About the Story
This story was written especially for Beyond the Last Star. How could I not write a story for the last of the Darkfire anthologies, when my first professional sale was to the penultimate one? The title “Written on the Wind” echoes the title of my previous Darkfire story, “Wind from a Dying Star,” though the two stories have nothing else in common.The concept for this anthology was “stories from the next beginning; tales of the universe after ours.” But one of the unwritten rules of science fiction is that all stories, no matter how distant in time or space, must have something to do with contemporary humanity (the few exceptions, such as John Brunner’s The Crucible of Time, are generally considered “interesting experiments”). So how could there be a connection between us and the universe after us?
It didn’t take me too long to come up with the idea of a message encoded in the three-degree background radiation that is the remnant of the Big Bang. But what would motivate our descendents to send such a message? What would it say? How would they encode it? How would the denizens of the next universe go about attempting to decode it? And what would they think of it when they did?
I did quite a bit of research on the decipherment of dead languages. The real-life characters and stories behind our knowledge of Sumerian cuneiform, Egyptian heiroglyphs, and Cretan Linear B are every bit as exciting and implausible as any science fiction I’ve read. Luulianni, the main character of my story, is based in part on Jean-Francois Champollion, who was the first to decipher the Rosetta Stone. After he made his discovery, he rushed to his brother and exclaimed “I have it!”, then collapsed into a faint that lasted five days.
Naturally, if the main puzzle of the story was the decoding of a message from a long-dead civilization, the characters would all have to be linguists. This gave me a chance to play with language and its effects on communication — when people who have multiple languages in common converse, they select different languages for different purposes. I also wanted to write a universe with lots of different alien species, like James White’s Sector General stories and Arthur C. Clarke’s “Rescue Party.” So I did.
The editor, Sherwood Smith, responded to my initial submission by asking that the stakes be raised and that the decoding of the message have a distinct and dramatic effect on each of the different species I’d shown. I was surprised to find that it only took 500 additional words to add an interstellar war to the story, which raised the stakes quite satisfactorily.
“My other favorite [story in the anthology] was David D. Levine’s ‘Written on the Wind’, about an alien linguist working on translating a mysterious message discovered in the cosmic background radiation. The nature of this message is predictable enough, but Levine manages to make the revelation moving and sense-of-wonder inspiring even though we know what’s coming.”
— Rich Horton, Locus
“David D. Levine offers the well-crafted ‘Written on the Wind’ about non-human linguists struggling to decipher a message from the beginning of the universe. Luulianni fights bureaucracy to break the code with startling results.”
— Sharon R. Turner, Tangent Online
The stars were very small and very bright and very far below. Luulianni shivered violently from cold and fear, tentacle-tips clutching the tough transparent plastic of the bag that enclosed her. Her own breath was the loudest thing in the universe.Geeni swung himself from handhold to handhold on the station’s outer surface, the two of them turning over and over together as he went. She tried not to remember that only the firm grip of his hands kept the two of them from falling away from the rotating station, dropping just as fast as they would in real gravity — but with no bottom.
She reminded herself again that this was part of Geeni’s job and that he was good at it. He said he even liked it.
She couldn’t imagine liking it.
The only thing more terrifying than too much sky above was too much sky below.
Finally Geeni stopped, pulled open a hatch, and thrust her inside. As he’d instructed her, she waited for the light on the hatch to turn blue before unzipping the bag. She felt a pain in her ears, but she swallowed several times and it went away. The air in the tiny space was even colder than the air in the bag, if that were possible, and stank of oil and metal.
She looked through the tiny window in the hatch beneath her feet. Geeni waved a hand, and his voice came from the short-range radio in her pack. “How are you doing?”
“It’ll warm up soon. Check the systems like I told you.”
The compartment was a maintenance access point that could also be used as an emergency refuge in case of space suit failure. There was plenty of air and water, and a box of multi-species survival food. And most important, when she attached Geeni’s small portable screen to the data port, she had full access.
“Everything checks out. And it is getting a little warmer.”
“Remember, keep the window covered and use the screen for reading only. If you write anything they’ll know you’re here.”
“Got it. And Geeni?”
“Thank you.” She said it in the most sincere Turundi Modal.
“Good luck,” he replied in the same language and mode.
The floor creaked alarmingly as Geeni swung away. Once he was gone there was a pinging and tapping as various metal and plastic parts warmed up, occasional rushing sounds from some of the pipes that ran through the compartment, and the continuous wheeze of the airmaker. The air grew warmer, but not very, and it still stung Luulianni’s nose with the reek of rubber and electricity.
But the space was blessedly, refreshingly, small. And she had brought as much paper as she could fit in her pack.
She set to work.
Honorable Mention in Gardner Dozois’s Year’s Best Science Fiction.