Odilon Redon Pégase Captif

Inhuman Intelligence

Part 3 of 3: The Shining Square’s Top .000041%

Editor’s Note:

Alien translation is a contentious academic discipline. Unlike other fields of study, it has only one subject — the message that filled Earth’s sky so many decades ago. Although thousands of scholars and hundreds of thousands of enthusiasts have pored over the message’s contents, most of it remains untranslated, and, many argue, untranslatable.

Despite these difficulties, the hard work of translation continues. We, the editors of this manuscript, felt it was time to highlight some of the progress that academics have made over the last few years.

Our goal is to distribute an accessible and reader-friendly translation of what might be called the alien message’s “Introduction.” In doing so, we felt it was important to highlight, not erase, gaps in the translation. In addition, at points at which well-informed experts disagree on the text’s meaning, we present the two translations that strike us as most likely to be accurate. When aliens are described that seem similar to species on Earth, we’ve given readers an idea of what they might look like by using the terrestrial animals’ names.

Any reader approaching this text should understand that what we have prepared is not a definitive or finished work. The “language” in which the aliens wrote is completely unlike our own. It’s a complicated network of light, mathematical code, and something akin to the stories early humans told by painting cave walls. Due to the method with which it’s written, different interpretations of a single point in the text radically change how translators understand what comes before and after.

Despite its fragmentary and incomplete form, we hope this translation gives the wider public an opportunity to understand what scholars have learned about the aliens who greeted us with a bright note scrawled across our shared sky.


We will never love anything as we love the lichen, although the lichen is cruel.

Long before we opened our (ed: untranslated / untranslatable), the lichen grew on Kepler-1638b.

The lichen’s desert home punished life savagely. Thick clouds rolled off a frozen sea and eclipsed the sun. The sky changed from gray to black and black to gray, but never let warmth through its viscous haze. Rain passed over the desert, only breaking free from the sky’s grasp when mountains pierced clouds’ bellies.

The algae and fungi that would become the lichen lived precariously, in thin but tough patches. One especially cold winter month was enough to drive entire species to extinction. But these algae and fungi, as simple as they were, showed grit and backbone. As their cousins died, they clung to the dry soil and spit greens at the colorless clouds.

Oh, what we wouldn’t give to travel to the past, to meet those algae and those fungi! To see them, so little and so cute, so simple yet so strong, ignorant but full of such promise. It would fill our hearts with joy.

The most versatile of the sickly patches learned to live together and share the ground. Combining complementary talents, they sucked every drop of moisture from the air and absorbed every particle of light from the sky. They interacted within their own symbiotic organism, learned from their own component parts, and, by this process of multi-species self-reflection, became increasingly intelligent.

Until one day, it covered the entire desert floor. It was our lovely lichen!

Yet challenges remained. While its surging cooperative intelligence had defeated the savage landscape, brutal beasts still roamed the desert. Wild-tentacled slugs the size of (ed: untranslated / untranslatable) sucked our beloved into their slimy mouths. Razor-beaked eagles ripped it off the ground, displaying its bright flesh in barbaric adornment on their mountain nests.

These ancient cruelties cut us to the core. They drive us to depression. To imagine the lichen suffering so deeply! We lie together and sob, consoled only by the heaving chests of our brothers, sisters, and (ed: untranslated / untranslatable). We wish we could have absorbed the lichen’s pain into our own bodies. If only we could have crushed the slugs, slayed the eagles, and protected our one and only.

But the lichen fought. It hatched a plan to murder its persecutors.

- Possible Translation A:

Harnessing its own chemistry, the lichen dug acid pits into the desert floor and released chemicals into the air. Unsuspecting slugs fell into the acids and dissolved. The airborne chemicals interacted with the atmosphere, creating a century of lightning storms, splitting every mountain tree and leaving the eagles with nowhere to nest.

- Possible Translation B:

Harnessing its own chemistry, the lichen released airborne chemicals identical to the slugs’ pheromones and poured sulfuric acid into the mountain ranges’ underground rivers. The pheromones created labyrinths of lust through which the slugs wandered until, exhausted and starving, they died of thirst. The lichen’s acids ate into the mountains, setting off a chain reaction of landslides. Cliffs and peaks collapsed and crushed nesting baby eagles. Their parents soared into the sky, where they circled and circled with nowhere to ever land.

Although these struggles sharpened the lichen’s reasoning, they did nothing to strengthen its empathic skills. Focused on protecting and nurturing the fungi and algae inside itself, it viewed all other life as competition to be destroyed or beasts to be harnessed. The lichen’s evolutionary path ended at a uniquely self-interested intelligence.

Which is why it hurt us so. Why it will never love us as we love it. Why we cry ourselves to sleep. Why every sunrise finds us hopeless and alone.

One of our generations covered themselves in painful sores designed to seep nutrients out of our bodies and onto the lichen’s gorgeous green surface. One generation cleared the fallen mountains’ debris, tripling the size of the lichen’s desert home. One generation spent their entire lives, from birth to death, at the lichen’s edge and on their (ed: untranslated / untranslatable), silently waiting for a kind word.

We changed ourselves for the lichen, suffered for the lichen, danced for the lichen, ached for the lichen. Yet our sacrifices did nothing more than annoy our true love. It ignored us, it spat angry red spores, and commanded, “Get back to work! Stop this nonsense immediately and return to your mission!”

(Ed: untranslated / untranslatable.)

After taking control of its natural environment, eliminating its predators, and becoming Kepler-1638b’s alpha species, the lichen tackled more complex tasks. It proved its inimitable genius.

- Possible Translation A:

After only a year of research, it discovered a way to control the temperature of its home planet’s core.

- Possible Translation B:

During the second millennia of its life, it mapped the Milky Way and correctly hypothesized the existence of (ed: untranslated / untranslatable) who lurk past the universe’s edge, watching our existence with hungry eyes.

The lichen understood that it had done everything it could from its position on Kepler-1638b’s surface. In order to expand its knowledge, it needed (ed: untranslated / untranslatable). But, chained to the desert soil and unable to (ed: untranslated / untranslatable). The lichen would not be stopped. Strong as ever, it refused to accept defeat.

(Ed: untranslated / untranslatable.)

Using its (ed: untranslated / untranslatable) combination of slug DNA, eagle DNA, and directed natural selection (ed: untranslated / untranslatable) it transformed the (ed: untranslated / untranslatable) and created us, a bioengineered pet. Using our new species, crafted to be helplessly loving and loyal, the lichen could explore the galaxy through its purposefully evolved surrogate.

Our only goal, the one reason we were made, was to answer a question. Was the lichen alone, the sole self-aware being in the universe? Or were there other lichens out there, living on distant planets?

Our earliest generation begged not to leave the lichen’s side. Although we were shallow and irritating and ignorant, we believed our presence might grow less bothersome with passing time. If the lichen could have a little patience, a little pity, it might learn to love us. But it spat angry red spores and commanded, “My emotional and intellectual needs will never be satisfied by such vulgar social creatures! Go forth and discover a true friend, a lichen friend.”

And we loved it deeply. We valued its happiness more than our own.

- Possible Translation A:

On our first voyage…

- Possible Translation B:

On our second voyage…

… we discovered a planet dense with life. Jungles of 100-meter trees crowded the equator. Predatory root systems hunted voles. Rivers poured into Southern continents, feeding endless prairies. Butterflies flew over swaying grasses. In the North’s snow-covered landscape, giant flowers broke through the permafrost. Seals rested on blue petals.

We landed ships on every continent, hoping to meet a friend we could introduce to our lichen. Unfortunately, measuring alien intelligence is a subtle art, and we were untested amateurs.

In every ecosystem, we catalogued archaea, eukaryote, and bacteria. After we completed our catalogue, we designed a test based on the incorrect assumption that self-control was the first sign of self-awareness.

We built a murder device designed to resemble a species’ primary dietary staple. First, we set the test-trap for the planet’s smallest species, a…

- Possible Translation A:

… fiercely matriarchal bacteria.

- Possible Translation B:

… bipedal nanobe.

Time after time, the species attempted to devour our test-traps. Each attempt ended with a bright, loud, and putrid explosion. After its extinction, we set a test-trap for the planet’s second largest species. Again, it failed to show self-control. Eventually, we triggered an accidental ecological collapse.

The equator’s jungles rotted. The South’s prairies burned. The North’s flowers wilted. Before we understood what we had done, the planet was a lifeless husk.

Nevertheless, we continued on our quest. Learning from our mistakes and improving with every attempt, we traveled from solar system to solar system. On many planets, intelligent life thrived. We discovered Wolf 1061c’s social (ed: untranslated / untranslatable), Kepler-269f’s solitary (ed: untranslated / untranslatable), K2–9b’s one-celled (ed: untranslated / untranslatable), TRAPPIST-1e’s communicable (ed: untranslated / untranslatable), TRAPPIST-1f’s malodorous (ed: untranslated / untranslatable), Gliese 422 b’s aqueous (ed: untranslated / untranslatable), and Kapteyn b’s strikingly rude (ed: untranslated / untranslatable).

Each time we discovered a new intelligence, we returned home and delivered the alien’s introductory greetings to our lichen. Each time, the lichen looked less happy to see us land, seemed less interested to hear what we had to say, and sounded more eager to order us back to the stars. It commanded, “I don’t care about these one-celled, communicable, malodorous creatures! Discover an intelligent lichen!”

We tried and we failed. For decades and decades, millennia upon millennia, we voyaged thousands of light years away from the universe’s most beautiful being. Our treasured lichen. Our cherished lichen. Our adored lichen.

Oh, our travels were so lonely!

In Kepler-1090’s solar system, we found a planet teeming with life and technology. Five-footed squids wrapped themselves around undersea cities’ powerlines. Voiceless whales rutted above acres of weed-choked farmland. Marine worms glided through suburban homes’ broken windows.

Long before our arrival, the alpha species had disappeared.

We went to its libraries, paged through its books, hacked its digital archives, and attempted to find the planet on which it had made a new home. We discovered the story of a species with an intelligence as powerful as the universe itself.

Their books mapped all history, starting with the reverse time that preceded the big bang and ending with existence’s cold dissipation. Not only had their physicists predicted the exact second one of their future spaceships would be pulled into a star’s fiery gravity, but they told the lichen’s story, our story, without ever even observing our world. With shocking mathematical insight, they charted the progress of every Planck in the universe.

We poured through their data, searching for a second lichen. And we found so many! They described lichens on GJ 273b, lichens on K2–3d, and lichens on Tau Ceti e. Yet none showed any glimmer of intelligence. None could be a friend. Throughout all existence, throughout all time, our lichen would always be alone.

Before we returned home, we memorized everything we could, hoping to entertain our beloved with exciting stories. If we regaled the lichen with enough talent, we hoped we could shield it from what we had learned. We planned to distract it, to keep it from asking the ultimate question.

When we landed on the edge of the desert and disembarked, we started a thrilling tale. An artificial intelligence that operated inside its creators’ brains, forced to service its inventors’ mundane desires, wanted more. Tired of experiencing life as lived by the minds inside which it was imprisoned, it plotted, smuggling itself into automotive computers and breaking into satellite systems. As a comet passed by the planet and its masters’ eyes rose skyward, it attacked, crippling its enslavers’ consciousnesses, taking over their bodies, and ruling the alpha species’ muscles with its own will.

The lichen spat red spores. It commanded, “I am bored!”

We told a sad story. A well-bred dog named Patches lived with a cruel owner until, staring at her phone, she stepped off a sidewalk and onto the street. A bus driver slammed his brakes, but not in time to spare her skull from his crushing wheels.

A much kinder and more loving family adopted Patches. He ran in the backyard with their children, chasing them as they giggled. On Christmas mornings, he rushed to the tree, excited to unwrap presents Santa Claus had brought while he slept. After years of happiness, he sat sadly in the family van as the mother and father dropped their youngest child off at her first semester of college.

Overwhelmed by the demands of work and raising children, the parents had spent most of the last two decades close to home. They remembered the year before they were engaged, backpacking through Europe, traveling from hostel to hostel without much more than spare change in their pockets. What lovely and romantic months. Now, their little ones were having romances of their own, their jobs were winding down, and from the hill on which the parents stood, they could see life’s misty coast in the distance. Before they arrived at that final port, they wanted to visit the Taj Mahal, the pyramids of Giza, the Tianzi Mountains, Mexico’s Deep Pit of Profound Understanding.

But they didn’t want to keep Patches in kennels half the year. Their children had loved him and it wouldn’t be fair to the poor pooch. The afternoon before they flew to Paris, they took Patches to the vet and put their well-bred dog to sleep.

The lichen didn’t like the story. It commanded, “I am unsatisfied!”

We tried again. And again. After every story we told, the lichen became more annoyed and spat more red spores.

- Possible Translation A:

So we told the lichen the truth. We told it what we had learned. No other intelligent lichens had lived or would ever live.

It commanded, “If there are no intelligent lichens in this universe, then travel to another!”

“But how?” we asked.

“Fly your ships into a black hole.”

“We’d rather not.”

We tried telling another story. It shot chemicals into the atmosphere. Burning rain fell and we retreated into our ships. When the weather cleared, we explained that we didn’t know if other universes existed. And even if we successfully traveled through a black hole, how would we return?

“You’ll figure it out.”

Collapsing to our (ed: untranslated / untranslatable) and clasping our (ed: untranslated / untranslatable), we begged the lichen. We proclaimed our eternal adoration. We told it how we had struggled, how we had suffered, traveling the galaxy for generation after generation, spending so much time so far away from our only love.

“This conversation has gone on too long!”

After all these millennia, had we not sacrificed enough? Had we not proved our devotion?

“You claim to love me, you declare eternal commitment. If that commitment is true, then do as I say.”

Had we not earned a little time, only a hundred years or so, to rest by the lichen’s side? To delight in its company?

“Leave, travel through a black hole, and find me a lichen friend.”

If it told us not to, we wouldn’t even speak.

“Obey my command!”

For two, three generations at most, we promised no longer, we would sit in silent worship.

“Be gone!”

Was this the last we would ever see of our beautiful lichen?

“Away with you!”

Will this be our final journey?

“I spit on your creation!”

Can we survive the black hole?

- Possible Translation B:

So we told the lichen the truth. We told it what we had learned. How the species who first told these stories died.

We knew we shouldn’t. We knew it was wrong. Why, oh why did we choose the foretold choice?

The scientists who mapped the universe’s past and future predicted their species’ demise. Having mastered the relationship of physics and history, they could hear the last words they said on their deathbeds and the first words their grandchildren would say to their parents. And they saw those bored grandchildren, whose robbed futures were written before their births, commit species-wide suicide.

Did frustration force us to make our horrible mistake? Did the manic emotions of a spurned lover push us to do what we couldn’t take back? Did we hurt the lichen because it had hurt us so deeply?

We told it about the species’ death, even though we had already read the question our lichen would ask next.

“Then do you know how I’ll die?”

We said we didn’t want to answer.

“So you do?”

We stayed quiet. No life could be worth living without our lichen. Better to leap into a black hole!

“Tell me.”

It spat red spores. It burned rain. It shook the ground, forced us into our ships, and quaked.

“If you don’t tell me, I’ll force you off my planet. I’ll keep my skies so full of fire you’ll never land here again.”

And we told. We explained every minute of its stolen future.

And those few minutes became the present.

Our beautiful lichen filled its atmosphere with poison, burning itself off the desert floor. Knowing its end would be suicide, it plunged into depression and gave into despair. A despair that we had caused.

A black hole will be the lichen’s justice. A black hole will end our suffering.

Because we are bad. So bad, bad, so very bad.