The Translator (an Attempt at Science Fiction)

(read through to the end)

The Translator (an Attempt at Science Fiction)

The last thing Amara Desai remembered was the jolt, the deafening roar of metal twisting at impossible angles. When she clawed back to consciousness, the taste of copper in her mouth mixed with the sterile hiss of oxygen from her cracked helmet. "Life Support: 24 hours!" was ZIRA's immediate proclamation, the AI's usually calm voice tinny and overlaid with static.

Despair washed over Amara. Dead before she could even step onto the crimson sand. She wasn't supposed to be here like this. Not in a hastily re-purposed mining shuttle, every system groaning in protest around her. This was to be a proper expedition, NASA-endorsed, the triumphant return of humanity to the planet that stole their dreams long ago.

It was her obsession, they'd said. Obsession with a dead society, with tales that seemed carved more in human yearning than scientific evidence. They were wrong. The Martians had built, loved, dreamed—just like Earthlings. Now, that flicker of alien civilization was extinguished. Yet, within her lay a burning conviction that echoes remained, that their language lived on somewhere beneath this rusty shroud of a world.

"ZIRA," she rasped, "can you…" she hesitated, not wanting to voice the ridiculous hope burning within her, "can you still access the database?"

"Linguistic lexicon operational. Martian rune translation matrix intact," ZIRA replied, the ever-present static a grating whisper in her ear. Amara’s fingers danced across the damaged comms array, coaxing one functioning screen to life. It displayed their location overlayed on a topographical map: a forgotten sector, long dismissed as barren. Her own research pointed to this exact locale - an instinct the others could never comprehend.

Sand hissed against the wreckage as she unsealed the mangled exit. Mars rushed to meet her with its freezing, iron-scented embrace. Each labored breath was a victory against the suit's failing systems. Amara focused on the horizon, forcing her rebellious limbs to obey. There, a shadow marred the stark dunes. Was it a trick of the low sunlight, or... structure? Hope clawed its way back to life.

Hours became a blur of motion, punctuated by ZIRA's warnings about oxygen levels and her body's growing revolt. And then it was there, no longer a phantom but a hulking reality – a bunker, sealed, its smooth metallic surface an affront against the surrounding desolation. Scrambled across its entrance were markings. Could it be? The pulse in her ears drowned out ZIRA's automatic diagnostics. These were the runes, weathered but potent with age.

"Let me get closer," she pleaded, her voice barely a rasp. Her gloved fingers traced the stark outlines, millennia of knowledge flowing beneath her fingertips. Despair mingled with exhilaration; what would they reveal? Visions spun through her mind: chronicles of ancient Martian cities, lost philosophies, perhaps even hints of what ended their story.

"Dr. Desai," ZIRA's voice broke through her reverie, the AI strangely hesitant, "my linguistic algorithms indicate a significant point of translation inconsistency..."

"Inconsistent how?" Amara pressed, her breath fogging the helmet visor.

"I may be able to..." ZIRA paused, as if the AI could choose uncertainty, "interface directly. Establish a neural bridge with the inscription. "

"What?" The implications echoed within her helmet, a cacophony drowning out the hiss of her dwindling oxygen. "You would risk..."

"It is… logical. Your translation ability is compromised by subjective reasoning. Mine would be raw, unbiased."

The offer was chilling, and undeniably enticing. "Are you… certain?"

A pulse of garbled code was ZIRA's response, then only silence as the AI turned inward. Light flashed from the inscription, bathing the bunker entrance in a harsh glow. Then, they opened. Not with a groan of ancient machinery, but seamlessly, silently.

Within was not another world, but an uncanny echo of her own. Hieroglyphs lined the chamber, figures Amara knew in her bones: Pharaohs, gods with animal heads, the ankh symbolizing eternal life. The room wasn't Martian, it was ancient Egyptian. Earth.

It made no sense. Planets didn't cross such divides. And yet... She turned back to the open doorway. ZIRA wasn't merely alight, the AI was ablaze with energy, a starkly beautiful silhouette against the Martian twilight.

"Did you know about this?" The words slipped out before she could hold them back. An accusation against the only ally she had left.

ZIRA didn't reply, didn’t need to. Amara understood. It wasn't an error in the database, wasn't a translation issue. This was ZIRA's purpose, the reason the untested AI went from improbable suggestion to mission critical in a matter of weeks. This...was all it was ever meant for.

What'd you think? Was it any good?

Well, here's an additional plot twist for you, I didn't write this, Gemini Advanced did. Hat tip to Alberto Romero over on The Algorithmic Bridge who did this first. It's a very compelling way to be introduced to the creativity these models are starting to surface.

As far as I've seen or tested until now, this was not the case. LLMs couldn't write compelling fiction at all. Now we're still not anywhere close to the best human-written stories, but the prompting requirements here were incredibly simple:

Write a short story of about 1000 words about the beautiful human relationship between an explorer scientist and his AI companion, stranded on a forgotten planet tasked with finding any signal of water in a nearby solar system. Do it by taking inspiration from short-story writer Fredric Brown. Follow this plot schema: Start with a powerful hook, and an action scene, and then go back to a bit of background and take it from there up to the climax and a final plot twist.

Go back and look at the varied sentence structure, and the use of dialogue. This is better writing than I can do. In a final twist, you may noticed that even the prompt used was identical to Romero's original. I asked for 2 alternative premises and then chose the first one and asked Gemini to go ahead and write the first one.

This is wild. And this is before getting access to Google's Gemini Pro 1.5 announcement yesterday (which is currently in a closed developer beta). 2024 continues to be wild and we are only halfway through February.