Contact by Carl Sagan
“Oh yes he was,” returned the President and, with a gesture, ushered der Heer out of the Rose Room and down a corridor. Suddenly she stopped and regarded her Science Adviser.
“What if the Nazis didn’t have television in 1936? Then what would have happened?”
“Well, then I suppose it would be the coronation of George the Sixth, or one of the transmissions about the New York World’s Fair in 1939, if any of them were strong enough to be received on Vega. Or some programs from the late forties, early fifties. You know, Howdy Doody, Milton Berle, the Army-McCarthy hearings—all those marvelous signs of intelligent life on Earth.”
“Those goddamn programs are our ambassadors into space…the Emissary from Earth.” She paused a moment to savor the phrase. “With an ambassador, you’re supposed to put your best foot forward, and we’ve been sending mainly crap to space for forty years. I’d like to see the network executives come to grips with this one. And that madman Hitler, that’s the first news they have about Earth? What are they going to think of us?”
• • •
As der Heer and the President entered the Cabinet Room, those who had been standing in small groups fell silent, and some who had been seated made efforts to stand. With a perfunctory gesture, the President conveyed a preference for informality and casually greeted the Secretary of State and an Assistant Secretary of Defense. With a slow and deliberate turn of the head, she scanned the group. Some returned her gaze expectantly. Others, detecting an expression of minor annoyance on the President’s face, averted their eyes.
“Ken, isn’t that astronomer of yours here? Arrowsmith? Arrowroot?”
“Arroway, Ms. President. She and Dr. Valerian arrived last night. Maybe they’ve been held up in traffic.”
“Dr. Arroway called from her hotel, Ms. President,” volunteered a meticulously groomed young man. “She said there were some new data coming through on her telefax, and she wanted to bring it to this meeting. We’re supposed to start without her.”
Michael Kitz leaned forward, his tone and expression incredulous. “They’re transmitting new data on this subject over an open telephone, insecure, in a Washington hotel room?”
Der Heer responded so softly that Kitz had to lean still further forward to hear. “Mike, I think there’s at least commercial encryption on her telefax. But remember there are no security guidelines established in this matter. I’m sure that Dr. Arroway will be cooperative if guidelines are established.”
“All right, let’s begin,” said the President. “This is a joint informal meeting of the National Security Council and what for the time being we’re calling the Special Contingency Task Group. I want to impress on all of you that nothing said in this room—I mean nothing—is to be discussed with anyone who isn’t here, except for the Secretary of Defense and the Vice President, who are overseas. Yesterday, Dr. der Heer gave most of you a briefing on this unbelievable TV program from the star Vega. It’s the view of Dr. der Heer and others”—she looked around the table—“that it’s just a fluke that the first television program to get to Vega starred Adolf Hitler. But it’s…an embarrassment. I’ve asked the Director of Central Intelligence to prepare an assessment of any national security implications in all of this. Is there any direct threat from whoever the hell is sending this? Are we going to be in trouble if there’s some new message, and some other country decodes it first? But first let me ask, Marvin, does this have anything to do with flying saucers?”
The Director of Central Intelligence, an authoritative man in late middle age, wearing steel-rimmed glasses, summarized. Unidentified Flying Objects, called UFO’s, have been of intermittent concern to the CIA and the Air Force, especially in the ’50s and ’60s, in part because rumors about them might be a means for hostile power to spread confusion or to overload communications channels. A few of the more reliably reported incidents turned out to be penetrations of U.S. air space or overflights of U.S. overseas bases by high-performance aircraft from the Soviet Union or Cuba. Such overflights are a common means of testing a potential adversary’s readiness, and the United States had more than its fair share of penetrations, and feints at penetration, of Soviet air space. A Cuban MiG penetrating 200 miles up the Mississippi Basin before being detected was considered undesirable publicity by NORAD. The routine procedure had been for the Air Force to deny that any of its aircraft were in the vicinity of the UFO sighting, and to volunteer nothing about unauthorized penetrations, thus solidifying public mystification. At these explanations, the Air Force Chief of Staff looked marginally uncomfortable but said nothing.
The great majority of UFO reports, the DCI continued, were natural objects misapprehended by the observer. Unconventional or experimental aircraft, automobile headlights reflected off overcast, balloons, birds, luminescent insects, even planets and stars seen under unusual atmospheric conditions, had all been reported as UFO’s. A significant number of reports turned out to be hoaxes or real psychiatric delusions. There had been more than a million UFO sightings reported worldwide since the term “flying saucer” had been invented in the late ’40s, and not one of them seemed on good evidence to be connected with an extraterrestrial visitation. But the idea generated powerful emotions, and there were fringe groups and publications, and even some academic scientists, that kept alive the supposed connection between UFO’s and life on other worlds. Recent millenarian doctrine included its share of saucer-borne extraterrestrial redeemers. The official Air Force investigation, called in one of its final incarnations Project Blue Book, had been closed down in the ’60s for lack of progress, although a low-level continuing interest had been maintained jointly by the Air Force and the CIA. The scientific community had been so convinced there was nothing to it that when Jimmy Carter requested the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to make a comprehensive study of UFO’s, NASA uncharacteristically refused a presidential request.
“In fact,” interjected one of the scientists at the table, unfamiliar with the protocol in meetings such as this, “the UFO business has made it more difficult to do serious SETI work.”
“All right.” The President sighed. “Is there anybody around this table who thinks UFO’s and this signal from Vega have anything to do with each other?” Der Heer inspected his fingernails. No one spoke.
“Just the same, there’s going to be an awful lot of I-told-you-so’s from the UFO yo-yos. Marvin, why don’t you continue?”
“In 1936, Ms. President, a very faint television signal transmits the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games to a handful of television receivers in the Berlin area. It’s an attempt at a public relations coup. It shows the progress and superiority of German technology. There were a few earlier TV transmissions, but all at very low power levels. Actually, we did it before the Germans. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover made a brief television appearance on… April twenty-seventh, 1927. Anyway, the German signal leaves the Earth at the speed of light, and twenty-six years later it arrives on Vega. They sit on the signal for a few years—whoever ‘they’ are—and then send it back to us hugely amplified. Their ability to receive that very weak signal is impressive, and their ability to return it at such high power levels is impressive. There certainly are security implications here. The electronic intelligence community, for example, would like to know how such weak signals can be detected. Those people, or whatever they are, on Vega are certainly more advanced than we are—maybe only a few decades further along, but maybe much further along than that.
“They’ve given us no other information about themselves—except at some frequencies the transmitted signal doesn’t show the Doppler effect from the motion of their planet around their star. They’ve simplified that data reduction step for us. They’re…helpful. So far, nothing of military or any other interest has been received. All they’ve been saying is that they’re good at radio astronomy, they like prime numbers, and they can return our first TV transmission back to us. It couldn’t hurt for any other nation to know that. A
“Incidentally, we haven’t been able to find any record from German archives of what was in that original broadcast. We can’t be absolutely sure that the people on Vega haven’t made some change in the content before sending it back to us. We can recognize Hitler, all right, and the part of the Olympic stadium we see corresponds accurately to Berlin in 1936. But if at that moment Hitler had really been scratching his mustache instead of smiling as in that transmission, we’d have no way to know.”
Ellie arrived slightly breathless, followed by Valerian. They attempted to take obscure chairs against the wall, but der Heer noticed and directed the President’s attention to them.
“Dr. Arrow-uh-way? I’m glad to see you’ve arrived safely. First, let me congratulate you on a splendid discovery. Splendid. Um, Marvin…”
“I’ve reached a stopping point, Ms. President.”
“Good. Dr. Arroway, we understand you have something new. Would you care to tell us about it?”
“Ms. President, sorry to be late, but I think we’ve just hit the cosmic jackpot. We’ve… It’s… Let me try and explain it this way: In classical times, thousands of years ago, when parchment was in short supply, people would write over an old parchment, making what’s called a palimpsest. There was writing under writing under writing. This signal from Vega is, of course, very strong. As you know, there’s the prime numbers, and ‘underneath’ them, in what’s called polarization modulation, this eerie Hitler business. But underneath the sequence of prime numbers and underneath the retransmitted Olympic broadcast, we’ve just uncovered an incredibly rich message—at least we’re pretty sure it’s a message. As far as we can tell, it’s been there all along. We’ve just detected it. It’s weaker than the announcement signal, but I’m embarrassed we didn’t find it sooner.”
“What does it say?” the President asked. “What’s it about?”
“We haven’t the foggiest idea, Ms. President. Some of the people at Project Argus tumbled to it early this morning Washington time. We’ve been working on it all night.”
“Over an open phone?” asked Kitz.
“With standard commercial encryption.” Ellie looked a little flushed. Opening her telefax case, she quickly generated a transparency printout and, when an overhead projector, cast its image against a screen.
“Here’s all we know up to now: We’ll get a block of information comprising about a thousand bits. There’ll be a pause, and then the same block will be repeated, bit for bit. Then there’ll be another pause, and we’ll go on to the next block. It’s repeated as well. The repetition of every block is probably to minimize transmission errors. They must think it’s very important that we get whatever it is they’re saying down accurately. Now, let’s call each of these blocks of information a page. Argus is picking up a few dozen of these pages a day. But we don’t know what they’re about. They’re not a simple picture code like the Olympic message. This is something much deeper and much richer. It appears to be, for the first time, information they’ve generated. The only clue we have so far is that the pages seem to be numbered. At the beginning of every page there’s a number in binary arithmetic. See this one here? And every time another pair of identical pages shows up, it’s labeled with the next higher number. Right now we’re on page…10,413. It’s a big book. Calculating back, it seems that the message began about three months ago. We’re lucky to have picked it up as early as we did.”
“I was right, wasn’t I?” Kitz leaned across the table to der Heer. “This isn’t the kind of message you want to give to the Japanese or the Chinese or the Russians, is it?”
“Is it going to be easy to figure out?” the President asked over the whispering Kitz.
“We will, of course, make out best efforts. And it probably would be useful to have the National Security Agency work on it also. But without an explanation from Vega, without a primer, my guess is that we’re not going to make much progress. It certainly doesn’t seem to be written in English or German or any other Earthly language. Our hope is that the Message will come to an end, maybe on page 20,000 or page 30,000, and then start right over from the beginning, so we’ll be able to fill in the missing parts. Maybe before the whole Message repeats, there’ll be a primer, a kind of McGuffey’s Reader, that will enable us to understand the Message.”
“If I may, Ms. President—”
“Ms. President, this is Dr. Peter Valerian of the California Institute of Technology, one of the pioneers in this field.”
“Please go ahead, Dr. Valerian.”
“This is an intentional transmission to us. They know we’re here. They have some idea, from having intercepted out 1936 broadcast, of where our technology is, of how smart we are. They wouldn’t be going to all this trouble if they didn’t want us to understand the Message. Somewhere in there is the key to help us understand it. It’s only a question of accumulating all the data and analyzing it very carefully.”
“Well, what do you suppose the Message is about?”
“I don’t see any way to tell, Ms. President. I can only repeat what Dr. Arroway said. It’s an intricate and complex Message. The transmitting civilization is eager for us to receive it. Maybe all this is one small volume of the Encyclopedia Galactica. The star Vega is about three times more massive than the Sun and about fifty times brighter. Because it burns its nuclear fuel so fast, it has a much shorter lifetime than the Sun—”
“Yes. Maybe something’s about to go wrong on Vega,” the Director of Central Intelligence interrupted. “Maybe their planet will be destroyed. Maybe they want someone else to know about their civilization before they’re wiped out.”
“Or,” offered Kitz, “maybe they’re looking for a new place to move to, and the Earth would suit them just fine. Maybe it’s no accident they chose to send us a picture of Adolf Hitler.”
“Hold on,” Ellie said, “there are a lot of possibilities, but not everything is possible. There’s no way for the transmitting civilization to know whether we’ve received the Message, much less whether we’re making any progress in decoding it. If we find the Message offensive we’re not obliged to reply. And even if we did reply, it would be twenty-six years before they received the reply, and another twenty-six years before they can answer it. The speed of light is fast, but it’s not infinitely fast. We’re very nicely quarantined from Vega. And if there’s anything that worries us about this new Message, we have decades to decide what to do about it. Let’s not panic quite yet.” She enunciated these last words while offering a pleasant smile to Kitz.
“I appreciate those remarks, Dr. Arroway,” returned the President. “But things are happening fast. Too damn fast. And there are too many maybes. I haven’t even made a public announcement about all of this. Not even the prime numbers, never mind the Hitler bullcrap. Now we have to think about this ‘book’ you say they’re sending. And because you scientists think nothing of talking to each other, the rumors are flying. Phyllis, where’s that file? Here, look at these headlines.”
Brandished successively at arm’s length, they all carried the same message, with minor variations in journalistic artistry: “Space Doc Says Radio Show from Bug-Eyed Monsters,” “Astronomical Telegram Hints at Extraterrestrial Intelligence,” “Voice from Heaven?” and “The Aliens Are Coming! The Aliens Are Coming!” She let the clippings flutter tot he table.
“At least the Hitler story hasn’t broken yet. I’m waiting for those headline
“If I may, Ms. President,” der Heer interrupted haltingly, with evident reluctance. “I beg your pardon, but there are some international implications that I think have to be raised now.”
The President merely exhaled, acquiescing.
Der Heer continued. “Tell me if I have this right, Dr. Arroway. Every day the star Vega rises over the New Mexico desert, and then you get whatever page of this complex transmission—whatever it is—they happen to be sending to the Earth at the moment. Then, eight hours later or something, the star sets. Right so far? Okay. Then the next day the star rises again in the east, but you’ve lost some pages during the time you weren’t able to look at it, after it had set the previous night. Right? So it’s as if you were getting pages thirty through fifty and then pages eighty through a hundred, and so on. No matter how patiently we observe, we’re going to have enormous amounts of information missing. Gaps. Even if the message eventually repeats itself, we’re going to have gaps.”
“That’s entirely right.” Ellie rose and approached an enormous globe of the world. Evidently the White House was opposed to the obliquity of the Earth; the axis of this globe was defiantly vertical. Tentatively, she gave it a spin. “The Earth turns. You need radio telescopes distributed evenly over many longitudes if you don’t want gaps. Any one nation observing only from its own territory is going to dip into the message and dip out—maybe even at the most interesting parts. Now this is the same kind of problem that an American interplanetary spacecraft faces. It broadcasts its findings back to Earth when it passes by some planet, but the United States might be facing the other way at the time. So NASA has arranged for three radio tracking stations to be distributed evenly in longitude around the Earth. Over the decades they’ve performed superbly. But…” Her voice trailed off diffidently, and she looked directly at P. L. Garrison, the NASA Administrator. A thin, sallow, friendly man, he blinked.
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