Twenty years later.
The trundle of the Japanese-made four-by-four on the rough, pot-holed gravel road jerked Maxwell French up and down almost non-stop. The car seemed so beaten up and dirty that it might have gone through several world wars. He was sitting in the back seat, which only made him feel more motion sick; the flight from the United States the day before had already been turbulent enough, and he had barely recovered from jet lag before embarking on the ten-hour car ride.
“Remind me again,” Max said, “how on Earth did you convince me to come here to middle of nowhere?”
Max was now in his forties. He was in good shape for an academic who has spent most of his time in the office or the observatory, but clearly someone who has enjoyed a nice steak every once in a while. He had fully embraced his midlifeness wearing a tweed jacket with leather elbow pads and beige trousers that screamed unadulterated boringness from miles away.
The only hint of him having a life outside academia was his Pearl Jam t-shirt with the ubiquitous black-and-white stick-figure man, he was wearing under his jacket. Max’s face was pale from mild motion sickness added on top of the scholar’s suntan; his light brown hair was still unwashed and messy from the flight.
“Trust me. You need see this,” Nadjeschda Novikova said in her thick Russian accent from the front passenger’s seat.
She was in her early thirties; short, slim, and tiny in every way. Her mouse-like appearance was a far cry from the stereotypical long-legged, voluptuous Russian temptresses from the James Bond movies. Nadja’s hair was originally dark brown but was now sun-bleached from weeks of working in the open, her face suntanned. She wore khaki slacks and an ill-fitting, dark brown cross-patterned blazer; an attire that didn’t compliment her in the slightest.
“See what?” Max asked, as he had done several times already in the past few days. “We’re only a few miles from Go Speckle Tiipii. Can’t you tell me already?”
“Is Göbekli Tepe. Better I show you. Not long now,” Nadjeschda said.
“Fine. Have your secrets, Nadch… Nadjias…”
“Na-djesch-da. Just call me Nadja, easy for you.”
“Nadja. I’ll get it right one day,” Max said.
As the four-by-four crested a hill on the winding gravel road, the rolling hills of south-eastern Turkey opened to them in a spectacular green and brown vista. Sun was already low in the afternoon as the car trundled to a halt at a chain-link fence gate down the hill.
“Wait here,” Nadja said as she climbed out of the car and walked to the gate. She opened a rusting lock that secured a thick chain around a concrete pole and the chain-link gate, opened the way for the car, and closed it back again after the four-by-four had gone through. She hopped back on the front seat, placed the key back to the ash tray, and said something to the chauffeur in language Max guessed was Turkish. The car took off towards the top of a low hill where a gravel patch doubled as a parking lot and a stockpile for various construction goods.
“Come, this is Göbekli Tepe,” Nadja said, as they hopped out of the car. She pointed towards the hilltop next to them where a massive white tarpaulin tent covered the dig site. “What we find here change history.” she said, as they started walking towards the dig site. Dust quickly covered Max’s shoes on the arid dirt path.
“How so?” Max asked.
“Many think civilisation start six-thousand year ago, only hunter-gather before this. No city, no town, no society,” she said as she led Max towards the dig. “Göbekli Tepe is eleven thousand year old.” Nadja was beaming.
“Twice as old as the oldest known sign of civilisation? That’s some find for sure,” Max said as they ducked under the tent.
The main excavation site was located at the top of a flat top hill was approximately the size of an Olympic swimming pool. The tarpaulin covered the whole site in a low dome shape and its edges was pulled down only a metre from the ground, providing shade from the sun for the archaeologists working during the day.
The site was still mostly covered in rubble as the excavation was ongoing, but there were several large stones — megaliths — fully exposed already. Few of them were tall as a two-storey house, most cut in a peculiar, stubby T-shape. All the megaliths had intricate carvings on them depicting mostly animal forms, but one caught Max’s eye.
“What’s with the handbags?” Max asked.
“These here.” Max pointed at the largest pillar. “Three handbags carved next to each other. They were idolising Prada?”
“Ha! We not know. No analyse yet,” Nadja laughed. “Here. Look! High-relief. Take lot of work to do.” She gestured towards an animal figure that was head-down towards its prey below it. “No caveman make this!”
“Absolutely not,” said a booming voice from behind Max in near perfect BBC English, with only a hint of an accent Max couldn’t figure out. Max and Nadjeschda turned toward the voice and saw a man ducking his head under the edge of the tarpaulin, straightening himself and walking towards the two.
“It certainly was not made by a crude, barbaric hunter-gatherer group, but by members of a well-organised and complex pre-historic society with specialised professions and trades.” The man said and extended his hand to Max.
“Good evening. I am Mehmet Öztürk, the director of this archaeological dig at Göbekli Tepe and the representative of the Turkish National Museum,” he said, falling to a practised rhythm of speech.
“And good evening to you as well, Sir,” Max said, nodding and extending his arm. He shook hands with a man with a farmer’s body and arms, dark olive skin, hair shaved all off, wearing a dusty white linen robe reminiscent of those commonly worn by Arabs.
“Did she show you around already? But I wanted to be the tour guide this time!” Mehmet said with a fake pout.
“Da. My turn this time. You next.”
“Deal!” Mehmet said. “And I’ll hold you up to your word this time.”
“But,” he continued to Max, his voice now more serious, “The pillars are not the reason we brought you here, no matter how spectacular they are. We… found something here, something rather unexpected. Well, more unexpected than proof of a civilisation that dates back several thousand years earlier than though possible, that is,” he said and waved his hand towards a row of shipping containers lower down the hillside that had been turned into a temporary barracks building. “Come, this way.
“We have been excavating this site for a half a dozen years now. About a decade ago, a farmer hit a massive carved rock buried in the ground while ploughing his fields. He alerted the local museum, and after an initial examination, the rock was deemed to be an ancient megalith,” Mehmet said as they walked down the path. “The National Museum of Turkey took over the excavations, and I have been running it since.”
“That still doesn’t explain why you need an astrophysicist here,” Max said. He felt more intrigued than annoyed having been flown across the globe to a remote village in Turkey. Max guessed his recent appearances on the “Archaic Aliens” TV-show had garnered him some fame in unexpected circles. The show was famous for its depictions of interstellar aliens as the builders of most prehistoric wonders and megalithic sites across the planet, most famously the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt.
“Are you familiar with the concept of Archaeo-astronomy, Mr French?” Mehmet asked.
“I’ve heard of it, but never paid much attention. Let me guess: it’s the study of the history of astronomy?”
“Well, you are not far from the truth. It is a sub-discipline of archaeology that focuses on how ancient, and specifically prehistoric, cultures incorporated astronomy and astrology to their buildings, city planning, and burial sites.” Mehmet said. “You know about the Stonehenge?”
“In England? Of course. Aren’t there some hippies dancing around it every summer?” Max asked.
“Yes. There is,” Nadja said, laughing as she tried to keep up with the men with their long legs. “But no hippies; druids dance on Summer Solstice, Sun rise behind Heel Stone. Is solar calendar.”
“Precisely!” Mehmet affirmed, akin to a schoolmaster to his star pupil. “The Stonehenge is in particular interest to archaeo-astronomy, but it is far from the most prominent site on the planet. There are an ever-increasing number of sites that are accepted to have been built to astronomical alignments. Many are pointing towards the true north of the planet, or towards certain celestial objects, or even specific constellations. We have found several such alignments here, most of which are pointing towards the constallation of Orion.”
The mention of Orion jostled Max. The Signal he had discovered almost two decades ago was coming from near the central star of the Orion’s Belt, a three star asterism that makes up the waist of the main constellation of Orion.
In the following years, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) determined the signal had been of natural origin. The official story was that of a highly irregular pulsar, a fast spinning neutron star that emits radio-waves from its poles, pointing at the Earth at intermittent times, creating the illusion of a message.
Mehmet opened the door to the barracks and flipped on the lightswitch.
“Come in,” he said.
The barracks had a massive square table in the middle of the main room, where a large pile of tools, papers, and artefacts were piling up. There were extensive shelves with endless stones and pottery fragments, several tables along the walls with computers, fax machines, and landline phones. The walls were covered in maps of the local area and of the dig site. There were bedrooms, toilets, and washrooms on both sides of a small corridor at the end of the building.
Something on the central table caught Max’s eye. A circular object wrapped in white linen cloth the size of a dinner plate sat on its own in the middle of the far-side of the table; it seemed as if the disc had been excavated from the office rubble that covered the rest of the table.
“He notice it already,” Nadja said, nudging Mehmet. “See, this is reason we bring him.”
“So it would seem,” Mehmet said to Nadja, walked to the farside of the table and picked up the object. It seemed very heavy to Max.
“This is what we dug out of a ground layer dated to almost ten millennia ago, placed in a small stone box just large enough to hold it in, on a pedestal in one of the burial chambers.”
“What is it?” Max asked.
“We… Do not know,” Nadja said. “Never seen before. Nothing like this anywhere.”
Mehmet turned the bundle upside down, placed it back on the table and pulled the cloth open as if the object was his newborn baby. The last light of the afternoon sun hit the object as Mehmet manoeuvred the disc and the reflection blinded Max for an instant.
“Jesus Christ! Is it gold?” Max asked.
“Yes. Very pure and finely polished. Near perfectly flat, with no visible tool marks. Other than the engravings, of course,” Mehmet said. “There is no record of any similar artefact from anywhere in the world. All other ancient gold disc has tool marks and several other imperfections on it, and they are much thinner than this one is.”
Once Mehmet had uncovered the disc, Max could see that it had intricate, yet disassociated, carvings all over. He thought of a school desktop from a bad neighbourhood, so disjointed and random the carvings seemed to be, but still perfect in execution with machine-made accuracy to them.
“There’s… animal figures, geometric symbols, there’s flowing lines, tiny figures like writing or numbers, it’s all over the place,” Max said.
“Turn upside down!” Nadja said to Mehmet.
As he did, Max saw that both sides were carved in similar fashion, but with different motifs. Dot-and-line carvings on the back that appeared like constellations. Something was itching at the back of his mind, but couldn’t quite figure out what.
“Have you made any sense of this?” Max asked, bewildered. “Do these mean anything to you?”
“No. Well, yes. The more naturalistic figures here do not correspond to any know animal, past or present. Even the stone-age wall-paintings depict concurrent animals: sabre-tooth tigers, buffalo, hyenas, or hunting parties. But other than that, we have not deciphered any of it.”
“Njet. We have. Look, this circle.” Nadja pointed at the edge of the disc, where a full circular line of horizontal and vertical lines went around the circumference, like dashes and I’s. “It look… Privichny… Familiar to you?”
“No… It’s just a line of, well, lines. But there’s no order to… No, wait!” Max’s eyes widened. “It can’t be what I’m thinking.”
“Is your signal, is not?” Nadja said.
“Signal? Not this again…” Mehmet said. “Nadja. You said he was an expert in planetary and stellar alignments!”
“I am. Well, kinda. I’m a radio astronomer,” Max intervened. “I discovered a radio signal from outside our solar system when I was a grad-student, it seemed artificial at first – from an intelligent source that is, but it was nothing but a weird natural phenomenon.”
“No. Is same message!” Nadja interjected, ignoring Mehmet. “Look!”
“Nadjeschda. Explain…” Mehmet said.
“Blyat… Wait.” Nadja said and ran to her desk, opened a drawer, and pulled out a pile of papers. “Wait… Pizdets… Here!” she took one paper, dropped the rest on her desk, and skidded back to the central table. “Here. This is Signal. On disc. Start here.” She pointed at the disc on a point.
“You cannot be serious. Nadja, we need to have a discussion,” Mehmet said. Nadja continued ignoring him.
Max was lost in thought. He remembered the pattern of the signal by heart and now that Nadja had pointed out the start point, it was clear as day.
“It is the same pattern of symbols. It… looks like my Signal.”
“Da!” Nadja exclaimed. “Sorry, if I tell he find message, you not allow him here. Disc is from space.” she said to Mehmet.
“Let’s not jump to conclusions here. It’s the same pattern, yes. But there are several other explanations here,” Max said. “Sir, are you sure of the disc’s age?”
“Yes. Well, as sure as I can be. The ground layers were untouched before our dig for thousands of year. No doubt it predates any known written record.” Mehmet said, clearly wondering how he was the one being questioned.
“How it’s so cleanly cut and shiny if it’s thousands of years old, then?” Max asked.
“That is the reason gold is so valued, it never tarnishes or rusts. It shines for ever,” Mehmet said.
And then Max understood what was gnawing in the back of his mind. He had seen such an object before. Not with his own eyes, as no living person on the planet could, but a photo.
“It is a message,” Max mumbled to himself.
“See! I tell you,” Nadja was beaming.
“What? From who? And to whom?” Mehmet asked.
“I don’t know, and I don’t know. But I can show one like it to you. You have access to the Internet?” Max asked.
“Da,” Nadja said, offering her desk to Max.
Once the computer was booted up and the dial-up modem had ceased its buzzing noises, Max started Netscape Navigator and typed in ‘http://www.askjeeves.com’ excruciatingly slow with his foolproof two-finger technique.
“Why not use Google?” Nadja asked.
“Nah, it’s a fad. It’ll die off soon,” Max said while typing in his search term. After a few moments, he found what he was looking for, clicked on the link, browsed an archival page and clicked on a jpg image.
An image of two golden plates appeared on the screen. One was rectangular, the other circular, both had intricate engravings on them.
The rectangular plaque depicted a man and a woman, something resembling an explosion (or several converging streaks of tiny horizontal and vertical lines that appeared similar to the dashes and I’s as the disc on the table), and several geometric designs.
The circular disc depicted the Solar System on it along with much of the same engravings as the rectangular disc but without the human forms.
“These are the Pioneer 1 and Voyager 1 discs,” Max said. “Designed by Carl Sagan for NASA as messages to other intelligent civilisations, literally called ‘Message in a Bottle’. They were attached to the spacecrafts that are now travelling away from our solar system. Both are made of gold for the same reason – it won’t rust or dull and will be legible even after we’re not on the planet anymore.”
“And you have found a similar one buried in the ground,” he continued.
In the brief moment of the three looking at each other in bewilderment, glee, and disbelief, the door opened, and the Chauffeur stepped in, pointing a gun at the trio.
“Now, give me the disc,” he said.