By Nick Olivo
Scott tapped a few keys on his keyboard and looked into Camera 1, mounted on his desk at eye level. “What’s up, everyone? Today we’re looking at a possible scam app called Linguistio, that promises big cash prizes just for pronouncing words. A viewer told me that it sounded too good to be true, and at Too Good to Be True Reviews, I’m here to tell you if it is or not. Let’s get this show on the road.” Scott pressed a button on the sound board and his theme music, an electric guitar riff, played in the background.
“All right,” Scott said, flipping Camera 2 on. An image of a smartphone with a progress bar appeared in the feed. “As you can see, the app’s nearly finished installing, and here we go, it’s done now.” He tapped on its icon, and a popup box asked him to confirm his locale and to select which languages he spoke. “I speak English, German, and Spanish, and oh ho, look at this, my friends. It’s already asking me for my bank account information. That’s a bad sign. No problem. In anticipation for stuff like this, I’ve got a couple of savings accounts with a few bucks in them, so I’ll use one of those.” He tapped another button that blurred out the account information as he entered it in. “And now it looks like we have a new friend.”
An animated white kitten with a pink bow around her neck appeared onscreen, and a word bubble popped up over its head. “Hi, I’m Morgan! Welcome to Linguistio. This is a fun game that helps us better understand how people pronounce words. It’s our goal to create educational material that make it easy for people to communicate with one another. I’ll show you a sentence, and you pronounce it as best as you can. We’ll do some practice sentences, and then you’ll get a chance to win a dollar. The more you play, and the harder the sentences you pronounce, the bigger the prizes. Ready to start?”
“All right, people, let’s see what Morgan has for us.” Scott tapped ‘Yes.’
Morgan ran off screen, then ran back on, followed by a sentence in German. “The sun is shining,” Scott translated. The sentence turned green, then vanished. Another sentence. “Today is my birthday.” It turned green and vanished. Another sentence, this one in Spanish. “Huh. The app’s not displaying the translated phrases. It’s just displaying the sentences in their native language. If I didn’t know these languages, I’d have no idea what I was saying.” Scott clucked his tongue. “I’m going to pronounce this next one wrong, just to see what happens.” He mispronounced “I would like to see the doctor.”
The sentence turned green and Morgan reappeared, wearing a party hat. Confetti exploded around her. “Great job! Now that we know how you pronounce words from languages you’re familiar with, we’ll show you some words from languages you don’t know. And, as part of our research, we’ll also have you pronounce a few nonsense words. These aren’t real words, but are just to help us better understand how you process phonetics. Don’t go too fast, and say them however feels natural to you.”
“Sha vel ray gohl,” Was this Latin, or nonsense? Scott sounded out the words. A chill shot down his spine and the hairs on his arms bristled. He rubbed at them absently before a trumpeting sound on the phone drew his attention.
“Wonderful!” More confetti burst around Morgan. “Here’s your reward.” A counter in the upper left of the screen shifted to read $1.
Scott made eye contact with the camera. “Ok, so we’ve seen that incorrect pronunciations don’t seem to deter our little friend. Which, I suppose makes sense if they’re trying to understand how people pronounce words. And, interesting.” Scott switched windows to show the bank account screen. “It looks like they’ve already deposited my buck. I have to be honest folks, going into this one, I was positive this was a scam. How about you all? Any questions so far?”
Scott switched focus to the comments window. Several people had similar experiences, installing the app and then getting a dollar or two right away. Scott acknowledged those and looked for the questions. “Got a question from Skywalker69 asking if I’ve done a source code analysis yet. I have. Linguistio isn’t gathering any personal data, doesn’t access any other apps on your phone, doesn’t try to access your camera, and doesn’t access your GPS. There was one source file that I found that didn’t make sense to me.” He clicked through a few folders as he looked for it. “It was just a text file, not executable code, and it looked like it contained a bunch of hieroglyphics. Hmm. Weird, I can’t seem to find it right now, but I’ll post some screenshots on the blog later.”
“Question from LadyShade asking, ‘Off topic, why do you do these reviews?’” He glanced at the photo taped to the corner of his monitor, then pulled up an electronic copy so that the audience could see. It showed an elderly woman wearing a birthday hat, a birthday cake with an 84 candle before her. Scott himself was seated next to her, arm around her. Both were beaming into the camera. “This is my Mawmaw. She was the sweetest lady you could ever know. Worked her fingers to the bone for forty years at a luggage factory so my dad and his sisters could go to college. She retires, starts getting her pension checks, and then one day some jackass online posts a scam. Well, Mawmaw got suckered, and lost fifty grand. It totally ruined her financially. She lost her house, had to move in with one of my aunts. So, I do this to keep your Mawmaw safe.”
Onscreen, Morgan had rolled onto her back and was playing with a ball of yellow yarn. “You know,” he said to Camera 1. “It almost feels like she’s watching me.” He laughed. “Anyway, thanks for joining me today. I’ll do some further investigation over the course of the week, and my full review will be up by Saturday. I’ll give it a few days to see if they steal anything from my account, but right now things look promising. Be careful if you install it yourself, and until next time, stay sharp.”
Scott ended his streaming session and leaned back in his gaming chair. The lights in his home studio were low, strategically placed red and blue LEDs giving the room a techno feel. He pressed a button to turn the AC back on, since its fan made too much noise to run during a session. It shuddered and groaned before finally sending a wave of cool air into the room. He’d need to have the repair guy out again to look at it. But right now, he wanted to just lean back in the dimness and think. Which was hard because his phone’s screen was still lit up, Morgan the kitten idly swatting at a toy mouse onscreen.
Scott tipped his head to the side as he regarded the phone. He’d set it to automatically shut off after five minutes of inactivity, but maybe Linguistio could somehow override the default settings? He hadn’t been looking for anything like that in his source code analysis. As he picked up the phone, Morgan’s toy mouse went racing offscreen, and the kitten perked up. “Hi Scott! Want to do more?”
“Huh,” Scott said to himself. “You must be tied in with the phone’s accelerometer to know when I picked up the phone. Interesting. That’ll make for a neat point to discuss with the audience next time.” He looked at the ‘Continue?’ button onscreen, its border pulsing blue every few seconds. “Sure, Morgan,” he said as he tapped the button. “Let’s continue.”
Over the next few hours, Morgan gave Scott progressively more complex sentences. Slang expressions began creeping in, and Scott got one sentence that had words from Spanish, German, and what he suspected was Italian. The text had highlighted in green, Morgan told him he’d done a good job, and his account increased by $10.
An hour after that, Morgan gave him another line of nonsense. Scott tried to take a screenshot of it, but the app just gave an angry buzz at him. Morgan leaped to the front of the screen, obscuring the sentence, her cartoony eyes glowing red.
“Oh, I know you want to get things purr-fect,” she said. “But our research depends on your natural reaction to language. No taking pictures, just pronounce things as best as you can.” Morgan’s eyes shifted back to green and she began licking her paw.
Scott shrugged. The camera mounted to his desk was still recording, anyway. A timer appeared onscreen. Five seconds remaining. He said the words, which turned green, and got another $10 in his account.
After closing the app, he pulled up the camera’s footage to get a screenshot of the odd words, and stared at the blank Linguistio screen. Morgan was clearly visible onscreen, he heard himself speaking words, but there were no words on the screen. The cash counter at the top right dinged, and he saw the money he’d just won. He rewound the footage. The sentence in Spanish was clearly visible, as was the one in German that had preceded it. But it was like these nonsense words hadn’t happened. He pulled up one of the earlier recordings and found that in each of them, sentences in languages he knew were visible, but the nonsense words weren’t. The hell? He drummed his fingers on the desk, then opened a browser and logged on to Linguistio’s website. The sounds of those words were stuck in his head like a litany, and he started saying them under his breath. He needed to know what language he’d just spoken.
Morgan appeared in the upper right of the browser window. “Hi Scott! If you’d like to do more spoken word exercises, please use the app on your phone. If you have questions, you can find answers here in our knowledge base.” Scott entered ‘Nonsense words’ into the search box. Morgan swatted at a ball of yarn before displaying, “A person’s ability to decode or pronounce nonsense words can help predict their overall reading ability, and can also help teach proper syllabication. These are especially helpful when a child is in school, and we’re looking to develop material for school children someday.”
Scott thought about that Latin-esque sentence he’d been given earlier and entered ‘Dead Languages’ into the search bar. Morgan chased a butterfly onscreen for a moment before displaying her answer. “If you’ve been doing exceptionally well, we’ll challenge you with dead languages. For languages that used pictograms, like Sumerian, we’ll give you a phonetic interpretation. While Latin, Coptic, and Sumerian aren’t spoken conversationally any more, our hope is that talented people like you can help us get a better picture of what they sounded like.”
“If you can give me a phonetic interpretation,” Scott said to himself. “Why would you need me to say the words?” Before he could enter the question into the search box, Morgan displayed, “Scott, you’ve successfully translated every sentence we’ve given you and you translated a sentence in Lencan, a Central American language that has no known living speakers. You are quite a cunning linguist.” Morgan winked at him. “Would you like to enroll in the special Dead Languages Only contest? The sentences are tougher, but the prizes are bigger. Interested in learning more?”
Ah, this must be how they get you, he thought. Scott clicked the ‘Yes’ button.
“Purr-fect!” Morgan said. “There are some languages we’ve discovered that are only partially translated. We don’t know for sure if our phonetic interpretations are correct, so we need talented people like you to try them out. Each sentence you speak earns you $5. We only extend this offer once, and only to a very few select participants. If you enroll, you can’t go back to the default Linguistio, so be sure before you click that ‘Enroll Me’ button.”
“Offer expires in 10. 9. 8…” A timed pressure offer. Scott grinned. I’ve got you now, Morgan. He glanced at the photo taped to the corner of his monitor. “Let’s get these bastards, Mawmaw.”
“Pawsome!” Morgan displayed, and did a happy dance. “Let me change.” The kitten ran off screen and returned wearing a tiara and robe. To Scott, she looked like a feline Cleopatra. “The next time you launch the app on your phone, you’ll be in dead language mode. And, you’re eligible for a special bonus round where the prizes are doubled! Good luck!”
Scott closed the tab and rubbed his eyes. He glanced at the clock. Nearly midnight. He’d run through this Dead Language Mode and then call it a night. He launched the app on his phone and saw Morgan there, clad in her pharaoh outfit. “Ready, Scott? Here we go!”
The phonetic interpretation of some dead language came onscreen. It wasn’t Latin, he knew that much.
“Sha vel ray gohl,” Scott said.
Thunder clapped outside. Had the forecast said anything about storms?
“Ajay kai re sa.”
Lightning flashed, and the power flickered. The air in his apartment was hot and heavy, more than it should’ve been. The AC must be on the fritz again.
“Liyo veth ej cha.”
The power went out. Scott frowned, but kept his focus on the phone’s screen. How many sentences would he have to say?
“Zego reath empa zan.”
A sound like ripping cloth tore through the room, and stale, freezing air rimed his skin with a thin layer of frost. Before his eyes, twisted, shadowy forms stepped through a hole in the air. No, not a hole, more like a giant tear, a rip in the air in front of him nearly eight feet high. Each of the forms was the size of a person, but with elongated arms that ended in hands that looked like tree branches. While they weren’t solid, their glowing red eyes were sharp and defined.
Scott opened his mouth to scream, but “Sha vel ray gohl” came out. He wanted to run, but his body refused to move. The shadows slithered forward, and Scott found their tendrils were much more like tentacles than tree branches. “Sha vel ray gohl”, Scott said.
“Mal kath tre svin,” the forms intoned in unison.
Scott found himself turning back to the computer and clicked on Camera One. He heard himself laugh, and say a few sentences. He was aware of his guitar riff playing, and then he was tapping out a few commands on his keyboard. That done, he turned back to the figures. They’d stayed out of the camera’s view, but now they surrounded him.
“Sha vel ray gohl”, Scott said again.
They lifted Scott from his chair, their shadowy fingers felt like ice covered leather. The cold hit him like a hammer as they hauled him through the tear, and the sensation of being stretched caused him to convulse, yet he didn’t stop speaking the language. As they pulled him through, the words changed.
“Zego reath your fire. I give myself to you, great one! I give myself to you! Take my soul to fuel your hunger! Let my essence fuel your fire. Glory to you! My will is yours, I do not resist.”
Sweat pouring down his face despite the cold, Scott tried to fight against his captors. Since crossing through they were no longer wispy shadows. These beings had the torso of a man, the lower half of a snake, and a tentacled squid head topped their shoulders. His body refused to obey him, he willed his arms and legs to move, willed himself to stop speaking, yet his limbs remained still and the words kept coming.
The more he said the words, the more he believed them. He would willingly give himself to Gohl. Who is Gohl? Did it matter? Gohl needed him. Hell yes, it matters! Why resist? He shouldn’t resist. You bet your ass I’m going to resist.
A part of his mind was raging, panicking, slamming itself against the numbing bars of a cage conjured by this litany. He screwed his eyes shut, pictured the photograph of Mawmaw’s birthday firmly in his mind. He remembered that day, the party had been a surprise, and he’d given her a Chippendales calendar as a joke. She’d punched him playfully in the shoulder, looked at him over the tops of her glasses and said…
What had she said?
Oh, right. She’d said, “Mal kath tre svin.”
The final barrier of resistance in Scott’s mind shattered, and gradually, he began to relax. He cast his eyes around, and saw he was inside a huge underground cavern, with massive frescoes carved into the walls. As his captors pulled him along, he took in the scene depicting the squid-snake people tossing stick figures into the mouth of some great beast.
Purple-white light suffused the entire cavern, but Scott couldn’t tell where it was coming from. They continued along, and just ahead were a pair of columns with writing chiseled into their dark stone. At first, the writing appeared as Morgan’s nonsense phrases, but as he got closer, he realized he could read them.
Sha vel ray gohl. I offer myself to Gohl. Ajay kai re sa. Remove the will from this vessel. Liyo veth ej cha. I give this to you. Zego reath empa zan. Let my essence fuel your fire.
As they left the columns behind them, Scott continued his litany, and some distant part of him realized he was walking freely, the squid-snake people seeming more like an honor guard than captors.
They guided him to a ring of gray stones, each one the size of a small dog. On an altar above it, stood a feline-headed woman clad in a pharaoh’s outfit. She smiled at Scott as he approached, and spread her hands to the circle. Now just a few feet from its edge, Scott realized the circle was more like the opening of a well shaft. At the bottom, hundreds of feet down, was a light that was almost like the rift they’d come through, save it was glowing red. “Feed well and rest, Master,” the feline woman intoned. “Many more will come soon, thanks to this one. Your time to return is nearly at hand.” Morgan nodded at him, and Scott, his mind totally quiet, stepped over the edge.
He plummeted down, still numb, still chanting the words over and over again, “Let my essence fuel your fire. Let my essence fuel your fire. Let my essence —”
It never even occurred to him to scream.
On Saturday, a scheduled video popped up on Too Good to Be True’s site. Scott appeared onscreen, white flecks covering his shirt and in his hair. He brushed at them absently. “Looks like my air conditioner is working a little too well,” he laughed. “All right everyone, as promised, here’s my follow up to Linguistio. The app is totally legit. There’s no malware, no data privacy violations, and no shenanigans. You can make some serious bank, and you’ll be helping a great cause. This one gets my highest possible recommendation, so check it out. Until next time, stay sharp.”
Nearly a quarter of a million people watched the video within the first hour of it being posted. Linguistio.com saw close to a 3,000% increase in downloads that day.