Contact by Carl Sagan

  A stand of bamboo cuttings that had been planted for such occasions was adorned, festooned, indeed weighed down with thousands of strips of colored paper. Young men and women especially could be seen augmenting the strange foliage. The Tanabata Festival is unique in Japan for its celebration of love. Representations of the central story were displayed on multipaneled signs and in a performance on a makeshift outdoor stage: Two stars were in love, but separated by the Milky Way. Only once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, could the lovers contrive to meet—provided it did not rain. Ellie looked up at the crystalline blue of this alpine sky and wished the lovers well. The young man star, the legend went, was a Japanese sort of cowboy, and was represented by the A7 dwarf star Altair. The young woman was a weaver, and represented by Vega. It seemed odd to Ellie that Vega should be central to a Japanese festival a few months before Machine activation. But if you survey enough cultures, you will probably find interesting legends about every bright star in the sky. The legend was of Chinese origin, and had been alluded to by Xi when she had heard him years ago at the first meeting of the World Message Consortium in Paris.

  In most of the big cities, the Tanabata Festival was dying. Arranged marriages had ceased to be the norm, and the anguish of the separated lovers no longer struck so responsive a chord as it once had. But in a few places—Sapporo, Sendai, a few others—the Festival grew more popular each year. In Sapporo it had a special poignancy because of the still widespread outrage at Japanese-Ainu marriages. There was an entire cottage industry of detectives on the island who would, for a fee, investigate the relatives and antecedents of possible spouses for your children. Ainu ancestry was still held to be a ground for summary rejection. Devi, remembering her young husband of many years before, was especially scathing. Eda doubtless had heard a story or two along the same line, but he was silent.

  The Tanabata Festival in the Honshu city of Sendai was now a staple on Japanese television for people who now could rarely see the real Altair or Vega. She wondered if the Vegans would continue broadcasting the same Message to the Earth forever. Partly because the Machine was being completed in Japan, it received considerable attention in the television commentary accompanying this year’s Tanabata Festival. But the Five, as they were now sometimes called, had not been required to appear on Japanese television, and their presence here in Sapporo for the Festival was not generally known. Nevertheless, Eda, Sukhavati, and she were readily recognized, and they made their way back to the Obori Promenade to the accompaniment of polite scattered applause by passersby. Many also bowed. A loudspeaker outside a music shop blared a rock-and-roll piece that Ellie recognized. It was “I Wanna Ricochet Off You,” by the black musical group White Noise. In the afternoon sun was a rheumy-eyed, elderly dog, which, as she approached, wagged its tail feebly.

  Japanese commentators talked of Machindo, the Way of the Machine—the increasingly common perspective of the Earth as a planet and of all humans sharing an equal stake in its future. Something like it had been proclaimed in some, but by no means all, religions. Practitioners of those religions understandably resented the insight being attributed to an alien Machine. If the acceptance of a new insight on our place in the universe represents a religious conversion, she mused, then a theological revolution was sweeping the Earth. Even the American and European chiliasts had been influenced by Machindo. But if the Machine didn’t work and the Message went away, how long, she wondered, would the insight last? Even if we had made some mistake in interpretation or construction, she thought, even if we never understood anything more about the Vegans, the Message demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that there were other beings in the universe, and that they were more advanced than we. That should help keep the planet unified for a while, she thought.

  She asked Eda if he had ever had a transforming religious experience.

  “Yes,” he said.

  “When?” Sometimes you bad to encourage him to talk.

  “When I first picked up Euclid. Also when I first understood Newtonian gravitation. And Maxwell’s equations, and general relativity. And during my work on superunification. I have been fortunate enough to have had many religious experiences.”

  “No,” she returned. “You know what I mean. Apart from science.”

  “Never,” he replied instantly. “Never apart from science.”

  He told her a little of the religion he had been born into. He did not consider himself bound by all its tenets, he said, but he was comfortable with it. He thought it could do much good. It was a comparatively new sect—contemporaneous with Christian Science or the Jehovah’s Witnesses—founded by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad in the Punjab. Devi apparently knew something about the Ahmadiyah as a proselytizing sect. It had been especially successful in West Africa. The origins of the religion were wrapped in eschatology. Ahmad had claimed to be the Mahdi, the figure Muslims expect to appear at the end of the world. He also claimed to be Christ come again, an incarnation of Krishna, and a buruz, or reappearance of Mohammed. Christian chiliasm had now infected the Ahmadiyah, and his reappearance was imminent according to some of the faithful. The year 2008, the centenary of Ahmad’s death, was now a favored date for his Final Return as Mahdi. The global messianic fervor, while sputtering, seemed on average to be swelling still further, and Ellie confessed concern about the irrational predilections of the human species.

  “At a Festival of Love,” said Devi, “you should not be such a pessimist.”

  • • •

  In Sapporo there had been an abundant snowfall, and the local custom of making snow and ice sculptures of animals and mythological figures was updated. An immense dodecahedron had been meticulously carved and was shown regularly, as a kind of icon, on the evening news. After unseasonably warm days, the ice sculptors could be seen packing, chipping, and grinding, repairing the damage.

  That the activation of the Machine might, one way or another, trigger a global apocalypse was a fear now often being voiced. The Machine Project responded with confident guarantees to the public, quiet assurances to the governments, and decrees to keep the activation time secret. Some scientists proposed activation on November 17, an evening on which was predicted the most spectacular meteor shower of the century. An agreeable symbolism, they said.

  But Valerian argued that if the Machine was to leave the Earth at that moment, having to fly through a cloud of cometary debris would provide an additional and unnecessary hazard. So activation was postponed for a few weeks, until the end of the last month of nineteen hundred and anything. While this date was not literally the Turn of the Millennium, but a year before, celebrations on a lavish scale were planned by those who could not be bothered to understand the calendrical conventions, or who wished to celebrate the coming of the Third Millennium in two consecutive Decembers.

  Although the extraterrestrials could not have known how much each crew member weighed, they specified in painstaking detail the mass of each machine component and the total permissible mass. Very little was left over for equipment of terrestrial design. This fact had some years before been used as an argument for an all-woman crew, so that the equipment allowance could be increased; but the suggestion had been rejected as frivolous.

  There was no room for space suits. They would have to hope the Vegans would remember that humans had a propensity for breathing oxygen. With virtually no equipment of their own, with their cultural differences and their unknown destination, it was clear that the mission might entail great risk. The world press discussed it often; the Five themselves, never.

  A variety of miniature cameras, spectrometers, superconducting supercomputers, and microfilm libraries were being urged on the crew. It made sense and it didn’t make sense. There were no sleeping or cooking or toilet facilities on board the Machine. They were taking only a minimum of provisions, some of them stuffed in the pockets of their coveralls. Devi was to carry a rudimentary medical kit. As far as she was concerned, Ellie thought, she was barely pl
anning to bring a toothbrush and a change of underwear. If they can get me to Vega in a chair, she thought, they’ll probably be able to provide the amenities as well. If she needed a camera, she told project officials, she’d just ask the Vegans for one.

  There was a body of opinion, apparently serious, that the Five should go naked; since clothing had not been specified it should not be included, because it might somehow disturb the functioning of the Machine. Ellie and Devi, among many others, were amused, and noted that there was no proscription against wearing clothing, a popular human custom evident in the Olympic broadcast. The Vegans knew we wore clothes, Xi and Vaygay protested. The only restrictions were on total mass. Should we also extract dental work, they asked, and leave eyeglasses behind? Their view carried the day, in part because of the reluctance of many nations to be associated with a project culminating so indecorously. But the debate generated a little raw humor among the press, the technicians, and the Five.

  “For that matter,” Lunacharsky said, “it doesn’t actually specify that human beings are to go. Maybe they would find five chimpanzees equally acceptable.”

  Even a single two-dimensional photograph of an alien machine could be invaluable, she was told. And imagine a picture of the aliens themselves. Would she please reconsider and bring a camera? Der Heer, who was now on Hokkaido with a large American delegation, told her to be serious. The stakes were too high, he said, for—but she cut him short with a look so withering that he could not complete the sentence. In her mind, she knew what he was going to say—for childish behavior. Amazingly, der Heer was acting as if he had been the injured party in their relationship. She described it all to Devi, who was not fully sympathetic. Der Heer, she said, was “very sweet.” Eventually, Ellie agreed to take an ultraminiaturized video camera.

  In the manifest that the project required, under “Personal Effects,” she listed “Frond, palm, 0.811 kilograms.”

  Der Heer was sent to reason with her. “You know there’s a splendid infrared imaging system you can carry along for two-thirds of a kilogram. Why would you want to take the branch of a tree?”

  “A frond. It’s a palm frond. I know you grew up in New York, but you must know what a palm tree is. It’s all in Ivanhoe. Didn’t you read it in high school? At the time of the Crusades, pilgrims who made the long journey to the Holy Land took back a palm frond to show they’d really been there. It’s to keep my spirits up. I don’t care how advanced they are. The Earth is my Holy Land. I’ll bring a frond to them to show them where I came from.”

  Der Heer only shook his head. But when she described her reasons to Vaygay, he said, “This I understand very well.”

  Ellie remembered Vaygay’s concerns and the story he had told her in Paris about the droshky sent to the impoverished village. But this was not her worry at all. The palm frond served another purpose, she realized. She needed something to remind her of Earth. She was afraid she might be tempted not to come back.

  • • •

  The day before the Machine was to be activated she received a small package that had been delivered by hand to her apartment on the site in Wyoming and transshipped by courier. There was no return address and, inside, no note and no signature. The package held a gold medallion on a chain. Conceivably, it could be used as a pendulum. An inscription had been engraved on both sides, small but readable. One side read

  Hera, superb Queen

  With the golden robes,

  Commanded Argus,

  Whose glances bristle

  Out through the world.

  On the obverse, she read:

  This is the response of the defenders of Sparta to the Commander of the Roman Army: “If you are a god, you will not hurt those who have never injured you. If you are a man, advance—and you will find men equal to yourself.” And women.

  She knew who had sent it.

  • • •

  Next day, Activation Day, they took an opinion poll of the senior staff on what would happen. Most thought nothing would happen, that the Machine would not work. A smaller number believed that the Five would somehow find themselves very quickly in the Vega system, relativity to the contrary notwithstanding. Others suggested, variously, that the Machine was a vehicle for exploring the solar system, the most expensive practical joke in history, a classroom, a time machine, or a galactic telephone booth. One scientist wrote: “Five very ugly replacements with green scales and sharp teeth will slowly materialize in the chairs.” This was the closest to the Trojan Horse scenario in any of the responses. Another, but only one, read “Doomsday Machine.”

  There was a ceremony of sorts. Speeches were made, food and drink were served. People hugged one another. Some cried quietly. Only a few were openly skeptical. You could sense that if anything at ail happened on Activation the response would be thunderous. There was an intimation of joy in many faces.

  Ellie managed to call the nursing home and wish her mother goodbye. She spoke the word into the mouthpiece on Hokkaido, and in Wisconsin the identical sound was generated. But there was no response. Her mother was recovering some motor functions on her stricken side, the nurse told her. Soon she might be able to speak a few words. By the time the call had been completed, Ellie was feeling almost lighthearted.

  The Japanese technicians were wearing hachimaki, cloth bands around their heads, that were traditionally donned in preparation for mental, physical, or spiritual effort, especially combat. Printed on the headband was a conventional projection of the map of the Earth. No single nation held a dominant position.

  There had not been much in the way of national briefings. As far as she could tell, no one had been urged to rally round the flag. National leaders sent short statements on videotape. The President’s was especially fine, Ellie thought:

  “This is not a briefing, and not a farewell. It’s just a so long. Each of you makes this journey on behalf of a billion souls. You represent all the peoples of the planet Earth. If you are to be transported to somewhere else, then see for all of us—not just the science, but everything you can learn. You represent the entire human species, past, present, and future. Whatever happens, your place in history is secure. You are heroes of our planet. Speak for all of us. Be wise. And…come back.”

  A few hours later, for the first time, they entered the Machine—one by one, through a small airlock. Recessed interior lights, very low-key, came on. Even after the Machine had been completed and had passed every prescribed test, they were afraid to have the Five take their places prematurely. Some project personnel worried that merely sitting down might induce the Machine to operate, even if the benzels were stationary. But here they were, and nothing extraordinary was happening so far. This was the first moment she was able to lean back, a little gingerly to be sure, into the molded and cushioned plastic. She had wanted chintz; chintz slipcovers would have been perfect for these chairs. But even this, she discovered, was a matter of national pride. The plastic seemed more modern, more scientific, more serious.

  Knowing of Vaygay’s careless smoking habits, they had decreed that no cigarettes could be carried on board the Machine. Lunacharsky had uttered fluent maledictions in ten languages. Now he entered after the others, having finished his last Lucky Strike. He wheezed just a little as he sat down beside her. There were no seat belts in the design extracted from the Message, so there were none in the Machine. Some project personnel had argued, nevertheless, that it was foolhardy to omit them.

  • • •

  The Machine goes somewhere, she thought. It was a means of conveyance, an aperture to elsewhere…or elsewhen. It was a freight train barreling and wailing into the night. If you had climbed aboard, it could carry you out of the stifling provincial towns of your childhood, to the great crystal cities. It was discovery and escape and an end to loneliness. Every logistical delay in manufacture and every dispute over the proper interpretation of some subcodicil of the instructions had plunged her into despair. It was not glory she was seeking…not mainly, not much…bu
t instead a kind of liberation.

  She was a wonder junkie. In her mind, she was a hill tribesman standing slack-jawed before the real Ishtar Gate of ancient Babylon; Dorothy catching her first glimpse of the vaulted spires of the Emerald City of Oz; a small boy from darkest Brooklyn plunked down in the Corridor of Nations of the 1939 World’s Fair, the Trylon and Perisphere beckoning in the distance; she was Pocahontas sailing up the Thames estuary with London spread out before her from horizon to horizon.

  Her heart sang in anticipation. She would discover, she was sure, what else is possible, what could be accomplished by other beings, great beings—beings who had, it seemed likely, been voyaging between the stars when the ancestors of humans were still brachiating from branch to branch in the dappled sunlight of the forest canopy.

  Drumlin, like many others she had known over the years, had called her an incurable romantic; and she found herself wondering again why so many people thought it some embarrassing disability. Her romanticism had been a driving force in her life and a fount of delights. Advocate and practitioner of romance, she was off to see the Wizard.

  • • •

  A status report came through by radio. There were no apparent malfunctions, so far as could be detected with the battery of instrumentation that had been set up exterior to the Machine. Their main wait was for the evacuation of the space between and around the benzels. A system of extraordinary efficiency was pumping out the air to attain the highest vacuum ever reached on Earth. She double-checked the stowage of her video microcamera system and gave the palm frond a pat. Powerful lights on the exterior of the dodecahedron had turned on. Two of the spherical shells had now spun up to what the Message had defined as critical speed. They were already a blur to those watching outside. The third benzel would be there in a minute. A strong electrical charge was building up. When all three spherical shells with their mutually perpendicular axes were up to speed, the Machine would be activated. Or so the Message had said.

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