Few Words

“They don’t really learn to speak,” one said, leaning on the window post. “They don’t have brains like that.”

The other one shrugs, and throws some more food into the area. The largest one—Alpha, they call them—comes out cautiously from the overhang and carries it back into the shadows where Beta and Gamma are waiting. Beta seldom comes out; Gamma never does. “Does it matter?” the other says.

“They’re not thinking, they’ve just learned to associate certain sounds with things like food or water or cold.” One glares at the overhang, toward where the simple keyboard hangs. “Probably not even that; they’ve learned that hitting a certain trigger produces a—”

The speaker suspended over the enclosure blats tinnily: food! The other throws another handful of pellets into the area. “Isn’t that how language works in general? We associate this sound with that result, at first for concrete things like food or parent, then more complex things, more abstract results. But it’s the same mechanism. If language changes—” another food! from the overhang, and another handful of pellets rattling against the ground— “whether through passage of time, cultural drift, conquest, trade, or colonization—then we have to relearn the association, same as they would if we moved the mapping around.”

“It’s an illusion, though, a parlor trick. Time we spend trying to teach them to use our language, use our methods of communication, is time we aren’t learning theirs, time we aren’t spending in play, or training, or partnership. They have their own existence; this makes them just a worse version of us.”

“Maybe. But we spend so much time as it is giving them commands, adapting their bodies to our uses; it seems only fair we give them some way to command us in return.”

Beneath the overhang, the three huddle together in silence, straining to peer through the clouded glass of the enclosure. Gamma mutters, takes notes in charcoal ink on her tunic: one is distracted and pays little attention.