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Rated: 18+ · Short Story · Sci-fi · #2132276
Janet is excited about a message from a lost civilization - Honorable mention 2017 Quills
Professor Janet Webster brushed a gray lock from her sweaty forehead and smiled at her two male colleagues, who stood side-by-side outside a recently constructed brick hut. She gestured to the nearby ancient ruins, admiring the elaborate columns that reached toward an orange-tinted sky. On this alien world far away from Earth, they had stumbled upon the home of the gods.

“Just imagine,” she said. “Two million years ago, sentient creatures much like ourselves strolled around these grand halls, while on Earth Homo erectus fumbled with stone axes and marveled at their latest discovery—fire.”

Dr. Tseng took off his spectacles. “Indeed. It's no wonder we once believed the Beta-Babylonians to be gods. Our primitive ancestors during the Paleolithic couldn't have even imagined such grand palaces.”

“Temples, I think,” muttered Director Mugabe, scratching his wiry beard. “These columned walks demonstrate a ritualistic structure.”

“Rubbish,” said Tseng. “There's clear evidence Beta-Babylonians slept here. Why would a temple need bedchambers?”

“Monks,” suggested the director. “Priests who served here, like the Vestal Virgins who guarded the sacred fire in Rome.”

“Balderdash!” Tseng clenched his fists. “Why would simple monks sleep in rooms with marble fixtures, mosaic floors, and painted ceilings?”

Janet grit her teeth to prevent herself joining in this bitter debate. Twenty light years from Earth, and you still couldn't get two archaeologists to agree on anything.

There was no statistically material evidence these structures possessed any special ceremonial or hierarchical significance to the Beta-Babylonians. Given that all the buildings uncovered in their archaeological excavations had demonstrated an identical standard of construction, this complex could simply be the home of a single family. But she considered academic debate with sparse data pointless. She'd guard her personal opinion until more facts became available.

“Gentlemen, we are on the brink of one of the most important developments in archaeology since the vindication of Erich von Däniken's theories on interplanetary diffusion. Shouldn't we be focusing on that?”

Mugabe glanced around, then stared impatiently at the hut. “Well, where is that robot, anyway?”

She sighed. “Director, with respect, Hal is a sentient entity. Calling him a robot could be considered as offensive as calling you an ape.”

Mugabe frowned. “Professor Webster, are you calling me a monkey?”

She held her breath and counted to ten. Why couldn't her human colleagues be as reasonable as Hal? With his specialized programming, cutting edge processor, and virtually infinite memory, they had a chance to finally unlock the mysteries of the Beta-Babylonian language and the enigmatic message.

He'd been expensive to purchase. However, since the Babylon Beta Archaeological Mission uncovered prehistoric human artifacts on this planet, funding wasn't a problem. Every major intergalactic corporation wanted in on the greatest discovery of all time. With a swift spree of fresh evidence and remarkable artifacts, they had confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt all von Däniken's previously fringe theories about alien involvement in the early development of human civilization.

Of course, all that interplanetary success hadn't succeeded in getting her colleagues to work together in peace.

“Director Mugabe, what do you think the message actually says?” she asked, hoping to deflect his anger and channel her colleagues' thoughts toward today's agenda.

“Well, Professor,” he said, gripping his jacket's lapels and straightening as if he were about to lecture to a hall full of enthusiastic undergraduates. “Given that we are now convinced the Beta-Babylonians are the sentient creatures who provided the core inspiration behind the mythologies and polytheistic religions of every ancient civilization on Earth, I would expect something of a theological nature.”

Tseng frowned. “Of course, it would now be academic suicide to suggest the Beta-Babylonians were not the inspiration behind the ancient gods on Earth. But their intentions were cultural, not theological. They knew they were not gods, and they wanted to raise humanity up to their level.”

He gestured to the surrounding columns. “I imagine this 'message from the gods' may be a great work of Beta-Babylonian literature. Perhaps it's a poem glorifying the powerful, aristocratic family who once ruled the surrounding land from this central palace. It might even record the ancient majesty of this very location. Something like Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Kubla Khan.”

“Poppycock,” muttered Mugabe. “The message is far too short for such waffling. It's more likely a sublime yet concise statement of faith, such as the Islamic Shahada or the Christian Nicene Creed.

"Perhaps,” agreed Janet in the most congenial tone she could muster, “it is undeniable the Beta-Babylonians were far more technologically advanced than humans, so it is reasonable to assume that their level of consciousness was similarly elevated.

“But just maybe the message is a simple philosophical mantra, similar to Anne Bronte's poem Home.

Though all around this mansion high invites the foot to roam, and though its halls are fair within—oh, give me back my home.

“Nonsense!” said Mugabe.

“Gobbledygook!” said Tseng.

She closed her eyes and covered her ears. She had no desire to hear any more of this fruitless arguing when the answer to all their questions might be revealed any minute.

When she opened her eyes again, she smiled, and all the tension disappeared from her shoulders. Hal had finally arrived. All attention was drawn to the android, who physically resembled Michelangelo's David. Janet found this aesthetically pleasing.

“Hello, Hal."

“Greetings, Professor, Doctor, and Director. I hope you are all enjoying the afternoon.”

Janet nodded. “Have you had sufficient time to weigh up all the evidence and come to a conclusion?”

“Yes, Professor Webster.”

“Great! Does that mean you can now provide us with a translation.”

“Yes and no.”

Tseng stepped closer to Hal, his face mere inches away. “Stop procrastinating and confirm that these structures constitute an elaborate palace complex.”

“A temple,” said Mugabe. “They're definitely a temple.”

Hal smiled. “Gentlemen and Professor, patience, please.” He gestured to the brick hut built for only one purpose— to protect the artifact.

Hal opened the airlock. “Shall we enter.”

Inside, Janet shivered. The hut's comprehensive environmental control system was essential to protect the delicate and unique alien artifact they'd found, but the chilly air did contrast sharply with the heat outside.

Hal crouched beside the artifact, which remained half-buried in the hard soil. The visible portion of the twelve-inch wide silver disk shone in the hut's LED lighting as if it had just come off a production line, but its appearance was misleading. Of the hundred disks they'd unearthed in different locations around the planet, this was the first they'd found that remained functional.

The technology involved was light years ahead of anything yet developed on Earth. The power source alone was an enigma that physicists in every university around the colonized worlds dreamed of solving. Nothing humans had manufactured to date would retain functionality after two million years underground. This tiny artifact even put Hal in the shade with its deceptively simple-looking complexity.

Hal moved his hand gently over what they'd decided to call “the sensor”, and the familiar sonorous warbling sound filled the tent.


The “message” continued for exactly thirteen point one seconds. Janet knew this because since this artifact came to light twenty-five months ago, this recording had been investigated in minute detail by thousands of linguists from every corner of the galaxy. Yet not one had managed to decipher its meaning. Janet and her local team hadn't ever finished unearthing the object in case further disturbance caused damage and it was silenced forever.

“Well?” asked Tseng, wiping his spectacles with a rag.

Hal spread his hands in a gesture of futility. “Are you really sure you want to know?”

Janet gaped in incredulity, her own expression mirrored on her colleagues' faces. “We've waited over two years for this moment. Of course, we want to know.”

Hal looked at them each in turn. “When mankind first attained sentience, they believed they were the focal point of life. From The Book of Genesis, it's clear humanity considers themselves the endpoint of creation. The Bible teaches that other living things merely exist for man's benefit. The first astrologists assumed Earth was the center of the solar system, and the sun revolved around it.”

He gestured to the artifact. “Now that you have found an ancient message from a long dead alien civilization, you obviously assume its contents will be relevant to the human race.”

“Well, is it?” asked Mugabe, glaring at Hal. “Is this a message addressed to us, and does it confirm these structures are indeed a temple complex?”

“In truth, it is and it isn't a message for you,” said Hal.

“Could you be any more confusing?” asked Janet, feeling as frustrated as her male colleagues looked.

“It is a message addressed to anybody who hears it,” Hal clarified.

“Ah,” said Mugabe. “Like the messages sent out by ancient humans inside their earliest deep space probes.”

Hal smirked. “Please understand, translating a message like this is complex. I was programmed with over two thousand extant and extinct human languages along with all current linguistic theories in the hope that I could decipher it. Happily, I have achieved success in that endeavor.

“However, forty percent of communication is visual and forty percent contextual. Only twenty percent is auditory. Taking an ancient message out of its cultural context to present it in a way that communicates the original intention of the speaker isn't simple.”

Janet nodded. “We aren't stupid, you know. We understand something will be lost in translation.”

“That's right,” Hal agreed. “In order that you can understand this message as it was meant to be received, I shall apply various equivalences.”

“What exactly do you mean?” asked Mugabe.

“Well, in the message there is a name. I have discovered this name, like the message as a whole, is presented in an informal tone. The name is, Shuk'Biak'Lok'Fuks'Taka'Rak', but this has no Earth equivalent. In order to present it as intended by the original speaker, I shall translate this as 'Bob'.”

“Bob! Why Bob?”

“Robert is a similarly common name in the modern, English speaking world, and Bob is its simplest informal format. Using Bob as the name will give you, as listeners, a familiar sound to focus upon. It will achieve the same emotional response within your brains as Shuk'Biak'Lok'Fuks'Taka'Rak' did for the average Beta-Babylonian.”

Tseng narrowed his eyes. “What else needed cultural manipulation?”

“Within the message, a creature is identified by both its species and its call. This creature is a now-extinct arboreal lizard or mammal equivalent, but—like with many animals known to human societies today—there are added shades of meaning when this animal is mentioned in a speech in certain contexts.”

“And how do you intend to translate this creature's name?”

“The closest equivalent by taxonomy and cultural significance would be the cuckoo.”

Janet threw up her hands in exasperation. “Okay, we get it. We're too anthropocentric to really understand this message from the gods. Is there anything else you absolutely have to give a modern, human context to so we can comprehend this message in the manner intended by the speaker?”

“Just one more thing.”


“The message refers to an interdimensional, sub-space communications device. In fact, I believe the artifact here is the device referred to.”

“Wow,” said Tseng. “Imagine the royalties our organization will receive if this technology can be reverse-engineered.”

Mugabe waved his hands. “Never mind that. What have you translated 'interdimensional, sub-space whatchamacallit as?”


Janet blinked. “Phone?”

“Yes. That word adequately expresses the informality of the message's original tone.” He sighed, which looked weird for an android. “As I said, you will be extremely disappointed when you hear the complete translation expressed in an equivalent informal tone to that of the original speaker.”

“Okay,” she said. “Cut to the chase.”

Hal adopted a slack-jawed expression and a tone of voice to match. “The message says:

“Hi! You've reached Bob's phone. Sorry, I'm not available to take your call at the moment. If you'd like to leave a message, please do so after the cuckoo call.

“Cuckoo. Cuckoo. Cuckoo…”


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