Gerrard goes down on one knee to tie Junior’s shoelaces. He double, then triple-knots the things, and wonders what else she’s left deliberately undone.
“Did Mommy tell you why I wanted you to come today?” His voice is low.
“Uh-Huh.” Junior’s toddler-treble is appropriately hushed. “I have to meet Daddy’s Mommy.”
Daddy’s Mommy. Not “your Grandma”, not “my mother-in-law”. Gerrard’s wife tiptoes so quietly around her relationship to the screaming sky.
“It won’t be fun. You’ll have to be very brave, ‘kay?”
He feels a little disappointed at the half-heartedness of Junior’s nod.
Gerrard straightens, looks around the square. So many faces he recognizes, faces he’s grown apart from with every dog-year between Transmissions.
Some of the others have kids in tow.
On the buildings around the square, the advert-screens blink out, right on cue. The lag in the signal—GEO to Hawaii to Relative Square—4.1 seconds.
“Hello Earth!” The voice booms out from pole-mounted speakers all around them. “This is the Captain and crew of the Magellan, wishing you all a very Happy New Year. It’s been a few hours for us, but seven years for you, so before we transmit the logs, we’d like to send some personal messages to our families—”
Gerrard knows every hiss and pop of the twelve-second stretch of noise.
He feels his palms grow clammy. Junior is pulling at his hand; confused, probably, at the suddenly over-tight grip.
The screaming starts.
The signal has been taken apart, analyzed, put back together infinite times. Voice-pattern analysis, background analysis, stress analysis. Thirty-five years’ worth of analyses.
Gerrard’s ear, overfamiliar with the voices in the signal, detects a slight change in their agonized cacophony.
Magellan was aimed at a star twenty-one lightyears away. The ship has surfaced six times now. And as far as anyone can tell, it will keep surfacing, transmitting, till it is so far away that the Sun will bloat and swallow the inner worlds, and Earth will reach the end of all things, and have nowhere left to go.
He looks down—Junior’s eyes are closed, tears leaking between his scrunched-up eyelids, unoccupied hand clamped over his right ear. Gerrard relaxes his grip; Junior snatches his hand back to cover his other ear.
Three minutes after “Hello Earth”, the screams cut out.
The logs and data-packages and visuals never come. Just the same recorded message, then the static.
Only the screams change every time.
The screens around Relative Square blink on, return to their subdued still-frames. No video. No audio. Everything has become quieter since Mankind’s first—last—attempt at hyperspatial travel. Loud voices, loud advertising—they’ve given way before the world’s newfound sense of decorum; people have adopted a hushed way of speaking. And just when it seems everyone is likely to forget, and break out into unseemly chatter, the Transmission comes again.
It takes Junior a minute to realize it’s over. He tentatively opens his eyes, looks up at Gerrard.
“It’ll happen again in seven years,” says Gerrard. But at the panicked look in his son’s eyes, he relents. “You don’t have to come.”
“I was brave?”
Nobody is brave anymore. Not Junior, not Gerrard, nor any of the Earth’s other twelve billion. And the people on Magellan just keep screaming and screaming, and nobody knows why.
“Very brave—so brave, you’re going to get an icee on the way home.” Which will put off his wife’s frozen silence for another half-hour.
Junior answers Gerrard’s wan smile with one of his own.
And the ice-cream parlor will have a restroom where they can both wash their faces.