Mara Flaherty and Joseph Bruck had worked side-by-side on the Voyager 1 project since they joined up in the early 2000s. Though they grew up on separate shores of the US, their lives seemed parallel: they both grew up with the dream of space in their minds as children. They both attended major universities in the hopes of joining the corps of their prestigious super heroes floating 400km above the surface of the Earth. Both suffered a traumatic mid-life accident ending these dreams and placing them firmly on the ground.
Middle-aged, they still shared that child-like spark of wonder and surprise at the majesty of space - even if they were staring at an early 1990s computer screen spewing out binary digits that only four months ago they began to understand.
They had followed a series of erratic nonsense data points back more than 40 years and compiled the adjoining binary together, hoping to understand the root of the malfunction. More perplexing, 28 days before they finished their task, the anomaly disappeared from all future data. For the first time since the anomalies began to appear, they had stopped.
Bleary-eyed and with a radiating headache, they both stared at their terminals, having trouble concentrating on the repeating 0's and 1's. They still couldn't understand it terribly well and whenever they used online tools to "translate" the code, it translated into nonsense. Across every language they thought to translate the code into, nothing of value appeared.
Realizing they were over their heads, they began to reach out across the Internet to connect with developers and coders. The same nagging thought continued to tug at the backs of their minds. They pushed it out every time it rose its head; it was foolish to wonder if this of all things was first contact.
It only took two hours for the Internet to respond to their call. The raw binary spread like wildfire across the globe and was met by amateurs, celebrities, and experienced developers. Articles were written about Voyager again; political speeches railed against the incompetence of NASA scientists; forum posts were written about every conspiracy known; all while a small team of dedicated coders sharing the same yearning for space clicked away on their keyboards.
Three days after the data was released publicly, a team of developers messaged Mara and Joseph explaining what they suspected the code's purpose was. They sent along video of a computer compiling and running the code through a setup that Mara and Joseph could barely recognize. The binary scrolled by until it reached the final line. Then the computer died. The screen still buzzed and had the tell-tale black tone, but all power indicators on the actual computer were off. The last line of the message was a warning. Don't run the code while connected to any network.
Mara and Joseph leaned back in their chairs and looked at one another. Then they looked at the pile of dead computer hardware sitting on the desks next to them, ethernet cables still snaking out of the back. The message had only been an hour late; but it was still late.
Another team of coders had sent the same message detailing how to run the code, but when they ran it, it seemed to overpower their computers. They sent the instructions for the Voyager team to replicate it, though their computers were overpowered as well.
Not long after, blackouts began to roll across the country, then across the world. First computers died, then servers, and not long after, electrical grids. The code spread to cellular towers then to mobile phones. In less than a week the Earth had gone dark.
A week wasn't long enough. They needed at least two or three to fully complete their plan, to get the industry connections in place, but they only got one. The world's scientific community was gathered at NASA. They began to speculate, to sketch, to design, and, as the satellites began to fall out of their orbits and crash into the surface, they began to build.
Everything was brand new; everything was untested; but somehow it lifted off: a singular flame burst through the evening sky as the world's largest ship climbed through the atmosphere. As they left, 500 souls in total, they saw on the horizon tiny specks of light.
First contact had pushed humanity to it's breaking point. It had crippled the electric and electronic infrastructure built up over more than a century. It was the biggest wake up call they had ever received. As Earth was slowly powering back on and reestablishing a new network devoid of the killer code, 500 scientists, engineers, and citizens began their journey to Mars; Humanity's journey among the stars.
Read the epilogue here.