Lost in translation

A man and a woman stood side by side, overlooking a sight that had, until a few months ago, never before been seen to human eyes. They were in orbit around a planet, blue green like the Earth but with just enough difference to know they were nowhere near home.

The land was different. Rather than half a dozen large land masses spread more or less evenly, this world had only a single huge continent, spanning perhaps half of an entire hemisphere.

The coloring was slightly different. The planet had a hotter sun then our own, it burned with a slightly blue tint. In response, the plants on the planet had grown to absorb the more plentiful blue light, giving them a reddish cast in addition to the more usual green.

And the clouds were different. There was a number of natural chemicals in the air that made it necessary to wear special equipment on the planet. On the other hand, they imparted a swirling greenish tint to the clouds that was mesmerizing to behold.

“It’s beautiful,” the man said to his partner, gesturing with a free hand at the world spread out beneath them. It wasn’t a new conversation, they’d had the same before, but the point he was trying to make held true regardless. “Isn’t it?”

She nodded wordlessly, surveying the scene below with a keen eye. The air was clear, far more clear than back home would likely ever be. Even after a century of work, the black stain of pollution refused to release its hold. The centuries before had taken their toll. From their vantage point beyond the planet’s atmostphere, they could see the outline of a storm forming, gaining strength over a tropical ocean much like a hurricane would back home. If it made landfall, the locals would likely have had some severe flooding to deal with.

The man went on, as if to fill the silence, “why did we do it?”

She knew it was a rhetorical question; that he already knew the answer every bit as well as she did. As every man and woman on the mission now did. As all of the men, women, and children back home would soon hear about, once their ship and its recordings returned home. Yet she answered him anyways. “Curiosity.” It wasn’t entirely the right answer, but for her, it just felt right. The desire to know, to understand. That desire drove her, drove many of the men and women on the ship. It was part of the reason they had been chosen for the mission.

He turned to look at her, his eyes moist, his face clouded. “But why?” He sounded almost like a child, faced with a problem that they couldn’t yet understand; a problem that they didn’t yet want to understand. “This could have been it, you know. The moment that saved humanity, brought us back from the brink of extinction. But instead we threw it away.”

She nodded. It was expected after all. When SETI had first intercepted the signal, everyone had thought they were mad. When they had tracked down the origin, everyone had called it a fluke. When they decoded the message–prime numbers and elementary physics, just like they had always said it would be–some began to believe.

It couldn’t have come at a better time. Humanity was on the cusp of destruction, surviving more through sheer momentum than anything else. World wars and terrorists had killed millions, starvation and disease millions more. With each passing year, another threat rose against humanity and its resources were stretched thin coping with them. Even the most optimistic were beginning to look for a miracle, yet miracles were in short supply

But now? There was hope.

They had built a starship, the first of its kind. Taking advantage of a loophole that even Einstein couldn’t have dreamed of, they would be able to reach the source of the message in months rather than centuries. A team had been chosen, representatives from a dozen lands. There were scientists and negotiators, theorists and engineers, mathematicians and linguists, all at the top of their fields. They would be the one to make first contact.

The woman had been chosen for her skill with physics. No-one knew better the intricacies of how the engine driving the starship worked. If things went wrong, as they were sure to do, she would be there to see them safely home. Her original plans had been solid however, and the engineers that built the ship had been thorough. It had been a long boring trip thus far for her.

Her partner was a linguist by trade, and a hobbyist mathematician. Between the two, he had been the one to decipher the original message from the stars. With extensive background in deciphering old and dead languages and a fluent knowledge of a dozen or more living languages, there was hope that he would be the one to bridge the cap between any alien language and our own.

A brilliant flash of light bloomed on the planet’s surface far below, for a moment turning night into day. It had been one of the cities. The awe-inspiring cities that had reached for the clouds. Now it was nothing more than a radioactive ruin.

“We couldn’t have known,” the woman said to the man, putting a hand on his arm.

His eyes remained glued on the expanding cloud of debris, visible even from space, that had one been home to millions. He was muttering softly to himself. “How could we have been so stupid?” He’d been muttering much the same thing–or some slight variation for days now. Ever since the unthinkable had begun.

“But their language…” she cut in. It sounded hollow even to her ears, but she went on, as if trying to convince herself. “It was so different.”

“Don’t you think I knew that?” he shot back, still facing away from her. The heat in his voice was obvious, but was beginning to sound tired. They’d had this same argument a half dozen times today alone. “I was the first to learn their language, the first to teach them our own.” It had been an incredible undertaking, only possible after weeks of work and using the considerable computing power their ship had available.

At first, everything had gone well. They were communicating. There had been those, even well before a message had even been received, that had claimed that talking with a truly alien life form would be impossible. Without some sort of shared ancestry as on Earth, there would be no common ground with which to build a shared vocabulary.

But those naysayers had made one key mistake. There was a common ground, there was a shared ancestry. Mathematics. Physics. The constants of the universe. Granted, their numbering system took a bit of getting used to and some of their ideas of how the universe worked were astonishingly backwards. And granted, it was a long way from number to having a real conversation. To discussing art,… philosophy… but the connection had been made.

Trouble began when one of the men on the team–a philosopher–had asked the aliens their word for ‘suicide’. It was an innocent enough question, they had been going back and forth the entire morning, the aliens learning words in our languages, our scientists learning words in theirs. One thing had led to another, and the discussion had turned to the afterlife. The philosopher was a devout Catholic. To him, suicide was a mortal sin. What did the aliens think?

The problem came up immediately. The aliens had no reflexive pronouns. They had no way to directly take an action and modify it to apply it to themselves. For many cases, they had a pair of words for situations such as these, where one word would mean to do something to another; the other to oneself.

However, such a word didn’t exist for ’to kill’. Killing and one’s own self were such different topics that it had never occurred a single one of them, not in thirty thousand years of recorded history, to kill itself.

The philosopher, so intrigued by the possibility of an entire world without suicide, wanted to make sure that he was understanding them correctly. He pressed the point him, repeating himself over and over again. Each time, the same look–one that we had taken to be confusion. And yet he went on.

Finally, one of them made the connection. It was one of the younger ones, the equivalent of a human perhaps in their early twenties. In some ways, it was appropriate. The young feel things so intensely, they always seem more prone to the darker thoughts.

Whatever it was, this particularly young alien understood. He ran out of the room, a look we knew as excitement on his face.

Somehow, he got into one of the storage lockers on the ship.

Somehow, he got one of the guns, marked ‘FOR USE AS LAST RESORT’.

He shot himself.

You see, they had no concept of suicide, so they had no reason to build up natural defenses to protect them from themselves. Humanity had thousands of years to come to the realization that, just because something goes wrong, more often than not, it’s not the end of the world. The aliens had no such filter. The first time that something went wrong, they now knew a way to solve the problem. To solve it once and for all.

Another brilliant flash, this time in the southern hemisphere. It had been like this for days. At first, the idea of suicide had only spread to a few of the aliens. Those closest to the mission. But somehow it got out to the public at large. Several billions beings, all without the necessary mental preparation. And then it was only a matter of time.

“First contact, and we screwed it up,” he said. After a moments pause, “I screwed it up.”

And now the ship was powering up for the long trip home. The autopilot was engaged. In a matter of minutes, the months long trek home would begin.

Videos of the entire ordeal had been recorded and stored in the ship’s memory. When they returned home, perhaps the scientists would be able to make sense of them. Perhaps if we were ever to venture out again, perhaps we wouldn’t make the same mistake. Perhaps.

Other than that, there was nothing we could do to help the aliens any long, the very idea of suicide was spreading like a virus through their people. If we were lucky, perhaps we could come back in a decade or two. Perhaps the whole thing would have blown over by then. But somehow, no one believed that. Not with so many of the aliens in charge of nuclear weapons–and worse–deciding to take their own lives in such a spectacular fashion.

The pair’s dark thoughts were interrupted a moment later by another of the crew. He ran into the room, his clothes soaked with sweat, his eyes unnaturally wide in his face. His mouth was open, as if to scream, but not a sound came out. He ran into the room, heedless of the two already there, across the room, directly into the observation window in front of the. He bounced off harmlessly, his legs never slowing in their frantic pace.

The woman turned to the man, dark humor on her face, “well, it seems that our friends may have the last laugh after all. We may have taught them suicide, but that doesn’t hold a candle to…”

With that her mind finally clicked.

She truly understood the meaning the aliens had tried to convey.

She opened her mouth. Opened it wide and began to scream.

(Note: This is based on a very similar short story I once read, but I can no longer find. If anyone remembers what it is, drop me a comment, I’d love to give credit where credit is due.)