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Starlight Cantata

Brian Hurrel, the son of Glaswegian immigrants, was born in Newark, NJ. He has been an avid SF fan as long as he can remember, and is especially fond of such Golden Agers as Heinlein, Harrison, Bova, Clarke, Pohl, Anderson, Niven, and Piper, to name but a few. He currently makes his living developing software for the financial industry. His previous occupations include high school English teacher, business analyst, electrical assembler, carpet installer, cab driver, and Marine infantryman. He lives in northeast New Jersey with his wife and son.

Jump flash, blinding but brief. Alpha Centauri A swims into view. It takes only a few minutes after our emergence into realspace for the receiver to align itself with Earth. A long burst of static roars, fades. A voice mutters indistinctly, distorted as if bubbling up from deep under water, then suddenly rings out in shrill clarity.
"… and this so-called Daedalus drive is not only a scientific impossibility, but a perfect example of misappropriated resources."
It is Senator Billings on a live broadcast, the one that almost defunded our expedition. I'd love to call in to tell him just how wrong he is, perhaps even ask how he's enjoying his new heart, courtesy of Daedalus spin-off technology. But it would be pointless. It took 4.365 years for the broadcast to reach our scientifically impossible ship, and it would take a like amount of time for my call to reach the radio station back on Earth.
As much as we'd all love to hear the old wrecking ball's reaction to our departure from Earth a mere 4 days ago, we don't have another 4.365 years to wait.
Procyon's tiny white companion spins about the hot orange primary as I spin the dial through the RF spectrum. Lots of chatter and far too much noise to signal, but suddenly a siren song breaks through. Rosha Trevedi's debut single Twilight Calling.
I will never forget the first time I heard that song. It was on my last day Earthside before joining the Daedalus team. A Tuesday afternoon, raining hard, and I kissed Michelle goodbye.
Anchor Carmen Torsiello, in a rare on-air moment of unrestrained emotion, jubilantly announces the end of the Sino-American war with the signing of the Treaty of Taiwan. As we thread our way between the seven moons of Pollux IV, I remember that day clearly, though the rest of 3rd grade is a distant blur. My parents allowed me to stay up late as they and everyone else in the neighborhood danced in the streets 'til dawn.
A sea of red sand burns beneath Capella's four suns, but soil samples take a back seat as Marlene Moreno's operatic La Vita Bella is interrupted by news that Chinese forces have crossed the Amur River into Russia. President DeLaPaz assures the nation that she has no intention of involving America in what is in truth a border dispute. I know better now of course, though at the time I was still in utero.
Castor is a dead place, intense white heat having charred anything that might have become a viable planet into barren lumps of common metals. Very common metals. I find it far more interesting to learn that the first true AI has become self-aware at MIT, though the debate over what exactly constitutes machine intelligence will continue right up to the present day. With no resolution in sight.
Light years slip past, mile markers along the shimmering tunnel of jump space. During a brief stop at Aldeberan I catch one of Pearl Jam's shows in their long anticipated reunion tour. The overwhelming verdict is that Eddie, whoever that is, still has it, but I'll have to wait a few light years to make my own comparison.
Two great towers burn and fall, but I barely notice. We return to base camp along the rocky shores of Regulus VII, and build a fire of driftwood. We huddle around the dancing flames, and for the first time since our departure we break out our "medicinal" stores. Jameson. Guinness. The stowaway Johnny Walker and fellow officer Captain Morgan. It's the first interstellar beach party in history. The music is… interesting. Blink 182. Jay-Z. TLC. DMX. Eiffel 65. Their names sound more like operating systems than bands.
Who would have thought there'd be dragons in the cobalt skies of Eta Draconis II. Honest to God dragons. Or as near to dragons as any creature ever encountered so far. Though as far as we know, none of these can breathe fire. Even so, we tail them from a safe distance.
Back on Earth, a long and cold war has ended. Tear down the wall, so say Floyd and Reagan. But to me it may as well be white noise, enthralled as I am with the great winged serpents, and I keep one hand on the binoculars as I turn down the volume.
"Here there be dragons," I write later that night in bold letters on the official star chart. Guidelines be damned.
There are fireflies in the deep forests of Rho Aries VI, but the difference between these and their closest cousins on Earth is, as Twain might say, the difference between a lightning bug and lightning. A thousand blinking strobes dance between the trees, a thousand long shadows flaring, shifting, disappearing in an instant, and flaring back in another direction. As the Age of Aquarius ends back on Earth, a last helicopter leaves a vanquished city, and Dion asks after four friends who died too young.
Delta Hydri, the eye of the Water Snake, though there are no snakes here, nor water, for Delta Hydri is far too hot. There is not much reason to hang around, but we wait a bit before continuing our zig-zagging wanderings farther, ever farther, from Earth, for Glen Miller's Army Air Force Band is live from Abby Road, and Allied forces have gained a foothold on the Normandy coast.
We pass through the scattered stars of Pisces as disturbing news pours forth, breathless and frantic. Martian invaders have landed in Grover's Mill, New Jersey. Had it been a real invasion, we'd have been much too far away to render assistance. Instead we set course even farther out. We delay our jump, however, until we are assured that the alien conquerors have been laid low by the smallest of Earthly creatures.
Alpha Doradus. Another sun too hot for life. I look down from close orbit on a barren, crater-pocked wasteland. Back on Earth a similar moonscape spreads across the once green fields of Belgium and France. Our sun is still visible, barely, and only if you know where to look. It is over there below the tip of Orion's sword. Faint and unfathomably distant. But for those boys who won't be home until it's over, 175 light years is as nothing to the vast gulf between them and theirs.
Around a pretty blue-green planet, tucked just right in the life-zone of Gamma Horologium, the signals from Earth, ever weakening, are barely a whisper above the clamor of the cosmos. We have reached the borderlands, an invisible frontier of rippling waves that will continue their slow crawl outward from our home. But we will far outrun them on our next jump.
I have to use headphones and press them tightly to my ears to hear anything, and even then the signal is so faint I almost miss it.
That is all. A single coded "S" sent by a man named Marconi. A brief letter that, until now has been our farthest flung emissary to the stars. The rap-tap-tap of a conductor's baton seconds before the overture of our symphony:
We are here.
Beyond that, there is no electronic signature. Not a hint that we exist at all. From here our blazing sun is little more than a dim rushlight, one small star among billions, a dust mote drowned out by the larger universe.
From the ether comes only the hiss of static, an eternal hush of coursing waters that on Earth is heard only in the small spaces between channels.
It is nothing and everything at once. The timeless music of the stars.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011
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