early 2040s

Rania luxuriated in the cool river water that lapped her four columnar legs. How delicious the fresh water tasted! Her thirst was quenched, but she never tired of dipping her trunk to spray her body, heated by the African sun. A faint breeze caressed the thin film of water on her thick skin, cooling her pleasantly.

The whole herd enjoyed the water. The younger elephants loved splashing, while the older ones loved the relief the water gave them. The buoyancy of the water reduced the weight of their bodies, which weighed several tons, to a fraction.
Rania heard sounds of contentment. They sounded good. Involuntarily, Rania joined in. Her mind swam in a sea of happiness. The deeper Rania relaxed, the clearer and stronger it sounded from the depths of her stomach. The ancient language of the elephants was so simple. Sounds of relaxation generated relaxation. Elephants could talk with their whole bodies. With her trunk, Rania could trumpet words of anger that echoed for miles across the African savannah.
With her trunk she could also smell and taste, touch, stroke gently, and also grab vigorously. And because she had a man-made cuff around her trunk, she could also speak and understand the language of humans.

Suddenly Rania was distracted. She heard powerful sounds of connection. Sounds of the ancient tongue coming from afar clattered against their great wrinkled ears. The source of those words drew Rania like a magnet. She recognized a powerful call for gathering that came to her from a great distance.

Rania’s grandmother, the matriarch, repeated the mating sounds and reinforced them with words of trust. She explained to her flock that old and wise Suanna was calling to the assembly. Then she started moving. She was the lead cow. Arguing for the sake of arguing wasn’t the elephant way. Rania and the rest of the herd followed her. They left the river and followed the call from afar.

For hours they walked through the savannah. It must be three o’clock already, Rania guessed, looking at the position of the sun. For as well as she understood the old language, her mind worked in the new language. She used words like “3 p.m.,” which had no direct equivalent in the ancient language. The ancient language was well suited to describe the changing nature of the land, which was becoming drier every year. Her grandmother was able to adequately express the pain of these changes, which she observed over the decades, in the old language. But the understanding of the causes of these changes had only come with the new language. With the new language, the bipeds had given the elephants insight into connections that had previously been closed to them. Because of this, Rania was aware that the land her herd roamed was part of a continent. This continent was in turn part of a planet. This planet was getting warmer and warmer. Hence the increasing drought.

Just the thought of these humans, strangest of all life forms, made Rania let out a sound of confusion. Noritz, leading Rania, slowed her pace and dropped back to Rania’s position. Now Rania let out a sound of shame for worrying her cousin for no reason. Even when they weren’t there, humans caused confusion. Rania was already hearing sounds of confusion coming from Noritz, which penetrated Rania’s skull like scurrying little civets and tried to bring her thoughts into disorder. Rania raised the tip of her trunk, activating her speaking device. This man-made cuff snuggled around the top of her trunk, picking up Rania’s thoughts and forming strange sounds out of them. The counterpart around Noritz’s snout transformed these sounds into thoughts again. In rapid succession, she was able to send thoughts on a journey with this device. With a few words of human language, Rania reassured Noritz that all was well. She shared with Noritz her reasoning about the human race. Those unfathomably mysterious beings hid snares of wire to catch unwary animals. Wire! What abominable cruelty! Terrible traps that didn’t care if they caught an antelope or cut off an elephant’s trunk. Horror swept through Rania’s skull and escaped in a tortured squeak. Yet there were also humans who hunted trapping humans. And many years ago, the greatest of all lead cows, the human race had ever produced had had the intuition to want to talk to the elephants. It was thanks to her that Rania was able to read The Lord of the Rings, whose author J.R.R. Tolkien had deeper than anyone before delved into the slow, traditional way of thinking and the language of elephants. However, Tolkien had fictionalized the language of elephants and attributed it to fantastic tree shepherds, the Ents. The true connection was not discovered until 100 years after the publication of his book.

It was thanks to this human matriarch, physicist, and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, that over the coming miles thoughts flew by in such large numbers between Rania and Noritz as flocks of birds on the Okavango. Rania shared memories with Noritz of the months the flock had enjoyed in the Okavango delta. At the thought of that river, the sounds of contentment came back quite involuntarily. As if Rania were again with Noritz in this incomparable oasis of life, for which the Okavango sacrificed all its water, in the middle of the desert interior of Botswana. The two young elephant cows let all human words drift away like birds’ nests blown by the wind. Gradually, her fellow females joined the chorus of contentment. The few male elephants in the herd also joined in, young bulls who were still being suckled by their mother. The herd wandered through a barren, dusty land. Only here and there meter-high termite mounds loomed out of the sun-scorched landscape. But the herd was enveloped in a cloud of happiness created by the elephants with their own voices.

When they arrived at their destination, some herds had already gathered there. Well over a hundred elephants exchanged sounds of concern in the old language. Topic was apparently a threat from the bipeds. Of course, the ancient language had words for the two-legged creatures, for elephants and two-legged creatures had coexisted on this continent for two million years. But what exactly it was about, Rania did not grasp. Each herd used the ancient language in a slightly different way, basically having their own ancient language. This made the exchange extremely difficult. Rania was relieved when Suanna switched to the new language, because now she would know exactly what it was all about. With her first words, Suanna confirmed Rania’s suspicion that it was once again about the humans.

“Dear conspecifics,” Suanna began, “I’m worried about the humans, even if they gave us a lot. They gave us tools, their language, their knowledge, and their science. They gave me artificial molars, without which I would have starved to death the year before last – just as all our ancestors starved to death by the age of 65 at the latest. Humans have also given us unsolved problems, most notably climate change, which they are causing not out of malice but out of stupidity. Humans seem far less malevolent than our ancestors suspected. And they’re obviously far less smart. Only once in a while, a human has a wise thought, but they are good at writing such wise thoughts down and passing them on. But now we’ve mastered this trick too. And that’s exactly why you’re going to be wondering why I called this meeting in the old language instead of writing down my thoughts and sending you an e-mail.” Indeed, Rania has been wondering about that for quite a while. But then Suanna shared her discovery that humans kept killing each other because of disagreements over property and possessions. “Cooperation and sharing is in our nature – and as unbelievable as that may sound, the same is true for humans. But most of them have chosen to accumulate individual wealth and thus live against their own nature. That’s why they reject any economy that is based on sharing all the more vehemently.” From this Suanna concluded that sooner or later there would have to be conflicts with humans – if the elephants could successfully establish a sharing-based economy. And in such conflicts, some of the devices they received from humans would become tools of surveillance. Suanna hadn’t yet found a solution for every problem, but one conclusion was simple and convincing: They couldn’t entirely say goodbye to the old language because it was the safest way to communicate over long distances. On the contrary, they had to go to the trouble of unifying the ancient language. Rania shuddered at the thought. What dreadful work that would be! Like all elephants, she was not very good at languages. But Suanna’s other suggestion was simple. They should encrypt whatever they wrote down and sent using electronic devices. Encryption was math, and math was easy for elephants. Apparently most of the other listeners agreed, for soon the air was filled with words of approval in the old language, mixed with a discussion of details in the new language. It wasn’t until the next morning that they parted to spread the message across the continent the old-fashioned way.