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First Contact

by Julia LaFond

(632 words)

Jiang bursts into my office. “Mallory, it’s real! It’s really real!” He deposits his laptop onto my desk before pacing back and forth.

“Seriously?” I adjust my wire-rimmed glasses and lean in to inspect the results of his latest model. Ever since Green Bank Observatory picked up the signal, we’ve been working to rule out every conceivable false positive. It’s not radio frequency interference. It’s not an aircraft, the International Space Station, a satellite, a pulsar, a variable star, or a gamma ray burst. And now that we’ve accounted for drift rate and Doppler effect, there’s only one thing it can be.

“A transmission from Proxima Centauri,” I whisper, awestruck.

Proxima Centauri: the closest star to the sun, a mere five lightyears away. Recent observations have confirmed it has a planetary system that includes a super-Earth called Proxima B. One to three times as massive as Earth, Proxima B’s orbit falls within its host star’s habitable zone. Liquid water, which means there could be life as we know it. And now?

“It’s 1420 megahertz, too,” he replies giddily.

1420 megahertz, AKA 21 cm, AKA the hydrogen line: a radio frequency the SETI community has spilled much ink over. It’s hypothesized to be the most likely frequency extraterrestrial intelligences would use for interstellar communication. First of all, it results from emission of neutral hydrogen, a critical ingredient for water—and water is mandatory for carbon-based life. Second, there’s the issue of noise. Residual radiation from the Big Bang means that for most radio bands, there’s a lot of static to filter out. But 1420 megahertz is quiet, making it relatively easy for astronomers to pick up a signal.

Or in this case, a message.

I rub my face. “Holy crap.”

“First contact! It has to be! Which means it’s time to bring Dr. Jones up to speed.” Jiang bounces toward the door. “We’re going down in history. How does it feel?”

“Hold up; even if it is—”

“It is!”

If it is, we’ll need other labs to confirm this. And no announcements. First contact protocols are in place for a reason. We don’t want to jump the gun and end up in the British tabloids like—”

As I stare at the screen, something clicks into place. Before, I’d forced myself to think of it as random data to keep myself from getting too excited (and therefore biased). Now that I know it’s a signal, I recognize the pattern behind it. I tap the keys furiously.

“What’s going on?” Jiang leans over my shoulder.

“It’s an audio file!”

“How can you tell—”

“Used to work for a podcast. Shush, let me focus.” I motion for him to be quiet. It takes me a few minutes to convert it into a playable format. I sit back and crack my knuckles.

“Ready to be the first humans to hear a transmission from an ETI?”

“Do you think it’ll be music?” he asks eagerly. “Like the Voyager 1 record?”

“Maybe. Or it could be mathematical theorems, or an echo of a recent strong transmission,” I reply, running through popular first contact scenarios I, like other SETI researchers, daydream about. I click the play button, impatiently waiting for it to buffer. “Really could be anything, though. Speaking of transmissions… It’s within five lightyears. Earth has been sending out radio waves for about a hundred. Who knows what they might have learned from 95 years of passive listening?”

The progress wheel stops spinning, and a computerized voice rings out.


I slam the laptop shut.

Several moments go by before Jiang finally breaks our stunned silence. “We never tell anyone.”


Julia LaFond got her master’s in geoscience from Penn State University. She’s had flash fiction published in venues such as Worlds of Possibility, The Martian Magazine of Science Fiction Drabbles, and Twenty-two Twenty-Eight. In her spare time, Julia enjoys reading and gaming. Website:

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