“This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts, and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.”
-President Jimmy Carter
September 5th, 1977
Voyager 1 launches from Cape Canaveral, Florida, a mere sixteen days after its twin, Voyager 2. They both make their journey into space about Titan-Centaur rockets, a rocket propulsion system that the world would never see again. The Voyager 1 leaves Earth’s atmosphere with a specific mission in mind: pass by Jupiter, Saturn, and Saturn’s largest, atmosphere-thick moon: Titan.
March 5th, 1979
Voyager 1 passes by Jupiter, photographing it and two of its satellite moons, Io and Europa. Fact: Io was named for one of Zeus’s lovers, a Priestess of the Goddess Hera. It was either Zeus, as a means to hide his mortal lover from Hera, or Hera herself who turned Io into a heifer. As a mistress of science, and a mountain-spotted world, the name Io is indeed suitable. Fact: Europa is considered one of the best options for future habitability. With an ice-crust and a thin, oxygen-rich atmosphere, science-fiction and science-reality alike look to places like these with watery-eyed hope and adoration.
November 12th, 1980
Voyager 1 passes by Saturn and notices a kink in one of its outer rings. Consisting mostly of ice and rock of infinitesimal size and composition, the F ring seems to have hit a bump in the road, so to speak. Speculation says Saturn’s moon Prometheus is to blame. A long time ago, Prometheus stole fire from the gods. Now, it seems Prometheus is out to steal a piece of Saturn too. The jury is still out on how Prometheus’s smaller counterpart, Pandora, feels about all of this. It’s a box no one wants to open.
February 14th, 1990
As Voyager 1 approaches the threshold between the Milky Way and interstellar space, it takes a snapshot of the Solar System as seen from outside. This “family portrait,” taken six billion kilometers from Earth, is a mosaic of sixty individual frames. It’s underwhelming at first glance but imagine getting one hundred billion family members together in one place at one time, then making sure Auntie Sue keeps a straight face and the twins stop moving about around the edges of the shot.
February 17th, 1998
Voyager 1 passes Pioneer 10, becoming the farthest man-made object in space as it approaches the edge of the solar system. Champagne. Congratulatory high-fives all around. Carl Sagan’s vision of “advanced space-faring civilizations in interstellar space” is one step closer to becoming a reality. Sadly, after a two-year struggle with myelodysplasia, a disease in which blood cells within bone marrow do not mature into healthy, viable cells, he passed a year or so before he could witness the expansion of the universe as we know it.
August 25th, 2012
Voyager 1 officially crosses the heliopause, a bubble of plasma blowout from the Sun that separates the Milky Way and the interstellar medium. The echoes of the deaths of millions of stars are the spacecraft’s only friends now.
In an ironic and tragic turn of events, as we make yet another “giant leap for mankind,” Neil Armstrong dies after heart surgery.
January 2nd, 2020
Voyager 1 begins its own inevitable death. Gyroscopic operations terminate. The bus begins to shut down, causing the electronics within the shuttle to flicker and die one by one like the stars they were created to observe. The cameras no longer operate. Even if they did, the optical calibration system wouldn’t be able to guide their viewfinders. The ultraviolet spectrometer clicks off after a brief stint of reanimation, but that’s okay. From here, there’s the Oort cloud and forty thousand years of oblivion.
June 20th, 2025
A blink of the eye before Voyager 1 shuts all her systems down forever, something amazing happens.
A camera inside the space shuttle, black for over five years, fizzles to life. First, static dances across the screen in streaks of gray like ants racing home to their queen. Then, the rows widen and contract. Finally, the fisheye picture comes to life.
No one’s watching at first. Why would they? NASA’s budget has been slashed to nothing, while privateers streak across the sky in luxury space yachts. The government spends what little money is left cleaning up the environmental fallout. Why would they waste even a penny on hiring someone to watch a blank screen?
The janitor, Suzy Stone, happens by in yet another cosmic coincidence. It’s her first month on the job, and she’s not sure what she’s looking at. Dust settles over the furniture in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a nondescript office building in Pasadena, despite the impending shutdown of one of the world’s most ambitious scientific ventures, and somebody has to keep things tidy. The last guy retired after almost forty years of service. Even with triple the time under her belt, Suzy is sure she wouldn’t be able to comprehend the sudden, startling images.
After a quick phone call, a team of scientists, graduate students, and random passersby, some still in their robes and others intoxicated from their Friday night shenanigans, huddle around a single computer monitor. Their mouths are gaping, and their eyes are wide. No one says a word. No one as much as sneezes for hours.
No one believes what they are seeing. The thing is not gray with an elongated conical head nor is it tiny and green with suckers on its fingertips. It doesn’t have tentacles growing out of the back of its skull or horns protruding from its temples. In fact, it’s impossible to say what it does have. It’s a semi-humanoid blur. A blip in the light stretched from catwalk to ceiling. It moves like a storm. The interior of the shuttle shifts and warps as it rifles around, pulling wires out and removing sheets of metal from the wall as if it were peeling an onion.
Then, it speaks. It shouldn’t be able to speak, and they shouldn’t be able to hear it. The words are garbled. At first, the aural curiosities are alien and dissonant. The audience cringes and cups their hands over their ears. After several more hours, they become almost harmonic and are belted out in rhythmic bursts.
“Hey, I know this jam,” Suzy Stone says. It’s the first time anyone has said anything for 18 hours.
And her riveted companions recognize it too. They’re all humming “Johnny B. Goode” together, but not loudly enough to outshine the almost heavenly soundwaves pouring out of the monitor. The words of Chuck Berry make the surreal video feed feel almost close to normal.
The being is ever so slightly more defined, as if the 50s vibes have the congenital ability to bring tangible substance to ethereal and formless things. As it becomes clearer, it’s unmistakable: This extraterrestrial anomaly is dancing to the tunes.
“Anyone wanna order pizza?” somebody suggests, to a response of uh huhs and ehhs.
The delivery driver gets there in two hours with thirty pizzas. Nobody bothers to tip, but she doesn’t head back to the shop either. She can’t miss even a second of what’s unfolding on the screen.
After a long spurt of silence, the audience is anxious. They shuffle awkwardly. They grind their teeth. They smoke cigarettes down to wet filters.
All the while, the alien is hunched over a viewscreen within Voyager 1. It’s now got extremities, which it uses to swipe from one side to the other in front of the screen without ever touching the glass. Faint and distorted images appear and disappear with each flick of its wrist.
When it leaves the monitor, it has skin and joints and hair. It turns to the camera slowly, deliberately, and the pizza delivery driver passes out. From snapshots it saw from Earth—116 images chosen by the original Voyager 1 scientists—it’s morphed into a monstrous patchwork of what it must think humans look like.
Its skin is all wrong, patchy, discolored, and overlapping in places. Across its face the skin is stretched too tight. On its arms it hangs loose and dry. One pectoral muscle clings to the outside of its chest. What appears to be an umbilical cord dangles from its abdomen. Its part man, part woman, and part animal, with young eyes and an ancient, disfigured smile. A series of silver fish fins protrude from its spine.
It reaches a striped, taloned hand towards the camera lens and taps three times. The room in Pasadena shakes. A coffee cup falls off the desk and spills day-old coffee all over the surge protector. The power spikes and the lights go off, but the monitor stays on.
With one grotesque eyeball pressed up against the lens, the alien says in broken English, “Hello Children of Earth.” Then, “Bonjour tout le monde. Chân thành gửi tới các bạn lời chào thân hữu. Witajcie, istoty z zaświatów. Желимо вам све најлепше са наше планете.”
Most of these sounds—greetings from fifty-five different languages—sound foreign and harsh to the audience. The alien grows more and more animated as it seamlessly transitions from one linguistic family to another, as if playing back a recording. The most disconcerting part comes at the end in the form of bellowing whale sounds and life-like dolphin trills.
Suddenly, the stream of acoustics ends. The alien backs away from the camera, the wetness of its eye leaving a slimy streak across the feed, and bows one way and then to the other, as if thanking the audience for its time and admiration. It reaches its other hand—this one possessing long, slender fingers with protrusile suckers—towards the camera inside of Voyager 1 and sends it through the screen. It comes out the other side and suctions to Suzy Stone’s forehead, then yanks violently. Her face smacks into the computer monitor and blood pours from her nose. It tosses her from side to side, banging her into the floor over and over before discarding her into the crowd.
Everyone’s screaming and bumping into each other trying to escape, but it’s already too late. The alien is grasping the edges of the monitor. It’s pulling itself out of the interior of Voyager 1 and into the Californian lab. Four times taller than the tallest human present, it dances from one victim to another singing its song of death.
June 21st, 2025
A local detective watches the CCTV feed of the previous day’s horror. He doesn’t believe his own eyes; he can’t. He hadn’t believed the delivery driver’s story—who survived only because she had been passed out when the alien came through—either. No sane man would.
The surgical precision with which the alien slaughtered the people in that room, as if it had been handed the anatomical blueprints of humanity and a choreographed play-by-play of human nature, startles the detective. He’s not by any means squeamish, but he vomits on his loafers by the second act. At intermission, he’s on the floor retching and sobbing.
No one else has seen the alien, of course, but the sounds of Chuck Berry emanate ceaselessly from the unplugged monitor in the evidence room. Four people from IT have been through to try and shut it down; four people from IT have failed to do so.
He fast-forwards through the more gruesome parts of the footage. One can only stomach so much carnage, so many rolling heads, before losing the will to press on. He pauses it at the same moment the alien discovers the camera. The creature is staring right at him as if it knows he’s watching.
Without hitting play, the alien moves in jerking stop-motion. It steps over the corpses towards the camera and reaches towards the detective. A powerful hand extends through the lens like it is water and grabs the detective by his tie.
Voyager 1 shuts down, forever destined to float alone through the void of space, but it doesn’t shut down quite fast enough.
Originally published in RhetAskews’s Anthology Askew Volume 006: Askew Horizons, 2018, and edited by Mandy Melanson and Dusty Grein. Visit https://www.rhetaskewpublishing.com for additional works and services.