Flint flipped through the monitors’ outside views of the station and the gas giant they orbited. Turbulent cloud bands and a wide, vertical icy ring were the only sights. He once imagined the galaxy’s stars full of civilizations waiting for discovery, but most were empty and others were tombs.
Muted laughter drew Flint to the third monitor. A party played on that screen. Ten years ago. A woman with deep blue eyes smiled into the camera. Her shoulders draped with her long, brown curls framing her olive skin. She lifted her hands, revealing a brownie with a single lit candle. She mouthed “happy birthday” and laughed.
“We still felt alone out here then, but we were happier,” Flint muttered.
He caught a familiar scent: strawberry and cucumber, the aroma of the shampoo Sarah used. Flint swiveled in his chair and stared down a simulacrum of a short man with wide-rimmed glasses approaching.
“You’re trying to help again, Prometheus,” Flint said, fighting tears in his eyes. “It’s not working.”
The aroma vanished, replaced with the cold smell of dust and metal.
“I apologize. The captain assumed it would be a good idea. She is worried about you since it is the tenth anniversary of—”
The anger welled up inside him, but Prometheus was just following orders. He was a relic found adrift; an artificial, alien intelligence trapped in a probe; his creators extinct. There was no reason to be mad at him. “The captain wants me to be obedient, not comforted. Don’t worry, I’m not a danger to you.”
He turned back to his console so that Prometheus wouldn’t see the tears.
A blue light flashed.
Shit, it was the big blue light!
After decades of eavesdropping on alien signals, someone was sending them a message!
Prometheus gripped Flint’s shoulder, then turned shouted into the PA. “All officers report to the command center. We have a Code Blue.”
The monitor flashed with data and figures.
Don’t stop. Please, don’t stop. Flint thought. Let us find you.
The screen shimmered and flickered. The map turned red.
Flint whistled. “The source is outside of our galaxy. How is that possible?”
“Running diagnostics,” Prometheus droned.
“Flint, touch nothing!” Dr. Erin Fletcher’s voice boomed from behind him. The captain had arrived.
He raised his hands and stepped back from the consoles. “I didn’t do shit this time. I’m annoyed that you still don’t trust me. That was years ago.”
Erin walked passed Flint. “I don’t forgive easily. What did you do
“Nothing. This looks like the real thing. A message.”
“It has to be a fast radio burst, a natural occurrence. Powerful enough to trick our instruments into assuming it was directed at us.”
Prometheus shook his head. “Diagnostics cleared. This is an authentic signal. It’s on the narrow bandwidth we would suspect: the hydrogen line.” He pushed his glasses up his nose.
Erin raised an eyebrow. “Impossible. Who could see us from outside the galaxy? No species has spotted us within our own.”
The two other officers, Charles and Cheryl, rushed through the door. Prometheus continued, “Regardless, Captain, the signal’s source is even farther out that I originally concluded. The amount of power to project a signal this far is astounding.”
The signal was real, beyond the galaxy, and directed at them. Erin just refused to see it.
A single deep ping echoed over the PA system, followed by two high-pitched pings. Silence. Three pings followed. More silence. Four pings. They held their breath, waiting. Five pings. Silence.
“Four seconds between each series of pings,” Flint said.
“This is a programmed message.” Charles said, out of breath.
“It’s the real thing!” Cheryl exclaimed.
Six pings. Silence.
Erin shook her head. “Prometheus, did you get a source yet?”
Prometheus nodded. “You won’t like it.”
Seven pings. Silence.
“Out with it.” Erin folded her arms across her chest, narrowing her eyes at the AI.
“46.6 billion light years.”
Eights Pings. Silence.
Erin raised an eyebrow. “Excuse me?”
“Running the calculation again, but those are my results,” Prometheus said, his voice seeming to tremble.
Nine Pings. Silence.
Flint counted the seconds on his fingers, he counted to ten without another signal. There was only static. After a minute, a single ping shattered the silence.
Flint counted. In four seconds, two pings came over the PA system.
Prometheus raised an eyebrow to Erin. “And it repeats. This is not a natural phenomenon.”
“And its origin?” Erin replied.
Prometheus sighed, turning back to the screens. “Impossible, but correct. The signal is from the birth of the universe—plus or minus 100 million light years.
Cheryl glared. “Someone sent a signal from the birth of the universe to this location, knowing we would receive it now?”
“Could be from a part of the universe we cannot observe,” Charles said.
Erin gazed over the calculations and the intergalactic map. “Or a message from entities in a parallel universe.”
“Or a god. Or God,” Cheryl said.
Everyone turned to her.
“Well,” she said, “anything that can do this has a technological level way above our own. Hell, it is way above anything Kardashev dreamed up. Close enough to God for me.”
“There isn’t any protocol for this,” said Erin.
“We respond,” Flint said. “Isn’t that what we are doing here? We get a signal; we send a signal back.”
Erin growled. “That’s seems to be your go-to plan.”
Flint rolled his eyes. “It was a mistake, Erin. Sarah had passed away. We sat right here, you and I, watching the civilization crumble on AZR-310 from a thousand light years away.”
Erin’s narrowed. “Yes, I remember, everyone does. I leave for coffee, return, and find you sending useless we-heard-you messages.”
Flint’s chest heaved, his eyes watered. “A world was dying, screaming into the cosmos to anyone who would listen, and Erin, the fearless leader, went for coffee.”
“We have protocols for a reason! Do you remember how many important systems collapsed because of the power you rerouted to send the signal?”
“I get it! I was in pain. Turns out the universe is pain!”
“You could have permanently damaged this station! To respond to a message 1000 thousand light years away! It was useless!”
Cheryl stepped in between Flint and Erin. “Revisiting this old feud doesn’t get us closer to an answer. And how do we even respond to this? What do we say to God?”
“The number 10,” Charles said. “The message is simple, and only requires ten pings in response.”
“But we don’t know what sent the message,” Erin said. “Does the messenger operate outside of the bounds of space-time? Do you want to respond to that? It waves, we wave back. Then, it appears and knocks on the door!”
“Wouldn’t that be something?” Flint mused aloud.
“No, it wouldn’t, Flint!” Erin said. “I prefer the way things are, eavesdropping on past civilizations.”
“By your logic,” Prometheus said, “if an entity not bound by space-time sent this message, it may knock on the door regardless, knowing we would be here.”
“This is our greatest breakthrough: communication from an alien civilization!” Charles said, fixing his sliding glasses. “This could prove parallel universes exist or it may prove that the expanse of our universe is greater than light can show us! There is so much we can’t fathom, we can’t just ignore it!”
“Slow down, Charles,” Cheryl said. “If we send a message, then it is for whoever comes after us to discover them. We are chained to light’s limitations and that signal is a Big Bang away. This station won’t be here by then, nothing that once said ‘Humans Were Here’ will exist. It sounds like a lost cause.”
“Charles is right,” Flint said. “We must let another civilization know we heard them. That for a moment we didn’t feel so alone out here. We’ve eavesdropped and categorized several failed civilizations, most failing to reach their moon. Space is a cruel filter. This is our chance. We can send a message to another civilization that has survived. Maybe they will never receive it. We will likely never get a response. However, we can still make this count. Maybe through the billions of years, another lonely listening post could intercept our message. They could learn about us.”
“Rousing,” Cheryl said.
Flint locked eyes with her. “This is everything we’ve worked for. We don’t do this for us, but for any life out there, charting the uncaring void.”
“By sending the number 10?” Erin asked.
“If that is all we want to do,” Flint said, “but I have another idea: we send them a video. A day in our life. We recorded and stored generations of videos. One small archeological piece of universal history.”
“What do you propose?”
Flint opened a second file window on the monitor. A video played in the window: Sarah’s face filled the monitor, smiling over a lit candle on a cupcake.
“Sarah,” Erin breathed.
The video panned out to see the command staff celebrating, joking, and laughing, except Flint who had been holding the recorder.
Flint craned his neck toward her. “Better times.”
“It’s a noble sentiment, Flint.” Erin placed a hand on his shoulder. “Prometheus, how much energy would it take to send a signal back to its source?”
“Taking advantage of a few celestial objects that could be used to ease energy requirements, it would be impossible to sustain the station and beam a coherent signal that distance.” Prometheus’ toneless voice was a gunshot to Flint’s ears.
Erin nodded. “A total collapse of life-support, Flint. Everyone on this station would die.”
Panic gripped Flint. Erin was blocking him, again. “Are we going to let this moment pass? We discovered we are not alone, and you won’t let us tell our story?”
“No.” Erin said.
“So, we pretend that this astounding event never happened?”
“No, Flint, we record it. We study it, we learn all we can about it. But we don’t kill every person on this ship! This is the greatest discovery of our lives! This is why we are here! But not as a sacrifice!”
“We are finished as a species! This station is all that is left of us! We are staring into the black abyss with no hope of coming back! Someone should know we existed!”
Tears fell from Flint’s eyes. His argument was ludicrous, but he wanted to beat Erin.
Erin exhaled; her forehead straightened. “One hundred people have a right to live, to the bitter end. I will not deny them that. Why would you? What would Sarah say about your proposal?”
“You cold-hearted bitch! If that oxygen tank had not exploded during a routine check, she would be right here cheering me on against you. Don’t you dare spoil her memory for your cause. She believed in this.”
“She wouldn’t want people to die for it, Flint! Not a single one of us. Is this really about her or your grief?”
Flint shook his hand at Erin. His entire arm was shaking. Why was she always so damn right? From a glance he saw a slack-jawed Charles and teary-eyed Cheryl. Flint had gone too far. He collapsed in his chair and lowered his head in his hands.
“I’m sorry.” Flint’s muffled voice sounded cracked, tortured. “I, I love you guys. Everything is too much.” He sought refuge in Sarah’s smiling image on the monitor. He breathed, his body shook. “Maybe I should be transferred to hydroponics.”
“Never, Flint,” Erin said. “Prometheus, is there a way?”
“There are no current solutions, only hypotheses,” Prometheus responded.
“We are a station of geniuses,” Erin said. “Looks like we have work to do.”
“You ask the impossible,” Cheryl said.
“Yes,” Erin said. “The impossible got us here. The evidence suggests where this message originated from and that it was sent to us. Let’s keep looking at the data on this extraordinary situation, while we look to solutions for responding. There is much work to do, so let’s not waste time.”
“And if we fail?”
“Then we use your plan. When the lights here go out, we send our message.”
“Very well.” Erin clapped her hands together. “Let’s go to the command mess hall and talk about solutions—while we also celebrate this occasion. We’ll pass the information to the crew tomorrow.”
“My shift isn’t over,” Flint said, standing.
“Take time off,” Erin said. “That is an order. Prometheus can keep a watch on things.”
Flint tried to smile. He never meant to suggest a sacrifice of the station. It was a mistake born from desperation of seeing a dream born and still be impossible to reach. An event Sarah would have loved to see. There was a messenger out in the void, searching for them. Flint hoped, one day the station would answer the message, even if he never lived to see it.
© 2019 C.J. Staryk. All Rights Reserved.
CJ’s Notes: This short story was featured in an anthology featuring writers from Corpus Christi, Texas, last year. I reprinted for your enjoyment here for 2020. Just maybe, through all of the deep shadows, there is still a reason for hope. Enjoy.
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