Editor's note: It would have been known as Carl Sagan's final mistake. Historians -- had there been any left -- would have placed it in the great liberal humanist tradition that assumed the universe was essentially benign. The Voyager 1 spacecraft, launched in 1977 and flung into the far galaxies after having made mankind's first close encounter with Saturn in 1980, carried with it a recording of greetings to any extraterrestrial civilization that might someday stumble upon it.
The record, titled "The Sounds of Earth," reached out to touch someone in 60 earthly languages ranging from Akkadian to Welsh, and contained some high-minded nonsense from U. N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim and President Jimmy Carter ("We hope someday, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations").
There was also a series of assorted earthly sounds (laughter, whales at play and the noise of an automobile shifting gears). Once aliens cracked the simple binary code of the record, they could also learn a lot more -- everything from a complete anatomy course focusing on the human nervous system to the precise location of the planet Earth. They could even translate this binary code into video images and get pictures of such earthly wonders as the Toronto Airport and rush-hour in Calcutta.
The message was encoded on a 12-inch copper disc and had the same implicit theme as any glossy magazine ad proclaiming, "It's better in the Bahamas." Come on in, the water's fine.
Or, as Carl Sagan said in the 1977 NASA press release heralding the recording, which he talked NASA into including in the Voyager package, "The launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet."
Cold dawn; bitterly cold dawn. The sun was still just a tiny pinpoint in the sky, all but obscured by the purplish haze. "Damn this climate," said the elderly scientist, "it's like breathing gasoline out here. Why do they always send me to the wilderness for these damn crash projects?
His young protege knew no answer was necessary. The boss was a genius; his mind perhaps the best of his era. But with the genius came a never-ending torrent of complaints.
"The meat rations. Did you see our meat rations?" the scientist continued. "I can't believe that the Leader is forcing me to eat meals like this."
The protege tried to change the subject. "Did you get anywhere last night?"
A pause, then a noise from the scientist that could best be described as a cross between a chirp and a gurgle.
Only when he had milked the moment for all its intrinsic drama did the scientist deign to say anything intelligible.
"The metallic content of the disc is virtually worthless. But I've discovered that if you revolve the disc on this round contraption with a sharp pointed object attached, some sort of noise is given off."
"Have you managed to decipher any of it?"
Another gurgle from the scientist. "Most of it is just a simple binary code. The message itself is pretty prententious. It's beneath contempt."
The protege wished that they were still discussing meat rations or the cold or the energy shortage. Anything but the bitter sense of failure. What would the Leader say? That all this time and energy had yielded garbage that was "beneath contempt"? The protege knew he'd never taste meat again. But he assumed that, anyway. What he feared for was his life.
"How will we ever tell the Leader?" asked the protege.
"Stop jumping to conclusions. The medium is the message. If I can just figure out the road map that's conveniently included, we may be able to gain more riches than even the Leader has ever dreamed of. Maybe even meat."
Just the thought of meat was enough to start the protege drooling. He hoped the scientist hadn't noticed his eagerness. He carefully wiped the milky fluid from his five lips with one of his nine tentacles.
Sgt. Henry R. Hiltz had worked the problem out to his satisfaction. He cursed the Army regulations that prevented him from using the elaborate computer in front of him for such vital calculations. But after 35 minutes with a pencil and paper, he had his answer.
In exactly 968,978 seconds, he would be eligible for leave. He could imagine himself getting on the chopper for the 45-minute flight to Gander. Never again would he have to stand watch at this radar installation on the Greenland icecap. He had served his six weeks.Let another sucker handle the job.
Hiltz knew the Russians would never attack. His big worry was Canada geese. One more false alarm about birds and he'd never get his pension.
Hiltz looked at his Seiko. Only 968,889 seconds to go. Suddenly, the screen was aglow. These were not geese. They were coming in too high and too fast to be Russians.
His last memory was reaching for the red phone.
In New York, the Today Show was beginning its final segment. Jane Pauley was interviewing Carl Sagan for the 11th time in nine months. "No wonder our numbers are plummeting," Pauley thought, "why listen to this twaddle when one could be listening to an interiview with Robin Williams on ABC?"
But Pauley was a professional and she was dutifully asking the glib Sagan about his recent book on how life was possible on the newly discovered sixth moon of Neptune.
"With a nitrogen-based atmosphere," he said with a great bird-like swoop of his arms, "albeit a primitive one, and a temperature that is more than ninety degrees above absolute zero, it would be premature to totally rule out the chance of some kind of . . ."
Sagan's mouth never closed. His eyebrows were caught in a flaps-up position. His arms remained permanently in the uplifted pose of the statue on the mountain above Rio de Janeiro. He never knew what hit him. The ray that immobilized his nervous system ended all conscious thought.
The alien scientist and his now-plump protege, although their carapaces were about to burst, were sitting down to their fourth meal of the long night. Wide, hexagonal platters were laden with slabs of fresh meat. In fact, because of the odd positions of some of the haunches, they overflowed.
"Delicious. These things are simply delicious," said the scientist with the crustacean equivalent of a belch. "The Leader will be so pleased."
He took another hefty bite. "Joining a community of galactic civilizations, indeed!" He extended a tentacle for another helping. "How thoughful of them to include that map." He belched again.
"You know, I wonder who these creatures were?"