Contact by Carl Sagan

  They approached L’Orangerie, in the annex of which was a special exhibition, so the poster proclaimed, “Images Martiennes.” The joint American-French-Soviet robot roving vehicles on Mars had produced a spectacular windfall of color photographs, some—like the Voyager images of the outer solar system around 1980—soaring beyond their mere scientific purpose and becoming art. The poster featured a landscape photographed on the vast Elysium Plateau. In the foreground was a three-sided pyramid, smooth, highly eroded, with an impact crater near the base. It had been produced by millions of years of high-speed sandblasting by the fierce Martian winds, the planetary geologists had said. A second rover—assigned to Cydonia, on the other side of Mars—had become mired in a drifting dune, and its controllers in Pasadena had been so far unable to respond to its forlorn cries for help.

  Ellie found herself riveted on Sukhavati’s appearance: her huge black eyes, erect bearing, and yet another magnificent sari. She thought to herself, I’m not graceful. Usually she found herself able to continue her part of a conversation while mentally addressing other matters as well. But today she had trouble following one line of thought, never mind two. While they were discussing the merits of the several opinions on whether to build the Machine, in her mind’s eye she returned to Devi’s image from the Aryan invasion of India 3,500 years ago: a war between two peoples, each of whom claimed victory, each of whom patriotically exaggerated the historical accounts. Ultimately, the story is transformed into a war of the gods. “Our” side, of course, is good. The other side, of course, is evil. She imagined the goateed, spade-tailed, cloven-hoofed Devil of the West evolving by slow evolutionary steps over thousands of years from some Hindu antecedent who, for all Ellie knew, had the head of an elephant and was painted blue.

  “Baruda’s Trojan Horse—maybe it’s not a completely foolish idea,” she found herself saying. “But I don’t see that we have any choice, as Xi said. They can be here in twenty-some-odd years if they want to.”

  They arrived at a monumental arch in the Roman style surmounted by a heroic, indeed apotheotic, statue of Napoleon as chariot driver. From the long view, from an extraterrestrial perspective, how pathetic this posturing was. They rested on a nearby bench, their long shadows cast over a bed of flowers planted in the colors of the French Republic.

  Ellie longed to discuss her own emotional predicament, but that might have political overtones. It would, at the very least, be indiscreet. She did not know Sukhavati very well. Instead she encouraged her companion to speak about her personal life. Sukhavati acquiesced readily enough.

  She had been born to a Brahman but unprosperous family with matriarchal proclivities in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Matriarchal households were still common all over South India. She matriculated at Banares Hindu University. At medical school in England she had met and fallen deeply in love with Surindar Ghosh, a fellow medical student. But Surindar was a harijan, an untouchable, of a caste so loathed that the mere sight of them was held by orthodox Brahmans to be polluting. Surindar’s ancestors had been forced to live a nocturnal existence, like bats and owls. Her family threatened to disown her if they married. Her father declared that he had no daughter who would consider such a union. If she married Ghosh, he would mourn her as though she were dead. She married him anyway. “We were too much in love,” she said. “I really had no choice.” Within the year, he died from septicemia acquired while performing an autopsy under inadequate supervision.

  Instead of reconciling her to her family, however, Surindar’s death accomplished the opposite, and after receiving her medical degree, Devi decided to remain in England. She discovered a natural affinity for molecular biology and considered it an effortless continuation of her medical studies. She soon found she had real talent in this meticulous discipline. Knowledge of nucleic acid replication led her to work on the origin of life, and that in turn led her to consider life on other planets.

  “You could say that my scientific career has been a sequence of free associations. One thing just led to another.”

  She had recently been working on the characterization of Martian organic matter, measured in a few locales on Mars by the same roving vehicles whose stunning photographic products they had just seen advertised. Devi had never remarried, although she had made it plain there were some who pursued her. Lately she had been seeing a scientist in Bombay whom she described as a “computer wallah.”

  Walking a little farther on, they found themselves in the Cour Napoleon, the interior courtyard of the Louvre Museum. In its center was the newly completed and wildly controversial pyramidal entrance, and in high niches around the courtyard were sculptural representations of the heroes of French civilization. Captioned under each statue of a revered man—they could see little evidence of revered women—was his surname. Occasionally, letters were eroded—by natural weathering, or in a few cases perhaps effaced by some offended passerby. For one or two statues, it was difficult to piece together who the savant had been. On the statue that had evidently evoked the greatest public resentment, only the letters LTA remained.

  Although the Sun was setting and the Louvre was open until mid-evening, they did not enter, but instead ambled along the Seine embankment, following the river back along the Quai d’Orsay. The proprietors of bookstalls were fastening shutters and closing up shop for the day. For a while they strolled on, arm in arm in the European manner.

  A French couple was walking a few paces ahead of them, each parent holding one hand of their daughter, a girl of about four who would periodically launch herself off the pavement. In her momentary suspension in zero g, she experienced, it was apparent, something akin to ecstasy. The parents were discussing the World Message Consortium, which was hardly a coincidence since the newspapers had been full of little else. The man was for building the Machine; it might create new technologies and increase employment in France. The woman was more cautious, but for reasons she had difficulty articulating. The daughter, braids flying, was wholly unconcerned about what to do with a blueprint from the stars.

  • • •

  Der Heer, Kitz, and Honicutt had called a meeting at the American Embassy early the following morning to prepare for the arrival of the Secretary of State later in the day. The meeting was to be classified and held in the Embassy’s Black Room, a chamber electromagnetically decoupled from the outside world, making even sophisticated electronic surveillance impossible. Or so it was claimed. Ellie thought there might be instrumentation developed that could make an end run around these precautions.

  After spending the afternoon with Devi Sukhavati, she had received the message at her hotel and had tried to call der Heer, but was able only to reach Michael Kitz. She opposed a classified meeting on this subject, she said; it was a matter of principle. The Message was clearly intended for the entire planet. Kitz replied that there were no data being withheld from the rest of the world, at least by Americans; and that the meeting was merely advisory—to assist the United States in the difficult procedural negotiations ahead. He appealed to her patriotism, to her self-interest, and at last invoked again the Hadden Decision. “For all I know, that thing is still sitting in your safe unread. Read it,” he urged.

  She tried, again unsuccessfully, to reach der Heer. First the man turns up everywhere in the Argus facility, like a bad penny. He moves in with you in your apartment. You’re sure, for the first time in years, you’re in love. The next minute you can’t even get him to answer the phone. She decided to attend the meeting, if only to see Ken face to face.

  Kitz was enthusiastically for building the Machine, Drumlin cautiously in favor, der Heer and Honicutt at least outwardly uncommitted, and Peter Valerian in an agony of indecision. Kitz and Drumlin were even talking about where to build the thing. Freightage costs alone made manufacture or even assembly on the far side of the Moon prohibitively expensive, as Xi had guessed.

  “If we use aerodynamic braking, it’s cheaper to send a kilogram to Phobos or Deimos than to the far side of
the Moon,” Bobby Bui volunteered.

  “Where the hell is Fobuserdeemus?” Kitz wanted to know.

  “The moons of Mars. I was talking about aerodynamic braking in the Martian atmosphere.”

  “And how long does it take to get to Phobos or Deimos?” Drumlin was stirring his cup of coffee.

  “Maybe a year, but once we have a fleet of interplanetary transfer vehicles and the pipeline is full—”

  “Compared with three days to the Moon?” sputtered Drumlin. “Bui, stop wasting our time.”

  “It’s only a suggestion,” he protested. “You know, just something to think about.”

  Der Heer seemed impatient, distracted. He was clearly under great pressure—alternately avoiding her eyes and, she thought, making some unspoken appeal. She took it as a hopeful sign.

  “If you want to worry about Doomsday Machines,” Drumlin was saying, “you have to worry about energy supplies. If it doesn’t have access to an enormous amount of energy, it can’t be a Doomsday Machine. So as long as the instructions don’t ask for a gigawatt nuclear reactor, I don’t think we have to worry about Doomsday Machines.”

  “Why are you guys in such a hurry to commit to construction?” she asked Kitz and Drumlin collectively. They were sitting next to each other with a plate of croissants between them.

  Kitz looked from Honicutt to der Heer before answering: “This is a classified meeting,” he began. “We all know you won’t pass anything said here on to your Russian friends. It’s like this: We don’t know what the Machine will do, but it’s clear from Dave Drumlin’s analysis that there’s new technology in it, probably new industries. Constructing the Machine is bound to have economic value—I mean, think of what we’d learn. And it might have military value. At least that’s what the Russians are thinking. See, the Russians are in a box. Here’s a whole new area of technology they’re going to have to keep up with the U. S. on. Maybe there’s instructions for some decisive weapon in the Message, or some economic advantage. They can’t be sure. They’ll have to bust their economy trying. Did you notice how Baruda kept referring to what was cost-effective? If all this Message stuff went away—burn the data, destroy the telescopes—then the Russians could maintain military parity. That’s why they’re so cautious. So, of course, that’s why we’re gung ho for it.” He smiled.

  Temperamentally, Kitz was bloodless, she thought; but he was far from stupid. When he was cold and withdrawn, people tended not to like him. So he had developed an occasional veneer of urbane amiability. In Ellie’s view, it was a molecular monolayer thick.

  “Now let me ask you a question,” he continued. “Did you catch Baruda’s remark about withholding some of the data? Is there any missing data?”

  “Only from very early on,” she replied. “Only from the first few weeks, I’d guess. There were a few holes in the Chinese coverage a little after that. There’s still a small amount of data that hasn’t been exchanged, on all sides. But I don’t see any signs of serious holding back. Anyway, we’ll pick up any missing data swatches after the Message recycles.”

  “If the Message recycles,” Drumlin growled.

  Der Heer moderated a discussion on contingency planning: what to do when the primer was received; which American, German, and Japanese industries to notify early about possible major development projects; how to identify key scientists and engineers for constructing the Machine, if the decision was made to go ahead; and, briefly, the need to build enthusiasm for the project in Congress and with the American public. Der Heer hastened to add that these would be contingency plans only, that no final decision was being made, and that no doubt Soviet concerns about a Trojan Horse were at least partly genuine.

  Kitz asked about the composition of “the crew.” “They’re asking us to put people in five upholstered chairs. Which people? How do we decide? It’ll probably have to be an international crew. How many Americans? How many Russians? Anybody else? We don’t know what happens to those five people when they sit down in those chairs, but we want to have the best men for the job.”

  Ellie did not rise to the bait, and he continued. “Now a major question is going to be who pays for what, who builds what, who’s in charge of overall systems integration. I think we can do some real horse trading on this, in exchange for significant American representation in the crew.”

  “But we still want to send the best possible people,” der Heer noted, a little obviously.

  “Sure,” returned Kitz, “but what do we mean by ‘best’? Scientists? People with military intelligence backgrounds? Physical strength and endurance? Patriotism? (That’s not a dirty word, you know.) And then”—he looked up from buttering another croissant to glance directly at Ellie—“there’s the question of sex. Sexes, I mean. Do we send only men? If it’s men and women, there has to be more of one sex than the other. There’s five places, an odd number. Are all the crew members going to work together okay? If we go ahead with this project, there’s gonna be a lot of tough negotiation.”

  “This doesn’t sound right to me,” said Ellie. “This isn’t some ambassadorship you buy with a campaign contribution. This is serious business. Also, do you want some muscle-bound moron up there, some kid in his twenties who knows nothing about how the world works—just how to run a respectable hundred-yard dash and how to obey orders? Or some political hack? That can’t be what this trip is about.”

  “No, you’re right.” Kitz smiled. “I think we’ll find people who satisfy all our criteria.”

  Der Heer, the bags under his eyes making him look almost haggard, adjourned the meeting. He managed to give Ellie a small private smile, but it was all lips, no teeth. The Embassy limousines were waiting to take them back to the Elysée Palace.

  • • •

  “I’ll tell you why it would be better to send Russians,” Vaygay was saying. “When you Americans were opening up your country—pioneers, trappers, Indian scouts, all that—you were unopposed, at least by anyone at your level of technology. You raced across your continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific. After a while, you expected everything would be easy. Our situation was different. We were conquered by the Mongols. Their horse technology was much superior to ours. When we expanded eastward we were careful. We never crossed the wilderness and expected it would be easy. We’re more adjusted to adversity than you are. Also, Americans are used to being ahead techno-logically. We’re used to catching up technologically. Now, everybody on Earth is a Russian—you understand, I mean in our historical position. This mission needs Soviets more than it needs Americans.”

  Merely meeting with her alone entailed certain risks for Vaygay—and for her as well, as Kitz had gone out of his way to remind her. Sometimes, during a scientific meeting in America or Europe, Vaygay would be permitted to spend an afternoon with her. More often he was accompanied by colleagues or a KGB baby-sitter—who would be described as a translator, even when his English was clearly inferior to Vaygay’s; or as a scientist from the secretariat of this or that Academy commission, except that his knowledge of the scientific matters often proved superficial. Vaygay would shake his head when asked about them. But by and large, he considered the baby-sitters a part of the game, the price you must pay when they let you visit the West, and more than once she thought she detected a note of affection in Vaygay’s voice when he talked to the baby-sitter: To go to a foreign country and pretend to be expert in a subject you know poorly must be filled with anxiety. Perhaps, in their heart of hearts, the baby-sitters detested their assignment as much as Vaygay did.

  They were seated at the same window table at Chez Dieux. A distinct chill was in the air, a premonition of winter, and a young man wearing a long blue scarf as his only concession to the cold strode briskly past the tubs of chilled oysters outside the window. From Lunacharsky’s continuing (and uncharacteristically) guarded remarks, she deduced disarray in the Soviet delegation. The Soviets were concerned that the Machine might somehow redound to the strategic advantage of the United States in
the five-decade-old global competition. Vaygay had in fact been shocked by Baruda’s question about burning the data and destroying the radio telescopes. He had had no advance knowledge of Baruda’s position. The Soviets had played a vital role in gathering the Message, with the largest longitude coverage of any nation, Vaygay stressed, and they had the only serious oceangoing radio telescopes. They would expect a major role in whatever came next. Ellie assured him that, as far as she was concerned, they should have such a role.

  “Look, Vaygay, they know from our television transmissions that the Earth rotates, and that there are many different nations. The Olympic broadcast alone might have told them that. Subsequent transmissions from other nations would have nailed it down. So if they’re as good as we think, they could have phased the transmission with the Earth’s rotation, so only one nation got the Message. They chose not to do that. They want the Message to be received by everybody on the planet. They’re expecting the Machine to be built by the whole planet. This can’t be an all-American or an all-Russian project. It’s not what our…client wants.”

  But she was not sure, she told him, that she would be playing any role in decisions on Machine construction or crew selection. She was returning to the United States the next day, mainly to get on top of the new radio data from the past few weeks. The Consortium plenary sessions seemed interminable, and no closing date had been set. Vaygay had been asked by his people to stay on at least a little longer. The Foreign Minister had just arrived and was now leading the Soviet delegation.

  “I’m worried all this will end badly,” he said. “There are so many things that can go wrong. Technological failures. Political failures. Human failures. And even if we get through all that, if we don’t have a war because of the Machine, if we build it correctly and without blowing ourselves up, I’m still worried.”

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