In the 1940s, humanity received a transmission from an unknown extraterrestrial source. Called "The Message", this transmission was classified and given to the US government's best codebreakers, who were unable to decipher it. Numerous odd but seemingly unrelated fatalities occurred during the attempt, however, leading to internal rumors of a "curse" on The Message.
Fast forward to 2015. The Message has been suddenly declassified by the CIA to the Cypher Centers For Communications, a famously effective, private team of audio scientists. They ask eager podcaster Nicky Tomalin to create a publicly-available account of their research, which she dubs "Cyphercast".
An interesting thing to note about the podcast is that the plot picks up very quickly - expect to find yourself marathoning it by episode 3.
The Message provides examples of the following tropes:
- Abusive Precursors: Lampshaded by Mod when they finally figure out that the "message" the aliens wanted to send us was a cure. Specifically a cure for the very same disease they sent in the very same message.Mod: Thanks for the solution to the problem you created, dicks.
- Ambiguous Gender: Mod, one of the employees of Cypher Group, whose pronouns are 'they/them'.
- Apocalyptic Log: The podcast itself threatens this at times, especially when the Brown Note starts setting in.
- Brown Note: The curse. Rumor is that people who listen to The Message become ill and die, like in one case where the only non-smoker in a research group developed lung problems. It's real, and it's contagious, meaning it can spread to people that haven't listened to it.
- It's Probably Nothing: Subverted. As soon as a codebreaker falls ill, the episodes of the podcast that contain it are yanked. When the illness begins to spread person-to-person, the entire Cypher Group is immediately placed under quarantine.
- The Fourth Wall Will Not Protect You: After Nicky broadcasts recordings of The Message in the podcast series you are currently listening to, people begin developing lung problems referred to as Pulmonary Anomaly 1. The next episode starts with a warning to seek immediate medical help if you start developing symptoms.
- Government Conspiracy: The Message itself was one, but it's been declassified at the start of the podcast. Hinted at when it's revealed in episode 4 that reports of codebreakers dying of respiratory illness were either mixed or covered up.
- Red Herring: It turns out that the "City made of song" message that people hear as they die means absolutely nothing—the aliens just used it as a way to get the codebreakers curious and to look where the real answer was.
- Secret Test of Character: What The Message ends up being, on a species-wide scale. As "Nicky" explains, the technology revealed by The Message has the potential for great healing and quality of life applications, but it also can be used as a weapon to devastating effect. Now that humanity has its hands on it, it's a constant test to see whether it's used wisely, or humanity destroys itself with it.
- Technology Uplift: The desired end result of The Message. If a species correctly "solves" it, they have the key to advanced, acoustic-based technology. If they don't, well, tough luck.
- The Right of a Superior Species: Implied with The Message's sender. As soon as a species starts to harness nuclear power, the aliens send them The Message, and observes how that species responds to its effects. Considering that the first step is a contagious, seemingly-incurable fatal respiratory disease, they obviously don't care much about how many people die in the process.
- Wham Episode: Episode 3: Tamara abruptly loses respiratory function mid-conversation.
- Episode 8: Nicky's actually an alien in human form. She's always been the civilian observer to The Message. And the real Nicole Tomalin's been dead for three years thanks to alcohol poisoning, or at least that's what her replacement says.