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Authors: Stephen Baxter

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Space (8 page)

BOOK: Space
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And there were colors on Ellis's folded-over landscape, spectral shades that emerged from the dominant gray-blackness. The sharper-edged craters and ridges seemed to be slightly bluish, while the older, low-lying areas were more subtly red. Perhaps this was some deep-space weathering effect, she thought; perhaps eons of sunlight had wrought these gentle hues.
She sighed. It really was lovely, in a quite unexpected way -- like so much of the universe she found herself in. By God, I love it all, she thought. How can I retire? If I did, I would miss
this.
And now, with a kiss of dust, the
Bruno
reached its destination.
The techs began cheering tinnily.

 

A year before the
Bruno
's arrival -- after the AAAS meeting -- Malenfant had returned to the Johnson Space Center for the first time in two decades.
The campus looked pretty much unchanged: the same blocky black-and-white buildings, with those big nursery-style numbers on their sides, scattered over square kilometers of grassy plain here at the southeast suburban edge of Houston, all contained by a mesh fence from NASA Road One -- though it wasn't called the NASA Road anymore. In the surrounding streets there were still run-down strip malls and fast-food places and 7-Elevens.
But inside the campus itself, there was no sign of the tourists who used to ride between the buildings in their long tram trains. And though there were plenty of historic-marker plaques, nobody was making history here anymore.
The cherry trees were still here, though, and the green grass still seemed to glow.
He wasn't here to sightsee. He had come to meet Sally Brind, who ran a NASA department called the Solar System Exploration Division. He made his way to Building 31.
Inside, the air-conditioning was ferocious, a hell of a contrast to the flat, moist Houston heat outside. Malenfant welcomed the plummeting temperature; it was like old times.

 

Reid Malenfant had loomed over Sally Brind. He was leaning on her desk, resting his weight on big, bony knuckles. He was around twice Brind's age, and he was a legend out of the past. And, to her, he was as intimidating as hell.
"We've got to get out to the solar focus," he began.
"Hello, good morning, nice to meet you, thanks for giving up your time," she said dryly.
He backed off a little, and stood up straight. "I'm sorry," he said.
"Don't tell me. At your time of life, you don't have time to waste."
"No, I'm just a rude asshole. Always was. Mind if I sit down?"
"Tell me about the solar focus," she said.
He moved a pile of glossies from a chair; they were digitized artist's impressions of a proposed, never-to-be-funded, unmanned mission to Io, Jupiter's moon. "What I'm talking about, specifically, is a mission to the solar focus of Alpha Centauri -- the nearest star system."
"I know about Alpha Centauri."
"Yes... The Sun's gravitational field acts as a spherical lens, which magnifies the intensity of the light of a distant star. At the point of focus, out on the rim of the system, the gain can be hundreds of millions; at the right point, it would be possible to communicate across stellar distances with equipment no more powerful than you'd need to talk between planets. The Gaijin may be using the Centauri solar focus as a communication node. The theorists are calling it a Saddle Point. Actually there is a separate Saddle Point for each star. All roughly at the same radius, because of--"
"All right. And why do we need to go to Alpha Centauri's focus?"
"Because Alpha was the first source of extrasolar signals. And because the Gaijin are
there.
We have evidence that the Gaijin entered the system at the Alpha solar focus. From there, they sent a fleet of some kind of construction or mining craft into the asteroid belt. Sally, we now have infrared signatures, showing the activity in the asteroid belt, going back ten years."
"There is an unmanned probe en route to the asteroid belt. Maybe we should wait for its results."
Malenfant flared. "A private initiative. Not relevant, anyhow. The solar focus --
that
is where the action is."
"You don't actually have any direct evidence of anything out at the solar focus, do you?"
"No. Only what we've inferred from the asteroid belt data."
"But there's no signature of any huge interstellar mother ship out there, at the rim. As there would have to be, if you're right."
"I don't have all the answers. That's why we have to get out there and see. And to tell the damn Gaijin we're here."
"I don't see how I can help you."
"This is NASA's Solar System Exploration Division. Right? So, now we need to go do some exploring."
"NASA doesn't exist anymore," she said. "Not as you knew it, when you were flying shuttle. The JSC is run by the Department of Agriculture--"
"Don't patronize me, kid."
She sighed. "I apologize. But I think you have to be realistic about this, sir. This isn't the 1960s. I'm really just a kind of curator, of the gray literature."
"Gray?"
"Studies and proposals that generally never made it to the light of day. The stuff is badly archived; a lot of it isn't yet digitized, or even on fiche... Even this building is seventy years old. I bet it would be closed for good if it wasn't for the Moon rocks."
That was true; elsewhere in this building, 50 percent of the old Apollo samples still lay sealed in their sample boxes, still awaiting analysis, after six decades. Now that there were Japanese living on the Moon, Brind suspected the boxes would stay sealed forever, if only so they could serve as samples of the Moon as it used to be in its pristine, prehuman condition. An ironic fate for those billion-dollar nuggets.
"I know all that," he said. "But I used to work for NASA. Where else am I supposed to go? Look -- I want you to figure out how it could be done.
How can we send a human to the solar focus?
It will all come together, once we have a viable scheme to fix on. I can get the hardware, the funding."
She arched an eyebrow. "Really?"
"Sure. And the science will be good. After all, we still haven't sent a human out beyond the orbit of the Moon. We can drop probes on Jupiter, Pluto en route. We'll get sponsorship from the Europeans and Japanese for that. The U.S. government ought to contribute, too."
You make it sound so easy, Colonel Malenfant... "Why should these organizations back you? We haven't sent a human into orbit, other than as a passenger of NASDA or ESA, in twenty years."
"Otherwise," said Malenfant, "we'll have to let the Japanese do this alone."
"True."
"Also there'll be a lot of media interest. It will be a hell of a stunt."
"A stunt is right," she said. "It would be a spectacular one-shot. Just like Apollo. And look where that got us."
"To the Moon," he said severely, "forty years before the Japanese."
She chose her next words carefully. "Colonel Malenfant, you must be aware that it will be difficult for me to support you."
He eyed her. "I know I'm thought of as an obsessive. Twenty years after the shuttle was grounded, I'm still working out a kind of long, lingering disappointment about the shape of my career. I want to pursue this Gaijin hypothesis because I'm obsessed with them, because I want America to get back into space. I have an agenda. Right?"
"I... Yes. I guess so. I'm sorry."
"Hell, don't be. It's true. I was never too good at the politics here. Not even in the Astronaut Office. I never got into any of the cliques: the spacewalkers, the sports fans, the commanders, the bubbas who hung out at Molly's Pub. I was never
interested
enough. Even the Russians mistrusted me because I wasn't enough of a team player." He slapped his leathery hand on her desk. "But the Gaijin are
here.
Sally, I've waited ten years for our government,
any
government, to act on that lunar infrared evidence. Only Frank Paulis responded -- a private individual, with that one damn probe. Now, I've decided to do something about it, before I drop dead."
"How far away is the solar focus?"
"A thousand astronomical units." A thousand times as far as the distance between Earth and the Sun.
She whistled. "You're crazy."
"Sure." He grinned, showing even, rebuilt teeth. "Now tell me how to do it. Treat it as an exercise, if you like. A thought experiment."
"Do you have an astronaut in mind?" she said dryly.
His grin widened. "Me."

 

Dark, crumpled ground, a horizon that was pin-sharp and looked close enough to touch, a sky full of stars dominated by a single bright spark...
Maura felt herself lurch as the probe began to make its way across the folded-over asteroid earth. She saw pitons and tethers lance out ahead of her field of view, extruding and hauling back, tugging the robot this way and that. Her viewpoint swiveled up and down, and some augmentation routine in the virtual generators was tickling her hindbrain, making her feel as if she was riding right along with the robot over this choppy, rocky sea. With a subvocalized command, she told the software to cut it out; some special effects she could live without.
Xenia whispered to her audience of VIPs. "As we move we're being extremely cautious. The surface gravity is even weaker than you might expect for a body this size. Remember this 'dumbbell asteroid' is a contact binary, a compound body; imagine two pool balls snuggled up against each other, spinning around their point of contact. We're a fly crawling over the far side of one of those pool balls. The dumbbell is spinning pretty rapidly, and here, at the pole, centrifugal force almost cancels out the gravity. But we modeled all these situations;
Bruno
knows what he's doing. Just sit tight and enjoy the ride."
And now something was looming beyond that close horizon. It was like the rise of a moon -- but this moon was small and dark and battered, a twin of the world over which she crawled. It was the other lobe of the dumbbell.
"We're studying the ground as we travel," Xenia said. "As we don't know what to look for, we've carried broad-spectrum surveying equipment. For instance, if the Gaijin came here to extract light metals such as aluminum, magnesium, or titanium, they would most likely have used processes like magma electrolysis or pyrolysis. The same processes could be used for oxygen production. In the case of magma electrolysis the main slag component would be ferrosilicon. From a pyrolysis process we would expect to find traces of elemental iron and silicon, or perhaps slightly oxidized forms..."
We are crawling across a slag heap, Maura thought, trying to figure out what was made here. But are we being too anthropomorphic? Would a Neandertal conclude that
we
must be unintelligent because, searching our nuclear reactors, she could find no chippings from flint cores?
But what else can we do? How can we test for the unknowable?
The asteroid's second lobe had all but "risen" above the horizon now. It was a ball of rock, black and battered, that hung suspended over the land, as if in some Magritte painting. She could even see a broad band of crushed, flattened rock ahead, where one flying mountain rested against the other.
The second lobe was so close it seemed Maura could see every fold in its surface, every crater, even the grains of dust there. How remarkable, she thought.
The probe's mode of travel had changed now, she noticed; the pitons were applying small sideways or braking tweaks to an accelerating motion toward the system's center of gravity, that contact zone. The gravitational tug of the rock below must be decreasing, balanced by the equal mass of rock above, so that the net force was becoming more and more horizontal, and the probe was simply pulled across the surface.
Now the second lobe was so close, in this virtual diorama, it was over her head. Its crumpled inverted landscape formed a rocky roof. It was dark here, with the Sun occluded, and the slices of starlight in the gap between the worlds were growing narrower.
Lamps lit up on the probe, and they played on the land beneath, the folded roof above. She longed to reach up and touch those inverted craters, as if a toy Moon had been hung over her head, a souvenir from some Aristotelian pocket universe.
"I think we have something," Xenia said quietly.
Maura looked down. Her field of view blurred as the interpolation routines struggled to keep up.
There was something on the ground before her. It looked like a blanket of foil, aluminum or silver, ragged-edged, laid over the dark regolith. Aside from a fringe a meter or two wide, it appeared to be buried in the loose dirt. Its crumpled edges glinted in the low sunlight.
It was obviously artificial.

 

Brind had next met Malenfant a few months later, at Kennedy Space Center.
Malenfant found KSC depressing; most of the launch gantries had been demolished or turned into rusting museum pieces. But the visitors' center was still open. The shuttle exhibit -- artifacts, photographs, and virtuals -- was contained within a small geodesic dome, yellowing with age.
And there, next to the dome, was
Columbia,
a genuine orbiter, the first to be flown in space. A handful of people were sheltering from the Florida Sun in the shade of her wing; others were desultorily queuing on a ramp to get on board.
Columbia
's main engines had been replaced by plastic mock-ups, and her landing gear was fixed in concrete.
Columbia
was forever trapped on Earth, he thought.
He found Brind standing before the astronaut memorial. This was a big slab of polished granite, with names of dead astronauts etched into it. It rotated to follow the Sun, so that the names glowed bright against a backdrop of sky.
"At least it's sunny," he said. "Damn thing doesn't work when it's cloudy."
BOOK: Space
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