PERHAPS THEY had chosen Hokkaido because of its maverick reputation. The climate required construction techniques that were highly unconventional by Japanese standards, and this island was also the home of the Ainu, the hairy aboriginal people still despised by many Japanese. Winters were as severe as the ones in Minnesota or Wyoming. Hokkaido posed certain logistical difficulties, but it was out of the way in case of a catastrophe, being physically separated from the other Japanese islands. It was by no means isolated, however, now that the fifty-one-kilometer-long tunnel connecting it with Honshu had been completed; it was the longest submarine tunnel in the world.
Hokkaido had seemed safe enough for the testing of individual Machine components. But concern had been expressed about actually assembling the Machine in Hokkaido. This was, as the mountains that surrounded the facility bore eloquent testimony, a region surging with recent
volcanism. One mountain was growing at the rate of a meter a day. Even the Soviets – Sakhalin Island was only forty-three kilometers away, across the Soya, or La Perouse Strait – had voiced some misgivings on this score. But in for a kopek, in for a ruble. For all they knew, even a Machine built on the far side of the Moon could blow up the Earth when activated. The decision to build the Machine was the key fact in assessing dangers; where the thing was built was an entirely secondary consideration.
By early July, the Machine was once again taking shape. In America, it was still embroiled inpolitical and sectarian controversy; and there were apparently serious technical problems with the Soviet Machine. But here – in a facility much more modest than that in Wyoming – the dowels had been mounted and the dodecahedron completed, although no public announcement had been made. The ancient Pythagoreans, who first discovered the dodecahedron, had declared its very existence a secret, and the penalties for disclosure were severe. So perhaps it was only fitting that this house-sized dodecahedron, halfway around the world and 2,600 years later, was known only to a few.
The Japanese Project Director had decreed a few days” rest for everyone. The nearest city of any size was Obihiro, a pretty place at the confluence of the Yubetsu and Toka-chi rivers. Some went to ski on strips of unmelted snow on Mount Asahi; others to dam thermal streams with a makeshift rock wall, warming themselves with the decay of radioactive elements cooked in some supernova explosion billions of years before. A few of the project personnel went to the Bamba races, in which massive draft horses pulled heavy ballasted sledges over parallel strips of farmland. But for a serious celebration, the Five flew by helicopter to Sapporo, the largest city on Hokkaido, situated less than 200 kilometers away.
Propitiously enough, they arrived in time for the Tana-bata Festival. The security risk was considered small, because it was the Machine itself much more than these five people that was essential for the success of the project. They had undergone no special training, beyond thorough study of the Message, the Machine, and the miniaturized instruments they would take with them. In a rational world, they would be easy to replace, Ellie thought, although the political impediments in selecting five humans acceptable to all members of the World Machine Consortium had been considerable.
Xi and Vaygay had “unfinished business,” they said, which could not be completed except over sake.