We Were Here

Tana was the world’s best cryptographer. She hadn’t thought so before, though she’d known she was talented, but her very presence on this task force confirmed it. Everyone here was the best at what they did.

The eclectic team included a renowned Oxford linguist, a cosmologist stationed on Luna’s far side, an Angolan who was busy solving mathematical logic’s unsolvable problems (only 19 years old, some sort of prodigy), a quantum engineering professor from Kolkata, and somewhat curiously an anthropologist. Tana didn’t understand the anthropologist’s inclusion, but it was hardly the most pressing question on her mind.

Early last year, a small comet was observed to be on an approach path that would take it between the orbits of Venus and Mercury. It originated from outside the Sol system and would pass through only once, and briefly at that. Interesting, but not earth-shattering. Until, that is, we gave it our full attention.

After closer study, we discovered this interstellar snowball was broadcasting a weak signal. Buried in the ice was a piece of alien technology, and it had a message for us. A short message that it repeated over and over and over into eternity. By the time we’d noticed the broadcast, it was too late to send an intercept mission; the comet was already escaping our stellar influence, and with a gravitational assist to boot. We could never close the gap.

That’s when we were assembled; a small team made up of experts in a variety of fields who were together tasked with deciphering the alien message. Somewhat ironically, none of us spoke the same language except for the linguist, who was forced to take up the role of translator at our first meeting.

We went around in a circle, each of us first introducing ourselves and our background, and then describing what we thought the best approach to the problem would be. We all offered each other feedback, trying to poke holes in each other’s arguments. It was engaging, but it took a long time, both because of the technical details and because everything had to be translated at least four times. It was late into the evening on the second day when I finished my presentation. We were about to break for the night when the anthropologist piped up.

She hadn’t said a word yet, sitting silently in the corner looking bemused.

“You can give us your presentation in the morning,” I said—and the linguist translated for each team member—”it’s too late for another round.”

“No presentation,” was her response. Then, “I’ve already solved it.” That second bit took awhile to get translated, because the linguist began to debate her straight away out of shock.

We didn’t need to use words; we all asked her with our eyes, using the language of disbelief.

And she answered, “They told us: we were here.”

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