August 31, 1977
In an empty room deep in the belly of the Physics department at Cornell University, a coffee mug balances precariously above a panel of electronics. The panel is at least as twice as complicated as it looks, whereas the mug is quite the opposite: a relatively ordinary thing. It is a small, blue mug with a large NASA insignia across the side. Earlier this morning the mug contained its usual contents - coffee, black, eight sugars - but now it is empty. The cup belongs to one Phillip Baumgartner, astrophysicist extraordinaire and audio technician ordinaire, who ordinarily would be nursing that increasingly cold mug well into the afternoon, but who has needed extra coffee as of late. Phillip has just had a child, and young Phillip Jr. is struggling to adapt to life outside the womb. Had Phillip's mug not been emptied so early that morning, before being placed so carelessly above such expensive equipment, it actually might have been for the better. Had it been full, its contents would have spilled over and into the wiring, irreparably damaging it. The whole mess that followed would likely have been avoided with the only sacrifices being one expensive piece of technology and Phillip Sr.'s career. Of course, as is always the case, a great many things could have been changed to alter the course of history, but this certainly seems like the simplest deviation. As it was, the cup sits empty as Phillip returns from an early lunch. He opens the door with the gusto of a man who's recently drunk a coffee with eight sugars, and his entrance provides just enough vibration to push the mug beyond the brink. It tumbles, spinning with a chaos into which one could easily read malice, before landing handle-first onto a large button labelled "RECORD". On a separate table in the room, a stark golden record begins to turn. Having now expended its terrible potential, the mug bounces harmlessly to the floor and rolls under the desk.
"Are you kidding me?" Phillip says, with a sugar-addled intensity as he strides into the room, followed closely by his close friend Jorge. "It's going to be amazing. I can't wait for Star Wars. It is exactly what this world needs right now. Intergalactic space warfare."
Jorge, who would much prefer to see Smokey and the Bandit this evening, is beginning to tire of Phillip's antics and so says nothing as he walks to his desk. Phillip, meanwhile, returns to his seat in front of the expensive table. Neither notice that the record spins between them, in much the same way that neither notice the way the Earth spins beneath their feet. It is both a fault and feature of human intelligence that makes us so capable of tuning out aspects of our lives which, on paper, seem rather important.
Phillip, over-caffeinated and under-slept, isn’t ready to return to work and so looks around the room for a distraction. He finds one in the form of a days-old newspaper discarded on a nearby table. In thick black font the headline screams “ELVIS PRESLEY DEAD AT 42”. Phillip never cared much for Elvis, but he knows that Jorge does, and the coffee is leaving him agitated, and wanting to agitate.
“Elvis! The King is dead!” He exclaims, startling Jorge from his work, who immediately recognizes this as a call for attention and refuses to engage.
Phillip leans forward in his chair and grabs the neck of the microphone which sits on his table.
“The King is dead! Testing, testing, Phillip Baumgartner here, reporting live. Is this thing on? The King, or should I say YOUR King is dead.” Phillip affects his best Elvis impersonation and begins strutting as far as the microphone’s cord would allow.
Wordlessly, Jorge leans back and yanks out the plug which connects Phillip’s workstation to the wall. Immediately the lights on the desk blink out, and the nearby speakers give a small pop. Unnoticed, the record ceases spinning.
“Hey, what’d you go and do that for?” Phillip says, as he begins to fix his workstation, unaware of how soundly he’s damned mankind
That week, the golden record was completed and sent to Cape Canaveral, where it was loaded with all manner of fancy scientific sensors onto the Voyager 1 spacecraft. The record, brainchild of Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, represented the consolidation of all of mankind into a single recorded album. See, the Voyager’s voyage was not a return one, and there were those at the time who wondered how wonderful it would be if, in its infinite trajectory away from Earth, Voyager 1 encountered intelligent alien life. Rather than have such creatures find just a hunk of space gadgetry and think us boring, the record contained a glimpse of what it meant to really be human. It contained pictures: a woman in a grocery store, Jane Goodall with her chimps, the Taj Mahal. It contained messages of “Greetings” spoken in 55 different languages. It contained recorded music from around the world: from Bach’s Partita for Violin Solo No. 3 in E Major, to the sounds of traditional Peruvian wedding songs. And finally, at the very end of the record, it contained the recorded ramblings of Phillip Baumgartner. The folly of man. Given a comprehensive view, if the creatures who in the end found that record had the capacity for what we might call irony, they really might have found the whole situation quite funny.
They didn’t, naturally, but one can dream.
After departing Earth, Voyager 1, with its golden record in tow, had what amounted to a relatively human experience: it was immediately put to work before being discarded as it entered middle age. In its travels it collected all sorts of important, albeit somewhat esoteric, bits of data on Jupiter and Saturn as it shot ever onward away from Earth. Eventually in 2020, shortly after its 42nd birthday, Voyager’s sampling instruments began to shut off, one by one. Same age as Elvis, go figure. By 2030, Voyager was well outside our known solar system, all systems off. It became nothing more than an expensive shoebox, carrying a bundle of humanity’s mementos, waiting to be found.
Incidentally, it was actually found several times. First by a passing craft of Nithils, a hyper-intelligent people from outside what scientists might call the “observable universe.” They came across the vessel tumbling through space and pulled it aboard, taking it apart and examining its pieces, including the record. The tricky thing about a message though, is that it needs to be recognized as one to be effective, and the Nithils onboard this particular vessel mistook the record to be a bit of space junk. They jettisoned it out of their ship, bundled with the rest of their waste, although not before having transported it some few hundred billion miles away. The Nithil did, however, find some deeper meaning in the thread of one of the screws which held the Voyager together, the results of which ended up shaping much of Nithil history for several centuries.
Having been so suddenly transported, the record now floated in what amounts to a cosmic trash bag through increasingly unfamiliar territory. It passed between the twin planets Zurva and Avurz, where it was mistaken as an interplanetary missile, triggering a war between the two planets which ended up destroying much of what intelligent life lived there. It passed by the gargantuan body of a space worm, and narrowly avoided being swallowed whole as the worm devoured nearby asteroids in a manner closely resembling the human game Snake. Eventually it was picked up by scouts as it passed by a large, red planet. The species who found it communicated in a language which would be entirely incomprehensible to humans, consisting of largely of wild gestures, harsh barks, and even harsher body slaps. Their name, by unfortunate and improbable coincidence, if translated into human language would sound roughly approximate to Yelvis. The Yelvisians are a mean, but careful people, and when the scouts encountered a gold record covered in strange markings they did not mistake it for the garbage it consorted with. It was sent back to the planet and, like any war-mongering society is wont to do, sent up the bureaucratic ladder. Finally, after much deliberation by Yelvis’ top scientists and linguists, its contents were unlocked and its meaning deciphered. Humbly, the lead scientist entered the King’s chambers, bending deeply at both waists, to deliver the translation. The King sat silently, listening as the record spun and Phillip's voice filled the chamber.
“Elvis! The King is dead!”
Finally the King turned to the scientist, drew him up to his full height, and slapped him hard across the face. The message was clear. The Yelvisians were going to war.
August 31, 2817
“What is all this about?” Phillip asked, looking out the windows of the hoverbus as the arid landscape sped by underneath.
“There is an issue of global security which needs your attention,” said his escort, a sharp-looking man in an extremely expensive suit. Phillip wondered whether it had built in radiation protection.
“Is this about the Canad-Australian War?”
“The Ostrich-Pox virus?
The man pointed out the window to the Capitol Building as their ship slowed and began its descent.
“We’re here. Everything will be made clear shortly.”
Phillip was led to a small interrogation room with a small table, and after a brief wait a man entered. He wore military garb, and was covered in a ugly mosaic of funny-coloured medals. He made no pleasantries, sitting abruptly across from Phillip, and looking him dead in the eye.
“Are you Phillip Baumgartner?” The man asked.
“Yes.” Phillip answered, wondering why they didn’t just read his microchip.
“Was your father also Phillip Baumgartner?”
“Yes, and his father as well.” Phillip replied. He didn’t know exactly how far back it went, just that he was the newest in a long line of Phillip Baumgartners. He didn’t particularly like the name but his mother, Phillipa, insisted it was a family tradition.
“Right, Phillip. I’ve got some bad news for you. It appears your great, great, great…” The man whirled his hand around several times. “You get the picture. Well that great-whatever grandfather of yours was a scientist working on early, primitive space technology.”
This didn’t sound particularly bad to Phillip, so he figured he’d wait to hear more.
“So, evidently Grandpa Phillip sent a message out on a rocket a few hundred years back. Our guys are trying to pull files, see if they can figure out what find on it, but evidently this message must’ve been something rude, ‘cause we’ve got a handful space monsters sittin’ in that next room,” he thumbed over his shoulder to the door that had entered through, “that’ve got a helluva problem with one Phillip Baumgartner.”
Phillip was beginning to see how this might be bad news.
“Now I don’t fully understand what they want. I don’t know if they understand that Phillip of original sin is long dead. They’ve got some kind of translation device that seems somewhat capable of deciphering whatever madness they’re spitting, and I’m no engineer but I know war, and they’ve got some things that look ripe-ready to kill a man at a moment’s notice. What we need from you is to march in there and undo whatever your granddaddy did. Understood?”
Phillip wasn’t sure that he did, but the general had already got up from his seat and opened the door into the room behind him. It didn’t appear that Phillip had much of a choice.
He walked into the room. This room was ornate, clearly an office for some bigwig. Holo-paintings of various important-looking people hung on the wall, their subject striking various important-looking poses. The carpet was a deep maroon, and the ceiling was virtually extended to appear to be ten times as high as Phillip knew it could be. The clear centerpiece of the room was a massive oak desk, at least 20 feet long and carved with intricate designs in which Phillip could see different flags and faces, and various screens and modules embedded themselves into the desk at various points. And on that desk sat three creatures hellish abominations.
They’re naked. This was the first thing which came to Phillip’s mind when he saw them, closely followed by, Can they read minds? He paused. Sorry, he thought, as loud as he could as he stood in front of them. They reminded him of centipedes, with long slender bodies that kinked at several points along the way, and a confusing number of limbs jutting out at different sides. Many of those limbs held sleek, metallic objects. Phillip was neither an engineer nor a war veteran, but even he knew a Space Gun when he saw one. Looking at the creatures, he couldn’t see anything that resembled an eye, but there was an opening at the top of each creature that slowly opened and closed. He hoped those were mouths.
“Howdy,” he said, giving a small wave. Immediately, all three creatures began barking in a horrible fervour, clamouring and clapping onto one another. ‘Howdy’, obviously, meant nothing to them, but a right-handed wave happened to be the Yelvisian version of grovelling. The general eyed Phillip nervously, when one of the creatures turned and barked at him directly. A small box on the ground between them translated the message:
“Good. Apology good. Few arms weak. Yelvis strong.”
Phillip caught about half of that, but the general seemed relieved and so Phillip felt a bit better.
“Sorry about whatever my great-great-great-grandfather said,” Phillip said, scratching his stomach in the Yelvisian symbol for a submissive apology. “I’m sure he didn’t mean it. Us Baumgartners don’t mean much.”
Another series of harsh barks came out of the presumptive lead centipede. After a brief pause, the box again translated:
“Weakness accepted. You have avoided death. Praise the King.”
The centipede wriggled itself off the desk, and Phillip could see it left a smear of something behind. The creature sauntered (as much as its many legs allowed it to saunter) across the room to stand directly in front of Phillip.
“Well… Perfect!” Phillip said, looking to the general and giving him a thumbs up. This was easier than he thought. “Glad we could work this out.”
He reached forward and grabbed what he hoped was one of the many hands of the creature and shook it. Then, just to be safe, he shook a couple more limbs. After the fourth shake, the creature scurried back to the desk, all three of them crying out like a pack of wild dogs. Suddenly they all had their presumptive weapons raised, pointed at all the humans in the room. The lead one barked out another phrase, and the translator box whirred as it tried to find the best translation for whatever it had just said. Finally, after a tense silence, the box translated:
“Who are you calling a hound dog?”