“Talk Girl” by Wil McCarthy
My machine was different than Harv Leonel's. Extracting the quantum memories that cling to highly conserved biological structures . . . well, it's a dicey business under the best of circumstances, and Leonel was plucking the very lowest-hanging fruit from that tree. For the rest of us, he left either scraps beneath the table or luscious morsels far out of reach. Not that his journey was an easy one, or free of costs. Certainly not. And yet, in being first he was, in many ways, the mnemochronnaut with the least to prove. Which is a funny thing, if you think about what happened afterward.
The Ice Age he claims to have traveled back to is corroborated here and there by archeological or linguistic or genetic evidence, and our very cultural notions of those time periods are increasingly shaped by his experience. Who hasn't seen the CGI landscape reconstructions from National Geographic? Heard the lilt and jabber of the ancient languages he claims to have spoken? Who hasn't watched the movie, with Sidney Smith playing all five title roles?
And yet, nearly half of Real Scientists consider Leonel a crank, and his staff a team of either world-class chumps or third-rate charlatans.
"Are you ready, Beth?" Shirley asked me as I leaned back in the seizure chair. We were in my garage, heaped high with second-hand and scratch-built equipment. Was I ready?
What a question.
Like the Y-chromosome, mitochondrial DNA is handed down intact from one generation to the next, and so on, and so on, except that instead of following the male lineage, it's handed down from mother to daughter. My time machine was different from Leonel's because I was tracing back the past's other half. Its female half.
Are you ready?
Ready for what? For brain-damaging seizures, as the machine stuffs whole filing cabinets of ancient information through the narrow channel of my hippocampus? Ready for the incredulity of colleagues, and for a burden of proof that can never be fully and properly met? Regression science was a dicey business at the best of times, yes. With its track record of results that managed to be both unfalsifiable and trivial, and also yes a record of fraud and abuse and charlatanism, with a lunatic fringe trailing off into crystal-hugging nonsense, it was a field that could kill careers by mere association. It had arguably killed mine already; as I edged away from the pure study of mitochondrial genetic inheritance—as I began to wonder what quantum information might be clinging to that DNA, also handed down intact from one generation to the next—I found my funding sources drying up, job offers drying up, refereed journals increasingly refusing to publish my papers, even when they did stick to pure genetics.
All it took was a sentence here and there, in the closing remarks of otherwise sober scholarly articles: "Whether Harv Leonel’s findings can be generalized to other structures within the human genome is an open question, and merits further study." Just that! Science can be a jealous business, with far too many would-be practitioners and not nearly enough jobs in which to practice. A Ph.D. is a costly degree—seven years in my case, and some said I got off easy—and what it buys you are shitty postdoc assignments that lead, if you’re lucky, to shitty adjunct faculty positions. It doesn’t take much to push you to the fringes of the battle, put you out of the running for anything serious, or in some cases anything at all. Oh, that Beth Remert! Not very rigorous, that one.
And so I began to think, I might as well have the benefit of actually pressing the trigger switch on a time machine and finding out the truth for myself.
For myself. Funded mostly by myself, with just a pittance from the Mnemochronnautics Society, in exchange for the most detailed (and dare I say brilliant) proposal I’d ever penned.
Are you ready? She should be asking herself that question. I thought: Why are you here, Shirley Doaks? The pay is shit, and the benefits could be career suicide.
And yet, damn it, my machine was harder to build than Harv Leonel's. The Y-chromosome's three arms are close enough together to maintain near-field effects from tip to tip, and without a fourth arm to permit stable resonances that destroy the delicately entangled states of the human quantome. Mitochondrial DNA? Not so much. It forms a tiny ring through which vibrations can echo round and round, with no ends to stop at and no floppy joints to damp them. To stave off decoherence I needed to pull the information off ten times faster than Leonel had. Ten times. Think about that, yes: everything in science is harder for women. Thanks, nature.
My machine was more difficult, and yet in its own way a lot more elegant. I had the shoulders of giants to stand on, plus the benefit of ten years’ progress in quantum computing technology. And the benefit of Shirley, without whom I certainly could not have built even half of this equipment. Perhaps that's why she took the job—a challenging assignment in all respects. Fail big or win small; perfect for a black-lipstick-wearing contrarian.
"I'm ready," I told her. I meant something more complicated than that—something almost wordless—about fear of failure and fear of never trying anything at all, or never anything important or risky. Or of having taken the risk without ever really meaning to, and never even making the steep cost of it worthwhile. I wanted to tell her something about truth, and the yearning for truth that seduces so many of us into lives of humdrum, workaday science and then abandons us, with no money and no real accomplishments to show. No, that fate was not for me. Not this girl.
I wanted the Ice Age—I wanted the truth about it—and I wished I could communicate all of that in those two little words. I’m ready. Why does language fail us at the moments we need it most?
Whatever. At a loss for anything more meaningful to say, I pressed the trigger.
Harv Leonel described sensations of movement, of translocation, of plurality in space and time. I didn't feel any of that. One moment I was myself, in the seizure chair of a home-built time machine, and the next I was . . .
A little girl holding a piece of fruit, still chewing on the bite I'd taken out of it. My mother standing next to me.
"This girl likes this taste of this fruit," I said to her, and she gasped, and then laughed.
"Like?" she asked. "Like fruit?"
"This girl likes this taste of this fruit," I said again, then added, "This fruit tastes sweet!"
My mother's laugh was fearful, as if I'd said something disconcerting, perhaps even a little bit obscene.
"Baby . . . speaks," said Mother.
"This girl speaks," I agreed, wondering why she found it strange. I had spoken before. I'd made the noises that correlated to things and actions in the world. Never perhaps so many at once, but the words fit together. They said something.
"Girl speaks?" Mother asked, looking as if she’d swallowed a spider.
"Yes," I told her. "This girl is not baby." The word "baby" did not apply to girls who could speak.
Mother didn't like that. She snatched the fruit from my hand, staring at it suspiciously. She sniffed it, then cast it aside into the bushes.
"Bad," she said, emphasizing the word with a gesture of negation. She pointed to the tree from which the fruit had come. "No."
"Why?" I asked her. She'd plucked the fruit herself, eaten one and then, satisfied, handed another to me. I'd broken no rule, disobeyed no command.
"No!" she said, more forcefully. I’d never seen her like this before: distressed and vaguely fearful, but also confused.
"Baby, no. Fruit bad."
"Not baby," I corrected. Then I asked her, "What is this girl's name?"
Again, she gasped. I understood in that moment that I didn't have a name. Babies didn't have names; only girls and boys and men and women had names. This made me angry.
"This girl is not baby!" I screeched at her.
"No!" she said again. And slapped me across the face.
I shrieked at that, turning and running away into the bushes. She followed, scooping me up, and said, "No run! Danger! Home now."
I howled, struggling against her grasp, but she was strong—much stronger than I was. I could not get away from her. She had slapped me and grabbed me and taken my fruit, and I could not get away. I began to cry.
"Hush," she said angrily. Then, more kindly, "Hush, baby. Home now."
I remained silent after that, unsure how or why my words had upset her.
I didn't speak again for several days, and when I did, it was among fellow young children. Two boys and I were throwing pebbles at a beetle, and I said to them, "This girl likes throwing pebbles."
The boys stopped what they were doing, gawked at me, and then laughed. Not cruelly or nervously, but simply as though I'd said something amusing.
"Throw!" one of them said.
"Like pebbles," said the other.
I didn't know what to make of this. Did they not also like throwing pebbles? They certainly seemed to. Why would it be strange to say so?
"Do these boys like to throw pebbles?" I asked them, for they had no names that I'd ever heard.
Again, they laughed.
"Throw pebbles!" one of the them said.
I stopped talking then, unsure what to make of any of this.
The next time I spoke, I sang. It was a few nights later, around the communal fire near the center of the village, and one of the men—not my father—sang a song that went, "Love, love, love. Love love love. Love love love. Love, love, LOVE!"
I liked the song, so without really thinking about it I added a verse of my own: "Love is in this girl's tummy. Love is in this girl's TUMMY!"
The tummy, it seemed to me, was where love and other emotions were felt.
The campfire chatter of the village fell silent. All eyes were on me. I shrank.
Then someone laughed, and someone joined her, and in another moment, everyone was happy. Was that me? Had I had made everyone happy? How? Why? It didn’t make sense to me.
"Talk girl," someone said, and everyone laughed at that, too. They pointed to me and said it again. Talk girl, talk girl. Not a taunt, but a name. They were naming me. But what a strange name! I knew my mother’s name was Nik-Nik, and my father was Brog. These were not words, they were names. Could a name be made of words? I shook with strange emotions, saying nothing, but taking in the sensation of the people’s joy, which I had somehow brought about.
It was several more days before I spoke again, and several weeks before I sang. And yet, it became increasingly normal for me to do both things—sometimes in the same breath. Over a period of many days the people of my village came not only to accept this about me, but to celebrate it. I was Talk Girl—of course I should talk!
Even at such a young age (I must have been about three years old, certainly no older than just-barely four), I soon became aware, and then frustrated, that no one else in the village ever seemed to talk or sing back to me. Not really. They knew all the same words I did, and indeed for a time, many of the adults knew more words than I did. But they seemed unable to string them together except by twos and, rarely, threes.
And here it occurred to me, as Beth Remert, the neurogeneticist and mnemochronnaut, that these people seemed to think in nouns and verbs and (more rarely) adjectives, rather than in thoughts per se. I, alone, could give voice to all the nuanced relationships between the objects and actions of the world, which seemed so evident to me. All the things worth talking and singing about! The people around me seemed to understand speech, to nod appreciatively when my words correctly described what they wanted or hoped, or when I helped them tell a story about what had happened to them that day.
"You walked to the river and caught some frogs? Yes? Did you cook them? Were they delicious?"
Even if they couldn’t tell their own stories, they could, with scattered words and gestures, supply me with enough information to tell it all for them, and this seemed to please everyone—even Mother.
It occurred to me (or rather, to Beth Remert) that I would grow up to be Talking Woman, Harv Leonel's mythical first human. Or rather, the first neurologically modern human. This thought amazed me, but fleetingly, for a fraction of a moment, and then Beth Remert was gone, and only Talk Girl remained.
And as Talk Girl, I found myself growing increasingly bored. I spoke to everyone—my parents, my cousins, my neighbors—trying to draw more words from them. I might ask, "Why is today hot, Father?" or "When will Mother return from gathering?" and I would get back answers like "Hot sun" or "Afternoon," and that would be that. The only real answers were the ones I said for them. The only stories were the ones I told myself.
I became frustrated, and then lonely, and then I began—by inches and stages—to fall into a kind of toddlerish depression. "What is, is," I would tell people, when they tried to speak their stories through me. What good was speaking, anyway?
Until one day, a new thought occurred to me. The day I had first spoken complete thoughts, mother had given me a piece of fruit and then angrily taken it away. Had the fruit been responsible? I knew that some foods could make you full, some could make you thirsty, and rather a lot of them could make you sick, because they weren't really foods at all. The world was full of berries and toads and bugs that would make you vomit. Could there also be fruits that would make you talk? My mother had also eaten the fruit, and she had not learned to speak, but perhaps she was too old? Some things, like milk and mush, were only for children. Could there be fruits that would make only children talk?
This seemed plausible enough to me, given the large number of obvious differences between adults and children, and so I began to formulate a plan around it.
"We should eat fruit," I would say to the older children I encountered around the village. Not children my own age, who were not allowed to wander, but boys old enough to carry a spear, and girls old enough to carry a knife and digging stick. Boys and Girls who could take me where I wanted to go.
If they said anything at all, I would grasp their hand and close it into a fist. "Fruit is this big. Fruit is red and yellow and purple. Where is this fruit?"
To this they would sometimes laugh, and sometimes shrug, and sometimes snatch their hands away and scold. But on my third day of trying, I found a boy who nodded and said, "Yes. Fruit. There."
He waved in a general direction.
"We go there?" I asked him excitedly. "We eat fruit? Fruit is good. Mmm!"
The boy, whose name was Dak-Dak, looked suspicious at this.
"Talk Girl knows this fruit. This fruit is good. Talk girl wants to share this fruit."
That seemed just barely good enough to assuage his suspicion, so he nodded, and asked permission from one of the village elders to take me for a walk. Permission was granted, and off we went.
Bugs and frogs and birds sang in the trees, as if wishing me good fortune. The walk was long, and so I composed a song of my own: "Talk Girl shares fruit. Talk girl shares fruit with Dak-Dak. Talk girl shares FRUIT!" I sang it over and over, until Dak-Dak told me to stop, at which point I simply hummed it, unable to contain my excitement.
Finally, we arrived at a tree bearing the fruit. Not the same one my mother had plucked from, but similar enough.
I tried to pick a fruit for myself, they were too high for me to reach.
"Help me," I said to Dak-Dak.
Obligingly, if somewhat annoyedly, he picked two fruits, handing one to me and taking the other for himself.
I bit into mine. "Mmm! Fruit is good! Dak-Dak should eat this fruit!"
As myself, Beth Remert, I thought, it's not an apple. In the legends related by Harv Leonel, he had used the word "apple", but he hadn’t seen it for himself. He’d landed several generations too late for that, and then several thousand generations too early. This fruit was something more like a pear, but fatty, too, like an olive or a coconut. I knew I had to remember this! Perhaps something resembling this still existed in the world, as corroborating evidence! It was only the increasing body of corroborating evidence that saved Leonel from 100% crank status, and I would need something. But again, this thought was fleeting.
Dak-Dak eyed both me and the fruit, now skeptical again. Here was a strange thing; sometimes my words could convince people to do things, or accept things. Other times, they seemed to have the opposite effect. Had I said something wrong, or in the wrong way? I had no elders to teach me this, and it sorely confused me.
"It’s good," I said, more quietly, then ate the rest of mine.
Frowning, Dak-Dak sniffed the fruit before taking a small bite. Then, finding that acceptable, he took a larger bite.
"Mmm?" I asked him.
"Mmm," he answered. Yes, the fruit is good.
"Can Dak-Dak talk now?" I asked him. Because for me it had happened that fast.
"Talk," he said vaguely.
For me, the fruit had worked immediately, which meant that it wasn't working for Dak-Dak. Was he too old? Was the whole idea simply wrong? Frustrated, I closed my eyes and began to cry. Never had I felt so alone.
And then I did feel a sense of dislocation, and movement, and then a dizzying rush of acceleration. What was happening?
I opened my eyes again, and then, in a sudden, fluttering moment I was Beth Remert, neurogeneticist, lying back in the seizure regression chair in my garage. Blinking against the tears that were still leaking from my eyes. Somehow feeling both lost and found, at home in my own body and yet also a stranger.
"Oh my God!" I said to Shirley Doaks. "Send me back! Send me back!"
"What?" she asked, because from her point of view I'd only lost consciousness for a few seconds.
"Increase the field strength! Send me back there! Oh, God, Shirley, I saw Talking Woman, somewhere in Ancient Africa. I was Talking Woman! For God's sake, send me back!
"Hold on. What?"
We went back and forth like that for a few iterations, until I finally persuaded her to start fiddling with the controls. Field strength! Write head gain! She even got down into the BIOS of my laptop and doubled the CPU clock speed. All to no avail. In that peculiarly Quixotic way of mnemochronautics, our experiment in quantome memory extraction had ended. We had, in Leonel’s parlance, "reached the end of the tape,", and despite a dull day of effort (for my journey had taken place at 9:15AM) nothing we tried could extract or inject even one more instant of recovered memory. The past was, once again, closed to me.
How I envied Harv Leonel that day! Oh, who am I kidding? I envy him still, and the years he spent in the Antediluvian world. Before the Flood, before the end if the Ice Age and the start of recorded history. Leonel had seen the Flood with his own two eyes, or rather the eyes of a theretofore legendary ancestor. He’d consorted with trolls, and witnessed the first ocean crossing, a million years before humans had even learned to sew. Oh, damn. What were a few weeks in Eden, compared to that?
Or perhaps I’ve got it wrong; perhaps even five seconds in Eden is worth all the prices I’ve paid. It may be true that my own experience—less consequential than Leonel’s and yet somehow even more controversial—serves only to tantalize believers and draw the scorn of critics, while proving nothing. The "apple" was most likely Dacryodes edulis, the atanga or "bush pear" of Cameroon, but so what? Skeptics will tell you I could have known that before building my machine. I could have made it up.
But I didn’t. Right? Believe me or not, as you see fit, but in any case, I know it happened. I know I caught a real glimpse of the real world in Antediluvian times, and on my better days I sometimes find that's enough.
And, you know, sometimes not.
Perhaps someday we’ll really really tame this science, and all of us will know for sure what really went on in the ancient world. Until that day, we’re like Talking Woman herself—able to share our experience with others, but not to grant it. And perhaps that’s better than the alternative; my greatest fear is not that I’ll be proven wrong (which I know is impossible), but rather that my life will serve only as a footnote to some greater truth, first revealed by someone luckier than myself. Or perhaps that has happened already, but as Talk Girl would say, with wisdom far beyond her years and far beyond her era, "What is, is."
—Bethany Remert, Dallas TX
Copyright © 2019 Wil McCarthy
"Talk Girl" is set within the world of Wil McCarthy’s novel Antediluvian, out in October 2019 from Baen Books. McCarthy is a former contributing editor for WIRED magazine and science columnist for the SyFy channel, where his "Lab Notes" column ran for ten years. His short fiction has graced the pages of magazines like Analog, Asimov's, WIRED, and SF Age, and his novels include Bloom, The Collapsium (a national bestseller), and To Crush the Moon. He has also written for TV, and appeared on the History Channel and the Science Channel. In addition to fiction and journalism, McCarthy also writes patents for a top law firm in Dallas.