Episode 75: The Field Trip by Alex Shvartsman


The Field Trip

by Alex Shvartsman

The obelisk towered over the surrounding ruins, the strange signs carved into its sides gleaming in the afternoon sun. It was mysterious, majestic, and very, very annoying.

I walked over and joined the other students. The group waited in an uncomfortable silence, sizing each other up nervously and trying to guess if any of the others had better luck in figuring out Professor Quilp’s puzzle. The stakes were high. Professor Quilp, one of Milky Way’s most notable scholars of xenoarchaeology, had room for exactly one new intern in his department at the Academy.  We five were his top candidates, and this was the final audition.

Earlier that morning we were ordered to meet Professor Quilp at his office, and to bring whatever equipment we might need on a field trip. No additional details were provided, except that the world we’d be traveling to had an oxygen-based atmosphere, and that we’d be back at the Academy in time for lunch. The former was great news for me as an oxygen breather; it would give me a distinct advantage over Xkinth and Eetal. On the other hand, this implied a brief assignment and I always worked better when given sufficient time to thoroughly analyze the problem.

Professor Quilp was already waiting at the office, even though every single one of us took care to arrive early. Also waiting for us were information packets. The packets were brief, with details so sparse they might have been written by a Phys Ed major.

The planet in question used to be populated by tool-using bipedal mammals who learned to split the atom a little too soon for their own good, a scenario so common in this part of the galaxy that there are entire digital storage units full of examples, and they are all filed under “Boring.” Bipedal mammals account for roughly fifty percent of the intelligent species in the universe. I am one myself. And that’s counting them after almost ninety percent of mammal civilizations manage to destroy themselves somewhere along the slow crawl up the evolutionary tree. It may not be politically correct to say so, but mammal cultures do not tend to create very interesting architecture, either. It’s always “pyramid” this or “castle” that. Not like the sentient crystals on Galco III who literally dream their dwellings into being.

But I digress.

These particular aliens blew themselves up only a few hundred years back. That’s the sweet spot for xenoarchaeologists – the radiation has abated and nuclear winter has passed, but most of the structures were still intact. Mostly there were your typical remnants of industrial civilization – skyscrapers, suburban housing and a lot of fast-food establishments. In this case, however, there was a large area that just did not fit in. It was full of oddly-constructed buildings, with a  big obelisk right in the center. It wasn’t housing. It wasn’t a manufacturing center. Our assignment was to port over to the planet, study the obelisk and its surroundings, and come up with the best hypothesis that could explain its purpose – all in one hour.

The portal delivered us a few steps away from the obelisk, in the blistering heat of a desert afternoon. We scattered almost immediately to pursue our various lines of inquiry. There would be no possibility of cooperation – after all, only a single intern position was up for grabs.

I chose to start with the symbols carved into the sides of the obelisk. I scanned them with a portable translation device. The gadget chewed on the data longer than I’ve ever seen it take before and gave me back nothing. Modern translation machines are incredibly sophisticated, benefiting from having thousands of language structures in their database. If there is any sort of rhyme or reason to a language, the software can figure it out. Amazed, I pointed the device at some of the signage on nearby structures and it was able to translate those well enough. Pointed back at the obelisk, the gadget struggled a few moments longer and gave up once again. I’d swear there was a little embarrassment in the “No Match” beep, but this model was not programmed for emotions. Either the message on the obelisk was encoded by the most sophisticated cipher I’ve ever seen, or it wasn’t language at all, as we know it.

I spent nearly half of the allotted time meddling with various devices, measuring and analyzing the obelisk within the inch of its granite life. I wasn’t having any breakthroughs and, by the looks of them, neither was any of my competitors. At that point I realized that I wasn’t going to find whatever solution or inspiration at the obelisk and decided to port around for some additional perspective. I spent the remaining half hour examining nearby areas. As the deadline approached I was beginning to formulate a theory. I rejoined my fellow students with not a minute to spare; Professor Quilp ported in right on schedule.

“Archaeology,” he said as we gathered in a semi-circle in front of him, “is art as much as science. Any half-decent researcher will respect and study the masterpieces of past civilizations. A good explorer will figure out an occasional mystery like this one, and benefit from this knowledge. But a truly great archaeologist can count on his assistants to reliably do it for him.

“By now all of you have had an opportunity to examine the nearby ruins and see that this structure does not fit in with the rest. The question is why.

“I am now prepared to hear your theories. Eetal, please begin.”

Eetal looked uncomfortable in the bulky suit that allowed a methane breather to move around in a hostile environment. At least she wasn’t getting slowly roasted by the heat. Probably.

“In my estimation,” she began carefully, “this obelisk could not have been built by the same people who erected these other structures. Design style, materials, and even the writing on the obelisk differ from anything else in evidence. My guess is that this is an artifact of a much earlier culture that was either transported to this location as a trophy or predates them and they chose to build a settlement around it.”

I could not believe my luck. Eetal was one of the strongest contenders, and it wasn’t like her to make such a monumental gaffe. Professor Quilp frowned; he was probably thinking the same thing.

“Would any of you care to disprove this theory?” he said neutrally.

“The obelisk was built around the same time as these other structures,” Q’orr rushed to embarrass a rival, “as should be obvious to anyone who bothered to run the decay test.” He brandished the gadget that assessed an age of structures by examining the degree of weathering on their surface. I had one too, and so presumably would the other students.

Eetal looked as though she was ready to just port out of there. “I’m Atrellian,” she stammered.

The blunder made sense now. Atrellian religion claimed that the universe was only about 50,000 years old and its followers weren’t allowed to use carbon and decay dating technologies that could prove otherwise.

“Next hypothesis, please.” Professor Quilp hurried things along, a kindness of redirecting attention away from Eetal, or perhaps he was as eager to get out of the heat as I was.

Nevri, an exchange student from the Orion nebula, could not speak. Instead, it projected three dimensional images and, when absolutely necessary, written text. It showed the obelisk to be a subject of worship by the natives, arguing that its placement in the center of the settlement supports that theory. I got a distinct feeling that he had nothing to go on, and Eetal’s calamity served as inspiration for his half-baked theory.

“This does not quite work for me,” said Professor Quilp. “If such an obelisk was a standard object of worship on this planet, we would find a lot more of them scattered throughout. If, on the other hand, this one was unique, a place of pilgrimage perhaps, the entire settlement would be laid out differently to accommodate the kind of traffic it would draw.”

Next up was Xkinth, whose species are known for their knack for linguistics. If anyone could figure out the markings on the obelisk, it would be him.

“I did my best to translate the writing on the obelisk and came to a conclusion that it is nonsense,” said Xkinth to my relief. “The placing pattern and a lack of repeating characters suggest that the builders were trying to evoke an image of an unfamiliar language rather than using a real one to communicate information. Since the writing is fake, I must assume that the entire object is a work of art, created for purely aesthetic purposes and not practical ones. This would explain both its prominent placement and its singular nature.”

“Not bad,” said Professor Quilp, his expression not betraying whether he agreed with this theory or simply found the explanation plausible. It was my turn next.

“I ported around and found a number of structures that do not fit in with anything else we’ve seen on this planet,” I said. “Most of them lack any obvious utility, yet are clearly designed to look visually impressive. Therefore, I would agree with the art hypothesis but build on it to suggest that this entire area is an outdoor museum or an experimental zone of some sort, where natives would come specifically to view the unusual structures as some form of entertainment.”

“I like that you showed initiative by exploring beyond the immediate area,” nodded Professor Quilp. “What else have we got?”

Q’orr, a gray-feathered member of an avian species, was the odds on favorite. He seemed to excel at every class he took, and was the most dangerous rival by far. He confidently laid out his theory.

“There are many clues here to suggest that these aliens lived in a highly commercialized culture,” he said. “As such, I find it difficult to believe they’d produce such large and expensive works of art for aesthetic reasons alone. Financial gain had to play a major role. I found some images and other small artifacts among the ruins to suggest that these people acted out stories and recorded them for entertainment. My solution to this puzzle is that the obelisk and other outlandish structures are merely props that were used in production of these recordings.”

Both of my hearts sunk as we listened to Q’orr outline in detail the facts supporting his theory. My dream of interning for Quilp was slipping away. Q’orr finished laying out his explanation and triumphantly looked down his beak at the rest of the students.

“Your theory matches the conclusions reached by the xenoarchaeologists who discovered this planet,” said Professor Quilp. “In fact, it matches them a little too precisely.”

Professor Quilp reached into his breast pocket. “You’ve done very well on your tests, Q’orr, and while I’d like nothing better than to attribute that to my superior teaching techniques, I grew somewhat suspicious.” He took out a small device which we instantly recognized to be a telepathy detector. Its indicator was flashing yellow, activated by an illicit mind reading.

“You’ve been fishing out the answers from my thoughts, and the thoughts of other professors. We needed you to use telepathy in an area almost entirely devoid of life to prove it, and setting up this field trip presented a perfect opportunity.”

With a terrified squawk, Q’orr dashed away from the group and disappeared into his own portal. I was pretty sure we would not be seeing him again; reading thoughts isn’t just cheating, it is also a serious crime in our culture.

Professor Quilp watched him go, and then turned to the rest of us. “I apologize for the ruse,” he said, “but the truth is, there is no intern position opening in my department at the moment. I will, however, consider your performance as earning you all extra credit toward your grades this semester.” With those words he was gone, undoubtedly to report his findings to the dean.

One by one, the other students ported back to the academy. I stood there a little while longer, and stared at the obelisk. Although Professor Quilp made it clear that the official explanation of its origins was the one described by Q’orr, I still kind of liked my own theory better. Perhaps I might return to this planet someday and study it in more detail. If I can prove I am right, Professor Quilp will be very impressed.

My tentacles fondled a small metal sign I had picked up while porting around in search for clues. It depicted what must have been a face of a native: large circular ears, a pointy nose, and a big toothy smile. My translation device was able to read its text just fine, and while it did not mean anything to me yet, I thought it might eventually yield some clues.

Someone at the Academy must be able to tell me what a “Disney” was.

About the Author

Alex Shvartsman

Alex Shvartsman is a writer, translator and game designer from Brooklyn, NY. Over 90 of his short stories have appeared in Nature, Galaxy’s Edge, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and many other magazines and anthologies. He won the 2014 WSFA Small Press Award for Short Fiction and was a finalist for the 2015 and 2017 Canopus Awards for Excellence in Interstellar Fiction. He is the editor of the Unidentified Funny Objects annual anthology series of humorous SF/F. His collection, Explaining Cthulhu to Grandma and Other Stories and his steampunk humor novella H. G. Wells, Secret Agent were both published in 2015. His website is www.alexshvartsman.com.

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About the Narrator

Graeme Dunlop

Graeme Dunlop is a Software Solution Architect. Despite his somewhat mixed accent, he was born in Australia. He loves the spoken word and believes it has the ability to lift the printed word above and beyond cold words on a page. He and Barry J. Northern founded Cast of Wonders in 2011 and can be found narrating or hosting the occasional episode, or working on projects behind the scenes. He has read stories for all of Escape Artists podcasts. Graeme lives in Melbourne, Australia with his wife Amanda, and crazy boy dog, Jake. Follow him on Twitter.

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