Pale Blue Dot

- by Kai Hudson -

3000 Words

Elena gaped at the lady behind the counter. “But that’s . . . That’s almost thirty percent higher than last month.”

Her fingers curled around her daughter’s tinier ones; Claudia blinked up with round, five-year-old eyes.

Ms. Fujishima folded her hands together. “Yes. We are sorry, but the expenses, you see. We have many materials for the children.”

Elena glanced around the room. Bright afternoon sunlight splashed in through the windows, painting everything in cheerful colour. Even so, the crayons didn’t sparkle, the toys scattered across the carpet didn’t magically come unstained or unripped. “Doesn’t look like that’s where the money’ll be going.”

The daycare’s supervisor only smiled, demure. “We anticipate many improvements. But if you don’t want to keep Claudia enrolled here, perhaps the NASA has a better program.”

There was no malice there—Fujishima wasn’t the type—but Elena’s jaw tightened all the same. Claudia squeezed her hand. “It’s okay, Mama. I can go to work with you and help the as-ter-nots.”

If only she could. If only so many things.

“Thank you.” She drew Claudia closer, settling fingers in her daughter’s soft hair. “I’ll think of something.”

The other woman bowed. “It has been pleasure, Mrs. Munoz.”

“Miss,” said Elena, too quickly.

On the way to the car, her phone buzzed. The caller ID, once HELL YEAH!!, now read, simply, WORK. Budget meeting, it said.

She breathed deep, smiled at her daughter, and pointedly didn’t smash the little device to pieces.

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They called it SETI Day. The morning an old radio telescope in Chile picked up a brief signal consisting of indecipherable clicks and hums, all originating from the star SRT-339X. The world’s ears perked up, and conspiracy theorists and self-proclaimed planetary protectionists wriggled out of the woodwork immediately, but scientists did the right thing: they set themselves to testing. Slow, methodical: every angle, every possible explanation. Not a pulsar, they confirmed. Or an accretion disk. Or a transiting exoplanet. The most skeptical minds on the planet finally admitted, a full two years later, that there was only one explanation remaining: an extraterrestrial civilization. The Civilization.

Which was all well and good, and worth all the new religions. Except for one thing: SRT-3 was over twenty thousand light years away.

There was life out there, and yet it had never felt so lonely.

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Charlie sighed and ran a hand through his thinning black hair. “I don’t know what to tell you.”

Todd shook his head. “These numbers are abysmal. You can barely fund two staff, let alone a postdoc.”

“I know.”

Something about the smoothness of Charlie’s face made Elena’s stomach turn over. “You cancelled on Ashley,” she said.

“Technically the federal government cancelled on Ashley. But yes. I called her this morning to tell her we can’t take her on in October after all.”

“Oh, geez.” Todd tossed his glasses onto the table with a clatter. “And after making her come all the way out here in January for the interview. And she turned down that offer from—”

“I know!” Their boss’s face pinched. “I don’t like it any more than you do, but CivComm’s budget has tanked. It’s a miracle I can even keep the lights on.”

Grim faces around the conference table. Elena regarded the opposite wall, where a spectrograph stood behind a now-dusty frame. A squiggly set of dips and hills she knew by heart, fifteen seconds long and infinitely mysterious. The Civilization’s signal.

“What about us?”

The words came out stronger than she intended. Because Elena felt sorry for Ashley, she really did, but the postdoc was bright, and young, and didn’t have a little girl to worry about, or a bank account thinning faster than a terminal cancer patient. Ashley could afford some balding, paunch-bellied suit in a government office putting a line through CivComm’s fiscal year budget. Elena could not. “Our positions are safe, right?”

“Mm,” Charlie said, too softly. “We’ll see.”

She breathed out. As Todd said something else, echoing and distant, her gaze drifted back to the spectrograph, CivComm’s slogan printed across the bottom of the frame. She closed her eyes and the letters wrote themselves on the insides of her lids.

DECODING YOUR DREAMS.

But not her dreams. Not anymore.

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“No, Mama, I got it.”

Elena slid past to grab a plate from the top shelf. Her mother sighed, wrinkles deepening around thin lips. “I can still set a perfectly good table, mija. Just because my leg hurts a bit—”

“You broke your hip, Mama.” Elena moved around the little card table carrying the plates. “Plus, you’ve got the arthritis, remember? Claudia! Time to eat!”

Her mother pulled out a chair and sat down with a groan. “I just wish you’d let me help out more.”

“You’re already helping with Claudia.”

“Of course I’m helping with Claudia. You shouldn’t have taken her to the daycare in the first place. Then you wouldn’t have spent all that money and we would still have Papa’s dining table.”

Elena bit her lip. Her mother didn’t mean anything by it. Even though it had technically been her dining table; she’d bought it for Papa’s birthday six years ago, when she first got hired at CivComm. How wonderful the world had been then, how bright: just starting her Ph.D. in linguistics when the Civilization’s signal hit. CivComm gobbled her up pretty much right at graduation; hit the jackpot, everybody said. With that shiny new paycheque in her bank account, dozens of friends and family gushing and asking ten thousand questions on social media, it had been easy, deserving even, to drop five hundred bucks at the furniture store.

Now it was gone. Her heart ached, remembering Papa with his huffing laugh and hands labour-callused yet unerringly gentle. She missed that the most: the anchor of his touch. How when she was little, he used to take her outside whenever she whined or threw a tantrum and point upwards as she wriggled and cried. Be careful, he’d whisper, as her cries finally died down to sniffles. His thick finger stabbed the night in a random direction, although, maybe even then, it wasn’t random at all. Aliens are out there somewhere. Keep doing bad things and they’ll come down to steal you in the night.

He couldn’t have known about SRT-3, not back then. But she wondered sometimes.

“Well, maybe you could go get another job,” her mother said, spooning rice onto her plate. “There are lots of companies out there looking for interpreters, right?”

“I’m an astrolinguist, Mama. It’s not the same thing.”

“Well, then maybe NASA can hire you elsewhere. Another department or something.”

“Yes.” Wouldn’t that be nice, if NASA could just stick her in a closet somewhere, forgotten like an old coat. If her fancy doctorate could apply anywhere other than the few remaining withered linguistics departments at tiny liberal arts colleges on the coasts. If any of them were actually hiring after all her peers had flooded the market, the thousands of hopefuls who’d jumped on the Civilization’s train and come to the same lumbering, faded end.

“Or something.”

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Predictably, Zach called during dinner. Also predictably, the first thing he said was, “I could take Claudia.”

Elena pinched the bridge of her nose to still a sudden headache. “What.”

His nasal voice trembled over the line. “Just for a few months, until you get your footing again. Think about it, you wouldn’t have to pay for childcare, or food, or—”

“You walked out!” Still at the table, both her mother and Claudia glanced up with matching looks of disapproval. Elena coughed and dropped to a whisper. “You decided getting telescope time was more important than us. You don’t get to suddenly—”

“Layna.” A touch of disapproval in Zach’s voice, as if he was addressing one of his research assistants. “Look, back then, sure, it wasn’t the best decision. But back then, you also weren’t having the same . . . financial troubles.”

A tripwire trembled. Did he think she didn’t know? That she had her nose buried so deep in language textbooks and audio equipment she didn’t notice the offices emptying around her, the people slowly disappearing from the lounge, CivComm growing frail and brittle with irrelevance?

Zach sighed. “Layna, we’re not talking about the past here. We’re talking about our daughter. Think about what’s best for her.”

The mine blew. “I am,” Elena snapped, and hung up.

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The next afternoon, Todd set their phone gingerly down in its cradle, twisted his fingers in his lap, and lifted his gaze to the ceiling. “Charlie wants to see you.”

Elena paused mid-type. “Now?”

Her coworker of the last six years, coauthor of publications, buyer of coffee and donuts, sharer of endless lunches and jokes, kept his eyes fixed on the white tiles overhead. His bottom lip trembled. “Now.”

Ten minutes later, Charlie pressed his palms to the top of the desk. The harsh overhead lights gleamed off his balding head, dotted with beads of sweat. “I’m so sorry, Elena.”

The room had gone cold. Elena stared down at her hands, curled into the fabric of her skirt. It would leave wrinkles. Her mother hated wrinkles.

Charlie nudged the Newton’s cradle on his desk. Click, click, click. “I have enough to fund you until the end of this month. And I’ll write whatever recommendations you need, you know that.”

Recommendations. Recommendations for what? No departments were hiring. With the looming black hole of loan repayment, she couldn’t go back to school. Interpretation and translation companies needed language speakers, not analyzers. No one wanted her. No one needed her.

She looked once again at the spectrograph on the wall, the Civilization’s indifferent echo, and anger lashed through her, sudden and vicious.

This is your fault, she thought. You had to send us something, make us all excited, get us dreaming, wishing, hoping. And then you abandoned us.

“What about Todd?” And oh, the words tasted bitter, but there was no sweetness left in her, just the ashes of ambition. “You’re keeping him but not me. Why?”

Click, click, click. Charlie folded his hands together. “Todd has been here longer than you.”

“By a few months.” Her eyes stung but she kept her gaze fixed on the desk. She wouldn’t give in, he didn’t deserve to see it. “I’ve worked just as hard as he has, I’ve produced just as many publications—”

“Elena, let’s not get all riled up about this.” Charlie’s voice was eminently reasonable. “It’s not about your work, it never has been. We do what we have to.”

More words crawled up her throat, defiant, vengeful. With effort, she swallowed them back. Claudia. She had to think about Claudia.

Charlie nodded, looking relieved. “You’re free to keep coming in until the thirtieth, of course, but I understand if you’d rather just clean out your desk today.”

And that was all. Elena rose, smoothed out her skirt, tried and failed to lift her chin. “Thank you, Director.”

Fissures formed in the sea ice of Charlie’s gaze. “Goodbye, Dr. Munoz.”

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When she got back to the office, Todd had already gone, leaving behind only the clutter on his desk and an invisible wake smelling of guilt. Typical: her number one fan when it came to second authoring a paper, but the moment the going got tough . . .

She collapsed into her chair with a huff, scrubbing stubbornly at the tears pricking her eyes. She would not cry, not for Todd or Charlie or CivComm. They didn’t deserve it.

The spectrograph greeted her, sitting on the computer monitor where she’d left it. She’d been working on analysis when Charlie called, the textbook on pre-Sumerian language still sprawled open across the keyboard. She’d thought she might’ve been on to something with that. She’d thought they’d finally make a breakthrough.

How naive.

No more of this. No more long days hunched over books and articles with Todd, arguing about prehistoric grammar before rushing out to pick up Claudia from daycare. No lunchtime coffee with Charlie, debating the ethics of beaming a reply at SRT-3. No conferences at exotic hotels, no documentary filmmakers calling for interviews, no excited texts from family and friends, eager for the latest news.

Her phone buzzed: a series of messages from her mother, all evenly spaced throughout the day as always.

I am in less pain today, that’s good isn’t it?

Your neighbour is letting his dog piss on the lawn again! You need to tell him to stop.

Don’t forget to buy rice.

Not the brown rice, it’s disgusting.

Tio Manuel called. They need another two hundred to pay the rent this month. Send it to him when you get home.

Claudia says she misses you.

Her throat closed up. What would they do now? Papa didn’t have life insurance. The collectors were calling, asking about Mama’s medical bills. The family back in Colombia needed money for rent and school and clothes and repairing the car. And Claudia . . .

Claudia.

This time, the tears came. She let them spill down her cheeks as she thought of her daughter. All she wanted was a good life for her, for Claudia to be taken care of and comfortable and able to dream whatever dreams she wanted. Why was that so much to ask? Why couldn’t the universe grant her even this tiny desire?

The spectrograph watched her from the screen, mocking. A fifteen-second afterthought from a civilization long dead and gone. And really, how could they have expected anything else? The past decade of silence was evidence enough: the Civilization had failed.

Except.

Except what if it hadn’t? She stared as jagged lines swirled together in a blur of colour. What if they were to receive something new?

One signal piqued some interest. But two, and from the same source . . .

Elena reached up, swiping away the last of her tears. We do what we have to. Very slowly, she closed the textbook and slid it off the keyboard.

Her fingers moved of their own accord. They grasped the mouse, clicked this button and then that one, dragged this here and changed that there. The plastic keys went clack-clack-clack, the spectrograph morphing before her eyes. She’d done this a thousand times, a million, surgical precision in search of meaning, but now she took her scalpel elsewhere. Sculpted instead of dug. Changed. Transformed.

Two hours later, she had an eighteen-second jumble of sound: pulses, drumbeats, clicking whirs. Meaningless. Alien.

Perfect.

Staring at the spectrograph, allowing no thoughts into her mind, she picked up her phone and dialled a number by heart.

“Layna? What happened? Is Claudia okay?”

“Zach.” The name shivered out of her, tentative, guilty. She cleared her throat. “Claudia’s fine. Listen, I need a favour.”

She could almost see him wrinkle his nose. “I hardly think you have the right to—”

“You’ve still got that time on the Webb next week, right?”

The soft click of Zach’s teeth coming together. “Right.”

Elena stared at the screen. She could still stop this. Hang up the phone, erase the file, polish her resume, get hired at some tiny backwater school. Fade into obscurity with quiet grace.

Dissipate her daughter’s future as smoothly as the Civilization’s signal into vacuum.

“I need you to insert a data packet into the logs. Doesn’t matter where or when, so long as it can’t be traced back to you.”

“What?” Zach’s voice went strangled. “Are you insane? I could lose my funding, my tenure—Elena, what the hell—

“Fifty-fifty custody.”

Abrupt silence. Elena closed her eyes. Pictured her daughter as she’d last seen her, waving as she ran to kindergarten. Claudia would grow up to be so beautiful, so smart, Elena just knew it. She only needed the chance.

“I’ll go back to court, ask them to change the agreement. The judge will go with it. You know that.”

More silence. She held her breath, dug fingernails into her palms. Claudia, she reminded herself. For Claudia.

When Zach finally came back on the line, his voice was flat. “How big is the packet?”

Ten minutes later, it was done. She sat back in the chair, watching as the progress bar filled. FILE(S) DELETED, the computer announced. FOLDER EMPTIED.

Her heart twinged, but that was all.

The clock overhead showed 8:49. The office felt small now, claustrophobic, so she got up and walked out, pushing open the door and stepping into the cool night. The forecast had said rain, but the sky was completely clear, a few stars peeking through even with the soft glow of the city lights. She craned her neck back and sought out that familiar patch of sky, that single twinkling dot too distant to see.

They were out there. Maybe even right this moment, they were looking her way and wondering about this little blue marble circling its unassuming star. What did they look like? Did they laugh, cry, double-cross, fall in love? Did they have families? Jobs? Religions? Did some of them do bad things and get punished for them?

Cars rumbled in the distance, broken here and there by the groaning honk of a semi. Far away, a siren started up, piercing wails echoing in the night. A million sounds, a million lives all going at once. The city, the entire planet come alive.

Elena looked up once more at the star that meant so much, at the place where the aliens were. The place where maybe, just maybe, her father had pointed all those years ago, on a clear night when dreams were still something worth believing in.

I am here, she thought, as loud as she could. I am here.

Perhaps, even across the endless reaches of time and space, they heard her.

Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes. And waited.

© 2018 by Kai Hudson


Kai Hudson lives in sunny California where she writes, hikes, and spends entirely too much time daydreaming of far-off fantasy worlds.