The radio waves ran fingers curiously along the struts that thrust skyward for them, caressed the wires that guided them in, kissed the gentle curves that reached up to wrap around them. They had travelled for five hundred years to feel an embrace like this, this welcome from a planet and a species so like their own, and they rejoiced in that fateful meeting of galactic lovers.
Had they been able to read they would have learned that they were expected. They would have caught the faded letters emblazoned in block capitals: the seductive curve of an S, the bold-lined statements of an E, the waving welcome of a T, the guideline of an I. An education in the history of human science would have told them that those four letters were the warmest welcome our species was capable of giving: “The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.”
Had they been discerning in their inspection, they might have noticed the rust that clung to the metal frames they clambered over. They might have caught the disorganization, dishes pointing every which way. They might have seen the few dishes that had given up years ago, crashing to the ground and pointing no way at all anymore. But they could not help their blindness to the signs of neglect that clung to the dishes just as longingly as they brushed against the pitted metal. All the waves could do was quest inquisitively around metal frames, pound silently into the sun-hardened clay, and wait, ever hopeful, for cries of surprise, fear, delight. Acknowledgement.
Silence. There was no one left to answer their greeting. There was no one left at all, nothing but a fence blown slanted fifty years ago, debris strewn against it: a blackened picture frame, house keys twisted into slag, half of a teddy bear. Perhaps a passing pronghorn might have perked up its ears for a moment, as if catching that subsonic message, fragile as birdsong, but there would have been nothing in that Siren call for them but potential prey or predator, revealed soon as mere silence.
Kepler 186f, some hours later
Kara Hume, commander of Erikson 3 Mission for The Exploration of Earth-Like Planets, ran trembling fingers over the pitted remains of what was once a satellite dish. “They were looking for us too.” She had to swallow three times to get the words out. Alan Rigby, the crew’s engineer and physicist, stepped up behind her, eyes running critically over the rusted remnants.
“But they haven’t been for a while, from the looks of it.” Grunting, he yanked the jagged edge off of one of the ruined devices, running his fingers over it and waving off Hume’s scandalized glance with a breezy gesture. “What? It’s not like satellite dishes are ever going to be considered cultural artifacts. Besides, these haven’t been working for years now.” Hume frowned
“Still, they would have been transmitting while we were en route here. Shouldn’t we have gotten the news? It would have made headlines all over the world!”
“We really don’t know when they were set up how long they’ve been transmitting for. It’s possible the signals actually haven’t made it to Earth yet. Besides, even if they’ve already established contact back home, they would have had no way to tell us when we were traveling near light speed. Even now we’re only getting the updates that were sent a few years after we left earth.”
“The benefits of near light-speed travel,” grumbled Hume, standing and straightening her uniform. “Sometimes I wish we could just go back to good old-fashioned rocket fuel.” Her fingers skimmed efficiently over her hair, resettling the neat brain over the collar of her uniform as she looked into the night sky. “I wonder if the signal’s reached them yet.”
“Do you think they’re celebrating, if it has?” Rigby’s voice was quiet as he asked. His own eyes followed Hume’s gaze trying to catch a glimpse of his native star among a stranger’s constellations, quickly losing their place in the unfamiliar sky.
“Knowing us? You probably have half the world’s governments trying to put lasers in space.” Hume snorted, extending a hand that Rigby took, helping her up from the clay with a grunt. The two of them began the short walk back to the ship and the rest of their crew in thoughtful silence. It was Hume who broke it.
“It’s kind of sad though, isn’t it?”
“What do you mean, Captain?”
“Think about it. This civilization sets up an enormous project to try to find out if there’s any intelligent species out there, it turns out there’s someone listening and looking for them too, and their message actually makes it to our planet… but they die out before we can establish contact.” The two walked on in somber silence for a few more moments.
“Yeah, that is pretty sad.”
“Heartbreaking, honestly. The loneliness of it.”