The transmission came like a godsend. The discoverers were two young students in cargo pants and button-up shirts, running on coffee fumes and sheer force of will. They were lucky, not good. And the first transmission was small. A trilling whistle, a buzzing noise, some clicks. There was no grand dictation, no brilliant alien tongue. The grad students nearly wrote it off as a mechanical glitch, but they didn’t–they made a note of it, and that made their careers. The next day brought another transmission, and another, and within months they were coming in droves.
Our first reaction was a blend of excitement and fear. SETI found itself the centre of a media windstorm; linguists rushed to the problem like moths to a flame. The clicks and trills and rough aspirations proved incomprehensible for a time, and so we were worried–was this a message? A warning? Was it even meant for us? Did we catch this as a fluke or was it meant to be read by some other grand civilization? Was it a challenge, an invitation, a threat?
As we fretted, the linguists toiled away, and time passed. The transmissions frequently interrupted our own, becoming regular interference for radio stations, communications systems, and television. Airlines were the most affected–suddenly there was a killing to be made in forecasting the frequency of extraterrestrial interruptions. We developed workarounds. We adapted.
But eventually someone cracked the code. A young woman in Switzerland discovered that each method of speech–each click, each trill, each buzz–followed the same patterns, the same constructions. She hypothesized that these related not to the inherent meaning of the words, but to the tense! A pattern in clicks meant a thing about to occur. The same pattern, trilled, meant it had already happened. And with that discovery followed another–pitch as aspect, frequency as declension–and suddenly an alien race was at the edges of our fingertips.
Everything changed. The grad students of the original discovery met up with the Swiss linguist and released a translations of that first message to the world. In a discovery that thrilled the followers of science everywhere, it meant this: “Can you read me?” It was a message of discovery, the alien equivalent of the first telephone call. And it hit so close to home, it felt so human, that we latched on to it. The following messages detailed the discovery of this new, unfathomably fast method of communication, which was immediately tested and verified by our own scientists. And then, in that explosion of alien chatter, that new method had caught on. It had travelled the stars to be caught in our good fortune.
Their era of discovery was mirrored in us. As the communication spread across their culture they told us their technology, their history, their stories. And as we learned, we analyzed; we put their science to use, studied their past. Their culture leaked into our lives. New methods of creating energy appeared in our stations–simple, cheap, clean. New architecture appeared in our cities, new vehicles on our streets, new art in our museums. We began to teach their history in our schools. Alien churches popped up on street corners as a new religion blossomed. A new genre of music, exopop, showed up on our radios, based on the musical and poetic traditions of a species we’d never met.
We were a people infatuated, captivated. We began to dream of meeting them. We wondered to each other–what would it be like to shake their hands (or tentacles, antennae), to thank them for their contributions to our world. Politicians reassured us: if we met them, surely these people wouldn’t attack us. We knew these people, trusted them. We were their friends even if they didn’t know us. Novels emerged–first contacts, meetings, even romances. More often than not they arrived at the last minute to save us from destruction, our valiant heroes.
The question emerged: where were they? How could we reach them? As if they’d read our minds, the transmissions began to speak of space travel. We were ecstatic–these friends of ours, our international crush, would provide us with the method to reach them. Collectively, we held our breath. We waited. They delivered. With their usual brilliance, the transmissions provided us with innovations in propulsion, in life support. They provided us with theories advanced far beyond ours in on hyperspace travel, on light speed. Between their theories and our mathematics, we soon had a ship. Tracing their transmissions, we soon had a location.
Men and women lined up from all over the world, hoping to be the first to meet these incredible people. Eventually a team of four was selected, trained, and presented to humanity. We were a planet in waiting now, glued to our televisions as the astronauts boarded. For months–mere months!–we waited, breathless, following news of the mission like a great interstellar show. Our scientists combed the transmissions in the meantime. Surely there would be some news of colonization, perhaps even other life…
There was indeed news. Their scientific progress plateaued after a few small trips off the planet, and suddenly the transmissions were peppered–then overrun–with talk of economic priorities, of budgets, of the small slices and cuts their funding took before the money vanished completely. We were stunned, somewhat disappointed, somewhat ashamed. But no matter. We had picked up the slack, after all. We would come to them.
The final transmission came without warning, unceremonious and bleak. By this point, programs had been created to translate the broadcasts as they came in–radios came with them, standard. So it was heard, unfiltered, across the world: “Near-planet object detected. Collision imminent.” The message was followed by a short prayer to their deity. Dread settled onto our shoulders like dust. A million hands checked their dials, but this was no program, no War of the Worlds. This was real. In the final minutes, our planet was flooded with the panicked transmissions of a dying world. And from such a great distance, we listened, helpless.
The number of transmissions rose, and suddenly they blocked each other out. Ten minutes and an eternity later, one broke through: “If you can hear this, anyone, if we aren’t completely forgotten, remember that we are–”
Then, deafening, silence.
We spent that night in contemplation. We hardly spoke to one another. For once in our history, our conflicts and battles seemed small. Petty. Nothing really mattered in the face of extinction like that. And it seemed so senseless-how easy it would have been to simply inhabit another world, for them! We thought about our astronauts, heading for a dead planet, perhaps nothing more than dust. It seemed so lonely.
Night spread across our tiny planet, leaving daylight in its wake. Inch by inch, darkness touched the corners of our world. And one by one, we looked up to stare it in its multitude of eyes. One by one, we turned to face the stars.
I wrote this short story a few years ago, in one sitting at a coffee shop while waiting on a professor. A while ago, I published The Transmission under a pseudonym while I was trying to figure out the whole self-publishing thing. Amazon’s minimum pricing made me loathe to market it, though– I’m a big fan of free distribution and at-will pricing. And it’s such a short story, I felt like it would be an uphill battle. If you liked the story and wish to purchase it, it’s still available here; I also have my own .epub available upon request. A PDF copy is available right here, for free.