Carl sagan — contact. chapter 6 — palimpsest


As the plane reached cruising altitude, with Albuquerque already more than a hundred miles behind them, Ellie idly glanced at the small white cardboard rectangle imprinted with blue letters that had been stapled to her airline ticket envelope. It read, in language unchanged since her first commercial flight, “This is not the luggage ticket (baggage check) described by Article 4 of the Warsaw Convention.” Why were the airlines so worried, she wondered, that passengers might mistake this piece of cardboard for the Warsaw Convention ticket? Why had she never seen one? Where were they storing them? In some forgotten key event in the history of aviation, an inattentive airline must have forgotten to print this caveat on cardboard rectangles and was sued into bankruptcy by irate passengers laboring under the misapprehension that this was the Warsaw luggage ticket. Doubtless there were sound financial reasons for this worldwide concern, never otherwise articulated, about which pieces of cardboard are not described by the Warsaw Convention. Imagine, she thought, all those cumulative lines of type devoted instead to something useful — the history of world exploration, say, or incidental facts of science, or even the average number of passenger miles until your airplane crashed.
If she had accepted der Heer's offer of a military airplane, she would be having other casual associations. But that would have been far too cozy, perhaps some aperture leading to an eventual militarization of the project. They had preferred to travel by commercial carrier. Valerian's eyes were already closed as he finished settling into the seat beside her. There had been no particular hurry, even after taking care of those last-minute details on the data analysis, with the hint that the second layer of the onion was about to unpeel. They had been able to make a commercial flight that would arrive in Washington well before tomorrow's meeting; in fact, in plenty of time for a good night's sleep.
She glanced at the telefax system neatly zipped into a leather carrying case under the seat in front of her. It was several hundred kilobits per second faster than Peter's old model and displayed much better graphics. Well, maybe tomorrow she would have to use it to explain to the President of the United States what Adolf Hitler was doing on Vega. She was, she admitted to herself, a little nervous about the meeting.

She had never met a President before, and by late-twentieth-century standards, this one wasn't half bad. She hadn't had time to get her hair done, much less a facial. Oh well, she wasn't going to the White House to be looked at.
What would her stepfather think? Did he still believe she was unsuited for science? Or her mother, now confined to a wheelchair in a nursing home? She had managed only one brief phone call to her mother since the discovery over a week ago, and promised herself to call again tomorrow.
As she had done a hundred times before, she peered out the airplane window and imagined what impression the Earth would make on an extraterrestrial observer, at this cruising altitude of twelve or fourteen kilometers, and assuming the alien had eyes something like ours. There were vast areas of the Midwest intricately geometrized with squared, rectangles, and circles by those with agricultural or urban predilections; and, as here, vast areas of the Southwest in which the only sign of intelligent life was an occasional straight line heading between mountains and across deserts.