Contact by Carl Sagan

  “We have heard Academician Lunacharsky, Dr. Arroway, and other scientists agree that we are receiving the instructions for building a complex machine. Suppose that, as everyone seems to expect, the end of the Message comes; the Message recycles to the beginning; and we receive the introduction or—the English word is ‘primer’?—primer which lets us read the Message. Suppose also that we continue to cooperate fully, all of us. We exchange all the data, all the fantasies, all the dreams.

  “Now the beings-on Vega, they are not sending us these instructions for their amusement. They want us to build a machine. Perhaps they will tell us what the machine is supposed to do. Perhaps not. But even if they do, why should we believe them? So I raise my own fantasy, my own dream. It is not a happy one. What if this machine is a Trojan Horse? We build the machine at great expense, turn it on, and suddenly an invading army pours out of it. Or what if it is a Doomsday Machine? We build it, turn it on, and the Earth blows up. Perhaps this is their way to suppress civilizations just emerging into the cosmos. It would not cost much; they pay only for a telegram, and the upstart civilization obediently destroys itself.

  “What I am about to ask is only a suggestion, a talking point. I raise it for your consideration. I mean it to be constructive. On this issue, we all share the same planet, we all have the same interests. No doubt I will put it too bluntly. Here is my question: Would it be better to burn the data and destroy the radio telescopes?”

  A commotion ensued. Many delegations asked simultaneously to be recognized. Instead, the conference co-chairmen seemed mainly motivated to remind the delegates that sessions were not to be recorded or videotaped. No interviews were to be granted to the press. There would be daily press releases, agreed upon by the conference co-chairmen and the leaders of delegations. Even the integuments of the present discussion were to remain in this conference chamber.

  Several delegates asked for clarification from the Chair. “If Baruda is right about a Trojan Horse or a Doomsday Machine,” shouted out a Dutch delegate, “isn’t it our duty to inform the public?” But he had not been recognized and his microphone had not been activated. They went on to other, more urgent, matters.

  Ellie had quickly punched into the institutional computer terminal before her for an early position in the queue. She discovered that she was scheduled second, after Sukhavati and before one of the Chinese delegates.

  Ellie knew Devi Sukhavati slightly. A stately woman in her mid-forties, she was wearing a Western coiffure, high-heeled sling-back pumps, and an exquisite silk sari. Originally trained as a physician, she had become one of the leading Indian experts in molecular biology and now shared her time between King’s College, Cambridge, and the Tata Institute in Bombay. She was one of a handful of Indian Fellows of the Royal Society of London, and was said to be well placed politically. They had last met a few years before, at an international symposium in Tokyo, before receipt of the Message had eliminated the obligatory question marks in the titles of some of their scientific papers. Ellie had sensed a mutual affinity, due only in part to the fact that they were among the few women participating in scientific meetings on extraterrestrial life.

  “I recognize that Academician Baruda has raised an important and sensitive issue,” Sukhavati began, “and it would be foolish to dismiss the Trojan Horse possibility carelessly. Given most of recent history, this is a natural idea, and I’m surprised it took so long to be raised. However, I would like to caution against such fears. It is unlikely in the extreme that the beings on a planet of the star Vega are exactly at our level of technological advance. Even on our planet, cultures do not evolve in lockstep. Some start earlier, others later. I recognize that some cultures can catch up at least technologically. When there were high civilizations in India, China, Iraq, and Egypt, there were, at best, iron-age nomads in Europe and Russia, and stone-age cultures in America.

  “But the differences in the technologies will be much greater in the present circumstances. The extraterrestrials are likely to be far ahead of us, certainly more than a few hundred years farther along—perhaps thousands of years ahead of us, or even millions. Now, I ask you to compare that with the pace of human technological advancement in the last century.

  “I grew up in a tiny village in South India. In my grandmother’s time the treadle sewing machine was a technological wonder. What would beings who are thousands of years ahead of us be capable of? Or millions? As a philosopher in our part of the world once said: ‘The artifacts of a sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial civilization would be indistinguishable from magic.’

  “We can pose no threat to them whatever. They have nothing to fear from us, and that will be true for a very long time. This is no confrontation between Greeks and Trojans, who were evenly matched. This is no science-fiction movie where beings from different planets fight with similar weapons. If they wish to destroy us, they can certainly do so with or without our coopera—”

  “But at what cost?” someone interrupted from the floor. “Don’t you see? That’s the point. Baruda is saying our television broadcasts to space are their notice that it’s time to destroy us, and the Message is the means. Punitive expeditions are dear. The Message is cheap.”

  Ellie could not make out who had shouted out this intervention. It seemed to be someone in the British delegation. His remarks had not been amplified by the audio system, because again the speaker had not been recognized by the Chair. But the acoustics in the conference hall were sufficiently good that he could be heard perfectly well. Der Heer, in the Chair, tried to keep order. Abukhimov leaned over and whispered something to an aide.

  “You think there is a danger in building the machine,” Sukhavati replied. “I think there is a danger in not building the machine. I would be ashamed of our planet if we turned our back on the future. Your ancestors”—she shook a finger at her interlocutor—“were not so timid when they first set sail for India or America.”

  This meeting was getting to be full of surprises, Ellie thought, although she doubted whether Clive or Raleigh were the best role models for present decision making. Perhaps Sukhavati was only tweaking the British for past colonial offenses. She waited for the green speaker’s light on her console to illuminate, indicating that her microphone was activated.

  “Mr. Chairman.” She found herself in this formal and public posture addressing der Heer, whom she had hardly seen in the last few days. They had arranged to spend tomorrow afternoon together during a break in the meeting, and she felt some anxiety about what they would say. Oops, wrong thought, she thought.

  “Mr. Chairman, I believe we can shed some light on these two questions—the Trojan Horse and the Doomsday Machine. I had intended to discuss this tomorrow morning, but it certainly seems relevant now.” On her console, she punched in the code numbers for a few of her slides. The great mirrored hall darkened.

  “Dr. Lunacharsky and I are convinced that these are different projections of the same three-dimensional configuration. We showed the entire configuration in computer-simulated rotation yesterday. We think, though we can’t be sure, that this is what the interior of the machine will look like. There is as yet no clear indication of scale. Maybe it’s a kilometer across, maybe it’s submicroscopic. But notice these five objects evenly spaced around the periphery of the main interior chamber, inside the dodecahedron. Here’s a closeup of one of them. They’re the only things in the chamber that look at all recognizable.”

  “This appears to be an ordinary overstuffed armchair, perfectly configured for a human being. It’s very unlikely that extraterrestrial beings, evolved on another quite different world, would resemble us sufficiently to share our preferences in living-room furniture. Here, look at this close-up. It looks like something from my mother’s spare room when I was growing up.”

  Indeed, it almost seemed to have flowered slipcovers. A small flutter of guilt entered her mind. She had neglected to call her mother before leaving for Europe, and, if truth be told, had called her only once o
r twice since the Message was received. Ellie, how could you? she remonstrated with herself.

  She looked again at the computer graphics. The fivefold symmetry of the dodecahedron was reflected in the five interior chairs, each facing a pentagonal surface. “So it’s our contention—Dr. Lunacharsky and I—that the five chairs are meant for us. For people. That would mean that the interior chamber of the machine is only a few meters across, the exterior, perhaps ten or twenty meters across. The technology is undoubtedly formidable, but we don’t think we’re talking about building something the size of a city. Or as complex as an aircraft carrier. We might very well be able to build this, whatever it is, if we all work together.

  “What I’m trying to say is that you don’t put chairs inside a bomb. I don’t think this is a Doomsday Machine, or a Trojan Horse. I agree with what Dr. Sukhavati said, or maybe only implied: the idea that this is a Trojan Horse is itself an indication of how far we have to go.”

  Again there was an outburst. But this time der Heer made no effort to stop it; indeed, he actually turned the complainant’s microphone on. It was the same delegate who had interrupted Sukhavati a few minutes earlier, Philip Bedenbaugh of the United Kingdom, a Labour Party minister in the shaky coalition government.

  “…simply doesn’t understand what our concern is. If it was literally a wooden horse, we would not be tempted to bring the alien device within the city gates. We have read our Homer. But flounce it up with some upholstery and our suspicions are allayed. Why? Because we are being flattered. Or bribed. There’s an historic adventure implied. There’s the promise of new technologies. There’s a hint of acceptance by—how to put it?—greater beings. But I say no matter what lofty fantasies the radio astronomers may entertain, if there is even a tiny chance the machine is a means of destruction, it should not be built. Better, as the Soviet delegate has proposed, to burn the data tapes and make the construction of radio telescopes a capital crime.”

  The meeting was becoming unruly. Scores of delegates were electronically queuing for authorization to speak. The hubbub rose to a subdued roar that reminded Ellie of her years of listening to radio-astronomical static. A consensus did not seem readily within reach, and the co-chairmen were clearly unable to restrain the delegates.

  As the Chinese delegate rose to speak, the vitagraphics were slow to appear on Ellie’s screen and she looked around for help. She had no idea who this man was either. Nguyen “Bobby” Bui, a National Security Council staffer now assigned to der Heer, leaned over and said: “Xi Qiaomu’s his name. Spelled ‘ex,’ ‘eye.’ Pronounced ‘she.’ Heavy dude. Born on the Long March. Volunteer as a teenager in Korea. Government official, mainly political. Knocked down for a nine count in the Cultural Revolution. Central Committee member now. Very influential. Been in the news lately. Also directs Chinese archeological digging.”

  Xi Qiaomu was a tall, broad-shouldered man around sixty. The wrinkles on his face made him seem older, but his posture and physique gave him an almost youthful appearance. He wore his tunic buttoned at the collar in the fashion that was as obligatory for Chinese political leaders as three-piece suits were for American governmental leaders, the President, of course, excepted. The vitagraphics now came through on her console, and she could remember having read a long article about Xi Qiaomu in one of the video newsmagazines.

  “If we are frightened,” he was saying, “we will do nothing. That will delay them a little. But remember, they know we are here. Our television arrives at their planet. Every day they are reminded of us. Have you looked at our television programs? They will not forget us. If we do nothing and if they are worried about us, they will come to us, machine or no machine. We cannot hide from them. If we had kept quiet, we would not face this problem. If we had cable television only and no big military radar, then maybe they would not know about us. But now it is too late. We cannot go back. Our course is set.”

  “If you are seriously frightened about this machine destroying the Earth, do not build it on the Earth. Build it somewhere else. Then if it is a Doomsday Machine and blows up a world…it will not be our world. But this will be very expensive. Probably too expensive. Or if we arc not so frightened, build it in some isolated desert. You could have a very big explosion in the Takopi Wasteland in Xinjing Province and still kill nobody. And if we are not frightened at all, we can build it in Washington. Or Moscow. Or Beijing. Or in this beautiful city.

  “In Ancient China, Vega and two nearby stars were called Chih Neu. It means the young woman with the spinning wheel. It is an auspicious symbol, a machine to make new clothes for the people of the Earth.

  “We have received an invitation. A very unusual invitation. Maybe it is to go to a banquet. The Earth has never been invited to a banquet before. It would be impolite to refuse.”


  The One-Delta Isomer

  Looking at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots representing towns and villages on a map. Why, I ask myself, shouldn’t the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France?


  IT WAS a splendid autumn afternoon, so unseasonably warm that Devi Sukhavati had left her coat behind. She and Ellie walked along the crowded Champs-Elysées toward the Place de la Concorde. The ethnic diversity was rivaled by London, Manhattan, and only a few other cities on the planet. Two women walking together, one in a skirt and sweater, the other in a sari, were in no way unusual.

  Outside a tobacconist’s there was a long, orderly, and polyglot line of people attracted by the first week of legalized sale of cured cannabis cigarettes from the United States. By French law they could not be sold to or consumed by those under eighteen years of age. Many in line were middle-aged and older. Some might have been naturalized Algerians or Moroccans. Especially potent varieties of cannabis were grown, mainly in California and Oregon, for the export trade. Featured here was a new and admired strain, which had in addition been grown in ultraviolet light, converting some of the inert cannabinoids into the 1Δ isomer. It was called “Sun-Kissed.” The package, illustrated in a window display a meter and a half high, bore in French the slogan “This will be deducted from your share in Paradise.”

  The shop windows along the boulevard were a riot of color. The two women bought chestnuts from a street vendor and reveled in the taste and texture. For some reason, every time Ellie saw a sign advertising BNP, the Banque Nationale de Paris, she read it as the Russian word for beer, with the middle letter inverted left to right. BEER, the signs—lately corrupted from their usual and respectable fiduciary vocations—seemed to be exhorting her, RUSSIAN BEER. The incongruity amused her, and only with difficulty could she convince the part of her brain in charge of reading that this was the Latin, not the Cyrillic alphabet. Further on, they marveled at L’Obélisque—an ancient military commemorative stolen at great expense to become a modern military commemorative. They decided to walk on.

  Der Heer had broken the date, or at least that’s what it amounted to. He had called her up this morning, apologetic but not desperately so. There were too many political issues being raised at the plenary session. The Secretary of State was flying in tomorrow, interrupting a visit to Cuba. Der Heer’s hands were full, and he hoped Ellie would understand. She understood. She hated herself for sleeping with him. To avoid an afternoon alone she had dialed Devi Sukhavati.

  “One of the Sanskrit words for ‘victorious’ is abhijit. That’s what Vega was called in ancient India. Abhijit. It was under the influence of Vega that the Hindu divinities, our culture heroes, conquered the asuras, the gods of evil. Ellie, are you listening?… Now, it’s a curious thing. In Persia there are asuras also, but in Persia the asuras were the gods of good. Eventually religions sprang up in which the chief god, the god of light, the Sun god, was called Ahura-Mazda. The Zoroastrians, for example, and the Mithraists. Ahura, Asura, it’s the same name. There are still Zoroastrians today, and the Mithraists gave the early Chri
stians a good fright. But in this same story, those Hindu divinities—they were mainly female, by the way—were called Devis. It’s the origin of my own name. In India, the Devis are gods of good. In Persia, the Devis become gods of evil. Some scholars think this is where the English word ‘devil’ ultimately comes from. The symmetry is complete. All this is probably some vaguely remembered account of the Aryan invasion that pushed the Dravidians, my ancestors, to the south. So, depending on which side of the Kirthar Range one lives on, Vega supports either God or the Devil.”

  This cheerful story had been proffered as a gift by Devi, who clearly had heard something of Ellie’s California religious adventures two weeks before. Ellie was grateful. But it reminded her that she had not even mentioned to Joss the possibility that the Message was the blueprint for a machine of unknown purpose. Now he would soon enough be hearing all this through the media. She should really, she told herself sternly, make an overseas call to explain to him the new developments. But Joss was said to be in seclusion. He had offered no public statement following their meeting in Modesto. Rankin, in a press conference, announced that while there might be some dangers, he was not opposed to letting the scientists receive the full Message. But translation was another matter. Periodic review by all segments of society was required, he said, especially by those entrusted to safeguard spiritual and moral values.

  They were now approaching the Tuileries Gardens, where the garish hues of autumn were on display. Frail and elderly men—Ellie judged them to be from Southeast Asia—were in vigorous dispute. Ornamenting the black cast-iron gates were multicolored balloons on sale. At the center of a pool of water was a marble Amphitrite. Around her, toy sailboats were racing, urged on by an exuberant crowd of small children with Magellanic aspirations. A catfish suddenly broke water, swamping the lead boat, and the boys and girls became subdued, chastened by this wholly unexpected apparition. The Sun was low in the west, and Ellie felt a momentary chill.

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