We had listened for an alien signal for generations when it finally came. It was a primitive radio signal that we could not decipher. We only knew that it had coherence and structure, but the signal defied all our attempts to understand its meaning. There were theories about its content, more than enough theories. Some were ridiculous ideas about alien mind control, others thought that it was just another civilization that could not control their electromagnetic signature, and let some escape into the vastness of space. For the longest time, those of us who searched for signals in the background buzz of space were ridiculed. The critics rightly pointed out that most civilizations we heard from would be long extinct by the time their signal reached us. In a galaxy 100 billion light years across, a radio signal traveling at the speed of light would simply take too long to reach us. The chances of intelligent beings sending signals from a location close enough to us were nearly zero. Two technological civilizations would have to exist at the same point in history and be close enough to send and receive signals at the speed of light. That seemed unlikely, until we heard that signal. It was just the beginning, too. The signal became stronger, and spread out over an ever broadening spectrum. At length, we decided that this must be a stable culture that would at least leave something behind for us to study.
The decision was made to send a team of scientists to this new world. The Relativity Anchor drive was a new invention, and this was the perfect opportunity to use it. We had used it to travel within our local cluster of solar systems, but we needed a greater challenge, something more profound to study. These mysterious signals, and the society they represented, made a trip there inevitable. The Relativity Anchor is a new concept based on the idea that all of spacetime is in motion. There is no grand tabletop upon which the Universe unfolds. Instead, each solar system, each planet, is in constant motion around something else. By creating a large gravity and inertia field, the ship anchors itself in one spot, and the Universe moves around it. That’s how the engineers describe it, but there is no way to observe that from our perspective. The effect for the occupants is that the ship moves with incredible speed through space. The first time it was engaged, I stood in awe in the gallery and watched as the stars broke from their positions and streamed across the portal. At first, they jerked back and forth, though I didn’t feel anything. The stars started to change color, and they seemed to blink on and off, as if the whole Universe was disappearing and reappearing each time my heart beat in excitement. Then, with no sense of movement, the stars swept past my view in rainbow streaks that I thought were caused by my tears of wonder. They were still there when I wiped my face and looked again.
The trip took almost a cycle to complete, but at the end, we were in orbit around a yellow star. We took care to stay well outside the orbit of the furthest planet. Any civilization that could understand space flight might be able to detect us if we moved too close too soon. The signals were much stronger here, and we were able to discern many different frequencies emanating from one of the inner planets. It was a world composed mostly of liquid water, and it reflected blue light as it hung in space, much like my home planet. I felt homesick and excited at the same time. This planet was so much like home, but filled with aliens living their own lives, so different from us, but still the same. As we studied the signals coming from the planet, there was no indication of advanced spaceflight or communications. We only sensed emissions in the lower electromagnetic bands. As we compiled our data, it became evident that they were just beginning to send robotic probes into their local solar system. We passed one as we orbited, but it ignored us completely. Another aspect of the Relativity Anchor drive is that it can be set to bend light waves as they pass around the ship. It’s not perfect, there are distortions that are visible to a studied observer, but any casual inspection is impossible. Indeed, the probe seemed to point right at us as it passed, but there was no change in its course or increase in emissions. After we were satisfied that we could operate without interfering with our observations, we modified our orbit to slowly spiral into the interior planets of the system.
Eventually, we entered a high orbit around the planet. It was even more like our home world now that I could see landmasses and illumination on the night side. I marveled at a large storm that traversed the southern ocean. It moved with such a slow deliberation that it seemed like a painting on a blue canvas. It wasn’t just weather that our world shared with this one, the inhabitants used complex transportation networks to move around. We were eventually able to identify several types of ground and air transportation systems. They mirrored historical records that I had studied of my own world. We used to use ground vehicles much like the ones we were monitoring here. The research team quickly formulated a new mission to study the different aspects of this world’s transportation systems. It would be a look into the past for us, and a valuable insight into our own history. We chose a large settlement in the northern hemisphere where there seemed to be several types of ground and air transportation all meeting in a hub. We reinforced the light scattering field and began descending into the atmosphere. There was a weather system hanging over the transportation hub, which would help hide our ship as we made observations.
After a few days, we settled into a hover about one thousand meters above the air portion of the hub. We watched as the aliens were conveyed to the hub from underground and surface routes, then bundled into aerial vehicles. It was remarkable to see the different ways that they came to this station and were efficiently transported to other parts of the world. We identified both personal and group transportation vehicles coming and going. The xenosocialogists began to compile theories, but I was content to just watch the steady flow of beings coming and going. It all seemed so familiar that I had to remind myself again and again that this world was light years away from all I knew. We were now able to compile some of their transmissions. They were strange looking beings. They had a vibrant culture and economy, though. It all seemed so quaint, they had no idea of the larger Galaxy surrounding their little island.
An alarm broke my reverie and I looked back at the control panel to see what had happened. One of the scientists yelled before I could focus on the panel. “The light scattering field is off! They can see us!” I looked out the portal again and immediately saw what he was saying. A small group of aliens had gathered below us, pointing at our ship. A sense of panic gripped me before I could stop it. We were visible! What impact would our presence have on these people? The captain sprinted past me on his way to the bridge while engineers ran the other way towards the engine room. We could maintain our position, but without the Relativity Anchor, we could neither move nor engage the light scattering field. I felt helpless as the group of aliens grew. It would only be a moment before they would be able to record our presence. One of the things we had learned was that they recorded most of what they saw, and associated a great deal of mystery to encounters like this. I did not want our mission to be the foundation for some new religion of militarization on their part. The value of this world as a subject for historical study would be ruined if they were aware that they were being watched.
It seemed like an age as they watched and pointed. Every minute, another alien joined the crowd. Just as I had resigned myself to the idea that we had failed our mission, a low rumble spread through the deck plates. The ship shifted under my feet and I felt very heavy as the ship flew straight up. As we passed through the stratosphere, I could see the hole that our ship had made in the weather system. The small spot of ground receded swiftly as we passed back into space. The fault turned out to be a minor power fluctuation in the reactor, but our close call had shaken us all. The captain decided to resume our orbit at the edge of the solar system until we could determine if the problem might happen again. We were unwilling to abandon our research, but we would have to be much more careful in the future.