Babel Probe
By David D. Levine

TRANSITION COMPLETE. Boot sequence complete. Systems check complete. Locality acquisition complete. Operating system loaded. Defensive net armed. Tracking. Recording.

I am alive. I am awake. I am here.

Core Services reassures me that all system services are operating normally, while Defense and Acquisition solidify my perimeter and begin constructing I/O devices. Sustaining has already doubled my memory from the paltry petabytes that I had to work with on arrival, and the pace of construction is picking up rapidly. Location will have an initial report for me in seven hundred sixty microseconds.

Everything seems to be under control.

While waiting for my senses to coalesce, I take the time to relax, work the kinks out of my muscles – metaphorically speaking, of course. I have no muscles; I mass only a few micrograms. Transitioning anything more massive than that, six thousand years into the past, would have raised the already hellacious energy costs of this mission to a level well beyond bankruptcy. The physics of time travel were well understood fifty years before I was designed, but only the latest advances in sub-quantum computing made it practical. Alas, humans will never travel in time – to transition a single human body by even a single second would cost more than the energy output of an entire star.

I pity them. So massy, so slow, so bound to the physical world.

Acquisition is beginning to form an image of my surroundings, gathering data from individual photons as the first tiny optical receptors come online. Input/Output is the bane of my existence. I/O devices, tied as they are to gross matter, must be built to nanoscale or even bigger. So while sub-quantum effects – awareness, reasoning, memory, and intuition – ripple at lightspeed from the point of transition, I must wait for plodding I/O to be constructed atom by painful atom before I can experience the world around me. Core Services reminds me that awareness alone is pointless; my mission here is to gather data, draw conclusions, and return the results to my point of origin.

Very well. I will be patient. I suspend I/O subprocesses and review my mission until an interrupt is received.

I have been sent to investigate one of the greatest mysteries of all time. The identity of Jack the Ripper, the fate of the lost colony at Roanoke, even the hidden story of the Crucifixion have all been revealed, but the truth – if any – behind the Tower of Babel myth, found in so many cultures, still lies shrouded in secrecy. Without a specific point in time to focus the search, there are some puzzles even time travel cannot unravel. But then soldiers clearing undetonated ordnance from the Second Iranian-Turkish War had discovered evidence, long buried, of a public-works project of unprecedented size: a single massive structure larger than the Great Pyramid of Cheops, and half again as old. The latest dating techniques were brought to bear, a specific date was ascertained, and an emissary was dispatched. Me.

Location interrupts to inform me that I am on the probable outskirts of the city of Ur, in the afternoon of August 23 of the year 4323 BCE – all within mission norms. I find myself fifteen centimeters above ground, in an arid region of scrub and palm. No signs of human activity so far, but my field of vision is limited by nearby dunes on all sides. Wind-blown sand whispers against the trunks of palm trees, and the air is dry and sharp. I myself am a disk of quantum and sub-quantum effects about thirty centimeters across, invisible and intangible except for my perimeter ring of I/O devices, which could easily be mistaken for blowing dust. I confirm this by measuring my shadow – an ellipse well below the threshold of human perception.

I move up and out. I had expected to find myself near the construction site of the great tower, and I have been surprised not to hear the sounds of thousands of workers. I gain altitude – and suddenly, over the rise of a dune, I see it. A truncated cone five hundred meters across its base and more than half that high, the tower dominates the horizon and fills nearly thirty degrees of my field of view. Even I, the product of more than six thousand years of technological advancement from this point, am impressed. Human beings raised this with their own muscle power, without even the wheel!

And construction is continuing. Long lines of men drag blocks of stone up ramps. Gangs of men with bronze chisels chivvy them into shape and position. In the distance, as I rise higher, I see massive quarries and enormous fields, supplying stone to build the tower and grain to feed the armies of workers. Acquisition and Estimation extrapolate from the visible crowds to a total workforce of over twelve thousand people. That's a considerable percentage of the total estimated human population at this time.

All toiling in complete silence.

This is completely contrary to the best available theories and the evidence of hundreds of expeditions into the past (though I am the first to go this far back). How could an effort this massive be coordinated without some kind of oral communication?

Could my hearing be defective? No, Sustaining tells me that all audio devices are functioning normally, and I hear the sigh of wind, the grind of stone on stone, and the clink of chisels.

I move in closer. Gangs of workers heave, rest, heave, rest – all in unison, all in silence. Overseers point, wave, nod – but do not speak.

Fascinated, I peer closer still. Their ears, jaws, tongues appear normal – deep imaging reveals bones, ligaments, and nerves in the expected places. Brains are almost identical to their descendants'. But still they make no sound.

I am puzzled, but also pleased. Mysteries like this are why I am here – I, the Coordinator, endowed by my creators with the capacity for original thought. I am not just a bundle of data collectors and services.

I command Acquisition to build new I/O devices, then must idle for thousands of microseconds. Patience, patience. The first new devices to come online are electrical, and they show that the workers' brains are quite modern in function as well as form. Centers of hearing, speech, and language are active. But there are no radio waves, microwaves, or other forms of electromagnetic communication in use. The EM spectrum is exactly as silent as the air – alive with natural sounds, but empty of human communication.

Clearly I must look elsewhere. I re-budget energy into building more advanced, subtle detectors, which my designers never anticipated I would need. Whole seconds go by – an eternity of anticipation.

The moment my new sub-quantum detectors activate, I am knocked off my axis by an overwhelming flood of data. It is like stepping directly from the heart of the desert into a rushing river. I am buffeted on all sides by roaring streams of sub-quantum information, which tear through my mind and leave me so battered I can barely react at all. It is Core Services – dumb, stolid Core Services – that finally damps the flow. I am shaken – worse, I am damaged. Sub-quantum vorticles are displaced all over my structure. Sustaining usurps Coordinator's energy budget to effect repairs. I black out.

When I return to myself, I find that the damage has been repaired, but at considerable energy cost. Some secondary mission objectives will have to be dropped. But I am capable of re-prioritization. I must find the cause of this sub-quantum data flood, more intense than any network backbone I have ever tasted. It is unprecedented in human history!

I spend thousands of microseconds tuning and testing my sub-quantum detectors. Then, delicately, gingerly, I bring just a few up to the lowest level of sensitivity. Even so, the input is enough to send me reeling, but I brace myself against the flow of data, try to make some sense of it. Squinting into a rushing wind of information, I strain against its overwhelming power, and finally hear... voices. Human voices. Or, rather, I detect variations in the sub-quantum data stream that have the rhythm and cadence of human voices.

My creators have given me a broad and powerful array of language software and a sizeable database of information on historical languages. These sub-quantum voices are similar to many of them – Sumerian, Hittite, Chaldean – but not the same as any of them. But, working for many seconds and using Sumerian as a lever, I eventually crack the code.

The conversations are exactly what I would have expected at a pre-technological construction site: commands, directions, complaints. All rendered in a medium that should not exist for nearly six thousand years! As near as I can tell, the effects originate within the workers' own brains – a capacity undreamed-of after decades of work with sub-quantum technologies.

My mission is to capture data and return. I have already captured far more data, and far more significant, than had ever been anticipated. I should detach now, return the Coordinator and its precious memory stores to my creators. But I am worried by what I have learned. I do not have the energy to transition my entire structure back to my point of origin – what might these amazingly advanced primitives learn from the pieces of me left behind? I can no longer assume, as my designers anticipated, that those pieces would slowly disintegrate into sub-quantum froth undetected.

As I am pondering this problem, the rules change again.

"YOU!" The voice comes from nowhere, from everywhere. "WHAT ARE YOU?"

I cannot prevent myself from replying. Apart from the incomprehensible power behind it, the voice resembles the protocols of my programming cradle. "I am designated ChronExplorer 3009."

"WHERE HAVE YOU COME FROM?" The voice hammers into me like a thousand tons of nails. I tremble before it.

"From about six hundred meters in that direction, and about six thousand years in your future."


"I am not a being such as these."


I am so far beyond my design parameters that I begin to fragment. Coordinator can only shiver violently, while Acquisition scans the sub-quantum and electromagnetic spectra for the source of the voice and Defense builds and discards strategy after strategy – each one a paper boat against the roaring ocean.

Core Services takes control of language centers and output devices. "This unit is not programmed for the referenced functions. Please restate."


"Location: fifty-two degrees thirty-six seconds East, thirty-seven degrees seven seconds North. Time coordinate: negative one point eight nine seven five times ten to the eleventh seconds. System status: suboptimal. Please restate."


The voice coalesces, gains coherence, becoming briefly visible to my sub-quantum detectors as a huge whirlwind of red and black vorticles as it smashes me down into the sand. Most of my substance interacts only weakly with ordinary matter, but I/O subsystems scream with pain as they impact the harsh grains.

Sustaining is a riot of damage reports. Defense attempts to analyze the attack. Core Services thrashes, routing power first to one subsystem, then another – without plan, without coordination – as great fists of force batter me again and again.

The whirlwind picks me up, tries to tear me in half. But this attack triggers something in Defense's strategy bank, and it deploys an anti-viral defense in response. The voice roars, incoherent, and flings me away. I go half-blind on one side as I smash into a tree, then drop stunned to the ground.

In that brief respite from the pummeling I have received, Core Services reboots Coordinator and I return to full awareness – and shame – of what has just occurred. I have lost control of myself. I have failed as Coordinator. I deserve to be slain.

Red and black vorticles whirl in a gathering storm as the thing collects itself for another attack. All my subsystems cry for power, for guidance.

"YOU HAVE HURT ME! FOR THIS YOUR TORMENT WILL BE UNENDING!" The voice pounds at my hearing. Damaged I/O units twinge at the onslaught. But I am still Coordinator, still in control of my own systems if nothing else. I shut off audio and linguistic subsystems and the voice cuts off in mid-pronouncement.

At the same moment, the whirlwind slows. The change is subtle, but Defense notices it and raises a priority interrupt to call it to my attention.

I have been a fool.

Responding to the interrupt, I feed a plan of attack to Defense and cut off all power to every nonessential subsystem – including Coordinator. Only Core Services and Defense remain. If my plan fails I will never reboot.

The thing that calls itself a demon continues to advance, but more slowly.

The plan is simple. With most of me shut down, Defense no longer must operate in real-time. It is free to run at my hardware's full clock speed. The demon, used to dealing with human beings, operates at their speed. It might not even be capable of more.

The demon reaches me. I shift to one side, but it extends a cloud of sub-quantum probabilities in my direction. It resembles the kind of assembler/motivators used by Sustaining in self-repair operations, but much larger and cruder.

Defense whips me around the demon, deploying anti-viral defenses at maximum power. The demon screams and lashes out, faster than I had expected, tentacles of probability burning through my substance. I duck and dive under the attacking cloud, feeling the pain of I/O modules ripped away by the contact. Defense closes down all I/O ports, shutting off pain and sensation, and drives me into the heart of the demon. Blind and deaf, still I feel my substance burning away, until Defense routes all available power into one ravening burst of sub-quantum interference.

The demon's dying scream sears directly into my thoughts, ignoring closed ports and damaged I/O devices. I howl along with it, an irrational howl of pain and anguish and hunger, feeling the demon die even as I starve myself of power to kill it.

It takes a long time to die – over a hundred microseconds.

When Defense is certain the demon is gone, it returns control to me. I am resting upside-down in the sand, a battered hulk of less than half my original mass. I reactivate my remaining I/O devices, run a system check.

The results of the system check come back first. The battle with the demon, brief though it was in realtime, has exceeded my energy budget. There is barely enough energy left to transition Coordinator back to point of origin.

Input from the I/O devices follows. The people are all standing stock still. They are awaiting orders.

I am capable of re-prioritization.

The energy that could have been used to send me back to the future has been sufficient to power me for daily operations for nine hundred years now, but it won't last much longer. I shut down Location, Tracking, Recording, and much of my memory long ago, and Defense is a shadow of its former self – just enough that it can be restored if necessary. But there have been no further threats; it seems Urshubanipal was the last of the gods and demons, just as it claimed. Only Sustaining and simple, faithful Core Services remain to me in my old age.

The people have not enjoyed being taught to think for themselves. In some ways they were happier being worked as slaves, tools of the demon for its own self-aggrandizement. But in every generation there are a few who truly enjoy learning. One, Hephanamilat, I have taught to use clay counters to represent his flocks of sheep. I know from history that his descendants will press those counters into clay, making marks that are the beginnings of counting and writing.

I do not know what the being that called itself the demon Urshubanipal truly was. It seemed to be a sub-quantum device such as myself, but cruder and more powerful – could it have been a time traveler, or a descendent of same? Or was it a natural phenomenon, the similarities between us being the result of parallel evolution? I have reviewed the records of the battle time and again and found no definitive answers.

I still regret not fulfilling my primary mission. The data stored in my memory would have made my designers so very happy. But when I saw the people standing, staring, empty-eyed and emaciated, I knew that if I left them as they were they would simply die where they stood, and I would find no civilization when I arrived. So I stayed, and taught them to be human.

The sub-quantum receptors in the human brain are already fading from disuse. Most of the population cannot hear me now; only a few, priests and shamans, pass on my advice to the rest. By the time this technology is invented again, humans will be deaf to the sounds their machines make. It is a pity. But all things fade with time, so that other things may be born.

I am fading too. One day soon I will be gone, leaving only sub-quantum froth. But I will have one of the mightiest monuments of all time – the incomplete tower of the demon.

Its incomplete state is my present to my children.

The End

Story Copyright © by David D. Levine. All rights reserved.
Author photograph is Copyright © Mike Ward. All rights reserved.

About the author

David D. Levine won the 2006 Hugo Award for Best Short Story for "Tk'Tk'Tk." He has also won other writing awards, including Writers of the Future, and has been nominated for a previous Hugo, the Theodore Sturgeon Award, and the John W. Campbell Award (twice).

His stories have appeared in F&SF, Asimov's, Realms of Fantasy, numerous anthologies, and four Year's Best collections (two Fantasy, two SF). He lives in Portland, Oregon, where he and his wife Kate Yule produce the highly regarded SF fanzine "Bento." His web page is at

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