Monday, July 02, 2012


It has been an interesting couple of months in the town of Arkit.

The first sign of the word-plague was when the clockwork pipe crawlers began to literally tie the town's plumbing in knots. This happens occasionally, even with healthy pipe crawlers; it is usually a sign that they are bored, or that some set of instructions was not clear enough. As fine as their metal and crystal workings are, clockwork pipe crawlers are essentially simple creatures. They are capable of following simple instructions and very little else. This is why they so often end up assigned to plumbing repair.

The pipe crawlers' trainers inspected their notes, but they found nothing that could have led to this sort of behavior. What was more, further instructions to the pipe crawlers changed nothing.

This was cause for alarm. No one wants a repeat of the construction of Bratakar, where the bricklaying pipe crawlers stopped responding to instructions and built neat foundations across half the town before someone realized that a misinterpreted command had led them all to turn off their eyes. Arkit's pipe crawler trainers immediately went to work, testing the little machines for every error they've been known to encounter. Still, nothing worked.

This, incidentally, was when the town's schoolteacher began to notice an unusually high number of spelling errors in her pupils' writing. No one took much notice of this at the time.

Over the next few weeks, the pipe crawlers' behavior grew steadily more erratic. Some continued to fix pipes, though many of them fixed them in wild and fantastic shapes more suited to a sculpture museum than to plumbing. Others wandered farther from their assigned tasks, obsessively polishing a single length of pipe, or cutting faucets into careful slices with their metal-cutting tools. (This was when the trainers removed all the heavy-duty tools from the crawlers.) Yet other pipe crawlers wandered off into the town's underground, only to show up later rearranging tableware or carving endless hatch marks into stone walls.

The spelling errors continued to proliferate as well. Several of the town's accountants began to quietly wonder if they were going mad.

Then came the fateful day when every piece of writing in the town spontaneously translated itself into an old and obscure dialect of Halsi. That was when it became clear to everyone that this was not a mere mechanical problem, but some kind of linguistic plague. Spoken words remained unaffected, to the great relief of everyone in the town; the written ones were another story - literally, in some cases. My collection of ambiguous novels briefly opened their pages full of gibberish, then went blank, possibly out of self-defense. I was afraid that they had simply lost their voices and would remain blank forever.

The Halsi lasted only another day or two before Arkit's writing made its final descent into raving alphabet soup. It was not just novels anymore. Every letter had become ambiguous.

It was a great relief when the linguist-philosophers arrived.

The town's fastest flier, a bat-winged girl named Hatraskee, had packed a supply of food and water and taken off across the Desert to fetch them the day the words went bad. The linguist-philosophers traveled quickly and arrived before the town, deprived of written language, could descend into complete chaos. Fortunately, Arkit has never been an exceptionally literate place. If this had happened in a library city like Karkafel, the effects could have taken years for them to fix.

They came armed with glyphs and scrolls, thesauri and syllabaries, imperious tomes of grammar and punctuation - all the tools and weapons of an elite linguist-philosopher. They had dictionaries in a dozen languages. They had powerful epigrams and couplets, engraved in steel and fortified with many layers of rhymes. The largest of them carried stone tablets with carefully worded runes carved an inch deep. Nothing was going to change those words.

I really have no idea what all of this equipment was for. It was quite impressive, though, and whatever they did with it, it worked. Within three days, they had sorted the town's letters back into their separate alphabets; within six, they had corralled them back into languages. A further two weeks of constant writing and chanting finally forced the words back to their proper places. It was quite something to watch, too - the elaborately equipped linguist-philosophers often stood in the middle of the town square, chanting at the tops of their lungs while they did graceful and dramatic calligraphy, weaving a net of words to catch the town's wayward language. Quite a lot of the townspeople found that they had pressing business in the square on those days. Some of them stayed all afternoon.

If they ever get tired of language repair, I think the linguist-philosophers could have quite the career in theater. Whether the performance was really necessary, or whether they simply had a flair for the dramatic, I don't know - but the success of their work was undeniable. It was a great relief when the words of the town's ledgers and record books (and my own ambiguous novels) finally settled back into their familiar order. If there was a comma out of place here and there, no one complained.

Accompanying the linguist-philosophers was an expert on Hill Builder technology (as much as such a thing exists). Her job was to fix the pipe crawlers. Whatever language it is - if any - that flows through the crystal brain of a pipe crawler, it is quite different from the ones used by speaking creatures. The mechanic's task was to determine if the pipe crawlers' madness and the word-plague were the same thing, and if so, if the linguist-philosophers had cured the source of the problem or only a symptom.

I heard much less about this process. The details of machinery are as opaque to me as those of linguistic epidemiology, and the mechanic's work was much quieter than that of the linguist-philosophers. Most of it took place indoors and underground. I got the impression that she found all the noise somewhat irritating. Whatever the details, though, within another week, the pipe crawlers were back to making straightforward, functional repairs with no trace of the madness they had shown a month earlier.

Several of their more creative work, however, was sent to the museum in Hemrikath. Art is art, after all. Being made by machines or the mad does nothing to change that.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home

  • Stats Tracked by StatCounter