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Moonseed

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Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год

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Mike leaned to Henry. ‘He’s from Glasgow.’

Now the kid spoke to Henry. ‘So you’re a geologist too, like Uncle Mike.’

‘Yeah. You want to be a geologist when you grow up?’

The kid gave him a pitying look. Jane looked amused.

Henry ploughed on.

‘When I was a kid I wanted to be an astronomer. I used to hang out at weekends at the Griffiths Observatory, above Los Angeles, when my buddies were down on the beach. I even made a map of the Moon, when I was fifteen or so. But real-world astronomy wasn’t for me. I think it was because nobody looks through a telescope any more. I missed the tactile stuff.’ He hesitated. ‘I liked the feel of starlight, light that was a thousand years old, tickling my eye.’

Jane cocked an eyebrow.

‘And if that’s too poetic for you –’

‘Poetry’s fine,’ she said. ‘Just don’t make a habit of it.’

‘Anyhow, I turned to geology. The world is full of rocks you can touch, after all. I majored in geology at Pomona, in Southern California, and UCLA at Berkeley and LA. At UCLA I learned to live like a geologist, which is to say,’ he said to Jack, ‘in the middle of messy oil fields and mines and heat, or cold, and rattlesnakes and poison oak and cow pies …’

The kid’s eyes were pleasingly round. ‘Do you get to see volcanoes?’

Henry said, ‘Not much. I have friends who do that. What I mostly study is the Moon. Do you know about the Moon?’

‘Some.’

‘During the grind at UCLA I visited JPL – the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where they run the space probes out of, and I saw the pictures of the Moon they had there, and it was like being a kid again. So there I was. I wanted to be a geologist, working with Moon rocks. But only one geologist ever flew to the Moon, and that was thirty years ago, and there was no prospect of anybody going back soon.

‘Anyhow after that I was a little stuck. I wasn’t interested in the oil companies which hire most geologists. I decided I had to bite the bullet. I had to go work for the only place specializing in Moon rocks, thirty-year-old collection or not, and that is the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston. NASA.’

‘NASA,’ breathed Jack.

‘It’s not as cool as you might think. What I found when I got there was they were throwing out half their collection of Lunar Orbiter and Apollo photographs, maps and mission documents. You wouldn’t believe it. I had to pull them out of the dumpster, literally, forty billion dollars’ worth of trash. NASA is much better at gathering data than storing it …’

Jack looked baffled.

Jane said, ‘You don’t talk to kids much, do you?’

‘I know about the craters on the Moon,’ Jack said. ‘Like Tycho.’

‘Well, that’s good.’

‘Are the craters volcanoes?’

‘No. The craters are impact scars. But we used to think they were volcanic. You know, they took the Apollo astronauts crawling over Hawaii for their training, the big volcanic calderas there. All those lava surfaces. They thought the Moon would be like that. Wrong … They should have stayed on the beaches; that turned out to be a closer match. Anyway I hate Hawaii.’

‘Why?’

‘I was once studying active lava flows there, and I broke through a solid crust and sank into molten lava up to my knees. Not pleasant. But I recovered.’

‘Wow,’ said the kid, round-eyed. ‘Is lava dangerous?’

‘No. Lava is friendly. Unless you’re unlucky, or careless, like I was. You can walk around on lava. It smells odd, like scorching paper. And it moves slowly; you can get away from it. Pyroclastic flows are what you have to look out for if you’re ever close to a volcano.’

‘Pyro –’

‘Ash.’

Ted helped himself to more chili. ‘So why do all geologists look like they’ve been living in a hole in the ground?’

Jane laughed.

Mike said, ‘They probably have, dad.’

Henry said, ‘It’s true. There are other types of people who study the Earth. Like photogeologists, for instance, who work from photographs, and petrologists, who treat their rocks like lab specimens, and geochemists and geophysicists. But old-time geologists will look down their noses at any of that and say, “Needs field checking”. By which they mean, if you can’t walk on it and rub your hands in it and get yourself good and dirty in it, it ain’t geology.’

‘Hey,’ Mike said. ‘I have a joke about that. Maybe you heard it. What’s 2 plus 2? The geologist says, “Well, around 4.” The geochemist says, “4 plus or minus 2.” The geophysicist says, “What number do you want?”’

Henry laughed, though he’d heard it before. The others just looked baffled.

‘So,’ said the father. ‘You divorced, separated or what?’

After the meal, Mike’s father said he would wash up, and Mike and Jack went out to the garden to play some more football.

Jane and Henry sat in the living room, regarding each other warily.

Jane said unexpectedly, ‘You want to go for a walk?’ She stood briskly. ‘We’ll climb the Seat. Shouldn’t take more than an hour. Unless you think that’s too far.’

Henry stood. ‘I’ll be fine.’

She handed Henry a heavy radiation-screen poncho, and marched him out the door and down the path.

They tramped for a brisk half-mile on the road, going north-east, skirting the base of the Seat. Then they turned off and began to climb a path over the Seat itself. Soon, Henry was walking over spongy grass, with hard basalt beneath, tough through the soles of his training shoes.

The noise of the traffic diminished, and the only sounds were their breathing, growing deeper as they walked, and the soft susurrus of the wind in the grass. As the fresh air filled his lungs, even his sneezing diminished.

It was cold, however, despite the poncho, but, after nearly two weeks in Scotland, he wasn’t about to admit that.

They turned west again, and followed a path Jane called the Radical Road, which ran at the foot of a low crag. She said, ‘This is the north end of Salisbury Crag.’

He stepped forward and ran his fingers over the exposed rock. ‘It’s a sill,’ he said. ‘A sheet of basalt.’

‘I know.’

‘Geologists like basalts,’ he murmured. ‘They’re what you get when planets melt. And they tell you a lot about hidden processes …’ He ran his hands over the other layers. ‘Looks like baked shale above it. Maybe cementstone. And below, this is sandstone –’

‘I know that too. This is what’s left of the Old Red Sandstone Continent.’

‘You’re a smart cookie.’

They walked on, along the base of the crag.

At length she said, ‘I don’t know if I like being called a “cookie”.’

‘You’re very competitive, aren’t you?’

‘And you’re not too good with people.’

He made to deny it, or to come back with a snappy answer. But he shrugged. ‘Maybe not. You know, when I was doing my doctoral research I spent eighteen months in Norway, clambering around the fjords there. A lot of that time I spent alone. Working alone in tough terrain like that is something most geologists would frown on, but you do it anyway, when you are short on time or you’re too poor to pay for a field assistant. As I was.

‘So I climbed over the ice rivers, trekked past sheer rock walls, trying to make the most out of the money it had cost me to go there. Oh, I knew my limits; I saved the really tough country for those times when I was accompanied. But I wasn’t afraid of being out on a limb. Relying on myself.’

‘And,’ she said drily, ‘your point?’

‘Well, when I look back on it that was one of the happiest times of my life. Because it was the simplest. People just –’

‘Make things complicated?’

‘Something like that.’
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