Tuesday 10 August 2021

Biju James, ShortStory 2021 Longlist

The Message

The whup-whup of the rotor blades of the helicopter pierced into my skull, whipping up the headache from my hangover. The skewed shadow of the helicopter wriggled its way over the sand dunes of the Thar desert as we headed towards the base.

Our destination was a forgotten outpost in the middle of the desert. A couple of years ago there had been a near fanatical interest in space research and, specifically, in the presence of extra-terrestrial life. There were a couple of random studies with incomprehensible graphs and charts by some statisticians with a lot of time on their hands and precious little else. These studies pointed to the ‘inescapable certainty’ (their words, not mine) of there being life on other planets and that it was upto us to make contact with them.

That was the sole purpose of setting up our base. It had been initially staffed by about a dozen scientists and some supporting staff. Then as our messages went up into the dark deep cavern that was space with no answer, hope and then our staff dwindled.

Now, we had only two- myself and Swaminathan. Swami was one of the employees that exist only in dreams- the kind of person who lives to work, who has no family, no personal life and no real interest in making money. He would do his work and almost all of mine. He was a qualified scientist who had done some stints in Europe and the US. More importantly, he fanatically believed in the presence of extra-terrestrial life.

And me? Myself- Vikas Datta. I had barely made my way through college, got into some linguistics course that no-one wanted, pulled a few strings, emotionally blackmailed some distant relatives and here I was. A government job which meant I was set for life. Here all I had to do was stay out of Swami’s remaining hair while he did his thang. Also, it was my job to get the provisions every couple of weeks from the nearest town. Which also meant that I had to grab that opportunity to get drunk enough to survive the next two weeks.

So what do we do? It was a simple job in theory. We send a message into space and wait for the reply. The concept was also easy. You know how words in a particular language may mean something totally different in another language? We would send messages composed of different words in different languages and hope for a reply. Of course not as basic as sending audio files into space. It would be encrypted and some weird science stuff done to it before sending it.

So what do I do again? Literally nothing. All the stuff was done by huge computers that hummed through the entire base. I just had to be there.

Unfortunately, nothing lasts for ever and especially nothing this good. As expected, there were no replies to our messages and the base was close to being abandoned. The staff had been cut, as I had mentioned, until only two of us remained; the budget was scheduled to be cut; the repairs on some of our systems were not green-lighted. It was only a matter of time before we closed shop, returned to civilization and the sand dunes rolled over the base reclaiming the desert.

I could see our base, glimmering in the distance as the helicopter sped towards it. There were a couple of interconnected buildings, three parabolic antennas (of which only one was in working condition now), solar panels and water tanks. It was nothing much to look at, I admit, but within those buildings and under ground level, there was a state-of-the-art complex with a warren of corridors, huge computers that constantly hummed, air conditioning to keep the temperature of the base constant and our living areas with its sleeping areas, dining area and recreation area. It was quite something.

As we landed on helipad at the base, I could see a familiar figure literally jumping up and down with excitement. I climbed out of the copter cabin and began to pull the cartons of provisions onto the ground.

Swami ran up, nearly trembling hysterically. “They…there… we… reply.”

I dropped the cartons. It could mean only one impossible thing.

Swami motioned towards the pilot of the copter with his eyes, signalling me to defer questions until he had left. We chatted about provisions and other trivial stuff until the chopper had risen into the sky and banked westwards to civilization.

“You know how our system works, don’t you?” Swami asked as we carried the cartons indoors. “We send a signal with a mix of words from different languages.”

I nodded. “That is probably the only thing about this place that I know.”

“Yeah, right,” Swami babbled on. “Now each message has a code encrypted into it. You know like the REMOVETHIS you attach to your email addresses when you sign up on different sites to avoid getting spammed?”

I didn’t, of course. “I do, of course!”

“Yes, Vikas. The main reason for that is to ensure that the message we receive isn’t the one that we have sent bouncing back at us.”

“And this message..?”

“Didn’t have one!” Swami pulled out a piece of paper from his shirt pocket, unfolded it and handed it to me. “Read this.”

‘We are coming. Rejoice.’

“The computers deciphered the words this morning and spewed this out. It decodes the message based on the words in its database. So it took time.” Swami nodded emphatically. “It is them.”

As we stocked the cartons inside the store area, he explained what had happened. The message had been received about ten hours before I had landed. The computers had grabbed it, digested it and had run it through the words in our database.

The idea, as I had mentioned in passing earlier, behind this was the theory that all languages had one source or, at the most, a couple of sources. The creation of a message took this into consideration and formed a kind of universal language. Something like Esperanto but the objective was communicating with an entity that probably needed to create the language and thereby decipher the message from the ground up. Plus it included a wider base of languages, including languages with a handful of native speakers. So the messages we sent out needed someone at the other end to decode it, identify some of the words and formulate a message in the words of that particular language or mash up of languages, encode it and then send it back to us. And we needed to do the same at our end assuming there was a reply. Yes, it was a long and painful process but hey! We got dem comps!

The computers would capture the message we would get, or were hoping to get, identify the source by the signature, decode it only if it was a message from another source, run it through the system and print out the message in English, spell check including.

And the message that we had received had gone through the above process. It was genuine and the meaning was unambiguous.

“So now what?” I asked, looking at Swami. It meant that our long forgotten, about-to-be-shut base had finally produced something useful and we were back in business. “We need to inform the top chaps. It is a landmark event.”

Swami shook his head. “Not yet. First of all, we need to confirm this. We need to send another message and establish communication. You must understand that this is the kind of event that can create history or make us the laughing stock of the world. I have done that already and am waiting for the reply. Secondly, we have to prepare a detailed report and figure out whom to report this to. There will be lot of people who will want to take credit. So we need to move carefully. This can make or break our careers.”

That did make sense. “Okay. I will get the store things organised then.”

Swami had already switched off from the mundane. He nodded absentmindedly and moved towards the work areas. I continued to stock the supplies and fill the inventory lists.

The hum of the machines was something that took a bit of getting used to. It had been a bit disturbing initially but now was just white noise. There was the sound from the air conditioning and some occasional beeps and whirs from the machinery. It was the kind of noise you could hear if you paid attention to it and would fade to the background if you didn’t.

I looked around at the stocks and the cupboards. I ticked off the various items from the sheets of paper on the clipboard. Next, I had to scan the barcode on the perishables and the data, including date of expiry, would be fed into the computer. A pop-up message would warn me when something was near expiry or near finishing. I had to enter the stock in hand into the system and at the end of fourteen days, do a re-checking and make up my shopping list.

Yeah- not as exciting as chatting with the aliens but someone has gotta do this boring work also.

I finished my work and headed out of the storeroom. It was a bit louder in the corridor with the machines. The cold fluorescent light from the tubes illuminated the corridors. I glanced down the corridor to where Swami would be hunched over the machines. There was no sound from him.

Might as well catch up on the sleep, I told myself. Swami could forget hunger and sleep when he was in the zone and there really was no point asking him to join me for a bite. Anyway, I was not as hungry as I was sleepy. A good sleep would clear my head.

Our sleeping quarters were small rooms towards one end of the base, near the dining area. My room was equipped with a small laptop on which I watched illegally downloaded films, a bunk bed, some cupboards, a table and a couple of chairs. I had a shower, changed and collapsed onto the bed.

“Wake up! Vikas! Wake up!”

I groggily opened to see Swami hissing urgently while shaking me by the shoulder. I sat up on the bed. The lights were off. Swami’s face looked almost ghost-like illuminated by the light of the torch from his mobile phone and with a strange expression on his face.

“Come with me,” he whispered.

I was a bit woozy, having my deep slumber cruelly interrupted. “What is the matter? Has the rejoicing started without me as per the instructions in the message?”

Swami shook his head. “No. Come with me.” He motioned with his hand. Turning, he left the room.

I flicked on the light switch near my bed. The lights didn’t come on. I tried a couple of times more with the same result. Through the half-closed door of my room, I could see the light from Swami’s mobile dancing down the corridor. I got up, slid my feet into my sandals and followed the light.

“What is happening?”

Swami held an index finger to his lips, motioning me to be quiet. It was then that I realized what was wrong. There was no sound at all. The hum of the machines, the thrum of the air-conditioners- nothing. And total darkness, except for the mobile that Swami had clutched in his hand. He headed down the corridor. “You know how our system operates, don’t you?”

Which meant that something had gone wrong and the base had shut down completely. “I don’t know how to operate all this!” I waved my hands at the enormous machines that lurked in the shadows on either side of the corridors.

Swami shook his head. “No. Not that. The messages we send and receive are a mix of words from various languages. So one word in one language…”

“…could mean another in another language. I know all that.”

Swami opened the door to the outside and we stepped into the desert. It was pitch darkness there. Usually, nights in cities are not as dark as in the desert because of the ambient light which is constant in cities. But the night now was black. No stars. No moon. Nothing. Just the all encompassing inky blackness.

Swami wordlessly handed me a sheet of paper. It was a printout from the computer. He shone the mobile phone light onto it.

I read the words: ‘We are coming. Leave.’

I looked up. “What does it mean? ‘Leave’? And go where? And why is the night so dark? Is it a moonless night? Or too cloudy?”

Swami turned the mobile screen towards me. “Its two.”

“Okay. Why did you wake me up at two in the night? To appreciate all this?”

“Its two in the afternoon. Not at night.”


Swami whispered, his voice quivering, “They are coming.”

No comments:

Post a Comment