Image: Surian Soosay

Dark was the night, and cold the ground

For the 200th anniversary of Voyager 1, NASA has planned a special treat.

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Aug 24 2017, 3:00pm

Image: Surian Soosay

Voyager 1 and 2 are officially over the hill—the two craft that have traveled further from our Earth than any other are about to turn 40. Today, we have a speculation about what NASA might do when they turn 200—and what the world might look like then. Enjoy. -the editor

A note from the author: This story must be read while listening to this, the Voyager Golden Record Playlist. No particular order or methodology is required.

In an unprecedented act of nostalgia, NASA had decided to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Voyager I's launch by paying the probe a visit with a Zener-P manned spaceship. Voyager I and II were small, beeping satellites with big photovoltaic wings that were sent out in 1977 to explore and photograph first our solar system, and then our galaxy. Old Voyager I was too slow for the year 2177. It had been almost four decades since the human-animalian space council of post-2050. NASA had sent the first of a fleet of faster, more sophisticated probes to other parts of the Milky Way. Those probes had long since surpassed Voyager and had 4D-live streamed galaxies humans had only seen for the first time less than 200 years ago, with the first orbital telescopes.

So, Voyager had been flying dead for the last hundred years. Its surfboard-like photovoltaic wings had shut down way before that. When Zener-P found it, it was traveling at 35-thousand miles per hour, one trillion miles away from Earth. The crew had not yet spotted it. Both animals and humans were tired, and increasingly anxious.

—"Bwak-bwak b-bwak..," clucked Achilles, the chicken.
—"Not again," said Elvin, the Blue Australian canary. "What was that, Achilles? I think your Kaz is broken."
—[clucking/static]
—"Maybe it's for the best," Helen, the yellow Australian canary, said sardonically.
—"bwak...this fuck...bwak..," said Achilles.
—"Great, it's coming back," said Helen.
—"This piece of shit Kaz translator stopped working again."
—"It's the batteries," said Madame G. "Just change them."

Achilles unexpectedly shut up. His beak wide open, eyes glazed, staring out Zener-P's great panoramic window.
—"Shit," he uttered. "Is that that motherfucking thing?"
—"Oh, yes! Everyone:" said Madame G, "There it is! Mission control, we confirm visual with primary target, at one trillion, fifty-six-miles over..."

After two years of space travel, Zener-P had finally arrived at its date with Voyager I. Its beeping had stopped for what seemed a VW Beetle made of ice, with spacedust-encrusted wings. That's what one hundred years at -454ºF without heating would do for you.

The Zener-P was commanded by Madame G and Dr. Léon, both humans who didn't look a day over 150, even though they were 217 years old. They signed up for this 5-year long round trip, which was an honor, of course. Dr. Léon had been one of the first humans out of the solar system, during the 2115 Xanax missions to locate planets outside of the Milky Way galaxy. Madame G was the first human to set foot on Pluto 50 years ago and the most famous and seasoned cosmonaut on the present mission. Also in the ship was Achilles, the hermaphrodite chicken. He was proud to say—always in a very coarse manner—that he was the first chicken on Earth to fly (more like the first zero gravity poultry, but the crew didn't bother with such pointless distinctions). Achilles thought he was part of the mission because of his great technological insight, but, he didn't even know how to change the batteries of his Kaz system. Achilles was there only because of his ability to produce fresh eggs without a mate (something he secretly suspected, thus resented deeply). Other crew members included Héctor the mute goat (for dairy), and Helen and Elvin, the Australian mine canaries. Just about everything else on the mission was provided by ZP, the computer who did most things, including general nutrition (minus the eggs/dairy), cellular reconstruction/maintenance of the body, and ship navigation. By this, the second year of the voyage most crew members really hated each other.

Aside from the beeping, Voyager I originally hosted a camera, a cosmic ray detector, ultraviolet and infrared spectrometers, a photopolarimeter, a radiometer and a golden record, which was not really made of gold. It was made of copper, gold plated, the size of a normal vinyl record, and had been designed by Carl Sagan, intended as a map for the human-centered society of the 20th century. It contained 115 images in analog format, greetings in different languages, and 90 minutes worth of soundscapes that included the human heartbeat, chirping birds (without translation), thunderstorms, the steam railroad, a Ford-T engine, Bach's Brandenburg Concerto, Mexican son jarocho, Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" (conducted by Stravinski), the Indian "Jaat Kahan Ho," sung by Surshri Kesar Bai Kerkar, "Johnny B. Goode," by Chuck Berry, and "Dark Was the Night," by Blind Willie Johnson.

In the year of our lord, 2177, this vision was seen as something anachronistic, and thus, obsolete. It wasn't long ago that animals started talking to humans, thankfully, due to the efforts of a Brazilian genius, Roberto Kaz, who discovered the way to include other audio spectrums in cochlear implants. He called it the multi-spectral Kaz auditive system. Since then, humans were able to listen to frequencies never imagined, not only of animals, but also of colors, planets and stars. Because the Kaz technology was relatively new it still had a long way to perfection. It sure shocked those humans when it became clear that the rest of creation was just as intelligent and egoistic and profane as they were. Achilles did not care this system had changed the world, however. Its imperfections always made him uneasy, or as he described it that night, " bullshit."
—"This Kaz system," said Achilles. "Sorry ass thing. Always makes me bullshit."
—"Who would'a guessed that chickens would be so vulgar?" said Helen. "This one's cursin worse than Miles Davis!"
—"Miles Davis played the horn like a sun god, Helen," said Elvin. "Poor Achilles can't even change the damn batteries of his Kaz, let alone havin any bloody music skills."
—"Shut it, Elvin," said Achilles. "Just go fuck yourself. My ego only needs a good rhythm section. No batteries for that."
—"You're the only one in this ship that can actually go fuck yourself, Achilles," said Elvin.

Achilles didn't go fuck himself. Instead, the crew proceeded to do some 200-year-old maintenance to Voyager I. First, they melted the icy shell. Then, they adjusted the camera, sampled the cosmic ray detector, white balanced it to the ultraviolet, calibrated the infrared spectrometer, and rewired the radiometer. A self-sufficient, 'clean' nuclear energy source was installed, which brought the beeping back online. Most importantly, they had to change the golden record.

This was the crux of the mission, because the information contained therein was extremely anthropocentric, and the world did not in truth resemble anything like that. In the year 2177, humans were not the only members of society anymore. Intra species communication had allowed for animals to quickly permeate into the private and public realm of society. Who else but amphibians, fishes, and aquatic mammals to inhabit and govern cities like New York, now almost 70 years completely underwater? Honkor ' Le Sage' was the first dolphin to be re-elected as city mayor, a great administration by all standards.

The golden record was replaced by an actual gold record that digitally auto-played itself, containing 10 thousand holographic pieces of music, poetry, scenic arts, history, fiction of all animal kingdoms, and an updated map of the Earth that included 42% less land, lost by the rise of the oceans, in the 'Revolution of Stupid' era of humanity. The golden record was to be taken secretly back to NASA, probably to avoid it finishing in some Canadian dictator's private museum, a trait of running times.


—"Let's play that mother [clucking...static] thing," said Achilles of the 1977 golden disc.
Dr. Léon put the record in a custom made player. As Zener-P flew away, Blind Willie Johnson's humming and blues guitar filled the spaceship, making up for the silence of everyone watching, catatonic-like, how Voyager continued it's now ice-free trip, and beeping.

"Dark was the night," sang Blind Willie, "and cold the ground."


Bienvenue, Dr. Léon