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‘Oh, yes. Especially the Moon rocks.’
To Henry the British roads looked clean, wide, kind of crowded; this was indeed a small island, he thought. The exit ramp from the motorway was a baby-gentle curve, signposted miles in advance. They emerged onto a roundabout, a system of ordered chaos, with an unspoken etiquette about giving way Henry was going to have some trouble mastering. Not to mention the fact that Mike was sitting on the right, and the roundabout traffic turned clockwise, counter to the way God intended humans to travel …
Henry felt irritated by all this. He wasn’t interested in learning about the eccentricities of the British road system. The truth remained that he didn’t want to be here, and still wouldn’t even after he got past his jet lag. He let himself get annoyed at Edinburgh, Scotland and Britain, however unfair it was.
They entered the city itself. Henry’s immediate impression was bustle, colour, lovely old sandstone buildings, hills everywhere.
Mike, following the traffic along a broad, sunlit shopping street, turned towards the train station. ‘Your hotel’s the Balmoral. Kind of swank. We checked you in here until you find somewhere more permanent. NASA are paying …’
Henry peered gloomily at the hotel, a sandstone pile punctured with slit windows, topped by a huge, fairy-cake clock tower. Builders were working on the roof, adding what looked like a layer of radiation-proof lead shielding. Overall, the hotel looked like a prison.
He checked his watch: 9.00 a.m., British time.
‘How far are we from work, Mike?’
He shrugged. ‘A few minutes. Do you want to check in first, freshen up –’
Henry scratched the stubble on his cheeks. ‘Hell, no.’ He grinned. ‘First impressions are vital. Let’s go see that Moon rock.’
Mike pulled away from the kerb.
The Edinburgh University Department of Geology and Geophysics turned out to be part of a sub-campus called the King’s Buildings, a couple of miles south of the city centre. Most of the science and engineering departments lived out here, Henry learned, along with a couple of government research institutes. The department itself was housed in a building called the Grant Institute of Geology, a blocky 1930s frontage with rambling modern extensions to the rear.
The suburbs of Edinburgh ran away to the north. To the south there was an open area, trees and grassland, that turned out to be a golf course.
From Mike, Henry learned that Edinburgh was in fact pretty much ringed by golf courses.
When Henry and Mike walked up to the entrance a couple of undergraduates came out, carrying notebooks. They both seemed to have pierced tongues – my God – and, in their lurid war-paint sunscreen, to Henry they looked about twelve years old.
There was a security check at the door. Henry signed the book, alongside where Mike had already filled in his name for him. He’d spelled it wrong: HNERY.
Oh, Henry thought.
The entrance hall was 1930s grandiose, but its glory was faded. There were portraits of the department’s great men on the walls, and three granite slabs with lists of former professors. But the slabs weren’t up to date, and the hall was cluttered with a couple of fish tanks and a small seismology station. Mike shrugged. ‘We’ve been putting in stuff for the undergraduates. That’s a salt water aquarium over there, and this seismology station is live. Educational. But we have to scramble for the funding. And it costs a couple of hundred quid for every word you get carved on those big granite tombstones up there …’
Thus, thought Henry, times change, and not always for the worse.
Mike gave Henry a quick tour of the department.
The core of the Institute was the handsome old 1930s building, tall ceilings, oak panels, echoing; the modern extensions were cramped and rambling, with cheap ceiling tiles and linoleum floors. But, like every geology lab Henry had ever been in, the place was cluttered with samples. Even in the corridors there were big oak chests of drawers, all neatly numbered by hand-drawn labels. There were basement storage areas for the bigger samples – the foundations would have had trouble with the weight otherwise – and the rocks there were stored in open pallets or, sometimes, in cruder containers, like photocopier paper boxes. There was a cold room where ocean floor core samples were stacked up, in grimy metal tubes; Mike pointed out the department’s milk store here, ready to fuel the British need for a continual tea supply.
Rocks everywhere, all carefully labelled and tracked by a full-time curator. Grad students were encouraged to discard whatever they didn’t absolutely need for the future, but Henry knew that no geologist would willingly give up a single grain of sand.
To Henry it felt like coming home, after the crush and squalor of the plane, the jangling confusion of his first jet-lagged encounter with Edinburgh.
The clean lab, where the Moon rock would be processed, was a couple of storeys up. Henry was expecting a close cousin of the Lunar Curatorial Facility back home at JSC.
Well, there was a small, cramped airlock chamber here, a couple of wooden doors, like JSC. But there were no bunny suits or hats. It was just another lab, dusty, lined with grubby-looking wooden benches. There were fume cupboards on the walls, with safety notices, but their doors were ajar. Mike said the room had mostly been used, previously, by oceanographers looking for trace elements in sea water, like osmium or helium. At least there were steel-and-glass glove boxes sitting on the antique wooden benches, cheerfully bolted in place. And there were rocks, nondescript lumps, inside each of the boxes.
There was nobody working here right now. Too early in the morning, maybe.
‘… The samples here are mostly just dummies,’ Mike said. ‘A couple of meteorites and stuff. We really wanted to learn how to handle the samples. The containers are under positive pressure. I mean, the interiors contain air at a higher pressure than outside, so if there is any breach of containment the lunar material would be blown outwards, rather than have earthly contamination blow inwards. By comparison, if we were looking at radioactive material the pressure would be negative – air would be sucked inside a box in a breach, so that radioactivity would be contained. We store the samples in ultra-dry nitrogen …’
I know, Henry thought as Mike chattered nervously on. I know.
The positive pressure made the gloves, of black rubber, stick out from the boxes like questing arms, two or three feet long. As Henry walked past, the gloves seemed to bat at his chest, blindly.
‘This clean room,’ said Henry mildly, ‘doesn’t seem too clean to me. The lab at NASA is like Fort Knox.’
Mike looked defensive. ‘We’re trying to establish positive pressure in the room as a whole, but we’re having some trouble.’
‘It’s kind of leaky. We don’t have the funding you guys have. And –’
Henry laughed. ‘My friend, I couldn’t give a rat’s ass. Moon rocks are just rocks. We’ll just roll up our sleeves and scrape off the shit. What do you say? Come on, show me one of these fancy boxes NASA has paid for.’
Mike grinned, still nervous. He led Henry to a glove box.
Henry knew from long experience that putting your hands into the gloves was a trick. You had to position your fingers over the fingers of the glove section, and then ram your arm into the aperture, pushing the glove right-side out by main force. It was easy to get your fingers in the wrong hole. And once inside the thick, somewhat stiff gloves, it was impossible to feel anything, and your hands got hot quickly. Learning to do delicate work in these things took time.
He noticed Mike had gotten his hands in there, ready to work, in seconds. Now he was picking up tools inside the box, confidently.
‘We’re working to the same standards as you do at Houston,’ he said. ‘The tools are Teflon, aluminum alloys and stainless steel. Stuff that won’t corrupt the rocks. The samples are sliced with lubricant-free handsaws and power saws, stainless steel blades edged with diamond.’
‘How do you find those things to work with?’
Mike shrugged. ‘Buggers. The lack of lubricant makes the saws heavy and difficult to work, and the blades wear out quickly. But you get the job done. You need strong arms, though.’
‘That you do.’
Mike pulled his arms briskly out of the gloves, and led Henry to the largest, best-lit case in the room, right at the centre. And there, on a small pedestal, sat sample 86047, an unprepossessing fist-sized lump of coal-black basalt, untidy and inert. Beside it rested a small plastic cube, labelled up-down and with the four points of the compass.
Mike bent to the case, and the fluorescent lighting underlit his face, making him look even younger.
‘Here it is,’ he said. ‘I can’t quite believe it’s here. That it’s – you know – real. That some guy picked it up on the Moon, and now it’s here.’
‘Believe it. You know about the documentation trail on these babies?’
In principle each Apollo sample had been photographed before it was picked up off the surface. The photo was the clue to the rock’s context. For instance, the pattern of shadows from the unremitting lunar sunlight gave the clue to its orientation. Since the scientists knew exactly when the rock was picked up, and where, and how high the sun would have been in the black lunar sky at that moment, they could position the rock in a strong light to recreate the shadows in the photograph, and so work out the rock’s precise orientation. Then they photographed the rock again alongside the small dice-like orientation cube. The cube stayed with the rock forever after. All this was important because, for instance, the underside of the rock would have been protected from the sun, and so processed differently.
‘… Great theory,’ said Henry sourly. ‘But it heads out the window when your astronaut fouls up. The orientation we have here is just a best guess. Shit. This rock sits there a billion years, waiting to be found, and we screw it up in the first second of contact …’
Two people bustled into the lab: a greying, portly older man, and a woman of about twenty-seven.
The man shook Henry’s hand. ‘Dr Meacher.’
‘Dan McDiarmid. I’m heading up the investigation here, from our side of the pond. Welcome to Edinburgh.’
‘Good to meet you, Danny.’
McDiarmid flinched but held his ground. ‘We weren’t expecting you quite so – informally.’ He was eyeing Henry’s stubble.
There wasn’t a trace of Scottish in his accent, as far as Henry could tell. He knew the type, he thought. His creative days long past, McDiarmid had used whatever reputation he had earned to win power and wealth, to turn himself into a Great Man.
Authority. The antithesis of science.
Now the woman pressed forward, thin and intense, sharp blue eyes. ‘Marge Case,’ she said. ‘I took my degree at Cambridge, and a doctorate in lunar feldspathic breccia crystallization history –’
‘I know about your work.’ Henry noticed both McDiarmid and Case had just ignored Mike; in fact Case had literally pushed past Mike to get to Henry.
Henry retrieved his hand from Case. ‘Hey. Mike. Stick around.’
Mike turned, confused. ‘You want me to get you a coffee?’
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