• • •
They arrived at the Albuquerque airport to discover that, miraculously, the commercial flight from New York with the Soviet delegation aboard had landed a half hour early. Ellie found Vaygay at an airport souvenir shop negotiating the price of some trinket. He must have seen her out of the corner of his eye. Without turning to face her, he lifted a finger: “One second, Arroway. Nineteen ninety-five?” he continued, addressing the elaborately disinterested sales clerk. “I saw the identical set in New York yesterday for seventeen fifty.” She edged closer and observed Vaygay spreading a set of holographic playing cards displaying nudes of both sexes in poses, now considered merely indecorous, that would have scandalized the previous generation. The clerk was making halfhearted attempts to gather the cards up as Lunacharsky made vigorous and successful efforts to cover the counter with the cards. Vaygay was winning. “I’m sorry, sir, I don’t set prices. I only work here,” complained the clerk.
“You see the deficiencies of a planned economy,” Vaygay said to Ellie while proffering a twenty-dollar bill to the clerk. “In a true free-enterprise system, I probably could purchase this for fifteen dollars. Maybe twelve ninety-five. Don’t look at me in that way, Ellie. This is not for me. With the jokers there are fifty-four cards here. Each of them will make a nice gift for some worker at my institute.”
She smiled and took his arm. “It’s good to see you again, Vaygay.”
“A rare pleasure, my dear.”
• • •
On the drive to Socorro, by mutual but unspoken agreement, they mainly talked pleasantries. Valerian and the driver, one of the new security people, were in the front seats. Peter, not a voluble man even in ordinary circumstances, was content to lean back and listen to their conversation, which touched only tangentially on the issue the Soviets had come to discuss: the third level of the palimpsest, the elaborate, complex, and still undecoded Message they were collectively receiving. The U.S. government had, more or less reluctantly, concluded that Soviet participation was essential. This was true especially because the signal from Vega was so intense that even modest radio telescopes could detect it. Years before, the Soviets had prudently deployed a number of small telescopes across the entire Eurasian land mass, stretching 9,000 kilometers over the surface of the Earth, and recently had completed a major radio observatory near Samarkand. In addition, Soviet oceangoing satellite tracking vessels were patrolling both the Atlantic and the Pacific.
Some of the Soviet data were redundant, because observatories in Japan, China, India, and Iraq were recording those signals as well. Indeed, every substantial radio telescope in the world that had Vega in its sky was listening. Astronomers in Britain, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, and Czechoslovakia, in Canada and Venezuela and Australia, were recording small pieces of the Message, following Vega from starrise to starset. In some observatories the detection equipment was not sensitive enough even to make out the individual pulses. They listened anyway to an audio blur. Each of these nations had a piece of the jigsaw puzzle, because, as Ellie had reminded Kitz, the Earth turns. Every nation tried to make some sense out of the pulses. But it was difficult. No one could tell even if the Message was written in symbols or in pictures.
It was perfectly conceivable that they would not decrypt the Message until it cycled back to page one—if it ever did—and began again with the introduction, the primer, the decoding key. Maybe it was a very long message, Ellie thought as Vaygay idly compared taiga with scrub desert; maybe it wouldn’t cycle back for a hundred years. Or maybe there was no primer. Maybe the Message (all over the planet, the word was beginning to be capitalized) was an intelligence test, so those worlds too stupid to decrypt it would be unable to misuse its contents. It suddenly struck her what a humiliation she would feel for the human species if in the end they failed to understand the Message. The moment the Americans and the Soviets decided to collaborate and the Memorandum of Agreement was solemnly signed, every other nation with a radio telescope had agreed to cooperate. There was a kind of World Message Consortium, and people were actually talking in those terms. They needed one another’s data and brain power if the Message was to be decrypted.
The newspapers were full of little else. The pitiful few facts that were known—the prime numbers, the Olympic broadcast, the existence of a complex message—were endlessly reviewed. It was hard to find anyone on the planet who had not in one way or another heard about eh Message from Vega.
Religious sects, established and marginal, and some newly invented for the purpose, were dissecting the theological implications of the Message. Some thought it was from God, and some from the Devil. Astonishingly, some were even unsure. There was a nasty resurgence of interest in Hitler and the Nazi regime, and Vaygay mentioned to her that he had found a total of eight swastikas in the advertisements in that Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. Ellie replied that eight was about par, but she knew she was exaggerating; some weeks there were only two or three. A group that called themselves “Spacaryans” offered definitive evidence that flying saucers had been invented in Hitler Germany. A new “unmongrelized” race of Nazis had grown up on Vega and was now ready to put things right on Earth.
There were those who considered listening to the signal an abomination and who urged the observatories to stop; there were those who considered it a Token of Advent and urged the construction of still larger radio telescopes, some of them in space. Some cautioned against working with the Soviet data, on grounds that they might be falsified or fraudulent, although in the longitudes of overlap they agreed well with the Iraqi, Indian, Chinese, and Japanese data. And there were those who sensed a change in the world political climate and contended that the very existence of the Message, even if it was never decrypted, was exercising a steadying influence on the quarrelsome nation states. Since the transmitting civilization was clearly more advanced than ours, and because it clearly—at least as of twenty-six years ago—had not destroyed itself, it followed, some argued, that technological civilizations did not inevitably self-destruct. In a world gingerly experimenting with major divestitures of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems, the Message was taken by whole populations as a reason for hope. Many considered the Message the best news in a long time. For decades, young people had tried not to think too carefully about tomorrow. Now, there might be a benign future after all.
Those with predispositions favoring such cheerful prognoses sometimes found themselves edging uncomfortably toward ground that had been occupied for a decade by the chiliastic movement. Some chiliasts held that the imminent arrival of the Third Millennium would be accompanied by the return of Jesus or Buddha or Krishna or The Prophet, who would establish on Earth a benevolent theocracy, severe in its judgment of mortals. Perhaps this would presage the mass celestial Ascent of the Elect. But there were other chiliasts, and there were far more of these, who held that the physical destruction of the world was the indispensable prerequisite for the Advent, as had been unerringly foretold in various otherwise mutually contradictory ancient prophetic works. The Doomsday Chiliasts were uneasy with the whiff of world community in the air and troubled by the steady annual decline in the global stockpiles of strategic weapons. The most readily available means for fulfilling the central tenet of their faith was being disassembled day by day. Other candidate catastrophes—overpopulation, industrial pollution, earthquakes, volcanic explosions, greenhouse warming, ice ages, or cometary impact with the Earth—were too slow, too improbably, or insufficiently apocalyptic for the purpose.
Some chiliast leaders had assured mass rallies of devoted followers that, except for accidents, life insurance was a sign of wayward faith; that, except for the very elderly, to purchase a gravesite or make funeral arrangements in other than urgent necessity was a flagrant impiety. All who believed would be raised bodily to heaven and would stand before the throne of God in only a few years.
Ellie knew that Lunacharsky’s famous relative had been that rarest of beings,
• • •
As they approached the Argus site, the roadside became dense with parked automobiles, recreation vehicles, campers, tents, and great crowds of people. At night the once tranquil Plains of San Augustin were illuminated by campfires. The people along the highway were by no means all well-to-do. She noticed two young couples. The men were in T-shirts and worn jeans, belted around their hips, swaggering a little as they had been taught by their seniors upon entering high school, talking animatedly. One of them pushed a ragged stroller in which sat a carefree boy about two years old. The women followed behind their husbands, one of them holding the hand of a toddler new to the human art of walking, and the other cantilevered forward with what in another month or two would be a further life born on this obscure planet.
There were mystics from sequestered communities outside Taos who used psilocybin as a sacrament, and nuns from a convent near Albuquerque who used ethanol for the same purpose. There were leather-skinned, crinkly-eyed men who had spent their whole lives under the open sky, and bookish, sallow-faced students from the University of Arizona in Tucson. There were silk cravats and burnished silver string ties sold by Navajo entrepreneurs at exorbitant prices, a small reversal of the historical commercial relations between whites and Native Americans. Chewing tobacco an bubble gum were being vigorously deployed by enlisted men on leave from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. An elegantly attired white-haired man in a $900 suit with a color-coordinated Stetson was, just possibly, a rancher. There were people who lived in barracks and skyscrapers, adobe hovels, dormitories, trailer parks. some came because they had nothing better to do, some because they wanted to tell their grandchildren that they had been there. Some arrived hoping for failure, others were confident of witnessing a miracle. Sounds of quiet devotion, raucous hilarity, mystic ecstasy, and subdued expectation rose from the crowd into the brilliant afternoon sunlight. A few heads glanced incuriously at the passing caravan of automobiles, each marked U.S. GOVERNMENT INTERAGENCY MOTOR POOL.
Some people were lunching on the tailgates of hatchbacks; others were sampling the wares of vendors whose wheeled emporia were boldly lettered SNACKMOBILE or SPACE SOUVENIRS. There were long lines in front of small sturdy structures with maximum occupancy of one person that the project had thoughtfully provided. Children scampered among the vehicles, sleeping bags, blankets, and portable picnic tables almost never chided by the adults—except when they came too close to the highway or to the fence nearest Telescope 61, where a group of shaven-headed, kowtowed, saffron-robed young adults were solemnly intoning the sacred syllable “Om.” There were posters with imagined representations of extraterrestrial beings, some made popular by comic books or motion pictures. One read, “There Are Aliens Among Us.” A man with golden earrings was shaving, using the side-view mirror of someone’s pickup truck, and a black-haired woman in a serape raised a cup of coffee in salute as the convoy sped by.
As they drove toward the new main gate, near Telescope 101, Ellie could see a young man on a jerrybuilt platform importuning a sizable crowd. He was wearing a T-shirt that depicted the Earth being struck by a bolt of celestial lightning. Several others in the crowd, she noticed, were wearing the same enigmatic adornment. At Ellie’s urging, once through the gate, they pulled off the side of the road, rolled down the window, and listened. The speaker was turned away from them and they could see the faces in the crowd. These people are deeply moved, Ellie thought to herself.
He was in mid-oration: “…and others say there’s been a pact with the Devil, that the scientists have sold their souls. There are precious stones in every one of these telescopes.” He waved his hand toward Telescope 101. “Even the scientists admit that. Some people say it’s the Devil’s part of the bargain.”
“Religious hooliganism,” Lunacharsky muttered darkly, his eyes yearning for the open road before them.
“No, no. Let’s stay,” she said. A half smile of wonderment was playing on her lips.
“There are some people—religious people, God-fearing people—who believe this Message comes from beings in space, entities, hostile creatures, aliens who want to harm us, enemies of Man.” He fairly shouted this last phrase, and then paused for effect. “But all of you are wearied and disgusted by the corruption, the decay in this society, a decay brought on by unthinking, unbridled, ungodly technology. I don’t know which of you is right. I can’t tell you what the Message means, or who it’s from. I have my suspicions. We’ll know soon enough. But I do know the scientists and the politicians and the bureaucrats are holding out on us. They haven’t told us all they know. They’re deceiving us, like they always do. For too long, O God, we have swallowed the lies they feed us, the corruption they bring.”
To Ellie’s astonishment a deep rumbling chorus of assent rose from the crowd. He had tapped some well of resentment she had only vaguely apprehended.
“These scientists don’t believe we’re the children of God. They think we’re the offspring of apes. There are known communists among them. Do you want people like that to decide the fate of the world?”
The crowd responded with a thunderous “No!”
“Do you want a pack of unbelievers to do the talking to God?”
“No!” they roared again.
“Or the Devil? They are bargaining away our future with monsters from an alien world. My brothers and sisters, there is an evil in this place.”
Ellie had thought the orator was unaware of their presence. But now he half turned and pointed through the cyclone fence directly at the idling convoy.
“They don’t speak for us! They don’t represent us! They have no right to parley in our name!”
Some of the crowd nearest the fence began jostling and rhythmically pushing. Both Valerian and the driver became alarmed. The engines had been left running, and in a moment they accelerated from the gate toward the Argus administration building, still many miles distant across the scrub desert. As they pulled away, over the sound of squealing tires and the murmur of the crowd, Ellie could hear the orator, his voice ringing clearly.
“The evil in this place will be stopped. I swear it.”
The theologian may indulge the pleasing task of describing Religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity. A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption which she contracted in a long residence upon Earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings.
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, XV
ELLIE IGNORED random access and advanced sequentially through the television stations. Lifestyles of the Mass Murderers and You Bet Your Ass were on adjacent channels. It was clear at a glance that the promise of the medium remained unfulfilled. There was a spirited basketball game between the Johnson City Wildcats and the Union-Endicott Tigers; the young men and women players were giving their all. On the next channel was an exhortation in Parsi on proper versus improper observances of Ramadan. Beyond was one of the locked channels, this one apparently devoted to universally abhorrent sexual practices. She next came upon one of the premier computer channels, dedicated to fantasy role-playing games and now fallen on hard times. Accessed to your home computer, it offered a single entry into a new adventure, today’s apparently called Galactic Gilgamesh, in hopes that you would find it sufficiently attractive to order the corresponding floppy disk on one of the vending channels. Proper electronic precautions were taken so you could not record the program during your single play. Most of these video games, she thought, were desperately flawed attempts to prepare adolescents for an unknown future.
Her eye wa
Cycling through the channels, she rushed past an Oriental cooking series devoted this week to the hibachi, an extended advertisement for the first generation of general-purpose household robots by Hadden Cybernetics, the Soviet Embassy’s Russian-language news and comment program, several children’s and news frequencies, the mathematics station displaying the dazzling computer graphics of the new Cornell analytic geometry course, the local apartments and real estate channel, and a tight cluster of execrable daytime serials until she came upon the religious networks, where, with sustained and general excitement, the Message was being discussed.
Attendance in churches had soared all over America. The Message, Ellie believed, was a kind of mirror in which each person sees his or her own beliefs challenged or confirmed. It was considered a blanket vindication of mutually exclusive apocalyptic and eschatological doctrines. In Peru, Algeria, Mexico, Zimbabwe, Ecuador, and among the Hopi, serious public debates took place on whether their progenitor civilizations had come from space; supporting opinions were attacked as colonialist. Catholics debated the extraterrestrial state of grace. Protestants discussed possible earlier missions of Jesus to nearby planets, and of course a return to Earth. Muslims were concerned that the Message might contravene the commandment against graven images. In Kuwait, a man arose who claimed to be the Hidden Imam of the Shiites. Messianic fervor had arisen among the Sossafer Chasids. In other congregations of Orthodox Jews there was a sudden renewal of interest in Astruc, a zealot fearful that knowledge would undermine faith, who in 1305 had induced the Rabbi of Barcelona, the leading Jewish cleric of the time, to forbid the study of science or philosophy by those under twenty-five, on pain of excommunication. Similar currents were increasingly discernible in Islam. A Thessalonian philosopher, auspiciously named Nicholas Polydemos, was attracting attention with a set of passionate arguments for what he called the “reunification” of religions, governments, and peoples of the world. Critics began by questioning the “re.”