The Lorelei Signal
Written by R. Jean Mathieu / Artwork by Sonali Roy
Five thousand years before the end of the Earth, the star called WR-104 went supernova. Over the intervening centuries, its deadly gamma-ray burst hurtled across silent planets and empty space on a death-errand to that distant world. And, in the intervening five thousand years, Earth learned to listen, and learned to see, and learned to contemplate its coming demise.
~ * ~
Mount Pleasant Radio Observatory was far from the chaos of downtown Hobart, and the roads were blocked, but it was only a matter of time.
Campbell shut the door behind her and, for all the good it would do, turned the latch.
“How're things here?”
Robinson glanced at the readout. “Arecibo went offline, and Socorro…and Dominion, in BC.”
She turned back to the black Canadian. Campbell’s jaw was set. “I’m sorry, luv. Any luck out there?”
Campbell hadn’t found anything but a few old teabags. They had no mugs, so she made Lipton's in little Dixie cups, and joined Robinson at the monitors.
“Arecibo…” Campbell breathed. “They fired off the message, right? To the M13 cluster? Big deal in my history books, but…”
“Yes-s-s, I remember.” Robinson made a face. “I was just a little girl. I wondered how aliens were supposed to understand what we were saying when I couldn't. And with just a weak radio pulse.”
“Not like anyone'd mastered stellar resonance by then.” Campbell replied.
“Thanks much for that, luv.” Robinson nodded. Her face turned sour. “It wouldn’t be hard, now we understand the principles. Could turn the sun into a giant telsat, if we wanted. Light her up so bright you could see it from WR-104. Leave a bloody message!”
Both women settled into their teacups, thoughts stuck on the gamma-ray burst.
“But why stop there? Could trap the signal in the sun's magnetosphere, let it broadcast once each rotation until the sun goes nova.”
Robinson glared at her.
“Because Fermi, luv.” She turned away, toward the monitors. “Active SETI’s fine if you still believe in little green men. But the Great Silence...”
“Don’t we have the solution to Fermi's Paradox?”
“Sure. Which of the dozen?” Robinson still looked away.
“Annis' Phase Transition hypothesis. It’s only in the last billion years that gamma-ray bursts have been infrequent enough to allow advanced civilization…”
“Charlotte! GRBs're getting less frequent as time goes on. It's Silent out there now, but it won't be for long. We’re just…early to the party.”
Robinson didn’t speak, only sipped her tea and turned over Campbell's words. When she turned around, something in her eyes was more maternal than scholarly.
“Fair enough, MacKenzie, fair enough.”
Campbell nodded. Robinson finished her tea, and refreshed it. She sat back, listening to the creak among the buzzing and whining.
“Well,” she started, “if there's proto-civilizations out there, they might…listen. First thirteen primes, to get their attention, then code a message through polarization modulation…at the very least, they'll know we were here.”
Campbell's smile was thin, tired, and warm, like Campbell herself.
“Hóson zêis phaínou...” She sang. “Think I’ve got just the message in mind.”
Robinson’s wheels were already turning.
“…Have to wait for sunrise, at least. We’ll hit Sol ourselves. No relays. We don't know if anybody’s even alive to relay to. And for your heliotrans to work, timing's going to have to be perfect.”
“Yeah, and we'll need to modify the array some, hook it up to the generator direct for sure…” Campbell bit her lip, a girlish gesture on her seamed face. “One of us is going to have to go out there.”
As one, they turned to the window. Out there, Hobart burned, framing the antenna dish array in glowing shadow.
“I'll go.” Campbell said, and tried to smile. “Age before beauty.”
Robinson opened her mouth, but Campbell waved it off. “It makes sense. Your specialty was signal analysis, I worked with transmitters. You stay here and code the message, I can make the adjustments. And we’ll…”
Both women looked into their Dixie cups, into the distant fires.
“…well. We were here.”
~ * ~
They finally slept, on empty bellies, around midnight. When Robinson's aching bones let her rise, Campbell was already packed—two water bottles, a radio, and a few hand tools in an old museum tote. She let herself out quietly.
Robinson busied herself with calculations…how much power and at what time and a thousand other factors…and kept the two-way radio humming at her left elbow. Campbell gave regular updates.
“At the array!”
“What was that? Ah. Only a squirrel.”
“Up in the rafters. I can see Hobart from here...”
Her voice hurt, now. Probably thinking of her grandson in Montreal. Robinson acknowledged, kept working.
“Okay,” Robinson said, peering at her monitor, “what message are we coding? Can't be too long…our moment of coronal repeat’s in six minutes.”
The radio crackled to life after a moment's pause.
“The Song of Seikilos.” Campbell said, before swearing. “Sorry, not you. The bolt's stuck.”
“Song of Seikilos.” Campbell repeated. “Oldest complete musical composition on Earth. Found on a tombstone Seikilos left for his wife, circa 200BCE. Took Greek as an elective at McGill, learned it there. Listen.”
She sang, and recited an English translation.
“Fitting epitaph for Earth?”
Robinson looked out toward the array, and actually smiled.
“Fitting enough for MacKenzie Campbell, PhD.” She turned on the sound recorder. “One more time, luv. For posterity.”
The mike was cheap and the radio, warbly. But it was the most beautiful thing Robinson had ever heard.
“There,” she said. “Ready. Just need to push the button in…two minutes seventeen seconds. How are you doing?”
“All set up here. Going to sign off now. You need to focus. Need to…get the signal out. How long?”
Something was wrong.
Glance at the timer.
Quiet hum, then:
“Too hot out here. Send out the Song of Seikilos. Make my Greek semester count for something.”
The radio squealed, so hard Robinson had to kill it. Ten seconds later, back on. But no matter how hard she called, only static hum would answer.
What in the—what had—Had she dropped her radio? No. That wasn’t it. Robinson knew it wasn’t. Campbell was…
She turned to the monitor. Silently, she counted down the last countdown.
“Go on, MacKenzie.” Robinson muttered, before clicking the button.
MacKenzie Campbell's last wish.
Charlotte Robinson sat back in her chair, and watched the world end.
~ * ~
After the terrible ghastly noise, an entire biosphere igniting in a paroxysm of cosmic rays, there was a terrible ghastly silence. The Earth fell quiet, never to speak again, except for the soft susurrations of water on rock. But the Sun, once every 28 days, sang into the heavens. An endless verse, repeated over and over, a testament to the first star in the Milky Way to nourish life.
Hóson zêis phaínou
mēdén hólōs sy lypoû
pros olígon estí to zên
to télos ho chrónos apaiteî.
While you live, shine
have no grief at all
life exists only for a short while
and time demands an end.
This story was originally published in Triangulation: Dark Skies in July, 2019
A franco-californien armed with a wok and a word processor. R. Jean Mathieu has hauled sail, served tea, hung beef, sold cell phones, and once even used his own coat as a zip-line sixteen stories above the streets of Hong Kong. He writes every flavor of fiction under a variety of noms de plume. He and his wife, Melissa, keep a good table when not writing side-by-side or chasing trains to the next adventure. You can find Mathieu's award-winning stories at RJeanMathieu.com, and Amazon.com.