Contact by Carl Sagan
Yamagishi had not heard the question. He was softly singing “Free-Fall” to himself; it was a current hit song full of vivid detail about succumbing to temptation in Earth orbit. He did not know all the words, he explained when the question was repeated.
Unperturbed, Hadden continued. “Now some of the components will have been spun or dropped or something. But in any case they’ll have to pass the prescribed tests. I didn’t think that would be enough to scare you off. Personally, I mean.”
“Personally? What makes you think I’m going? Nobody’s asked me, for one thing, and there are a number of new factors.”
“The probability is very high that the Selection Committee will ask you, and the President will be for it Enthusiastically. C’mon,” he said, grinning, “you wanna spend your whole life in the sticks?”
It was cloudy over Scandinavia and the North Sea, and the English Channel was covered with a lacy, almost transparent, cobweb of fog.
“Yes, you go.” Yamagishi was on his feet, his hands stiffly at his sides. He gave her a deep bow.
“Speaking for the twenty-two million employees of the corporations I control, very nice to meet you.”
• • •
She dozed fitfully in the sleeping cubicle they had assigned her. It was tethered loosely to two walls so she would not, in the course of turning over in zero g, propel herself against some obstacle. She awoke while everyone else seemed to be still asleep and pulled herself along a series of handholds until she found herself before the grand window. They were over the night side. The Earth was in darkness except for a patchwork and sprinkle of light, the plucky attempt of humans to compensate for the opacity of the Earth when their hemisphere was averted from the Sun. Twenty minutes later, at sunrise, she decided that, if they asked her, she would say yes.
Hadden came up behind her, and she started just a little.
“It looks great, I admit. I’ve been up here for years and it still looks great. But doesn’t it bother you that there’s a spaceship around you? See, there’s an experience no one’s ever had yet. You’re in a space suit, there’s no tether, no spacecraft. Maybe the Sun is behind you, and you’re surrounded on all sides by stars. Maybe the Earth is below you. Or maybe some other planet. I kind of fancy Saturn myself. There you are, floating in space, like you really are one with the cosmos. Space suits nowadays have enough consumables to last you for hours. The spacecraft that dropped you off could be long gone. Maybe they’ll rendezvous with you in an hour. Maybe not.
“The best would be if the ship wasn’t coming back. Your last hours, surrounded by space and stars and worlds. If you had an incurable disease, or if you just wanted to give yourself a really nifty last indulgence, how could you top that?”
“You’re serious? You want to market this…scheme?”
“Well, too soon to market. Maybe it’s not exactly the right way to go about it. Let’s just say I’m thinking of feasibility testing.”
She decided that she would not tell Hadden of her decision, and he did not ask. Later, as the Narnia was beginning its rendezvous and docking with Methuselah, Hadden took her aside.
“We were saying that Yamagishi is the oldest person up here. Well, if you talk about permanently up here—I don’t mean staff and astronauts and dancing girls—I’m the youngest person up here. I’ve got a vested interest in the answer, I know, but it’s a definite medical possibility that zero g’ll keep me alive for centuries. See, I’m engaged in an experiment on immortality.
“Now, I’m not bringing this up so I can boast. I’m bringing it up for a practical reason. If we’re figuring out ways to extend our lifespans, think of what those creatures on Vega must have done. They probably are immortal, or close enough. I’m a practical person, and I’ve thought a lot now about immortality. I’ve probably thought longer and more seriously about it than anybody else. And I can tell you one thing for sure about immortals: They’re very careful. They don’t leave things to chance. They’ve invested too much effort in becoming immortal. I don’t know what they look like, I don’t know what they want from you, but if you ever get to see them, this is the only piece of practical advice I have for you: Something you think is dead cinch safe, they’ll consider an unacceptable risk. If there’s any negotiating you get to do up there, don’t forget what I’m telling you.”
The Dream of the Ants
Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.
Madame Bovary (1857)
Popular theology…is a massive inconsistency derived from ignorance… The gods exist because nature herself has imprinted a conception of them on the minds of men.
De Natura Deorum, I, 1
ELLIE WAS in the midst of packing notes, magnetic tapes, and a palm frond for shipment to Japan when she received word that her mother had suffered a stroke. Immediately afterward, she was brought a letter by project courier. It was from John Staughton, and there were no polite preliminaries:
Your mother and I would often discuss your deficiencies and shortcomings. It was always a difficult conversation. When I defended you (and, although you may not believe it, this happened often), she told me that I was putty in your hands. When I criticized you, she told me to mind my own business.
But I want you to know that your unwillingness to visit her in the last few years, since this Vega business, was a source of continuing pain to her. She would tell her cronies at that dreadful nursing home she insisted on going to that you’d be visiting her soon. For years she told them that. “Soon.” She planned how she would show her famous daughter around, in what order she’d introduce you to that decrepit bunch.
You probably won’t want to hear this, and I tell it to you with sorrow. But it’s for your own good. Your behavior was more painful to her than anything that ever happened to her, even your father’s death. You may be a big shot now, your hologram available all over the world, hobnobbing with politicians and so on, but as a human being, you haven’t learned anything since high school…
Her eyes welling with tears, she began to crumple the letter and its envelope, but discovered some stiff piece of paper inside, a partial hologram made from an old two-dimensional photograph by a computer extrapolation technique. You had a faint but satisfactory sense of being able to see around edges and corners. It was a photo she had never seen before. Her mother as a young woman, quite lovely, smiled out of the picture, her aim casually draped over the shoulder of Ellie’s father, who sported what seemed to be a day’s growth of beard. They both seemed radiantly happy. With a surge of anguish, guilt, fury at Staughton, and a little self-pity, Ellie weighed the evident reality that she would never see either of the people in that picture again.
• • •
Her mother lay immobile in the bed. Her expression was oddly neutral, registering neither joy nor regret, merely…a kind of waiting. Her only motion was an occasional blink of her eyes. Whether she could hear or understand what Ellie was saying was unclear. Ellie thought about communications schemes. She couldn’t help it; the thought arose unbidden: one blink for yes, two blinks for no. Or hook up an encephalograph with a cathode ray tube that her mother could see, and teach her to modulate her beta waves. But this was her mother, not Alpha Lyrae, and what was called for here was not decryption algorithms but feeling.
She held her mother’s hand and talked for hours. She rambled on about her mother and her father, her childhood. She recalled being a toddler among the newly washed sheets, being swept up to the sky. She talked about John Staughton. She apologized for many things. She cried a little.
Her mother’s hair was awry and, finding a brush, she prettified her. She examined the lined face and recognized her own. Her mother’s eyes, deep and moist, stared fixedly, with only an occasional blink into, it seemed, a great distance.
“I know where I come from
Almost imperceptibly, her mother shook her head from side to side, as though she were regretting all those years in which she and her daughter had been estranged. Ellie gave her mother’s hand a little squeeze and thought she felt one in return.
Her mother’s life was not in danger, she was told. If there was any change in her condition, they would call at once to her office in Wyoming. In a few days, they would be able to move her from the hospital back to the nursing home, where the facilities, she was assured, were adequate.
Staughton seemed subdued, but with a depth of feeling for her mother she had not guessed at. She would call often, she told him.
• • •
The austere marble lobby displayed, perhaps incongruously, a real statue—not a holograph—of a nude woman in the style of Praxiteles. They ascended in an Otis-Hitachi elevator, in which the second language was English rather than braille, and she found herself ushered through a large barn of a room in which people were huddled over word processors. A word would be typed in Hiragana, the fifty-one-letter Japanese phonetic alphabet, and on the screen would appear the corresponding Chinese ideogram in Kanji. There were hundreds of thousands of such ideograms, or characters, stored in the computer memories, although only three or four thousand were generally needed to read a newspaper. Because many characters of entirely different meanings were expressed by the same spoken word, all possible translations into Kanji were printed out, in order of probability. The word processor had a contextual subroutine in which the candidate characters were also queued according to the computer’s estimate of the intended meaning. It was rarely wrong. In a language which had until recently never had a typewriter, the word processor was working a communications revolution not fully admired by traditionalists.
In the conference room they seated themselves on low chairs—an evident concession to Western tastes—around a low lacquered table, and tea was poured. In Ellie’s field of view, beyond the window was the city of Tokyo. She was spending much time before windows, she thought. The newspaper was the Asahi Shimbun—the Rising Sun News—and she was interested to see that one of the political reporters was a woman, a rarity by the standards of the American and Soviet media. Japan was engaged in a national reassessment of the role of women. Traditional male privileges were being surrendered slowly in what seemed to be an unreported street-by-street battle. Just yesterday the president of a firm called Nanoelectronics had bemoaned to her that there wasn’t a “girl” in Tokyo who still knew how to tie an obi. As with clip-on bow ties, an easily donned simulacrum had captured the market. Japanese women bad better things to do than spend half an hour every day wrapping and tucking. The reporter was dressed in an austere business suit, the hem falling to her calves.
To maintain security, no press visitors were permitted at the Hokkaido Machine site. Instead, when crew members or project officials came to the main island of Honshu, they routinely scheduled a round of interviews with the Japanese and foreign news media. As always, the questions were familiar. Reporters all over the world had nearly the same approach to the Machine, if you made a few allowances for local idiosyncrasies. Was she pleased that, after the American and Soviet “disappointments,” a Machine was being built in Japan? Did she feel isolated in the northern island of Hokkaido? Was she concerned because the Machine components being used in Hokkaido had been tested beyond the strictures of the Message?
Before 1945, this district of the city had been owned by the Imperial Navy, and indeed, immediately adjacent she could see the roof of the Naval Observatory, its two silver domes housing telescopes still used for timekeeping and calendrical functions. They were gleaming in the noonday Sun.
Why did the Machine include a dodecahedron and the three spherical shells called benzels? Yes, the reporters understood that she didn’t know. But what did she think? She explained that on an issue of this sort it was foolish to have an opinion in the absence of evidence. They persisted, and she pleaded the virtues of a tolerance for ambiguity. If there was a real danger, should they send robots instead of people, as a Japanese artificial intelligence expert had recommended? Are there any personal effects she would be taking with her? Any family pictures? Microcomputers? A Swiss Army knife?
Ellie noticed two figures emerge through a trapdoor onto the roof of the nearby observatory. Their faces were obscured by visors. They were garbed in the blue-gray quilted armor of medieval Japan. Brandishing wooden staffs taller than they were, they bowed one to another, paused for a heartbeat, and then pummeled and parried for the next half hour. Her answers to the reporters became a little stilted; she was mesmerized by the spectacle before her. No one else seemed to notice. The staffs must have been heavy, because the ceremonial combat was slow, as if they were warriors from the ocean bottom.
Had she known Dr. Lunacharsky and Dr. Sukhavati for many years before the receipt of the Message? What about Dr. Eda? Mr. Xi? What did she think of them, their accomplishments? How well were the five of them getting on? Indeed, she marveled to herself that she was a member of such a select group.
What were her impressions of the quality of the Japanese components? What could she say about the meeting the Five had had with Emperor Akihito? Were their discussions with Shinto and Buddhist leaders part of a general effort by the Machine Project to gain the insights of world religious figures before the Machine was activated, or just a courtesy to Japan as the host country? Did she think the device could be a Trojan Horse or a Doomsday Machine? In her answers she tried to be courteous, succinct, and noncontroversial. The Machine Project public relations officer who had accompanied her was visibly pleased.
Abruptly the interview was over. They wished her and her colleagues all success, the Managing Editor said. They had every expectation of interviewing her when she returned. They hoped she would visit Japan often afterward.
Her hosts were smiling and bowing. The quilted warriors had retreated down the trapdoor. She could see her security people, eyes darting, outside the now open door of the conference room. On the way out she asked the woman reporter about the apparitions from medieval Japan.
“Oh yes,” she replied. “They are astronomers for the Coast Guard. They practice Kendo at their lunch hour every day. You can set your watch by them.”
• • •
Xi had been born on the Long March, and had fought the Kuomintang as a youngster during the Revolution. He served as an intelligence officer in Korea, rising eventually to a position of authority over Chinese strategic technology. But in the Cultural Revolution he was publicly humiliated and condemned to domestic exile, although later he was rehabilitated with some fanfare.
One of Xi’s crimes in the eyes of the Cultural Revolution had been to admire some of the ancient Confucian virtues, and especially one passage from the Great Learning, which for centuries before every Chinese with even a rudimentary education knew by heart. It was upon this passage, Sun Yat-sen had said, that his own revolutionary nationalist movement at the beginning of the twentieth century was based:
The ancients who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue throughout the Kingdom first ordered well their own states. Wishing to order well their states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons. Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts. Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in then-thoughts. Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost their knowledge. Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things.
Thus, Xi believed, the pursuit of knowledge was central for the well-being of China. But the Red Guards had thought otherwise.
During the Cultural Revolution, Xi had been consigned as a worker on an impoverished collective farm in Ningxia Province, near the Great Wall, a region with a rich Muslim tradition—where, while plowing an unpromising field, he uncovered an intricately ornamented bronze helmet from the Han Dynasty. When reestablished i
It was there that the great discovery had been made of the terra-cotta army of the Emperor after whom China itself was named. His official name was Qin Shi Huangdi, but through the vagaries of transliteration had come to be widely known in the West as Ch’in. In the third century B.C., Qin unified the country, built the Great Wall, and compassionately decreed that upon his death lifelike terracotta models be substituted for the members of his entourage—soldiers, servants, and nobles—who, according to earlier tradition, would have been buried alive with his body. The terra-cotta army was composed of 7,500 soldiers, roughly a division. Every one of them had distinct facial features. You could see that people from all over China were represented. The Emperor had welded many separate and warring provinces into one nation. A nearby grave contained the almost perfectly preserved body of the Marchioness of Tai, a minor functionary in the Emperor’s court. The technology for preserving bodies—you could dearly see the severe expression on the face of the Marchioness, refined perhaps from decades of dressing down the servants—was vastly superior to that of ancient Egypt.
Qin had simplified the writing, codified the law, built roads, completed the Great Wall, and unified the country. He also confiscated weapons. While he was accused of massacring scholars who criticized his policies, and burning books because some knowledge was unsettling, be maintained that he bad eliminated endemic corruption and instituted peace and order. Xi was reminded of the Cultural Revolution. He imagined reconciling these conflicting tendencies in the heart of a single person. Qin’s arrogance had reached staggering proportions—to punish a mountain that had offended him, he ordered it denuded of vegetation and painted red, the color worn by condemned criminals. Qin was great, but he was also mad. Could you unify a collection of diverse and contentious nations without being a little mad? You’d have to be crazy even to attempt it, Xi laughingly told Ellie.
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