(This short story was first published in Swedish, then I translated it into English, and it is part of my short story collection ‘Odin’s Eye’. The thought of the Voyager record always fascinated me: thinking of these “Sounds of Earth” traveling into space, and imagining who might listen to them in the far future.
Rest in peace, Chuck Berry, and all speed and safe journeys to the Voyager space craft.)
Johnny B. Goode
The following music was included on the Voyager record: Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F. First Movement – Java, court gamelan, “Kinds of Flowers” – Senegal, percussion – Zaire, Pygmy girls’ initiation song – Australia, Aborigine songs, “Morning Star” and “Devil Bird” – Mexico, “El Cascabel” – “Johnny B. Goode”, written and performed by Chuck Berry – New Guinea, men’s house song – Japan, shakuhachi, “Tsuru No Sugomori” – Bach, “Gavotte en rondeaux” from the Partita No. 3 in E major for Violin – Mozart, The Magic Flute, Queen of the Night aria, no. 14 – Georgian S.S.R., chorus, “Tchakrulo” – Peru, panpipes and drum – “Melancholy Blues” – Azerbaijan S.S.R., bagpipes – Stravinsky, Rite of Spring, Sacrificial Dance – Bach, The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, Prelude and Fugue in C, No.1. – Beethoven, Fifth Symphony, First Movement – Bulgaria, “Izlel je Delyo Hagdutin” – Navajo Indians, Night Chant – Holborne, Paueans, Galliards, Almains and Other Short Aeirs, “The Fairie Round” – Solomon Islands, panpipes – Peru, wedding song – China, ch’in, “Flowing Streams” – India, raga, “Jaat Kahan Ho” – “Dark Was the Night – Beethoven, String Quartet No. 13 in B flat, Opus 130, Cavatina (from NASA).
He walked the well-trodden path between the piles of scrap and debris, all carefully sorted to separate the different metals and alloys and other recyclable materials. The frozen ground crunched beneath the heavy soles of his boots, and as he walked he was humming the song, imitating the sounds as best he remembered them, because the words were impossible to understand, yet equally impossible to get out of his head.
He paused briefly to catch his breath next to one of the tall, cylindrical pump sheds, listening to the metallic echo from deep beneath the layers of ice and rock where the water- and oxygenation pumps breathed with him: deep, slow breaths, followed by heavy puffs of steam. Breathing in the suit had become increasingly difficult for him over the years, and lately the dizziness overcame him more often than before. It made him think of death, but by now that thought didn’t scare him anymore – it was too familiar.
The newly arrived ship sat on the landing pad when he got there, its ramp lowered. He could see the three strangers talking to each other and didn’t turn on his own voice transmission until he was right next to them, forgetting for a moment that he was still singing, the sound vibrating in his throat and ears inside the hood.
Apparently he had surprised them, because their conversation ended abruptly as they turned towards him. One of them made a quick gesture and the other two retreated, pulling out shiny instruments with meters and sensors as they began examining the scrap heaps more closely.
The woman who remained raised the black polarized screen inside her mask but still did not reveal her eyes, as a pair of oval UV-screens were fitted tightly over her eye sockets.
“We’re looking for a probe,” she said, obviously feeling no need to waste time on introductions or small talk.
All business and no manners as usual with these scroungers, he thought, but it had been so long since he had seen anyone at all, and some days any kind of company would do. He stuffed his gloved hands into the lined pockets of his suit, studying her face as best he could when he couldn’t see her eyes.
“If you’re looking for anything that’s still active you’re in the wrong place. I deal in legal salvaged goods, inactive stuff, no illegal neuro-tech components or anything like that.”
“The probe we’re looking for is an older model. Could probably have passed for wreckage.”
She held out a black, rectangular image viewer. It was a newer model, one he hadn’t seen before: flexible and smooth, no bigger than the palm of her hand and as thin as an id-sticker. The surface cleared, revealing a picture.
He studied it for a moment, feigning as much interest as he thought prudent, then shook his head.
“Doesn’t look like anything I’ve been around. What’s that large round thing anyway?”
“A primitive communication device.”
He sat down on one of the opened storage crates and watched as the other two walked down one of the side paths. Not that he was worried, really. They were still a comfortable distance from the entrance to his tunnels.
“Must be something important with three tech-specialists out looking for it,” he said. “What was it carrying? Illegal DNA-codes? Secret development plans for some new monster ship?”
“No, nothing like that. Audio-visual info, very primitive the whole thing.”
“Audio? What format?”
“Soundtracks inscribed on a round disc.”
“Audio tracks? Then we’re talking antiques. Why do you want to find it?”
She sat down next to him, stretching her long legs as if to relax them after standing for too long. A tiny diode throbbed below her cheek bone: a direct link for info-plugs, hooked up to her cortex. An expensive mod, no matter what your line of work.
“It’s old,” she said. “Could even be the first probe that made it beyond the furthest planetary orbit.”
“So you’re tech-historians? I thought that kind of activity had been classified as a misuse of resources.”
That made her laugh, a big laugh. He liked that.
“No, we’re not exactly historians. We’re searchers. Or as you probably call us, scroungers. Scavengers. Kind of like you, I guess. We look for lost property for a fee. Up until a few months ago this probe was hardly of interest to anyone, and definitely not to us, but according to new, very interesting but unconfirmed reports, it was carrying some kind of message when it was sent out. Nobody knows for sure what that message was, but everything seems to indicate that it was addressed to an extraterrestrial civilization. Coordinates for alien life would be of great value to whoever finds it first.”
“In that case maybe you’ve come to the right place after all. There are lots of aliens out here.”
She raised an eyebrow.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean me,” he said, happy to discuss one of his pet subjects with someone who hadn’t heard him talk about it before. “And the others who live out here. None of us are from the inner system. Most of us were born out here, halfway to Alpha Centauri. We’re extraterrestrials. Maybe that message was meant for us.”
She laughed again.
“But you’re still human.”
“Maybe. Maybe not.”
She nodded, but he could see that she didn’t understand. He raised his hand to stroke his beard as he usually did when something was bothering him, but his glove just touched the face mask.
“By the way, how do you know where to look for it?” he asked to change the subject. “That probe.”
“Well, we’ve tried to calculate its most probable course according to the data we wrung out of the Net, but so far we haven’t found anything. The Kuiper Belt was a waste of time but out here in the Oort Cloud you never know what you’re going to find, especially among scrap dealers who might have picked up something interesting while hunting for carrion. But you haven’t seen it? The material is mostly aluminum, and the communication and observation components are totally primitive, nothing that would be of any use these days.”
She held up the picture again.
“No,” he said. “I’ve not seen it.”
She put the image viewer back in her breast pocket.
“Lots of people are looking for it, so you’ll probably get more visitors. Reminds me of all the hoopla a few years ago when everybody wanted to find that first robot sent to Mars.”
“I heard about that. Did anyone ever find it?”
“Not a trace as far as I know. It’d be garbage anyway. Not even scrap.”
She stood up.
“So. What’s it like, living out here? Can’t be easy.”
“We survive. There are a lot of space rocks out here like this one, hollowed out, emptied of valuable minerals and commodities but all the easier to build on. Space debris is a danger to space travel, even Central Command agrees with that, so somebody has to clean it up. We do the job, and as long as we stay legal and out of other people’s way, no one seems to mind.”
“Still looks like a cold and lonely rubble-pit to me.”
“Maybe you’re just too human to appreciate it.”
“Maybe,” she agreed.
When their ship departed he lingered for a while, gazing at the stars, but he couldn’t remember which one it was they called the Sun.
The nearest passageway sloped downward into the tunnels, and it was lined on either side with covered grow-containers. He tapped the plastic covers so that the condensation trickled down, and he could see the plants reaching for the light tubes above. In the gloom further below he changed his clothes and washed his hands and face thoroughly before taking a couple of vitamin biscuits from the pantry, nibbling at them while cleaning up after his earlier evening meal.
The round cover which he had removed from the probe was propped up on one of the work tables together with assorted parts of other salvaged goods that were either to be repaired, taken apart or melted down. He let his fingertips slide over the golden surface, and with a bitten-down nail he traced the engraved pictures: the two human forms, man and woman, circles, lines. His analysis had shown that it was copper covered with gold. The rest of the probe had been worthless too, just like she had said: mostly aluminum. Worst of all was that he had been forced to deal with that power source which turned out to be plutonium of all things: nothing like radioactive antiques to mess you up.
He kept the disc on a low table next to the bed. The tight spiral pattern of engraved audio tracks gleamed in the dim light, surrounding that round sticker in the center. “Sounds of Earth”.
The player that went with it hadn’t been particularly difficult to assemble, using the small stylus provided and the instructions on the cover, but it had been a bit of a bother to get it to spin at the right speed and not skip. It was such a simple construction, ingenious when you thought about it, and there was something almost hypnotic in the way it rotated: the engraved tracks spinning around and around and around, the needle following the spiral, winding tighter and tighter, ever closer to the center and to the end.
He lay down on the bed.
Lately, his dreams had been changing and he often dreamed of places he had never seen. Sometimes he imagined that the sounds from the disc were the cause of it, conjuring up new images, engraving new tracks in his subconscious for the needle of sleep to read.
Voices spoke to him in the silence, words he could not understand, then other sounds: the deep throbbing of a heart, a child crying, a song that was nothing but one wailing tone, other sounds running like water, hammering like metal on rock, low pitched whistles and clicking noises that seemed alien and oddly familiar at the same time. And then there was the music, that song, the one that beat inside him like a second heart.
But there was no message; there were only these enigmatic sounds.
So many sounds that I can’t decipher, and yet they’re impossible to get out of my head, he thought, closing his eyes, listening.
There’s nothing to find. No coordinates, no destination, no alien civilization. Just sounds from the past, from the beginning, from the place where it had all started, nothing else. Nothing that could be of any use.