Contact by Carl Sagan

The motion of the black hole around Vega was creating a visible ripple in the bands of debris immediately adjacent The dodecahedron was doubtless producing some more modest wake. She wondered if these gravitational perturbations, these spreading rarefactions and condensations, would have any long-term consequence, changing the pattern of subsequent planetary formation. If so, then the very existence of some planet billions of years in the future might be due to the black hole and the Machine…and therefore to the Message, and therefore to Project Argus. She knew she was overpersonalizing; had she never lived, some other radio astronomer would surely have received the Message, but earlier, or later. The Machine would have been activated at a different moment and the dodec would have found its way here in some other time. So some future planet in this system might still owe its existence to her. Then, by symmetry, she had snatched out of existence some other world that was destined to form bad she never lived. It was vaguely burdensome, being responsible by your innocent actions for the fates of unknown worlds.

  She attempted a panning shot, beginning inside the dodecahedron, then out to the struts joining the transparent pentagonal panels, and beyond to the gap in the debris rings in which they, along with the black hole, were orbiting. She followed the gap, flanked by two bluish rings, further and further from her. There was something a little odd up ahead, a kind of bowing in the adjacent inner ring.

  “Qiaomu,” she said, handing him the long lens, “look over there. Tell me what you sec.”


  She pointed again. After a moment he had found it. She could tell because of his slight but quite unmistakable intake of breath.

  “Another black hole,” he said. “Much bigger.”

  • • •

  They were falling again. This time the tunnel was more commodious, and they were making better time.

  “That’s it?” Ellie found herself shouting at Devi. “They take us to Vega to show off their black holes. They give us a look at their radio telescopes from a thousand kilometers away. We spend ten minutes there, and they pop us into another black hole and ship us back to Earth. That’s why we spent two trillion dollars?”

  “Maybe we’re beside the point,” Lunacharsky was saying. “Maybe the only real point was to plug themselves into the Earth.”

  She imagined nocturnal excavations beneath the gates of Troy.

  Eda, fingers of both hands outspread, was making a calming gesture. “Wait and see,” he said. “This is a different tunnel. Why should you think it goes back to Earth?”

  “Vega’s not where we’re intended to go?” Devi asked.

  “The experimental method. Let’s see where we pop out next.”

  In this tunnel there was less scraping of the walls and fewer undulations. Eda and Vaygay were debating a space-time diagram they had drawn in Kruskal-Szekeres coordinates. Ellie had no idea what they were talking about. The deceleration stage, the part of the passage that felt uphill, was still disconcerting.

  This time the light at the end of the tunnel was orange. They emerged at a considerable speed into the system of a contact binary, two suns touching. The outer layers of a swollen elderly red giant star were pouring onto the photosphere of a vigorous middle-aged yellow dwarf, something like the Sun. The zone of contact between the two stars was brilliant. She looked for debris rings or planets or orbiting radio observatories, but could find none. That doesn’t mean very much, she told herself. These systems could have a fair number of planets and I’d never know it with this dinky long lens. She projected the double sun onto the piece of paper and photographed the image with a short-focal-length lens.

  Because there were no rings, there was less scattered light in this system than around Vega; with the wide-angle lens she was able, after a bit of searching, to recognize a constellation that sufficiently resembled the Big Dipper. But she had difficulty recognizing the other constellations. Since the bright stars in the Big Dipper are a few hundred light-years from Earth, she concluded that they had not jumped more than a few hundred light-years.

  She told this to Eda and asked him what he thought.

  “What do I think? I think this is an Underground.”

  “An Underground?”

  She recalled her sensation of falling, into the depths of Hell it had seemed for a moment, just after the Machine had been activated.

  “A Metro. A subway. These are the stations. The stops. Vega and this system and others. Passengers get on and off at the stops. You change trains here.”

  He gestured at the contact binary, and she noticed that his hand cast two shadows, one anti-yellow and the other anti-red, like in—it was the only image that came to mind—a discotheque.

  “But we, we cannot get off,” Eda continued. “We are in a closed railway car. We’re headed for the terminal, the end of the line.”

  Drumlin had called such speculations Fantasyland, and this was—so far as she knew—the first time Eda had succumbed to the temptation.

  • • •

  Of the Five, she was the only observational astronomer, even though her specialty was not in the optical spectrum. She felt it her responsibility to accumulate as much data as possible, in the tunnels and in the ordinary four-dimensional space-time into which they would periodically emerge. The presumptive black hole from which they exited would always be in orbit around some star or multiple-star system. They were always in pairs, always two of them sharing a similar orbit—one from which they were ejected, and another into which they fell. No two systems were closely similar. None was very like the solar system. All provided instructive astronomical insights. Not one of them exhibited anything like an artifact—a second dodecahedron, or some vast engineering project to take apart a world and reassemble it into what Xi had called a device.

  At this time they emerged near a star visibly changing its brightness (she could tell from the progression of f/stops required)—perhaps it was one of the RR Lyrae stars; next was a quintuple system; then a feebly luminous brown dwarf. Some were in open space, some were embedded in nebulosity, surrounded by glowing molecular clouds.

  She recalled the warning “This will be deducted from your share in Paradise.” Nothing had been deducted from hers. Despite a conscious effort to retain a professional calm, her heart soared at this profusion of suns. She hoped that every one of them was a home to someone. Or would be one day.

  But after the fourth jump she began to worry. Subjectively, and by her wristwatch, it felt something like an hour since they had “left” Hokkaido. If this took much longer, the absence of amenities would be felt. Probably there were aspects of human physiology that could not be deduced even after attentive television viewing by a very advanced civilization.

  And if the extraterrestrials were so smart, why were they putting us through so many little jumps? All right, maybe the hop from Earth used rudimentary equipment because only primitives were working one side of the tunnel. But after Vega? Why couldn’t they jump us directly to wherever the dodec was going?

  Each time she came barreling out of a tunnel, she was expectant. What wonders had they in store for her next? It put her in mind of a very upscale amusement park, and she found herself imagining Hadden peering down his telescope at Hokkaido the moment the Machine had been activated.

  As glorious as the vistas offered by the Message makers were, and however much she enjoyed a kind of proprietary mastery of the subject as she explained some aspect of stellar evolution to the others, she was after a time disappointed. She had to work to track the feeling down. Soon she had it: The extraterrestrials were boasting. It was unseemly. It betrayed some defect of character.

  As they plunged down still another tunnel, this one broader and more tortuous than the others, Lunacharsky asked Eda to guess why the subway stops were put in such unpromising star systems. “Why not around a single star, a young star in good health and with no debris?”

  “Because,” Eda replied, “—of course, I am only guessing as you ask—because all such systems are inh

  “And they don’t want the tourists scaring the natives,” Sukhavati shot back.

  Eda smiled. “Or the other way around.”

  “But that’s what you mean, isn’t it? There’s some sort of ethic of noninterference with primitive planets. They know that every now and then some of the primitives might use the subway…”

  “And they’re pretty sure of the primitives,” Ellie continued the thought, “but they can’t be absolutely sure. After all, primitives are primitive. So you let them ride only on subways that go to the sticks. The builders must be a very cautious bunch. But then why did they send us a local train and not an express?”

  “Probably it’s too hard to build an express tunnel,” said Xi, years of digging experience behind him. Ellie thought of the Honshu-Hokkaido Tunnel, one of the prides of civil engineering on Earth, all of fifty-one kilometers long.

  A few of the turns were quite steep now. She thought about her Thunderbird, and then she thought about getting sick. She decided she would fight it as long as she could. The dodecahedron had not been equipped with airsickness bags.

  Abruptly they were on a straightaway, and then the sky was full of stars. Everywhere she looked there were stars, not the paltry scattering of a few thousand still occasionally known to naked-eye observers on Earth, but a vast multitude—many almost touching their nearest neighbors it seemed—surrounding her in every direction, many of them tinted yellow or blue or red, especially red. The sky was blazing with nearby suns. She could make out an immense spiraling cloud of dust, an accretion disk apparently flowing into a black hole of staggering proportions, out of which flashes of radiation were coming like heat lightning on a summer’s night. If this was the center of the Galaxy, as she suspected, it would be bathed in synchrotron radiation. She hoped the extraterrestrials had remembered how frail humans were.

  And swimming into her field of view as the dodec rotated was…a prodigy, a wonder, a miracle. They were upon it almost before they knew it. It filled half the sky. Now they were flying over it. On its surface were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of illuminated doorways, each a different shape. Many were polygonal or circular or with an elliptical cross section, some had projecting appendages or a sequence of partly overlapping off-center circles. She realized they were docking ports, thousands of different docking ports—some perhaps only meters in size, others clearly kilometers across, or larger. Every one of them, she decided, was the template of some interstellar machine like this one. Big creatures in serious machines had imposing entry ports. Little creatures, like us, had tiny ports. It was a democratic arrangement, with no hint of particularly privileged civilizations. The diversity of ports suggested few social distinctions among the sundry civilizations, but it implied a breathtaking diversity of beings and cultures. Talk about Grand Central Station! she thought.

  The vision of a populated Galaxy, of a universe spilling over with life and intelligence, made her want to cry for joy.

  They were approaching a yellow-lit port which, Elbe could see, was the exact template of the dodecahedron in which they were riding. She watched a nearby docking port, where something the size of the dodecahedron and shaped approximately like a starfish was gently insinuating itself onto its template. She glanced left and right, up and down, at the almost imperceptible curvature of this great Station situated at what she guessed was the center of the Milky Way. What a vindication for the human species, invited here at last! There’s hope for us, she thought. There’s hope!

  “Well, it isn’t Bridgeport.”

  She said this aloud as the docking maneuver completed itself in perfect silence.


  Grand Central Station

  All things are artificial, for nature is the art of God.


  “On Dreams” Religio Medici (1642)

  Angels need an assumed body, not for themselves, but on our account.


  Summa Theologica, I, 51, 2

  The devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape.


  Hamlet, II, ii, 628

  THE AIRLOCK was designed to accommodate only one person at a time. When questions of priority had come up—which nation would be first represented on the planet of another star—the Five had thrown up their hands in disgust and told the project managers that this wasn’t that kind of mission. They had conscientiously avoided discussing the issue among themselves.

  Both the interior and the exterior doors of the airlock opened simultaneously. They had given no command. Apparently, this sector of Grand Central was adequately pressurized and oxygenated.

  “Well, who wants to go first?” Devi asked.

  Video camera in hand, Ellie waited in line to exit, but then decided that the palm frond should be with her when she set foot on this new world. As she went to retrieve it, she heard a whoop of delight from outside, probably from Vaygay. Ellie rushed into the bright sunlight. The threshold of the airlock’s exterior doorway was flush with the sand. Devi was ankle-deep in the water, playfully splashing in Xi’s direction. Eda was smiling broadly.

  It was a beach. Waves were lapping on the sand. The blue sky sported a few lazy cumulus clouds. There was a stand of palm trees, irregularly spaced a little back from the water’s edge. A sun was in the sky. One sun. A yellow one. Just like ours, she thought. A faint aroma was in the air; cloves, perhaps, and cinnamon. It could have been a beach on Zanzibar.

  So they had voyaged 30,000 light-years to walk on a beach. Could be worse, she thought. The breeze stirred, and a little whirlwind of sand was created before her. Was all this just some elaborate simulation of the Earth, perhaps reconstructed from the data returned by a routine scouting expedition millions of years earlier? Or had the five of them undertaken this epic voyage only to improve their knowledge of descriptive astronomy, and then been unceremoniously dumped into some pleasant corner of the Earth?

  When she turned, she discovered that the dodecahedron had disappeared. They had left the superconducting supercomputer and its reference library as well as some of the instruments aboard. It worried them for about a minute. They were safe and they had survived a trip worth writing home about. Vaygay glanced from the frond she had struggled to bring here to the colony of palm trees along the beach, and laughed.

  “Coals to Newcastle,” Devi commented.

  But her frond was different. Perhaps they had different species here. Or maybe the local variety had been produced by an inattentive manufacturer. She looked out to sea. Irresistibly brought to mind was the image of the first colonization of the Earth’s land, some 400 million years ago. Wherever this was—the Indian Ocean or the center of the Galaxy—the five of them had done something unparalleled. The itinerary and destinations were entirely out of their hands, it was true. But they had crossed the ocean of interstellar space and begun what surely must be a new age in human history. She was very proud.

  Xi removed his boots and rolled up to his knees the legs of the tacky insignia-laden jump suit the governments had decreed they all must wear. He ambled through the gentle surf. Devi stepped behind a palm tree and emerged sari-clad, her jump suit draped over her arm. It reminded Ellie of a Dorothy Lamour movie. Eda produced the sort of linen hat that was his visual trademark throughout the world. Ellie videotaped them in short jumpy takes. It would look, when they got home, exactly like a home movie. She joined Xi and Vaygay in the surf. The water seemed almost warm. It was a pleasant afternoon and, everything considered, a welcome change from the Hokkaido winter they had left little more than an hour before.

  “Everyone has brought something symbolic,” said Vaygay, “except me.”

  “How do you mean?”

  “Sukhavati and Eda bring national costumes. Xi here has brought a grain of rice.” Indeed, Xi was holding the grain in a plastic bag between thumb and forefinger. “You have your palm frond,” Vaygay continued. “But me, I have brought no symbols, no mementos from Ear
th. I’m the only real materialist in the group, and everything I’ve brought is in my head.”

  Ellie had hung her medallion around her neck, under the jump suit. Now she loosened the collar and pulled out the pendant. Vaygay noticed, and she gave it to him to read.

  “It’s Plutarch, I think,” he said after a moment. “Those were brave words the Spartans spoke. But remember, the Romans won the battle.”

  From the tone of this admonition, Vaygay must have thought the medallion a gift from der Heer. She was warmed by his disapproval of Ken—surely justified by events—and by his steadfast solicitude. She took his arm.

  “I would kill for a cigarette,” he said amiably, using his arm to squeeze her hand to his side.

  • • •

  The five of them sat together by a little tide pool. The breaking of the surf generated a soft white noise that reminded her of Argus and her years of listening to cosmic static. The Sun was well past the zenith, over the ocean. A crab scuttled by, sidewise dexterous, its eyes swiveling on their stalks. With crabs, coconuts, and the limited provisions in their pockets, they could survive comfortably enough for some time. There were no footprints on the beach besides their own.

  “We think they did almost all the work.” Vaygay was explaining his and Eda’s thinking on what the five of them had experienced. “All the project did was to make the faintest pucker in space-time, so they would have something to hook their tunnel onto. In all of that multidimensional geometry, it must be very difficult to detect a tiny pucker in space-time. Even harder to fit a nozzle onto it.”

  “What are you saying? They changed the geometry of space?”

  “Yes. We’re saying that space is topologically non-simply connected. It’s like—I know Abonnema doesn’t like this analogy—it’s like a flat two-dimensional surface, the smart surface, connected by some maze of tubing with some other flat two-dimensional surface, the dumb surface. The only way you can get from the smart surface to the dumb surface in a reasonable time is through the tubes. Now imagine that the people on the smart surface lower a tube with a nozzle on it. They will make a tunnel between the two surfaces, provided the dumb ones cooperate by making a little pucker on their surface, so the nozzle can attach itself.”

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