Book excerpt

Operation Luna

Operation Chaos

Poul Anderson

Tor/Forge

1
 
 
witchlights glowed blue along the fence, outlining Cardinal Point against night. Earth lay darker than heaven. There stars gleamed and the Milky Way glimmered. A moon one day past full, climbing out of the east, veiled many of them behind its own brightness. It cast pallor and long shadows across the malpais. Northward, Mount Taylor bulked ghost gray.
When Ginny and I looked ahead and down, the glare near the middle of the great pentacle, searchbeams focused on the spacecraft, drove most of this from our eyes. My heart jumped to see that splendor.
Somewhere inside me I felt something different stir. The shiver strengthened as we drew closer. It wasn't happening for the first time. Earlier, though, it had been rare, faint and fleeting, no more than the uneasiness everybody gets once in a while for no good reason. You don't rub an amulet or make a religious sign or ask whatever witch or warlock may be nearby if it means anything. No, you shrug it off as a passing nerve-twitch. You're modern, scientific, free of superstitions. Aren't you?
What touched me now was stronger, too vague to be a foreboding but not just a collywobble. I'd had enough experience to know that. A hunch? I turned my head to and fro. All I saw besides sky was the headlights of a few other broomsticks, belated like ours. I took a long, slow breath. Even in human shape, my nose is pretty keen. The air that flowed in was pure and chill; temperature in New Mexico generally drops fast after sunset. I did catch a slight ozone-like tang of goetic forces at work, but that was to be expected hereabouts, especially tonight.
Wait, wait--a bare hint of strangeness, outsideness such as I couldn't put a name to? Wolf, I might have been more nearly sure.
My look went back to Ginny. Since it would be only us two, we'd taken her Jaguar instead of the family Ford. We'd left the windfield off except in front, and breeze got by to flutter the skirt she'd chosen to wear for this occasion. It was pressed around the downcurve of the shaft and across a pair of long, trim legs. The sweater above hugged a figure as good at age forty-two as it'd been when we met.
My attention stayed above the neck. Moonlight made her aristocratic features into an ivory carving. It whitened and rippled the shoulder-length hair. On her left breast, the silver owl emblem of her order seemed icily afire. I saw not only her usual alertness upon her, but a sudden wariness.
My voice sounded loud through the air whispering past us. "You feel a spooky whiff too?"
She nodded. Her contralto had gone metallic. "Uncanny might be a better word. Or--" I couldn't make out the rest. As a licensed witch, she has a wide vocabulary from exotic languages. I guessed this was Zuni. "Powers are abroad. Coyote is certainly on the prowl."
"And nearby, watching for a chance?"
"Of course. He always is."
"Oh, well, then." I didn't intend bravado. The Trickster is a bad enemy, and not exactly a reliable friend. He'd wrought havoc in the early days here, like when one test vehicle, a flying wing, molted in midair, or when moths got at a still more expensive experimental model, a supercarpet, and ate it full of holes.
However, I recalled, before there was any actual fatality, the National Astral Spellcraft Administration had grown smart for the nonce and consulted the local Indians. They informed it that Coyote had declared feud on it. He didn't like this invasion of his stamping grounds, not to speak of stunts more spectacular than any of his. The medicine men weren't very happy about it either.
So NASA's chief had a talk with President Lambert in Washington. Project Selene had been Lambert's way of pulling his political chestnuts out of the fire after the Brazilian crisis, when he'd fearlessly told the people of Rio de Janeiro he was one of them--"¡Yo soy un carioca!"--in Spanish. Also, it would mean considerable pork for his Southwestern power base. Therefore he twisted arms, and possibly other body parts, in Congress, and the Indians got a more decent deal from the government than they'd had before, and the priests invoked their gods and kachinas to protect Cardinal Point.…
I hauled my mind back. Had the outlaw influences caused it to wander? Those things had happened seven or eight years ago. My family and I had been here for only two. Ginny was correcting me: "Not him alone, though I do feel he's more…eager…than anytime I've known since I first learned a little about such things. Something else also."
"Like the Blue Flint Boys?" I ventured. I'd picked up odds and ends of lore, nothing like the education she'd set herself to acquire. Mischievous but not malignant spirits shouldn't be cause for worry.
She dashed my hopes. "Something much more powerful, something I--" She seldom hesitated. "--I can half guess at, though not really--"
If I'd been wolf, I'd have bristled. As it was, chill tiptoed along my spine and out to my nerve ends. "Can you discover what?"
"Maybe. But not without cantrips, and we aren't avowed any tonight. This is just sensitivity." Like mine, but way sharper.
She shook herself, always an interesting sight, straightened in her seat, and, slowly, smiled. "Well, it's probably nothing to fear. The 'chantments stand strong. I'd know if they didn't. Quite likely a troop of Beings have simply come to watch, same as us."
She gestured downward. Our broom was descending. We could see hundreds of others below, across the landscape, and their dismounted riders, saintelmos shining on the ground or bobbing in hands, people talking or snacking or smoking or tilting a bottle or staring, staring at the vision. They'd come from Grants, Gallup, the pueblos, farms, ranches, as far as Albuquerque and Santa Fe, maybe farther. Sure, they could've stayed home and watched on the far-seer, but this was history happening, the first real flight of the beast that should eventually land humans on yonder moon.
"If the Beings aren't friendly to what we're doing, why, neither are a lot of our fellow Americans," Ginny went on. "In either case, they can't help being fascinated." Her laughter chimed. "After all, what a show!"
That whipped my dim dreads off me. The crowd below was heartening, too. They weren't ideologues yammering about Tower-of-Babel technoarrogance, or demagogues whining about money that ought to be spent on their own admirers, or intellectuals oh, so superior to everything less than the critical deconstruction of James Joyce's Odysseus. They were ordinary, working men and women, along with kids, students, dreamers--and quite a few tribesfolk, I saw--here because they'd decided for themselves that going to the stars was a great idea.
In a way, too many had. Ruefulness quirked my lips. At the nth hour, Ginny and I found that no baby-sitters would be available, not for any price, not even her housecleaner, Audrey Becker, or Audrey's elderly mother. Once we might have entrusted the job to her familiar, but Svartalf was old and dozy, Edgar's sense of responsibility still unproven.
So Valeria got stuck with riding herd on Ben and Chryssa. She'd looked forward to witnessing the launch in person, with a fourteen-year-old's intensity, and didn't take kindly to the change in plans. What we offered in return hardly appeased her. We tried to be fair, but didn't believe in begging or bribing children to do their duty. Not that Val exploded, much. It wasn't her style. She'd brood, I knew. What would come of that, I didn't know.
Our broom stopped in midair. After a moment the air said, "Pass" and we continued. The checkspell had verified that we were entitled to go within the perimeter. Its effectiveness was reassuring. In fact, I lost my sense of outside presences, and soon more or less forgot about them. My wife told me later that she did likewise, though I suspect she never really became quite unaware of anything that ever came to her attention.
As late as our frantic search had made us, we were lucky to find a place at the edge of the employees' parking lot. It was jammed. Besides their vehicles, we spied those of journalists, VIPs, and Lord knows who else had wangled admission. We barely eased in between a chrome-plated Cadillac and an old Honda with a sweep of withered but real straw. As we settled it into the rack and got off, our Jaguar waggled its shaft. The sprite in it never had liked close quarters. Ginny bent over to stroke the spotty-furry rear end and make soothing noises. It calmed down. We hiked off fast across the paving, through the cold. Our footfalls clattered beneath the Swan, the Dragon, and the ascending moon.
As we neared the gate, illumination took most night away from us. The chain-link fence stretched right and left for a mile or more, its witchlights dwindling off into darkness. Here the edisons glared. Though the physical barrier was just fifteen feet high, I winded a little of the forces that charged it and warded the compound on every quarter, zenith and nadir included.
Since we already wore badges spelled to our identities, we had no rigmarole to go through. They were special, of course. I didn't draw my pay from NASA but from Norn-well Scryotronics back in the Midwest, which had a contract to develop space communication systems. It had gotten me seconded to Cardinal Point as an engineer. My boss, Barney Sturlason, knew well that my lifelong dream had been to work on celestonautics. He also knew that a happy man is a productive man. As for Ginny, who ran her Artemis Consultancy out of our home, we'd more than once had occasion to sic her onto some weird problem or other.
One of the guards knew us. "Why, hello, Mr. and Mrs.-- uh, Dr. Matuchek," he greeted. "I was getting afraid you wouldn't make it. You're barely in time, unless they put a hold on the countdown."
"I know," I said.
"Wasn't your daughter coming along? And what about Dr. Gray lock, ma'am?"
"We had baby-sitter woes," Ginny explained, "and my brother isn't feeling well."
"Too bad. Sure wish I could watch from where you're going to. A medicine man from Acoma Pueblo who's here, I heard him mention sensing how even spirits have come to see, heap big spirits."
"Leave that to the professionals," I snapped, "and let us by, for God's sake."
Immediately I regretted my impatience. He'd intended friendliness. Hurt, he retorted, "Well, Mr. Matuchek, you remember the rules. The moon is up, but nobody's supposed to change shape."
Ginny laid a cautionary hand on mine and a smile on the janus. "Of course," she murmured. "No offense. Excuse us if we're in a hurry, Mr. Gitling. Actually, once the beast rises, what you see ought to be better than the mere liftoff." He dissolved into amiability and waved us through.
The paths beyond lay dim, almost deserted. Everybody not in Mission Control wanted to be at a viewing station. Buildings enclosed us, murky against the sky-sheen from the launch paddock ahead. Off on the left, rising above roofs, the great onion dome of the VAB caught some of that light. The moon barely cleared the walls opposite; its cold, blue-blazoned shield still looked huge.
I did not plan on skinturning. In fact, I seldom transformed at all anymore, aside from an occasional romp out in the desert or, once in a while, to amuse little Chryssa. Her siblings had long since taken Daddy's trick for granted. Nevertheless, as the moonbeams caught me, I felt a strong urge. Excitement, no doubt, weakening inhibitions, stirring ancient instincts.
I quelled the lust by asking, quite sincerely, "What is the trouble with Will, anyway? In the hullabaloo, I didn't get a chance to find out."
"I'm not sure either," Ginny replied. "Nor is he, I suppose. He phoned to say he felt terrible and would stay home and try to sleep off whatever it is."
"A dirty shame. He's probably as responsible for getting a space program started as any man alive."
"Yes, and has it as dear to his heart." Hearing the trouble in Ginny's tone, I glanced at her and saw how she bit her lip. "Steve, I've been worried about him."
"Um-m, yeah, he has seemed a bit odd lately, now and then. Sort of…absent. But I figured he was preoccupied."
"No, it's not his research, his instruments. He's hardly said a word about them, which in itself is peculiar. I have an impression he's actually neglecting them, or at best tinkering without making progress. But he doesn't volunteer any information, he's dodged my few questions--"
If anyone would have sound intuitions about Will Gray-lock, I thought, it'd be his sister. She was nine years old, he twenty-one when an accident orphaned them. Circumstances then kept them more apart than together, but he was always kind and caring, the closest figure to a father she had. We'd been delighted when he resigned from Flagstaff and moved out here shortly after we did, with a National Parascience Foundation grant to concentrate on his lunar studies. Soon our kids also were.
Her inner steeliness came back to Ginny. "And I won't pry," she finished. "He'll tell me what and when he chooses."
"Maybe a love affair isn't going so well," I suggested.
"At his age?"
"Hell, I don't expect to be a dodderer when I get there. You'd better keep me satisfied, woman."
She grinned. "Same to you, man." Seriously again: "Okay, I've been assuming it's a personal matter. After all, it doesn't often show; mostly he's his usual self. Simply short bouts of moodiness and--and maybe, now, a touch of flu."
"Still, a pity."
"Yes, but this isn't the big event." Merely the first piloted test of the type of vessel meant to land the first humans on the moon. Seven orbits around Earth, if everything went well, mainly to try out the control spells and life-support systems. Will would have plenty more launches to behold, each different, more venturesome, inching toward yonder globe and the mysteries on it that he himself had revealed.
I didn't remark on how unnecessarily complicated and expensive a way to go I thought this was. Ginny had heard her fill of me on that subject,' Besides, she'd repeatedly given the little Operation Luna Company help more valuable than it could have paid for.
And meanwhile, maybe forever, NASA's was the only game in town.
And-- We came out onto open ground. Ahead of us a viewing stand raised white bleachers into black night. Beyond stretched half a mile of lava. Short paved roads cut through that jumble, converging on a central spot. There loomed the beast, waiting to leap, ablaze with the light upon it, a magnificence that my humble dream could never match.
 
Copyright © 1999 by Trigonier Trust The bestselling author of such classic novels as Brain Wave and The Boat of a Million Years, Poul Anderson won just about every award the science fiction and fantasy field has to offer. He has won multiple Hugos and Nebulas, the John W. Campbell Award, The Locus Poll Award, the Skylark Award, and the SFWA Grandmaster Award for Lifetime Achievement. His recent books include Harvest of Stars, The Stars are also On Fire, Operation Chaos, Operation Luna, Genesis, Mother of Kings, and Going for Infinity, a collection and retrospective of his life's work. Poul Anderson lived in Orinda, California where he passed away in 2001.