Author: David Barber

Like lots of people in the months since the Signal arrived, Alistair ran the SETI app on his phone – not the SETI@Home data program – just feed from one of the new radio searches.

He’d got into the habit of laying his phone on the pillow next to him at night, the screen lit with a field of dishes, tilted to the heavens, inching round the sky, so brave and lonely. He would drift off to sleep listening to the hiss of stars.

A couple of times a year, he and his ex met up for lunch. He was telling Eloise about a dream he’d had and she studied his face while seeming to listen.

When they first met, he was just starting out in astronomy, but now it was all neutrino telescopes and gravity waves; postgrad students went elsewhere, and so did the grant money. She felt a brief pang of pity because his best years were behind him.

“So in the dream, I’m there when Green Bank picks up the Signal, and it’s obvious it’s repeating the first thousand primes…”

She toyed with her empty wine glass, knowing another drink would be too much. Though she wouldn’t admit it, she arranged these meetings to confirm leaving Alistair was the right move.

He wasn’t wearing well; hair thinning, paunchier, more careless with his appearance, whereas she’d shed a few pounds, taken to wearing younger clothes, and had her hair expensively cut, though he hadn’t noticed.

“…comes from the direction of Cygnus, only there’s nothing out there,” he was saying.

“You do know other people’s dreams aren’t that interesting?”

There hadn’t been a good moment to tell him she was getting married again. And moving to the States. It would mean cutting him adrift, just when his career sank into admin and retirement.

“Alistair,” she began.

He interrupted, like he always did. “No, wait, I’m getting to the interesting bit, because I said, in the dream I said, it marks the millennial anniversary of Project Ozma, the first SETI search in the 1960s.”

She smiled, but he was perfectly serious.

“I was up at five next morning doing the calculation, and it’s true, the point of origin of the Signal is where the sun will be in a thousand years’ time.”

He shrugged. “Some sort of Einstein-Rosen wormhole for radio signals into the past, who knows?”

She was no scientist, but a thousand primes, a thousand years, telling us where to look, it all sounded flaky.

“I think the Signal itself is the message,” he added, enthusiastic as a salesman. “Perhaps we let SETI run down otherwise. What if there’s a signal coming from somewhere else, and we aren’t listening? What if…”

She was suddenly weary. What did it matter? “Or perhaps they’re saying we’re on our own, we always were.”

He faltered. “What? Why would they do that?”

“What if they heard nothing in all that time, and it means we’ve only got ourselves. Perhaps they’re saying that.”

She glanced at her watch. Impossible to talk to him now. Always was. She’d phone him from the States. Or text him.

Being on his own. She wondered how he’d cope.