The Fleet Captain retired to her chambers for the last time. The Chief Scientist was waiting. It was routine, a ritual developed through the long flight through the interstellar deep.
“What new riddles have you for me today?” asked the captain.
“Superluminal flight prevents us from gathering new information,” said the Chief Scientist (whose name translated literally as “farthest gazer”). “But the old riddles still remain.” The Signal had spilled out across the void for over a century before it was picked up by the Skari. They had been waiting for such a signal for millennia, but civilizations such as theirs were quite rare at this time in the galaxy. It was the only such signal they had ever received.
It had taken the Skari scientific community a dozen cycles to work The Signal out of the cosmic noise, a dozen more to translate the meaning. The results were shocking.
The Captain flicked her antennae. “Before The Signal there was one known life form: the Skari. When we heard The Signal, we knew of two. And when we understood The Signal, we discovered there were three. The solar system ahead harbors two planets with intelligent life. One developed radio transmission and the other developed space travel.”
The Scientist flushed a slight green; the Captain’s words were sure when their foundation was not completely sound. The Skari assumed the invaders did not develop radio because no other signals had been received. The translation of The Signal itself was incomplete, even after all this time. There were just too many cultural references the Skari could not understand.
Still, some facts were known. The Signal was a news broadcast. The planet of the invaders was relatively close, close enough for astronomers to see activity through telescopes. There was mention of a mysterious craft, arriving from the air then reports of armies rising up with fantastic weapons: rays of energy, poison gas, and many, many deaths.
The Fleet Captain glowed in anticipation. “This is the culmination of a thousand cycles,” she said. “In the morning we start the greatest rescue operation ever devised.”
“I hope there is someone left to rescue,” said the Scientist softly. “The invasion may have ended long ago.”
That was the case unfortunately. The next morning the fleet materialized over the planet and the ships were bathed immediately in powerful beams of radio energy. The Listeners at their posts claimed no information in the signals and the consensus was it was the work of the invading species.
“We believe they are using the signals to determine our precise location,” they reported to the Captain. “It is our conclusion this is a prelude to attack.”
The conclusion proved correct. Once the radio beams were silenced by the Fleet, a vast number of rockets fired up from the planet surface. The Skari had no natural predators on their world. Weaponry was almost unknown. But the Skari had built weapons for this contingency. The rockets were disabled, the vast potential energies in their warheads defused. Then the ships of the Skari fleet – each fifty miles long with a power comparable to a small star – returned fire.
It was over in less than a minute.
The surface of the planet was a magma ocean some twenty miles deep. It would be years before anyone could land there. But Skari archaeologists discovered the creators of The Signal had developed space travel, enough to voyage to their planet’s large moon. The Chief Scientist and his staff worked hard to decipher the written language on the plaque left behind.
The assembled ships of the fleet held formation above the landing site. The ship captains, dressed in airtight suits, stood silently at attention in long rows. The Fleet Captain nodded at them as she walked to the fragile remnants of the ancient landing craft. She looked down at the prints left in the gray soil; so unlike her own. She touched the artifact and though she could not read the plaque herself, she knew what the symbols meant.
WE CAME IN PEACE FOR ALL MANKIND. JULY, 1969 A.D.
They had hoped for peace among the stars, but were only met with death from above. The sad irony of the situation was almost too much to bear.
“We’re sorry,” said the Fleet Captain. “We heard your call for help, but we were too late to save you. We mourn your loss and weep for what might have been. We will never forget you.” And for the last time, the voice of Mankind burst forth on the radio band. Once more, The Signal was broadcast in its entirety. It washed across the dead surface of the moon and Earth and out towards the stars.
“Goodbye, everybody, and remember the terrible lesson you learned tonight,” said Orson Welles. “That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch. And if your doorbell rings and nobody’s there, that was no Martian. It’s Halloween.”