“New York,” Krug said. “The upper office.”
He and Spaulding entered the transmat cubicle. The lambent green transmat field pulsed up from the floor aperture, forming a curtain dividing the cubicle in two. The ectogene set the coordinates. The hidden power generators of the transmat were linked directly to the main generator, spinning endlessly on its poles somewhere beneath the Atlantic, condensing the theta force that made transmat travel possible. Krug did not bother to check the coordinates Spaulding had set. He trusted his staff. A minor abscissa distortion and the atoms of Simeon Krug would be scattered irrecoverably to the cold winds, but he unhesitatingly stepped into the glow of green.
There was no sensation. Krug was destroyed; a stream of tagged wavicles was hurled several thousand kilometers to a tuned receiver; and Krug was reconstituted. The transmat field ripped a man’s body into subatomic units so swiftly that no neural system could possibly register the pain; and the restoration to life came with equal speed. Whole and undamaged, Krug emerged, with Spaulding beside him, in the transmat cubicle of his office.
“Look after Quenelle,” Krug said. “She’ll be arriving downstairs. Amuse her. I don’t want to be disturbed for at least an hour.”
Spaulding exited. Krug closed his eyes.
The falling of the block had upset him greatly. It was not the first accident during the building of the tower; it probably would not be the last. Lives had been lost today: only android lives, true, but lives all the same. The waste of life, the waste of energy, the waste of time, infuriated him. How would the tower rise if blocks fell? How would he send word across the heavens that man existed, that he mattered, if there were no tower? How would he ask the questions that had to be asked?
Krug ached. Krug felt close to despair at the immensity of his self-imposed task.
In times of fatigue or tension he became morbidly conscious of the presence of his body as a prison engulfing his soul. The folds of belly-flesh, the island of perpetual rigidity at the base of the neck, the tiny tremor of the upper left eyelid, the slight constant pressure on the bladder, the rawness in the throat, the bubbling in the kneecap, every intimation of mortality rang in him like a chime. His body often seemed absurd to him, a mere bag of meat and bone and blood and feces and miscellaneous ropes and cords and rags, sagging under time’s assault, deteriorating from year to year and from hour to hour. What was noble about such a mound of protoplasm? The preposterousness of fingernails! The idiocy of nostrils! The foolishness of elbows! Yet under the armored skull ticked the watchful gray brain, like a bomb buried in mud. Krug scorned his flesh, but he felt only awe for his brain, and for the human brain in the abstract. The true Krugness of him was in that soft folded mass of tissue, nowhere else, not in the guts, not in the groin, not in the chest, but in the mind. The body rotted while its owner still wore it; the mind within soared to the farthest galaxies.
“Massage,” Krug said.
The timber and tone of his command caused a smoothly vibrating table to extrude itself from the wall. Three female androids, kept constantly on call, entered the room. Their supple bodies were bare; they were standard gamma models, who could have been triplets but for the usual programmed minor somatotype divergences. They had small high-set breasts, flat bellies, narrow waists, flaring hips, full buttocks. They had hair on their heads and they had eyebrows, but otherwise they were without body hair, which gave them a certain sexless look; yet the groove of sex was inscribed between their legs, and Krug, if his tastes inclined that way, could part those legs and find within them a reasonable imitation of passion. His tastes had never inclined that way. But Krug had deliberately designed an element of sensuality into his androids. He had given them functional — if sterile — genitals, just as he had given them proper — though needless — navels. He wanted his creations to look human (aside from the necessary modifications) and to do most human things. His androids were not robots. He had chosen to create synthetic humans, not mere machines.
The three gammas efficiently stripped him and worked him over with their cunning fingers. Krug lay belly-down; tirelessly they plucked at his flesh and toned his muscles. He stared across the emptiness of his office at the images on the distant wall.
The room was furnished simply, even starkly: a lengthy rectangle that contained a desk, a data terminal, a small somber sculpture, and a dark drape that would, at the touch of a repolarizing stud, reveal the panorama of New York City far below. The lighting, indirect and subdued, kept the office in eternal twilight. On one wall, though, there blazed a pattern in brilliant yellow luminescence:
It was the message from the stars.
Vargas’ observatory had picked it up first as a series of faint radio pulses at 900 megacycles; two quick beats, a pause, four beats, a pause, one beat, and so on. The pattern was repeated a thousand times over a span of two days, then halted. A month later it showed up at 1421 megacycles, the 21-centimeter hydrogen frequency, for another thousand turns. A month after that it came in both at half and at double that frequency, a thousand of each. Still later, Vargas was able to detect it optically, riding in on an intense laser beam at a 5000-angstrom wavelength. The pattern was always the same, clusters of brief bursts of information: 2 … 4 … 1 … 2 … 5 … 1 … 3 … 1. Each subcomponent of the series was separated from the next by an appreciable gap, and there was a much larger gap between each repetition of the entire group of pulse-clusters.
Surely it was some message. To Krug, the sequence 2-4-1-2-5-1-3-1 had become a sacred number, the opening symbols of a new kabbalah. Not only was the pattern emblazoned on his wall, but the touch of his finger would send the sound of the alien signal whispering through the room in any of several audible frequencies, and the sculpture beside his desk was primed to emit the sequence in brilliant flashes of coherent light.
The signal obsessed him. His universe now revolved about the quest to make reply. At night he stood beneath the stars, dizzied by the cascade of light, and looked to the galaxies, thinking, I am Krug, I am Krug, here I wait, speak to me again! He admitted no possibility that the signal from the stars might be other than a consciously directed communication. He had turned all of his considerable assets to the task of answering.
— But isn’t there any chance that the “message” might be some natural phenomenon?
— What significance do those numbers have? Are they some kind of galactic pi?
— What good is a message that doesn’t have any comprehensible content?
— Assuming you’re right, what kind of reply do you plan to make?
— In what language will you tell them this?
— And how will you say this to them? With lasers? With radio waves?
Krug trembled on the table. The android masseuses clawed his flesh, pounded him, drove knuckles into his massive muscles. Were they trying to tap the mystic numbers into his bones? 2-4-1, 2-5-1, 3-1? Where was the missing 2? Even if it had been sent, what would the sequence mean, 2-4-1, 2-5-1, 2-3-1? Nothing significant. Random. Random. Meaningless clusters of raw information. Nothing more than numbers arrayed in an abstract pattern, and yet they carried the most important message the universe ever had known:
And Krug would answer. He shivered with pleasure at the thought of his tower completed and the tachyon-beams pouring out into the galaxy. Krug would reply, Krug the rapacious, Krug the insensitive moneyman, Krug the dollar-hungry boor, Krug the mere industrialist, Krug the fat peasant, Krug the ignorant, Krug the coarse. I! Me! Krug! Krug! Krug!
“Out,” he snapped to the androids. “Finished!”
The girls scurried away. Krug rose, slowly resumed his garments, walked across the room to run his hands over the pattern of yellow lights.
“Messages?” he said. “Visitors?”
The head and shoulders of Leon Spaulding appeared in midair, glistening against the invisible webwork backdrop of a sodium-vapor projector. “Dr. Vargas is here,” the ectogene said. “He’s waiting in the planetarium. Will you see him?”
“Naturally. I’ll go up. And Quenelle?”
“She went to the lake house in Uganda. She’ll wait for you there.”
“And my son?”
“Paying his inspection call on the Duluth plant. Do you have instructions for him?”
“No,” Krug said. “He knows what he’s doing. I’ll go to Vargas now.”
The image of Spaulding winked out. Krug entered his liftshaft and rose swiftly to the domed planetarium on the highest level of the building. Under its coppered roof the slight figure of Niccolт Vargas paced intently. To his left was a display case holding eight kilograms of proteoids from Alpha Centauri V; to his right, a squat cryostat in the frosty depths of which could dimly be seen twenty liters of fluid drawn from Pluto’s methane sea.
Vargas was an intense, fair-skinned little man for whom Krug entertained a respect bordering on awe: a man who had spent every day of his adult life searching for civilization in the stars, and who had mastered all aspects of the problems of interstellar communications. Vargas’ specialty had left its imprint on his features: fifteen years earlier, incautiously exposing himself to the beam of a neutron telescope in a moment of intolerable excitement, Vargas had baked the left side of his face beyond hope of tectogenetic repair. They had regrown his ruined eye, but they had not been able to do much about the decalcification of the underlying bony structure except to shore it up with beryllium-fiber matting, and so part of Vargas’ skull and cheek now had a slumped, shriveled look. Deformities such as that were unusual in an era of easy cosmetic surgery; Vargas, however, had no apparent interest in undergoing further facial reconstruction.
Vargas smiled his lopsided smile as Krug entered. “The tower is magnificent!” he said.
“Will be,” Krug corrected.
“No. No. Already magnificent. A wondrous torso! The sleekness of it, Krug, the bulk, the upward thrust! Do you know what you are building there, my friend? The first cathedral of the galactic age. In thousands of years to come, long after your tower has ceased to function as a communications center, men will go to it, and kneel, and kiss its smooth skin, and bless you for having built it. And not only men.”
“I like that thought,” said Krug. “A cathedral. I hadn’t seen it that way.” Krug caught sight of the data cube in Vargas’ right palm. “What do you have there?”
“A gift for you.”
“We have tracked the signals to their source,” Vargas said. “I thought you would like to see their home star.”
Krug lurched forward. “Why did you wait so long to tell me? Why didn’t you say something while we were at the tower?”
“The tower was your show. This is mine. Shall I turn on the cube?”
Krug gestured impatiently toward the receptor slot. Vargas deftly inserted the cube and activated the scanner. Bluish beams of interrogatory light lanced into the small crystal lattice, mining for the stored bits of information.
The stars blossomed on the planetarium’s ceiling.
Krug was at home in the galaxy. His eyes picked out familiar landmarks: Sirius, Canopus, Vega, Capella, Arcturus, Betelgeuse, Altair, Fomalhaut, Deneb, the brightest beacons of the heavens, strewn spectacularly across the dome above him. He sought the near stars, those within the dozen-light-year radius that man’s stellar probes had reached in his own lifetime: Epsilon Indi, Ross 154, Lalande 21185, Barnard’s Star, Wolf 359, Procyn, 61 Cygni. He looked toward Taurus and found red Aldebaran glowing in the face of the Bull, with the Hyades clustered far behind, and the Pleiades burning in their brilliant shroud. Again and again the pattern on the dome shifted as focuses narrowed, as distances grew. Krug felt thunder in his breast. Vargas had said nothing since the planetarium had come to life.
“Well?” Krug demanded at last. “What am I supposed to see?”
“Look toward Aquarius,” said Vargas.
Krug scanned the northern sky. He followed the familiar track across: Perseus, Cassiopeia, Andromeda, Pegasus, Aquarius. Yes, there was the old Water-Carrier, between the Fishes and the Goat. Krug struggled to recall the name of some major star in Aquarius, but came up with nothing.
“So?” he asked.
“Watch. We sharpen the image now.”
Krug braced himself as the heavens rushed toward him. He could no longer make out the patterns of the constellations; the sky was tumbling, and all order was lost. When the motion ceased, he found himself confronted by a single segment of the galactic sphere, blown up to occupy the whole of the dome. Directly above him was the image of a fiery ring, dark at the core, rimmed by an irregular halo of luminous gas. A point of light glimmered at the nucleus of the ring.
Vargas said, “This is the planetary nebula NGC 7293 in Aquarius.”
“It is the source of our signals.”
“How certain is this?”
“Absolutely,” the astronomer said. “We have parallax observations, a whole series of optical and spectral triangulations, several confirming occultations, and much more. We suspected NGC 7293 as the source from the beginning, but the final data was processed only this morning. Now we are sure.”
Dry-throated, Krug asked, “How distant?”
“About 300 light-years.”
“Not bad. Not bad. Beyond the reach of our probes, beyond the reach of efficient radio contact. But no problem for the tachyon-beam. My tower is justified.”
“And there still is hope of communication with the senders of the signals,” Vargas said. “What we all feared — that the signals came from some place like Andromeda, that the messages had begun the journey toward us a million years ago or more—”
“No chance of that now.”
“No. No chance.”
“Tell me about this place,” Krug said. “A planetary nebula — what kind of thing is that? How can a nebula be a planet?”
“Neither a planet nor a nebula,” said Vargas, beginning to pace again. “An unusual body. An extraordinary body.” He tapped the case of Centaurine proteoids. The quasi-living creatures, irritated, began to flow and twine. Vargas said, “This ring that you see is a shell, a bubble of gas, surrounding an O-type star. The stars of this spectral class are blue giants, hot, unstable, remaining on the main sequence only a few million years. Late in their life-cycle some of them undergo a catastrophic upheaval comparable to a nova; they hurl forth the outer layers of their structure, forming a gaseous shell of great size. The diameter of the planetary nebula you see is about 1.3 light years, and it is growing at a rate of perhaps fifteen kilometers a second. The unusual brightness of the shell, let me say, is the result of a fluorescence effect: the central star is producing great quantities of short-wavelength ultraviolet radiation, which is absorbed by the hydrogen of the shell, causing—”
“Wait a minute,” Krug said. “You’re telling me that this stellar system has been through something like a nova, that the explosion took place so recently that the shell is only 1.3 light-years across even though it’s growing at fifteen kilometers a second, and that the central sun is tossing out so much hard radiation that the shell is fluorescing?”
“And you also want me to believe that there’s an intelligent race inside that furnace sending us messages?”
Vargas said, “There can be no doubt that the signals are coming from NGC 7293.”
“Impossible!” Krug roared.
“We have considered these factors,” Vargas said softly.
Quivering, Krug asked, “Then the signals are natural phenomena after all? Impulses radiated by the atoms of your filthy nebula itself?”
“We still believe the signals have an intelligent origin.”
The paradox baffled Krug. He retreated, sweating, confused. He was only an amateur astronomer; he had read plenty, he had stuffed himself with technical tapes and knowledge-enhancing drugs, he knew red giants from white dwarfs, he could draw the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, he could look at the sky and point out Alpha Crucis and Spica, but all of it was data of an external kind, decorating the outer walls of his soul. He was not at home in it as Vargas was; he lacked a sense of the inwardness of the facts; he could not easily move beyond the bounds of the given data. Thus his awe of Vargas. Thus his discomfort now.
“Go on,” Krug muttered. “Tell me what. Tell me how.”
Vargas said, “There are several possibilities. All speculative, all guesses, you understand? The first and most obvious is that the signal-senders of NGC 7293 arrived there after the blowup, when things were quiet again. Say, within the last 10,000 years. Colonists from a deeper part of the galaxy — explorers — refugees — exiles — whatever, recent exiles.”
“And the hard radiation,” Krug said. “Even after things were quiet again, there’d still be radiation from that murderous blue sun.”
“Obviously they would thrive on it. We need sunlight for our life-processes; why not imagine a race that drinks its energy a little higher up the spectrum?”
Krug shook his head. “Okay, you make up races, I play
“A race adapted to high radiation levels would probably have a genetic structure that isn’t as vulnerable to bombardment as ours. It would absorb all kinds of hard particles without mutating.”
“Maybe. Maybe not.” After a moment Krug said, “Okay, so they came from someplace else and settled your planetary nebula when it was safe. Why don’t we have signals from the someplace else too? Where’s the home system? Exiles, colonists — from where?”
“Maybe the home system is so far away that the signals won’t reach us for thousands of years.” Vargas suggested. “Or perhaps the home system doesn’t send out signals. Or—”
“You have too many answers,” Krug muttered. “I don’t like the idea.”
“That brings us to the other possibility,” said Vargas. “That the signal-sending species is native to NGC 7293.”
“How? The blowup—”
“Maybe the blowup didn’t bother them. This race might thrive on hard radiation. Mutation may be a way of life for them. We’re talking about aliens, my friend. If they’re truly alien, we can’t comprehend any of the parameters. So look: speculate along with me. We have a planet of a blue star, a planet that’s far away from its sun but nevertheless is roasted by fantastically strong radiation. The sea is a broth of chemicals constantly boiling. A broth of mutations. A million years after the cooling of the surface, life is spawned. Things happen fast on such a world. Another million years and there’s complex multi-celled life. A million more to mammal-equivalents. A million more to a galactic-level civilization. Change, fierce, unending change.”
“I want to believe you,” Krug said darkly. “I want. But I can’t.”
“Radiation-eaters,” Vargas went on. “Clever, adaptable, accepting the necessity, even the desirability, of constant violent genetic change. Their star explodes: very well, they adapt to the increase in radiation, they find a way to protect themselves. Now they live inside a planetary nebula, with a fluorescent sky around them. Somehow they detect the existence of the rest of the galaxy. They send messages to us. Yes? Yes?”
Krug, in anguish, pushed his hands through the air at Vargas, palms outward. “I want to believe!”
“Then believe. I believe.”
“It’s only a theory. A wild theory.”
“It accounts for the date we have,” said Vargas. “Do you know the Italian proverb:
Turning away, Krug stabbed at the activator as though he no longer could bear the image on the dome, as though he felt the furious radiation of that alien sun raising deadly blisters on his own skin. In his long dreams he had seen something entirely different. He had imagined a planet of a yellow sun, somewhere, eighty, ninety light-years away, a gentle sun much like the one under which he had been born. He had dreamed of a world of lakes and rivers and grassy fields, of sweet air tinged perhaps with ozone, of purple-leafed trees and glossy green insects, of elegant slender beings with sloping shoulders and many-fingered hands, quietly talking as they moved through the groves and vales of their paradise, probing the mysteries of the cosmos, speculating on the existence of other civilizations, at last sending their message to the universe. He had seen them opening their arms to the first visitors from Earth, saying, Welcome, brothers, welcome, we knew you had to be there. All of that was destroyed now. In the eye of his mind Krug saw a hellish blue sun spitting demonic fires into the void, saw a blackened and sizzling planet on which scaly armored monstrosities slithered in pools of quicksilver under a sullen sky of white flame, saw a band of horrors gathering around a nightmarish machine to send an incomprehensible message across the gulf of space. And these are our brothers? It is all spoiled, Krug thought bitterly.
“How can we go to them?” he asked. “How can we embrace them? Vargas, I have a ship almost ready, a ship for the stars, a ship to carry a sleeping man for centuries. How can I send it to such a place?”
“Your reaction surprises me. Such distress I did not expect.”
“Such a star I did not expect.”
“Would you have been happier if I told you that the signals were after all mere natural pulses?”
“Then rejoice in these our strange brothers, and forget the strangeness, and think only of the brotherhood.”
Vargas’ words sank in. Krug found strength. The astronomer was right. However strange those beings might be, however bizarre their world — always assuming the truth of Vargas’ hypothesis — they were civilized, scientific, outward-looking. Our brothers. If space folded upon itself tomorrow, and Earth and its sun and all its neighbor worlds were engulfed and thrust into oblivion, intelligence would not perish from the universe, for
“Yes,” Krug said. “I rejoice in them. When my tower is done I send them my hellos.”
Two and a half centuries had passed since man first had broken free of his native planet. In one great dynamic sweep the spaceward drive had carried human explorers from Luna to Pluto, to the edge of the solar system and beyond, and nowhere had they found trace of intelligent life. Lichens, bacteria, primitive low-phylum crawlers, yes, but nothing more. Disappointment was the fate of those archeologists who had hatched fantasies of reconstructing the cultural sequences of Mars from artifacts found in the desert. There were no artifacts. And when the star-probes had begun to go forth, making their decades-long reconnaissances of the nearest solar systems, they had returned with — nothing. Within a sphere a dozen light-years in diameter, there evidently had never existed any life-form more complex than the Centaurine proteoids, to which only an amoeba need feel inferior.
Krug had been a young man when the first star-probes returned. It had displeased him to see his fellow Earthmen constructing philosophies around the failures to find intelligent life in the nearby solar systems. What were they saying, these apostles of the New Geocentricism?
— We are the chosen ones!
— We are the only children of God!
— On this world and no other did the Lord fashion His people!
— To us falls the universe, as our divine heritage!
Krug saw the seeds of paranoia in that kind of thinking.
He had never thought much about God. But it seemed to him that men were asking too much of the universe when they insisted that only on this small planet of one small sun had the miracle of intelligence been permitted to emerge. Billions upon billions of suns existed, world without end. How could intelligence
And it struck him as megalomania to elevate the tentative findings of a sketchy search through a dozen light-years into an absolute statement of dogma. Was man really alone? How could you
“When will the tower be ready?” Vargas asked.
“Year after next. Next year, if we have luck, maybe. You saw this morning: unlimited budget.” Krug frowned. He felt suddenly uneasy. “Give me the truth. Even you, you spend all your life listening to the stars, you think Krug’s a little crazy?”
“Sure you do. They all do. My boy Manuel, he thinks I ought to be locked up, but he’s afraid to say it. Spaulding, out there, him too. Everybody, maybe even Thor Watchman, and he’s
The twisted face grew even more taut. “I have nothing but sympathy for this project. You injure me with these suspicions. Don’t you think making contact with an extrasolar civilization is as important to me as it is to you?”
Nervously Vargas said, “Perhaps we ought to go downstairs. The excitement—”
Krug slapped his chest. “I’m just turned sixty. I got a hundred years to live, more, maybe. Maybe two hundred, who knows? Don’t worry about me. But you can admit it. You know it’s crazy for an ignoramus like me to get so interested in something like this.” Krug shook his head vehemently. “I know it’s crazy myself. I have to explain me to me all the time. I just tell you, this is something has to be done, and I do it, this tower. This hello to the stars. I was growing up, they kept telling us, We’re all alone, We’re all alone, We’re all alone. I didn’t believe it. Couldn’t. Made the billions, now I’ll spend the billions, get everybody straight in the head about the universe. You found the signals. I’ll answer them. Numbers back for numbers. And then pictures. I know how to do it. One and zero, one and zero, one and zero, black and white, black and white, keep the bits going and they make a picture. You just fill in the boxes on your chart. This is what we look like. This is water molecule. This is our solar system. This is—” Krug halted, panting, hoarse, taking note for the first time of the shock and fear on the astronomer’s face. In a more peaceful tone he said to Vargas, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t shout. Sometimes I run off at the mouth.”
“It’s all right. You have the fire of enthusiasm. Better to get carried away sometimes than never to come alive at all.”
Krug said, “You know what started it? This planetary nebula you threw at me. Upset me, I tell you why. I had a dream I’d go to the place the signals were coming from. Me, Krug, in my ship, under deepsleep, sailing a hundred, even two hundred light-years, ambassador from Earth, a trip nobody ever took before. Now you tell me what a hell-world the signals come from. Fluorescent sky. O-type sun. A blue-light furnace. My trip’s off, eh? Got me worked up, the surprise of it, but don’t worry. I adapt. I absorb good stiff jolts. Knocks me to a higher energy state, is all.” Impulsively he gathered Vargas to him in a fierce bear-hug. “Thank you for your signals. Thank you for your planetary nebula. Thank you a million, you hear, Vargas?” Krug stepped back. “Now we go downstairs. You need money for the laboratory? Talk to Spaulding. He knows it’s carte blanche for you, any time, any size money.”
Vargas left, talking to Spaulding. Alone in his office, Krug found himself ablaze with surplus vitality, his mind flooded with a vision of NGC 7293. Indeed, he resonated at a higher energy state; his skin itself was a fiery jacket for him.
“Going out,” he grunted.
He set the transmat coordinates for his Uganda retreat and stepped through. A moment later he was seven thousand miles to the east, standing on his onyx verandah, looking down at the reedy lake beside his lodge. To the left, a few hundred meters out, a quartet of hippos floated, nothing showing but pink nostrils and huge gray backs. To the right he saw his mistress Quenelle, lolling bare in the shallows. Krug stripped. Rhino-heavy, impala-eager, he pounded down the sloping shore to join her in the water.