Dead Language

by Angus MacDonald

January 21

Today was pretty good. The new issue of Modern Data came, and Nedviller's fun-with-math column is back after an absence of several months. He announced another contest, harder than the one about self-referential sentences from last year: this time he wants self-replicating sentences, statements that guarantee their own duplication, like DNA does. I have a few ideas already, but nothing seems to gel.

And I found a new music store on the way home from the station, near the college. Lots of imported and outside-type stuff -- hip hop revival, recent Farsi metal, etc. -- and smart clerks. They had a copy of "Buzz Jam," which I've been looking for, but I decided to hold off till payday.

Time to go clean up the kitchen, then to bed.

January 24

Work's still boring. Yesterday they gave me a dental billing application to debug and two weeks to do it; I had it fixed by lunch today. I'll give it back for testing in a couple days, maybe, get another commendation, the usual stuff.

Left the afternoon free to work on the contest problem, and I thought of one approach that seems promising. The puzzle may be as much psychological as semantic, because the sentence must itself persuade a person to copy it and transmit it, one way or another.

Anyway, I'll definitely have time for that at the office all this week. And maybe I'll treat myself to some new music tomorrow.

January 25

I waited too long: they were all out of "Buzz Jam" when I stopped at the store on the way home. The woman behind the counter apologized.

"That's by the Sharp Jerkers, right?"


"We sold the last one this morning. But I have `Make the Buzz'; that's the follow-up single."

I pointed at the stereo behind the counter. "Could I hear a little?" There was nothing on just then.

She looked for a moment at the sign over the cash register reading "Absolutely No Requests." Then she squinted at me a second and said "Sure. It's in the import bin behind you, under `S through Z.'"

I ended up buying it. She said her name's Zap, and I think she undercharged me.

I've hit a dead end with the contest, however. "Copy this sentence" is virtually as far as I've got, although the actual piece is far longer than that; it sort of lies there, not compelling any one to copy it, not insuring its own replication in any way.

February 2

Ran into Zap the clerk tonight, after an eighties-nostalgia film program in a hall near the campus. She was laughing a lot (which gave her the same crow's-feet as when she squinted at me in the store), but said they had some more copies of "Buzz Jam."

"I'm saving you one. And you know what else?"

"What?" I was a little leery of her.

"We're wearing the same jacket." She giggled.

"Huh." It was true. Hers might even have been the same size; she had the cuffs folded back a few times and the leather above the hem was scuffed where it hung past her pants pockets. On her, it seemed like some kind of motorcycle dress.

By now we were walking up the hill past the store. I glanced down at the top of her head; the streetlight made her hair more purple than usual, even giving the gray near the roots a bit of fluorescence.

She peered up at me suddenly. "What do you do, anyway?"

"I'm a programmer for an insurance company. I update the same software over and over."

She laughed, then said, "I'm sorry, but you look like you're trying to be a biker. Or an art student."

"I do my best." I felt like a fool, but then she laughed again.

"So what else do you do for fun? Besides listen to music?"

"Math stuff. Puzzles, logic-based riddles, things like that." She didn't act real interested, but I warmed to the subject anyway. It's rare that I have an actual audience. "Right now I'm trying to come up with a sentence that reproduces itself, that makes sure it gets itself copied."

She was paying attention again. "Like viral code? Like DNA-RNA stuff?"

"Yeah, I guess. Only it has to be human language, and it has to be a meaningful statement or question, not a word or phrase that turns up all the time anyway. It's for a contest."

"So how're you doing on it?"

"Shitty. I'm pretty much convinced the words have to be attractive and mantra-like, but I'm writing longer and longer sentences that don't make it."

"Why does it have to be long?" She was swaying a little as she walked, and kept flipping her hair around every time she turned to say something.

"Short sentences don't have enough content to compel the rest of the world to duplicate them. But with the length I lose any, you know, punchiness."

She stopped walking and considered for a few moments, then turned her face up toward me again and sighed before speaking. I caught a whiff of her breath. It wasn't at all unpleasant, but I wasn't surprised that she was having to think carefully and slowly.

"Could it be embedded in a larger shell of words, like a virus sometimes is in protein?" she asked. "So it's always the same, but the shell does the compelling?"

"But then the shell would be self-replicating, not the sentence itself." We began walking again.

"No, the shell words would be different each generation. It would get rebuilt, and the sentence would remain at the core. Like in a chain letter, when the demand for money is, uh, preserved, even though those anecdotes vary, about your dog dying or whatever if you break the chain."

I stopped and looked at her for a moment.

"I used to be an instructor in Microbiology," she said, answering my unspoken question, then laughed again. "I was gonna do my thesis on recombinant virus theory."

After a moment, I laughed too.

February 4

I got a bonus because of that dental project. I guess that's good, but it doesn't feel like it matters at all. My supervisor kept smiling as he handed me the check, but I was barely able to stand looking at him. I was thinking that he doesn't understand what I do at all; I could be anyone, as far as he's concerned. I really feel trapped there.

What Zap said about a shell for the sentence does seem to be the way to go. I'm diagramming the steps it would pass through in the various stages. Designed properly, it would convince a reader to pass it along embedded in a longer passage, mainly of the reader's own invention. And designing it properly becomes easier and easier the more I work on it. It's kind of as if it already exists as an ideal and is writing itself, imposing its own order on my choice of words and grammatical constructions.

I told her about it when I went in to pick up the record. She was moderately pleased, and asked if I was going to see any bands soon. When I said I wasn't, she offered to let me go with her to a club show the store had two promo passes for. That'll be Friday night.

I'm excited, of course. I realized I haven't been on an actual date since I got my Master's and started working again last year.

February 8

How shall I put this? It, the core sentence, in its final form, came to me, and it works, or should work when someone else sees it (I can't very well test it on myself). I'll have to show it to somebody. Or recite it: the text of the shell tends to form rhymes, so it's easy to remember and say out loud. And the whole thing fits in one paragraph -- or one stanza, I should say.

Time to go meet Zap. I'll pass it along to her.

February 9

I think it's ready, but the deadline is still a couple weeks off, so I'll wait and see if I can refine it more before mailing it. I don't think I'll need to, though.

Zap got excited last night when she heard it, but suggested that the one passive-voice clause should made be active, so we revised it orally by the time we got to the comp ticket window. Between sets, we kept reciting the whole thing to each other, and eventually some pink-haired frat guys at the next table joined in. Our waitress heard it, and was impressed.

"I like that," she said. "I'm gonna remember that." When she came back with the drinks, she said the bartender had started improvising on it -- on the shell, that is -- after hearing it once. And after the last set, I saw two versions of it, one newly scrawled on each of the broken towel dispensers in the men's room. Both had the core intact.

Today Zap told me I kept murmuring it in my sleep. This is better than I expected.

February 15

Mailed it off to Nedviller today. I feel pretty confident it'll win; the reactions it's had so far make me think it's irresistible. I even showed it to my supervisor; he had a little trouble understanding the point, but was impressed once I explained.

It's interesting, but the piece appears to be going around town by word of mouth now. On the way to the station in the morning I often hear clumps of people chanting it in turns or in unison as they walk to campus. It's always different -- the surrounding lines have changed beyond recognition, to fairly surreal couplets like "Drinkin' Bessarabian / Throw another baby in" -- but the core is always there. The students obviously enjoy it a lot, and I get a nice glow from seeing them like that: taking youthful pleasure in something I made. It usually starts me running over the latest version to myself.

Overall, I feel really great, I don't know how else to describe it. There's this sense of everything going well, going the way I want it to. Maybe it's being with Zap, but I think there's more to it than that. My life seems like it's finally turning around, as if it's heating up after years of chill. I'm willing to do and enjoy things that would have bothered me last fall -- bothered me or even repulsed me. Living for the moment is suddenly much easier than ever before. Zap's been saying she feels different, too, but she calls it "a higher level of energy."

February 17

I helped Zap move an old Subaru engine block out of her apartment's carport (it had been left by the last tenant and ignored by the landlady). We each took an end and in less than a minute got it out to the backyard, where we put it behind a clump of weeds. The effort was exhausting but satisfying.

We straightened up, and I wiped my hands on my pants, happily trying new rhymes on the piece under my breath ("Little quips to bitter jokes / Tiny bits to mighty oaks"). I gazed at Zap. Her shoulders and arms were pale and thin, but muscular, in the morning sun. The breeze carried the scent of her exertion to me.

She was squinting at the engine. "That weighs a lot. I could never, you know, even budge it before."

"Yeah, well, but there's two of us. And even so we're both wiped out from moving it."

She shook her head, violet strands of hair shifting against the natural black and gray. "I've tried with other people. You're not bigger than they were." She looked at me. "I'm little, and you never exercise. We shouldn't have been able to do it at all, let alone quickly."

Back inside, she microwaved us a pair of Mexican tv dinners for breakfast, ate quickly, and disappeared into a closet. Sounds of shuffling paper came out.

She returned and slapped some old technical journals on the table. "I kept these from school," she said, and opened one. "Look. There was research suggesting that the body's chemical systems can be affected by concentration, like studying or meditation, right? Remember what you said to me about wanting to create something mantra-like? Anyway, they took readings off yogis who can lower their production of fatigue toxins, use food more efficiently, improve reflexes, stuff like that. There was hope for it as a health craze, and also as a therapeutic thing, because people's inhibitions got weaker in some cases. So there would have been books and videos and all, but..."

I interrupted. "I think I remember that. They were talking about, what, defeating entropy on a personal level?"

"Yeah, exactly, but entropy won after all: the chanting and concentrating took even more time than exercise, and the participants became really irritable as well, so people forgot about it. I guess the psychological stuff got dropped, too."

I stopped chewing a mealy-textured lump of chimichanga. "You think it's happening to us?"

"Something is. We're stronger than we ought to be. And we've both had that thing you found running through our heads, every minute, waking or sleeping, for weeks now." Her eyes were bright and bored into me. "That could explain why you've changed so much, too."

"I have?"

"You're a lot less... You were different when we met. I mean, I liked you okay then, but you're better now. Less closed up."

She'd deflated me, some. "Well, thanks, I guess."

She reached across the journals and food trays to tousle my hair. "Don't be such a puppy. But I've changed, too. Even though I'm still in a rut, it doesn't bother me like it did last month. We've both been feeling so focused, so elated all the time. We can't just be getting that for nothing at all."

I smiled and asked, "We're not just getting it from love?"

She stopped and looked away for a moment. I realized it was the first time either of us had said anything like that. She bent her head over the cracked tabletop and whispered, so I could barely hear, "Sometimes that's worse than nothing at all." Then she sat up straight, laughed, and flexed an arm. "Anyway, love can't move that much steel. It's too disorderly."

February 23

I've found myself having less and less patience with stupid people. The other morning I got stuck behind this guy -- a kid, really -- who couldn't work the change machine in the station. I finally just shoved him out of the way and did it right, while he gaped at me. I was sort of surprised at myself, but it was rush hour and I wanted to catch the train, after all. Still, I never could have made that kind of move a few weeks back.

And I'm about fed up with work. I know they only value me as a component in the circuit, slightly faster and more efficient than competing models. I'm real good at what I do, but though my supervisor's happy enough to pay me a little more for superior performance, he doesn't appreciate my talent. I can tell when I look at him.

Zap told me tonight she feels the same way about her job. She says the old hippie who owns the store is starting to get to her, and that she's started mouthing off to him. "Thing is, I used to really sort of like him," she said. "He knows his stuff and keeps up with new things, but just being around him all the time grates on me." She frowned at the sidewalk; we were waiting to get into a club.

"And I can hardly stand the customers anymore, either. The dumb kids especially, but I'm kinda sick of the trendies, too, and I'm one myself."

"No, you're better than they are."

I expected her to pout and get cute, but she stayed serious. "Somewhat. But it's just a matter of degree. They're hobbyists, and I'm a professional: I work in a music store." She grimaced, then stared ostentatiously at a pastel-clad girl a few places ahead of us in line. Tattooed on her shaven temple was a sorority logo over the sentence and one of its current shells; it was written small and the only lines I could read clearly were "...broken axles, broken hearts / Broken wheels and broken carts."

Zap sneered and said "Speaking of trends," then raised her voice. "Washable, right?" The girl blushed (six pink inches, from collar to hairline, with a thrice-pierced ear turning scarlet in the middle) and looked away.

Later, in front of the stage, she shoved Zap in the back. Zap filled her mouth with vodka, turned around and grabbed the girl's hair to pull her head down, then licked the graphic enough to smear it.

I was scared, but the girl just started to cry and yell. Although no one could hear over the band, I pulled Zap away and got us outside.

She apologized. "But it was sort of fun." She tossed back the rest of her drink and dropped the glass in the gutter. "I never did stuff like that before I met you."

"Licking strangers' pledge marks?"

She snorted. "Partly. And pulling hair."

"You've been pulling mine lately."

It was true. She looked up at me, grinned, and patted my chest. "Scratches healing okay?"

"Pretty much," I said.

She licked her lips. "Mine are, too."

I didn't know what to say. She grabbed my hand and we walked home quickly.

March 3

Can't write, don't know what, can't think too much about what happened last night. Maybe tomorrow. Hope we don't have trouble with the police. The way things worked out, though, it seems unlikely.

March 4

It went like this:

We got out of the theater and started walking back to my place, as usual. The movie had been a little long, so it was close to midnight. After a few blocks, we came around a corner and this kid stepped out from behind a hedge, started to say something -- I couldn't even hear what; he sounded scared -- and held up a cheap-looking knife for us to see in the shine of the streetlight. And I remember perfectly the rest of what happened, but not my thoughts, not how I decided to act. Maybe I didn't decide. I dropped and went for his legs and had him on the ground before he could stop talking. Then I was twisting away and watching Zap jump over to pin him and put her elbows -- first one, then the other -- into his throat. She was moving even faster than I was, I guess because she's smaller.

We both stood up. The kid wasn't moving, and after a moment the gurgling stopped. Zap used her boot insteps to roll him back into the shrubbery, making precise, small lifts like a soccer pro in a tight spot. She kicked the knife in afterwards and I heard it thump, then clink softly to the dirt. The scrapes on my face and hands were starting to hurt, and I saw that she'd torn out one knee of her pants (sharp red-streaked white peeking through darkness).

She turned her face up to me. I felt more like myself, and I was briefly afraid she was going to smile, but she just stared at me with this solemn brightness in her eyes. I noticed she was breathing deeply and fast, then realized I must be doing the same, must look the same. The smell of the dirt and the hedge, the kind of smell that's usually dry and thin, was rich, actually vivid. The street was still empty. I think less than a minute had passed since we rounded the corner.

We walked quickly the rest of the way here. Our breathing hadn't slowed, and once we were inside she grabbed me and pulled me to the floor.

She left before I woke, and I haven't seen her since. Neither of us had said a word after the killing.

But I had that thing running through my head the whole time, and she must have too.

March 7

There was a check in the mail today; I won the contest. It was anti-climactic news, but Nedviller's note of congratulations was still nice to read. No one else was able to come close to what he'd been calling for, apparently, and he was therefore extremely pleased that one entry was so precisely on the mark. Quote:

"Needless to say, your solution has caused quite a stir here at Modern Data. I've also taken the liberty of transmitting the piece, in advance of the next issue, to some of my colleagues here and abroad. I'm sure they'll be delighted with it. I have asked several of them to investigate, should they choose, whether it can be effectively translated into their native tongues."

What bothers me is that I've had trouble bringing the core sentence to mind myself in the last few days, and when I finally remember it, I get a little depressed. Maybe the incident after the movie upset my equilibrium somehow, except that my general mood is still pretty good, and there's been no more trouble.

Also, I still haven't heard from Zap or been able to reach her. Her boss at the store says she quit without giving notice or saying where she'd go.

March 12

Good to be back home. I think I understand now, but for some reason I don't feel bad about it. Finally saw Zap. Thinking almost too fast to write.

Okay. It started, I guess, the day after I got the contest check. I was leaving work early to get it deposited before 4:30 (it was Friday) and my supervisor caught me. He let me go, but acted, as always, as if it was really a big deal whether I hang around waiting for him to get off his ass and hand me another little fix to make.

I made the deposit, came home, put on some music, and stewed for the whole evening. Finally, around one, I just got my car out of the garage (it took almost a minute to start; hadn't used it in weeks) and drove twenty miles over the hills to his house. I didn't know for sure what I wanted to do; I was tingling all over, crackling with that energy I'd last seen in Zap's eyes. I could feel my reflexes getting sharper as I drove, making turns far tighter and faster than I was used to, but doing it as if I'd been driving like that all my life.

When I got there, I parked around the corner and found myself climbing the fence into their backyard. At that point I realized that my will and actions were becoming separate from my awareness, but I wasn't afraid.

My memory gets spotty after that, though. I remember searching under the kitchen sink until I found some dishwashing gloves, then later seeing yet another version of the piece (I still can't think of it as my piece) on a chalkboard in the kids' room, and finally taking some jewelry and money from the dressers in the master bedroom so the whole deal would look like something else. I drove home, stopping briefly to throw the stuff in a pond.

Two police detectives talked to people at work the following Monday, and everything seemed to be under control. But then one showed up here late that night to ask me about the argument over my leaving early. I definitely remember what happened then.

This time I had to walk home, since I left his car at the bottom of a ravine. The fire department was swarming over the hillside before I got a mile away, but under the smoke I was able to leave the area without anyone spotting me.

There were a lot of sirens that night, and a few other figures slipping quickly from shadow to shadow. Going through the park, avoiding the open lawns, I felt a small hand reach down from a tree and stroke my neck. I knew the touch, and didn't run.

She swung herself down from her perch and kissed me hard. Bits of bark and flowering weeds had caught in the blue and gray of her hair and on her clothes. Her eyes burned more brightly than ever in the starlight. When she sat down on the iceplant to pull off her boots, I saw blood caked thinly over the tips.

Later, she leaped up and ran silently away.

I stayed in the park a few more minutes before heading home. On the way I surprised a student couple, who were themselves stalking a night watchman at a construction site. They hadn't been carriers as long as I had, of course; they were still chanting the piece softly (the shell variation I remember was "...sheets of iron, sheets of lead / Lay me down in sheets of dread...") The watchman, doubtless from out of town, I left alone, mostly for lack of interest. He never heard a thing, although he must have found them on his next round.

Finally I got home, washed my hands, and started to write this.

I don't think I'll go to work tomorrow.

March 13

I wouldn't have made it to work, anyway. Outside police (with support from the National Guard, mostly armored vehicles) had closed the city limits at every street and shut down the station by nine. It made me laugh to myself: didn't they understand what was happening, that the whole world would be in the early stages of infection by now? Maybe they just felt that something had to be done, however futile.

Food trucks started coming in by noon, and small crowds gathered around them. Walking through town, I saw that people's faces showed either terror and bewilderment or a certain calm alertness. It's almost six now, and the trucks aren't yet empty. Few, apparently, are hungry: I know I'm not, even though I've lost a lot of weight in the last couple of weeks. Eating just hasn't seemed that important.

When it gets dark, I'll go out and see what's up.

March 14

Sun's just rising. Now I don't feel like sleeping, either. I wonder how long I can stay like this. Some people are still prowling, so I'm sitting away from the window, on the floor. I may go out again later, but it's becoming a less attractive idea.

I do have an advantage out there, since I had the sentence before anybody else. Being further along in the course of this thing, I get little sense of challenge from each encounter. Even the ones who ambush me don't really have a chance.

One bit was interesting, though. I ran into the bartender and waitress from that nightclub -- the place where Zap and I started spreading the sentence. They must have been prowling for almost as long as I had been. I only had a few hours of infection over them as an advantage, and of course it was two to one, so seeing them again was actually sort of fun. They lasted over a minute, and I was kind of sorry when it was over.

I think I will go out tonight, after all. Starting to get bored here; the tv's gone back to all regular programming, after a few days of special bulletins on "the rash of savage, random killings spreading across the nation." One reporter (or her staff) had dug up the studies Zap told me about, and talked at length about the findings of physical benefits, increased irritability, and loss of inhibition.

And that's another reason to go out: maybe I'll find Zap again.

March 14 (much later)

I feel like I've done everything I was supposed to do, everything I needed to. I just want to hole up here and wait for it.

I'm not sure what form it will take, though, if someone will come to kill me as I've killed, or if I'll just run down and stop working, an obsolete vehicle for a message I've passed on times beyond counting. I feel drained enough for that to be what happens. The desire to destroy -- to speed entropy, I guess -- has washed away completely, taking with it virtually all other wants and needs. I write this mostly to avoid boredom.

Zap's dead, of course. I didn't find her when I went out, but after I got back. If I had the energy to get up on my knees and peer over the couch, I'd be able to see her body in its sharp-smelling, reflective puddle on the kitchen floor. It isn't dark; the power's still on and the fluorescent tubes shine as brightly as they did when I dropped her and stumbled over to collapse here. I don't feel like exerting myself enough to look, though. Maybe I'm just weak from blood loss. The cut wasn't that deep, though -- it's clotted already -- and my arm barely hurts. She still had the speed and the silence -- I never saw or heard her until I got into the kitchen, and I'd been home for an hour. I was already starting to wind down to my current torpor, and it's a little surprising that she didn't kill me.

Maybe just being bigger than she was made the difference.

March 15

The power died shortly before dawn. The sky is smoky; I think this whole side of town might be burning.

Occasionally I hear running outside. Before the power went, someone stopped (attracted by the light in my window, I think; maybe I should have pulled the shades) and yelled "Hey up there!" Then there was a short laugh, and the sound of feet stumbling over something soft before running away.

I guess that was a few hours after I came back home to Zap's welcome. The chronology's becoming fuzzy, even if the events themselves remain sharp.

Running again, closer. "Hey!" Yeah, the same voice, with the same laugh. And then the glass in the lobby windows breaking.

Now I can relax. Wait for it a bit.

There's the door.


Copyright 1993, 2000 Angus MacDonald