Arthur C Clarke’s final book of science fiction, written with Frederik Pohl, transports the reader to the first Lunar Olympics. This is an exclusive extract
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She did go there, too.
Not immediately, of course. A lot had to be done before that first-ever lunar Olympics could be held – a lot done to the Moon to make it possible, for example, and a quite large lot that had to be done to the Skyhook to at least make it possible to carry passengers with a reasonable hope that they would get there alive.
Catch a Skyhook to the one-sixth gravity Games
Now that the briefing texts had become more informative, Ranjit devoured them as soon as they arrived, all the spacecadet fever that Joris Vorhulst had awakened in him flashing back.
Fortunately for Ranjit’s peace of mind the world seemed to have taken a turn for the better. The second dose of Silent Thunder had restrained some of the unruliest of the world’s leaders. His seminars kept going well enough to keep Dr Davoodbhoy pleased, and his little family continued to be an unfailing delight.
Especially Natasha. The prospect of college looming just a few years before her was no problem, but there was also the lunar Olympics Dr Vorhulst had promised. Training for that was not easy. It made the athletes’ training for every other Olympics look like ten minutes of morning jumping jacks to keep the love handles away.
Of course, Natasha was not the only one training for that unprecedented match. All over the world young athletes were wondering if they could get themselves fit enough for the flying events.
Since the task of training would have to be accomplished within the tyranny of Earth’s uncompromising 1-G gravity, a good deal of ingenuity was going to be required. There were two lines of approach to the problem of muscle-powered flight.
The “balloonatics” believed in employing gas bags of various shapes, so that the athlete was supported in flight, using all his muscle power to crank a propeller without the need of expending any effort simply to stay aloft. The sky-bikers, on the other hand, preferred to do everything by their muscles alone.
For them sporting goods manufacturers had rapidly invented a whole array of propeller-driven devices. Thanks to carbon-60 nanotubes, the same molecules that made the Skyhook a working means of transportation instead of an idle dream, these devices were so light that even on Earth they could be lifted with one hand – on the Moon, with a single finger!
What none of these ambitious athletes had was a true one-sixth gravity practice arena. They had to do the best they could, usually by using equipment counterweighted to give the equivalent of lunar gravity. All of which meant that it was not only ingenuity that was called for. Also required was quite a lot of money.
That would have exceeded the purchasing capacity of a college professor by a considerable margin, but, for those purposes, Natasha’s needs got considerable support from Sri Lankans in high places. Even those who had no particular interest in sporting events enjoyed calling attention to the fact that Sri Lanka had become the world’s doorway to space.
So the money was pledged, and a great lunar-gravity gym was built on the outskirts of Colombo. There Natasha practised sky-biking to her heart’s content. The gym was only a ten-minute drive from their home, and so Natasha’s family were often present as spectators.
Sometimes more than spectators; Robert loved watching his big sister pump her way across the “sky” of the gym – loved even more when at last there was a little bit of open time on the machines.
Then Robert, too, got his chance to fly. Of course it was not only Natasha who was given the use of the lowgrav gym. Hopeful candidates from all over the island begged for the chance to try their own skills on the machines, and more than 30 of them won the opportunity. But it was Natasha Subramanian who consistently outperformed every challenger.
And, on the day when the Sri Lankan team at last assembled at the Skyhook terminal to be elevated to their first experience of space, it was Natasha who carried the island’s hope of victory.
When Myra got a look at the prices the tour companies were advertising for the lunar Olympics, she gasped.
“Oh, Ranjit,” she moaned, one hand pressed to her heart. “We can’t let Tashy fly that race without us there, but how can we go?”
Ranjit, who had been expecting no less, was quick to reassure her. Families of contestants received a substantial discount. So did members of the advisory board, himself included, and when you put the two discounts together, the cost of the tickets was no more than outrageous. Not impossible, though.
Accordingly, Myra, Ranjit, and young Robert presented themselves at the terminal. Like everybody else in the world who owned a telescreen – which, to a close approximation, was pretty much everybody in the world – they had seen the rapturous news stories that had accompanied the Skyhook’s evolution to passenger-carrying.
They knew how the passenger capsules worked, and what it would feel like to be borne skyward at a steady rate of metres per second.
What they had not entirely appreciated, though, was quite how many seconds, even at that speed, it was going to take to get from Sri Lanka to Sinus Iridium. This was not a weekend trip.
In the first half dozen days they had got only as far as the lower Van Allen belt, when the Subramanians – along with other families aboard, namely, the Kais, the Kosbas, and the Norwegians – had to hustle into shelter against the murderous Van Allen radiation.
The shelter consisted of the triple-walled sleep-and-sanitation chambers of the capsule. Those contained the toilets, the laughably named “baths”, and 20 – count ’em, 20 – extraordinarily narrow bunks arrayed in ranks of five.
When you had to head for the shelter, what you brought with you was the skimpy Skyhook special garments you were wearing (nearly weightless, to save on load, and as close to unsoilable as fabric technology could make them, since there was no hope of laundry), your medications, if any, and yourself. You could bring nothing else. Least of all, modesty.
Robert didn’t care for the shelter. He cried. So did the Kai grandson. Ranjit didn’t much care for it, either. When he was in the shelter, he yearned for the greater (though minimal) freedom of the unsheltered capsule, with its dark corners and its exercise elastics and its windows – long, narrow, and thick ones, but still rewardingly transparent.
And, most of all, he yearned for their regular bunks that had their own lights and their own screens and almost as much space to turn around in as an average coffin. Enough, indeed, to allow for having company in them now and then, provided you were on extremely intimate terms with the company.
That first sentence to shelter was only for four days. Then they were in clear space again…for another nine days, until the warning squeals went off once more and it was time to seek shelter from the upper Van Allen.
Space travel had become possible for almost anyone. It certainly had not become easy, though. Or, come to that, particularly pleasant.
A funny thing happened as they came out of the upper Van Allen. Robert had made a dash for his favourite spot, the two-metre-long ribbon of thick plastic that was their main window to the universe outside.
Myra was already climbing into the exercise straps and Ranjit was considering heading for his personal bunk and some untroubled sleep, when Robert came bouncing back to them, shrieking in excitement. Excited Robert was even harder to understand than the relaxed one.
All either Myra or Ranjit could make out was the one word “fish”. Robert could not, or would not, do much in the way of clarifying, and there was no Natasha on hand to translate.
What there was was the three-year-old girl who had come with one of the other families in their capsule. She listened silently to their talk for a moment and then, still silent, took Robert away to learn how to do what Myra recognized as Tai Chi.
That was little Luo, daughter of the couple from Taipei, who were one fragment of their fellow passengers in the capsule. There were six of the Kais in all, including the elderly mothers of both Mr and Mrs Kai, who were in the hotel business. This had made them filthy rich, as they needed to be to afford being among the first of the actual tourists the Olympics people were counting on.
So were the family from South Korea, so also the young couple from Kazakhstan. The Norwegians weren’t, particularly, but they were the parents and siblings of one of their nation’s broad jumpers and thus were entitled to the discounted fare.
What was wrong with the 17 other human beings who shared their capsule was that not one of them spoke English, much less either Tamil or Sinhalese. The younger Mrs Kai was fluent in French, so Myra had someone to talk to. The others talked to each other in Russian, Chinese, and what Ranjit thought was probably German, none of which were of much use to him.
Not at first, anyway. But what they had a lot of was time. Weeks to the midpoint, weeks more to the far end, where their capsule was whipped off its lunar trajectory, and then a day or two more until their landing at Sinus Iridium.
It was during that last lap when the Subramanians were never more than a few steps from the news screens, because that was when the eliminations were taking place on the Moon. The final race would be mano a mano, just one winged flyer against one balloonist. Seven wingers had made the trip to take part in the trials…and as the Subramanians were coming up on the end of their last flight, Luna itself hanging gigantic out their windows, they heard their daughter announced as the winner of the trials.
By then all of the adults had become capable of speaking at least a few words each of all their home languages, and they used them to congratulate the Subramanians.
Natasha met her family at the elevator from the surface to Olympic Village, talkative, happy, and, Ranjit was a bit surprised to find, accompanied by a tall coffee-coloured young man from Brazil. Both wore the minimal garments that everyone wore in an environment that never altered much from 23°C.
“This is Ron,” she told her parents. “That’s short for Ronaldinho. He’s 100-metre dash.”
It wasn’t until Ranjit and Myra made the experiment of trying to see their daughter through the eyes of Ronaldinho from Brazil that they really noticed how much their 15-year-old girl could resemble an attractive adult woman.
To his surprise, Myra did not seem perturbed. She shook this Ronaldinho’s hand with apparently genuine warmth, while young Robert took notice of the runner only to shove him out of the way as, roaring, he threw himself into the arms of his big sister.
After covering the top of Robert’s head with kisses, Natasha said something in Ron’s ear, he nodded. He said to her parents, “It is a pleasing to meet you,” and disappeared, loping in the slow-motion stretched-out walk that the lunar gravity encouraged.
“He’s got to practise,” Natasha said.
“My own race is tomorrow, but his isn’t till Wednesday. He’ll get your bags and put them in your room, so we can get you something decent to eat.”
Holding Robert by the hand, she led the way. With Natasha’s help, the child quickly learned a decent approximation of Ron’s gait. Ranjit was less fortunate. He found it was easier, if less graceful, to execute a slow-motion hop from point to point.
They didn’t have far to go, and it was worth their while when they got there. The food was as unlike the extruded fodder of the Skyhook capsule as anyone could have hoped for: a salad, some kind of meat, perhaps ham, chopped and moulded into croquettes, fresh fruit for dessert.
“Most of it’s shipped up from Earth,” Natasha told them, “although the strawberries and most of the salad stuff are grown in another tube.”
It wasn’t the food they wanted to hear about. It was what Natasha had been doing, and how she felt. What Natasha wanted was to hear all about their trip, listening with the somewhat amused patience of the veteran who had done all those things herself already.
She paid attention when they told her about Robert’s shrieking the word “fish,” although when she queried Robert himself about it in their own personal dialect, he was more interested in his shortcake than giving her answers.
“He just says he saw something out the window that looked like a fish. Funny. Some of the other people here said they saw something on the way up, too.”
Myra yawned. “Probably frozen astronaut urine,” she said drowsily. “Remember those stories about the Apollo crews seeing what they thought were space fireflies? Anyway, did you say we had a room? With a real bed?”
Natasha had said it, and they did have it – not just any bed, either, but a bed that was more than 90cm across, which meant plenty of room for Myra and Ranjit to cuddle up. As soon as they saw it, they couldn’t resist it.
Just a nap, Ranjit told himself, one arm around his wife, who was asleep already. Then I’ll get up and explore this fascinating place – oh, I mean after I take one of those real showers.
That was his definite intention. It wasn’t his fault that when he woke it was with his wife gently shaking his shoulder and saying, “Ranj? Do you know you slept for 14 hours? If you get up now, you’ll have time for a decent breakfast and a look round the tube before we have to get to the race.”
Some Olympic events have been witnessed by crowds in the hundreds of thousands. The in-person audience at these first lunar games, by comparison, was almost invisibly tiny. There were just enough people to fill the 1,800 lightweight seats that climbed the walls of the tube, and the Subramanians were lucky enough to have their seats less than 100 metres from the finish line.
By the time they made their way to them along the footwalk, Ranjit was feeling about as good as he ever had in his life. A good long sleep, a quick shower in real, if reprocessed, water – only 30 seconds of the spray by its timer, but you could get really wet in 30 seconds – and a quick look around had marked the beginning of a good day.
He was surprised to find that the living quarters weren’t in the giant stadium tube itself but in a smaller one nearby, connected by a man-made tunnel. But he was there! On the Moon! With his dearly beloved wife and son, and on what might be his dearly beloved daughter’s happiest day ever!
Although the man-made atmosphere in the tunnels was at only about half the pressure of sea-level Earth, it had been considerably oxygen enriched. That was more important to the balloonatic who was Natasha’s opponent, Piper Dugan, than to herself, although in the Moon’s one-sixth gravity he still needed a capacity of less than 30 cubic metres of hydrogen to lift him.
He was, as it happened, Australian. As he entered, with three assistants on the ropes to make sure the machine didn’t get away, his streamlined hydrogen cylinder floated overhead.
As Dugan entered, an invisible orchestra played what the programme told Ranjit was Australia’s national anthem, Advance Australia Fair, and most of the audience on the far side of the tube went mad.
“Uh-oh,” Myra whispered into Ranjit’s ear. “I don’t think there are enough Sri Lankans here to equal that for Tashy.”
There weren’t, to be sure, but there was a big contingent from next-door India, and an even bigger one from people of any nationality who just happened to give their affection to a young girl from a tiny island.
When Natasha came in to take her place, she had her own single assistant, this one carrying what looked like a bicycle without wheels but with flimsy, almost gossamer-like wings. There was music for her, too – if it was the Sri Lankan anthem, that was news to Ranjit, who hadn’t known there was one – but it was almost drowned out by the yells of the spectators on her side of the tube.
The yelling kept up while the handlers attached the racers to their machines – Piper Dugan suspended from his hydrogen tank, with his hands and feet free to pedal, Natasha seated at a 45-degree angle on the saddle of her sky-bike.
The music stopped. The yelling dwindled away. There was a moment of near silence…and then the sharp crack of the starter’s pistol. At first Dugan’s blimp surged horizontally forward while Natasha’s sky-bike dropped half a dozen metres before she could get it up to speed. Then she began to overtake her competitor.
It was a neck-and-neck race almost to the end of the stadium, with both flyers being loudly cheered by everybody – and not just the handful of spectators in the tube but by the tens and hundreds of millions watching wherever in the solar system a human being possessed a screen.
Twenty metres from the finish line, Natasha passed her opponent. When she crossed the line, it was no longer even close, and the howling, screaming, and shouting noises of the 1,800 spectators in the tube was quite the loudest sound the Moon had heard in many a long year.