A crowd had gathered at the entrance to the cavern. Despite the size of the man-made opening, there wasn’t sufficient room for everyone inside, and a sound system and large screens had been set up so that everyone could hear the mayor speak. Many people held umbrellas against a light but persistent drizzle.
“Every twenty-five years,” began the mayor. “Once in a generation, we hold this contest.”
She swept her arm dramatically, indicating the rows of uniform squares embossed in the rock of the cavern entrance. Some of them were already carved with a miscellany of signs. Many remained blank, an obvious invitation for the future. “You can see how the signs nearer the entrance are worn away by the elements, an indication of the extreme age of what we are doing now. This is a tradition that has remained with us for almost as long as our recorded history.”
She paused again, then spoke once more. “In each generation, we carve a new sign into a blank square, as a warning that holds meaning to those of our own generation not to enter, a warning that the contents of this place are still dangerous. The ancients who started this tradition understood that symbols hold meaning for only so long, that the great sweep of time eventually erases their meaning. Not every mayor of this town happens to be in office at the time of the contest, so I’m really pleased to be able to reveal the winner this time around.”
There was a smattering of applause as she pulled on a rope, releasing a curtain that covered one of the carved squares. The new sign was simple. It contained what looked like a single word, repeated three times over, in an archaic alphabet. There was a rush as members of the press, some of them attending from far away, pushed forwards to photograph the sign and asked questions.
“What does this sign mean?” asked one of the journalists, talking loudly over the scrum.
“At the time this waste dump was built,” said the mayor. “There were two main nuclear powers in the world. We only have fragmentary details of their languages, but we believe that the word means ‘no’ in one of them.”
“Why is it repeated three times?” asked another journalist.
“We have a fragmentary section of video in which this was used,” said the mayor. “We think that the repetition is a way of indicating emphasis. There may be some sort of specific meaning behind the use of three, which we’ve lost, but we still do similar things today when we want to indicate the importance of something.”
The official camera operator for the town hall finally panned from the mayor’s face to the sign, so that the damp, impatient crowd standing outside could see it.
Carved in a strange, rounded font, the square proudly bore the words “Nyuck, Nyuck, Nyuck”.