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On This Day

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On this day, centuries ago, we heard them for the first time. We pointed our electronic ears into the sky and heard a voice from across the stars, from a race of beings who came from an alien world. Though, at the time, we remained totally ignorant of our discovery, as the voice was feeble, and buried among the echoes of the creation of the universe, billions of years before.

It was not for many decades that some of our unsung scientific heroes, performing the monotonous, tedious task of analysing this old data, in our quest to discover our place in the universe, looked closely at those signals received so many years ago and noticed a pattern. Among all the random noise we had recorded in that short time we had opened our ears to that seemingly empty part of space, we found a simple rhythm, almost beyond our ability to perceive, but almost certainly unnatural in origin. The first evidence we were not alone in the universe, a pattern of radio bursts, blinking in the night.

At first, the news was met with skepticism. Why would anybody think to broadcast a message that they couldn't be sure would ever be heard? Plus, this was old data, received by an ancient machine by today's standards. What if it simply misheard? We have plenty of problems here at home, without trying to find hidden meaning in the stars.

But sometimes, the imagination cannot be so easily dissuaded from dreaming. A movement arose, people from all over the world, from the intellectual elite, to the simply curious, pooling their resources. We calculated where the signal would have come from in the sky. We built newer, more powerful receivers. We pointed them skyward, we turned the on and we listened. We were greeted with the most glorious sound imaginable. The distant signal was still broadcasting, still drumming its beat into the heavens.

Within the next few months and years, more signals were found, on different frequencies, different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, all thumping an identical beat out into the universe. All but the most ardent doubt was eliminated. Our people knew, with certainty, that someone was out there.

Who was sending the message? Could it be people like us, curious to see who else was out there? Were they far beyond us, a race of Gods, calling out to lesser mortals? Something else entirely unimaginable to us, some kind of cosmic machine, thrown together by chance? Was it even a greeting? Could it be the mere side effect of some interstellar navigation technology? Lighthouses in the stars, directing ships of an alien spacefaring people across the distant stars?

The collective imagination of the people had been stirred. We wanted to know what this signal was, who was sending it, and whether their intentions towards us were for good or evil. Almost overnight, wars ended, hostilities abated, people lay down their weapons and accepted their enemy with open arms. The full resources of a civilisation were directed to answering that one burning question on everybody's lips. We studied our skies, our planet, ourselves. Our philosophers debated back and forth, postulating hypotheses of the origins of the signal and of ourselves. Our scientists and engineers worked towards a common goal of taking us out there, beyond the reach of the star that gave us life, to find and possibly meet these people. Our agriculturalists and industrialists worked to improve our resource yields, to sustain our species and our world far beyond what the short-sighted greed of our ancestors would have allowed. On the verge of contact with other sentient beings, it would almost be a cosmic joke if we were to destroy ourselves before we could even reply.

After years of study, observation and theories being thrown around to explain the message, we discovered wonderfully cruel news. We had found the signal's point of origin. But it was from further than we had ever dreamed. Another galaxy, much like our own, separated by a vast gulf of empty space, was blasting this signal out into the universe. At that distance, the signal must have traveled for millions of years, growing weaker and more faint with each passing aeon. Had we not turned our ears to the heavens at the moment we did, we may never have heard it at all. But for a species barely taking our first steps off world, such a distance seemed unimaginably vast.

But we were a stubborn, determined people. Though our interest waxed and waned in the years and decades that followed, our resolve stood strong. We discovered so many wondrous things in our journey. We discovered technology that would unlock near unlimited potential in ourselves. We tamed the very stuff of life, slowly turning our once chaotic planet into a harmonious utopia, where all life could coexist. We left our homeworld and spread out to other planets, then to other stars. Barriers and hurdles cropped up at every turn, but we overcame them and pushed ever onwards.

Finally, after so long, we discovered a way to break the very laws of reality itself. A way to travel limitless distances, at impossible velocities. We could zip between the many stellar civilisations we had created in seconds, rather than years. We could exchange information as never before, on a galactic scale. We could go to parts of space that our kind had never been before. We could finally, with enough grit and determination, bridge the gulf between our galaxy and the one singing out to us.

A craft was built, unlike anything before it. Built for a single purpose, it housed the most advanced technology, the most brilliant minds, and was loaded with records, data, even artifacts, covering the whole of our people's history. We pointed towards that distant galaxy and we flung ourselves into the void.

We drew closer, moving with caution, in leaps and bounds. None had been this far from home before, so we had boundless opportunities to discover new and wonderful things about our universe. As we gathered knowledge, we sent unmanned drones back towards home, where our people waited with baited breath to hear of our endeavours. We pushed this new technology as hard as we dared, each leap taking us further than the last, each filling us with anticipation as to what we might discover on the next jump.

Soon, we were able to pinpoint exactly where in the galaxy the signal was coming from. It seemed almost impossible, but it was emanating from the very centre of the galaxy, the singularity around which the galaxy spun. Whoever was sending this message, they must be truly a great species, for they had seemingly tamed one of the universe's most destructive forces. But we well prepared for this or any other eventuality imaginable. We were more eager than ever to solve this mystery. We dove into the heart of that galaxy.

What we found was almost impossible to believe. An impossible structure, in an impossible place, built of an impossible material. Powered by nothing our finest equipment could detect, we could only speculate that it somehow drew power from the singularity, the same singularity it used as an antenna to broadcast its signal into space. Fear overwhelmed by curiosity and wonder, we brought our vessel as close as we dared. We broadcast signals to the structure, which were ignored. We sent machines to the structure, but still it remained impassive and unresponsive. Finally, straws were drawn to determine who would go out there. Out of most of the crew who begged for the chance to be the first, I was blessed by fate and given the responsibility of an entire civilisation, to make first, direct contact.

As I flew my shuttle to the structure, I found myself enveloped in a strange field. The engines powered down by themselves, the protective fields shut off and all communication with my ship was lost. Fear gripped me, as I frantically searched for the cause, only to stop, feeling almost foolish, as the grand, impossible structure opened up and welcomed me into its belly.

After all the excitement, all the centuries of effort, the will and the imagination of a galaxy far away behind me, what I found was almost anticlimactic. It was a machine, resting on a pedestal. Laughably primitive compared to that which had brought me this far, yet almost beautifully elegant in its simplicity. An empty cone, an arm resting in a cradle, a large disk of solid gold, and a handle, presumably to power this contraption with simple mechanical energy. I took the device with me, to see what could be made of it.

When I returned, the excitement of my fellow crew was overwhelming. What did I see? Did they communicate? What was this strange thing I brought with me? So many questions, with answers that were beyond my capabilities. The device was sealed off and studied. It was sterile, inside and out, so no risk of extraterrestrial infection. On one side of the golden disc, we found strange grooves carved into the metal, spiraling inward. On the other, we found answers in the most unexpected form we could imagine. Crude, simple drawings, depicting two beings, so similar to us, yet so utterly alien. A crude, yet surprisingly accurate star map, showing the centre of this galaxy and several points around it, one larger than the rest. A map to their home, communicated in the most basic form imaginable. Finally, we found instructions for the device.

It had been well preserved inside the structure. The ravages of time barely noticed by the cogs and gears that made up its interior. Its purpose was still a mystery. If ever one of our people had imagined something similar, it must have been lost to history. The instructions were simple. Place the disc groove side up on the machine, place the arm on the outer edge of the disc and turn the handle.

The honour of starting the device went to our captain. She smiled and thanked the crew for bringing us this far, the scientists for their work in studying the device, me for risking my life to retrieve it. Her words were well rehearsed and appropriate for the occasion, but with such a thing so close at hand, we were all impatiently willing her to get on with it. Finally, her speech ended, she wound up the device, which started the disc spinning. She placed the arm down and she stepped back. We all held our breath.

At first, nothing discernible happened, apart from the spinning disc. Then we detected a crackling noise, almost beneath audibility. Finally, the device burst into life, singing the most hauntingly beautiful music anybody had heard. The chilling sound of mysterious instruments in the hands of unknown virtuosos sang out to us. Then, it was joined by a choir of voices, singing in harmony, to an audience they would never see. Such a beautiful melody, so familiar, yet so unlike any we ourselves had composed. Waves of emotion washed over us, as the tempo and tone shifted. Some of us were overwhelmed and broke down in tears. Even I shed one, swept up in the song of musicians long past.

Then the song died down and the machine spoke. Numerous voices, all different tones, pitches and languages. Words we could not understand, yet a message that we all knew. A hundred voices in a hundred languages, all saying "Hello, we come in peace".

Our work didn't end there. We stayed around that singularity, sharing the orbit with this strange structure for as long as we dared, in the hopes that we would unlock yet more mysteries and discover yet more questions. Our study of the structure was only ended when our astronomers had finally pinpointed the star of origin for these strange creatures. It was an old star, that we could tell. Many billions of years older than our own. It drifted towards the outer edge of the galaxy, in a lazy orbit. We set course at once.

What we found broke our hearts. The star we found was a bloated giant, nearing the end of its existence. What few planets remained in orbit could never have harboured life. We checked our calculations again and again, confirming time and time again that we were in the right place. We were just a few billion years too late. Though there was still so much left to discover, a pall of pessimism hung over us. One of our most ancient questions had been answered, but not the answer we wanted.

Still, it was an answer, and like all good answers, it gave us a new question. We stayed in that galaxy as long as our resources would allow, hoping to pick up some trace of them, before we returned. We were hailed as heroes for returning with the device we had retrieved and the bounty of data we had discovered. And even though the news that this strange race that had called to us from across the void was gone long before we arrived, they had left us with a clue. One little bread crumb. Enough for an entire civilisation to ask, in one voice, "Where did they go?"

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