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Incoming Transmission

Sarah Beck lives in the Midwest, and if she's seen an alien, she isn't telling.

I have traveled through many galaxies and seen many planets. But the most amazing is in a small yellow star system, its only inhabited planet. Much of the surface is liquid water. The life forms are all carbon-based. It isn't terribly remarkable--at first glance. I only stumbled on it by accident.
I was trying to take a shortcut in my normal route. And I was regretting, it, too. I've never been the best at coding destinations, and my shortcut was costing me an extra thousand ticks. But there was nothing to do but wait it out and spend the time coming up with excuses. I'd told the administrator that I'd been trapped in a black hole the last two times. They probably wouldn't fall for it a third.
Then I started getting transmissions. I was startled, obviously. None of my charts said anything about signal-sending locations in this area. So I tuned in.
And slammed the nav guide into a sudden hold pattern.
How had no one ever told me about this planet? They were so advanced! I stared, stunned, at the masses of records flooding into my receiver. Fully sentient artificial life! Time travel! Instantaneous transportation! Weapons the size of planets!
The transmissions themselves were strangely primitive, but the wonders they described more than made up for it. I set the receiver to maximum uptake and translation speed. The information came in such volume that it was overwhelming. I found even more technological marvels. Some were so powerful that it seemed to me as though they were breaking the very laws of physics. How was it that they could turn invisible, or create sustenance from air, or transform into different species with only a few gestures, or strange vocalizations, or straight pieces of their large vegetative matter?
I saw the dominant organisms interact with alien species I never even knew existed, travel to worlds I'd never heard of, all with inventions that easily outstripped any known civilization in the universe.
And I had discovered them. Being late to the administrator's was never going to be a problem again. This would bring honor to my entire nest for generations, and my name would go down in history.
The masses of information--and my grandiose dreams--were all so much that I didn't notice the inconsistencies at first. I was too busy simply taking it all in. But there were inconsistencies. Contradictory records. Pieces that weren't adding up.
Much of their technology only appeared once, or a few times, and was never used in other perfectly applicable situations. When some of them had been trapped on a spacecraft with a hostile alien, why did they only use basic projectile weapons? Why didn't they simply transform it into a harmless, smaller species? Or just transport themselves back to a safe location? And that was only one example. There were many more
And why hadn't I, or anyone else, ever heard of them before? They could have conquered the entire universe easily, had they desired. Or, if they were beneficent organisms, provided great aid. Perhaps they were simply so far above us that we were of no concern. Perhaps such a powerful species preferred to ignore us as inconsequential. But then what of the transmissions showing these strange beings with equally strange aliens? What made those aliens so much better than us?
I had to examine them for myself.
It wasn't the smartest thing to do. Of course, none of it was smart. As soon as I realized the advanced nature of this planet, I should have rushed away, as far as I could. If they thought I was an invader, my poor ship would be helpless. I had nothing that would cause them the least bit of hesitation.
But they must already know I was there. My basic visibility shielding had to be as useless as my defense system. If they hadn't blasted me out of the galaxy yet, they must not care. And I owed it to the rest of the universe to find out the truth.
So, instead of simply receiving transmissions, I cautiously--delicately--sent an exploratory signal out for direct planetary observance. The waiting was intolerable. As soon as my viewer made the tiny ping of incoming data I spun to look at it so quickly I thought my shell would crack.
The images on my screen were nothing like the transmissions. I only saw the one bipedal species. They resembled the ones I'd just been staring at, but calling their tools technology would be laughable. They looked barely capable of leaving their own planet.
Something must be wrong. I flipped between the receiver and the viewer. What had I missed?
I widened the signal parameters. More of the same: the underwhelming planet, a few blips from its atmosphere, the tiniest traces of past visits to the single moon. I looked farther. One artificial device, completely empty of life, barely out of the solar system.
Nothing beyond.
I looked again at the viewer. At the unbelievable, thrilling records that were nothing like the dull planet I actually saw.
It didn't make sense.
I dove back into the transmissions, looking for clues, a sign, something. It was difficult. The more I searched, the more incredible things I found that simply weren't there.
But then I found a pattern. The planet's records were full of loss. Not just my own emotional feelings (which were considerable) of loss, but physical. War. Destruction. Over and over and over. The artificial life killed the organics. The tremendous weapons killed more. Even the vegetative sticks lead to worldwide death on a horrible scale.
The conclusion was obvious: I had been studying the distant past.
It explained everything. The relatively primitive construction of the transmissions themselves were due to deterioration over countless time cycles. The planet's current primitive state was because they were in a state of recovery from the latest catastrophe. The "contradictions" were each different eras, all of which ended in horror.
I looked at the planet with new understanding, and felt nothing but pity. Imagine, being one of a species that has reached such feats, only to fall, again and again. Always with the reminders of past glories that are no more.
And yet they survived. They weren't thriving, but this shattered wreck of a once-glorious species kept going despite it all. And they would try again. I'd seen it. This planet would discover something new, something that would yet again be greater than anything I could ever imagine.
As I said, this planet is the most amazing one I've ever known. I had to leave it, but I will be back soon.
And I will be bringing help.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, June 22nd, 2018

Author Comments

The idea that aliens might take our media literally is a fun one. What would a society (or individual) capable of traveling through space think of us, as portrayed through our stories? Would they be threatened? In awe? Very, very confused? I like to imagine a universe where someone would stumble upon us, look, and decide to offer a hand (or the grasping appendage of your choice).

- Sarah Beck
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