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Moonseed

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Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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The binoculars resolved the distant, fixed stars to points. The glasses were too weak, she realized, to resolve Venus – on normal nights – to anything better than a minute disc, or crescent, at best.

But this wasn’t a normal night.

Where Venus ought to have been there was a bright, smudged disc, not quite symmetrical.

‘Holy God,’ she said.

‘I think,’ Henry said, ‘that Venus has exploded.’

The call didn’t wake Monica Beus, for the simple reason that she hadn’t been asleep.

‘Yes?’

Monica. It’s me. Alfred.

Alfred Synge: astronomer, colleague, lover back when they and the world were young.

‘Where are you?’

Kitts Peak. The observatory. Have you seen it yet?

‘What?’

Take a look out the window.

She lay for a minute in the stale warmth of her bed. The insomnia was the worst thing, for her, about the diagnosis.

Breast cancer. What the hell kind of thing was that for her to contract? Her breasts had gotten her nothing but unwelcome attention when she was younger; she was of a generation that had been encouraged to use them as little as possible for what they were intended, which was to suckle children; and now some cosmic ray, a random piece of debris from some long-gone supernova explosion, had come whizzing across space in order to zap her just so …

If any of it made sense, it might be acceptable. But it didn’t. If she had no stake in the world – if her son, Garry, and his family, didn’t exist – it might be reasonable. But she did have.

She missed the ability to sleep, though. She longed for the ability to turn off her mind, the constant thinking, like a camera watching the world that never let up.

But sleepless or not she was warm and comfortable here, her aches and pains fooled into silence for a while, and she felt reluctant to climb out into the harshness of the cold, vertical world. And for what?

‘What is it, Alfred? A lunar eclipse? A meteor shower?’ Alfred did get a little carried away with his profession at times. It was enviable, a man whose job was his hobby, his passion. Also a little irritating.

Uncharacteristically, he hesitated. I think you ought to see for yourself.

‘Why?’

You might want to think about waking the President.

Not a lunar eclipse, then.

She got out of bed, and her body set up a chorus of aches. She pulled on a housecoat, picked up the phone handset, and walked to the window.

She pulled back the heavy drapes and looked out over Aspen.

Dawn was coming, she saw, and the leaves of the trademark aspen trees were already glowing with the pearl light, bone white; the quaint street lamps were starting to dim. Another hour or so and the first light of another early spring day would be touching the Rockies.

Beautiful place. She had moved here to be close to her faculty, at the Center for Physics. She suspected she was going to have to move before long, though. She couldn’t see how she could stand to die here, to leave behind so much beauty. Everybody should die someplace ugly, where it wouldn’t matter so much …

On the other hand, maybe it was this beautiful place that was killing her. Up so high, poking out of Earth’s shielding blanket of air, Aspen received twice the sea-level dose of radiation.

There was a new star in the morning sky, bright as a piece of the sun.

It’s Venus, Alfred, on the telephone, was telling her. Venus.

It was casting shadows, long raking shadows, from the aspen tree stands.

The astrologers will be jumping up and down, she thought. We’re only a few years into the new millennium … and now this.

‘Venus? How can it be?’

I’m afraid there’s no doubt. What you’re seeing is reflected light from the sun, with some intrinsic illumination from the planet itself.

‘Reflected light?’

Monica, the atmosphere seems to have – blown off. The planet is surrounded by an expanding sphere of gases and other debris.

‘Debris? You mean rock?’

Yes. Also fusion products. And the intrinsic illumination – Monica, something is happening on the surface, or maybe in deeper layers. Something very energetic.

Alfred had first gotten the call from his night assistant, a graduate student. It was the student’s job to control the big telescope Alfred was working on at Kitts Peak. Alfred, sitting in an office, confirmed whatever target star he wanted, and observations were made with spectroscopes and charged-couple detectors.

Nobody had been watching the planets, at Kitts Peak Observatory. It was just a casual glance out the window by the night assistant that had led to her noticing the change to Venus.

That was the way with modern astronomy, Monica thought wryly. Nobody looked through the big telescopes any more.

We were finishing up for the night. We were actually getting ready to park the telescope and –

‘Tell me what you did.’

The first thing was to get on the IAU nets. The International Astronomy Union, the astronomers’ jungle telegraph. There are ground-based observers working on this all over the planet already, Monica. Also the radio telescopes. I contacted NASA; they’re repositioning some of the satellites, for example the ultraviolet and X-ray and gamma ray observatories. We’re also speaking to the Europeans, Canadians and Japanese. The Space Station astronauts are doing some good work. NASA are sending up high-altitude experiments, by balloon and sounding rocket and aircraft. NASA are responding quickly, in fact.

‘Well, NASA would,’ she said drily. ‘They’re probably putting together a budget proposal for a new Venus probe as we speak.’

If they are you ought to back it, Alfred said. Monica, we don’t have the faintest understanding of what we’re seeing here. Right now Venus is on the far side of the sun. It took around fourteen minutes for the light curve to show up here. Photons, travelling at light speed. A minute later, a cosmic ray shower showed up.

‘Cosmic rays, from Venus?’

You heard right. Very high energy particles. And in about four hours we’re expecting a blast shell to impact the top of Earth’s atmosphere. The lower energy stuff, coming at thirty or forty million miles an hour. Monica, it’s as if a miniature supernova went off in our back yard. Hell, we’re even seeing a neutrino flux.

‘That’s impossible.’

Nevertheless. I’m not anticipating a lot of sleep in the next few days. Monica, that thing is going to be naked-eye visible, even at noon. It’s going to be unmissable.

So the public would wake up to it, to funny lights in the sky. Monica was one of the President’s senior science advisors. How was Monica going to brief her on this? ‘Tell me what to expect.’

The low-energy cosmic rays will be deflected by the Van Allen belts, which will fill up. We have to expect auroras. Spectacular stuff. Alfred sounded excited, as well he might, she mused; it sounded as if he might get priority on this discovery. The higher-energy stuff will make it through to the atmosphere. Crack the air molecules, create showers of secondary particles. We have to expect a significant increase in background radiation.

‘How much? For how long?’

We don’t know, Monica. We’ve never seen anything like this before. There is also the shower of X-ray and gamma rays. We don’t know how strong it will be at its peak. Maybe there will be some immediate deaths. More likely we will see a pulse of internal cancers, skin cancers, cataracts, in the coming months and years. We will have to monitor the food chain.

‘What should the President tell people?’

To take radiation precautions. Get underground if they can; rock and soil is a good shield. The military and politicos ought to get into their nuclear shelters. If they still have them.

‘They have them.’

If the shower persists we’ll have to think about lead-lining our surface buildings. Oh, air travel ought to be curtailed, at least monitored. And we ought to think about bringing the astronauts home from the Space Station.

‘Enough. All right, Alfred. Thanks. I ought to make some calls.’

Yes. Take care, Monica.
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