Contact by Carl Sagan

  His voice was right. She instantly remembered it. And his smell, his gait, his laugh. The way his beard abraded her cheek. All of it combined to shatter her self-possession. She could feel a massive stone seal being pried open and the first rays of light entering an ancient, almost forgotten tomb.

  She swallowed and tried to gain control of herself, but seemingly inexhaustible waves of anguish poured out of her and she would weep again. He stood there patiently, reassuring her with the same look she now remembered he had given her from his post at the bottom of the staircase during her first solo journey down the big steps. More than anything else she had longed to see him again, but she had suppressed the feeling, been impatient with it, because it was so clearly impossible to fulfill. She cried for all the years between herself and him.

  In her girlhood and as a young woman she would dream that be had come to her to tell her that his death had been a mistake. He was really fine. He would sweep her up into his arms. But she would pay for those brief respites with poignant reawakenings into a world in which he no longer was. Still, she had cherished those dreams and willingly paid their exorbitant tariff when the next morning she was forced to rediscover her loss and experience the agony again. Those phantom moments were all she had left of him.

  And now here he was—not a dream or a ghost, but flesh and blood. Or close enough. He had called to her from the stars, and she had come.

  She hugged him with all her might. She knew it was a trick, a reconstruction, a simulation, but it was flawless. For a moment she held him by the shoulders at arm’s length. He was perfect. It was as if her father had these many years ago died and gone to Heaven, and finally—by this unorthodox route—she had managed to rejoin him. She sobbed and embraced him again.

  It took her another minute to compose herself. If it had been Ken, say, she would have at least toyed with the idea that another dodecahedron—maybe a repaired Soviet Machine—had made a later relay from the Earth to the center of the Galaxy. But not for a moment could such a possibility be entertained for him. His remains were decaying in a cemetery by a lake.

  • • •

  She wiped her eyes, laughing and crying at once.

  “So, what do I owe this apparition to—robotics or hypnosis?”

  “Am I an artifact or a dream? You might ask that about anything.”

  “Even today, not a week goes by when I don’t think that I’d give anything—anything I had—just to spend a few minutes with my father again.”

  “Well, here I am,” he said cheerfully, his hands raised, making a half turn so she could be sure that the back of him was there as well. But he was so young, younger surely than she. He had been only thirty-six when he died.

  Maybe this was their way of calming her fears. If so, they were very…thoughtful. She guided him back toward her few possessions, her arm around his waist. He certainly felt substantial enough. If there were gear trains and integrated circuits underneath his skin, they were well hidden.

  “So how are we doing?” she asked. The question was ambiguous. “I mean—”

  “I know. It took you many years from receipt of the Message to your arrival here.”

  “Do you grade on speed or accuracy?”


  “You mean we haven’t completed the Test yet?”

  He did not answer.

  “Well, explain it to me.” She said this in some distress. “Some of us have spent years decrypting the Message and building the Machine. Aren’t you going to tell me what it’s all about?”

  “You’ve become a real scrapper,” he said, as if he really were her father, as if he were comparing his last recollections of her with her present, still incompletely developed self.

  He gave her hair an affectionate tousle. She remembered that from childhood also. But how could they, 30,000 light-years from Earth, know her father’s affectionate gestures in long-ago and faraway Wisconsin? Suddenly she knew.

  “Dreams,” she said. “Last night, when we were all dreaming, you were inside our heads, right? You drained everything we know.”

  “We only made copies. I think everything that used to be in your head is still there. Take a look. Tell me if anything’s missing.” He grinned, and went on.

  “There was so much your television programs didn’t tell us. Oh, we could figure out your technological level pretty well, and a lot more about you. But there’s so much more to your species than that, things we couldn’t possibly learn indirectly. I recognize you may feel some breach of privacy—”

  “You’re joking.”

  “—but we have so little time.”

  “You mean the Test is over? We answered all your questions while we were asleep last night? So? Did we pass or fail?”

  “It isn’t like that,” he said. “It isn’t like sixth grade.”

  She had been in the sixth grade the year he died.

  “Don’t think of us as some interstellar sheriff gunning down outlaw civilizations. Think of us more as the Office of the Galactic Census. We collect information. I know you think nobody has anything to learn from you because you’re technologically so backward. But there are other merits to a civilization.”

  “What merits?”

  “Oh, music. Lovingkindness. (I like that word.) Dreams. Humans are very good at dreaming, although you’d never know it from your television. There are cultures all over the Galaxy that trade dreams.”

  “You operate an interstellar cultural exchange? That’s what this is all about? You don’t care if some rapacious, bloodthirsty civilization develops interstellar spaceflight?”

  “I said we admire lovingkindness.”

  “If the Nazis had taken over the world, our world, and then developed interstellar spaceflight, wouldn’t you have stepped in?”

  “You’d be surprised how rarely something like that happens. In the long run, the aggressive civilizations destroy themselves, almost always. It’s their nature. They can’t help it. In such a case, our job would be to leave them alone. To make sure that no one bothers them. To let them work out their destiny.”

  “Then why didn’t you leave us alone? I’m not complaining, mind you. I’m only curious as to how the Office of the Galactic Census works. The first thing you picked up from us was that Hitler broadcast. Why did you make contact?”

  “The picture, of course, was alarming. We could tell you were in deep trouble. But the music told us something else. The Beethoven told us there was hope. Marginal cases are our specialty. We thought you could use a little help. Really, we can offer only a little. You understand. There are certain limitations imposed by causality.”

  He had crouched down, running his hands through the water, and was now drying them on his pants.

  “Last night, we looked inside you. All five of you. There’s a lot in there: feelings, memories, instincts, learned behavior, insights, madness, dreams, loves. Love is very important. You’re an interesting mix.”

  “All that in one night’s work?” She was taunting him a little.

  “We had to hurry. We have a pretty tight schedule.”

  “Why, is something about to…”

  “No, it’s just that if we don’t engineer a consistent causality, it’ll work itself out on its own. Then it’s almost always worse.”

  She had no idea what he meant.

  “‘Engineer a consistent causality.’ My dad never used to talk like that.”

  “Certainly he did. Don’t you remember how he spoke to you? He was a well-read man, and from when you were a little girl he—I—talked to you as an equal. Don’t you remember?”

  She remembered. She remembered. She thought of her mother in the nursing home.

  “What a nice pendant,” he said, with just that air of fatherly reserve she had always imagined he would have cultivated had he lived to see her adolescence. “Who gave it to you?”

  “Oh this,” she said, fingering the medallion. “Actually it’s from somebody I don’t know very well. He tested my f
aith… He… But you must know all this already.”

  Again the grin.

  “I want to know what you think of us,” she said shortly, “what you really think.”

  He did not hesitate for a moment. “All right. I think it’s amazing that you’ve done as well as you have. You’ve got hardly any theory of social organization, astonishingly backward economic systems, no grasp of the machinery of historical prediction, and very little knowledge about yourselves. Considering how fast your world is changing, it’s amazing you haven’t blown yourselves to bits by now. That’s why we don’t want to write you off just yet. You humans have a certain talent for adaptability—at least in the short term.”

  “That’s the issue, isn’t it?”

  “That’s one issue. You can see that, after a while, the civilizations with only short-tem perspectives just aren’t around. They work out their destinies also.”

  She wanted to ask him bow he honestly felt about humans. Curiosity? Compassion? No feelings whatever, just all in a day’s work? In his heart of hearts—or whatever equivalent internal organs he possessed—did he think of her as she thought of…an ant? But she could not bring herself to raise the question. She was too much afraid of the answer.

  From the intonation of his voice, from the nuances of his speech, she tried to gain some glimpse of who it was here disguised as her father. She had an enormous amount of direct experience with human beings; the Stationmasters had less than a day’s. Could she not discern something of their true nature beneath this amiable and informative facade? But she couldn’t. In the content of his speech he was, of course, not her father, nor did he pretend to be. But in every other respect he was uncannily close to Theodore F. Arroway, 1924-1960, vendor of hardware, loving husband and father. If not for a continuous effort of will, she knew she would be slobbering over this, this…copy. Part of her kept wanting to ask him how things had been since he had gone to Heaven. What were his views on Advent and Rapture? Was anything special in the works for the Millennium? There were human cultures that taught an afterlife of the blessed on mountaintops or in clouds, in caverns or oases, but she could not recall any in which if you were very, very good when you died you went to the beach.

  “Do we have time for some questions before…whatever it is we have to do next?”

  “Sure. One or two anyway.”

  “Tell me about your transportation system.”

  “I can do better than that,” he said. “I can show you. Steady now.”

  An amoeba of blackness leaked out from the zenith, obscuring Sun and blue sky.

  “That’s quite a trick,” she gasped.

  The same sandy beach was beneath her feet. She dug her toes in. Overhead…was the Cosmos. They were, it seemed, high above the Milky Way Galaxy, looking down on its spiral structure and falling toward it at some impossible speed. He explained matter-of-factly, using her own familiar scientific language to describe the vast pinwheel-shaped structure. He showed her the Orion Spiral Arm, in which the Sun was, in this epoch, embedded. Interior to it, in decreasing order of mythological significance, were the Sagittarius Arm, the Norma/Scutum Arm, and the Three Kiloparsec Arm.

  A network of straight lines appeared, representing the transportation system they had used. It was like the illuminated maps in the Paris Metro. Eda had been right. Each station, she deduced, was in a star system with a low-mass double black hole. She knew the black holes couldn’t have resulted from stellar collapse, from the normal evolution of massive star systems, because they were too small. Maybe they were primordial, left over from the Big Bang, captured by some unimaginable starship and towed to their designated station. Or maybe they were made from scratch. She wanted to ask about this, but the tour was pressing breathlessly onward.

  There was a disk of glowing hydrogen rotating about the center of the Galaxy, and within it a ring of molecular clouds rushing outward toward the periphery of the Milky Way. He showed her the ordered motions in the giant molecular cloud complex Sagittarius B2, which had for decades been a favorite hunting ground for complex organic molecules by her radio-astronomical colleagues on Earth. Closer to the center, they encountered another giant molecular cloud, and then Sagittarius A West, an intense radio source that Ellie herself had observed at Argus.

  And just adjacent, at the very center of the Galaxy, locked in a passionate gravitational embrace, was a pair of immense black holes. The mass of one of them was five million suns. Rivers of gas the size of solar systems were pouring down its maw. Two colossal—she ruminated on the limitations of the languages of Earth—two supermassive black holes are orbiting one another at the center of the Galaxy. One had been known, or at least strongly suspected. But two? Shouldn’t that have shown up as a Doppler displacement of spectral lines? She imagined a sign under one of them reading ENTRANCE and under the other EXIT. At the moment, the entrance was in use; the exit was merely there.

  And that was where this Station, Grand Central Station, was—just safely outside the black holes at the center of the Galaxy. The skies were made brilliant by millions of nearby young stars; but the stars, the gas, and the dust were being eaten up by the entrance black hole.

  “It goes somewhere, right?” she asked.

  “Of course.”

  “Can yon tell me where?”

  “Sure. All this stuff winds up in Cygnus A.”

  Cygnus A was something she knew about. Except only for a nearby supernova remnant in Cassiopeia, it was the brightest radio source in the sides of Earth. She had calculated that in one second Cygnus A produces more energy than the Sun does in 40,000 years. The radio source was 600 million light-years away, far beyond the Milky Way, out in the realm of the galaxies. As with many extragalactic radio sources, two enormous jets of gas, fleeing apart at almost the speed of tight, were making a complex web of Rankine-Hugoniot shock fronts with the thin intergalactic gas—and producing in the process a radio beacon that shone brightly over most of the universe. All the matter in this enormous structure, 500,000 light-years across, was pouring out of a tiny, almost inconspicuous point in space exactly midway between the jets.

  “You’re making Cygnus A?”

  She half-remembered a summer’s night in Michigan when she was a girl. She had feared she would fall into the sky.

  “Oh, it’s not just us. This is a…cooperative project of many galaxies. That’s what we mainly do—engineering. Only a…few of us are involved with emerging civilizations.”

  At each pause she had felt a kind of tingling in her head, approximately in the left parietal lobe.

  “There are cooperative projects between galaxies?” she asked. “Lots of galaxies, each with a kind of Central Administration? With hundreds of billions of stars in each galaxy. And then those administrations cooperate. To pour millions of suns into Centaurus…sorry, Cygnus A? The… Forgive me. I’m just staggered by the scale. Why would you do all this? Whatever for?”

  “You mustn’t think of the universe as a wilderness. It hasn’t been that for billions of years,” he said. “Think of it more as…cultivated.”

  Again a tingling.

  “But what for? What’s there to cultivate?”

  “The basic problem is easily stated. Now don’t get scared off by the scale. You’re an astronomer, after all. The problem is that the universe is expanding, and there’s not enough matter in it to stop the expansion. After a while, no new galaxies, no new stars, no new planets, no newly arisen lifeforms—just the same old crowd. Everything’s getting run-down. It’ll be boring. So in Cygnus A we’re testing out the technology to make something new. You might call it an experiment in urban renewal. It’s not our only trial run. Sometime later we might want to close off a piece of the universe and prevent space from getting more and more empty as the aeons pass. Increasing the local matter density’s the way to do it, of course. It’s good honest work.”

  Like running a hardware store in Wisconsin.

  If Cygnus A was 600 million light-years away, then astronom
ers on Earth—or anywhere in the Milky Way for that matter—were seeing it as it had been 600 million years ago. But on Earth 600 million years ago, she knew, there had hardly been any life even in the oceans big enough to shake a stick at. They were old.

  Six hundred million years ago, on a beach like this one…except no crabs, no gulls, no palm trees. She tried to imagine some microscopic plant washed ashore, securing a tremulous toehold just above the water line, while these beings were occupied with experimental galactogenesis and introductory cosmic engineering.

  “You’ve been pouring matter into Cygnus A for the last six hundred million years?”

  “Well, what you’ve detected by radio astronomy was just some of our early feasibility testing. We’re much further along now.”

  And in due course, in another few hundred million years she imagined, radio astronomers on Earth—if any—will detect substantial progress in the reconstruction of the universe around Cygnus A. She steeled herself for further revelations and vowed she would not let them intimidate her. There was a hierarchy of beings on a scale she had not imagined. But the Earth had a place, a significance in that hierarchy; they would not have gone to all this trouble for nothing.

  The blackness rushed back to the zenith and was consumed; Sun and blue sky returned. The scene was the same: surf, sand, palms, Magritte door, microcamera, frond, and her…father.

  “Those moving interstellar clouds and rings near the center of the Galaxy—aren’t they due to periodic explosions around here? Isn’t it dangerous to locate the Station here?”

  “Episodic, not periodic. It only happens on a small scale, nothing like the sort of thing we’re doing in Cygnus A. And it’s manageable. We know when it’s coming and we generally just hunker down. If it’s really dangerous, we take the Station somewhere else for a while. This is all routine, you understand.”

  “Of course. Routine. You built it all? The subways, I mean. You and those other…engineers from other galaxies?”

  “Oh no, we haven’t built any of it.”

  “I’ve missed something. Help me understand.”

Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via [email protected]