Prologue: Day 14, Month 2, Year 1284 Universal Era (Year 3289 After the Breaking)
Nayaraq looked around as she entered the underground ziggurat and checked her rad-meter again – still safe. There was no sign there had ever been a nuclear meltdown here, despite what many of the scholars in her field believed. Then again, most of the others didn’t believe this place had ever actually existed, and all of them thought her dig was doomed to fail. Yet here she was, almost directly on the other side of the globe from her home at the University of Cuzco, standing inside a ziggurat buried deep in the heart of a mountain.
She flinched and slapped her neck as she felt some many legged bug bite her beneath her ear. This place had been well enough sealed that she was surprised that even insects had survived the last few thousand years down here. There wasn’t even dust on the floor as she walked down the wide hallway.
Shining her flashlight around the doors that lined the hall, Nayaraq was disappointed that none of them seemed to be labeled. They had so few examples of this civilization’s written language, despite having found ruins from it all over the world, that some theorized they didn’t even have a written language, and that the few examples that existed had been made by successor civilizations. Almost no one actually believed that theory, and Nayaraq herself had argued cogently at a recent conference that the anthropological evidence of advanced computational and scientific knowledge required a very high degree of literacy. Still, the complete lack of writing on anything down here was almost enough to make Nayaraq reconsider her certitude.
As she approached the end of the passage, though, her disappointment and doubt vanished when her flashlight illuminated red lettering etched in the blue-gold ceramic of the wall above a door. Nayaraq was one of fewer than a dozen people in the world who could read the inscription:
Central Linguistic Processing Servers
Heart pounding with excitement, she stepped back to examine the area more carefully. There was a faint dark stain on the floor a few feet from the door, and what looked like a card reader next to the door, but no sign of any handle on the door itself. She propped her backpack against the wall and pulled out her tools, then gently worked to open the card reader to see if she could figure out how to power it up or bypass it. As she began to probe the wiring within, the door slid open with a sudden whoosh. Nayaraq gasped in astonishment and stepped back.
Collecting herself, she caught her breath and calmed her heart. This was the realization of the childhood dreams she had built her education and had bet her nascent research career upon, and it suddenly looked like more than Nayaraq could have ever hoped. She opened her pack and pulled out an ancient text that was nearly as old as the room she was entering, but looked much older. Holding it to her chest with one hand, she shone her flashlight ahead with the other, and slowly stepped into the room. Clean, undamaged racks of ancient computers surrounded her. The only thing out of place was what looked like a grate that had fallen from the wall. Her heart beat so hard she thought it must be echoing through the room, as she saw small lights illuminated on many of the computers. Impossible though it would seem for them to have maintained power all these years, they were still on.
Leaning against the door frame, Nayaraq opened her book to her favorite passage, and began to read it aloud quietly in an effort to calm herself.
It came to be that the whole world was united in a single language, speaking and thinking with the same words. As they looked upon a great plain, the thought spread amongst them, “This land has such strong and deep roots of stone, and around our world we have the materials from which to cast bricks of immeasurable strength.” For they had ceram that made bricks stronger than stone, and fusing mortar with which to join them with unbreakable strength. From this seed, their thought grew, “Let us build a great city and Tower rising into the very heavens above the clouds, and let us make our name so great that we spread as one across the whole face of the earth.
Then the Ilanu came to see the City and the Tower which mortals had built. And the Ilanu said, “Look, they are one people, and they all have one Language and even one mind, and this is only the beginning of what they might build; only the limits of their imagination shall restrict the possible for them. Let us go and break apart their Language such that they will not think as one mind.” So the Lords scattered them from the City into all the far lands and the Tower crumbled and City was abandoned.
Thereafter the city was called Babel, because it was there that the Ilanu confused the Language of all the Earth and the people became scattered.
“So many years later, and still you tell the story!”
Startled by the laughing voice, Nayaraq snapped her book shut and swept her flashlight across the room, searching for the source of the disembodied voice.
“Your book is quite terse, and not wholly wrong, but far from right.”
Nayaraq swore she could hear the voice echoing each word inside her head, and struggled to find a direction from which it might be coming. No one from her dig had been willing to follow her down into the mountain, and the voice sounded unlike any she’d ever heard, like a vast chorus more than a single person. Had a group of people somehow survived the fall of their civilization and made their home in here? If so, how could she understand them? Was the ancient language somehow universal, as the myths said?
“Sit, listen, hear the story in its fullness, as it happened.”
What follows is an English translation of a tale originally recounted in ancient Belite, a language so globally dominant at the time of the events that the vast majority of speakers knew it simply as “Language.” Ancient Belite was codified, disseminated, and reinforced through interface implants, devices that speakers typically received in a minor surgery at ten years of age. As the reader will discover in the coming pages, implants standardized both a set of approved vocabulary and approved grammatical rules, and they encouraged users to express themselves in standardized patterns. They also had pernicious effects that will become clear. Interestingly, the heavy reliance on implants led ancient Belite to be standardized predominantly in its auditory/spoken form, rather than as a written language, though much of that speech was unvoiced. With that in mind, a few notes are in order.
First, as Belite was a Semitic language arising in the ancient lands we today call the Middle East, pronouns took account of gender and the position of the listener. The language encoded a third, nonbinary gender called bissi, typically adopted early in life following a child’s indication of their nonbinary identity to their parents. In the third person singular (e.g., “she/her/hers/herself” in the feminine), I have translated the Belite pronouns for bissi individuals using a slightly modified version of the English-language Spivak pronouns, which I think best approximate the Belite words: ey (subject)/em (object)/eir (possessive)/eirself (reflexive).
However, most other pronouns also had greater complexity in ancient Belite. For instance, the first person singular used different versions of the word “I,” depending on which of the three genders the speaker identified with. Such pronouns were critical for identifying the speaker’s gender. Other pronouns likewise varied based on the gender of the person being described. The language used two different first person plural pronouns (i.e., the pronoun “we” in English) depending on whether the speaker intended to include the listener in the indicated group, and had a separate plural form of “you,” equivalent to “all of you.” This is a story about language, and it is unfortunate that we lose much grammatical nuance reading it in English.
Second, although I am no poet, I believe I have done a passable job of translating the poetry into idiomatically appropriate English that retains the spirit of the original. Haikus and limericks, forms of poetry still known to us today, existed even in ancient Alu-Belium, although they were foreign imports and known only in small countercultural circles.
Third, for certain words, I have chosen to transliterate the original Belite and provide a definition. These words have enough importance and distinctive meaning that I felt this provided more clarity than an imperfect translation.
Fourth and finally, I have attempted to be faithful to the spirit of ancient Belite in place names. For instance, the Great Western Sea is what we would today call the Mediterranean, yet its name indicates its position on the western periphery of historical Belite civilization. Interestingly, the Black Sea was called by this moniker even in ancient Belite.
I am afraid that this written tale in English cannot convey the shivery excitement of hearing it recounted in its original Belite and in oral form. Certainly it cannot convey the sensation of being the first human to whom it was revealed in millennia. Nonetheless, I hope it may both edify and entertain, even in this terribly imperfect, written translation.
-Dr. Nayaraq Humala, Cuzco, 23/12/1284