Traffic on the 395 was light at 6 AM. Phil made the L’Enfant exit, turned right onto E Street SW, and then a block later, rolled past the blue “NASA Employees Only” sign. He waved his ID on its lanyard at the guard, who recognized him and raised the gate just in time.
The plastic coffee mug in the cup holder swayed slightly as he went down the ramp. The lot was almost empty. Phil parked by the elevator.
The Director of NASA and two women Phil didn’t know were already waiting in a glassed-in conference room. “Phil,” the Director said. “I know it’s early. Glad you had time to grab coffee. I’m going to introduce everyone, and then run.”
“This is about the extra-solar probe that we retrieved last week,” the Director continued. “The mission that incidentally happened to snag the probe is classified. It’s not part of the discussion here today. Phil, here, is from the Office of the General Council.”
“Our own legal beagle,” said the older of the two women. “I’m Karen, from Operations. And that’s Frederika, from the Science Directorate.”
“Everyone good?” asked the Director. He closed the glass door to the room gently behind himself.
“There was no such meeting,” Karen said. “Not only that, but I wasn’t in it.”
“So,” said Phil.
“Yes,” said Karen. “So.”
There was a pause, as everyone arranged themselves around the table, and Karen plugged her laptop into the large flat-screen television mounted on one of the glass walls.
“Ever seen this before?” asked Frederika. An image of a golden disc appeared on the screen.
“The Golden Record?” asked Phil. “Wasn’t that attached to the Pioneer space probes?”
“Not exactly,” said Karen. “Pioneer had the fancy plaques with the naked figures on them. We got in hot water over that. Sagan’s fault.”
“Really?” said Phil.
“Yeah, the media ate us alive. This one, the Golden Record, went out a few years later on the Voyager probes.”
“Was this the one with the Beatles song on it?”
“No, that was actually an urban myth. They do have ‘Johnny B. Goode’ on it though. Chuck Berry. Plus classic music, and people saying hello in fifty languages, and some encoded pictures.”
“Okay,” said Phil. “So why are we looking at the Golden Record?”
“Well,” said Karen. “What we’re looking at isn’t actually our record.”
“What is it then?”
“There’s one more technical detail I think you need before we get into that,” Karen said. She looked at Frederika.
“The record cover was electroplated with a special sample of uranium-238,” said Frederika. “It decays very slowly into lead. That means if you assume that it was perfectly pure to begin with, you can work out exactly how old the sample is later on.”
“Okay,” said Phil, drawing out the word.
“The record you’re looking at was attached to that extra-solar probe,” said Karen. “It’s an almost perfect copy of the one that went out on the Voyagers, except the sample makes it appear to be thousands of years old.”
“Could that be faked?” asked Phil.
“Yup,” said Frederika. “It’s work, but doable.”
“And we’re certain this isn’t a hoax?” asked Phil.
“Excellent question,” said Karen. “The probe came in at a funny angle to the ecliptic.” Phil must have looked puzzled, because she added, “That’s the angle that all of the planets rotate around the sun in. It’s all in a plane.” She held out her hand over the table and flattened it, by way of example. “It’s tricky for somebody to launch something from Earth and have it come back at that particular angle.”
“Plus that probe was weird,” said Frederika. “Nobody makes components like that.”
“That we know of,” added Karen.
“True,” said Frederika. “But we’re pretty sure this wasn’t made by anyone on Earth.”
“You said this was almost an exact copy,” said Phil.
“This is where you come in,” said Karen. “The appearance and contents were exactly the same as our Golden Record. Only there was one thing added to it.”
“In plain English,” added Frederika.
“It said,” said Karen, “‘The contents of this recording are infringing on the copyright owned by the XGDNsnW’Yk, year 68352 of the Galactic Cycle, and have been unlawfully uploaded onto the probes launched from your system. We request that you immediately remove this material from the aforementioned probes, and henceforward refrain from such activity, in order to remain immune from legal action.’”
“Go, Johnny, go,” said Frederika.