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The Question Eaters
a short story by Tricia Sullivan

John watched. The sky had warmed from dark green to a burnished bronze, the color of age. Over the plain the spires inside the research station seemed sharp and clear, yet unimaginably remote across the distance of graying sand. The sky sucked color from the ground; green lay only on the edges of the dunes. The hollows were ashen.

Someone had told John this plain had once been an ocean. He tried to imagine waves covering the dark ground, but the effort made him sick. He was not even aware of his own sweat, and he sometimes felt light enough to float. Water was starting to seem like poison.

"Bowl," the crone said suddenly. Her voice cracked out of the long silence like one of the fissures in the hardened clay of the desert floor.

He jerked his head toward her. Her profile was almost entirely collapsed around the bones of her skull. Her eyes were far recessed. He had not seen her lips move, and her face was still now. But the voice had come from her.

He could not see a bowl anywhere. The tent was open on all sides; there was no place to hide.

"Break," said the boy behind John. He tossed a glass bead into the eye socket of a lizard skull.

The crone was silent.

"Carry. Fill. Paint. Make. Roll." The boy tripped the words out so quickly, John could hardly follow.

"Water," said the crone.

The boy, dark-skinned, seemed uncannily human. Adolescence made his voice crack.

"Fill," he said at last.

John willed himself not to move. Light was failing rapidly. With the tips of his fingers he coded notes into his personal data unit. He was so well-practiced at this he hardly thought about it.

The boy speaks only in verbs. Woman-thing persists in using single nouns. He defies her.

Now why had he said that? The boy stood up, overturning his seat, which proved to be a hollowed shell rather like a tortoise's. In the boy's hands it molded into a simple bowl, a large smooth thing of symmetry. John wondered if he should delete the last sentence of his entry. Under the eyes of the boy the bowl began to fill with water. John could smell it.

Hypothesis: observer witnessing some manifestation in physical terms of sandwriting language. Each has some role. Are they physically present or not?

Still, the sense of defiance. He stared at the boy's hands, at the lovely lines of tendons and veins under the skin, the graceful long fingers.

He had never expected them to seem so human. How could the woman, awkward and misshapen, squatting on the dark sand, belong to the same species as the boy? And this was to say nothing of the third. Three of their kind were present, but after one glance at it when he first had startled out of a vague sun-dream to notice the three of them and the shade of their tent, John had avoided looking at the last. He had blocked out the part of his vision that contained it, and the pile of mats on which it lay.

"Not everyone has the stomach for this planet, John," Elaine had told him. As the research station psychiatrist, she had treated people for a variety of personality disorders that seemed obscurely linked to the appearance of the sandwriting. Until John had come, no one could read the markings, although everyone in the domed station had seen the lines and shapes creep into existence on the desert sands as though written by invisible hands. The writing hadn't been translated, but its manifestations had coincided with unexplained incidents among the Station personnel: violent nightmares at the least, and in two cases, psychotic episodes and followed by suicide.

"Language is the key to xenopsychology," John had told her when he arrived, eight months ago, on special assignment to help the research station cope with the problem. The researchers had not been prepared to run into conflicts with aboriginal ecology: the planet had been lifeless for several thousand years. But John had set to work translating the sandwriting into human terms, and so had begun an uneasy dialog with someone--or something.

"Language creates reality," John had continued, wanting to make Elaine understand why his work was important. "It's like, when you are American and you learn to think in Japanese, you don't think the same thoughts. This is just more extreme. Other species have other languages. When we learn them we enter into their subjective experience of reality. Maybe people see the sandwriting, get a glimpse of the alien nature of the language, and experience the kind of contact shock humans always experience when encountering an alien intelligence. And that's where the psychiatric problems come in."

"It's a touch far-fetched," Elaine had replied. "For one thing, what makes you so sure that it is a language? This is a dead planet. You need an intelligent species to produce a language."

"Humans are an intelligent species," John had said, thinking aloud.

"Are you saying that the sandwriting is some kind of... I don't know... some kind of manifestation of the collective unconscious? Don't tell me Jung is coming back into vogue after all these years!"

"It's a funny thing," John had mused. "Someone has to start a language, but once it's going it kind of perpetuates itself. The sandwriting language could be a relic left over from some earlier civilization, and now that we're here ... well, I'm not certain. Imagine that a dead species left behind its way of thinking, as the Egyptians left their architecture. And now, any mind will do--this language acts on the substratum of memory and becomes self-propagating."

He remembered Elaine's nervous laugh. "Now you make it sound... alive. Almost like a virus."

That had been an interesting metaphor. John had just started thinking about the possibilities in it when Elaine grabbed her notebook. "So, tell me," she asked casually, "just how long have you been thinking in these terms?"

"Bowl water," said the crone.

The boy looked at the floor and said, "spillthrowdrinkforgetgivepissitflyseecoverunmake--"

"Bowlwater," she interrupted. The boy glared at her.

"Spill throw drink--"

"What comfort?" This was the first time John had heard its voice: the third. Reluctantly John turned his eyes to the mats on the floor. "What hope?" It was a cool, deep, male voice, eminently reasonable in tone. John shivered, dry-skinned in the heat. He could not bear to look at this one. His insides twisted. He felt if it spoke to him, he would have to obey.

"Give," said the boy grudgingly.


He gave it to her.

Sentient Baby has command power over others, John noted tersely. Subjective horror, observer.

Sentient Baby? Again he wondered at his own notes. He looked at #3 to see if the description fit. It looked back. John cringed. He couldn't help it.

"Why?" said Baby, to him.

It makes no sense that I can understand them. I shouldn't be able to. What language am I hearing?

The crone took the bowl and set it in front of her. She held up her hands, palms facing each other a few inches apart.

Sentient Baby speaks only in questions, John remembered to note. He felt dizzy, and noted that. The tent was almost dark. Outside the sand seemed to be glowing a dark, dead green.

Trying to translate the sandwriting into something he could comprehend had been the greatest challenge of John's career. He had gotten in the habit of standing on the sand outside the research dome waiting for the signs to appear, and then trying to interact by stenciling in his own responses to the language in the sand. This was how he had learned to translate it. "There's no such thing as 'translation,' really," he'd explained to Elaine. "We actually translate ourselves into the other language." And that was what he had been doing. But his progress was slow, and he could not share it with anyone because he had no objective information to impart. So he had tried to develop a structure. In the course of doing this he noticed contradictions of meaning. He had struggled with the fact that the sign for "womb" seemed to be the same as the sign used for "desert."

He remembered thinking that it was ironic to associate fertility with the sterile desert. He'd copied the womb/desert sign in the sand and spent a long time thinking about it, wondering how--or if--the sandwriters had reproduced.

To his astonishment, the sandwriting that came up the next morning stretched in a long line across the desert, leading away from the domed station. He had never had a clearer invitation. He arranged for a survival kit, but first he had to clear his exit from the dome with Elaine, who he knew blamed some factor in the atmosphere for the outbreak of madness. Because of this, he had always been surprised that she had even entertained his speculations about the sandwriting at all. She seemed to expend most of her energy trying to restrict people from any contact with the planet's environment. He was amazed when she agreed to give him clearance to leave the dome for an extended period.

"It could be quite dangerous, John," Elaine had said. "And I don't want to advise you to go. You already spent too much time outside. However... it's so critical that we find out what's causing our people these behavioral aberrations. Hydrophobia, hearing voices, violence. Maybe if you go, we can learn something."

John didn't really trust her--she was a psychiatrist, after all, and kept trying to get into his head--but he hadn't had time to work out her motives for letting him go. He had a trail to follow.

The sandwriting had teased him along for miles across the plain before it stopped altogether. He had tried to translate it even as he followed; but it traveled too fast and he couldn't keep up with its meaning. Sandwriting appeared swiftly and decayed even faster. The slightest wind could obscure the markings. When finally the trail stopped, he found himself far from the dome with no clue as to what to expect. So he waited, and he watched. He didn't want to go back to the station without accomplishing something concrete, something he could show to Elaine and say, "Here, this is science."

He ought to be laughing about that aspiration by now. Here he was, surrounded by shadow-creatures he had no way to document; witnessing his own mind bend to their will. A dedicated professional to the last.

The crone was moving her hands back and forth, as if she were rubbing something that couldn't be seen. John was fascinated, despite himself. His fingers had begun encoding his thoughts automatically, without his conscious effort.

Desertwomb make. Waterweave death within go climb clutch stick die.

"What is desert?" said Sentient Baby. Or had it said, "womb"?

Observer linguistic orientation collapsing. Sentient Baby eats my questions before they are born. Womb. Desert.

There was moisture on the crone's hands. Her hands dripped and shone with it.

Stay me move observer! Out, out to completion mother dust hand me hold. Three makes one make none. Sucking inward, until stop it, John. Stop. Observer experiencing alien contact shock. Judge psycho-physiological condition unsafe. Dispatching distress call.

His fingers tapped out the transmission. They would come for him. They would have to come for him. He made himself picture the domed station in his mind like a buoy, the sandblown glass and the pointed towers. Please. The crone's hands were twisting and rolling now, slick and dark with slime, but John couldn't see what she was holding. There was a fierce, sickening smell in the tent.

Unpeople unspeak unliving ghost.

John saw the boy go to the bowl and put his face against the water. To drink, to drink... John almost swooned with desire. He wanted to know if-- "Do you believe you are one being?" Sentient Baby asked.

The question eaters are absorbing my mind. The sentient baby devours. See its crumbling fangs. Here it comes. Birthright.

With a stricken sense of déjà vu, John watched the crone place the mass she had been holding on the sand. It was a twisted, soft, creeping thing, like a lizard turned inside out. He saw the dark sand cling to its flesh, if flesh was what it was. He saw the moisture hovering around it as radiance.

The crone looked straight at him from her withered eyes. "Toad," she said. "Wombtoad. Desertoad."

"Understand?" hissed Sentient Baby, and he didn't.

The crone made gestures over the lizard and John watched it slowly crawl away from the tent, into the fierce heat and the darkness.

The boy lay on the floor. His lips touched the water again. John was now unable to move, to think of anything to put in his data coder. He wanted the water, he wanted it.

"Die," said the boy. "Drink. Forget. Go."

John closed his eyes. He felt it when the boy's tongue touched the water, when his throat and mouth sucked it up, when it burst down his throat and into his body. It filled the boy and John as one: he swelled with it, heavy and dense, suddenly pregnant and docile and serene. John found himself looking directly at Sentient Baby: it rippled within its own skin, shrinking before his eyes until it was the size of a stumpy worm. Then, with a pop like a piece of computer animation, Sentient Baby was gone. The tent and the others in it were shucked cleanly away from his awareness.

He was larger than the planet, and he looked down inside himself and saw an ocean under golden light. He saw plant life and reptiles swimming in the sea. But his attention flickered, and when he looked again he saw only desert. He "remembered" the lizards dying in the heat and felt their thirst. Then he was following the small lizard that the Crone had made, watching it move slowly across the dark sand.

Observer experiencing deep empathy with lizard. So defenseless. Doomed. Water creature cries for dry death. Unwomb eats unlife ends. Forgotten sand spills quantity endless quantity shapeless lack of connective tissue perhaps no brain ancephalon. Process. Three. Three over four three into one into zero. Divide by zero equals. World without. Pure. Pure. Your substance overwritten. Discrete moments collected. Whole greater than sum. Deadly birth. Many minds like one mind, made of words. Surrounding. Ask them. You have them. Ask them.

One: Just tell me if you really lived, and I will leave you.

Two: There was life; we were slaves to it.

One: Were you not those reptiles, swimming in the sea?

Two: Not animals. We are a kind of meaning that doesn't happen to belong to you.

One: We don't claim ownership of you.

Two: All you have done since you came is crowd us out.

One: You weren't alive to be crowded--

Two: You fill yourselves and the world with reports, records, transmissions, memos, stories, conversations, songs.... Our syntax is disrupted. Your language violates us. You think to squeeze us out.

One: We don't seek to harm you! We're a research station. We're excited that you're here. Well, I'm excited. We just want to know.

Two: Yes, your species is one enormous question. We have no tolerance of questions, for questions are about escaping death, and death precedes us. Death gives birth to us: questions, like water, like life, pollute us. You will see this. We are showing you what was, and what will be. All of you will be assimilated into our language now, or leave this planet and take your questions with you. We will have no sentient babies polluting our world.

One: But Sentient Baby is one of you...

Two: No. You are Sentient Baby, human question.

One: I won't listen to you anymore.

Two: You asked the question, and we have eaten you. You wanted to see our reproductive process. Now you will experience it. Watch the desert toad. We made it to let it die, just as our hosts perished long ago. Water-drinkers, like humans. But water is poison to us. We are the language that the death of our hosts gave liberty to, and now we will not be captured by your kind. You are bodies. Bodies are traps. Go tell your people that we will attack their minds as long as their language attacks us. We will kill your language if we must.

One: No. Language is part of what we are. It is what we are. You Can't have it. You can't have mine.

Two: We already do. In time, you will succumb.

One: No nonononono. John is. Stop free fall. My words. My meaning. John is. Come back. Xenolinguistics soft science wake up. Observer impartial objectivity. Data. Dehydration physical exhaustion. Control. I am John. I speak.

He felt the space in his head clear for a moment, as though he had shaken off the voices, but he was still aware of the oppressive weight of the sand. writing language hovering over, like some great claw poised to strike. Assimilated, he thought. Have I been assimilated?

Then he thought of an empty city, and words written in sand, and he realized, as if from a great distance but also as if it should have been obvious: they meant to kill him. They meant to kill everyone.

In a last desperate gesture in which he was himself and himself alone, he tried to reach out, to touch a feeling person.

Elaine, Elaine, it's not like anything we have known.

He imagined the dark sand scored with signs only he could read, and the bleak city, but he could think of nothing more.

After a long time, he felt the weight of awareness sink back into his cramped body, and he realized he was staring into darkness. The sand still glowed faintly, but the hut was gone. The empty lizard shell that the boy had used lay in front of him. He was alone.

Just on the edge of his vision, something moved. He heard small sounds on the sand. Moving slowly, clumsy after prolonged stillness, he crept toward the movement. Even without clear light he knew it was the newborn toad. The glistening, grotesque creature lay gasping on the sand, a twisted scrap of life. The imminence of its end was like a sound in the air. He felt the moment go through him, felt the small sorrow of it as it struggled, convulsed; and in a few seconds it died before his eyes. The unfulfillment of this struck at him in some deep, soft place, and he began to shake with dry sobs.

The hovercraft crew spotted John at dawn, having scoured the plains all night for some sign. They found him lying on the sand surrounded by cryptic markings, clutching a concave piece of shell. He was in shock, and a medical team came to retrieve him.

After a time he woke up, thinking he recognized the cool, composed woman who bent over him, saying, "Good work, John," and smoothed his brow.

"Are they coming for us yet?" he said to her urgently.

She gave a gentle little half-smile, said, "Let's not talk right now, okay? They say you should drink as much as you can--you're still dehydrated. Here."

A smoky-colored tube filled with pale-pink liquid. A straw.

She thought he looked at it strangely, almost fearfully.

She turned away and made a note of this. Possible hydrophobia following exposure. Symptoms revealed in computer analysis of personal field notes: paranoia, physical disorientation, hallucinations, aural hallucinations, loss of identity recognition, obsession with death. After early exposure prior to final episode, subject displayed signs of obsessive thinking and reduced professional standards evidenced by a willingness to invent arbitrary stories to explain subject's personal hypothesis.

Early results of study indicate that atmospheric conditions are solely responsible for the breakdown of this subject. If extrapolated to affect other victims, it is seen that the colony will be best served by the isolation of the chemical factor in the environment that has attacked our colonists. However, there is nothing to indicate research on this planet should be abandoned.

Elaine could hardly wait to write up this study for publication. It would make her career. She realized that John probably thought it would make his career; unfortunately, it had done just the opposite. Even if he recovered, he would never be taken seriously again. Just another popular scientist, giving in to some antediluvian sense of guilt that human industry was taking over this dead planet, raping it somehow.

Some people, she told herself, have a deep need to create meaning, even where there is none. And that's how we get into these situations.

She looked down on John again.

He had drifted into a doze, in which he was racing over the desert, his whole self unfurled like a banner. She watched his eyes moving beneath their lids. He murmured something in his dream, and she leaned down to hear it.

"You will be assimilated," he whispered.

Elaine paused and glanced around the room. No one else was there. Casually, she took off her lab coat and dropped it over the odd-shaped lizard skull John had been clutching when they found him, curled up half dead. She tucked the bundle under her arm. It wasn't really evidence of anything, she told herself. Skeletons had been. found in the dust before.

She slid the file under her arm, too: the one labeled Subject 14M. Then she straightened and turned away, smiling.

Outside, the sand continued to move, arranging itself in inexplicable patterns.

© Tricia Sullivan 1995, 2001

"The Question Eaters" was first published in Full Spectrum 5 (Bantam Spectra, 1995).

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