The congested interior of the Taleweaver felt downright cozy to Jennifer, a rare shelter against the plunging temperatures outside its hull. The whoosh as the hatch sealed shut meant not only a reprieve from the elements but, on a psychological level, some distance from what Yang Yizhen had told her outside just moments before.
Tommy greeted them with a smile that seemed even wider than normal. “Evening, fellas! Hey, glad to see you found Morgi. Darius and I were getting a little worried about him.”
“That’s a lie.” Morgi was slumped deep in his fixed chair, reclining as best he could with his feet planted on their usual place on the console. “But neither of them took a swing at me, so I guess everything is copacetic now.”
“We made a remarkable discovery.” Yang Yizhen scanned the bridge. “...Where is our new addition?”
“Darius has the bunk right now. I’m taking it next, so hard cheese if you wanted it.” Tommy yawned and slid down until he was in danger of spilling onto the floor beneath his seat. “You can try sleeping in your seats, but good luck with that, friends. Oh, you were saying something...a discovery?”
“We found an old landing craft not too far from here,” said Jennifer. “Looks like it’s a human design, at that. It’s pretty old and rusted clean through, but we can probably salvage some scrap, maybe even some of the electronic guts.”
Tommy’s smile turned into a more ambivalent expression, the mirthless grin of someone hiding bad news. “That’s great, but the engines are actually in pretty good shape. A day or two of little fixes and we could probably take off.”
“You don’t look too happy for someone who’s a day from leaving,” said Jennifer.
“The engines aren’t our problem.” Tommy pointed at the master display. “The long distance scanners are working fine. Take a look for yourself.”
At first glance, the holographic heads-up showed nothing more than a patch of empty space. Then there was a tiny bit of motion and a grayish blot - something with the appearance of a digital artifact - shifted and pitched on the display. Squinting hard at the display, Jennifer could just make out the battle-damaged hull of the Emirhan Marangoz suspended in the void.
“The ghost ship followed us,” said Morgi. “It’s sitting in the exosphere, waiting to ram us again.”
“But you are a masterful pilot,” said Yang Yizhen. “Surely you can outmaneuver such a ponderous vessel?”
“Hey, thanks for the flattery - I mean it, makes a fella feel good. It’s not much good at the moment, though.” Tommy flicked at the control joystick. “The engines are operational but they’re not at 100 percent. We’ve lost some of the fine control on the main engine and the retrorockets, plus we’re limited in our takeoff trajectory given that we lost our landing gear and are, you know, halfway buried in silt.”
“What the choir boy is trying to tell you is that we’d be playing chicken with the damn thing,” said Morgi. “Fifty to one says we end up splattered over that thing’s hull if we try to take off now.”
Darius stumbled out of the rear cabin. “Yo, I heard voices. Everyone back?”
“Safe and cozy,” said Tommy. “Does this mean it’s my turn?”
“Go ahead, I’m too wired to sleep,” said Darius. “I keep hearing that signal in my dreams.”
“Signal?” said Jennifer. “You picked something up? Why wouldn’t you tell us that first?”
Tommy cracked his knuckles over his head. “Don’t get too excited, it’s just noise. I mean, it sounds like a language but it’s not Federation common and Darius here says it doesn’t sound like an alien tongue. Hey, you want to listen for yourself?”
Tommy flicked a switch and a strange voice entered the bridge. There was an odd character to it, a certain flatness and rigidity that suggested it was generated rather than spoken. Beyond that, there was little to glean from it - Jennifer could only make out the occasional word or syllable through the static, and those sounds were like nothing she had ever heard in the Stretch.
“So we’re figuring, what...broadcast from an unidentified non-human source?” said Jennifer. “Unknown location and date of transmission?”
“Yeah, you get that sometimes when you’re outside of the Stretch, or at least that’s the scuttlebutt,” said Tommy. “Sometimes they track one of these down and find out that the civilization that sent it out is long dead. Ain’t that something? A mystery message from beyond the cultural grave.”
“Fair enough,” said Jennifer. “Turn it off.”
Suddenly, Yang Yizhen’s eyes went wide and he shot out his hand to stop Tommy. “Do not touch anything! This is not an alien tongue. This...this is the old language!”
“What the hell is he talking about?” said Morgi.
“He’s saying...are you talking about the ceremonial tongue of the Taiyang?” Jennifer grabbed Yang Yizhen’s shoulder. “Is that it? Are you positive?”
“It can be nothing else,” said Yang Yizhen. “The cadence and tone are beyond all question.”
“So it’s a broadcast from the empire bouncing off some spatial anomaly,” said Darius. “Doesn’t mean much.”
Yang Yizhen shook his head. “No...Within Taiyang, the old language is used only for inscribing histories, in ritual courtly ceremonies, and for the composition of poetry. There are not enough who speak it with true proficiency to use it for communications. Do you know what this means?”
Jennifer froze as the reality sank in, a truth that she feared to speak aloud lest she invite disaster with her hubris. “It means...dear God. It means that this signal is coming from the Cradle.”
“Quickly, someone must fetch me a headset!” said Yang Yizhen as he muscled his way through to the master console. “And Thomas, you must do what you can to clarify the signal.”
“Oh, I’m ahead of you on that.” Tommy launched into his task with fervor, watching the signal pattern shift as his fingers danced across his controls. “There’s an old headset in the back, can someone get that for me?”
“Yeah, I think I saw it.” Darius ran into the rear cabin, though not before giving a rear glance to ensure that he would miss nothing.
The distortions and noise rose and fell with Tommy’s efforts, the static fading for a moment before returning with a vengeance. Through the noise, Jennifer could pick out more and more sounds, sounds that became words and ultimately sentences. There were thoughts locked up in those sounds, but they were thoughts well beyond her own abilities. For the first time, she was actually impressed with the strange young bureaucrat.
Darius appeared from the rear cabin with an elaborate headset. “Here. Did I miss anything?”
“You’re just in time.” Tommy grabbed the headset, plugged it into an unseen receiver at the base of the console, and offered it to Yang Yizhen as he surrendered his seat. “It’s all you, buddy. That’s as clean as we’re getting it.”
Yang Yizhen took the pilot’s chair and pressed the earphones to his head, closing his eyes as he took in the message. “Repeating...repeating...this is Wukong-1...the signal is very faint.”
“Just do what you can,” said Jennifer, gnawing at her lip.
“I will do my best.” Yang Yizhen drew in a deep breath and returned to his task, hands planted on the earphones. “It is audible again...crisis...there is a crisis on planet Earth...hmm, I am not sure...something about the atmosphere. This signal must have been sent at the time of the instigating crisis, on the eve of the Exodus!”
“What else is there?” said Morgi, his eyes expressing an excitement that his rough voice would not allow.
“Ah...so much static.” Yang Yizhen furrowed his brow. “Okay...my power is...limited...broadcasting this signal from...what is this word? I have seen it in the old records...from Mars. Ah yes, this was a name of a planet close to the original homeworld! One moment, now it is merely sending numbers...” His eyes popped open. “These are galactic coordinates! Someone fetch me a writing instrument!”
“Just write them directly onto the display, buddy, you’re doing a bang-up job!” said Tommy. “Oh wow, we’re going to make it to the Cradle after all! This is dynamite, this is atomic!”
Using rapid gestures, Yang Yizhen impressed a sequence of numbers onto the holographic display, then removed the headset. “This is all there is. The rest fades into static.”
“Hot dog! This is exactly what we need!” Pushing back to his console, Tommy set to work entering the coordinates into the navigator, not even waiting for the return of his seat. “You’ve done something truly amazing, Yang. Gosh, they’ll remember you for a thousand years - for a million! You’ve rediscovered the Cradle!”
“This is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen...” Darius laughed and wrapped his arms around Tommy and Yang Yizhen. “Can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m so happy that you guys damn near got me killed. This is legendary!”
“Thank you.” Yang Yizhen covered his reddening face as he rose from the pilot’s seat. “I did only what my training allowed and demanded.”
“I can’t believe it,” said Morgi. “The imperial bureaucrat did something useful.”
“You’re damn right he did.” Jennifer nodded to Yang Yizhen. “Congratulations. I guess I was wrong this time.”
“No, in truth you were correct,” said Yang Yizhen. “All hands were needed on this quest.”
“This is sickening,” said Morgi. “I think I liked you two better before when you were all morose and self-defeating.”
“I got it!” Tommy raised a fist in triumph. “The coordinates are loaded and ready, and they’re consistent with the source of the broadcast! Gosh, this is so cool! We’re headed to the Cradle!”
“Wait a second,” said Darius. “I don’t want to rain on this picnic, but what about the ghost ship? It’s still tracking us.”
“Well, I guess we’ll have to find a way around it.” Tommy clapped his hands together. “All right, everyone get as much rest as you can. Tomorrow, we’re getting off this sandy rock.”