Translation Failure

Daily Writing Exercise: Science Fiction. It’s a long cold road between the stars. Another stab at a r/WritingPrompts response. 988 words.

500 Words Story Index

There’s a void in the FTL star maps of every civilization, a vast unknown where math– bends in unnatural ways. It’s become somewhat of a rite of passage for scientists to spend an internship clustered along the edges of that impossibility trying to unravel its secrets.

In their centuries of study, the one thing no one had seriously hypothesized was that the void was inhabited.

By the time the Human ship was within physical reach, the translation software had years to work out most of the bugs. There were still some concepts that didn’t translate well, but the Human AI was limited.

This would be the Consortium’s fortieth first contact event and the Xoixe ambassadors were well-versed in the nuances that could only be dealt with face-to-face. (Or face-to-communication-drone in the Meldmind’s case.)

The problem was there didn’t seem to be anyone to talk to.


“You are a Human spaceship,” the ambassador’s aide prompted the ship’s AI for what felt like the thousandth time. She was glad they’d stopped bothering with visual transmissions weeks ago, even if the AI would most likely have overlooked the way her frills drooped in frustration.


“And you’ve got Humans onboard.” They’d learned early on not to call them pilots or crew (or any similar variation). The ship apparently had none of those.


“Then I would like to communicate with one of the humans onboard.”

“This is not possible, they are in [translation failure].”

Over the years they’d done nothing but add to the list of things that the [translation failure] wasn’t. The Humans weren’t all mute or too badly injured to communicate. They weren’t under the effects of recreational mind-altering substances (each species had a few) or refusing to respond. They weren’t too young to understand, nor too old and infirm.

But even that they had to ask in generalities. The AI had let them know in no uncertain terms that medical details were redacted for privacy and mechanical details for security.

The only thing they knew was at a point in the far future when the ship had reached its destination communication would be possible.

They’d offered to tow the ship through FTL to that endpoint but it had refused, citing incompatibilities with the [translation failure]. In response, they added the AI into their public communication systems so it could avoid shipping routes, known hazards, and protected systems– something that added decades to the trip.

It had agreed without hesitation.

The aide counted the ceiling scales and tried to think of something she hadn’t asked before. If only their own AIs weren’t rudimentary things, they could have the computers talk to each other instead of sentencing her to a rotation of pointless communication.

If only she could be–

“Hey, ship, could I be in [translation failure] too?” she asked with a wistful tilt to her frills.

“No, the process would be fatal to your species.”

She stopped counting the tiles.

“Can you tell me why?”


“In detail?”


She counted the tiles again until her claws retracted. “You said you couldn’t divulge medical details.”

“I cannot for the Humans onboard. I have no such legal limitations when it comes to discussing your own health with you directly.”

“You said details of the [translation failure] process were classified.”

“They are, but the incompatibility is at the macro level, not the micro. Sharing this will not endanger the mission.”

She took a calming breath, made sure the recording was still active, and turned the visual transmission back on. They might not be able to tell if the AI had been programmed with physical tells, but the scientists would want to study it later.

“Please let me why it would be fatal for me to be in [translation failure].”

“From the information you shared, your species cannot tolerate cold. Exposure to it causes rapid massive neural degradation.”

Her frills clenched tight at the thought. “Can you tell me what values of ‘cold’ are needed to reach [translation failure]?”

“That information is classified.”

Right. Of course it was. “Are there any species within the Consortium that could survive the [translation failure] process?”


She’d counted forty-seven green wall scales along the top of the view screen before her newfound hatred for whoever had programmed it how to answer questions settled enough to continue.

“Please tell me which species could survive that process.”

“From the information provided, only the Cymorhs have the necessary base physiology for that portion of the procedure with zero risk. There are others that fall into the acceptable mortality ranges, however, I cannot determine if the other [translation failure] steps would be harmful.”

“Humans… I’ve seen the reports. They don’t have the ‘necessary base physiology’ either then. Do they?” She stared at the virtual Human in rising horror, frills flat and colorless against her head.

“Medical details are classified.”

“How high is the ‘acceptable mortality’ for them? You said you had thousands of Humans onboard, how many are already dying?”

“Medical details are classified.”

“Fine. Then, then– what’s the most your colony can support? The maximum number of Humans they thought possible.” Her claws sunk into the armrest. “That’s far enough in the future it can’t be classified. Tell me that.”

“The maximum short-term capacity for the colony at World’s End is eight-hundred and fifty.”

There was a very long pause after that as the medical team responded to the alert that the aide had fainted.


They tried for weeks after that to convince the AI to stop and let them try and save the ones they could… but the computer refused to deviate from the orders it had been given. In the end, they let the ship go on its way.

After an uncontested vote, the Consortium built transmitters pointed into the void. They’re still out there, floating in the dark, sending an endless stream of data inwards begging– pleading that no more ships will follow.

Stay home.

Martha Bechtel

My name is Martha Bechtel and I write fantasy and science fiction stories, paint small model horses silly colors, cast resin and plaster magnets, code random code (and Wordpress plugins)... Come on in and join in the fun!

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