This is an idea I came up with out of the blue the other day. The setting is new. It may ultimately tie in to the Newer York universe, but if so, it's in the far future, when humanity has spread out more. I left a hook for it, but it may ultimately be stand-alone or the start of something new.
Behind the transparency separating the brig cell from the security office sat a person by all appearances ordinary, except for his skin and hair color, which was much lighter than nearly anyone Petra Gasparian had ever seen, and his uniform, which was definitely not Teergarden Navy issue.
"So that's him, then? The prisoner?" It was an unnecessary utterance, perhaps, but it seemed necessary to say something.
The ship's captain, a red-haired woman with a bronze complexion and a nameplate bearing the improbable name of Maciejowski took it in stride. "'Him' might be a stretch. We're respecting his dignity for now, but medical scans suggest that skin and hair colors aren't the only differences that have crept into their genome. He's far more overtly intersexed, possibly a true hermaphrodite. Of course, we don't yet know enough about these people to know how normal that is for them. Anyway, welcome aboard, Dr. Gasparian. I'm sorry I wasn't able to greet you when you docked."
"That's quite all right, Captain. I imagine there was a lot to command your attention right after that last battle. Not least of all, him," she nodded her chin to indicate the prisoner. "I suppose we should find out his preferred pronouns, but he definitely presents masculine, doesn't he."
"To us, anyway, yes. Thing is, Doctor, we just don't know a lot about them, yet. They came out of nowhere, started attacking our systems for no obvious reason, and we haven't even figured out where they're coming from yet. They don't answer hails, don't initiate them, and until this moment we've never succeeded in capturing one. Starship combat just doesn't tend to leave much behind except by accident."
Gasparian nodded, as much to herself as to the captain. For all they knew, this culture had no gender identification at all, as Teergardeners knew it. If they were all true herms, then gender identity would take on completely different meanings, or possibly lose all meaning entirely.
"He" was sitting on his bench in his cell, resting his head against the wall, eyes closed. He didn't seem to be in much distress, but he did look tired, to her eyes.
"Has he actually said anything?"
"Quite a bit, actually. As you can see he's sort of resting right now, but he was being downright voluble for a while. Of course, we didn't understand a word of it."
"So you called me in. It's not magic, you understand. I'm not going to be able to listen to him and suddenly tell you what he's saying."
"I know that, Doctor, although I'll admit not all of my colleagues do. I studied linguistics. I'm a dilettante compared to you, and I know it, but I do know it's not going to be easy. In fact, I suspect it's going to be even harder than you think."
She stepped over to the guard desk and touched a control. A holo sprang into the air—the prisoner, freshly placed in his cell, smirking and starting to talk.
And it was talk, that much Gasparian was certain of. But it wasn't any language she'd heard. And more to the point...
"Wait..." she said. "Go back about 15 seconds."
The captain obligingly did so. In fact, her expression was suspiciously bland. Gasparian squinted—a reflex she knew was absurd given that it was more what she was hearing than what she was seeing that was puzzling her, but there was no corresponding way to focus her ears more closely on what she was hearing. "His...entire phonetic pattern just shifted mid-sentence. Like he changed languages."
Maciejowski said nothing, watching the linguist's face as the stream of speech went on. The prisoner seemed to be quite enjoying themselves, not at all concerned by the stares of incomprehension that greeted his monologue.
"There! He did it again. Is there..." she shut up, and kept listening. It shifted five more times in the next ten minutes, changing roughly every two minutes.
Gasparian waved a hand, which the captain correctly interpreted as, "stop, please". She blinked at the other woman in astonishment. "Did you hear it, too? Or am I imagining things?"
The captain nodded. "I heard it. You see what I mean when I say it may be harder than you even thought? In the entirety of the recording, I counted what sounded like thirty different languages, changing at roughly regular intervals. The phonetic sets never repeat—computer analysis confirms that much."
"But no matches with existing languages?"
"Nope. Not even allowing for drift. Of course, algorithms are imperfect, but I didn't hear anything I recognized in that gabble, did you?"
They sat for a moment, Gasparian staring into the distance, thinking; Maciejowski watching Gasparian think. "I can't think," she finally said, "of any other daughterworld we've found with so many languages, let alone new languages. They all took languages from Earth with them, but their populations start out so small that they tend to either start out with only one or two main languages in the first place, like the TRAPPIST-1 Metro, or conflate down to a creole. And then there's the timing. Every two minutes, he code switched. That was...uncanny."
"One-hundred seventeen point three-five seconds, actually."
Gasparian looked at her temporary CO and squinted. Maciejowski grinned back, all innocence. "Technically correct is the best kind of correct, Doctor."
The linguist rolled her eyes. "Can I get access to my systems from up here?"
Maciejowski nodded. "Delay's a bit tedious, but we should be able to get you the relay you need."
"What's the actual transfer rate? I have some specialist software. I probably should have just brought it all with me but the summons kind of flustered me and I'm afraid I just didn't think about it."
"Also tedious, but not terrible. As long as you're not trying to replicate an entire mass-media archive, you should be fine."
"Movies, I remembered to bring. Software, not so much. No accounting for the things we remember in a hurry."
She sat down at the console, as the captain spoke a few words to the air to instruct the computer to grant her working space and an outbound connection. She logged in and sighed as she was prompted for her second factor ID. She pulled out her hand terminal and thumbed up the app for the code...
...and stopped. Suddenly mesmerized. She happened to open the program just as all her second factors were timing out. Random numbers, generated once a minute, each based on a different seed, in perfect time-sync with the other side. Time dilation, comms lag, and other factors of space travel had complicated some of the details, but the basic technology was almost a millennium old, and still effective.
She was still staring at the numbers, watching little countdown clocks tick the minute away, then watching the numbers all change.
Gasparian wasn't sure how to voice her insight. She just showed the captain her screen.
"It's...an authenticator. What about..."
The numbers changed.
"Son of a bitch!" She reached out to touch a button. "Doctor Sorensen to the brig, please."
Five minutes later, the ship's chief surgeon arrived, slightly breathless. "What's up, Cap?"
"We need a neural scan of the prisoner. Look for implants."
"Already did that. SOP. I've been meaning to call you about it anyway but kept getting distracted looking at the thing. It's a doozy."
Sorensen flicked his terminal and a holo of the prisoner's brain popped up mid-air. The typical convolutions of normal human brain tissue were outlined in green. In red, there were two or three red nodules, with tendrils, also in red, spread throughout.
Gasparian heard herself say, "Daaaaaaaamn," impressed and a little chilled at just how extensive this intrusive device was. Brain implants were not uncommon for various purposes throughout human space, but this was something...special.
"So," Sorensen said, "here's the really fun part of all this. These two nodes, "she pointed at two of the three, "each have tendrils that reach into the various language processing areas, listening, speaking, reading, writing, all of it. I'm not positive what they're doing, but..."
"I think we just figured it out," Gasparian said. "Can you confirm for us, from your scans so far, if there's any particular activity once every..."
She paused, and the captain supplied, "...one-hundred seventeen point three-five seconds?"
"I can tell you that without looking. Noticed it pretty quick. Just a little pulse, across that entire complex of implants and synthetic neurons. Why?"
Gasparian and Maciejowski looked at each other. Finally, the captain said, "A one time pad?"
Sorensen looked lost. "What's a one time pad in this context? I mean, I can think of lots of medical reasons for only using something called a 'pad' once, but..."
The captain gestured to Gasparian, who obliged. "It's one of the older forms of encryption, but it's so effective that it remains current. Say I gave you a piece of paper with a truly random array of characters, as many as the longest message you'd have to send on a given day; and I had a copy of the same piece of paper, but nobody else. You could encrypt exactly one message to me and then we'd both destroy or even just throw out the paper. The very worst that might happen is someone would manage to intercept that piece of paper and the message, that one time, and then they could crack that one message.
"But every subsequent message, the cipher would be different. As long as the key is truly random every time, with no patterns and no reuse, there's no way to permanently break it. Even a lucky guess, one time, won't work tomorrow.
If I'm right, then something similar to that is going on here, although it's not quite as binary as two copies—you couldn't run a ship that way. But, listening to the prisoner talk when he was brought in, just randomly babbling away, knowing full well we'd never understand him...every two minutes--"
The captain couldn't resist. "—one-hundred seventeen point three-five seconds..." Gasparian shot her a look.
"—his entire phonetic pattern changes. And now you show me this and I'm almost positive I'm right. It's like a two-factor authenticator. Every two minutes—" she glared at Maciejowski, who just this one, forbore to correct her, "—the key changes. Everything he wants to tell us basically gets scrambled, encrypted, before it leaves his lips. I'm willing to bet the same thing is done on receipt—if you're not synced up to his keys, you would never be able to understand a word he said. And you just said the tendrils go to optical processing as well, so I'll bet you even if we gave him pen and paper and he were feeling cooperative, he'd produce gibberish. If they were really smart, the entire character set would change every time."
Sorensen was looking more and more horrified as Gasparian rattled off her hypothesis. Gasparian hadn't noticed. "I don't think this is actually quite a one-time pad, though, Captain. I do think we're on the right track otherwise though."
The doctor finally couldn't contain himself. "This his horrifying! Are you telling me that...this man...that everyone in his fleet...basically can't...just...talk to other people?"
Gasparian was nodding. "It would be incredibly effective operational security. You could be standing in a bar full of them, all of them drunk enough to babble on openly about all their plans, and you'd never stand a chance of understanding a word of it."
The captain continued, "It's also great from a propaganda point of view. Think about it. It is literally impossible for us to convince that man to come over to our side. Most historic efforts to weaken an enemy's home-front involve communicating past the armies and hoping that the civilians at home include some people who speak your language, or else broadcasting in theirs. But...there's no chance of that here, even if we knew where their home was.
"No wonder they don't bother answering our hails. They couldn't talk to us if they wanted to."
The doctor was shaking, outraged not just at the subject matter but at how calmly the other two seemed to be taking it, and shouted. "How the hell are we ever going to be able negotiate a peace? How could we even surrender if we wanted to—or they to us?"
The captain looked levelly at her chief surgeon, apparently used to his outbursts. "Unless we can figure out how it works, sync up with it, and then figure out the base language they actually think in—if that even means anything—I don't see how we can, Doctor."
"WHY ARE YOU SO CALM ABOUT IT?"
"Everything in its place, Doctor, and a place for everything. The place for me to throw a tantrum at this horrifying application of modern technology is back in my quarters, specifically in my actual bedroom, where I keep no breakable objects specifically to facilitate that."
That quenched Sorensen's own outrage like a bucket of cold water. "Seriously?"
"Okay, well...I guess I feel better about that, but...this is..."
Gasparian interjected, "Doctor, is there any way the implants can be removed?"
Sorensen had an immediate answer, "Not that I can see. Not that will leave your prisoner actually able to talk or understand language, anyway. I'm pretty sure even the best of our usual procedures for cleaning out implants—like the ones we use if one goes bad or just needs an upgrade—would fail here. This is just too...invasive."
"Can we analyze the implants deeply enough without removing them to get some sense of how they work?"
"Maybe? But...if they're that clever, I wouldn't be surprised if they haven't rigged them to self destruct on a really deep scan."
They both looked to Maciejowski, since this was clearly a decision above their pay grade. She considered, then said, "Passive scans, first, then," she said, and then, with an almost absent-minded nod to both of them, she left, leaving open the question of what she would do if passive scans were insufficient.