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art by Justine McGreevy

Dragoman

Helen Jackson lives in Edinburgh, having moved there more than a decade ago after falling in love with the city during a weekend break. She is a member of the critically acclaimed spoken word collective, Writers' Bloc. She is also a Scottish BAFTA-nominated animation director. Her stories can be found in the anthologies ImagiNation: Stories of Scotland's Future and Rocket Science. Her writing blog is at helen-jackson.com.
"On the day giant lizards invaded, Amanda Jarrett was the only girl who could save the planet."
"Giant lizards, indeed! Very good, sweetheart," said Amanda's Gramps Thompson, getting up. The holo projected by Amanda's com unit wavered as he moved through it.
"Gramps, sit down!" said Amanda, waving her arms in agitation. "My holo hasn't finished yet."
The little girl's homemade animation continued. Stop-motion lizards were dismembered by a Barbie--an Earth artifact brought to Lazuli-G fifty years ago by the original colonists. The distinctive blue rocks and sand of the planet's surface formed a colorful backdrop to the holo.
When the lizards were defeated, Reggie Thompson gave his granddaughter an appreciative round of applause.
"Very clever, Mandy," Reggie said. "What do your lizards--"
"Giant lizards," said Amanda.
"Sorry, sweetheart, I meant giant lizards. What do they like to eat?" He settled back, knowing he'd be able to surreptitiously tune into his news feed while Amanda enthused about her favorite toys. Lizards were the only animals so far discovered in the Lazuli planetary system. Children across the colony treasured plush reptiles rather than the teddy bear Reggie had loved in his youth.
He triggered his cerebral cortex implant. Amanda's chatter mingled with a feed report about colored lights in the sky. A meteorologist explained the principles behind an aurora. A chaplain suggested it might be a sign from God. A xenolinguist noted the patterns that usually characterized communication were missing. Lulled, Reggie listened happily until--
"...and Grandfather Jarrett says he'll get me one."
"Get you one what, sweetheart?" asked Reggie, competitively. He was damned if he'd allow Franklyn Jarrett to go one-up in the granddaughter-spoiling stakes.
"You're not listening, Gramps," Amanda pointed out. "Grandfather Jarrett's promised me a real lizard for Christmas. And then I'm going to train it and find out what it likes and..."
Reggie tuned out again.
Amanda's two lizards fought viciously. Three years later, the subject still caused arguments at family gatherings.
Franklyn Jarrett, the colony's chief biologist, had given Amanda a sagebrush lizard bred from Earth stock. Its browny-orange coloring made it extremely visible on Lazuli-G. Reggie Thompson had paid highly for a captured giant blue. The sagebrush lizard was slightly more amenable to playing with Amanda, but only slightly.
"Amanda tells me Lizard Jarrett is the better-behaved lizard," said Franklyn Jarrett to Reggie Thompson.
"Lizard Thompson will grow to six feet, the bounty hunter told us," Reggie said.
"What would Amanda want with a lizard that size?" asked Franklyn. He was sitting ramrod-straight, but at only five-foot, two he still had to look up at Reggie.
Reggie couldn't resist.
"Short answer: it's giant lizards our Mandy likes," he said. "Right, sweetheart?"
Amanda's parents had learnt to stay quiet around the two grandfathers, for fear of prolonging their quarrels, but the ten-year-old intervened without fear.
"They're both good lizards," she said. "Different, but good."
Her dad saw his opportunity to change the subject.
"Did you see the aurora last month?" he asked. "Another's expected tonight." His wife relaxed. Discussions about the weather were usually safe.
Amanda sprawled on her bunk, her com projecting a news feed. The teenager's small room was painted black. Franklyn Jarrett poked his head in.
"I didn't know you had your own feed, Amanda."
"Grandfather Jarrett!" Amanda jumped up for a hug. "Gramps Thompson paid for my access. And he's promised me cerebral cortex implants when I'm eighteen."
"I hope it's not keeping you from your exam preparation."
Amanda thought guiltily about her unfinished homework and decided a distraction was in order. She let Lizard Jarrett out of his aquarium. The sagebrush lizard allowed her to stroke him briefly then ran for cover.
"Watch this," said Amanda. She pulled out a stick with an orange disk attached, and held it in Lizard Jarrett's sightline. The lizard moved towards it. She replaced it with a blue disk, the same color as Lizard Thompson. The animal stopped.
"They recognize color, see. And they do this thing with bobbing their heads, I think they're trying to communicate. Lizard Jarrett and Lizard Thompson both do it. Although, I don't think they understand each other." She sat back on the bed and looked across at her Grandfather, expecting praise.
"It sounds as if you've got a proper research project going on," he said, approvingly. "Are you keeping a record as I showed you?"
"Of course," said Amanda.
Lizard Jarrett walked across to the feed holo. He moved his front legs and head in sequence: head bob, right leg, right leg, left leg, head bob.
"What's Lizard Jarrett doing now?" asked Franklyn. The lizard repeated his sequence: head bob, right leg, right leg, left leg, head bob.
Amanda frowned.
"That's what I mean, I think it's how they talk. But Lizard Jarrett doesn't normally talk to the feed..."
The holo showed a swirl of colors. The commentary explained.
"...the latest space telescope image, showing an area of the Lazuli system near unexplored planet Laz-B. The pattern of lights is unexpected and is so far unidentified..."
From his cage, Lizard Thompson also gazed at the holo.
"It looks like an aurora," said Franklyn.
"I think they're responding to the colors," said Amanda.
Head bob, right leg, right leg, left leg, head bob, said Lizard Jarrett.
"Here's to you, Mandy," said Reggie Thompson. "Senior lizard biologist! What is it you've been researching, again?"
"My project is about grammar, Gramps," said Amanda.
Franklyn Jarrett nodded. "That's right, Amanda's showed there's a syntax to lizard's communication," he said.
"Lizard Jarrett and Lizard Thompson got me started," Amanda said. "Here's to the lizards!"
The group raised their glasses.
"Look, there's another of your lizards now, sweetheart," said Reggie, distracted by a story on his feed. The others switched their focus. Sure enough, a reptile performed a complex sequence of movements: head bob, right leg, right leg, left leg, head bob. The footage was overlaid by a pattern of brightly-colored lights.
The commentary was ominous. "This transmission appears to come from planet Laz-B. An unknown body moving towards Lazuli-G has been detected."
On the day giant lizards landed, Amanda Jarrett was the only human with any idea how to talk to them.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, May 15th, 2012


I struggled to find the right title for this piece. It was called "Invasion of the Giant Lizards," until one of my writers' group comrades (thanks, Bram E. Gieben!) pointed out it sounded like a B movie--not a bad thing, but not right for this story.

I knew my ideal title would highlight Amanda's family role and mention the lizards. "The Reptile Go-Between"? "The Interpreter of Lizards"? It wasn't working.

In desperation, I reached for Roget's Thesaurus. I have a 1959 edition. Its cover has faded to a soft blue-grey and it smells of second-hand bookshops. There, under 524. Interpreter.--N, I found dragoman.

Dragoman? A synonym for interpreter that contains a hint of dragon?! Seriously? Wikipedia told me that "A dragoman was an interpreter, translator, and official guide between Turkish, Arabic, and Persian-speaking countries," and I had my title.

- Helen Jackson

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