Tradition says that the Native Americans sold their land to Europeans because they didn’t believe that anyone could actually own it. Supposedly, it was beyond the Native American’s comprehension that any one person could define boundaries, describe borders, and exclude others from using the landscape. — ed, N.E. Lilly
Captain Ellen Valtoni tensed in her seat as her ship approached Semantica Eight. From orbit, the planet looked like a seething mass of neurons intertwined with each other.
She stared in awe at the planet, wondering if this was it. Was it really her payday? Could she finally put her daughter Susanne in a good home and retire? Or it was a trap? Did the Obscurity want Valtoni to lead them to the planet? Either way, she had to take the risk.
“Any ships coming through the wormhole?” Valtoni said.
“Negative, Captain,” First Officer Quentin Chevaine said.
“Good. What’s our window before the wormhole closes?”
“Five, maybe ten hours at most before they detect out course deviation and move to intercept.” Chevaine leaned back in his chair and folded his arms. “I guess Cadrall’s information was accurate. It looks like a real Semantica.”
“I’m glad to hear it.” All the way through the wormhole network, Valtoni feared that it was another ruse. But then Alan Cadrall had been one of her most trusted informants. He wouldn’t sell her bad tips, even if it put him in trouble with the Obscurity. Also, he was getting a percentage of their find.
Valtoni folded her legs and looked away from the holoscreen. Like the other Semanticas, Semantica Eight was a planet made entirely out of organic meaning, built by unknowns beings in the distant past. Its origins had been lost over the millennia.
Fortunately, though, it was one of the few places in the galaxy that still had the true meanings of words, unaltered by the so-called benevolent government known as the Obscurity.
“Any Obscurity ships in the area, Quentin?” Valtoni said.
“Good. Then let’s move it.”
Valtoni released her belt and floated off the bridge with the rest of her three man crew.
An analysis of the planet revealed that true meaning deposits were on the fourth continent, north of the equator. Valtoni and her crew boarded their meaning harvester, detached it from the ship and flew down to the planet.
As they raced to the surface, Valtoni wondered if she could make enough on this trip. Susanne would need multiple surgeries to correct her spinal deformities and help increase her comprehension of words. Unfortunately, Valtoni worried that she wouldn’t have enough time to fill the harvester up before the wormhole closed. Maybe after a few more trips, she could sell the ship to Quentin and get a respectable job, far outside the purview of the Obscurity.
A few minutes later, Valtoni saw the planet’s moist, pinkish-gray plains and groaned. The planet’s surface looked horribly alive, with tendrils and tubes of organic meaning slithering through each other like snakes. It had the same gravity as Earth and an atmosphere composed mostly of carbon dioxide and nitrogen.
As they closed in on their chosen landing site, the crew scanned the surface until they found the thickest deposit of meaning.
Once they arrived there, Chevaine put the harvester in hover mode, then approached Valtoni and said, “Captain, I’ve been thinking”¦”
“Do you think we could give out the location of the planet to everybody? I mean, after we’re done here. You could give me the password to the comnet and I could—”
Valtoni frowned and said, “What for?”
“To help give people true meaning.”
Chevaine’s brow furrowed. “Why not?”
“Because I don’t want to give up our only real source of income. If we can tap this planet a couple of times, we’ll all have enough money to retire.”
“And what about everybody else?”
Valtoni shrugged. “I’m sorry, Quentin, but I’ve got a daughter to take care of and bills to pay. I don’t have the time or the luxury to worry about anybody else. And besides, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life smuggling contraband.”
Chevaine looked disappointed. Three years earlier, his sister had been killed because of a misunderstanding. And ever since then, he had an axe to grind with the Obscurity and their suppression of true meanings. They controlled almost every print and computer-based language tool on fifty worlds, and they had found and blockaded the seven other Semanticas.
If it wasn’t for Chevaine’s piloting skills, then she never would have hired him.
“So that’s it then,” Chevaine said.
“Look, once I get what I need, you can tell everybody about the planet,” Valtoni said. “But until then I don’t want the Obscurity breathing down our necks.
“We’ll encrypt the message and use a coded channel. They won’t intercept it.”
“Can you be certain of that?”
Chevaine grew silent. Of course he couldn’t. The Obscurity monitored all incoming and outgoing transmissions on all their worlds. Even if a message were encrypted, they could still capture it, decrypt it and track it back to its point of origin quickly.
“So forget about it and get to work,” Valtoni said.
“I can’t do that, Captain.”
Valtoni bit her lip. She never thought Chevaine would act like this, despite his grudge with the Obscurity.
“You don’t have a choice,” Valtoni said.
Chevaine’s face tightened with anger. He spun on his heel, strode to the back of the harvester and slammed the door shut. The other two members of her crew flashed her concerned looks as they prepared to tap the meanings from the tendrils.
All her crewmembers had come from impoverished backgrounds. In the Obscurity’s meaning-based economy, social status and wealth were determined by how many true meanings of words one owned. The rich controlled what words really meant, and thus they controlled the poor, who were given false and inaccurate meanings to many words.
She felt sorry for people like Chevaine, but there was nothing she could do about it. She was barely meaning-rich enough to understand most words herself.
Ten minutes after the conversation with Chevaine, the crew activated the harvester. It tapped into one of the semantic deposits and began tapping the true meaning of hundred of thousands of words. While the harvester worked, Valtoni had her people keep a lookout for the Obscurity ships. Although she hadn’t seen any follow them through the wormhole network, they couldn’t be too careful. Possession of any true meaning materials without government authorization meant long jail time and the loss of all of one’s meaning.
Valtoni bit her lip and checked her watch. Less than two hours before their window closed.
Halfway through the meaning tap, Chevaine returned from the back of the harvester. She didn’t like the look on his face.
It spelled mutiny in any language.
Chevaine led Rollins and Lukovich, the other two crewmembers, to the back of the harvester and she heard them whispering. While they spoke, Valtoni walked over to one of the communication’s console, typed in her code and locked out every communications system on the ship.
When they finished talking, they confronted Valtoni.
“Captain, we’re going to contact home and tell them about this place,” Chevaine said.
“No, you’re not,” Valtoni said. “I gave you an order.”
“I’m sorry, Captain. But I can’t obey it. The people have a right to know true meanings.”
Valtoni frowned and stepped back. Before she could act or say anything, Rollins and Lukovich grabbed her arms. Valtoni tried to pull free of them, but they held her fast.
Chevaine walked over to one of the consoles and tried to activate the comline, but he received an error and a request for a password. Much to Valtoni’s surprise, though, he chuckled.
“What’s the password?” Chevaine said.
“None of your business,” Valtoni said.
Chevaine turned to Lukovich. “Break one of her fingers.”
Lukovich smiled, took a pair of pliers from his overalls and said, “Which one?”
“Start with the pinky.”
Valtoni’s heart slammed against her ribs, but she tried to appear calm.
He grabbed her pinky with the pliers and snapped it back like a chopstick. Valtoni tried not to scream, but the pain was staggering. Tears spilled down her cheeks.
“The password,” Chevaine said.
“Go fuck yourself!” Valtoni said.
“Snap the next one.”
Lukovich’s face glowed with savage glee as he did so. The pain was so bad that Valtoni nearly threw up.
Does Lukovich secretly hate me for the all meanings I own? Valtoni thought.
“Now be sensible,” Chevaine said. “Give up.”
“You’ll run out of patience before I run out of fingers,” Valtoni said.
“Break the rest of them.”
Valtoni screamed as Lukovich did so. By the time they got to her thumb, she passed out from the pain.
She awoke in her cabin. Her bad hand was chained to a post next to her bunk. Rollins and Lukovich were standing near her.
“Please, just give him what he wants,” Rollins said.
“You’re all guilty of mutiny,” Valtoni said.
“And what are you going to do? Turn us in?”
“I’ll blackball all of you. No respectable captain will take you.”
“You’re just being selfish,” Lukovich said. “What about all the people who want true meaning?”
“I don’t care about them,” Valtoni said.
“Looking out for number one. That’s what you do best, huh, Captain? Don’t you know anything? Do you even know what obscurity means in the old language?”
“It means to conceal the truth. Which is what they’re really doing. They lie about everything right to our faces, and we accept it because we don’t know what they’re really saying. So just give us the password.”
“We only have a few hours before the wormhole closes. And if he can’t use this ship’s communicator, he’ll go back home and look for a secured comnet. It might take him a while, but he’ll find it eventually.”
“So why doesn’t he just do that?”
“Because it would save us all a lot of time and trouble if you helped us now.”
“If you don’t cooperate, he’ll kill you.”
Valtoni sighed and shook her head, marveling at their misplaced faith in Chevaine. Were men always so gullible? “What makes you think he won’t kill me anyway? He’s already overridden my authority and broke my fingers. It’s not much of a stretch for him to kill me.”
Rollins and Lukovich looked at each other. She could see them thinking about it. If she could turn them back to her side, there was a chance they could help her escape.
“Help me, and I’ll give you a share of the meaning deposits,” Valtoni said.
“No,” Rollins said. “If he comes in here again, he won’t stop hurting you until you give up.”
“Then do it already.”
“Fine,” Lukovich said. “Be foolish.”
He left the cabin while Rollins remained. If she could overpower him, then she could escape. But he was at the other end of the room. Also she didn’t have anything to throw at him or use against him. A heavy granite statue with a magnetic base was sitting on the table next to her bunk. However, it was just out of reach. If she could stretch out a little, she could grab it. But she couldn’t do it while he was looking at her.
“Rollins, help me, while there’s still time,” Valtoni said.
“Look, if we get out of this, I’ll give you all the meaning I’ve saved from my accounts.”
Rollins shook his head. “No, you won’t.”
“I will. I promise. What will Chevaine give you? Nothing. Except a one way ticket to your death.”
She saw Rollins thinking about it. Maybe without Lukovich, he’d be more willing to listen.
“Think about all that meaning. You could buy your own ship, a mansion—”
Valtoni sighed. It was hopeless. After a moment’s thought, she decided to try another tactic.
“Fine, Rollins. You’re right. I’ll give you the password.”
“What is it?”
“If you unlock me, I’ll type it into the computer.”
“No, tell me.”
Rollins walked over to the com system, turned his back on her and typed the password. As the com system reactivated, Valtoni grabbed the statue. He turned back to her and said, “Hey!”
He lunged at her, but she bashed him on the head with the statue. Once he was down, she took the cuff keys from his pocket, unlocked herself and chained him to the post.
Then she slipped out of her cabin. She heard footsteps coming towards her. Trembling, she looked around. A fire extinguisher was attached to a nearby wall. She grabbed it, pulled the pin and waited until Chevaine and Lukovich reappeared. When they came around the corner, she closed her eyes and clicked off the light switch.
“Fuck!” Chevaine said.
Valtoni opened her eyes and turned the lights back on. The sudden return of the light blinded them for a split second. She ran up and sprayed both men in the face with the chemical foam, and they screamed as they were blinded further. As they stumbled around, she smacked both of them in the head with the extinguisher and knocked them out.
Once they were down, she found some rope in a supply closet and tied them up. She went back to the bridge and checked the meaning harvester. While she was unconscious, it had gathered enough meaning to make her wealthy, provided she didn’t share it with the others.
She disconnected it from the deposit, activated the harvester and took off from Semantica.
A few minutes later, she reached the ship, docked with it and set a course for the wormhole. She made it through with a half hour to spare.
Later, she took stock of her situation. Part of her wanted to space the men for breaking her fingers, but she couldn’t do that. As much as she hated them for their betrayal, she wasn’t that cold-blooded. And besides, in a way she empathized with Chevaine.
An hour after she passed through the wormhole, she returned to them. Chevaine’s nose was broken. A few pinkish flecks of bloody foam dotted his face, though he had wiped most of it away.
“I should kill you,” Valtoni said.
“Then why don’t you?” Chevaine said.
Valtoni sighed. “When we get back, I’m getting rid of you. You can go and tell anybody you like about the planet, but you won’t ever get another berth on a ship again. I can promise you that.”
“How does it feel to be so right?”
“I never said I was right.”
Valtoni left them.