[term UNTRANSLATABLE] by Robert Hood

Everyone in the world received the Message – or at least those with email or an online social media account of some kind did. The others? They were too irrevocably primitive to matter. For all intents and purposes, they were already redundant.

At the instant the Message came into his inbox, innocuously waving its little electronic flag at him, Gordon Cole was engaged in more important matters and didn’t notice. Someone designated “cyberfiend” had suggested that Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow was a second-rate con-job and a symbol of Hollywood’s decadence, made by social retards and championed only by hopeless losers who couldn’t tell a dilythium crystal from a warp-drive capacitor.

Gordon (“Flash” to his online buddies) had composed an elegant reply that only used the term “cocksucker” once or twice and argued the case for Total CGI sf/x as the way of the future. “Who needs live actors even?” he wrote. “Any random grouping of pixels could perform better than Shatner and Co.”

He laughed aloud at his own wit, poked the SEND button and headed for the loo, negotiating the piles of crap that littered his unit’s lounge-room floor. It was only six o’clock or so in the morning, but he’d been up since three. His sleep had been disturbed by emotionally dark imagery he couldn’t quite remember once he was fully awake. Believing in the existence of an Internet gestalt consciousness, he’d wanted to check with the on-line community to see if others had had the same experience. Many had, but as none of them could remember their dreams either, the discussion had soon morphed into the usual fannish hectoring. Gordon had been arguing and drinking coke for hours.

When he got back from relieving himself, he noticed the flashing mail notice at once.
“Ha!” he muttered, eagerly anticipating a flame response from “cyberfiend”. “That was quick.”
But it wasn’t from the [scifi-heroes] discussion group.

“Greetings, <humans>,” it began. “We have come from <far off / another space – term UNTRANSLATABLE> to study you and your <life structure / data-set / term UNTRANSLATABLE>”.

Spam! Is that all? Why hadn’t his filter ditched it?

For a moment Gordon scanned the Message, cursor hovering over the DELETE icon. Using his free hand, he took a swig of coke.

Right now, job redundancy had ensured that Gordon’s most life-affirming moments involved arguments with anonymous nerds, most of whom might not even be real, for all he knew. So, after a moment’s hesitation, his finger pulled back from the mouse and he read on. No doubt the Message would eventually offer him unspeakable wealth if he gave up piles of cash first, but given the scifi trappings, he found himself curious to discover what form the scam would take. At least it showed some imagination. By the time he’d reached the end of the email – where the “aliens” offered to download complex statistical analyses of quantum-level data gathered in their “journeys” through <space / time / the universe – term UNTRANSLATABLE> – in exchange for general communication and the sharing of local data, he’d decided to give in to the joke. He emailed back.

It took barely an hour for him to realise that the mass of digital information that came through his modem – with a speed impossible to justify in terms of available bandwidth – was not technobabble and was, surprisingly, based on a level of scientific knowledge sufficiently within his grasp for him to tell it wasn’t crap. No reversed polarities or temporal modulators here. Excitement rushed through him like the mother of all sugar hits. Not only did the methodology make sense (as far as he could tell), but also the information provided was strange enough to be of actual, other-than-earthly origin!

Hands shaking at the possibility, mind numb, Gordon set about running the alien analysis software that came with the data.

*By noon Greenwich Mean Time, the Internet was abuzz with excitement – and SETI was announcing that quantifiable, demonstrably alien communication had been established. Governments went into committee mode. It would take a few weeks for their sponsored scientific agencies to verify the claim, but long before an official announcement was made, the news networks were running continual updates and public skepticism had turned to concern.

It was soon discovered that the Message had been sent in many different languages, personally directed and addressed to each recipient, appearing on the Wall of every Facebook user no matter what privacy setting had been applied to it, and tweeted (and re-tweeted) into every existing Twitter feed with a message that read <@Earthspace check a polysyllabic social communication system to learn of <our> superior <gift / upgrade / fulfilment methodology – term UNTRANSLATABLE>. All this in itself indicated access to a well-nigh impossible level of technical skill. Internet providers, career geeks and amateur hackers alike were unable to formulate a convincing explanation as to How It Was Done, nor could they track the path of the Message back to its source. The “aliens” had managed to by-pass spam-filter programs that verified incoming messages as originating from an authentic server before allowing them through. It was as though the messages came from a source that the firewalls understood but which remained hidden to their human creators. The nature of the proffered data itself made it all the more remarkable.

What caused the greatest panic, however, was a Message that arrived a month into what had become known as the Contact Period.

*Gordon had given up on job interviews and was living off eBay sales of selected items from his comic-book collection. Not that he needed much money. He rarely ate and when he did it was usually pizza and coke. His rent was long overdue, of course, but the landlord hadn’t appeared with an eviction notice, so the problem wasn’t likely to distract Gordon from his interaction with the alien messages for long. He found these messages irresistible.

Like computer geeks worldwide, Gordon felt he was in the thick of things and well ahead of everyone else, partly because of his tech training, partly because he refused to use Twitter and therefore could actually engage in some sort of rational dialogue with #aliens unhindered by crippling 140 character replies, and partly because he had succumbed to belief so quickly. He and the aliens had been chatting away endlessly for over a month, gradually establishing a basis for mutual understanding. It wasn’t easy, mind you. Though the aliens were running two-way translation software it continued to return a large number of <UNTRANSLATABLE> warnings – on both sides, no doubt.

After a while Gordon found that most of the UNTRANSLATABLEs could be translated without too much problem, some token semantic equivalence having been found. Those that persisted, however, only occurred in certain conceptually complex areas. The basis of this inability continued to escape him for a time and it was only while taking a much-overdue shower one morning three weeks later that he realised that the most persistent UNTRANSLATABLEs all related to the nature of existence – both its physical structure and its inner, metaphysical form (which the aliens clearly considered to be the same thing). Gordon suddenly understood that when the aliens referred to something as permanently UNTRANSLATABLE, it meant that you were dealing with the very essence of the difference between alien and human understanding. And the area it covered was huge.

None of this helped much, but Gordon kept it in mind while immersed in his communications with them.

Then came the message that changed everything.

“Greeting <Earth space> entities,” it said. “<We> wish it to be known that the <First Stage – term UNTRANSLATABLE> has been completed. Now <we> will <visit / close-come / proximity-join – term UNTRANSLATABLE> with your <space>.”

Whatever it meant, no one was sufficiently free of cultural images of invasion and conquest to remain immune to the growing paranoia. Gordon spent that afternoon watching George Pal’s War of the Worlds and Spielberg’s more recent remake, followed by Earth vs the Flying Saucers, Invaders from Mars (both versions), Independence Day, Skyline, Battle Los Angeles, and even Mars Attacks! before he decided that it was stupid to think that his alien buddies harboured evil designs on his planet, and therefore headed back to his computer to find out the Truth he knew would be Out There.

In response to the message and the fear, governments insisted that all private communication with the aliens cease at once – the invaders were clearly gathering data that would aid them in their insidious plans. The Internet, however, could not be easily regulated and appeals to shut down providers worldwide failed to stop human-alien data exchange. Threatening Facebook and Twitter provoked riots in schools and on university campuses. Protesters barracaded various embassies. The digital cesspool of the Web was awash with indignant hyperbole. It was clear that draconian measures would take a long time to implement.

In the meantime, like everyone else, Gordon ignored the prohibition. Instead, he decided to take a direct approach.

“When you say you are intending to pay us a visit,” he typed into a new email window, “what do you mean exactly? Is this an invasion?”

The aliens replied by initiating a long and highly technical discussion about something cram-packed with UNTRANSLATABLEs. At first it involved concepts that left Gordon utterly bewildered, even when expressed in sentences utilising a minimum of UNTRANSLATABLEs. Gradually, however, his alien correspondent adapted the argument in ways that made more and more sense to Gordon, no doubt simplifying it out of all proportion. Only by making exhaustive demands on his access to online scientific encyclopedias and drawing on specialist knowledge acquired through years of scifi television could Gordon skirt around the edge of their explanation – and once he’d done so he came to this conclusion: what the aliens were saying involved the notion that everything – energy, matter, flesh, the earth – was at its most basic level digital content, stored in a <data-storage unit / high-level structure – term UNTRANSLATABLE>. In their view of things, all life was information.

Eventually the answer to Gordon’s question boiled down to something like this: “<Race-name / us – term UNTRANSLATABLE> will physically enter your <local space-time / structural area – term UNTRANSLATABLE> as transmitted data.”

“Does this involve spaceships at all?” Gordon typed.

There was a long pause. Then: “<Individual / I / we – term UNTRANSLATABLE> had some trouble with the designation <spaceship>, but have concluded that you are referring to a matter-based vehicle for physical transport across what you know as Euclidean space. Is that correct?”

“Um, yeah,” Gordon replied. “I guess.”

“<We> could manifest such an object in your <perceptual-field / knowledge-formation matrix – term UNTRANSLATABLE>, but generally <we> do not have spaceships. <We> no longer function using physical technologies of any kind.”

“No machines? No tools? Does that mean you don’t have weapons?”

“If by <weapons>, you mean devices of aggression that allow for the elimination of individuals or species groupings, it is true: <we> do not have any weapons.”

No weapons? No flying saucers with death rays? Presumably no anal probes either? Earth wasn’t about to be invaded then. Gordon supposed he should immediately contact the authorities – or at least someone in a position to communicate this information to the world – in order to pass on the good news. If it hadn’t been discovered before this, it would allay any popular fear of invasion. These aliens were apparently pacifists.

But what was the likelihood that no one else had worked it out?

“Are you having this same conversation with other Earth people?” Gordon asked, rather hoping the insights he was acquiring were his alone and he would therefore become a hero by announcing the reprieve.

“Not <myself / individual entity – term UNTRANSLATABLE>,” the alien replied. “But there are many of <us> and <we> are all <gathering data / communicating / defining space-time – term UNTRANSLATABLE> with data nodules in your <local space-time / structural area – term UNTRANSLATABLE>.”

Probably not big news then, Gordon decided. By now, others would know that the aliens were non-technological – and unarmed. He considered asking the members of [scifi-heroes] what they’d discovered, but as he hadn’t posted to the discussion board since this all started, and as far as he knew nor had anyone else, what was the point? He was becoming even more reclusive than he’d always been. He realised then that he hadn’t spoken to another human being since the pizza-delivery guy had dropped off a Mega-Meat Special over a week ago.

Gordon frowned. Oh, well. What did it matter?

“So when is this ‘informational’ entry into our space going to happen?” Gordon continued regardless.

The alien’s answer surprised him. “Data collection will be complete in one of your minutes,” it said. “Having obtained the structural information needed to initiate full transmission, <we> will then <travel into / proximate to / flux-expand in the quantum sub-strata – term UNTRANSLATABLE> of your <reality / data matrix – term UNTRANSLATABLE>.”

“One minute? That soon?”

“It is so,” the alien message said, “and may <I> take this opportunity to express how much <I> have come to <respect / understand / bond with – term UNTRANSLATABLE> <entity / you / individual module – term UNTRANSLATABLE> during the time <I> have spent exchanging data with <entity / you / individual module – term UNTRANSLATABLE>. It’s been <fun / enlightening / expedient – term UNTRANSLATABLE>.”

Gordon wrote “Thanks”, and paused, unsure what to say next. He was feeling a bit weird actually, as though every electron in his body were quivering with unnatural enthusiasm. He added, “I’ll see you then – when you get here” to his message and hit SEND.

Almost instantly a message came back: “Unfortunately, <I> will not be able to <see> <you> once <we> <arrive / close-come / proximity-join – term UNTRANSLATABLE>. It is not possible.”

Not possible? Why not? Gordon glanced at the clock in the top right-hand corner of his monitor. At least a minute had passed since he’d received the penultimate message. By now the aliens would be on their way. But if face-to-face communication weren’t possible, what was the point in coming at all?

Gordon went to the window, pushed back his curtains and squinted into the glare, half-expecting to see a sky full of alien beings. Instead the world appeared to be disintegrating, the atmosphere shedding its blueness into a swirling pixilated blur. Something indescribable (UNTRANSLATABLE?) was taking its place. After a moment or two, the distant city skyline began to change, too, morphing into <term UNTRANSLATABLE> shapes.

“What’s going on?” Gordon muttered, unable to grasp what this meant.

His computer pinged, drawing his attention back to it. A strange “program execution” box was running in the centre of the screen. It said “<PROXIMITY-JOINING / DATA REPLACEMENT – term UNTRANSLATABLE> UNDERWAY.”

Below that was a progress bar, and the words “2 MINUTES REMAINING”.

Gordon frowned, still bemused but aware that some terrible knowledge was rising from deep inside his gut.

He glanced out the window again, at a world that was becoming stranger and more alien by the minute. Vast expanses of it had shifted into a reality beyond his comprehension.


Not so much invaded as over-written, he thought in the momentary quiet between understanding and panic. Some part of him wondered if anyone knew how to reverse the polarities or something, or whether hitting ‘program interrupt’ would help, but before he could move his shaking hands toward the keyboard, neither the keyboard nor his hands existed, and the spatial network that defined his consciousness became too alien to allow for it to continue.

Gordon was replaced.


From Wikipedia: Robert (Maxwell) Hood (born 24 July 1951) is an Australian writer and editor recognised as one of Australia’s leading horror writers He has published five young adult novels, three collections of his short fiction, fifteen children’s books and over 100 short stories in anthologies and magazines in Australia and overseas. He has also written plays, academic articles and poetry and co-edited anthologies of horror and crime. He has been nominated for three Aurealis Awards and eight Ditmars. In 2006 Hood won a Ditmar Award for Best Collection for Daikaiju! Giant Monster Tales (edited with Robin Pen) and another in 2009 for his film review and commentary website, Undead Backbrain.

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