Contact by Carl Sagan
With increasing fascination, Xi had arranged for massive excavations at Xian. Gradually, he became convinced that the Emperor Qin himself was also lying in wait, perfectly preserved, in some great tomb near the disinterred terracotta army. Nearby, according to ancient records, was also buried under a great mound a detailed model of the nation of China in 210 B.C., With every temple and pagoda meticulously represented. The rivers, it was said, were made of mercury, with the Emperor’s barge in miniature perpetually navigating his underground domain. When the ground at Xian was found to be contaminated with mercury, Xi’s excitement grew.
Xi had unearthed a contemporary account that described a great dome the Emperor had commissioned to overarch this miniature realm, called, like the real one, the Celestial Kingdom. As written Chinese had hardly changed in 2,200 years, he was able to read the account directly, without benefit of an expert linguist. A chronicler from the time of Qin was speaking to Xi directly. Many nights Xi would put himself to sleep trying to envision the great Milky Way that sundered the vault of the sky in the domed tomb of the great Emperor, and the night ablaze with comets which had appeared at his passing to honor his memory.
The search for Qin’s tomb and for his model of the universe had occupied Xi over the last decade. He had not found it yet, but his quest bad captured the imagination of China. It was said of him, “There are a billion people in China, but there is only one Xi.” In a nation slowly easing restraints on individuality, he was seen as exerting a constructive influence.
Qin, it was clear, had been obsessed by immortality. The man who gave his name to the most populous nation on Earth, the man who built what was then the largest structure on the planet, was, predictably enough, afraid he would be forgotten. So he caused more monumental structures to be erected; preserved, or reproduced for the ages, the bodies and faces of his courtiers; built his own still-elusive tomb and world model; and sent repeated expeditions into the Eastern Sea to seek the elixir of life. He complained bitterly of the expense as he launched each new voyage. One of these missions involved scores of ocean-going junks and a crew of 3,000 young men and women. They never returned, and their fate is unknown. The water of immortality was unavailable.
Just fifty years later, wet rice agriculture and iron metallurgy suddenly appeared in Japan—developments that profoundly altered the Japanese economy and created a class of warrior aristocrats. Xi argued that the Japanese name for Japan clearly reflected the Chinese origin of Japanese culture: The Land of the Rising Sun. Where would you have to be standing, Xi asked, for the Sun to be rising over Japan? So the very name of the daily newspaper that Ellie had just visited was, Xi proposed, a reminder of the life and times of the Emperor Qin. Ellie thought that Qin made Alexander the Great a schoolyard bully by comparison. Well, almost.
If Qin had been obsessed with immortality, Xi was obsessed with Qin. Ellie told him about her visit to Sol Had-den in Earth orbit, and they agreed that were the Emperor Qin alive in the waning years of the twentieth century, Earth orbit is where he would be. She introduced Xi to Hadden by videophone and then left them to talk alone. Xi’s excellent English had been honed during his recent involvement in the transfer of the Crown Colony of Hong Kong to the Chinese People’s Republic. They were still talking when the Methuselah set, and bad to continue through the network of communications satellites in geosynchronous orbit. They must have hit it off. Soon after, Hadden requested that the activation of the Machine be synchronized so that he would be overhead at that moment. He wanted Hokkaido in the focus of his telescope, he said, when the time came.
• • •
“Do Buddhists believe in God, or not?” Ellie asked on their way to have dinner with the Abbot.
“Their position seems to be,” Vaygay replied dryly, “that their God is so great he doesn’t even have to exist.”
As they sped through the countryside, they talked about Utsumi, the Abbot of the most famous Zen Buddhist monastery in Japan. A few years before, at ceremonies marking the fiftieth anniversary of the destruction of Hiroshima, Utsumi had delivered a speech that commanded worldwide attention. He was well connected in Japanese political life, and served as a kind of spiritual adviser to the ruling political party, but he spent most of his time in monastic and devotional activities.
“His father was also the Abbot of a Buddhist monastery,” Sukhavati mentioned.
Ellie raised her eyebrows.
“Don’t look so surprised. Marriage was permitted to them, like the Russian Orthodox clergy. Isn’t that right, Vaygay?”
“That was before my time,” he said, a little distractedly.
The restaurant was set in a grove of bamboo and was called Ungetsu—the Clouded Moon; and indeed there was a clouded moon in the early evening sky. Their Japanese hosts had arranged that there be no other guests. Ellie and her companions removed their shoes and, padding in their stocking feet, entered a small dining room which looked out on stalks of bamboo.
The Abbot’s head was shaved, his garment a robe of black and silver. He greeted them in perfect colloquial English, and his Chinese, Xi later told her, turned out to be passable as well. The surroundings were restful, the conversation lighthearted. Each course was a small work of art, edible jewels. She understood how nouvelle cuisine had its origins in the Japanese culinary tradition. If the custom were to eat the food blindfolded, she would have been content. If, instead, the delicacies were brought out only to be admired and never to be eaten, she would also have been content. To look and eat both was an intimation of heaven.
Ellie was seated across from the Abbot and next to Lunacharsky. Others inquired about the species—or at least the kingdom—of this or that morsel. Between the sushi and the ginkgo nuts, the conversation turned, after a fashion, to the mission.
“But why do we communicate?” the Abbot asked.
“To exchange information,” replied Lunacharsky, seemingly devoting full attention to his recalcitrant chopsticks.
“But why do we wish to exchange information?”
“Because we feed on information. Information is necessary for our survival Without information we die.”
Lunacharsky was intent on a ginkgo nut that slipped off his chopsticks each time be attempted to raise it to his mouth. He lowered his head to meet the chopsticks halfway.
“I believe,” continued the Abbot, “that we communicate out of love or compassion.” He reached with his fingers for one of his own ginkgo nuts and placed it squarely in his mouth.
“Then you think,” she asked, “that the Machine is an instrument of compassion? You think there is no risk?”
“I can communicate with a flower,” he went on as if in response. “I can talk to a stone. You would have no difficulty understanding the beings—that is the proper word?—of some other world.”
“I am perfectly prepared to believe that the stone communicates to you,” Lunacharsky said, chewing on the ginkgo nut. He had followed the Abbot’s example. “But I wonder about you communicating to the stone. How would you convince us that you can communicate with a stone? The world is full of error. How do you know you are not deceiving yourself?”
“Ah, scientific skepticism.” The Abbot flashed a smile that Ellie found absolutely winning; it was innocent, almost childlike.
“To communicate with a stone, you must become much less…preoccupied. You must not do so much thinking, so much talking. When I say I communicate with a stone, I am not talking about words. The Christians say. ‘In the beginning was the Word.’ But I am talking about a communication much earlier, much more fundamental than that.”
“It’s only the Gospel of Saint John that talks about the Word,” Ellie commented—a little pedantically, she thought as soon as the words were out of her mouth. “The earlier Synoptic Gospels say nothing about it. It’s really an accretion from Greek philosophy. What kind of preverbal communication do you mean?”
“Your question is made of words. You ask me to use words to describe what has nothing to do wi
“The language of the ants is in fact a chemical language,” said Lunacharsky, eyeing the Abbot keenly. “They lay down specific molecular traces to indicate the path they have taken to find food. To understand the language of the ants, I need a gas chromatograph, or a mass spectrometer. I do not need to become an ant.”
“Probably, that is the only way you know to become an ant,” returned the Abbot, looking at no one in particular. “Tell me, why do people study the signs left by the ants?”
“Well,” Ellie offered, “I guess an entomologist would say it’s to understand the ants and ant society. Scientists take pleasure in understanding.”
“That is only another way of saying that they love the ants.”
She suppressed a small shudder.
“Yes, but those who fund the entomologists say something else. They say it’s to control the behavior of ants, to make them leave a house they’ve infested, say, or to understand the biology of soil for agriculture. It might provide an alternative to pesticides. I guess you could say there’s some love of the ants in that,” Ellie mused.
“But it’s also in our self-interest,” said Lunacharsky. “The pesticides are poisonous to us as well.”
“Why are you talking about pesticides in the midst of such a dinner?” shot Sukhavati from across the table.
“We will dream the dream of the ants another time,” the Abbot said softly to Ellie, flashing again that perfect, untroubled smile.
Reshod with the aid of meter-long shoehorns, they approached their small fleet of automobiles, while the serving women and proprietress smiled and bowed ceremoniously. Ellie and Xi watched the Abbot enter a limousine with some of their Japanese hosts.
“I asked him, If he could talk with a stone, could he communicate with the dead?” Xi told her.
“And what did he say?”
“He said the dead were easy. His difficulties were with the living.”
A rough sea!
Stretched out over Sado
The Milky Way.
PERHAPS THEY had chosen Hokkaido because of its maverick reputation. The climate required construction techniques that were highly unconventional by Japanese standards, and this island was also the home of the Ainu, the hairy aboriginal people still despised by many Japanese. Winters were as severe as the ones in Minnesota or Wyoming. Hokkaido posed certain logistical difficulties, but it was out of the way in case of a catastrophe, being physically separated from the other Japanese islands. It was by no means isolated, however, now that the fifty-one-kilometer-long tunnel connecting it with Honshu had been completed; it was the longest submarine tunnel in the world.
Hokkaido had seemed safe enough for the testing of individual Machine components. But concern had been expressed about actually assembling the Machine in Hokkaido. This was, as the mountains that surrounded the facility bore eloquent testimony, a region surging with recent volcanism. One mountain was growing at the rate of a meter a day. Even the Soviets—Sakhalin Island was only forty-three kilometers away, across the Soya, or La Pérouse Strait—had voiced some misgivings on this score. But in for a kopek, in for a ruble. For all they knew, even a Machine built on the far side of the Moon could blow up the Earth when activated. The decision to build the Machine was the key fact in assessing dangers; where the thing was built was an entirely secondary consideration.
By early July, the Machine was once again taking shape. In America, it was still embroiled in political and sectarian controversy; and there were apparently serious technical problems with the Soviet Machine. But here—in a facility much more modest than that in Wyoming—the dowels had been mounted and the dodecahedron completed, although no public announcement had been made. The ancient Pythagoreans, who first discovered the dodecahedron, had declared its very existence a secret, and the penalties for disclosure were severe. So perhaps it was only fitting that this house-sized dodecahedron, halfway around the world and 2,600 years later, was known only to a few.
The Japanese Project Director had decreed a few days’ rest for everyone. The nearest city of any size was Obihiro, a pretty place at the confluence of the Yubetsu and Tokachi rivers. Some went to ski on strips of unmelted snow on Mount Asahi; others to dam thermal streams with a makeshift rock wall, warming themselves with the decay of radioactive elements cooked in some supernova explosion billions of years before. A few of the project personnel went to the Bamba races, in which massive draft horses pulled heavy ballasted sledges over parallel strips of farmland. But for a serious celebration, the Five flew by helicopter to Sapporo, the largest city on Hokkaido, situated less than 200 kilometers away.
Propitiously enough, they arrived in time for the Tanabata Festival. The security risk was considered small, because it was the Machine itself much more than these five people that was essential for the success of the project. They had undergone no special training, beyond thorough study of the Message, the Machine, and the miniaturized instruments they would take with them. In a rational world, they would be easy to replace, Ellie thought, although the political impediments in selecting five humans acceptable to all members of the World Machine Consortium had been considerable.
Xi and Vaygay had “unfinished business,” they said, which could not be completed except over sake. So she, Devi Sukhavati, and Abonneba Eda found themselves guided by their Japanese hosts along one of the side streets of the Odori Promenade, past elaborate displays of paper streamers and lanterns, pictures of leaves, turtles, and ogres, and appealing cartoon representations of a young man and woman in medieval costume. Between two buildings was stretched a large piece of sailcloth on which had been painted a peacock rampant.
She glanced at Eda in his flowing, embroidered linen robe and high stiff cap, and at Sukhavati in another stunning silk sari, and delighted in the company. The Japanese Machine had so far passed all the prescribed tests, and a crew had been agreed upon that was not merely representative—if imperfectly—of the population of the planet, but which included genuine individuals not stamped out by the official cookie cutters of five nations. Every one of them was in some sense a rebel.
Eda, for instance. Here he was, the great physicist, the discoverer of what was called superunification—one elegant theory, which included as special cases physics that ran the gamut from gravitation to quarks. It was an achievement comparable to Isaac Newton’s or Albert Einstein’s, and Eda was being compared to both. He had been born a Muslim in Nigeria, not unusual in itself, but he was an adherent of an unorthodox Islamic faction called the Ahmadiyah, which encompassed the Sufis. The Sufis, he explained after the evening with Abbot Utsumi, were to Islam what Zen was to Buddhism. Ahmadiyah proclaimed “a jihad of the pen, not the sword.”
Despite his quiet, indeed humble demeanor, Eda was a fierce opponent of the more conventional Muslim concept of jihad, holy war, and argued instead for the most vigorous free exchange of ideas. In this he was an embarrassment for much of conservative Islam, and opposition to his participation in the Machine crew had been made by some Islamic nations. Nor were they alone. A black Nobel laureate—said occasionally to be the smartest person on Earth—proved too much for some who had masked their racism as a concession to the new social amenities. When Eda visited Tyrone Free in prison four years earlier, there was a marked upsurge in pride among black Americans, and a new role model for the young. Eda brought out the worst in the racists and the best in everyone else.
“The time necessary to do physics is a luxury,” he told Ellie. “There are many people who could do the same if they had the same opportunity. But if you must search the streets for food, you will not have enough time for physic
As he had slowly become a national hero in Nigeria, he spoke out increasingly about corruption, about an unfair sense of entitlement, about the importance of honesty in science and everywhere else, about how great a nation Nigeria could be. It had as many people as the United States in the 1920s, he said. It was rich in resources, and its many cultures were a strength. If Nigeria could overcome its problems, he argued, it would be a beacon for the rest of the world. Seeking quiet and isolation in all other things, on these issues he spoke out. Many Nigerian men and women—Muslims, Christians, and Animists, the young but not only the young—took his vision seriously.
Of Eda’s many remarkable traits, perhaps the most striking was his modesty. He rarely offered opinions. His answers to most direct questions were laconic. Only in his writings—or in spoken language after you knew him well—did you glimpse his depth. Amidst all the speculation about the Message and the Machine and what would happen after its activation, Eda had volunteered only one comment: In Mozambique, the story goes, monkeys do not talk, because they know if they utter even a single word some man will come and put them to work.
With such a voluble crew it was strange to have someone as taciturn as Eda. Like many others, Ellie paid especial attention to even his most casual utterances. He would describe as “foolish errors” his earlier, only partly successful version of superunification. The man was in his thirties and, Ellie and Devi had privately agreed, devastatingly attractive. He was also, she knew, happily married to one wife; she and their children were in Lagos at the moment.
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