Stars filled Malcom Macbeth’s vision, bright colors shifting and blurring, artifacts of the divergent passage of time as they cruised near the speed of light. He wasn’t just watching space go by; he was watching time go by, the galaxy beyond the ship hurtling forward in normal time while things onboard passed infinitely slow by comparison. His eyes fixed on one star to the left of the ship, a supergiant with far too much cosmic radiation to risk a close approach. It had been slowly shifting from blue to white as they ceased to close with it, and Malcolm knew it would shift to red once the fleet-ship moved away from it in earnest.
He stood alone on the bare walkway, surrounded by superstructure and windows layered with carbon and corundum that separated him from the vacuum of space. It was one of the few places on the ship he could count on being deserted, and he could never quite understand why; the stars were beautiful, the view astoundingly wide, if a bit sickening to look down upon. He breathed deeply, trying to dispel what was left of the anxiety that rushed in when he had received his daughter’s communique.
Not so long ago you were young, he thought as he pictured his daughter on her wedding day. When next we meet, you will be old, like me. Whatever will I do with you? Plans were already working their way into twisted paths in his mind, drawing him away from the jitter of reunions and to the hard work of managing the massive enterprise that was Clan Macbeth, spread over many worlds and controlling capital that would be unfathomable to a planetsider. I’ve needed a new XO. And with Anders… he smiled.
“Sir?” The voice of Tully over the com echoed in the dark chamber.
“What is it?”
“High-energy UHF. Sort of. Signal degradation indicates a distant signal. Or…”
“Or it indicates a closer signal with a failing repeater.”
“What about triangulation?” Macbeth scratched his beard.
“There’s just the one burst. A few months back Galactic standard. Just came in.”
“What else about it?”
“I’m still analyzing, but it appears to be a 256 bit binary message.”
“Binary, eh? Is it what I think it is?”
“Might be, given the protocol. We’re working on the language codec. Should only take a few minutes more.”
Macbeth walked over to a nearby terminal, and it leapt to life, illuminating his face from below. “Give me a moment and I will cue up some coding tables that should match.” His fingers flitted over the screen and a few files dropped over into Tully’s queue.
“You’ll note our course and distance. It’s a possibility. And given that it’s a binary signal… Well, just see. I have a feeling.”
A few seconds passed, and then Tully replied. “There we go. It’s just a bunch of math equations, so probably just a data package. Could it really be an Earth message? I thought they stopped sending them thousands of years ago.”
“They did, but there were also ships and probes from sent out from Earth.”
“That’s quite a leap,” Tully said.
“It is. Just a guess.”
“From before the singularity?”
“Perhaps after. I’ve heard rumors.”
“Rumors, guesses, and feelings. That’s not like you, grandpa.”
Malcolm smiled, knowing Tully could not see him. “True.”
“Second ping just came in. One month in standard time after the first.”
“Can you triangulate?”
“Murray!” Tully shouted before the com released her voice. “Yes, sir. It’s almost dead ahead, a few arcseconds to port, as we’re heading. A little less than a light-year away.”
Malcolm rapped his knuckles on a nearby handrail. “Just equations? No words?”
“Near as we can tell. Complex equations, but I’m not finding any pattern that I would call linguistic.”
“What about vectors?”
“I have no idea, sir.”
“Anders will be on deck shortly,” Malcolm said, knowing his son would arrive precisely at the end of his father’s shift, nearly to the second. Something had been consuming the young man, but Malcolm could net yet discern what. “Have him take a look at it. The nature of the equation might be an attempt at communication, rather than just a packet of data. It’s a curiosity he would love to solve.”
“If you say so.”
“I do. I’ll be up in the bridge in a minute. Macbeth out.”
He killed the com and spent another few seconds looking out at the stars.