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Authors: Stephen Baxter

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Space (2 page)

BOOK: Space
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And even if he was too damn old to enjoy it.
They stepped through a transit tunnel and directly into a small tractor, a lozenge of tinted glass. The tractor rolled away from the tug pad. The wheels were large and open, and absorbed the unevenness of the mare; Malenfant felt as if he were riding across the Moon in a soap bubble.
Every surface in the cabin was coated with fine gray moondust. He could smell the dust; the scent was, as he knew it would be, like wood ash, or gunpowder.
Beyond the window, the Mare Ingenii -- the Sea of Longing -- stretched to the curved horizon, pebble-strewn. It was late in the lunar afternoon, and the sunlight was low, flat, the shadows of the surface rubble long and sharp. The lighting was a rich tan when he looked away from the Sun, a more subtle gray elsewhere. Earth was hidden beneath the horizon, of course, but Malenfant could see a comsat crawl across the black sky.
He longed to step through the glass, to touch that ancient soil.
Nemoto locked in the autopilot and went to a little galley area. She emerged with green tea, rice crackers and dried
ika
cuttlefish. Malenfant wasn't hungry, but he accepted the food. Such items as the fish were genuine luxuries here, he knew; Nemoto was trying to honor him.
The motion of the tea, as she poured it in the one-sixth gravity, was complex, interesting.
"I am honored you have accepted my invitation to travel here, to Edo," Nemoto said. "You will, of course, tour the town, as you wish. There is even a
Makudonarudo
here: a McDonald's. You may enjoy a
bifubaaga
! Soya, of course."
He put down his plate and tried to meet her direct gaze. "Tell me why I've been brought out here. I don't see how my work, on long-term space utilization, can be of real interest to your employers."
She eyed him. "You do have a lecture to deliver, I am afraid. But... no, your work is not of primary concern to Nishizaki."
"Then I don't understand."
"It is I who invited you, I who arranged the funding. You ask why. I wished to meet you. I am a researcher, like you."
"Hardly a researcher," he said. "I call myself a consultant, nowadays. I am not attached to a university."
"Nor I. Nishizaki Heavy Industries pays my wages; my research must be focused on serving corporate objectives." She eyed him, and took some more fish. "I am
salariman.
A good company worker, yes? But I am, at heart, a scientist. And I have made some observations which I am unable to reconcile with the accepted paradigm. I searched for recent scientific publications concerning the subject area of my... hypothesis. I found only yours.
"My subject is infrared astronomy. At our research station, away from Edo, the company maintains radiometers, photometers, photo-polarimeters, cameras. I work at a range of wavelengths, from twenty to a hundred microns. Of course a space-borne platform is to be preferred: The activities of humankind are thickening the Moon's atmosphere with each passing day, blocking the invisible light I collect. But the lunar site is cheap to maintain, and is adequate for the company's purposes. We are considering the future exploitation of the asteroids, you see. Infrared astronomy is a powerful tool in the study of those distant rocks. With it we can deduce a great deal about surface textures, compositions, internal heat, rotation characteristics--"
"Tell me about your paradigm-busting hypothesis."
"Yes." She sipped her green tea. "I believe I have observational evidence of the activity of extraterrestrial intelligences in the Solar System," she said calmly.

 

The silence stretched between them, electric. Her words were shocking, quite unexpected.
But now he saw why she'd brought him here.
Since his retirement from NASA, Malenfant had avoided following his colleagues into the usual ex-astronaut gravy ponds: lucrative aerospace executive posts and junior political positions. Instead, he'd thrown his weight behind research into what he regarded as long-term thinking: SETI, using gravitational lensing to hunt for planets and ET signals, advanced propulsion systems, schemes for colonizing the planets, terraforming, interstellar travel, exploration of the venerable Fermi paradox.
All the stuff that Emma had so disapproved of.
You're wasting your time, Malenfant. Where's the money to be made out of gravitational lensing?
But his wife was long gone, of course, struck down by cancer: the result of a random cosmic accident, a heavy particle that had come whizzing out of an ancient supernova and flown across the universe to damage her
just
so... It could have been him; it could have been neither of them; it could have happened a few years later, when cancer had been reduced to a manageable disease. But it hadn't worked out like that, and Malenfant, burned out, already grounded, had been left alone.
So he had thrown himself into his obsessions. What else was there to do?
Well, Emma had been right, and wrong. He was making a minor living on the lecture circuit. But few serious people were listening, just as she had predicted. He attracted more knee-jerk criticism than praise or thoughtful response; in the last few years, he'd become regarded as not much more than a reliable talk-show crank.
But now,
this.
He tried to figure out how to deal with this, what to say. Nemoto wasn't like the Japanese he had known before, on Earth, with their detailed observance of
reigi
-- the proper manner.
She studied him, evidently amused. "You are surprised. Startled. You think, perhaps, I am not quite sane to voice such speculations. You are trapped on the Moon with a mad Japanese woman. The American nightmare!"
He shook his head. "It's not that."
"But you must see that my speculations are not so far removed from your own published work. Like myself, you are cautious. Nobody listens. And when you do find an audience, they do not take you seriously."
"I wouldn't be so blunt about it."
"Your nation has turned inward," Nemoto said. "Shrunk back."
"Maybe. We just have different priorities now." In the U.S., flights into space had become a hobby of old men and women, dreams of an age of sublimated warfare that had left behind only images of charmingly antique rocket craft, endlessly copied around the data nets. Nothing to do with
now.
"Then why do you continue to argue, to talk, to expose yourself to ridicule?" she said.
"Because..." Because if nobody thinks it, it definitely won't happen.
She was smiling at him; she seemed to understand. "The
kokuminsei,
the spirit of your people, is asleep," she said. "But in you, and perhaps others, curiosity burns strong. I think we two should defy the spirit of our age."
"Why have you brought me here?"
"I am seeking to resolve a
koan,"
she said. "A conundrum that defies logical analysis." Her face lost its habitual smile, for the first time since they'd met. "I need a fresh look -- a perspective from a big thinker, someone like you. And..."
"Yes?"
"I am afraid, I think," she said. "Afraid for the future of the species."
The tractor worked its way across the Moon, following a broad, churned-up path. Nemoto offered him more food.

 

The tractor drew up at an air lock at the outskirts of Edo. A big NASDA symbol was painted on the lock: NASDA for Japan's National Space Development Agency. With a minimum of fuss, Nemoto led Malenfant through the air lock and into Edo, into a colony on the Moon.
Here, at its periphery, Edo was functional. The walls were bare, of fused, glassy regolith. Ducts and cables were stapled to the roof. People wore plain, disposable paper coveralls. There was an air of bustle, of heavy industry.
Nemoto led him through Edo, a gentle guided tour. "Of course the station is a great achievement," she said. "No less than ninety-five flights of our old H-2 rockets were required to ferry accommodation modules and power plants here. We build beneath the regolith, for shelter from solar radiation. We bake oxygen from the rocks, and mine water from the polar permafrost..."
At the center of the complex, Edo was a genuine town. There were public places: bars, restaurants where the people could buy rice, soup, fried vegetables, sushi, sake. There was even a tiny park, with shrubs and bamboo grass; a spindly lunar-born child played there with his parents.
Nemoto smiled at Malenfant's reaction. "At the heart of Edo, ten meters beneath lunar regolith, there are cherry trees. Our children study beneath their branches. You may stay long enough to see
ichi-buzaki,
the first state of blossoming."
Malenfant saw no other Westerners. Most of the Japanese nodded politely. Many must have known Nemoto -- Edo supported only a few hundred inhabitants -- but none engaged her in conversation. His impression of Nemoto as a loner, rather eccentric, was reinforced.
As they passed one group he heard a man whisper,
"Wah! Gaijin-kusai."
Gaijin-kusai.
The smell of foreigner. There was laughter.
Malenfant spent the night in what passed for a
ryokan,
an inn. His apartment was tiny, a single room. But, despite the bleak austerity of the fused-regolith walls, the room was decorated Japanese style. The floor was
tatami
-- rice-straw matting -- polished and worn with use. A
tokonoma,
an alcove carved into the rock, contained an elaborate data net interface unit; but the owners had followed tradition and had hung a scroll painting there -- of a dragonfly on a blade of grass -- and some flowers, in an ikebana display. The flowers looked real.
There was a display of cherry blossom leaves fixed to the wall under clear plastic. The contrast of the pale living pink with the gray Moon rock was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
In this tiny room he was immersed in noise: the low, deep rumblings of the artificial lungs of the colony, of machines plowing outward through the regolith. It was like being in the belly of a huge vessel, a submarine. Malenfant thought wistfully of his own study: bright Iowa sunlight, his desk, his equipment.
Edo kept Tokyo time, so Malenfant, here on the Moon, suffered jet lag. He slept badly.

 

Rows of faces.
"How are we to populate the Galaxy? It's actually all a question of economics." Over Malenfant's head a virtual image projected in the air of the little theater, its light glimmering from the folded wooden walls.
Malenfant stared around at the rows of Japanese faces, like coins shining in this rich brown dark. They seemed remote, unreal. Many of these people were NASDA administrators; as far as he could tell there was nobody from Nishizaki senior management here, nominally his sponsors for the trip.
The virtual was a simple schematic of stars, randomly scattered. One star blinked, representing the Sun.
"We will launch unmanned probes," Malenfant said. Ships, little dots of light, spread out from the toy Sun. "We might use ion rockets, solar sails, gravity assists -- whatever. The first wave will be slow, no faster than we can afford. It doesn't matter. Not in the long term.
"The probes will be self-replicating: von Neumann machines, essentially. Universal constructors. Humans may follow, by such means as generation starships. However it would be cheaper for the probes to manufacture humans in situ, using cell synthesis and artificial-womb technology." He glanced over the audience. "You wish to know if we can build such devices. Not yet. Although your own Kashiwazaki Electric has a partial prototype."
At that there was a stir of interest, self-satisfied.
As his virtual light show continued to evolve, telling its own story, he glanced up at the walls around him, at the glimmer of highlights from the wood. This was a remarkable place. It was the largest structure in Edo, serving as community center and town hall and showpiece, the size of a ten-story building.
But it was actually a
tree,
a variety of oak. The oaks were capable of growing to two hundred meters under the Moon's gentle gravity, but this one had been bred for width, and was full of intersecting hollowed-out chambers. The walls of this room were of smooth-polished wood, broken only subtly by technology -- lights, air vents, virtual-display gear -- and the canned air here was fresh and moist and alive.
In contrast to the older parts of Edo -- all those clunky tunnels -- this was the future of the Moon, the Japanese were implicitly saying. The living Moon. What the hell was an American doing here on the Moon, lecturing these patient Japanese about colonizing space? The Japanese were
doing
it, patiently and incrementally working.
But yes,
incrementally:
that was the key word. Even these lunar colonists couldn't see beyond their current projects, the next few years, their own lifetimes. They couldn't see where this could all lead. To Malenfant, that ultimate destination was everything.
And, perhaps, Nemoto and her strange science would provide the first route map.
The little probe images had reached their destination stars.
"Here is the heart of the strategy," he said. "A target system, we assume, is uninhabited. We can therefore program for massive and destructive exploitation of the system's resources, without restraint, by the probe. Such resources are useless for any other purpose, and are therefore economically free to us. And so we colonize, and build."
More probes erupted from each of the first wave of target stars, at greatly increased speeds. The probes reached new targets; and again, more probes were spawned, and fired onward. The volume covered by the probes grew rapidly; it was like watching the expansion of gas into a vacuum.
"Once started, the process is self-directing, self-financing," he said. "It would take, we think, ten to a hundred million years for the colonization of the Galaxy to be completed in this manner. But we must invest merely in the cost of the initial generation of probes. Thus, the cost of colonizing the Galaxy will be less, in real terms, than that of our Apollo program of fifty years ago."
BOOK: Space
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