We have been here forever. Standing frozen in space and time, luminous in the white glow that fell upon us like treacle. This was the big moment – this was it – first contact. Our first meeting with an extraterrestrial power which had reached out across the impossible vastness of the void separating our sun and its paltry handful of dead planets from the prayed-for life and dreams of a wider galaxy.
We had been waiting for such a long time. When we first began our own adventures into space it was filled with hope and daring. We had all witnessed the telescope footage of lights and shapes on our neighbouring worlds, examined the traces of their technology which had been found on our planet and sought to track it back to the source. On our moons we’d found evidence of ancient encampments by people who were not us; our neighbours seemed the only likely explanation. We sent them messages, blasted radio signals at unheard of frequencies at them, loudly shouting, “hello, we’re here too.” But we heard nothing. As our technology and ambition grew we finally traversed the millions of miles between us in the terrifying hot-coldness of vacuum. All we found were remains, the sad remnants of civilisations which had ended thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of years ago. Their rise and fall appeared to mirror those of our most ancient histories. Perhaps we had all climbed to the peak of our powers together. We even found artifacts in the ruins that could have originated on our own world. Endless speculation about the empire than spanned the solar system ensued, all of it fascinating and engaging and wonderful. And yet, all of it tainted with the broken hope that we’d reach out and have friends nearby. All we had were ashes, and yes it was fun to imagine that once our people had walked these worlds and they ours, perhaps we’d even led an empire or somesuch. All of it mattered, and the histories and archaeologies being assembled would carry those academics and fiction writers into the distant past for centuries to come. And yet.
We knew life on other worlds was possible – the proof was spinning about the sun around us – but how far would we need to go to find it? The discovery of the ruins on our neighbouring satellites matched up with what we dug down on our home to find. All the corresponding signs of the high civilisation we’d once achieved, its remnants and works to pore over and through. It explained a lot: the surprisingly depleted reserves of fossil fuels which hadn’t aligned with what we expected from the known prehistory – taken and exploited by an earlier version of our people. So too, the precious metals and rarer elements mined out and expended at the apex of that civilisation some hundred and twenty thousand years earlier (doing geology and archaelogy is easier at home than abroad). We had bounced back where our cousins had not. And there was no doubt that we had all been cousins, or some approximate relationship. The genetic materials we recovered here and away all united us as one people who had risen and fallen together. We had been lucky. Or had won. The evidence was patchy, but many suspected war had either separated or united us. Against whom? Ourselves? There was no way to know. The lack of records was immensely frustrating; we speculated that they had moved fully to digital recording and thus it was all gone, all weathered, degraded and destroyed. A handful of stone carvings which gave us nothing, the rusted and perished husks of machinery and technology which might once have held answers.
To explore further than our own solar system would require massive investment, of money, time and crucially resources. There was little enough of the latter left in the crust of our homeworld, after our forebears had cracked it open for its treasure. Perhaps across the worlds we could gather enough to construct a starship, ideally more than just one, something that could leave the heliosphere and journey to our nearest galactic neighbour. A seemingly impossible journey. In the meantime we redirected our greetings to the stars, knowing that those messages would take decades and centuries to reach the ears of another species, if they did not peter out and wilt away in the colossal expanse.
It is extraordinary how hope can die. It’s so often held up as the candle against the darkness, as if a dream can keep a people alive when the world closes in on them. Perhaps it sometimes can, but after the discovery that the contact we’d been looking for had existed and been lost aeons ago, and that we likely would never be able to reach across that gulf, something happened to us. Maybe it was learning that this planet had had its shot already, fired and missed. What were we in turn? The ejected cartridge, the dissipating smoke from the gun or the shattered thing which the bullet had struck? None seemed enough to go on with. We began to stagnate. We were never a hugely fertile people and the birthrate slowed, the arts and sciences grew listless. Going through the motions. New works were born and celebrated, yet the feeling was muted. The worst of our science gave us estimates of how long it would be before we finally used up the resources of our world and abruptly the technological level of our civilisation was finite, after which we’d be forced into a decline to a pastoral existence and a return to feudalism and ultimately barbarism. It wouldn’t be in our lifetimes of course, but now it was in the lives of our great-great grandchildren, which really was not so far off at all.
Then came the light. While hope leached from our people, it had not abandoned all of us. Those who could stand it still kept their eyes to the skies, and it was a colleague of mine who first noted the bright pinprick at the edge of our solar system. At first no one cared, but her updates on its progress, the revelation that it was certainly no comet began to ignite an excitement in us that I’d feared gone forever. Our outposts on our neighbouring worlds produced better results, especially on the dead world whose atmosphere had been largely stripped away by whatever ended that glorious time of the space kings (I blame the ensuing fiction as much as ourselves for that ridiculous monicker), which had proven ideal for establishing an observatory. Spectrographic analysis revealed chemical fuels spewing away from the craft and its albedo gave us likely material composition. There was no doubt that it was a spacecraft, and no doubt that it came from beyond our solar system, or that it was coming here.
We had been found. It was impossible that any of our messages could have reached even the nearest stars, in all likelihood it would be centuries before anyone – if there were anyone – could even begin to notice us, and then only if they were very nearby. The most unlikely thing had happened, someone had already been on their way to find us before we’d had even begun to hope they might be out there. Further rampant speculation followed: a pan-generational space ark gathering life from across the galaxy, a warship come to annihilate us, someone exactly like us looking for life, hoping to learn that they were not alone. That they were just like us, that they were inconceivable gas creatures contained in space suits, watery beings from a vast sea-world…
Soon we would find out. A team of scientists, engineers, artisans and, inevitably, politicians were assembled to track and contact the vessel. Despite our best efforts they gave us nothing but coordinates. A place to meet. It was a site that had excited historians for years – a flattened plateau on the equator, studded with odd shapes and hulks of ancient machinery. Recent speculation had offered up the base of a space ladder as the most likely purpose in our distant past. Whatever it had been, now it was the point of first contact. We readied ourselves, not knowing what to be ready for. We prepared analyses, safety protocols, official garments to be worn to best represent our people. A series of coins and stamps were minted. The mood was of celebration, a vast relief after our recent fall away from hope.
At last the day arrived, and the delegation prepared ourselves. All of us scientists in white coats, the politicians in a sunset-red, artists clothed in green. I don’t know who worked out the colour scheme, but someone thought it was important. The plateau stretched out around us, those hunks of ravaged machines punching up from the earth, half-colonised by wildlife. Down came the visitor, a massive gleaming bowl of silver and white, corkscrewing through our atmosphere. It landed silently, though we felt it through our feet and in our hearts. The rim unfolded downwards, segmented and spreading. Then nothing. As the hosts, we must of course be the first to offer greetings. So we approached, all the delegation together, stepping cautiously onto that fresh apron of white metal. Then came the light, a brilliance that arose from the ground beneath our feet, trapping us in the moment. And in that moment, which lasted forever we were assailed with a billion questions, demands for information on ourselves and our people, our world and its neighbours, an unending interrogation that took place inside us, and lasted for but an instant.
When the light at last faded away and we could move again, silhouettes had appeared ahead of us, coming clearer as they stepped away from their vessel, and one voice – strangely accented, but entirely recognisable – carried clearly across the expanse of white, “we have returned home at last.”