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Jays had said on a multitude of talk shows how he was dismayed by the Shuttle program – a clumsy, compromised, primitive design, just a V-2 with air conditioning, it seemed to him – and by the lack of any serious consideration being given to any more advanced follow-up.
For the fact was there were smarter ways to get into space, to reach the Moon and beyond. For instance, orbits of spacecraft passing between the Earth and the Moon were actually unstable, because of the tweakings of the lumpy gravity fields of Earth, Moon and sun. If you gave your spacecraft the right kind of push, in the right direction, at the right time, you could use that instability to make your spacecraft drift to the Moon. It would take longer to get there than the three days it had taken him, but that wasn’t necessarily a problem, for it would be at a fraction of the cost in fuel and mass in low Earth orbit.
‘Then,’ he said, ‘once you are on the Moon, there’s oxygen, and water, and materials for rocket fuel, and materials to make glass and concrete … Once you are on the Moon, with all those resources out of Earth’s deep, heavy gravity well, hell, you can go anywhere!’
It was a vision he shared with a handful of others, inside and outside NASA: how, with a little imagination, the Solar System could, after all, be opened up for colonization, with the Moon as the key.
Unfortunately, nobody with any power, financial or political, wanted to listen. Even to somebody who had been there.
So he began to work in more subtle ways. He joined the board of the National Space Society, for instance. He published his conceptual studies wherever he could, and plugged them on chat shows. He started to work his ideas into his fictions, building up a body of work that, piece by piece, it seemed to Geena, amounted to a kind of schematic of the future, a ladder to history.
Robert Heinlein had done something similar, back in the ’40s and ’50s, and so nurtured the minds of the youngsters who would go on to run NASA, and touch the Moon. Now – in less optimistic times, with a deeper understanding of how God-awful difficult the whole enterprise would be – Jays Malone was trying the same trick.
‘I tell you,’ he said, ‘I’ve given up on you guys. Your generation. All this New Age crap. But there are always the kids. Always the kids.’
Jays talked on, taking the questions – dumb, perceptive, intrusive, whatever – with a clumsy, good-humoured grace.
She waited until the autograph queue had dissipated, and approached Jays.
Jays regarded her gravely. ‘I know you. Geena Bourne. You just came down from Station.’
‘Yes.’ She felt vaguely surprised that he should follow the current program so closely. ‘I’m glad to meet you.’
‘I’d like your help. I need to talk to you about 86047.’
A frown crossed his face.
Geena told Jays what she wanted. She hoped that if they went through the moment at which he collected rock 86047 one more time – with the help of the mission transcript and such documentation as existed – they would be able to reconstruct the rock’s context sufficiently to help Henry.
Jays was resistant. ‘I’ve been over those damn three days a hundred, a thousand times. What more is there to say?’
‘Henry thinks there’s plenty you could tell him.’
‘Oh, he does. It was my piece of bedrock, you know.’
‘Yeah. I guess I risked my life to collect it. And they let it sit in the vault for a quarter-century.’
‘Not any more.’ She outlined Henry’s project. ‘That’s why the context is so important –’
Jays glared. ‘How the hell was I supposed to document it?’
‘Well, that’s the point, Jays –’
‘I had to hang upside down in that damn rille to capture it in the first place. Those geology back-room guys weren’t there. They couldn’t see how hard it was to follow their precious procedures, if you were there. I told them that.’
And so on. A one-way conversation.
‘Anyhow,’ he said to Geena, ‘there’s no good reason to ignore a rock like that for so long. I mean the attention they all gave that Genesis rock from Apollo 15 –’
Ah, Geena thought. That was it. Rivalry with the other crews, the trophy fish they brought home. Even after all this time.
‘But now,’ she persisted, ‘late in the day or not, Henry is going to study it. But he needs your help. I need your help.’
He regarded her, his eyes pale blue.
Jays let her drive him out to his home.
She drove along NASA Road One east through the Clear Lake area – marinas, apartment complexes, parks. When the road reached the coast and turned up to go north towards the Port of Houston, they came to Seabrook. This was an old run-down village, with wooden houses mounted on five-feet stilts.
Jays’s house must once have been handsome, but now it was faded by sun and busted down by the weather and neglect. Some of the houses in the area were being restored now, but not Jays’s. It looked, in fact, like a prop from Gone With The Wind.
It was kind of a nice area, Geena supposed, to retire. The houses would catch the light off of the ocean in the mornings. But it reeked of age.
The house was full of age too. A ticking clock. A dog, a quiet spaniel. A litter of aviation trophies, slowly gathering dust. A bookshelf with a row of his science fiction books, skinny hardback volumes. In the middle of it all, on a walnut coffee table, there was a double picture frame: Jays as a kid, gappy grin and slicked-back hair; and an image of Jays the man in his brief prime, bouncing over the tan brown lunar surface, suit glowing in the sun, on his way to one checklisted task or another.
It was the home of an old man who had been alone too long.
Jays made her a cup of coffee. Full of caffeine and cream, it was all but undrinkable, but she drank it anyway. For himself, he cracked a beer.
‘So,’ he said. ‘You’re trying to help out your ex-husband. Kind of complicated.’ He smiled like a grandfather. ‘Not sure I ought to get involved.’
‘Well, he blames me for canning his project.’
‘The Shoemaker. Is he right?’
‘I don’t think so. I spoke out against it. But you know how this stuff works.’
He nodded and took a pull of his beer. ‘You didn’t do him any damage. But you weren’t too smart about your marriage.’
‘I was speaking up for Man-in-Space.’
‘Sure,’ he said drily. ‘Chewing the balls off of your husband had nothing to do with it.’
‘It wasn’t like that.’
‘And now you want to make it up with him.’
‘No. It’s done. I just don’t want it to finish in bitterness. We’ve got our whole lives ahead.’
He nodded. ‘Smart. A lot of sleepless nights to get through. Sometimes I wish … Well,’ he said, ‘you think we should go back to the Moon?’
‘No. I heard what you said. But we ought to get on with Station. The space lobby is always divided. We should get behind the project we have.’
‘Bull.’ He crumpled the can, seemed to be thinking about another, then decided against it. ‘We’ve been fooling about in Earth orbit for too long. We didn’t need Station to go to the Moon. If we want to go to the Moon then we should go to the Moon. Learn to live off the land. You can’t do that in LEO.’ He eyed her. ‘Not that it would be easy. Some of the space buff types who come to see me seem to think it would be like the pioneer days, setting off into the western desert. It won’t be. We got to the Moon for three days apiece, two guys for just three days, and we had to bend the national economy backwards to do that. Up there, you have to haul along every drop of fuel you need to land, and the dust eats away at any equipment you have, and the volatiles in your seals boil away in the vacuum, and you have to bake the air you breathe out of the rock. Not impossible, but not easy.
‘And all we got to work with,’ he nodded a head to the west, ‘is NASA. A Cold War museum. You ever think about that? What we’d actually do if some kind of When Worlds Collide situation came along, the dinosaur killer maybe, and we had to set up a colony off-world, fast? Hell, we wouldn’t have a hope.’ He drained his beer. ‘People who say the Moon is easy are talking out of their asses. You can colonize a desert with Stone Age technology. On the Moon, you need to be smart …’
Sure, Geena thought. Sure, let’s all dream about the Moon. That’s fine, if you don’t have to live and work in the space program as it exists, today, in the real world. Which means Station, like it or not.
‘Can we talk about your rock?’
He was avoiding her eyes. He was reluctant – but also unwilling to show it.
There was something he wasn’t telling her, she thought. Something he knew about that rock he wanted to keep to himself. She had no idea what that could be.
He sighed. ‘Okay, lady. I don’t know what good it will do, but you got a deal. What do you want me to do?’
She got out her tape recorder, and replayed the voice transcripts of those remote moments when he’d found the rock that became known as 86047.
… Okay, Joe. It’s a block about a foot across. I’d say it’s an olivine basalt. It’s almost rectangular and the top surface is covered in vesicles, large vesicles. It almost looks like a contact here between a thin layer of vesicles and a rock unit that’s a little lighter in colour with fewer vesicles. And I think I can see laths of plage in it, randomly oriented, two or three millimetres across …
So, in his living room, with a view of an ocean already tinted dark blue by the light of the setting sun, the old man listened to the words he’d once spoken on the Moon, and, as he descended in his mind once more into that lunar rille, he dredged up fragments of description and memory, which Geena noted down.
When she was done, Geena left Jays to his solitary peace.
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