Sharon Clark ran into the observatory's cafeteria, quickly scanning the room to see who was present. In the far corner, by a window, sat her friend John Gooding. Quickly, she crossed the dining hall.
"John, you better stay seated! We found E.T.," Sharon panted excitedly. She paused long enough to catch her breath, then sat down in a chair across from him. Her eyes were wide and her sandy hair looked windblown.
Sharon was a senior technician working on Project Greetings. Currently posted at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, she had been with the project since its beginning in 2004.
The latest in a long line of projects designed to search for extraterrestrial intelligence, Project Greetings was the first SETI program to use "active" communication. Instead of the other passive systems which merely listened for radio signals from other stars, the huge 1000-foot radio antenna had been modified to also transmit messages of greeting in hundreds of languages to each of the stars it scanned.
Over the last twenty-five years, Earth had sent out its message to hundreds of the closest stars. When they reached the bottom of the list, they would go back and repeat it again, in the hopes of someday receiving an answer.
John took another bite of his ham and cheese sandwich, and studied her for a moment. His calm demeanor was a sharp contrast to hers. Sharon was a good friend, but she had a tendency to overreact at times, and jump to the wrong conclusions. Signals had been received several times already, but each time it was eventually traced to a supernova explosion, a passing comet, or one of a hundred other natural phenomena.
"Now, don't get yourself all worked up," John advised. "It's probably just an asteroid or something."
Sharon absently brushed a stray lock of hair from her eyes. "Not this time! We didn't just get a signal back, they sent us a message!"
"What did it say?"
"We're not sure yet. The signal is definitely of intelligent origin, but we haven't been able to decipher it. We have our linguistics and cryptology departments working on it. But it could be weeks or even months before we know what they said."
John was definitely intrigued now. "How many people know about this?"
"You're the first one I've told. The rest of the senior advisors know, as well as the board of directors and other bigwigs. Right now, they're still debating on whether or not to make it known to the public. You remember the ruckus that was raised the last time we thought we'd detected something and it turned out to be that comet. The project can't afford any more bad press.
"In fact," Sharon continued, "I shouldn't have even told you about it, except I know that you can keep a secret. Besides, I was afraid I wouldn't be able to contain my excitement if I didn't tell somebody."
John was starting to feel a bit giddy himself. Still holding the long-forgotten sandwich in his hand, he asked, "So where's the message from?"
"The signal came from Tau Ceti. It's about eleven and a third light years from us. Once we've translated their message, we'll send a reply back to them. It's nearly impossible, of course, to carry on any sort of intelligent conversation when it takes so long to send messages back and forth. We'll have to settle for sending general statements about our cultures, knowledge, and so forth, and hope they do the same."
* * * * *
"I think we finally have the translated message," Sharon quietly told John one morning over lunch.
John was surprised at the change in her countenance since her last bit of exciting news. Her face looked drained, almost emotionless. Perhaps it was just the long hours and intense study of these last five months. The message was apparently a little more difficult than they first thought. "Well, don't keep me in suspense. What did it say?"
Sharon looked up at him, hesitating for a moment. "The message contained greetings and some cultural information. For instance, they call themselves the Glonekr, at least that's about as close as I can pronounce it. Their world is much like ours, complete with oceans, an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere, the works.
"Apparently," she continued, "they have an advanced society, and have already colonized every habitable world in the Tau Ceti solar system. They've solved the problems of disease and more recently, interstellar travel."
John enthusiastically replied, "That sounds great! So why the long face? In time, we can probably learn a lot from them. Imagine not having to worry about disease any more!"
"That's what's so troubling, actually," Sharon responded. "You see, when they eradicated all disease, their population went through the roof. That's why they've colonized every habitable planet in their own system. And that's why the first sentence that we translated is so upsetting..."
John, a bit nervous now, asked, "Why? What was it?"
Sharon, her eyes wide, said in a voice barely above a whisper, "You see, we thought it was merely an acknowledgement of mutual respect. But now, we're not so sure. It was simply 'Thank you for telling us about yourselves.'"