Contact by Carl Sagan

  But in fact, this was all a deception. There had been no bee, no sting, and no death. Hadden remained in excellent health. Instead, on the stroke of the New Year, nine hours after the Machine had been activated, the rocket engines flamed on a sizable auxiliary vehicle docked to Methuselah. It rapidly achieved escape velocity from the Earth-Moon system. He called it Gilgamesh.

  Hadden had spent his life amassing power and contemplating time. The more power you have, he found, the more you crave. Power and time were connected, because all men are equal in death. That is why the ancient kings built monuments to themselves. But the monuments become eroded, the royal accomplishments obliterated, the very names of the kings forgotten. And, most important, they themselves were dead as doornails. No, this was more elegant, more beautiful, more satisfying. He had found a low door in the wall of time.

  Had he merely announced his plans to the world, certain complications would ensue. If Hadden was frozen to four degrees Kelvin at ten billion kilometers from Earth, what exactly was his legal status? Who would control his corporations? This way was much tidier. In a minor codicil of an elaborate last will and testament, he had left his heirs and assigns a new corporation, skilled in rocket engines and cryogenics, that would eventually be called Immortality, Inc. He need never think of the matter again.

  Gilgamesh was not equipped with a radio. He no longer wished to know what had happened to the Five. He wanted no more news of Earth—nothing cheering, nothing to make him disconsolate, none of the pointless tumult he had known. Only solitude, elevated thoughts…silence. If anything adverse should occur in the next few years, Gilgamesh’s cryogenics could be activated by the flip of a switch. Until then, there was a full library of his favorite music, and literature and videotapes. He would not be lonely. He had never really been much for company. Yamagishi had considered coming, but ultimately reneged; he would be lost, he said, without “staff.” And on this journey there were insufficient inducements, as well as inadequate space. for staff. The monotony of the food and the modest scale of the amenities might be daunting to some, but Hadden knew himself to be a man with a great dream. The amenities mattered not at all.

  In two years, this flying sarcophagus would fall into the gravitational potential well of Jupiter, just outside its radiation belt, be slingshot around the planet and then flung off into interstellar space. For a day he would have a view still more spectacular than that out the window of his study on Methuselah—the roiling multicolored clouds of Jupiter. the largest planet. If it were only a matter of the view. Hadden would have opted for Saturn and the rings. He preferred the rings. But Saturn was at least four years from Earth and that was, all things considered, taking a chance. If you’re stalking immortality, you have to be very careful.

  At these speeds it would take ten thousand years to travel even the distance to the nearest star. When you’re frozen to four degrees above absolute zero, though, you have plenty of time. But some fine day—he was sure of it, though it be a million years from now—Gilgamesh would by chance enter someone else’s solar system. Or his funeral bark would be intercepted in the darkness between the stars, and other beings—very advanced, very far-seeing—would take the sarcophagus aboard and know what had to be done. It had never really been attempted before. No one who ever lived on Earth had come this close.

  Confident that in his end would be his beginning, he closed his eyes and folded his arms experimentally across his chest, as the engines flared again, this time more briefly, and the burnished craft was sleekly set on its long journey to the stars.

  Thousands of years from now, God knows what would be happening on Earth, he thought. It was not his problem. It never really had been. But he, he would be asleep, deep-frozen, perfectly preserved, his sarcophagus hurtling through the interstellar void, surpassing the Pharaohs, besting Alexander, outshining Qin. He had contrived his own Resurrection.



  We have not followed cunningly devised fables…but were eyewitnesses.

  —II PETER 1: 16

  Look and remember. Look upon this sky;

  Look deep and deep into the sea-clean air,

  The unconfined, the terminus of prayer.

  Speak now and speak into the hallowed dome.

  What do you hear? What does the sky reply?

  The heavens are taken; this is not your home.


  Travelogue for Exiles

  THE TELEPHONE lines had been repaired, the roads plowed clean, and carefully selected representatives of the world’s press were given a brief look at the facility. A few reporters and photographers were taken through the three matching apertures in the benzels, through the air-lock, and into the dodec. There were television commentaries recorded, the reporters seated, in the chairs that the Five had occupied, telling the world of the failure of this first courageous attempt to activate the Machine. Ellie and her colleagues were photographed from a distance, to show that they were alive and well, but no interviews were to be given just yet. The Machine Project was taking stock and considering its future options. The tunnel from Honshu to Hokkaido was open again, but the passageway from Earth to Vega was closed. They hadn’t actually tested this proposition—Ellie wondered whether, when the Five finally left the site, the project would try to spin up the benzels again—but she believed what she had been told: The Machine would not work again; there would be no further access to the tunnels for the beings of Earth. We could make little indentations in space-time as much as we liked; it would do us no good if no one hooked up from the other side. We had been given a glimpse, she thought, and then were left to save ourselves. If we could.

  In the end, the Five were permitted to talk among themselves. She systematically bade farewell to each. No one blamed her for the blank cassettes.

  “These pictures on the cassettes are recorded in magnetic domains, on tape,” Vaygay reminded her. “A strong electrical field accumulated on the benzels, and they were, of course, moving. A time-varying electrical field makes a magnetic field. Maxwell’s equations. It seems to me that’s how your tapes were erased. It was not your fault.”

  Vaygay’s interrogation had baffled him. They had not exactly accused him but merely suggested that he was part of an anti-Soviet conspiracy involving scientists from the West.

  “I tell you, Ellie, the only remaining open question is the existence of intelligent life in the Politburo.”

  “And the White House. I can’t believe the President would allow Kitz to get away with this. She committed herself to the project.”

  “This planet is run by crazy people. Remember what they have to do to get where they are. Their perspective is so narrow, so…brief. A few years. In the best of them a few decades. They care only about the time they are in power.”

  She thought about Cygnus A.

  “But they’re not sure our story is a lie. They cannot prove it. Therefore, we must convince them. In their hearts, they wonder, ‘Could it be true?’ A few even want it to be true. But it is a risky truth. They need something close to certainty… And perhaps we can provide it. We can refine gravitational theory. We can make new astronomical observations to confirm what we were told—especially for the Galactic Center and Cygnus A. They’re not going to stop astronomical research. Also, we can study the dodec, if they give us access. Ellie, we will change their minds.”

  Difficult to do if they’re all crazy, she thought to herself.

  “I don’t see how the governments could convince people this is a hoax,” she said.

  “Really? Think of what else they’ve made people believe. They’ve persuaded us that we’ll be safe if only we spend all our wealth so everybody on Earth can be killed in a moment—when the governments decide the time has come. I would think it’s hard to make people believe something so foolish. No, Ellie, they’re good at convincing. They need only say that the Machine doesn’t work, and that we’ve gone a little mad.”

  “I don’t
think we’d seem so mad if we all told our story together. But you may be right. Maybe we should try to find some evidence first Vaygay, will you be okay when you…go back?”

  “What can they do to me? Exile me to Gorky? I could survive that; I’ve had my day at the beach… No, I will be safe. You and I have a mutual-security treaty, Ellie. As long as you’re alive, they need me. And vice versa, of course. If the story is true, they will be glad there was a Soviet witness; eventually, they will cry it from the rooftops. And like your people, they will wonder about military and economic uses of what we saw.

  “It doesn’t matter what they tell us to do. All that matters is that we stay alive. Then we will tell our story—all five of us—discreetly, of course. At first only to those we trust. But those people will tell others. The story will spread. There will be no way to stop it. Sooner or later the governments will acknowledge what happened to us in the dodecahedron. And until then we are insurance policies for each other. Ellie, I am very happy about all this. It is the greatest thing that ever happened to me.”

  “Give Nina a kiss for me,” she said just before he left on the night flight to Moscow.

  • • •

  Over breakfast, she asked Xi if he was disappointed.

  “Disappointed? To go there”—he lifted his eyes skyward—“to see them, and to be disappointed? I am an orphan of the Long March. I survived the Cultural Revolution. I was trying to grow potatoes and sugar beets for six years in the shadow of the Great Wall. Upheaval has been my whole life. I know disappointment.”

  “You have been to a banquet, and when you come home to your starving village you are disappointed that they do not celebrate your return? This is no disappointment. We have lost a minor skirmish. Examine the…disposition of forces.”

  He would shortly be departing for China, where he had agreed to make no public statements about what had happened in the Machine. But he would return to supervise the dig at Xian. The tomb of Qin was waiting for him. He wanted to see how closely the Emperor resembled that simulation on the far side of the tunnels.

  “Forgive me. I know this is impertinent,” she said after a while, “but the fact that of all of us, you alone met someone who… In all your life, wasn’t there anyone you loved?”

  She wished she had phrased the question better.

  “Everyone I ever loved was taken from me. Obliterated. I saw the emperors of the twentieth century come and go,” he answered. “I longed for someone who could not be revised, or rehabilitated, or edited out. There are only a few historical figures who cannot be erased.”

  He was looking at the tabletop, fingering the teaspoon. “I devoted my life to the Revolution, and I have no regrets. But I know almost nothing of my mother and father. I have no memories of them. Your mother is still alive. You remember your father, and you found him again. Do not overlook how fortunate you are.”

  • • •

  In Devi, Ellie sensed a grief she had never before noticed. She assumed it was a reaction to the skepticism with which Project Directorate and the governments had greeted their story. But Devi shook her head.

  “Whether they believe us is not very important for me. The experience itself is central. Transforming. Ellie, that really happened to us. It was real. The first night we were back here on Hokkaido, I dreamt that our experience was a dream, you know? But it wasn’t, it wasn’t.

  “Yes, I’m sad. My sadness is… You know, I satisfied a lifelong wish up there when I found Surindar again, after all these years. He was exactly as I remembered him, exactly as I’ve dreamed of him. But when I saw him, when I saw so perfect a simulation, I knew: This love was precious because it had been snatched away, because I had given up so much to marry him. Nothing more. The man was a fool. Ten years with him, and we would have been divorced. Maybe only five. I was so young and foolish.”

  “I’m truly sorry,” Ellie said. “I know a little about mourning a lost love.”

  “Ellie,” she replied, “you don’t understand. For the first time in my adult life, I do not mourn Surindar. What I mourn is the family I renounced for his sake.”

  Sukhavati was returning to Bombay for a few days and then would visit her ancestral village in Tamil Nadu.

  “Eventually,” she said, “it will be easy to convince ourselves this was only an illusion. Every morning when we wake up, our experience will be more distant, more dreamlike. It would have been better for us all to stay together, to reinforce our memories. They understood this danger. That’s why they took us to the seashore, something like our own planet, a reality we can grasp. I will not permit anyone to trivialize this experience. Remember. It really happened. It was not a dream. Ellie, don’t forget.”

  • • •

  Eda was, considering the circumstances, very relaxed. She soon understood why. While she and Vaygay had been undergoing lengthy interrogations, he had been calculating.

  “I think the tunnels are Einstein-Rosen bridges,” he said. “General Relativity admits a class of solutions, called wormholes, similar to black holes, but with no evolutionary connection—they cannot be generated, as black holes can, by the gravitational collapse of a star. But the usual sort of wormhole, once made, expands and contracts before anything can cross through; it exerts disastrous tidal forces, and it also requires—at least as seen by an observer left behind—an infinite amount of time to get through.”

  Ellie did not see how this represented much progress, and asked him to clarify. The key problem was holding the wormhole open. Eda had found a class of solutions to his field equations that suggested a new macroscopic field, a kind of tension that could be used to prevent a wormhole from contracting fully. Such a wormhole would pose none of the other problems of black holes; it would have much smaller tidal stresses, two-way access, quick transit times as measured by an exterior observer, and no devastating interior radiation field.

  “I don’t know whether the tunnel is stable against small perturbations,” he said. “If not, they would have to build a very elaborate feedback system to monitor and correct the instabilities. I’m not yet sure of any of this. But at least if the tunnels can be Einstein-Rosen bridges, we can give some answer when they tell us we were hallucinating,”

  Eda was eager to return to Lagos, and she could see the green ticket of Nigerian Airlines peeking out of his jacket pocket. He wondered if he could completely work through the new physics their experience had implied. But he confessed himself unsure that he would be equal to the task, especially because of what he described as his advanced age for theoretical physics. He was thirty-eight. Most of all, he told Ellie, he was desperate to be reunited with his wife and children.

  She embraced Eda. She told him that she was proud to have known him.

  “Why the past tense?” he asked. “You will certainly sec me again. And Ellie,” he added, almost as an afterthought, “will you do something for me? Remember everything that happened, every detail. Write it down. And send it to me. Our experience represents experimental data. One of us may have seen some point that the others missed, something essential for a deep understanding of what happened. Send me what you write. I have asked the others to do the same.”

  He waved, lifted his battered briefcase, and was ushered into the waiting project car.

  They were departing for their separate nations, and it felt to Ellie as if her own family were being sundered, broken, dispersed. She too had found the experience transforming. How could she not? A demon had been exorcised. Several. And just when she felt more capable of love than she had ever been, she found herself alone.

  • • •

  They spirited her out of the facility by helicopter. On the long flight to Washington in the government airplane, she slept so soundly that they had to shake her awake when the White House people came aboard—just after the aircraft landed briefly on an isolated runway at Hickam Field, Hawaii.

  They had made a bargain. She could go back to Argus, although no longer as director, and pursue any scientific
problem she pleased. She had, if she liked, lifetime tenure.

  “We’re not unreasonable,” Kitz had finally said in agreeing to the compromise. “You come back with a solid, piece of evidence, something really convincing, and we’ll join you in making the announcement. We’ll say we asked you to keep the story quiet until we could be absolutely sure. Within reason, we’ll support any research you want to do. If we announce the story now, though, there’ll be an initial wave of enthusiasm and then the skeptics will start carping. It’ll embarrass you and it’ll embarrass us. Much better to gather the evidence, if you can.” Perhaps the President had helped him change his mind. It was unlikely Kitz was enjoying the compromise.

  But in return she must say nothing about what had happened aboard the Machine. The Five had sat down in the dodecahedron, talked among themselves, and then walked off. If she breathed a word of anything else, the spurious psychiatric profile would find its way to the media and, reluctantly, she would be dismissed.

  She wondered whether they had attempted to buy Peter Valerian’s silence, or Vaygay’s, or Abonnema’s. She couldn’t see how—short of shooting the debriefing teams of five nations and the World Machine Consortium—they could hope to keep this quiet forever. It was only a matter of time. So, she concluded, they were buying time.

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