Contact by Carl Sagan

  It surprised her how mild the threatened punishments were, but violations of the agreement, if they happened would not come on Kitz’s watch. He was shortly retiring; in a year, the Lasker Administration would be leaving office after the constitutionally mandated maximum of two terms. He had accepted a partnership in a Washington law firm known for its defense-contractor clientele.

  Ellie thought Kitz would attempt something more. He seemed unworried about anything she might claim occurred at the Galactic Center. What he agonized about, she was sure, was the possibility that the tunnel was still open to even if not from the Earth. She thought the Hokkaido facility would soon be disassembled. The technicians would return to their industries and universities. What stories would they tell? Perhaps the dodecahedron would be displayed in the Science City of Tsukuba. Then, after a decent interval when the world’s attention was to some extent distracted by other matters, perhaps there would be an explosion at the Machine site—nuclear, if Kitz could contrive a plausible explanation for the event If it was a nuclear explosion, the radiological contamination would be an excellent reason to declare the whole area a forbidden zone. It would at least isolate the site from casual observers and might just shake the nozzle loose. Probably Japanese sensibilities about nuclear weapons, even if exploded underground, would force Kitz to settle for conventional explosives. They might disguise it as one of the continuing series of Hokkaido coal-mine disasters. She doubted if any explosion—nuclear or conventional—could disengage the Earth from the tunnel.

  But perhaps Kitz was imagining none of these things. Perhaps she was selling him short. After all, he too must have been influenced by Machindo. He must have a family, friends, someone be loved. He must have caught at least a whiff of it.

  • • •

  The next day, the President awarded her the National Medal of Freedom in a public ceremony at the White House. Logs were burning in a fireplace set in a white marble wall. The President had committed a great deal of political as well as the more usual sort of capital to the Machine Project and was determined to make the best face of it before the nation and the world. Investments in the Machine by the United States and other nations, the argument went, had paid off handsomely. New technologies, new industries were blossoming, promising at least as much benefit for ordinary people as the inventions of Thomas Edison. We had discovered that we are not alone, that intelligences more advanced than we existed out there in space. They had changed forever, the President said, our conception of who we are. Speaking for herself—but also, she thought, for most Americans—the discovery had strengthened her belief in God, now revealed to be creating life and intelligence on many worlds, a conclusion that the President was sure would be in harmony with all religions. But the greatest good granted us by the Machine, the President said, was the spirit it had brought to Earth—the increasing mutual understanding within the human community, the sense that we were all fellow passengers on a perilous journey in space and in time, the goal of a global unity of purpose that was now known all over the planet as Machindo.

  The President presented Ellie to the press and the television cameras, told of her perseverance over twelve long years, her genius in detecting and decoding the Message, and her courage in going aboard the Machine. No one knew what the Machine would do. Dr. Arroway had willingly risked her life. It was not Dr. Arroway’s fault that nothing happened when the Machine was activated. She had done as much as any human possibly could. She deserved the thanks of all Americans, and of all people everywhere on Earth. Ellie was a very private person. Despite her natural reticence, she had when the need arose shouldered the burden of explaining the Message and the Machine. Indeed, she had shown a patience with the press that she, the President, admired particularly. Dr. Arroway should now be permitted some real privacy, so she could resume her scientific career. There had been press announcements, briefings, interviews with Secretary Kitz and Science Adviser der Heer. The President hoped the press would respect Dr. Arroway’s wish that there be no press conference. There was, however, a photo opportunity. Ellie left Washington without determining how much the President knew.

  • • •

  They flew her back in a small sleek jet of the Joint Military Airlift Command, and agreed to stop in Janesville on the way. Her mother was wearing her old quilted robe. Someone had put a little color on her cheeks. Ellie pressed her face into the pillow beside her mother. Beyond regaining a halting power of speech, the old woman had recovered the use of her right arm sufficiently to give Ellie a few feeble pats on her shoulder.

  “Mom, I’ve got something to tell you. It’s a great thing. But try to be calm. I don’t want to upset you. Mom… I saw Dad. I saw him. He sends you his love.”

  “Yes…” The old woman slowly nodded. “Was here yesterday.”

  John Staughton, Ellie knew, had been to the nursing home the previous day. He had begged off accompanying Ellie today, pleading an excess of work, but it seemed possible that Staughton merely did not wish to intrude on this moment. Nevertheless, she found herself saying, with some irritation, “No, no. I’m talking about Dad.”

  “Tell him…” The old woman’s speech was labored. “Tell him, chiffon dress. Stop cleaners…way home from store.”

  Her father evidently still ran the hardware store in her mother’s universe. And Ellie’s.

  • • •

  The long sweep of cyclone fencing now stretched uselessly from horizon to horizon, blighting the expanse of scrub desert. She was glad to be back, glad to be setting up a new, although much smaller-scale, research program.

  Jack Hibbert had been appointed Acting Director of the Argus facility, and she felt unburdened of the administrative responsibilities. Because so much telescope time had been freed when the signal from Vega had ceased, there was a heady air of progress in a dozen long-languishing subdisciplines of radio astronomy. Her co-workers offered not a hint of support for Kitz’s notion of a Message hoax. She wondered what der Heer and Valerian were telling their friends and colleagues about the Message and the Machine.

  Ellie doubted that Kitz had breathed a word of it outside the recesses of his soon-to-be-vacated Pentagon office. She had been there once; a Navy enlisted man—sidearm in leather holster and hands clasped behind his back—had stiffly guarded the portal, in case in the warren of concentric hallways some passerby should succumb to an irrational impulse.

  Willie had himself driven the Thunderbird from Wyoming, so it would be waiting for her. By agreement she could drive it only on the facility, which was large enough for ordinary joyriding. But no more West Texas landscapes, no more coney honor guards, no more mountain drives to glimpse a southern star. This was her sole regret about the seclusion. But the ranks of saluting rabbits were at any rate unavailable in winter.

  At first a sizable press corps haunted the area in hopes of shouting a question at her or photographing her through a telescopic lens. But she. remained resolutely isolated. The newly imported public relations staff was effective, even a little ruthless, in discouraging inquiries. After all, the President had asked for privacy for Dr. Arroway.

  Over the following weeks and months, the battalion of reporters dwindled to a company and then to a platoon. Now only a squad of the most steadfast remained, mostly from The World Hologram and other sensationalist weekly newspapers, the chiliast magazines, and a lone representative from a publication that called itself Science and God. No. one knew what sect it belonged to, and its reporter wasn’t telling.

  When the stories were written, they told of twelve years of dedicated work, culminating in the momentous, triumphant decryption of the Message and followed by the construction of the Machine. At the peak of world expectation, it had, sadly, failed. The Machine had gone nowhere. Naturally Dr. Arroway was disappointed, maybe, they speculated, even a little depressed.

  Many editorialists commented that this pause was welcome. The pace of new discovery and the evident need for major philosophical and religious reassessments repre
sented so heady a mix that a time of retrenchment and slow reappraisal was needed. Perhaps the Earth was not yet ready for contact with alien civilizations. Sociologists and some educators claimed that the mere existence of extra-terrestrial intelligences more advanced than we would require several generations to be properly assimilated. It was a body blow to human self-esteem, they said. There was enough on our plate already. In another few decades we would much better understand the principles underlying the Machine. We would see what mistake we had made, and we would laugh at how trivial an oversight had prevented it from functioning in its first full trial back in 1999.

  Some religious commentators argued that the failure of the Machine was a punishment for the sin of pride, for human arrogance. Billy Jo Rankin in a nationwide television address proposed that the Message had in fact come straight from a Hell called Vega, an authoritative consolidation of his previous positions on the matter. The Message and the Machine, he said, were a latter-day Tower of Babel. Humans foolishly, tragically, had aspired to reach the Throne of God. There had been a city of fornication and blasphemy built thousands of years ago called Babylon, which God had destroyed. In our time, there was another such city with the same name. Those dedicated to the Word of God had fulfilled His purpose there as well. The Message and the Machine represented still another assault of wickedness upon the righteous and God-fearing. Here again the demonic initiatives had been forestalled—in Wyoming by a divinely inspired accident, in Godless Russia through the confounding of Communist scientists by the Divine Grace.

  But despite these clear warnings of God’s will, Rankin continued, humans had for a third time tried to build the Machine. God let them. Then, gently, subtly, He caused the Machine to fail, deflected the demonic intent, and once more demonstrated His care and concern for His wayward and sinful—if truth be told. His unworthy—children on Earth. It was time to learn the lessons of our sinfulness, our abominations, and, before the coming Millennium, the real Millennium that would begin on January 1, 2001, rededicate our planet and ourselves to God.

  The Machines should be destroyed. Every last one of them, and all their parts. The pretense that by building a machine rather than by purifying their hearts humans could stand at the right hand of God must be expunged, root and branch, before it was too late.

  In her little apartment Ellie heard Rankin out, turned off the television set and resumed her programming.

  The only outside calls she was permitted were to the rest home in Janesville, Wisconsin. All incoming calls except from Janesville were screened out. Polite apologies were provided. Letters from der Heer, Valerian, from her old college friend Becky Ellenbogen, she filed unopened. There were a number of messages delivered by express mail services, and then by courier, from South Carolina, from Palmer Joss. She was much more tempted to read these, but did not. She wrote him a note that read only, “Dear Palmer, Not yet. Ellie,” and posted it with no return address. She had no way to know if it would be delivered.

  A television special on her life, made without her consent, described her as more reclusive now than Neil Arm-strong, or even Greta Garbo. Ellie took it all with cheerful equanimity. She was otherwise occupied. Indeed, she was working night and day.

  The prohibitions on communication with the outside world did not extend to purely scientific collaboration, and through open-channel asynchronous telenetting she and Vaygay organized a long-term research program. Among the objects to be examined were the vicinity of Sagittarius A at the center of the Galaxy, and the great extragalactic radio source, Cygnus A. The Argus telescopes were employed as part of a phased array, linked with the Soviet telescopes in Samarkand. Together, the American-Soviet array acted as if they were part of a single radio telescope the size of the Earth. Operating at a wavelength of a few centimeters, they could resolve sources of radio emission as small as the inner solar system if they were as faraway as the center of the Galaxy.

  She worried that this was not good enough, that the two orbiting black holes were considerably smaller than that. Still, a continuous monitoring program might turn up something. What they really needed, she thought, was a radio telescope launched by space vehicle to the other side of the Sun, and working in tandem with radio telescopes on Earth. Humans could thereby create a telescope effectively the size of the Earth’s orbit. With it, she calculated, they could resolve something the size of the Earth at the center of the Galaxy. Or maybe the size of the Station.

  She spent most of her time writing, modifying existing programs for the Cray 21, and setting down an account—as detailed as she possibly could make it—of the salient events that had been squeezed into the twenty minutes of Earth-time after they activated the Machine. Halfway through, she realized she was writing samizdat. Typewriter and carbon paper technology. She locked the original and two copies in her safe—beside a yellowing copy of the Hadden Decision—secreted the third copy behind a loose plank in the electronics bay of Telescope 49, and burned the carbon paper. It generated a black acrid smoke. In six weeks she had finished reprogramming and just as her thoughts returned to Palmer Joss, he presented himself at the Argus front gate.

  His way had been cleared by a few phone calls from a special assistant to the President, with whom, of coarse, Joss had been acquainted for years. Even here in the Southwest with its casual sartorial codes, he wore, as always, a jacket, a white shirt, and a tie. She gave him the palm frond, thanked him for the pendant, and despite all of Kite’s admonitions to keep her delusional experience quiet, immediately told him everything.

  They adopted the practice of her Soviet colleagues, who whenever anything politically unorthodox needed to be said, discovered the urgent necessity for a brisk walk. Every now and then he would stop and, a distant observer would see, lean toward her. Each time she would take his arm and they would walk on.

  He listened sympathetically, intelligently, indeed generously—especially for someone whose doctrines must, she thought, be challenged at their fundaments by her account…if he gave them any credence at all. After all his reluctance at the time the Message had first been received, at last she was showing Argus to him. He was companionable, and she found herself happy to see him. She wished she had been less preoccupied when she had seen him last, in Washington.

  Apparently at random, they climbed up the narrow metal exterior stairways that straddled the base of Telescope 49. The vista of 130 radio telescopes—most of them rolling stock on their own set of railway tracks—was like nothing else on Earth. In the electronics bay she slid back the plank and retrieved a bulky envelope with Joss’s name upon it. He put it in his inside breast pocket, where it made a discernible bulge.

  She told him about the Sag A and Cyg A observing protocols. She told him about her computer program.

  “It’s very time-consuming, even with the Cray, to calculate pi out to something like ten to the twentieth place. And we don’t know that what we’re looking for is in pi. They sort of said it wasn’t. It might be e. It might be one of the family of transcendental numbers they told Vaygay about It might be some altogether different number. So a simple-minded brute-force approach—just calculating fashionable transcendental numbers forever—is a waste of time. But here at Argus we have very sophisticated decryption algorithms, designed to find patterns in a signal, designed to pull out and display anything that looks nonrandom. So I rewrote the programs…”

  From the expression on his face, she was afraid she had not been clear. She made a small swerve in the monologue.

  “…but not to calculate the digits in a number like pi, print than out, and present them for inspection. There isn’t enough time for that. Instead, the program races through the digits in pi and pauses even to think about it only when there’s some anomalous sequence of zeros and ones. You know what I’m saying? Something nonrandom. By chance, there’ll be some zeros and ones, of course. Ten percent of the digits will be zeros, and another ten percent will be ones. On average. The more digits we race through, the longer the sequence
s of pure zeros and ones that we should get by accident. The program knows what’s expected statistically and only pays attention to unexpectedly long sequences of zeros and ones. And it doesn’t only look in base ten.”

  “I don’t understand. If you look at enough random numbers, won’t you get any pattern you want simply by chance?”

  “Sure. But you can calculate how likely that is. If you get a very complex message very early on, you know it can’t be by chance. So, every day in the early hours of the morning the computer works on this problem. No data from the outside world goes in. And so far no data from the inside world comes out. It just runs through the optimum series expansion for pi and watches the digits fly. It minds its own business. Unless it finds something, it doesn’t speak unless it’s spoken to. It’s sort of contemplating its navel.”

  “I’m no mathematician, God knows. But could you give me a f’r instance?”

  “Sure.” She searched in the pockets of her jump suit for a piece of paper and could find none. She thought about reaching into his inside breast pocket, retrieving the envelope she had just given him and writing on it, but decided that was too risky out here in the open. After a moment, he understood and produced a small spiral notebook.

  “Thanks. Pi starts out 3.1415926… You can see that the digits vary pretty randomly. Okay, a one appears twice in the first four digits, but after yon keep on going for a while it averages out. Each digit—0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9—appears almost exactly ten percent of the time when you’ve accumulated enough digits. Occasionally you’ll get a few consecutive digits that are the same—4444, for example—but not more than you’d expect statistically. Now, suppose you’re running merrily through these digits and suddenly you find nothing but fours. Hundreds of fours all in a row. That couldn’t carry any information, but it also couldn’t be a statistical fluke. You could calculate the digits in pi for the age of the universe and, if the digits are random, you’d never go deep enough to get a hundred consecutive fours.”

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