Contact by Carl Sagan
She played back the video microcassettes for them, each carefully labeled: “Vega Ring System,” for example, or “Vega Radio (?) Facility,” “Quintuple System,” “Galactic Center Starscape,” and one bearing the inscription “Beach.” She inserted them in “play” mode one after the other. They had nothing on them. The cassettes were blank. She couldn’t understand what had gone wrong. She had carefully learned the operation of the video microcamera system and had used it successfully in tests before Machine Activation. She had even done a spot check on some of the footage after they had left the Vega system. She was further devastated later when she was told that the instruments carried by the others had also somehow failed. Peter Valerian wanted to believe her, der Heer also. But it was hard for them, even with the best will in the world. The story the Five had come back with was a little, well, unexpected—and entirely unsupported by physical evidence. Also, there hadn’t been enough time. They had been out of sight for only twenty minutes.
This was not the reception she had expected. But she was confident it would all sort itself out. For the moment, she was content to play the experience back in her mind and make some detailed notes. She wanted to be sure she would forget nothing.
• • •
Although a front of extremely cold air was moving in from Kamchatka, it was still unseasonably warm when late on New Year’s Day, a number of unscheduled flights arrived at Sapporo International Airport. The new American Secretary of Defense, Michael Kitz, and a team of hastily gathered experts arrived in an airplane marked “The United States of America.” Their presence was confirmed by Washington only when the story was about to break in Hokkaido. The terse press release noted that the visit was routine, that there was no crisis, no danger, and that “nothing extraordinary has been reported at the Machine Systems Integration Facility northeast of Sapporo.” A Tu-120 had flown overnight from Moscow, carrying, among others, Stefan Baruda and Timofei Gotsridze. Doubtless neither group was delighted to spend this New Year’s holiday away from their families. But the weather in Hokkaido was a pleasant surprise; it was so warm that the sculptures in Sapporo were melting, and the dodecahedron of ice had become an almost featureless small glacier, the water dripping off rounded surfaces that once had been the edges of the pentagonal surfaces.
Two days later, a severe winter storm struck, and all traffic into the Machine facility, even by four-wheel-drive vehicles, was interrupted. Some radio and all television links were severed; apparently a microwave relay tower had been blown down. During most of the new interrogations, the only communication with the outside world was by telephone. And just conceivably, Ellie thought, by dodecahedron. She was tempted to steal herself onboard and spin up the benzels. She enjoyed elaborating on this fantasy. But in fact there was no way to know whether the Machine would ever work again, at least from this side of the tunnel. He had said it would not. She allowed herself to think of the seashore again. And him. Whatever happened next, a wound deep within her was being healed. She could feel the scar tissue knitting. It had been the most expensive psychotherapy in the history of the world. And that’s saying a lot, she thought.
• • •
Debriefings were given to Xi and Sukhavati by representatives of their nations. Although Nigeria played no significant role in Message acquisition or Machine construction, Eda acquiesced readily enough to a long interview with Nigerian officials. But it was perfunctory compared with the interrogations administered to them by project personnel. Vaygay and Ellie underwent still more elaborate debriefings by the high-level teams brought from the Soviet Union and the United States for this specific purpose. At first these American and Soviet interrogations excluded foreign nationals, but after complaints were carried through the World Machine Consortium, the U.S. and the S.U. relented, and the sessions were again internationalized.
Kitz was in charge of her debriefing, and considering what short notice he must have been given, he had arrived surprisingly well prepared. Valerian and der Heer put in an occasional good word for her, and every now and then asked a searching question. But it was Kitz’s show.
He told her he was approaching her story skeptically but constructively, in what he hoped was the best scientific tradition. He trusted she would not mistake the directness of his questions for some personal animus. He held her only in the greatest respect. He, in turn, would not permit his judgment to be clouded by the fact that he had been against the Machine Project from the beginning. She decided to let this pathetic deception pass unchallenged, and began her story.
At first he listened closely, asked occasional questions of detail, and apologized when he interrupted. By the second day no such courtesies were in evidence.
“So the Nigerian is visited by his wife, the Indian by her dead husband, the Russian by his cute granddaughter, the Chinese by some Mongol warlord—”
“Qin was not a Mongol—”
“—and you, for crissake, you get visited by your dearly departed father, who tells you that he and his friends have been busy rebuilding the universe, for crissake. ‘Our Father Who art in Heaven…’? This is straight religion. This is straight cultural anthropology. This is straight Sigmund Freud. Don’t you see that? Not only do you claim your. own father came back from the dead, you actually expect us to believe that he made the universe—”
“You’re distorting what—”
“Come off it, Arroway. Don’t insult our intelligence. You don’t present us with a shred of evidence, and you expect us to believe the biggest cock-and-bull story of all time? You know better than that. You’re a smart lady. How could you figure to get away with it?”
She protested. Valerian protested also; this kind of interrogation, he said, was a waste of time. The Machine was undergoing sensitive physical tests at this moment. That was how the validity of her story could be checked. Kitz agreed the physical evidence would be important. But the nature of Arroway’s story, he argued, was revealing, a means of understanding what had actually happened.
“Meeting your father in Heaven and all that, Dr. Arroway, is telling, because you’ve been raised in the Judeo-Christian culture. You’re essentially the only one of the Five from that culture, and you’re the only one who meets your father. Your story is just too pat. It’s not imaginative enough.”
This was worse than she had thought possible. She felt a moment of epistemological panic—as when your car is not where you parked it, or the door you locked last night a ajar in the morning.
“You think we made all this up?”
“Well, I’ll tell you. Dr. Arroway. When I was very young, I worked in the Cook County Prosecutor’s office. When they were thinking about indicting somebody, they asked three questions.” He ticked them off on his fingers. “Did he have the opportunity? Did he have the means? Did he have the motive?”
“To do what?”
He looked at her in disgust.
“But our watches showed that we’d been gone more than a day,” she protested.
“I don’t know how I could have been so stupid,” Kitz said, striking his forehead with his palm. “You’ve demolished my argument. I forgot that it’s impossible to set your watch ahead by a day.”
“But that implies a conspiracy. You think Xi lied? You think Eda lied? You—”
“What I think is we should move on to something more important. You know, Peter”—Kitz turned toward Valerian—“I’m persuaded you’re right. A first draft of the Materials Assessment Report will be here tomorrow morning. Let’s not waste more time on…stories. We’ll adjourn till then.”
Der Heer had said not a word through the entire afternoon’s session. He offered her an uncertain grin, and she couldn’t help contrasting it with her father’s. Sometimes Ken’s expression seemed to urge her, to implore her. But to what end she had no way of knowing; perhaps to change her story. He had remembered her recollections of her childhood, and he knew how she had grieved for her father. Clearly he was weighing the possibility that she had gone cra
• • •
“Well, here it is,” Kitz said. The report was about a centimeter thick. He let it fall to the table, scattering a few pencils. “You’ll want to look through it, Dr. Arroway, but I can give you a quick summary. Okay?”
She nodded assent. She had heard through the grapevine that the report was highly favorable to the account the Five had given. She hoped it would put an end to the nonsense.
“The dodecahedron apparently”—he laid great stress on this word—“has been exposed to a very different environment than the benzels and the supporting structures. It’s apparently been subjected to huge tensile and compressional stresses. It’s a miracle the thing didn’t fall to pieces. So it’s a miracle you and the others didn’t fall to pieces at the same time. Also, it’s apparently seen an intense radiation environment—there’s low-level induced radioactivity, cosmic ray tracks, and so on. It’s another miracle that you survived the radiation. Nothing else has been added or taken away. There’s no sign of erosion or scraping on the side vertices that you claim kept bumping into the walls of the tunnels. There’s not even any scoring, as there would have been if it entered the Earth’s atmosphere at high velocity.”
“So doesn’t that confirm our story? Michael, think about it. Tensile and compressional stresses—tidal forces—are exactly what you expect if you fall down a classical black hole. That’s been known for fifty years at least. I don’t know why we didn’t feel it, but maybe the dodec protected us somehow. And high radiation doses from the inside of the black hole and from the environment of the Galactic Center, a known gamma ray source. There’s independent evidence for black holes, and there’s independent evidence for a Galactic Center. We didn’t make those things up. I don’t understand the absence of scraping, but that depends on the interaction of a material we’ve hardly studied with a material that’s completely unknown. I wouldn’t expect any scoring or charring, because we don’t claim we entered through the Earth’s atmosphere. It seems to me the evidence almost entirely confirms our story. What’s the problem?”
“The problem is you people are too clever. Too clever. Look at it from the point of view of a skeptic. Step back and look at the big picture. There’s a bunch of bright people in different countries who think the world is going to hell in a handbasket. They claim to receive a complex Message from space.”
“Let me continue. They decrypt the Message and announce instructions on how to build a very complicated Machine at a cost of trillions of dollars. The world’s in a funny condition, the religions are all shaky about the oncoming Millennium, and to everybody’s surprise the Machine gets built. There’s one or two slight changes in personnel, and then essentially these same people—”
“It’s not the same people. It’s not Sukhavati, it’s not Eda, it’s not Xi, and there were—”
“Let me continue. Essentially these same people then get to sit down in the Machine. Because of the way the thing is designed, no one can see them and no one can talk to them after the thing is activated. So the Machine is turned on and then it turns itself off. Once it’s on, you can’t make it stop in less than twenty minutes. Okay. Twenty minutes later, these same people emerge from the Machine, all jaunty-jolly, with some bullshit story about traveling faster than light inside black holes to the center of the Galaxy and back. Now suppose you hear this story and you’re just ordinarily cautious. You ask to see their evidence. Pictures, videotapes, any other data. Guess what? It’s all been conveniently erased. Do they have artifacts of the superior civilization they say is at the center of the Galaxy? No. Mementos? No. A stone tablet? No. Pets? No. Nothing. The only physical evidence is some subtle damage done to the Machine. So you ask yourself, couldn’t people who were so motivated and so clever arrange for what looks like tension stresses and radiation damage, especially if they could spend two trillion dollars faking the evidence?”
She gasped. She remembered the last time she had gasped. This was a truly venomous reconstruction of events. She wondered what had made it attractive to Kitz. He must, she thought, be in real distress.
“I don’t think anybody’s going to believe your story,” he continued. “This is the most elaborate—and the most expensive—hoax ever perpetrated. You and your friends tried to hoodwink the President of the United States and deceive the American people, to say nothing of all the other governments on the Earth. You must really think everybody else is stupid.”
“Michael, this is madness. Tens of thousands of people worked to acquire the Message, to decode it, and to build the Machine. The Message is on magnetic tapes and printouts and laserdisks in observatories all over the world. You think there’s a conspiracy involving all the radio astronomers on the planet, and the aerospace and cybernetics companies, and—”
“No, you don’t need a conspiracy that big. All you need is a transmitter in space that looks as if it’s broadcasting from Vega. I’ll tell you how I think you did it. You prepare the Message, and get somebody—somebody with an established launch capability—to put it up. Probably as an incidental part of some other mission. And into some orbit that looks like sidereal motion. Maybe there’s more than one satellite. Then the transmitter turns on, and you’re all ready in your handy-dandy observatory to receive the Message, make the big discovery, and tell us poor slobs what it all means.”
This was too much even for the impassive der Heer. He roused himself from a slumped position in his chair. “Really, Mike—” he began, but Ellie cut him short.
“I wasn’t responsible for most of the decoding. Lots of people were involved. Drumlin, especially. He started out as a committed skeptic, as you know. But once the data came in, Dave was entirely convinced. You didn’t hear any reservations from him.”
“Oh yes, poor Dave Drumlin. The late Dave Drumlin. Yon set him up. The professor you never liked.”
Der Heer slumped still further down in his chair, and she had a sudden vision of him regaling Kitz with secondhand pillow talk. She looked at him more closely. She couldn’t be sure.
“During the decrypting of the Message, you couldn’t do everything. There was so much you had to do. So you overlooked this and you forgot that. Here’s Drumlin growing old, worried about his former student eclipsing him and getting all the credit. Suddenly he sees how to be involved, how to play a central role. You appealed to his narcissism, and you hooked him. And if he hadn’t figured out the decryption, you would have helped him along. If worse came to worst, you would have peeled all the layers off the onion yourself.”
“You’re saying that we were able to invent such a Message. Really, it’s an outrageous compliment to Vaygay and me. It’s also impossible. It can’t be done. You ask any competent engineer if that kind of Machine—with brand-new subsidiary industries, components wholly unfamiliar on Earth—you ask if that could have been invented by a few physicists and radio astronomers on their days off. When do you imagine we had time to invent such a Message even if we knew how? Look how many bits of information are in it. It would have taken years.”
“You had years, while Argus was getting nowhere. The project was about to be closed. Drumlin, you remember, was pushing that. So just at the right moment you find the Message. Then there’s no more talk about closing down your pet project. I think you and that Russian did cook the whole thing up in your spare time. You had years.”
“This is madness,” she said softly.
Valerian interrupted. He had known Dr. Arroway well during the period in question. She had done productive scientific work. She never had the time required for so elaborate a deception. Much as he admired her, he agreed that the Message and the Machine were far beyond her ability—or indeed anybody’s ability. Anybody on Earth.
But Kitz wasn’t buying it “That’s a personal judgment, Dr. Valerian. There are many persons, and there can b
He leaned forward, watching Elite intently. Clearly he was interested to see how she would respond to what he was about to say.
“The Message stopped the moment we activated the Machine. The moment the benzels reached cruising speed. To the second. All over the world. Every radio observatory with a line-of-sight to Vega saw the same thing. We’ve held back telling you about it so we wouldn’t distract you from your debriefing. The Message stopped in mid-bit. Now that was really foolish of you.”
“I don’t know anything about it, Michael. But so what if the Message stopped? It’s fulfilled its purpose. We built the Machine, and we went to…where they wanted us to go.”
“It puts you in a peculiar position,” he went on.
Suddenly she saw where he was headed. She hadn’t expected this. He was arguing conspiracy, but she was contemplating madness. If Kitz wasn’t mad, might she be? If our technology can manufacture substances that induce delusions, could a much more advanced technology induce highly detailed collective hallucinations? Just for a moment it seemed possible.
“Let’s imagine it’s last week,” he was saying. “The radio waves arriving on Earth right now are supposed to have been sent from Vega twenty-six years ago. They take twenty-six years to cross space to us. But twenty-six years ago, Dr. Arroway, there wasn’t any Argus facility, and you were sleeping with acid-heads, and moaning about Vietnam and Watergate. You people are so smart, but you forgot the speed of light. There’s no way that activating the Machine can turn the Message off until twenty-six years pass—unless in ordinary space you can send a message faster than light. And we both know that’s impossible. I remember you complaining about how stupid Rankin and Joss were for not knowing you can’t travel faster than light. I’m surprised you thought you could get away with this one.”
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