The Listening Glass
Acrophobia. It always hit him here, midway on the catwalk. He let his gloves slide along the guidewires. Within the bulky gloves his palms sweated profusely. Ahead of him and even higher up, the catwalk ended at the antenna suspended on the convergence of three sets of immensely long cables. There was nothing under the antenna. Nothing. Hard vacuum, underlined with a thin, curved shell of material that gleamed coldly in the downward periphery of his vision. He dared not look down. If he did he would freeze.
The antenna’s present position left too much slack in the catwalk for his liking. Every step caused a ripple to propagate up the catwalk ahead of his boots. In the confines of his suit helmet, his breathing sounded too quick and ragged. He tore his eyes away from the alarming frailty of the catwalk and fixed them on the motionless horizon, the tangle of crater rims on the dark gray edge of the world. The horizon reminded him that this was the Moon. It had only one-sixth of the gravity of Earth. Fact: the catwalk was rated to carry twice the mass represented by himself plus spacesuit. Doggedly he kept going.
The antenna resembled a large leggy spider, hanging upside down on flimsy strands of web. Appearances were deceiving on the Moon. The cables could easily support the antenna plus a work crew in spacesuits. Had done so during the construction phase. Making the structure sturdy enough for Earth gravity would have been over-designing to a ludicrous extent. Nevertheless, he was acutely aware of the vertical vacuum under the antenna, exceeding the height of the towering rocket that brought the first men to the Moon five decades ago. He made a quick and rather morbid mental calculation. You could stack one and a half Saturn Fives under the antenna.
His mouth felt very dry. And he detested the scratchy inorganic tang on his tongue. He could taste the gray indifference of this world. The acrophobia had never been this bad before. But then he’d never gone up to the antenna alone. At night. Stars, unsympathetic, icily burning, filled the black sky. Starlight thousands of years old rained down, and it pooled far below his feet. He resisted the urge to look down into the vast, cold, mesmerizing shimmer of it. People could freeze up here, in such a paralytic state of fright that somebody had to come up and retrieve them. He could, and probably should, turn around, go back to the habitat, and not mention this abortive excursion. No. Take another step, another, another: he was not going to let the acrophobia get to him.
This trip up to the antenna seemed to be taking a lifetime, as if the catwalk were as long as his life span. In a way, it was.
The catwalk began in the fifth grade, to be exact, with a report card that included a glaring D in Science. Bright and bored in classes taught by mediocre teachers to pupils of average intelligence, he had been indifferent to grades. But the D stung. The class started an astronomy unit. Reports were assigned, prepared, presented. The others read silly little pages about The Moon or The Planet Jupiter — childish, inept transcriptions from the encyclopedia. But he really researched his topic, at the public library. In front of the class, he drew a line down the whole length of the chalkboard to represent the electromagnetic spectrum; he showed them the small fraction of the spectrum taken up by visible light, and the far greater span of radio. He explained how radio telescopes revealed the invisible mysteries of the universe. He showed them. The next report card featured an A-plus in Science. And he had done astronomy ever since, from the backyard telescope to the vast machine on which he treaded now.
He checked his position. Fifty feet from where the catwalk ended at the antenna. The antenna was mobile within a volume of space of some hundreds of cubic meters. And when it moved, the end of the catwalk moved with it. Of course he had put the safety switch on. Hadn’t he? He should not have thought about that. He froze. The moonsuit had a radio. Maybe he should tell someone what he was up to. His throat constricted. He felt his motor muscles congealing too.
With an angry act of will, he started going again. He reached the antenna platform.
Then he let it happen, impulsively looked down, through the grate of the platform floor, and past the wide wheel with the azimuth arm hanging on it; down, into the crater full of radio telescope. The edge of it marked an immense circle like an inverse horizon. Triumphant and vertiginous, he clung to the platform’s guard rail. The last steps were the hardest. It was just that simple.
There had been dreary years of delay, constipation of funds, and design compromise. And then the last and hardest part. Construction. The fact that the site was on the far side of the Moon had amplified every difficulty, every mistake, by at least an order of magnitude. But now it was finished, real, and ready to be tested, first thing tomorrow. He had come up here tonight to make sure that one last detail was put right before the big day. As a manager, people said, he was too detail-oriented.
In the center of the platform stood a dog-house sized metal box which housed the equipment, which contained the detail that he was after. Making himself let go of the rail, he strode toward the housing. There was nothing to hold onto between the guardrail and the equipment housing.
Then he noticed the lights on the corners of the platform. They flashed a red warning strobe. The antenna was being repositioned. Shocked, he stared. It wasn’t supposed to happen with someone up here! But the structure slewed under his feet. He made a panic lunge, launched himself toward the equipment housing.
Colliding with the housing, he failed to secure a handhold on the slick box, and ricocheted off. The platform dropped underneath him. He could not find stopping traction as he skidded toward the far edge of the platform. Desperately he grabbed at the guardrail, with the full force of his Earth-powered muscles, misdirected. He reached too high and jackknifed over the rail. He flailed. Then he started falling.
The azimuth arm wheeled around. It went by at the limits of his desperate reach; his glove brushed the metal frame. The arm moved away. He tumbled. Across his sight swung the azimuth arm’s wheel, stars, the silver chasm of dish.
He fell slowly and realized it. A hammer and a feather have the same acceleration on the Moon and so does a man falling to his death. He had time to think. Not necessarily death. If the dish stopped him cold, it would definitely kill him. If the dish broke instantly, it would barely slow him down, and hitting the crater floor would kill him. But if the dish broke slowly it might actually break his fall.
The sides of the dish rose up with the ominous leisure of a mounting tidal wave. Just before the wave broke, he tried to fold the bulky spacesuit, cannonball, as though he were falling into a net.
His swaddled shoulder took the impact. The shocked dish gave way, slowly. Then it tore, letting him drop to the crater floor. He hit the floor bone-bruisingly hard, bounced, and finally sprawled on his back.
To his surprise, he was not dead. But he had the wind knocked out of him. He gasped for air. From the jagged hole in the dish above him, fragments drifted down, tumbling. He couldn’t breathe. Darkness with red veins closed in on him. Faintly he heard a clamor in his suit radio. “John! John!” Somebody sounded hysterical. He tried to answer. All he could get out was a broken wheeze.
The ongoing clamor in his ears bothered John. Garbled words. Verbal static. Finally, something intelligible. “ETA twenty minutes. Keep the victim immobile.”
“Roger, Yuegong Base, hurry!”
He took inventory of his body. Dull pain here and there. He rolled over with a pained grunt.
A young man jumped in front of John and he recognized Edward. The computer engineer. Edward waved his hands. “Don’t move!”
There was a woman whirling away from the radio station where she had been standing. He knew her too. Jennifer said, “Good Lord!”
“Good morning,” he said thickly. “Tell ’em to turn back. I’m all right.” With an effort, John sat up.
Edward pleaded, “Please don’t move!”
John tried an exaggerated shrug, then rolled his head. Didn’t feel too bad, considering. If this had been Earth and Earth’s weighty gravity, he would have been dead.
Jennifer hurried over. “Lie back down! You’re hurt even if you don’t have enough sense to know it!”
“I want to know who moved the antenna,” he said.
“I’m terribly sorry!” Edward blurted. “Your colleague sent a message saying that it was very important to look at the supernova right away without even waiting for tomorrow morning, so I entered the coordinates, I didn’t know you were up there!”
“Baltazar,” said Jennifer. “Just what were you doing up there?”
“What supernova?” John asked.
“You forgot to put the safety on.”
John frowned. “I put it on.”
“The antenna won’t move with the safety on.”
“I put it on! Edward, check the safety switch!”
“Yes sir.” Edward scuttled to the control panel. He called back, “It’s on!” A very young, very honest man, he went on to say, “This is my fault too — I never once thought to test the safety switch circuit!”
“Not your job,” John said.
“Oh, but I should have—”
“No, not you.” Jennifer shook her head. “So it’s faulty. What a way to find out.”
Vindicated, John swung his feet around. They had deposited him on the overnight cot here in the control room. His moonsuit lay in the corner, sadly dirty and disassembled. Jennifer’s Chinese colleague, Zheng, crouched there, staring at the suit. The drift of his thoughts was easy to guess. Scuffs and scrapes marred the moonsuit’s outer fabric. The cranium of the helmet had a terrible dent in it. John felt a strange internal quiver that must have been a shudder. Anxiously he inventoried his body once more. All dull pains, except one tiny sharp one needling the base of his head. “I’m OK,” he said shakily. “You can all go to bed or whatever.”
“Not after having the living daylights scared out of us like this!” Jen retorted, and she added, “This isn’t some hotel to go sauntering around alone at night, you old fool!”
That wasn’t fair. He hadn’t been sauntering. And she had as many gray hairs as he did.
She refused to tell the medical rescue team from Yuegong Base to turn back.
The team, two men, thundered in through the airlock with a medivac cocoon, ready to stuff an unconscious victim into it and bundle him away. John pointed out that he could move all of his limbs and digits and felt basically intact.
The doctor, with the red cross on the arm of his coverall, frowned. “Internal injuries are very deceptive under conditions of low gravity. You need to be examined in the hospital.”
“Take him!” Jennifer said emphatically.
At least they let him sit up, belted into a cramped seat behind the pilot. Moondust sprayed past the porthole at his shoulder as the moonhopper took off. The dust cleared as the hopper gained altitude. Then he could see Sand Lake with its rim wall around a wide pale plain. There lay a patch of silver threads, an incongruous cross-stitch on the hoop of lunar plain: the Lunar Far-Side Very Low Frequency Array, LFSVLFA, Jennifer’s project.
The hopper looped around to its intended course. John glimpsed the radio dish, filling the crater Bolton on the edge of Sand Lake. He ought to have been inspecting the damage instead of going to the hospital at Yuegong Base.
Sure he was sick. Sick of Sand Lake, sick of the hardscrabble living conditions here. Sick of the Bolton dish. It had been a mistake on his part to move up into management. A big mistake to take over the project manager’s job when Phil Taylor was disqualified by a heart condition. If it had been Phil today, taking that heart-stopping fall, the hopper would be ferrying a corpse back to Yuegong Base.
Less busy now, the pilot called back, hospitably, “Anybody want a Lifesaver?”
“Bad for your teeth,” the doctor disapproved.
“Good for the dustmouth,” the pilot rejoined, amiably.
“Thanks.” Carefully John extracted one piece from the battered roll. Cherry. He welcomed it to mask the bitter tang of failure in his mouth.
The giant crater Schrödinger rolled under the moonhopper. Sand Lake was a detail in the rough rim of Schrödinger, just as Bolton pocked the edge of Sand Lake. The far side of the Moon: big holes have little ones cratered in to blight them, little ones have lesser ones, and so ad infinitum. A short while later, the hopper passed the unmistakable ringed plain Humboldt. Something flashed in Humboldt like pale green heat lightning. A moonflash, lunar rock that sparked as it cooled off after the long hot day.
Below and ahead of the hopper, the terminator, the edge of the day, threw the moonscape into vivid relief, craters dark, rims bright. The crawling terminator would take four weeks to make it around the Moon back to this place. The hopper easily overtook and left it behind. The sun glared in John’s porthole. He pulled down the sun filter. In the hopper’s wide cockpit window, the airless sky was black as ever over the sunlit horizon. The arc of horizon featured a wide shallow depression, the profile of the Sea of Crises.
“There she blows!” the pilot sang out. And then the Earth rose out of Crisium. The edge of night bowed from pole to pole; day was a crescent of brilliant, glazed blue. The home planet hung on the Moon’s stars as lightly as a Christmas ornament in a tree. John started to cry.
The other two men had fallen silent. Fingers pressed to the corners of his eyes, John squelched the tears. He heard a pen scratching on paper. The doctor. Making notes.
The pilot took it upon himself to dispel the awkward silence. “Ever read the book Voyager? About the first plane to fly around the world?”
“As a matter of fact, yes,” John managed to answer in an even tone.
“That’s my all-time favorite book,” said the pilot. They were traversing the Sea of Crises now, with the beautiful blue globe of Earth ascendant in the cockpit window. “I always think about that when I see the Earth up there. They flew around the world — around that!” The pilot waved a hand at the Earth. “Nine days, one tank of gas, no stopping, right by one typhoon and over the mountains of Africa, and everything — I see a typhoon up there now.”
The hopper skirted Serenity, and then began the final approach to its destination. Skillfully the pilot swooped over the rill and the mountain both named Hadley. A glint of sunlight marked the Apollo 15 Memorial. It was a very long way down. Fear of falling clenched John’s stomach with a vengeance.
The radio crackled on with the information that a squad of paramedics would meet the hopper at the port. What was the status of the victim?
“Not to worry,” the pilot replied. “There’s nothing really wrong with him that a few days of Earthshine won’t cure.”
“They want my opinion, not yours,” said the doctor, icily.
“Hey, I know what I’m talking about. I been on the Moon for two years and you just got here!” said the pilot, and nodded to John. “See ya around.”
The doctor ordered a complete physical examination. John felt tired. He just wanted to rest. Instead he was stripped and prodded and sampled, while his examiners talked in grave undertones about multiple contusions. Meaning bruises.
John had to argue for permission to make a call out. This is like jail, he thought grimly, one phone call if you insist. Finally they let him use the hospital uplink. He got a connection to Washington, DC, USA, Earth, with the bill for it to be sent to the Space Radio Astronomy Consortium. SPARAC’s budget was tight, and the call would have to be held to a few minutes, no more. No problem. What he had to tell the Consortium’s executive director was short and not sweet.
“I don’t believe this!” was Schropfer’s initial reaction. “There’s only one manmade structure on the Moon more than three hundred feet high, and you fall off it?!”
“I didn’t expect the antenna to move under me!”
“Why didn’t you just hang on?”
“I panicked,” John grated. “What’s this crap about a supernova, anyway?”
“There’s a brand new one in the Magellanic clouds. Baltazar was beside himself with curiosity, and it occurred to him to try the Bolton dish on it.”
“He had my approval,” Schropfer said mildly. “Would have been good PR, a nice headline. NEW LUNAR RADIO TELESCOPE STUDIES SUPERNOVA.”
“What for?” John asked coldly.
“Good question. Baltazar prevailed upon VLBA America to take a look. But at a declination of minus 73 degrees, only the dishes in Hawaii and the Virgin Islands could pick it up at all, just over their southern horizon. The data was noisy.
“The Australia Telescope happens to be committed to a configuration incompatible with investigating the supernova. And VLBA Pacifica is all buttoned up because of a typhoon bearing down on Easter Island. That leaves Bolton. Which is in just the right place and ready for its first trial run.”
“I’d like a full report on all this.”
“I take it you haven’t checked your email,” said Schropfer.
“They won’t let me out of the hospital tonight! They’re wasting my time and theirs, because I feel fine—”
“A 591-foot fall is not trivial, my friend. Not even on the Moon.”
“The dish absorbed most of the impact.”
With a delay of two and a half seconds, the signal traveled to Earth and Schropfer’s reply came back. Schropfer seemed to pause longer than that, though, before John finally heard him say, “That’s too bad.”
Being in the hospital offered one single advantage: hot showers. John rubbed a clear spot in the fogged bathroom mirror and inspected his contusions. Dark bruises blotched his back, with smaller and more painful yellow spots.
It was well past midnight, Moon Mean Time. That left just enough night for it to be a very bad one. He dozed off, felt himself falling, and jerked awake in a sweat, his heart fluttering. With a loud scuff of shoe soles on a floor with a high coefficient of friction, the nurse walked in to check on him. Finally, in the last hour or two, he slept. He dreamed about moon-gray dust spattered with the vivid red of blood.
In the morning they let him go. Still wearing the despicable plastic bracelet on his wrist, he left the hospital building. The skylight over Dave Scott Plaza framed the crescent Earth. He paused to admire Earth, and another pedestrian, presumably late and rushing to work, promptly ran into him. Suddenly John wondered whether his idiotic fall had been publicized. Did people here in Yuegong Base know all about it? The prospect mortified him. Breaking into a hot sweat, he hurried toward his office.
The office was an out-of-the-way cube of space shared with the staff of the Yuegong Sino-American Observatory. None of them had arrived for the day yet. He checked the clock. 8:13 a.m. Typical, he thought: astronomers tend not to exist at that hour of the morning. He found the report from Schropfer in his email inbox, and a video file from Ramona. Remembering one last roll of wintergreen candy, somewhere in his desk, he rummaged to find it. Then he viewed the video. He sat down and sucked on a piece of candy as he watched his wife’s image.
Her backdrop was recognizable girderwork, the bolted-together but unfinished interior of the big space station under construction at Earth-Moon Lagrange Point Five. “Hi. I’m in the center of L-5 Station.” She placed a pen in the air in front of her. It hovered with a slight slow drift. “No gravity. So I’m not going to be saying anything too serious!” She smiled, not with her lips but rather with her brown eyes. She had secured her long brown hair in Apache braids. Very much his Ramona. She retrieved the pen before it drifted away. “I have a friend I want to introduce you to. He’s very nice.”
Instantly, John felt a pang of jealousy.
Ramona whistled softly, “C’mere, sweetie!” Something fluttered into the picture. A bunch of highly active feathers. It attached itself to Ramona’s proffered finger, and resolved into a parakeet, perched upside down relative to her. “This is my little friend Admiral. Admiral Bird!” Ramona declared. So much for jealousy. The bird wasn’t even green, it was blue. Ramona gently turned her hand and the parakeet upright. “People thought birds would freak out in zero gravity. Not Admiral! He’s learned how to fly here.” The bird preened the feathers of one wing. “Humans can fly in zero g too….” She finished with a shy glance and a curl of a smile.
He understood, and he longed for her. The last time he visited Ramona in L-5, she had taken him to a special corridor of the space station. Not finished or furnished, the management intended it to be a weightless art gallery at a future date. It had a picture window full of stars and Moon and shining Earth. Quite unofficially, it served the inhabitants of L-5 as Lover’s Lane in zero g. Where, as Ramona put it, you could make love like the birds called white-throated swifts, which mate in the air, tumbling together as they fly in the canyons of the West.
She ended the video by saying, “I wish it wasn’t three more weeks before you come to L-5 again. I love you and honor what you’re doing. Make it work.”
It was very quiet in the office. The resident astronomers had yet to appear. Odd. Enjoying the privacy, he read the report on the supernova.
Right ascension one hour, six minutes; declination minus seventy-three degrees. That put the supernova in the Small Magellanic Cloud and closer than any supernova since the 1987 event in the Large Magellanic Cloud. OK. An interesting object. But supernovas weren’t great radio sources, not until well after the catastrophic fact.
In the case of SN 1987A (appended) the neutrino blast came first, then ultraviolet. Then the balefire blaze of visible light. Satellite observatories picked up x-radiation six months later and gamma rays right after that. Eleven years later came the first whisper of synchrotron radio emission, and the first radiograph of the supernova remnant was produced by the VLA, a blurry image of the clotted shell of matter thrown into space when the giant blue star exploded.
The detection of a pulsar had been announced in 1989. And retracted in 1990. The “pulsar” turned out to have been a fluke in the observing equipment at Cerro Tololo. The real thing had yet to be confirmed: thirty years and still no pulsar, though theory predicted that the supernova should have left one to mark its place.
Baltazar knew all of this, yet hadn’t been able to wait even a day to have a look at this newest supernova!
The VLBA data was interesting in a Rorschach way — the human brain could imagine something significant in it. Much less imaginative, the VLBA supercomputer had not managed to massage the data into anything recognizable. Schropfer had been in management, fund-raising, begging for bucks, so long that he couldn’t even make a sound scientific judgment anymore, John thought disgustedly. He rubbed his neck. There was a nagging twinge, a crick in his neck. It bothered him more than the soreness and stiffness of the remainder of his body.
Dec -73. Solidly in the Bolton reflector’s observing swath on the celestial sphere. And RA 0106. The supernova had appeared near Bolton’s zenith. Ironic: right now Bolton was in a great position to register the radio data that might take months and years to show up.
John called Schropfer again. “For what it’s worth to look at the supernova, we can repair the dish,” he said, without preamble. “Some segments fell out. But we have spares in case of micrometeorite hits.”
Schropfer shook his head grimly. “Jen did a damage assessment, which I just got. It’s worse than a hole. Two of the support pylons are buckled and the whole dish is sagging. As in, out of round. As in, inoperable!”
“What did you expect? You’re two hundred pounds on Earth, the suit’s just about that much more, and I’m too upset right now to convert to newtons of force that hit the dish! How in the name of perdition am I going to meet the cost of replacing pylons?”
In shock, John shook his head. The Space Radio Consortium subsisted on whatever money its member universities could spare. Plus funding that Schropfer elicited from government and the private sector. Building the Bolton dish had blown the seams of SPARAC’s budget and, furthermore, had put SPARAC embarrassingly in debt to the SETI Society. Schropfer continued, “Yuegong Hospital sent me a report on you, too. I conclude that the worst damage to you is your ego. Too bad. It would have been cheaper to fix your bones than the bones of the dish!”
Thanks for the sympathy, John thought, you little son-of-a-bitch! He signed off curtly. The pain in the neck had a name now. Schropfer.
John’s workstation chimed. There was Jen’s report, just in. Twelve lines long. She didn’t specify what did the damage. As if God or the impersonal universe had flicked something into the dish. She was very specific, though, about the extent of the damage. And the result. To function, the reflector had to have a perfect spherical curve. And now it didn’t. It sagged. He felt sick.
John left the office. Rapidly he walked through the service tunnel toward Yuegong’s moonport. Residual moon dust rasped underfoot. Half-formed in his mind was the idea of quitting. Just like that. Give up and walk away. And let Schropfer have the whole mess.
First he had to find out when the next shuttle to L-5 would be leaving Yuegong Base.
He happened to see the Port Director’s administrative assistant before she saw him. He disliked her: brightly blonde and polished, she always smiled too much, insincerely and in the context of explaining why it would not be possible for the Port to meet some need on the part of the Sand Lake project immediately, or according to the original schedule, or at all. He ducked into a hangar. Watching the woman walk by, he compared her to Ramona, very unfavorably.
A casually uniformed man approached, wiping his hands with a towel. “May we help you?”
“I’m — looking for one of the pilots.” John remembered the name stenciled on the blue jumpsuit. “Cantu.”
“Over there in the moonhopper. Bang on the side.”
John went that way, vaguely framing his inquiry about transportation to L-5. It ought to sound casual, he thought. A sharp smell of hot glue permeated the hangar. As he walked on the floor he felt traces of something underfoot, not gray moon grit, but slick plastic powder. The moonhopper had every service hatch and access panel wide open, and parts were lined up on the floor. When John banged as directed, Cantu popped out of a hatch. “Hi! Doin’ better? Did you know you almost had tons of company back at Sand Lake?”
“The observatory astronomers here. They went nuts. They would have gone right over to Sand Lake. Except it seems you don’t have room for them yet, or the power supply, or the connections for their instruments.”
“Not until Phase II,” John murmured.
“So they hauled out to L-5.”
Mired in Earth’s tidal forces, always facing Earth, rotating on its own axis only once a month, it would take the Moon days to turn far enough for the supernova to be seen from Yuegong Base. That accounted for the lack of life in the observatory office.
Cantu asked, “Ready to go back to study the supernova?”
Going to L-5 meant running away from his work and bumping into other astronomers who had rushed to L-5 to follow theirs. So going to L-5 was not an option. Dislocated from the idea that brought him to the port, his thoughts tumbled.
“In case you’re wondering, this vehicle isn’t deceased, just having preventative maintenance!” Cantu affectionately whacked the hull of the hopper.
John registered the hollow thump. “That’s not metal,” he said. “Come to think of it, metal doesn’t predominate in any of your spacecraft and vehicles. Composite materials do.”
“Huh? Oh, heck yeah. Fiber, resin, glass and glue is where it’s at. The Rutan Voyager was the first aircraft,” Cantu enthused, “to really exploit composite construction — otherwise no way they could have done it. Now everything in aerospace is like that.”
Thinking hard, John spoke slowly. “I’ve got a problem. My radio telescope was damaged yesterday. It’s not made of metal — here, that was neither necessary nor desirable. The understructure is a species of L-glass/thermoplastic composite.”
“I’ve got to get it fixed right away, and I have an idea, involving glue, but I need a professional opinion.”
“In that case, you were talking to the right guy in the first place!” Cantu whistled loudly. “Hey, Rod! That’s Sylvester Rodriquez. A master mechanic. Don’t call him grease monkey, more like glue monkey! Come into the break room and I’ll put on some coffee for us.”
Later that afternoon, he made a call to Ramona. She was unavailable, at work in the white room where she was a senior technician. So he left a message. He felt awkward. The accident had left a bruise on his chin, somehow banged against the helmet. “Hi, love,” he began. “I’m looking forward to meeting Admiral Bird. I’m in Yuegong Base right now because we had a problem with the dish yesterday. Right now — it’s Friday 3 p.m. — I’m on my way back to Sand Lake. I will make the dish work.” The last sentence came out with a vehemence that surprised him. Lamely he added, “I took a bit of a fall yesterday and — well, never mind, just a bruise or two. Have a good weekend up there. Bye.” He wanted to say more. But not to the L-5 Technical Support Division’s message machine.
Heavily laden this time, the moonhopper pitched up on the blast of its altitude jets. This time John rode shotgun, beside Cantu. He had a vertiginously good view of the lunar Apennine Mountains: a mosaic of intensely bright and dark shapes, geological chiaroscuro. Cantu flicked the jet controls. The hopper zoomed away toward the far side of the Moon.
Since yesterday, the terminator had moved further west, further from Sand Lake. Good. Temperatures would have settled down now, all cooled off, improving the chances of fixing the dish. “I really appreciate this,” he said aloud. “I’m sure you guys could find a more entertaining way to spend your weekend, even in Yuegong Base.”
Cantu laughed. “Supernovas don’t happen all the time, and everybody in Yuegong’s got the itch to see it. No way I’d pass up the chance to hear it.” These men weren’t European, Castilian, like Baltazar. Indian blood darkened their skin — reminding John of Ramona — and they had the kind of practical outlook that he had met in Mexican-American men before. “This job goes on my resume,” said Rodriguez, from the back seat.
The hopper made the transit from sunlight to night. Glaring gray moonscape turned to silver, a soft bluish silver: Earthlight graced the maria and the crater rims. Magnificent desolation, Aldrin had said. That was true, but only in the light of Earth. And the Earth was sinking into the horizon behind the hopper.
John thought about the Voyager and its long thin wings that flexed in flight. The two pilots had used biological metaphors to describe the experience. The plane porpoised. It felt like riding on the back of a pterodactyl. It flew like a great flapping seagull — around the Earth. Dick Rutan and Jeanna Yeager endured danger and discomfort, breaking-point emotional strain, nightmarish problems. He was no pilot, no derring-doer like those two. Like them, though, he had a machine made out of exotic materials, a dream, a dream machine that could frame a nightmare. Rutan and Yeager never gave up. He wasn’t going to either. And if the attempt to fix the dish failed, damaged it worse than ever, if everything hit the fan … he was not going to quit even then. Schropfer would have to fire him. His neck hurt. He ignored it.
Below the hopper was the far side of the Moon, alien land lit only by the cold white stars. “I gather that you radio astronomers prefer a quiet neighborhood,” Cantu commented. “But what do you do for fun?”
“The habitat is pretty basic. Most of it tucked into a lava tube, inhabited outbuildings radiation-shielded with bagged lunar regolith. No amenities. We read a lot. I work with an old hen who reads murder mysteries, and when I ran out of my own books I started on hers.” Did her penchant for mysteries point to a dark psychological angle — something about suppressed hostility in Jen’s character? Maybe it was just that too many hard weeks of being cooped up in the habitat, too closely with too few people, promoted homicidal fantasies. He had enjoyed the murder mysteries.
“That’s the only way I came to read War and Peace,” Cantu answered breezily. “Cause this guy in my bunkroom had it.”
Rodriguez was a different type, a slight and quiet man, all business. “That it down there?”
John replied, “That’s the Lunar Far-Side Very Low Frequency Array in the Sanduleak walled plain. Which was named for a twentieth-century astronomer and promptly if disrespectfully corrupted to Sand Lake. Look on the far edge of Sanduleak. See the bright dimple? That’s Bolton. And the reflector.”
“How does it work?”
“It sits there. It’s a photon bucket. The bucket reflects incident radiation to the center, where the antenna is. The antenna is what moves. There’s an older dish of this kind in Arecibo, Puerto Rico — a real workhorse in my field.” Reflectively, he added, “Bolton is to Arecibo as Voyager is to, oh, maybe a Cessna. Principles the same, materials radically new and different. Composite construction makes Bolton flexible — and fragile. Arecibo stood up to a major hurricane once, in 1989. Earth gravity alone would flatten Bolton.”
The reflector was eggshell-thin but not rigid, the pylons stiff yet resilient, the whole structure nonmetal-like, quirky to the extent that it was hard to know what to expect of the exotic materials. John did know. He had parsed the quirks of the machine for all of the months of its construction. A kibitzer like Schropfer could have Bolton’s specs strewn all over his desk, and still not know what to expect of the structure.
The hopper swerved over the shore of Sand Lake, braked and began a slow hovering descent toward Bolton. The habitat was tucked into crater Bell, right on the edge of Bolton. Little craters have lesser ones…. John radioed. “Anybody home?” Home sweet home, he thought. Cold showers and gritty floors. Close quarters in which your colleagues’ harmless traits got on your nerves. Jen’s chocolates, shedding oily brown particles on the pages of technical reports as well as murder mysteries. Zheng’s bad breath. And Edward’s mild-mannered, rational, relentless pessimism.
Jen’s voice replied. “Welcome back. Whatever is that load on top of the hopper?”
“Popsicle sticks,” said John. “And duct tape.” Rodriguez grinned briefly.
“Cantu, set us down close to the crater edge. Don’t worry, it’s reinforced, and will not crumble. There’s a crane down there that can handle the cargo under the dish. X marks the ideal spot.”
“Can do,” said the pilot, winking at the pun on his name. He put the hopper down neatly on the landing field’s X by the brink of Bolton.
John invited them into the control room. Jennifer seemed as shocked as a hausfrau that he had brought guests home unannounced.
The guests seemed genuinely interested in the instruments and computers, and the radio contour map tacked up on the wall. “I thought your instrument wasn’t working,” said Rodriguez.
“We have two radio telescopes at this facility,” Jen explained. “The Very Low Frequency Array has been operational for three months now.” Clicking into professor mode, she explained how her VLF Array was mapping the magnetosphere of Jupiter.
“Most stars are not single,” she was saying. “Binary systems are the norm. Our Sun was very nearly a double star, the other one being Jupiter, if Jupiter had been somewhat bigger. Jupiter is nearly a star, and it generates its own heat and an immense magnetic field…”
John glanced at his workstation’s inbox. There was a message for him, from Ramona, datelined Friday 5:14 p.m. YOU’RE IN PAIN AND I AM WORRIED! He stared at the message, unconsciously rubbing his neck.
“She’s right,” said Jennifer, behind him.
“None of your business,” he said brusquely.
Rodriquez had disappeared into the restroom, and Cantu was being introduced to the observatory’s main computer by Edward. Jennifer asked, “Why did you bring these people here?”
“They’re going to help us fix the dish.”
Her eyebrows shot up. “As easy as that?”
“Maybe not. It’s a long shot. An idea.”
He shrugged past the crick in his neck. “No time like the present.”
From this side, the dish was the dim convex canopy of a forest of pylons. Anchored in the crater floor, the slim pylons rose up to branch at the top. The branches terminated in twigs, each attached to one segment of the dish. The position of each dish segment could be adjusted by the control computer. Sensors told the computer the precise position of every segment. Adding everything up, the computer had found the dish sagging. The human eye could not detect the sag, at least not now, with artificial lights shredding the lunar night under the dish.
It was the Moon’s slow midnight. But human affairs adhered to the twenty-four-hour artifice of Moon Mean Time. They had spent Friday night unloading the cargo from the hopper and getting ready. John had, again, slept badly. This time his neck hurt all night. And he was troubled by the kind of garish bad dreams that he had been having in recent weeks, the color-pandemonium with which his brain attempted to compensate for the monochromatic tedium of waking life on the Moon. Now it was Saturday morning, still early, 9 a.m. John circled around the site with an impatient mixture of gliding and skipping steps. He wanted to get this over with.
Floodlights illuminated one of the pylons. Twenty feet above the crater floor, it bent at an angle of some fifteen degrees. The hollow-cored pylon had buckled like a soda straw. Now a long cable descended from the crown of the pylon. The cable ended at a winch anchored on the crater floor, as far away from the pylon as possible.
Two ropes, shorter than the winch cable, dangled from the top of the pylon. John called, “Jennifer, you and Zheng on this one. You’ll back off and hold it taut. Out that way — right angles to the cable. Don’t actively pull unless you get the word.” Jen rapidly translated that into Chinese for Zheng. John continued, “You all know how hard it is to get good traction. So use the anchor posts. Cantu, you and me on the other rope. Edward operates the winch, and Rodriguez spots. He’ll tell us if the pylon sways one way or another.”
Rodriguez signaled assent.
The bulky moonsuited form of Edward fussed over the winch. Edward said, “This procedure still strikes me as illogical. The basic notion is to lift. Right?”
“Ever been to Easter Island?” John asked, “That’s how they got the stone heads up. A bunch of people on the ground, pulling on the longest ropes they had.”
“I hardly think that qualifies as a reliable precedent. And what about the stress on the points of attachment?”
“For the record,” said John, “I’m not 100 percent sure that this will work. I am sure it’s the thing to try. Ready, everybody? Let’s do it.”
Moonsuited forms shuffled to their places. At a signal from Rodriguez, Edward turned on the winch. It whirred soundlessly in the airlessness here. The cable oscillated, went taut.
Fifteen hundred feet across, the dim down side of the dish stretched away to the ends of the crater. John felt a sudden conviction of futility. Edward was right. They might as well have been insects, busy but ridiculous ants, trying to reshape this vast thing.
Rodriguez said rapidly, “Pylon’s starting to straighten out. Going true. Still true. It’s trying to lean to the right!” he waved an arm. “Left rope, pull!” Jennifer and Zheng pulled. The Chinese man had a foot propped on an anchor post, and pulled mightily.
“Let up! Left, let up! Right side pull!”
John pulled. His feet slipped and he skidded. Cantu stumbled. They got anchored again, then, and with their combined mass under the rope, pulled. John felt the rope come to them. Over their heads, the pylon and with it the filmy acres of dish had actually responded to their puny effort.
“That’s it! That’s it! Ropes, stop pulling! Just hold steady there. Slow the winch — that’s about right — Left! Pull, but not too hard! Good! Ease off that winch — anchor the side ropes — put the winch brake on. Not like that!” Rodriguez headed toward the winch with loping strides of a moon veteran making haste. “That’s not how the brake works!”
“Oh,” said Edward.
Now the pylon looked straight. Only, like a bent soda straw, it had one terribly weak point. Without the winch cable holding it, the pylon would keel back over.
Climbing into the driver’s seat, Rodriguez started the crane. It was a light, long-necked, mobile piece of machinery on treads. Using the crane, Rodriguez hoisted one end of a moonglass beam. The inside of the beam was reamed out to match the curvature of the pylon and coated with glue. With some help from the ground he placed the beam up against the pylon. Glued, it stuck. Then he positioned another beam on the other side of the pylon. “Popsicle sticks in place,” Rodriguez commented. With adroit operation of the crane and helpers scrambling on the crater floor, he wrapped the splinted pylon with a ninety-yard length of plastic fabric, stretching and wrapping it.
The glue had to cure. It was time for lunch anyway, though not as simple as knocking off and grabbing a sandwich on the spot: taking off the moonsuits was a chore in itself. After lunch, Rodriguez took a nap. Cantu helped himself to a murder mystery.
According to the computer, the dish sagged less now. So far, so good. John rubbed his neck, inflamed by the morning’s exertion in the spacesuit. The more damaged pylon was yet to come.
Jennifer came into the control room to check the accumulating data from her LFSVLFA. She asked, “How did you get that material? I didn’t know we had that much credit with the Yuegong warehouse.”
“We don’t. I faked an appropriation authorization that said something about a state of scientific emergency. And a facsimile of a fund transfer writ. The check’ll bounce Monday morning.”
She rolled her eyes. “Oh, Lord! This had better work!”
He shrugged around the pain in his neck. “My responsibility alone. I didn’t tell our two friends that I was fleecing the Port. Cantu probably has an idea, but he can plead innocence. If this fails, it’s my funeral.”
“Don’t say that! We didn’t tell you Thursday night— but one of the air valves in your suit jammed when you fell. If we hadn’t found you and taken the risk of moving you right away—!” She left the outcome unspoken. “It was the sound of your breathing. I was sure you couldn’t get enough air. I was right. When we took off the helmet you were turning purple!”
Not knowing quite what to say, John said, “Thank you.”
“I was overjoyed when you sat up and talked.” Jennifer added, quietly, “It haunts me. I could have lost a good colleague and a good friend.”
It went both ways, he thought, with or without chocolate crumbs. “You’re that for me too, and you have been for years,” he said. “I’m not handling everything so well. I’m sorry.”
“It’s half fixed,” she said briskly. “You brought good help. If we had the facilities, I’d bake cookies for those guys. Very handy people. Unlike somebody else we know of Spanish ancestry!”
John nodded ruefully. “Murphy’s Law and Baltazar’s Rule.”
She spelled out that old joke of theirs. “The better the theoretician, the more things go wrong when he lays his hands on the instruments. Lord, if he’d been here this morning the dish probably would have fallen down around our ears.”
They grinned at each other.
Rodriguez announced that the glue was 97 percent as hard as it was going to get. Cantu stretched and groaned. “Is this gonna be worth it?” He levered his feet into his spacesuit.
Struggling to squeeze into her own suit, Jennifer puffed, “Good question.” She used to be skinny as a rail. But since moving to the Moon and being form-fitted with a moonsuit, she had put on weight — enough to make it hard for her to don the suit. She decided to pause for a lecture. “Normally, radio astronomers don’t scramble to observe a supernova. Optical astronomers do.”
“Especially when they find themselves on the wrong side of the Moon.” Like an eel, Cantu wriggled into the top half of his own suit.
“It’s a truly cataclysmic event, a giant star dying, blowing most of its mass out in gusts of ionized matter. I would expect radio thermal emission, though not quite this soon. Heat noise. In science,” she continued, “it’s also important to check for that which one does not expect to detect, or not yet.”
“What’s that?” Cantu asked, carefully sealing his waist seam.
John said, “The corpse, spinning in its grave.”
Jennifer chuckled. “He means a neutron star. The core of the supernova radically collapses into a mass of neutrons, a neutron star, with all of the angular momentum — the rotating force — of the original star compressed into a much smaller package. So the neutron star spins rapidly. Several revolutions per second.”
“How do you know?” All suited up, Rodriguez waited, leaning against the airlock with his helmet tucked under one arm.
“It also has a strong magnetic field inherited from the original star. This generates powerful beams of radiation which rotate as fast as the neutron star spins. Like the beam of a lighthouse. Our Solar System may or may not be in the path of the beam. If it is, we identify the source as a pulsar, and it can be quite a lovely radio object,” said Jen. “The pulsar takes time to crystallize, though.” John pushed down on the shoulders of her suit. The suit settled and her head emerged from the neckhole. “Thanks. No, right now — unless all of our theories are wrong — the neutron star at the core of that supernova is buried in fire and fury. It isn’t a pulsar yet.”
John checked his air supply. Zheng had fixed the jammed valve, Jen said. It seemed to function perfectly. He took a deep breath. They had in-suit air for six to eight hours. Enough time for the rest of the repair job to make it or break it.
This pylon was more bent than the first one because John had hit the dish closer to it. Rodriguez made a close inspection. Everybody else stood there and watched passively. They were all tired.
Pieces of dish lay on the crater floor. John picked one up. He turned the shard over in his glove. Thin, light glass manufactured from the lunar regolith, it had a shiny metallic coating on one side. With a chill, he remembered falling toward the shiny dish, expecting to die. He would have died, had not the flexing pylons absorbed the impact; had not the matrix of glass segments sagged like a safety net before breaking under him. Looking up, he saw stars through the jagged hole in the dish.
“I’m concerned,” said Edward, “that our efforts will damage the dish. It would be very unfortunate if we overstressed the points of attachment of the pylon to the dish. Look, the angle of the bent portion is more extreme than the other one was. The branches are sharply counter-bent. Can they take the strain?”
“I think so,” John said shortly.
“The pylon might even break there where it’s bent,” Edward persisted. “Of course, the opportunity to study the supernova may be worth taking considerable risk, scientifically speaking. I don’t know about that.”
Jennifer put her helmet against John’s, using sound conduction to speak privately. “I do know.”
“I want to fix it,” he said.
“You’re doing this just because you’re a stubborn coot who’s got his back up. And the rest of us like you enough to work our tails off for you.”
Like winter rain, Edward did not let up. “Shouldn’t you run this by the project engineers, or possibly Mr. Schropfer, before attempting—”
On the in-suit radio, Jennifer snapped, “Edward, your point is valid but your timing stinks. Go to that winch and get ready.”
Rodriguez had an announcement to make. At least five-sixths of the pylon’s branches were still securely attached to the dish. “Good enough for government work!” The bent section of pylon was unlikely to break and fall off. If it did, he’d holler. And everybody should run like hell.
The winch pulled. The kink in the pylon straightened out by degrees. John imagined what he would have heard if there had been air to carry the sounds: the groan of the pylon material and squeaks from the mosaic of glass segments. Maybe reports of glass breaking. Not that, he hoped to God.
With one alarm when it keeled to the left, and those on the right side had to scrape and haul, the pylon was jacked upright, the winch cable braked. Then Rodriguez and his helpers swarmed around the pylon to put on the glue, the splints and the cloth. Edward vanished into the control room.
John piled up the broken dish segments, then swept the crater floor clean of glass fragments. You make a mess, you clean it up. He probably cut a funny figure, a spacesuit pushing a broom.
Edward radioed from the control room. “It’s better, but not quite better enough. However, with some reprogramming the computer may be able to compensate for that by adjusting individual segments. I can’t promise anything, of course, but I’ll do my best.”
“How about breaks in the dish?” John asked quickly. He had sweat that needed wiping off his brow. Not possible with a spacesuit on. “Stress fractures—?”
“Not indicated, though the computer isn’t really programmed to detect stress fractures of the kind that might have been caused by today’s activities. It’s geared to analyze micrometeorite impact damage.”
“Never mind. It sounds good enough to go with.”
Within an hour, exhausted snores could be heard in the habitat. It was Sunday now. 12:17 a.m.
Past mere exhaustion, John felt morbidly sleepless. Sitting in bed, he read the supernova report again. Then somebody knocked on the door. “Come in,” he said peevishly.
Without preamble, Jennifer told him, “It looked to me like you had a sore neck all day,”
“Yeah. A crick or something.”
“How is the crick tonight?”
“It’s in fine fettle,” he said sourly. “A really great crick.”
She probed his neck with her fingers.
“Let’s try this on it. It’s my arthritis liniment.”
“I didn’t know you had arthritis.”
“That is my darkest little secret,” she replied.
The liniment went on cool with a wintergreen reek. Then it started to feel warm. Jennifer massaged the neck. To his gratification, the knot of muscles loosened up under her fingertips. Satisfied, Jennifer told him to call it a night, and she departed. He intended to read for a while longer. But he fell asleep with the pages of the report scattered over his bunk.
And dreamed about falling toward the dish.
This time he did not jerk awake. He crashed through the dish, with bright glass panes of it spinning away. Then the dreamer lightly landed in a forest — a tropical forest, improbably situated below the Bolton dish. Color surrounded him, but not the lurid colors of his bad dreams. Lush greens, blossoming bold reds, wild purples and pinks, colors of Puerto Rico. In Technicolor. The dreamer was pleased with himself.
A glossy black toucan perched on a branch, bobbing its head with the great yellow bill. Then he saw the hummingbird. Green as a June bug, it hovered near him. The tiny bird hummed. A beam of golden light illuminated the humming bird. The dreamer looked up. The sky was a convex blue dome with a hole in it. Golden light spilled in through the hole.
The reading light was shining into his upturned face. 7:03 a.m. Sunday morning, by the clock, and he had slept, not long, but well.
Out of force of habit, John checked his email. The doctor in Yuegong Hospital crisply pointed out that he had NOT given John Clay permission to return to work. Two news services and an internet tabloid wanted to interview Dr. Clay about his death-defying fall from a telescope on the Moon. Finally, Schropfer had messaged, RECEIVED CONFIRMATION OF APPROPRIATION REQUEST FILLED. **WHAT** REQUEST?
John erased all of the messages.
Another habit, instilled over almost a year of being project manager here, was that of counting noses. Could everybody be accounted for — was anybody missing, out in the lunar environment, in trouble? So he immediately noticed the absence of Rodriguez from the group.
“Checking the repair job,” Cantu informed him.
“The shape of the dish is just inside the acceptable parameters,” said Edward, proudly, “now that the computer has made more than six hundred coordinated adjustments to the segments.” Disheveled, Edward appeared to have fussed over the computer most of the night, maybe sacked out on the control room cot for a bare hour or two.
“We’re ready,” said Jennifer, significantly.
John shook his head. “I just remembered something,” he said. “A problem up in the equipment house. That’s why I went up in the first place.”
Instantly Edward volunteered to go up the catwalk and attend to whatever it was. But Jennifer said, “No. He needs to get back up on the horse.”
This time he was trembling inside the spacesuit, probably pale as a piece of chalk, glad that the suit concealed those facts so well. “You’re three-fourths of the way up!” Jennifer encouraged over the radio. He glanced back toward the gaggle of spacesuits at the base of the catwalk. Jen and Edward and Cantu and Zheng — the last all encouraging waves in the absence of knowing what to say in English. John waved back. Without looking down, he registered the gleam of the dish, photons reflected toward where he was going now.
When he stepped onto the antenna platform, his knees buckled. He sat down with an undignified little bounce.
“That’s it!” Jen cheered. “Take a breather! Look up,” she suggested.
“Where is it?” asked Cantu.
“There, in the Small Magellanic Cloud, but the supernova is still too faint to see with the naked eye,” Jennifer answered. “Bear in mind that the Cloud is a galaxy of stars. A few weeks from now the supernova will be outshining the rest of that galaxy.”
Incalescent — one hundred and sixty thousand years ago and away — SN 2019C was the signal flare of a vast cataclysm, in which a giant star blew up hot as hell. No: it was hot, all right, but not infernal. Hot as heaven, hot as the forges of heaven. Heavy elements were being created in the supernova, iron and gold, carbon and oxygen, the atoms of which Moons and moonsuits, future Earths and living things were made.
He picked his own personal collection of atoms up and walked to the equipment housing. Carefully he lifted the broad aluminum lid and locked it into an open position.
Jennifer asked, “What is the problem?”
Thumb to forefinger, he plucked sheets of clear plastic off the circuitry. “The contractors left the protective sheathing on.”
Jennifer transmitted an unladylike curse having to do with the contractors, and what else they might have been capable of forgetting to do.
“Oh, my,” said Edward, “I don’t think those gentlemen would forget that.”
John had removed all of the plastic, and the equipment looked sharp and clean, solid-state of the art. He glanced at the gleam beneath the grated floor. “Rodriguez?” he radioed. “You down there?”
“I take it you won’t be dropping in.”
“Not today. How’s it look?”
“The job’ll hold for a few years, minimum.”
“By that time, it’ll be time for the Phase II enhancements,” John said, with satisfaction. He closed the lid and, returning to the catwalk, hurried down to Luna firma. When he reached the bottom, the other spacesuits clapped for him. “It’s ready now,” John said.
“But is your photon bucket going to work with a hole in it?” asked Cantu.
“Sure. Remember Voyager’s takeoff? The plane flew OK anyway. Something like that.” Cantu might not have been born yet then, but John remembered watching it on TV, in December of 1986, the end of the year that began, disastrously, with Challenger. The experimental plane rolled down the California runway, loaded to the gills with fuel, and its long, fuel-laden wings flexed down, scraping the ground. The Voyager took off with wires hanging out of ragged wingtips where winglets had been scraped off. And the plane did not touch Earth again before it had circled the planet. It had not really needed the winglets.
Bolton did not really need the few segments that had been knocked out of it. John felt a stirring of euphoria, the old anticipation of having a dream machine to work with. It had been a long time since he last felt that way: for months, he had stared at the diggings in the crater, thinking how little it all resembled the first grand idea. Now, Bolton was ready to meet the ancient voyage of radio waves from the universe.
Edward said, “I haven’t finished checking out the computer and its interactivity with the rest of the system.” Edward had a fresh contribution of rain for the parade. “I can’t guarantee that there aren’t any bugs lurking, and in fact by departing from the trial timetable—”
“Forget it!” John said shortly. “The time to try is now.” And he started down the path to the control room, stirring up puffs of moondust.
“A radio interferometer — a chain of dishes strung across a continent, or an ocean, or even from Earth across space — can resolve finer detail. None have this aperture.” He opened the window shutters. The control room was perched on the rim of Bolton, below one of the cable towers. He let his eyes follow the cables out over the expanse of the dish. Fifty acres. The antenna hung over the dish like a spider on a tricornered web fifteen hundred feet across. Behind the other two cable towers, the Sanduleak plain stretched away for gray miles. Starlight faintly reflected from LFSVLFA like a metallic hint of waves in Sand Lake.
“Human activities on Earth generate an incredible amount of radio noise, swamping the faint signals from the universe. Located here, the dish and the Very Low Frequency Array are shielded from the radio noise of Earth, by the bulk of the Moon. I might add that the Moon itself is dead quiet apart from very rare rock electric discharges. No weather — no lightning, no seismic activity. For radio astronomy, there is no better place than this. Here goes.” Displacing Edward from the controls, John entered a right ascension and declination.
The red lights flashed at the corners of the distant antenna platform. John flashed back to being there, to the panicked realization that the platform was slewing out from under him. Arms crossed, John watched the antenna move. Unlike Arecibo, there was no whir and vibration from the machine. This one repositioned silently.
“First off, not the supernova,” John explained. “Instead we’ll scan something called Centaurus A. It’s a radio galaxy, a blazing strong source in the radio sky. This is to verify that the receiver’s working. Like making sure your new home stereo can pick up the local pop-around-the-clock music station before you go for the university radio station, the one with a weak and unreliable transmitter located ten miles away.” He had an afterthought. “Edward, can you convert the signal to sound?”
“Whatever for?” Jen said.
“Show and tell for our company.” John explained, “Radio astronomers never listen to the stars. It’s not informative for scientific purposes.”
Methodically, Edward made the arrangements, hitching this circuit to that.
The antenna slid slowly now, smooth as silk on glass, gliding past the point where the radio waves from Centarus A were focused by the reflector, for a drift scan. On the display screen, the signal came in with what looked like the lift of a bell curve. Converted by Edward’s arrangements to sound waves, the signal hissed.
“Static,” Cantu remarked.
“Sweetest static I’ve ever heard!” John replied fervently. The hiss crescendoed as the bell curve tipped over on the display screen. “Jen, just look at that curve! It’s classic.” The computer brain of the observatory, buried deep under the lunar ground, analyzed the signal. Data windows lined the top and bottom of the display screen. He tapped a window, opened it to read out the red shift of the radio galaxy. “This is great. This is instant gratification. The machine works! Jen, let’s break out the champagne!”
“Coming!” She opened the locker with a cheerful rattle.
Then John entered the coordinates of SN 2019C and changed the control settings. “This time, no drifting. The signal, if any, will be too faint to catch unless we sit on it. We’ll be looking for thermal radio emissions at a likely wavelength, six centimeters. Don’t be surprised if we register, and hear, nothing.”
“Cannot be much yet!” Zheng said. “But is good this working!”
“Absolutely, and we’re going to celebrate. Champagne, anyone?”
Outside, the antenna slewed to its new position. Sitting in the master chair, John ran a hand lightly over the controls. User-friendly, he thought with approval, lucid, thanks in part to design changes that he had insisted on. “We’re in position. We’ll give it some settle-down time.”
Poured into plastic glasses, the champagne fizzed. The sound conversion hissed just as faintly, pale noise that originated in the circuitry.
“Nada,” remarked Cantu, not too worried. Champagne in one hand, he accepted a piece of the chocolate that Jen was offering around in the other.
John thumbed through the supernova report. Thirty hours old, SN 2013C should be brightening rapidly as it began to expand, on the verge of blowing its outer layers off, but still, in fact, intact. Realistically, there was no radio signal to be expected yet. At least not from 2013C.
“This machine has state-of-the art timing,” John said. “Routinely, the receiver averages out any fluctuations in the signal. But a signal can be too faint to detect when it’s averaged like that. So I’m going to delete the averaging, in order to search for a coherent, pulsed signal with a period of one to ten milliseconds between pulses.”
Jennifer raised an eyebrow.
“Do you still want it converted to sound?” Edward asked.
“Yes. If we get anything.”
“What’s going on?” asked Cantu. “Making sure the corpse isn’t spinning in its grave yet?”
“Actually, we don’t have the resolution to distinguish a pulsar at the exact location of SN 2013C from one in the vicinity.” John watched the bubbles in his glass. They rose slowly, just as things on the Moon fell slowly, giving you time to think. “Most stars aren’t solitary. There’s no reason for the supernova not to be in a binary star system — with a pulsar left over from a supernova ages ago, maybe even a millisecond pulsar.”
“Unlikely,” Jennifer commented.
“But very desirable,” he countered. “Millisecond pulsars are the most accurate clocks in all creation. If we had one in the vicinity of a supernova in progress, we could observe what happened to the timing as the pulsar got hit by gravity waves, radiation, maybe plasma from the supernova. Also, the amount of mass lost in the supernova — and whether or not it breaks up into more than one body — that would register in the signal from a pulsar in the right location. And Bolton is better equipped to read such a signal than any other facility on the Earth or off it. Right, Jen?”
“Yes, but a pulsar is still darn unlikely to be there,” said Jennifer. “Has the champagne gone to your head already?”
“Serendipity happens,” John pointed out.
Under the rim of the crater, the big dish gleamed in the faint rain of photons. The receiving instruments caught a unique radio thread; the computer teased it out of the background circuit noise. Edward promptly converted and amplified the signal. It came out as a conversation-stopping loud hum. Echoing from the bare walls, the hum sounded startlingly pure, and made Jennifer leap up, spilling some champagne. “Edward! Make sure that’s not our equipment!” she gasped.
“High C!” Cantu guessed. “Are you sure that’s not little green men?”
John said rapidly, “It’s consistent with a millisecond pulsar.” With a glance, he verified that the display screen was representing the signal as a series of spikes. Data windows lined up under the running spikes. John opened one window and read the period of the signal: two point one thousandths of a second. “I think we’ve made a very timely discovery, thanks to you guys helping us fix the dish.”
“Hot damn!” Grinning from ear to ear, Cantu pumped Rodriguez’s hand, then Zheng’s.
Jennifer was too surprised to be jubilant. She asked, “Whatever made you look for it right away?”
“I read over the previous data last night, and slept on it.” John smiled. “And then I dreamed about a hummingbird. It was humming, just like this.” He turned both palms up in the bright flurry of sound echoing around the room.
“I’ll be darned!”
Edward solemnly announced, “I can’t be absolutely sure it’s not the equipment, but it seems unlikely,” whereupon Jennifer bounded over and kissed Edward. Then she said, “Let’s let Schropfer know!”
John nodded. “And Ramona.”
Ramona would want to hear about the hummingbird dream — she would be delighted. But that was a gift to save until he saw her in person again. “She knows enough astronomical nomenclature to understand this.” He sent the same brief message on its way to the L-5 space station as well as to Washington, DC, Earth. The photons of his message traveled to L-5 and to Earth at the same speed of light with which the pulsar’s signal had crossed intergalactic space to meet the radio telescope on the Moon.
This story was first published in the February, 1991 issue of Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact. Because I’m not an astronomer myself, I did a great deal of research. Even more important, I posed questions to scientist friends. These included Marc R. Hairston and Sedge L. Simons, both of whom have Ph.D.s in Space Physics from Rice University. And both of whom have great imaginations.
My most invaluable consultant was Dr. Linda Dressel. At the time she was on the faculty at Rice University; she’s now with the Space Telescope Science Institute. She is a radio astronomer who has worked at the big radio dish in Arecibo Puerto Rico. She helped me move Arecibo to the Moon.
Copyright Alexis Glynn Latner