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In the Ocean of Night
By Gregory Benford
Warner AspectCopyright © 1977 Abbenford Associates
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHe found the flying mountain by its shadow.
Ahead the sun was dimmed by a swirling film of dust, and Nigel first saw Icarus at the tip of a lancing finger of shadow in the clouds.
"The core is here," he said over the radio. "It's solid."
"You're sure?" Len replied. His voice, filtered by sputtering radio noise, was thin and distant, though the Dragon module waited only a thousand kilometers away.
"Yes. Something bloody big is casting a shadow through the dust and coma."
"Let me talk to Houston. Back in a sec, boy-o."
A humming blunted the silence. Nigel's mouth felt soft, full of cotton: the thick-tongued sensation of mingled fear and excitement. He nudged his module toward the cone of shadow that pointed directly ahead, sunward, and adjusted attitude control. A pebble rattled against the after section.
He entered the cone of shadow. The sun paled and then flickered as, ahead, a growing dot passed across its face. Nigel drifted, awash in yellow. Corona streamed and shimmered around a hard nugget of black: Icarus. He was the first man to see the asteroid in over two years. To observers on Earth its newborn cloak of thick dust and gas hid this solid center.
"Nigel," Len said quickly, "how fast are you closing?"
"Hard to say." Thenugget had grown to the size of a nickel held at arm's length. "I'm moving to the side, out of the shadow, just in case it comes up too fast." Two stones rapped hollowly on the hull; the dust seemed thicker here, random fragments bled from Icarus to make the Flare Tail.
"Yeah, Houston just suggested that. Any magnetic field reading?"
"Not-wait, I've just picked up some. Maybe, oh, a tenth of a gauss."
"Uh oh. I'd better tell them."
"Right." His stomach clenched slightly. Here we go, he thought.
The black coin grew; he slipped the module further away from the edge of the disk, for safety margin. A quick burst of the steering jets slowed him. He studied the irregular rim of Icarus through the small telescope, but the blazing white sun washed out any detail. He felt his heart thumping sluggishly in the closeness of his suit.
A click, some static. "This is Dave Fowles at Houston, Nigel, patching through Dragon. Congratulations on your visual acquisition. We want to verify this magnetic field strength-can you transmit the automatic log?"
"Roger," Nigel said. Conversations with Houston lagged; the time delay was several seconds, even at the light-speed of radio waves. He flipped switches; there was a sharp beep. "Done."
The edge of the disk rushed at him. "I'm going around it, Len. Might lose you for a while."
He swept over the sharp twilight line and into full sunlight. Below was a burnt cinder of a world. Small bumps and shallow valleys threw low shadows and everywhere the rock was a brownish black. Its highly elliptical orbit had grilled Icarus as though on a spit, taking it yearly twice as close to the sun as Mercury.
Nigel matched velocities with the tumbling rock and activated a series of automatic experiments. Panel lights winked and a low rhythm of activity sounded through the cramped cabin. Icarus turned slowly in the arc light-white sun, looking bleak and rough ... and not at all like the bearer of death to millions of people.
"Can you hear me, Nigel?" Len said.
"I'm out of your radio shadow now. What's she look like?"
"Stony, maybe some nickel-iron. No signs of snow or conglomerate structures."
"No wonder, it's been baked for billions of years."
"Then where did the cometary tail come from? Why the Flare?"
"An outcropping of ice got exposed, or maybe a vent opened to the surface-you know what they told us. Whatever the stuff was, maybe it's all been evaporated by now. Been two years, that should be enough."
"Looks like it's rotating-ummm, let me check-about every two hours."
"Uh huh," Len said. "That cinches it."
"Anything less than solid rock couldn't support that much centrifugal force, right?"
"That's what they say. Maybe Icarus is the nucleus of a used-up comet and maybe not-it's rock, and that's all we care about right now."
Nigel's mouth tasted bitter; he drank some water, sloshing it between his teeth.
"It's knocking on one kilometer across, roughly spherical, not much surface detail," he said slowly. "No clear cratering, but there are some shallow circular depressions. I don't know, it could be that the cycle of heating and cooling as it passes near the sun is an effective erosion mechanism."
He said all this automatically, trying to ignore the slight depression he felt. Nigel had hoped Icarus would turn out to be an icy conglomerate instead of a rock, even though he knew the indirect evidence was heavily against it. Along with a few of the astrophysicists, he hoped the Flare Tail of 2017-a bright orange coma twenty million miles long that twisted and danced and lit the night sky of Earth for three months-had signaled the end of Icarus. No telescope, including the orbiting Skylab X tube, had been able to penetrate the cloud of dust and gas that billowed out and obscured the spot where the asteroid Icarus had been. One school of thought held that a rocky shell had been eroded by the eternal fine spray of particles from the sun-the solar wind-and a remaining core of ice had suddenly boiled away, making the Flare Tail. Thus, no core remained. But a majority of astronomers felt it unlikely that ice should be at the center of Icarus; probably, most of the rocky asteroid was left somewhere in the dust cloud.
NASA hoped the controversy would stimulate funding for an Icarus flyby. The Agency, ever press-conscious, needed support. It had come a long way from the dark days of 1986, when the explosion of the Challenger had begun a fundamental shift in Agency thinking. NASA went on to develop the transats-trans-atmospheric rocket-airplane combinations that flew a good piece of the way to the upper atmosphere, then boosted into orbit on rocket thrust-but it had been badly mauled. As soon as it could, it edged away from the milk-run, commercial and military business of carrying tonnage into orbit. NASA was trying to become a primarily scientific agency now.
Icarus seemed a pleasantly distant spectacle. Its sudden, bright, fan-shaped coma was larger and prettier than Halley's Comet's rather disappointing apparition in 1985. The Los Angeles Times dubbed it "the instant comet." People could see it, even through suburban smog. It made news.
But in the winter of 2017, the question of Icarus's composition became more than a passing, academic point. The jet of gas spurting from the head of what was now Comet Icarus seemed to have deflected it. The dust cloud was moving sidewise slightly as it followed Icarus's old orbit, and it was natural to assume that if a core remained, it was somewhere near the center of the drifting cloud. The deflection was slight. Precise measurements were difficult and some uncertainty remained. But it was clear that by mid-2019 the center of the cloud and whatever remained of Icarus would collide with the Earth.
"Len, how's it look from your end?" Nigel said.
"Pretty dull. Can't see much for the dust. The sun's a kind of watery color looking through the cloud. I'm off to the side pretty far, to separate your radio and radar image from the sun's."
"Where am I?"
"Right on the money, in the center of the dust. On your way to Bengal."
"Yeah. Hey-getting a relay from Houston for you." A moment's humming silence as the black pitted world turned beneath him. Nigel wondered whether it was made of the original ancient material that formed the solar system, as the astrophysicists said, or the center of a shattered planet, as the popular media trumpeted. He had hoped it would be a snowball of methane and water ice that would break up when it hit Earth's atmosphere-perhaps filling the sky with blue and orange jets of light and spreading an aurora around the globe, but doing no damage. He stared down at the cinder world that had betrayed his hopes by being so substantial, so deadly. The automatic cameras clicked methodically, mapping its random bumps and depressions; the cabin smelled of hot metal and the sour tang of sweat. No leisurely strolling and hole-boring expeditions with Len, now; no measurements; no samples to chip away; no time.
"Dave again, Nigel. Those magnetic field strengths sew it up, boy-it's nickel-iron, probably eighty percent pure or better. From the dimensions we calculate the rock masses around four billion kilograms."
"Len's radar fixes have helped us narrow down the orbit, too. That ball of rock you're looking at is coming down in the middle of India, just like we thought. I-"
"You want us to go into the retail poultry business," Nigel said.
"Yeah. Deliver the Egg."
Nigel lit a panel of systems monitors. "Bringing the Egg out of powered-down operation," he said mechanically, watching the lights sequence.
"Good luck, boy," Len broke in. "Better look for a place to plant it. We've got plenty of time. Holler if you need help," he said, even though they both knew full well he could not bring the Dragon module into the cloud without temporarily losing most communications with Houston.
Nigel passed an hour in the time-filling tasks of awakening the fifty-megaton fusion device that rode a few yards behind his cabin. He repeated the jargon-redundancy checks, safe-arm mode, profile verification-without taking his attention fully from the charred expanse below. Toward the end of the time he caught sight of what he had anticipated: a jagged cleft at the dawn edge of Icarus.
"I think I've found the vent," he called. "About as long as a soccer field, perhaps ten meters wide in places."
"A fracture?" Len said. "Maybe the thing's coming apart."
"Could be. It will be interesting to see if there are more, and whether they form a pattern."
"How deep is it?"
"I can't tell yet; the bottom is in shadow now."
"If you have the time-wait, Houston wants to patch through to you again."
A pause, then: "We've been very happy with the relayed telemetry from you, Nigel. Looks to us here in Control as though the Egg is ready to fly."
"Has to be hatched before it can fly."
"Right, boy, got me on that one," Dave said with sudden exuberant levity.
A pause, then Dave's tones became rounded, modulated. "You know, I wish you could see the Three-D coverage of the crowds around the installation here, Nigel. Traffic is blocked for a twenty-kilometer radius. There are people everywhere. I think this has caught the imagination of all humanity, Nigel, a noble attempt-"
He wondered if Dave knew how all this sounded. Well, the man probably did; every astronaut a member of Actor's Equity.
He grimaced when, a moment later, the smooth voice described the sweaty press of bodies around NASA Houston, the heat strokes suffered and babies delivered in the waiting crowds, the roiling prayer chains of New Sons, their nighttime vigils around bonfires of licking, oily flames. The man was good, no possible qualm over that; the millions of eavesdroppers thought they were listening to the straight stuff, an open line between Houston and Icarus meant for serious business, when in fact the conversation at Dave's end was elaborately staged and mannered.
"Anybody you'd like to talk to back here on Earth, Nigel, while you're taking your break?"
He replied that no, there was no one, he wanted to watch Icarus as it turned, study the vent. While, simultaneously, he saw in his mind's eye his parents in their cluttered apartment, wanted to speak to them, felt the halting, ineffectual way he had tried to explain to them why he was doing this thing.
They still lived in that dear dead world where space equaled research equaled dispassionate truth. They knew he had trained for programs that never materialized. He'd put in time in orbit as a glorified mechanic, and that had seemed quite all right.
But this. They couldn't understand how he'd come to take a mission which promised nothing but the chance to plant a bomb if he succeeded, and death if he failed. A scrambled, jury-rigged, balls-up of a mission with sixty percent chance of failure; so the systems analysts said.
They had emigrated from England, following their son when he was selected for the US-European program, hard on his final year at Cambridge. As an all-purpose scientist he'd seemed trainable, in good condition (squash, soccer, amateur pilot) agreeable, docile (after all, he was British, happy to have any sort of career at all) and presentable. When he showed superior reflexes, did well in flight training and was accepted into the aborted Mars program, his parents felt vindicated, their sacrifices redeemed.
He would lead in the new era of moon exploration, they thought. Justify their flight from a sleepy, comfy England into this technicolor technocrat's circus.
So when the Icarus thing came, they'd asked: Why risk his Cambridge years, his astronautics, in the high vacuum between Venus and Earth?
And he'd said-?
Nothing, really. He had sat in their Boston rocker, pumping impatiently, and spoken of work, plans, relatives, the Second Depression, politics. Of their arguments he remembered little, only the blurred cadences of their voices. In memory his parents blended together into one person, one slow Suffolk accent he recalled as filling his adolescence. His own voice could never slide into those smooth vowels; he could never be them. They were a separate entity and, no matter that he was their son, he was beyond some unspoken perimeter they drew in their lives. Within that curve was certainty, clear forms. Their living room had pockets of air in it, spots smelling of sweet tea or musty bindings or potted flowers, things more substantial than his words. There in their damp old house his jittery, crowded world fell away and he, too, found it difficult to believe in the masses of people who jammed into the cities, fouling the world and blunting, spongelike, the best that anyone could do or plan for them.
There was precious little money for research, for new ideas, for dreams. But his parents did not sense that fact. His father shook his head a millimeter to each side, listening as Nigel talked, the older man probably not aware that he gave away his reaction. When Nigel was through describing the Icarus mission plan, his father had cast one of those unreadable looks at his mother and then very calmly advised Nigel to sign off the mission, to wait for something better. Surely something would come along. Surely, yes. From inside their perimeter they saw it very clearly. He had given them no daughter-in-law as yet, no grandchildren, had spent little time at home these past years. All this hovered unspoken behind his father's millimeter swaying, and Nigel promised himself that when Icarus was over and done he would see more of them.
His father, obviously well read up on the matter, mentioned the unmanned backup missions.
Excerpted from In the Ocean of Night by Gregory Benford Copyright © 1977 by Abbenford Associates. Excerpted by permission.
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