I remember the day they discovered the time capsule.
They first described it as a white, bowl-shaped contraption containing a golden disk. We didn't know what it was and where it came from. Scientists studied the disk and eventually determined how to operate it. And then the sounds started playing: unfamiliar rhythms and tunes. We couldn't identify what the sounds were or what they were trying to tell us. Then we decoded images revealing a species that could have resembled us- but with smaller eyes and heads and bigger mouths and ears.
I think the images of the species were what really frightened us. For so long, we had thought we were the only advanced civilization out there.
I was only a baby when the time capsule was discovered, but I remember the day like it was yesterday. I had grown up watching the revolution unfold among us. Soon it felt like everybody was picking a side. Either, you were on the side that chose to ignore the golden disk, or you were on the side that wished to do something about it.
- - -
My mother's voice runs through my head, interrupting my thoughts.
Please come down and eat.
I put down my touchpad and stroll into the kitchen.
Good morning. My mom smiles at me, communicating her thoughts telepathically. A plate of food sits on the table, and I gratefully oblige.
My father walks into the room. Hello Cosma. Journaling again, I see.
I finish eating, and Jamaya approaches, handing me my bag. Jamaya is our robot; every household on Merona has one. She cleans our home, cooks our food and does our laundry.
Jamaya hands me my vitapills. The history books tell us that in ancient times, sickness and disease used to be a main cause of quietus. Now, these two little pills I take each day protect me from every virus and illness on the planet.
I swallow my pills and leave for class.
At school, I meet up with my friends Palia and Rasha. The recent violence and riots on the streets have led many parents to keep their children home from school.
Cosma, did you listen to the news this morning? Rasha glances at me worriedly.
What is it? I reply.
There was an uprising on the other side of Merona. President Loyola warned that the revolution has reached an unprecedented peak.
I catch sight of a boy sitting under a tree. His name is Arkin, and there has been a rumor going around that he is one of the regressives. The regressives still practice religion. President Loyola outlawed religion decades ago. He said it held us back from innovation. I've never conversed with Arkin, but I've heard the rumors.
Rasha nudges me.
Isn't he strange? What is he still doing here? He should be at home lighting candles and worshipping statues.
Rasha smirks, and I smile.
After school, my friends and I gather in Palia's den and start working on our history reports.
There is something satisfying about enjoying the company of my classmates, and I feel grateful that my parents haven't removed me from school.
After a while, Palia speaks.
I have something to show you.
Her tone sounds serious, and Rasha and I glance at her with concern.
Palia pulls up her touchpad and reads something. Her pupils turn red, and I know that she is using the neuroplayer to generate energy.
I look around for whatever information she has produced. But, I don't see anything. Then, I hear it: a slowly rising crescendo of sound. I stare at Palia in surprise.
The sound gets louder, and then it recedes. I don't know how to explain it, but I can feel something tugging at my heart. The sound is satisfying, and it somehow makes me feel happy.
What is it? Rasha asks. I know she can feel it, too.
It's from the golden disk.
I turn to Palia in shock.
My dad's friend obtained a copy of it. We're not the only ones who have heard it. Many in the arts world have heard it too.
What is it? I question.
It's called music.
Music. The word seems strange and unfamiliar. Yet, there's a part of me that longs to hear more.
The sound changes. It is no longer lilting; now, it is fast and turbulent.
Isn't it incredible?
Palia, you could be in serious trouble if anybody finds out about this. Rasha says. Palia's expression changes suddenly.
We listen to the music until it is time to head home.
Be careful. I tell Palia as I leave.
Two houses away from home, I notice the federal guards. There are dozens of them patrolling residential streets, their dark outfits discernable in the light sky. My pulse quickens as I wonder what they are doing here. One of them approaches me.
What are you doing out?
I'm on my way home.
President Loyola has issued a curfew because of the uprisings. Nobody is allowed out after 49:00.
I scan my brain for the time, only then realizing how late it is.
As I hurry home, the street lamps seem brighter than usual.
The next day in class, everyone is discussing the curfew. I notice that there are even less students here today; we are down to eleven. In history class, the teacher shows the daily announcements. President Loyola stands in front of a podium.
Citizens of Merona, I am urging you to be safe. We are arresting more and more rebels each day. The announcements cut to an image of protesters in front of the Grand Palace. Rasha rolls her eyes, bored. President Loyola reappears.
It has come to my attention that there has been a breach in security. Classified information regarding the golden disk has been stolen and leaked. The golden disk has been deemed a hoax, instituted by rebels to cause turmoil. President Loyola sighs dramatically. The only way we will get past this is if we trust each other. The announcements end, and the class erupts into fearful conversation.
A classmate named Domini scoffs. How could the rebels have planted something like this?
Others agree. How can they dismiss the golden disk like that?
It is no secret that most of my classmates have parents employed in the arts, and we recognize the fallacies in President Loyola's statements.
I glance out the window and notice federal guards outside the school gates. I feel safe voicing my beliefs within the walls of the classroom, but outside many of us worry about saying the wrong thing for fear of putting ourselves in danger.
For many years, President Loyola was a savior. He created jobs and maintained peace among the different groups in our planet. But, the time capsule changed everything.
I spy Arkin in the corner of the classroom scrolling through his touchpad, and I can't help wondering what he thinks of all this.
Class, please calm down. Let us continue with today's lesson. Even our teacher looks troubled. As she begins the lesson, I wonder how many students will be at school tomorrow.
Upon arriving home, I find my father hurriedly shoving clothes and belongings into a bag. My mother sits next to him.
Father, what is going on?
Cosma, I hoped that you would be at your friend's house.
I stare at my father, concerned by the serious expression on his face. I know that his highly secretive job in the Department of Space Research has involved contact with the golden disk.
I have to leave. I may be gone for a long time. It's for the best. Your mother will take care of you.
Why? What has happened? I am confused. Is this about the golden disk?
My father's face turns pale.
I've heard it. I tell him.
Cosma, you cannot tell anyone about that. He sighs. I made a mistake. The government plans to destroy the golden disk. I made a copy of it, and now they are after me. It's not safe for me here anymore. I have to go into hiding. Please don't worry about me.
I stand there, not knowing what to say. My father finishes packing and before I know it, he is gone.
The door shuts firmly behind him, and I look at my mother and Jamaya. Our family is a lot smaller without my father.
My mother tries to comfort me.
- - -
Time passes, and our classroom dwindles down to six. Domini doesn't come back.
One day, I am alone working on my touchpad when I receive an anonymous message instructing me to go to the flypod racks. The message is mysterious, and I am intrigued.
I stand by the racks, and an instant later, Arkin approaches me.
Hello. Can I talk to you? He scans the empty school grounds anxiously. I can't help feeling a little apprehensive. I am surprised he still attends school.
I know where your father is. I can take you to see him. You can trust me. We must travel by flypod.
I am bewildered and don't understand what connection Arkin could have with my father. But, the earnest expression on Arkin's face reassures me.
Arkin unlocks his flypod; it is orange with blue stripes. He hands me a helmet. A moment later, we are in the air heading south. Arkin is a safe pilot, and I get the feeling that he takes this specific route often.
The traffic is light, but I notice that there are more government patrol flypods than usual.
Arkin checks his right mirror, and I notice his expression change suddenly.
I think we're being followed. Arkin responds.
I look over my shoulder, and there is a white government flypod trailing us.
Please pull over. The patrol agent signals from his flypod.
Hang on. Arkin warns me.
Before I realize what is happening, the flypod dips abruptly and starts to rapidly descend.
What are you doing? Pull over! I scream. Arkin ignores me, and the flypod plummets even lower. We are flying too low for safety. I can see into the windows of buildings. Arkin, you're going to get us killed! My heart is beating fast, and my fingers grip the seatbelt tightly.
The government flypod doesn't drop to follow us.
Soon, we are flying above an uninhabited part of Merona. Below us, I can see dense forests and grassy hills.
Arkin, where are we going? I cannot see any other flypods in the sky.
We're almost there, I promise.
We land in a grassy field at the bottom of a hill.
Arkin fastens his flypod to a tree and covers it with foliage until it is no longer visible. I glance at the sky; it will be dark soon.
Our feet crunch heavily in the grass as we climb the hill.
We both look up at the sky as it explodes into a fiery red and orange. The sunset looks even more beautiful at an elevation. We stand still, awed by the sight.
Arkin, can you tell me what is going on?
I am not prepared for what Arkin tells me. My father has been hiding out here with other dissidents, building an apparatus to send a signal back to the civilization that sent us the golden disk.
Above us, the darkening sky is already sparkling with emerging stars. The crescent moons are tinged with a saffron haze.
Do you think they are doing the right thing? I ask.
I do not believe that we are alone. The spirit that lives in you and me is the same spirit that lights the sky. The civilization that sent us the golden disk reached out to us for a reason, and we must respond. We are all dust of the same creation.
I ponder Arkin's words. I had never thought about my life that way. I realize that Arkin comes from a traditional way of life that now seems quaint and old-fashioned to most of us on Merona. But, his words are strangely reassuring and somehow bring meaning to what is going on.
Arkin tilts his head skyward and closes his eyes. His face is calm and serene, and a stillness hangs over him.
Is he praying? I wonder. I have no experience with prayer and stand silently.
Then unexpectedly, a memory of the sounds from the golden disk fills my mind, a plaintive music stirring in me an intense longing for something indefinable.
Arkin opens his eyes and takes my hand.
We arrive, and I am astonished by what I see.
The apparatus is positioned on the hilltop, obscured by a canopy of trees.
A small group is gathered. I don't know how to describe the object; it is magnificent and resembles a giant metal dish.
I know without looking that it is my father.
His arms envelop me, and I rest my head on his shoulder. I didn't know if I would see my father again, and I instantly feel safe and happy.
I am sorry that I left, but I hope you understand.
And I do. I know it will take time to catch up with my father, but I respect him for his dedication to what I now know is right and necessary.
Somebody presses a button, and an antenna unravels from the apparatus.
It is decided that the signal will carry cryptic words from the golden disk itself, an acknowledgement to the other civilization that their message was received.
I know that we are doing the right thing for Merona.
Even before the revolution, there had always been something missing in our lives. We have accomplished so much, but something has been lost over time. I hope that one day we will find it again.
In the face of the revolution, I am stronger than ever, and I feel a profound respect for the unknown that for so long I had been taught to disregard. I admire Arkin for keeping his faith, and I feel I have been changed in some way.
I smile, content to watch the cosmos from afar.
- - -
On the other side of the universe, Dr. Peterson yawned sleepily and sat up in his chair. He had accidently fallen asleep monitoring the radio dish. The scientist rubbed his eyes and peered groggily at the screen.
It was only the slightest difference: the parabolic pattern fluctuated unsteadily, and the waves stretched wider.
After decades of working in astronomy, Dr. Peterson knew the unvarying pattern of the radio waves by heart. And, he knew exactly what anomaly he was looking for.
His hands shaking, Dr. Peterson rushed to input the data. He waited for the analysis from the machine. The screen came alive with the words.
Per aspera ad astra.
Dr. Peterson stood frozen in place for a long time. It seemed almost incomprehensible. Then, he thought of the Voyager Spacecraft launched back in 1977 carrying the Golden Record.
"My god." He whispered, his voice hoarse. "They've responded."