The terraforming drones had arrived on Kepler-438b long before humans first set foot on its rocky surface. The pictures transmitted back baffled and amazed, but it was, they decided, like the face on Mars: merely a matter of shadow and wishful thinking. There was no way there were towers reaching to the sky and spiraling edifices of stone carved and shaped by hands and minds that were, like theirs, capable of dreaming. Not on Kepler-438b. It was a trick of the light and nothing more.
That was what they said until the first colonists disembarked from the landing craft. The yawning bay doors opened in the back and the first landing team found themselves staring up at an immense wall bestrewn with an ivy-like crawler vine that wound around columns in made its way in through perfectly round windows. Standing sentinel beside the great archway in its center were two statues, crumbling depictions of something the screamed louder than words “We were here!”
The colonists searched and searched, but there were no signs of the builders, of any creatures native to this place. There were only the plants. Then one day, a child stood by one of the carved walls. The others had long since stopped looking for answers in the pictures, long since ignored the mystery implied in stone, and focused on their survival. But when they saw what he saw, they stopped. He held his small hand up, fingers splayed, and smiled. There on the wall, lined up with his own hand, was a palm and five splayed fingers. A hand reaching out through the ages, the very same as their own.
“Doctor, I’m…” The intern hesitated, looking down. “I’m not really sure what I’m looking at. The results in this sequence don’t make…sense.”
Adjusting her glasses, the doctor leaned in to look at the screen. A series of numbers met her eyes, dashed lines and spectra to show the results from the centrifuge and sequencer.
A single word was her only response. Then another intern, this one holding a datapad, stepped forward.
“Doctor, I have an idea that could explain this.”
The doctor nodded and gave that all too familiar twitch of two fingers. They all knew what that meant. Don’t dither, just speak.
“If you overlay the spectra on the known quasars, you get a map. I think it points to our home world.”
That made the whole room go quiet. For a long moment, the doctor just stared at the map projected from the data pad. Then she took a breath.
“This sample is pure, no genetic alterations or hybridization… I hate to say it, but I think you may have found the road back to Earth.”
Far-flung in space and time
holding on to nothing
holding back everyone
we know nothing of what we do
Flashes of light bursting in colors
explosions of nothing
watching the gates against the darkness
refusing to accept…
alone but surrounded
enemies on all fronts
yet all’s quiet on every front
only when they come will we know
but they are not…
spinning whirling never stopping
alone and hopeless
surrounded and helpless
the cosmic war shall never end
darting here, darting there
flying through the starry void
weapons cocked, ready to fire
upon our enemies
we’ve never seen them
but we know
we must kill them all
friends or foes
they come to us with arms out wide
to embrace their possible new allies
but we fire into the crowd
with our lasers, mow them down
they sent messages we couldn’t read
and greeted us with only friendship
but no more is there an alien race
for we have decimated them, one and all
they were different
and different is bad
so none are left by our hands
and again we float alone in space
Spinning whirling never stopping
Cosmic trip without end
Light years gone, light years ahead
Hold on tight, it’s the ride of life
Floating in an endless void
Surrounded by all things
Never alone, always alone
Fighting for your own little piece
Waving to our neighbors
In outer space
They never call, they never write
They never turn off their lights
No longer alone in our cosmic void
They finally answer our plea
With anything but what we sought
That attack is imminent
Fighting wars with those we thought
Would bring a greater peace
The galaxy is ablaze
Spinning whirling never stopping
The galaxy is now devoid
Light years gone, light years ahead
The cosmic trip has reached its end
Look at the stars, little one and imagine,
an endless cloud, whirling and swirling.
Now imagine you’re flying out there
and you’re in an endless sea
of bright, dancing lights.
Can you hear it?
Listen and try, little one.
The click click click of trillions of years
of cosmic background radiation.
It’s calling you, and me and everyone,
to come out and explore.
The zero one zero one zero one
of a pulsar calls to us in the night
Have you seen a black hole dance with a star?
We will, little one, just hold tight.
See them swirling together
and whirling like fruit in a blender.
I’ll take you to the birthplace of a star
to watch the cosmic dusts and gases
as they merge together and then burst into flame.
See all the leftover debris, little one?
Those will someday be planets and asteroids
and in a hundred, thousand years
maybe just maybe we can come back and see.
See the new little organisms as they swim in a primal sea.
So as we stand here on a hillock
and we gaze up past the clouds
remember what I’ve told you, little one
and look up at the stars and imagine.
Experimental. It was experimental. That was what was shaking me to my core as I watched the console. Worse was knowing who was on board, locked into the safety restraints. They said they’d injected her with sedatives. If the screams coming through the communication system were any sign, either they’d lied or she’d woken up.
There was no aborting this mission. No fail-safe measures that could be taken. Not with a gun to the head of our commander and dozens more aimed around the room. My hands shook over the controls at my station. What could I do? Nothing. Save her, kill us all. Kill her, we live.
The words fell from my mouth, their thorns digging into my lips. The numbers were consonant with a successful launch by our calculations. But that was all they were: calculations. We were go-green across the board. She was crying.
The fuels were mixing. This part was still a traditional launch, just enough to escape the atmosphere before we moved on to the second stage of the flight. I ran the figures through in my head, remembered all the simulations that had succeeded. Or I tried. The images were replaced with the failures instead.
Science. That was all this was to them. They didn’t care who they had strapped to the top of the missile. That’s all it really was. No matter how pretty we made the rockets, no matter how many safety features we thought we had added. In the grand scheme of things, it was just another nuclear missile that we hoped we were aiming correctly.
The floor had long ago started to shake. A launch does that. It shakes the whole building and you can hear the shutters banging against the windows and they seem to glow a dull red. Listening to the comms was all that mattered to me now. I just needed to keep hearing her voice.
Silence is a kind of nightmare, one I knew was coming. When a shuttle passes through the atmosphere, the radios go silent. It has to do with the makeup of our atmosphere and how the magnetosphere works. I knew that silence well, and I dreaded it.
The rocket would be decoupling from the launch platform now. Most people think all the important things come at the last moment, but the launch procedure is a carefully timed and orchestrated dance. The slightest misstep would mean an aborted launch. Normally, at least.
“I love you.”
Those words were for me. Those wonderful, terrifying, sorrowful words were mine. She was still crying, I knew that. But she also knew I was listening. Moving slowly, not wanting to attract attention, I flipped the switch that turned my microphone live.
“I love you too. Forever.”
The roar was deafening. I turned my microphone back off, not wanting the rest of the launch crew to hear me crying. The odds of success were so low. Untested, untried. We should have sent an unmanned mission, a monkey mission, a pig mission, even. But we didn’t get that choice. The glory of the state came first and no one got a choice.
“Give me the probe readout, Daski”
The fleet admiral leaned back, looking up at the forward screens ablaze with light and color. The first mate peered at her station console.
“Finds are consonant with a stable environment. I see high oxygen levels and evidence of water in both liquid and solid forms.” There was a pause then. “Admiral, sir, this planet… It shows signs of intelligent habitation?”
The communications officer sat straight up at that, his bright eyes nearly frantic with excitement.
“Shall I open the hailing frequencies, Admiral?”
“Yes, thank you, Richards.”
The young man saluted and pulled his headset on, turning a dial on the instrumentation panel before him.
“Planet at position 3 in sector 39, this is Linus Richards, chief communications officer for Generational Fleet Beta. We greet you.”
All those on the bridge awaited a reply, eyes on the planet.
“Daski, finish the probe readout, if you would.”
She saluted and lean in to read closely again.
“Multiple land masses, Sir, and thick vegetation is apparent in the central, tropical regions. It shows the usual variance in ecosystems that we expect from a Homeworld-type planet. The major bodies of water appear to be salinated, but I am seeing potable water inland.”
“Sir!” Linus interrupted suddenly. “I have a response, but it appears to be automated.”
The admiral stood, turning to look at him.
“Play it over the bridge audio, Richards.”
The recording crackled and skipped as it came to life with a pop.
“Visitors, we of Planet Earth greet you but we are here no longer. Those who could have boarded the generational fleets and gone out to find new worlds to replace the one we cost ourselves. Do not make our mistakes. Do not destroy your world. We hope, in time, that the Earth will rejuvenate itself. If it has, then we welcome you to stay. Make your home in what was once ours. Welcome home.”
There was a long silence on the bridge. Finally, Linus cleared his throat.
“That’s the full message, Sir.”
The admiral ran her fingers through her short, salt and pepper hair.
“Did they…? I can’t believe it…” She paused then, her expression full of wonder. “Broadcast this to all vessels in the fleet, Richards.”
She waited for his nod of assent and for the status light on her comms to go green before she spoke again.
“This is the admiral speaking. Citizens and crew of Generational Fleet Beta, we have found our port of call. On behalf of the crew, I would be the first to welcome you to this planet, our Homeworld. Earth.”