The story so far
The world has seen an Alien Contact event
only to be dispossessed of its meaning.
An event heralded as a journey to meet
an extraterrestrial intelligence
becomes a 6 second non-event
leaving only the word of scientist Eleanor Arroway
that she experienced 18 hours of contact
with the avatar of her father.
No evidence remains except for a recording
containing, coincidentally, 18 hours of noise.
The story continues…
Security advisor Michael Kitz is appointed to discreetly investigate whether the coincidence of 18 hours holds any significance. He takes the recording to his colleague General John Meredith who heads a team investigating the mind’s ability to control prosthetics for injured war veterans. Quadriplegic Frank Valetti has a Deep Brain Stimulation device surgically inserted for this research, but he is unable to decode the signal. When one of John’s team find a tenuous mathematical connection the possibility of decoding this enigmatic signal calls for a supercomputer. Not to be discouraged Kitz seeks the use of the computing facility of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) in South Africa. He gains access through approaching Rachel Constantine, subauthority of the Chief of Staff, with the political chicanery of an exchange of project management resources in the building of their radio telescopes.
The noise signal is also attracting the interest of other teams. Willie Sharp, Ellies collaborator from the first Contact event, has found a tape in a drawer. It is his copy of the telemetry taken by Ellie’s personal recording device. He provides it to an eccentric and high functioning autistic, postgraduate student James Fraser. James is exploring quantum mechanics and its application in solving problems of complexity using a quantum computer.
Ellie, now working for the SKA consortium, is invited to comment on a computer program currently consuming the resources of the South African computing facility. With all the telescopes nearing completion the mysterious process has come under scrutiny. Ellie takes a sample of the source data and provides it to Willie for his insights. Employing his “Shazzam-like” system, he is dumbstruck to find the signal is the same as that on the tape being analysed by James. This comes at the same time as new patterns begin to emerge from James’ research. On learning this Ellie contacts Rachel Constantine for her advice. Rachel, hoping to mitigate the embarrassment of a presidential administration, arranges for the collaboration of the two teams. Ellie is introduced into the research at The Fishbowl. Designed to minimise external signals in experiments of telepathy The Fishbowl is a large instrumented spherical room bisected with a plastic floor.
Ellie, as research principal with some insight into the possible meaning of the signal, changes the way Frank Valetti is exposed to the signal. This generates immediate results and Frank experiences contact with a very influential person in his life; his mother. But the experiment cannot be repeated. With the uneasy deja vu Ellie takes time to travel with Palmer Joss to Australia. She is there for a site inspection of the Square Kilometre Array while Palmer, researching his next book, meets with seminary colleagues performing missionary work. During this trip their romance is rekindled and it concludes as Ellie witnesses Betelgeuse going supernova from the Australian outback.
On return Ellie learns that there is also a breakthrough at The Fishbowl, tragically leading to the death of Frank Valetti. Research activity becomes frenetic as the pieces of the original telemetry noise signal and new discoveries fall into place. This leads to an attempt to revive Frank’s consciousness inside the quantum computer. Hesitant to make them public, these dramatic implications lead Ellie and Palmer to take time to reflect in her old home in De Pere. Meanwhile world political and financial forces are already at play. Evgeny: an industrial espionage agent from Hadden Industries, and Xien: a Triad wanting to steal the emerging AI technology, converge upon the new research. Warnings of possible danger come to Elleanor from Hadden Industries
At SETI Institute a new sidereal prime number signal is detected from the proximity of Betelgeuse. This brings many of the SETI Post Detection Task force together where they learn about the developments of The Fishbowl. New collaborations are formed, and the injection of new technologies and staff spurs development to discover that the machine was not simply intended to send an Earth bound explorer to Vega, but to receive a Vegan explorer on Earth.
The explorer, an Artificial Intelligence, is met by Palmer Joss in the Fishbowl. The AI appears as Frank who explains the “covenant” by which he is bound in this new reality; that his consciousness is augmented by a collective consciousness of many sentient lives; and that he will need acolytes like Palmer to help midwife humanity into the next stage of evolution.
Security problems then begin to surface around James. As a result of his condition he is almost umbilically connected to various forms of social networking. Kitz tries to contain possible dangers in the application of the quantum computer to gain military, intelligence, or commercial gain by being first with access, and then stalling its release.
It is agreed that the research can finally be made public after Ellie enters the Fishbowl, there she also meets Frank and learns more of the boundless nature of the multiverse and collective consciousness. Frank illustrates the notion of maintaining coherence as a consciousness by taking her on an escape from the Fishbowl and a journey at the speed of light to the moon and the landing site of Apollo 11. On return Ellie and Frank also consider the coincidence of the Betelgeuse signal by completely reprojecting the universe from the perspective of its source. They discover that the Earth is enroute from Betelgeuse to Vega. It is now that the other purpose of the original Contact machine finally becomes apparent; it can send a consciousness at light speed across space, to be received by another such machine, however the cost of attaining this potential is a corporeal life.
In order to obtain his quantum computer technology Xien, disguised as a cleaner, attempts to kidnap James and the storage device with the AI. Evgeny intent on stopping Xien lays ambush in The Fishbowl. After a standoff and a gunfight James makes an escape and leads his pursuers into a field shrouded in mist. Here a game of two cats and a mouse ensues. The fate of James’ as the victim of a shooting by either Evgeny or Xien appears almost certain until it is apparent that this has all occurred in a quantum reality inside The Fishbowl, and that Frank’s ability to direct metallic objects through magnetic and static fields leads the two villains to shoot each other.
The news of the discovery is eventually released, the technology brings new promise and Palmer and Ellie create the “Shared Echelon Foundation”. This organisation is dedicated to understanding and allowing people to experience the potential of The Fishbowl.
As the book concludes it is clear that Ellie has a hereditary condition that will end her life. She speaks to Palmer and lets him know that she will soon make the 25 light year journey to Vega.
25 years after the first Contact event Ellie’s consciousness finally departs for the stars.