Dead Language by Colin Wolcott

Ninety-nine point nine percent of all species which have existed on Earth are now extinct. And although species die off every year, extinctions are concentrated in six major episodes throughout the planet’s history. The most significant of these was the Permian-Triassic event, wherein greater than 90% of all diversity on Earth was lost. By contrast, the most recent and well-known mass extinction, the Cretaceous-Paleogene event, in which the non-avian dinosaurs perished, was comparatively mild, eliminating roughly 75% of extant species. And while the very episode that wiped out the dinosaurs also created the conditions leading to our existence, the next mass extinction is likely to call that existence into question.

Although mass extinctions usually cannot be definitively attributed to any one specific cause, both large-scale volcanism and impact events show up as likely culprits on a repeat basis. The localized effects of either of these two natural disasters can be dramatic, but the more subtle globally-distributed repercussions prove most problematic for life. In both cases it’s the staggering quantities of particulates and gasses thrown into the atmosphere that generate the most significant long-term issues by blocking out sunlight, creating climate change, and altering the temperature and chemistry of the oceans [1].

With the weakening or extermination of plant species compromising food chains on a global scale and the oceans increasingly empty, the effects of these collapses ripple and cascade throughout ecosystems of the world, piling extinctions upon extinctions. Recoveries from episodes like this do take place, but are measured in the millions of years and what was lost never returns.

So then, what can we do to be proactive about these kinds of events? In both cases there are one or more proposals concerning ways to avert the hazards. There have been discussions about the use of rockets to move or destroy potential impact threats and ideas regarding how to depressurize a volcano, but the concepts are untested and would require years to decades of advance notice and planning to enact. And of course, they carry no guarantee of success.

We need to recognize we’re not living in a Hollywood movie. This isn’t a game of “Asteroids” and there are no extra lives. Consider the meteor which entered Earth’s atmosphere in 2013 and exploded over Chelyabinsk Oblast, Russia, with a force approximately 30 times that of the Hiroshima bomb: no one saw it coming.

It’s around 17 minutes into the second period when the girl takes the stool next to mine–which is fine, she can sit where she likes–but I can see her in my periphery, and after ordering a beer, she turns her head in my direction. I am not interested; the Rangers just scored and they’re a man down, trying to hold on to their lead going into the intermission. I know she’s looking, she knows I can see her, and my attention stays on the game.

This is not where I wanted to be tonight, but the motel doesn’t have a restaurant, and the only places in town still open were something called the “Possum Crossin’ Grill” and a Chili’s. In the interest of retaining at least of modicum of self-respect, I chose the latter. I did not expect it to be so busy; back home Chili’s is kind of a joke, but I suppose there’s simply not much else going on around here. So now I’m in some Podunk Texas town, with this chick sitting next to me, in a Chili’s, on a Thursday night. The jokes almost write themselves.

The period ends, commercials begin, and I sip my vodka. The girl bounces forward in her seat a bit and says, “Hi. I’m Tammy.” She sticks out her hand and flashes, what I’ll admit is, a winning smile.

I want to ignore her. To pretend she didn’t say anything. To simply tune her out. But I’m not entirely sure this would put her off and it seems a little harsh, even for me. My parents raised me better than that. So I set down my drink.

“I’m Mr. Only-Wants-to-Watch-the-Game.” I give her hand one pump and turn back to the TV.

She’s a bottle blonde.

This Tammy is persistent. “It’s hockey, right? Who’s playing?” Her bar stool is swiveled toward me and she’s sitting near the edge, legs crossed, leaning forward.

I pick up my glass and take another measured sip before answering. I’m still looking up at the TV. I want to be clear. “The Rangers and the Penguins. New York’s in white.”

“I don’t know a lot about hockey. I’m really more of a basketball fan.”

She pauses for a moment. This is where I’m supposed to respond. I don’t.

“I cheered in high school, so I love watching the cheerleaders and dancers during halftime. People think that it’s, like, only being pretty and smiling and yelling, but it’s a lot harder than that.”

I purse my lips and grunt. Someone wearing a ball cap and too much denim is offering a tremendous amount of plastic crap I don’t need for only $19.95 plus shipping and handling.

Tammy turns away to bolster her fortitude with some beer. When she comes back she’s still got the smile going, and I’m impressed. “Lewis Aborn is my favorite player. You know he married his high school sweetheart? And he’s really cute. Do you watch much basketball?”

Time to test Tammy. “No, it’s a little too plebeian.”

Tammy nods, but ten dollars says she hasn’t the faintest idea what that word means. She gazes up at the TV and we watch in silence as the game resumes.

“Are you staying at the motel?” Tammy asks.

I sigh to myself. It’s just not in me to stonewall her any longer. The smart thing to do is stand up and leave, except when will I have another opportunity to spend time with a girl like this? Not my best idea but, for better or worse, I’m still human.

Facing her, I hesitate before replying. “Yeah, I am.” And there’s that smile; I didn’t think it could be brighter. “Stopping here for the night. Headed west.”

“And where are you from?”

“From Maryland. Headed for New Mexico.”

“Oh, New Mexico is where the aliens are. I drove through there with my girlfriends after graduation. Swear to God, we saw a spaceship–with the lights, you know–flying over the mountains at night. Made me ice cold.”

“That’s Roswell. Yeah, I won’t have time to swing by, unfortunately. Have to get to the western part of the state by Saturday.” I glance at the TV. The Rangers have scored again. I missed it.

“And what’s happening Saturday?” Tammy asks.

I’ve always thought it would be fun to tell a random stranger in a situation like this some story to make your life appear more interesting than it actually is. A new name, a new background, a new persona even. “I’m a sheltered Latin major,” isn’t sexy. “My degree didn’t exactly pan out the way I hoped, so I live at home,” probably doesn’t count as a shot on goal. But lying has always bothered me, so my story’s been the same up until now. Tonight however, I don’t know if honesty is worth the risk; these might be extenuating circumstances. On the other hand, if I were to tell her the truth, what are the chances she’d believe me anyway?

I take another sip of vodka and wipe my mouth on the back of my hand. “Well…Tammy, I’m an assassin. I’ve got some business.”

She tucks her hair behind her ear and glances around the restaurant before looking back at me. “You’re a hit man? You?”

“‘Assassin’ is better.” I offer my hand. “Please call me Peter. And hopefully now you’ll be more inclined to forgive the poor manners.”

Tammy giggles and gives me a firm shake. “It’s really nice to meet you, Peter.”


She props her chin up on her palm and regards me a few moments, tapping her purple nails on the bar. She takes another drink and goes back to tapping. She raises her hand.

I smile. “Yes, Tammy? Can I help you?”

“Who are you going to kill?

“Well…” I think for a moment. “The ‘who’ isn’t important. It’s more like the ‘what.’”

She grimaces. “Fine. ‘What’ are you going to kill? Are you a deer assassin? Is that what hunters call themselves in Maryland? It’s not even hunting season.”

“I don’t know if I can say any more.” A final gulp finishes my drink. “Look, I’m sorry, but I hope you’ll understand when I tell you that, in this line of work, a certain amount of secrecy and discretion is required.”

Tammy stiffens. Her eyes go wide and hand goes to her mouth. She gestures at the crowded restaurant around us, then at herself, and finishes by shrugging her shoulders and glaring at me, the corners of her lips creased upwards.

“OK, you’re right. I probably shouldn’t have mentioned that in the first place. But Tammy?” I take her hand and gaze into her eyes. “Tammy, I just couldn’t resist your smile.”

She throws back her head and laughs. She’s got a great laugh, too. “I didn’t think you could.”

Looking up again, I see Pittsburgh throw one of our guys against the boards–hard. I’ll bet that hurt. “I know you said you liked the cheerleaders and dancers, and hockey doesn’t have either of those, but we do have zambonis. That’s got to count for something, right?”

“No.” She doesn’t even glance at the TV. “So how did you get into this sort of thing, Peter?”


She rolls her eyes. “Assassinating.”

“Honestly? Just decided it was something I wanted to do.”

She nods. “It pays a lot?”

I shake my head. “No. I don’t work for anyone.”

“Then how do you earn your money?”

“You’re assuming that I do.”

Tammy scoots her bar stool closer to mine in little jerking hops. “Then why do it? Why kill?”

I wrap my hands around the warming glass and examine the polished wood in front of me. It takes a few moments to decide what to tell her. “I haven’t yet. Just…It seems like a way to make a difference.”

“You’re going to make a difference by killing things?”

“I want to.”

Tammy stares at me. “Well, that’s bullshit.” She turns back to her beer. “You’re an assassin, but you haven’t killed anyone yet? You haven’t been to the moon, but maybe you’re an astronaut. Or maybe I’m sitting next to the president.” She hollers down to the bartender at the other end, “Hey Michael,” she points at me, “this is the president sitting here.”

I raise my hands, pleading, “OK, that’s fair. That is. But–read the paper or watch the news on Sunday. You’ll see.”

Tammy turns back to me with a little head flip that tosses her hair just so. “Alright then. You’re really an assassin? Or at least trying to be?”


“And you’ve got ’business’ on Saturday?”

I nod.

She leans in and lowers her voice. “Well, what’s to keep me from calling the cops right now and telling them?”

I grin and whisper to her, “Is talking to the police honestly how you want to spend the rest of your night, Tammy?”

There’s that smile again.

“Michael, another double Grey Goose for me, and–” I turn to Tammy.

“Coors Light.”

“And Tenacious Tammy here will tap the Rockies.”

Afterwards, Tammy heads into the bathroom to clean up. There’s some ice remaining in the mini-fridge and I grab one of my bottles of vodka before taking a seat at the little table near the front of the room. I’ve got a book by E. O. Wilson but can’t seem to focus on it and end up staring out the window instead. There aren’t many streetlights in town and the sky has much more detail here than at home. So I sit and sip, gazing up toward the beginning of time, while the shower runs, and my mind turns circles around Tammy.

Does this mean anything? How does it tie us together? Until a few hours ago Tammy didn’t even exist to me, and it’s foolish to think that after an evening of alcohol-lubricated flirting you can come away with a meaningful understanding of a person. My family has known me for decades and look at what I’m going to do Saturday; do they know me? Yesterday, if I’d heard that some random Texas girl died for X, Y, or Z reason, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought. Happens all the time. But is it different now? I mean, is it actually? We’re not going to be pen pals, we won’t send Christmas cards. How long after she walks out this door before we’re functionally irrelevant to each other? A couple days at the most? It could be a few minutes. If Tammy were to be hit by a car tonight, would I ever know? If I did, how much would I care?

She comes out dressed and looking fresh. After helping her into her coat we embrace. She smells gently floral.

“I’ll see you around, Peter. Good luck with your business.”

“Thanks,” I say. “Be careful crossing the street.”

When I was a kid, and we’d be waiting for my dad to come home, occasionally I’d sit with my mother while she did her grading. She was a saint to put up with it, because I was an unremitting font of curiosity-fueled interruptions: reading the questions, looking at the diagrams, asking about everything. Thinking back, it seems like time well spent because, years later, a lot of it was already familiar and biology was a breeze.

So let’s talk biology. I’ve heard people espouse the idea that procreation represents a form of immortality. Ideas, opinions, and credos can change over the years, and filial generations may or may not share these with the parental, but genes will be passed on in an inheritance which cannot be refused. Over time, those progeny will in turn reproduce and the parental genes, the most objective representation of an individual, will propagate across the centuries.[2]

Except of course, the most cursory examination of this supposition reveals the fallacy. An organism reproducing sexually passes on only half its genes to any given member of the first filial generation. Successive generations receive progressively smaller-by-half proportions of the parental genes. It doesn’t take very long at all before the remaining genetic contribution is near-zero. See the following table, adapted from Population Dynamics (Ramos 2015) for the details:

Generation (𝑮)Years (𝛿)Genetic Contribution Remaining (𝒄)
13050.0 %
26025.0 %
39012.5 %
41206.3 %
51503.1 %
61801.6 %
7210<1.0 %
Note: This assumes a mean generational period of 30 years and mating of individuals not closely related. Inbreeding acts to increase 𝒄.

As we can see, approximately 200 years after an individual produces offspring, the remaining genetic contribution present in a member of the filial is diluted beyond meaningful relation to the progenitor. This may seem like a long time, but it’s important to keep in mind the applicable scale: two hundred years is less than the age of the United States, our species is roughly 315,000 years old, and the entire existence of humanity barely registers in the history of life on our planet.

Did you know the Appalachian Mountains, now little more than hills, used to reach heights rivaling the Himalayas? They eroded away, by ice, wind, and water, fleck by fleck, over immense spans of time. Think about how long that must have taken. Please feel free and put this down for a moment to fully consider it–the human mind can have trouble grappling with time on these scales. It took hundreds of millions of years for the Appalachians to be reduced to the stumps they are today. You’ll be gone in about 200. And when everything you are has been worn to nothing the Himalayas will still be scraping the heavens.

It’s Saturday morning. The big day. Breakfast is coffee and oatmeal at a restaurant on the outskirts of the Mohapi reservation called “The Arroyo Cafe.” I take the coffee black but prefer a bit of cream and brown sugar in my oatmeal; Mom used to make it that way. I’m sitting at the cigarette-burned linoleum counter and the waitress on the other side has a name tag pinned to her blouse that reads, “Tammy.” What are the chances? She doesn’t look anything like the other Tammy, though. Easily a decade older than me, she’s cheery enough that she’s probably enthused about coming to work every day, and judging from her voice, still smokes. Virginia Slims, perhaps? “You’ve come a long way, baby,” and from the look of it, the going was a little rough.

As with the other one, I’m not paying her much attention as she refills my coffee and attends to customers. On my way in I snagged one of those free local newspapers and it’s spread on the counter beside me. The lion’s share of the front page is devoted to an article about the new Mohapi cultural center that will be staging its grand opening ceremony today. Although the tribe was previously little-known, this story has received some national attention recently. Despite being a small and relatively poor group, the Mohapi were able to secure sizeable donations to finance what seems to be a truly impressive collection of their heritage. The roster of expected guests and VIPs is predominantly local but extensive.

An editorial near the back of the paper says this cultural center could possibly save the tribe. Since the establishment of the reservation in 1889, the Mohapi have been in a protracted slide toward senescence. There’s poverty and alcoholism of course, but surprisingly large chunks of tribal lands have been sold off over the years, leaving the reservation much diminished.  This new project is meant to provide a “center of gravity” to help pull the tribe together and serve as a unifying focus.

I fold the paper and ask for the check. The café is busy this morning. Worn men and women, deep lines like slot canyons carved into their faces by the sun and wind of the American southwest, brace themselves before heading off to weather another day. Outside, the landscape is brown: brown sandstone juts out of the brown dirt, sparsely populated by plant life barely showing enough green to qualify as such. Without a carpet of vegetation you can almost see the rocky hills decomposing, the sandy pebbles chipping off the cliffs and beginning their slow roll to the sea. Some people say the desert is dead, but that’s not true at all. It’s only in places like this you’re offered a clear view of what’s happening. That you can see our world slowly falling apart around us and discern the true evolution of things, the nature of our reality.

The ceremony is scheduled to commence at 10 A.M., but I don’t want to get there too early and give someone the opportunity to flag me as suspicious, so I roll up around 9:45. The cultural center overlooks the diffuse central town on the reservation, and its parking lot has overflowed onto the narrow road running past. There’s only one opening left in the cars lining the street, and I pull in before realizing it’s a fire hydrant. Normally, I’d keep searching, but for today this will do fine, and I can’t be late. Slinging my pack over one shoulder I start walking up the hill. Several vehicles are climbing the winding road from the town proper below, and there are still people standing outside the building in clusters–good signs: being the last to arrive draws attention, too.

The cultural center is clearly new construction, but it’s one of those modern buildings meant to look rustic. It’s a single-story affair and large. There’s rock and wood in the facade that appears hand-hewn, and it reminds me of one of those blandly similar visitor centers you can find at any national park in the Southwest, with flagpoles out front, broad tinted windows, and a concrete stairway leading to double doors.

This is it. This is the last chance now, as I turn up the walkway toward the front steps, for me to reconsider. My chest is tight and I feel lightheaded and I know everything will be a lot easier if I simply turn around–turn around, and then what? Go back to the car, drive the 2000 miles home, and pretend this never happened? Tell everyone that I just felt like going on a drive? A 4000-mile drive? Like some sort of a Forrest Gump thing? Then, decades later (if not sooner), to die knowing that, like everyone else, I didn’t do anything, that I didn’t change anything, that the world will not be in any way meaningfully different for me having been here. That I was nothing but another waste of effort and energy. This is an opportunity. This is a flash of brilliance. The pharaohs were pathetic whimpering idiots, cowering beggars before the face of eternity. I will be their god.

All I need is the focus to walk up these steps and see it through.

So, I do. Across the threshold, into the cool interior, I take one of the few remaining seats near the back and wait.

Let’s think back to our physics classes and discuss thermodynamics for a moment. Of the four laws, the zeroth and first are kind of no-brainers, the third deals with the fact that cold things move less, and the second law introduces that interesting energy-related concept called “entropy.” Paraphrasing, the second law states that the entropy of an isolated system will increase over time.[3] This has all sorts of implications, but it codifies something which is intuitively true: the entirety of our universe, as an isolated system, is running down.

Consider that our sun, the primary source of energy and life on our planet, will someday gutter and die leaving our solar system cold and dark. Likewise, all the stars in the cosmos will eventually burn themselves out, be consumed by black holes, then be radiated out into space as a lukewarm, homogeneous soup. And at that point our universe will be a place where nothing meaningful can ever happen again.[4]

So, given the slow degeneration of everything else in existence, it’s a little odd that living things are trying to do exactly the opposite. Why do we, self-perpetuating packages of highly ordered matter, consume energy to create more of these packages when, regardless of how much self-perpetuating order we create, the energy will run out some day and all structure will fall apart? Why the billions of years of effort? What, if anything, are we trying to accomplish? What is the point of life?[5] We’re not going to somehow win against, or beat, the very physical laws of which we are a product. It’s not even a fight. Clearly, it’s a doomed and temporary thing, the extension of our own existence.

In this context, why cling to life? Better to embrace our destiny and seek a sense of permanence there. Think of a stream flowing: you can place a stone to temporarily shift the current, but the world will wear it to nothing almost immediately. That act of creation is fleeting. But remove a stone and your mark upon the world, no matter how small, cannot be undone.

As a result, creation is not a good look; there’s no self-respect in struggling against the unescapable. There is dignity, acceptance, and pride in destruction. Destruction is inevitability; a glacier carving away at a mountain–no malice, only hard, indifferent fact. It is things progressing as they should. Creation, on the other hand, is like a child having a tantrum: nothing but useless, self-important squalling.

The ceremony begins promptly at 10. An older man, with dark skin, boots, and a bolo tie, steps to the podium at the front of the room. He introduces himself as the Governor of the Mohapi Nation. He begins his address by speaking about the tribe’s history and its declining fortunes in past decades. I listen for bitterness in his voice but can’t hear it. Rather, he expresses great optimism that the center will provide an anchor for his people and allow them to face their future with revitalized strength and unity. This, he says, is the community’s best hope to weather the challenges to come.

As he pauses to shuffle his notes, I realize my foot is tapping rapidly on the floor. I quiet myself, but when he resumes speaking a moment later, my foot is already at it again.

He says that, no matter how extensive a collection of artifacts they might gather, no culture can survive without its language: the spoken tongue being a direct reflection of that people’s ethos. But the tribe is fortunate; they still have two surviving native speakers. These women, sisters born in the mid-20th century, have agreed to, in cooperation with the center, begin creating a comprehensive audio record of Mohapi and offering public lessons. And these two women, the real treasures of the cultural center, Twila Lark and Elise Nowlin, are with us today. Please everyone, give them a hand.

People stand to applaud, and so do I.

Picking up my backpack, I excuse myself down the row. The address resumes, and people are taking their seats, and I’m walking to the front. The governor is watching me, we’re the only two people standing. Rounding the first row, I head toward the center aisle; the two women have the seats of honor. There’s a sound like static in my ears as I swing my already-unzipped backpack off my shoulder and grip the pistol inside. Pulling it out smoothly (I’ve practiced this, of course), I straighten my arm and squeeze the trigger. I wonder which one I’ve just killed. Twila or Elise? It’s not important. There’s an almost electronic ringing now. The guy behind the dead woman is a mess.

They’ll try me for murder. Or will it be homicide? I’m not sure what the difference is. I’m not sure it matters. Is there a way to convince them the prosecution won’t be worth the time? A way to make them understand the triviality of what they will try me for and the enormity of what they will not?

I train my gun on the other woman–the final hope for the Mohapi to push back against oblivion and my opportunity to create a dead language of my own. There’s no reason to delay, but I feel an urge to. I open my mouth to say something. I have the impulse to explain to her why this is happening. To try, in a probably vain attempt, to elicit some sort of comprehension. But that’s not what this is about.

[1] We’ve all seen freshwater or marine “dead zones” in the news. That’s the result, but everywhere.

[2] “Terror management theory” and “mortality salience and desire for offspring” are interesting starting points for further research here.

[3] Entropy is commonly taught as a measure of disorder but might also be thought of as an inverse measure of available energy.

[4] I’m alluding to heat death, and this is a shortened version; there are other possible fates, all seemingly less likely, but all equally unpalatable to a normal person.

[5] It’s awkward that I feel the need to say this: not your life, or even human life–life.

Colin Wolcott lives in sunny Portland, Oregon where he writes, hangs out in a planetarium, and sometimes plays handbells. His work has appeared in Strangelet, Adelaide Literary Magazine, and Pseudopod.