Read Ark Online

Authors: Charles McCarry

Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #Espionage

Ark (5 page)

4.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

“Do we design this vehicle in such a way as to take population growth into account, or not?”


“You design rationally,” Henry said. “What we want to know at the end of this meeting is, how big can the ship be? It’s just physics, fellows.”


The German said, “The International Space Station is the largest manmade object ever assembled in space. It took more than twenty flights by U.S. and Russian spacecraft to lift the components into orbit over a ten-year period. The space station has less than four hundred cubic meters of living space. That’s about the volume of a small suburban house.”


Henry said, “I’m not interested in being told what can’t be done.”


He pointed a finger at me. “What are your thoughts?”


All eyes turned to me and all asked the same silent questions. What could I know? Who was I, anyway? Henry hadn’t bothered to introduce me. Why would anyone care what I thought?


“The space station,” I said, “was made from modules that were launched into orbit, then fitted together. Why not do the same in this case, using larger components? Assuming that you have the means to launch an unlimited number of modules into orbit, the ship could be as large as you wanted to make it. It could even be disassembled when it reaches its destination and be maneuvered module by module onto the surface of another planet, or moon, and serve as living quarters for a colony.”


The American said, “Why would you want to do that?”


Henry said, “Why not? Start there.”


Without uttering another word, he left the yurt. In his wake, eyes were averted, silence reigned. Then the engineers went to work. I sat alone on my side of the table. The engineers huddled on their side, entering data in computers and scribbling notes—mostly crazy quilt equations—on legal pads. By noon, the tabletop was littered crumpled pages.


Meanwhile, I doodled. I drew modules and the rockets that would hurl them into orbit and string them together two hundred miles or more above the planet. I can draw and write. As I was not part of the discussion and had nothing else to do, I sketched colonies on our own moon and Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa. By the end of the day I had put together a kind of graphic novel of the expedition. It was of no use to anyone who had a scientific mind.


Henry returned around five o’clock.


By that time I was ready to be a team player, to say generous things about my colleagues’ ideas if they were better than mine, as my colleagues plainly were certain they would be.


The German acted as spokesman. He cleared his throat and to my great surprise, said, “Our new colleague has come up with an excellent concept.” He smiled at me, bowed ever so slightly, and said, “Congratulations!” You could practically hear the exclamation point.


“The merit of this idea lies in its obviousness, its simplicity,” the German continued. “Also its practicality. As the lady pointed out, we have already had some experience with assembling structures in space. We are impressed with the flexibility this approach provides in terms of design and materials. We believe the concept has other advantages, including the possibility that the crew could manufacture additional modules while the mission is in flight. We began with the attitude that the idea was unworkable. After only a few hours of consideration we cannot say for certain that it is, in fact, feasible, but the fundamentals are such that we are able to recommend further study.”


Diagrams of the module as the engineers imagined it were projected onto a screen. Actually they had visualized several different modules—spherical, square, rectangular, tubular. In a computer image of the assembled ship, all these forms fitted together very nicely—beautifully, in fact, as they swam through space like a cartoon history of solid geometry.


“All this is provisional, intended merely to demonstrate possibilities,” the German said. “However, Henry, our initial impression is that these possibilities are many. We are nevertheless somewhat daunted by the probable cost. We have made a rough estimate.”


At this point the Russian took over. He based his estimates on the capacities of the space shuttle and its launch system. With some modifications, there should be no insuperable engineering difficulty in modifying the system to carry the modules into orbit. However, lifting the modules and their contents and the crew into orbit would involve an estimated fifteen hundred launches. The cost of a single space shuttle launch at current prices was about one and a half billion dollars. Total cost would be at least one trillion dollars.


Henry did not blink an eye. No doubt he had already calculated the costs. He asked the engineers to keep working.


“We’ll be using a reusable launch system,” he said. “Concentrate on the modules.”


Eyebrows rose.


Henry said, “Think about new materials for the modules. Make all the modules the same size and shape. Otherwise we’ll have to design and build several different launchers.”


“Which shape?” asked the American.




“What kind of materials?”


“Indestructible ones, not metals,” Henry replied.


After five days, I went back to New York, back to my book. It would be inaccurate to say that the act of writing made me forget all about what Henry had told me. But the act of writing banished Henry and the end of civilization to brain compartments of their own. Or so I thought. Yet my characters got sadder and sadder as the story went on, as though they suspected something awful was afoot and I was keeping it from them. Maybe the watertight door between Henry’s compartment and theirs was not so watertight as I thought.


~ * ~











OLD BOYFRIEND RANG ME up. He had tickets to an Off-Off Broadway play that evening. Did I want to see it with him and have supper afterward? I said yes. The caller was a presentable fellow. He never talked politics. He could be funny. I had always liked him.


The evening began happily enough, but during the play, the usual bitter poor-me meditation about the impossibility of love, I found myself floating above the characters on stage, looking down on them as if I were undergoing an out-of-body experience on their behalf. They were all going to perish, the audience was going to perish, I was going to perish, the species was going to perish. Nobody in the tiny theater but me had the slightest idea that life as we knew it was almost over. I made an unseemly sound. Heads turned.


My friend said, “Are you OK?”


I did not respond, but got hold of myself.


Afterward, at supper, large tears dribbled from my eyes without warning. My date put down his fork, reached across the table, and took my hand.


“Are you sure you’re OK?” he asked.


“I’m fine,” I said. “I guess the play made me sad.”


“Why?” he said. “It was just the usual existentialist crap.”


He took me home in a taxi. On my doorstep he asked if he should come upstairs. My memories of him were fond, and a sensible woman in my state of mind would have said yes. But for some reason I thought of Henry and felt like a wife attracted to another man but faithful to her vows, so I said no, not tonight.


In due course, after weeks had passed, Henry got back in touch. I examined his computer image in search of a deeper tan or a convalescent pallor or anything else that might explain his long absence. However, he looked just the same—the silent-movie eyes, the Zenlike calm, the suggestion of a fleeting smile that never quite showed up.


He invited me to lunch. His driver picked me up and took me to a house just around the corner from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Like the glass house in the Grenadines, this place, an art nouveau mansion, was full of art. I knew most of the pictures, but only as photographs because the paintings had always been the property of the hideously rich. If Henry decided to sell just the pictures and sculptures on the ground floor in this house, he could probably have made enough after taxes to pay for a hundred shuttle launches with full payloads.


After lunch, Henry got down to business. He wanted to talk about secrecy.


“I thought you thought there was no need to go into that,” I said.


“This is not about you keeping secrets. I mean secrecy itself.”


Fascinating topic.


I said, “Henry, I understand that it would be a serious mistake to tell the world what you plan to do, if that’s what we’re talking about.”


Henry said, “Quite soon we’re going to start doing things that can’t be hidden from the world—the launches, the assembly of the spacecraft in orbit, the recruitment and training of the crew, the collection of specimens...”


I twitched.


Henry noticed my reaction but did not elaborate. “And a lot more,” he said. “How do we explain this?”


“Why not just tell the truth?” I asked. “Henry Peel is launching a spaceship. Nobody will be surprised.”


“They’ll want to know why I’m doing it.”


I said, “You don’t have to tell them. Everyone knows how secretive you can be. Maybe you just think it’s time for private enterprise to break the government monopoly on space travel once and for all. Maybe you’ve had one of your amazing ideas, which you are not at liberty to describe.”


“We can’t mislead,” Henry said.


“Who’s misleading? Everything will be out in the open except the purpose of the enterprise.”


“Exactly. So?”


“So who advertises purposes?”


A few days later, an earthquake registering 6.1 on the Richter scale occurred in rural Missouri. In the days that followed, tremors of similar magnitude occurred all over the world, including a number of places where earthquakes were unusual. A volcano in Ecuador and another in Alaska erupted. It snowed in summer on the South Island of New Zealand. Overnight, figuratively speaking, the North Pole moved a full degree of longitude in the direction of Siberia.


Without really knowing why, I worried about the compound of yurts in Hsi-tau. I felt even greater anxiety about the circle of big rockets we had overflown as the Gulfstream came in for a landing. Were these really nuclear missiles aimed at the USA, as I had assumed, or were they launch vehicles for components of Henry’s spaceship? If this was a secret missile site, why hadn’t the Chinese blown it up? If the rockets belonged to Henry, as seemed more probable every second I thought about it, I had less to teach him about hiding things in plain sight than I had given myself credit for.


My life had become a marathon of uncertainties.


Sometimes, crazily, I thought I was in love.


~ * ~











as well have been. I was getting practically no sleep. My routine was taking a beating. My habit was to finish work, lollygag for four hours, go for a run, take a shower, put on my pajamas, make a salad or order takeout and read a junk book while eating it, then watch a movie or a ballgame. In the pre-Henry era I had usually fallen asleep halfway through the movie or in the top of the fifth inning. Since going through the looking glass, I was more likely to watch the movie or the game until the end, then read until dawn—good book or bad, it didn’t matter. The alternative was to lie on my back, thinking about the end of things, eyes wide open, watching a window full of yellowish city light pulsing as if synchronized to my breath.


Listen to me!
I would tell myself. No matter how certain or how near the end might be, worrying, much less imagining a romance that would never happen, was a waste of whatever time was left to the world. But I didn’t listen to my saner self—who does?—and I didn’t sleep. The enemy I lived with was not fear. It was realization. This thing, this Event was going to happen. Henry said so. Even if I fell asleep for a while—and now and then I couldn’t help but do so—I would wake with a start, realizing I would see it sooner or later—waves of solid ground filled with boulders sweeping in a towering tsunami across the continents, dust bursting like umber spindrift from the monster as it knocked down cities and mountains and sucked the water from lakes and seas and inhaled all this into itself, changing everything forever. It was always the destruction of inanimate objects—not the death of man but the erasure of his works—that made my heart ache and my lungs fail me. I could not explain this to myself.

4.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Smash Cut by Sandra Brown
Paris Requiem by Lisa Appignanesi
Ensayo sobre la lucidez by José Saramago
Appropriate Place by Lise Bissonnette
Secret Magdalene by Longfellow, Ki
Our Song by Morse, Jody, Morse, Jayme
Can't Go Home (Oasis Waterfall) by Stone, Angelisa Denise