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 NASAs Earth-orbiting missions and space-based observatories
since its inception, and later assumed the coordinating role for all the agencys
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. "Its going to
come closemaybe 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 cometsI mean, totally. What
were in for is going to be big."
"You mean more than just meteorite storms and big dust
infusions?" Keefe said. "Thats a piece of Jupiter coming at us. Weve
never known whats 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 Earths gravity well, itll be enough to obliterate
For the first time, a measure of the panic that Hixson was
struggling to control communicated itself. Perhaps the clamminess on his brow wasnt
due just to his being overweight. "What kind of regions?" Keene asked.
"Lets 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 its not just the impacts that you have to worry
about. Athena carried away parts of Jupiters atmosphere, which make up a large part
of the tailheavy in hydrocarbon gases. Vaporized crude oil, Dr. Keene. If that
penetrates and mixes with our oxidizing atmosphere, youve 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 Hixsons office to discuss the implications
and complete his notes. Hixsons last words as Keene was about to leave were to ask
when a public announcement would be made. "I dont know," Keene replied.
"Thats 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."
"Whats going on? Anything exciting? From what Im
hearing, it sounds as if half the place has been up all night."
"Itll have to keep for now, Im afraid. What can I
do for you?"
Christie consulted a scribbled note. "Ive got a strict
instruction not to let you go. Somebody wants to talk to you."
"It doesnt say. Not someone who works here. Hes
waiting in Room 108. Ill show you the way."
Ill try and keep it brief," Keene told the pilot.
"No hurry, Doctor. The coffees pretty good here.
Sos 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.
"Ive seen it on TV recently, havent I?"
"Sometimes I lecture on the College Channel," Keene said.
"Yes, that must have been it. Wow, a real celebrity."
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
hadnt availed himself of one of the chairs while he waited. Keenes 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.
"Id phrase it the other way around," Keene replied.
"Its what weve been telling you for years happened once before. Now you
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
"Maybe so. I dont have much time to think about it just
now," Keene said.
"Of course you dont. So what are you going to do?"
"Its funny, I was just asked the same thing upstairs. I
"It should be obvious to you by now that the President has no
understanding of the scale of whats going to happen," Voler said. "None of
them do. Oh yes, theyre counting their candles and checking the first-aid boxes like
good boy scouts, but none of it is going to make a nickels worth of difference one
way or another. Its over, Dr. Keenethe 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 diechoking on smoke while you grub under rocks
or fight over roots for something to eat?"
Keene answered woodenly. "I said, I havent had time to
think much about it. "You do what you can do, and thats it. Whats your
solutionfind a friend in Congress wholl cut you a better deal? That wont
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 werent capable of grasping what is
necessitated. Youre 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 realityafter he had been blocking it out for years? Again, Keene found
himself listening to a distortion that he couldnt 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 thats 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. Theres 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 theyll 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 Id want to take you
along?" he asked.
Voler licked his lips. "Lets not allow past personal
animosities to affect things at a time like this," he said. "I dont 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."
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 dont seem to understand, your kind
of influence doesnt count anymore. Kronia doesnt need friends like yours. They
dont have anything to offer thats wanted there. I guess youd 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 Athenas 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.