By Peter Charron
Helena’s phone rang again as she reached the concrete steps of her parent’s back porch. Tom’s icon flashed for the fourth time in as few hours. Helena had been in no condition earlier to debate with him. The long, quiet walk had improved her mood. She sat on the steps, closed her coat against the damp, afternoon air of a Minnesota spring and answered. Tom started in before she could say hello.
“I’m not accepting an emailed resignation, Helena. If you want to quit, you’ll have to do it in person.”
In the six years Helena had worked for Tom, she’d seen how much he enjoyed the chaotic environment of the State Department. For the first time, he sounded stressed.
If things were that bad – no. “That’s all you’re going to get. I told you last week, I can’t do it anymore. I’m not coming back.”
“If you need more time, I understand. Take it. It’s only been a month since the funeral. The Department’s offered grief counseling if you want it.”
“I don’t need more time.”
“There are conflicts breaking out all over the place. Two dozen in Africa alone. Things are worse now than before the Object left.”
Helena had been in Geneva when, one thousand days after arriving, the alien Object accelerated out of Earth orbit. The featureless torus had neither initiated communication nor responded to the signals broadcast at it. There was only the Blue Cloud, named for its spectral signature, flowing from the Object into the atmosphere, where it seemed to dissipate. Atmospheric samples taken immediately by low orbiting aircraft failed to identify anything harmful. The official release theorized the cloud to be some form of exhaust related to the Object’s advanced propulsion. Every attempt to get close to the Object also failed. No vessel or missile had closed to less than a mile before deflecting away.
Its departure had elicited a worldwide sense of relief. The Object had apparently done nothing; surely any harmful effects would have manifested during its nearly three-year stay if its intentions were hostile. That sense of security ended when children conceived after the Object’s arrival spoke their first words, in Tajgee. All of them, everywhere across the globe: no child was born without instinctive knowledge of the alien language.
“Every xenophobic, ultra-nationalist group has gone into overdrive since the latest Tajgee report broke,” Tom continued. “We don’t have the manpower to field all the requests for negotiators. We need you to pull off another…”
“No!” Helena immediately softened her tone after realizing how on edge she sounded. “Tom, no.” Her mind was a jumbled mess of doubt, anger and cold loss. She needed time to make sense of the debilitating chaos. Until she gained control of the dangerous spiral, she could not risk taking on an assignment where the wrong word could derail a cease-fire.
There was a long pause. “Take care of yourself, Helena. I’m marking you down for a leave of absence. I’ll call you in a week or so.”
Her calm shattered, Helena felt the cold winding itself around her as the sun descended behind the pines lining the driveway. She went inside and hung her coat on the same hook she had used as a child. Her name was still scratched into the wooden frame beneath. The warm kitchen smelled of onion, garlic and simmering afritada sauce.
Helena’s mother, Riza, rinsed vegetables in the sink. “You were gone a long time. I was beginning to worry.” Though over sixty, only a fine tracery of lines around her eyes betrayed Riza’s age.
Helena sat at the small breakfast table. “I walked to Harris Park. It didn’t feel like I was gone that long.”
From the kitchen clock and Tom’s frequent calls Helena knew otherwise. Knowing that didn’t help. She’d been drifting along in a fog since Manila. Large portions of each day passed leaving nothing more than a vague impression of events. She had done her best to cover for the lapses and tried to bury herself in work. It only served to heighten her anxiety. With her capacity to focus frayed to near transparency Helena had fled Washington and her job. She had hoped returning to the familiar comfort of home would help her regain her balance.
Riza transferred peppers to a chopping board on the dark granite countertop. “Tom Mitchell left three messages for you,” she said without looking up.
“I just spoke with him.”
Helena’s mother favored her with The Look: the one that said she was concerned, that she had questions. Riza wouldn’t ask though, hoping Helena would volunteer answers.
Helena had nothing to offer.
“You haven’t been yourself since you came home.”
“I’m fine, Mom.”
“You’ve been here two days and you’ve barely spoken. It’s not like you to be so quiet. You’re not working, either. That’s something you always do even when you’re on vacation. Your father and I are worried. We don’t think you’re fine.”
I’m not. It was more than just grief dulling her instincts. Doubt eroded Helena’s confidence, forcing her to overanalyze every decision. She was afraid to admit to herself, let alone anyone else, that she could no longer feel the best course of action. The indecision paralyzed her.
“This past moth’s been overwhelming. I’m just tired.” Helena managed a wan smile before leaving the kitchen to her mother.
She ascended the narrow stairs to the second floor and closed the door to the guest room that had once belonged to her sister. Riza’s quilting projects now draped every surface in Helena’s old room, preventing her from taking shelter there. She sat on the edge of the pale yellow bedspread staring at her phone. She brought up the news application. There was only one saved item. Helena knew she should delete the article. She knew it anchored her sorrow.
MANILA – Eight people were killed Friday in a blast centered on the banquet room of an upscale Manila hotel hosting U.S.-sponsored talks between the Filipino government and the Southern Front. More than 100 others were injured in what the country’s Chief of the National Police, Benigno Macale, called a militant bomb attack. Among the eight dead was photojournalist David Nash, spouse of lead U.S. conflict negotiator, Helena Abutin.
Though insurgents in the southern Philippines frequently bomb civilian targets, such attacks are rare in the capital. Authorities had warned terrorists could be plotting attacks against major cities in response to growing fears that foreign governments were responsible for the spread of Tajgee.
Helena powered the phone off and tossed it into the open, unpacked suitcase by the bed. Behind the grief and tears of longing, her professional mind noted how the press continued to fan the flames. The spread of Tajgee was described in the frightened tones reserved for epidemics. How could anyone come to terms with the emergence of a universal language so long as everyone treated it like a disease?
The following day Helena took advantage of her younger sister’s standing invitation to visit. Jovelyn, her husband Karl, and their four-year-old daughter Gabrielle lived in one of those planned neighborhoods. What once had been farmland now sprouted dozens of homes identical except for trim color.
A cold morning drizzle fell on a backyard smelling of loam and littered with evidence of her niece’s presence. A plastic princess playhouse stood tilted to one side where the soggy ground had undermined a corner.
Stepping inside, Helena noticed all the touches in Jovelyn’s home that reflected her personality. It was clean and modern with a dusting of chaotic clutter. Helena’s sister welcomed her with a sincere hug and broad smile. A smaller version of Jovelyn ran into the kitchen and impacted Helena’s legs.
“Tajgee, Oomri oru ketj’fo, Lena!” The little girl hugging Helena’s knees pronounced her name followed by a clicking sound.
The tongue click following any word seems to identify it to other children as a proper noun outside the scope of the shared lexicon, Helena had read in a Department report.
A polyglot herself, Helena had tried and spectacularly failed to learn the new language. She was far from the only one to do so. Linguists had been fighting a losing battle in their attempts to identify or come to consensus on the underlying rules. Assumptions that the language was highly structured, cryptographic in nature or that it could be represented algorithmically had proved false. Native speakers simply knew the functional idiosyncrasies and until the children were old enough to explain that knowledge, their elders remained frustrated.
They named the language Tajgee after the word for hello or welcome; it was the first word young children now spoke.
“Gabbie, Auntie Lena doesn’t know Tajgee. Can you stick to English while she’s here, Sprout?”
An instant of confusion passed over the little girl’s face. “Okay, Oomri.”
Helena crouched and gave her niece a proper hug. Satisfied, Gabrielle bounded off toward the living room.
“Oomri?” Helena asked.
“Mom, I think. That’s how she uses it anyway.”
“She inherited your annoying good mood, I see. Is she always like that?” There were times growing up Helena had resented her sibling’s perpetually upbeat nature. Jovelyn’s optimism tended to be contagious, though. It was just too much work to stay moody around her.
“She’s a happy kid, that’s for sure. Gabbie seems to take everything in stride.” Jovelyn pulled a mug from the cabinet. “Coffee?”
A chime drew Jovelyn’s attention to the laptop sitting on the counter. A slight, tight-lipped frown marred her expression as she typed a response.
“I don’t want to get in the way of your work.”
“It’s just a question from one of the newbie programmers, nothing pressing.”
They took their coffee to the living room couch and talked while Gabrielle played on the oatmeal-colored carpet speckled here and there with faded grape juice stains.
“I quit the Department,” Helena said.
“Did you tell Mom and Dad?”
Helena shook her head. “They think I’m on vacation.”
“But why? You always said it was the perfect job. You love talking to people and solving problems.”
It was true. She had a passion for other cultures. Few things were more satisfying than identifying some tiny thread of commonality that could end a conflict. Now though, where every carefully chosen word had once held only a potential for resolving conflict, Helena feared their capacity for sabotaging peace and causing loss of life.
“Since David’s death I can’t seem to get back on track. I wasn’t helping anyone.”
“It hasn’t been that long.”
“Almost nine weeks.”
Jovelyn gave Helena the look she always used when she thought her sister was being dense. “You were married for seven years. You knew each other for ten. You expect to go back to the way you were, without him, after two months?”
Helena had already come to the same conclusion. It hadn’t helped. “I’ve lost that sense of knowing what people really want, what they don’t say. The summit in Egypt was a mess. Something’s broken and I don’t trust myself.”
“It’s not your fault or lack of ability.” Jovelyn placed a light hand on Helena’s arm. “You need time to sort it all out.”
“My boss said the same thing.”
“He’s right. You only took a week off after David died.”
“I had to finish in Manila. I couldn’t let them think they’d succeeded in canceling the talks.”
“Then you went right to Africa. Until now, you haven’t stopped long enough to settle things in your own head. David wouldn’t want you to give up your career.”
“He wouldn’t be dead if it weren’t for my career.”
“David was there to do a job just like you were. It isn’t your fault.”
The mood between the sisters had grown morose. Rescue came in the form of Gabrielle climbing onto the couch and inserting herself between them. She waved one of her two stuffed kittens in Helena’s direction and asked something in Tajgee.
“English, Gabbie,” her mother reminded.
“Play with me, Auntie Lena? Oomri’s on her ’ap-top always and Aaji won’t play with me.”
“Aaji?” Helena looked to her sister.
Jovelyn’s frown lingered. “It means Dad.” Then to Gabrielle, “Sprout, I’m not sure Auntie Lena feels like playing right now.”
Jovelyn’s laptop announced another message. She made a small sound of annoyance before heading into the kitchen.
Helena looked into her niece’s large, brown eyes. Their shared Filipino ancestry dominated Gabrielle’s features despite her father’s Anglo influence. “I’d like to play with you, Gabbie.”
The little girl’s eyes lit up as she smiled and handed a plush kitten to Helena. “You take this one. She likes you.”
Helena slid down onto the carpet. She galloped the toy around Gabrielle’s toes, tickling her into uncontrollable giggling.
“Why doesn’t your dad – Aaji – play with you?”
The giggling stopped. Gabrielle’s gaze fell to the floor and she shrugged.
The next morning, Helena drove with her mother to pick up Gabrielle. With a deadline looming, Jovelyn had asked Riza to watch Gabrielle for the day. The idea of a simple outing to the supermarket appealed to Helena.
“Any idea why Gabrielle’s saying Karl doesn’t play with her?” Helena asked.
Riza shook her head. “Karl’s been working a lot of extra hours. You can’t expect a four-year-old to understand how stressful being a policeman is.”
Being a cop anywhere was stressful, but Mapleton wasn’t Minneapolis. Karl had always handled whatever the job could throw at him and doted on his daughter almost to the point of spoiling her.
Aaji won’t play with me.
“There seemed to be more to it than that. You should have seen the look Lyn gave her when she told me.”
“Let them work it out,” warned Riza as they pulled into Jovelyn’s driveway.
The supermarket parking lot was already filling up as it always did on Tuesday mornings. The twentyish-looking kid pushing in the carts gave them an odd look as he passed the car. Helena dismissed it as job dissatisfaction. Inside, lines were forming at the checkouts and shoppers crowded the bakery. The market’s familiarity flooded back to Helena. They’d been shopping here since she was in high school.
As they wove around the red-and-white tiled produce section, anxiety eroded the edges of Helena’s comfort. There was something wrong with the atmosphere. She looked around but found nothing worrisome, just people shopping. Helena tried to ignore the feeling but the anxiety persisted.
While Riza took her time selecting oranges, another cart stopped nearby. A little boy about Gabrielle’s age sat in the seat.
“Tajgee, Gabbie.” Gabrielle waved.
The little boy smiled and waved back. “Tajgee, Alex.”
The boy’s mother snatched down his hand by the wrist. She applied enough force to make Alex wince. “No! You don’t say that. Not any of it!”
Tears welled in the little boy’s eyes.
Gabrielle looked on the verge of crying herself. “Ashti etitc tajgee, Oomri?”
Alex shook his head without answering. His mother glared at Gabrielle. Only then did she seem to notice Helena and Riza. The woman’s anger drained away. She looked around the aisle, her eyes darting from person to person. She leaned low over her cart and pushed it quickly around the corner.
Helena realized the texture of the background murmur had changed. People were staring at Gabrielle. Many wore expressions of distaste and disapproval. Helena’s anxiety was the result of reading their barely suppressed hostility. She realized Gabrielle and the little boy, Alex, were the only small children she had seen since they arrived. She would have expected many young children shopping with their parents at this time of the day, yet they were conspicuously absent.
“Let’s go, Mom.”
Riza, perhaps prompted by Helena’s guarded posture, now seemed to feel the scrutiny. She tossed a bag of oranges into the cart and they moved deeper into the store.
The sense of being watched persisted until they checked out and left the market. Helena’s relief lasted only moments. There was a commotion in the parking lot. Someone shouted for the police. People milled about. They seemed interested enough to gawk but worried enough to give one row of cars a wide berth.
Helena froze for an instant when she saw what was happening. Four young men were smashing the windows of Riza’s car. “Mom, stay here and call 911.” Helena ran toward the car, but stopped short in case the troublemakers decided to redirect their aggression. “Hey!”
Helena got the attention of the two closest vandals. There was no fear in their eyes. She read mob confidence in their body language. You might reason with an individual but not with the group mind reinforcing such behavior.
The number of spectators grew but no one confronted the armed men.
One smiled at Helena. “This your car?” he asked before swinging a length of pipe and shattering the tail light. “Maybe now you’ll keep your fucking alien kid away from normal people.”
The irrational hatred in his expression drove Helena back a few steps. “You’ve made your point.”
He looked at her with the weighing glance of a predator. The pipe shifted slightly with the almost imperceptible movement of his shoulder. Helena could see smashing the car wasn’t enough. Backing away would only ensure an attack.
“I work for the State Department. You hit me and you’ll have the FBI on your ass.” Helena’s eyes never left his. She didn’t realize how much she missed feeling in control.
The wail of a police siren broke the stalemate. The other three bolted for an old sedan parked two rows over. Helena noticed her assailant took a step back before turning his back on her and running to join his fellows. They sped out a side entrance, side swiping another car in the process. The sound of tearing metal mixed uncomfortably with the siren of the arriving police. Plastic and glass debris ringed Riza’s ruined car. A woman crying by a vehicle in a nearby row drew Helena’s attention. The store’s manager was trying to console Alex’s mother. The woman’s outburst must have frightened the boy; he sat in the cart sobbing. They stood by the wreck of a green minivan in the same condition as Riza’s vehicle but for one detail: it also had giber spray-painted in large letters across one side. Helena knew this slang term for Tajgee. It was derogatory and occasionally heard even in government offices.
A police car rolled to a stop by the distraught mother. The manager explained events to the officer while the woman continued to cry. Minutes passed before the officer could get to Helena. By that time, a second cruiser had pulled in, this one carrying Gabrielle’s father.
“Aaji! Aaji!” cried Gabrielle as soon as she spotted him.
Karl came over but hesitated before picking his daughter up from the cart. Gabrielle hugged his neck, and buried her face against his uniform.
“What the hell happened here, Mike?” Karl asked.
“More crap like this every day,” said the first officer with disgust.
“I’d like to know how they knew which cars to smash. Someone working here must have told them,” said Helena.
“I wouldn’t be surprised. You should avoid places with lots of people. It would be best to keep the girl out of harm’s way,” Mike said.
“Meaning what?” Helena asked.
The officer refused to meet Helena’s eyes. “There’s a lot of bad feelings aimed at those kids. Taking them out in public is asking for trouble.”
“You’re saying this was our fault?”
“Be careful with your tone, Miss.”
Karl handed Gabrielle off to Riza and stepped in. “Back off, Mike. Let me finish their statements.”
“Sure, whatever,” Mike mumbled as he turned back toward his cruiser.
“Did you call the insurance and towing companies?” Karl asked.
“Mom called a friend of Dad’s. He runs a shop that works with their insurance.”
“I’ll take you home as soon as he gets here.”
They rode in cumbersome silence except for Gabrielle’s occasional outburst of Tajgee whenever she spotted something of interest. The muscles in Karl’s neck stiffened every time.
His tension reminded Helena of the customers in the supermarket. She had perceived their mood without trying. Her talent for reading people wasn’t gone. Why then had everything since Manila become such a mess?
David’s death – no, his murder – had left her emotions raw. The bomb had stripped away her trust in mediation’s ability to resolve conflict. None of the factions really wanted to compromise. They only came to the bargaining table hoping to get the other side to concede so they could save ammunition. Helena felt hollow. Only the distraction of arriving in her parents’ driveway kept the tears at bay.
Karl helped them out of the backseat of his cruiser.
Helena’s father came out of the house as soon as the car stopped. Resentful of the walker the therapist had suggested, Virgilio used a cane instead. He brought himself up a bit unsteadily against the police car.
“Everyone’s alright.” There was no question in Virgilio’s statement. He said it to dare anyone, fate included, to tell him otherwise.
“We’re okay, Papa. Mom’s car was trashed though.”
Virgillo waved a dismissing hand. “The car I can fix.”
“I’ll give Gabrielle some lunch before Lyn comes to pick her up,” Riza said.
“I don’t like the way that cop implied it was our fault,” Helena said after her father escorted Riza and Gabrielle inside.
Karl leaned against his vehicle. “He has a point. More incidents like this are happening every day. It would be safer to keep the kids out of the public.”
“I can’t believe you’re siding against your own daughter.”
The muscles in Karl’s jaw worked but he said nothing. Jovelyn’s small, blue hybrid pulled into the drive beside the police car.
“Everyone okay?” Jovelyn’s expression held an edge of panic.
“We’re fine,” said Helena. “The cop at the scene told me it was our fault for taking Gabrielle out in public. Your husband seems to agree.”
Karl crossed his arms. His six-foot-four frame loomed imposingly over the sisters. “We’ve talked about this, Lyn. I told you it’s not safe.”
“This isn’t Lyn’s fault, either. What’s wrong with you?”
Jovelyn answered for her husband. “He’s been uncomfortable around Gabrielle since she started talking.”
“I don’t want to do this now.” Karl moved toward the door of his cruiser.
Helena blocked his way. “We’ve all had to deal with what the Object did.”
“Don’t be condescending with me, Lena. You know better than I do what’s going on in the world because of it.”
“He’s afraid there’s going to be more,” said Jovelyn.
“There’s no evidence that there’s anything more,” Helena countered.
“How do you know that?” There was anger in Karl’s voice. “Do you know how the Blue Cloud seeded Tajgee?”
“No. But I do know the geneticists only discovered changes in the genes thought responsible for language and nothing else.”
Those changes were present in all Tajgee children, even though they appeared too slight to have the observed effect. Wilder theories suggested a quantum-genetic encoding of the Tajgee lexicon. Though the brain of a Tajgee child appeared normal, speaking sparked neural activity in many areas thought to have nothing to do with language. Their functional scans bore nothing in common with even pre-Tajgee multilingual children.
Karl wasn’t swayed. “You can’t say there won’t be other effects. No one can.”
“He won’t listen,” Jovelyn said.
“You’re not worried?” Karl’s tone accused his wife.
“Of course I’m worried. I just don’t obsess over it like you.”
“They say other altered genes could kick in at puberty. We don’t know what they’ll change into then.”
“Where did you hear that?” Helena asked.
“From Tajgee conspiracy sites on the Internet,” Jovelyn said, her voice breaking. “He barely interacts with Gabbie at all, and now since some new report came out he’s insisting we don’t have more children.”
Helena knew the report. It confirmed Tajgee’s emergence in children conceived even after the Object had left Earth. Tajgee was an inherited part of humanity now.
“What should we do then, stop having children? Maybe put them all in a camp somewhere just in case they might be dangerous? You’ve loved Gabrielle from the day she was born, Karl. I saw it every time you held her. Is that the future you want for her?” Helena kept her voice steady, struggling against the doubt to project the confidence she once had. “Is she any less the same happy little girl now that she’s speaking Tajgee?”
Karl’s gaze focused beyond the sisters. “They made her something else.”
Unable to take out his anger on the Object or those who sent it, his own daughter was becoming a surrogate. “Gabrielle’s a victim in this as much as you and Lyn are. You more than anyone know we don’t punish the victims of a crime.”
“I just want her to be alright.”
“Don’t look for what isn’t there instead of seeing the little girl in front of you.” Helena turned to Lyn. “And you’ve got to remember most of us aren’t natural optimists. You guys have to combine your strengths.”
Jovelyn seemed surprised that Helena thought she was part of the problem. “It’s been so frustrating.”
There was a sudden squall of activity over Karl’s radio. His expression became serious as he asked for a repeat of the last message. A female voice issued a series of codes in response.
“What is it?” Jovelyn asked.
“I’ve got to go. Someone just walked into a Minneapolis daycare and killed everyone inside. The greater metropolitan region’s just been put on high alert.”
Coverage of the shooting ran continuously all afternoon. The deaths of twenty-three children and caregivers sparked the panicked removal of children from daycares around the country. Politicians promised to have police and National Guard protect childcare centers and preschools, despite knowing it was impossible. They praised the quick action of authorities in apprehending the assailant, often glossing over the fact that the shooter had surrendered to police and claimed he was doing God’s work.
Can we be so afraid we’re willing to kill children? The thought chilled Helena. While the news from Minneapolis was still fresh, a new horror story broke from Belize. The residents of a remote village had killed every child younger than six. Video showed the stunned expressions of soldiers sent in to secure the location.
Amid the media chaos, Tom called. “Things are crazy here in D.C. You’ve seen the news?”
“Minneapolis and Belize? I couldn’t miss them.”
“We’re trying to keep a lid on others.”
“How many others?” Helena felt a numbness creeping along her limbs.
“Three more shootings: two schools and another daycare center. There were only two deaths, thankfully teachers and not children. Europe may be worse. It’s mostly scattered violence by lone individuals.”
“There’s more like Belize, aren’t there?”
Tom hesitated. “Pakistan, North Korea, Malaysia…those are confirmed.”
“Tajgee’s in all of us now. Killing newborns doesn’t make any sense.”
“If people were rational they wouldn’t be murdering children. We’re lucky it’s been limited to remote areas.”
“Minneapolis isn’t remote.”
“No,” Tom conceded, his voice tired and flat.
Helena told him about the attack at the supermarket.
“These killings are just new tears in the frayed political landscape. We’re seeing the worst abuse in places that already had problems. Others aren’t as bad but I won’t put money on them staying that way if authority breaks down.”
Helena shuddered to think of a world where mob rule could be the norm. Vandalized cars would be nothing in comparison. They both knew this was predictable. She knew him well enough to know he was holding something back.
“What’s changed, Tom?”
There was a long pause before he answered. “Lisa Littleton was killed in Padang. They shot down Harris and his team during the evacuation from Buenos Aires.”
“My God, how are their families?” Helena had trained Lisa. She had also worked with George Harris, who was an expert on South America.
“Trying to cope, as you’d expect. The Secretary told me to get you back in the field. He said to make it an order.”
“You can’t order me not to quit,” Helena said with an edge of resentment.
“I’m not ordering you. I’m asking you to come back.”
“I’m only one person.”
“You’ve wrangled agreements from parties that weren’t willing to be in the same city with each other, let alone sit and talk.”
“I’m not sure it’s the same anymore.” Anger, overconfidence, contempt and hatred, those were the emotions Helena typically dealt with during negotiations. There was always a component of fear but it wasn’t the driving force, not like now.
“Look, I didn’t want to mention this before, but we got more intel out of Manila after you left. One of the extreme factions was so sure you’d succeed in brokering a cease-fire they wanted you dead. You were the target. You might be only one person, but even the bad guys know you’re the right person to get it done.”
Anger forced Helena to her feet. She paced the room. David had died because someone feared people might see reason. This wasn’t about Manila anymore. It was about Belize, Pakistan, and the parking lot at the grocery store. Global conflict, once kept safely in remote places, was no longer contained. It affected people like Jovelyn, Karl and Gabrielle.
“Helena?” Tom spoke her name like a plea.
“I need a couple days. Do me a favor and send me whatever you can get on Tajgee. In the end it’s all going to come down to that.”
“Where’s Dad?” Helena asked as she helped prepare the chayote for dinner that evening.
“Where else?” Riza nodded in the direction of the garage visible through the window.
Helena earned another one of her mother’s looks by pulling a beer from the fridge before going out.
The house actually had two garages: the original detached structure and a newer, two-car affair, built when she was twelve. Helena’s father had turned the older one into a workshop where he tinkered with engines. The inside felt and smelled as it always had. The tang of motor oil hung in the cool, damp air.
Virgilio Abutin had his head under the hood of a massive old pickup truck. His right arm hung at his side as though disinterested. He levered a socket wrench with his left hand. The stroke made it impossible for him to work as he once had, but Virgilio behaved like it was all just some minor nuisance.
Helena placed the beer on the scarred wood of the workbench. Her father’s small television played a news channel in the background.
“Dinner in a half hour, Papa.”
“Your mother send you to collect me?”
“No, just wanted to visit.”
“She thinks I shouldn’t have beer now. I’m not supposed to drink with the medication for the stoke.” He took a long swallow anyway before ducking back under the hood.
The news was running yet another special report on Tajgee’s impact on cultural identity. The featured expert insisted culture and language were inseparable, and one could not survive the replacement of the other. Humankind could not hope to remain the same.
“Stupid,” Virgilio said.
“That program about the new language.”
“They make a valid point, though I think it’s extreme.”
“When I met your mother on one of her visits to Manila, I had no English, you know.” Virgilio pulled another wrench out of his chipped, blue toolbox.
“There’s nothing wrong with your English, Papa.”
“It’s been forty years. I do more better now.” Virgilio exaggerated his accent with a half smirk on the side of his face not affected by the stroke. “Point is, Lena, I had to learn English if I wanted people to see more than a Tagalog-speaking mechanic from San Pablo. It didn’t make me a different person. I’m still a diesel mechanic from the Philippines.”
“Did you know Lyn and Karl are having trouble over Gabrielle?”
Virgilio frowned and nodded. “I know you didn’t hear that from your mother.”
“I tried to help them but I’m not sure if I did any good.”
“You have a better chance than I do, Lena. You were always good with people.”
I used to understand people, Helena thought. The Object had changed the rules. Maybe that’s what bothered her the most.
“Do you mind if I camp out here for a while?” Helena asked Jovelyn the following morning. “Mom’s into her spring cleaning and having all the carpets steamed. I’ve got a bunch of documents to read and there’s too much noise at the house.”
“Isn’t exactly a library here, either.”
To make Jovelyn’s point, Gabrielle ran into the kitchen and tackled her mother’s legs. She pointed into the living room, explaining something at great and excited length in Tajgee. Gabrielle’s speech held none of the hesitancy evident when she spoke English.
“Slower, Gabbie. Mommy doesn’t understand.”
The little girl’s forehead wrinkled in either concentration or annoyance. She repeated herself slower, with an occasional English word tossed in.
Helena tried to make it out. It was difficult even after spending a few hours studying a Tajgee dictionary. The language had nothing in common with the five Helena spoke, or any other. Without intensive study it was immensely difficult to determine more than the approximate meaning of Tajgee vocabulary.
“Something about seeing cats?” Helena ventured after Gabrielle had retreated from the kitchen.
Jovelyn nodded. “On TV, I think.”
“You’re not making her speak only English?”
“There’s nothing wrong with meeting her half way,” Jovelyn shot back. “I can see how upset she gets when I can’t understand her.”
“I didn’t mean it like that.”
The fire drained from Jovelyn’s eyes. “I’m sorry, Lena. It’s just tough, you know? I’m glad you came over,” Jovelyn changed both the mood and topic. “I’ve a friend, another programmer, who lives in Minneapolis. I owe him a favor for taking some of my workload. His wife just arrived from Seoul with his little girl. She’s a couple of months younger than Gabrielle is. I agreed to watch her while Jon gets stuff done with the banks and Immigration. I might need a little help wrangling them.”
“I don’t mind, so long as there’s a corner where I can read.”
“This for work? I thought you quit.”
Jovelyn smiled. “I can promise only relative quiet. No explosions or anything.” She realized too late what she had said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think.” Her tone resonated with obvious distress.
Helena’s expression darkened for only an instant. She put a reassuring hand on Jovelyn’s arm. “It’s okay.” Helena smiled to ease the weight pulling her sister down.
It was okay, Helena realized. Jovelyn’s offhanded comment had not spiraled Helena’s emotions into depression and regret. “When’s your guest arriving?”
Helena plopped down into a cloth-covered armchair in the living room. The textured fabric felt warm and comfortable. Gabrielle, playing nearby, divided her time between watching animal programs and occasionally presenting toys for Helena’s inspection.
The documents Tom had forwarded exceeded Helena’s expectations. Studies of Tajgee were difficult, considering the oldest native speaker was only now approaching six years of age. There were even reports from the Pentagon.
Most contained only a little hard data diluted by overwhelming conjecture. It didn’t take long to realize that Karl’s fears echoed at the highest levels. The military in particular obsessed over theoretical threats posed by an agency capable of imposing Tajgee on the population. They also agonized over early studies concluding that Tajgee speakers were less aggressive. Their thinking was that Tajgee was a tool for pacifying humans, but more recent evidence had proved this was wrong. You could only push Tajgee children so far before they struck back. The difference was they’d try to talk you out of pushing them first.
Anomalies in the lexicon sent up red flags for some. Tajgee appeared to have no words for murder, war, attack or a host of other violent and aggressive terms. Tajgee children understood the concepts as well as anyone under the age of six could. They just had no specific, easy words for them. The report concluded, “Cognitive development is the result of an internalization of language around the age of two. These children, born with an already internalized language, seemingly based on mediation instead of conflict, have their way of thinking molded by Tajgee from the very beginning.”
Helena had to consider the implications. Her father was wrong about Tajgee. Learning English didn’t make people different, at least not at their core. Tajgee does. It will change us.
The doorbell rang and muffled voices issued from the front foyer. Jovelyn returned, holding the hand of a little Asian girl who was hiding behind her, taking timid steps into the room. “Gabbie, you have a guest,” she called.
Gabrielle came out of the kitchen. She held the crust of a grilled cheese sandwich in one hand and hugged her favorite stuffed kitten with the other.
“Tajgee!” Gabrielle waved the crust of her sandwich.
The other little girl’s demeanor changed instantly. Helena had seen it before, many times. It was the relief of stumbling upon another person who spoke your language in a foreign country. The girl smiled and released Jovelyn’s hand. Her anxious posture relaxed as she went over and returned Gabrielle’s greeting. “Tajgee, Lien.”
Gabrielle took Lien to meet her menagerie of stuffed animals. They decided on their favorites and relocated them to the floor at the center of the living room. The girls talked freely while using the toys to act out some complicated pantomime. Helena was sure that, even if she could understand them, it would only make sense if you were four.
At one point both girls reached for the same animal. Helena expected an argument to ensue. It was clear they both wanted the toy, a blue, lizard-like creature. She expected them to argue, for egocentric tempers to flair leading to a tug-o-war over the disputed toy. It didn’t happen.
Helena detected the familiar pattern of negotiation in the intense, animated Tajgee they hurled at each other. When discussion ended, Gabrielle retrieved a penguin from the pile of stuffed animals. She handed it to Lien in exchange for the lizard, and that was the end of it.
Helena looked down at a report and silently read, “Tajgee speakers as a group are significantly more inclined to use negotiation, and to consider the proposals of their peers, than has been observed in previous generations.”
She had spent weeks, sometimes months, in mediation before bringing combatants to the point where they were willing to do what these two little girls fell into naturally. Often their willingness to talk evaporated in the space of a few hours. It could take months of bloody fighting and many more deaths to convince them to try again.
Helena opened the last of Tom’s documents. This report, by a State Department linguist, predicted the use of Tajgee would expand beyond native speakers within twenty years. It would begin with teachers and parents, followed rapidly by pop culture, advertising and manufacturing. The trend would accelerate as the children became wage earners.
Helena felt her chest tighten. This is how it will happen, she realized. When the first of the Tajgee speakers became college students or finished high school and started working, they would be an unstoppable wave of change. Gabrielle and Lien’s generation would be eager to engage the world. Their mark would be lasting, provided the older generations didn’t tear everything apart first.
Helena had to do whatever she could to prevent total breakdown until they were ready.
She emailed Tom to rescind her resignation.
Helena set her laptop aside and sat on the floor with the little girls. Lien said something to Gabrielle, perhaps asking who Helena was. She nodded at Gabrielle’s reply and smiled at Helena.
“You wanna play too, Auntie Lena?” Gabrielle offered Helena a neon green and orange tiger.
“I do.” Helena accepted the animal.
They need twenty years before they’re ready. I can do that for them.
Helena brushed her niece’s dark, straight hair out of her face. “Gabrielle, can you teach Auntie Lena Tajgee?”
Funny how the unusual behavior of children can be cute or scary. That alien strategy was brilliant.
I really wish Hollywood would stop with the idiotic kill-the-queen, destroy-the-drones movies. A tale like this would make for a great series. I’m sincerely curious what becomes of the kids.
7 yrs later we find out that they were speaking gibberish as part of a galactic joke. Well done aliens. Well done.
Fantastic premise, ably told. I’ve been reading SF for 35 years and it’s rare that I get so involved as to forget my surroundings, or get such an emotional response by the end of the tale. Bravo.
Good pacing, smoothly crafted. Classic theme of transformation; change vs stagnation. I liked your characterization, everyone seemed comfortably real and uncomfortably human. An interesting way to improve a civilization for the better without having to get your alien hands dirty.
Does the technology come with an instant Mandarin Chinese setting? I could certainly use that…
Bravo, sir. I look forward to more of your work.