Carl sagan — contact. chapter 17 — the dream of the ants
The Dream of the Ants
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,” Ellie told her softly.