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By Ben Bova
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 1981 Ben Bova
All rights reserved.
Professor Ramsey McDermott leaned back in his creaking old leather chair and idly looked out his office window. The Yard was the same as it had been since the first day he had seen it, almost half a century ago. Trees bright in their October colors, students hurrying along the cement paths toward their classrooms, or dawdling on the grass in little groups of two or three, deep in earnest conversations.
A soft knock on his door snapped him out of his comfortable reverie. It's her, he thought.
As gruffly as he could, he called, "Come in!"
Jo Camerata stepped into the musty little office. I didn't realize she'd be so attractive, McDermott mused to himself. No wonder she's getting away with murder.
Jo was tall, with the dark, lustrous hair and ripe figure of a Mediterranean beauty. She wore the student's inevitable jeans and sweater, but they clung to her in a way that sent a surge through McDermott's blood. Her eyes were deep and midnight black, but wary, uncertain, like a trapped animal's.
McDermott smiled to himself.
"Put your books down and take a seat," he commanded. There! That'll convince her she's in for a long, tough grilling.
Jo sat in the straight-backed chair in front of his desk and held the books on her lap, as if they could defend her. Looking at her, so young, so luscious, McDermott realized that his office was gray with dust, littered with piles of old papers and stacks of books, heavy with decades worth of stale pipe smoke.
He leaned forward slightly in his chair. "I hear you've become quite a stranger to your classes these days."
Her eyes widened. "Dr. Thompson said it was all right ..."
"He did, did he?"
"I've been helping him at the observatory — with the new signals they've picked up."
"And flunking out of every class you're in," McDermott groused.
"I can't be in two places at the same time," she pleaded. "Dr. Thompson asked me to help him."
"I'm sure he did." McDermott picked a pipe from the rack, toyed with it, enjoyed the way her frightened eyes followed every move his hands made.
"You've been helping Dr. Stoner, too, haven't you?"
"Dr. Stoner?" She looked away from him, toward the window. "No ... not really. I'm working for Dr. Thompson."
McDermott felt a flush of heat go through him at the way the sweater pulled across her breasts, the helpless look in her eyes.
"You did some typing for Stoner. Don't try to deny it."
"Oh ... yes, I did."
"What was it?" he demanded. "What's he written?"
"I don't know. I just typed it, I didn't read it. Not in detail."
Jabbing the pipe at her, "Don't try to play games with me, young lady. You're on the verge of being thrown out of this university. What did Stoner want typed?"
"It's ... it's a paper. A scientific paper. For publication in a journal."
"I don't know. He didn't say."
McDermott leaned back, and the old leather chair groaned under his weight. "A paper about the radio signals?"
"And this object he's discovered?"
"That was in the paper, yes."
For a long moment McDermott said nothing. He sat back in the old leather chair, calmly stripping Jo with his eyes. Enjoying the fact that she obviously knew what he was thinking, but there was nothing she could do about it.
Finally he asked, "And what else have you done for Stoner?"
He pulled his face into its most threatening frown and growled, "Didn't you ask one of the secretaries in this department about making a hotel reservation in Washington?"
Jo shook her head. "That was only for Dr. Stoner. Himself. Not for me."
"Then you have done something else for Stoner, haven't you?"
"I thought you meant typing ... mailing ..."
"What about this Washington trip?"
"I don't understand what that's got to do with my status as a student, Professor."
He snarled back, "You don't have to understand, Miss Camerata. All you need to know is that I can toss you out on your pretty little rump if you don't answer my questions completely and honestly. Instead of getting your degree next June you'll be waiting on tables in some greasy spoon restaurant." He hesitated, leaned back, smiling. "Or maybe dancing at a topless joint. You'd be better qualified for that."
She glared at him, but answered sullenly, "Dr. Stoner is going down to Washington Sunday night. He has an appointment to see his former boss at NASA Headquarters on Monday morning. He wants to take his paper about the new discovery with him."
"He does, does he?" McDermott rumbled. It was just what he'd feared: Stoner was trying an end run. The ungrateful bastard. "Well, we shall see about that!"
He reached for the phone, picked the receiver off its cradle. "You can go," he said to Jo.
She blinked, surprised. "Am I still ... you're not going to flunk me out?"
"I ought to," he growled. "But as long as Thompson vouches for you, I'll be lenient. Providing you can pass the finals."
She nodded and quickly got to her feet. As she headed for the door, McDermott added, "But you just keep away from that man Stoner."
"Yes, sir," she said obediently.
As soon as the door closed behind her, McDermott started dialing the special number in Washington that he kept taped under the phone's receiver.CHAPTER 2
Jo drove straight to the observatory. Out through the narrow, traffic-clogged streets of Cambridge, past Lexington's Battle Green, past the bridge at Concord, out into the apple valleys and rolling hills bursting with colorful autumn foliage, her mind seething:
That slimy old bastard is going to hurt Dr. Stoner. I've got to warn him. I've got to warn him now.
But Stoner was not in his office when Jo got to the observatory. The little cubicle on the second floor of the observatory building was as neat and precisely arranged as an equation, but he wasn't in it.
Jo saw a stack of photographs carefully placed in the center of Stoner's otherwise bare desk. They were face down, and the back of the topmost photo bore the blue-stamped legend: PROPERTY OF NATIONAL AERONAUTICAL AND SPACE AGENCY — NOT TO BE RELEASED WITHOUT OFFICIAL WRITTEN APPROVAL.
She turned the pictures over, one after another. The paper was stiff, heavy, very expensive. The photographs showed views of a fat, flattened ball striped by gaudy bands of color: red, yellow, ocher, white. An oblong oval of brick red glowed down in the lower quadrant of the sphere.
The planet Jupiter.
Jo thumbed through all two dozen photographs. All of Jupiter. On some, two or three of the giant planet's moons could be seen: tiny specks compared to Jupiter's immense bulk.
She glanced at her Timex wristwatch. No way to get back in time for her first afternoon class. With a resigned shrug, she went to the window and separated the blinds enough to look out.
He was on the back parking lot, doing his karate exercises. Jo watched as he stood rigidly straight, his dark face somber and tight-lipped, his big hands bunched into fists just below the black belt that he was so proud of. For a moment he did nothing, merely stared blankly ahead, a tall, powerful man with jet black hair and brooding gray eyes, flat midsection and long, slim, athlete's legs.
Then he was all motion and fury, arms slashing and legs kicking in an intricate deadly pattern. It was like ballet almost, but violent, powerful, urgent.
Not a sound came from him as he swirled down the length of the blacktopped lot. Then he stopped just as suddenly as he had started, arms upraised and knees flexed in an alert defensive posture. He straightened slowly, let his arms drop to his sides.
She was afraid for a moment that he would glance up and see her at his office window, watching him. But he turned his back to the building, drew himself together and began another series of violent karate actions, kicking, slashing, punching the empty air all the way back to the far end of the parking lot.
Jo pulled herself away from the window. If she hurried, she knew she could make the last class of the afternoon. But she had to talk to him, tell him about Professor McDermott's strange interest in his trip to Washington. That was more important than the class.
Briefly she thought about putting a note atop the pile of photos on his desk. But she decided against it. She would wait for him, wait while he showered and changed back into his regular clothes and came back to his office. She would miss the late class, but that didn't matter. Seeing him was more important.
Not that he cared. She was just another one of the anonymous students who fetched and carried for the famous Dr. Stoner, the former astronaut who now worked at the observatory, alone, aloof, handsome and mysterious.
But he will care, Jo promised herself. He'll notice me. I'll make him notice me.
Keith Stoner let his shoulders slump and his arms hang wearily at his sides. He was covered with a fine sheen of sweat; it beaded along his brows and dripped, stinging, into his eyes. But the cool afternoon breeze would soon chill him, he knew, if he didn't get indoors quickly.
It hadn't worked. Nothing works anymore, he thought bitterly. Tae kwon do is a mental discipline even more than a physical one. It should help him to reach inner calm and self-control. But all Stoner felt was a burning anger, a hot, unrelenting rage that smoldered in his guts.
It's all finished, he told himself for the thousandth time. Everything's gone.
He pulled himself together, took the "ready" stance and heard his old Korean instructor hissing at him, "Focus. Focus! Speed you have. Strength you have. But you must learn to focus your concentration. Focus!"
He tried to blank out his mind, but in the darkness behind his closed eyes he saw the orbiting telescope gleaming, glittering in the harsh sunlight of space, a fantastic jewelwork of shining metal and sparkling mirrors floating against the eternal black of infinity. And scattered around it, like acolytes serving some giant silver idol, were tiny men in space suits.
Stoner had been one of those men.
Ex-astronaut, he thought grimly. Ex-astrophysicist. With an ex-marriage and an ex-family. Part of the team that had designed and built Big Eye, the orbiting telescope. Stuck now in a backwater radio observatory, alone, getting a paycheck that's more charity than salary.
But I'll show them. I'll show them all! He knew he was on to something big. So big that it would have frightened him if he weren't so determined to startle the whole world with his discovery.
But he was startled himself when the big antenna started to move. The grinding, squealing noise made him look across the empty lot to the sixty-foot "dish" of the radio telescope. It was turning slowly, painfully, like an arthritic old man trying to turn his head, to point itself toward the distant wooded hills.
They should have scrapped this antique long ago, Stoner thought as he watched the radio telescope antenna inch groaningly along. Just like they've scrapped me.
The antenna was a big spiderwork of steel frame and metal mesh, a thin shallow circular bowl, like a giant's soap dish. It had been pointing high up in the sky overhead, drinking in the radio waves emitted by unthinkably distant star clouds.
Stoner frowned at the radio dish. Somehow, it bothered him to realize that the radio telescope worked just as well in daylight as at night. It worked in rain or fog. The only thing that bothered the radio telescope was an accumulation of snow across its broad, shallow bowl. The bigger, more modern telescopes were housed in neat geodesic domes that protected them from snow. This old-timer wasn't worth the cost of a protective dome. The staff technicians went out and swept the snow off with brooms.
But this old dish has picked up something that none of the newer telescopes has found, Stoner said to himself. When the rest of them find out, they'll hock their left testicles to get in on the game.
He looked up into the bright, cloudless October sky. Autumn was being kind to Massachusetts. No hurricanes so far. The trees were in splendid color — blazing reds, glowing oranges, browns and golden yellows, with clumps of dark green pine and spruce scattered across the gentle hills.
But above the crest of the wooded ridge, invisible to human eyes in the crisp blue afternoon sky, the planet Jupiter was rising.
And the radio telescope was pointing straight at it.
Stoner shuddered and headed back inside the observatory. He did not notice the unmarked black Plymouth sitting in the tiny visitors' parking section out in front of the building. Nor the two grim-faced men in conservative gray business suits sitting inside the car.
Showered and back in his open-neck shirt, slacks and sweater, Stoner looked over the main room of the observatory, a slight frown of distaste on his face.
An astronomical observatory should look shadowy, sepulchral, like a domed cathedral with a huge optical telescope slanting upward toward the heavens. Men should speak in awed whispers. There ought to be echoes and worshipful footsteps clicking on a solid cement floor.
The radio observatory looked like the bargain basement of an electronics hobby shop and bustled like an old-fashioned newspaper city room. Desks were jammed together in the middle of the room. Papers scattered everywhere, even across the floor. Electronics consoles tall as refrigerators lined all the walls, humming and whirring to themselves. Men and women, all younger than Stoner, yelled back and forth. The room vibrated at sixty cycles per second and smelled faintly of solder and machine oil.
They were almost all students, Stoner knew. Graduate students, even some post-docs. But the regular staff itself was little more than thirty years old. Old McDermott was the nominal head of the observatory, chairman of the department and all that. The real day-to-day boss was Jeff Thompson, who was waving to Stoner from the far side of the island of desks set in the sea of paper.
"Want to hear it?" Thompson called.
Stoner nodded and started around the desks.
"Dr. Stoner," one of the women students said to him, reaching for his arm. "Can I talk to you for a minute? Professor ..."
"Not now," Stoner said, hardly glancing at her.
Thompson was a sandy-haired middleweight with the pleasant, undistinguished features of the kid next door. An assistant professor at the university, he was nearly Stoner's age, the "grand old man" of the regular observatory staff.
"It's coming through loud and clear," Thompson said as Stoner approached him. With a relaxed grin he reached across the nearest desk and pulled a battered old set of earphones from under a heap of papers.
"We hardly ever use these," he said. "But I thought you'd like to actually listen to what we're getting."
Stoner accepted the headphones from Thompson and walked with him to the humming consoles along the wall. Thompson held the wires leading from the earphones in one hand. We must look like a man walking his dog, Stoner thought.
Thompson plugged the wire lead into a jack on the console and nodded to Stoner, who slipped the earphones over his head. They were thick with heavy padding.
All the noise of the bustling room was cut off. Thompson's mouth moved but Stoner couldn't hear what he was saying.
"Nothing," Stoner told him, hearing his own voice inside his head, as if he were stuffed up with a sinus cold. "Nothing's coming through."
Thompson nodded and clicked a few switches on the console. Stoner heard a whirring screech that quickly rose in pitch until it soared beyond the range of human hearing. Then the low hissing, scratching electronic static of the steady sky background noise — the sound of endless billions of stars and clouds of interstellar gases all mingled together.
He began to shake his head when it finally came through: a deep rumbling bass note, barely a whisper but unmistakably different from the background noise. Stoner nodded and Thompson turned a dial on the console ever so slightly.
The heavy sound grew slightly louder, then faded away. In a split second it returned, then faded again. Stoner stood in the middle of the silenced hubbub of the busy room, listening to the pulses of energy throbbing in his ears like the deep, slow breathing of a slumbering giant.
He closed his eyes and saw the giant — the planet Jupiter.
Excerpted from Voyagers by Ben Bova. Copyright © 1981 Ben Bova. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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