Read Space Online

Authors: Stephen Baxter

Tags: #sf

Space (7 page)

BOOK: Space
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Her face disappeared, to be replaced by the virtual display of the type she'd first shown him in the silence of the Moon. It was a ring of glistening crimson droplets, slowly orbiting: the asteroid belt, complete with dark Kirkwood gaps. And there was the gap with the one-to-three resonance with Jupiter, with its string of rubies, enigmatic, brilliant.
"Watch, Malenfant..."
Malenfant bent close to the screen and studied the little beads of light. The images cycled with small vector arrows, which showed velocity and acceleration. The rubies weren't in simple orbits about the Sun, he saw; they seemed to be spreading around the belt, some of them actually moving retrograde, against the motion of the rest of the belt.
The motion was intriguing.
"Imagine the arrows projected backwards," Nemoto said.
"Ah," Malenfant said. "Yes. They might converge."
Nemoto cut in a routine to extrapolate back from the Gaijin sites' velocity vectors. "This is rough and ready," she admitted. "I had to make a lot of assumptions about how the objects' trajectories had deviated from simple orbits through the Sun's gravitational field. But it did not take long before I found an answer."
The projected paths arced out of the asteroid belt -- out, away from the Sun, into the deeper darkness, before converging.
Malenfant tapped the screen. "You found it. The prime radiant. Where these probes, or factories, or whatever the hell they are, are emanating from."
"It is one point four times ten to power fourteen meters from the Sun," Nemoto said. "That is--"
"About a thousand astronomical units out." A thousand times as far as Earth from the Sun. "Somewhere in the direction of Virgo... But why there?"
"I do not know. I need more data, more work."
"And your second item?"
She eyed him. "You are meeting Maura Della. Ask her about Rigil Kent."
Rigil Kent. Also known as Alpha Centauri, nearest star system to the Sun, four light-years away.
"Nemoto--"
But the softscreen had already filled up with the everyday froth of the online news channels; Nemoto had receded into darkness.

 

He was taken to lunch by former congresswoman Della.
After lunch they strolled around the conference hall, glancing at poster presentations and the fringe sessions. Malenfant felt uncomfortable being out in public like this.
"I wouldn't be too concerned," Maura said. "Not here; you have to be afraid of the ones who stay at home polishing the telescope sights on their rifles."
"Not funny, Maura."
"Perhaps not. Sorry."
She hadn't said a significant word during lunch; now he couldn't contain himself any more.
"Rigil Kent,"
he said.
She slowed to a halt. Her voice low, she said, "You spoiled my surprise. I should have known you'd find out."
"What's going on, Maura?"
For answer she took him to a small, overpriced coffee bar. On a handheld softscreen she showed him images of the great radio telescope at Arecibo, various microwave satellites, activity in the Main Bay at JPL: arcs of consoles, young, excited engineers on roller chairs, information flickering over screens before them.
"Malenfant, we've picked up a signal. From Alpha Centauri."
"What? How -- ?"
She pressed a finger to his lips.
As it turned out -- though this bit of news had been Maura's true motive for inviting him here -- there was little more to tell. Maura had gotten the news from her contacts in the government. The signal was faint, first picked up by an orbital microwave satellite. But it was nothing like the neatly structured Lincos signals humans had been sending to the asteroid belt. It was heavily compressed, a mush of apparently incoherent noise, with only evanescent hints of structure -- much what Earth might have sounded like, from four light-years away.
"Or it may be an efficient signal," Malenfant said hoarsely. "It can't be cheap to signal between the stars. You'd take out as much redundancy -- repetitive structure -- as possible. If you don't know how to decode it, such a signal must look like noise..." Either way the implication was clear. This wasn't a signal meant for humans.
But whoever was there, at Alpha Centauri, had only just started to broadcast -- or rather, only four years in the past, given the time it took for signals to crawl to Earth.
In fact the signal's existence and nature was still being verified.
"This
time we're following the protocols, Malenfant..."
"Is it the Gaijin? Or somebody else?"
"We don't know."
"Keep me informed."
"Oh, yes," she said. "But keep it to yourself."

 

Malenfant stayed in his hotel room the rest of the night, unable to relax, pacing back and forth until Nemoto called again.
He was furious Nemoto had known all about Centauri. But he controlled his irritation.
"At least," he said, "this discovery demolishes theories that the Gaijin might be native to our Solar System. If they came from Centauri--"
"Of course they don't come from Centauri," Nemoto said. "Why would they suddenly start making such a radio clatter if that was so? No, Malenfant. They only just arrived in the Centauri system. Just as they only just arrived
here.
Apparently we are watching the vanguard of a wave of colonization, Malenfant, extending far from our system."
"But--"
Nemoto waved a delicate hand before her face. "But that isn't important, Malenfant. None of this is. Not even the activity in the asteroids."
"Then what is?"
"I have determined the nature of the Gaijin's prime radiant, here in the Solar System."
"The nature? You said it is a thousand AU out. What's out there to have a nature at all?"
"A solar focus," Nemoto said.
"A what?"
"That far out is where you will find the focal points of the Sun's gravitational field. Images of remote stars, magnified by gravitational lensing. And the star that is focused at the Gaijin prime radiant is--"
"Alpha Centauri?" The stubbly hairs on the back of his neck stood on end.
"You see, Malenfant?" she said grimly. "Any number of probes to the belt won't answer the fundamental questions."
"No." Malenfant shook his head, mind racing. "We've got to send somebody out there. Through a thousand AU; out to the solar focus... But that's impossible."
"Nevertheless that is the challenge, Malenfant.
There --
at the solar focus -- is where the answers will be found.
That
is where we must go."
Chapter 4
Ellis Island
Maura was flying around an asteroid.
The asteroid -- whimsically christened Ellis Island by the Bootstrap flight controllers at JPL -- was three kilometers wide, twelve long. The compound body looked like two lumpy baked potatoes stuck end to end, dark and dusty. Maura could see extensions of the
Bruno
's equipment ahead of her: elaborate claws and grapples, lines that coiled out across space to where rocket-driven pitons had already dug themselves into the asteroid's soft, friable surface.
With an effort she turned her head. Her viewpoint swiveled. The asteroid shifted out to the left; the image, heavily enhanced and extrapolated from the feed returned by
Bruno,
blurred slightly as the processors struggled to keep up with her willfulness.
She was suspended in a darkness that was broken only by pinpoints of light. There were stars all around her: above, below, behind. Here she was in the middle of the asteroid belt, but there was not a single body, save for Ellis itself, large enough to show a disc. Even the Sun had shrunk to a yellow dot, casting long shadows, and she knew that it shed on this lonely rock only a few percent of the heat and light it vouchsafed Earth.
The asteroid belt had turned out to be surprisingly empty: a cold, excessively roomy place. And yet it was here the Gaijin had chosen to come.
Xenia Makarova, Bootstrap's VIP host for the day, whispered in her ear. "Ms. Della, are you enjoying the show?"
She suppressed a sigh. "Yes, dear. Of course I am. Very impressive."
And so it was. In her time as part of the president's science advisory team, she'd put in a lot of hours on spaceflight stunts like this, manned and unmanned. She had to admit that being able to share the experience vicariously -- to be able to sit in her own apartment wearing her VR headband, and yet to ride down to the asteroid with the probe itself -- was a vast improvement on what had been on offer before: those cramped visitors' booths behind Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center, that noisy auditorium at JPL.
And yet she felt restless, here in the dark and cold. She longed to cut her VR link to the
Bruno
feed, to drink in the sunlight that washed over the Baltimore harbor area, visible from her apartment window just a meter away.
"It's just that space operations are always so darn slow," she said to Xenia.
"But we have to take it slow," Xenia said. "Encountering an asteroid is more like docking with another spacecraft than landing; the gravity here is so feeble the main challenge is not to bounce off and fly away.
"We're coming down at the asteroid's north pole. The main Gaijin site appears to be at the other rotation pole, the south pole. What we intend is to land out of sight of the Gaijin -- assuming we haven't been spotted already -- and work our way around the surface to the aliens. That way we may be able to keep a measure of control over events..."
"This is a terribly dark and dusty place, isn't it?"
"That's because this is a C-type asteroid, Ms. Della. Ice, volatiles, and organic compounds: just the kind of rock we might have chosen to mine for ourselves, for life support, propellant."
Yes, Maura thought with a flicker of dark anger. This is our belt,
our
asteroid. Our treasure, a legacy of the Solar System's violent origins for our future. And yet there are Gaijin here -- strangers, taking our birthright.
Her anger surprised her; she hadn't suspected she was so territorial. It's not as if they landed in Antarctica, she told herself. The asteroids aren't yet ours; we have no claim here, and therefore shouldn't feel threatened by the Gaijin's appropriation.
And yet I do.
The Alpha Centauri signal -- though the first, picked up a year ago -- was no longer unique. Whispers in the radio wavebands had been detected across the sky: from Barnard's Star, Wolf 359, Sirius, Luyten 726-8 -- the nearby stars, the Sun's close neighbors, the first destinations planned in a hundred interstellar-colonization studies, homes of civilizations dreamed of in a thousand science fiction novels.
One by one, the stars were coming out.
There were patterns to the distribution. No star farther than around nine light-years away had yet lit up with radio signals. But the signals weren't uniform. They weren't of the same type, or even on the same frequencies; such differences were just as confusing as the very existence of the signals. And meanwhile the Gaijin, the Solar System's new residents, remained quiet: They seemed to be producing no electromagnetic output but the infrared of their waste heat.
It was as if a wave of colonization had abruptly reached this part of the Galaxy, this remote corner of a ragged spiral arm, and diverse creatures -- or machines -- were busily digging in, building, perhaps breeding, perhaps dying. Nobody knew how the colonists had gotten here. Nobody could even guess why they had come
now.
But it seemed to Maura that already one fact was clear about the presumed galactic community: it was messy and diverse, just as much as the human communities of Earth, if not more. In a way, she supposed, that was even healthy. If communities separated by light years had turned out to be identical, it would be an oppressive sky indeed. But it was sure going to make figuring out the meaning of it all a lot more difficult.
And, for Maura, that was a matter to regret.
She was never short of work, of invitations like this. She knew that as part of the amorphous community of pols and workers who never really got the stink of the Beltway out of their nostrils, she was prized by corporations like Bootstrap as an opinion former, perhaps a conduit to power. But she was, officially, retired. Perhaps she should sit back and stop thinking so hard, and just let the pretty light shows from the sky wash over her.
But that wasn't in her nature. And, after all, Reid Malenfant was older than she was, and she knew he continued to agitate for a deeper engagement with the mystery of these Gaijin, for more probes, other missions. If
he
was still active, then perhaps she should be.
But, in this complicated universe, she was too damn
old.
The more complicated it was, the more likely it was that she would never live to see this puzzle -- perhaps the greatest mystery ever to confront humanity -- unraveled.
Now a technical feed faded up in Maura's other ear. "Closing with the target at two meters per second, range just under a klick, one meter per second cross-range. Hydrazine thruster tests in progress: +X, -X, +Y, -Y, +Z, -Z, all check out. Counting down to the thruster burn to null our approach and cross-range velocities a klick above the ground. Then we're on gyro-lock to touchdown..."
With an effort of will, Maura tuned out the irrelevant voices.
The asteroid became a wall that approached her in slow, dusty silence; the tether lines twisted before her, retaining their coils in the absence of gravity. She made out surface features, limned by sunlight: craters, scarps, ridges, valleys, striations where it looked as if the asteroid's surface had been crumpled or stretched. Some of the craters were evidently new, relatively anyhow, with neat bowl shapes and sharp rims. Others were much older, little more than circular scars overlaid by younger basins and worn down, presumably by a billion years of micrometeorite rain.
BOOK: Space
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