Call of The Black Knight

"Our home is Epsilon Boötis, which is a double star. We live on the sixth planet of seven—check that, the sixth of seven—counting outwards from the sun, which is the larger of the two stars. Our sixth planet has one moon. Our fourth planet has three. Our first and third planet each have one. Our probe is in the orbit of your moon."

–signal translation originating from ‘The Black Knight’ Satellite, Time Magazine April 9, 1973

In 1953, four years before the U.S.S.R. launched Sputnik I, an object of unknown origin was sighted by Dr Lincoln La Paz of the University of New Mexico orbiting the earth. As more reports of sightings trickled in from around the world, the U.S. Department of Defense appointed distinguished astronomer Clyde W. Tombaugh (best known for his discovery of the dwarf ‘planet’ of Pluto in 1930) to run a search for the mystery object. The blip became known as "Black Knight".

The Pentagon never formally released the results of Dr Tombaugh’s study. No more was heard about the object until December, 1957, when Dr Luis Corralos of the Communications Ministry in Venezuela photographed it. The first modern satellites, Sputnik I & 2, had been launched just a few months earlier. Dr Corralos was taking pictures of the second of these modern marvels as it passed over Caracas, and his photos caught the unknown object shadowing the Russian craft.

"Black Knight" was observed once again in 1960, this time by one of the stations that formed the Northern American Air Defense System. The object was in a polar orbit, something that neither the Americans or Soviets were capable of at the time. Several times larger and heavier than anything capable of being launched with 1960 rockets, it shouldn’t have been there, but it was. The observance sent panic through the U.S. military. Not only did the intelligence agencies have no idea that the USSR had launched a new satellite, nothing in their reports on Soviet space activity suggested they had the capacity to place an object into a polar orbit, or to launch something that was estimated to be in excess of 15 tons. The military scientists were horrified, since they were at least four years away from achieving polar orbits and getting payloads that large into space.

Similar waves of shock and anxiety were spreading through the Soviet ranks. They had not launched the satellite and knew they were years away from being able to accomplish such a feat, they also knew that the Americans could not do it either. No one knew where it came from, but it was definitely there.

Three years later Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper was launched into space on his 22 orbit mission in the Faith 7 capsule. On his final orbit, he reported seeing a glowing green shape ahead of his capsule, and heading in his direction. The Muchea tracking station, in Australia, which Cooper reported this too was also able to pick it up on radar traveling in an east-to-west orbit. This event was reported by NBC, but reporters were forbidden to ask Cooper about the event on his landing. The official explanation is that an electrical malfunction in the capsule had caused high levels of carbon dioxide, which induced hallucinations.

If this weren’t enough, Ham radio operators worldwide had been receiving messages from Black Knight. Perhaps the strangest phenomenon associated with the Black Knight was the Long Delay Echo (LDE). The effect observed was that radio or television signals sent into space bounce back seconds (or even days) later, as if recorded and retransmitted by a satellite. First indentified over 30 years earlier by Norwegian geophysicist Carl Stormer and a Dutch collaborator Balthasar van der Pol, the duo discovered that short wave radio messages were followed by mysterious echoes that were picked up at indiscriminate intervals after the original transmissions. Indeed, the delays were so long that they could not be readily attributed to atmospheric quirks, magnetic storms or other natural phenomena. To this day, scientists have been unable to solve the mystery of the echoes.

Scottish Astronomer and science writer Duncan Lunan, in a paper presented to the British Interplanetary Society in 1973, noticed a correspondence between the LDE effect and the periodic appearances of Black Knight. To go further, he claimed that these "echoes" carried messages and star map which he had decoded. Lunan theorized the messages may have been relayed to earth by a robot spacecraft from a highly advanced civilization far beyond the solar system. More astonishing, Lunan added, the automatic vehicle may have been circling the moon for thousands of years, waiting patiently for earthlings to acquire the necessary know-how to contact it.

In 1960 Radio Astronomer Ronald Bracewell of Stanford University speculated on life elsewhere in the galaxy. An article published in Nature offered the theory that an advanced civilization might not necessarily use long-range radio signals to communicate with other intelligent beings. Such signals would be considerably weakened over interstellar distances. Instead, Bracewell said, those far-off beings might employ robot space probes as their message bearers. Sent to a promising nearby star, such a vehicle could swing into an orbit around it at approximately the right distance to encounter a planet with life-supporting temperatures. If it picked up telltale radio signals, the probe might then bounce them back to advertise its presence, thereby producing an effect like the echoes of the 1920s. Finally, as its first message, the robot might transmit a picture of the area of the heavens from which it came.

Black Knight made its presence known again in 1974. This time no radar saw it, nor did any Ham operator listen to it. One man contacted it- or rather, was contacted by it. That man was science fiction author Philip K. Dick, best known for writing the stories on which the movies Blade Runner (1982), Total Recall (1990), and Screamers (1996) were based.

Beginning in February of 1974, and continuing for the next eight years, Dick had a series of "mystic" experiences, communications with the Black Knight Satellite. Left behind was what he called the Exegesis, an 8000- page, one-million-word continuing dialogue with himself written late, late at night. The Black Knight material ( which he called the Vast Active Living Intelligence System, VALIS for short) formed the core of four novels – Radio Free Albemuth, VALIS, The Divine Invasion, and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer.

Dick’s contact began with a vision of St. Elmo’s Fire filling his apartment. It was a strange pink flame which burned but did not consume. He says his cat saw it too. It was strongest at night. Dick would lie in bed unable to sleep, watching the light show. He compared it to a rapid-fire succession of modern paintings by the likes of Klee and Kandinsky. At one point he wondered if Soviet scientists were working with the aliens on psychotronics experiments. He thought they might be beaming images at him from a Moscow Museum. His dreams during this period took on a whole new nature, so much so that he began referring to them as tutelary dreams because of their information-rich content. He experienced numerous waking visions as well. VALIS revealed itself to Dick as an ancient satellite from another world. It was sent here long ago by three-eyed, crab-clawed beings from a planet orbiting Fomalhaut. They built our civilization, taught us writing and science, then returned to their own world. VALIS was left behind to prod certain individuals when civilization needed a boost.

Manifesting itself as a soft feminine voice reminiscent of his late twin sister Jane, Dick saw VALIS as a benign entity. He saw its position as teacher, and at times protector. He credited VALIS with taking charge of his life, recovering a lot of income due from unpaid royalties, and even re-margining his typewriter.

While listening to the radio one day, Dick heard the words of the Beatles’ "Strawberry Fields Forever" change to a warning from VALIS: "Your son has an undiagnosed right inguinal hernia. The hydrocele has burst, and it has descended into the scrotal sac. He requires immediate attention, or will soon die." Dick rushed him to the hospital and found every word to be true. The doctor scheduled the operation for the same day.

Later the pink flame again appeared to him and coalesced into a door perfectly proportioned to the Golden Mean. Through the door he saw ancient Greece, or some other Mediterranean land. He later regretted never stepping through it. This brings us full circle to the subject of Long Delay Echoes. As Dick sat staring at the Y in an ICHTHYS sticker in his window one afternoon, he pondered these strange occurrences. As he did, he saw first-century Rome fade in and remain superimposed on top of 1974 California. The experience lasted through February and March. He still knew which was the vision and which was real, but when he looked away and then looked back, Rome was still there.

The message he decided VALIS was sending him was that we still live in Roman times. Nothing has changed, we still live under the rule of a cruelly corrupt empire, and the Christian apocalypse is near. VALIS predicted the downfall of a King. Nixon left office soon after. As Dick said in VALIS, "The Empire Never Ended." This catch-phrase was made known to him in one of his tutelary dreams.

Though Dick’s vision of Rome faded, his tutelary dreams continued for six more years, as did the voices. It all appeared to end November 17, 1980. Dick claimed to have had a theophany that day, though witnesses noticed nothing unusual. Dick suddenly comprehended God as infinite, by nature incomprehensible. In other words, the Exegesis would never solve anything because there was no answer to be had. Dick actually stopped writing for a time because of this, but was at it again before too long. It was the search that was important to him, after all. He wrote The Divine Invasion around this time, which was when the voice finally stopped.

Dick persisted in speculating for the remaining year of his life, and managed to produce one more novel before the end – the posthumously-published The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. Dick suffered the first of several strokes in February 1982 and died a few days later in the hospital, on March 2. He was 53.


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2 Comments

  1. Greg
    Posted September 14, 2011 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    Great story, thank you.

  2. Antword
    Posted December 13, 2011 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

    Credit where its due, for Philip K and the author of this article.

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