Loyalty"Returns the female detective to the heart of the hard-boiled tradition." - Sara Paretsky
The Cassandra Project
It’s an odd fact that the biggest science story of the twenty-first century—probably the biggest ever—broke in that tabloid of tabloids, The National Bedrock.
I was in the middle of conducting a NASA press conference several days before the Minerva lift-off—the Return to the Moon—and I was fielding softball questions like: “Is it true that if everything goes well, the Mars mission will be moved up?” and “What is Marcia Beckett going to say when she becomes the first person to set foot on lunar soil since Eugene Cernan turned off the lights fifty-four years ago?”
President Gorman and his Russian counterpart, Dmitri Alexandrov, were scheduled to talk to the press from the White house an hour later, so I was strictly a set-up guy. Or that was the plan, anyway, until Warren Cole mentioned the dome.
It was a good time for NASA. We all knew the dangers inherent in overconfidence, but two orbital missions had gone up without a hitch. Either of them could have landed and waved back at us, and the rumor was that Sid Myshko had almost taken the game into his own hands, and that the crew had put it to a vote whether they’d ignore the protocol and go down to the surface regardless of the mission parameters. Sid and his five crewmates denied the story, of course.
I’d just made the point to the pool of reporters that it was Richard Nixon who’d turned off the lights—not the astronaut Eugene Cernan—when Warren Cole began waving his hand. Cole was the AP journalist, seated in his customary spot up front. He was frowning, his left hand in the air, staring down at something on his lap that I couldn’t see.
“Warren?” I said. “What’ve you got?”
“Jerry….” He looked up, making no effort to suppress a grin. “Have you seen the story that the Bedrock’s running?” He held up his iPad.
That started a few people checking their own devices.
“No, I haven’t,” I said, hoping he was making it up. “I don’t usually get to Bedrock this early in the week.” Somebody snorted. Then a wave of laughter rippled through the room. “What?” I said. My first thought had been that we were about to have another astronaut scandal, like the one the month before with Barnaby Salvator and half the strippers on the Beach. “What are they saying?”
“The Russians released more lunar orbital pictures from the sixties,” He snickered. “They’ve got one here from the far side of the Moon. If you can believe this, there’s a dome back there.”
“Yeah.” He flipped open his notebook. “Does NASA have a comment?”
“You’re kidding, right?” I said.
He twisted the iPad, raised it higher, and squinted at it. “Yep. It’s a dome all right.”
The reporters in the pool all had a good chuckle, and then they looked up at me. “Well,” I said, “I guess Buck Rogers beat us there after all.”
“It looks legitimate, Jerry,” Cole said, but he was still laughing.
I didn’t have to tell him what we all knew: That it was a doctored picture and that it must have been a slow week for scandals.
If the image was doctored, the deed had to have been done by the Russians. Moscow had released the satellite images only a few hours before and forwarded them to us without comment. Apparently nobody on either side had noticed anything unusual. Except the Bedrock staff.
I hadn’t looked at the images prior to the meeting. I mean, once you’ve seen a few square miles of lunar surface you’ve pretty much seen it all. The dome—if that’s really what it was—appeared on every image in the series. They were dated April, 1967.
The Bedrock carried the image on its front page, where they usually show the latest movie celebrity who’s being accused of cheating, or has gone on a drunken binge. It depicted a crater wall, with a large arrow graphic in the middle of a dark splotch pointing at a dome that you couldn’t have missed anyhow. The headline read:
ALIENS ON THE MOON
Russian Pictures Reveal Base on Far Side
Images Taken Before Apollo
?I sighed and pushed back from my desk. We just didn’t need this.
But it did look like an artificial construct. The thing was on the edge of a crater, shaped like the head of a bullet. It was either a reflection, an illusion of some sort, or it was a fraud. But the Russians had no reason to set themselves up as a laughing stock. And it sure as hell looked real.
I was still staring at it when the phone rang. It was Mary, NASA’s administrator. My boss. “Jerry,” she said, “I heard what happened at the press conference this morning.”
“What’s going on, Mary?”
“Damned if I know. Push some buttons. See what you can find out. It’s going to come up again when the President’s out there. We need to have an answer for him.”
Vasili Koslov was my public relations counterpart at Russia’s space agency. He was in Washington with the presidential delegation. And he was in full panic mode when I got him on the phone. “I saw it, Jerry,” he said. “I have no idea what this is about. I just heard about it a few minutes ago. I’m looking at it now. It does look like a dome, doesn’t it?”
“Yes,” I said. “Did your people tamper with the satellite imagery?”
“They must have. I have a call in. I’ll let you know as soon as I hear something.”
I called Jeanie Escovar in the Archives. “Jeanie, have you seen the National Bedrock story yet?”
“No,” she said. “My God, what is it this time?”
“Not what you think. I’m sending it to you now. Could you have somebody check to see where this place is—?”
“What place? Oh, wait—I got it.”
“Find out where it is and see if you can get me some imagery of the same area. From our satellites.”
I heard her gasp. Then she started laughing.
“Jeanie, this is serious.”
“Why? You don’t actually believe there’s a building up there, do you?”
“Somebody’s going to ask the President about it. They have a press conference going on in about twenty minutes. We want him to be able to say: ‘It’s ridiculous, here’s a picture of the area, and you’ll notice there’s nothing there.’ We want him to be able to say ‘The Bedrock’s running an optical illusion.’ But he’ll have to do it diplomatically. And without embarrassing Alexandrov.”
“Good luck on that.”
The Bedrock story was already getting attention on the talk shows. Angela Hart, who at that time anchored The Morning Report for the World Journal, was interviewing a physicist from MIT. The physicist stated that the picture could not be accurate. “Probably a practical joke,” he said. “Or a trick of the light.”
But Angela wondered why the Russians would release the picture at all. “They had to know it would get a lot of attention,” she said. And, of course, though she didn’t mention it, it would become a source of discomfort for the Russian president and the two cosmonauts who were among the Minerva crew.
Vasili was in a state of shock when he called back. “They didn’t know about the dome,” he said. “Nobody noticed. But it is on the original satellite imagery. Our people were just putting out a lot of the stuff from the Luna missions. Imagery that hadn’t been released before. I can’t find anybody who knows anything about it. But I’m still trying.”
“Vasili,” I said, “somebody must have seen it at the time. In 1967.”
“You guess? You think it’s possible something like this came in and nobody picked up on it?”
“No, I’m not suggesting that at all, Jerry. I just—I don’t know what I’m suggesting. I’ll get back to you when I have something more.”
Minutes later, Jeanie called: “It’s the east wall of the Cassegrain Crater.”
“I’ve forwarded NASA imagery of the same area.”
I switched on the monitor and ran the images. There was the same crater wall, the same pock-marked moonscape. But no dome. Nothing at all unusual.
Dated July, 1968. More than a year after the Soviet imagery.
I called Mary and told her: The Russians just screwed up.
“The President can’t say that.”
“All he has to say is that NASA has no evidence of any dome or anything else on the far side of the Moon. Probably he should just turn it into a joke. Make some remark about setting up a Martian liaison unit.”
She didn’t think it was funny.
When the subject came up at the presidential press conference, Gorman and Alexandrov both simply had a good laugh. Alexandrov blamed it on Khrushchev, and the laughter got louder. Then they moved on to how the Minerva mission—the long-awaited Return to the Moon—marked the beginning of a new era for the world.
The story kicked around in the tabloids for two or three more days. The Washington Post ran an op-ed using the dome to demonstrate how gullible we all are when the media says anything. Then Cory Abbott, who’d just won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Einstein in Albert and Me, crashed his car into a street light and blacked out the entire town of Dekker, California. And just like that the dome story was gone.
On the morning of the launch, Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, issued a statement that the image was a result of defective technology. The Minerva lifted off on schedule and, while the world watched, it crossed to the Moon and completed a few orbits. Its lander touched down gently on the Mare Maskelyne. Marcia Beckett surprised everyone when she demurred leading the way out through the airlock, sending instead Cosmonaut Yuri Petrov, who descended and then signaled his crewmates to join him.
When all were assembled on the regolith, Petrov made the statement that, in the light of later events, has become immortal: “We are here on the Moon because, during the last century, we avoided the war that would have destroyed us all. And we have come together. Now we stand as never before, united for all mankind.”
I wasn’t especially impressed at the time. It sounded like the usual generalized nonsense. Which shows you what my judgment is worth.
I watched on my office monitor. And as the ceremony proceeded, I looked past the space travelers, across the barren wasteland of the Mare Maskelyne, wondering which was the shortest path to the Cassegrain crater.
I knew I should have just let it go, but I couldn’t. I could imagine no explanation for the Russians doctoring their satellite imagery. Vasili told me that everyone with whom he’d spoken was shocked. That the images had been dug out of the archives and distributed without inspection. And, as far as could be determined, without anyone distorting them. “I just don’t understand it, Jerry,” he said.
Mary told me not to worry about it. “We have more important things to do,” she said.
There was no one left at NASA from the 1960s. In fact, I knew of only one person living at Cape Kennedy who had been part of the Agency when Apollo 11 went to the Moon: Amos Kelly, who’d been one of my grandfather’s buddies. He was still in the area, where he served with the Friends of NASA, a group of volunteers who lent occasional support but mostly threw parties. I looked him up. He’d come to the Agency in 1965 as a technician. Eventually, he’d become one of the operational managers.
He was in his mid-eighties, but he sounded good. “Sure, Jerry, I remember you. It’s been a long time,” he said, when I got him on the phone. I’d been a little kid when he used to stop by to pick up my grandfather for an evening of poker. “What can I do for you?”
“This is going to sound silly, Amos.”
“Nothing sounds silly to me. I used to work for the government.”
“Did you see the story in the tabloids about the dome?”
“How could I miss it?”
“You ever hear anything like that before?”
“You mean did we think there were Martians on the Moon?” He laughed, turned away to tell someone that the call was for him, and then laughed again. “Is that a serious question, Jerry?”
“I guess not.”
“Good. By the way, you’ve done pretty well for yourself at the Agency. Your granddad would have been proud.”
He told me how much he missed the old days, missed my grandfather, how they’d had a good crew. “Best years of my life. I could never believe they’d just scuttle the program the way they did.”
Finally he asked what the Russians had said about the images. I told him what Vasili told me. “Well,” he said, “maybe they haven’t changed that much after all.”
Twenty minutes later he called back. “I was reading the story in the Bedrock. It says that the object was in the Cassegrain Crater.”
“Yes. That’s correct.”
“There was talk of a Cassegrain Project at one time. Back in the sixties. I don’t know what it was supposed to be. Whether it was anything more than a rumor. Nobody seemed to know anything definitive about it. I recall at the time thinking it was one of those things so highly classified that even its existence was off the table.”
“The Cassegrain Project.”
“But you have no idea what it was about?”
“None. I’m sorry. Wish I could help.”
“Would you tell me if you knew?”
“It’s a long time ago, Jerry. I can’t believe security would still be an issue.”
“Amos, you were pretty high in the Agency—”
“Not that high.”
“Do you remember anything else?”
“Nothing. Nada. As far as I know, nothing ever came of any of it, so the whole thing eventually went away.”
From The Cassandra Project by Jack McDevitt and Mike Resnick. Published by arrangement with Ace Books Inc., a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) Jack McDevitt, 2012.
LATE WINTER, 1403, RIMWAY CALENDAR
Somerset Tuttle’s AI announced that Rachel had arrived. “Do you wish to admit her, sir?”
“Of course, Jeremy. Tell her I’ll be right there.”
Rachel had been upset when she called. That was utterly out of character for her. Sunset, she’d said, verging on tears—he loved being addressed by the nickname, intended by his rivals as a commentary on his career, but which nevertheless had an adventurous ring—I have to see you. No. Tonight. Please. Whatever you’re doing. No, I don’t want to tell you over the circuit. Are you alone? Well, get rid of them. You won’t be sorry.
When he’d suggested they meet over dinner, she’d all but come apart.
“Now, Sunset. Please.”
He liked Rachel. She said what she thought, she had a good sense of humor, she was smart, and she was beautiful. Soft brown hair and penetrating blue eyes and a smile that lit up his life. He enjoyed having her with him when he attended social functions because she was inevitably the most beautiful creature in the room. The nitwits who thought he was crazy because he’d invested a lifetime trying to determine who else might be out there—the most important question of the age—could only watch enviously as he escorted her through the crowd.
She worked for World’s End Tours, where she took people sightseeing among the stars. And over on your right is Anderson’s Black Hole. And straight ahead is the Crab Nebula. He smiled at the image and kept the smile in place to reassure Rachel that, whatever was bothering her, it would be all right.
His great hope was that one day he would introduce her to someone not born of human stock, someone other than the idiot Mutes, of course, who’d been around so long it was hard to think of them as alien. That they would sit down over lunch with a true Other, fill the wineglasses, and talk about purpose, design, and God. That was what mattered.
Tuttle had been looking for over a century, sometimes with colleagues, more often alone. He’d examined literally hundreds of terrestrial worlds, places with running water and bright sunlight and soft winds. Most had been devoid even of a blade of grass or a trilobite. A few possessed forests and creatures that scampered through them, and seas teeming with life. But they were rare.
Nowhere had he seen something that might have been able to appreciate who he was and where he came from. Something that, on occasion, might have looked at the stars.
He didn’t look forward to Rachel’s upcoming hysterics. He couldn’t imagine what it might be that had rattled a woman he’d considered, until this moment, unflappable. But he didn’t want to get involved with what was clearly a sticky personal situation. It sounded like a problem with her boyfriend, but surely she wouldn’t bring that to him. What then?
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