MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
The Straight Wall is considered one of the great sights of explored space. Included in 100 Wonders of the Universe as the Moon’s sole entry, it’s one of the only three planetary formations on the list visible from Earth, the other two being the Great Red Spot of Jupiter and Saturn’s ring system. It’s located in the southeast quadrant of Mare Nubium, in the lunar southern hemisphere just east of Birt Crater; a good telescope can find it on a cloudless night.
A sheer and unbroken row of bluffs about eight hundred feet tall, the Straight Wall runs southeast by northwest across the flat volcanic mare until it disappears over the horizon. Sixty-eight miles long and a mile and a half wide, it resembles a dark gray tidal wave suddenly suspended and petrified in place. If one stands at its base and looks up, it can even appear as if the Wall is about to fall forward, crushing everything beneath it.
Although its origins as a fault scarp are well understood by lunar geologists, some have claimed that the Wall is anything but a natural feature. It is instead, they say, an extraterrestrial artifact, an immense sculpture carved from native rock by visiting aliens for reasons that remain mysterious. The Sons of the Two Moons in particular hold this belief, but it goes back as far as the late twentieth century, when pseudoscience was but one of the many problems bedeviling the inhabitants of that dark time. This notion was discredited long before the first explorers set foot in the Mare Nubium at the dawn of the Solar Age, and it might have remained a lunatic theory—no pun intended—were it not for the discovery of the Deneb Petroglyphs.
The petroglyphs are a major reason why the Straight Wall is considered one of the Wonders of the Universe.
It took years for scientists and historians to get their way, but they finally persuaded the Solar Coalition Senate to pass a resolution declaring the site a System Monument, thereby enabling the Lunar Republic to take measures protecting the petroglyphs from souvenir collectors. The petroglyphs were treated with a chemical preservative and shielded behind a glass screen, then the entire site was enclosed by a pressurized dome erected against the cliffside. When the work was finished, it appeared that the western flank of the wall due east of Birt Crater had sprouted a semitransparent blister that glowed from within, making it brightly visible when the Moon entered its waning phases and the Wall cast a slowly lengthening shadow across the adjacent plain.
It was the dedication of the Straight Wall System Monument that drew Curt Newton. He’d visited the Wall a couple of times, and only two years earlier he’d spent a week hiking the entire length of its upper parapets, an ordeal he’d undertaken with no company except Grag as his quiet but indispensible sherpa. Yet the petroglyphs had fascinated him since childhood, and when the Brain finally gave him permission to leave Tycho, this was one of the first places he asked Simon and Otho to take him.
Curt was nine the first time he visited the Wall. Eleven years later, he came back again. Now he had returned once more.
Curt dropped the hopper at the edge of the landing field. He was still shutting down the engine nacelles when Otho turned to him. “All right, now listen,” he said to the young man sitting beside him in the bubble cockpit. “There’s going to be a crowd here, maybe more folks than you’ve seen before. So whatever you do—”
“Don’t stare.” Curt unsnapped his seat harness and stood up to squeeze past him. “Don’t stare and don’t talk to anyone.”
“Not unless you have to. Let me handle the security detail. Is your tattoo still in place?”
Curt checked his left hand. The temporary (and fake) ID he’d let Otho heat-transfer to the back of his hand was still there. Its code attested that his name was Rab Cain and that he was a freighter crewman from Earth, North American Province; Otho’s tattoo stated that he was Vol Cotto, a native selenian, resident of Port Kepler. “What if I meet someone interesting?”
“Then it’s okay to talk, but just enough not to be rude.” Otho followed him into the aft compartment. Like Curt, he was already wearing his vacuum suit; all they needed to do was put on the rest of their gear from the suit rack. “You know the rules. Nothing about yourself. You have no name—”
“I have no home, and it’s nobody’s business who I am.” Curt recited the edict from memory. It had been drilled into him from the very first time he’d been allowed to come up from beneath the crater. Obeying the rules was the only way the Brain let him journey out from Tycho Base; if he broke them, he’d spend the next three lunar days underground, an isolation that had become increasingly hard to stomach.
—We’re serious about this, Curtis. You’re still becoming acclimated to dealing with others on their own terms, and your safety depends on maintaining anonymity. No one must learn who you are … particularly now!
The Brain’s voice coming through his Anni implant caused Curt to glance at the large ring on his left hand. He hadn’t yet pulled on his gloves, so he could see the central jewel in its platinum setting. The diamond glowed with a light of its own, affirming that the Brain was connected to him via augmented neural-net interface.
—What do you mean by that, Simon? he thought. Why not, “particularly now”?
A reluctant pause, unusual for Simon Wright. —All will be explained. Just stay close to Otho and don’t speak to—
“Sure,” he said aloud. “Got it.” He glanced at Otho, who was tapped into the conversation. He was expecting the sly wink the android often gave him when Simon lectured him. Yet Otho’s face—stark white, hairless, and unblemished—was solemn. For some reason, his closest friend wasn’t in a joking mood today.
They pulled on their gloves, airpacks, and helmets, and then depressurized the hopper, opened the side hatch, and stepped down the ladder to the landing pad. It was crowded with transports of all kinds, from short-range craft like their own to big lunar buses chartered from the big cities in Mare Tranquillitatis and Mare Imbrium to the north. The fanciest, though, was a limo that had touched down beside the blister itself, with a pressurized ramp leading to the monument’s main airlock. Curt admired the ornate and utterly nonfunctional scrollwork around its landing gear, and the cherubs holding its lamps and communications array, and knew at once that it belonged to a wealthy individual. Exactly whom, he could not say, but apparently the dedication was being attended by some very rich and powerful people.
This impression was confirmed once he and Otho cycled through the airlock, removed their suits in the ready-room, and made their way through the security checkpoint. Lunar society had a class system of its own, and one way of telling who belonged to the upper crust was how they entered the blister. The elite didn’t have to bother with the messy business of standing for five minutes in the scrubber while electrostatic brushes whisked away the regolith, or having to peel out of pressure suits. They walked straight into the dome through the enclosed gangways mated with taxis sent to collect them from their private transports; the rich never needed to put on or take off helmets, or put up with filthy decontamination procedures.
Past the main entrance was the monument’s central atrium, a geodesic half-hemisphere of radioactive-filter lunaglass built against the lower bluffs of the Straight Wall, illuminated by light fixtures within the support rafters. The floor was crowded with visitors, both those who’d received invitations and the hoi polloi who’d somehow managed to get in. The former were dressed for the occasion: the men in frock coats, striped trousers, and mandarin collars, the women in sleek gowns with plunging necklines and thigh slits, their shoulders warmed by brocaded silk capes. Even the weighted ankle bracelets worn by those who weren’t born and raised on the Moon were fancy; some were made of gold or silver, with elaborate designs inscribed upon them. The waiters came to them with champagne stems and canapé platters, pointedly ignoring those wearing functional yet unadorned bodysuits commonly found beneath a loony’s vacuum gear. Clearly anyone dressed like that would’ve had to come in through the public airlock, and those weren’t the people on the guest list. The Lunar Republic prided itself on its efforts at democratic inclusiveness, but the fact remained that, as always, the rich were different.
Curt didn’t care. Standing against the curved lunaglass wall behind him, he quietly observed the crowd. Regardless of what the Brain had told him about staring, he couldn’t help himself. Seldom had he seen so many people before, and never in such variety. Here were not only terrans and selenians such as himself, baseline Homo sapiens whose genomes remained unaltered, but also the cousins of humankind, Homo cosmos: red-skinned, raven-haired aresians of Mars, barrel-chested and thin-limbed; the ebony, platinum-haired aphrodites of Venus, elegantly slender, the women in particular possessing a haunting beauty; the pale and hairy jovians of the Galilean moons, taller and more muscular than anyone else, the men bearded and perpetually scowling. And here and there, scattered among them, individuals who superficially resembled terrans but whose clothing and manners revealed them to be kronians and tritons. There was even a pair of kuiperians, visitors from the outermost reaches of the system rarely seen this close to Earth, their features hidden by veils and cowls, shunned by everyone around them as the cannibals they were reputed to be.
Curt had seen inhabitants of the Solar Coalition worlds before, but never this many at once. He wanted very much to speak with a few, and his desire must have been obvious to Otho, for his companion stepped closer to him to speak softly in his ear.
“No,” he murmured. “I know what you’re thinking … and I’m sorry, but you can’t.”
—It’s much too dangerous, the Brain added.
“What’s so dangerous about talking to people?” Curt asked aloud, keeping his voice low. He tried to take a glass of champagne from a passing waiter, but the tuxedoed servant sidestepped him without so much as a glance; the drinks were not for riffraff like him. “C’mon, Simon … how am I supposed to learn more about them if you won’t let me speak to some?”
—At any other time, my boy, I’d agree. But now isn’t the time. The reason why members of all these different races are here is because most of them are representatives of the Coalition Senate or members of their staffs. Others are corporate executives, business representatives, planetary traders, and the like. President Carthew will be speaking, so security is tight. The last thing you want to do is draw attention to yourself.
“I hate to say it, but Simon’s right,” Otho said. “There’s a reason why we’re here … and I don’t want to do anything that may put you at risk.”
Curt gave him a sharp look. “What are you talking about? We came here to view the Deneb Petroglyphs.”
“And we will, but—”
—There is something else as well. Something that is very important to you.
Curt knew better than to argue with either Simon or Otho. Indeed, it often seemed that the only member of his family with whom he was ever able to win a fight was Grag. All the same, though, he was puzzled, and a bit irritated as well. But he kept his mouth shut as he and Otho slowly made their way through the atrium, slipping between knots of people as they headed toward the front of the room. Curt did his best to avoid colliding with anyone, but this was the first time he’d been in a crowd this size; he jostled a couple of elbows and stepped on someone’s foot, and by the time they reached the temporary stage set in front of the Wall, several people had hissed curses at him and Otho.
Several rows of chairs were roped off for the VIPs. A security officer in the dark blue uniform of the Interplanetary Police Force wordlessly waved them away from the seating area, so they found a place off to the side where they could still view the podium and—more important, so far as Curt was concerned—the petroglyphs.
The Deneb Petroglyphs were considered the most mysterious object in the solar system. No one had even suspected their existence until men ventured into this region of the Moon in the mid-twenty-first century, and in the 250 years that had passed since then, none who’d studied them had learned more about their meaning or origins than that which had been deduced shortly after their discovery.
First, the petroglyphs were old, very old. One hundred feet tall by seventy feet in length, carved into a smooth, semirectangular slab of lunar basalt by some form of focused energy; the presence of overlaying surface erosion caused by tectonic movements and micrometeorite impacts led selenologists and archeologists to determine an approximate age of one million years, give or take a millennium or two. This meant that the aliens who’d made them had passed through the solar system during the Pleistocene, when humankind was little more than a few Homo erectus tribes that still hadn’t made their way out of Africa.
Second, the aliens who’d come here had provided a clue about the place from which they came. At the very top of the slab, in the petroglyphs’ first horizontal row, was a cruciform with a pair of long, crooked arms. The nine dots at its center and along the arms helped identify it as the constellation Cygnus; the largest dot, located at the head of the cruciform and surrounded by radiating lines, was the star Deneb. Because a long horizontal line led straight to the next figure in the top row—eight small dots in a halo of unevenly spaced concentric circles surrounding a large central dot, with the sixth dot surrounded by a small circle, obviously an ideograph for Earth’s solar system—it was determined that this indicated that the aliens had come from Deneb … quite a journey, considering that the star system is estimated to be about 870 parsecs from Earth.
Third: of the dots represented within the figure of Earth’s solar system, two apparently had some significance, for they were surrounded by crosshatches. These were the third and fourth dots: Earth and Mars. But while the petroglyphs themselves attested to the fact that the aliens had visited Earth’s moon, whether they’d ever actually visited Earth or Mars was still a matter of debate, for no other extraterrestrial artifacts had ever been found on either of those worlds.
And fourth, the Denebian explorers—whom the Sons of the Two Moons reverently called the Old Ones—were humanlike yet not completely humanoid. Assuming that the figures in the petroglyphs represented themselves, they had been bipedal, with four limbs and a triangular head on an ovoid thorax. They also displayed a wide range of motion. The petroglyphs showed rows of tiny figures in a vast and bewildering array of poses that some called “the Dancing Denebs.” They walked, squatted, pranced, raised their left arms and legs, raised their right arms and legs, stood on their hands … and no one who’d studied them had any idea what these gestures meant, nor figured out the meaning of the geometric shapes—circles, squares, triangles, hemispheres, lines slanting both left and right—that periodically interrupted their performance.
For two and a half centuries, the Deneb Petroglyphs had been the object of attention of scientists, historians, scholars, poets, and crackpots. Stacks of books, treatises, and monographs had been written about them, each a determined effort to divine their meaning, yet no one had ever come close to devising a definitive and inarguable solution to the enigma they posed. The petroglyphs were a riddle without an answer … or at least one that was clearly true.
Otho and Curt stood before the petroglyphs, for the moment ignoring the sounds and sights of the reception as they gazed upon the mysterious pictographs. Then Otho quietly chuckled.
“Well, I don’t know about you,” he said, “but I’d say the answer is obvious.”
Curt raised an eyebrow. “It is?”
“Oh, certainly.” Otho pointed to the petroglyphs. “The writing is on the Wall.”
“Yes, it is.” Curt slowly nodded. “I only wish I knew what it means. Perhaps—”
“You don’t know? It’s pretty plain to me … the writing is on the Wall.”
“Of course it is. People have been studying this for years, but no one’s yet been able to translate the language. With no Rosetta stone, deciphering it is very nearly impossible.”
“They don’t need to, because”—a significant pause, then Otho spoke slowly—“the writing … is … on … the Wall!”
“I know the writing’s on the Wall!” Curt was becoming annoyed; Otho wasn’t usually this obtuse. “But no one knows what it means.”
Otho smiled but said nothing. When Curt continued to glare at him, his smile faded and he shook his head. “We need to work on your sense of humor,” he muttered as he turned away.
—Never mind him, the Brain said. He never knows when the writing is on the Wall.
Bewildered, Curt was about to respond when he heard a faint whirring from somewhere close overhead. He turned his head about and looked up to see a small surveillance drone hovering just a few feet above him and Otho. As he watched, it descended a few inches, its lens reflecting a distorted mirror image of himself gazing up at it.
“Don’t pay attention to it.” Otho’s voice was low and no longer playful. “Just go back to looking at the petroglyphs.”
“All right.” Curt reluctantly turned away. “Simon, do you think it—?”
Otho made an urgent shushing noise and Curt immediately shut up. When he glanced down at his left hand, though, he noticed that his ring had gone dark. The Brain had gone off-line, silencing his Anni interface as he did so.
Meanwhile, the drone continued to study Curt and Otho.
Joan Randall, inspector third class of the Interplanetary Police Force, Section Four (Intelligence), was at the VIP entrance when Ezra Gurney’s voice came over her Anni.
—Busy over there, kid?
—What do you think? Joan watched from beside the entrance arch as the IPF corporal under her supervision motioned for a middle-aged woman who’d just come through the connecting tunnel from the landing field to insert her hand into the identity scanner. The lady scowled at the indignity but obediently stuck her hand beneath the plate. It read the tattoo on the back of her palm while the arch searched her for weapons. Having ascertained—within reason—that the old matron wasn’t a Starry Messenger terrorist, the corporal waved her through.
—If you’re not, I could use your help.
Joan glanced down the tunnel. About a dozen or so other people were waiting their turn at the checkpoint.—They’re still coming in, Chief. I don’t want to leave Mario by himself.
—Look, I know you got your hands full, but y’think you could check out a couple of guys for me? They kinda pushed their way through the crowd to get near the podium, and something ’bout ’em gives me the willies.
Joan smiled. She always got a kick out of the way Ezra spoke, the Dixie slang and aphorisms that had been imported to the Moon long ago to become the native language of the loonies. —Would you care to be more specific? ‘Gives me the willies’ doesn’t tell me much.
—Their Annis went dead as soon as my drone dropped down to check ’em out. I call that a bad sign.
—That’s suspicious behavior? Joan wasn’t getting what Ezra meant. Nearly everyone here was probably linked to the neural net, and people logged in and out all the time. Sure, a cop was supposed to develop a nose for trouble, but still …
—Yes, missy, it is. Ezra’s voice, dry and reedy from a lifetime of off-duty whiskey and cigars, became a little tougher. —What I want you to do is mosey over there and speak with those two gents, and make sure they’re just a couple of good ol’ boys we’re not gonna have to worry about. Now hop.
—Okay, Chief. Joan knew better than to argue further. Ezra Gurney might be her mentor in the IPF and even something of a father figure, but first and foremost he was her superior officer in Section Four. She’d never seen a frog in real life, but she well understood that she was supposed to emulate one if Marshal Gurney told her to. So she told Mario to hold things down until she came back, then began picking her way through the crowd toward the stage.
As always, appreciative eyes traveled over her as she made her way through the atrium. On her, the blue dress uniform of an IPF officer, with its epaulets, lariat, and comet insignia, was as elegant as many of the glamorous outfits worn by the wealthy young women attending the ceremony. With straight black hair cut at the neckline, solemn brown eyes, and a trim figure that moved with an athletic yet sensual grace, Joan was one of the most beautiful females there, yet she had no desire to sip wine and make small talk with a wealthy bachelor. When she was on the job, duty came first … and she was a woman who was almost always on the job and preferred it that way.
Ezra hadn’t been specific about which two people near the stage he wanted her to investigate, but it wasn’t hard to figure out whom he’d meant. Beneath the drone were two men. One was thin and bald, with narrow eyes and the snow-white skin of an albino—not unusual for native-born loonies, for whom melanin deficiency was a common genetic defect. His companion had his back turned to her as she approached. He was tall as a loony but more muscular, with longish red hair that looked as if it had been cut with gardening shears. Both wore gray bodysuits, which indicated that neither were dignitaries but instead were average citizens who’d somehow managed to wrangle a couple of the passes that the organizers had grudgingly released to the general public.
The albino gazed past his friend’s shoulder as Joan approached. Spotting her, he quietly said something she didn’t catch but which she figured out anyway: Heads up, cop’s coming. The other character turned about just as Joan reached them, and she found herself being regarded by cool gray eyes.
“Hello, Officer. May I help you?” His voice was softer than she’d expected, and lacked any sort of accent she might have been able to immediately identify, loony or otherwise. His face had the helmet tan of someone who’d spent a lot of time in a vacuum suit, and was handsome in a mannish-boy sort of way. Joan figured that he was about her age, perhaps two or three years younger. Rather good-looking, too, but that was only a passing thought she quickly pushed aside.
“Just curious about why you’re so close to the stage.” Joan tilted her head toward the floater. “A colleague noticed you here. He asked me to come over and see why you and your friend made such an effort to get near the podium.”
“I’m sorry. We weren’t aware that we broke any rules by getting this close.” A rueful shrug. “It’s my fault. I’m fascinated by the petroglyphs, and just wanted to get a better look at them.”
As he spoke, his gaze traveled down her body. Joan was accustomed to this; she was aware of her beauty and the sort of response it provoked in some men. Still, it was surprising that someone so handsome would also be so rude, and she was grateful for the distraction of Ezra’s voice.
—Scanner says he’s telling the truth. Ezra would be using the drone’s biometric instruments to monitor any changes in skin temperature or respiration that might indicate a lie. —But I’m still just a l’il bit suspicious, if y’know what I mean.
“No need to apologize,” Joan said with a neutral smile. “I don’t think anyone can see these things and not wonder what they mean. For this event, though, we’d prefer it if anyone who isn’t an invited guest to refrain from getting any closer than these seats.” She gestured toward the nearby row of chairs. “Security reasons. I’m sure you understand.”
“We do,” the albino said, “and thank you for informing us. My friend and I will be only too happy to cooperate.”
Joan was about to acknowledge him with another smile when Ezra snapped in her inner ear. —Whoa! Something’s off here! I’m getting almost no readings from this fella! If this guy was any colder, he’d be in a mortuary!
There was no way she could respond without the two men hearing, so she remained quiet. But Ezra was right. The more closely she studied the albino, though, the more peculiar he became. His eye color wasn’t the pale pink typical of albinos, but rather a lovely shade of green. He had no eyebrows or eyelashes, and his face was free of blemishes and wrinkles. He could have been a mannequin come to life.
—Maybe the drone’s not finding him, Joan replied.
—Suppose it’s possible. Maybe there are too many people around for it to lock onto his vitals. Still, I’d like to know who these guys are.
“If you don’t mind,” she said aloud, “I’d like to see your ID’s, please.” She kept her tone light as she reached for her scanner with her left hand, but nonetheless she let her right hand fall casually to where her holstered pistol was strapped against her thigh.
The pale man hesitated, but his companion didn’t. “Not at all,” he said, stepping forward to raise his left hand. “Here … see?”
Joan looked down, and for the first time noticed the large ring on the middle finger of his hand. It was an unusual piece of jewelry, a multifaceted diamond in a platinum setting. As she watched, a holographic image slowly rose from the diamond: a miniature, three-dimensional model of the solar system, with the eight major planets in their respective positions around the sun.
“You like this?” the red-haired man asked. Intrigued by the projection, Joan nodded. “A friend of mine named Simon gave it to me some time ago,” he went on, “and he claims the sidereal motions of the planets are accurate. Now watch…”
A slight movement with his hand and the planets began to revolve around the sun, Mercury moving the fastest, Neptune the slowest. “See?” the red-haired man said quietly, his voice a pleasant purr. “Perfect synchronization. If you watch for a while, you can actually see their respective apogees and perigees. Look, I can make them move just a little faster—”
—Joan, don’t watch!
She heard Ezra, but it seemed as if he were calling her from a distant place. Besides, where was the harm in admiring the ring? “See how Mars is now in aphelion as opposed to Earth?” the red-haired man asked. “And notice how long it takes Saturn to catch up with Jupiter even though their orbits are adjacent.” Fascinated, she slowly nodded. “Here, let me make it go just a little faster—”
—Damn it, Randall, don’t—!
By then, Marshal Gurney’s voice was a little more than a whisper. The tiny solar system had grown to fill her view, Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune all moving in perfect harmony about the Sun. Watching this display from a godlike height, Joan felt herself relaxing, soothed by the sound of the red-haired stranger’s voice. Nothing mattered except the planets, nothing but—
“Joan!” Ezra snapped, and slapped her face.
All of a sudden, she found herself standing against the back wall of the atrium, her left cheek stinging from the impact of a calloused male hand.
Astonished, she blinked against the tears that welled in the corners of her eyes. Marshal Gurney stood before her, his mouth trembling in anger beneath his white handlebar mustache. She stared at him in bewilderment, with utterly no recollection of how she’d come to be here. Just a second ago, wasn’t she…?
“What … Ezra, how—?”
“Hush.” A little more calmly, Ezra lowered his voice. “Keep it down. The speeches have started.”
The ceiling lights had dimmed, and when she gazed past him, she saw that a spotlight was casting a luminescent circle on the podium. The crowd standing between them and the stage was applauding the woman who’d just walked onstage; Joan recognized her as the new director of the Straight Wall System Monument. Just now, though, this was the least of her concerns.
“What happened, Chief?” she whispered. “How did I get here?”
“Slickest bit of hypnosis I’ve seen this side of the Interplanetary Circus.” Despite his irritation, Ezra shook his head in wonder. “I saw the whole thing. First he got you gawkin’ at that gimmick ring of his, and once he had you pulled in, he told you to never mind anything else, just turn around and walk away. And damned if that ain’t exactly what you did.”
“What?” Joan stared at him. “Where is he now?”
“Right where you left him, the sneaky son of a—”
Curling a hand around her holstered pistol, Joan started forward, intending to barge through the crowd and apprehend both the red-haired man and his weird companion. But Ezra stepped in front of her and planted his hands on her shoulders.
“No, not now,” he said quietly. “We’re certain neither of ’em are armed, and I put a coupla guys on ’em to make sure they don’t cause any trouble. Whoever they are, they ain’t getting very far … but we can’t let them interrupt the dedication ceremony if we can help it.”
Joan felt a surge of helpless fury, but Ezra was right. Making an arrest here and now would only unnecessarily create a scene. So she nodded, let go of her weapon, and contented herself with gritting her teeth as the director finished her opening remarks.
“And now,” she said, “please allow me to introduce the person most responsible for persuading the Senate to allocate the funds to build this lovely new monument … the senator of the Lunar Republic, the honorable Victor Corvo.”
Copyright © 2017 by Allen Steele