Contact by Carl Sagan


  “About what? How do you mean?”

  “The best that can happen is we will be made fools of.”

  “Who will?”

  “Arroway, don’t you understand?” A vein in Lunacharsky’s neck throbbed. “I’m amazed you don’t see it. The Earth is a…ghetto. Yes, a ghetto. All human beings are trapped here. We have heard vaguely that there are big cities out there beyond the ghetto, with broad boulevards filled with droshkys and beautiful perfumed women in furs. But the cities are too far away, and we are too poor ever to go there, even the richest of us. Anyway, we know they don’t want us. That’s why they’ve left us in this pathetic little village in the first place.

  “And now along comes an invitation. As Xi said. Fancy, elegant. They have sent us an engraved card and an empty droshky. We are to send five villagers and the droshky will carry them to—who knows?—Warsaw. Or Moscow. Maybe even Paris. Of course, some are tempted to go. There will always be people who are flattered by the invitation, or who think it is a way to escape our shabby village.

  “And what do you think will happen when we get there? Do you think the Grand Duke will have us to dinner? Will the President of the Academy ask us interesting questions about daily life in our filthy shtetl? Do you imagine the Russian Orthodox Metropolitan will engage us in learned discourse on comparative religion?

  “No, Arroway. We will gawk at the big city, and they will laugh at us behind their hands. They will exhibit us to the curious. The more backward we are the better they’ll feel, the more reassured they’ll be.

  “It’s a quota system. Every few centuries, five of us get to spend a weekend on Vega. Have pity on the provincials, and make sure they know who their betters are.”

  CHAPTER 13

  Babylon

  With the basest of companions, I walked the streets of Babylon…

  —AUGUSTINE

  Confessions, II, 3

  THE CRAY 21 mainframe computer at Argus had been instructed to compare each day’s harvest of data from Vega with the earliest records of Level 3 of the palimpsest. In effect, one long and incomprehensible sequence of zeros and ones was being compared automatically with another, earlier, such sequence. This was part of a massive statistical intercomparison of various segments of the still undecrypted text. There were some short sequences of zeros and ones—“words” the analysts called them, hopefully—which were repeated again and again. Many sequences would appear only once in thousands of pages of text. This statistical approach to message decryption was familiar to Ellie since high school. But the subroutines supplied by the experts from the National Security Agency—made available only as a result of a presidential directive, and even then armed with instructions to self-destruct if examined closely—were brilliant.

  What prodigies of human inventiveness, Ellie reflected, were being directed to reading each other’s mail. The global confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union—now, to be sure, easing somewhat—was still eating up the world. It was not just the financial resources dedicated to the military establishments of all nations. That was approaching two trillion dollars a year, and by itself was ruinously expensive when there were so many other urgent human needs. But still worse, she knew, was the intellectual effort dedicated to the arms race.

  Almost half the scientists on the planet, it had been estimated, were employed by one or another of the almost two hundred military establishments worldwide. And they were not the dregs of the doctoral programs in physics and mathematics. Some of her colleagues would console themselves with this thought when the awkward problem arose of what to tell a recent doctoral candidate being courted by, say, one of the weapons laboratories. “If he was any good, he’d be offered an assistant professorship at Stanford, at least,” she could recall Drumlin once saying. No, a certain kind of mind and character was drawn to the military applications of science and mathematics—people who liked big explosions, for example; or those with no taste for personal combat who, to avenge some schoolyard injustice, aspired to military command; or inveterate puzzle solvers who longed to decrypt the most complex messages known. Occasionally the spur was political, tracing back to international disputes, immigration policies, wartime horrors, police brutality, or national propaganda by this nation or that decades earlier. Many of these scientists had real ability, Ellie knew, whatever reservations she might have about their motivations. She tried to imagine that massed talent really dedicated to the well-being of the species and the planet.

  She pored over the studies that had accumulated during her absence. They were making almost no progress in decrypting the Message, although the statistical analyses now stacked into a pile of paper a meter tall. It was all very discouraging.

  She wished there were someone, especially a close woman friend, at Argus to whom she could pour out her hurt and anger at Ken’s behavior. But there was not, and she was disinclined even to use the telephone for this purpose. She did manage to spend a weekend with her college friend Becky Ellenbogen in Austin, but Becky, whose appraisals of men tended to be somewhere between wry and scathing, in this case was surprisingly mild in her criticism.

  “He is the President’s Science Adviser, and this is only the most amazing discovery in the history of the world. Don’t be so hard on him,” Becky urged. “He’ll come around.”

  But Becky was another of those who found Ken “charming” (she had met him once at the dedication of the National Neutrino Observatory), and was perhaps too inclined to accommodate to power. Had der Heer treated Ellie in this shabby way while he was a mere professor of molecular biology somewhere, Becky would have marinated and skewered the man.

  After returning from Paris, der Heer had mustered a regular campaign of apology and devotion. He had been overstressed, he told her, overwhelmed with a range of responsibilities including difficult and unfamiliar political issues. His position as leader of the American delegation and co-chairman of the plenary might have been rendered less effective if there had been public knowledge of his and Ellie’s relationship. Kitz had been insufferable. Ken had had too many consecutive nights with only a few hours’ sleep. Altogether, Ellie judged, there were too many explanations. But she permitted the relationship to continue.

  • • •

  When it happened, it was Willie once again, this time on the graveyard shift, who first noticed. Afterward, Willie would attribute the speed of the discovery less to the superconducting computer and the NSA programs than to the new Hadden context-recognition chips. At any rate, Vega had been low in the sky an hour or so before dawn when the computer triggered an understated alarm. With some annoyance, Willie put down what he was reading—it was a new textbook on Fast Fourier Transform Spectroscopy—and noticed these words being printed out on the screen:

  RPT. TEXT PP. 41617-41619: BIT MISMATCH 0/2271. CORRELATION COEFFICIENT 0.99+

  As he watched, 41619 became 41620 and then 41621. The digits after the slash were increasing in a continuous blur. Both the number of pages and the correlation coefficient, a measure of the improbability that the correlation was by chance, increased as he watched. He gave it another two pages before picking up the direct line to Ellie’s apartment.

  She had been in a deep sleep and was momentarily disoriented. But she quickly turned on the bedside light and after a moment gave instructions for senior Argus staff to be assembled. She would, she told him, locate der Heer, who was somewhere on the facility. This proved not very difficult. She shook his shoulder.

  “Ken, get up. There’s word that we’ve repeated.”

  “What?”

  “The Message has cycled back. Or at least that’s what Willie says. I’m on my way there. Why don’t you wait another ten minutes so we can pretend you were in your room in BSQ?”

  She was almost at the door before he shouted after her, “How can we recycle? We haven’t gotten the primer yet.”

  Racing across the screens was a paired sequence of zeros and ones, a real-time comparison of the data just being rec
eived and the data from an early page of text received at Argus a year before. The program would have culled out any differences. So far, there were none. It reassured them that they had not mistranscribed, that there were no apparent transmission errors, and that if some small dense interstellar cloud between Vega and the Earth was able to eat the occasional zero or one, this was an infrequent occurrence. Argus was by now in real-time communication with dozens of other telescopes that were part of the World Message Consortium, and the news of recycling was passed on to the next observing stations westward, to California, Hawaii, the Marshal Nedelin now in the South Pacific, and to Sydney. Had the discovery been made when Vega was over one of the other telescopes in the network, Argus would have been informed instantly.

  The absence of the primer was an agonizing disappointment, but it was not the only surprise. The Message page numbers had jumped discontinuously from the 40,000s to the 10,000s, where recycling had been uncovered. Evidently Argus had discovered the transmission from Vega almost at the moment it first arrived at Earth. It was a remarkably strong signal, and would have been picked up even by small omnidirectional telescopes. But it was a surprising coincidence that the broadcast should arrive at Earth at the very moment Argus was looking at Vega. Also, what did it mean for the text to begin on a page in the 10,000s? Were there 10,000 pages of text missing? Was it a backward practice of the provincial Earth to start numbering books on page 1? Were these sequential numbers perhaps not page numbers but something else? Or—and this worried Ellie the most—was there some fundamental and unexpected difference between how humans thought of things and how the aliens thought? If so, it would have worrisome implications about the ability of the Consortium to understand the Message, primer or no primer.

  The Message repeated exactly, the gaps were all filled in and nobody could read a word of it. It seemed unlikely that the transmitting civilization, meticulous in all else, had simply overlooked the need for a primer. At least the Olympic broadcast and the interior design of the Machine seemed to be tailored specifically for humans. They would hardly go to all this trouble to devise and transmit the Message without making some provision for humans to read it. So humans must have overlooked something. It soon became generally agreed that somewhere was a fourth layer to the palimpsest. But where?

  The diagrams were published in an eight-volume “coffee table” book set that was soon reprinted worldwide. All over the planet people tried to figure out the pictures. The dodecahedron and the quasi-biological forms were especially evocative. Many clever suggestions were made by the public and carefully sifted by the Argus team. Many harebrained interpretations were also widely available, especially in weekly newspapers. Whole new industries developed—doubtless unforeseen by those who devised the Message—dedicated to using the diagrams to bilk the public. The Ancient and Mystical Order of the Dodecahedron was announced. The Machine was a UFO. The Machine was Ezekiel’s Wheel. An angel revealed the meaning of the Message and the diagrams to a Brazilian businessman, who distributed—at first, at his own expense—his interpretation worldwide. With so many enigmatic diagrams to interpret, it was inevitable that many religions would recognize some of their iconography in the Message from the stars. A principal cross section of the Machine looked something like a chrysanthemum, a fact that stirred great enthusiasm in Japan. If there had been an image of a human face among all the diagrams, messianic fervor might have reached a flash point.

  As it was, a surprisingly large number of people were winding up their affairs in preparation for the Advent. Industrial productivity was off worldwide. Many had given away all their possessions to the poor and then, as the end of the world was delayed, were obliged to seek help from a charity or the State. Because gifts of this sort constituted a major fraction of the resources of such charities, some of the philanthropists ended up being supported by their own gifts. Delegations approached government leaders to urge that schistosomiasis, say, or world hunger be ended by the Advent; otherwise there was no telling what would happen to us. Others counseled, more quietly, that if there was a decade of real world madness in the offing, there must be a considerable monetary or national advantage in it somewhere.

  Some said that there was no primer, that the whole exercise was to teach humans humility, or to drive us mad. There were newspaper editorials on how we’re not as smart as we think we are, and some resentment directed at the scientists who, after all the support given to them by the governments, have failed us in our time of need. Or maybe humans are much dumber than the Vegans gave us credit for. Maybe there was some point that had been entirely obvious to all previous emerging civilizations so contacted, something no one in the history of the Galaxy had ever missed before. A few commentators embraced this prospect of cosmic humiliation with real enthusiasm. It demonstrated what they’d been saying about people all along. After a while, Ellie decided that she needed help.

  • • •

  They entered surreptitiously through the Enlil Gate, with an escort dispatched by the Proprietor. The General Services Administration security detail was edgy despite, or perhaps because of, the additional protection.

  Although there was a little sunlight still left, the dirt streets were lit by braziers, oil lamps, and an occasional guttering torch. Two amphoras, each large enough to contain an adult human being, flanked the entrance to a retail olive oil establishment. The advertising was in cuneiform. On an adjacent public building was a magnificent bas-relief of a lion hunt from the reign of Assurbanipal. As they approached the Temple of Assur, there was a scuffle in the crowd, and her escort made a wide berth. She now had an unobstructed view of the Ziggurat down a wide torchlit avenue. It was more breathtaking than in the pictures. There was a martial flourish on an unfamiliar brass instrument; three men and a horse clattered by, the charioteer in Phrygian headdress. As in some medieval rendition of a cautionary tale from the book of Genesis, the top of the Ziggurat was enveloped in low twilit clouds. They left the Ishtarian Way and entered the Ziggurat through a side street. In the private elevator, her escort pressed the button for the topmost floor: “Forty,” it read. No numerals. Just the word. And then, to leave no room for doubt, a glass panel flashed, “The Gods.”

  Mr. Hadden would be with her shortly. Would she like something to drink while she waited? Considering the reputation of the place, Ellie demurred. Babylon lay spread out before her—magnificent, as everyone said, in its recreation of a long-gone time and place. During daylight hours busloads from museums, a very few schools, and the tourist agencies would arrive at the Ishtar Gate, don appropriate clothes, and travel back in time. Hadden wisely donated all profits from his daytime clientele to New York City and Long Island charities. The daytime tours were immensely popular, in part because it was a respectable opportunity to look the place over for those who would not dream of visiting Babylon at night. Well, maybe they would dream.

  After dark, Babylon was called an adult amusement park. It was of an opulence, scale, and imaginativeness that dwarfed, say, the Reeperbahn in Hamburg. It was by far the largest tourist attraction in the New York metropolitan area, with by far the largest gross revenues. How Hadden had been able to convince the city fathers of Babylon, New York, and how he had lobbied for an “easement” of local and state prostitution laws was well known. It was now a half-hour train ride from midtown Manhattan to the Ishtar Gate. Ellie had insisted on taking this train, despite the entreaties of the security people, and had found almost a third of the visitors to be women. There were no graffiti, little danger of mugging, but a much inferior brand of white noise compared with the conveyances of the New York City subway system.

  Although Hadden was a member of the National Academy of Engineering, he had never, so far as Ellie knew, attended a meeting, and she had never set eyes on him. His face became well known to millions of Americans, however, years before as a result of the Advertising Council’s campaign against him: “The Unamerican” had been the caption under an unflattering portrait of Hadden. Even
so, she was taken aback when in the midst of her reverie by the slanted glass wall she was interrupted by a small, fat beckoning person.

  “Oh. Sorry. I never understand how anyone can be afraid of me.”

  His voice was surprisingly musical. In fact, he seemed to talk in fifths. He hadn’t thought it necessary to introduce himself and once again inclined his head to the door he had left ajar. It was hard to believe that some crime of passion was about to be visited upon her under these circumstances, and wordlessly she entered the next room.

  He ushered her to a meticulously crafted tabletop model of an ancient city of less pretentious aspect than Babylon.

  “Pompeii,” he said by way of explanation. “The stadium here is the key. With the restrictions on boxing there aren’t any healthy blood sports left in America. Very important. Sucks out some of the poisons from the national bloodstream. The whole thing is designed, permits issued, and now this.”

  “What’s ‘this’?”

  “No gladiatorial games. I just got word from Sacramento. There’s a bill before the legislature to outlaw gladiatorial games in California. Too violent, they say. They authorize a new skyscraper, they know they’ll lose two or three construction workers. The unions know, the builders know, and that’s just to build offices for oil companies or Beverly Hills lawyers. Sure, we’d lose a few. But we’re geared more to trident and net than the short sword. Those legislators don’t have their priorities straight.”

  He beamed at her owlishly and offered a drink, which again she refused. “So you want to talk to me about the Machine, and I want to talk to you about the Machine. You first. You want to know where the primer is?”

  “We’re asking for help from a few key people who might have some insight. We thought with your record of invention—and since your context-recognition chip was involved in the recycling discovery—that you might put yourself in the place of the Vegans and think of where you’d put the primer. We recognize you’re very busy, and I’m sorry to—”

 
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