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Authors: Jack McDevitt

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BOOK: Moonfall
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By late afternoon there was still nothing.

Curious. “It’s very hard to understand,” he told Hoxon, who had done some nominal searching on his own.

The director agreed. He was a garrulous, beak-nosed man who spent most of his time organizing public tours and who seemed to have remarkably little interest in real astronomy. He persisted in carrying on pointless conversations with people around him who were trying to work.

Feinberg extended his search, on the theory that the comet might be moving substantially faster or slower than the forty kilometers per second that was more or less the ballpark velocity. He worked through the late afternoon, sorting images while the mystery grew.

At six
P.M.
a postdoc at Cerro La Silla in Chile asked for help. She sent pictures that seemed to indicate she’d found a
second
comet. The pictures revealed an object on the far side of the Sun, out near Jupiter’s orbit. The images had been run on successive nights, March 25 and 26. But the same area in another set of images taken six days earlier showed nothing. Nor did the object appear in a third series beginning March 30. The object had apparently been in the sky for ten nights
at most
and then vanished. Where had it gone? The postdoc was asking if anyone
else had pictures of the area during the subject period.

Now,
that
was odd. They had
two
elusive comets.

Hoxon appeared and suggested Feinberg join him for dinner. “My treat,” he said.

Astronomers do not, as a rule, command large paychecks. Consequently, Feinberg wasn’t surprised when Hoxon took him to the local Shoney’s. They talked about the Chilean business. In fact, Feinberg knew he was babbling about it. But Hoxon’s only significant response was to observe that it was only a postdoc after all, and who knew what she really saw.

We’ve got the pictures, nit
. But Feinberg let it go.

ACCDs functioned by counting photons and converting the results to optical images. Feinberg began thinking about photon counts and fingerprints somewhere between the meat loaf and the ice cream sundae he decided he deserved. Two objects, one near Jupiter, one near the Sun. Both hard to track.

He did a quick calculation to check the idea that had been unconsciously forming, and smiled at the result. He’d been scribbling on a napkin, and when Hoxon asked him what it was about, he shrugged. “Nothing,” he said, dismissing his result.

His host did not think it was a good idea to go back to work, announced that he was going home, and suggested that Feinberg also quit for the night. Feinberg wondered what would have happened to the spirit of scientific inquiry if everyone had possessed the director’s driving curiosity. “No,” he said, “I have one or two things to finish up.”

Unfortunately, what Feinberg wanted to finish up couldn’t be handled directly from his keyboard. He made two phone calls. The first was to the Skyport Orbital Laboratory, which had used its Venusian probe to make the images of Tomiko’s Comet; and the other was to Cerro La Silla. In both cases he asked for the photon count that had produced the comet images. Both sites said they would get back to him.

Cerro La Silla returned his call within the hour. He
recorded the result and waited eagerly for the response from the Orbital Lab. It was a procedure that could take time, especially if they were busy, as he suspected they were. At midnight he was still sitting by his phone.

He didn’t recall dozing off, but he remembered coming out of a deep sleep, seeing gray light coming through a window, uncertain at first where he was. The telephone was ringing.

Windy Cross at Skyport apologized for the delay, but gave him the data. “If you don’t mind, Professor,” asked Windy, “what use is it?”

Feinberg remembered the count from the Jupiter comet. It was almost identical. Not definitive, but damned near.
They were possibly the same object
. “I’ll get back to you, Windy,” he said. “When I’m sure.”

He stared at the numbers, puzzling over the problem. The Cerro La Silla sighting was way the hell out of range. Comets had an upper speed limit of about fifty kps. If this was the same object, it would have to be moving at eight or nine times that velocity. Four hundred—plus kilometers per second!

That meant it did not,
could not
, belong to the solar system.

There was no question that vast numbers of comets drifted through the interstellar void, unattached to any sun. The latest estimates Feinberg had seen placed the number of unattached comets in the neighborhood of the solar system and out to, say, the half-dozen or so nearest stars, somewhere in the range of a
trillion
. He did not personally subscribe to that view. It was true that comets were periodically ejected from the solar system by the Sun, and sometimes even by Jupiter. He could not see that the process happened sufficiently often to support the more wild-eyed theorists. But who really knew?

In any case, this appeared to be a true interstellar. If both sightings
were
the same object, it
had
to be.

No interstellar comet had ever been recorded. If he was
right, Wesley Feinberg was going to take his place with Shapley, Herschel, Eddington, and Galileo.

Assuming the two bodies were the same, he now tried to calculate a trajectory. At the kind of velocity he’d expected, around forty kilometers per second, the comet would curve around the Sun and go back out. But at four hundred kilometers per second, it was going to keep coming.

With any kind of luck, they might get an extraordinary show.

He went out and delivered a cheerful good morning to the security guard, who seemed to be the only other person in the observatory. “I thought about waking you, sir,” the guard said. “You didn’t look comfortable on that couch. But I thought it best not to disturb you.”

Feinberg gave the man his most amiable smile. “Exactly right, sir,” he said. “Exactly right.” He turned on the coffee machine in the meeting room adjoining Hoxon’s office. He was hesitant to move precipitately, but it was only a matter of time before someone else drew the same conclusions he had. If that happened, he’d have to share credit. So he went back to his computer and forwarded his data to the Astronomical Union’s Central Bureau in Cambridge, where they would be logged and redistributed.

Please, God, let it be true
.

NEWSNET
. 12:30
P.M.
UPDATE
(Click for details.)

MAN JAILED FOR CARJACKING WINS $20 MILLION IN LOTTERY

Alleged Thief Faces Ten Years

“It’s Not Going To Change Me”

HASKELL CUTS RIBBON AT MOONBASE

Takes Time Off From Primaries For PR Bonanza

“We Have A Rendezvous With The Stars”

CORMAN WINS IN PENNSYLVANIA

Leads In Total Delegates By Sixteen

Haskell A Distant Third

MOSCOW OPENS WORLD’S LARGEST MONORAIL

System Covers 700 Miles, Will Serve Two Million Passengers Daily

PRESIDENT HANGS CHURCHILL PORTRAIT IN WHITE HOUSE CEREMONY

World War II Leader Became Honorary U.S. Citizen 64 Years Ago Today

YOUTH DRUG REPORTED CLOSE

Predict Life Span Will Double For Newborns

Population Activists Warn Of Disaster

TWO KILLED IN DENVER ELEVATOR CRASH

Passed Safety Inspection Last Week

WORLD POPULATION PASSES TEN BILLION

India Announces New Education Effort

ST. LOUIS WOMAN DISCOVERS COMET DURING ECLIPSE

Sun’s Glare Had Hidden Celestial Visitor

Moonbase, on tour. 4:30
P.M.

Isabel Heyman, who usually worked with the special response detail at the White House, had politicked to get the Moonbase assignment. That she’d succeeded was less attributable to her influence than to the fact that the agents usually assigned to the vice president had been working long hours as he plunged into the crucial early primaries. Unlike Isabel, they did not perceive a flight to Luna, with a reduced force that guaranteed round-the-clock hours, as a benefit.

So now Isabel toured the Greenhouse, keeping station on Teddy’s left, surveying faces for any telltale suggestion of ill
intent, looking for tics or compressed lips, for eyes perhaps a little too narrowly focused, for any sudden movement, for a hand slipped inside a garment.

It was hard, wandering among Moonbase’s wonders, to keep her mind on her job. But her training took over, and it was enough just to know where she was.

She would come back, she decided. On her own.

C
HAPTER
T
HREE
FORECASTS

Wednesday, April 10

1.

Arecibo, Puerto Rico. 8:03
A.M.
Atlantic Time (7:03
A.M.
EDT).

The radar returns had been coming in for several hours. Tomiko was a
monster
, 180 kilometers in diameter. But the incredible revelation was its velocity: It was moving at 480 kilometers per second! Yesterday Foster Cardwell would have bet the mortgage that order of velocity wasn’t possible.

Cardwell was director of operations at Arecibo. He stood over the display, rubbing the back of his neck. He was wearing a bright yellow shirt stenciled with palm trees and dolphins. “Run it again,” he said.

Penny McGruder nodded and keyed in the command. “It’s not going to look any different.”

A cursor moved unerringly toward a rendezvous with the Earth-Moon system. The comet was passing the Sun now. It would cross the orbit of Mercury later today, and that of Venus early Friday. It would close to within 384,000 kilometers of Earth. Where it would strike the Moon!

“Are we sure?”

They checked everything again.

Saturday night. At ten thirty-five EDT.

“Cardy,” she said, “this comet doesn’t obey the rules.”

He nodded and shrugged.

She highlighted the velocity: 480. What would it do to the Moon?

“It’ll be a hell of a show,” he said.

 

Beaver Meadow Observatory. 7:33
A.M.
EDT.

Feinberg was ecstatic. Messages of congratulation had already begun pouring in. Tomiko was indeed an interstellar. But even given that, its velocity was difficult to account for. They would have to rethink some of their assumptions.

A variety of emotions washed through him when he saw it would impact on the Moon. There would be a magnificent display, and they’d have an unparalleled opportunity to observe their extrasolar visitor. Why, then, did he feel a sense almost of despair?

He’d have given much to see a mission to the comet. Who knew what they might have learned, given an opportunity to do an inspection. Perhaps they would even have uncovered the secret behind its velocity.

He’d given much thought to the matter. The object was billions of years old. Had to be. It had experienced a series of encounters, each accelerating it until it reached its present rate. It seemed a farfetched explanation. Yet, what other possibility was there?

Hoxon dithered about, worrying that Feinberg’s health would suffer if he didn’t “get out and get some fresh air.”

“In a while,” said Feinberg.

“Where’s it going to hit? Will we be able to see it?”

“It’ll impact on the back side.”

“That’s a pity.”

“Maybe not.” Feinberg let his concern show. “Giant comet coming hard.” He made a noise deep in his throat, and tapped a key. A single set of numbers appeared on the screen:

 

7×10
29

 

Hoxon made a face. “Energy release?”

“Approximately.”

“Wes, that can’t be right.”

Feinberg ignored the familiarity. “I’d like to think not,” he said. “It’s enough to take the top off the Moon.” He stared out at the cool green lawn, still damp in the morning light. “There might be a downside to all this.”

White House Dining Room. 8:04
A.M.

“Sorry to disturb you, Mr. President.” Al Kerr, Henry Kolladner’s chief of staff, loomed in the doorway. He looked unhappy.

The president was seated at his breakfast table with the first lady. Emily Kolladner frowned. She had fought a losing battle for two years to guard the family’s privacy, before finally acceding to the reality that a president has no personal life. Henry had tried to find time for her; he usually rose early, worked two hours or so, and then joined her for a casual breakfast. It was supposed to be understood that the meal not be interrupted for any calamity short of nuclear war. Of course, that understanding had been violated almost daily. The first chief of staff, Kerr’s predecessor, had lost his job over the issue. Henry smiled at Emily, shrugged, and finished chewing a piece of bacon. “What is it, Al?” he asked.

Kerr stepped into the room and only then did Henry realize he wasn’t alone. A middle-aged, officious-looking woman entered behind him. He’d seen her before.

“Mr. President,” said Kerr, “you know Dr. Juarez.”

Yes. His science advisor. “Of course. Mercedes, how are you?”

Mercedes Juarez wore black slacks and a black jacket with a gold scarf over it. Her hair looked somewhat windblown and her eyes were dark pinpoints. “Quite well, thank you, Mr. President.” She opened a leather briefcase. “Sir, we have an emergency.” The observation didn’t faze Kolladner, who saw two to three dozen emergencies daily. She extracted a picture and held it up for him. It showed a
field of stars. One was especially bright. “This is Tomiko,” she said.

“Who?”

“The comet, sir.”

“Oh. Of course.”

“It’s very big. It’s traveling very fast. And it’s coming this way.”

Kolladner put his fork down. The room seemed to have gotten cold. “And—?”

“It’s going to hit the Moon Saturday night.”

“Okay…” He paused for a moment, trying to recover his equilibrium. He’d thought, from her tone, the news was going to be a lot worse. “You’re telling me Moonbase is in danger?”

She took a deep breath. “That, too.”

He glanced up at Kerr, not understanding where this was going. “
Too?
” he asked.

Dr. Juarez’s eyebrows drew together. “Mr. President.” She made a strange face, like a child being forced to eat asparagus. “It’s
big
. We’ve never seen anything this big before. It’s possible it might demolish the Moon altogether.”

Kolladner looked at his wife, and at Kerr. Emily’s hand touched his wrist. The United States had a multi-trillion-dollar investment in the Moon. He found it hard to consider the ramifications, the idea was so off-the-wall. “There’s no mistake?”

“No, sir. There’s a fudge factor, but it’s not worth discussing.”

“How much of a fudge factor?”

“Very little, as far as the actual strike is concerned. Considerably more with regard to energy release.”

Henry pushed back from the table. “Okay. I assume they’re evacuating Moonbase?”

“We haven’t heard anything formally yet, Mr. President,” said Kerr. “We’ve passed them the word, but I don’t think
they’ve had time to digest it. But yes, they’ll have to move everyone out.”

“Yes. I’d think so.” He studied the science advisor. “What do you need from me?”

“Mr. President,” she said, “it’s possible—likely—that fragments will be blown off the Moon. If that happens, we could catch some of the fallout.”


We?
The United States?”

“The world.”

“Pardon me,” said Emily, “but why don’t you just tell us what you know?” Emily rarely intervened directly. But she looked exasperated. “Are we really worried about falling moonrock?”

“Yes, Mrs. Kolladner. Maybe a lot of it.”

“How much?” asked Henry. “How likely?”

“I don’t know. I’m not sure anybody does. We’ve scheduled a meeting so you can talk to the experts firsthand.”

Henry glanced at Kerr. Kerr nodded. He looked worried.

The president pushed his plate away. Falling sky was hard to take seriously. But if Juarez had managed to scare Kerr…hell, she’d scared
Henry
.

Henry Kolladner was nearing the end of a long and distinguished career. He’d made sacrifices for his country. His lungs had been damaged thirty-three years ago by Iraqi chemical agents, and as a young congressman, he’d walked into a militia hostage situation, been shot twice, but brought the captives out. He’d also taken Culpepper’s dream of returning to the Moon and carried it to fulfillment, and he’d bitten the bullet and restructured Social Security and Medicare programs to compensate for the fact that people now lived longer, and the nation could no longer afford a retirement age of eighty. (He’d read only yesterday that the average person who made it to fifty could now expect to become a centenarian. My God, how were they going to handle
that
? He wondered whether they
shouldn’t bring back tobacco.) He’d presided over a robust economy that had come very close to providing enough jobs for a workforce that was growing at a frightening pace.

He was constitutionally eligible to run again. And he was popular enough to win easily. But he’d contracted a rare form of lymphatic cancer, and the doctors weren’t even sure he’d live out his present term. So he’d announced his intention to step aside. It was a pity; there was still a great deal to do. Whoever succeeded him would have to face some tough decisions. He’d been well on the way to establishing a reputation that would have placed him among the outstanding presidents. Now everything would depend on whether his successor finished what Henry had begun. Consequently, while maintaining formal neutrality among the candidates, he was hoping that anyone other than Charlie got the nomination. He liked Charlie, but the man lacked the political savvy and will to get things done.

Henry was the country’s second African-American president. (Culpepper had been the first.) He’d been grateful to be second. Everyone had stood around waiting for Culpepper to make a mistake, to get something wrong, to lean too far left or right. The old son of a bitch had walked a tightrope for eight tough years. But he’d pulled it off.

Now it looked as if a major problem had fallen out of the sky. He doubted they really need worry about Moon fragments raining down on the world, but the American investment on Luna was something else. The major world powers were all shareholders in Moonbase International, and the loss of the facility was going to constitute a debacle of major proportions. The glitter would go off his name, and he’d be forever associated with it, as Lyndon Johnson was with Vietnam, and Herbert Hoover with the Depression.

“Is there any chance of a mistake?” he asked hopefully.

“They’re still checking the numbers, Mr. President. But I don’t think so.”

He glared at her. “Wonderful. We spend a couple of trillion dollars to get Moonbase open for, what, a week? And then close it down again.”

Juarez said nothing.

The president’s mouth was dry. His first thought was that, however he proceeded, there was going to be a lot of finger-pointing.

Moonbase, Director’s Office. 8:27
A.M.

Evelyn Hampton was conferring with Jack Chandler, in his first official day on the job, over the remaining senior vacancies. Chandler had worked in executive capacities for years with various corporations with which Evelyn had direct or indirect connections. He’d twice come to her assistance, helping to get new operations up and running. It was his specialty and he was very good at it.

Moreover, he’d become a kind of father figure for her, an advisor in matters both professional and personal, the man she went to when she was in trouble.

He was in his fifties, a widower with three kids who were all off on their own. He was mildly overweight, with that washed-out look that people have who’ve recently lost fifty or so pounds. Chandler had suffered a severe heart attack the previous Christmas and had been put on a stringent diet.

Evelyn, anxious to help this closest of friends, had gone farther: She’d inquired whether the light lunar gravity wouldn’t help Chandler by easing the strain on his damaged heart. There’d been talk all along of providing a sanctum sanctorum on the Moon for heart patients, and this seemed a good way to get the ball rolling. The disadvantage was that his physician didn’t think he’d ever be able to return groundside again.

Chandler was more than willing. So Evelyn had gotten the director she wanted, and simultaneously performed an act of
kindness for a man to whom she was indebted. Did he feel better? “Twenty years younger,” he said. “I’d gotten to a point that it was like having a lump of lead in my chest.” He beamed at her. “The weight’s gone.”

They were debating the merits of the applicants on the short list for his assistant’s job when the phone rang. “It’s Orly Carpenter, Mr. Chandler,” the secretary’s voice said. “He wants to speak with Dr. Hampton.”

Carpenter was the NASA operations director at Houston. Chandler passed the phone.

“Good morning, Orly,” said Evelyn. “How’s everything?”

“Not good.” Carpenter was an ex-astronaut whose voice tended to flatten when he was reporting trouble. “We’ve got a situation,” he said.

She was seated on the edge of the desk, watching the Boston street scene that played across one wall of the director’s office. People with umbrellas were moving through a sudden rain storm. “What is it?” she asked casually. Orly was okay, but she knew from long experience that government types in general tend to overreact to problems.

“You know about the comet,” he said.

“Of course.”

“We think it’s going to hit. It’s big, and it’s coming fast. My God, Evelyn, we’ve only got three and a half days.”

“Relax, Orly,” she said, smothering her own sudden alarm. “I’m putting you on the speaker. Jack Chandler’s here.”

Chandler shared her view of government alarm. He said hello.

“The thing’s going to hit
what
?” asked Evelyn. “The Earth? One of the stations? What?”

“The Moon.” He caught his breath. “The Moon. It’s going to give you one hell of a whack.”

“You’re not serious.”

“Do I sound as if I’m not serious?”

“When?”

“Saturday night. Late in the evening, looks like.”

“How sure are you?”

“About ninety-eight percent.”

Evelyn tried to collect her thoughts. “You’re talking as if it’s something we need to worry about. Is it going to hit near Moonbase?”

“Looks like Mare Muscoviense.”

“The observatory,” whispered Jack. “Is it going to take out the
observatory?

“At the very least. This thing’s going to trigger major quakes. Maybe worse.”

“What could be worse?” asked Evelyn.

“There’s a distinct possibility it could shatter the Moon.”

Shatter the Moon
. The phrase hung in the still air. Evelyn stared at sheets of rain battering the Prudential Building, trying to understand what he was really saying. “How do you mean,” asked Evelyn, “
shatter
?”

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