Contact by Carl Sagan

  “Michael, listen. It’s how we were able to get from here to there and back in no time flat. Twenty minutes, anyway. It can be acausal around a singularity. I’m not an expert on this. You should be talking to Eda or Vaygay.”

  “Thank you for the suggestion,” he said. “We already have.”

  She imagined Vaygay under some comparably stem interrogation by his old adversary Arkhangelsky or by Baruda, the man who had proposed destroying the radio telescopes and burning the data. Probably they and Kitz saw eye to eye on the awkward matter before them. She hoped Vaygay was bearing up all right.

  “You understand, Dr. Arroway. I’m sure you do. But let me explain again. Perhaps you can show me where I missed something. Twenty-six years ago those radio waves were heading out for Earth. Now imagine them in space between Vega and here. Nobody can catch the radio waves after they’ve left Vega. Nobody can stop them. Even if the transmitter knew instantaneously—through the black hole, if you like—that the Machine had been activated, it would be twenty-six years before the signal stops arriving on Earth. Your Vegans couldn’t have known twenty-six years ago when the Machine was going to be activated. And to the minute. You would have to send a message back in time to twenty-six years ago, for the Message to stop on December thirty-first, 1999. You do follow, don’t you?”

  “Yes, I follow. This is wholly unexplored territory. You know, it’s not called a space-time continuum for nothing. If they can make tunnels through space, I suppose they can make some kind of tunnels through time. The fact that we got back a day early shows that they have at least a limited kind of time travel. So maybe as soon as we left the Station, they sent a message twenty-six years back into time to turn the transmission off. I don’t know.”

  “You see how convenient it is for you that the Message stops just now. If it was still broadcasting, we could find your little satellite, capture it, and bring back the transmission tape. That would be definitive evidence of a hoax. Unambiguous. But you couldn’t risk that. So you’re reduced to black hole mumbo-jumbo. Probably embarrassing for you.”

  He looked concerned.

  It was like some paranoid fantasy in which a patchwork of innocent facts are reassembled into an intricate conspiracy. The facts in this case were hardly commonplace, and it made sense for the authorities to test other possible explanations. But Kitz’s rendition of events was so malign that it revealed, she thought, someone truly wounded, afraid, in pain. In her mind, the likelihood that all this was a collective delusion diminished a little. But the cessation of the Message transmission—if it had happened as Kitz had said—was worrisome.

  “Now, I tell myself, Dr. Arroway, you scientists had the brains to figure all this out, and the motivation. But by yourselves you didn’t have the means. If it wasn’t the Russians who put up this satellite for you, it could have been any one of half a dozen other national launch authorities. But we’ve looked into all that. Nobody launched a free-flying satellite in the appropriate orbits. That leaves private launch capability. And the most interesting possibility that’s come to our notice is a Mr. S. R. Hadden. Know him?”

  “Don’t be ridiculous, Michael. I talked to you about Hadden before I went up to Methuselah.”

  “Just wanted to be sure we agree on the basics. Try this on for size: You and the Russian concoct this scheme. You get Hadden to bankroll the early stages—the satellite design, the invention of the Machine, the encrypting of the Message, faking the radiation damage, all that. In return, after the Machine Project gets going, he gets to play with some of that two trillion dollars. He likes the idea. There might be enormous profit in it, and from his history, he’d love to embarrass the government. When you get stuck in decrypting the Message, when you can’t find the primer, you even go to him. He tells you where to look for it. That was also careless. It would have been better if you figured it out yourself.”

  “It’s too careless,” offered der Heer. “Wouldn’t someone who was really perpetrating a hoax…”

  “Ken, I’m surprised at you. You’ve been very credulous, you know? You’re demonstrating exactly why Arroway and the others thought it would be clever to ask Hadden’s advice. And to make sure we knew she’d gone to see him.”

  He returned his attention to her. “Dr. Arroway, try to look at it from the standpoint of a neutral observer…”

  Kitz pressed on, making sparkling new patterns of facts assemble themselves in the air before her, rewriting whole years of her life. She hadn’t thought Kitz dumb, but she hadn’t imagined him this inventive either. Perhaps he had received help. But the emotional propulsion for this fantasy came from Kitz.

  He was full of expansive gestures and rhetorical flourishes. This was not merely part of his job. This interrogation, this alternative interpretation of events, had roused something passionate in him. After a moment she thought she saw what it was. The Five had come back with no immediate military applications, no political liquid capital, but only a story that was surpassing strange. And that story had certain implications. Kitz was now master of the most devastating arsenal on Earth, while the Caretakers were building galaxies. He was a lineal descendant of a progression of leaders, American and Soviet, who had devised the strategy of nuclear confrontation, while the Caretakers were an amalgam of diverse species from separate worlds working together in concert. Their very existence was an unspoken rebuke. Then consider the possibility that the tunnel could be activated from the other end, that there might be nothing he could do to prevent it. They could be here in an instant. How could Kitz defend the United States under such circumstances? His role in the decision to build the Machine—the history of which he seemed to be actively rewriting—could be interpreted by an unfriendly tribunal as dereliction of duty. And what account could Kitz give the extraterrestrials of his stewardship of the planet, he and his predecessors? Even if no avenging angels came storming out of the tunnel, if the truth of the journey got out the world would change. It was already changing. It would change much more.

  Again she regarded him with sympathy. For a hundred generations, at least, the world had been run by people much worse than he. It was his misfortune to come to bat just as the rules of the game were being rewritten.

  “…even if you believed every detail of your story,” he was saying, “don’t you think the extraterrestrials treated you badly? They take advantage of your tenderest feelings by dressing themselves up as dear old Dad. They don’t tell you what they’re doing, they expose all your film, destroy all your data, and don’t even let you leave that stupid palm frond up there. Nothing on the manifest is missing, except for a little food, and nothing that isn’t on the manifest is returned, except for a little sand. So in twenty minutes you gobbled some food and dumped a little sand out of your pockets. You come back one nanosecond or something after you leave, so to any neutral observer you never left at all.

  “Now, if the extraterrestrials wanted to make it unambiguously clear you’d really gone somewhere, they would’ve brought you back a day later, or a week. Right? If there was nothing inside the benzels for a while, we’d be dead certain that you’d gone somewhere. If they wanted to make it easy for you, they wouldn’t have turned off the Message. Right? That makes it look bad, you know. They could’ve figured that out. Why would they want to make it bad for you? And there’s other ways they could’ve supported your story. They could’ve given you something to remember them by. They could’ve let you bring back your movies. Then nobody could claim all this is just a clever fake. So how come they didn’t do that? How come the extraterrestrials don’t confirm your story? You spent years of your life trying to find them. Don’t they appreciate what you’ve done?

  “Ellie, how can you be so sure your story really happened? If, as you claim, all this isn’t a hoax, couldn’t it be a…delusion? It’s painful to consider, I know. Nobody wants to think they’ve gone a little crazy. Considering the strain you’ve been under, though, it’s no big deal. And if the only alternative is criminal conspiracy?
?? Maybe you want to carefully think this one through.”

  She had already done so.

  • • •

  Later that day she met with Kitz alone. A bargain had in effect been proposed. She had no intention of going along with it. But Kitz was prepared for that possibility as well.

  “You never liked me from the first,” he said. “But I’m going to rise above that. We’re going to do something really fair.

  “We’ve already issued a news release saying that the Machine just didn’t work when we tried to activate it. Naturally, we’re trying to understand what went wrong. With all the other failures, in Wyoming and Uzbekistan, nobody is doubting this one.

  “Then in a few weeks we’ll announce that we’re still not getting anywhere. We’ve done the best we could. The Machine is too expensive to keep working on. Probably we’re just not smart enough to figure it out yet. Also, there’s still some danger, after all. We always knew that. The Machine might blow up or something. So all in all, it’s best to put the Machine Project on ice—at least for a while. It’s not that we didn’t try.

  “Hadden and his friends would oppose it, of course, but as he’s been taken from us…”

  “He’s only three hundred kilometers overhead,” she pointed out.

  “Oh, haven’t you heard? Sol died just around the time the Machine was activated. Funny how it happened. Sorry, I should have told you. I forgot you were…close to him.”

  She did not know whether to believe Kitz. Hadden was in his fifties and had certainly seemed in good physical health. She would pursue this topic later.

  “And what, in your fantasy, becomes of us?” she asked.

  “Us? Who’s ‘us’?”

  “Us. The five of us. The ones who went aboard the Machine that you claim never worked.”

  “Oh. After a little more debriefing you’ll be free to leave. I don’t think any of you will be foolish enough to tell this cock-and-bull story on the outside. But just to be safe, we’re preparing some psychiatric dossiers on the five of you. Profiles. Low-key. You’ve always been a little rebellious, mad at the system—whichever system you grew up in. It’s okay. It’s good for people to be independent. We encourage that, especially in scientists. But the strain of the last few years has been trying—not actually disabling, but trying. Especially for Doctors Arroway and Lunacharsky. First they’re involved in finding the Message, decrypting it, and convincing the governments to build the Machine. Then problems in construction, industrial sabotage, sitting through an Activation that goes nowhere… It’s been tough. All work and no play. And scientists are highly strung anyway. If you’ve all become a little unhinged at the failure of the Machine, everybody will be sympathetic. Understanding. But nobody’ll believe your story. Nobody. If you behave yourselves, there’s no reason that the dossiers ever have to be released.

  “It’ll be clear that the Machine is still here. We’re having a few wire service photographers in to photograph it as soon as the roads are open. We’ll show them the Machine didn’t go anywhere. And the crew? The crew is naturally disappointed. Maybe a little disheartened. They don’t want to talk to the press just yet.

  “Don’t you think it’s a neat plan?” He smiled. He wanted her to acknowledge the beauty of the scheme. She said nothing.

  “Don’t you think we’re being very reasonable, after spending two trillion dollars on that pile of shit? We could put you away for life, Arroway. But we’re letting you go free. You don’t even have to put up bail. I think we’re behaving like gentlemen. It’s the Spirit of the Millennium. It’s Machindo.”



  That it will never come again

  Is what makes life so sweet.


  Poem Number 1741

  IN THIS time—heralded expansively as the Dawn of a New Age—burial in space was an expensive commonplace. Commercially available and a competitive business, it appealed especially to those who, in former times, would have requested that their remains be scattered over the county of their birth, or at least the mill town from which they had extracted their first fortune. But now you could arrange for your remains to circumnavigate the Earth forever—or as close to forever as matters in the workaday world. You need only insert a short codicil in your will. Then—assuming, of course, that you have the Wherewithal—when you die and are cremated, your ashes are compressed into a tiny almost toylike bier, on which is embossed your name and your dates, a short memorial verse, and the religious symbol of your choice (choose one of three). Along with hundreds of similar miniature coffins, it is then boosted up and dumped out at an intermediate altitude, expeditiously avoiding both the crowded corridors of geosynchronous orbit and the disconcerting atmospheric drag of low-Earth orbit. Instead, your ashes triumphantly circle the planet of your birth in the midst of the Van Allen I radiation belts, a proton blizzard where no satellite in its right mind would risk going to in the first place. But ashes do not mind.

  At these heights, the Earth had become enveloped in the remains of its leading citizens, and an uninstructed visitor from a distant world might rightly believe he had chanced upon some somber space-age necropolis. The hazardous location of this mortuary would explain the absence of memorial visits from grieving relatives.

  S. R. Hadden, contemplating this image, had been appalled at what minor portions of immortality these deceased worthies had been willing to settle for. All their organic parts—brains, hearts, everything that distinguished them as a person—were atomized in their cremations. There isn’t any of you left after cremation, he thought, just powdered bone, hardly enough even for a very advanced civilization to reconstruct you from the remains. And then, for good measure, your coffin is placed smack in the Van Alien belts, where even your ashes get slowly fried.

  How much better if a few of your cells could be preserved. Real living cells, with the DNA intact. He visualized a corporation that would, for a healthy fee, freeze a little of your epithelial tissue and orbit it high—well above the Van Allen belts, maybe even higher than geosynchronous orbit. No reason to die first. Do it now, while it’s on your mind. Then, at least, alien molecular biologists—or their terrestrial counterparts of the far future—could reconstruct you, clone you, more or less from scratch. You would rub your eyes, stretch, and wake up in the year ten million. Or even if nothing was done with your remains, there would still be in existence multiple copies of your genetic instructions. You would be alive in principle. In either case it could be said that you would live forever.

  But as Hadden ruminated on the matter further, this scheme also seemed too modest. Because that wasn’t really you, a few cells scraped off the soles of your feet. At best they could reconstruct your physical form. But that’s not the same as you. If you were really serious, you should include family photographs, a punctiliously detailed autobiography, all the books and tapes you’ve enjoyed, and as much else about yourself as possible. Favorite brands of aftershave lotion, for example, or diet cola. It was supremely egotistical, he knew, and he loved it. After all, the age had produced a sustained eschatological delirium. It was natural to think of your own end as everyone else was contemplating the demise of the species, or the planet, or the massed celestial ascent of the Elect.

  You couldn’t expect the extraterrestrials to know English. If they’re to reconstruct you, they’d have to know your language. So you must include a kind of translation, a problem Hadden enjoyed. It was almost the obverse of the Message decryption problem.

  All of this required a substantial space capsule, so substantial that you need no longer be limited to mere tissue samples. You might as well send your body whole. If you could quick-freeze yourself after death, so to say, there was a subsidiary advantage. Maybe enough of you would be in working order that whoever found you could do better than just reconstructing you. Maybe they could bring you back to life—of course, after fixing whatever it was that you had died of. If you languished a little before fre
ezing, though—because, say, the relatives had not realized you were dead yet—prospects for revival diminished. What would really make sense, he thought, was to freeze someone just before death. That would make eventual resuscitation much more likely, although there was probably limited demand for this service.

  But then why just before dying? Suppose you knew you had only a year or two to live. Wouldn’t it be better to be frozen immediately, Hadden mused—before the meat goes bad? Even then—he sighed—no matter what the nature of the deteriorating illness, it might still be irremediable after you were revived; you would be frozen for a geological age, and then awakened only to die promptly from a melanoma or a cardiac infarction about which the extraterrestrials might know nothing.

  No, he concluded, there was only one perfect realization of this idea: Someone in robust health would have to be launched on a one-way journey to the stars. As an incidental benefit, you would be spared the humiliation of disease and old age. Far from the inner solar system, your equilibrium temperature would fall to only a few degrees above absolute zero. No further refrigeration would be necessary. Perpetual care provided. Free.

  By this logic he came to the final step of the argument: If it requires a few years to get to the interstellar cold, you might as well stay awake for the show, and get quick-frozen only when yon leave the solar system. It would also minimize overdependence on the cryogenics.

  • • •

  Hadden had taken every reasonable precaution against an unexpected medical problem in Earth orbit, the official account went, even to preemptive sonic disintegration of his gall and kidney stones before he ever set foot in his chateau in the sky. And then he went and died of anaphylactic shock. A bee had buzzed angrily out of a bouquet of freesias sent up on Narnia by an admirer. Carelessly, Methuselah’s capacious pharmacy had not stocked the appropriate antiserum. The insect had probably been immobilized by the low temperatures in Narnia’s cargo bay and was not really to blame. Its small and broken body had been sent down for examination by forensic entomologists. The irony of the billionaire felled by a bee did not escape the notice of newspaper editorials and Sunday sermons.

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