Contact by Carl Sagan
Hadden had invited her up for a visit to his home away from home, his chateau in space. Methuselah, he called it. She could tell no one outside the government about the invitation, because of Hadden’s passion to stay out of the public eye. Indeed, it was still not generally known that he had taken up residence in orbit, retired to the sky. All those inside the government she asked were for it. Der Heer’s advice was “The change of scene will do you good.” The President clearly was in favor of her visit, because a place had suddenly been made available on the next shuttle launch, the aging STS Intrepid. Passage to an orbiting rest home was usually by commercial carrier. A much larger nonreusable launch vehicle was undergoing final flight qualification. But the aging shuttle fleet was still the work-horse of U.S. government space activities, both military and civilian.
“We jus’ flake off tiles by the handful when we re-enter, and then we jus’ stick ’em back on again before liftoff,” one of the astronaut-pilots explained to her.
Beyond general good health, there were no special physical requirements for the flight. Commercial launches tended to go up full and come back empty. By contrast, the shuttle flights were crowded both on the way up and on the way down. Before Intrepid’s latest landing the previous week, it had rendezvoused and docked with Methuselah to return two passengers to Earth. She recognized their names; one was a designer of propulsion systems, the other a cryobiologist. Ellie wondered what they had been doing on Methuselah.
“You’ll see,” the pilot continued, “it’ll be like fallin’ off a log. Hardly anybody hates it, and most folks jus’ love it.”
She did. Crowded in with the pilot, two mission specialists, a tight-lipped military officer, and an employee of the Internal Revenue Service, she experienced a flawless liftoff and the exhilaration of her first experience in zero gravity longer than the ride in the high-deceleration elevator at the World Trade Center in New York. One and a half orbits later, they rendezvoused with Methuselah. In two days the commercial transport Narnia would bring Ellie down.
The Chateau—Hadden insisted on calling it that—was slowly spinning, one revolution about every ninety minutes, so that the same side of it was always facing the Earth. Hadden’s study featured a magnificent panorama on the Earthward bulkhead—not a television screen but a real transparent window. The photons she was seeing had been reflected off the snowy Andes just a fraction of a. second ago. Except toward the periphery of the window, where the slant path through the thick polymer was longer, hardly any distortion was evident.
There were many people she knew, even people who considered themselves religious, for whom the feeling of awe was an embarrassment. But you would have to be made of wood, she thought, to stand before this window and not feel it. They should be sending up young poets and composers, artists, filmmakers, and deeply religious people not wholly in thrall to the sectarian bureaucracies. This experience could easily be conveyed, she thought, to the average person on Earth. What a pity it had not yet been attempted seriously. The feeling was…numinous.
• • •
“You get used to it,” Hadden told her, “but you don’t get tired of it. From time to time it’s still inspiring.”
Abstemiously he was nursing a diet cola. She had refused the offer of something stronger. The premium on ethanol in orbit must be high, she thought.
“Of course, you miss things—long walks, swimming in the ocean, old friends dropping in unannounced. But I was never much into those things anyway. And as you see, friends can come by for a visit.”
“At huge expense,” she replied.
“A woman comes up to visit Yamagishi, my neighbor in the next wing. Second Tuesday of every month, rain or shine. I’ll introduce you to him later. He’s quite a guy. Class A war criminal—but only indicted, you understand, never convicted.”
“What’s the attraction?” she asked. “You don’t think the world is about to end. What are you doing up here?”
“I like the view. And there are certain legal niceties.”
She looked at him querulously.
“You know, someone in my position—new inventions, new industries—is always on the thin edge of breaking some law or other. Usually it’s because the old laws haven’t caught up with the new technology. You can spend a lot of your time in litigation. It cuts down your effectiveness. While all this”—he gestured expansively, taking in both the Chateau and the Earth—“doesn’t belong to any nation. This Chateau belongs to me, my friend Yamagishi, and a few others. There could never be anything illegal about supplying me with food and material needs. Just to be on the safe side, though, we’re working on closed ecological systems. There’s no extradition treaty between this Chateau and any of the nations down there. It’s more…efficient for me to be up here.
“I don’t want you to think that I’ve done anything really illegal. But we’re doing so many new things, it’s smart to be on the safe side. For instance, there are people who actually believe I sabotaged the Machine, when I spent a ridiculous amount of my own money trying to build it. And you know what they did to Babylon. My insurance investigators think it might have been the same people in Babylon and Terre Haute. I seem to have a lot of enemies. I don’t understand why. I think I’ve done a lot of good for people. Anyway, all in all, it’s better for me to be up here…
“Now, it’s the Machine I wanted to talk to you about. That was awful—that erbium-dowel catastrophe in Wyoming. I’m really sorry about Drumlin. He was a tough old pisser. And it must have been a big shock for you. Sure you don’t want a drink?”
But she was content to look out at the Earth and listen.
“If I’m not disheartened about the Machine,” he went on, “I don’t see why you should be. You’re probably worried that there never will be an American Machine, that there are too many people who want it to fail. The President’s worried about the same thing. And those factories we built, those aren’t assembly lines. We’ve been making custom-made products. It’s gonna be expensive to replace all the broken parts. But mainly you’re thinking, maybe it was a bad idea in the first place. Maybe we’ve been foolish to go so fast. So let’s take a long, careful look at the whole thing. Even if you’re not thinking like that, the President is.
“But if we don’t do it soon. I’m worried we’ll never do it. And there’s another thing: I don’t think this invitation is open forever.”
“Funny you should say that. That’s just what Valerian, Drumlin, and I were talking about before the accident. The sabotage,” she corrected herself. “Please go on.”
“You see, the religious people—most of them—really think this planet is an experiment. That’s what their beliefs come down to. Some god or other is always fixing and poking, messing around with tradesmen’s wives, giving tablets on mountains, commanding you to mutilate your children, telling people what words they can say and what words they can’t say, making people feel guilty about enjoying themselves, and like that. Why can’t the gods leave well enough alone? All this intervention speaks of incompetence. If God didn’t want Lot’s wife to look back, why didn’t he make her obedient, so she’d do what her husband told her? Or if he hadn’t made Lot such a shithead, maybe she would’ve listened to him more. If God is omnipotent and omniscient, why didn’t he start the universe out in the first place so it would come out the way he wants? Why’s he constantly repairing and complaining? No, there’s one thing the Bible makes clear: The biblical God is a sloppy manufacturer. He’s not good at design, he’s not good at execution. He’d be out of business if there was any competition.
“That’s why I don’t believe we’re an experiment. There might be lots of experimental planets in the universe, places where apprentice gods get to test out their skills. What a shame Rankin and Joss weren’t born on one of those planets. But on this planet”—again he waved at the window—“there isn’t any microintervention. The gods don’t drop in on us to fix things up when we’ve botched it. You look at human history and it’s clear
“Until now,” she said. “Deus ex machina? That’s what yon think? You think the gods finally took pity on us and sent the Machine?”
“More like Machina ex deo, or whatever the right Latin is. No, I don’t think we’re the experiment. I think we’re the control, the planet that nobody was interested in, the place where nobody intervened at all. A calibration world gone to seed. This is what happens if they don’t intervene. The Earth is an object lesson for the apprentice gods. ‘If you really screw up,’ they get told, ‘you’ll make something like Earth.’ But of course it’d be a waste to destroy a perfectly good world. So they look in on us from time to time, just in case. Maybe each time they bring by the gods who screwed up. Last time they looked we’re frolicking in the savannas, trying to outrace the antelopes. ‘Okay, that’s fine,’ they say. ‘These guys aren’t gonna give us any trouble. Look in on ’em in another ten million years. But just to be on the safe side, monitor ’em at radio frequencies.’
“Then one day there’s an alarm. A message from Earth. ‘What? They have television already? Let’s see what they’re into.’ Olympic stadium. National flags. Bird of prey. Adolf Hitler. Thousands of cheering people. ‘Uh-oh,’ they say. They know the warning signs. Quick as a flash they tell us, ‘Cut it out, you guys. That’s a perfectly good planet you have there. Disorganized, but serviceable. Here, build this Machine instead.’ They’re worried about us. They see we’re on a downward slope. They think we should be in a hurry to get repaired. So I think so, too. We have to build the Machine.”
She knew what Drumlin would have thought of arguments like this. Although much that Hadden had just said resonated with her own thinking, she was tired of these beguiling and confident speculations on what the Vegans had in mind. She wanted the project to continue, the Machine completed and activated, the new stage in human history begun. She still mistrusted her own motives, was still wary even when she was mentioned as a possible member of the crew on a completed Machine. So the delays in resuming construction served a purpose for her. They bought time for her to work her problems through.
“We’ll have dinner with Yamagishi. You’ll like him. But we’re a little worried about him. He keeps his oxygen partial pressure so low at night.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, the lower the oxygen content in the air, the longer you live. At least that’s what the doctors tell us. So we all get to pick the amount of oxygen in our rooms. In daytime you can’t bring it much below twenty percent, because you get groggy. It impairs mental functioning. But at night, when you’re sleeping anyway, you can lower the oxygen partial pressure. There’s a danger, though. You can lower it too much. Yamagishi’s down to fourteen percent these days, because he wants to live forever. As a result, he’s not lucid until lunchtime.”
“I’ve been that way all my life, at twenty percent oxygen.” She laughed.
“Now he’s experimenting with noötropic drugs to remove the grogginess. You know, like piracetam. They definitely improve memory. I don’t know that it actually makes you smarter, but that’s what they say. So Yamagishi is taking an awful lot of noötropics, and he’s not breathing enough oxygen at night.”
“So does he behave cuckoo?”
“Cuckoo? It’s hard to tell. I don’t know very many ninety-two-year-old Class A war criminals.”
“That’s why every experiment needs a control,” she said.
• • •
Even at his advanced age, Yamagishi displayed the erect bearing he had acquired during his long service in the Imperial Army. He was a small man, entirely bald, with an inconspicuous white mustache and a fixed, benign expression on his face.
“I am here because of hips,” he explained. “I know about cancer, and lifetimes. But I am here because of hips. At my age bones break easily. Baron Tsukuma died from falling from his futon onto his tatami. One-half meter, he fell. One-half meter. And his bones broke. In zero g, hips do not break.”
This seemed very sensible.
A few gastronomic compromises had been made, but the dinner was of surprising elegance. A specialized small technology had been developed for weightless dining. Serving utensils had lids, wine glasses had tops and straws. Foods such as nuts or dried corn flakes were prohibited.
Yamagishi urged the caviar on her. It was one of the few Western foods, be explained, that cost more per kilogram to buy on Earth than to ship to space. The cohesion of the individual caviar eggs was a lucky break, Ellie mused. She tried to imagine thousands of separate eggs in individual free-fall, clouding the passageways of this orbiting retirement home. Suddenly she remembered that her mother was also in a retirement home, several orders of magnitude more modest than this one. In fact, orienting herself by the Great Lakes, visible out the window at this moment, she could pinpoint her mother’s location. She could spend two days chatting it up in Earth orbit with bad-boy billionaires, but couldn’t spare fifteen minutes for a phone call with her mother? She promised herself to call as soon as she landed in Cocoa Beach. A communiqué from Earth orbit, she told herself, might be too much novelty for the senior citizens’ rest home in Janesville, Wisconsin.
Yamagishi interrupted her train of thought to inform her that he was the oldest man in space. Ever. Even the former Chinese Vice Premier was younger. He removed his coat, rolled up his right sleeve, flexed his biceps, and asked her to feel his muscle. He was soon full of vivid and quantitative detail about the worthy charities to which he had been a major contributor.
She tried to make polite conversation. “It’s very placid and quiet up here. You must be enjoying your retirement.”
She had addressed this bland remark to Yamagishi, but Hadden replied.
“It’s not entirely uneventful. Occasionally there’s a crisis and we have to move fast.”
“Solar flare, extremely bad. Make you sterile,” Yamagishi volunteered.
“Yeah, if there’s a major solar flare monitored by telescope, you have about three days before the charged particles hit the Chateau. So the permanent residents, like Yamagishi-san and me, we go to the storm shelter. Very spartan, very confined. But it has enough radiation shielding to make a difference. There’s some secondary radiation, of course. The thing is, all the nonpermanent staff and visitors have to leave in the three-day period. That kind of an emergency can tax the commercial fleet. Sometimes we have to call in NASA or the Soviets to rescue people. You wouldn’t believe who you flush out in solar-flare events—Mafiosi, heads of intelligence services, beautiful men and women…”
“Why do I get the feeling that sex is high on the list of imports from Earth?” she asked a little reluctantly.
“Oh, it is, it is. There’s lots of reasons. The clientele, the location. But the main reason is zero g. In zero g you can do things at eighty you never thought possible at twenty. You ought to take a vacation up here—with your boyfriend. Consider it a definite invitation.”
“Ninety,” said Yamagishi.
“I beg your pardon?”
“You can do things at ninety you didn’t dream of at twenty. That’s what Yamagishi-san is saying. That’s why everyone wants to come up here.”
Over coffee, Hadden returned to the topic of the Machine.
“Yamagishi-san and me are partners with some other people. He’s the Honorary Chairman of the Board of Yamagishi Industries. As you know, they’re the prime contractor for the Machine component testing going on in Hokkaido. Now imagine our problem. I’ll give you a for-instance. There are three big spherical shells, one inside the other. They’re made of a niobium alloy, they have peculiar patterns cut into them, and they’re obviously designed to rotate in three orthogonal directions very fast in a vacuum. Benzels, they’re called. You know all this, of course. What happens if you make a scale model of the three benzels and spin them very fast? What happens? All knowledgeable physicists think nothing will happen. But, of course, no-body’s done the experiment. This precise exp
“You mean you’ve been secretly assembling an identical copy of the Machine in Japan?”
“Well, it’s not exactly a secret. We’re testing out the individual components. Nobody said we can only test them one at a time. So here’s what Yamagishi-san and I propose: We change the schedule on the experiments in Hokkaido. We do full-up systems integration now, and if nothing works we’ll do the component-by-component testing later. The money’s all been allocated anyway.
“We think it’ll be months—maybe years—before the American effort gets back on track. And we don’t think the Russians can do it even in that time. Japan’s the only possibility. We don’t have to announce it right away. We don’t have to make a decision about activating the Machine right away. We’re just testing components.”
“Can you two make this kind of decision on your own?”
“Oh, it’s well within what they call our designated responsibilities. We figure we can catch up to where the Wyoming Machine was in about six months. We’ll have to be much more careful about sabotage, of course. But if the components are okay, I think the Machine will be okay: Hokkaido’s kind of hard to get to. Then, when everything is checked and ready, we can ask the World Machine Consortium if they’d like to give it a try. If the crew is willing, I bet you the Consortium will go along. What do you think, Yamagishi-san?”
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