The buzz buzz buzz of the intercom over her bunk was light and faint and still woke her up. Three buzzes, pause. Three buzzes, pause. Three buzzes, pause. Five cycles on this ship and that pattern was burned into her head. It would wake her up through anything.
“Meh?” she mumbled after opening the channel. The clock on the other wall said she was in the middle of her sleep cycle.
“Get up here,” was all Mick said.
It was all he needed to say.
Price shimmied into her suit as fast as she could, still zipping up the front as she clicked out of her bunk and practically ran down the hall.
It was a CAW vessel – Continuous Active Work. Everyone had overlapping shifts. Mostly everyone followed their own planet’s day-night cycle, and it worked out without too much trouble. Price slept for eight hours. Mick for three. It was only ever irritating when a Dewwed was on board. Thanks to Deww’s slow rotation one of their days lasted three of Price’s planet’s weeks. Sure, they’d be awake for two, but then they were asleep for seven days. And they slept hard. If you needed anything from a Dewwed you just hoped it could sit until they were awake.
They were awake now. Everyone was. All running. Scrambling to stations. To open laboratories. A fair amount of the crew were stumbling into the mess. Not a bad idea. The discovery of everyone’s lifetime, the primary purpose of their expedition achieved. Who would want to be distracted by a rumbling stomach?
Price wasn’t hungry. She could never eat when her nerves were exposed, and right now they were raw.
Another false alarm?
They had done this before. The whole ship activated and ready to go, only to get down-planet and find they were wrong. Had been duped. The wrong place entirely.
The tone in Mick’s voice, though. The tone had been what had stripped her nerves in the first place. That hadn’t been an I think tone.
She pushed through the crowded laboratory hall and climbed the ladders up to Observation. Grunts, as the rest of the ship called it. Price and Mick and the others, they weren’t scientists. They were just the explorers sent down first, to make sure none of the valuable people would die trying to do their work. Price didn’t really care about the name but she could tell it bothered Mick more than he let on.
“Well?” she asked, pushing up through the hatch.
Mick, Rena, and Xy all looked over at her. They were clustered on the far side of the room, in front of the collection of buttons and screens. Price’s first day, it had been nothing but brightly colored, headache-inducing gibberish. Now it was their shared secret language. All of the answers of the universe, laid out in front of them in blinking orange characters.
“Oh…wow…” was all she could get out.
The other three only nodded, still staring.
Everything was right. Every screen, every dial, every gauge. Cycles ago, they’d playfully put little tape arrows at the numbers they were looking for. And now, everything lined up.
Visualization didn’t happen for another hour, but by then it hardly mattered. Nothing had changed on the wall. The only thing seeing the growing blue and green dot through the observation panes did was give them something new to stare at.
They had finally found Earth.
They had finally found the humans.
From the moment the first radios in the galaxy had been built, they had been receiving signals from the humans. Loud signals. Quiet signals. Songs and conversations and private moments that they clearly hadn’t known would wiggle out into space for the rest of time. Price’s favorite recording since she was little, the one she came back to when she was sad, or tired, or bored, was a simple conversation between two wives. One was on a work trip, across the country. It was a short trip. She would be home in a couple of days. But they still spoke like they might never see each other again. She asked about the kids, and reminded her to feed the cat. They said they missed each other and made plans for dinner when the away wife returned. Such love and longing when they were only missing each other for a few days. Price had listened to that recording on repeat after every breakup, to the never ending irritation of her friends and family.
The private signals were nothing more than curiosities, collections in museums. The ones the scientists and governments cared about were the direct signals. The calls out into the void. Over and over they found these, sent over years and decades and centuries. Thousands of messages with thousands of ways to find them. Images of their solar system. Maps. Radiation signatures. Desperate calls into the night sky, saying the same thing again, and again.
Come find us. Please answer. We don’t want to be alone.
Price examined the city through her helmet shield. The air was mostly oxygen, a near proper mix for Rena who had been seconds away from taking her helmet off before Mick reminded her that just because she could breathe on the planet didn’t mean it was safe.
“Could be all sorts of micro-nasties waiting to turn your lungs into their new home,” he said, in that dry way of his. Rena cursed a bunch and kept her helmet on.
Helmet or no, Price didn’t care. The city they were standing in the middle of was grand. Looming. Sprawling. Shining buildings that stretched up to the sky in every direction she could see.
Even their homes reached for us.
The tall buildings were overrun with greenery, trees and vines like Price had never seen. There had been roads, once.
The planet was dotted with places like these. Some were underwater. A few were on the moon.
All were empty.
All had been empty.
“For, oh, I’d say a billion years,” Xy said, examining her computer readout. “Give or take a few million on either side.”
“A billion years? That’s…I don’t have the numbers off the top of my head…millions of years before any other planet evolved intelligent life. And these buildings still stand?” Reva asked.
“Imagine how they must have been then,” Mick said.
“They should be dust. What did they build them out of?”
“That’s for the scientists to learn. You want answers, let’s start checking off boxes.”
Zy and Reva headed in one direction, sensors and collection boxes at the ready. Mick fell into step with Price.
“You’re thinking about that recording you like so much,” he said, glancing at her face.
Price bristled at being so easy to read, but ignored it and nodded. “Listened to it this morning. I keep wondering, was this their home city? Or the one she was on a work trip in?”
Mick chuckled mirthlessly. “The odds of that couple living at the end is basically zero. They probably lived hundreds of years before any of this was even built. Maybe thousands.”
“Didn’t say it was rational,” Price said. “Just…”
“Yeah. I know. There’s a particular recording I like, too. Or liked, when I was a kid. I forgot all about it, until we met.”
“You loved playing that one call for people, and it made me wonder if I had any favorites, and then I remembered.”
“What is it?”
Mick laughed again, only this time it wasn’t so cold. “It’s stupid, which is why I don’t tell people. When I was a kid I thought it was funny, I guess. Now, with all we know…it’s just sort of…they were so desperate to find us, but we weren’t there yet. They were the first. First and only.”
“What was the recording, Mick?”
“It was from an advertisement, for some form of communication. Most of the details don’t matter. The only thing I remember liking was the tagline.”
He paused, and looked around at him at what was left.
It was only when Price truly believed he wouldn’t answer that Mick started doing something she’d never thought she’d hear.
He started singing.