I can understand Eridian fluently now, of course. And Rocky is equally fluent in English comprehension.
“I’m old. Give me a break. It takes me a while to get ready in the morning.”
“Oh, you had to eat, right?” Rocky says, a tinge of disgust in his voice.
“You told me not to talk about that in polite company.”
“I’m not polite company, my friend!”
I snicker. “So what’s up?”
He wiggles and jiggles. I’ve almost never seen him this excited. “I just heard from the Astronomy hive. They have news!”
I hold my breath. “Sol? Is it about Sol?!”
“Yes!” he squeals. “Your star has returned to full luminance!”
I gasp. “Are you sure? Like, Iℓℓ percent certainty?”
“Yes. The data was analyzed by a thrum of λV astronomers. It checks out.”
I can’t move. I can barely breathe. I start to tremble.
Simple as that.
Sol—Earth’s sun—has returned to its pre-Astrophage brightness. There’s only one possible way that happens: Astrophage is gone. Or at least reduced in population so much that it doesn’t matter.
We did it!
Rocky cocks his carapace. “Hey, your face is leaking! I haven’t seen that in a long-ass time! Remind me—does that mean you’re happy or sad? ’Cause it can mean either one, right?”
“I’m happy, of course!” I sob.
“Yeah, I thought so. Just checking.” He holds a balled claw against the xenonite. “Is this a fist-bump situation?”
I press my knuckles to the xenonite as well. “This is a monumentally epic fist-bump situation.”
“I guess your scientists got right on it,” he says. “If you account for the time it took your beetles to get there and the travel time for light to get from Sol to Erid…I think it took less than one of your years to get it done.”
I nod. It’s still sinking in.
“So will you go home now? Or will you stay?”
The…entities…that make major decisions for Erid long ago offered to refuel the Hail Mary. It’s still sitting in a nice, stable orbit around Erid, where it’s been since Rocky and I first arrived all those years ago.
The Eridians could stock it up with food and supplies, help me make sure everything is working right, and send me on my way. But so far I haven’t taken them up on it. It’s a long, lonely journey, and until a minute ago I didn’t even know if Earth was still habitable. Erid may not be where I’m from, but at least I have friends here.
“I…I don’t know. I’m getting old and the trip is long.”
“Speaking from a selfish perspective, I hope you stay. But that’s just me.”
“Rocky…that news about Sol…it…it makes my whole life have meaning. You know? I still can’t…I can’t…” I start sobbing again.
“Yeah, I know. That’s why I wanted to be the one to tell you.”
I check my watch. (Yes, the Eridians made me a wristwatch. They make anything I ask for. I try not to abuse it.) “I have to go. I’m late. But…Rocky…”
“I know,” he says, tilting his carapace in what I’ve come to realize is a smile. “I know. We’ll talk more about it later. I have to get home anyway. Adrian is going to sleep soon, so I have to be there to watch.”
We both head toward our respective exits, but he pauses. “Hey, Grace. Do you ever wonder? About other life out there?”
I lean on my cane. “Sure, all the time.”
He walks back in. “I keep thinking about it. The theories are pretty hard to dispute. Some ancestor of Astrophage seeded Earth and Erid with life billions of years ago.”
“Yeah,” I say. “And I know where you’re going with this.”
“Yeah.” I shift my weight from one leg to the other. Arthritis is starting to settle in my joints. High gravity isn’t great for humans. “There are fewer than fifty stars as close to Tau Ceti as we are. But two of them ended up with life. It means life—at least, the life Tau Ceti puts out—might be a lot more common in our galaxy than we think.”
“Think we’ll find more of them? Intelligent species?”
“Who knows?” I say. “You and I found each other. That’s something.”
“Yeah,” he says. “It really is something. Go do your job, old man.”
I hobble out of the room and make my way along the perimeter of the dome. They made the whole thing out of clear xenonite because they thought that’s what I would want. But it doesn’t matter. It’s pitch-dark outside all the time. Sure, I can shine a flashlight out there and occasionally see an Eridian going about his business. But I don’t get sweeping vistas of mountains or anything. Just inky blackness.
My smile fades a little.
How bad did it get back on Earth? Did they work together to survive? Or did millions die in wars and famine?
They were able to collect the beetles, read my information, and implement a solution. A solution that would have involved a probe going to Venus. So there’s definitely some advanced infrastructure still there.
I bet they did work together. Maybe it’s just the childish optimist in me, but humanity can be pretty impressive when we put our minds to it. After all, everyone worked together to build the Hail Mary. That was no easy feat.
I hold my head up high. Maybe I will go home someday. Maybe I’ll find out for sure.
But not right now. Right now, I’ve got work to do.
I continue along the path to the large double doors leading to another meeting space. And I have to say, it’s my favorite one.
I step into the chamber. About one-fifth of the room is my Earth environment. The other side of the divider wall has thirty little Eridians bouncing around like idiots. Each one is no more than thirty Earth years old. The selection process for which ones get to attend…well…again, Eridian culture is complicated.
An Earthlike organ keyboard sits in the center of my area, oriented such that the operator faces the kids. The organ has quite a few more options than a typical keyboard found on Earth. I can apply inflection, tone, mood, and all the other little intricacies of spoken language. I settle into the comfortable chair, crack my knuckles, and start the class.
“All right, all right,” I play. “Everyone settle down and get in your seats.”
They scamper to their assigned desks and sit quietly, ready for the lesson to begin.
“Who here can tell me the speed of light?”
Twelve kids raise their claws.