For Alexis Scott Sexsmith, who came to my rescue when I really needed it.
In that moment time stood still.
Well, it did for me at least. My shoulders dropped and my eyes swam in some sort of twitching, watery shock. The muscles behind my eyes contracted, and I could do nothing but stand, mouth flapping.
“Gene? Gene? Did you hear me?”
To talk was like breaking out from a stone shell. Like something inside me was moving before I moved. Cracking and pushing and snapping my way out of the confines.
“Yes…I heard you.”
She squealed and took my hand. “Isn’t it so exciting?”
“Yeah…it is…” I said, unsure if it was.
“Come on then!”
I took a step and paused. The stone again. She didn’t let me calcify or petrify; she nabbed my hand and tugged me along, making my feet drag on the carpet.
Through the empty halls we went, the growing sound of people coming from the rooms ahead. Someone chuckled, and out of my shell I broke again. I planted my feet, and she stopped. Letting go off my hand. Looking at me startled.
“What is it? What’s wrong, Gene?”
Looking at her paused me. Damn melting chocolate eyes and freckles on the nose. Dammit all.
“Are we sure they know?” I said. “Like, they do tend to do things which could seem like…”
“No, I’m sure. We’re sure. Radio waves are bouncing off of us.”
The back of my head twitched. My stomach lurched. “Oh. Okay. So… they do know. How is the…taking it?”
“No idea yet. It’s the first hour. Come on, Gene. This is too big. I don’t want to leave you here, but I will if I need to.”
A spasm wracked my legs for a moment, and I decided. The burning curiosity too much. It wasn’t like my lack of interaction would do anything to soften the monumental reactions happening out there.
One more breath; then: “Okay, let’s go!”
My smile: fake, but my emotions swirly. Some of it happy. I grabbed her hand and took her along toward the viewing deck. The metal walls slid away, revealing the others—all twenty of us—wearing the usual jumpsuits, staring at the glass.
I’m not a huge person, but I forced myself—along with her—forward enough to see. I don’t think I blinked for the longest time. She bounced next to me. Still caught in my hand.
The lights and fireworks. They were flickering an entire power grid just so we could see. This planet, all the way down below, not only knew we were here, but they were celebrating us.
I smiled wide, and the energy of the surrounding others rippled. This was the intent of the detour, after all, no matter how against it I was, and this green and blue and brown and swirling white-clouded sphere in the sky was something new. This was going to be the first civilization we learned from and spoke with.
“Do we know what they are like?” I said, my voice lost in the roar of the others.
“Only a little,” she said, hearing me after all.
A cascade of lights, golden, exploded out in our direction from their atmosphere, and a screen dropped down over the viewing deck to show what they were broadcasting our way. Symbol-based language, it turned out, once we’d managed to translate. And they’d sent two “words.”
One for “hello” and another for “friend.”