Contact by Carl Sagan
• • •
The rabbits were much more astute in Wyoming. Or less. It was hard to figure out. The headlights on the Thunderbird had picked up an occasional rabbit near the road more than once. But hundreds of them organized in ranks—that custom, apparently, had not yet spread from New Mexico to Wyoming. The situation here was not much different from Argus, Ellie found. There was a major scientific facility surrounded by tens of thousands of square kilometers of lovely, almost uninhabited landscape. She wasn’t running the show, and she wasn’t one of the crew. But she was here, working on one of the grandest enterprises ever contemplated. Surely, no matter what happened after the Machine was activated, the Argus discovery would be judged a turning point in human history.
Just at the moment when some additional unifying force is needed, this bolt comes from the blue. From the black, she corrected herself. From twenty-six light-years away, 230 trillion kilometers. It’s hard to think of your primary allegiance as Scottish or Slovenian or Szechuanese when you’re all being hailed indiscriminately by a civilization millennia ahead of you. The gap between the most technologically backward nation on the Earth and the industrialized nations was, certainly, much smaller than the gap between the industrialized nations and the beings on Vega. Suddenly, distinctions that had earlier seemed transfixing—racial, religious, national, ethnic, linguistic, economic, and cultural—began to seem a little less pressing.
“We are all humans.” This was a phrase you heard often these days. It was remarkable, in previous decades, how infrequently sentiments of this sort had been expressed, especially in the media. We share the same small planet, it was said, and—very nearly—the same global civilization. It was hard to imagine the extraterrestrials taking seriously a plea for preferential parley from representatives of one or another ideological faction. The existence of the Message—even apart from its enigmatic function—was binding up the world. You could see it happening before your eyes.
Her mother’s first question when she heard that Ellie had not been selected was “Did you cry?” Yes, she had cried. It was only natural. There was, of course, a part of her that longed to be aboard. But Drumlin was a first-rate choice, she had told her mother.
No decision had been made by the Soviets between Lunacharsky and Arkhangelsky; both would “train” for the mission. It was hard to see what training might be appropriate beyond understanding the Machine as best they, or anyone else, could. Some Americans charged that this was merely an attempt by the Soviets to acquire two principal Machine spokesmen, but Ellie thought this was mean-spirited. Both Lunacharsky and Arkhangelsky were extremely capable. She wondered how the Soviets would decide which to send. Lunacharsky was in the United States, but not here in Wyoming. He was in Washington with a high-level Soviet delegation meeting with the Secretary of State and Michael Kitz, newly promoted to Deputy Secretary of Defense. Arkhangelsky was back in Uzbekistan.
The new metropolis growing up in the Wyoming wilderness was called Machine; Machine, Wyoming. Its Soviet counterpart was given the Russian equivalent, Makhina. Each was a complex of residences, utilities, residential and business districts, and—most of all—factories. Some of them were unpretentious, at least on the outside. But in others you could see in a single glance their bizarre aspects—domes and minarets, miles of intricate exterior piping. Only the factories that were adjudged potentially dangerous—those manufacturing the organic components, for example—were here in the Wyoming wilderness. Technologies better understood were distributed worldwide. The core of the cluster of new industries was the Systems Integration Facility, built near what had once been Wagon-wheel, Wyoming, to which completed components were consigned. Sometimes Ellie would see a component arrive and realize that she had been the first human being ever to see it as a design drawing. As each new part was uncrated, she would rush to inspect it. As components were mounted one upon another, and as subsystems passed their prescribed tests, she felt a kind of glow that she guessed was akin to maternal pride.
• • •
Ellie, Drumlin, and Valerian arrived for a routine and long-scheduled meeting on the now wholly redundant worldwide monitoring of the signal from Vega. When they arrived, they found everyone talking about the burning of Babylon. It had happened in the early hours of the morning, perhaps at a time when the place was prowled only by its most iniquitous and unregenerate habitués. A raiding party, equipped with mortars and incendiaries, had struck simultaneously through the Enlil and Ishtar gates. The Ziggurat had been put to the torch. There was a photograph of improbably and scantily clad people rushing from the Temple of Assur. Remarkably, no one was killed, although there were many injuries.
Just before the attack, the New York Sun, a paper controlled by the Earth-Firsters and sporting a globe shattered by a lightning bolt on its masthead, received a call announcing that the attack was under way. It was divinely inspired retribution, the caller volunteered, carried out on behalf of decency and American morality, by those sick and tired of filth and corruption. There were statements by the president of Babylon, Inc., decrying the attack and condemning an alleged criminal conspiracy, but—at least so far—not a word from S. R. Hadden, wherever he might be.
Because Ellie was known to have visited Hadden in Babylon, a few of the project personnel sought out her reaction. Even Drumlin was interested in her opinion on this matter, although from his evident knowledge of the geography of the place, it seemed possible that he had visited it more than once himself. She had no trouble imagining him as charioteer. But perhaps he had only read about Babylon. Photomaps had been published in the weekly newsmagazines.
Eventually, they got back to business. Fundamentally, the Message was continuing on the same frequencies, bandpasses, time constants, and polarization and phase modulation; the Machine design and the primer were still sitting underneath the prime numbers and the Olympic broadcast. The civilization in the Vega system seemed very dedicated. Or maybe they had just forgotten to turn off the transmitter. Valerian had a faraway look in his eyes.
“Peter, why do you have to look at the ceiling when you think?”
Drumlin was reputed to have mellowed over the last few years, but, as with this comment, his reform was not always apparent. Being chosen by the President of the United States to represent the nation to the extraterrestrials was, he would say, a great honor. The trip, he told his intimates, would be the crowning point of his life. His wife, temporarily transplanted to Wyoming and still doggedly faithful, had to endure the same slide shows presented to new audiences of scientists and technicians building the Machine. Since the site was near his native Montana, Drumlin visited there briefly from time to time. Once Ellie had driven him to Missoula. For the first time in their relationship, he had been cordial to her for a few consecutive hours.
“Shhhh! I’m thinking,” replied Valerian. “It’s a noise-suppression technique. I’m trying to minimize the distractions in my visual field, and then you present a distraction in the audio spectrum. You might ask me why I don’t just as well stare at a piece of blank paper. But the trouble is that the paper’s too small. I can see things in my peripheral vision. Anyway, what I was thinking is this: Why are we still getting the Hitler message, the Olympic broadcast? Years have passed. They must have received the British Coronation broadcast by now. Why haven’t we seen some close-ups of Orb and Scepter and ermine, and a voice intoning ‘…now crowned as George the Sixth, by the Grace of God, King of England and Northern Ireland, and Emperor of India’?”
“Are you sure Vega was over England at the time of the Coronation transmission?” Ellie asked.
“Yes, we checked that out within a few weeks of receipt of the Olympic broadcast. And the intensity was stronger than the Hitler thing. I’m sure Vega could have picked up the Coronation transmission.”
“You’re worried that they don’t want us to know everything they know about us?” she asked.
“They’re in a hurry,” said Valerian. He was given occasionally to del
“More likely,” offered Ellie, “they want to keep reminding us that they know about Hitler.”
“That’s not entirely different from what I’m saying,” Valerian replied.
“All right. Let’s not waste too much time in Fantasy-land,” Drumlin groaned. He was always impatient with speculation on extraterrestrial motivation. It was a total waste of time to guess, he would say; we’ll know soon enough. Meanwhile, he urged all and sundry to concentrate on the Message; it was hard data—redundant, unambiguous, brilliantly composed.
“Here, a little reality might fix you two up. Why don’t we go into the assembly area? I think they’re doing systems integration with the erbium dowels.”
The geometric design of the Machine was simple. The details were extremely complex. The five chairs in which the crew would sit were amidships in the dodecahedron where it bulged out most prominently. There were no facilities for eating or sleeping or other bodily functions, clear evidence that the trip aboard the Machine—if there was one—would be short. Some thought this meant that the Machine, when activated, would quickly rendezvous with an interstellar space vehicle in the vicinity of the Earth. The only difficulty was that meticulous radar and optical searches could find no trace of such a ship. It seemed scarcely likely that the extraterrestrials had overlooked elementary human physiological needs. Maybe the Machine didn’t go anywhere. Maybe it did something to the crew. There were no instruments in the crew area, nothing to steer with, not even an ignition key—just the five chairs, pointed inward, so each crew member could watch the others. And there was a carefully prescribed upper limit on the weight of the crew and their belongings. In practice, the constraint worked to the advantage of people of small stature.
Above and below the crew area, in the tapering part of the dodecahedron, were the organics, with their intricate and puzzling architecture. Placed throughout the interior of this part of the dodecahedron, apparently at random, were the dowels of erbium. And surrounding the dodecahedron were the three concentric spherical shells, each in a way representing one of the three physical dimensions. The shells were apparently magnetically suspended—at least the instructions included a powerful magnetic field generator, and the space between the spherical shells and the dodecahedron was to be a high vacuum.
The Message did not name any Machine component. Erbium was identified as the atom with sixty-eight protons and ninety-nine neutrons. The various parts of the Machine were also described numerically—Component 31, for example. So the rotating concentric spherical shells were named benzels by a Czech technician who knew something of the history of technology; Gustav Benzel had, in 1870, invented the merry-go-round.
The design and function of the Machine were unfathomed, it required whole new technologies to construct, but it was made of matter, the structure could be diagrammed—indeed cutaway engineering drawings had appeared in mass media all over the world—and its finished form was readily visualized. There was a continuing mood of technological optimism.
Drumlin, Valerian, and Arroway went through the usual identification sequence, involving credentials, thumbprint and voiceprint, and were then admitted to the vast assembly bay. Three-story overhead cranes were positioning erbium dowels in the organic matrix. Several pentagonal panels for the exterior of the dodecahedron were hanging from an elevated railroad track. While the Soviets had had some problems, the U.S. subsystems had finally passed all their tests, and the overall architecture of the Machine was gradually emerging. It’s all coming together, Ellie thought. She looked to where the benzels would be assembled. When completed, the Machine would look from the outside like one of those armillary spheres of the Renaissance astronomers. What would Johannes Kepler have made of all this?
The floor and the circumferential tracks at various altitudes in the assembly building were crowded with technicians, government officials, and representatives of the World Machine Consortium. As they watched. Valerian mentioned that the President had established an occasional correspondence with his wife, who would not tell Peter even what it was about. She had pleaded the right of privacy.
The positioning of the dowels was almost completed, and a major systems integration test was about to be attempted for the first time. Some thought the prescribed monitoring device was a gravity wave telescope. Just as the test was to begin, they walked around a stanchion to get a better view.
Suddenly Drumlin was in the air, flying. Everything else seemed to be flying, too. It reminded her of the tornado that had carried Dorothy to Oz. As in a slow motion film, Drumlin careened toward her, arms outstretched, and knocked her roughly to the ground. After all these years, she thought, was this his notion of a sexual overture? He had a lot to learn.
• • •
It was never determined who did it. Organizations publicly claiming responsibility included the Earth-Firsters, the Red Army Faction, the Islamic Jihad, the now underground Fusion Energy Foundation, the Sikh Separatists, Shining Path, the Khmer Vert, the Afghan Renaissance, the radical wing of Mothers Against the Machine, the Reunified Reunification Church, Omega Seven, the Doomsday Chiliasts (although Billy Jo Rankin denied any connection and claimed that the confessions were called in by the impious, in a doomed attempt to discredit God), the Broederbond, El Catorce de Febrero, the Secret Army of the Kuomintang, the Zionist League, the Party of God, and the newly resuscitated Symbionese Liberation Front. Most of these organizations did not have the wherewithal to execute the sabotage; the length of the list was merely an index of how widespread opposition to the Machine had become.
The Ku Klux Klan, the American Nazi Party, the Democratic National Socialist Party, and a few like-minded organizations restrained themselves and did not claim responsibility. An influential minority of their membership believed that the Message had been dispatched by Hitler himself. According to one version, he had been spirited off the Earth by German rocket technology in May 1945, and quite some progress had been made by the Nazis in the intervening years.
“I don’t know where the Machine was going,” the President said some months later, “but if it was half as whacked-out as this planet is, it probably wasn’t worth the trip anyway.”
As reconstructed by the Commission of Inquiry, one of the erbium dowels was sundered by an explosion; the two pillbox-shaped fragments careened downward from a height of twenty meters, and were also propelled laterally with considerable velocity. A weight-bearing interior wall was struck and collapsed under the impact. Eleven people were killed and forty-eight injured. A number of major Machine components were destroyed; and, since an explosion was not among the testing protocols prescribed by the Message, the explosion might have ruined apparently unaffected components. When you had no idea at all about how the thing worked, you had to be very careful about building it.
Despite the profusion of organizations that craved credit, suspicion in the United States focused immediately on two of the few groups that had not claimed responsibility: the extraterrestrials and the Russians. Talk about Doomsday Machines filled the air once again. The extraterrestrials had designed the Machine to explode catastrophically when assembled, but fortunately, some said, we were careless in assembling it and only a small charge—perhaps the trigger for the Doomsday Machine—blew up. They urged halting construction before it was too late and burying the surviving components in widely dispersed salt mines.
But the Commission of Inquiry found evidence that the Machine Disaster, as it came to be known, was of more Earthly origin. The dowels had a central ellipsoidal cavity of unknown purpose, and its interior wall was lined with an intricate network of fine gadolinium wires. This cavity had been packed with plastic explosive and a timer, materials not on the Message’s Inventory of Parts. The dowel had been machined, the cavity lined, and the finished product tested and sealed in a Hadden Cybernetics facility in Terre Haute, Indiana. The gadolinium wiring had been too intricate to do by hand; robot servomechanisms were required, and they in turn had required
The other three erbium dowels in the same lot were inspected and revealed no plastic explosive. (Soviet and Japanese crews had performed a range of remote sensing experiments before daring to split their dowels open.) Somebody had carefully packed a tamped charge and timer into the cavity near the end of the construction process in Terre Haute. Once out of the factory this dowel—and those from other batches—had been transported by special train and under armed guard to Wyoming. The timing of the explosion and the nature of the sabotage suggested someone with knowledge of the Machine construction; it was an inside job.
But the investigation made little progress. There were several dozen people—technicians, quality control analysts, inspectors who sealed the component for transshipment—who had the opportunity to commit the sabotage, if not the means and the motivation. Those who failed polygraph tests had ironclad alibis. None of the suspects let drop a confession in an unguarded moment at the neighborhood bar. None began to spend more than their means allowed. No one “broke” under interrogation. Despite what were said to be vigorous efforts by law-enforcement agencies, the mystery remained unsolved.
Those who believed the Soviets responsible argued that their motive was to prevent the United States from activating its Machine first. The Russians had the technical capability for the sabotage, and, of course, detailed knowledge of Machine construction protocols and practice on both sides of the Atlantic. As soon as the disaster occurred, Anatoly Goldmann, a former student of Lunacharsky’s, who was working as Soviet liaison in Wyoming, urgently called Moscow and told them to take down all their dowels. At face value, this conversation—which had been routinely monitored by the NSA—seemed to show no Russian involvement, but some argued that the phone call was a sham to deflect suspicion, or that Goldmann had not been told of the sabotage beforehand. The argument was picked up by those in the United States made uneasy by the late reduction of tensions between the two nuclear superpowers. Understandably, Moscow was outraged at the suggestion.
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