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Authors: Jack McDevitt

Moonfall

BOOK: Moonfall
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Jack McDevitt
Moonfall

For Fran and Brian Cole,
the Clearwater Desperadoes

Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.

—Theodore Roosevelt

C
HAPTER
O
NE
TOTALITY

Monday, April 8, 2024

1.

Cruise Liner
Merrivale
, eastern Pacific.
5:21
A.M.
Zone (9:21
A.M.
EDT)

The
Merrivale
was bound for Honolulu, four days out of Los Angeles, when the eclipse began. Few of the passengers got up to watch the event. But Horace Brickmann, who’d paid a lot of money for this cruise, wanted Amy to understand he was a man with broad scientific and artistic interests.
Yes
, he’d told her last night while they stood near the lifeboats and listened to the steady thrum of the ship’s engines and watched the bow wave roll out into the dark,
total solar eclipse. Wouldn’t miss it. To be honest, it’s why I came
. And when she’d pointed out that the eclipse would also be visible across much of the United States, he’d added smoothly that it wasn’t quite the same.

She’d hinted she’d also like to see the event. Amy had been beautiful in the starlight, and his heart had pumped ferociously, bringing back memories of his twenties, which he recalled as a time of romance and passion. It was Horace’s impression
he’d
terminated the various relationships of his youth, much to the despair of the women; that in those early days he had not been ready for serious commitment. But still there were times he woke in the night regretting one or another of his lost paramours. He wondered occasionally where they were now and how they were doing.

It was an odd sort of dawn, Sun and Moon clasped together in a cold gray embrace. The ocean had grown rough and Horace sat in his chair sipping hot coffee, wondering what was
keeping Amy. He tugged his woolen sweater down over his belly and reminded himself that it was dangerous to look directly at the spectacle. Most of the other early risers had brought blankets, but Horace wanted to cut a dashing figure and the blanket just didn’t fit the image.

To his consternation, a voluble banker whom he’d met the previous day appeared before him, greeted him with the kind of cheeriness that’s always irritating early in the morning, and sat down in an adjoining deck chair. “Marvelous experience, this,” said the banker, lifting his eyes in the general direction of the eclipse while extracting a folded copy of the
Wall Street Journal
from a pocket of his nautical blue blazer. He tried to read the paper in the gray light but gave up and dropped it on his lap.

He began to chatter about commodities and convertibles and price-earnings ratios. Horace’s eyes swept the near-empty decks. A middle-aged man at the rail was watching the eclipse through sunglasses. A steward strolled casually over and offered him one of the viewing devices the ship had been distributing. Horace was too far away to hear the conversation, but he saw the man’s annoyed expression. Nevertheless, he accepted the viewer, waited until the steward had turned away, dropped it into a pocket, and went back to gazing at the Sun. The banker babbled on, fearful that the Fed would raise the prime rate again.

The wind was beginning to pick up.

The steward approached Horace and the banker, holding out the devices. “You don’t want to look directly at it, gentlemen,” he said. Horace took one. It consisted of a blue plastic tube about six inches wide, with a tinfoil disk attached to one end. “Point it toward the eclipse, sir,” said the steward, “and it’ll project the Sun’s image onto the disk. You’ll be able to watch in perfect safety.” The tube was decorated with the ship’s profile and name. Horace thanked him.

She was now twenty minutes late. But Amy had an eight-year-old daughter to take care of, so there was a degree of unpredictability in any rendezvous.

He became aware suddenly that the banker had asked a question. “I’m sorry,” Horace said. “My mind was elsewhere.”

“No problem, partner.” The man was finishing up with middle age. He was oversized and prosperous-looking. His hair was shoe-polish black, and the deck chair complained whenever he shifted weight. “I know just what you mean.”

A deep dusk had settled over the ship. The banker cleared his throat and essayed a quick look at his watch. He had to raise his arm, so that the face of the instrument caught a reflection from a porthole. It seemed almost as if by consulting the time he was exercising control over the event. The last of the gray light drained from the sky and the corona blazed out, pale and somber. Horace heard awed conversation and drawing in of breath.

The stars emerged, and the ocean was swallowed up in the dark.

“Wonderful thing, nature,” said the banker. “Beautiful.”

Horace mumbled an appropriate response.

Over the course of an hour or so, the event concluded, the eclipse passed, and the banker went in to breakfast. Amy didn’t show up, and the
Merrivale
plowed through a sea that remained gray and unsettled.

Horace stayed in his chair a long time. A damp chill had stolen over him. Later, wandering the decks, he saw Amy and her daughter at a dining table with several others. She was deep in animated conversation with a man Horace had seen going off the high-dive yesterday. He lingered for a moment but she never looked up.

It was as if the shadow that fell across the ship had touched the heart of the world.

Space Station L1,
Percival Lowell
Flight Deck. 8:03
A.M.

There was never a time we didn’t know that the canals were bunk, that
Percival Lowell’
s network of interconnecting lines, and the areas that darkened in the summer as the water flowed, were just so much self-delusion. Adams and Dunham, in 1933, before I was born, showed that Martian oxygen was less than one-tenth of a percent of the terrestrial level. That should have been enough. But people still hoped, even as late as when I was in high school during the sixties. Until
Mariner 4
sent back those godawful pictures just after Thanksgiving 1964 and we knew we were looking at the end
.

Rachel Quinn’s grandfather had wanted to be an astronomer, but he went to the wrong college because it was local and it didn’t cost much. He had to take what they offered and somehow he ended up as an accountant. But he owned a marvelous telescope, one through which Rachel had seen Jupiter’s moons and the demon star Algol and the Great Comet of 2011. And she too had thought what a pity it was that Mars had no canals.

The thought was in her mind a lot these days as they prepared for launch. How different this mission might have been, had there been someone at the other end.
Welcome, people of Earth
. Well, Mars has some primitive biological forms, but nothing that would take note of her arrival.

She wondered why the drive to find other beings among the lights in the sky was so strong. It was, in fact, so deeply ingrained that no one ever seemed to make the point that we’d be far safer if we were alone.

Launch was twenty-two days away. Sunlight blazed through the windows and gleamed off
Lowell
’s silver prow. They were at the Lagrange One station, popularly known as L1, suspended between Earth and Moon, fifty-eight thousand kilometers above the lunar surface. And they were ready to go. The ship’s nuclear power plant had been tested in the Mojave Desert and in lunar orbit; its navigational systems were already
locked on Mars; its survey gear was loaded; spare parts were on board; and the video library was in place. One of the technicians had programmed its control circuit to ask Rachel each morning a variant of the question, “Is it time yet?”

NASA had invited schoolchildren around the world to name the nuclear-powered vessel that was going to Mars. The winner would receive a trip out to L1 to get photographed with the six astronauts and to watch the launch. Hundreds of thousands of suggestions had poured in, names in all the languages of Earth. An army of secretaries and junior assistants and interns had culled through the deluge, relaying those that seemed to have originality and flavor to a panel of judges. There’d been rumors of animosity and deadlock, and one judge did in fact resign, but the panel eventually emerged with its choice: the
Percival Lowell
.

There was irony in calling the Mars vessel after a man who had been both monumentally wrong, and persistent in that error until his death.
But he had dreamed
, the winner said,
for all of us. Without him, we would not have had Barsoom or the Chronicles. The irresistible ache that carries us outward was born with
Percival Lowell. That was the phrase that stuck in Rachel’s mind. She didn’t agree with it, but you could make a plausible argument for it.

The child was Chinese, a high school senior from Canton, who was scheduled to arrive in two weeks with the rest of the crew. So far, other than herself, only geologist/flight engineer Lee Cochran was aboard.

Rachel didn’t much care what sort of name they stenciled on the hull as long as the ship was ready to go. And for the first time in her experience with government projects, everything seemed set with time to spare.

The
Lowell
consisted of a long central stem, with flight deck and crew areas forward and the nuclear engine at the rear. Crew areas, but not the flight deck, could be rotated to simu
late .07 g. It wasn’t enough to make the trip comfortable, but it approached the effect generated on the station itself, and was almost half lunar gravity. A lander was tucked under the belly of the craft. Sensor dishes, telescopes, feeder ports, and antennas projected from the hull.

The engines were powered by a Variable Specific Impulse Plasma drive. The system, electrodeless, electrothermal, radio-frequency heated, and magnetically vectored, had been designed during the late 1990s, but not actively developed until President Culpepper took the decision to push for a Mars mission as the natural second step after the establishment of Moonbase.

Years ago Rachel had flown a prototype moonbus on powdered aluminum and liquid oxygen. Now she sat atop a nuclear monster that would take her across the interplanetary void.

It was a nice feeling.

The hatch to the flight deck opened and Lee poked his head in. “Hello, Rache. What are you doing
here?

She was seated in the pilot’s chair. The day’s simulations were over and she felt almost guilty, as if she’d been caught playing solitaire with the computer. “Smelling the roses,” she said. It seemed now that her entire life had been directed toward this moment, had been intended to get her into this seat. And she was making it a point to savor the success. She’d wanted it when she was ten years old, peeking through Grandpop’s telescope. It had been in the back of her mind when she went to flight school, when she was flying patrols over Zagreb, and when she’d begun piloting the buses between the lunar installations and L1. When Culpepper announced nine years ago that the nation would go to Mars, Rachel Quinn had fired off an application before the speech ended. “Where should I be?” she asked Lee.

“It’s Monday. Director’s breakfast.”

She’d forgotten. Yesterday she had lunch with the vice president, who’d been passing through to do the honors at the Moonbase ribbon-cutting ceremony this afternoon. Today it was to have been bacon and eggs with the station director. Tomorrow it would be another lunch, this time with a Chinese delegation of diplomats and industrialists. It seemed as if the most time-consuming part of her job was rubbing shoulders with every VIP who arrived on L1. And with the Mars flight imminent, and Moonbase officially opening today, there’d been a horde of heavyweights.

Lee frowned. “Another faux pas for the NASA team.”

Rachel shrugged, trying to suggest she had more important things to do. But in fact they were well ahead of schedule.

Most of the
Lowell
jutted outside the station. Only the forward sphere, which contained the flight deck, was enclosed within a pressurized bay. She looked down at a single technician switching umbilicals. “I’m ready to go, Lee,” she said.

So was the ship. It was now only a matter of briefings and politics.

Lee sat down in the copilot’s seat. An image of Mars, wide and bleak and rust-colored, floated in the overhead display. “It’ll come soon enough,” he said. “Meantime, I think you ought to get yourself over to the breakfast. You’re the star of the show these days, and it wouldn’t look real good if you ignored the director.”

Rachel frowned. “I hate the politics involved with these things.” Actually, she didn’t. Not all of it, anyhow. She’d enjoyed meeting the vice president yesterday. But it was part of the astronaut code that all groundhuggers, even vice presidents, were comparative unfortunates. Members of an inferior species.

“What the hell, Rache, grow up.” He grinned. Major Lee Cochran was tall and easygoing, with animated good looks and hair that consistently fell into his eyes. “Half the job is politics
and public relations. Who do you think pays for this toy?” He was the media darling of the crew. Still in his thirties, he’d shown up last month on somebody-or-other’s list of ten most eligible bachelors. Unlike Rachel and the others, he had a talent for delivering quotable lines. He was a twin kill, two for the price of one, an astronaut flight engineer who was also a world-class geologist. Cochran would eventually use the lasers and sample collectors to get at the heart of Mars, to begin putting together, finally, a definitive history of the planet. Still, though no one would admit it, it wasn’t his technical skill that had gotten him the assignment, but his ability to relate to the media.
He says the right thing
, the mission director had told her.
Talk to him before you go down the ladder. Get his input. Listen to Lee and there’ll be no more of that “giant leap for mankind” crap
.

Yeah. Rachel had pretended her feelings were hurt, but the man was right. As was Lee now. If they didn’t want to repeat the Apollo scenario, make a couple of trips to Mars and say good-bye, they needed to take the PR seriously.

Moonbase Spaceport. 8:11
A.M.

When Vice President Charles L. Haskell stepped out of the microbus onto the passenger walkway, he became simultaneously the highest-ranking U.S. government executive ever to set foot on the Moon, and an overgrown ten-year-old kid. His heart hammered and he very deliberately placed his foot on the exit ramp that led directly through a tube into the passenger lounge. He thought,
Yes, this is it, I’m really here
. He took a deep breath, recalling the dinosaurs and model starships that had once filled his life. He passed an innocuous remark to Rick Hailey to hide his feelings, and accepted the handshakes of the Moonbase officials waiting to greet him.

BOOK: Moonfall
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