"Astronomical" is a short science fiction story I wrote this last August. More information on the Voyager Golden Record is here.
Our planet was dying. There are many explanations I could give for this, countless stories of failures and failed ideas and the inability of one lonely species to see the truth, endless tales of ignorance and of the worst possible living sin, stupidity. But none of these reasons are excuses, and in any case I am not looking for sympathy. So suffice to say that our planet was dying, while we yearned to live.
I was in the Council of Sciences. Several years earlier, we had sat down the most formidable minds of our time, and broken down our situation, assessing the level of our threat- dire, indeed, very dire- and more importantly, discussing what we would need for a solution. It was called the Thirty Year Plan. The common people thought this referred to what we were going to do over the next thirty years to solve their problems. In actuality, it was the maximum calculated length of time we had until civilization broke down, and possibly methods of lengthening that time.
We would need land, and food, and fuel, and we didn't have the resources to attain any of it. We did, yes, have a prototype starship available to us, and enough energy to power it many light years, but the starship could not carry a city, and there was already talk of breaking it down and using the power source to produce heat or food or any of the supplies already in dire need. Our planet was dying. Our people were starving. We needed hope.
Then it came, out of the stars, like a gift from the gods we had officially denounced. We spotted it in the atmosphere long before it touched the surface of our planet, and a rocket was sent to retrieve it from orbit. It fell to earth in an unpopulated desert, and was removed by a single unmarked van. We couldn't afford to get anyone's hopes up.
I was fortunate to be chosen to help study the Artifact. The bulk of it was badly dented, stained, and entirely foreign to us. It was made by hands, and the hands were not ours.
There was some manner of electrical devices built into it, although they were all but melted and ashen ropes now. The only item we could recover was a single, beautiful, golden disk, covered in tiny circular ridges on one side and engraved all over on the other. We all stared at the markings. They were unlike anything we had ever seen.
"I don't want to jump to conclusions," said my good friend Professor Maddy, after some discussion, "But these drawings could, after some imagination, be a star map of sorts." He indicated a set of abstract dots and lines. "And these," gesturing to an outlined shape, "Could almost be life of some sort." He was saying what all of us were thinking, what we didn't want to think. I put my hand on his back. "Let's not get ahead of ourselves," I said gently.
"Yes," said the Head of the Council. "Absolutely. Research on this item must start immediately, but not a word of this is to be given to the public. Does everyone here understand? Not a word." He looked around, expression softening. "False hope is another commodity we cannot afford." Everyone understood what he meant.
The next day, I was assigned to speak at a protest in the city of Voss. This was the part of my job I hated most. Voss was impoverished, hungry, massive, and angry, perhaps rightfully so. I would have to smile, and try to address and support their concerns by feeding them lies, hopefully by mentioning the Thirty Year Plan as much as I could. That always seemed to reassure them.
I stood, later, in a crumbling and formerly-grand auditorium in Voss. The entire room was packed with filthy, hungry, extinguished souls, all of them staring at me, dead silent.
"I would like to c-commend you for your concern," I stammered. "But your g-government, and the Council of Sciences, have only your best interests in… In mind, and we are working on finding solutions to the most pressing issues we face, namely the food and water shortages, the economic sh-shortfalls, as well as pollution. We want to assure you that we are doing everything we can to deal with these. I will now f-field questions." I tugged at the collar of my shirt, as the room dissolved into angry muttering. A young reporter with a microphone stood up.
"Professor Rook," she addressed me, "You say you are addressing the poverty and the food and water shortages in communities around the planet. What exactly are you doing?"
I adjusted my hat normally. "We are developing new and improved filtration methods and agricultural practices," I said, "Which should drastically increase the amount of food raised. The… Uh, the production and implementation of these techniques will require a sub… substantial new workforce, thus increasing hiring. This, and more, is all covered in the Thirty Year Plan."
Another reporter stood up. "You know, all the officials I've heard have talked about the Thirty Year Plan, but I haven't heard any specifics yet. What is the Thirty Year Plan going to do about overpopulation? About our waning food populations? About the poverty? Professor, what is the Thirty Year Plan?"
"The Thirty Year Plan cannot be fully disclosed, because we believe that total disclosure will alter the intended results," I read off of my prompter. "Suffice to say that the Thirty Year Plan is being enacted as we speak, and is showing results." Deemphasize, deflect, reassure. Easy enough.
The crowd had begun shouting about the lack of results. I felt small.
Somewhere in the back, a well-dressed man stood up. He didn't have a microphone, and his loud voice carried his words.
"Professor Rook," he said smoothly. "I recently discovered an unrevealed government report- it my have been somewhat confidential, I apologize- but it stated that some sort of object- known as the Artifact, I believe- fell out of the sky several days ago, and, let me quote the report- 'It is certainly man-made, although it is engraved with multiple symbols not recognized, and is nearly positively non-terrestrial in design.' What can you tell us about the Artifact, professor?"
The room was silent. I felt as though I had been punched in the chest. I had written those words. The Artifact. They knew about the Artifact. I watched the man fade into the crowd again.
"Y-yes, the, uh, the anomaly- the Artifact, as it's known- does present some curiosity to us, but it's… Certainly not a definite symbol of anything. Research is… R-research is ongoing." The prompter was black. Silence.
"Why didn't you tell us?" A voice screamed. A civilian somewhere.
"We, uh, we didn't want to g-get anyone's hopes up…" The mass broke into screams and boiled like a pot of water. I felt sick. I felt like a monster. Security rushed in. The meeting ended shortly after that.
They had to change our hotel reservations. They put security in the lobby. Nobody found us. I called Maddy, asking about the Artifact.
They had found nothing. They had bounced light off of it, scanned it, studied it, measured the ridges, put them through our best codebreaking programs. Nothing at all. And news of it had encircled the planet by now.
I slept with my two mates that night, Jai and Adel. None of their comforting, their nuzzling, their reassurances helped. Eventually their soft words and contact degraded into the slow, heavy, silence. When I tried to sleep, I tossed and turned helplessly. I latched onto the thought that the Artifact, instead of being a greeting or a chance occurrence, was in fact a plea for help from another dying world, a planet similarly falling apart. Another world running out. It would be unbearable.
In the morning, I woke up early. I snuck into the security guard's break room between shifts, took a gun, and slipped back into my hotel room unnoticed. Jai and Adel slept peacefully, still holding my nonexistent form.
I had to turn away. I was a coward. I held the gun to my head. Straight through the upper eye, that would do it. The people were angry, furious, and they had every right to be. Their water sources had failed them. Their food sources had failed them. Their ecosystem had failed them. We had failed them. They wanted to see the Thirty Year Plan? This was the Thirty Year Plan. I closed my eyes. The phone rang.
I jumped, and turned to see if Jai or Adel had noticed. They hadn't. I shoved the gun into a drawer, and stepped into the hall. "Yes?" I asked tiredly.
"Rook, this is Maddy. The artifact."
"…What about it?"
"We made it work. Look, you know the side with the ridges? We had to balance a pin over it, attach a speaker, and spin it at a very precise rate."
"Almost like a code."
"Maybe. But you have to get over here right now. It's making noise. It's singing."
I was there in under an hour.
By that time, they had reached the apparent end of the recording, and had to reposition the device to make it play again. We sat surrounding the little makeshift player, as the disc spun, absolutely silent.
I heard sounds, the likes of which I had never heard before. Short, organic, staccato beeps and clicks. A low buzzing that rose and fell. Vibrant, voice-like vocalizations from the throats of strange animals, showing anger and joy. Hundreds of sharp, short, airy, melodious whistles, that fell into wondrous natural tunes and songs. A long, low, howl that seemed to swell out of silence, like a mountain out of water, like the sun out of night. Then there was the music.
All different styles, all different sounds. Some like water falling over rocks, some like heartbeats, like screaming, like falling, like love. Unintelligible singing voices wove in and out of them. It was rhythmic and beautiful.
"It's not all," Maddy explained excitedly. "We translated the star maps. We found our star. If we're right, this came from a planet in a solar system 7.7 light years away." Well within reach of the starcraft. I could feel the Thirty Year Plan, and all of my doubts, wither away.
The music ended soon, replaced by tuneful, punctuated voices, all diverse in their influences, all saying things we couldn't interpret, but understood precisely. The music had ended, but I was listening to the most glorious song I would ever hear.
I could barely give the muttered instructions to prep the starcraft. This was the song of salvation, of hope, of deliverance. A song of plenty, of a land of space and air and animals and voices. We thank our otherworldly saviours like tribal ancients, showing gratitude for the lives of the animals they were about to hunt.
So this message is to you, to your planet, to your world that howls and speaks and sings. Thank you for your for your expressions of welcome and invitation, and for your offerings of hope and life.
We hear you.
And we're coming as soon as we can.