Chapter 2. Baikonur

The priest was not what Xenia Makarova had expected.

Xenia herself wasn’t religious. And Xenia’s family, emigrant to the United States four generations ago, had been Orthodox. What did she know about Catholic priests? So she had expected the clich?: some gaunt old man, Italian or Irish, shriveled up by a lifetime of celibacy, dressed in a flapping black cassock that would soak up the toxic dust and prove utterly unsuitable for the conditions here at the launch site.

Her first surprise had come when the priest had expressed no special accommodation requirements, but had been happy to stay in the town of Baikonur, along with the technicians who worked for Bootstrap here at the old Soviet-era launch station. Baikonur — once called Leninsk, at the heart of Kazakhstan — was a place of burned-out offices and abandoned, windowless apartments, of roads and roofs coated with strata of gritty brown powder, blown from the pesticide-laden salt flats of the long-dead Aral Sea a few hundred kilometers away. Baikonur was a relic of Soviet dreams, plagued by crime and ill health. Not a good place to stay.

So Xenia wasn’t sure what to expect by the time the bus drew up to the security gate, and she went out to greet her holy guest.

The priest must have been sixty, small, compact: fit looking, though she showed some stiffness climbing down from the bus. Camera drones, glittering toys the size of beetles, whirred out in a cloud around her head.

Her, yes: of course it would be a female, one of the Vatican’s first cadre of women priests, that would be assigned to this most PR-friendly of operations.

And no black cassock. The priest, dressed in loose, comfortable-looking therm-aware shirt and slacks, could have held any one of a number of white-collar professions: an accountant, maybe, or a space scientist of the kind Frank Paulis had recruited in droves, or even a lawyer like Xenia herself. It was only the dog collar, a thin band of white at the throat, that marked out a different vocation.

From the shadows of her broad, sensible Sun hat the priest smiled out at Xenia. “You must be Ms. Makarova.”

“Call me Xenia. And you?”

“Dorothy Chaum.” The smile grew a little weary. “I’m neither Mother, nor Father, thankfully. You must call me Dorothy.”

“It’s a pleasure to have you here, Ms. — Dorothy.”

Dorothy flapped at the drones buzzing around her head like flies. “You’re a good liar. I’ll try to trouble you as little as I can.” And she looked beyond Xenia, into the rocket compound, with questing, curious eyes.

Maybe this won’t be so bad after all, Xenia thought.

Xenia, in fact, had been against the visit on principle, and she had told her boss so. “For God’s sake, Frank. This is a space launcher development site. It’s a place for hard hats, not haloes.”

Frank Paulis — forty-five years old, squat, brisk, bustling, sleek with sweat even in his air-conditioned offices — had just tapped his softscreen. “Just like it says in the mail here. This character is here on behalf of the Pope, to gather information on the mission—”

“And bless it. Frank, the Bruno is a mission to the asteroids. We’re going out to find ETs, for God’s sake. To have some quack waving incense and throwing holy water over our ship is… ridiculous. Medieval.”

Frank had gotten a look in his eyes she’d come to recognize. You have to be realistic, Xenia. Live in the real world. “The Vatican is one of our principal sponsors. They’ve a right to access.”

“The Church is using us as part of its repositioning,” she’d protested sourly. It was true; the Church had spent much of the new millennium rebuilding, after the multiple crises that had assailed it after the turn of the century: sexual scandals, financial irregularities, a renewed awareness of the horrors of Christian history — the Crusades and the Inquisition chief amongst them. “We mustn’t forget,” Xenia said sourly, “the Church’s refusal to acknowledge female reproductive rights and to address the issue of population growth, a position not abandoned until 2013, a historic wrong which must be on a par with—”

“Nobody’s arguing,” Frank said gently. “But who are you suggesting is cynical? Us or them? Look, I don’t care about the Church. All I care about is its money, and there’s still a hell of a lot of that. And, just like any other corporate sponsor, the Church is entitled to its slice of the PR pie.”

“Sometimes I think you’d take money from the Devil himself if it got your Big Dumb Booster a little closer to the launch pad.”

“Since we have a bunch of those apocalyptic cultists here — the ones who think the Gaijin are demons sent to punish us, or whatever — I suppose I am taking money from the other guy. Well, at least it shows balance.” Frank put his arm around her — he had to reach up to do it — and guided her out of his office. “Xenia, this witch doctor isn’t going to be with us for long. And, believe me, a priest is going to be a lot easier for you to entertain than some of the fat cats we have to put up with.”

“Me? Frank, if you knew how much I resent the implication that my time isn’t valuable—”

“Bring her to the lecture. That will eat up a couple of hours.”

“What lecture?”

He frowned. “I thought you knew. Reid Malenfant, on the philosophy of extraterrestrial life.”

She had to retrieve the name from deep memory. “The dried-up old coot from the talk shows?”

“Reid Malenfant, the ex-astronaut. Reid Malenfant, the codiscoverer of alien life five years back. Reid Malenfant, modern icon, come to give our grease monkeys a pep talk.” He grinned. “Lighten up, Xenia. Maybe it will be interesting.”

“Are you going?”

“Of course I am.” And, gently, he had closed the door.

Xenia and Dorothy were SmartDriven around Baikonur, the standard-issue corporate tour.

Baikonur, the Soviet Union’s long-hidden space city, had been pretty much a derelict by the time Frank Paulis took it over and began renovation. Stranded at the heart of a chill, treeless steppe, connected to the Russian border by a single antique rail line, it was like a run-down military base, dotted with hangars and launch pads and fuel tanks. Even after years of work by Bootstrap here, there were still piles of rusty junk strewn over the more remote corners of the base — some of it said to be the last relics of Russia’s never-successful Moon rockets.

But Dorothy’s attention was diverted, away from Xenia’s sound bites on the history and the engineering and the mission of Bootstrap, by the folks Frank Paulis referred to as the Sports Fans: adherents of one view or another about the Gaijin, seemingly attracted here irresistibly.

The Sports Fans lived at the fringe of the launch complex in semi-permanent camps, contained by tough link fences. They spent their time chanting, costume wearing, leafleting, performing protests of one baffling kind or another, right up against the fences, carefully watched over by Bootstrap security staff and drone robots. They were funded, presumably, by savings, or sponsors, or by whatever they could sell of their experiences and their witness on the data nets, and they were a fat, easy revenue source for the local Kazakhs — which was why they were tolerated here.

Xenia tried to guide Dorothy away from all this, but Dorothy demurred. And so they began a slow drive around the fences, as Dorothy peered out, and Xenia struggled to contain her impatience.

Public reaction to the Gaijin — as it had developed over the five years since the announcement of the discovery by Nemoto and Malenfant — had bifurcated. There were two broad schools of thought. The technical terms among psychologists and sociologists, Xenia had learned, were “millennialists” and “catastrophists.”

The millennialists, taking their lead from thinkers like Carl Sagan — not to mention Gene Roddenberry — believed that no star-spanning culture could possibly be hostile to a more primitive species like humanity, and the Gaijin must therefore be on their way to educate us or uplift us or save us from ourselves. The more intellectual millennialists had at least produced some useful, if slanted, material: careful studies of parallels with intercultural contact in Earth’s past, ranging from the dreadful fall-out of Western colonialism through to the essentially benevolent impact of the transmission of learning from Arabian and ancient Greek cultures to the medieval West.

But some millennialists were more direct. Various giant, elaborate structures — featuring the peace sigil, the yin and yang, the Christian cross, a human hand — had been cut or burned or painted on Earth’s surface. Giant graffiti, Dorothy thought, painted in the deserts of America and Africa and Asia and Australia and even, illegally, on the Antarctic ice cap, its creators wistfully hoping to catch the eye of the anonymous, toiling strangers out in the belt.

Others were even less subtle. Right here before her now there was a circle of people, hands open and faces raised to the desert sky, all steadily praying. She knew there had been similar gatherings, some in continuous session, at many of the world’s key religious and mystic sites: Jerusalem, Mecca, the pyramids, the European stone circles. Take me! Take me!

Meanwhile, the catastrophists believed that the aliens represented terrible danger.

Much of their fear and anger was directed at the aliens themselves, of course, and there were elaborate schemes for military assaults on their supposed asteroid bases — justified, in some cases, by appeal to the evident malice of most of the aliens reported in UFO abduction cases of the past. There was even one impressive presentation — complete with animation and sound effects, emanating from softscreen posters draped over Bootstrap’s link fence — from a major aerospace cartel. The military-industrial-complex types were as always seeking to turn the new situation into lucrative new contracts, and how better than to be asked to build giant asteroid-belt battle cruisers?

But the catastrophists had plenty of rage left over to be directed at other targets, healthily fueled by conspiracy theorists. There were still some who held that the U.S. government had been collaborating with the aliens since Roswell, 1947. “I wish they had been,” Frank had once said tiredly. “It would make life a lot easier.”

And there were protests aimed at government agencies at all levels, the United Nations, scientific bodies, and anybody thought to be involved in the general cover-up. The most spectacular of the related assaults had been the grenade attack that had caused the destruction of the decrepit, never-flown Saturn V Moon rocket that had lain for decades as a monument outside NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

It kept the Bootstrap guards watchful.

“Intriguing,” Dorothy murmured. “Disturbing.”

“But places like this always concentrate the noise,” Xenia said gently. “The vast majority of people out there in the real world are simply indifferent to the whole thing. When the news about the Gaijin first broke it was an immediate sensation, taking over every media outlet — for a day or two, perhaps a week. I was already working with Frank at the time. He was electrified — well, we both were; we thought the news the most significant of our lifetimes. And the business opportunities it might open up sent Frank running around in circles.”

Dorothy smiled. “That sounds like the Frank Paulis I’ve read about.”

“But then there was no more fresh news…”

After a couple of weeks, the Gaijin had been crowded off the front pages. Politics had assumed its usual course, and all the funds hastily promised in that first startling morning after the Nemoto-Malenfant discovery — for deeper investigations and robot probes and manned missions and the rest — had soon evaporated.

“But the news was too… lofty,” Dorothy murmured. “Inhuman. It changed everything. Suddenly the universe swiveled around us; suddenly we knew we weren’t alone, and how we felt about ourselves, about the universe and our place in it, could never be the same again.

“And yet, nothing changed. After all the Gaijin didn’t do anything but crawl around their asteroids. They didn’t respond to any of the signals they were sent, whether by governments or churches or ham-radio crackpots.”

Frank had gotten involved in some of that, in fact; the early messages had been framed using a universal-language methodology that dated back to the 1960s, called Lincos: lots of redundancy and framing to make the message patterns clear, a simple primer that worked up from basic mathematical concepts through physics, chemistry, astronomy… A lot of beautiful, fascinating work, none of which had raised so much as a peep from the Gaijin.

“And meanwhile,” Dorothy went on, “there were still babies to deliver, crops to grow, politicking to pursue, and wars to fight. As my father used to say, the next morning you still had to put your pants on one leg at a time.

“You know,” she said thoughtfully, “I’m generally in favor of all this activity. Your Sports Fans, I mean. The only way we have to absorb such changes in our view of the world, and ourselves, is like this: by talking, talking, talking. At least the people here care enough to express an opinion. Look at that.” It was a softscreen poster showing a download from the net: a live image returned by some powerful telescope, perhaps in orbit or on the Moon, of the asteroid belt anomalies: a dark, grainy background, a line of red stars, twinkling, blurred. “Alien industry, live from space. The most popular Internet site, I’m told. People use it as wallpaper in their bedrooms. They seem to find it comforting.”

Xenia snorted. “Sure. And you know who makes most use of that image? The astrologers. Now you can have your fortune told by the lights of Gaijin factories. I mean, Jesus… Sorry. But it says it all.”

Dorothy laughed good-naturedly.

They drove away from the Sports Fans’ pens and approached the pad itself: the true center of attention, bearing Bootstrap’s first interplanetary ship, Frank Paulis’s pride and joy.

Xenia could see the lines of a rust-brown external tank, the slim pillars of solid rocket boosters. The stack was topped by a tubular cover that gleamed white in the Sun. Somewhere inside that fairing rested the Giordano Bruno, a complex robot spacecraft that would some day ride out to the asteroids and seek out the Gaijin that lurked there — if Frank could drive the test program to completion, if Xenia could guide the corporation through the maze of legislation that still impeded them.

As Xenia studied the ship, Dorothy studied her.

“Frank Paulis relies on you a lot, doesn’t he?” Dorothy said. “I know that formally you are head of Bootstrap’s legal department…”

“I’m the first name on Frank’s call list. He relies on me to get things done.”

“And you’re happy with your role.”

“We do share the same goals, you know.”

“Umm. Your ship looks something like the old space shuttle.”

“So it should,” Xenia said, and she launched into a standard line. “This is what we here at Bootstrap call our Big Dumb Booster. It’s actually comprised largely of superannuated space shuttle components. You’ll immediately see one benefit over the standard shuttle design, which is in-line propulsion; we have a much more robust stack—”

“I’m no more an engineer than you are, Xenia,” Dorothy said with smooth humor.

Xenia allowed herself a grin. “Sorry. It’s hard to change the script after doing this so many times… This is primarily a launcher to the planets. Or the asteroids.”

Dorothy smiled. “You have built a rocket ship for America.”

Xenia bristled. “It does seem rather a scandal that America, first nation to land a human being on another planet, has let its competence degrade to the point that it has no heavy-lift space launch capability at all.”

“But the Chinese are in Earth orbit, and the Japanese are on the Moon. There’s even a rumor that the Chinese are preparing a flight of their own out to the asteroids.”

Xenia squinted at the washed-out, dusty sky. “Dorothy, it’s five years since the Gaijin showed up in the Solar System. But you can’t call it contact. Not yet. As you said, they haven’t responded to any of our signals. All they do is build, build, build. Maybe if we do manage to send a probe there, we’ll achieve real contact, the kind of contact we’ve always dreamed of.”

“And you think America should be first.”

“If not us, who? The Chinese?”

A siren sounded: An engine test was due. With smooth efficiency, the car’s SmartDrive cut in and swept them far from danger.

“We used to think that life was pretty unlikely — maybe even unique to Earth,” Malenfant was saying. “An astronomer called Fred Hoyle once said that the idea that you could shuffle organic molecules in some primeval soup and, purely by chance, come up with a DNA molecule is about like a whirlwind passing through an aircraft factory and assembling scattered parts into a 747.” Laughter. “But now we think those notions are wrong. Now we think that the complexity that defines and underlies life is somehow hardwired into the laws of physics. Life is emergent.

“Imagine boiling a pan of water. As the liquid starts to convect, you’ll see a regular pattern of cells form, kind of like a honeycomb — just before the proper boiling cuts in and the motion becomes chaotic. Now, all there is in the pan is water molecules, billions of them. Nobody is telling those molecules how to organize themselves into those striking patterns. And yet they do it.

“That’s an example of how order and complexity can emerge from an initial uniform and featureless state. And maybe life is just the end product of a long series of self-organizing steps like that…”

Malenfant was giving his lecture in Bootstrap’s roomy, air-conditioned public affairs auditorium: the one place Frank had been prepared to spend some serious money, aside from on the engineering itself. Xenia and Dorothy arrived a little late. To Xenia’s surprise, the auditorium was pretty nearly full, and she had to squeeze them into two seats at the back.

The stage was bare save for a lectern and a plastic mock-up, three meters tall, of the Big Dumb Booster — that, and Malenfant.

To Xenia, Reid Malenfant — a lithe but Sun-wrinkled sixty-something, his polished-bald head shining under the overhead lights — was an unprepossessing sight. Even as he spoke he seemed oddly out of place, blinking at his audience as if he wasn’t sure what he was doing here.

But the audience, mostly young engineers, seemed spellbound. She spotted Frank himself in the front row: a dark, hulking figure before the grounded astronaut, gazing raptly with the rest. That old space dust still carried some magic, she supposed; there was something primal here, about wanting to be close to the wizard, the sage who had been involved in that first wondrous discovery — as if, just by being close, it was possible to soak up a little of that marvelous light.

Malenfant went on. “We’d come to believe, even before the Gaijin showed up, that life must be common. We believe nature is uniform, so the laws and processes that work here work everywhere else. And now we hold to the Copernican principle: We believe that we aren’t in any unique place in space or time. So if life is here, on Earth, it must be everywhere — in one form or another.

“So the fact that living things have come sailing into the asteroid belt from the stars — if they are living, that is — isn’t much of a surprise. But what is a surprise is that they should be just arriving, here, now. If they exist, why weren’t they here before?

“It is good scientific practice, when you’re facing the unknown, to assume a condition of equilibrium: a stable state, not a state of change. Because change is unusual, special.

“Now, maybe you see the problem. What we seem to face with the Gaijin is the arrival — the very first arrival we can detect — of alien colonists in the Solar System. And so we find ourselves not in a time of equilibrium, but at a time of transition — in fact of possibly the most fundamental change of all. It’s so unlikely it isn’t true.

“To put it another way, this is the question that was avoided by all those terrible alien-invasion sci-fi movies I grew up with as a kid.” Laughter, a little baffled, from the younger guys. What’s a “movie”? “Why should these bug-eyed guys arrive now, when we have tanks and nukes to fight them with?”

Malenfant gazed around at his audience, his eyes deep-sunken, tired-looking, wary. “I’m telling you this because you people are the ones who have taken up the challenge, where governments and others have shamefully failed, to get out there and figure out what’s going on. There are obvious mysteries about the Gaijin — some of which might be resolved as soon as we get our first good look at them. But there are other, deeper questions that their very presence here poses, questions that go right to the heart of the nature of the universe itself, and our place in it. And right now, only you are doing anything which might help us tackle those questions.

“You have my support. Do your work well. Godspeed. Thank you.”

The applause began, politely at first.

It was a polished performance, Xenia supposed. She imagined this man thirty years ago giving pep talks at space shuttle component factories. Do good work!

But, to her surprise, the applause was continuing, even growing thunderous. And to her deeper surprise, she found herself joining in.

Xenia and Dorothy had some trouble reaching Frank Paulis and Malenfant, so walled off was the astronaut by a crowd of eager young engineer types.

Dorothy studied Xenia’s expression. “You don’t quite go for all this hero worship, do you, Xenia?”

“Do you think I’m cynical?”

“No.”

Xenia grimaced. “But it… frustrates me. We’re living through first contact, an era unique in the human story, whatever the future holds. At least Bootstrap is trying to respond. Away from here, aside from what we’re doing, all I see is irrationalism. That, and positioning. Various bodies trying to use this discovery for their own purposes.”

“Like the Church?”

“Well, isn’t it?”

“We all must pursue our own goals, Xenia. At least the Church’s involvement in this project of yours represents a tangible demonstration that we are working our way through the crisis of faith the Gaijin have caused us.”

“What crisis?”

“The Vatican began its first modern evaluation of the implication of extraterrestrial life for Christianity back in the nineties. But the debate has been going on much longer than that. We seem to have believed there were other minds out there long before we even had any clear notion of what out there actually was… This intuition seems to be an expression of our deep embedding in the universe; if the cosmos created us, it could surely create others. Did you know that Saint Augustine, back in the sixth century, speculated about ETs?”

“He did?”

“Augustine decided they couldn’t exist. If they did, you see, they would require salvation — a Christ of their own. But that would remove the uniqueness of Christ, which is impossible. Such theological conundrums plague us to this day… You can laugh if you like.”

Xenia shook her head. “The idea that we might go out there and try to convert the Gaijin does seem a little odd.”

“But we don’t know why they are here,” Dorothy pointed out. “Would seeking truth be such an invalid reason?”

“And now you’re here to bless the BDB,” Xenia said.

“Not exactly. Perhaps you’ve already done that, by naming it after Giordano Bruno. I take it you know who he was.”

“Of course.” The first thinker to have expressed something like the modern notion of a plurality of worlds — planets orbiting Suns, many of them inhabited by beings more or less like humans. Earlier thinkers about other worlds had imagined parallel versions of a Dante’s Inferno pocket universe, centered on a stationary Earth. “You have to imagine other worlds before you can conceive of traveling there.”

“But Bruno was anticipated,” Dorothy said gently. “A cardinal we know as Nicolas of Cusa, who lived in the fifteenth century…”

Dorothy’s lecturing tone seemed quite inappropriate to Xenia, making her impatient. “Whatever his antecedents, Bruno was killed by the Church for his heresy.”

“He was burned, in 1600, for a mystical attack on Christianity,” Dorothy said, “not for his argument about aliens, or even his defense of Copernicus.”

“That makes it okay?”

Dorothy continued to study her quietly.

At last the crowd of techie acolytes was breaking up.

“You can’t know how much I admire you, Colonel Malenfant,” Frank was saying. “I’m twenty years younger than you. But I modeled myself on you.”

Malenfant eyed him dubiously. “Then I’m in hell.”

“No, I mean it. You started a company called Bootstrap. You had plans to exploit the asteroids.”

“It failed. I was a lousy businessman. And when I lost my wife—”

“Sure, but you had the right idea. If not for that—”

Malenfant was looking longingly at the BDB mock-up. “If not for that, if the universe was a different shape — yes, maybe I’d have done all this. And who knows what I’d have found?”

The silence stretched. Dorothy Chaum was frowning, Xenia noticed, as she studied Malenfant’s cloudy, troubled expression.

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