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Cradle of Saturn
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The Goddard Space Flight Center was located twelve miles northeast of Washington center in Greenbelt, on a sprawling site of office and experimental facilities interspersed with grassy open spaces and woodlands occupying approximately two square miles. The shapes of the building outlined in pools of light and patterns of orange lamps marking the roadways and parking lots expanded out of the night as the helicopter bringing Keene descended beneath an overcast of cloud. Goddard had been the planning and management center for NASA’s Earth-orbiting missions and space-based observatories since its inception, and later assumed the coordinating role for all the agency’s astronomical work.

A security guard was waiting to drive Keene and the pilot from the grassy landing area to Number Two Building, a long, three-story, edifice of brick walls and a white frontage with black tinted windows, where much of the work on extraterrestrial science was concentrated. They left the pilot with the supervisor in the night office and went up to a part of the top floor which, unlike the rest of the building, was brightly lit and full of people working at screens or poring over printouts and images strewn across desktops. Waiting in his office to receive Keene was Dr. Jeffrey Hixson, who headed the Interplanetary Physics branch.

Hixson was a big, fleshily built man with a spare neck and chin, red-eyed and unshaven. He spoke while eating a mixed plate from a batch of hamburger meals and breakfasts that someone brought in from McDonalds just as Keene arrived. There was a hollowness in his voice, and he seemed to have a haunted look. "It’s going to come close—maybe even inside Earth-Moon system. Never mind what they talked about yesterday night at the White House. Those were just guesses based on what they know about comets. This animal is in a different league from comets—I mean, totally. What we’re in for is going to be big."

"You mean more than just meteorite storms and big dust infusions?" Keefe said. "That’s a piece of Jupiter coming at us. We’ve never known what’s really down under the gaseous envelope, but the core material that was ejected took part of what appears to be a rocky crust with it that has broken up and elongated into a stream of debris moving ahead of and trailing the main body. When that gets funneled down into Earth’s gravity well, it’ll be enough to obliterate whole regions."

For the first time, a measure of the panic that Hixson was struggling to control communicated itself. Perhaps the clamminess on his brow wasn’t due just to his being overweight. "What kind of regions?" Keene asked.

"Let’s put it this way. A month from now, countries the size of England and Japan might not be here." Hixson snatched another bite of hamburger and went on, "And it’s not just the impacts that you have to worry about. Athena carried away parts of Jupiter’s atmosphere, which make up a large part of the tail—heavy in hydrocarbon gases. Vaporized crude oil, Dr. Keene. If that penetrates and mixes with our oxidizing atmosphere, you’ve got fuel-air munitions on a continent-wide scale. They can burn at a temperature that will melt stone. With hot incoming and exploding meteorites to ignite it, a cloud like that could incinerate everything from here to the Rockies."

Keene had in fact been prepared for something like this. The Kronians and their supporters had been reconstructing this kind of scenario for years from interpretations of ancient records and geophysical evidence written all over the planet, and they had been ridiculed or ignored. Now Keene was hearing it as if it had all been discovered the previous night. What he needed now was actual figures for how close the encounter would be, magnitudes and intensities, estimates of what they would mean on the scale of events. Hixson walked him around the other offices and lab areas to meet the scientists and analysts, some with computers on-line to the tracking stations, who summarized the latest findings and provided printouts. One of them produced a series of telescopic images of Athena moving clear from the disk of the Sun. The body of the planetoid itself was obscured by the enormous tail now pointing Earthward, twisting and contorting into fantastic plumes and braids. It brought to mind, uncannily, ancient depictions of the grotesque, multi-armed goddess, Minerva, advancing across the heavens to wreak destruction upon the world. More images taken at radio wavelengths revealed structures of magnetic fields and particle streams extending across half the sky and already engulfing Earth.

They went back to Hixson’s office to discuss the implications and complete his notes. Hixson’s last words as Keene was about to leave were to ask when a public announcement would be made. "I don’t know," Keene replied. "That’s what this information is wanted for. I just report back."

"What are your own plans?" Hixson asked him. He made it sound as if he was hoping to hear of something official that he might be included in.

"Plans? . . ." Keene could only return a blank look.

It was only when he was In the elevator on his way back down to the lobby that the full realization finally sank home that this was real. It was going to happen, and he was going to be here when it did. And for the last thirty-six hours he had been too busy and too tired to give any thought to what he intended doing about it.

#

People had begun arriving to start the day when he emerged into the entrance lobby. The sky outside had cleared, but to Keene the morning still had a cold, bleak feel about it. His pilot was in the reception office, on the far side of a glass partition wall, leaning on the counter and talking to a woman who had taken off her coat but not yet hung it. The pilot said something as Keene came into view, and the woman looked in his direction. It seemed she had been waiting for him. Keefe entered. A sign on the counter carried the name Christie Jones.

"Hi. Are you Dr. Landen Keene?" she greeted as he entered.

"I am he."

"What’s going on? Anything exciting? From what I’m hearing, it sounds as if half the place has been up all night."

"It’ll have to keep for now, I’m afraid. What can I do for you?"

Christie consulted a scribbled note. "I’ve got a strict instruction not to let you go. Somebody wants to talk to you."

"Who?’

"It doesn’t say. Not someone who works here. He’s waiting in Room 108. I’ll show you the way."

I’ll try and keep it brief," Keene told the pilot.

"No hurry, Doctor. The coffee’s pretty good here. So’s the company."

Christie led Keene back out across the lobby floor, past the elevators, and along one of the ground-floor corridors. There was a display featuring models of orbiting space observatories and placards showing samples of images and other data obtained from them. "Your face looks familiar," she said as they walked. "I’ve seen it on TV recently, haven’t I?"

"Sometimes I lecture on the College Channel," Keene said.

"Yes, that must have been it. Wow, a real celebrity."

"Hardly."

They came to Room 108 and stopped. Christie tapped a couple of times. "Come in, please," a voice called out inside. She opened the door, stood aside while Keene entered, and closed it behind him. A figure was standing by the window, wearing brown cords and a shapeless green sweater that looked as if they could have been for working in the yard. He was obviously tense, which perhaps explained why he hadn’t availed himself of one of the chairs while he waited. Keene’s jaw tightened. It was Herbert Voler.

The room had the basic furnishings of an office but was bare and devoid of the personal effects that denoted permanent occupancy. It looked like a room set aside for use by visitors, chosen for privacy. What was Voler, dressed this casually, doing here at such an hour, looking as if he too had been up all night? Keene waited.

"So now you know," Voler said.

"I’d phrase it the other way around," Keene replied. "It’s what we’ve been telling you for years happened once before. Now you know."

Voler held up a hand as if to stay an attack. "Very well. Before we waste time getting into accusations, I admit to them. We refused to see what might threaten the things we had come to regard as the whole point of existence. Since losing them was unthinkable, we were unable to think it. Does that satisfy you? The collective psychology would doubtless make a fascinating study, but it will be a long time before this world will enjoy the luxury of being able to embark on serious psychological studies again."

"Maybe so. I don’t have much time to think about it just now," Keene said.

"Of course you don’t. So what are you going to do?"

"It’s funny, I was just asked the same thing upstairs. I don’t know."

"It should be obvious to you by now that the President has no understanding of the scale of what’s going to happen," Voler said. "None of them do. Oh yes, they’re counting their candles and checking the first-aid boxes like good boy scouts, but none of it is going to make a nickel’s worth of difference one way or another. It’s over, Dr. Keene—the works, the whole ball of wax. Before long, the surface of this planet may not be habitable for anything much bigger than cockroaches. Is that how you want to die—choking on smoke while you grub under rocks or fight over roots for something to eat?"

Keene answered woodenly. "I said, I haven’t had time to think much about it. "You do what you can do, and that’s it. What’s your solution—find a friend in Congress who’ll cut you a better deal? That won’t work this time, Herbert."

"There is one place where at least the semblance of civilized life will be able to continue," Voler said. "I tried to be realistic about it the other night, but the minds involved weren’t capable of grasping what is necessitated. You’re not like them, Keene. You understand reality too, even if we have seen it from different sides in the past."

Even now, Voler could consider himself among the rare few able to perceive reality—after he had been blocking it out for years? Again, Keene found himself listening to a distortion that he couldn’t quite believe. The psychology at work was indeed fascinating. "Are you talking about Kronia?" he asked.

"Of course I am. Look, the only people who are going to survive this with any chance of a life worthy of the word, and perhaps raise a generation with a hope for any kind of future, will be the ones who can make it there. And the only means of getting there is the one that’s in orbit over our heads right now." Keene was already staring incredulously. Voler raised a hand before he could say anything. "I admit that the suggestion of using coercive measures to gain the cooperation of the Kronians was imprudent and hasty. There’s no need for anything so drastic. We can make a bargain with them that would be in their own best interests. Their ship has space available. We can offer knowledge and abilities invaluable to their colony, as well as other material resources that they’ll probably never get the chance to see again. All it would need is a competent mediator whom the Kronians know and trust. Someone such as yourself, for example. . . . You see my point."

Keene did, quite clearly. Voler unable to conceive a situation that was beyond his ability to manipulate. He actually believed he could induce Keene to bargain a passage on the Osiris for himself and his friends. Keene remembered the military and intelligence people who had seemed close to Voler at the White House meeting. He was beginning to think that he had a good idea where the idea of sending a boarding party up to the Osiris had come from.

Keene looked as if he were experiencing a bad taste. "Even supposing that they offered me a place, what makes you think I’d want to take you along?" he asked.

Voler licked his lips. "Let’s not allow past personal animosities to affect things at a time like this," he said. "I don’t have to remind you that I possess powerful connections who would be permanently in your debt as a consequence. The future position that you could expect to enjoy in the new setting could be, shall we say, very advantageous."

New setting?

So that was it. Voler had given himself away. Already, he was talking about not merely getting to Kronia as a refugees but aspiring to running things there. Keene could guess the nature of some of the friends who would be on the list. He shook his head and smiled, managing to enjoy the moment despite the circumstances.

"No deal, Herbert. You don’t seem to understand, your kind of influence doesn’t count anymore. Kronia doesn’t need friends like yours. They don’t have anything to offer that’s wanted there. I guess you’d better go home and start boarding up the windows of that mansion of yours."

With that, he turned and left the room.

#

Ten minutes later, Keene was staring down at the morning commuter traffic filling the Beltway. News announcers were describing widespread radio interference and attributing it to Athena’s tail fanning out wider than had been expected. There was some risk of meteorite showers, and emergency services were being ordered to take precautionary measures accordingly.

 
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