Chapter Twenty-Six: Signing

<I can't believe we didn't think of this,> Talyn sent.

<I feel no less ridiculous about it,> Rhysel agreed. <I'm just glad we have an excuse to visit the world.>

<What is our excuse, if someone asks? Not that I expect anyone to talk to me here while I'm not pretending to be a girl.>

They stepped off the transfer point at the University of Peiza and Rhysel gestured at the school. <They want to enroll some people from the third world here in a few terms. Including in the kamai program. But the teachers won't introduce kamai to another world through Elcenia without my permission, thanks to Aziel. I don't know how we'd get to visit the place otherwise, but my contact at the university called this morning and brought it up.>

<And you said,> Talyn put in, <that you wanted to have a look at the world in question first? And bring your apprentice?>

<Exactly. So now we have tickets, and we need to discreetly see what we can find about the possibility that this world has to do with Aabalan.>

<I bet if it does, you won't let them have any kamai.>

Rhysel's expression was grim. <I can take their university teachers, but I can't take the students they already have.>

<You control the infusion,> Talyn pointed out. <I think it's you and Aar Camlenn who know how, here, and that's it. Nobody from Barashi who has access to your notes would do it.>

<And they don't like that - none of the universities do,> Rhysel said. <The University of Desinni bribed Kaylo to reverse-engineer it for them, and he doesn't care what Aziel says, or much about what I say either. I had to outbid them to get him to drop the project.>

Talyn couldn't help laughing. Rhysel smiled ruefully, too.

It was a long walk to the circle. The building was unmarked, and there were military guards around it, but most people going in and out were not in uniform. Talyn listened to thoughts. Apparently, a wizard employed by the military had discovered the world and made contact, and the military was still overseeing the whole operation, but some businesspeople, would-be translators studying under the handful of dragons employed at the circle, and select high-status movers in Linnipese society were permitted to travel.

No one seemed to think of the world as particularly dangerous, although everyone agreed that the blue, earless creatures who were the sole sapient species on their planet were strange. But strange in a harmlessly alien way. They looked odd, they communicated in sign language, their entire (spherical, vacuum-occupying) planet was unified into a single culture that acted as a surprisingly cohesive unit, and the entire place was the windiest climate any visitor had ever been to.

It didn't seem an overwhelmingly likely location to find a superweapon, but it did seem overwhelmingly likely to be fascinating anyway.

The guard they checked in with didn't recognize Rhysel or Talyn, but she swept the ticket with some kind of enchanted device, asked both to confirm their identities aloud in complete sentences, and reminded them that they would be found and punished if they advertised the contents of the complex anywhere unauthorized or made independent contact with the world. Rhysel nodded and the guard let them through.

Inside the building, there were a few of the aliens walking around, although not many. One smallish one, perhaps a juvenile, was signing energetically with a silvery-haired dragon adolescent; another was patiently correcting the hand positions of a white-haired Linnipese woman who kept consulting a stack of papers; another was tinkering with something made of metal. They were humanoid, a little shorter than the human women they were mostly interacting with, and variously-patterned blue. Only the two adults wore clothes, and those appeared to be strictly ornamental; the juvenile was naked, but had no obvious reason to cover anything up.

<Can you read them?> Rhysel asked.

Talyn listened. The thoughts were strange. There were no audible words, anywhere, and even the sign language seemed to be stored as proprioception instead of visuals. But as long as he worked on listening enough to get language-independent thoughts, they were there. The juvenile blue alien was making plans with its dragon friend for when the aliens' existence became public: they intended to go swimming in the dragon's lake. <Yeah.>

"Does this world have a name?" Rhysel asked the thirtysomething woman out of uniform who was manning the information desk.

"Of course!" replied the information desk person. "It's..." She made a sign with her pinkies crossed and then lifted her hands. "But aloud, we've been calling it Isatei - that's a mashup of two Old Linnipese languages but it means 'windy world'."

"Convenient that we have the same number of fingers," Talyn remarked, fully expecting the woman to ignore him.

"Yes, it is!" she agreed. "We do have trouble with some signs, because our thumbs are jointed differently, and most of us can't extend our fingers out of their sockets, but that only affects about six percent of signs, and we can work around it at the cost of seeming a little stilted."

"How long have you been studying this world?" Rhysel asked.

"About a year now," replied the woman. "I was one of the first anthropologists they brought in, to pick up the language from our new friends and from the dragons we have working here, and to learn about the culture. I'm so glad we're finally opening it up to more people now that there's a permanent circle. The partnership betwen Linnip and -" She made the sign again, apparently disdaining the use of the spoken translation, "has so much potential."

"What are the people called?" Talyn asked, since apparently she would pay attention to him if he talked.

The anthropologist made another sign, this one just displaying her palms. "Or you could call them Isateian, but actually, the sign they use to refer to themselves means 'hands' in an old dialect, so it might be technically more accurate to call them 'people with hands' or something rather than 'windy world people'."

"Noted," said Rhysel. "I think we'll go on through now -"

"Wait!" exclaimed the anthropologist. "Here, take an info packet. There are a few cultural missteps that can really upset a -" She made the palm-displaying sign again. "And that would be just really unfortunate."

"Dangerous?" asked Rhysel.

"Oh, they're not at all aggressive, they won't hurt you if you don't hurt them, but we really value their friendship," said the anthropologist earnestly. "And we want them to be comfortable with continuing to allow visitors. Please read the info packet."

Rhysel shrugged, picked up a packet for herself and one for Talyn, and went over to a corner with a bench in it to sit and read up.

Talyn skimmed his; he could read the Isateians and cover for anything he skipped on the fly. It looked like the main issue was that, outside of extraordinary circumstances, the "people with hands" didn't accept gifts of goods or services or even access to information, only equitable exchanges. An Isateian who accepted, or was tricked or coerced into accepting, something for free was at the mercy of whoever had provided the something: without predetermined value for the thing given, arbitrary value could be assigned, potentially extending into a debt that could never be adequately repaid.

Economics and the carefully justified determination of what exchanges were and were not equitable was apparently a major field of scholarship. But in practice it seemed that it being generally agreed that an item was worth thus and such an amount was no protection against crushing debt if one got it without securing such agreement on the individual case.

"Do the poor ones just starve in the street?" Rhysel muttered to herself, and Talyn snorted. She was going to have some trouble with this.

Whoever had written the pamphlet - Talyn suspected the anthropologist lady, but she hadn't been thinking about it - was very positive on Isateian culture in general. Their cohesive society and ability to cooperate was credited to the fact that as children, they were raised by communal creches, and so each and every one considered itself in debt to society. This was repaid by unswervingly dedicated citizenship. Apart from the mentally ill, Isatei apparently had literally zero crime, and they were very good at coming to consensus about what actions their society should take together.

It was looking less and less like a good place to find a superweapon, despite the black-and-gold uniforms milling around the circle.

Then he got to the part according to which Isatei had no magic.

"Rhysel, this can't be it," he said, pointing.

"Let's read the whole thing, Talyn," she said.

Talyn rolled his eyes - a trip to the windy world at least sounded like fun, even if it wouldn't be rebelliously productive.

The very next section said:

But despite their lack of any phenomena that could be called magical, Isatei has made advances so fantastical in the realm of nonmagical devices that they appear to those with less knowledge as though they might as well be magical. Isatei boasts devices which fly, which manipulate information, and even which produce their young (they are natively an asexually reproducing species, but modern Isateians do not typically bud; instead, public creche institutions design children from scratch). These and other devices are part of what Linnip can hope to learn about by maintaining a friendly partnership with Isatei.

"Oh," Talyn said.

"I haven't gotten that far yet," Rhysel pointed out. She was still puzzling over the bit about gifts.

"You might want to skip ahead," Talyn said. He turned to the next page, which was all about Isatei's art and dance and architecture, and then he turned the page again and that was the whole thing.

"Oh," said Rhysel, a degree later, when she'd caught up.

"Yeah," said Talyn.

The dragon girl - Talyn couldn't tell by looking if she was a silver, a platinum, or a spelter, but by her features she had an Ertydon-looking human form - came up to them as Rhysel finished the pamphlet, her blue friend following her. "Hi! Are you going through soon?" she asked. "Me and Splay - that's what I call it 'cause it's name is -" She splayed her hands out, wrists crossed. "We're going through too, and you don't look like you'd know where you're going. And Splay doesn't believe me when I tell it that you'd probably let us help you without insisting on paying us."

"We're not going to be in Splay's indentured servitude forever if we do let you, are we?" Talyn asked.

The dragon giggled. "No! But don't try to give it anything."

Splay tapped her shoulder and signed at its friend. [Zinc, Zinc, what are you saying?] it wanted to know. Well, that told Talyn what kind of dragon she was; she probably wouldn't go by "Zinc" if she weren't spelter. Talyn supposed she didn't have an actual sign language version of her real name.

[I'm telling them that you won't demand anything if we help them,] Zinc signed back.

[I won't, but this is so strange, are they sick?] Splay answered.

"I don't mean to intrude, but I can't follow this conversation," Rhysel put in.

"Oh, just, um, Splay doesn't quite get the difference between being a mentally disturbed Isateian and a perfectly healthy... are you guys half-elves?"

"Yes," said Rhysel.

"Perfectly healthy?" Zinc asked, shadowing the conversation with her hands for Splay to watch.

"As far as I know," Rhysel agreed.

"See, Splay," Zinc said aloud, although Splay was watching her hands and couldn't hear a thing. "They'll let us escort them through without talking about how much that should cost first, but there's nothing wrong with them."

"You don't need to go around with us the whole time we're there to prove your point, do you?" Talyn asked.

"No, no," Zinc said. "We'll show you around as long as you want, and then we'll leave you be and go do our own thing. You can shout over the wind if you've got to and can read lips a little bit."

<Or we could do this,> Talyn sent, language-independently, to all three. Splay jumped in alarm.

"Or that," Zinc agreed. "Cool, kyma." She signed at Splay, [These people, or at least the taller one, are magic like I told you.]

Rhysel glanced at Talyn, then said, "Sure, we'd appreciate that."

Zinc had a distinctly triumphant look on her face as she communicated the acceptance to Splay. Talyn couldn't read Splay's face, or the posture that it was more likely using to show incredulity, but he could read its mind.

"C'mon," Zinc said, and she and Splay led Rhysel and Talyn through the circle.

For a planet inhabited entirely by deaf people, Isatei was loud. Actually, maybe that wasn't a weird contrast. Their machines were loud, but why make them quiet if they couldn't keep you up at night? The wind was deafening, so why bother growing ears to begin with? Talyn conjured up some image earplugs, a pair for himself and a pair for Rhysel. He squinted his eyes against the wind, too. Splay didn't seem to mind the rushing air at all.

The circle was in an open square in the middle of -

Talyn didn't even recognize it as a city at first. He'd never seen buildings so tall and slender, made of so much glass and glinting metal. They were swaying, back and forth like languid grass, in the pounding wind. He felt like he was surrounded by giant alien plants.

The city was teeming with Isateians, ranging from younger than Splay all the way up. Most of the fully-grown ones wore clothes in a dozen styles, and heaps of colorful jewelry.

<What's good to see around here?> Talyn asked.

"How do I answer you?" Zinc hollered at the top of her lungs, signing for Splay's benefit.

<Just think what you want to say! I'll get it!> Talyn exclaimed.

<Like this?> Zinc "shouted".

<You don't have to yell! The wind isn't going to interfere! And I can pass it along for Splay too, you don't have to keep signing.>

<Oh,> she sent. <Well, there's museums, and all these cool buildings, and I really like the subway - it's like a chain scoot but it goes through tunnels, underground - and there's a big lovely park with cool alien plants in it, and this town doesn't have a zoo but there's one a two-stop subway ride away, it just takes a degree and a half to get there once you know how to find the right subway.>

<I'd like to see a museum here, but I don't have any of the local currency,> Rhysel sent. <I didn't see an exchange near the circle...>

[Watch this, Splay!] Zinc signed, and then she grinned broadly. <I'll buy you both tickets if you want! I can afford them, I get a nice stipend for working at the circle.>

<Okay,> said Talyn, shrugging.

Splay took a few alarmed steps back while Zinc giggled; she reached out to pat it on the shoulder.

<We're harmless!> Rhysel exclaimed.

<Yeah, but if you were from around here, you would be in an institution,> Zinc said.

Splay and Zinc led the way to the nearest museum. <It's a history musem,> sent Zinc. <It's huge. I've only seen the first two floors. Do you care if we start on the third one? It's organized by topic, not chronological, you can look at the floors in any order.>

<That's fine by me,> Rhysel sent.

Splay did something involving a machine and a lot of buttons on that machine; Zinc produced orange strips of something that looked sort of like glass paper, from her pockets, and fed them into the same machine. <There's no physical tickets,> she remarked. <Nobody here would just walk in without paying. The only reason there's a machine instead of a wide-open jar is so people with fund accounts like Splay can have the money taken out of their accounts instead of paying in cash.>

The inside of the building wasn't as preposterously windy as the outdoors, but it was well-ventilated and breezy. Talyn supposed Isateians might feel uncomfortable in still air. He couldn't make heads or tails of any writing Splay or Zinc weren't looking at directly, but he followed Zinc to a circle marked on the floor, which, when they stood on it and Splay pressed a button twice, floated upwards two floors and let them off onto a balcony.

Splay, conveniently for Talyn, looked at the label for the floor's contents. History of War, it said.

Zinc was reading the label too. <Actually, maybe I want to skip this one, it doesn't sound fun. Next floor is History of Religion!>

<I want to check out this stuff,> Talyn said.

<Me too,> said Rhysel. Fortunately, Rhysel wasn't trying elaborate subterfuge to pass herself as a war buff; Talyn had seen her trying to act and didn't think she was any good at it.

<Would you mind going through the floor with us?> Talyn asked Zinc and Splay. <I can use your understanding of the written stuff, but only if you're around understanding it.>

<Uh, sure, why not,> Zinc replied, and they went out onto the floor.

Within the floor devoted to the history of warfare, things were organized chronologically. Talyn started at the beginning, which had antiques: recognizable if strange ballistae and blades, a massive catapult, Isateian-shaped armor and tall dented shields. Roughly the sort of things he'd expect a war on Barashi to be fought with, except there were no ranged weapons with small ammunition: perhaps it was impractical to correct for wind with anything that weighed less than fifty pounds.

And then there were things Talyn didn't recognize, even when Splay or Zinc obligingly looked at the screens that displayed descriptions. Explosives and caustic chemicals and alien animals of war. A slideshow about battles that involved infecting enemies with diseases, attacking their water or their food or their air or their vermin. Explosives that aimed objects, large objects, faster and more accurately than catapults or ballistae.

And then it wasn't just futuristic, but incomprehensible: concepts related to physics that even Splay was little help in understanding. Custom-made germs, attacking lineages or subraces or people who'd eaten particular foods recently. Explosives that didn't just force apart shrapnel and structures, but also emitted what Splay settled on describing as "a kind of thing like light or heat", in a dozen types, which killed or burned or melted.

There was a long description describing how Isatei had once been conquered and occupied by a race from another planet, which served to unify the divided Isateians into a single cooperative society even after they rose up and made their conquerors extinct.

Isatei was looking like a better and better place to find a superweapon.

They'd wiped out the conquering species with another one of their abundant bioweapons, but even though there had been peace on their planet since, they didn't stall development of weapons of war. There were other species on other planets in their world, and Isatei was currently on friendly terms with all - but wary.

More exotic types of "things like light and heat". Research on attacks against calculating devices, which were sophisticated enough that enormous critical systems could be trusted to them.

The Isateians knew how to disintegrate planets, blow up stars, if that struck their fancy.

But that wasn't what had been done to Aabalan.

<Excuse me, Splay,> Talyn said finally. <Do you happen to work for or with the Linnipese government at all, in any capacity?>

Splay tilted its head. <I don't believe that would be a good description,> it replied. <Zinc, when asked by that government to work as a translator, wished to learn about our society from someone close to its own position in lifecycle rather than from an adult, and so a request was put out for someone of my age willing to take on this task as part of our collective project of working with Linnip. But my job is only to be available as its companion, and it could replace me with another respondent at its discretion without consulting its government.>

It was weird that Splay referred to Zinc as "it", but the Isateian language didn't have gendered pronouns available. Even language-independent mindspeech couldn't get around the fact that Splay wasn't encoding gender information into its thoughts. <Can I ask you a question?> Talyn asked. <It's important to me, so if I have to come up with something to trade you, we can work that out ->

<I would not accept a gift, but it remains interesting that you will, and I am not a storybook villain trying to indebt you through trickery. And the transaction costs of associating a system of micropayments with ordinary conversation were ultimately determined to be intractable, so typical questions and answers outside of the service industry must be held exempt anyway at most times. What do you wish to know?>

<Is there a weapon that doesn't explode, or leave any marks, but will kill all living things within a certain radius?>

<No, that type of weapon does explode,> replied Splay.

<What type?> Rhysel asked.

Splay led them back the way they'd come. <It is a small explosion,> it said. <The radius of effect is much larger.>

Talyn directed his next remark at Rhysel alone. <Large enough that they could sit it right on top of the ward and it would still get a space underneath.>

<The wards let light through,> Rhysel answered slowly. <Maybe they let this too. But wouldn't the explosion have been seen, heard...?>

<Invisibility spell, inaudibility spell. Just because this world doesn't have any magic of its own doesn't mean its stuff is immune to magic after it's been imported to Elcenia. The ward itself would stop it from scorching or damaging anything apart from the light-heat-stuff,> Talyn said. He resumed sending to Zinc and Splay too. <Is there a defense against this weapon?>

<Oh, yes, it's obsolete,> Splay said. <There are shields against it covering our whole planet.>

<Excellent,> Talyn replied, smiling.

Splay and Zinc weren't interested in continuing to show Rhysel and Talyn around the city after they'd finished looking through the History of Warfare floor of the museum, but Splay produced from a little bag it carried a device, which it somehow used to locate a tour guide for them. Zinc was willing to trade Rhysel Isateian currency for some of Rhysel's Linnipese coins on the spot, and then the four parted ways.

<I didn't get her name,> Rhysel realized.

<Does it matter?> Talyn asked. <She seems perfectly happy to go by Zinc. Maybe it's her nickname now since Splay has to call her that.>

<I suppose.> They followed Splay's directions to the tour guide. <Do you think it's safe to ask outright for what we need? If the society is so tight-knit and they're working so closely with Linnip, won't Linnip find out?>

<We could pay them for their discretion,> Talyn suggested. <They'll be completely trustworthy if we buy their trustworthiness at a fair price.>

The tour guide seemed to find both halfbloods fascinating. It readily agreed when Rhysel offered to pay it some more of her slips of currency on top of its usual fee in exchange for not telling anyone what they needed.

<We need to buy shields against the "neutron bomb",> Rhysel said, carefully copying the mental message Splay had used to refer to it. <Lots of them.>