Future Tense

“Speaker”

What if hyenas and humans could communicate with each other?

A child and hyena stand beside each other staring into each other's eyes.
Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate

This story is part of Future Tense Fiction, a monthly series of short stories from Future Tense and Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination about how technology and science will change our lives. This story and essay are the first in a series presented by Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, as part of its work on Learning Futures and Principled Innovation. The series explores how learning experiences of all kinds will be shaped by technology and other forces in the future and the moral, ethical, and social challenges this will entail.

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On Thursday, Feb. 4, at noon Eastern, author Simon Brown and Iveta Silova, professor and director of the Center for the Advanced Studies in Global Education, housed under Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, will discuss this story in an hourlong online discussion. RSVP here.

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This story is the winner of the 2020 Sapiens Plurum short fiction contest. Sapiens Plurum encourages using fiction to envision a better future via innovation. The upcoming 2021 contest asks authors to imagine a future that connects the health of people, animals, and the environment. Visit sapiensplurum.org to learn more.

Akata woke before sunrise because a question occurred to her.

“What is joking?”

Samora, 300 kilometers away, rubbed sleep from his eyes and said, “Repeat?”

“What is joking?” Akata repeated.

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“Umm.” Samora sat up straighter. He realized the question could mark one of those turning points that Project Sentience referred to as Levers, a window to wider dialogue between Speakers. It was a word the Project always spelled with a capital L, as if those working there needed to be reminded of its importance. Samora played for time. “Why do you ask?”

“The day before you said ‘It was no laughing matter,’ and I thought ‘What does that mean?’ and you thought ‘I’m joking’ and I—”

“Whoa, whoa,” Samora interrupted. Left to her own devices, Akata could string a hundred sentences into one long, uninterrupted thought with a hundred conjunctions. Punctuation was something Samora suspected she would never master: Once she had a thought she expressed it, whether it was one word or a thousand.

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And that, Samora reminded himself, is why Akata was selected among all the others in her clan. She wasn’t simply the smartest of her clan, she was the most curious.

For a hyena, Akata was a genius.

“A joke is a way for one human to make another human laugh.”

“Laugh?” Akata sent.

Another word they had not discussed. “It is how a human expresses … feeling good … amused … “

“Amused?”

How do I explain this? Samora wondered. I’m supposed to be good at communication; that’s why the Project hired me.

“It is the sound your kind make when you are surprised by a lion or a human like me.”

“So a joke is a surprise?”

“Yes, but for humans a joke is a good surprise, not a bad one.”

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Akata fell quiet. Samora had given her something to think about. Her cub nuzzled against her stomach, looking for a nipple. He was nearly a year old, and still took milk when he could; he was the last of her last litter to survive, the other two had been killed by a startled cobra, but she would not name him until he ate only solid food.

“Later,” Akata sent to Samora, and ejected the human from her thoughts.

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Samora lifted himself out of his cot and stretched. He still found it hard to get used to being thrown out like that. Thinking about it made him smile. Now that was a joke. Here he was, linked to Akata through a pair of protein microchips inserted in each of their brains, and he was finding it hard getting used to the hyena wanting some privacy now and then. Ever since the Project had been created to determine exactly how sentience was experienced by creatures other than humans, the protein chips had been the key, bypassing language to get to actual mental processes and thoughts. It was a joining of minds.

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His bedroom door opened. His father stood there, his hands on his hips. “You finished talking to your dog?”

Samora’s smile evaporated; he looked up warily at his father. “She’s not a dog—”

“You really need to get out and get a life, son.”

“—she’s a hyena. Her name is Akata.”

“I don’t care if she’s a hyena or a poodle, and I don’t care if her name is Akata or Francine. It’s not right you spending your time like this.”

Samora frowned. “How did you know I was linked just then?”

“You mumble,” his father said.

“The Project pays good money.”

His father grimaced; he’d been unemployed for six years and didn’t like being reminded of it. At 18, Samora was the family’s big bread winner. “You’ve got chores to do.” He closed the door and left.

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Samora sighed and shook his head. It didn’t matter how many times he tried to explain what it was like being linked to Akata, it seemed his father couldn’t shake the idea there was something demeaning about the whole thing. Admittedly, some of the earlier experiments carried out under the auspices of the Project had been abject failures—as the tabloids his father read were quick to point out—but the protein chip technology was new, and science sometimes learned as much from its failures as from its successes.

He placed his open hands together, palms upward, and ordered the lattice network under his skin to link him to the Project’s mainframe. He made his report about his latest contact with Akata and signed off. He was about to dress and find some breakfast when the alert embedded in his mastoid bone buzzed three times; it was someone in the Project attempting to get in touch with him.

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He reopened the link and thought, “Samora Khune.”

He was expecting one of his fellow human Speakers or perhaps his immediate supervisor to come online. Instead he got the Project’s African director, Nawal Rayya. “Mr. Khune? I have an important task for you and your friend.”

When Samora opened the link, Akata was thinking about the day’s hunt. She was surveying her clan with her good right eye; her left eye had been damaged in a hunt when she was not much older than a cub herself; she had been wary of antelope hooves ever since. Which members should she bring with her today? Whitefoot, her favorite male, was still recovering from yesterday’s run, showing his years, so she’d leave him out. Maybe a small troupe today, 10 or so, which meant they’d be after something wildebeest size or smaller.

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Even though planning the hunt was routine for her, she was annoyed by the interruption; one of the foundations of trust between her and Samora was that she initiated the contact between them.

“What?”

“I need your help.”

You need help. This is a surprise. A joke.” She added the equivalent of a determinative by making a grunting, laughing sound. Two of her sisters who were sleeping nearby leaped to their feet and looked for the lion.

“No joke. We’ve lost someone.”

“Who?”

“A child.”

“A what?”

“A cub.”

“A human cub?”

“Yes.”

Akata sent the mental equivalent of a shrug. “Not ours, not our problem.”

“This is a test.”

Akata knew what a test was. She and Samora had tested each other constantly when the link between them was first established. If Akata had not passed the test, Samora told her later, the chip would have been taken from her.

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“If I fail, I lose the chip?”

“No,” Samora sent back, the signal emphatic. “You passed the test to become the Speaker for your kind. This is a new test. It is about working together as Speakers.”

“Wait.” Akata spent nearly a minute absorbing and thinking about that. “Working together?”

“Like you and other hyenas on a hunt. We call it cooperation.”

Akata understood that immediately. “You want me to hunt this cub? One of your own?”

“Not exactly. I want you to find the cub and let us know where it is. Then we will come and get it.”

“We don’t get to eat it?”

“Definitely you don’t get to eat it,” Samora replied quickly. “We want the child alive and back with us.”

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“How is this working together? We do the work, you get the cub.”

“We’ll give you two days’ worth of food. Eland or kudu, something like that. Much bigger than a human child.”

“We eat fresh meat.”

“I promise it will be fresh. You find the child, then we come, take the cub, and give you the meat.”

Her decision was immediate. “When?”

“Now.”

“Where?”

“Stand and let the sun warm just your good eye.”

Akata stood so the sun warmed the right side of her head.

“Can you see Red Rock?” Samora asked.

“Of course.”

“Without turning your head?”

“It is in front of me.”

“There is a road on the other side.”

“I know that.”

“There is a car there. It broke a wheel.”

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“A wheel?”

“One of its round legs. There are two adult humans there. Their child wandered away when they were fixing the wheel.”

“That was careless.”

“Yes. Will the clan search for the child?”

“You said you wanted the cub alive.”

“Definitely.”

“Then the clan will stay here, otherwise one of them will eat it. I’ll go with the one you call Fisi.”

“Your second sister?”

“Yes. She does what she is told. I will send when I find the … child?”

“Yes. Child.”

Akata broke the contact, looked at Fisi, and made a high-pitched whooping sound. Fisi’s round ears picked up and she came over. When Akata moved off, Fisi obediently trailed behind.

“More chatting?” Samora’s father chided. “The garden needs weeding. Now.”

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“The Project’s given me a special job,” Samora said apologetically. “It has to be done right away.”

“Screw the Project and its special jobs. I want you out there in the backyard right now.”

“We’re trying to find a lost child. Akata may be our only hope to find her in time.”

His father stared at him in disbelief. “You’re using a bloody hyena to search for a child? The thing will kill her as soon as look at her!”

“What choice do we have?” Samora asked. “Are you going to drive the 300 kilometers to the park and look for her yourself?”

His father’s mouth set in a grim line. As usual, when he had no easy answer or biting comeback, he blushed in anger and turned away.

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Samora took a deep breath. He could have handled that better, but he was getting tired of his own father ridiculing his work. What would he have said if Samora had been twinned with a dolphin or something without a backbone, like an octopus? Project Sentience had human Speakers communicating with nonhuman Speakers from more than 20 species. Sometimes the results were disappointing to say the least, but sometimes they could be spectacular, and Samora knew if Akata was able to help rescue the lost child, it would boost the Project’s reputation worldwide; that would mean more attention, more funding, more research, and more Speakers, and with more Speakers more species would be linked and the world would become an immeasurably bigger place. Instead of being confined just to its own view of the world, humanity would be able to see it through different eyes—and different senses altogether!—and perhaps, just perhaps, finally comprehend the full diversity, the wonder and the fragility of planet Earth.

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He closed his eyes and tentatively reached out to Akata without making direct contact; he didn’t want to distract her from her task. He sensed the wide brown land, the arching blue sky, the smell of finger and brittle grass—he smiled in surprise; he didn’t know dry grass had a smell—and animal dung. He could hear barbets and starlings in the sky, the call of a roller in a nearby tree, the grunt of a cape buffalo somewhere in the middle distance. He sensed Akata’s easy, distance-eating lope as she moved past Red Rock.

His father started banging dishes in the kitchen, making a point of doing housework. At that moment, Samora desperately wished he was running next to Akata, away from humans and houses and household chores.

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Akata stopped some distance from the broken car. There was another car behind it. Some humans were trying to fix the wheel. Others were scattered around, calling out for the child in their irritating gabbling.

She kept her distance, trying to stay as invisible as possible against the grass and ground. Humans sometimes shot at her; they were afraid of hyenas, especially spotted hyenas like her.

They would think she was hunting for the cub to eat it. Under other circumstances, they would be right. She paused and thought, would Samora think that amusing? Still, a young human. Easy prey. The clan would be happy.

But this is a test, Akata remembered. And one small cub wouldn’t feed the 50 members of her clan. The two eland or kudu promised by Samora would do a much better job.

So. The child. Find.

She started circling, keeping at least a good sprint’s distance between the cars and herself and Fisi. Fisi was edgy. She did not like being this close to humans. Akata made a low squealing sound, the sound of comfort between hyenas. She wondered if humans had similar sounds …

Something.

Akata paused again. She looked first. Nothing. She pricked her ears, heard humans talking and an eagle far, far above. Then she lowered her muzzle to the ground and sniffed.

Ah, there it was. Human, but not an adult. She used her eyes again, saw how some of the grass had been stepped on. And there a small toe print. Keeping her muzzle down, she walked in a tight circle. The scent got stronger heading away from the sun. There was a low ridge in the distance. An easy walk for a hyena, but for a human cub? Whatever, it is where the scent trail led. She grunted at Fisi and the pair started off at an easy trot.

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There was nothing for him to do except wait, so in the end Samora gave in and went out back to do some weeding. He knelt down in the soft, dark soil and used his fingers to dig out the root ball of the weeds. Mostly paspalum, he saw. Samora thought it was a pretty plant, but given its head it would spread everywhere.

“You’re out here now?” his father said from the house. “Your other job finished?”

“Not yet. Still waiting. Thought I’d do this.”

His father made a soft affirming grunt, the only positive sound he’d made all day. Samora returned it. Sometimes words didn’t do justice.

In the end, Akata wasn’t the first to find the child. She heard its sounds when she was still some way from the ridge. Sounds of distress. That was easy to make out, as it was for the young of any species. Akata picked up the pace. Fisi sneezed dust out of her nostrils and kept up. She knew Fisi must be wondering what all this was about, but she’d always faithfully stuck to Akata.

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As they reached the bottom of the slope, the child’s crying became more urgent. To the right, behind that rise … Akata bounded up to the slope and looked down. The first thing she saw was the human cub, pressed flat against a tall rock. It was bigger than Akata thought it would be; its head would come to her shoulder. She had no idea how old that made it, but certainly it wasn’t born in the last few months. She then thought that how humans aged was one of the things she should discuss with Samora, and then thought what a strange thing to think about at all.

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Change, she thought, and shivered.

The child saw her and screamed even louder.

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Fisi joined her, glanced at the child, at Akata and then back at the child. Her tongue lolled out.

And that’s when she smelled the other. She searched the dry rocks, especially the shadows, and found it. Another hyena. Not of her clan. Not even of her species—it was a brown hyena. A lone male, the graying ruff around his collar told her it was an old fellow; she could see he was thin and drawn even under his shaggy coat. He was eyeing the child, preparing to attack. She made a series of fast, high-pitched whoops, drawing his attention away from the human. Startled, he glared at her and retreated deeper into the shadow of a cleft, but the tension did not leave the muscles in his shoulders and around his jaws.

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The child sensed the distraction brought by the two new hyenas gave it a chance and it started edging away, but this only renewed the desperate attention of the brown hyena. Akata knew what was about to happen and even as the old male leaped, she jumped herself, intercepting him midair. They fell to the rocky ground in a tumble, Akata underneath. The male, startled, winded by her attack, shook its muzzle and tried to scuttle away, but they had tumbled together into another, steeper cleft and he had no room to maneuver, so he bit and scratched instead. Akata, still underneath, could only nip at the male’s muzzle and ears, but then Fisi joined the fray and got a good grasp of his neck, hauling him off her sister. He scrabbled with all four paws, found some purchase, and scarpered up the slope and away.

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The two spotted hyenas lay there for a moment, panting. Akata caught her breath first and levered herself out of the cleft. The child stared at her, bewildered, but no longer trying to escape. It shivered against the rock.

Good, Akata thought. I don’t want to have to chase her all over the countryside.

Fisi joined her, confused. Akata imagined her wondering what it had all been about. But how to explain?

Again, she let out a low squeal to comfort Fisi, then positioned herself between the child and any possible escape route should it change its mind about trying to get away.

Samora was piling the paspalum onto a dry section of the backyard his father used to burn garden waste. Give the heap a couple of days to dry out and they’d have a nice blaze going one night. He looked up into the sky. As hard as diamond. The dry season was here, and with it the cold. Maybe add charcoal to the blaze and then set the potjie on it, cook a beef stew. His father liked beef stew.

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His father came up behind him and clapped him on the shoulder. “Good job,” he said, and walked away.

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With perfect timing, Akata broke through.

“We found the child. It is safe. Don’t forget our food.”

“How did you find her?” he asked.

There was a long pause, and Samora wondered if there was something in the way he phrased the question that might have confused her.

But then she sent, “Delicious.” And after another long pause that saw Samora’s heart rate accelerate, she added, “Joking.”

Read a response essay by Iveta Silova, an expert on global futures and learning.

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And read 14 more Future Tense Fiction tales in our anthology, Future Tense Fiction: Stories of Tomorrow.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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