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Language Barriers

Authors: Kevin F. Peterson
Categories: Comedy
Show Year: Y2
Rating: PG
Date: 1988
The importance of communications really hits home when the Alphans lose the ability to talk to each other.
Average Rating: No reviews.

This story was first published in a fanzine. Sadly, the author died of AIDS in 1992, and this story has been reprinted with a view to honouring his memory and allowing a new generation of fans to admire the talent and remember the life of a dedicated fellow Alphan.

Helena Russell was about to leave her quarters carrying a small bag. She stopped in front of a mirror and regarded herself happily. She had always been a beautiful woman (excepting her - ugh- pimply, knobby-kneed adolescence which she tried her best to forget), and the only way she'd kept it was to take care of herself. Her concern with health and looking her best was one of the many reasons she'd decided on a career as a doctor.

"Well, Dr Russell," she addressed herself, "with your knowledge of what's good for a person and your intuition as to what women want, it's gone off well, I must say."

Out in the corridor she ran to catch the travel tube car just as the doors were starting to close. She uttered some phrase to alert whoever was inside to hold it open for her. She just made it, a little breathless.

"Thanks," she said to Maya, who nodded at her amicably. Rummaging in the little bag she held, Helena came up with a little opaque jar with a black cap. "See, Maya, here it is. Lunar Basin Cosmetics is on its way."

Maya looked up from reading a small book, which was one of those "nothing" books in which all the pages are originally blank. These pages were covered with a script written in a jagged hand with unfamiliar characters. She smiled with warmth, acknowledging what Helena had said to her and looked back to her reading.

Sliding over in a friendly way, Helena said, "Mind if I see? What is that you have there?"

Maya held it out for her to see by way of answer. To her is looked like a cross between Chinese, Arabic and Sumerian cuneiform.

"Did you write this?"

"Nisteen raf migway," Maya said with good humor.


"Soo chy lok tha, tirk yman flump." Helena stared for a second. It did not compute.

In that moment the travel tube car slowed with a slight lurch that suggested someone had gummed up the tube with a lot of caramel, and stopped.

"Sargma," Maya said with a giggle in her voice as the doors whisked open and she whirled away to her unknown destination, mysterious and mirthful. All of which was lost on Helena, in whose surprised face the doors clapped shut again and sealed her to her own chosen stop.

He brow ceased in concentration and she ferociously pondered. "I wonder if I should, uh, mention this to John," she thought.

Confusing days usually have confusing beginnings.

John Koenig looked up at Helena from his desk in the Command Center. "Lunar Basin Cosmetics, huh? What's this one, a skin beauty treatment or something?"

"In a manner of speaking, yes. It helps the skin retain moisture plus supplies it with the protein that maintains elasticity. Helps you keep whatever skin tone you have. Want some?"

"Not particularly. If that's an inference, I'm ignoring it."

"The thought never entered my mind."

"What's it called? 'Crater Cream'?"

"Actually, that's what you'd call an acne lotion, ha ha. No, this is called 'Tranquillity'."

He smiled at the reference. "Naturally."

"Um, John, I was Maya this morning, and she sounded as if her speech centers were scrambled like eggs at breakfast."

He laughed and said, "She was probably fooling with you. She's involved in the latest anti-boredom campaign. A bunch of people got together and decided, since this is a multinational base, to teach each other their native tongues in informal classrooms. Maya's teaching one of the classes. She's calling it 'Psychonese 101'."

"What do you mean, 'Psychonese'? Seems to me it would be 'Psychonian'."

"That's what I said when I heard about it. Apparently, Psychon is the ex-planet, Psychonian is a denizen thereof, and Psychonese is the descriptive term denoting point of origin."

"You been hanging around with dictionaries or what?"

"Some of my best friends are dictionaries. So you could say that Maya is a Psychonian, or that she's Psychonese, but you couldn't say she's a Psychonese. Get it?"

"Are you kidding? I've been thinking of her as Psychonian all this time. I just won't accept this 'Psychonese' stuff. Sounds like she should have slanty eyes."

"From a syntactical point of view..."

"Psychonian, John. It's easier."

"Psychonese is only three letters different."

She folded her arms. "Psychonian."


They both decided to be belligerents. Having a lot in common is good for a relationship.

While their conversation was tending toward the rocky end of the road leading to Loggerheads Crossing, Communications Officer Sandra Benes was trying to keep Yasko in rein in the operations room adjacent to the Commander's office.

"Yow, this is fun!" Yasko exclaimed. She was wearing a headset complete with microphone. She listened while punching this button, then that button, and twisting a knob at the same time.

"Yasko, do calm yourself. How can checking digital subspace frequencies in the surrounding quadrants be anyone's idea of fun?" Sandra inquired, perplexed.

But Yasko didn't really hear her. She was busy listening to the odd, jagged rhythms of the frequencies as she swept from one end of the band to the other. It gave her fabulous ideas for the musical composing she liked to do in her leisure time. Krzysztof Penderecki and John Cage were favorites of her.

Sandra was reading the frequency display. "One moment--we got a weird blip just then on the monitor."

Yasko, of course, had no ears for her. As she'd twisted the dial, the tuner caught at something that buzzed in guttural tones and changed rapidly. "Who is it?" her mind flashed at her. "Dunno, never heard it before," she answered back aloud.

"Who are you talking to?" Sandra asked.

Backing up to the odd spot, she said, "Hm. Some kind of ordered signal. I don't know if it's one of ours or not."

"I should check with the Commander to make sure we're not interfering with any classified frequencies in use."

"Maybe you should check this with the Commander, just to make sure we're not interfering with anything classified."

"I just said that." She took her comloc from her belt.

Yasko said nothing.

As Sandra dialed John Koenig's code, she sighed, thinking that there was no cause to be apprehensive yet. It chimed at the other end, and in the brief silence before it was answered, she thought, "Apprehensive, my foot. If this is another Alien Armageddon in the making, I swear I'll scream."

Yasko took off her headset and put the strange signal on the main speakers. "That certainly doesn't sound like one of ours."

By this time Sandra had asked the Commander to come out of his office. Switching the comloc off, she listened for a second to the sound on the speakers. "That doesn't sound like one of ours."

"I just said that," Yasko said.

Not very far away, people were attempting to learn German in a room the door to which was marked CLASS IN PROGRESS. The instructor had to leave for a few minutes and left those inside practicing strangely enunciated vowels of that language.

At one of the tables in the room were two women deep in conversation. One of them had been a bit late for the class, and the other was trying to teach her what the heck an umlaut was.

"...Awright, Shar, so if I wanted to write an umlaut, they only apply to a's, o's, and u's, right?" She wrote three examples for herself, which looked like this: � �.

"Right, but saying them's the hard part. The a's aren't so difficult, but the o's are tough to get as exact as they need to be."

"Is that why everybody's mooing like so many bovine incarnations?"

"You, Sofe, are going to moo like the rest. Aren't you glad you came?"

"I knew I shoulda taken Verdeschi's Italian class. I was going to just to bug him, but I decided that my mild antagonisms had been enough for the century."

"You mean the century so far if I know you. Anyway, you can always write your INTRIGUING experiences here for the TUNNEL TIMES. Should keep you busy, being your full-time job now."

"Yup." She noticed Shara didn't have to say, after the last fiasco. "Finding stuff to write about around here gets tedious, sure. Usually I just stick to those little pun stories I write."

"Anything on the back burner?"

"Two. Lemme see, now--the first is about a team of rescue dolphins in Florida back on Terra that save hapless humans from shipwrecks and drownings. Just for good measure they carry little tubs of whiskey strapped around their necks. There are four of them, and their biggest challenge comes when a reporter is thrown overboard out at sea from a boat belonging to drug smugglers. He'd led a televised drug bust in an attempt to imprison criminals, initiate a war against drug addicts everywhere, and Make America Safe, but it got him a very watery prospect.

"Anyway, everything would have been fine except when the dolphins picked him up, he got into the little barrels and got totally snockered before they get him ashore. He hit the beach at Miami and staggered into town, where he was picked up by the police for walking-while-impaired, and spent a few days in jail.

"After they let him out, he went into a pizza parlor full of Cubans and was never seen again."

"I'm afraid to ask, but the title--?"

"'Four Medical Porpoises'."

"Ouch. You didn't say that," Shara said with a mock scream.

"Don't expect me to disillusion you, kiddo. The second one centers around this really goofy wandering Muslim wizard, a fakir. Anytime he works his wonders he invariably messes it up some way.

"The main gist is that at one point he heals some high-ranking Muslim, somehow blinding the guy's dog and crystallizing salt on his bedroom ceiling in the process, and this guy's so pleased in spite of it all that he recommends the fakir straight to the Caliph. Now even though this poor schmuck has a high serendipity factor operating for him, he receives this new with fear and trembling, and events sweep him away to the palace of the Caliph.

"Once there, he's required by the Caliph to remove a wart on the bottom of his Exalted Foot, since no blade can touch his Blessed Person. The fakir gets it off, but it somehow ends up smack bad in the middle of the Caliph's forehead. The lowly fakir is about to kiss his hands goodbye when the big man's face lights up as if he's seen Allah Himself. He says that it's a Sign of Great Honor, denoting the bestowal of Immense Wisdom, that his place in the Divine's eyes had been raised from the dust to the very domain of Heaven.

"They're exiting from the Caliph's first set of chambers to go down to his next level of chambers with the Exalted One describing all the delights and honor that would be the fakir's for having become the instrument of Allah when the fakir trips on the landing, falls down the stairs, and rolls right into the Caliph's Own Personal Bath.

"Well! The Caliph exiled him to the Red Sea to fish for frogs for the rest of his life. The moral of the story is this: Don't mess with warts if you don't want to catch frogs."

"Oh no!"

"And yes, I really did say that," Sophie countered in advance. "By the way, the first title I thought of for that one was 'Stupid Fakir' but decided the wording was too open to corruption. I finally settled on 'Roses Hoarded in Petra (or, Rank Has Its Privileges)'."

"Carl Jung would have had a ball with you. How did we get onto this? We were going to try some umlauts on for size. Are you ready?"

"I guess I couldn't avoid it forever. Talk me through."

"The o's first. First, make your lips 'tensely rounded and protruded'," she quoted from her notes. "Then make the sound of 'a' as in 'lane'."

Sophie screwed her face into this unfamiliar aspect and came out with an expert moo.

"Nuh-uh. See, it's not supposed to sound like a moo, it's supposed to sound like an umlaut, and nothing else sounds like one, okay? Try again."

"Moo," Sophie lowed. "Sheesh, it's hard enough trying to communicate in one language, let alone learning another one."

"Push out your lips more. And say aaaay."


"Come on now, how are you ever gonna say the Commander's name the way it should be said in its original language? It means 'king' and it's said 'k�nig'."

"Oh, izzat how an umlaut's said!" Sophie said, making it into a statement.

"Just pretend your face is a sphincter and you'll get used to it," Shara suggested.

"Eeeeuuuuooo, gruesome." She was used to Shara's humor.

"Absitively, posolutely," said Shara, "but it works."

Just when they thought they had their umlauts pronounced correctly, there were Alphans as restless as a bunch of agitated ants in Command Center.

Commander Koenig was hunched in his command chair (which he affectionately thought of as 'The Throne'), rubbing his chin in concentration, looking for all the world like something Rodin would have sculpted. He was the only non-mobile figure in the room.

Everyone else was running around doing this 'n' that, or milling around, being useless. The cause of all the restlessness was, of course, the alien signal that was thrumming over the speakers.

"Try Code Sequence Series, um, A-dash-C 9," said John.

Sandra pressed a few buttons then turned to the Commander. "Nothing there, either."

It was about that time that Maya arrived. John had called for her. She was in the middle of her class, but when she heard a snatch of the signal through the comloc, she came immediately. Now she stood just inside the door, looking slightly sick.

She strode over to where Sandra sat at her station. Pivoting towards the Commander, she said, "It sounds disturbingly familiar to me. May I?"

John nodded, and Sandra receded from her post. Maya sat and commenced firing away as the keyboard. John mused that she should teach everybody else aboard Alpha to type, as well. The reason he's called her was that, of all the Alphans, she was most familiar with universal codes. She was from a planet that had had regular contact--even commerce--with other alien cultures.

The frown that had been on Maya's face smoothed and she smiled. "That's it." She turned and stood up. Sandra reclaimed her work station. Helena, who had been standing a small distance behind John all this time, came to stand beside his chair.

"At first I thought it was a Dorconese code. That's why I looked worried. It's not, but it's familiar. I started a decoder program that Computer is finishing."

"Any idea of what it is?" John asked.

"Some, but all speculation. We'll know any time now."

Presently Sandra's board bleeped at her. She pushed a button. "The Computer is done."

"Put it on," John directed.

You could almost feel the room lean forward in anticipation.

At first no one in the room could believe their ears, especially not John Koenig. He'd gotten used to dealing with alien contacts and Weirdos From Outer Space, but what spoke from the disembodied silence of the speakers after they'd turned the decoder program on was the unlikeliest thing he'd ever heard of.

"To whoooom were you making this call?"

Nobody said anything at all. Electric silence met the inquiry.

"To whoooom were you making this call?"

The voice sounded like someone from a long line of English butlers, though it sounded female. English because of the vowels, butlers because of the bored tone. But that was only when the conversation started out. The rest of the time it sounded like a persnickety Midwesterner.

John spoke up when Helena elbowed him. "Er, um, who've I reached?"

"You have reached Local Operations Relay Station 45, Series 10,000 of Galactic Bell, a company of GNG (Galactic Network Grid) Systems. To whoooom--"

He thought he'd wing it. "Actually I was trying to reach the nearest Planetary Emergency Service. Did I misdial?"

"I'll say! You encoded a sequence that's been out of service for, oh, 730 standards. You'll want to try getting it right this time."

"I'm sure I punched it in right. It was an old number, though. Had no idea they were defunct. Could you check for another?"

"Scanning. I've pinpointed your signal as being closest to the Chog-Latmal-Tad system and its only inhabited satellite, Goon 3. Would you care to try either of those?"

"Please." (Chocolate malted? Goon?) John felt an irrational giggle starting up. He fought it down. Shut up, John, help is help.

"The sequences are: Alpha Mode - BUDDHA PEST 357 and WHAMSYGAMS 485." As the voice called them off, they were printed on the big monitor screen at the front of the room.

"Sir? Are you sure they'll be able to handle it? Sensors indicate that your mass is mighty big for a ship. I could give you another sequence for one of the bigger companies across the galaxy."

"I don't think that will be necessary. Besides, to call across the galaxy? I don't think we have that much time."

"Why, I don't see why not, sir. I'd have to switch you over to the Long Range Operations Relay Station so they could put you through on a tachyon beam transmission, but that's standard operating procedure. You act like you've never even used Galactic Bell before, for Shigon's sake."

"No thanks, just the same."

"Well then, thank you for using a GNG system," and the transmission stopped, being replaced by the soft rasping of light static.

"Well, what now?" John inquired of Helena.

"Don't ask me, smarty. Why don't you call those numbers? We might be able to get a tow or something to a habitable system. What do you say?"

"Why not?" He nodded at Sandra, who happened to be looking, and she put the numbers out on the system.

"Any preference as to which one goes out first?" she asked the Commander.

"No, I suppose not."

One of the numbers sped across space, entered the galactic communications web, and came out at its destination.

"Yeth, Goon Control."

John resisted another wild impulse to laugh. "Ah, I was calling the Planetary Emergency Service."

"One moment."

John suddenly realized he had absolutely no idea of what he was going to say.

"Hullo, hullo?"

"Uh, hi. Planetary Emergency Service?"


"Say, wasn't I just talking to you?"

"Of courth not, I jutht anthered the phone. You thtupid or thumthing?"

John turned slightly red. "Listen, I just called to see if we could get a tow to a planet habitable for our kind and presently uncrowded." He winked at Helena.


"Well, we're stranded, in a manner of speaking."

"According to my thenthorth you're moving pretty fatht."

"The problem is we can't stop."

"Oh, I thee. We'll thend out a tugship right away. Lifeform?"

"Huh? Oh. Carbon-based oxygen-breathing bipedals."

"Thimple enough--practically crude. Are you sure you're part of the Galactic Counthil of Worldth? HAW!" Obviously this was some kind of joke. "Of courth you are! They don't give out thith frequency to jutht anybody! HAW!"

John was rather appalled. "Is that all you need?"

"Jutht one moment." In Command Center they heard some busy noises, and the voice returned presently. "Alright then, that comth to 8 million."


"Eight million, take it or leave it."

"Well, we're leaving it. I'll take my business elsewhere!"

The connection was cut off. It wasn't clear by whom.

John turned to Helena with, "Can you believe that? What crooks! They wanted 8 million, 8 million!" His face suddenly changed from scowling disgust to grimacing puzzlement. There wasn't much difference. "Eight million what?"

Sandra's control board sounded off. "I have something incoming for the printer," she said.

"Send it over," said John.

The printer quietly flared into life and soon finished. A technician tore it off and brought it over to John.

As he read it, his eyes grew. "It's from Galactic Bell," he announced. "It's a phone bill."

Maya looked over his shoulder. "900,000 galactic credits?"

"What's a galactic credit?" Helena asked Maya.

Maya didn't know. In fact, nobody knew.

"What do you make of all that?" John asked Maya over lunch the next day. "Obviously there was some sort of universal translator working in the system so we could talk to anybody without worrying about language barriers. But why the lithping from Goon 3?"

"Probably it was some untranslatable noise that came closest to a 'th' but was being used in the capacity of our 's'. We've also got to remember that the system is not exactly programmed taking us into consideration. As far as they're concerned, we're interlopers. You heard that Goon make the joke about our being lower-order lifeforms."

"You're right. We shouldn't let them know by any means that we're not part of this Galactic Council of Worlds. And we don't even know what kind of life-forms we're dealing with here. Amorphous blobs? Tentacled horrors? Crystalline intelligence? Disincarnate energy matrices?"

"There's really no saying, John, as to what we're up against, but one thing is very clear. This GCW must have an enormous, amazingly balanced economy, and they're very careful as to who is admitted to the council."

"Keep the money-game going and the hell with everybody else until they're advanced enough, huh?"

"Seems like it. I just wonder what's going to become of this bill."

Seventy-two hours later they had their answer.

John just happened to be at his command post when the call came. Sandra took the call and put it on the main speakers.

"Commander Koenig here."

"Yes, is this the party that has a debit of 900,000 galactic credits?"

"Yes," John said, seeing no point in fibbing.

"The payment is now due. Would you please either send the payment via IntraSystem Post or use your IncrediCard?"

"Er--we don't have mail service here."

"That is not our problem, now is it? Please make the payment, preferably within 6 standards. You've already had 8 standards, so I believe we're being more than fair. If the payment isn't made, a collection agency may become necessary. Until then, all communications at point of origin will be scrambled as of now."

The signal ceased.

John said, "Buffy pies horsehoof puddle."

Sandra looked shocked and managed a "Mousey ramparts" before exclaiming "fantarp!" and covering her mouth with both hands, her eyes as big as eight-balls.

The room (and, in fact, Moonbase Alpha entirely) erupted into confused noise which only gradually subsided when everybody discovered that nobody could talk to anybody.

Sahn wondered what it would sound like if she kept her promise to herself and screamed.

Helena didn't wonder anything since she was asleep.

Maya wondered what sort of technology would (unintentionally) scramble organic communications.

John wondered what the collection agency would be like.

And mostly everyone wondered when it would end.

John was thinking, some time later, that if anyone would be able to think their way out of this one, it would be Maya.

He found her, after much trial and tribulation, and said, "Drooley daggers oogy oog." He meant to say, "Solutions, please."

After regarding him a moment, she tried an "Abda dyeb dyeb dyeh." She'd meant to ask, "What did you say?" Hopeless.

Meanwhile, Alan Carter was attempting to communicate by singing (after a fashion) and he very nearly always found himself spinning around on one toe with his right hand on top of his head and his left laid over his nose. Sometimes he pulled up his shirt and showed his belly button.

He was trying to talk to Tony Verdeschi, and Tony just kept going into hysterics every time. Also hopeless.

Very soon, everyone gave up and went about their business in utter silence.

The comlocs wouldn't work, though thankfully they'd function on the doors, and Computer wouldn't process word-information. For once John's desk wasn't loaded with paperwork.

After about three days of this, John was sitting in Command Center looking glum, and Sandra's board lit up, beeping loud enough to make everyone jump. It wasn't louder than normal; it had just been so long since anyone had heard it function.

Sandra automatically put it on the mains, since there was nothing else to do.

"This is LORS 45, Series 10,000 of Galact-oh, forget it, you know who this is. About that 900,000 credits, your case has been reviewed. It was decided that the amount is much too small to warrant turning this over to a collection agency, especially since you're in such a remote sector from Central and getting farther all the time. Your communications will be descrambled once more at the end of this transmission, but your service will be cut off. Also be warned: your credit is no good in this galaxy."

Just then everyone could talk again, and torrents of conversation flooded Alpha's comlocs, computers, and corridors. The human beast is gossipy by nature.

At first opportunity, Maya made her way to John's office and took an offered seat.

"Well?" she said.

"Well what?" John said.

"You wanted to say something to me the other day, so don't look at me like that,'' she teased.

"You remember that?"

"Of course. You said, 'Drooley daggers oogy oog'. Now is that something I'd forget?"

"Gawd, I HATED having a mushmouth!" he complained.

"You and everyone else. Ironic, though, wasn't it? If you think about it, monetary matters are kind of a language. We couldn't speak theirs, so we ended up not being able to communicate at all."

"Money talks," he challenged. They had a game of Terran idioms.

"Tit for tat," she replied, unruffled.

Both suddenly felt a chuckle bubbling up as wordless understanding bloomed between them.

"BAD KARMA!" They both exclaimed and leaned back, laughing.

Copyright (c) 1988. Reprinted with permission.
Space:1999 is (c) 1976 by Carlton International Media.
All stories are the property of their respective authors.

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