In schools, there were special lessons about the Outers and their strange tent cities. Pupils studied globes of the moons of Jupiter, discussed the brief occupation by Earth’s Three Great Powers. Afel’s little brother, George, brought home the project he’d been working on: a virtual model of a domed city fitted inside the rim wall of an actual crater on the Moon, with smaller domes inside it over buildings borrowed from cities around the world, and green parks and a canal system. He had working on it for a couple of weeks, but it was still pretty sketchy. Only his palace were modelled in detail, with fountains and huge rooms, a monorail and a zoo, and a secret passage running through the crater’s rim wall to a landing pad jutting out on the other side, cluttered with gigs and runabouts, most of them from space war epics.
Afel praised it anyway, and so did their mother and father. Georges was ten years old, and full of fleeting but passionate enthusiasms. That month, he had decided that he wanted to be an architect when he grew up, just like his older brother. He had taken to going up on the roof at night, to watch stars and ships and satellites. He pointed out the space elevator terminal to Afel, a steady, bright star high in the south-east. It was a carbonaceous chondrite that had been set to Earth from the outer edge of the asteroid belt, George said: machines were mining its material and spinning a diamond-fullerene cable that would reach all the way down to the new spaceport in Entebbe. Afel had studied fullerene construction techniques last semester, and told George something about the strong, lightweight frames that were being used in new buildings in the capital. George said that he wanted to build a real city on the Moon, or a space hotel in orbit, or a place where space pilots could stop for coffee or tea or cola, and gossip and smoke their hubble-bubble pipes, just like the family’s café.
It was on the big road that cut past the eastern edge of the town, the café. The family had owned it for more than a hundred years, and for most of the time it had just managed to get by, but it was thriving now. Twenty years ago, an experimental project involving a collaboration between the government and a cabal of Outers had planted specially modified vacuum organisms the edge of the desert, several hundred kilometres north. The vacuum organisms, composed of multitudes of tiny, pseudocellular machines, absorbed sunlight like plants, and made copies of themselves. They grew very fast, extending their roots a kilometre down to ancient aquifers and drawing up the water. Afel had seen images: they looked like giant black baobab trees, each standing at the centre of a spreading oasis. Now, the government was building farms and factories and villages on the reclaimed land, and planting many more vacuum organism trees. It was a special economic zone, and there was a constant traffic of land-trains and big trucks carrying workers and construction materials from the docks on the Niger River to the north.
Three years ago, Afel’s parents had built a motel block and a big new extension to their house, and they could afford to send him to study architecture at the university in the capital. When he’d been George’s age, he’d wanted to be a mathematician. It came to him naturally and he loved arcane theories of geometries that couldn’t exist in the real world, and had come third in a national competition. But his father, a kind but strict man, had other ideas for his eldest son. No one ever made a fortune playing with numbers; it was far better to learn a trade, to make a useful contribution to society. And so it was decided that Afel would be an architect, and now he was in the second year of his studies, and finding all kinds of practical uses for the intrinsic beauty and structure of mathematics, from visualising complex, non-Cartesian geometric shapes to calculations of the load-bearing capacities of beams and walls spun from exotic new materials.
That summer, he had come home for the vacation and as usual was helping out at the café, shopping in the markets with his mother in the morning, waiting tables in the afternoon, sitting at the reception counter of the little motel in the evening, studying his texts and making sketches for the project that would occupy most of his third year: a station for the maglev railway that would cross Africa from north to south, once the dozen countries involved could ever agree on the construction contracts.
Like his parents, Afel had little time for the visit of the Outer diva. It was good for business, the motel was fully booked by visitors who’d come for the concert – four of the guests had come all the way from France, two more from Greater Brazil – but it was a fleeting attraction, according to Afel’s father. He liked to employ a statistic he’d found in the cloud when customers at the café talked about the diva’s visit. Less than one per cent of those born in the three hundred years after the Russian, Gagarin, had first orbited the Earth, had ever gone up temporarily or permanently. Earth would always be more important than anything up there, he said.
So the day that the diva arrived in town was much like any other. George and his sister, Penda, had been chosen by their school to be part of the official reception, and they had put on their school uniforms and gone off to the little airport to greet the diva’s flitter, but otherwise it was business at usual. There was the breakfast rush, and then, after the trucks that had parked overnight pulled away and visitors had taken taxis into town, Afel went to the market with his mother and helped her unload the fresh produce and begin preparations for the lunch crowd.
Usually, the window in the café showed sports – football, wrestling, camel-racing – but that evening customers asked to watch the live broadcast of the concert. Over in the motel, where Afel was working, several truck drivers had set up a window outside one of the rooms and were drinking beer and smoking kif and watching the griot, Etienne Diabaté, and his band play an old, old song about how everyone’s work, from fisherman to teacher, contributed to the wealth of the country.
One of the drivers, Souleye Coulibaly, was a regular customer. A big, friendly woman who liked to tease Afel, asking him to multiply large numbers, or find their square root, or guess how many pumpkin seeds she was holding in her hand. Now she called to him, telling him to forget his texts for just one hour and come and watch a little history.
In the window, Etienne Diabaté was introducing the diva. She was tall and thin and pale, dressed in a severely-cut white suit, the black bands and struts of the exoframe that allowed her to walk in gravity eight times stronger than the gravity of her home world, Callisto, wrapped around her torso and limbs. She bowed gracefully, and she and Etienne Diabaté began to sing a love song about a young man and a young woman from opposite side of the river.
‘She isn’t bad,’ Souleye said.
‘Imagine making love to her,’ one of the others said. ‘You could show no passion, or you’d break all her bones.’
‘Or boil her blood with your hot kisses,’ someone else said.
They asked Afel to fetch beer, and when he came back the diva was singing one of her songs. Or he supposed it was a song: she was chanting in English over a medley of electronic squawks and random percussion and a fluctuating bass drone. Something about someone walking over a plain towards mountains, seeing a garden on ice . . . It was very long, and seemed to describe everything the walker saw. Once or twice the diva broke into song, crooning the same line over and over with increasing urgency, and then she’d resume her chant. It went on and on. The drivers gossiped and joked; Afel went back inside to his studies. When he came out for a break an hour later, Etienne Diabaté and the diva were singing together again, short verses, in French and then in English, about the similarities between deserts of rock and deserts of ice, the hard work of making homes in each.
Souleye caught Afel’s gaze and said, ‘Well, it was different, anyway. How about another round, kid?’
Customers at the tables on the café’s veranda were chatting noisily, as they always did, and the window inside had been switched back to sports, and out on the highway trucks strung with constellations of little lights blew past in the hot African night, on their way to the new frontier.