Sara stirred, a mass of brown hair just below his chin. Dell put his hand on her shoulder to make sure she wouldn't lose her balance.
"Good morning." It was almost sunrise.
She grumbled, and began to cautiously extricate her self. "My back hurts."
"Not as bad as mine." As she moved off of him, he tried to stretch the kinks out of his leg.
"What're they up to?" she asked.
"Digging for what?"
"I think ... digging up the roots of this tree."
Sara digested that. "I knew I should've started carrying a gun."
Dell nodded. "We have to get back to your saucer."
"Tapigs can run pretty fast, faster than I can, I think. On a good day, maybe, on flat land--but there are too many of them, Dell."
He watched the animals below. The torn earth had a dozen broken roots, gnawed through and dripping sap. With room for only two tapigs, they worked on the same side, digging a pit, tossing aside the dirt. After half an hour, another arrived and with some snorting, it took one's place and the tired one limped off into the brush.
"Dell, what's Maggie doing?"
He looked up. Maggie was shaking her head, with the feathers around her neck ruffled up.
"Maggie girl. What's wrong?"
The bird turned her head, trying to locate him, but her eyes didn't focus.
"Maggie, talk to me. Are you sick?" The bird shook some more, but paid him no attention. Sara looked a question his way, but Dell could only shrug.
There was a complicated snort from below.
Dell frowned. "I've never seen tapigs this intelligent before. They plan. They're acting together to dig up this tree. It's spooky."
"Brakk!" Maggie took to the air and fluttered down to the workbench and began sampling the remains of their evening meal.
Sara said, "Well, at least she has something to eat."
Maggie poked at the marble she'd brought to them last night, and then carefully picked it up in her beak. She tilted her head, watching the two humans up in the tree, and then sailed the few feet over to the ancient perch, still propped nearly upright. The morning sun broke through the trees and illuminated her.
Sara whispered. "Dell, what is she doing?"
"Oh nothing. She just likes perching on that artifact I discovered a day or so ago."
Maggie took the marble, and carefully dropped it into the recess on the perch.
"Brakk!" She pecked at the marble. In the early sun, it sparkled, giving off a rainbow of many colored reflections.
Maggie held her head back and in a clear voice, she began, "Greetings my children."
"What!" Dell he had to reach out and grab the branch before he lost balance.
"Quiet! That's your voice, Dell."
"Maggie doesn't talk."
"She is talking, Dell."
He stared down at his feathered friend. She was rigid, as if in a trance. The marble was spinning in its recess. The voice sounded like his own, only higher in pitch, and spoken unevenly, as if it'd been composed of recordings spliced together.
"Your pain gives me sorrow, my children. Paradise calls to you. In Paradise you were born, and in Paradise you lived. But no more.
"Great danger has called you out. From your serenity, you now have puzzles. In Paradise, there was no puzzle, no pain.
"Pain is necessary, if you are to survive and your children are to survive."
Sara poked Dell in the ribs. "This'd better not be a joke."
"Shut up Sara."
Maggie's voice continued, "You cry in pain, and your brothers listen. Danger has pulled you from Paradise. Speak to the birds and the wisdom of your ancestors will help.
"Ask. We will help you. You are our children."
"Brakk!" Maggie shivered all over. Feathers stuck out untidily, and she began to groom, straightening and plucking.
Dell eased back against the trunk of the tree. He shot a glance down at the tapigs, but they kept working, as if they'd heard nothing.
"What was that all about?" asked Sara.
"It was a message." Dell's eyes were wide. "A message from the Goobers."
"In your voice?"
He blinked, and turned to her.
"Well ... what else can it be? Maggie put a marble into that thing, a reader. She set it spinning in the sun and then spoke. The artifact is typical Goober style. The marble has to be, too. And Maggie..."
He shook his head. "I don't know where Maggie fits into the puzzle. Look her perch. It's just the right fit for her species."
"You don't think Maggie is a Goober, do you?"
"No. None of the artifacts matches her body, other than the perch. She couldn't lift that watering pot, for example.
"No, Maggie has to be a pet, a helper. She can obviously talk, but I'd bet she can only say what's imprinted on that marble."
Sara fumbled with her pockets and came out with a viewer and aimed it at the sparkle from Maggie's perch.
"There's a pattern reflected off of that marble. Not digital. Some kind of color code. I can't tell anything more from this distance."
She turned off the viewer. "Given what we know of Goober technology, I'd bet there is nothing more in that reader than some fancy magnetic fields. The bird started it spinning in the sunlight, and it’s probably floating on a repelling field. No moving parts, no energy supply. Everything encoded into the surface of the marble, simple enough so a trained bird can operate it.
"But why did the Goobers want to send you a message?"
Dell shook his head. "That wasn't directed at me."
"But it was in your voice. Maggie listened and modeled the playback on you."
He nodded. "More than that. Goobers couldn't have known English. I've been talking to Maggie for more than a year. She's been listening, decoding my use of language. If we're correct that the Goober culture has long vanished, then that message had to have been composed fifty thousand years ago, or more. They sent a message off into their future, not knowing what language would be used--so they created a race of translator birds with just enough brain to recognize and digest what language they encountered.
"They couldn't have known English speaking archeologists would arrive. This message had to be directed at someone else."
Sara rubbed a finger next to her nose in thought. "Maggie noticed we were in danger and went to get the danger message from a library of marbles and brought it to us."
"No. She brought the marble before we noticed the tapigs, remember."
"A warning then?"
"The message was directed to the Goober's children. That's not us."
"It could be a figure of speech."
"Not when the message was so crudely translated. Figures of speech require layers upon layers of shared culture to allow them to be efficient literary shorthand. The writers of the message wouldn't use them.
"No, that message was literal--directed to the Goober's biological children. Maggie heard me use language and started training, not realizing I was the wrong recipient. It's probably just instinct with her. She's never used language for her own purposes."
Sara nodded, "And when the real Goober descendants died out, the messages just waited for any language-user to come along."
"Who said they died out?"
Sara frowned. "There are no tool-using native species on this planet. We've searched long enough to be sure of that."
Dell nodded, "And I believe you, but when two puzzles show up at the same time, I have to consider that they might be related.
"Consider this--Maggie has to be the result of careful genetic engineering. Just think of it, a translator bird able to piece together language by observation."
Sara smiled, intrigued by the thought, "Okay, if that is so, then the next question we should ask Maggie is how to use that technology. Let the company announce a breakthrough in genetic engineering, and our stock options will be worth fortunes."
Dell laughed. "I like you Sara."
"I like you too, Dell." She looked puzzled.
"Sara, where are you?"
She looked around. "In a tree."
"Why are you in a tree?"
"Okay, don't rub it in. I'm in a tree because murderous beasts are trying to kill me. You're right, maybe we can put Maggie's marbles on the back burner for a bit."
"Or maybe we should ask her a different question. Maybe our rescue is in one of those marbles."
"You think so? Why?"
Dell pointed down. "Those. The tapigs. I think they are the Goober's children."