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Or (Malenfant wrote to Michael) perhaps there is life all around us, even now. Perhaps there is life in the stars, the clouds, the rocks under your feet. But we just can’t see it. Wouldn’t that be strange?

Look up at the full Moon.

Look for the patch of bright highland at the centre of the southern hemisphere, nestling amid the darker seas. The highlands are old territory, my dear Svetlana, battered and scarred by five billion years; the seas are ponds of frozen lava, flooded impact wounds.

Close to the lunar equator, a little to the left of the highland mass, you will find the Known Sea—Mare Cognitum. Here, through a good telescope, you might observe the Fra Mauro complex of craters.

Here, for the last six years, I have made my home; and here, I am now certain, I will die.

I am Vladimir Alexeyevich Zotov, first human being to walk upon the surface of the Moon. I will record as long as I can. Hear my story, Svetlana, my daughter!

I left Earth on October 18, 1965.

A mere ten thousand years after the great impact which budded it from young Earth, the Moon coalesced. The infant world cooled rapidly. Gases driven out of the interior were immediately lost to space.

Planetesimals bombarded the Moon, leaving red-glowing pinpricks in the cooling rind. But soon the hail of impactors ceased. The first volcanism had already begun, dark mantle material pouring through crust faults to flood impact basins and craters and lava-cut valleys. But soon even the lava pulses dwindled.

After just a billion years, the Moon’s heart grew cold.

The living things which huddled there, of carbon and oxygen and hydrogen, grew still and small and cold.

And the first ponderous rocky thoughts washed sluggishly through the Moon’s rigid core.

Meanwhile life exploded over blue, stirring Earth.

In my contoured couch I felt the shudder of distant valves slamming shut, the rocket swaying as the fuel lines were pulled away. Five minutes before launch they turned on the music. I felt peaceful.

‘Launch key to go point.’ ‘Air purges.’ ‘Idle run.’ ‘Ignition!’

More vibrations, high whinings and low rumbles. The Proton booster began to sway to left and right, as if losing balance. Then acceleration surged, as if the rocket had been unchained.

The weight lifted, and I was thrown forward. It was as if the rocket was taking a great breath. Then the core engines burned, crushing me, and I rose through fire and noise.

The core stage died. Vostok Seven swivelled in space.

I was in orbit. I could see the skin of Earth, spread out beneath me like a glowing carpet.

I flew over the Kamchatka peninsula. A chain of volcanoes stretched from north to south, ice glittering on their summits and crests, and all surrounded by sky-blue water. It was very beautiful.

The control centre told me I should prepare for the ignition of my last rocket stage: the Block-D, my translunar engine.

Earth receded rapidly.

I flew through Earth’s shadow. I could see the home planet as a hole in the stars, ringed by a rainbow of sunlight refracted through the atmosphere. And in the centre of the planet I could see a faint grey-blue glow: it was the light of the Moon, shining down on the belly of the Pacific.

Here came the Vice President of the United States, and NASA head honchos, and even a brace of Moonwalkers. Men in suits. They were on a guided tour of the lunar colony experiments in the Johnson Space Center back rooms.

And here was Michaela Cassell, along with her buddy Fraser, two lowly interns tagging along.

The first stop was a machine that could bake oxygen out of lunar rock. It was a cylinder six feet tall, with a hopper for ore at one end, and pipes for circulating hydrogen and water and dumping waste: a clunky-looking, robust piece of chemical-engineering technology.

The NASA PR hack did the tour-guide stuff. ‘You see, you blow hydrogen across heated regolith. That reacts with the oxygen in an ore called ilmenite, an oxide of iron and titanium, to make water… You have basically standard parts here: a 304 stainless steel one hundred psi pressure vessel, swazelock fittings, copper gasket seals, steel tubing. Even the furnace is commercial, a nichrome-wound fuse design. This is a mature technology. But the Moon is a tough place. You need closed-loop fluid systems. In the low gravity you have larger particles than usual, lower fluidizing velocities, big, slow bubbles in the flow that makes for poor contact efficiencies. And you have to figure for minimum maintenance requirements—for instance, the plant has a modular design…’

And so on. The old Apollo guys nodded sagely.

The party walked on.

Michaela couldn’t help but regard these greying, balding, gap-toothed mid-westerners with awe. Christ, she had even got to shake John Young’s hand, a man who had been there twice.

New century, new Moon. After forty years, Americans were returning to the Moon, this time to stay, by God. It had been the results from Lunar Prospector, and the more ambitious probes which followed, which had kick-started all this.

The probe results, she thought, and the corpse on the Moon. The body of a Russian, found by an autonomous Dowser in the shadows of a Mare Cognitum crater.

And the corpse, of course, was all Fraser wanted to talk about.

‘…It’s quite clear,’ Fraser said. ‘To beat Apollo, the Soviets sent up some poor sap in 1965 on a one-way flight.’

‘The Soviets denied they were ever going to the Moon,’ Michaela whispered.

‘Of course they did, when they lost. But that was a geopolitical lie. Both sides had a man-on-the-Moon programme. Both sides would do anything to win… Hence, the stiff. The idea was to keep him resupplied until the capability came along to retrieve him. We’d have done it if we had to. Remember Countdown.

‘That was just a movie,’ Michaela whispered. ‘James Caan—’

‘Read the report. NASA SP-4002. Mercury technology. The Soviets covered their resupply flights as failed unmanned probes. Lunas 7, 8, 15, 18. And remember Lunokhod?’

‘The Lunokhods were science probes.’

‘The ones they reported did some science. The CIA knew about it, of course. But nobody had an interest in exposing this…’

The party reached Building 7: something like a chemical plant, huge thickly-painted ducts and pipes everywhere. The Vice Prez was here to inspect the Integrated Life Support System Test Facility. This was a three-storey-high cylinder, built originally for some long-forgotten Cold War pressurization experiment. Now the top storey had been turned into a habitat. The guys in there used physico-chemical systems to recycle their air and urine, for sixty days at a time. The Vice Prez made a joke. What do you do at work, daddy?

They met a woman who had worked in here on a previous trial. She was thrilled to meet real-life Moonwalkers. The team were goal-oriented, she said; they had their own astronaut-style crew patches.

Michaela tried to imagine the cosmonaut on the Moon: six years, alone.

Michaela was going to the Moon. She intended to work her way through NASA, make it up there in the second or third wave of colonists.

Smart modern probes were already crawling all over the Moon: autonomous, packed with micromechanical systems and quantum logic chips, swarming and co-operating and discovering. Soon, humans would follow.

There was ice in the regolith; they knew that for sure. There was ambitious talk of lassoing the Earth-approach asteroid, XF11, when it came past in October 2028, and applying its resource. And there were new, ingenious speculations that maybe the interior of the Moon was crammed with water and other volatiles, trapped there since the Moon’s savage formation. Riches which would, one day, turn the Moon green.

There were even rumours that the probes had upturned evidence of some kind of sluggish biological activity, in the deep regolith.

But Michaela knew that if it wasn’t for the corpse on the Moon they wouldn’t be going anywhere. It was a silent witness to a Cold War shame, the source of a new impulse to go back and do it nobly this time.

Born long after Apollo, Michaela knew she could never be the first to walk on the Moon. Perhaps, though, she could have been the first human to die there. But the absurd, self-sacrificing bravery of that dead cosmonaut had robbed her of that ambition.

The first child, then, she thought. The first mother on the Moon, the first to bring life there. Not a bad goal.

…Unless, she thought, there is life there already.

In Building 241, inside big stainless steel tanks, they were growing dwarf wheat. When Michaela looked through a little porthole she could see the wheat plants, pale and sturdy, straining up to the rows of fluorescents above them, warm little green things struggling for life in this clinical environment.

Fraser was still talking about the dead cosmonaut. ‘We’re all guilty, Michaela,’ he said softly. ‘There is a little patch of the Mare Cognitum forever stained red with human blood…’

And so I took humanity’s first step on another world. A little spray of dust, of ancient pulverized rock, lifted up around my feet and settled back.

The ground glowed in the sunlight, but the sky was utterly black. There were craters of all dimensions, craters on craters. It was a land sculpted by impact.

Nothing moved here. There was utter silence. This was disorienting. I fought an impulse to turn around, to see who was creeping up behind me.

When I looked at my own shadow the sunlight around it came bouncing straight back at me. The shadow of my body was surrounded by an aura, Svetlana, a halo around my helmet.

I felt filled with love for my country. I sang, ‘Oh Russia, my dear and wonderful country, / I am ready to give my life for you, / Just tell me when you need it, / And I will answer you only Yes.

I went to work.

The crystal ship rose out of the tall, thin atmosphere. Samtha turned in her seat, uncomfortably aware of her heavy belly.

The horizon curved sharply, blue and blurred. Sparks crawled busily: ships and surface cars and hovercraft, ferrying people to and fro across the Moon’s face. The highlands and Farside were peppered with circular crater lakes, glimmering, linked to the mare oceans by the great drainage canals.

Samtha could see the gigantic feather-wake of the pleasure ships on the Tycho-Nubium.

Soon the night hemisphere was turning towards her. But there was no true dark on the Moon, thanks to the solettas, the huge mirror farms which kept the air from snowing out. The solettas were already a thousand years old—nearly as old as the permanent occupation of the Moon itself—but they, or their successors, would have to keep working a lot longer, now that the Spin-Up had been abandoned.

Wistfully she looked for the bone-white ice deserts of the lunar poles. The south pole had been Samtha’s home for a decade. She had worked there on the great deep-bore projects, seeking rich new sources of volatiles.

Earth was rising. Blue Moon, brown Earth.

Samtha stroked her belly, feeling the mass of the unborn child there. Today she was leaving, for the moons of Jupiter.

Her project had been shut down. For there was life in the Moon.

Samtha herself had found tracks dissolved into the rock by lunar micro-organisms, little scrapings just micrometres across. The bacteria fed off the Moon’s thin flow of internal heat, and mined carbon and hydrogen directly from compounds dissolved in igneous rocks.

Time on the Moon ran slow. The deep bacteria, stunted, starved of energy and nutrients, reproduced just once every few centuries. But they had been found everywhere the temperature of the rocks was less than a hundred degrees or so. And they shared a common origin with Earth life: the first of them, it seemed, had been survivors of the great impact which had led to the budding-off of the Moon from young Earth. It was life which, though separated for five billion years, was nevertheless a remote cousin of her own cells.

Now the Moon would become a museum and laboratory. And the Moon’s stillness, said the enthusiasts, made it an ideal test bed for certain new theories Samtha failed to understand—something to do with the spontaneous collapse of quantum-wave functions—perhaps, it was even said, there was a deeper life still to be found in the silent rocks of the Moon.

The Moon, as a laboratory of life and consciousness.

But humanity’s role in the future evolution of the Moon would be curtailed. People and their autonomous companions would be restricted to a thin surface layer, limited in the energy they could deploy and the changes they could make.

Samtha had lived through the Die-Back. She accepted the logic; life had to be cherished. But she was a mining engineer and there was nothing for her to do here. So she was going to Jupiter, to mine turbulent, gravity-wrenched Io—where native life was, as far as anybody knew, utterly impossible.

She had no regrets. She was happy that her child would grow up in the rich cosmopolitan society of the moons.

But Samtha was sentimental. She knew that this turning away meant that the Moon could never be more than a shrunken twin of Earth, doomed only to decline.

For the last time the ship soared over the limb of the Moon. Prompted by a murmur from the autonomous ship, Samtha looked out at a grey ellipse, like a mole disfiguring the blue-white face of the Moon. It was the open grave of Vladimir Alexeyevich Zotov, sealed in vacuum under its mile-wide dome. She wondered what that brave Russian would have made of this subtle abandonment of the world he had given his life to reach.

The shuttle tipped up and leapt out of the Moon’s shallow gravity well. As the twin worlds receded, watery crescents side by side, Samtha bade a last farewell to the ancient cosmonaut.

Goodbye, goodbye.

My lander rests in a broad valley. There is a broad, meteorite-eroded crater wall nearby, which I call Rimma Crater, for my wife, your dear mother. If I climb this wall—passing through ancient rubble, boulders the size of houses—I can look back over the shining, undulating plain of Fra Mauro. The tracks from my wheeled cart stretch like snail paths down the hillside, to where my lander sits, sparkling like a toy. The ground around the lander is scuffed by my footprints.

The mountains rise up like topped-off pyramids into the black sky. These are mountains which date back almost to the formation of the solar system itself, their contours eroded to smoothness. The constant micrometeorite hail is grinding the Moon to dust. There is a layer of shattered rock and dust, all over the Moon.

I feel isolated, detached, suspended over the rubble of a billion years.

Svetlana, here is how I live on the Moon.

My lander is five metres tall. It consists of a boxy rocket stage standing on four legs, and a fat cabin on top. The cabin is a bulbous, misshapen ball, capped by a fat, wide disk, which is a docking device. Two dinner-plate-sized antennae are stuck out on extensible arms from the descent stage. The whole assemblage is swathed in a green blanket, for thermal insulation.

My cabin is a cosy nest, lined with green fabric. My couch occupies much of the space. Behind my head there is a hatch. There are three small viewing ports recessed into the cabin walls. At my left hand is a console with radio equipment and instruments to regulate temperature and air humidity. On the wall opposite my face, TV and film cameras peer at me. My food is squeezed from tubes. Cupboards set in the walls of the cabin are crammed with such tubes.

The cabin is, in fact, an orbital module adapted from Korolev’s new spacecraft design, called Soyuz. This lander is an early model, of course. Little more than an engineering prototype, lacking an engine to bring me home.

Crude solar arrays are draped on frames across the surface of the Moon. In the lander are batteries, capturing the sun energy that keeps me alive during the long nights. But after so many years the lunar weather has taken its toll. The insulation blankets are discoloured. All the equipment is thoroughly irradiated, and remarkably dusty. The paint has turned to tan, but it is uneven, and where I look more closely I can see tiny micrometeorite pits, little craters dug into the paintwork.

Each time I get back into my shelter, I find new scars in my faceplate: tiny pits from the invisible interplanetary sleet within which I walk. Soon I will be blinded.

Moon dust gets in my lungs and causes chest pains. It eats away at joints and seals. Eventually, I suspect, it will overtake me, and everything mechanical will just stop working.

One good thing is that in the lunar vacuum, the dust when disturbed will settle out ballistically. I have kept it clear of my solar panels simply by placing them a metre off the ground, too high for casually disturbed dust to reach.

I have filed reports on many such observations, for I am enthusiastic about the future of the colonized Moon.

cal342 let her viewpoint soar over the surface of the abandoned Moon.

The evidence of the ancient terraforming effort lay everywhere: the gouged-out canals which the micrometeorite wind had yet to erode, the jewel-like cities still sparkling under a thickening layer of dust, the glimmer of frozen air in the shadowed cold traps of the poles.

A million years of human history were wrapped around this small world. That was almost as long as Earth itself—for the first immigration to the Moon had occurred just a few dozen millennia after the emergence of the primal sapiens species itself—but now only shreds and shards of primitive technology remained here, as if ape-fingers had never disturbed this dusty ground.

Now that ancient equilibrium was under threat.

A perturbed Oort Cloud comet was approaching. It would be, it was said, the greatest impact event in the solar system since the formation of Earth-Moon itself. And cal342 was here to witness it.

She found the two bodies nestling in an eroded crater at a dust sea’s edge.

The first was the physical shell she had prepared for herself. She settled into it.

…She found herself breathing. She was gazing at the sky from within a cage of bone: authentically primate, of course, but oddly restricting.

The second body, lying beside her now, was much more ancient.

Even now, with primate eyes, cal342 could see the intruder. It was the brightest object in the sky save the sun: a spark of glowering red in the plane of the ecliptic, a point light in a place it didn’t belong.

It was a star, called Gliese 710.

Gliese was making its closest approach to the sun: close enough that it had plunged into the Oort Cloud, the thick belt of comets that lay at the periphery of the solar system. For millennia already the rogue dwarf had been hurling giant ice worldlets into the system’s vulnerable heart. Many of cal342’s contemporaries had, in fact, bluntly refused to endure this difficult time, and had suspended consciousness until the star had receded.

Not cal342, though.

cal342 had lived a very long time, and she had achieved a certain contentment. She could think of no better way of terminating her existence than this.

For humanity faced a crisis of purposelessness.

Once humans, proudly conscious, had indulged in a certain arrogance. Quantum physics described the universe as filled with uncertainties and probability and ghostly multiple existences. The distinguishing property of consciousness was the ability to observe: for when an observation was made, the quantum functions would collapse, uncertainty would disappear, and the universe became—if only briefly and locally—definite.

Humans had spread among the stars, and had found nobody like themselves. So, it had seemed, humans were unique in their consciousness. Perhaps by their observing, humans were actually calling the universe itself into existence. Perhaps humans had been created by the universe so that it could generate itself.

But then, in laboratories on the still and silent Moon, spontaneous quantum collapse had been detected in inanimate objects.

In humble rocks, in fact.

An individual particle might take a hundred million years to achieve this—but in a large object, such as a Moon rock, there were so very many particles that one of them would almost immediately collapse its wave function—and then, in a cascade effect of entangled quantum functions, the rest would immediately follow. It was called, after the twentieth-century scientists who first proposed the phenomenon, the Ghirardi-Rimini-Weber effect.

The agonized debate had lasted a hundred thousand years.

At the end of it, there was no doubt that the rocky Moon—scarred by impacts and the clumsy meddling of humans, bearing its own sullen biological lode—was itself alive, and, in some huge geologic sense, aware. And so were other small, stable worlds, and many other unpromising structures. The uniqueness of humans was lost.

Now they knew how to look, humans found nothing but mind, infesting the giant structures of the universe. But it was mind that was patient, geologic, immortal. Nothing like their freakish selves.

There was nobody, anywhere, to talk to; and certainly nobody to care.

Science slowed. Art grew decadent. The various species of humanity fragmented and turned in on themselves. They were, it seemed, dancing in the face of oblivion, consuming the resources of worlds—even committing elaborate forms of suicide.

Like cal342 herself.

cal342 turned her head—it was like operating machinery—and looked at the body which lay beside her.

For almost a million years, since the collapse of its protective domes, the body had been exposed to the micrometeorite rain. The top of the body had imploded, leaving a gaping, empty chest cavity, a crumbling hollow shell around it. The head was exposed, and eroded pinnacles of bone hinted at the shape of a skull, eye sockets staring. This human corpse was of the Moon now, reduced to lunar dust, made the same colour as the dark regolith.

Of the Moon, and of the life within it.

Was it possible this ancient traveller, coupled to the chthonic mind of the Moon, was still, in some sense, aware? Was he dreaming, as he waited for the comet?

And if so, what were his dreams?

She looked up. The comet light was bright now.

Her choice of viewpoint had been deliberate. Here she was, as humans had always been, her very size suspended between atoms and stars. She was a transient construct arising from baryonic matter, itself a small island in a sea of dark. Her consciousness was spindrift, soon to dissipate.

She dug her hands into crumbling regolith. She wondered if the patient Moon understood what would become of it today.

Fear stabbed.

At the appointed hour I saw the cargo vessel descend.

It was a glittering star in the sunlight, its rocket flame invisible. It came down over the prow of Rimma Crater, perhaps a mile from me. This marked success, Svetlana! Some past craft had failed to leave Earth orbit, or had missed the Moon, or had come down impracticably far away from me, or had crashed.

Elated, I loaded up my cart and set off.

Soon I approached the walls of Rimma Crater. The climb was tiring. My suit was stiff, as if I was inside an inflated tyre.

At the crater rim there were rocks everywhere, poking through a mantle of dust. The crater walls plummeted steeply to a floor of smashed-up rock a hundred metres below.

And there, planted in the crater’s centre, was the spacecraft.

But the landing had been faulty. The frame had collapsed, and the Lunokhod rover—an eight-wheeled bathtub shape—lay smashed open, glittering, amid the wreckage of the landing stage.

There was a light in the sky. I looked up. I had to tip back on my heels to do it.

I saw the Earth, a fat crescent, four times the size of a full Moon. And there, crossing the zenith, was a single, brilliant, unwinking star: it was the orbiting Command Module of an American Apollo spacecraft, waiting to take its astronauts home.

I think I knew at that moment that I would not return home.

I readied my cart and clambered down into Rimma Crater, preparing to salvage the Lunokhod.

The comet nucleus slammed into the Moon’s southern hemisphere.

A shock wave raced into the structure of the impactor and vaporized it immediately. A cloud of gas and molten silicate and iron billowed away from the Moon. And a second wave dug down into the ancient hide of the Moon, pulverizing and compressing. The lunar rocks rebounded with equal violence; they disintegrated utterly and exploded from the new cavity.

Then—seconds after the impact, even before the ejecta fell back—the excavated zone began to freeze. Waves of liquid rock froze like ripples on a sluggish pond. The new mountain walls began to collapse under their own weight, forming complex terraces.

But now the ejecta spray fell back from space, blanketing the new mountains in a vast sheet of molten rock.

It was over in minutes. Immediately the steady hail of micrometeorites began its millennial work, darkening and eroding the new deposits.

The cooling scar was the largest impact crater in the solar system.

The Moon, spinning, cooling, steadily receded from its parent Earth. For a time its axis of spin rocked, disturbed by Gliese and the impact. But at last even that residual motion died away, and once more the rigid face of the Moon was locked towards Earth.

But the impact, and Gliese’s ferocious gravity, had loosened Earth’s ancient grip on its battered offspring.

Month by month, the Moon’s orbit became wider, more chaotic.

At last the Moon wandered away, to begin an independent path around the sun.

Goodbye, goodbye.

It was Alexei Arkhipovich Leonov who informed me of the decision of the Presidium. One cosmonaut to another. I admired the way he spoke. I am not certain I could have achieved such dignity. The N-1 booster programme has been abandoned after continuing failure. No more cosmonauts will be flying to the Moon.

Our managers, it seemed, tried to strike a bargain with the Americans. If they would use a late Apollo flight to retrieve me, my flight would remain a secret—as would my triumph—and the Americans would take the public credit for reaching the Moon first. It is not a bargain I would have welcomed, even if it had saved my life!

But the last Apollos have been cancelled by the Americans; tens of millions of dollars are too high a price to pay, it seems, for my life.

My stranding here was always a possibility, of course. Even so I accepted the challenge gladly! My mission, should it succeed, could only reflect glory and honour on the Communist Party, and on Soviet science and technology.

…But there was something in Alexei’s tone which conveyed to me a deeper truth.

The Soviet Union cannot admit that at the heart of their space programme was the callous sacrifice of a cosmonaut. And NASA will never admit that their pilot was not the first to the Moon. Thus both sides are locked forever in a shameful compact of deception.

Stranded on the Moon, waiting to die, I am an object of shame, not of glory. I am a relic of a different age, to be hidden.

My cabin is full of noise. There are hundreds of electrical devices, fans, regenerators, carbon-dioxide absorbers and filters. It is like being inside a busy apartment. But in an apartment, a home, there are voices, the noises of life. Here there is only machinery.

I do not begrudge Colonel Armstrong his glory. He is a good pilot. If Korolev and Gagarin had lived, I believe it might have been different.

Humans had exploded from their planet, dug briefly into the Moon’s ancient hide, and disappeared.

After the separation of Earth and Moon, humans never returned.

The sun was gradually growing warmer. After a mere billion years, life on Earth was overwhelmed. Five billion years more, and the sun’s failing core caused it to swell up and destroy its inner planets.

Not the Moon, though.

The freed Moon circled patiently before the sun’s swollen, ferocious face, until the last fires died, and the sun collapsed.

A binary star system, long extinguished, veered past the sun; and the Moon, at last, was torn free.

It began a long journey into the darkness, out of the plane of the disintegrating solar system.

For a time new stars flared around the wandering Moon. And in the rings of rock which surrounded the developing stars, small rocky worlds were born. They glowed briefly in the light of their gaudy parents, and waited for the stillness that would inevitably come.

At last, though, the galaxy’s resources were depleted. After a hundred billion years no new stars could form. And after a hundred thousand billion years, the last of the stars were reaching the end of their lives.

The great darkness fell over the universe.

Slow cosmic expansion isolated the wreckage of the galaxy from its neighbours. And within that wreckage—a drifting mass of black holes, neutron stars, black dwarfs, stray planets—the soft leakage of gravitational waves caused a gentle, subtle collapse.

The remnant of a star cluster orbited the giant black hole that lurked, slowly evaporating, at the core of the galaxy.

The drifting Moon approached the cluster.

It is lunar night. I am walking across the face of a new Moon. My suit is protesting noisily.

I climb the wall of Rimma Crater.

The phases of the Earth and Moon are opposite. And so the Earth is full, fat above me, a shiny blue ball, laced about by cloud. Its light is blue and cold, and somehow it seems to suit the gentle curves of the Moon, these old, eroded hills.

Time is stretched out here, in the Moon’s soft gravity. A day lasts a month. And beneath that there is a still grander scale of time, of the slow evolution of the Moon itself. I look at the hills, the crater-sculpted plain beneath, and I know that I could have come here a billion years ago, or a billion years from now, to find the same scene.

The Moon cares nothing for time.

Perhaps Earth, with its complex geology and cargo of life, is unique. But the galaxy must be full of small, timeless worlds like this one. Explorers of the future will stand on a hundred, a thousand worlds like this, peering up at different patterns of stars. And will they remember this, the original Moon, the prototypical destination for mankind?

And as I frame these dreamlike thoughts, it is as if, for a brief moment, I have come further than the Moon itself: as if, in fact, I have spread myself across the stars, to the ends of space and time, like the godlike people of the farthest future.

They have stopped talking to me.

I refuse to be hidden upstairs, on this Moon, like an insane uncle.

Trillion-year meditations were enriched by the slow gathering of rocky worlds, torn loose of the evaporating galaxy.

Here was one such, approaching the great clustering of mind, as if with caution.

Curiosity was engaged, briefly.

Remnants of crude structures, long vanished, were observed on its surface—and even traces of an ancient carbon-hydrogen body, a spindrift remnant clinging to the rocky world, preserved by the deeper geologic soul.

But none of that was important.

If there had been awareness of humanity’s brief span, there would have been only pity.

Humans had been tragic, fluttering, fragile creatures: spindrift, with no future or past. And they had vanished without ever understanding why they were so alone.

The truth was, humans had emerged in a dull corner of the universe.

Amid the crashing energies of galaxy cores, by the light of clusters of a million swarming stars, in the giant molecular clouds that spanned whole systems: those were the deeps where the great minds had gathered, minds like gongs, minds beyond the reach—even the imagination—of mankind. No wonder humans had never understood.

The spark of chthonic consciousness—swimming out of the darkness, its mountains eroded almost to smoothness—was enfolded at last.

Welcome, welcome.

I lie in the soft, silent dust.

I can feel its cold, sucking at my warm body through the layers of my suit. I am in the crater’s shadow here; the sun will never reach my crumbling bones. I will record as long as I can, dear Svetlana.

The psychologists who prepared me said that, according to Freud, there is no time in the unconscious. And that, at certain intensely charged moments, there is no time in consciousness itself.

Can that be true?

And can it be that, at the moment of death, the most intense moment of all, the mind accelerates and the soul becomes eternal—an eternity crammed into that last exquisite instant?

If so, here on the timeless Moon, what will I dream?

Svetlana, the daughter I never held! I love you!

Tears flood my eyes, blurring the light of the full Earth.

The Gravity Mine | Phase Space | Touching Centauri