It took NASA three months to verify that it was indeed a message and not interstellar scintillation. The communication repeated regularly and was clearly the result of intelligent composition. It took a further four months to isolate which solar system it came from; that of star DB+5deg1669, and shortly after that the planet itself, DB+5deg1669d. Further messages were received and teams of linguists tried to decode their meaning. It was eventually realised that within the messages lay a Rosetta Stone. With increasing speed, NASA began to understand the messages’ content until they deciphered instructions for technology that allowed instantaneous communication across the aeons of space.
The conversation began.
It was obvious from the start that the extra-terrestrials could not be referred to using the current designation; besides being ungainly it lacked poetry. Much thought had gone into how the announcement should be made to the people of Earth and the consequent impact it would have. It was agreed the beings must be named in a way that conveyed dignity, gravitas and lack of threat. While the extra-terrestrials had communicated what was believed to be a term that referred to their planet, their phonology was unknown, as was the deeper meaning; due to lack of shared references much of the communication from deep space remained untranslatable. After much head scratching it was decided that the planet would be referred to as Cerealia — a Roman harvest festival; apt as a harvest of knowledge was soon to be reaped.
It was at this point that an IT consultant from Fife, Scotland, Dougie Kinnear, stepped forward. Dougie had realised that he’d named the entire solar system seven years earlier on a novelty website.
“I did it for my mate Dave,” he told reporters. “He’d found a woman willing to marry him and I thought that needed to be celebrated, you know, celestially! I chose a star system with the same number of planets as there were lads on the stag-do. We went to Benidorm. His lassie was lucky to get him back in one piece! Anyway, I got the whole lot for a hundred and fifty quid. Who’d have thought we’d be writing our names in interstellar history!”
The star itself was named after the stag, Hairy Dave, while DB+5deg1669d was named after a geography teacher from Spalding, Lincolnshire, who in his university days had been prone to exhibitionism; Ball Bag Stew.
“NASA want me to sell the names. Apparently I’m being ‘frivolous and selfish! Seems to me they need to get a sense of humour. If they want to rename our planets they’ll have to come up with the bawbees. They’re ours and I’ve got the certificates to prove it.”
NASA, who Dougie said could ‘do one’, could find no legal loophole, it seemed the names would have to stand unless Dirty Dougie, who had given his own name to a planet too close to Hairy Dave to sustain life, was prepared to sell the name.
The UN stepped in but even they couldn’t come up with an offer high enough to tempt Dougie to sell.
“I bought my mate interplanetary fame,” Dougie went on. “I’m no selling that for peanuts. I’m holding out for a fair price.”
It soon transpired that despite his generosity in buying the names for his friends, Dougie had retained legal ownership and monetary rights. Ball Bag Stew himself, clearly embarrassed by the whole situation, tried to persuade Dougie to change his mind, but without success.
The gutter press began to refer to the far away beings as ‘Ballbagolians’, ‘Sons of Stew’, or just ‘Ballbags’. Internet traffic on the subject went stratospheric and as it did so, questions began to arrive from what the scientists still insisted on referring to as DB+5deg1669d, or Cerealia. The extra-terrestrials had been monitoring the internet for some time and were particularly perplexed by cat videos, cricket and certain strains of pornography. However, their main preoccupation became the names they found themselves called, their confusion not ameliorated by the sheepish explanations offered by NASA. The communications from deep space grew frosty as they seemed to grasp the import of the Earthling multilogue. While the alien civilisation seemed to lack a sense of humour, it appeared readily able to take offence.
Dirty Dougie still remained unswayable. He was now holding out for the island of Grenada, over which he demanded international recognition as President for Life with a million dollar-a-month pension.
On a cold December morning, all interstellar communication ceased.
NASA continued to send apologetic messages, then tried another tack, pretending the faux pas had never occurred, but neither technique produced a response.
Across the world millions lamented the stupidity of the human race, throwing away contact with an advanced species who could have taught us so much, the greatest moment in history sabotaged by the gutter press. The media tried to reduce the whole thing to a joke, supporting the view held by many that the break in communication was probably a good thing; this was clearly a much more advanced civilisation and Earthbound encounters between advanced and ‘primitive’ civilisations rarely ended well.
Dirty Dougie, sensing that his moment was passing, relented and accepted the UN’s bid of $5 million for the planet’s name. It was too late, the offer had been withdrawn. No one expected to hear from the extra-terrestrials again.
A month later a new star was spotted in the part of the sky where DB+5deg1669d, previously invisible, was located. After a few days the star had grown noticeably brighter. Not only brighter, astronomers noticed, but closer. It was not long before the Hubble telescope revealed that the star was not a star but a spacecraft. A big spacecraft. With what looked like a gun on top. Realising time was short, NASA began looking for a way to straighten things out before the Cerealians arrived.
Unaware a hitman was on his way to Fife, Dirty Dougie offered to sell the names again, this time for a more reasonable price.
Matthew Roy Davey lives in Bristol, England. He has won the Dark Tales and The Observer short-story competitions, been long-listed for the Bath, Reflex, and Retreat West flash fiction competitions, and been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His short story ‘Waving at Trains’ has been translated into Mandarin and Slovenian.