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The Dohani War

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by Martin Kerharo

Chapter 11: Words

part 1

Des mots qu’on s’envoie
Des mémos et des mails
C’est au bout de ses doigts
Que s’envolent
Mes mots qui s’emmêlent
— Alizée, L’E-mail a des ailes
Words we send each other
Memos and email
From our fingertips
My tangled words
— Alizée, L’E-mail a des ailes
(E-Mail Has Wings)

The team of scientists arrived five minutes later. Once everyone was seated, Jane began to draw an image. This time it was not a photo. It consisted of symbols that looked like:


Dohani, which nobody had yet succeeded in deciphering. The problem was that the Dohani alphabet seemed to consist of an infinite number of different symbols. This had led to the hypothesis that each symbol was an ideogram or hieroglyph representing a word.

But millions of symbols had been recorded. That was an enormous number. Human languages used only a few tens of thousands of different words. And every time a Dohani base or spaceship was captured, documents were found with new symbols.

Somebody had even suggested that the documents that had been found were of a military nature and contained only a small sample of the Dohani lexicon. There would be at least a hundred million Dohani symbols.

Jane erased everything and put up a new line of symbols, longer this time.

“She draws symbols much more quickly than images,” one of the scientists remarked.

All the scientists were feverishly taking notes, each hoping to be the first to find the key to the Dohani language.

“It must take less bandwidth,” said Captain Lambert. “The symbols are not very large, and they’re monochromatic.”

Jane put up other lines of symbols and then turned to me with her serene expression. She looked at me like that for ten seconds. She got up and approached one of Lambert’s assistants.

The bodyguards tensed, but Charts raised a hand to calm them. He now knew that Jane acted logically and was not getting ready to attack; she simply had no reason to. And her serene expression belied any suggestion of violence.

Jane leaned over the young scientist, who tried to shrink back into his chair. Seeing two red eyes like hers looking at you could be rather unsettling. She slowly reached out her hand... and deftly relieved him of his electronic notepad.

“You see,” Charts murmured softly enough to avoid disturbing Jane, “she is dangerous but not unpredictable.”

She returned to the viewscreen with her booty. She looked at the notepad and then turned her attention back to the screen. She drew new symbols:

try to see if these symbols can be
decoded by the Klinn-Frantz method

“Hey, that’s what I wrote on my notepad,” the scientist exclaimed.

Jane concentrated again and moved the words to form a single column:


Then she drew a circle around each letter, one at a time.

Lambert ventured an idea. “That must mean she understands that our words are written in sequences of letters, that each letter is unique and independent, and that there are not very many of them.”

He tapped on his own notepad and showed it to Jane. She looked at it attentively and then wrote on the screen:


“I showed her the alphabet. She must understand it’s a list of all the possible letters.”

But Jane added something else:


“Oh,” said Lambert. “The problem of capitals and lower-case letters. She’s reminding me that I’ve forgotten a whole bunch of symbols. I’ll put the capitals and small letters side by side on my notepad. Maybe she’ll understand.”

He typed again on his notepad and showed it to Jane. Now she typed:


“Yes,” Lambert nodded, “she has understood. Capitals and small letters don’t change the meaning of a word.”

Everyone — even the guards — was so interested in what was happening that not a sound was heard. Jane turned and pointed at me, but instead of looking at me, she was looking at Lambert.

“Terrific!” he said. “She wants to know how to write your name, Lieutenant!”

I smiled. The first word she wanted to know was my name. Of course.

Lambert wrote it on his notepad and showed it to Jane. She copied it onto the screen: Dexter.

Then Jane pointed to herself. Lambert again wrote on his notepad and showed it to Jane, who added her name next to mine: Dexter Jane.

Then, without erasing the words, she drew a small photo.

“It’s Eliza!” Charts exclaimed.

Jane turned to him and gave him a serene look — for the first time. Charts smiled. She had guessed what he was saying.

“Doctor Eliza Doyle is a physician aboard the S-804,” I said.

Lambert nodded and wrote Eliza’s name on his notepad. Jane wrote: Dexter Jane Eliza.

Then she pointed to Charts. When she had seen his name, she added:

Dexter Jane Eliza

Then she added a series of Dohani symbols:

Jane Eliza

Then she erased everything. Instead she wrote: Jane [][][][][][] Dexter

“Hey, what’s that?” blurted one of the scientists.

“Easy,” said one of the bodyguards, “it’s like a crossword puzzle. What’s the missing word? It’s ‘loves’, obviously.”

Jane loves Dexter.

Jane had spoken to me for the first time. She turned and held my hands.

“Congratulations, gentlemen,” said Lambert, “Jane has just composed her first sentence in a human language.”

We taught Jane more words. The objects around us: table, chair, screen, lamp, glass, water, plate, closet, faucet, hand, head, eyes... And that led us to colors: red, blue, black...

Verbs were harder. Charts demonstrated “to break” by breaking several things. One of the scientists proposed teaching her numbers. Lambert finally explained the concept of infinity. Jane suddenly wrote:

Jane loves infinite Dexter

I smiled. Jane was indeed logical.

Somebody else suggested going further into mathematics: addition, subtraction, equality and difference. That was very useful, because a lot of definitions could flow from these basic concepts, such as greater, different, negation and so forth.

Jane drew an image of a Dohani on the screen and then a silhouette of a human. Once she had the corresponding words, she wrote:

Dohani ≠ human
Jane ≠ human
Jane ≠ Dohani
Dohani = +512
human = −512
Jane = +384

“She wants to tell us she knows she halfway between human and Dohani,” Lambert said, “that she’s a hybrid. But she considers herself more Dohani than human.”

Then Jane wrote:

Jane loves Dohani
Jane not loves human
Jane loves Eliza
Jane loves infinite Dexter

Jane liked some humans... But she hated all the others.

* * *

Now we were using our notepads’ voice recognition software to transcribe messages more quickly. Meanwhile, Jane wrote at full speed. That was how we spent the afternoon, making rapid progress as if to make up for the time we had wasted in the conflict with Redgger.

* * *

After the scientists had left, I kept Jane working. Actually she was learning our language rather than teach us Dohani. To the researchers’ great disappointment, she refused to translate several simple Dohani symbols they proposed to her. Since she knew how to express herself a little, she explained:

head Dohani ≠ head human
head Dohani > head human
head Jane = head Dohani
head Jane ≠ head Dohani

That meant that the Dohani and human brains functioned differently; the Dohani were more intelligent; Jane’s brain resembled the Dohanis’ but was nonetheless different. Human beings simply could not learn the Dohani language. And that was that.

* * *

Jane became able to express increasingly subtler concepts. In addition to making simple statements, she could ask questions. Her first one was: Dexter loves Jane ?

Of course I answered yes. I had not expected it would be a very important question for her. She threw herself upon me, took me in her arms, and hugged me tight, obviously very moved.

When I could breathe again, it occurred to me to ask her what message she had received from the Dohani when we were in the infirmary on station S-804. I had to explain to her the concept of “message”; it was quite difficult.

I feared she might refuse to speak to me, because the message was not intended for us, but she answered without hesitation:

message = Dohani loves Jane

That was all? That was it? A love note? The Dohani were really strange people.

She concentrated and put on the screen a much more complex message:

DOHANI LOVES JANE ((o|:/|\[o]O=| loves Jane
Dohani seeks Jane
Jane answer ||=(o)/[x]::>< loves jane
Dohani loves Jane
[o:o]/|/^:| loves Jane
/*/:-=([o]): loves Jane
((o|:/|\[o]O=| LOVES JANE
o)(/o[x]//|> loves Jane
Dohani seeks Jane
[//:O[])<>/|\: loves Jane
Jane answer Jane answer
((o|:/|\[o]O=| loves Jane
((o|:/|\ [o]O=| = sad infinite
(()//\[]:/^/ help Jane
=> Jane answer

Whoa! What did all that gibberish mean? It was not one message but several overlapping messages, some of which were repeated.

Jane showed me one of the Dohani words: ((o|:/|\[o]O=|

The word appeared three times — once in emphasis — to say he loved her, once to say he was infinitely sad. Jane displayed an image in a corner of the screen in order to avoid erasing the message. Jane pointed to him and then to the Dohani word. It must be his name.

Then she displayed another photo next to the Dohani’s; it was a picture of herself. She drew a circle around the two photos and typed:

Jane nest 753450911
((o|:/|\[o]O=| nest 753450911

A nest? Finally I understood what a “family” was for the Dohani. Apparently every nest had an identification number. The Dohani belonged to the same nest as Jane; in other words he was a family member.

She added:

X[o||()[[o]]::) nest 753450911
(*[::]/|\:=[()]\/ nest 753450911
[/]|o::\|/(=) nest 753450911
[x:x]//*x:x//)( nest 753450911
=[:][=]/|/x nest 753450911
o\o-|-\:/|\- nest 753450911

Jane’s nest had a total of eight members. A large family... unless it was a normal size for Dohani family units.

To sum it up, the message meant that a lot of Dohani loved her and wanted to hear from her. And that is what she had done aboard the shuttle that took us to the cutter. I asked her what she had answered.

human |o//*[]|[/]= ? no
Jane loves Dexter
Jane loves ((o|:/|\ [o]O=|
human <|<|o(:)o[/] ???
dexter = good infinite
Eliza = good
Jane loves Dohani
human ^|/=:(o(// ???
Jane loves Dexter

Intrigued, I analyzed her message. The most important thing in this text for her was — if she was telling me the truth — was that she loved me. I wanted to believe it. She showed me constantly how attached to me she was.

But why send that as an answer? I would have thought she would say something like “Here I am, on Station S-804. Come and get me!” Instead she emphasized that she loved me; she told one of her nest mates that she loved him, too. When she spoke of humans, she seemed to be asking herself untranslatable questions. And she said I was someone good and that Eliza was, too.

Eliza? Why did she mention Eliza in her distress call? It resembled less a distress message than a letter a girl might write home while on vacation: “I’ve met a nice guy named Dexter and I’ve fallen in love. I’ve also found a nice girl friend named Eliza. Love to you all and and a kiss to (o|:/|\[o]O=|.”

As usual, I did not understand a thing.

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2012 by Martin Kerharo
translation © 2013 by Donald Webb

Proceed to the Critics’ Corner...

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