Novalight, Part Two
The message stopped, suddenly and completely. The computers were recording the 488th repetition when things went silent, in the middle of the third part.
Speculation appeared in the papers and newscasts and none of it meant anything. The group suffered through a myriad of useless, unanswerable questions until it convinced the reporters that the best thing--the only thing--everyone could do was to wait.
The nova lit the evening sky almost like a full moon. And it was documented all the way because, after the message had stopped, every radio astronomer on the planet had been watching that piece of sky.
What they ended up with was the most complete record of any celestial event in the history of man--a near perfect picture of a supernova, from initial appearance to slow fade three months later. It was beautiful and terrifying and almost infinitely sad.
The aliens were dead, every one of them. Their technology and their culture and their art and their ideas, all totally gone. An entire species had been wiped out in a single moment, hundreds of years before we had even begun to record their message. The nova pictures were startlingly beautiful if one didn't imagine the billions of intelligent beings that had been consumed, broken down into atoms.
The message, only a third translated, was the only record we had of them, strange gray shapes moving across a computer screen, tracing out an engineering project we couldn't yet begin to undertake. A gift for our future.
Linguists, anthropologists and physicists worked feverishly with the new information they had from the nova. Within months, they had deciphered the second part of the message. With the nova still bright in the sky, the conclusion was obvious.
The nova was an accident, an industrial accident, almost certainly caused by solar mining. The second part of the message depicted the sudden and total breakdown of a star from its normal life-cycle to complete collapse in the space of a few years. The message was stylized and iconic, much less intuitive than the first part, but its physics were exactingly precise.
The core of the star lost stability--the computer simulation showed a number of processes, any or all of which may have been finally responsible--and the star collapsed in on itself, compressing to an infinitely hot ball before exploding, shedding layers in sequence and boiling off its planets.
It was over. Mankind's first contact with extraterrestrial life began and ended with a single message--a greeting that translation turned into a gift, a gift that disaster turned into a warning.
Next...InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 4, Number 3 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1994 Greg Knauss.