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Moonseed

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Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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She stood with Jays on his verandah. It was just like all those years ago, except that now she cradled a pina colada in her hand instead of a soda.

And, in the dawn sky, there was a new light, which outshone even the battered old Moon.

‘Quite a night,’ said Jays, the light casting sharp point-source shadows on his face. ‘Quite a week, in fact.’

‘Yeah.’ So it had been, all of seven days after the Venus event first showed in the sky.

According to the TV there had been Venus-watching parties all over the US, a predictable run on telescopes and binoculars in the stores. The Hubble Web sites had crashed from the hit traffic, even though NASA hadn’t turned the Hubble that way yet.

She said, ‘Those guys on the TV, yammering about anti-matter comets and alien invaders. The most remarkable week since Neil Armstrong touched down on the Moon –’

‘Or since man came out of the caves. Makes you miss Cronkite,’ he said, ‘and I’ve been further out of the cave than most.’

The heatless light of dying Venus made her shiver. ‘So what do you think has happened up there, Dad?’

‘Danged if I know.’ His voice was light, but his face was a mask, expressionless. ‘I don’t think it’s a good omen, though.’

And that made her more queasy than all the fantastic speculations of the TV pundits.

He touched her arm. ‘Come on. I want to show you something.’ He led her indoors, towards the lounge. ‘Something I never showed anyone. Not even your mother.’

‘Why not?’

He grinned, and put his beer down on top of the piano. ‘Because it’s a federal offence.’ He started to rummage at the back of a dresser drawer.

She looked around the room. So familiar, nothing changed since she was a kid, it was like being transported back in time. It was an old guy’s trophy room, with Jays’s photographs of airplanes and spacecraft, a whole-globe view of Earth taken with a hand-held Kodak, a little framed patch of spacesuit, grey with Moon dust. But everything was old and faded. Even the spacesuit piece looked like it had come over on the Mayflower.

Jays approached her. He was carrying something in a fist-sized plastic envelope. The plastic had gone yellow and brittle with age. In the gathering dawn light, she could see it held a piece of rock, black as tar.

‘Oh, Dad. Is that what I think it is?’

‘It’s a piece of bedrock, sweet pea. It froze out of a lava flow, that bubbled out of the Moon more than three billion years ago …’

It was, of course, Moon rock.

‘Are you supposed to have that?’

He grinned, his teeth white in Venus light. ‘Hell, no. I told you. It’s a federal offence. I grabbed it when I was deep inside the rille, out of sight. They never missed it. Our documentation wasn’t worth jack shit anyhow. I wanted to leave it to you and the kids. So I will. I never even took it out and looked at it before, all these years. Come on.’ He stepped towards the porch.

The eastern sky, behind the house, was growing pink, but the Atlantic behind them was a mass of darkness still. Jays found a place to hold his rock so it cast two shadows in his hand, from sun and Venus.

‘It looks like coal,’ she said.

He laughed. ‘The Moon is dark. If it was bright as Earth, acre for acre, you could read by its light. But you’d never see the stars …’

There was a sharp smell. Like before a storm. Or like a beach.

‘Dad, what’s that?’

‘What? …’ But now his older senses registered it. ‘Ozone. Electrical fire.’

We’re not in a spacecraft now, dad, she thought. But still, maybe she should go get the kids –

Jays dropped the rock – it thumped dully on the wooden patio – and he tucked his hand under his arm. ‘Jesus, that’s hot.’

2

The day of Geena’s post-flight press conference was, it turned out, the last day Henry would spend in Houston. So Geena, with a sinking heart, realized she had no excuse to duck out of seeing him, one last time.

She drove the couple of miles to the Johnson Space Center from their abandoned Houston home, in the decaying 1960s suburb of Clear Lake. On NASA Road One, she found herself queuing in a bumper-to-fender jam. Once more, NASA Road One was being rebuilt; it was choked by huge, crudely-assembled contraflows, and the multiple surfaces made ramps that slammed into the suspension of her Chevy.

The short drive took her the best part of an hour, and she had no option but to sit there with her starched collar itching at her neck, the skirt of her suit riding up around her knees.

At length she crawled past the wire fence that separated JSC from the rest of the world. Through the chicken wire she could see the JSC buildings, black-and-white cubes scattered over the old cow pasture, looking small and cramped and closed-up, out of place in an era when every office building was a glass-walled rhomboid.

She tried the radio. Every station she found seemed to be playing country music, the modern stuff that sounded to her like soft rock. The DJs harangued her about a write-in campaign to have TNN – The Nashville Network, country music TV – retained by the local cable company. She flipped around to another station, 93.7FM, which seemed to play nothing but ‘fun oldies’. They had a policy of no repeats during a single day, and on Sunday mornings, she learned, she could enjoy breakfast with the Beatles. The music, every track of which she’d heard before, was depressing Boomer stuff, and sounded much worse than she remembered; it made her feel very old.

At last she found a news channel, and listened to an earnest debate about whether ebonics should be allowed in schools, and an ill-informed discussion about the latest news from Venus.

She had flown in space on four missions now: two Shuttle missions and two stays on Station. Her last Shuttle flight had finished a month ago, just before the Venus event. And every time she returned to this – from the black silence of space, the simplicity of her life and objectives up there – she felt depressed as all hell.

The traffic lurched forward in spasms.

She’d made Houston her home for ten years now, but she was San Francisco born and bred, and she’d never quite gotten used to Texas. Houston was hot and flat, water towers and shining green lawns and under-used malls that sprawled untidily around the downtown towers poking out of the city’s heart. Houston was new, its growth fuelled mostly by oil money, but it was half-empty and soulless.

Oh, Houston could give you its moments – driving around the Loop you would sometimes get a fine view of the Port of Houston, refineries draped in feathers of steam, lights on the stacks glowing yellow – but then she’d never had an ambition to live in a Blade Runner diorama.

And this area, Clear Lake/NASA, was really pretty seedy. It was a long way out of downtown Houston, off the Galveston Freeway, I-75. The Johnson Space Center was the home of the nation’s space program, but at heart it was just an old-fashioned government facility, fading 1960s buildings stranded in an area full of desolate mini-malls and little else.

But even so, she thought, maybe it wasn’t Houston’s fault she felt so sour about life here.

It would be better when Henry had gone: Henry, ex-husband of three days, the living, breathing embodiment of everything that had gone wrong with her life.

As she approached the JSC entrance, she realized she wasn’t up to facing the press, or Henry. Not just yet.

She pulled into a parking lot close to the Days Inn NASA, a chalet-style motel almost directly opposite the JSC entrance. She used to stay here when she was an impoverished ascan, an astronaut candidate, in happier days a hundred years ago. Near the Days Inn was the Puddruckers hamburger restaurant where she used to eat, and a Chinese restaurant. She bought a Houston Chronicle, 50c from a vending machine, and walked into the Chinese. It was full of old folks watching TV, and she bought herself soup and a sandwich for $2.95.

The Chronicle was stuffed full of ad sections and bewilderingly dull local news. But it had reasonable coverage of the space program, especially when a mission was in progress, with two or three features a day. A lot more informative than NASA TV, she thought.

Her soup arrived. When she looked up, past the middle-aged waitress, she could see spacecraft, the superannuated inhabitants of JSC’s rocket garden, poking above the trees like minarets from some ruined temple. And there was the white-and-black flank of the Saturn V, an operational Moon rocket, lying in the grass.

In the Chronicle there was a series of ads for stomach stapling, aimed at those more than a hundred pounds overweight. Americans always eat too much, Arkady often told her. Maybe she’d clip this out to show him.

She ate her soup, trying to make it last.

Through the JSC security gate she parked her car. It was a late February day, unusually cold. She walked to where Henry would be working, at the Lunar Curatorial Facility in Building 31N. This was the building where, for thirty years, they had stored the Moon rocks.

She had to climb two and a half storeys. The height was for protection against Class 5 hurricane floods; Mission Control was raised to this level for a similar reason. The weather was thought to be the most likely danger to the rocks, in these post-Cold War days. But just in case of a nuclear attack or similar catastrophe, a proportion of the irreplaceable samples were stored in Brooks Air Force Base at San Antonio, separation being the only defence in case of such a disaster.

To be destroyed in such an attack would have been a strange fate for the battered old rocks which had seen so much, she thought.

She found a friendly technician who would take her in. The woman had worked here for twenty years. The tech was pregnant. That struck Geena as odd: what a start to life, here in the Moon rock lab, halfway off the Earth.

She had to go through the clean room. In an outer changing room she put on a bunny suit: two layers of overshoes, and a button-up white coat and McDonald’s-server hat. The garments were labelled ‘Lockheed Martin’. There were no gloves, but she had to take off her wedding ring – gold evaporating from its surface could contaminate the samples – and when she slipped it into a pocket she realized, for the first time, she needn’t put it back again.

Then the two of them crowded into an airlock, a little two-doored glass-walled room little bigger than a phone booth. Air blowers blasted at them from the ceiling.

The tech opened an inner door, and there she was, in the same room as the most famous rocks in the world.

And Henry.

The lab was a place of rectangles, of big stainless steel glove boxes and staff in white clean-room coats and hats and overboots. The roof was crowded with fluorescent tubes which filled the room with a sickly grey light, a greyness emphasized by the polished steel of the glove boxes and the nondescript floor tiles. At the back of the room, a heavy door led to a vault where the bulk of the lunar samples were stored.

This lab didn’t do much original science, in fact. It was really just a service lab, providing sample processing for external researchers. The cleanness standard was tighter than an operating room, though not so tight as, for example, a microelectronics lab.

There was a tour going on, bigwigs garbed out in their white coats, having their photographs taken with the rocks, enduring a running commentary from some flack in a white coat and a trilby.

… Eight hundred pounds of Moon rock is stored here, as two and a half thousand samples, split into eighty thousand subsamples. Something like a thousand samples a year are taken, mostly less than one gramme. The subsamples are stored in nitrogen, in triple-shelled containers. Efforts are made to reuse the samples, even ones which have been driven to destruction in some way – it is possible that other unrelated tests could be performed even on the detritus. There is a computer database on all eighty thousand subsamples, and handwritten notes and photographs on each one are stored in a fire-proof vault. Even today, sixty per cent of the samples have remained unopened since they were locked up on the dusty surface of the Moon …
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