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Cavan called back around mid afternoon to say that Voler and a number of other leading astronomers had been called to a meeting at the White House, as well as top officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, the Departments of State and Defense, NASA, and the principal security agencies. It was being given a low profile to avoid media attention, but a lot of encrypted communications traffic was passing between departments involved in orbital and lunar operations and space agencies overseas, and all kinds of routine business was being canceled. There was a lot of strain and tension in the air. That was about as much as Cavan knew.

An hour later, Judith called Keene in his office to say she had Idorf on a link through Amspace. "You did it!" Keene got up to close the door with a foot and then resumed his place before the screen. "Good girl. I knew you’d hack it."

"It wasn’t me," Judith told him. "I was still working on it. This is incoming. He’s calling you." Moments later, Keene found himself looking at the lean, hawkish features with the reddish hair and raggedy beard. Idorf didn’t look in the friendliest of moods; neither did he have time for social pleasantries.

"Dr. Keene, I’m sorry if this is inappropriate, but I don’t pretend to understand how things work in your world. I’m contacting you because you are a person who gets attention and can convey a message to the proper people; also, I respect you as someone whose word can be relied upon. I cannot say the same for many of the others that I’ve been hearing recently. My impression is that they are likely to say anything they think I want to hear if they believe it might get them what they want. I’m told this is what you call politics."

Play this ree-al easy, Keene told himself. He tried to look composed. "I appreciate the compliment, Captain Idorf. How can I help?"

"Are you aware that the departure of our delegation is being obstructed?"

"No, I wasn’t. I knew there was a block on communications, and in fact was trying to get through to you via Amspace to find out more. I’m back in Texas now, away from it all. What’s happening?"

"The transportation that was supposed to be made available to bring them back up to the Osiris is not forthcoming. I am also informed that the emigrants who have been booking earlier flights to the Tapapeque base in Guatemala have been put on hold." Keene started to inject that he knew something strange was going on in Washington, but Idorf went on, "Today, I announced that if your government was not going to provide a shuttle to bring our delegation up, I would send one of our own surface landers down to get them. I was warned off by Terran defenses, Dr. Keene! They advised me that any such unauthorized landing would be treated as a hostile act, and the craft seized. So, are we at war now eh? Does Earth jump to the only kind of solution it has ever been able to conceive for any problem?"

Keene was aghast. "My God! Look . . . I know something’s been—"

"Ah, but that’s not the end of it. Two hours ago, I was advised of an intention to send a military boarding party up to this ship and asked to cooperate peacefully ‘for our own security and protection,’ whatever that is supposed to mean. . . ."

"Jesus Christ! I—"

Idorf’s hand appeared in the foreground on the screen, pointing a finger. "Very well, they have made their rules clear. Now this is what I would like you to convey, if you would, to whoever down there should hear it. Years ago, when relations between our two societies were more strained than in recent times, there seemed a real possibility that Earth might send an expedition to take over Kronia forcibly. We devoted considerable effort of the kind that produced vessels such as this one also to the development of advanced defense systems, and it has been our policy ever since to build all new ships with a dual-role capability. The Osiris is armed, Dr. Keene. The weapons that it carries are of extreme potency. We will fire upon any craft, manned or otherwise, that attempts approaching closer than one hundred miles without authorization, whether or not it acknowledges further warnings. I trust you will have gathered by now that I am not of a mood to make jokes. I’m hesitant to put this to the people I’ve listened to today, because I fear they might attribute the same slipperiness to my words as appears to apply to their own. But as I said, you strike me as someone who will put in the right way, to the right persons. Have I been clear enough? And if so, will you do as I ask?"

Keene eased himself back in the chair and exhaled a long, silent whistle. "Yes. Perfectly clear, Captain. . . ." He thought furiously about how much it might be wise to divulge. Finally, he decided that the way to respond to candor was with candor. "I already knew that the ship was armed," he said. "When we visited you, a colleague and I strayed off the path we were supposed to be on, and saw inside one of the hub cupolas. The machinery looked like an ejector, and whatever it launches is obviously nuclear. What is it? At a guess—some kind of fission-pumped, multi-pointing beam device? X-ray laser, maybe?"

Idorf’s eyebrows arched. "I respect your frankness, Dr. Keene. And you are remarkably well informed. Each capsule deploys a gigajoule charge and generates multiple, independently targetable beams at a ten-thousandth of an Angstrom. I don’t think I have to spell out what that would do to a target at a hundred miles."

Or a thousand, Keene thought to himself. "I am a nuclear engineer," he said. "And I worked in plasma physics research for a while. In fact I’ve been involved in studies of that kind of system. How much of the specification are you prepared to release?"

Idorf shrugged. "As much as it takes to convince them."

"I think I can do that for you," Keene said dryly. "Okay, let me ask you for some numbers." He paused and looked at the screen quizzically. "But first . . ."

Idorf waited. "Yes?"

"What’s going on? Do you know any more than I do? . . . What is this all about?"

"Nobody’s told you yet, eh?"

Keene showed his palms. "I’ve been trying to find out all day. It’s almost like you said. The whole of the Washington’s acting as if there is a war about to break out."

Idorf regarded him fixedly for a few seconds; then, he seemed to make up his mind and nodded. His expression was grim. "Yesterday evening, I passed some news down to Gallian that had just come in from Saturn. Our observatories there have been able to make measurements that won’t be possible here for a few more days until Athena moves farther out from the glare of the Sun. It seems we can forget further speculating about whether the electrical environment can be altered, Dr. Keene. Athena has come out from perihelion on a changed orbit. It isn’t going to cross fifteen million miles ahead of Earth as was previously thought. It’s coming straight at us."

 
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