"In adversity, opportunity."
It was the Fleet motto, and Howie Garnish was trying to live up to it. Hold yourself together. Use your initiative. Strive. Never give up! But it was getting increasingly difficult.
"Captain Riff! Captain Riff?"
No use. The lines of communication were down. Captain Riff like the other surviving members of the crew had lost the power of human speech. His mind, subtly modified by nanotechnological intruders, had been converted to use the same incomprehensible gibble-gabble as the aliens. Only Howie himself, the sole human so far free from nanotechnological infection, still spoke human language. He was trapped in a solipsistic bubble, unable to communicate with anyone.
"In adversity, opportunity."
What opportunity? Why, linguistics, of course! Here was Howie, marooned in the middle of an alien civilization. The alien tongue was a code to crack. Crack the code, and maybe you would understand the mysterious ways of the alien mind itself.
Most incomprehensible of all was the sheer indifference of the aliens. The humans who scavenged a meager living in the alien city were simply disregarded. As if they were invisible. Not one of the aliens seemed to recognize that there were actually intelligent beings living in their midst.
It was now six months since the ship had crashed, disintegrating on the outskirts of the alien city. Since then, the survivors had huddled together in this huge, echoing building, through which the aliens moved in periodic tides, bent on their own mysterious alien purposes.
Obedient to the well-remembered survival manual, Lieutenant Howie had meticulously salvaged anything and everything which might possibly be useful: wire, paper, bottles, cans. He kept it all in his survival shelter: the box, made of laminated layers of a flexible brown material, which served him as his home.
"Analysis," said Howie, seizing his opportunity. "Translation. Interpretation."
The idea that he could actually alter reality through his own efforts was empowering. With amazing rapidity, he began to accumulate materials. On scavenged scraps of paper, he wrote down his linguistic data. The nanotechnological devices must have completed a partial brainwipe, for he found he could no longer read or write. No matter: he invented his own phonetic alphabet to record the semantic world around them.
Five days, ten. Ten days, twenty. Howie was flying. Genius burnt within him. Problems collapsed under the impact of his genius. He realized this was the crucial breakthrough that the sounds emitted by the aliens achieved meaning through a complex interrelationship with the aliens' hand gestures and the movements of their eyelashes.
Finally, Howie felt he had reached the point where he almost had the problem licked. By the time Earth came to rescue him, he would be chatting away as an equal with the aliens. He would be a guest on alien TV talkshows, a visiting lecturer at their universities. Why, he might not even want to be rescued at all! Confidence pumped through him. Another 72 hours and he would know he would have cracked the problem. He would have won the key to the alien tongue.
And then, unexpectedly, the aliens attacked.
The alien shocktroops came at dawn. They came in force, insectile entities dressed in fluorescent orange uniforms with faceless bubble helmets. Water was their weapon. With water, they destroyed the encampment of boxes, sending the surviving crew members scrambling in all directions.
The notes! Howie's precious researches! His self-devised alphabet! They would be swept away, destroyed! But there was no way to save them. The sheer bulk of his research material was too great to be rescued from this swift, brutal, unpredicted attack.
Try to reason with them.
Try to show them that he, too, was a rational being!
In desperation, Howie grabbed a chunk of charcoal left over from the fire on which he had roasted the dead cat. He attacked the nearest concrete wall, imprinting it with unmistakable symbols of his status as a creature of the intellect.
Mathematics: the common language of all intelligent beings. A language which must transcend any gulf, no matter how great. His salvation! Why hadn't he thought of it before? Deftly, he sketched out a half-circle, then marked the right angle which a triangle makes any time it attempts to fill that half circle to capacity.
"There!" said Howie. "I too have a mind!"
Then the water knocked him off his feet, and the shock troopers manhandled him outside and dumped him in the sunlight.
When he tried to return, uniformed aliens barred the way. They meant to exclude him. But what was he supposed to do? Plainly, they regarded him as a problem. Yet their manner of dealing with the problem was irrational. What was he going to do: abolish himself? If they were not going to kill him, imprison him or build him a cage, what could they expect? Inevitably he had no choice he would build himself another box somewhere else.
Howie rummaged in one of the voluntary taxation bins in which the aliens dumped their surplus wealth. From it, he extracted a discarded container which still contained a little of the familiar brown sugar-water, laden (as was often the case) with the remnants of melting ice cubes. He also found one of the mass-produced alien ration sacks containing (they often did) the bones of a small, unknown animal, some meat still clinging to the bones.
Nearby: a seat.
His plan: sit. And eat. And drink. And then, while his researches were still fresh in memory, attempt the memorial reconstruction of his ruined scholarship.
But there was a problem: his brain was shrinking.
Yes, it was indisputable. Even as he stood there, his brain was shrivelling and shrinking, contracting violently as it dehydrated. The alien nanotechnological devices had got inside his skull and were compressing the miraculous machineries of his mind. Already, his brain was no larger than a walnut. Within the chamber of his skull, his brain sat loose on a metal stand uneasily supported (through a mechanism he could not clearly envisage) by his neck bones.
Careful now, Howie. Your brain is sitting there loose. One wrong step and you'll lose it.
He could see it. If once his brain spilt from that polished metal stand, then it would go rattling down to the draughty spaces where the waters of his kidney echoed past the calcified architecture of his liver. It was terror, sheer terror, to know his vulnerability. Make it to the seat, Howie. If you can make it to the seat without spilling your brain, you might have a chance.
One of the aliens ran slap-bang into him.
And, as his brain spilt, Howie had the hallucinatory impression that one of the aliens actually spoke to him in an Earthling tongue.
"Get away from me, you filthy old bum."
So ran Howie's hallucination.
Then the momentary hallucination passed, and the speech of the aliens was the same old meaningless gibble-gabble. And Howie sat on the seat, listening to the minute scratching it sounded like rats chewing away at something inside the walls of a very old house as the alien technological devices began to build something inside his skull.
He had lost his brain. He could feel his brain very distinctly: it was lodged beside the herniated mass in his abdomen. No way to get it back. Never mind. In adversity, opportunity. He would figure out how to think without a brain. And he would translate the alien tongue, and make himself a master of the alien ways, and learn their secrets. And so, when the Fleet finally arrived, he would be ready for them.
"I may not think," said Howie, "but I am."
It was a position to fight from: a place to stand. And, given that, in time he could bend all of reality to his will.