That recent post of mine about Voyager 1 and the Interstellar Hum (and if that isn’t the name for a band…) sent me off on a tangent, which, sorry, is just going to happen with a mind like mine. Fortunately, it didn’t take long to get rid of it.
Could Be Worse
When the first verified radio transmission from outside our solar system arrived, naturally everyone, from world leaders to the guy in the bar on seventh street, wanted to know what the darn thing said. The greatest minds on the planet as well as the tin-foil hat crowd got to work straight away. They tried matching the timing of the pulses to the spin states of hydrogen atoms and the Fibonacci series. They tried matching the frequency to DNA intervals. They even tried humming along to the transmission, trying to find a tune.
It was a Basque shepherd who finally cracked the code. After all, out on a mountain with no wifi and unreliable satellite internet, he had a lot of time. At first no one believed him, until a few of the code breakers got bored and desperate enough to just sit and listen to the transmission the way the shepherd had, and finally heard what he heard—the transmission was a joke.
A literal joke.
It had everything—the narrative set-up, the slow build, the release of the punch line, all defined in what until then had seemed a random sequence of pulses. Some contrarians argued that it could just as easily mean sex, but they were ignored.
The code breakers got busy, feeding the transmission into an AI with a database of, it was believed, every joke, anecdote, or whimsical musing ever uttered. And they waited. At the end of the first day, the program spat out the first likely match word:
Anyone’s attention that had wandered in the weeks since the transmission’s arrival suddenly snapped back to focus. Warning? About what? They had to wait four more days for the next part of the message.
“Objects in your telescopes.”
Our telescopes? Calls went out to all the observatories around the world. “Look, dammit!” And they looked. And spotted what appeared to be an asteroid passing the orbit of Jupiter. Too far out and projected to pass out of the solar system without hitting anything, so what were they warning about?
“Are.” That was the next translation. After that, another word:
By then many people had a horrible suspicion, confirmed in the next four days as the translation was completed.
“Than they appear.”
At this point, everyone knew one thing for certain about whatever alien species had sent the message: they had a sick sense of humor. That too, was confirmed, when the observatories took a longer look, and made some more careful and precise calculations. The asteroid had indeed picked up a gravity assist from Jupiter but also a “slight course correction,” that no one expected or could explain. The asteroid was now traveling faster and headed straight for us. Thirty-five miles of civilization ending rock and nickel-iron, and there wasn’t a blessed thing we could do about it.
Definitely a sick sense of humor.
When the shepherd was reached for comment, he just shrugged. “Lousy joke, but could be worse.”
“Worse? In God’s name, how?”
Another shrug. “They could have said ‘Send more Chuck Berry.”
©2021 Richard Parks