From a Time Before
The Expedition to Malo-Moko Island
© 2017 by Richard Messer
When the glass panel lit up with its ghostly blue glow, Sir Albert Wednesday had pulled out a sketch pad and pencil and started making a rough drawing of the ‘keyboard’ as it appeared. James Baxter watched with amazement at how swiftly the English chimpanzee worked out the design with skill. But after about thirty seconds the panel faded to its usual translucency. The large archaeologist glanced at his smaller American colleague who touched the screen once more.
This action of calling up the image to be quickly drawn out before fading away went on three times until an angry red message showed up instead. And after ten seconds it too went away. And when James laid his finger tips on the panel once again, nothing happened. Both archaeologists stared blankly at the empty screen before looking to each other.
“I say,” began Sir Albert, “what was that nonsense about?”
The young whitetail buck shrugged his shoulders. He glanced around the spacious room, trying to image the hustle and hubbub of activity going on with whatever manner of creatures working here. He looked to the chair in front of him, trying to recall one of those funny little people with a nose that made up half of its head seated here, typing whatever messages that needed to be sent out to who-knows-where. Then the buck knelt down by the seat, trying to image the scene from the point of view of one of those inhabitants of this world. He looked up to the platform before them, then around to the other stations – if that was what they were – lining the outer wall, each one occupied by a similar being. He stood up and walked out to the middle of the floor between the platform and the landing they entered onto from the other room.
“Have you ever been in a telephone exchange center during its peak hours?” The buck had turned to address the simian. Sir Albert cocked his head then shook it.
“Not as such, but I’ve been to the wireless receiver station at Portsmouth Harbor. Now that was pure bedlam if ever there was one.” He added a slight chuckle to his words.
That brought a brief grin to the American’s face. “I would image the scene to be similar to my experience. I’ve an aunt who works at the telephone office in Arkham, and my mother and I went to pay her a brief visit before we went out to have lunch together. Imagine if you will, a room with operator stations along opposite walls, and a total of twenty women at those stations, ten to a side, all busy speaking into the trumpets of their microphones on their chests, to their customers while wearing bulky headphones so they can hear what that customer wanted.” Baxter spread his arms wide to encompass the entirely of the room. “Now imagine this place crowded with similar operators, all working their own stations, typing whatever messages they’re sending out, or reading whatever’s coming in, and trying to speak to, and hear from, whoever they are dealing with.” He walked back up to the English ape. “And with this technology so far advanced from our own, they must have had some means to hear and understand what’s being said to them, as well as speak to whoever was at the other end of the line, maybe tens, hundreds, or thousands of miles away! And as clear as we are talking to each other here and now!”
Sir Albert frowned at his young colleague, pencil and pad forgotten in his large fists that now rested on his hips.
“Do you know what you’re suggesting?”
By now James Baxter’s face was illuminated by the rush of enthusiasm over a new discovery that just hit him between his antlers. “Yes, I do, Sir Albert! With this new technology there must be a means of insuring that no one else would be, or could be, able to listen in, as well as gaining access to whatever information that might be gained from one of these stations should the operator be absent for some time. Don’t you see? It has to do with security!”
So excited by his perception of this new discovery, the young buck had taken hold of the upper sleeves of the simian’s field jacket and had thrust his face into the others! “That was why the screen only lit up three times when I touched it! The operator had to have some code to gain entry into his work! And after three times in not presenting that code, the panel just locked you out!”
For the longest time the chimpanzee could only stare, bewildered, at this young excited American, and wondered if the fellow’s mind was beginning to unhinge at trying to grasp the significance of what he was trying to imply. But at the same time, Sir Albert Wednesday could see no other logical reason for what this new found setting had to offer. This was so far beyond anything he had ever encountered (and in all probability the same could be said of James Baxter) that he finally surrendered to the inevitability of their current state.
“You can let go of me now, James,” he said softly. The words caught Baxter off guard, and in such a manner that he blinked twice before finally understanding what he had been doing.
Quickly, he removed his hands from the canvas material and made futile attempts at smoothing it out, all the while muttering hasty apologizes for his actions. The English ape could only sigh good- humoredly at his junior companion’s needs to make amends. And so he went to pat the others shoulder in a fatherly fashion, only to jab the poor fellow with the forgotten pencil. That brought a yelp of pain from the buck who massaged his wounded shoulder. And brought about another wave of apologizes, but from the senior partner, until both stopped and stared at each other. And as if on cue, both the American and English archaeologist erupted into heartfelt laughter that resounded throughout the vast complex. Whenever one tried to say something, this only dissolved into more fits of laughing until the two finally sat down heavily onto the floor, their strength drained by the unspoken hilarity of the situation.
It was several minutes before they could get their breaths back and calm down enough to try and talk. From the knapsack the chimpanzee pulled out a canteen and passed it to Baxter. After both had drank their fill, the discussion started on what this place might be and what possible means of communications would be involved.
“I think your description of that radio station, or wireless in your case, may be closer to what this place could, or might, be. And as much as a telephone exchange center, you know.” He paused to glance around the place again. “And it might be a little of both.”
Placing the empty canteen back into the knapsack, Sir Albert nodded with the slow, dawning realization that his junior partner may be closer to the truth.
“I’m beginning to see where you’re taking this. An operations center for whatever is happening on this world of yours.” He picked up the sketch pad he dropped and studied what little of the drawing he had made. “Think you might have luck with another one of these, what you called them, ‘stations’?”
With a shrug the American whitetail slowly stood up. He went to the next place to the right of where they had started, then waited for the simian to join him. There was a brief sideways glance to each other before James Baxter touched the panel. And like the first it lit up with that faint blue image of keyboards for use. And just as fast the English ape began his rapid sketching. They tried it one more time before agreeing not to make a third attempt and went on to the next station where they repeated the two-times call up.
When they were halfway around the tall platform that the tasks was done. Then they went over to the landing on the side they had entered from, sat on the steps, and began to peruse the resultant sketching. Sir Albert brought out some nuts and raisins to share as they studied the layout of the panels.
“Qwerty,” Baxter muttered between bites of dried grapes.
“What’s that?” the simian asked.
The buck pointed to the top row of the symbols and made a small sweeping motion of his forefinger. “The first six letters on the keyboard. ‘Q.W.E.R.T.Y.’ Qwerty!”
Sir Albert stared at his work. “By Geoffrey, your right! I hadn’t thought of that! I’m used to using a typewriter (with a rather large keyboard, I might add), but had never given any thought to its layout. Good work, lad!”
The male whitetail ducked his head as if turning his attention back to the sketchpad. The move was only to hide the blushing within his ears. Such a praise was very rare in his lifetime, and to have one coming from such a noted archaeologist was the biggest lift in his young life. To distract any more attention Baxter began to point out the layout of the keys to the alien glyphs on the pad. Below the first sketch Sir Albert made a rough duplicate of the key locations and filled these with the letters from their own alphabet. When that was done the two of them studied the similarity between the sketches. Then the simian frowned.
“This does not seem to be correct.”
Baxter leaned in. “How so?”
The ape pointed to the top row of the alien keyboard drawing. “Look here. On our typewriters, there would be two images; one for numbers while the second would correspond to often used hieroglyphs.”
The buck looked at him. “Hieroglyphs?”
“Those seldom used accents that requires the operator to use the ‘Shift’ key to call them up. But if you notice here, there are only one set of accents.”
Baxter leaned in to stare at these ‘accents’ pointed to by a large, brown, hairy finger. True, there was no pattern to their form so they couldn’t be numbers. Now that was odd! How did these aliens - these residents, he had to remind himself – added numbers to their messages. Then his brown eyes drifted over to the odd pad to the right of the main keyboard. His head moved in for a closer look as something vaguely familiar came to mind. He pointed to that pad.
“There’s your numbers, Sir Albert.”
The ape followed the slender finger. This pad had four icons across in a row, with five going down from the top ones. There were exceptions in that three were longer than the squares in the main body. He stared at them for a while before speaking.
“This could be it, James. If you look carefully at these nine here they might correspond to the numbers 1 to 9. And this larger key down to the lower left of the pad could be 0.”
“Your right,” breathed Baxter as the excitement was rising in him again. “But what about this other symbols?”
The English ape merely shook his head. “Probably some feature they came up with for a special function is my guess.”
Baxter nodded. “Makes some sense.” He looked to the other. “So, what’s our next move?”
The simian stared back. “For now, we make like the archaeologists that we are and explore. We won’t know what we have here until we start looking, right?”
whitetail set his jaw and nodded.