Contact by Carl Sagan


  In fact, the Soviets were having more difficulties in constructing their Machine than was generally known. Using the decrypted Message, the Ministry of Medium Heavy Industry made considerable progress in ore extraction, metallurgy, machine tools, and the like. The new microelectronics and cybernetics were more difficult, and most of those components for the Soviet Machine were produced under contract elsewhere in Europe and in Japan. Even more difficult for Soviet domestic industry was the organic chemistry, much of which required techniques developed in molecular biology.

  A nearly fatal blow had been dealt Soviet genetics when in the 1930s Stalin decided that modern Mendelian genetics was ideologically unsuitable, and decreed as scientifically orthodox the crackpot genetics of a politically sophisticated agriculturalist named Trofim Lysenko. Two generations of bright Soviet students were taught essentially nothing of the fundamentals of heredity. Now, sixty years later, Soviet molecular biology and genetic engineering were comparatively backward, and few major discoveries in the subject had been made by Soviet scientists. Something similar had happened, but abortively, in the United States, where for theological reasons attempts had been made to prevent public school students from learning about evolution, the central idea of modern biology. The issue was clear-cut, because a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible was widely held to be inconsistent with the evolutionary process. Fortunately for American molecular biology, the fundamentalists were not as influential in the United States as Stalin had been in the Soviet Union.

  The National Intelligence Estimate prepared for the President on the matter concluded that there was no evidence of Soviet involvement in the sabotage. Rather, since the Soviets had parity with the Americans in crew membership, they had strong incentives to support the completion of the American Machine. “If your technology is at Level Three,” explained the Director of Central Intelligence, “and your adversary is ahead of you at Level Four, you’re happy when, out of the blue, Level Fifteen technology appears. Provided you have equal access to it and adequate resources.” Few officials of the American government believed the Soviets were responsible for the explosion, and the President said as much publicly on more than one occasion. But old habits die hard.

  “No crackpot group, however well organized, will deflect humanity from this historic goal,” the President declared. In practice, though, it was now much more difficult to achieve a national consensus. The sabotage had given new life to every objection, reasonable and unreasonable, that had earlier been raised. Only the prospect of the Soviets’ completing their Machine kept the American project going.

  • • •

  His wife had wanted to keep Drumlin’s funeral a family affair, but in this, as in much else, her well-meaning intentions were thwarted. Physicists, parasailors, hang-gliding aficionados, government officials, scuba enthusiasts, radio astronomers, sky divers, aquaplaners, and the world SETI community all wanted to attend. For a while, they had contemplated holding the services at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, as the only church in the country of adequate size. But Drumlin’s wife won a small victory, and the ceremony was held outdoors in his hometown of Missoula, Montana. The authorities had agreed because Missoula simplified the security problems.

  Although Valerian was not badly injured, his physicians advised him against attending the funeral; nevertheless, he gave one of the eulogies from a wheelchair. Drumlin’s special genius was in knowing what questions to ask. Valerian said. He had approached the SETI problem skeptically, because skepticism was at the heart of science. Once it was clear that a Message was being received, no one was more dedicated or resourceful in figuring it out. The Deputy Secretary of Defense, Michael Kitz, representing the President, stressed Drumlin’s personal qualities—his warmth, his concern for the feelings of others, his brilliance, his remarkable athletic ability. If not for this tragic and dastardly event, Drumlin would have gone down in history as the first American to visit another star.

  No peroration from her, Ellie had told der Heer. No press interviews. Maybe a few photographs—she understood the importance of a few photographs. She didn’t trust herself to say the right thing. For years she had served as a kind of public spokesperson for SETI, for Argus, and then for the Message and the Machine. But this was different. She needed some time to work this one through.

  As nearly as she could tell, Drumlin had died saving her life. He had seen the explosion before others heard it, bad spied the several-hundred-kilogram mass of erbium arcing toward them. With his quick reflexes, he had leaped to push her back behind the stanchion.

  She had mentioned this as a possibility to der Heer, who replied, “Drumlin was probably leaping to save himself, and you were just in the way.” The remark was ungracious; was it also intended to be ingratiating? Or perhaps, der Heer had gone on, sensing her displeasure, Drumlin had been thrown into the air by the concussion of the erbium hitting the staging surface.

  But she was absolutely sure. She had seen the whole thing. Drumlin’s concern was to save her life. And he had. Except for a few scratches, Ellie was physically unhurt. Valerian, who had been entirely protected by the stanchion, had both legs broken by a collapsing wall. She had been fortunate in more ways than one. She had not even been knocked unconscious.

  Her first thought—as soon as she had understood what had happened—was not for her old teacher David Drumlin crushed horribly before her eyes; not amazement at the prospect of Drumlin giving up his life for hers; not the setback to the entire Machine Project. No, clear as a bell, her thought had been I can go, they’ll have to send me, there’s nobody else, I get to go.

  She had caught herself in an instant. But it was too late. She was aghast at her self-involvement, at the contemptible egotism she had revealed to herself in this moment of crisis. It didn’t matter that Drumlin might have had similar failings. She was appalled to find them, even momentarily, within her—so…vigorous, busy, planning future courses of action, oblivious of everything except herself. What she detested most was the absolute unselfconsciousness of her ego. It made no apologies, gave no quarter, and plunged on. It was unwholesome. She knew it would be impossible to tear it out, root and branch. She would have to work on it patiently, reason with it, distract it, maybe even threaten it.

  When the investigators arrived on the scene, she was uncommunicative. “I’m afraid I can’t tell you much. The three of us were walking together in the staging area and suddenly there was an explosion and everything was flying up into the air. I’m sorry I can’t help. I wish I could.”

  She made it clear to her colleagues that she did not want to talk about it, and disappeared into her apartment for so long that they sent a scouting party to inquire after her. She tried recalling every nuance of the incident. She tried to reconstruct their conversation before they had entered the staging area, what she and Drumlin had talked about on their drive to Missoula, what Drumlin had seemed like when she first met him at the beginning of her graduate school career. Gradually she discovered that there was a part of her that had wished Drumlin dead—even before they became competitors for the American seat on the Machine. She hated him for having diminished her before the other students in class, for opposing Argus, for what he had said to her the moment after the Hitler film had been reconstructed. She had wanted him dead. And now he was dead. By a certain reasoning—she recognized it immediately as convoluted and spurious—she believed herself responsible.

  Would he even have been here if not for her? Certainly, she told herself; someone else would have discovered the Message, and Drumlin would have leaped in. So to say. But had she not—through her own scientific carelessness, perhaps—provoked him into deeper involvement in the Machine Project? Step by step, she worked through the possibilities. If they were distasteful, she worked especially hard on them; there was something hiding there. She thought about men, men who for one reason or another she had admired. Drumlin. Valerian. Der Heer. Hadden… Joss. Jesse… Staughton?… Her father.
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  “Dr. Arroway?”

  Ellie was roused somewhat gratefully from this meditation by a stout blond woman of middle age in a blue print dress. Her face was somehow familiar. The cloth identification badge on her ample bosom read “H. Bork, Gøteborg.”

  “Dr. Arroway, I’m so sorry for your…for our loss. David told me all about you.”

  Of course! The legendary Helga Bork, Drumlin’s scuba-diving companion in so many tedious graduate-student slide shows. Who, she wondered for the first time, had taken those pictures? Did they invite a photographer to accompany them on their underwater trysts?

  “He told me how close you both were.”

  What is this woman trying to tell me? Did Drumlin insinuate to her… Her eyes welled with tears.

  “I’m sorry. Dr. Bork, I don’t feel very well right now.”

  Head lowered, she hurried away.

  There were many at the funeral she wanted to see: Vaygay, Arkhangelsky, Gotsridze, Baruda, Yu, Xi, Devi. And Abonnema Eda, who was increasingly being talked about as the fifth crew member—if the nations had any sense, she thought, and if there was to be such a thing as a completed Machine. But her social stamina was in tatters and she could not now abide long meetings. For one thing, she didn’t trust herself to speak. How much that she’d be saying would be for the good of the project, and how much to satisfy her own needs? The others were sympathetic and understanding. She had, after all, been the person closest to Drumlin when the erbium dowel struck and pulped him.

  CHAPTER 16

  The Elders of Ozone

  The God whom science recognizes must be a God of universal laws exclusively, a God who does a wholesale, not a retail business. He cannot accommodate his processes to the convenience of individuals.

  —WILLIAM JAMES

  The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)

  AT A FEW hundred kilometers altitude, the Earth fills half your sky, and the band of blue that stretches from Mindanao to Bombay, which your eye encompasses in a single glance, can break your heart with its beauty. Home, you think. Home. This is my world. This is where I come from. Everyone I know, everyone I ever heard of, grew up down there, under that relentless and exquisite blue.

  You race eastward from horizon to horizon, from dawn to dawn, circling the planet in an hour and a half. After a while, you get to know it, you study its idiosyncrasies and anomalies. You can see so much with the naked eye. Florida will soon be in view again. Has that tropical storm system you saw last orbit, swirling and racing over the Caribbean, reached Fort Lauderdale? Are any of the mountains in the Hindu Kush snow-free this summer? You tend to admire the aquamarine reefs in the Coral Sea. You look at the West Antarctic Ice Pack and wonder whether its collapse could really inundate all the coastal cities on the planet.

  In the daylight, though, it’s hard to see any sign of human habitation. But at night, except for the polar aurora, everything you see is due to humans, humming and blinking all over the planet. That swath of light is eastern North America, continuous from Boston to Washington, a megalopolis in fact if not in name. Over there is the burnoff of natural gas in Libya. The dazzling lights of the Japanese shrimp fishing fleet have moved toward the South China Sea. On every orbit, the Earth tells you new stories. You can see a volcanic eruption in Kamchatka, a Saharan sandstorm approaching Brazil, unseasonably frigid weather in New Zealand. You get to thinking of the Earth as an organism, a living thing. You get to worry about it, care for it, wish it well. National boundaries are as invisible as meridians of longitude, or the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. The boundaries are arbitrary. The planet is real.

  Spaceflight, therefore, is subversive. If they are fortunate enough to find themselves m Earth orbit, most people, after a little meditation, have similar thoughts. The nations that had instituted spaceflight had done so largely for nationalistic reasons; it was a small irony that almost everyone who entered space received a startling glimpse of a transnational perspective, of the Earth as one world.

  It wasn’t hard to imagine a time when the predominant loyalty would be to this blue world, or even to the cluster of worlds huddling around the nearby yellow dwarf star on which humans, once unaware that every star is a sun, had bestowed the definite article: the Sun. It was only now, when many people were entering space for long periods and had been afforded a little time for reflection, that the power of the planetary perspective began to be felt. A significant number of these occupants of low Earth orbit, it turned out, were influential down there on Earth.

  They had—from the beginning, from before humans ever entered space—sent animals up there. Amoebas, fruit flies, rats, dogs, and apes had become hardy space veterans. As spaceflights of longer and longer duration became possible, something unexpected was found. It had no effect on microorganisms and little effect on fruit flies. But for mammals, it seemed, zero gravity extended the lifespan. By 10 or 20 percent. If you lived in zero g, your body would spend less energy fighting the force of gravity, your cells would oxidize more slowly, and you would live longer. There were some physicians who claimed that the effects would be much more pronounced on humans than on rats. There was the faintest aroma of immortality in the air.

  The rate of new cancers was down 80 percent for the orbital animals compared with a control group on the Earth. Leukemia and lymphatic carcinomas were down 90 percent. There was even some evidence, perhaps not yet statistically significant, that the spontaneous remission rate for neoplastic diseases was much greater in zero gravity. The German chemist Otto Warburg had, half a century before, proposed that oxidation was the cause of many cancers. The lower cellular oxygen consumption in the weightless condition suddenly seemed very attractive. People who in earlier decades would have made a pilgrimage to Mexico for laetrile now clamored for a ticket into space. But the price was exorbitant. Whether preventive or clinical medicine, spaceflight was for the few.

  Suddenly, hitherto unheard-of sums of money became available for investment in civilian orbital stations. By the very end of the Second Millennium there were rudimentary retirement hotels a few hundred kilometers up. Aside from the expense, there was a serious disadvantage, of course: Progressive osteological and vascular damage would make it impossible for you ever to come back to the gravitational field at the surface of the Earth. But for some of the wealthy elderly, this was no major impediment. In exchange for another decade of life, they were happy to retire to the sky and, eventually, to die there.

  There were those who worried that this was an imprudent investment of the limited wealth of the planet; there were too many urgent needs and just grievances of the poor and powerless to spend it on pampering the rich and powerful. It was foolhardy, they said, to permit an elite class to emigrate to space, with the masses left back on Earth—a planet in effect given over to absentee landlords. Others professed it to be a godsend: The owners of the planet were picking up in droves and leaving; they couldn’t do nearly as much damage up there, it was argued, as down here.

  Hardly anyone anticipated the principal outcome, the transfer of a vivid planetary perspective to those who could do the most good. After some years, there were few nationalists left in Earth orbit. Global nuclear confrontation poses real problems for those with a penchant for immortality.

  There were Japanese industrialists, Greek shipping tycoons, Saudi crown princes, one ex-President, a former Party General Secretary, a Chinese robber baron, and a retired heroin kingpin. In the West, aside from a few promotional invitations, there was only one criterion for residence in Earth orbit: You had to be able to pay. The Soviet hostel was different; it was called a space station, and the former Party Secretary was said to be there for “gerontological research.” By and large, the multitudes were not resentful. One day, they imagined, they would go, too.

  Those in Earth orbit tended to be circumspect, careful, quiet. Their families and staffs had similar personal qualities. They were the focus of discreet attention by other rich and powerful people still on Earth. They made no
public pronouncements, but their views gradually permeated the thinking of leaders worldwide. The continuing divestment of nuclear weapons by the five nuclear powers was something the venerables in orbit supported. Quietly, they had endorsed the building of the Machine, because of its potential to unify the world. Occasionally nationalist organizations would write about a vast conspiracy in Earth orbit, doddering do-gooders selling out their Motherlands. There were pamphlets that purported to be stenographic transcripts of a meeting aboard Methuselah attended by representatives of the other private space stations who had been ferried over for the purpose. A list of “action items” was produced, calculated to strike terror in the heart of the most lukewarm patriot. The pamphlets were spurious. Times-week announced; it called them “The Protocols of the Elders of Ozone.”

  • • •

  On the days immediately before launch, she tried to spend some time—often just after dawn—on Cocoa Beach. Ellie had borrowed an apartment that overlooked the beach and the Atlantic Ocean. She would bring pieces of bread along and practice throwing them to the seagulls. They were good at catching morsels on the fly, with a fielding average, she calculated, about that of a major league outfielder. There were moments when twenty or thirty seagulls would hover in the air just a meter or two above her head. They flapped vigorously to stay in place, their beaks wide, straining in anticipation of the miraculous appearance of food. They grazed past each other in apparent random motion, but the overall effect was a stationary pattern. On her way back, she noticed a small and, in its humble way, perfect palm frond lying at the edge of the beach. She picked it up and carried it back to her apartment, carefully wiping off the sand with her fingers.

 
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