Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


Originally published in Perihelion Science Fiction. Free science fiction stories, science articles, comic strips, reviews, and more, on the Internet. Every month, Perihelion presents solid stories with strong plots, intriguing characters, with a sense of wonder reminiscent of the classic science fiction pulp magazines from the ’60s and ’70s. Artwork is by award winning illustrators. Articles are by experts in their fields. Established in 1967, originally as a print magazine, by Sam Bellotto Jr. and Eric M. Jones, the magazine was revisioned in 2012 as an online publication, and has been published regularly every month since. For the best in entertainment and information, bookmark Perihelion on your favorites list.

Copyright © 2013 by Ken Liu.

You’ll Always Have

the Burden With You

By Ken Liu

“BUT IT’S LURA!” FREDDY SAID. “And getting to study under Dr. Thaddeus Clovis! He was the thesis advisor for my thesis advisor. The man founded the field of Luran xenoarchaeology. You could be there when we make a discovery that would change life as we know it.”

He spoke as if it was already decided, but Jane wasn’t so sure.

“Come on,” he added before she could argue. “I want you to come with me. You’ll love it.”

Like most people, Jane had grown up seeing pictures of Lura’s sea of dunes and austere, sand-blasted ruins. The spiraling stone towers, reaching high into the sky from the desert floor like the fingers of a man sinking into quicksand, evoked feelings of sorrow and regret, a lost paradise.

But she wasn’t one of those people who devoured popular books about Luran spirituality and she didn’t watch those endless programs about the mysteries of the Luran people (“Did Luran astronauts come to Earth to build the Mayan pyramids? We find out after the break.”). She had just gotten her degree in accounting, and she held in her hands the offer letter for a coveted internship at a big accounting firm’s New York office so that she could get started on qualifying for her CPA license. They’d skipped her news for his, and now Freddy was essentially asking her to put her life on hold for a year. Who knew if she would get another opportunity as good when she came back?

But the thought of being away from Freddy for a full year wasn’t appealing either. She had seen too many long-distance relationships fall apart to believe that she and Freddy would be an exception. Love did require sacrifices sometimes, didn’t it? (But why did it always have to be the woman?)

Walking back to the apartment, they passed a street preacher, proclaiming a quote from the Saga of Lura:

Aruson and Bylus spoke together: “We two, of equal strength and valor, vow to share this adventure.” Years passed, and the Burden of Life weighed heavily on the men, and Aruson, being the older, wished to confront the Authority at the Platinum Gates. But Bylus was reluctant, saying, “This is not yet the time.” Ignoring his friend, Aruson went to the Authority to seek a duel. “No,” said the Authority. “Bylus must stand by your side, or you’ll not stand at all.” Aruson was despondent. But Bylus appeared and held out his limbs: “Come, if we must fight the Authority, we will fight Him together.”

“See,” Freddy said, “this is a sign.” Jane rolled her eyes but smiled.

She did some research and found out that in Xeph, the largest human settlement on Lura, you could qualify for a CPA license after only one year of working experience, far less time than other jurisdictions, and the license would be recognized back on Earth. This clinched the deal. She’d get a head start on her career, and get to spend some time on an exotic world with Freddy. Really, all she had to do was to find the right job in Xeph.


As the shuttle from the jumpship approached Xeph, Jane pressed her nose up against the window while they skimmed over the ruins in the desert west of the city—concentric circles, curves, squares made of stones half-buried in the sand.

The Great Tower, a helix spiraling a thousand meters into the sky, loomed high to the left of the tiny shuttle and cast two long shadows pointing away from the twin suns of Lura. The shadows seemed to Jane the hands of a giant clock, counting down to the heat death of the universe. Further away, other, smaller spiral towers echoed the scene, hubs of their own clocks.

Large, oval-shaped holes penetrated the towers at different heights and from different directions. As the wind blew through them, they produced long, sustained notes that changed with the angle and strength of the wind, an otherworldly music that sounded like whale song, like an organ played by God. Jane felt the very structure of the shuttle itself vibrating in harmony with the famed Wind Song of Lura. The lighter gravity of Lura made her feel as though she was floating on the waves of the alien music.


The expedition’s field camp was to the east of Xeph, four hours away by flier. Once every week, when Freddy had a day off, he would come back to Xeph from the excavation and spend the day with Jane.

The weather around Xeph during the day was pleasant, if a little too hot for humans to be completely comfortable. They visited the gaudy temples and campy Luran-themed tourist traps, mostly for the air conditioning.

The Church of Our Lady of Xeph featured an animatronic recreation of a living Luran. The artist had relied on older sketches from the First Expedition, and the result was something like a giant crystalline spider with ten triple-jointed legs. A leathery, translucent sack hung from the small decagon-shaped body atop the legs. Lights within the sack pulsed and glowed in eerie patterns. Periodically, the statue lifted and lowered its legs while a fog machine enveloped it in a perpetual mist. Pilgrims knelt in front of the statue to light votive candles and joss sticks, and prayed with their eyes closed.

Electronic speakers embedded in the statue intoned quotes from the Saga of Lura in a mechanical, dissonant voice:

Rejoice! The Burden on the poor is lifted for each child that is born. But for those with overflowing abundance, even beyond the height of Mount Kij, they shall not feel the lift, for they have too much.

“These carnies should at least keep up with the scientific papers,” Freddy whispered to Jane. He was equal parts annoyed, amused, and horrified. “We’ve known for years that the Luran bones don’t form an exoskeleton, but an internal one. People are such fools.”

Jane thought the temple hokey, but she felt that it was wrong to mock the faith of others, even though she had never been particularly religious or spiritual. She stood respectfully by.

Aruson prepared for battle. “You must first pass through the Platinum Gates,” said the Authority. “If you should survive, you must then face the Golden Mirror. But if you should survive yet again, you will face Me in the Silver Hall.”

“I’ve never understood the appeal of the Saga of Lura,” she admitted to Freddy later. “I had to read selections from it for my World Lit class in high school. It seems like they ought to feel spiritual, but they seem to say pretty much nothing. Just platitudes.”

“Maybe that’s a cultural universal,” Freddy said. “Wisdom literature sounds the same anywhere in the galaxy.”

“You know anything about how the Saga of Lura was found?”

“Yeah. That was one of Dr. Clovis’ biggest finds on the First Expedition. Nothing like paper survived a million years, of course, so most of the writing they found was inscriptions and signs carved into the stone buildings, short texts that didn’t say much. But in one of the digs, Clovis found a set of platinum plates filled with carved writing, but in reverse.”

“In reverse?”

“Yes. They were likely for printing. A lot of the plates were damaged, but a great deal of text could be recovered. Later, Dr. Clovis managed to translate some of it, and it turned out to be a long narrative work broken down into stanzas that followed a set form. It also seemed to be a work that had been revised a lot or existed in many versions. On the plates, alternative versions of each stanza were appended in small text after the main versions.”

“An oral epic that had been written down.”

“Dr. Clovis thought so too. He named it the Saga of Lura, and released translations of the fragments as soon as the expedition returned to Earth. It captured the imagination of the public and created the boom in the xenoarchaelogy of Lura. But it also gave rise to all these cults and nutjobs who found spiritual meaning in the words.”


Jane’s interview with Mr. Morris, Chief Counsel of the Xeph Department of Revenue, lasted all of thirty seconds. She didn’t even get a chance to make her rehearsed speech elaborating on her qualifications.

“I’m so glad you showed up. When can you start?”

She even got her own office, with her own secretary. As soon as she started to look through the pile of cases on her desk, she realized why the XDOR was so desperate for help.

For a supposedly primitive settlement in the boonies, Xeph had surprisingly complex tax problems. The economy of Xeph, like all settlements on Lura, was centered on entertaining the stream of tourists and pilgrims from all the known worlds coming to gawk and worship at the Luran ruins. Despite more than a century of space exploration and the discovery of life on numerous planets, Lura remained the only world proven to have sustained a sophisticated, non-human culture. The Lurans were building their great spiral stone towers before the pyramids of Egypt, before the cave paintings of Lascaux, before Neanderthals even walked the Earth. Yet somehow they, along with all other native life, were wiped out in a catastrophe more than a million years ago. The current theory points to lethal radiation from a nearby supernova.

When explorers from the first jumpship from Earth stepped onto Lura, they were greeted by the silent stone ruins, skeletal remains of the Lurans—a delicate, radially symmetric species about two meters tall with ten limbs and silicate bones, and microorganisms that lived in the sea and deep underground.

Cults and self-help gurus seized on the Luran ruins as the foundation for their belief systems. They multiplied a hundredfold after Clovis’ First Expedition and the publication of the translated Saga of Lura. The religious groups bought up land in Xeph and pushed for dubious tax-exempt status for church-owned lodging houses, restaurants, banks, parks, brothels, and other establishments. The for-profit business owners howled at the unfair competition, and proceeded to dodge tax in their own ways, often by collaborating with the cults. The XDOR had been buried for years in plugging up loopholes, issuing and re-issuing regulations, and trying to rescue the public fisc against assaults by sophisticated off-world tax attorneys and tax accountants retained by the churches and taxpayers. The XDOR needed all the help that it could get.

Jane loved it.

The eyes of others (like Freddy) might glaze over as soon as the words “the Xeph Revenue Code” were mentioned. But to Jane, the tax laws reflected the compromises between the desires, dreams, ideals and base instincts of a people. Rates, credits, deductions, and penalties encouraged certain activities and discouraged others—they influenced whether people would buy a house, get married, join a church, have kids—politics at its most raw and practical. As an accountant, Jane thought if she understood the tax laws of a society, she also understood what made that society tick.


On Freddy’s next visit, they decided to go hiking among the spiral towers. Freddy brought along an extra coolsuit for Jane. Being under the twin suns out in the desert for a whole day without coolsuits would be suicide.

The tourists and pilgrims usually went to the spiral towers in air conditioned buses or taxis, but it was forbidden for them to get too close to the towers in order to prevent damage to the structures. But as a member of the expedition, Freddy had a permit to go into the restricted areas, and the guards allowed Jane to accompany Freddy after Freddy palmed a few bills to them. Jane hoped that the guards would declare the bills as income from services on their tax returns, and then she silently laughed at herself.

Having lived in Xeph for a month, Jane had grown gradually used to the silhouettes of the spiral towers on the horizon. Up close, however, the Great Tower took on a new perspective. The base of the Tower was a circle two hundred meters across in diameter, and giant blocks of granite were stacked and mortised on top of one other, rising gracefully into the sky in a helix that seemed to defy gravity.

“How does that thing not fall down?” Jane said. She felt lightheaded as her gaze traveled up the Tower, taking in the holes and tunnels carved into the stones near the top, turning the Tower into stone lace that eventually joined the clouds.

“A combination of great engineering and visual illusions,” Freddy said, shouting to be heard over the Wind Song. “Counterweights and clever shading make the Tower seem more insubstantial and light than it is. I assure you that it’s very stable. It’s been here a million years.” He handed her a set of earplugs that also allowed them to speak to each other wirelessly.

They began to climb the Tower, a safety line strung between them, which Freddy and Jane took turns anchoring to the Tower as they moved up. The coolsuits did their jobs, and Jane enjoyed the exertion as they gradually rose above the surrounding ruins and the desert. With the earplugs, they no longer heard the Wind Song in their ears, but it continued to vibrate through their bones.

“How could they have built such a thing with no advanced technology?” Jane asked.

“They weren’t primitive,” Freddy said. “The pseudoscientific and mystical nonsense spewed by the people who run the temples and theme parks down there probably made you think of the Lurans as some alien version of the ancient Egyptians or the Maya, but there’s a lot of evidence that they achieved a high level of technology. For example, we see signs that they altered the planetary landscape greatly through large-scale agriculture, mines, roads, dams, canals and the like. Measurements of metal deposits in the soil suggest that their later constructions were done with steel and composite materials—something like concrete—that simply eroded away in the intervening millennia. Based on atmospheric carbon levels, we don’t think they used fossil fuels extensively, but that conclusion is hotly debated, and you can have industrialization without fossil fuels.”

“How come you haven’t found any engines or more modern stuff?”

“Doing archaeology here is very different from archaeology back on Earth, not only because the Lurans were not human, but also because of the time scale involved. A gap of a million plus years is much longer than what Earth-based archaeologists of complex cultures have to deal with, and that has consequences in terms of the record. What you think of as modern artifacts are actually the least likely to endure the passage of time. Steel rusts, concrete washes away, plastic rots and falls apart in ultraviolet rays. But structures made of stone—and ceramics, which might as well be stone—will endure just about forever in the right climate. If all the humans left Earth tomorrow, in a million years an alien explorer might find only whatever is left of the Great Pyramids as our lasting legacy.”

“Are you saying that these ruins were built by the oldest Lurans, rather than their more advanced descendants?” Jane asked.

Freddy shook his head. “We don’t know that. The engineering involved in these spiral towers is very advanced. The stone also seems to have been treated artificially through some industrial vitrification process that strengthened it and prevented moisture from seeping in, retarding erosion. It’s hard to imagine that such skills belonged to the Lurans at the earliest stages of their development. And just because we humans have largely stopped building with stone doesn’t mean that an alien culture like the Lurans would follow the same path.”

Jane tried to imagine an industrialized people building giant monuments of stone in the desert, uninhabitable, gigantic structures that seemed to serve no purpose other than singing in the wind. She found it hard to fathom such a thing. That is why they are alien.

“So do you know why these spiral towers were built? What did the Lurans believe in?”

Freddy smiled wistfully. “We don’t know any of that. So few clues of the Luran civilization are left to us. Ice ages, earthquakes, and extensive erosion ground most of what they built into dust, with only a few lucky stone structures in geologically stable spots surviving, like these ruins.

“As for what they thought and believed, all we have are the fragments of the Saga of Lura. They must have produced yottabytes of literature, art, music in their time, but all we have of their voices now are a few koans and the endless song of the winds.”

They had arrived at the top of the Great Tower, and they spent a long time gazing at the vista around them, the timeless, still ruins scattered at their feet, and the careless, chaotic, frenetic, bustling now of Xeph in the distance. And far, far beyond Xeph, Mount Kij stood on the horizon, with its white cap of snow and green, woodsy shawl.

Freddy was in a contemplative mood. “I think I can empathize a little with how the Lurans must have felt, as they stood up here and looked across their world.” He quoted from the Saga of Lura:

Whether you till the fields, or shape stone, or serve a superior, or trade for pleasure, or ship fruit to distant markets, or tell stories to others, the Burden of Life is always with you, always.

“You’re getting sentimental,” Jane said.

Freddy nodded. “We don’t know how much longer these ruins will last. The climate of Lura is getting wetter, more temperate. A hundred years ago, the first colonists brought seeds and animals from Earth, and they’ve happily taken to the virgin soil. Every year, the deserts where the last Luran ruins are found shrink and retreat before the advance of Earthly vegetation. It never used to rain or snow here, but last year Xeph got its first snowstorm. Eventually, this will become a jungle. The towers have lasted a million years, but they may not survive another millennium under the assault of life from Earth.”


Once, when they’d first started dating, Freddy told Jane a story.

“When I was seven, I pretended that I was an archaeologist. I took one of my mom’s blue-and-white vases and broke it into pieces, and then buried the pieces in the yard. The next day, I went and dug them up, and tried to put the pieces back together. But I couldn’t make the pieces fit, so I ended up gluing them into a mosaic, a picture of birds flying over an ocean.”

Jane was amused. “I hope your archaeological skills have improved since then.”

“Reconstructing the past is hard,” Freddy said. “Sometimes, when I feel we can’t ever figure out the clues perfectly, I think archaeology is about making the pieces fit so that they tell a story. I think the mosaic told a story a lot more fun than the vase, even if my mom didn’t agree.”


Winter came to the northern hemisphere of Lura, and the temperature in Xeph dropped quickly. It was getting too cold for fieldwork. The expedition returned to Xeph to wait out the coldest months, planning to return to the field camp in spring.

Dr. Clovis decided to hold a cocktail reception for all the expedition members and their friends and families. Jane was excited to finally meet the legendary scholar.

The great professor turned out to be a frail old man of eighty, spry and alert despite his wiry limbs and hunched-over spine. He had a surprisingly strong voice, and he charmed the guests with his self-deprecating manner and old-fashioned wit.

Freddy introduced Jane to Dr. Clovis, and they shook hands. His grip was firm and strong.

“Don’t worry,” Dr. Clovis said. “I haven’t assigned Freddy to any excavation teams with attractive women graduate students. He’s been focused on his work.”

Freddy blushed, and Jane laughed.

“Dr. Clovis, I wonder if I can ask you a question that always bothered me,” Jane said. “How did you start your translation of the Saga of Lura all those years ago? There couldn’t have been any Rosetta Stone since Lura was completely alien to us.”

Dr. Clovis nodded appreciatively. “You have the right instincts for an archaeologist. Freddy, maybe she should go on the dig instead of you.”

“Jane is definitely smarter than I am. I can’t even do my own taxes.”

Dr. Clovis sat down and gestured for Jane and Freddy to do the same. “On the First Expedition, we found very little Luran writing. They probably wrote extensively on organic materials—the equivalent of paper, papyrus, parchment and bamboo scrolls—but none of that survived. All we had were inscriptions on stone. Since samples collected from sites across Lura all seemed to be in the same script, it was another clue that they were very advanced—global unification under one language is unlikely unless the species achieved the technology for global warfare and easy intercontinental travel.

“But how could we translate any of it? We knew nothing about the structure, phonology, syntax and semantics of the Luran language. We didn’t even know if their mental models were sufficiently close to ours to allow understanding. What if they didn’t perceive the world the way we did?

“A room we found quite by accident gave us the break we needed. After we were done with Site 201—that’s thirty kilometers east of here—we went over it once more with a tomography scanner, just to see if we missed anything. We thought we had dug down to solid rock at the whole site, but the tomography showed that there was a small room off to the side that we had missed. It had been sealed by collapsing stone and drifting sand, and had been undisturbed for more than a million years.

“When we finally opened it and I climbed down—I was Freddy’s age then, and quite nimble—I was in complete darkness save for a cone of light around me from the opening through which I came. As I shone the flashlight around, I found myself in a room about the size of a movie theatre, with smooth walls and no windows. And all around, on the walls, there were pictures with inscriptions below them.

“You’ve probably seen reproductions of those pictures in books, even if you didn’t know their significance. Carved into the rock as bas-relief, they confirmed that the visual system of the Lurans was at least similar enough to ours that they also reproduced the physical world via two-dimensional projections. And they were simple. Each depicted a distinct object or group of objects, and the inscriptions below were very short.

“We were not sure how to interpret what we found. Was it some kind of comic strip? A narrative mural? Something like the stained glass iconography of Christian cathedrals? A museum? Did the text explicate and comment on the pictures? Or were they more like titles, only tenuously connected to the artwork?”

Jane was captivated by Dr. Clovis’ story, but she couldn’t help interrupting him: “Since the room had no windows and thus no lighting, it must have been in darkness most of the time even before it was buried. That sounds like a religious shrine, a place of holy mysteries, doesn’t it?”

Dr. Clovis’ eyes lit up. “Ha, even though you are bringing a lot of Earth-based assumptions into this speculation, it’s a good theory given the facts. You sure I can’t convince you to switch professions?”

Freddy squeezed Jane’s hand, delighted that she was showing such interest in his work.

“Jane,” Dr. Clovis continued, “what you don’t know is that the Lurans probably saw in a different range of the electromagnetic spectrum than we do. They could see far into the infrared range, or what you and I would think of as heat. Windowless rooms are quite common in Luran ruins, and probably represented a design that would conserve heat and insulate the rooms against the weather. To provide illumination, Lurans usually used artificial sources of heat that were piped into the rooms—it’s as if they used radiators as lamps and heaters at the same time.

“In this room, there were pipes in the walls that brought heated water to a spot behind each picture panel, so to the Lurans all the panels would have been back-lit, very bright and visible.

“We also found a scattering of other artifacts in the room: ceramic and glass vessels, probably for food and water, and furniture made of organic materials—analogous to wood or leather. They had been preserved in the dry, dead air of that room for all those years, but they crumbled into dust as soon as we opened the room to the outside. Luckily, the tomography that we did before we opened the room allowed us to capture their shape and structure.

“They also gave us an important clue about the room and the pictures. The furniture and vessels were tiny, far smaller than could be practically used by the Lurans based on what we knew of their anatomy. What do you think we found?”

Jane caught her breath. She imagined what it must have been like on that day of catastrophe, as the world suddenly died around the Lurans in a blast of deadly cosmic radiation. She imagined the tall, willowy Lurans turning, their minds on the most precious parts of their lives. A quote from the Saga of Lura came to her unbidden: The Burden on the poor is lifted for each child that is born.

“It was a school,” Jane said, quietly. “You found the place where the children were taught.”

Dr. Clovis nodded. “The pictures were primers, their ABCs. They taught the Luran children to read, and all those years later, they taught us.”


After the reception, Jane and Freddy returned to her tiny apartment. Freddy was going to live here for the next two months. It would be the first time that the two of them lived together for an extended period of time, and both were a little nervous at the prospect.

They sat together, drinking wine and watching large snowflakes fall against the windowpane, stick, and melt with the heat from the room.

“So, tell me about your big discoveries out there these last few months.”

Freddy pulled her close. “As a matter of fact, we did make a big discovery. We are supposed to keep it a secret though, so don’t say anything.”

Jane made a gesture indicating that her lips were sealed.

“We found another set of the Saga of Lura plates.”


“Close to where we found the first set. All excavation was supposed to have been completed there. I went to visit just because it’s so famous and important. And just as a lark, I ran a soil sample test and found that the soil contained very high concentrations of platinum.”

Freddy took a sip of wine, smiling at Jane’s impatient expression.

“I thought that was very weird, since platinum is very non-reactive. So I ran a tomography scan of the dig site again. The machines we use now have much higher resolution and can pick out details that couldn’t be picked out with the old machines on the First Expedition. And I found that there were these thin, empty spaces below where Dr. Clovis had stopped digging, plate-shaped holes.”

“How is that possible?”

“I think the Lurans must have used a chemical etching process to make the platinum printing plates, probably with nitro-hydrochloric acid, basically the only thing that will dissolve platinum. So there was probably a supply of it nearby. After the catastrophe, the plates were buried, and over time the acid leaked out and dissolved the lower plates but spared the ones piled on top, the ones that Dr. Clovis found.

“Still, the plates on the bottom weren’t entirely lost. The acid dissolved and leached out the platinum, but the plates left impressions, plate-shaped holes behind. We figured out a way to pump a plastic solution into these holes, and then triggered polymerization. When we dug them out, we ended up with plastic replicas of the lost platinum plates, every bit as good as the original for our purposes.”

“That’s brilliant.”

“Thank you. Your boyfriend is pretty useful sometimes.”

“So what new bits of wisdom have these plates revealed?”

“Oh, more of the same, you know, tables and lists of numbers, spiritual-sounding proverbs, weird short stories, that sort of thing.”

“Tables and lists of numbers?”

“Yeah, we found those in the old plates too. On Earth, it’s pretty typical for epic poems and other long, oral narrative works to have repetitive lists of numbers cataloguing things. So it’s not surprising that the Saga of Lura is analogous. We cut them out of the popular translations though. Too boring.”

“Can I see some of the new stanzas?”

Freddy produced a sheaf of papers and handed them to Jane. “The translations are done by me. Dr. Clovis hasn’t gone over them yet.”

She flipped through them:

The Burden is lessened for those who give up much in pursuit of his task. Great [unknown noun—some type of machinery; maybe weaponry?] hasten success. In the first winter, [Person A] bought an [unknown weapon?] fit for ten winters from [Person B], and lost ten thousand. In that first winter, [Person A] won two thousand and [an addition?]. In the second winter, [Person A] won sixteen hundred and [an addition?]. In the third winter, [Person A] won eighty and twelve hundred. And so it goes, even unto the end, so says the Authority.

“I see what you mean by the boring numbers. I bet this one doesn’t make it into the edition published for public consumption. What’s with all the bracketed stuff?”

“They are just placeholders for characters in the Saga and words that I’m not sure how to translate. When it’s done, Person A becomes the hero Aruson, and Person B becomes his friend, Bylus. These names were invented by Dr. Clovis to make the text more readable. We don’t know anything about Luran phonetics, so Dr. Clovis just made them up and we follow them as a convention. Before publication, he’ll come up with some sensible guess for unknown weapon too—maybe turn it into a sword or something. And he has to smooth out the text.”

Jane was taken aback. “I never realized there was so much addition and embellishment to the Saga of Lura.”

Freddy shrugged. “It can’t be helped. Translation is never going to be exact, and we are working under so little context. Remember the primer Dr. Clovis told you about? That helped a lot, but still left so much ambiguity. If you see a picture of some animal with a word under it, how do you know if the word is the name of the animal’s species, the name of that particular animal, white fur, run, the number one, the state of being an animal, the momentary state of standing still, or any number of other things? You have to guess and see if the context later on makes sense.”

Something about the translation bothered Jane though. The numbers gnawed at her brain, refusing to let her go. She looked at them again.

“Freddy, I understand these numbers! They are talking about depreciation. It’s the double declining balance method.”

“The what?”

“It’s an accelerated depreciation accounting method. Wait, let me see something.”

She grabbed Freddy’s copy of the Saga of Lura off the shelf, and began to flip through it.

The Burden on the poor is lifted for each child that is born ...

“This is talking about a child tax credit, with an income limit.”

... the Burden is always with you, always.

“This reads like a description of the general tax principle that income, from whatever source derived, is subject to tax. It’s in every code.”

... Bylus must stand by your side, or you’ll not stand at all ...

“And this is imposing a requirement for partners to be unanimous in challenging a partnership tax assessment.”

Aruson prepared for battle ...

“I think this is a summary of the trial and appellate procedure for a taxpayer who wants to challenge an assessment.”

Jane turned to Freddy, her eyes wide with wonder.

“The Saga of Lura isn’t some mythical epic poem. It’s the Luran tax code.”


Freddy came back from the meeting with Dr. Clovis, dejected.

“He thinks that your theory is very interesting, but you may be projecting too much of your own professional biases into it. When you are a carpenter, you think everything can be made with lumber. When you are a lawyer, you think everyone wants to sue each other. It’s just human nature. You are not a trained archaeologist—”

“But you know I’m right.”

Freddy said nothing.

“I know what this is about,” Jane said. “Clovis doesn’t want to admit that he’s wrong, and destroy his reputation, which is all built on that nonsense about the tax code being an epic poem.”

“That’s unfair! There are—” Freddy lowered his voice. “—other considerations. The public has a lot of interest in Luran archaeology, and our funding depends on the level of public interest. If the Saga of Lura is read as a tax code, overnight a lot of people are going to stop being interested. Not to mention what all the churches will think—”

“You think those people are all frauds and swindlers—”

“But we don’t know that you are right,” Freddy was shouting. “It’s just a theory. There are many crackpot theories about the Lurans. Dr. Clovis’ reading makes as much sense as yours, and his tells a better story, much better.”

“The tax code is a good story!”

Freddy just stared at Jane, and she knew she wasn’t going to win this one.


Mr. Morris asked Jane to be in charge of the renovations for the XDOR building. The building, fifty years old, was falling apart and the facade was cracked. The Xeph Council finally agreed to allocate some budget to fix things.

Instead of inspirational quotes about the public fisc and the benefits of fair tax administration, Jane decided to put quotes from the Saga of Lura in the lobby of the XDOR building. She explained to Mr. Morris that this would make the Department seem more in touch with the people of Xeph, obsessed as they were about the Saga of Lura.

“When taxpayers come in here, these spiritual quotes will make put them into the right state of mind.”

Mr. Morris nodded.

Jane had told Freddy about her plan. “Someday, when they dig up the ruins of the XDOR building, those future archaeologists will finally get the right context for interpreting the Saga of Lura.”

Freddy sighed and said nothing, but he did help her pick out some quotes as a peace offering.

As Jane watched the workmen paint the quotes onto the walls of the lobby, she thought about those Luran government tax clerks, a million years ago, drafting the provisions of a tome that would touch upon every person’s daily life. Did they imagine that someday their regulations would be read by an alien race, their meaning plumbed by alien minds? What would they think of these temples, these pilgrims who come to Lura to seek enlightenment in their carefully constructed code?

I understand you,” Jane said, to no one in particular. END

Ken Liu is a Hugo Award and Nebula Award winning author. His fiction has appeared in “F&SF,” “Asimov’s,” “Analog,“ Strange Horizons,” “Lightspeed,” “Clarkesworld,” and other places. He is an active member of SFWA. He lives near Boston with his family.