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Authors: Stephen Baxter

Tags: #sf

Space (5 page)

BOOK: Space
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"And meanwhile," Dorothy went on, "there were still babies to deliver, crops to grow, politicking to pursue, and wars to fight. As my father used to say, the next morning you still had to put your pants on one leg at a time.
"You know," she said thoughtfully, "I'm generally in favor of all this activity. Your Sports Fans, I mean. The only way we have to absorb such changes in our view of the world, and ourselves, is like this: by talking, talking, talking. At least the people here care enough to express an opinion. Look at that." It was a softscreen poster showing a download from the net: a live image returned by some powerful telescope, perhaps in orbit or on the Moon, of the asteroid belt anomalies: a dark, grainy background, a line of red stars, twinkling, blurred. "Alien industry, live from space. The most popular Internet site, I'm told. People use it as wallpaper in their bedrooms. They seem to find it comforting."
Xenia snorted. "Sure. And you know who makes most use of that image? The astrologers. Now you can have your fortune told by the lights of Gaijin factories. I mean, Jesus... Sorry. But it says it all."
Dorothy laughed good-naturedly.
They drove away from the Sports Fans' pens and approached the pad itself: the true center of attention, bearing Bootstrap's first interplanetary ship, Frank Paulis's pride and joy.
Xenia could see the lines of a rust-brown external tank, the slim pillars of solid rocket boosters. The stack was topped by a tubular cover that gleamed white in the Sun. Somewhere inside that fairing rested the
Giordano Bruno,
a complex robot spacecraft that would some day ride out to the asteroids and seek out the Gaijin that lurked there -- if Frank could drive the test program to completion, if Xenia could guide the corporation through the maze of legislation that still impeded them.
As Xenia studied the ship, Dorothy studied her.
"Frank Paulis relies on you a lot, doesn't he?" Dorothy said. "I know that formally you are head of Bootstrap's legal department..."
"I'm the first name on Frank's call list. He relies on me to get things done."
"And you're happy with your role."
"We do share the same goals, you know."
"Umm. Your ship looks something like the old space shuttle."
"So it should," Xenia said, and she launched into a standard line. "This is what we here at Bootstrap call our Big Dumb Booster. It's actually comprised largely of superannuated space shuttle components. You'll immediately see one benefit over the standard shuttle design, which is in-line propulsion; we have a much more robust stack--"
"I'm no more an engineer than you are, Xenia," Dorothy said with smooth humor.
Xenia allowed herself a grin. "Sorry. It's hard to change the script after doing this so many times... This is primarily a launcher to the planets. Or the asteroids."
Dorothy smiled. "You have built a rocket ship for America."
Xenia bristled. "It does seem rather a scandal that America, first nation to land a human being on another planet, has let its competence degrade to the point that it has no heavy-lift space launch capability at all."
"But the Chinese are in Earth orbit, and the Japanese are on the Moon. There's even a rumor that the Chinese are preparing a flight of their own out to the asteroids."
Xenia squinted at the washed-out, dusty sky. "Dorothy, it's five years since the Gaijin showed up in the Solar System. But you can't call it contact. Not yet. As you said, they haven't responded to any of our signals. All they do is build, build, build. Maybe if we do manage to send a probe there, we'll achieve real contact, the kind of contact we've always dreamed of."
"And you think America should be first."
"If not us, who? The Chinese?"
A siren sounded: An engine test was due. With smooth efficiency, the car's SmartDrive cut in and swept them far from danger.

 

"We used to think that life was pretty unlikely -- maybe even unique to Earth," Malenfant was saying. "An astronomer called Fred Hoyle once said that the idea that you could shuffle organic molecules in some primeval soup and, purely by chance, come up with a DNA molecule is about like a whirlwind passing through an aircraft factory and assembling scattered parts into a 747." Laughter. "But now we think those notions are wrong. Now we think that the complexity that defines and underlies life is somehow hardwired into the laws of physics. Life is
emergent.
"Imagine boiling a pan of water. As the liquid starts to convect, you'll see a regular pattern of cells form, kind of like a honeycomb -- just before the proper boiling cuts in and the motion becomes chaotic. Now, all there is in the pan is water molecules, billions of them. Nobody is
telling
those molecules how to organize themselves into those striking patterns. And yet they do it.
"That's an example of how order and complexity can emerge from an initial uniform and featureless state. And maybe life is just the end product of a long series of self-organizing steps like that..."
Malenfant was giving his lecture in Bootstrap's roomy, air-conditioned public affairs auditorium: the one place Frank had been prepared to spend some serious money, aside from on the engineering itself. Xenia and Dorothy arrived a little late. To Xenia's surprise, the auditorium was pretty nearly full, and she had to squeeze them into two seats at the back.
The stage was bare save for a lectern and a plastic mock-up, three meters tall, of the Big Dumb Booster -- that, and Malenfant.
To Xenia, Reid Malenfant -- a lithe but Sun-wrinkled sixty-something, his polished-bald head shining under the overhead lights -- was an unprepossessing sight. Even as he spoke he seemed oddly out of place, blinking at his audience as if he wasn't sure what he was doing here.
But the audience, mostly young engineers, seemed spellbound. She spotted Frank himself in the front row: a dark, hulking figure before the grounded astronaut, gazing raptly with the rest. That old space dust still carried some magic, she supposed; there was something primal here, about wanting to be close to the wizard, the sage who had been involved in that first wondrous discovery -- as if, just by being close, it was possible to soak up a little of that marvelous light.
Malenfant went on. "We'd come to believe, even before the Gaijin showed up, that life must be common. We believe nature is uniform, so the laws and processes that work here work everywhere else. And now we hold to the Copernican principle: We believe that we aren't in any unique place in space or time. So if life is here, on Earth, it must be everywhere -- in one form or another.
"So the fact that living things have come sailing into the asteroid belt from the stars -- if they
are
living, that is -- isn't much of a surprise. But what is a surprise is that they should be
just
arriving, here, now. If they exist, why weren't they here before?
"It is good scientific practice, when you're facing the unknown, to assume a condition of
equilibrium:
a stable state, not a state of change. Because change is unusual, special.
"Now, maybe you see the problem. What we seem to face with the Gaijin is the arrival -- the very first arrival we can detect -- of alien colonists in the Solar System. And so we find ourselves not in a time of equilibrium, but at a time of
transition
-- in fact of possibly the most fundamental change of all. It's so unlikely it isn't true.
"To put it another way, this is the question that was avoided by all those terrible alien-invasion sci-fi movies I grew up with as a kid." Laughter, a little baffled, from the younger guys.
What's a "movie"?
"Why should these bug-eyed guys arrive
now,
when we have tanks and nukes to fight them with?"
Malenfant gazed around at his audience, his eyes deep-sunken, tired-looking, wary. "I'm telling you this because you people are the ones who have taken up the challenge, where governments and others have shamefully failed, to get out there and figure out what's going on. There are obvious mysteries about the Gaijin -- some of which might be resolved as soon as we get our first good look at them. But there are other, deeper questions that their very presence here poses, questions that go right to the heart of the nature of the universe itself, and our place in it. And right now, only
you
are doing anything which might help us tackle those questions.
"You have my support. Do your work well. Godspeed. Thank you."
The applause began, politely at first.
It was a polished performance, Xenia supposed. She imagined this man thirty years ago giving pep talks at space shuttle component factories.
Do good work!
But, to her surprise, the applause was continuing, even growing thunderous. And to her deeper surprise, she found herself joining in.

 

Xenia and Dorothy had some trouble reaching Frank Paulis and Malenfant, so walled off was the astronaut by a crowd of eager young engineer types.
Dorothy studied Xenia's expression. "You don't quite go for all this hero worship, do you, Xenia?"
"Do you think I'm cynical?"
"No."
Xenia grimaced. "But it... frustrates me. We're living through first contact, an era unique in the human story, whatever the future holds. At least Bootstrap is trying to respond. Away from here, aside from what we're doing, all I see is irrationalism. That, and positioning. Various bodies trying to use this discovery for their own purposes."
"Like the Church?"
"Well, isn't it?"
"We all must pursue our own goals, Xenia. At least the Church's involvement in this project of yours represents a tangible demonstration that we are working our way through the crisis of faith the Gaijin have caused us."
"What crisis?"
"The Vatican began its first modern evaluation of the implication of extraterrestrial life for Christianity back in the nineties. But the debate has been going on much longer than that. We seem to have believed there were other minds out there long before we even had any clear notion of what
out there
actually was... This intuition seems to be an expression of our deep embedding in the universe; if the cosmos created us, it could surely create others. Did you know that Saint Augustine, back in the sixth century, speculated about ETs?"
"He did?"
"Augustine decided they couldn't exist. If they did, you see, they would require salvation -- a Christ of their own. But that would remove the uniqueness of Christ, which is impossible. Such theological conundrums plague us to this day... You can laugh if you like."
Xenia shook her head. "The idea that we might go out there and try to convert the Gaijin does seem a little odd."
"But we don't know
why
they are here," Dorothy pointed out. "Would seeking truth be such an invalid reason?"
"And now you're here to bless the BDB," Xenia said.
"Not exactly. Perhaps you've already done that, by naming it after Giordano Bruno. I take it you know who he was."
"Of course." The first thinker to have expressed something like the modern notion of a plurality of worlds -- planets orbiting Suns, many of them inhabited by beings more or less like humans. Earlier thinkers about other worlds had imagined parallel versions of a Dante's
Inferno
pocket universe, centered on a stationary Earth. "You have to imagine other worlds before you can conceive of traveling there."
"But Bruno was anticipated," Dorothy said gently. "A cardinal we know as Nicolas of Cusa, who lived in the fifteenth century..."
Dorothy's lecturing tone seemed quite inappropriate to Xenia, making her impatient. "Whatever his antecedents, Bruno was killed by the Church for his heresy."
"He was burned, in 1600, for a mystical attack on Christianity," Dorothy said, "not for his argument about aliens, or even his defense of Copernicus."
"That makes it okay?"
Dorothy continued to study her quietly.
At last the crowd of techie acolytes was breaking up.
"You can't know how much I admire you, Colonel Malenfant," Frank was saying. "I'm twenty years younger than you. But I modeled myself on you."
Malenfant eyed him dubiously. "Then I'm in hell."
"No, I mean it. You started a company called Bootstrap. You had plans to exploit the asteroids."
"It failed. I was a lousy businessman. And when I lost my wife--"
"Sure, but you had the right idea. If not for that--"
Malenfant was looking longingly at the BDB mock-up. "If not for that, if the universe was a different shape -- yes, maybe
I'd
have done all this. And who knows what I'd have found?"
The silence stretched. Dorothy Chaum was frowning, Xenia noticed, as she studied Malenfant's cloudy, troubled expression.
Chapter 3
Debates
It was four more years before Malenfant encountered Frank J. Paulis again.
In 2029, Malenfant was invited to the Smithsonian at Washington, D.C., as a guest at the annual meeting of the American Association of the Advancement of Science -- or at least, a stream of it supported by the SETI Institute, a privately funded outfit based in Colorado and devoted to the study of the Gaijin, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and other good stuff.
Despite the subject matter of the conference, Malenfant had come here with some reluctance.
He had grown wary of appearing in public. As Paulis's robot probe swung relentlessly out from Earth, the unwelcome notoriety he had attracted nine years back was picking up again. He thought of it as the Buzz Aldrin syndrome:
But you were there...
When people looked at him, he thought, they saw a symbol, not a human being; they saw somebody who was incapable of doing original work ever again. It was a regard that was embarrassing, paralyzing, and it made him feel very old. Not only that, Malenfant had found himself the target of unwelcome attention of the most extreme factions from either side of the spectrum, both the xenophobes and xenophiles.
BOOK: Space
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