Lost in Translation

Doctor Herman Porter awoke suddenly. The computer next to his bed beeped softly, informing him the program had run its course. He sat up, rubbed his eyes, scratched his rapidly graying beard and reached for the touch screen. Translation program number forty-three in the books. The first forty-two had failed. Everyone on his team had given up between try fifteen and thirty. He was getting frustrated enough to give up too.

The communicator next to the computer screen warbled. The doctor paused, then decided to answer the call.

“We think we’ve found something on Level 14, Dr. Porter. You might want to take a look,” came the voice of Doctor Samantha Perch, the team’s archeological specialist.

“I’ll be there soon, Sam.”

He dressed quickly and left his small living quarters, emerging into the familiar false sunlight of Deimos Station. For centuries humanity had looked toward Mars for evidence of extraterrestrial life. Nothing more complicated than single-celled organisms ever turned up. Long after humans stopped the search for extraterrestrial life evidence did appear. Not on Mars as expected, but inside the moon called Deimos.

Tens of thousands of years in the past an ancient and powerful race had hollowed out the Martian moon and built a huge base inside. Abandoned for unknown reasons at the time the first human civilizations the riches of this unknown people had lain in wait to bless the human race with knowledge and technology beyond imagination.

All they had to do was figure out how to get the information.

For nearly two decades the greatest minds humanity had to offer had traveled to the vast caverns inside the moons. The former denizens of the base had been humanoid and breathed oxygen, making it easy for the human scientists to work inside the satellite. The base was abandoned in a great hurry and most of the machinery left inside. Although the scientists could not maintain the equipment themselves, it was still in good working order. On the worst days that just made the lack of progress all the more frustrating.

Despite this great stroke of luck the human scientists had been unable to reach all but a tiny percentage of this information. As of yet no one had been able to translate the alien language. The wealth of the ages remained beyond humanity’s reach.

Dr. Porter had begun studying the alien language at age thirty-eight. As a highly skilled computer programmer and one of the top linguistic experts the planet had to offer he had expected to solve humanity’s aching problem within five years. That was twenty-three years ago. Despite making some headway and creating ever more sophisticated translation programs he felt like he was further than ever from being able to translate the ancient language.

Dr. Porter left the “apartment complex,” as the ancient building the scientists used for their quarters was called. For a long time he had been awestruck any time he had walked out into the vast open spaces of the base. The top level was over sixty-five meters high and designed to feel like an open-air city. All around him buildings rose from floor to ceiling. They had a delicate, spindly appearance that seemed almost impossible. Such structures should not have supported their own weight, yet they had for thousands of years.

Below the entry level fifteen levels descended toward the middle of the satellite. Each of these levels was much smaller, standing only five to nine meters high and mostly packed with machinery and storage spaces. Below the lowest level the aliens had installed massive artificial gravity generators that set the interior gravity of the station to three-quarters of Earth’s gravity.

He barely noticed it anymore. Without a properly translated language the human race would never unlock Deimos’s secrets. The scientists and engineers inside the moon were little more than ants scurrying about with crumbs. He was obsessed with the problem and spent every waking moment trying to figure out some new angle or figure out what he had missed.

He nearly walked straight through the Level 14 work area, only stopping when Dr. Perch stepped in front of him. He shook his head to clear his thoughts and focused on his colleague. She stood a centimeter shorter than his own 1.8-meter height and possessed a youthfulness that belied her own half-century alive. The tall, trim redheaded archaeologist was often asked how she stayed so young. “I make sure my work is much older than I am,” she invariably responded with a twinkle in her eye.

“I hope I didn’t wake you, Dr. Porter.”

“My latest program had just finished compiling, so I was already awake.”

Her eyes widened slightly, “Any success?” she asked with a hint of excitement. Dr. Perch was the only one of the group that thought of the language translation program with anything other than disappointment.

“Don’t know, Sam,” he said, shaking his head. “Haven’t looked yet.”

“I think you just don’t want to look, Herman…”

“Maybe. It’s just…” he suddenly felt very old, thinking back through all the effort he had put into a seemingly futile project. He shook the gloom off. “You have something though?”

“Yes. Come over here. I’ll show you.” She led him to a terminal where image was paused on the screen. A group of about a dozen primitive hominids stood on a broad plain. “We believe these are either Homo erectus or Neanderthal,” Perch said, “Indicating this recording was probably made about fifty to one hundred thousand years ago.” She shrugged apologetically. “It’s kind of hard to tell.”

“That’s no problem, Sam,” Herman replied. “This is fascinating. Actual video of our primitive ancestors, stored deep in the bowels of an alien base.”

“Just wait.” She hit a button and the little group of hominids began to move. They walked slowly, purposefully towards the camera. One stared directly out at them across the vast gulf of time.

“Do they,” Herman paused, “Do they know they’re being recorded?”

“Just wait,” Sam said again.

The little group walked up and past the camera’s vantage point. The camera swung around. Herman gasped.

“By the gods.”

“Yeah,” Sam nodded. “I still can’t believe it myself.” She reached out and paused the display.

A huge, artificial structure sat on the plain. It looked like two dinner plates fused together at the rim. Cylindrical projections jutted up from the top and hung down from the bottom. Thick legs held it up off of the ground. A ramp extended down from the bottom edge.

At least a dozen creatures surrounded the structure. They stood on two legs and had two upper appendages and a head. Even at that they were almost completely alien. The creatures were squat and round and their heads looked like a lemur with the giant, compound eyes of a housefly. Most held long staffs in their arms and the ones closest to the hominids seemed to be directing them towards the ramp. He recognized them from several other records. They were the aliens that built Deimos Station.

“What are they doing?” Herman asked.

Sam shrugged. “I have no idea. I’m hoping you’ll be able to figure it out. There is a commentary track but we turned it down.”

“Can I have a copy of this?”

“Of course.” Sam produced a small data drive. “There’s a bunch of stuff on here. They documented whatever this was meticulously.”

Herman took the drive and thanked her. He hurried back to his quarters, re-energized. When he turned on his terminal the left side displayed a section of alien writing. The right side of the screen was filled with lines of English text, translated from the alien language. He stared at the screen.

He scanned the English text. It was a letter from one long dead alien to another, completely unimportant and filled with nothing more than news of the day. That didn’t matter. It was translated into English. He cycled through other documents, reading technical schematics, textbooks and sections of what seemed to be news reports or editorials. His heart pounded as he fought the urge to scream and dance in his quarters.

He plugged the drive Dr. Perch had given him into his computer and set the program to work. The hominids appeared on the screen along with a status bar that displayed the progress of the translation. It reached 82% and stopped. He pressed play. The hominids began to move as the vaguely female voice of the computer began speaking.

“Confirm collection primitive children species,” the voice said while a caption printed on the screen, “Population sample more high necessary. Depart Ah’seg three two rotation. Commence project. Estimate arrival Ah’yash seven rotation. Report over.”

The blood drained from his face. He had no idea what Ah’seg or Ah’yash were. The program apparently thought they were proper nouns of some sort. It seemed clear the aliens from Deimos Station took primitive people from Earth for some purpose. He composed a report and sent it to Dr. Thorne, the head of the Deimos research team.

Forty-five minutes later his comm unit and terminal lit up with an urgent message. “This is Dr. Thorne,” the head researcher’s voice echoed slightly as it came from both units. “I have just received new orders from Earth Command. All outside communication is suspended until further notice. Earth Command is dispatching the Wyvern and a special research team. This station and all personnel currently located on this station now fall under Earth Command military jurisdiction. I will keep you all apprised of the situation as soon as I know more.” The message clicked off.

Herman slumped back in his chair. He’d expected a response and been prepared for several different eventualities. An immediate, heavy-handed response from Earth Command wasn’t one of them.

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