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|The Prey Series|
9 FEBRUARY 2066
From ten kilometers out, the Sky Survey Observatory looked like an over-sized beer can. Yellow-white sunlight glittered from the can's outward side, while the other half was a shifting funhouse reflection of the pale blues and pearly cloud-streaks of the Earth, a thousand kilometers below.
The can was not quite alone: an egg-shaped service module, human sized, encrusted with insectile appendages, and ports, windows and cameras, was closing in on it. Storage lockers and canisters surrounded the base of the egg. Had there been any air around it, and anything with ears, the faint twang of country music might have been heard vibrating through the ice-white walls of the egg: "Oh, my ATV is a hustlin' on down the line, and them tofu critters are looking mighty fine..."
The handyman was making a house call.
The Sky Survey Observatory carried four telescopes: the Big Eye, the Medium Eye, the Small Eye, and Chuck's Eye, the latter unofficially named after a congressman who slipped the funding into a veto-proof Social Security bill. The scopes stared outward, assisted by particle and radiation detectors, looking for interesting stuff.
All of the SSO's remotely operable telescopes, radio dishes, and particle sensors, all the digital cameras and computers, all the storage systems and fuel tanks and solar cells, lived at the command of astronomers sitting comfortably in climate-controlled offices back on the ground.
Until the observatory broke. Then somebody had to go there with the metaphorical equivalent of a screwdriver.
One of the groundhuggers called, "Can you see it?"
Joe Martinez said into his chin mike, "Yeah, I can. Holy cow. Something really whacked that motherfucker."
"What! What? Joe, what..."
"Just messin' with you, Bob."
"Hey, Joe? I'm pushing the button that cuts off your air."
"Didn't know you had one of those."
"You don't mess with astronomers, Joe... Cutting the air in 3-2-1..."
Martinez was a handyman; his official title was Chief of Station Operations, which meant that he kept the place running.
He hadn't had much to do except drink coffee and read the current Guitar Riffs for last couple hours, waiting to make the approach to the SSO. Barring some weird million-to-one mishap, his trajectory was fixed by the laws of physics and the impulse from the low velocity rail-gun at the station; the computer said he was exactly on track. He sucked down some more of the decaf, his fingers unconsciously tapping out a counterpoint to the Blue Ridge Bitches, the band he currently favored.
Martinez wasn't a scientist. He did mechanics, and electronics, a little welding, a lot of gluing, the occasional piece of plumbing, and still more gluing. He had a degree in electro-mechanical engineering, but there were days when he thought he should've gotten one in adhesives. His engineering and academic background, combined with an instinctive love of machine tools, made him a quick study, but he didn't have much interest in building new machines.
On the ground, he messed around with electric guitars, video games, propeller-driven airplanes and wooden speedboats. He loved real hardware even more than he loved his computer, and he did love his computer. If he could build it, fix it, refurbish it or just plain tinker with it, he was happy.
But he was happiest up in the sky, where he did a little of everything; he was the world's best-paid handyman.
Bob Anderson came back: "What do you think?"
"I can't see anything," Martinez said. "I mean, nothing unusual."
"Good. You going manual?"
"As manual as I can, anyway. And that would be... Now."
He flipped the arming switch on the thruster joystick. Checking the intercept lidar less than five meters a second of residual velocity, very good he played the cradle's thrusters. Practice born of hundreds of runs made his actions nearly unconscious, like riding a bicycle. His eyes took in the instrument readings while his fingers responded with bursts of thrust. It was safer, he'd told Amelia, his third ex-wife, than driving to work.
"What happens," she'd had asked, "if everything fails? I mean, if everything fails down here, when you're driving to work, you go in a ditch. What if everything fails out there?"
Well, then, he'd said, he'd get a free tour of the universe, and would still be on tour when the sun finally died, a few billion years from now. She hadn't laughed. Then or later.
Martinez had. As the shrinks had noted, isolation didn't worry him.
"Radar says you're there," said Anderson.
"Close. Just a bit further."
The egg's attitude matched that of the SSO there wasn't any particular "upright" in space, but there had been when the can was put together on earth, and the lettering on the side of it appeared in the proper orientation to Martinez's eyes. There'd been few visitors to read the lettering in the eleven years that the observatory had been functioning, there'd been thirty visits, by fewer than half-dozen different people, one egg at a time.
Of those thirty visits, Martinez had made eighteen. Most of the instruments and scopes were modular, boosted up into space as self-contained operational units, ready for deployment.
Some assembly was required. The instruments had to be fitted into the can, periodically serviced, and upgraded as new and better cameras, computers, and memories were invented. The SSO was the finest piece of astronomical machinery ever produced, and Americans or the astronomical fraction of them was committed to making sure it was equipped with the best the taxpayers could afford.
"Breaking out the camera package," Martinez said.
"Okay. Got you down for the package extraction."
The new package for Chuck's Eye was less a single instrument than a spider's-head complex of primary and secondary eyes, operating at all wavelengths from the mid-infrared to the far ultraviolet. Chuck's Eye was like the scout that ran ahead of an expedition in the old West, taking in a wide field of view and maintaining a lookout for unusual objects and events. The bigger, more-impressive Eyes would do the research that mattered, but Chuck's Eye would be the first to catch a new supernova or gamma ray burst, or whatever else might show up.
On this trip, Chuck's Eye was getting an eye exam along with a new camera: Chuck had developed a tic. The vibration could have come from one of the servos inside the camera housing. It could have come from a wire that had worked free from its housing because of the heat-cold cycles. It could have come from any number of things, but whatever the cause, it had to be stopped. The cost of stopping it could vary from nothing at all, to a million bucks or so. The people on the ground were praying for "nothing at all," since Congress was in one of its semi-decadal spasms of cost-cutting.
"I got the camera package out of the rack, it's fine. Gonna light up the can."
"You're good to go. Pray for something cheap," Anderson said.
Martinez's right hand played on the sensor panel, bringing up his work tools and assists. At the index finger's command, power flowed to the servos on the manipulator arms and energized the tactile gloves. The thumb flipped a switch and dozens of tiny directional spotlights flicked on all over the exterior of the egg, banishing the darkness between the egg and the can in space, flashlights were almost as vital as oxygen.
His right little finger swiveled the lights, bringing them to bear. Years of misspent youth at game consoles had given him reflexes and manual dexterity that a jazz saxophonist might have envied. As his right hand continued to play the instruments, his left worked the joystick, as he brought the egg in close and slow. He circled the can one time, making a video, then eased the egg to a stop relative to the observatory.
Slowly, slowly, a mere millimeter a second, that was the trick. There wasn't any danger to the observatory; the SSO's own navigation computers could easily compensate for a bump, firing the observatory's thrusters and running its orientation gyros to bring it back on point. But why waste the can's limited fuel supply on a sloppy docking?
With the very faintest snick, the grappler on the egg latched onto one of the docking sockets that were all over the can's skin. This particular socket was adjacent to the Chuck's Eye instrument hatch. Once tied in, Martinez ran a last confirming test on the safety and security cameras. Everything inside and out was recorded during one of these house calls, because you never knew when a detail you missed might just save the job... or your life.
"We show you docked," Bob said. "Good job. Barely a jiggle."
"That's why you hired a pro," Martinez said. "You looking at the video?"
"Yeah, we're running it against the last scan, and so far, we see no changes, no anomalies," Bob said. Three seconds of silence. "Okay, the scan is finished, we see nothing at all on the exterior."
"Good. Go ahead and cut the juice."
"Cutting the juice: juice is cut. You're clear."
Killing the SSO's power was a safety precaution, not for Martinez, who was well isolated and insulated in his egg, but for Chuck's Eye: an accidental short or surge during servicing could result in one of those million-dollar repairs the groundhuggers were praying to avoid.
A moment later, a ground-based scope specialist named Diana Pike, who Joe had never met, but with whom he often worked, called back and said in her familiar Southern accent, "We're good, Joe. Want to look for that tic, first?"
"Hey, Di. Yeah, I'm putting some pucks out now." Martinez used a spidery remote arm to drop a few micro-seismometer pucks on the can's skin and the outer case of Chuck's Eye. The bottom of the pucks had a layer of an electro-phosphoprotein adhesive, a synthetic based on the natural adhesive used by barnacles. With a tiny electrical current running through the adhesive, it would stick to almost anything; when the current shut off, the adhesive effect vanished. They were called Post-Its. What that had to do with yellow pop-up reminders on a workslate screen was anybody's guess.
"Okay, Di, we're set up here," Martinez called. "Give me a rattle."
"Here y'all go," Pike said. "Three-two-one. Now."
Two opposing thrusters fired on the can, each for just a tenth of a second and so closely spaced that a human eye couldn't have told them apart. The can shuddered.
"Okay. We're cycled. You see that?"
Martinez said, "Yeah, yeah, I see it."
Martinez was watching his monitor readouts the people on the ground were seeing the same thing where the reports from the micros were popping up, giving him a directional reading on the vibration. It was near the surface of the superstructure, which was good, but outside the seismo array. "I'm gonna have to juggle some pucks," Martinez said. "Wait one."
He moved his micros, and called back to Pike: "Give me another cycle."
"Cycling, three-two-one. Now. Cycled."
Martinez looked at his monitor and called back, "It's right near the surface. I'd say it's between walls. I'm repositioning the pucks and moving a scope out to take a look."
"It's the insulating foam." Pike was hopeful.
"Probably. I'm moving the pucks..."
Another shot and the micros gave him a precise location, within a half-centimeter of the source of the vibration. He moved a macro lens in and looked at the surface of the observatory. "There's no external defect," he said.
"Good," Anderson said. If it had been a micrometeorite, the repairs could have been a bigger problem. They'd never had one penetrate both skins, but the possibility was always there.
"Gonna cut a hole," Martinez said.
The process took an hour. Martinez drilled a three-millimeter hole in the meteorite barrier, then peeked inside with a fiber optic. As they'd suspected, some of the foam used as insulation between the two walls had shaken loose on Chuck's Eye. There'd probably been a fracture during construction, or one created when the can was boosted into space; years of heat-cold cycles had finally shaken it loose. Martinez gave it a new shot of foam, specially formulated for this precise repair they'd done three others just like it sealed it with a carbon-fiber patch, and was done.
That had been the tricky part: a monkey could have installed the new camera. The cameras were modular and self-contained, and the new camera module looked exactly like the old one. Joe yanked the old one, slipped the new one into the rack, flipped the locking clamps and pinged Anderson:
"Hey, Bob, you can power up again. Everything looks good here."
"Looks good here, too. Powering up."
And it was good. The repairs fell into the "nothing-at-all" category. Another of the mission scientists came on and said, "That's nice work, Joe. We've run fifty cycles, got no vibes, and the new camera is online. You can go on home."
"I'm gone," Martinez said.
On the way back, he grabbed a bulb of proper caffeinated brew and pulled the heat tab, ate a few crumb-proof peanut-butter-and-cheese crackers, and contemplated the prospects of a proper meal. He'd been invited to dine with the station commander, Naomi Fang-Castro and her fiancé, Llorena whose-name-he-couldn't-remember. Better look that up before I commit a major faux pas, he thought. The commander and her first wife had divorced about two years prior. The ex (and their two college-age kids) were on earth; she hadn't been much for space. Fang-Castro was committed to the sky. Probably why he and the commander got along so well, Martinez mused... and probably why they were both divorced.
He took a call from the station, where Elroy Gorey, who the groundhuggers called a farmer, was feeding the plants, or monitoring the nutrient cycles on the biotech program, depending on your need for long words.
Gorey had a PhD in botany and did a little plumbing and programming on the side, and was good with circuit boards. "That honey from Starbucks called," he said. "She wants to know if you forgot about your coffee."
"Nah, I've got a bulb here, but it'd be nice to have a fresh espresso waiting for me."
"I'll tell her," Gorey said. "I think she wants to know me better."
"I beg your pardon, there, Elroy, you're more of a wingman type..."
The honey worked in Seattle, and hooked up to the station via an audio/video link that allowed her to make coffee for station personnel through an automated coffee machine. The face-to-face chatter was supposed to improve morale, and mostly did. Station personnel suspected that the baristas, male and female alike, had been chosen more for their good looks than their coffee-making abilities.
Back behind Martinez, at the can, Chuck's Eye ran through its preprogrammed diagnostic sequence, firing off a series of wide-field photographs and forwarding them to the ground station at Caltech, in Pasadena, California. Once they'd been vetted, by an intern, for their utter routineness, Chuck's Eye would be handed back to real astronomers for real work.
That was the plan, anyway.
He was running late.
Severely late, though he didn't much care. The warm soupy aroma of marijuana hung about his shoulder-length blond Jesus hair. The van found an approved space, parked itself, and he climbed out, grabbed his pack, threw it over one shoulder, and ambled toward Astro, taking his time.
He was a large young man, barefoot, wearing damp burnt-orange board shorts and an olive drab t-shirt. When he came out of the ramp, he flinched: movement on the roof of a building down and to his right. A microsecond after the flinch, he recognized it as a Pasadena parrot, rather than a sniper. That was good. He moved on, detouring around the traditional Caltech drying-lumps-of-dogshit in the middle of the sidewalk outside Astro, sighed and went through the door.
He no longer had implants and so wore a wrist-wrap, which cleared him through Astro's security gate. Inside the lobby, he took the fire stairs instead of the elevator.
At the fifth floor, he peeked through the window on the fire door, to make sure that Fletcher wasn't standing in the hallway. He'd been through a lot of trauma in his short life, and trauma, he thought, he could handle. And he'd thought he could handle Fletcher's pomposity, but he was no longer sure of that. Sometimes, he thought, bullshit was worse than bullets.
Fletcher was not in sight, and he went on through the door, and trotted down the hall toward his cubbyhole at the far end of the building, also known as the ass end, where the lowest status people worked.
The main thing that everybody knew about Sanders Heacock Darlington besides the fact that he had three last names, no first names, and showed remarkably little ambition - was that in two years, when he turned thirty, he would inherit money. Lots of money. More money than anyone in the Caltech Astrophysics Working Group had any chance of making in a lifetime.
And he was hot. His eyes were the same deep blue as the Hope diamond, he had big white teeth, and a dimple in his chin, all original. He had that Jesus hair, a terrific surfer's physique, and an easy way with women.
In the Astro context, that made him extraordinarily annoying.
But he had, said the women who got to know him there were a steadily-increasing number of them in Astro an absolutely black side that never showed at work.
Where that came from, they didn't know. Drugs, they said, may have been involved. There were hints of violence, that whole untoward incident at the Santa Monica pier, and some odd scars on his otherwise flawless chest, back and buttocks. When they probed, they were politely put down. But there was something dark and even were-wolfish behind those perfect teeth...
Best not to pry, they agreed.
As he turned the last corner, he nearly ran over Sarah McGill.
Sandy hadn't tried to hustle McGill, though she'd been more pleasant than most of the people in the working group. She wasn't a beauty he tended to favor beauties but she was prodigiously smart, and she didn't treat him entirely like dog excrement. He'd lately noticed a certain languor about her, and the languor was sending signals to his hormones.
McGill dodged him, said, with a thin rime of sarcasm, "Right on time," and was about to continue on her way, and he called, "Hey, you got a minute?"
"About ten seconds, Sandy," she said. She had a full set of implants and he saw her eyes narrow as she checked the time. "Group meeting in nineteen." She had a turned up nose with freckles, and kinky dishwater-blond hair, cut short. She'd bagged Samsung as a sponsor and had a dime-sized Samsung logo on her collarbone, along with a smaller and slightly less prestigious tags from ATL and Google, as fractional sponsors.
Sandy nodded, "I was wondering... you wanna get a steak and salad some night? Catch a video?"
"Hey, I'm just being human," he said.
"Right. Thanks Sandy, but I've got..."
"Listen, you've been nicer than most of these assholes. I kinda owe you. I've got tickets to Kid Little at the Beckman."
Kid Little. She was tempted, he could see it in her eyes.
"I just want to go out and shake it a little, he lied."
"Let me think about it," she said. "I gotta go."
"Yeah, the group meeting. Say hello for me."
She twiddled her fingers at him and disappeared down the hall. Sandy was satisfied. One small step, he thought, as he continued on to his cubbyhole.
A janitor was coming down the hall with a push broom and they slapped hands as they passed, and the janitor said, "Tomorrow at dawn."
"If I can," Sandy said.
The janitor was a semi-pro surfer. Semi-pro surfing paid mostly in free burgers and beer.
Sandy was popular enough with janitors and maintenance men. His problem was with the academics. His status hadn't been helped by the fact that his father had purchased the job for him. The senior Darlington had hinted to Caltech's president that he would be extremely grateful if one of the working group professors would take his son under his wing. His son, he said delicately, was troubled: but not in some fractious, embarrassing way. He simply... didn't do much.
Dr. Edward Fletcher, respected and thoroughly tenured astrophysicist, had been happy to fall on that sword. Darlington Senior had already given Caltech not one, but two research buildings, and was a major financial backer of Chuck, the congressman who got the money for Chuck's Eye.
Fletcher could use a new building. Hungered for one. Preferably one called Fletcher Hall.
And it wasn't as though Sandy was an idiot. He had a perfectly good degree, his father pointed out. In American Arts, from Harvard. He'd even taken the non-required science elective, called Calculus and Physics for Poets, by those who took it, and had gotten a B. That didn't score any points among the astrophysicists.
"American Arts" was also known informally as the "College of Dilettantery," and those who left with degrees could reliably identify both a Masaccio and a Picasso, manually expose a photograph, make a short film, discuss both Italian and Scandinavian furniture, dance, make him/herself understood in French, Italian and Spanish, and play the guitar and piano.
As one of the Real Scientists put it, "He couldn't change a fuckin' tire," which, in Caltech terms, didn't literally mean he couldn't change a tire, it simply meant he couldn't reliably explain the difference between a Schwarzwchild radius and Shrödinger's cat.
There had been a stir of interest when the Astro group realized how much money was about to arrive in the shape of an intern, but a few minutes of research on the Internet revealed that Sandy had been through a number of career changes since leaving Harvard, and none of the jobs would have interested anyone in Astro.
He'd worked for Federal Mail for a while, but had apparently been unable to deliver, and had been fired. He'd been a video-reporter with a marginally respectable independent news-and-porn blog, but that had ended badly, when Sandy threw an unclothed producer off the Santa Monica pier, at low tide.
Lately, he'd been a surf bum and rhythm guitarist with a mostly girl-group called the LA Dicks. When asked by a leading Young Astro Star what he was going to do when he grew up, Sandy told him after he got grandpa's money, he planned to become philanthropist, or a philatelist, or a philanderer, or perhaps a flautist?
"It's one of those things," he said, with a toothy grin. "I've never been, you know, a big vocabulary head." The Young Star left with the feeling that Sandy had been pulling his weenie, which wasn't supposed to happen to Stars; he'd had to look up "philatelist."
Six months into the job, Sandy's insouciance had begun to seriously wear on Fletcher, just as Fletcher's pomposity wore on Sandy. Sandy couldn't be fired there was all that Darlington money out there. Fletcher did the next best thing: gave him make-work.
Sandy recognized the job for what it was, and so went surfing.
When he wasn't surfing, and partly in revenge for the treatment he got from the Real Scientists, he was screwing his way through the department. So far, he'd had hasty relationships with seven of the seventeen single women in the research group. (One of the Young Astro Stars, holding court in the cafeteria, pointed out that both seven and seventeen were prime numbers, and if Sanders wanted to stay on course, and yet maintain that kind of fine arithmetical symmetry, he'd have to screw four more women, since eight, nine and ten were not prime. A woman who overheard the comment said the Star's erratic sense of humor was part of the reason that Sandy had managed to sleep with seven out of seventeen, while the Star was striking out. She added, before picking up her lunch tray, "You fuckin' dweeb.")
And the women who'd slept with young Sanders confessed to each other, over hushed lunches, that while it was possibly true that Sandy might not match their knowledge of advanced physics and astronomy, sex was one area in which young Darlington definitely knew how to change a tire. Even, on occasion, multiple tires.
So virtually all his male colleagues, and a considerable (but shrinking) fraction of the female contingent, loathed him. Not that their loathing amounted to much: rudeness, mostly. They cut him out of grad student meetings.
Which made what happened all that much worse.
The intern's room was a windowless hall, a nearly perfect cube of yellow limestone, divided into sixteen tiny cubicles; it had once been a storage room.
There were four interns present when Sandy ambled through the door. Three of them were peering at computer screens, and the fourth had her head down on her desk, with a long line of drool hanging from her mouth, extending most of the way to the floor.
"Man, you smell like pachuca weed," one of the interns, Ravi Sumthinorother said, as Sandy passed.
"Yeah, well you smell like chili-cheese wieners. Given a choice, I'd rather smell like dope," Sandy said.
"That's the goddamn truth," said another of the interns. "You keep eating those fuckin' chili-cheese wieners, I'm gonna drag you to a window and throw you the fuck out."
"Yeah, right, like where are you gonna find a window?"
The sleeping woman stirred, but didn't awaken; the hostility had been simulated.
Sandy took his desk, touched the ID pad with his index finger, and the screen popped up.
He had been assigned to nursemaid Chuck's Eye. The work was not hard. Or, maybe it was, but the computers did it. Sandy was the human eye that double-checked the results, to make sure the computers hadn't missed anything unusual enough that it fell outside their analysis parameters. And the computers would tell him if that happened, so he could alert a Real Scientist.
The current program didn't even hold the possibility of uncovering an event of astronomical interest: it was a calibration run on a new camera module. The idea was to take a well-known, and therefore uninteresting, part of the sky, make simultaneous exposures with all the different-wavelength cameras. Superimpose them and make sure that all the little points of light aligned properly and that the spectra looked more or less normal.
Repeat that three times, at half-hour intervals, and make sure that those later stacks of images matched the first, so you knew that the tracking was good. Nothing in deep space changed rapidly, unless you were so amazingly lucky as to catch a supernova or gamma-ray burst, and the computers would recognize those things. Absent such a rarity, the four sets of stacked images should match up pixel for pixel.
It was a job made for a computer. But Chuck's Eye was a seriously valuable resource, and the Real Scientists felt the same way about their time, so it fell upon Sandy to babysit it. It seemed the perfect place to park a guy who'd written a senior thesis on "Movement Art as Planetary Drive."
To do his job, Sandy was required to push three keys on a computer keyboard to bring up a string of associated photos, then put his finger on the screen and drag them together, and then pinch them, and the computer would compare the images to see if anything untoward might be happening.
All this, in revenge for being rich, good-looking, unemployable arts major. And, of course, that whole serial womanizer thing... to say nothing of the way he ran his mouth.
So he brought up his computer, put his feet on the desk, pulled open a drawer, unfolded a practice-guitar neck, and began running scales; it was a mindless activity that allowed him to maintain his left-hand calluses while he formulated his next move on McGill. He'd been doing that for twelve seconds when the computer pinged and produced a line of type:
That hadn't happened before. Dating rituals forgotten for the moment, Sandy put the guitar-neck aside and frowned. "Hi-ho, Watson, the game's afoot." He touched a menu that had popped up on the side of the screen, selecting the word Describe.
The computer said:
Sandy dropped his bare feet to the floor, and said to the computer, "It's not just afoot, Holmes, it's a whole fucking leg."
"What's that?" Sumthinorother asked over a cubicle wall.
"Talking to myself. It's the pachuca weed."
Celestial objects do not decelerate, not even for Harvard graduates.
Sandy touched another menu item Report and the computer prepared a short report. The computer said:
THE OBJECT IS REAL ~ 99%.
THE OBJECT IS BETWEEN ONE AND 10 KM IN LENGTH.
THE OBJECT IS BETWEEN ONE AND FOUR KM IN WIDTH.
THE OBJECT IS EMITTING MOST STRONGLY IN THE DEEP ULTRAVIOLET.
THE OBJECT IS EMITTING HYDROGEN GAS AT UNKNOWN VOLUME.
THE OBJECT IS DECELERATING.
What the Holy Hell? When had the test series been photographed? He checked: Okay, mid-morning, about three hours earlier. About the time he should have gotten to work. Sandy tapped a few more keys, and the computer ran its virtual clock forward to the present time, extrapolating where the object would be if its behavior remained unchanged.
He checked the status board for all the SSO's scopes and saw that none of them were in use at the moment. The various researchers had held off on scheduling observations in case the servicing of the SSO took longer than expected. Good. He walked down the hall and looked in Fletcher's office, which was empty, along with most of the others.
Ah, he thought. The group meeting, to which he wasn't invited. Okay, no witnesses.
Sandy punched in Fletcher's authorization he paid more attention to computer use than his coworkers suspected and told Chuck's Eye to grab another set of comparison frames. The anomaly was probably a camera failure in that new module, he thought. Really couldn't be anything else.
He thought about it for another moment, checked down the hall again, and then retargeted the Medium Eye, which had never given them any trouble, to the extrapolated coordinates. He instructed the Medium Eye to send down three short-exposure images separated by five-minute intervals. That should confirm that nothing was at the target site: both cameras wouldn't be wrong, at least not the same way.
But what was that thing the computer said, about "The object is real ~ 99%?"
Real? And decelerating?
Ten minutes to kill. He went and made fresh coffee, one of his assigned tasks. Anything that kept him from watching the clock. There must be a glitch. A major glitch. Because if it wasn't, he'd found an impossibility. "The object is decelerating?"
Sandy downloaded the files and ran them through the comparator. The new Chuck's Eye image show the same anomaly, same weird-ass spectra, not quite where the computer had projected it would be, but close enough for the Medium Eye to catch it. He pulled up those frames, superimposed them, centered on the anomaly at maximum magnification, and,
There. It. Fucking. Was.
Three little dots in a row. If this was an instrumentation glitch, then both telescopes were hallucinating exactly the same way.
Sandy punched in a new group of commands: calculate the current deceleration rate and position, combine it with those from three hours earlier, extrapolate an orbit.
EXTRAPOLATION: THE OBJECT WILL ACHIEVE SATURN ORBIT IN 13 HOURS.
The supervisory working group was meeting to argue about targeting priorities, when Sandy knocked on the door and stuck his head in. McGill was up at the white board, writing down lines of mathematical symbols. He caught the words "synchrotron radiation" and "anomalous jets." Whatever that meant. But it seemed to impress the working group. As they turned from the whiteboard to look at Sandy, Fletcher rolled his eyes back into his skull. Then, with an effort, he controlled the reaction, and said, with poorly concealed impatience, "What is it, Sanders?"
Sandy, knowing precisely how much he'd begun to irritate Fletcher, put on his best toothy smile and asked, "How's it going, big guy?"
Fletcher ground his teeth. "I'm in a meeting here, Sanders, as you can see. If you could come back in an hour, or maybe tomorrow..."
"The computer found a critical anomaly in Chuck's Eye and Medium Eye images," Sandy said. "I thought I should tell you before I called the L.A. Times."
In the momentary silence, one of the post-docs said to Fletcher, "He's looking at the test images from the vibe fix."
Fletcher muttered something to himself, which might have included the word "prick," and asked Sandy, "Well, Sanders... did you get a report?"
Sandy peered at the piece of paper in his hand, as if he were having trouble reading it, and said, "The computer said there's a critical anomaly. It says there is an object approaching Saturn, that it is real, that it is kilometers long and across, that its spectra is UV-rich-hot, and that it is emitting hydrogen."
Slight pause for effect; Sandy knew he was now the center of attention and didn't mind milking it for another fraction of a second.
"Oh yeah, it's decelerating, and it will achieve Saturn orbit in thirteen hours."
The Real Scientists all looked at each other, and then Fletcher said, "Give me that paper."
A minute later, he said, "We need to run a confirming series."
"Done that," Sandy said, holding up a second sheet.
Fletcher looked even more annoyed, started to snap out something, and thought better of it. He took a deep breath. "Okay, and what did that tell us?"
Sandy handed him the second sheet of paper.
The working group stampeded down the length of the table to crowd behind Fletcher's rounded shoulders, as they all read the paper together. After a minute, somebody said, "Sweet bleedin' Jesus."
Fifteen hours later, Fletcher, exhausted from hyperactivity and lack of sleep, scrubbed his balding pate with his fingernails, looked around at the others in the room the working group plus a couple of Astro Ultra Stars, plus a thin, dark-eyed man from Washington who had managed to scare the shit out of everybody in Astro and said, "So, what we're saying is... Sanders Heacock Darlington made the most important scientific discovery in history? That asshole?"
"He couldn't change a fuckin' tire," somebody said.
"Maybe not," said the man from Washington, who scared them all. "But he found an alien starship."
27 February 2020
The Prey series, the Virgil Flowers series, the Kidd series, The Singular Menace, The Night Crew, Dead Watch, The Eye and the Heart: The Watercolors of John Stuart Ingle, and Plastic Surgery: The Kindest Cut are copyrighted by John Sandford. All excerpts are used with permission.
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