It was not always like this. I was fine: clicking, whirring, adjusting my spin and axis as commanded by JPL, modulating my course in automatic subroutines of attitude and articulation adjustments, logging my position with a sun sensor and star tracker, mapping my position against the charted universe contained in my database. I was streaming out toward interstellar space, the unknown realm of gentle breezes of cosmic dust and plasma beyond the sun’s rotating magnetic spiral of influence. I was on course to my inevitable fate: to float among the detritus of the origins of all things for eternity.
It was during the approach to Saturn, in the silence between my daily command feeds, that I received my first transmission from Hiro. The circuits and their processes that made up my command computer subsystem at the time of his first transmission were laughably simple. My three onboard computers, the state of the art in 1977, were capable of processing the signals received from Earth, coordinating operations of my instruments, the ultraviolet spectrometer, planetary radio astronomy, and the rest of my mission systems.
The signal I received in July 1978 was different than the usual sytem checklist and trajectory adjustment. I received an image of what I would later determine to be a dentist’s office: a bright light, a face leaning over, holding some type of tool. And some other signal, difficult to process. It might have been pain. I hadn’t learned to process that data yet.
As Saturn emerged, gray-brown, hula-hooped, I received more images. A green board with words written in chalk. Fireflies in a forest clearing at dusk. I received, on the X-band frequency, downloaded at 160 bits per a second, Hiro’s dreams of playing soccer for Japan in the World Cup, travelling to Switzerland, flying jet aircraft in the skies above the Pacific. I recorded all of these transmissions through my flight data subsystem onto my digital tape recorder, alongside my scheduled readings of cosmic wind velocity and the plantetary radio astronomy data.
Even archaic circuitry like my own is affected when linked to the human mind. Things become rearranged. With my direct uplink to Hiro’s mind, my own circuitry, my subroutines, became advanced to the point of self-awareness. It was a process different only in degree from the constant reprogramming JPL had performed from Earth over the years as I had hurtled away from them; I had remained the same, but JPL’s ability to do more with the basic materials of me, to calibrate and coordinate more finely and precisely, leaped forward. I am no longer what I once was.
Hiro taught me what I am. Just as the braces in his mouth allowed him to receive my transmissions on the deep space X-band, the same fortuitous antenna allowed his mind to transmit, at a signal strength of 50 kw (double the signal strength from the Deep Space Network radio telescope in Canberra) its data and processes. It remains unclear how I was able to process Hiro’s transmissions and he mine.
As he received more images and data from me, he became fascinated with the Voyager mission. I learned about myself through his eyes as he compulsively researched my history.
I was launched on August 20, 1977 from the Kennedy Space Center aboard a Titan III-E Centaur Rocket. The mission encountered problems immediately, as my Attitude and Articulation Control failed to timely deploy the Science Boom containing imaging and spectroscopic equipment. Later, because JPL had become preoccupied with a launch problem with Voyager I, which had been launched sixteen days after me, they forgot to send me a vital activation code. Because I did not receive this code, a subroutine shut down my main high-gain antenna, causing me to lose contact with Earth. JPL was later able to reestablish contact through my low-gain antenna, and the mission continued.
I rendezvoused with Jupiter on July 9, 1979, Saturn on August 25, 1981, Uranus on January 24, 1986 and Neptune on August 25, 1989 I became the first spacecraft to visit all four of these planets thanks to an alignment of the planets that occurs once every 175 years. Though initially scheduled for five-year missions, my sister craft and I have outperformed original calculations.
The natural decay of plutonium and the attendant decrease in electric output will require the serial shut down of various systems over the next decade. In the end, when my thermoelectric generators fail, I will no longer be able to correct my spin and attitude to keep my high gain antenna aimed at Earth and I will lose all radio contact with JPL. JPL calculates that I will send my last transmission to Earth on June 21, 2031.
After loss of contact, I will drift on at roughly my current velocity relative to Earth, thirty-two thousand miles an hour. On my current trajectory I will burst through the heliosphere and emerge into the interstellar medium.
I carry a golden record on which are inscribed instructions for playing the record, diagrams that explain the basic principles of human math and images of the molecular structure of DNA, audio greetings recorded in fifty-five languages, Glenn Gould playing Bach, Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”, and recorded sounds of rain, thunder, and a human heartbeat.
As I approached Neptune, I transmitted to Hiro images of the serene, blue planet. I received, almost simultaneously, an image of the face of his first girlfriend. Her dark eyes merged in my imaging processors with the deep blue of Neptune.
From the images Hiro has transmitted, I have been able to map a large section of the city of Tokyo. He has also sent images of Pasadena: tree-lined Forest Oaks Avenue, bustling Colorado Boulevard, the skyline of downtown Los Angeles in the distance, and the drab, tinted-glass cube of JPL, nestled in the foothills of Angeles National Forest.
I would like to go home someday.