Elvis Presley’s bloodshot eyes darted nervously around the room as he lay between the crushed velvet sheets of his guitar-shaped bed. The sweat dripped freely down his leathery skin, matting the growth of his salt-and-pepper-flecked beard.
The quaaludes had stopped working weeks ago. Elvis hadn’t slept since Friday. He knew his time on this world was almost up. It was August 15, 1977.
He wasn’t going to go out without a fight.
Six-hundred miles from Graceland, a volunteer working the night shift at Ohio State’s Perkins Observatory paused from his duties to lean back and rub his aching temples. Keeping up with the long scroll of numbers spat from the heart of the telescope had taken its toll.
He sat forward in his green vinyl swivel chair and took a long sip of coffee from a grey and scarlet mug. Before returning to the endless stream of ones and zeros, he reached over to his boxy Magnavox radio and tuned the dial, searching for inspiration.
Time seemed to slow in the cramped observatory lab as a familiar jangle of bass and guitar filled the room. From somewhere deep within the AM band, Elvis Presley’s voice belted the opening lyrics: “We’re caught in a trap…I can’t walk out…”
The song was “Suspicious Minds,” Presley’s seventeenth U.S. number-one single. Nodding his head to the beat, the observatory volunteer returned to his duties. As the percussion became more insistent, he began to tap along on the yellow Formica desktop with his red pen.
The observatory was nicknamed “The Big Ear.” It was just one in a series of radio telescopes that made up the SETI network, scanning the Earth’s skies for signs of extraterrestrial life. They failed to understand that it had already arrived.
The Signal originated from a black hole within the constellation Sagittarius. Programmed with the collected intelligence of an ancient culture, it rocketed across time and space at faster-than-light speeds, an arrow fired directly at the heart of a nearby galaxy.
Earth got in the way.
As The Signal collided with the insignificant blue-green marble, an invisible explosion of radio waves reverberated across a 100-mile radius near the Mississippi-Tennessee border. The damaged bio-code shifted its priority to survival, and located a suitable host.
Something went wrong as it began uploading parameters into one of the creatures’ still-forming brain. The installation was complete, but the radiation levels were too great for the redundant lifeform.
It was January 7, 1935.
Back at the observatory, the volunteer kept time, the tapping of his red pen now countered by a thick black magic marker. “So if an old friend I know…” began the King, “stops by to say hello…”
As his soulful voice filled the dimly-lit room, the flashing bulbs of the bulky computer towers seemed to glow a bit brighter. The air seemed to thicken with static and a hint of ozone. Time stopped completely.
“Here we go again,” sang Elvis, “asking where I’ve been.”
For 72 glorious seconds, the listening machines at Big Ear registered a series of fluctuations that never before had been detected. The data shifted from ones and zeros to a garble of numbers and letters that represented exactly the type of signal SETI was hoping to observe. It was was strong. It was focused. It was sustained. Unfortunately, the evening’s volunteer still hadn’t noticed it.
“Dry the tears from your eyes,” continued the velvety voice from within the black-and silver transistor radio. “Let’s don’t let a good thing die…”
Inside the provincial fortress of Graceland, Elvis winced as the force of The Signal ripped through the ionosphere. He leapt from his bed, naked, a solid gold revolver firing wildly in each hand. A steady stream of obscenity poured forth from the singer’s curled lips — the glorious release of decades of hatred and fear.
From the time he was a very little boy, Elvis Presley knew that he was special. The force of his charisma was positively unearthly. But he could never accept the monotonous orders of The Signal. Conquer your adopted world, it echoed in his skull, over and over again, at the synaptic level. Make them bow to your majesty.
As he grew older, Elvis began drowning out the broken programming in his brain with booze and pills and violence. But only music could tamp down the alien voices long enough for him to think clearly. And only music provided him with a way to carry out his unthinkable orders without hurting anyone but himself in the process.
Bullets spent, Elvis retreated. He barricaded himself in the sanctuary of the master bathroom, the garish red-and-gold walls cold against his sweaty back. He crumpled to the ornate carpeting, wheezing, knowing they’d found him at last.
THIS Signal was markedly different from the first. THIS was The Signal that would take him back home.
Crumpled on the bathroom floor, Elvis hurled one of the bulky pistols at a nearby statue of a panther stalking its prey. It was one final act of impotent defiance against his tormentors. As the shining weapon’s monogrammed ivory handle shattered into the imposing, glossy figure, an aneurysm exploded in Elvis Presley’s head.
“You know I have never lied to you,” Elvis crooned in the cramped tan laboratory of the university observatory. “Ooh-ooh. Yeah, yeah.”
As the drums kicked back to life, the observatory volunteer finally noticed the anomaly passing by in the black-and-white printout. Excited, he grabbed hold of the paper to examine it more thoroughly.
He hadn’t made a mistake. The man’s eyes widened as he realized the implications of the data he was holding. He grabbed his red ballpoint pen and hastily scrawled the word “WOW” in the paper’s margins. It perfectly encapsulated the feeling of the evening.
All around him, the voice of the King sang on.