May 12, 2085
Botanica was a medium-sized crater, recently sealed to hold an atmosphere of oxygen baked from lunar rock and nitrogen imported from Aeros asteroid. It was less than a kilometer across, and situated four klicks northwest of Heinlein station, five hundred klicks from the lunar South Pole.
Only in the last five months had the crater merited any special attention. In the beginning had come the standard exploration and mining teams, searching for He3 concentrations and fossil ice, but in the end Botanica was no more interesting than a thousand other craters of similar size, and nothing came of the initial efforts.
Its current condition would mock that first impression. The crater housed a dome now, the rock surfaces sealed, the weight of its water shield exquisitely calculated to balance the atmospheric pressure within and strength of the crust beneath.
At any given time a hundred men worked that dome, outside and inside and deep down. Lava tubes burrowed beneath Botanica, and drills had brushed pockets of fossil ice. On a day not too distant, hordes of tourists would walk and climb these modularly constructed halls and walls. Such a structure had never existed anywhere in the solar system, and despite a Luny’s typically blasé seen-it-all-before attitude, the most recent modifications caused them to buzz with speculation. What were they? What did it all mean?
For days now, one man on the construction and painting crew had walked the hundred giant bubble-rooms that now filled the dome, spraying paint fixative along the connecting corridors. He was a tall, dark, thin fellow, with high cheekbones that cried out for tribal scars. Christened Douglas Frost, he had been born under another, more exotic name. Frost was currently three months from the end of a two-year lunar rotation.
So many times had Frost refilled his tank on his back that he’d stopped really looking at what he was lacquering. Today, for some reason, he’d begun observing more carefully, and soon his curiosity was piqued.
A political animal, during his lunar sojourn Frost had watched the Earthfeed for news of national and international power-jostling. The last six months had actually brought some of this electoral excitement to the moon, and he had watched with pleasure, enjoying the debates and friendly arguments, playing them over and over in his mind. Independence for Luna and the Belt? Or continued subservience to the national and corporate interests that had financed the original installations? They were a gaggle of privileged fools, pondering the stars while billions on Earth remained locked in eternal servitude.
Douglas Frost kept his opinions to himself. Lunar money was excellent, and his brother Thomas was the only friend he needed here. Beer-fueled political bull sessions were popular among these fools, but not for the Brothers Frost.
But something about this raised area had punched through his other thoughts, pulled at him, whispered urgently that there was something here, something elusive to the casual observer.
He was so busy staring at the frieze before him, that he never saw Hal Tessier drifting up behind him.
“So, Doug,” Hal began. Even as he studied the lacquered wall, its gleaming wet sheen began to dull. Doug thought the man a pompous ass, whether debating politics or playing chess. “You’re just about finished with your two-year. High marks across the board. Know McCauley over in Fabrication?”
Indeed he did. “Sure.”
“Well, Toby authorized me to make you and your brother an offer to come back in a year. Interested?”
Doug hid his smile, pretending to be surprised.
Tessier was a short, forceless man with thinning brown hair and a gut that would have sagged like mud under Earth gravity. Doug wondered if his supervisor had rigged his compulsory PT points. In theory, everyone took their exercise time seriously. In reality, there was a gap between the official tally and the actual amount of healthy physical stress.
Weak muscles, brittle bones … some of these makaku were never going home.
“You know? If you’d asked me last month, I might have said no. But…” Doug shrugged.
“But?” Hal asked.
“It grows on you, doesn’t it?”
“Sure does,” Hal nodded. “I feel like I’m part of something … I don’t know. The future? Does that make sense? This is about more than just us, you know?”
Moving down the hall, looking more carefully at the images so recently sealed, Doug was splitting his attention between Hal and a visceral sense of excitement, something that he had not experienced in far too long. Life in Heinlein base was unbelievably involving, but this new possibility was something else.
“I do,” he replied.
“Look,” Hal said. “There are a lot of people who’d like to come up here, but you two have the experience, the skills, and you can handle close spaces just great. What do you think?”
Doug tore his eyes away from … glossy creatures that looked like a cross between a merman and a centipede. Strange. Very alien. But … somehow familiar. Hadn’t he seen this before, somewhere?
“Is the first month back as hard as they say?”
“First six weeks on Earth are murder. How are your points?” Hal sucked his gut in as he said it, as if suddenly aware that he was asking questions he himself would prefer not to answer.
“Hundred a week minimum, straight up. Bone density’s great. DPA has me at 105 percent of normal.” Dual Photon Absorptiometry, the standard measuring technique in medical. “Upper body strength 10 percent greater than when I left New York, lower body about 2 percent greater. Top two percentile on all counts.”
Hal blinked, impressed. “Watch your joints, though. Listen. When you make a decision, let me know, and we’ll put you on the schedule.”
Hal walked away. Despite his ample gut, he moved with a sort of springy bounce-step virtually impossible to train out of the Earth-born.
Doug chuckled, dropped his safety mask back into place, and continued spraying. He’d worked on several different aspects of this new construction job. This included working with prefab structures dropped from orbit, and extruding lunar aluminum there at the surface. All had had their challenges and rewards.
None was even remotely as rewarding as this new, incredible possibility.
* * *
After his shift, Doug spent an hour researching his suspicions. Then Doug took the Heinlein tram, closed his eyes and leaned back against the seat as it zipped to the main crater under its reflective awning. Eighteen months ago, he and Thomas had actually welded panels in the cooling tunnel. Trapped in eternal lunar night, the rails easily maintained the frigid temperatures required for superconductivity.
During the four-minute ride, he thought about the Beehive. Some wag had christened the dome “Beehive” after they’d started honeycombing it with Liquid Wall bubbles. They’d had no clue of its eventual usage. Then, when Cowles Industries applied for special tourist licenses, sponsored a major expansion of the guest lodging facilities, and implemented special-purpose construction similar to buildings already standing on a few very special locations on Earth …
Cowles Industries. Tourism. Modular construction, similar to that used at a certain California tourist attraction.
Rumors leaked out. Immediately, Cowles stock rose by 17 percent.
Doug was so deep in his thoughts that he barely noticed his car sighing to a halt. The pressure seals hissed as the doors opened, and Doug was in one of the connecting nodes spaced around Heinlein’s rim. From here, he could take a tram about the rim, or simply Moonwalk. He Moonwalked, bouncing through the springy, athletic strides that challenged balance and got the heart pumping.
A rover teleoperator named Willis Chan cycled up next to him, puffing as he pedaled with arms and legs. “Dougie!” he cawed. “We need a fourth for squash. Up for a few backflips?”
Normally, the idea of an hour or two of pinwheeling athleticism appealed to Doug. His body was flexible and enduring, with a hunter’s coiled strength. He enjoyed taking Willis’ money. Not today. He could barely wrench his focus away from his private thoughts to make time for a polite answer. “Thank you, but no thank you. Job things.”
Willis nodded and wove off, huffing through the traffic, working the arm and leg pedals of his bike until sweat-blossoms darkened his armpits. Then he was gone around the rim’s gentle curve.
* * *
Workers lived in a variety of housing, some on the surface, some far beneath the regolith. Many craters were linked by subterranean shuttles. Give Heinlein another ten years and the dome would sit atop a thriving underground city.
But all the living spaces were resistant to the basic lunar problems: seismic instability, solar radiation, thermal fluctuation, and meteoroids.
Doug rode the elevator down and then Moonwalked the next stretch, bouncing through the halls on the balls of his feet. Excitement bubbled up inside him like jolly lava.
The door marked Suite Five slid open. Doug stepped into an antechamber just wide enough for three people to stand abreast. The door slid closed behind him. The inner door opened, and suddenly the air swirled with fecal dust and animal stench. Doug kerchewed! and swung his hand as a feathery football-sized projectile sailed toward his face. The Rhode Island Red flapped its coppery wings and looped through the air with an aplomb beyond Earthly poultry’s wildest dreams.
Suite Five was one of Heinlein’s seven farms. Dozens of dedicated farming pods were scattered across the lunar grid, but most large craters also had their own, smaller facilities, where residents could fatten their own meals in advance, like restaurant patrons selecting lobsters from the tank.
Rabbits bounced around like little helicopters, every furry leap a world record. Hornless goats grazed on hybrid lunar grass, hydroponically grown and bundled as hay. Their meat was a treasured delicacy, far more tender than their Earth-grown cousins.
All seemed supremely unaware of their cook-pot destinies. Even though raised from embryos here at Heinlein, they seemed to relish their lunar agility, as if consciously rebelling against genetic limits.
Fist-sized bots whisked chicken and rabbit droppings from the glossy floor.
Doug reared back as a dark red Buckeye flapped its wings clumsily, spiraling directly toward his chest as if it couldn’t control its flight path. He had frozen in place when a slender pair of pale arms yanked the bird out of the air. A smiling, densely freckled woman with shaggy blond hair stuffed the squawking poultry under her right arm.
“Getting slow, Dougie? Looking for Thomas?”
He didn’t recognize her, and glanced at her breast pocket. A very nice swelling there, beneath the name LINDA. “I’m sure you know Tommy?”
“Better all the time,” she winked, and jerked a thumb upward. “Up top.”
Doug looked up. A scaffold stretched across the domed ceiling, holding three workers. Sparks spiraled down, singeing the occasional high-flying chicken. Doug thanked the tech, selected the nearest ladder and began to climb.
He had reached the scaffold, and was heading across when the man closest to him killed his torch, turned, and slipped off his mask. The man could easily have been mistaken for a Senegalese or Jamaican, with the same lean cheeks, bright, inquisitive eyes and close-cropped tightly-curled hair that Doug saw in every mirror.
“Dougie,” Thomas said. “What’s up?”
“Take a dinner break,” Doug said, maintaining a tight, neutral smile. “I’ll make it worth your time.”
I’ll make it worth your time. Code words since childhood. Never misused, never ignored. Thomas raised his eyebrows, but nodded and turned to the other men. “I’m clocking out. See you tomorrow.”
They waved at him. All work hours and progress went into central processing. No slacker could hide in a community as small and regimented as Heinlein.
Thomas cooled his torch, doffed his hat, and the two slid down the ladder past the deliriously spiraling chickens. His heel squished in goat droppings. A whiskbot arrived the next instant, and Thomas held up his foot, so that its little vacuum could suck him clean while Doug tried not to let his smile bloom into open laughter.
* * *
Doug refused to talk as they bounced around the hub to the cafeteria nearest their sleep quarters, although twice Thomas attempted to initiate questions. Thomas was five minutes the younger of the two, but Doug often acted as if they were years apart.
So. “Big” brother had a secret, one capable of generating a bit of suspense. Well, Thomas enjoyed games as much as anyone.…
The cafeteria’s hologram ceiling and walls were tuned to a Polynesian channel, something pleasing to their General Manager’s sensibilities. All about them blue skies framed tropical palms, blindingly white beach and crashing waves. Workers generally ate here, enjoying the happy cacophony, or carried their food off to their private quarters. The twins ordered tai fish and fresh hydroponic fruit (Thomas chose mango, while Doug selected a mixed salad) and walked it around to the worker quarters.
The hall door sealed behind them. Six doors down, the scanner read their eyes and biochips, and opened the door.
The cabin was narrow, spare, with two beds (nets with elastic sheets stretched over them) and a toilet and sink. Metered bathing facilities were just down the hall. They were too far below the surface for windows, but a vid wall would display any vista in the library. The current shimmering design was New York’s crowded, Christmas-parade skyline.
Thomas watched patiently as Doug sat on the bunk opposite, opened his container of food with meticulous, almost mechanical precision, and ate the first three sporkfuls in silence. He closed his eyes as if gathering thoughts, and then spoke.
“When was the last time you worked on Botanica?”
Thomas squinted, counting backward. “Maybe a month ago, blowing bubbles.” “Bubbles” were the pressurized globes blown from tanks labeled Liquid Walls. A hundred bubbles in varying sizes, arrayed in nine rows, A through I. Once dried, the plastic spheres made perfect foundations for storage, work, and living spaces. Some were the size of a broom closet, others the size of auditoriums. “Why?”
“Because the furnishings are starting to go in.” Doug began to enumerate the things that had most recently come to his attention.
Thomas listened, searching for the punch line. Yes, yes, he thought impatiently. Doug passed Thomas a flexible viewer the size of his hand. Thomas flipped through page after page of friezes featuring vast swollen grub-like creatures, insectoid herdsmen and odd aquatic creatures with many legs.
“I don’t understand,” Thomas said. “What’s this about?”
“Now look at this article from a gossipmonger in our capital,” Doug said. He touched the screen, and the image of a thin young black man in a Japanese samurai robe, standing at a podium appeared. In Central African Kikongo, the caption read: “The Prince Takes a Bow.” It dealt with rumor that the only son of the President of the Republic of Kikaya was, to the mortification of his father, a web-strip superhero artist. He had won a first-place finish for drawings of his Swahili Samurai, a webzine with thousands of fans.
Thomas’ brow wrinkled. Doug could almost read his mind: Disgraceful, of course, but…?
Before he could speak, Doug went on. “Our Prince, the future of our country, is obsessed with this mindless trash. He does this. He also attends ‘science fiction’ meetings for which he flies to America and appears under a false name, cloaked in asinine costumes. Few have any idea that the artist known as ‘Ali’ is our Prince. Now, look at this creature.” He called up the webzine, and the month’s adventure appeared. He did a quick search, and pulled up an image of a creature with the upper body of a man, and the lower body of a centipede.
It was identical to the image on the wall.
“So…? The artist for the Beehive is a fan of our Prince’s work. Perhaps we should be proud.” The last word was laden with irony.
“Think,” his brother whispered. “We know that the Beehive is built by Cowles, and what bastard has money in that company? Whose son wastes our nation’s wealth on such indulgences, games in which he pretends to be a wizard or warrior or monster?” No names were needed. “The Bastard” meant only one man, one powerful, dangerous man. “We know that in just months, Botanica is set to open. Think about it. With an image from our Prince’s work woven into the story? I researched. And the player list has been published. And there is an ‘Ali Shannar’ listed as a player. Nationality? Republic of Kikaya.
“Then … let us say that this live role-playing game everyone’s talking about has been tampered with. Say that it is filled with imagery that the Prince has created.
“Say that the guest list is classified. Say that our sources in the republic can verify that the Prince is on the move … or even that I am right, and that he is planning to make the trip. Planning to take part in this foolishness. Coming here, to the Moon. To us. Think about it.”
Thomas cocked his head to the side. Doug was laying out the bones of a situation without fully making the argument. But where was he going?
Doug leaned forward. “For years we’ve dreamed of driving the dogs from the palace, taking back our country. We could go home! The Prince was one of only three things we ever believed might pry the Bastard from his throne. My brother … if I am wrong and I am merely fantasizing, I hope you will forgive me. But if I am right…”
Thomas reared back, the implications suddenly hitting him like the full strength of the unfiltered lunar sun. Doug had hesitated to speak directly, had danced around rather than speak his mind. Now it was out of the bag. Could a thing so nearly unspeakable be possible at all? Were the logistics feasible? The funding? Theoretically, they had access to adequate resources … but talk had always been a cheap commodity. Would their Earth-bound, cocktail-party radical friends actually come through? Would they dare even try?
And they had another resource, someone right here on Luna, who owed them a debt best repaid from the shadow.
Dared they even try?
Gaming. Cowles Industries. Webzine monsters. Yes, yes, yes. The more he thought about it, the more the whole thing smelled of the Captain, the royal Bastard’s only son, another indulgent adventure to drain the republic’s coffers.
There was a problem with raising a question, one that became clearer as the night went on. Some questions, once asked, could not be ignored.
If Doug’s suspicions were true, and the twins acted boldly, and their radical friends were patriots with deep pockets, then a great deal of good might be accomplished by bold and determined men.
In truth, if the operation could actually be mounted, what in the world was there to stop them…?
Copyright © 2011 by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes