By Ben Bova, Patrick Nielsen Hayden
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2005 Ben Bova
All rights reserved.
BOOK I THE REALM OF FIRE
No, Time, thou shalt not boast that I do change:
Thy pyramids built up with newer might
To me are nothing novel, nothing strange;
They are but dressings of a former sight.
Saito Yamagata had to squint against the Sun's overwhelming glare, even through the heavily tinted visor of his helmet.
"This is truly the realm of fire," he whispered to himself. "Small wonder our ancestors worshiped you, Daystar."
Despite his instinctive unease, Yamagata felt physically comfortable enough inside his thickly insulated spacesuit; its cooling system and the radiators that projected from its back like a pair of dark oblong wings seemed to be working adequately. Still, the nearness, the overpowering brightness, the sheer size of that seething, churning ball of roiling gases made his nerves flutter. It seemed to fill the sky. Yamagata could see streamers arching up from the Sun's curved limb into the blackness of space, huge bridges of million-degree plasma expanding and then pouring back down onto the blazing, searing surface of the photosphere.
He shuddered inside the cramped confines of his suit. Enough sight-seeing, he told himself. You have proven your courage and audacity for all the crew and your guests to see and remember. Get back inside the ship. Get to work. It is time to begin your third life.
Yamagata had come to Mercury to seek salvation. A strange route to blessedness, he thought. I must first pass through this fiery inferno, like a Catholic serving time in purgatory before attaining heaven. He tried to shrug philosophically, found that it was impossible in the suit, so instead he lifted his left arm with the help of the suit's miniaturized servomotors and studied the keyboard wrapped around his wrist until he felt certain that he knew which keys he must touch to activate and control his suit's propulsion unit. He could call for assistance, he knew, but the loss of face was too much to risk. Despite the lamas' earnest attempts to teach him humility, Yamagata still held to his pride. If I go sailing out into infinity, he told himself, then I can call for help. And blame a suit malfunction, he added, with a sly grin.
He was pleased, then, when he was able to turn himself to face Himawari, the big, slowly rotating fusion torch ship that had brought him and his two guests to Mercury, and actually began jetting toward it at a sedate pace. With something of a shock Yamagata realized this was the first time he had ever been in space. All those years of his first life, building the power satellites and getting rich, he had remained firmly on Earth. Then he had died of cancer, been frozen, and reborn. Most of his second life he had spent in the lamasery in the Himalayas. He had never gone into space. Not until now.
Time to begin my third life, he said to himself as he neared Himawari. Time to atone for the first two.
Time for the stars.
Even with three subordinates assisting him, it took Yamagata nearly an hour to disencumber himself of the bulky, heavily insulated spacesuit. He was dripping wet with perspiration and must have smelled ripe, but none of his aides dared say a word or show the slightest expression of distaste. When they had helped him into the suit Yamagata had thought of a Spanish toreador being assisted in donning his "suit of lights" for the bullring. Now he felt like a medieval knight taking off his battered armor after a bruising toumament.
Going outside the ship in the spacesuit had been little more than a whim, Yamagata knew, but a man of his wealth and power could be indulged his whims. Besides, he wanted to impress his subordinates and guests. Even though his son Nobu actually ran Yamagata Corporation and had for decades, the elder Yamagata was treated deferentially wherever he went. Despite the years of patient instruction that the lamas had spent on him, Yamagata still relished being fawned upon.
Money brings power; he understood that. But he wanted more than that. What he wanted now was respect, prestige. He wanted to be remembered not merely as a wealthy or powerful man; he wanted to go down in history for his vision, his munificence, his drive. He wanted to be the man who gave the stars to the human race.
Yamagata Corporation's solar power satellites were bringing desperately needed electrical power to an Earth devastated by greenhouse flooding and abrupt climate shifts. Under Nobuhiko's direction, the corporation was helping to move Japan and the other nations crippled by the global warming back onto the road toward prosperity.
And freedom. The two went hand in hand, Yamagata knew. When the greenhouse cliff struck so abruptly, flooding coastal cities, collapsing the international electrical power grid, wrecking the global economy, Earth's governments became repressive, authoritarian. People who are hungry, homeless, and without hope will always trade their individual liberties for order, for safety, for food. Ultraconservative religious groups came to power in Asia, the Middle East, even Europe and America; they ruled with an absolute faith in their own convictions and zero tolerance for anyone else's.
Now, with the climate stabilizing and some prosperity returning, many of the world's peoples were once again struggling for their individual rights, resuming the age-old battle that their forebears had fought against kings and tyrants in earlier centuries.
All to the good, Yamagata told himself. But it is not enough. The human race must expand its frontier, enlarge its horizons. Sooner or later, humankind must reach out to the stars. That will be my gift to humanity.
Can I do it? he asked himself. Do I have the strength and the will to succeed? He had been tough enough in his earlier lives, a ruthless industrial giant before the cancer had struck him down. But that had been for myself, he realized, for my corporation and my son's legacy. Now I am striving to accomplish greatness for humanity, not merely for my own selfish ends. Again he smiled bitterly. Foolish man, he warned himself. What you do now you do for your own purposes. Don't try to delude yourself. Don't try to conceal your own ambitions with a cloak of nobility.
Yet the question remained: Do I have the determination, the strength, the single-minded drive to make this mad scheme a success?
Finally freed of the suit with all its paraphernalia and boots and undergarments, Yamagata stood in his sweat-soaked sky-blue coveralls, which bore on its breast the white flying crane symbol of his family and his corporation. He dismissed his subordinates with a curt word of thanks. They bowed and hissed respectfully as Yamagata turned and started up the corridor that led to his private compartment and a hot shower.
Yamagata was a sturdily built man, slightly over 175 centimeters tall, who appeared to be no more than fifty-some years old, thanks to rejuvenation therapies. In his youth he had been as slim as a samurai's blade, but the years of good living in his first life had softened him, rounded his body and his face. The cancer ate away much of that, and his years in the lamasery had kept him gaunt, but once he left the Himalayas to begin his third life he soon reverted to his tastes in food and drink. Now he was slightly paunchy, his sodden, stained coveralls already beginning to strain at the middle. His face was round, also, but creased with laugh lines. In his first life Yamagata had laughed a lot, although during those years of remorse and penance he had spent with the lamas in their stone fortress high in the Himalayas there was precious little laughter.
Freshly showered and dressed in a crisply clean open-necked shirt and fashionable dark trousers, Yamagata made his way to the ship's bridge. He thought about dropping in on his two guests, but he would see them later at dinner, he knew. As soon as he stepped through the open hatch into the bridge the Japanese crew, including the captain, snapped to respectful attention.
Waving a hand to show they should return to their duties, Yamagata asked the captain, "Are we ready to send the landing craft to the planet?"
The captain tried to keep his face expressionless, but it was clear to Yamagata that he did not like the idea.
"It is not necessary for you to go down to the surface, sir," he said, almost in a whisper. "We have all the necessary facilities here on the ship —"
"I understand that," said Yamagata, smiling to show that he was not offended by the captain's reluctance. "Still, I wish to see the surface installation for myself. It's near the north pole, I understand."
"Yes, sir. Borealis Planitia."
"Near the crater Goethe," said Yamagata.
The captain dipped his chin to acknowledge Yamagata's understanding of the geography. But he murmured, "It is very rugged down there, sir."
"So I have been told. But personal comfort is not everything, you know. My son, Nobuhiko, enjoys skiing. I cannot for the life of me understand why he would risk his life and limbs for the joy of sliding down a snowy mountain in all that cold and wet, but still he loves it."
The captain bowed his head. But then he added one final warning: "Er ... They call it 'Dante's Inferno' down there. Sir."
The closest planet to the Sun, Mercury is a small, rocky, barren, dense, airless, heat-scorched world.
For centuries astronomers believed that Mercury's rotation was "locked," so that one side of the planet always faced the Sun while the other side always looked away. They reasoned that the sunward side of Mercury must be the hottest planetary surface in the solar system, while the side facing away from the Sun must be frozen down almost to absolute zero.
But this is not so. Mercury turns slowly on its axis, taking 58.6 Earth days to make one revolution. Its year — the time it takes to complete one orbit around the Sun — is 87.97 Earth days.
This leads to a strange situation. Mercury's rotation rate of nearly fifty-nine Earth days is precisely two-thirds of the planet's year. A person standing on the surface of the planet would see the huge Sun move from east to west across the dark airless sky, but it would slow down noticeably, then reverse its course and head back east for a while before resuming its westerly motion. At some locations on Mercury, the Sun rises briefly, then dips down below the horizon before finally rising again for the rest of the Mercurian day. After sunset the Sun peeks back up above the horizon before setting for the length of the night.
Counting the Mercurian day from the time the Sun appears directly overhead (local noon) to the next time it reaches that point, it measures one hundred seventy-six Earth days. From the standpoint of noon-to-noon, then, the Mercurian day is twice as long as its year!
The Sun looms large in Mercury's sky. It appears twice as big as we see it from Earth when Mercury is at the farthest point from the Sun in its lopsided orbit and three times larger at the closest point.
And it is hot. Daytime temperatures soar to more than 400° Celsius, four times higher than the boiling point of water, hot enough to melt zinc. At night the temperature drops to -135°C because there is no atmosphere to retain the day's heat; it radiates away into space.
With a diameter of only 4,879 kilometers, Mercury is the smallest planet in the solar system except for distant-most Pluto. Jupiter and Saturn have moons that are larger than Mercury. The planet is slightly more than one-third larger than Earth's own Moon.
Yet Mercury is a dense planet, with a large iron core and a relatively thin overlay of silicon-based rock. This may be because the planet formed so close to the Sun that most of the silicate material in the region was too hot to condense and solidify; it remained gaseous and was blown away on the solar wind, leaving little material for the planet to build on except iron and other metals.
Another possibility, though, is that most of Mercury's rocky crust was blasted away into space by the impact of a mammoth asteroid early in the solar system's history. Mercury's battered, airless surface looks much like the Moon's, testimony to the pitiless barrage of asteroids and larger planetesimals that hurtled through the solar system more than three billion years ago. Caloris Basin is a huge bull's-eye of circular mountain ridges some 1,300 kilometers in diameter. This gigantic impact crater is the center of fault lines that run for hundreds of kilometers across the planet's rocky surface.
An asteroid roughly one hundred kilometers wide smashed into Mercury nearly four billion years ago, gouging out Caloris Basin and perhaps blasting away most of the planet's rocky crust.
Despite the blazing heat from the nearby Sun, water ice exists at Mercury's polar regions. Ice from comets that crashed into the planet has been cached in deep craters near the poles, where sunlight never reaches. Just as on the Moon, ice is an invaluable resource for humans and their machines.
Yamagata rode the small shuttle down to the planet's airless surface in his shirtsleeves, strapped into an ergonomically cushioned chair directly behind the pilot and copilot Both the humans were redundancies: the shuttle could have flown perfectly well on its internal computer guidance, but Himawari's captain had insisted that not merely one but two humans should accompany their illustrious employer.
The shuttle itself was little more than an eggshell of ceramiccoated metal with a propulsion rocket and steering jets attached, together with three spindly landing legs. Yamagata hardly felt any acceleration forces at all. Separation from Himawari was gentle, and landing in Mercury's light gravity was easy.
As soon as the landing struts touched down and the propulsion system automatically cut off, the pilot turned in his chair and said to Yamagata, "Gravity here is only one-third of Earth's, sir."
The copilot, a handsome European woman with pouty lips, added, "About the same as Mars."
The Japanese pilot glared at her.
Yamagata smiled good-naturedly at them both. "I have never been to Mars. My son once thought of moving me to the Moon, but I was dead then."
Both pilots gaped at him as he unstrapped his safety harness and stood up, his head a bare centimeter from the cabin's metal overhead. Their warning about the Mercurian gravity was strictly pro forma, of course. Yamagata had instructed Himawari's captain to spin the fusion torch vessel at one-third normal gravity once it reached Mercury after its four- day flight from Earth. He felt quite comfortable at one-third g.
Leaning between the two pilots' chairs, Yamagata peered out the cockpit window. Even through the window's tinting, it looked glaring and hot out there. Pitiless. Sun-baked. The stony surface of Mercury was bleak, barren, pockmarked with craters and cracked with meandering gullies. He saw the long shadow of their shuttle craft stretched out across the bare, rocky ground before them like an elongated oval.
"The Sun is behind us, then," Yamagata muttered.
"Yes, sir," said the pilot. "It will set in four hours."
The copilot, who still had not learned that she was supposed to be subordinate to the pilot, added, "Then it will rise again for seventy-three minutes before setting for the night."
Yamagata saw the clear displeasure on the pilot's face. The man said nothing to his copilot, though. Instead, he pointed toward a rounded hillock of stony rubble.
"There's the base," he informed Yamagata. "Dante's Inferno."
Yamagata said, "They are sending out the access tube."
A jointed tube was inching toward them across the uneven ground on metal wheels, reminding Yamagata of a caterpillar groping its way along the stalk of a plant on its many feet. He felt the shuttle rock slightly as the face of the tube thumped against the craft's airlock.
The pilot watched the display on his panel, lights flicking on and off, a string of alphanumerics scrolling across the screen. He touched a corner of the screen with one finger and a visual image came up, with more numbers and a trio of green blinking lights.
"Access tube mated with airlock," he announced, reverting to the clipped jargon of his profession. To the copilot he commanded, "Check it and confirm integrity." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Mercury by Ben Bova, Patrick Nielsen Hayden. Copyright © 2005 Ben Bova. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.