, Marty began to count. There were dozens of aliens on both sides of the room.
An alien hieroglyph superimposed itself on the still picture. It was a heading of some sort, Marty assumed, telling him (if he could read alienese) what he had just seen or what he was about to see. It’s a title, or the alien equivalent of “Part 2,” for all I know. Or: “brought to you by our sponsor.”
The interface went blank for a brief moment. The Latin captioning winked out. Then the “courtroom” reappeared, very much as it had been, and new Latin sentences began scrolling down again. The “judges” were on the right side of the scene, and the two opposing sides (if that’s what they were) stood on the left. If the judges were seated, they were the only ones; everyone else was standing. Someone made a long hooing sound; Marty thought it was one of the judges, but couldn’t be sure.
The two opposing groups of aliens turned toward each other, but their eyes focused not on the other group, but on something in between. A single alien emerged from between the groups carrying something—a human baby, suspended silently from the alien’s hand, ankles clamped in the alien’s grip, head and arms swinging below.
The noiseless infant, unmistakably dead, gave the scene human scale. Dangling from the alien arm, the baby’s arms were thinner than the alien’s digits, and the creature that held the human specimen had to be ten or eleven feet tall.
More importantly, the baby’s presence brought home to Marty the terror and mystery of extraterrestrial contact. The skin on his arms prickled, and his mouth tasted sour. To them, it’s an object, a mere exhibit in a debate. He tried to check himself. I don’t know that. Maybe this is the way they show respect to the dead. But he couldn’t shake the notion that the dead child was displayed as a bit of evidence, of no more significance than a lump of clay.
The baby’s bearer (Marty labeled this alien as the bailiff) brought it to the ceramic wall and raised it for the three aliens behind the barrier to see. Then, with no ceremony at all, he stepped back from the wall and dropped the dead baby on the floor. The bailiff moved away from the baby, leaving it in the middle of the room for all to see.
Again, the hooing sound—and this time Marty was sure; the judge in the middle gave the command. The two groups of aliens attended to something between them; this time an alien came forward, pushing and prodding a terrified young woman. Marty guessed she might be fifteen, certainly not yet twenty. She saw the baby and ran to it, screaming her anguish. On her knees she scooped up the lifeless body and rocked back and forth, keening, a perfect picture of grief.
Both groups of aliens erupted in speech: hoots, whistles, squeals, and loud bass humming. It was painfully loud. Arms waved wildly, and three or four aliens (at least one on each side) began dancing vigorously. If it had been a human gathering, Marty would have thought it verged on a riot. In the middle of the alien storm, the poor mother continued to wail.
The “judges” raised their arms, and the alien shouting subsided. The right hand judge began to speak. The other aliens quickly silenced themselves. The broken-hearted human mother ceased her keening and raised a tear-soaked face to the alien behind the wall. With sweeping gestures, the right hand judge pointed at the woman, those on the left side of the room, and his or her fellow judges.
“My lord Martin! The words are gone!” Caelin spoke in alarm. To the right of the courtroom scene the Latin captioning had disappeared. A moment later, the sound of the video ceased. On the interface wall, the right hand judge continued to point this way and that, and his or her mouth moved, but nothing could be heard. The silent movie continued for a minute and abruptly vanished.
Marty held his hand on the lord’s knob for another minute, but the video didn’t resume. He stepped away from it, letting his hands fall to his side. Marty’s pulse raced; his hands quivered. He took another step back and almost fell down. Alf seized his arm. “My lord?”
“I’ll be okay, Alf. I’m very tired. I’ll feel better after sleep.”
The blue eyes searched Marty’s face. “Do you think that’s why they left?”
“I don’t understand, Alf.”
“The gods—aliens, strangers. Did they leave Two Moons because of the woman’s baby? The judges were very angry.”
Marty could only stare at the boy.
Copyright © 2015 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.