Authors: Bill Napier
Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #General
“I guess I’ll look into that,” said Sacheverell. “Sounds like a big computing job and we have the hardware at the Sorel.”
“Agreed?” Noordhof asked Webb, who nodded. The issue had already been raked over by experts; Sacheverell couldn’t do much harm channelled into that one.
“Item Two. Say we detect the asteroid on the way in. What can we do about it?”
“That’s a solved problem,” said McNally. “NASA looked into this on instructions from Congress some years back, when it was all a theoretical exercise. Anything we do will involve getting up there and zapping it.”
“Now hold on, zap it how?” Shafer asked sharply.
“With nukes, of course.” McNally looked bewildered.
“I’ve seen that stuff, and the Livermore Planet Defense Workshop, and the Air Force 2025 study. Theoretical’s the word. What do you think you’ll be zapping, Dr. McNally, shaving foam or a giant nickel-iron crystal? Hit it with nukes and you might wipe us out with a spray of boulders. We have to divert the thing without busting it up. How do you propose to do that without knowing its internal constitution?”
“It was only a suggestion,” McNally complained.
“Willy, Jim, liaise on the problem of how to handle the
asteroid if we do find it. I’ll fix access to classified Lawrence Livermore reports as well as the public domain one. That leaves Item Three: where is this thing? Opinions, anyone?”
“I can draw up a list of candidates,” Webb said, still feeling queasy, “and get them checked out. We’ll need to use wide-angle telescopes.”
“Like the UK Schmidt?” suggested Sacheverell.
“They’ve mothballed it. We need Spaceguard and supernova patrol telescopes, say fast Hewitt cameras with CCDs. The Australians have one at Coona.”
“Colonel, this is an example of the security you can expect from these guys,” said Sacheverell. “Time on these machines is more precious than gold. You can’t just break into established observing programmes, not without people shouting like hell.”
“Ever heard of service time?”
“Cool it, gentlemen,” said Noordhof. “Wait until you see what we’ve laid on.”
Sacheverell said, “Whatever you’ve laid on, Colonel, our chances of identifying this rock in five days are practically zero. Especially with Webb guiding the search.”
“Jesus frigging Christ, don’t say things like that.” Noordhof stubbed out his cigar agitatedly.
Webb said, “What especially worries me is that these things are invisible most of the time. It could come at us from sunwards, in which case the first we’ll know about it is when it hits.”
Noordhof poured water from a carafe into a tumbler and took a sip, wetting his dry lips. Tense little wrinkles lined his face as he assimilated Webb’s information. He said, “Let’s name this beast.”
“I suggest Nemesis,” Sacheverell said. “After the Greek Goddess of Destruction.” There were nods of assent.
Noordhof said, “Nemesis. Good name. I have to tell you there is no chance of identifying it by conventional intelligence-gathering techniques. It’s down to us.”
“Many orbits will be unreachable by the Russian Federation even with their Energia boosters,” said Leclerc. “Perhaps Doctor Webb and I can co-operate.”
“I have programmes at Oxford which might help,” Webb said.
Noordhof nodded curtly. “You’ll have facilities to FTP them over. Now, gentlemen, we’re heading for Arizona. We have a Gulfstream waiting for us at LaGuardia. And from now on you free spirits are firmly corralled. No wandering the streets, no phone calls, no e-mails to colleagues. Lest you think this is paranoid, consider this. If the Russian leadership learn that we know about Nemesis, they can anticipate getting nuked in retaliation. So they’ll get their strike in first, to minimize damage to themselves.”
Shafer completed the logic: “Except that, since we know they’ll be thinking that way, we’ll have to get in first.”
Noordhof nodded again. “A careless word from anyone here could trigger a nuclear war.”
They stared at each other in fright. At last Webb recognized the sour odour. It was the smell of sweat, induced not by exertion but by fear. The chairs scuffled on the wooden floor as they stood up. “Strictly,” Webb said, “Nemesis is the Goddess of Righteous Anger. Have you people upset somebody?”
The desert air was cold, the sun was setting, and a bright red Pontiac Firebird, straight out of the nineteen-seventies, was waiting for them. It had fat tyres and a front grille like twin nostrils, and flames extended from the air intakes back along the bonnet and down the sides in a wonderful expression of psychedelic art from the period. The woman leaning on the car was about thirty, small, with shoulder-length, curly, natural blonde hair. She was wearing a slightly old-fashioned dress which didn’t disguise the fact of elegant bodywork underneath. She waved cheerfully at them.
Noordhof took the driving seat, Shafer sitting next to him. Webb added his holdall to a pile of luggage in the boot and squeezed into the back beside the blonde. She was diminutive against his strong six foot one frame. Leclerc sat on the other side of her and immediately delved into a sheaf of papers.
“Judy Whaler,” she said, shaking hands. “So you’re our European astronomer.”
“What’s your field, Doctor Whaler?”
“I’m a Sandian.”
“Is that a religious cult?”
She smiled tolerantly. “Sandia National Laboratories. The Advanced Concepts Group. We’re supposed to identify threats to national security and propose countermeasures.”
Noordhof said, over his shoulder, “The rest of the team’s on site.” He eased the car on to the road. Once on Speedway
he opened the throttle and they moved throatily north on the broad street, past Mexican restaurants and cheap motels. It took about twenty minutes to cross the city and then they were clear, still heading north, and the grey Catalina Mountains were getting bigger. Paloverde cactus and little creosote bushes started at the roadside and stretched into the far distance. The sky was blue, but streaky clouds were beginning to form around the peaks, and above them was high cirrus. A four-engined jet was drawing a contrail.
In the confined space it soon became clear that Judy enjoyed bathing in cheap perfume. Her thigh was warm against Webb’s but he tried not to notice that—after all, she was a colleague. The road began to climb and twist and they passed over narrow bridges straddling deep canyons. Webb’s scrotum contracted, as it always did when he faced great heights or imminent danger. It would do a lot of contracting over the next few days.
Half an hour north of the city Shafer fell in impatiently behind a big, gleaming American truck with a vertical exhaust. The corrugated door at the back portrayed a leering, gluttonous child, with a frost-covered head, eating a Monster Headfreeze Bar. The road went steeply up the mountainside and the truck dropped gear noisily with a surge of exhaust smoke, labouring heavily. A second truck appeared on the skyline like a hostile Indian and bore down on them at alarming speed. Noordhof put his foot flat down and they sailed past with ease.
“Six point six litre V8,” Judy said, “delivering three three five bhp. The suspension’s too simple to cope with it.” The truck drivers blasted their air horns but the big Pontiac was already long past. At the top of the hill Noordhof slowed, and turned sharply off on to a stony, unpaved track. In seconds they had lost the highway and were heading steeply upwards, towards high mountains. Something momentarily glinted silver, on the summit of a high distant peak. The cactus gave way to a scattering of scrub oak and piñon pine.
After some minutes a cluster of timber houses appeared, straight out of the Wild West. A notice said
Piñon Mesa, alt. 5500 ft
. There were no signs of life.
“Survivalist community,” said Noordhof. “They’re armed to the teeth and they don’t like us. But you won’t be down here.”
The track ended at a wooden barred gate, and Noordhof kept the engine running as Webb fumbled with a padlock, feeling exposed. The buzz of a chainsaw came from the woods beyond, but he saw nothing through the trees. Then the real climb got under way, and the engine started to labour in earnest, and the air got colder, and Judy’s thigh got warmer, and the scrub oak gave way to juniper pine, and then the juniper gave way to big, heavy ponderosa. Through the trees Webb caught glimpses of the setting sun to the left, and tiny bugs crawling along a ribbon cutting through the desert. The Firebird’s suspension coped well with the potholes, but the heating didn’t seem to work.
Higher still, and the branches were covered with thin, freshly fallen snow, and they were following the tracks of some vehicle which had gone before.
They ran into cloud from below, and for the next fifteen minutes were enveloped in a light freezing mist, visibility about fifty yards, as the car continued to toil upwards. Finally the road began to level, the tops of buildings appeared over the trees and then the car was round a last hairpin bend and driving past the buildings into a paved car park at the side. Noordhof turned to them. “Eagle Peak. I’m told nobody ever comes here in the winter apart from astronomers and the odd black bear. But I still want you people sticking close to the Observatory. No wandering the hills.”
“Why haven’t you fenced it off, Colonel?” Shafer asked.
“Just in case some stray backpacker comes by. Guards and fences going up round a civilian building might draw attention. Our best protection is the semblance of normality.”
They climbed out, stiff, breaths misting. The air was fresh
and pine-scented. Judy flapped her arms against her sides. To Webb, the combination of hairstyle and dress made her look like a resistance heroine from a World War Two movie. He stretched and walked round to the front, curious to explore his new surroundings. The snow was powdery underfoot and Shafer was having problems assembling a snowball. Noordhof piled their luggage out on to the tarmac.
A small, wiry man, with a neat grey beard, appeared at the front door. “Doctor Webb,” he said, stretching his hand. “Heard you in Versailles last year. Delighted to meet you at last. And I’ve read a fair number of your papers, of course. I feel as if I know you.” So this was Kenneth Kowalski. His Polish origins were obvious in his polite manner and his slightly clipped accent: second-generation American. Webb knew Kowalski’s reputation. Amongst observers, he was highly regarded, a careful stargazer who had transformed Eagle Peak from a dilapidated museum piece into a respected scientific tool. It didn’t have the world-class clout of Gemini at Cerro Pachon or the huge Keck ten-metre on Hawaii; but for rapid sky coverage, which is what the problem called for, it had these monsters licked. “We must talk about your work on the revised steady state theory after this is over. Of course you’re wrong. It’s an observed fact that the Universe is different at high redshift.”
Webb returned the grin and bowed. “All right-thinking people agree with you. So, this is the famous Eagle Peak Observatory?”
“You’re just at Base Camp,” Kowalski said. “The telescopes are much higher up.” He pointed to a squat grey building fifty yards away, and just visible in the mist. Through its windows Webb could see a small silver cable car. A thin cable stretched up from the roof of the building like a giant metal beanstalk, disappearing into the grey mist overhead. He looked at the tinny death trap apprehensively before realizing that, as a theoretician, he would have no reason to go up in it.
He smiled in relief and said, “Eagle Peak is a private benefaction?”
“Yes, it was a gift to the nation from the Preston dynasty in the thirties. It was modernized a few years ago with NSF funding. We were swarming with Air Force personnel yesterday, putting in extras for our visitors.”
Leclerc and Whaler joined them, and they made for the building. Sculpted in red sandstone over the outer door was a circularly coiled snake swallowing its own tail: the Pythagorean symbol of perfection and eternity. Inside, separating the atrium from the inner sanctum, was a double swing door made of glass framed in mahogany; each partition had the zodiacal signs engraved on it, six on each, in two columns. Through these doors and into the building proper, the warm air enveloped Webb like a hot bath towel. Kowalski led the way along a corridor lined with framed NASA photographs. Two doors led off to the left, and both were open.
The first of these revealed a large square kitchen with a long, cluttered farmhouse table. Then there was the common room, airy and spacious, with a panoramic window and a view of fog. In this room was a snooker table, and armchairs, and a bookcase full of paperbacks, and a coffee table with magazines and bowls of fresh fruit and sweets. Sacheverell and McNally were head to head in an animated discussion. As Judy passed the open door Sacheverell stopped in mid-conversation, adopted an angelic smile and said, “Well hi there,” and Webb hoped Nemesis would smash through the roof and turn Sacheverell into a red pulp.
The end of the corridor led into an open, glass-fronted area from which further doors led off. One led back into the common room. Kowalski pointed to a red door opposite it. “The nerve centre,” he said. “Later.”
Straight ahead of them was a flight of stairs, covered with a deep-piled blue carpet, so as not to disturb night observers sleeping by day. They went up these and found themselves in a long corridor. “The four rooms at the end are taken. If
you like a desert view, take One or Two. If you like to look at mountains, take Seven or Eight.” The nearest door handle to Webb was attached to Number One and he took it. Leclerc took Number Two, while Judy Whaler presumably liked mountains and headed for Room Eight, directly opposite Webb’s.
The room had a log cabin feel to it and smelled of new pinewood although, again, a thick pile carpet covered the floor. A red, bloated sun was beginning to penetrate the fog.
Alone at last, Webb flopped on to the bed and tried to take stock:
(a) He’d been whisked off a remote Scottish mountain,
(b) told a tale of imminent Armageddon,
(c) transported to Iceland in a giant helicopter, in a blizzard,
(d) been flown over the roof of the world thence down almost to Mexico, and