By Curtis C. Chen
"I'll take the bad news first," the President said to his science advisor.
Xander Frain nodded. "We're having some difficulty verifying the age of the artifact," he said. "It's completely inorganic."
"No carbon," said the President, "so no carbon dating."
"Actually," Xander said, "Carbon-14 is only accurate up to about sixty thousand years. If what the Varna'ut are saying is true, this artifact is billions of years old. We can try other radiometric dating methods, but we need to identify the material first to establish a baseline."
"What about the translation?" the President asked.
"We've got two teams working on it," Xander said. "The first team is following the Varna'ut instructions with a full-size replica of the artifact. The second team is working with the original artifact, not using any external information."
"You don't want to bias the second team," the President said.
"Correct," said Xander. "The first team is getting pretty much the same message the Varna'ut delivered. There are small grammatical differences here and there, but nothing that affects the meaning.
"Here's where it gets interesting. Because we didn't tell the second team anything about the artifact, they started trying to decode it from a different orientation—rotated ninety degrees clockwise from what the Varna'ut instructions said it should be.
"Both teams found that the script had a linear flow, but in the case of the second team, they were actually reading it vertically, from top to bottom."
The President frowned. "How is that possible?"
"It's the way the language is written," Xander said. He placed a photograph of the artifact on the President's desk. "It's an alphabet-based system, and each symbol has different presentations—like upper- and lower-case letters, but multiple forms, at least five per symbol. Each visual variation has a different semantic meaning, and the ways the various ornamentations interact can also form new symbols."
Xander pointed to one corner of the photograph. "Both teams treated this region as the starting point of the message, based on the unique border pattern and the thicker lines used here. But where team one went left-to-right, team two went top-to-bottom, thinking it was right-to-left.
"See how the descender on this first symbol curves and extends, so it looks like a leading terminal when rotated? And it intersects the ascender from this symbol on the next line, making what appears to be a ligature."
"Are you saying there's some kind of hidden message in here?" the President asked.
"Well, a secondary message, anyway," Xander said. "We can't really infer any intent until we decode the whole thing."
"Mister Frain, you said you also had some good news for me."
Xander nodded. "Yes. The good news is, both teams have translated the same starting words for their messages. It appears to be a greeting: 'Dear Caretakers.' "
" 'Caretakers?' " the President repeated.
"Well," said the President. "That would be ironic, wouldn't it? If it finally took aliens from another planet to convince us that we had to save this one."