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Yeah, D’miss and I, we own exoarcheology. We translated a newly discovered example of Precursor writing, which we found etched onto a billion-year-old polished stone standing upright at the geographic center of a rubble-strewn plain. Mauger the rubble, the place was flat as a pancake. Must have been an important spot. Now? Sole remaining trace of life on a long-dead world. The stone, with its inscription, the only fabricated object within lightyears. The Precursors were the oldest interstellar civilization; their ruins range in age from 1.8 to 0.9 gigayears. The few known examples of their writing had been enough for Odaro to crack the code – to translate. Yeah, that Odaro. Not just a writer and singer. I know; his translations haven’t been published yet. Heard rumors at the last Interstellar Archeological Congress. We tried to contact him after IAC, but he blew us off. At first he said he’d try to squeeze us in, but then he said he was too busy, when he’d merely glanced at a photo of the stone. After that, even his autoclerk wouldn’t respond to messages. So we fixed his ass. The AI Klondyke hacked his linguistic database. With its help we tackled the new inscription ourselves. The translation was surprisingly easy to come up with, though we’re not sure what to make of it. Here’s what we’ve got so far.
Some flowers have color, others do too,
food additives have flavor, and I love you.
So the oldest known poem is … doggerel, of an all-too-familiar sort.
Sure there was some temporary anxiety when they took over Trenton and Allentown to carve out their independent nation of Clowninnia, but it soon settled down into a national joke, a prank on a revolutionary scale, a riffing topic for late-night talk show hosts. You could be driving up the New Jersey Turnpike near the border and see ten or fifteen of them clustered around a tiny, fuel-efficient car, their neon hair grungy, smoking cigarettes and juggling fish in complex passing patterns. On Radio Clown they talked about freedom from oppressive social norms, freedom from standard shoe sizing, freedom from objectification of women and persecution of minorities, but then commentators with voices like rubber duckies would excitedly broadcast moment-by-moment accounts of unicycle races or team juggling matches or city-wide pie throwing meets. They were quirky, non-threatening, silly–a bunch of clowns.
Sometime in the dark hours of the morning on April 1st, Clowndependence Day as they later called it, I woke up choking and blinded. Panic turned to dread as I realized that what was choking my airways and clogging my eyelids was coconut cream pie. I wiped some of the goo away and saw a freakishly white face with oversized red lips leaning over me, its kinky orange hair forming a nimbus like a flame against the light coming through the window. In the distance I heard screams, explosion, gunfire, manic laughter, bicycle horns.
I lurched out of bed and away from the silent clown who reached for me with soot-blackened kid gloves. I smelled fire. Running for the door, still trying to clear the pie from my face, I slipped on a banana peel, crashing face-first to the carpet. Moments later a four-foot tall tramp clown and a seven-foot-tall grandma clown were tying me up with orange ribbon and gagging me with a giant polka-dot handkerchief. They dragged me down the stairs, pratfalling over each other, and once out on the street they took me by my bound hands and feet and one-two-three-heaved me into the back of a pickup truck, piled in a heap with other bound captives, all of us wriggling and groaning and petrified.
As the truck rumbled to life, I caught a glimpse of fat clown standing in the middle of the street, forlornly waving goodbye. A skinny clown snuck up behind him with exaggerated stealth, a pie balanced neatly on her palm.
New Year’s Eve on Ganymede: we still celebrated it on Earth’s Julian time. Paulie would always make sure the link was good, so we could watch Big Ben, and then the Ball in New York, and the Firepod in San Francisco.
“Pretentious dirtniks,” Paulie would say, sniffing as the Pod burst over the Bay. He still says it. He’s never thought much of anyone who didn’t have the guts to leave Earth’s gravity.
“You smoke Lucky Strikes, though,” Ming pointed out to him on our second New Year’s.
“Yes, they use up too much oxygen. Strains the manufacturing rig,” I added, because it was time someone brought this up.
“Never a big one for small pleasures, our Stefania,” Paulie sniped, and took a long drag on his cigarette; he knew by then his sexist quips wouldn’t draw any anthrax from me. I had been through naut training before the lawsuits. “Anyway, we’re not going to have to worry about that much in a minute, right?”
He was probably right, damn him. We had chosen Hawai’i’s New Year, in honor of our chief scientist, Dr. Hana, even though—actually because—she hadn’t made it through planetfall. Sometimes it takes someone. Maybe like the gods of a new land demand a sacrifice. That’s superstitious, I know. I wondered, just the same, what Ganymede’s gods (if any) would make of what we were about to do.
We had seated the first canister and the master switch by her grave.
“If this works can I turn the manufacturing rig into a barbecue?” asked Paulie, stubbing out his cigarette at 11:06, Hawai’i time.
“If it doesn’t work,” said Ming, taking our suits down from their hooks, “it will turn all of us into barbecue.”
Paulie shrugged and looked at me. Everybody knew I had the final say, by then.
“Sure. But let’s wait a bit, first,” I said.
By 11:45 we were suited and through the doors, having learned from past mistakes to allow plenty of time for them. We felt pretty silly standing by the master switch for a quarter of an hour, but somehow it still seemed right.
At midnight we all laid hands on the switch together.
“For Dr. Hana,” said Paulie, suddenly solemn.
“For Dr. Hana,” repeated Ming and I.
We pressed the switch.
We weren’t barbecue.
After a while, when the sky started to form above us, each canister adding to the atmospheric mix, Paulie said, “You know what I’m looking forward to?”
“Smoking outside?” asked Ming.
“No. Well, yes. But no.”
“What, then?” I asked, when he kept on staring upwards.
“Happy New Year, Paulie,” I said.