Alone on Fourteen
by A.Y. Tanaka
I sipped some Stryne's and squinted at the coded pages sprawled across my desk, scattered alph/math-like characters, almost clear if 45 meant "forty-five" or something else: "truth" or "evidence" or "seventeen" or "delusion."
It wasn't my desk, not by law or spirit or deep thought, and who-knows-Whom could take it from me, or me from it, quicker than a Tim halfskunked on peewees signs up buddies.
My eye/eyes, depending on the blur, flew every few pages over the f of wordf, w2ord7f, wor27df. (The original spellings are still classified.) Now find a written language (all right, then, Earth language) with such a one-character suffix. Too many, I suspected, as I reached for the Handbook. If each f was its own item, not shorthand for --
I checked my IDs hadn't been stolen, practiced on the office door-trigger, edged out into the corridor, looked both ways to make sure. To make sure.
Instinct, not the confusing floor map, found our level's Hands Office, Fourteen's lending library for solid-state equipment carried Off by Hand. It took time to learn to use their dedicated stylus to burn the yes/no holes on the membership application and the requisition form. A nuisance, but it reminds us we're not plants. I returned with a still-usable ComputerHand write/draw flatpad and its kit of buffered lightpens.
How -- here we go, dial SUFFIX, set language codes at OPEN, waste five or six sample scratches (press TEST first) -- Things deep within the flatpad chimed, and the yes-mantissa light came on:
AUBREY BEARDSLEY, MATURE: 80% GENT MONTH,
probably Gentlemen's Monthly, the magazine that carried most (80%?) of his illustrations, with the dense cross-hatching in the shadows. The ComputerHand had paired my style with an approved master's. A good start for you. A great way to encourage or swindle you.
Now the suffix. I drew a free-flow f, neat; drew a second, jagged; drew a third, a vague line curving north, bending east, and the flatpad's soul chimed, the yesm alive:
-INGTON (GREGG (N)WT)
Well I'll be -- and remembered all the things I'd be.
So our f somehow made do for the Gregg shorthand-squig "ington" in (neo-) Western Teutonic. Any prime-squig to the left of this suffix-squig would provide the enfranchising Wash-, Wilm-, Padd-, Cov- or Buff-. (Transparent by design perhaps, so we'd lower our guard.)
Or was he after "ton" alone, for contexts rich in weights and measures and marketplace life?
Encouraged by f and (ing)ton, I spotted a second clue, an underscore trailing a word-like item ([word]__) or standing alone (__). On the flatpad I drew it as a short level line, which sparked no chime/light. My hand cramped, forced the curve northeast, which did it:
-INGHAM (GREGG (N)WT),
"ham" standing out short and uncomplicated like "ton," also likely in food and marketplace contexts.
Item -:t seemed a clue, then evaporated. For a moment tg and r%h promised but failed. For ne the key was to vary the hump of n, the loop of e, till:
CLEAR (GREGG (N)WT),
not sure if "clear" meant "terminate" or "transparent."
The correspondent's lw was deceptive, being not one squig, but two. False starts showed l not "one" but lowercase L. I looped it bloated, narrow, vertical and oblique, with oblique the kicker:
DEEP (GREGG (N)WT),
a reference to level Fourteen, or to bottomlessness, deep trouble.
The w took longer; perhaps the correspondent had something else in mind. But after a few awkward, unstable w, the chime/light responded:
THOUGHT (GREGG (N)WT),
as in "I thought, but --"
My skin tingled with cleverness, but I found no more Gregg-based clues, eyes blurry by now. The correspondent used mixed-batch clues, no single simple skeleton key for the whole castle. He was skipping key to key, teasing, showing off, like Dr. Ohm pointing out which lizard was in heat.
Odd, for a cold-blooded reptile.
Story © copyright 1999 by A.Y. Tanaka <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Illustration "Patch_code_dragon" © copyright 1999 by Romeo Esparrago <email@example.com>
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