Sunday, August 07, 2005

:::The Great Puzzle Part II:::

There were too many bones in the room where Professor Zamin had died. That was what the newspapers were all saying. The bomb had gone off in a forensic anthropology lab where several dozen skeletons were being examined as part of a university class. Ball bearings had been packed around the explosives, so now the basement room was a mass of burnt and broken bone fragments. According to the police, if it wasn’t for the witnesses that saw him entering the lab, they might not even have known for sure that Professor Zamin was in there.

In my cramped seat on the airplane, I reread the account of his death over and over again in half a dozen newspapers. I was in the air somewhere over the US on my way to the university in northern California where Professor Zamin had been studying the inscriptions. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was going to do once I got there, but I knew that I had to go there, to see the tablets, to try to find…

“Find what?” I asked myself. I wasn’t sure. I flipped through the last paper in my stack.

According to the head of the anthropology department, Mr. Price, Professor Zamin had phoned him the day before and asked permission to use the lab as a place to prepare privately for his presentation. Mr. Price and two of his colleagues had personally escorted Professor Zamin to the lab a half an hour before the explosion.

The death of Professor Zamin was being praised as a punishment from God on fanatical Christian and Muslim websites, but so far no one had actually claimed responsibility for the bombing. The police reported that they had several leads but had refused to divulge any specifics.

In the back of the front section I read part of an editorial piece about the Professor’s death.

What makes this despicable act of terror so tragic is the way it simultaneously destroyed not only the courageous man who discovered the Great Puzzle, but whatever evidence he had found to prove its authenticity as well. With the loss of that proof goes an extraordinary opportunity to unite people from different backgrounds in a way that would honor their differences. And since the Professor told no one the details of his discovery, we can only wonder what the exact nature of that proof was going to be.

That’s it. That’s what I wanted to find – the proof that I had been promised. I felt cheated out of it. Maybe if I could study firsthand the writings that Charles had found, I could rediscover it. The idea of a new myth that would unite instead of divide had taken hold inside me, and I was unwilling to loose the possibility so quickly.

Of course that assumed that the proof was in the content of the inscriptions and not some piece of evidence that Charles had brought with him. For a moment I pictured Charles as he had stood ready to leave with a bag clutched firmly in his hand. Could he have been carrying it with him that morning? Had I sat within grabbing distance of some ancient archaeological relic that had gotten Charles killed?

I closed my eyes and tried to relax, while in my head the memory sounds of sirens chased me into a restless sleep.


Back on the ground, I paused beside an airport TV that was tuned to a cable news channel.

“Once again, the police have reported that while all of the campus security cameras in the building’s immediate area were disabled, they have been able to obtain this image from a security camera a good distance away. The image, which has been enhanced to allow a zoomed in view, appears to show a man with a suspiciously large bag entering the building approximately one hour before Professor Zamin arrived. Unfortunately, the man’s face is not visible from this angle. Since there is no shot of this man leaving the building by the same route, police believe he may have left from another direction. Police in London are asking anyone who may have information about this man to contact them at the following number...”

I looked hard at the picture. Something about it seemed familiar. I walked over to the airport bookstore and bought a copy of a newspaper with the same picture on the front cover.

A few minutes later, I sat in the back of a taxi cab on my way to the university and studied the picture again. I couldn’t be sure, but… I closed my eyes and tried to picture the scene. I was sitting in the café in London, watching Charles walk alone down the street, his back to me. He reached the intersection and turned right. Another man walked into the intersection from the left and stopped. He was of medium height with a wiry build and a dark complexion. He wore denim jeans and a navy blue sweater and his hair was dark and a little wavy. He stared in the direction that Charles had gone, and then he tossed his cigarette to the ground, hoisted a bag over his shoulder, and hurried off in the same direction.

I opened my eyes and looked again at the picture. Whoever it was, he had roughly the same build and was wearing denim jeans and a navy blue sweater just like the man I had seen that morning.

Were the police on the wrong track, searching for the friend that was supposed to meet Charles at the café? Or was the man that followed Charles down the street not a friend after all? If the former, then wouldn’t that man come forward and identify himself so that the police could move on to other leads? Would I come forward if they were seeking information about me? It made me nervous just imagining myself as a suspect in something like this. This was not like Mexico, I reminded myself. The police in charge of this type of investigation had to be professionals.

I realized suddenly that I was frowning at nothing. I put my face in my hands and tried to rub out the tightness, but an underlying tension remained.


“This room has been turned over entirely to documents and reference materials discussing the Great Puzzle. Everything the Professor accumulated on the subject as well as recent publications by other scholars have been placed here. The only things you won’t find are the inscriptions themselves.”

I was standing in a small room lined with shelves and file cabinets just off the main section of the anthropology and archaeology library. The center of the room was dominated by a long table with wooden chairs and numerous lamps and a large copy machine at the opposite end. My tour guide was a graduate student named Alicia who had only just started working with Professor Zamin a few weeks ago and still seemed a little upset. Not that I could blame her.

“Are the inscriptions themselves available for viewing anywhere?”

“Before he…left, the Professor had them placed in the library’s archive for security reasons. Given what happened in London, I’d say your chances of seeing the tablets in person any time soon are about as good as my chances of meeting the people who wrote them.”

“I understand,” I said, unable to keep the disappointment from my voice.

“I’m sorry. Things are just a little crazy right now. But you know we do have the best enlarged photographs of each of them here in this room. They’re almost as good as looking at the originals.”


“Let me know if you have any questions. Oh, and you know that none of the materials can leave this room, right?”

“No problem. Thanks again for your help.”

“Sure.” She opened the door to leave, and an idea occurred to me.

“Actually, I do have one more question if you don’t mind?”

She nodded.

“I’m looking for a man that I think might have worked with the Professor.” I described as best as I could the man I had seen on the street after speaking with Charles.

“That sounds like Xabier.” There was something weird about her body language as she said this as if she was trying to be still. “Why are you looking for him?”

“Uh…” Damn. I couldn’t think of a good reason.

“Are you with Interpol?”


“Look, it’s not Xabier’s fault who his parents are,” she said, her voice getting louder. “And if that’s all you’re here for, you can just leave right now. This is a serious academic facility, and we have more important things to do than to waste time giving you a tour.”

“Alicia – ”

“Christ! I mean, I’m Turkish on my father’s side, but that doesn’t make me responsible for killing all of those Armenians! It’s bad enough the Professor is dead, but you people – ”

“Alicia, I’m not with Interpol!”

“You’re not?”


“Then why are you looking for Xabier?”

“I met Charles…on the morning of the bombing.”


“But I didn’t know who he was then. I’m a linguist. I used to teach languages, but things haven’t been going so well lately. Charles told me about the Great Puzzle. He said that it might be what I was looking for.”

The tension left her, and she gave me a sad smile.

“Anyway, he told me I should talk to this guy, but with everything that happened I couldn’t remember the name.”

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have just jumped to conclusions like that.”

“That’s okay. It’s been a crazy couple of days.”

“Xabier has been working in the field. I think he’s supposed to be back here on Thursday. Can you wait a few days?”

“I think so. In the mean time, I really would like to study the inscriptions – or at least their photographs.”

“Well, if you need anything, just let me know.”

“Thank you.”

She gave me another sad smile as she pushed through the door and walked back into the main library.


I spent that night sorting through everything that the library had accumulated on the Great Puzzle. Most of the information was in the form of academic papers written about the Great Puzzle or about ZL. ZL was short for Zamin’s Language, which was what they were calling the unidentified writing system on the inscriptions.

Besides the papers, there was a whole series of photographs of each of the inscriptions from almost every angle. These were kept in plastic folders inside a cabinet with numerous shallow map-size drawers.

Lastly, there was a shelf full of historical reference books from the main library. I guessed that these had been brought in to help anyone searching for the civilization that might have birthed the Great Puzzle or written with ZL. But from the titles of the papers I had scanned over, I didn’t think that anyone had found a connection yet.

The main library stayed open twenty four hours a day for the students, but by 3:00am I had to go get some sleep. I came back about mid morning with caffeine and trail mix to sustain me and dove into it again starting with the most current of the papers.

It quickly became apparent that whatever proof Charles had found had not been duplicated by anyone else. None of the other scholars had even come close to finding something definitive. There were just not any known references to the civilization that had created these artifacts, much less any good ideas as to how they might have wound up on three separate continents.

I put down the paper I was reading and stretched. If I was going to have a chance of finding proof of the Great Puzzle’s authenticity, I was going to have to try and retrace the Professor’s steps. I couldn’t physically go to each site, but I could study the pictures of the inscriptions in the order that he had found them. I would start from scratch with the first one, assume nothing, and translate it myself.


Two days later, I was making notes on a scratch piece of paper, when Alicia came in to check on me.

“How is your work going?”

I shoved my pencil behind my ear and leaned back in my chair. “Not that great...”

“Oh? What are you working on?” she asked, taking the seat next to me.

“Well, I wanted to start by deciphering the inscriptions –”

“And now you’re stuck with part of the translation?”

“Uh, no, actually – I finished that yesterday.”

Her eyebrows rose up and she leaned forward slightly. “You translated all four inscriptions yesterday?”

“Uh, yeah…”

“You mean you looked up each word in the vocabulary lists that the Professor published, right?”

“Nope,” I realized that she was frowning at me, “…but I did have to use the Sanskrit dictionary a lot for the first one.”

“Sure, I mean who wouldn’t?” she said sarcastically.

“Alicia,” I looked at her, “it was easy. I mean weirdly easy. I’m not bragging, or anything.” I pulled a photocopy of one of the pictures over. “Take a look at this. On the right side you’ve got the inscription in ZL, and on the left you’ve got the same thing in Sanskrit, right?”

“Yes. I’ve seen it many times.”

“Well, look at how they’re spaced. Each phrase in Sanskrit is on its own line parallel to the phrase in ZL that corresponds to it. And each word in ZL is clearly separated from the next by a thin clear space. All that you have to do is correlate words that appear on more than one line with their possible translations from the lines of Sanskrit and then make a few deductions about parts of speech and word order. This first inscription alone is enough. The other three merely confirm the validity of any guesses from the first inscription and add a few more words to the known vocabulary.”

“Wow,” she said. “I mean I understood the basic ideas, but I hadn’t ever tried to do the translating for myself from scratch like this. The Professor had already done it, so there wasn’t any point.” She crossed her arms in front of her. “You know, with most dead languages it takes months or even years to decipher the writing system.”

“I know, but I don’t think that most of them have a key this good to go off of. And it’s not just that – it’s also the language itself. The structure of ZL is so straight forward, so simple and logical, that it seems almost inorganic. For example, it takes only a change of one mark to transform a noun into an adjective or adverb. All of the rules of grammar are simple and there are no exceptions to them anywhere in the inscriptions. It’s as if the entire language was planned at once instead of evolving on its own.”

I rubbed at my eyes. They were worn out from too much peering at the inscriptions. “What time is it, anyway?”

“It’s just past 5:00. I’m on my way to grab a quick bite. Do you want to come?”


Twenty minutes later, we sat on a little hill looking down at a fountain on campus. Our food had come from a little stand on wheels run by a Vietnamese husband and wife who sold large bread rolls baked with spicy meats and cheeses in the center. To wash it down they had a lemonade that was sweet enough to give me a sugar rush but still made my lips pucker. It was cheap and tasty college student food, and I found myself heartily enjoying it.

“Phillip, I’ve been thinking about what you said about ZL,” she said through a mouthful of food. “That it seems like it was created all at once instead of evolving with use…”


“I think I know what you mean. If you look at English, it’s a mess of complex rules and exceptions that all got added to the language at one time or another because they made sense to the people that were speaking English at that time or in that place.”

“That’s right. And so far ZL just doesn’t show any of that chaos.”

She turned towards me and set down her food. “Do you think it could be divinely inspired?”

I swallowed and set my own food down. “What do you mean?”

“Well, there’s no evidence of a civilization that used ZL, right?”

“Except for the inscriptions….”

“Yeah, but those were found hidden away at sites that belonged to entirely different groups of people that already had their own languages and writing systems.”

“And since its structure is so clean and ordered, you think God might have created it?” There was an edge of sarcasm in my voice that I instantly regretted.

Alicia looked away for a moment before responding. “Phillip, I joined this project because when I read the translation of the Great Puzzle, I believed it. Yes, I’m a student of the scientific method, and I think that truth has to be discovered through evidence, but at the same time the message of the Great Puzzle makes a lot of sense to me. I really do think we have something to learn from every system of beliefs. And I’m not saying that I think God created it, because I’m not sure I know what God means. But it does seem possible to me that if the inscriptions themselves contain knowledge from something outside of our existence, then maybe ZL was created by that same something to communicate these ideas to us. Is that something God? Well, that’s what we are supposed to figure out. That’s the biggest piece of the Great Puzzle.”

“But why create a new language?” I asked. “If you are going to divinely inspire something, why not just do it in whatever languages the people already speak?”

“I don’t know. Maybe it was to keep the Great Puzzle separate from any one of those cultures – to keep us from fighting over ownership of it.”

“And the appearance of ZL on different continents does add some credibility to it all.” I took a sip of my lemonade. “Hell, now that I think about it, if the inscriptions had each been written in the local language, we might not have even realized that they were talking about the same thing. It’s like ‘pork with garlic sauce’ in Chinese food.”

“It’s like what?”

“On the English menus at Chinese restaurants, there’s usually a dish called ‘pork with garlic sauce,’ but the Chinese name for it is ‘fish smell pork shreds.’ If we read those two things on separate continents we might not think to connect them, and even if we did eventually realize that ‘fish smell’ meant that it was cooked in a garlic sauce, we would probably think it was just a big coincidence that they had come up with the same recipe.”

It got quiet for a minute as we both finished off our food, deep in thought.

It had never really occurred to me to believe in the Great Puzzle the way Alicia did. I didn’t tend to believe in any mythology; it was all just ideas to me. That’s what I had been looking for – an idea, something that could help unite people. I had not been looking for Charles’ lost proof because I wanted to believe in it but because I wanted something to make others believe in it.

All I really wanted was for everyone to stop trying to exploit each other and start trying to help each other. To do that, people had to understand one another, which meant speaking their language. That’s what I was trying to do in Mexico. But it wasn’t enough. Charles had told me that in the café.

Language is not enough – a new myth is needed for our time.

We were just getting ready to walk back to the library, when a man waved from across the street and trotted over to talk to Alicia.

“Hey, Alicia!”

“Hey, Carlos, this is Phillip. He’s doing some research on ZL.”

We shook hands.

“What have you been up to?” Alicia asked.

“I was just running an errand for Xabier.”

“Is he here?” I asked.

“I thought he wasn’t getting here until tomorrow,” Alicia added.

“No. He called me today, and said that he wouldn’t be back for awhile.”

“Oh,” she said. “Well, I guess you missed him this time, Phillip. Maybe you could send him an email, or something.”

“Yeah, I guess,” I said, trying not to show my disappointment and failing.

“So what kind of errand did he have you running for him?” Alicia asked.

“There was a package that had arrived in the mail for him from London. He had me ship it to him.”

A lightning bolt went off in my head.

“When did that package from London get here?” I asked.

“The day before yesterday.”

He had probably mailed it on the day that Charles was killed. The package could be Charles’ proof.

“Where did he have you send it?”

“To a post office box in Spain.”

“Do you still have the address?”

“Sure.” He pulled out a scratch of paper.

“Would you mind if I copied that down?”

“You can have it if you need it.” He handed it to me.


Alicia crumpled her trash into a little ball. “I still think email would work better than trying to send him a letter.”

“I’ve got to run. I’ve got a date with Simone, that French anthropology student,” said Carlos, grinning from ear to ear. “It was nice meeting you, Phillip.”


Carlos left, and we started back for the library.

“Alicia, I’m curious,” I said, trying not to sound too anxious. “Why did you think that I was from Interpol the other day?”

“Oh, well, it’s because they’ve given him a hard time before. His parents were part of the Basque separatist movement.”

“ETA, the terrorist group?”

“Yeah. They’re dead now, but his parents helped blow up something in Spain in the 70s. Xabier was just a baby then. He spent most of his childhood living with his extended family while his parents were on the run. He never had anything to do with ETA himself, but the police still hassle him about it. He has a lot of trouble every time he needs to get his visa renewed. It’s so unfair. Anytime something is stolen or vandalized they come to him like he is some kind of criminal. That’s why I was upset when I thought you were from Interpol.”

“I see,” I said, and I did. I knew what it was like to be on the wrong side of the cops for no just reason. But I also knew that if I told her my own suspicions, she would probably think I was just like those cops who convicted on suspicion instead of proof.

“So what are you going to do now – write a letter to Xabier or something?”

I looked down at the scrap of paper that Carlos had given me. “Not exactly…”


The next morning, I was back at the airport. I had one small bag that I would carry with me onto the plane. Inside it I had packed one change of clothes, a portable CD player, and a plastic shopping bag full of purchases from the bookstore. The flight to San Sebastian left California at 7:00am and arrived at 12:45pm the next day. The package was guaranteed to arrive at the Post Office by 3:00pm. I figured that once I got through customs, I would have less than two hours to find my way there in time to catch Xabier.

In most other Western European cities, this would have been easy, but Xabier was in a part of Spain that I knew barely anything about: Basque Country. A region on the northern coast of Spain that was never conquered by the Romans, Basque Country was known as much for its guerilla separatist movement as for its language – which was unrelated to any other in Europe.

Despite what Alicia thought, I figured it was highly possible that Xabier had at least some contacts in ETA. With the aid of such men, he could easily hide himself away. After picking up his package in San Sebastian it seemed almost assured that he would disappear into some small Basque village on the coast - the kind of place where no one speaks anything but Basque and everyone is suspicious of outsiders.

My plan was to find Xabier and follow him until an opportunity presented itself to search his belongings for the Charles's lost proof. It wasn’t a great plan. Just because I thought Xabier was the man in the picture entering the lab before the bomb went off, didn’t mean that he had planted the explosives. All I could do was watch him and see. If it turned out that he was innocent, then perhaps he knew something about what the Professor had planned to reveal.

To achieve this plan, I would have to follow Xabier through his home country without being fingered as an outsider or a foreigner. This would take something I did not currently have: a usable knowledge of the Basque language. What I did have, however, were two books on Basque for the individual learner, an English/Basque dictionary, a set of audio language CDs, and twenty hours and forty five minutes of uninterrupted flight time.

As my plane took off, I set to work. I started with the books for an hour. Once I had a feel for the basics, I listened to the CDs for half an hour to check my pronunciation. Then I started working through the rest of the first book, one chapter at a time. At the end of each chapter I would listen once to the corresponding section of the CDs, then move on to the next section of the book.

I have never tried so hard to concentrate for so long in all of my life. Time had become precious to me. I could not afford to let a single moment slip away idly. When I was not listening to the language CDs, I listened to classical music to keep from being distracted by the sounds of the other passengers. Periodically I would give myself a five minute break of absolute and total mental silence. I would slow my breathing, relax each of my muscles, one at a time, and let my mind float free of all thought and concerns. I kept up a steady stream of coffee, but I tried not to overindulge since I had such a long haul ahead. As the day turned to night, and the flight attendants as well as the passengers went to sleep, I resorted to making my own coffee as quietly as I could.

At the end of fifteen hours, I had made it through all of the chapters in both books. From there I began a combination of reviewing the vocabulary from each book (there was a lot of overlap there) and making my own word lists from the dictionary. Little by little, I had been filling in words in my thoughts with the Basque equivalents, and at some point I realized that I was no longer thinking in English.

By this point, my hand was in pain from all of the practice writing I had done, so I switched to the CDs. I began to have imaginary conversations in my head with the characters in the language dialogs, asking them questions then imagining how they might respond. If I thought they would use a word that I didn't know, I looked it up. From this, I moved on to thinking about what I would say to Xabier when I found him. Each of these sentences I carefully translated as well.

There was one flight attendant who spoke Basque. When morning rolled around, I put away my books for a while, and struck up a conversation with her. She was amazed.

"I didn't know you speak Basque?"

"I do now," I replied.

posted by D @ 10:16 PM |

I love stories - especially speculative fiction, and I named this blog Brief Glimpses of Somewhere Else because I think of each story as a window into another world.

If this is your first time here, I recommend "Legacies" and "The Great Puzzle", both of which were nominated for a 2006 Parsec Award. You can also find "Timmy, Jimmy, and the Beast of Tagmart" as well as "Late Shift at the Souleater" in the podcast anthology Voices: New Media Fiction available at

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