by Iulian Ionescu
It was a miserable morning following a miserable tornado weekend. Ted Parker stood by his living room window, watching the streets covered in debris, papers and mud puddles. He sipped from his coffee cup, more slowly than usual, a bit disappointed that his car was still in driving condition — covered in twigs, leaves and a few copies of the Utuado Daily, but still drivable.
Dammit, he thought, this is no day to go out.
He reached for his pocket, but the phone rang first. Ted clicked his wireless ear bud and sighed loudly. “What’s up?”
“Sir, we need you here now! We have contact.”
Ted put his cup down and dashed out the door.
About an hour and a half later he walked into the lab, drenched head to toe. The three assistants greeted him with frozen faces and stiff lips.
“Sir, the message came today at 6:45 a.m.,” one of the assistants said. “The station intercepted it and started processing it immediately. It took about an hour to decipher.”
Ted shook the water off his hands and threw the broken umbrella to the floor. He pushed his hair back and looked at the lab chief. “Mr. Sian, can I get a complete answer as to what exactly is going on?”
Mr. Sian arranged his round glasses and pointed to the screen. “The message, sir, was encrypted with an old, old cipher. It was a series of ten consecutive, identical, 232-bit sequences, five seconds of silence between them. The computer broke off one sequence and ran it through our standard decipher filters—”
“Well,” Mr. Sian put his hands behind his back and pursed his lips. “The bits were a representation of a Morse Code sequence. When transcribed we obtained a string of twenty-nine characters. We ran this text through all known decryption algorithms and we got this.” Mr. Sian pointed to a piece of paper on the desk.
Ted leaned over the desk and looked at the paper. He first glanced at the top right corner where the time stamp appeared right below the agency’s logo: September, 14 2132 07:12. He then looked at the rest of the report, which contained a single line of text.
“What the hell does this mean?”
“It’s Latin, sir,” Mr. Sian said. ‘Venimus. Exspectatae ordines.’ It means: ‘We have arrived. Awaiting instructions’.”
Ted shook his head. “I don’t get it. A message from space, in Latin, in Morse code? That doesn’t make any sense.”
“And it gets even stranger, sir,” Mr. Sian added. “The text itself was encrypted with a simple algorithm used during World War II by the Allied Forces.”
Ted looked at Mr. Sian with wide eyes. “Well, that still doesn’t help me understand what this means.” He shook his head and walked toward the door. “This information doesn’t leave this room, got it? I have to make the call,” he said and closed the door behind him.
* * *
Frank turned off his tablet and put it back in its sleeve. Too much news, too little information. He pressed the remote button and the back window darkened. He selected one of the sports channels, reclined in the soft armchair and turned the back massager on.
“Danny, come get your toys,” Frank said, and his little boy ran into the living room. “Clean up, come on.”
Danny smiled and picked two of the wireless robots with his hands.
“Okay, okay, well done,” Frank said, “now, take them away.”
“Dinner is ready!” A crystal voice came from the kitchen.
The boy was startled.
“Now you’re gonna get it,” Frank said with a sly smile.
Andrea entered the living room, with her red oven-mitts, hands on her waist. “Dinner... Danny, what did I say about toys being everywhere?”
The boy turned around and ran through the other door.
“You know, sometimes—”
Frank got up from the chair and gave her a bear hug and then kissed her forehead.
“I love it when you’re angry—”
“Shut up,” she said and her cheeks got red. “Let’s eat.”
Frank took a long breath and was about to follow her into the kitchen, when the doorbell rang.
“I’ll get it,” he said.
Frank looked at the inside door monitor and saw two army men: a lieutenant and a sergeant. He didn’t know any of them, so most likely they were not from his unit. He clicked the verification button and the computer returned a green light. ‘Fingerprint ID verified,’ the door said.
“Okay, then,” Frank whispered and pressed the open button.
The door slid into the wall and Frank faced the two army men.
“Sir!” The lieutenant clicked his heels and gave a salute.
Frank saluted them back. “How can I help you, gentlemen?”
The lieutenant handed him a tablet bearing the U.S. Army logo.
This cannot be good, Frank thought, weighing the tablet in his hand. He pressed his thumb on the fingerprint pad and the screen lit up. Frank scanned the text and a cold block of ice traveled up and down his back. He clenched his teeth and gave the tablet back to the officer.
“Gentlemen,” he said, “give me fifteen minutes to get ready. I will meet you at the craft.”
The lieutenant saluted, spun around and left.
Frank walked slowly toward the kitchen slowly; he hoped he would never make it there.
“Who was that?” Andrea said and turned around.
He walked into the kitchen and she looked in his eyes. She saw his face and covered her mouth.
“No...” she said with a whimper.
* * *
Frank arrived at the Houston Space Academy seven hours later. He was greeted by two generals and a tall balding man with a thick pair of glasses barely hanging on his crooked nose.
“General Stevens,” Frank said and saluted.
“Frank, let’s keep it casual.”
Frank nodded. “My pleasure. So what is this about, Dan?”
“This is General Henry Anderson, and this is Mr. Ted Parker, our attaché at the Puerto Rico radio station. Gentlemen, meet Colonel Frank Hicks.”
General Anderson extended his hand. “It’s an honor, Frank. Our gratitude for your contributions to the Space Program is hard to quantify.”
“Same here, sir,” Ted said and shook Frank’s hand. “It’s a privilege to meet the man who holds the record for most hours spent in space.”
Frank chuckled and shrugged. “Well, I am sure it will not be for long.”
“Actually,” General Anderson said and leaned forward, “that might not be necessarily true.”
“What do you mean? The Academy is full of new cadets. I am sure—”
“Just follow me, Frank. We have something to show you.”
* * *
Danny hid his face in his mother’s shoulder. “Mommy, how long will Daddy be gone?”
Andrea squeezed him close and wiped a tear. She turned the TV volume louder, afraid Danny would hear her heart pounding.
“He will be gone a long time, honey, a really long time. Why... There he is!”
Danny jumped in his seat. Andrea bumped the TV even louder.
On screen, General Stevens took the podium, flanked by Frank on the right and another officer on the left.
“Ladies and gentlemen, members of the press, as you know I am here today to announce the next leap of our society toward the discovery of the Universe. Over the last twenty years NASA has been working relentlessly to perfect the WARP engine. Right now we are in a position to tell you that our very first true interstellar trip is about to take place on July 21st, 2136. Please welcome the leader of the Equinoxii Mission, General Frank Hicks.”
Andrea covered her mouth and sobbed.
“Look, Mommy, it’s Daddy!”
She shook her head and looked at Frank’s sweet smile. He always knew when to smile.
“Thank you, General, for this kind introduction—”
Andrea covered her ears. How could she live without his voice? How could she survive for sixteen years?
* * *
Frank coughed and cleared his throat. He walked forward and scanned the room. Ten people watched him with curious eyes, some wearing uniforms; others, casual civilian clothes.
Frank felt older today. He combed his hair with his fingers, trying to hide any signs of white threads.
“Cadets, men and women of science... You are here today, because you are the best. And where we’re going, we only need the best.”
Frank walked closer and observed their eyes: inquisitive, wondering, and full of hope.
All hands shoot up as one.
Frank took a deep breath and pursed his lips. “Let’s take it left to right, shall we? There?”
A cadet stood up and saluted. “Sir, McAvoy, sir. I was wondering, where are we going?”
Frank scoffed and lifted his palms. “A very good starting question, right?” He pressed a button on his remote and the 3D sky map appeared behind them.
“As you know, the destination of this unique expedition has been kept secret until recently. But now I am in the position to tell you that we are heading here...”
A red dot appeared in the center of the 3D map.
“M74-Celeii, a planet about eight light years away. Mr. Parker...”
Ted stepped in from the back of the room. “Four years ago, a radio message was received from outer space. By calculating the exact position of the stars and working our way backwards we were able to predict with a high accuracy that the signal must have originated in this space vicinity.
“We extended our research in the area and we are able to predict the existence of a planet in this location, orbiting a red dwarf. Based on our research, the temperature on the surface is slightly lower than the Earth’s, due to its distance from the star, and its gravity is lower, due to the approximate size of the planet—”
“But why here? And what was the message?”
Ted turned around. “Ms...?”
“Jessica Turner, Boston Chemical Institute.”
“Nice to meet you, Jessica. The WARP engine was completed and has been in tests for years. It was only recently coupled to the space station Equinoxii—”
“NASA needs to do a live test for this spaceship,” Frank said, “and this message provided us a good target. Man’s eyes have been scouting the dark corners of the universe for a few hundred years and yet we haven’t found anything or anyone—”
“So,” Ted intervened, “this gave us the perfect reason.”
“And what was the message?”
Ted glanced at Frank. Frank nodded. “The message was ‘We are waiting for you’.”
A murmur swarmed through the room and people looked at each other. Frank cleaned his forehead of sweat and swallowed a knot.
* * *
On July 21, 2136, at 2:00 pm, Frank said a prayer. He knew it was going to be one of the last conscious thoughts he would have for the next eight years. The metal cocoon closed over his body and he felt the chemicals starting to run through his veins.
He opened his eyes and looked at the picture of Danny and Andrea he had glued on the inside, despite the protests of the doctor. He winked at them. When he returned, Danny would be twenty years old.
Frank sighed and everything went black.
* * *
Copyright © 2013 by Iulian Ionescu