“Zurquul Grug’Nam.” Cliff sounded out the unfamiliar syllables, stroking his short red beard. “Zurquul Grug’Nam. Wonder what it means.”
“Ssh!” Howard was almost six inches taller than Cliff, clean-shaven, and muscular. “Don’t say that! You want to ask questions, be a detective.”
“Why shouldn’t I ask?”
“You know why you were hired so quick?”
“Because I was good?”
“Because the last guy went around wondering what the words meant. It defeats the entire purpose of Colang if you can speak it.”
Cliff fell silent and turned to his computer, taking one last glance over the message before closing it. He already knew enough to recognize it as a standard form, but, still, it wouldn’t do to miss a detail. “Notice,” it read. “Zurquul Grug’Nam has been declared dangerous and must be quarantined. Do not attempt to translate.” The intercepts were starting to come in again, in force. After the war on Gralnak, whatever that was, there had been a period of moderate peace. Looking at the day’s work queue, that was over now. Whatever this Zurquul Grug’Nam was, it was big.
Howard was already six intercepts into his queue. Four had been unquarantinable: dictionary sites and the like. The law was very clear on this point. As long as the purpose of the message was to explain, not to convince, and as long as the organization on whose website the message was found was considered to be an impartial source of truth, they could not have it taken down. After all, that would violate freedom of speech. One of the intercepts had been some kind of rant in favor of Zurquul. That was standard, and had been met with standard procedure. The emergency quarantine team was already on its way. The last was interesting. It was just “Zurquul Grug’Nam” repeated over and over again. On the one hand, this was clearly more of an attempt to bait the system rather than a shot at spreading the idea. On the other, the use of the term meant that the writer did know what the idea was. Howard hovered for a moment before ordering a quarantine.
“So who does speak Colang?” Cliff was talking again.
“Didn’t you do this in training?”
“Yeah, I know. They told me no-one did, that it’s all translated by computer, and I get that, but it just doesn’t make sense. What kind of language is a language that no-one speaks?”
“Throw me a bone here.”
“Colang, or Concept Obfuscation Language, was developed in the –”
“They taught me all that. What’s so important about these concepts that we aren’t allowed to know what they are?”
“ – was developed in the thirties in response to the spread of ideological terrorism, in order to censor dangerous ideas without risking contamination of the censors. Documents would be translated and censors could look for keywords without knowing what the words meant. We’d been trying to censor and erase dangerous ideas from the internet for decades. Colang was the natural conclusion.”
“They taught me all that too. Didn’t you speak any of it? I thought you were an evaluator.”
“Evaluators don’t speak Colang.”
“No-one speaks Colang.”
Howard’s brusque response won him a long moment of silence, which he spent checking the queue status updates. Of course, a quarantine took effect immediately in the digital world, but there were only two reliable ways to erase an idea from the physical neurons in its owner’s brain. That was what the decontamination crews were for. The ideology had been successfully contained in both of the places he had flagged. The repeater had submitted to chemical amnesia, but the other one had resisted and had to be shot. Decontamination crews had it even harder than censors did. Howard had seen a documentary, once. They wore earpieces that translated everything they heard into Colang. On top of that, they took chemical amnesia after every job. The risk of contaminated people running around with decontamination equipment was just too high.
Being an evaluator was the worst, though: locked in a secure room all day, every day, chemical amnesia every four hours, flagging dangerous concepts for automatic translation into Colang and then censorship. Of course, Howard couldn’t remember anything he’d flagged, back when he did that job, but he knew some of the examples that were deemed sufficiently benign these days to be released to the general public. Jihad was one, outdated now that religion was only allowed in private. Anarchism, far-left and far-right politics, anything more complex than first-grade economics: all were first banned, then accepted again for the purposes of mockery. Somewhere, he supposed, academics were allowed access to these ideas. It took long enough for them to finish a paper or a book that chemical amnesia wasn’t an option. Maybe they were just kept locked up. That would be the easiest way.
“What is it now?”
“Do you honestly never wonder what any of it means?”
“Look.” Howard swiveled his chair and let his hands hang between his legs. “Why even come here if all you’re going to do is ask questions?”
“Do you really want to know?”
“Not really. My whole job is not knowing things. But if you’re going to say stupid stuff like that then I want to know where it’s coming from – to cover my own back, if nothing else.”
“Because I didn’t believe a word of the job description. I was sure there’d be some sort of grand plan or great conspiracy going on. There’s no way you could have an entire community of people, working with a language all day, none of whom speak it.”
“Stop sshing me.”
“No. Seriously. Ssh.”
“And the rationale behind the system didn’t make sense either. Saying something is ‘radicalizing’ and banning it? All that’s going to do is annoy people. Can’t you just provide a better option? If you don’t want someone to do X, you don’t take down articles about X, you explain why the people who are pushing X are lying to you and why Y is way more reasonable.”
“Cliff! Shut up!” Howard could hear steel-capped boots coming down the hall outside.
“No! I honestly don’t see what the problem is. I bet I could read a piece trying to persuade me to, I don’t know, kill someone, and not actually be persuaded. I don’t know why I need Colang at all. What?”
Howard had slumped back in his chair. It was useless to talk anymore. The door bleeped in protest as the decontamination team overrode the lock. Howard closed his eyes, staunchly refusing to listen, shaking his head gently as Cliff was dragged backwards out the door. He probably wouldn’t take chemical amnesia. Stupid. They’d have to deal with him the other way, then. “Poor fool,” Howard muttered, turning to the next item on his queue. “Of course we can’t be trusted to read them. Ideas are too strong. Why would we put so much effort into quarantining them if we could just disagree and move on?”