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Saying the Names

On the shuttle out to our connecting flight, the Bo assigned to my mission fixes the bulge of his eyes unwaveringly upon me. I was told to expect this, the species so alien to death it finds our every parting curious; its sense of privacy so absent, not one of its forty-three languages contains the word.

Parsec Award WinnerThough L-drive allows us to return long before our loved ones pass on, just the thought of my journey’s purpose already has me pining for home: of all the ways I’ve imagined meeting my father, as defense council in his murder trial does not rank high on the list. Our shuttle crests the white round of the L-ship’s hull, powering down non-essentials while preparing to dock.

I can bear the Bo’s steady gaze even less in the dark.

#

In-flight, I dream. Vega III, my home world, holds a species of deep-water squid that can regress at will to any prior phase in its development. When I was small my mother introduced me to this creature as a means of describing the Bo, and with them, my father’s permanent absence. No more was ever said about either the man or the mission, and for years I thought of the Bo as slimy cephalopods forever darting from the light. Not until the Academy did my perception of the species take its proper form, of large, mottled amphibians with forelimbs caught between quadrupedal and bipedal use, who did indeed revert to earlier stages of development when their warts grew too big for them to move.

Before then, as a child embroiled in misconceptions, I dreamed of my father trapped at the bottom of the Bo’s oceans, assailed by giant barbed tentacles in underground caves. Now he is indeed held prisoner, as best the Bo understand the term, and while hurtling towards him in a prison all its own, my subconscious returns to these vague, inky nightmares of my youth. When I wake for meals, taken with the crew in a long, narrow galley sporting tiny portholes to the stars, we can hear the Bo singing through the ventilation shafts. I find it hard sometimes just to chew.

#

The captain sits with me the day before our arrival. He has the appropriate look of a spaceman—hardened, lank, with an indifferent cast about his beard, hands lanced with burns and calluses from his work. I think he expects some move on my part for his companionship—the novice traveler’s last, desperate cleaving to the familiar before ejection into the great and terrible unknown—but I’ve decided to wait for the return trip to make such an overture, and only then if I can’t bring my father home.

Captain Sedgwick sets a small parcel before me.

“What’s this?”

In the wrapping I find two small devices, each the size of an earbud.

“White noise,” he says. “You’ll need it. To work, to sleep.”

“Is it that loud?”

“It’s that constant.”

“I have a portable.”

“That’s not enough. Here—” He shows me the settings, each one’s capacity to block out Bo songs on select frequencies. “You’re going to be speaking, I gather? For the trial?”

“Of course. But surely then—”

“It never stops. It can’t stop. You know the story of the first ambassador?”

“And the last, yes.” I worry he’ll go on anyway, but the captain accepts my response at face value, or at least seems not to unduly favor the sound of his own voice.

“Well, hold to it, then. They abbreviate nothing. Sentences can go on for days, and they don’t take kindly to being told to keep it short. You’re better off just blocking out the background bits.”

“Thanks.”

I remember the story of the ambassador from Conflict Differentials at the Academy, where it served as a classic anecdote on the limits of preparation. The poor, over-educated man in this case thought to ask what the Bo called themselves and their home world, so he might see both proper names used throughout the galaxy in place of other species’ words. Pleased by this gesture, the Bo proceeded to speak the names as they did everything else—at length, and sparing no historical or biological detail. For the first three hours, captivated by the sudden wealth of data, the ambassador recorded everything, noting patterns where he could, grappling with obscure referents whenever they emerged, but by the fourth, exhausted, and thinking at last of the realpolitik of his original query, he asked if there might be some shorter variant he could write down instead.

Though slow to speak, his counterparts were surprisingly quick to anger, abbreviation an act of offense, of disdain, with no equal among their kind. In the immediacy of their contempt, they gave the ambassador one syllable, Bo, to serve for both requests, and thereafter declared a complete disinterest in diplomacy with the rest of the galaxy, its vast species all clearly lacking either the intelligence or civility to learn real words.

The utterance of these vehement declarations of course took a week all its own, during which time the ambassador suffered a massive heart attack from the constant, thunderous rebukes directed against his person, and soon after—one hopes with a modicum of regret—the Bo shipped his body and field notes home. No ambassadorship has since existed on their planet, and even scientists avoid the territory. My father is the first in four human generations to make Bo his home.

Captain Sedgwick hesitates at the entrance to my berth. “Your father…”

“Yes?”

“If he’s found guilty…”

Now it’s my turn to hesitate. “Like you said, the Bo don’t abbreviate anything. And they don’t take kindly to those who do.”

Captain Sedgwick nods, drumming his hand once on the frame of my door. I study the floor so as not to watch him when he goes.

#

I had never even seen a picture of my father until his vid showed up at my office, requesting my presence on an alien planet with no readily discernible criminal code. Still, when the Bo bring him to meet my shuttle—his hair long, matted and graying; his body broad, and lean, and gaunt—I can’t help thinking how much he’s changed, how tired he now looks.

Bo is a tidally-locked world, one side of the planet forever scorched by the heat and light of its sun, the other cast in perpetual darkness and cold. Yet for a particular stretch of land along the circumference between opposing halves, the constant flux of hot and cold creates an oasis where life somehow prevails. What manner of life is debatable, however: where the shuttle sets down—presumably a metropolis, from the intensity of Bo songs alone—it is foggy and dark, and I think it no wonder that a human should look wilted under such an oppressive absence of sun.

At the very least, the Bo do not have my father in restraints when I arrive; indeed, they seem perfectly uncertain how best to handle him, and say as much in ceaseless song to one another, their hind-legs and throat sacs rumbling with agitated words on at least two different wavelengths apiece. I wish I could be so open with my own uncertainty, approaching my father for the first time with no sense of what to do next. Shake hands? Embrace?

My father bows his head, then looks at me with an uncomfortable smile. “Hello, Nia. I’m glad you came.”

Be angry. Yes. This is an option I’d forgotten, a feeling I’d pushed aside for years. It rears its head now at my father’s proximity, the almost amused quality of guilt upon his face. Be angry, yes, and make damn sure the Bo spare my father’s life, so I have time to be angry some more.

#

The Bo have not yet finished their death songs for the one my father is said to have killed, and the city rumbles with this unrelenting grief as we walk the briny length of the docks under escort. Marsh homes emerge to either side of us in the fog, while a thread of golden light persists on distant waters, recalling the intractable sun just beyond. Absent a routine for criminal courts, the Bo permit my father to move where he will during waking hours, but he is under strict curfew, and no Bo will look favorably upon escape.

“If they cannot speak the way they must, they are silent,” my father says. “The Bo who came with you—he said nothing, of course. That’s how they survive on the rare occasions they travel among us.”

“So if they’re suddenly silent, no one’s going to come running.”

“Right. But it’s still uncommon. Most often, it signals an impending regression.”

“Which they do alone, away from the noise?”

“Quite the opposite. They regress in plain sight, with as much noise around them as possible.” My father pauses, a measure of excitement rising in his voice. “Actually, it’s what I came here to study—the function of that regression, its mechanisms.” When I make no reply he continues, gathering steam:

“You see, evolutionarily, the Bo are already extraordinary. They exist in a narrow margin of viable territory in the middle of a planet of extremes, so of course there’s little competition, and few possible niches to fill. Consequently, they lack the evolutionary incentive to evolve fully out of vestigial forms, and boast a wealth of intermediate features practically unheard of at this level of sentience. But then, as if that weren’t enough, there’s also their ability to regress, a process we’ve only seen among rudimentary species before—aquatic animals, mostly, and some insects. On Vega III, even, there’s a squid—”

“Yes, I know.”

He registers my tone and cuts his lecture short. “Nia,” he says, gently.

I find I can’t look directly at him. “We have a lot of casework to cover.”

He waits, but my position does not improve. “All right,” he says at last. There is an unpleasant weight in his words now, a pointed brevity. “What do you want to know?”

#

The Bo assigned to me has a large, dark patch of skin around his left eye, a welcome distinction that allows me to pick it out from others in a crowd. I think to wish it good night after my father is taken away and I’m escorted to quarters of my own, but I worry the cursory words might cause offense. And, of course, with the sky here dark at all hours, illumined only slightly by twin orange moons on the horizon, the concept of “night” also seems moot. I am thus neither surprised nor upset when the Bo leaves without speaking one word to me, its hind-legs humming general notes of exhaustion as it lurches into the street. Better silence, I imagine, than diplomatic incident.

I too am exhausted, but even with Sedgwick’s white noise buds turned on I lie awake in my pod, replaying my father’s words and reconstructing the scene of the Bo’s sudden death. According to my father, the deceased was his laboratory assistant, a Bo who predominantly sang words of discovery while collecting soil and water samples from the metropolitan marshlands. Listening to my father’s detailed description of events—the circumstances under which he and the Bo met and hashed out a working relationship, the hours preceding the Bo’s unfortunate demise, the means by which its death became suspect—the complexity of my task grows painfully apparent. The Bo are so suspicious of brevity, so dependent on motive for truth, that to ask potential corroborating witnesses their side of the story bears all the tell-tale signs of walking a minefield. Will they trust me? Will they speak? And if so, how long will all their answers take?

My father’s answers alone are slower and more drawn out than I am used to in my work, a consequence I nonetheless expected of his thirty-odd years among the Bo. How does a human manage so long without its own kind, I wondered. We have ritualistic orders on Vega III that emulate emptiness, silence, and of course celibacy, but for the singing out of our very existence, our every interaction in minute and protracted detail, I can only conjure up one god cult that believed the universe would cease to exist if its singing ever stopped. All of its members perished in an avalanche thousands of years back, of course. The universe, to my knowledge, has not.

My thoughts drift eventually to Captain Sedgwick, though the air is clammy and cold, and my pod, an unusual texture, a truly alien space. There are few places, I had thought, where human desire could not reach, and yet my father seems to have found one—even sought it out. I think of my mother, the robustness of her figure, the strength of her mind, given up for over thirty loveless years in the far reaches of space. What kind of man was my father then, to commit such an act of self-denial? What kind of man is he now, having done it?

I turn off the white noise buds, having given up on sleep. One sacrifice, I think, as Bo songs rumble about me, in the foolhardy hope of ever understanding another’s.

#

In the first waking hours on the dark side of Bo, my father takes me to his laboratory, the scene of the incident in question. Nothing has been moved since that wake cycle—not even the dead Bo, its mummifying remains giving me a start when I approach the head of the room. There are no morgues here, no cemeteries: To the Bo this is cast-off matter, a skin one might find at the site of regression. The Bo that accompanies us does not so much as eye the mound of gray and crumbling flesh. It looks bored, standing guard by the door, and hums impatience alongside its standard mourning chord.

“There have been deaths before,” my father says, his hands ghosting, but not touching, the long array of enclosures sustaining samples of other lifeforms on Bo. “It’s rare, since their proximity to one another, their constant chatter, sings out potential threats. Few environmental disasters ever claim a life, but it does happen. The last was a year after my arrival, a Bo in the middle of regression when a sandstorm hit in the drylands, where the light touches the black rocks and makes them molten, and plant life turns to fire in an instant. The Bo was in a bad place, an inopportune place, and it also caught fire. There were Bo about it, saying its names, minding its abandoned skins as it sought to escape the heat through regression, and they might have caught it when the winds struck—but they didn’t. They missed. They were slow. To this day they sing mourning songs that are heard over the escarpments, down in the valleys with the hot and the oxidized rocks. They sing for all their poor timing, and the poor timing of the Bo in their care, and their fears of regression even now. None of those watchers has regressed again yet, that I know of, though their warts have grown heavy and stiff, and their sacs hardly move when they speak…”

In his lumpy Bo cloak my father looks toad-like himself, hunched over to peer at old notes on his desk. He has been speaking this rambling, proto-Bo-speak since our arrival, and even without my earbuds I quickly tune him out. Instead of lending him my ear I muster the courage to approach the decaying corpse, slumped over in the bottom of an open tank. But what was it doing inside? How could it have fallen in? My eyes narrow at the thread of a plastic tube still affixed to the back of its wrist.

“I thought you said this Bo was assisting you.”

“It was.”

I turn to my father, my gaze flicking quickly to the Bo by the door. “Can we talk in private?”

My father straightens, glancing at my Bo in turn, then back to me. His longwinded speech comes to its end with one word: “No.”

“As your legal counsel I’d strongly advise—”

“You’re not my counsel, Nia.”

“Excuse me?”

He shakes his head. “Say what you were going to say.”

I hesitate. I know I should ignore my father’s words and get him to plead mental unfitness for refusing legal aid, but at the tone in his voice, that base dismissal, the primal anger rises in me again. There is a dead Bo beside me with an IV sticking out of its arm. What game does my father think he’s playing now?

“This Bo wasn’t just assisting you,” I say at last. “It was the experiment.”

My father looks disconcertingly triumphant. “Yes,” he says. “It most certainly was.”

#

In the gathering space of the Bo, the songs from the spectator pods are indeed deafening and unchecked by the gravity of proceedings, so I gratefully fine-tune my precious earbuds until most of the chatter has been reduced to a murmur; the one voice that still filters through is that of the inquisitor Bo, who presides over the room with tremendous warts wreathed about his skull and coursing down his mottled forelimbs. Beside me my father is quite content to recline in his pod, so that my blood alone is still agitated from the fall-out of his words in the laboratory, now two wake and rest cycles past.

At this time I have just finished my opening remarks to the Inquisitor, who itself took half an hour to formally greet the room and establish the purpose of this second wake cycle’s assembly of Bo. My own remarks were simple: I tried to draw them out in appropriate Bo-style but did not last ten minutes, though in that time I had already explained my journey, how far I’d traveled, how I first learned of my father’s case, and what it was like to arrive on Bo—how different everything seemed, and how deeply sorry I was if any of my words gave offence in their brevity, as concision was all I was used to back home.

Now we come to the part of the trial for which my father has given clear instructions, and at which I can feel his gaze surreptitiously upon me. The Inquisitor Bo asks me if I think to plead my father’s case in this matter, and after five minutes, when its question is completed and fully translated, I glance at my father and then turn to the incessantly murmuring room.

I say to them: “My father has caused the death of a Bo. Of this there can be no doubt. You know it and now I know it too. Therefore I do not come to draw out a game of the courts, of misdirection and passive deceit as it is played on my world, but to serve in another role, an honest role, secondary to my father’s testimony, which I hope you will take into consideration before verdict is passed.” I bite my lip before the last: “To that end, I stand before you, Nia Palino: Character witness in my father’s defense.”

#

The conversation in my father’s laboratory two wake and rest cycles prior was not so remarkable in form, the whole of it oversimplified by my shock at his last words, as in function, and thrust. After my father’s self-congratulatory answer regarding the dead Bo there was really only one thing I could think to say, so I said it:

“What the hell have you done?”

“Easy,” my father said, holding out his hands. “It was consensual. The Bo agreed. We followed every precaution. It’s just that, this time, it failed.”

This time! What do you think you were doing, putting its life at risk even once like that?”

“‘Like that.'” My father’s mouth twitched in annoyance. “You don’t even know what that is.”

“I know a Bo is dead because of it. I know it could cost you your life, too. What else do I need to know? What the hell were you doing that was so important you’d risk everything—even your own damned life—to see it through?”

A glint returned to my father’s eyes, and he smiled. “What do you think?” he said. “Go on. Try me.”

I set my teeth against the smugness in his voice, the goading. “You and your goddamn science,” I said. But this seemed only to feed into his pleasure, his aggravating tone.

“Exactly. So you’ll be my character witness, then?”

Character witness! Now that’s a laugh. I don’t even know you. At all. How could you possibly…?” I was too angry to finish my sentence, and stalked back to the body instead. Though considerably decayed, there were strange features upon the remains that stood out—clear differences between this Bo and the Bo to my right, still guarding the door. If I’d been any more level-headed I might have paused long enough then and there to question my father about each incongruent detail—but of course, I was not. How could I have been?

“Right again,” my father said, not even remotely giving me pause to cool down. “And why don’t you know me? What did I choose over you, and your mother?”

I could hear my own heartbeat in my ears, my skin hot to the touch. “Goddamn you, dad,” I said.

If my words deflated his humor then, they did not also strip him of his relief, the sense of it clear in both voice and expression when I faced him again. “God? Yes,” he said softly, meeting my sudden, asserted gaze. “But with your help, Nia, at least not the Bo.”

#

I am a good speaker, even under unusual circumstances. Even when obliged to be more bombastic than even the most pompous human windbag I know (which, in my profession, is always saying a lot). And so I tell the assembly of Bo that my father’s scientific ideals are so important to him that he even abandoned his family in their pursuit over thirty years ago, knowing full well that humans cannot regress, and thus that such opportunities for kinship, once forsaken, almost never emerge again. Considering the ignorance of my audience, the Bo’s absence of preferential family bonding from which to draw comparison for this loss, I then explain what it means to be a father, and a husband, and also a daughter or a wife lacking the desired presence of one of the former two.

I close by offering up a variation of the words my father gave at yesterday’s first assembly of Bo: my conviction that the Bo’s death happened in the name of science, as a consensual act to that end alone, and that if any among the Bo in attendance grieved the loss of their companion, rest assured they could not even begin to approach the grief my father had felt at the time of its passing and every moment since, having sacrificed so much of himself, his mortality, and all claims to happiness therein to those same scientific ideals, only to see his greatest work destroyed in the sunset of his life. (I have to backtrack here alone, to explain the term “sunset,” and then to emphasize how the term’s very strangeness among the Bo only furthers my point about the sanctity of life to a human being.)

The verdict comes back in four days, taking another full day to be delivered, during which time I fall asleep regularly in the courtroom, while my Bo ducks out on occasion to provide us with food and drink. Twice I linger by the waste receptacles, nauseated by the poorness of my sleep, stalling my return to that ceaseless chatter of spectator Bo as long as I can, clamping my hands to my ears in an effort to recall the sound of pure silence: A fairy tale I hold deep in my heart. I have my white noise buds on their highest settings by the end of it all, and still the Bo-speak trickles through, my ears damnably attuned by then to the chorus of them against all odds, all internal appeals for sanity, and peace.

Finally, the summation arrives: guilty, but pardoned. I close my eyes and sink in my seat. My father is silent, unmoving beside me. I fall asleep again, the whole of my body tingling and drained, and when I wake anew he is gone: The gathering space, empty, save for one Bo with a dark cast over its left eye, waiting patiently off to one side.

“Can I go home now?” I hear the words come out in a croak and think only, to hell with convention and prudence: Let the Bo’s anger pour out. But to my great surprise, the Bo hesitates, parting its long, thin mouth in turn, and with clear effort musters a mere three words in response:

“It is done.”

#

It is not, of course, done. Captain Sedgwick greets me grimly when my shuttle docks in the dark cavern of his ship. He knows nothing of my father’s verdict save the language of my body, and my body is tired and defeated. We speak scarcely at all before the inevitable unraveling of tensions between us, my blissfully dry berth turned doubly warm-blooded for a spell. Only after, in the darkness, which I find at last I am learning to bear, do I allow myself to think through all of my lingering doubts.

That my father was experimenting with regression was apparent, but so too, it seemed to me, were the aims of his work. Perhaps the Bo at large could not see what I had seen—the discordant number of digits on the dead Bo’s shriveled body, the unusual nature of its legs, its head, and its chest. But my father had also said the Bo sought out companion songs when regressing. Could the Bo have missed that, too? Had none of them wondered who had been this Bo’s singer as it regrew?

In the long, dark night that followed the trial, my thoughts had grown wilder still: Perhaps saying the names did not sustain the universe, but what if the ritual of it could sustain even one creature, one Bo at a time? And if those songs changed—if the singer changed—what of the Bo in regression? Could it take on other forms through the right song alone? These might all have been the idle, fool thoughts of a non-scientist, an outsider—easily pondered, that is, and just as easily let go—if it hadn’t been for the last conversation I had on Bo.

#

I knew it would also be the last time I saw my father, that conversation in the last wake cycle before the shuttle arrived to take me home. My father was back in the laboratory by then, dusting the rank and file of his reclaimed research shelves, when I entered for one last look around. The dead Bo, I quickly noted, was now gone.

“I’ve buried it,” my father said. “In case you’re wondering. The Bo don’t care, don’t mind what happens to the flesh.”

“Do you mean that?” I said. “It?

My father paused in his cleaning to look at me. “What else would I mean?”

My heart was pounding at his scrutiny, and I knew then that the anger I felt for him, the coarse utilitarianism of his first and only attempt to contact me—to use me as a tool of his own, meticulous construction and then cast aside again—had to be coloring my view of things. No human could be so cruel, I told myself—so cold. Everyone, I had almost convinced myself, had a soft spot somewhere. Even my Bo had been kindly, in its way, by the end.

“Her,” I said at last. “That’s what you were doing, wasn’t it? Turning the Bo into something else, something not just for science, but for you. Thirty years alone out here. Thirty years—

“I was not alone.” The terseness in my father’s voice sings out my only victory—meager, and for me already fraught with remorse. I do not say the words that follow in my head: But now you are, aren’t you?

Some losses are caverns. His, I realize at long last, are active mines.

#

Our breath has fogged up the tiny porthole in my L-ship berth, blotting out the farthest stars, and home. Captain Sedgwick sits on the edge of the bunk, finding his boots, hitching up his uniform to his hips but no further, not yet. I rest my hand on the small of his browned and hairy back, studying my fingers in a glimmer of starlight, as just days ago I had studied the dead Bo’s—all five digits not quite squid-like, but still strong enough, pliant enough, to hold something fierce in its grip and never let go.

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Maggie Clark

Maggie ClarkMaggie Clark is a doctoral student at Wilfrid Laurier University. She’s been published for poetry and fiction, with science fiction appearing to date at Lightspeed and Daily Science Fiction. Her first science fiction story, “Saying the Names,” won a 2011 Parsec Award.