Manhattan Central Retirement Community
Eastern Coast Hub, North America
December 19, 2070
Her shoes were scuffed.
Ayumu stared down at the black microfiber ballet flats that her mother had insisted was too plain for today, but that she had insisted on, arguing that tripping on heels and falling on her face in front of the woman would be far more embarrassing than plain jane shoes.
But they were scuffed. Her fancy new suit was uncomfortably tight, her pantyhose itched, and she'd already managed to disrupt the stylish bun of the three hundred dollar haircut.
"Aho," she muttered underneath her breath, and shifted in her seat uncomfortably. The clock on the wall was steadily ticking by seconds in GMT, Earth Orbital, Luna Standard, Mars Central and Europa Central--every second far too quickly for Ayumu's comfort.
She stood, placing her hands tightly at her sides to hide their slight trembling. She nodded at the polite young nurse and followed him into the room. There was no hiding the slight antiseptic smell, but the room seemed pleasant enough--homey, rather than hospice. She glanced absently around the walls to avoid looking at the frail woman in the bed--digi-prints from the various offworld stations, holoscreen plasma, and a slowly rotating holo of the Milky Way on the ceiling.
"Beautiful, isn't it?"
Ayumu swallowed and finally looked at her. The nurse stepped back and silently closed the door.
"Do you ever just watch?" She was smiling gently at Ayumu. "Look up in perfect silence at the stars?"
"...Whitman," Ayumu said softly. "'When I heard the Learn'd Astronomer.'"
"Very good, Dr. Doi. And do you?"
"Yes, Dr. Arroway." Ayumu smiled for the first time, her nervousness fading. "I do."
"Come," Ellie Arroway waved a thin arm at a chair by the bed. "Sit." She waited for the younger woman to do so, and leaned back into her pillow, studying her. "You look nervous."
"I...yes, Dr. Arroway."
"Ellie," she insisted, laughing quietly, "I haven't been in a classroom for quite some time, Dr. Doi. And you don't need to be nervous--I didn't ask you here to grill you, or question your compentency. I've read your file and I'm quite pleased you were selected." Ellie grinned a little mischeivously, "Particularly considering your competition."
Ayumu blinked in suprise at this reference to the minor scandal with her MCC counterpart, and then returned the grin a little shyly. "I...it's an honor to meet you, Dr...ah...Ellie. And it's Ayumu."
"I could say the same, Ayumu," Ellie responded. She let her eyes drift up to the Milky Way holo. "I think there are millions of people in the TSU who'd be honored to meet you--or go in your place." She looked back at Ayumu. "Tell me something, Ayumu. Are you excited? Or scared?"
"I..." Ayumu paused, looking down at her nails. "I don't know."
Ellie laughed. "That's a good answer. Maybe a little bit of both?"
Ayumu nodded. "I..." She paused, and then looked back up at Ellie. "I want to be worthy."
"So did I, Ayumu." Ellie's eyes drifted away as she remembered.
Cape Canaveral, Florida
July 5th, 1999
"Dr. Arroway! Dr. Arroway! It's been two years since your alleged journey to meet the aliens. Are you still claiming they were real, despite all the evidence to the contrary?"
"Dr. Arroway! With today's launch of the Moon Station Orbiter, are you hoping there will be another contact with the aliens?"
"Doctor! Do you have a comment on Hadden Industries claim that recent technological innovations could only have been developed with alien technology from the construction of the Machine?"
"Ellie! Love the new do! Who's your stylist?"
She was almost tempted to answer that last question, if only to see the consternation on the face of the Hollywood Reporter when she told him that a blind man had cut it. She never should have made that bet with Kent on who would lead the press conference for the launch. The new cut was a lot easier to manage though...
Ellie kept a fixed half-smile on her face as she moved through the crowd of reporters, nodding politely and saying 'No comment' periodically. She'd said that phrase a lot over the past two years. The security guard was holding the door open for her and slammed it shut quickly after she entered, leaving the shouting crowd behind her.
She made her way to the VIP lounge--and wasn't that strange, that she was now a VIP?--and opened the door, seeing Kent had beaten her there. He looked up and smiled at her arrival, and she made her way to the seat next to him.
"You made it alive."
"Just," she replied with a grin, "Did I miss anything?"
He shook his head as she turned her gaze to the large observation window, where the Selene Orbitor shuttle was visible. "No, the NASA liaison said we were welcome to join the press conference afterwards."
"You told them no?" Ellie said absently, barely registering Kent's nod in response as she watched the running log of Selene's system checks on the monitor next to the window. It took a moment before she realized he was looking at her--well, towards her. "What?"
"Nothing's..." she trailed off. Lying to Kent was useless--he could see right through her, pun intended. "I...I'm not sure." She sighed, trying to put her vague feelings into words. "Partially, I'm concerned about the launch, but...one of the reporters asked if I hoped there'd be another contact."
"Yes!" she said vehemently, and then stopped. She looked through the window again. Selene was beautiful--smooth, sleek and so different from the space shuttles before the Machine. Ellie looked back at Kent. "Are we ready? I mean, Kent, look at what we've done with the Machine technology--we're moving so fast now, but half the world still believes it's all OUR ideas, that the Machine was just a hoax by Hadden. Are we...are we worthy of taking the next step?"
Kent was smiling softly and he shook his head when she finished speaking. "And a year ago you thought another contact would be the best thing for us--throw the world into the deep end of the pool?"
"And learn to swim," Ellie finished. "Yeah. But Kent--that was before Islamabad."
Kent sat up sharply, "That wasn't your faul--"
Ellie shook her head, cutting him off, "I know, I know. But Kent--over four million people dead! And they used Machine technology!"
Kent reached over, searching for her hand. She took his and he squeezed gently. "Our adolescence."
Ellie blinked. "Huh?"
"Isn't that what you wanted to ask them? How they survived technological advances without destroying themselves? Do you really think they survived their adolescence without any scars?"
"...Yeah." Ellie gazed back out the window, where the techs were signaling they were ready to start the countdown. She nodded slowly to herself. "Yes. Small moves."
"You aren't worthy, Dr. Doi," Ellie said, focusing her attention again on the slight Japanese woman sitting next to her bed. Ayumu blinked in astonishment, and she quickly continued. "But none of us are--because none of us know what to be worthy of. I didn't know what was going to happen when I walked into the Machine--so how could I prepare for it? How could I train for it? How could I be worthy of that honor?" She watched the younger woman, whose face was carefully blank now as she considered Ellie's words. She smiled softly, and glanced over at a small digi-print on her bedside stand. "Do you have children, Dr. Doi?"
Ayumu shook her head. "No."
Ellie smiled, and raised a hand to point to the digi-print. "I have one, a daughter--and three grandchildren about your age. When Joanna was born--" she laughed, "Oh, God, I had no idea what I was doing. And Jo--she was...she was so beautiful." Ellie shook her head, eyes misting a little at the memory. "And I wasn't worthy, Ayumu. She was so perfect...but that's the way it goes. Some things...some things are just so profound that you can't prepare for them, you can't be worthy, you can't be perfect--you just have to be who you are, and hope that's enough."
Ayumu nodded slowly. She swallowed before speaking again. "I...I can't have children."
Ellie met her eyes, and nodded for her to continue.
"I'm an only child. I...my family dies with me. When I applied..." She paused, looking up at the galaxy holo, and then back at Ellie. "This is my legacy," she finished simply.
Ellie reached out and grasped Ayumu's hand, smiling. "Our legacy."
Albuquerque, New Mexico
March 5, 2004
Ellie laughed and kissed the top of Jo's head. "Close, baby. It's legacy."
Jo nodded earnestly and bit her lip as she read the passage again. "In honor of Dr. Arroway's legacy, we de...cl...declare? What does declare mean?"
"It's a formal word for 'say,' and don't bit your lip."
"Declare that the first col...o...ny on the pla...net Mars to be Arroway City." Jo put down the holoreader and grinned happily. "You're a city now, Mommy!"
"Well, I guess I am!" Ellie said, laughing. "Hmm...I guess I'm going to be pretty busy...maybe I should get Uncle Kent to take you to Copernicus tomorrow..."
"No!" Jo protested, "I want to go with you!" She paused, thinking. "But Uncle Kent can come too."
"Only if you ask him nicely." Jo jumped off the bed, heading for the vidphone. "And don't push it if he's too busy, Joanna Lyra! You'll see him again next month!"
She shook her head as Jo shouted back an aggrieved 'Yes, Mom!' and picked up the holoreader, thumbing to the notes Fish had sent her on the new maser they were developing using Machine derived synthetic micro diamonds. Ellie bit her lip absently just as her daughter had earlier as she looked over the notes. If she could beg Ranjani at Hadden, they might be able to rush production to install the maser in the new SETI arrays on Galileo Twelve.
Fish and Willie were smiling broadly, pointing through the windows of the Galileo Twelve Station at the SETI arrays. Ellie smiled back at the holoprint, waiting for Ayumu to finish examining the painting on the wall.
"Pensacola?" Ayumu studied the painting carefully. "That was in Florida, yes? Before it sank?"
Ellie nodded, studying the bright colors of the painting Palmer had commissioned for her a year after the Machine. He'd given it to her when he proposed. "My father taught me to think critically, to constantly look for answers-and to be patient. I think that's the most important thing I learned from him."
Ayumu's eyes were distant now as well, lost in her own memories. "My sobe-my grandmother-she raised me after my parents died. One night, just after I turned six, she showed me a comet-14P/Wolf--and she told me that it had appeared the night I was born. And that it had appeared the night she was born as well." Ayumu laughed a little shyly, "I was so impressed by something older than my grandmother. We...in my culture, elders are greatly respected, because there is so much we can learn from them. When I understood how old the world was, the universe-I decided I had to learn all I could. Because something that old must be able to teach us so much."
Luna Colony Broadcasting Studio
Copernicus Hub, Moon
September 21, 2035
"...joined today by Joanna Joss, author of the best-selling holopoem collections, "Theories of Noise," "Offset Carrier," and "God's Supernova." She's here today to talk about her much anticipated new release, "Signals in the Noise," a memoir of life as the daughter of Palmer Joss and Eleanor Arroway. Jo, thank you so much for joining us."
"I'm very happy to be here, Hakim. And it's good to see you again-with all your hair this time."
"I got the implants just for you, Jo, I know blue's your favorite color."
"They're certainly blue, `Keem, if a little fluorescent."
"I love bright, honey! For those of you in our audience, Jo and I have known each other for ages, since our days at Stanford. Anyway, Jo, I have to tell you, I don't think you could have a better time to release this book than on the eve of Mars Confederation joining the Terra System Union. Sure you didn't pull a few strings?"
"No, I promise! It really is a fantastic coincidence though, and my mom was very happy about it."
"I'm sure she's a lot happier about MC's announcement that the Union has agreed on New Florida Mars as the site for Voyager Prime."
"That, she is thrilled about-and she's definitely hoping they can make the launch on time."
"That's right-if they can finish in two years, 2037 will be the 60th anniversary of the first Voyager launch. And I'm so sorry your father won't be able to see it, Jo."
"So am I."
"You've said that he'd read most of Signals before he died-how did he feel about the book? You were pretty frank about the tension between him and your mother after the divorce."
"I was, but he liked that. He always wanted me to speak my mind. And I was frank, but also honest. He understood that. And I hope people will understand when they read the book-he and Mom weren't very good about living together, but they still loved each other-and me. They both taught me so much. I could never have gotten to where I am without them."
Ellie took a sip of water from the mug on her bedside stand. The brightly colored pottery proudly proclaimed her the 'Union's Greatest Grandma,' in little Teddy's careful script.
"Do you think they'll take the form of someone I know," Ayumu was asking her, "as they did with you?"
"Maybe," Ellie answered, considering. "But we don't even know if these aliens are the same that I had contact with. It may be that the aliens I met only initiate the first contact."
Ayumu nodded. "So this `cultural exchange' could be with an entirely different group of aliens?"
Ellie laughed. "Who knows? Maybe they'll bring you a `Galactic Guidebook,' and take all the information you're bringing to add to it!"
"Why can't they just...talk to us?" Ayumu said, frustrated. "We've gotten past the first step. We've united as a people. We've seen the signs and remnants of other civilizations. We're ready to meet them, to meet others in the galaxy-why so slow? Why only a meeting with one species-and not even in person, only through holos."
"Patience," Ellie responded quietly, smiling gently. "We've learned how to stand up, now we must learn to walk. If we tried to run now, we'd fall." She took a deep breath and leaned back into her pillows.
Ayumu noticed the fatigue on the elderly woman's face just as a polite knock at the door reminded her the nurse had only allowed her a half hour. She cleared her throat and stood. "Thank you, Ellie. I..." she hesitated for a moment, and then smiled, "I think I'm ready now. I'm think I'm ok to go."
"I think you are, Ayumu," Ellie said, watching her walk towards the door. "Ayumu," she said, just as the small woman raised her hand to the doorpanel. She grinned a little mischievously as Ayumu turned. "Have a good ride."
Alpha Centauri Station
May 1, 2070
The interior of the pod was a dark red, but the floor was transparent, and Ayumu could faintly see the lights of Centauri Station below. Distracted, she didn't hear the Gemini Orbiter Ops request her confirmation until his tone became a little worried. She blinked and responded. "No, green light, Gemini. Sorry."
"Confirmed, you are green, Ayumu. Launch in 5...4...3...2..1...go."
The light of the wormhole was intense and Ayumu blinked several times, taking a deep breath, ears popping as she dropped into the opening. Before her thoughts were completely consumed by the intensity of the journey, she had a moment to wonder what the next step was--and if she would be alive to see it.
TSU Designate: Quaternary System
February 12, 2117
Bright. So bright. Elise Joss-Jayawardena watched as the T.S.F. Genesis began the approach into Aang's atmosphere. She could see the light from Shan and Qiang, the two smallest of the planet's stars, just out of view, and the two brightest stars, Lie and He, were nearly blinding as Genesis descended.
Elise reached up to switch the diode at her right eye to compensate for the increased light, making sure the Second Eye was recording everything accurately for later retrieval. People back in the Union would be eager to experience this first contact in VR, particularly since none had yet seen what the Aangians looked like. Based on the only sound files that had been exchanged, xenobiologists were postulating some type of insect life--silicon based, if their readings of Aang's atmosphere were correct.
"O, brave new world," Elise murmured, eyes bright with tears. It had been over one hundred and twenty years since any human had entered this quadruple star system, and now she was about to set foot on the planet her great-great grandmother had been the first to see. She placed a hand on her stomach, feeling a soft kick from her daughter, and smiled. "Small moves, little one. Small moves."
MCC: Mars Confederation
TSU: Terra System Union
TSF: Terran Space Fleet