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About EON

The 21st century was on the brink of nuclear confrontation when the 300 kilometer-long stone flashed out of nothingness and into Earth's orbit. NASA, NATO, and the UN sent explorers to the asteroid’s surface… and discovered marvels and mysteries to drive researchers mad.

For the Stone from space but perhaps not our space; it came from the future - but perhaps not our future; and within the hollowed asteroid was Thistledown. The remains of a vanished civilization. A human - English, Russian and Chinese- speaking - civilization. Seven vast chambers containing forests, lakes, rivers, hanging cities…

And museums describing the Death; the catastrophic war that was about to occur; the horror and the long winter that would follow. But while scientists and politicians bickered about how to use the information to stop the death, the stone yielded a secret that made even Earth’s survival pale into insignificance…

Originally published in 1985, EON stands as one of the great science fiction novels of our time and remains one of Greg's Bear's best selling titles. It is truly vast in scope. Entrants are allowed to create their work based on any part of EON, however we have selected a set of scenes, locations and events as preferred themes - this will aid people not familiar with EON.

"EON may be the best constructed hard SF epic yet."
The Washington Post

"The only word for it really is blockbuster. It is big and breathtaking; the story and the concepts are ambitious to the point of mind boggling."
Isaac Asimov's SF Magazine

We would encourage those of you who have not read EON to do so. It available in print from Amazon or as an eBook eBook for US$8.99 from http://www.ebookmall.com/
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EON
Greg Bear
First published in the USA 1985 as a Bluejay International Edition by Bluejay Books Inc
New York
First published in Great Britain 1986 by Victor Gollancz Ltd
This Vista edition published 1998
Vista is an imprint of the Cassell Group
Wellington House, 125
Strand, London we2R 0BB

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
ISBN 0 575 60266 X

The chapters below have been republished here with the permission of Greg Bear.
Copyright © 1985 by Greg Bear

Synopsis:
When an enormous asteroid enters the Earth’s orbit, the remains of a vanished human civilization are discovered within that reveal the asteroid’s futuristic origins and predict a catastrophic imminent Earth war.

Prolog

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 10

Chapter 33



Prolog:
Four Beginnings

One
Christmas Eve 2000 New York City
“It’s going into a wide elliptical Earth orbit,” Judith Hoffman said.

“Perigee about ten thousand kilometers, apogee about five hundred thousand. It’ll make a loop around the moon every third orbit.” She pulled back from the video screen to let Garry Lanier have a look from where he sat on the edge of her desk. For the time being, the Stone still resembled a baked potato, with no meaningful detail.

Outside the door to her office, the noise of the party was a distant reminder of ignored social obligations. She had brought him into the office just a few minutes before.

“That must be an incredible fluke.”

“It’s not a fluke,” Hoffman said.

Tall, with close-cut dense, black hair, Lanier resembled a pale-skinned Amerindian, though he had no Indian blood. Hoffman found his eyes particularly reassuring-gently scrutinizing, the eyes of a man used to seeing across great distances. She did not put her trust in people on the basis of looks, however.

Hoffman had taken to Lanier because he had taught her something. Some had called him bloodless, but Hoffman knew better. The man was simply competent, calm and observant. He had a kind of blindness to people’s foibles that made him peculiarly effective as a manager. He seldom seemed to recognize petty insults, bitchiness or backbiting. He saw people only in terms of their effectiveness or lack of it, at least as far as his public reactions showed; he cut through their surface dross to find the true coin beneath. She had learned some interesting things about several people by observing their reactions to Lanier. And she had adapted her own style, picking up on his finesse.

Lanier had never been in Hoffman’s at-home work area before, and now, in the video’s cool light, he inspected the shelves of memory blocks, the broad, empty desk with its basic secretary’s chair, the compact word processor beneath the video.

Like most of the party-goers, he was a little in awe of Hoffman.

On the Hill, she was called the Advisor. She had acted in official and unofficial capacities as a science expert for three presidents. Her video programs reviving and re-exploring science had been popular in the late 1990s, in a world just recovering from the shock of the Little Death. She had served on the board of directors of both the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and now ISCCOM-the International Space Cooperation Committee. Though she could not disguise her solid build, her taste in clothes was immaculate. There was a conscious limit to her style, however; her, fingernails were short and unpainted, well-manicured but not elegant, and she wore little makeup. She allowed her brunette hair to find its own shape with a minimum of interference; it tended to make a nimbus of fine curls around her head.

“You must be on the Drake Hookup,” Lanier said.

“I am, but this is a Deep Space Tracking picture. The Drale is still locked on the Perseus Gemstar.”

“They won’t turn it on the Stone?”

She shook her head, grinning wolfishly. ”Feisty old bastards are on a tight schedule-won’t turn it around even for a look at the biggest event of the twenty-first century.”

Lanier raised an eyebrow. The Stone, as far as he knew, was just an asteroid. The oblong chunk wasn’t going to hit the earth, but if it was going to orbit, it would be in perfect position for scientific probes. That was interesting, but hardly worthy of so much enthusiasm.

“Twenty-One isn’t until next month,” he reminded her.

“And that’s when we’ll be getting busy.” She turned toward him and folded her arms. ”Garry, we’ve been working together for some time now. I trust you a lot.”

He felt a tightening at the base of his spine. She had seemed tense all evening. He had dismissed the fidgeting as none of his business.

Now she was making it his business.

“What do you know about the Stone?” she asked.

He thought a moment before answering. ”DST located it eight months ago. It’s about three hundred kilometers long, a hundred kilometers across at midsection. Medium albedo, probably a silicate body with a nickel-iron core. It had a kind of halo around it when first spotted, but that’s dissipated, That made a few scientists speculate it was an exceptionally large old comet nucleus. Some conflicting reports on low density revived the old Shklovskii Mars-moon speculation.”

“Where did you hear the density reports?”

“I don’t remember.”

“That reassures me a little bit. If you haven’t heard much more than that, probably no one else has, either. DST had a leak, we’ve plugged it now.”

Lanier had entered her circle while working as a public relations manager for AT&T Orbicom Services. Before being employed by Orbicom, he had spent six years in the Navy, first as a fighter pilot, then flying high-altitude tankers. He had flown the famous Charlie Baker Delta route over Florida, Cuba and Bermuda during the Little Death, refueling the planes of the Atlantic Watch whose vigilance had played such a crucial role in limiting thee war.

After the armistice, he had received an OK from the Navy to take his expertise in aerospace engineering over to Orbicom, which was tuning up its world-wide civilian Mononet.

There had been a few calls at first to Orbicom headquarters in Menlo Park, California, then requests for help on position papers, then an abrupt and unexpected transfer to the Orbicom building in Washington, which he later learned had been engineered by Homan. There was no question of romance -how often had he quelled that rumor?-but their ability to work together was remarkable in a Washington atmosphere of perpetual partisan bickering and funding squabbles.

“Why the secrecy?” he asked.

“DST has been ordered to mask all data given to the community.”

By which she meant the scientific community.

“Why in hell should they do that? Government’s relation with the community has been awful the last few years. This certainly won’t help.”

“Yes, but I concur this time.”

Another chill. Hoffman was very dedicated to the community.

“If there’s a blanket over everything, how do you know?”

Lanier asked.

“Connections through ISCCOM. I’ve been put on oversight by the President.”

“Jesus.”

“So while our friends are partying out there, I need to know if I can rely on you.”

“Judith, I’m just a second-rank PR type.”

“Bullshit. Orbicom thinks you’re the best personnel coordinator they have. I had to wrestle Parker for three months to get you transferred to Washington. You were lined up for a promotion, know that?”

Truthfully, he had hoped to avoid another promotion. He felt he was getting away from the real work, higher and higher up the tower of power. ”And you got me transferred, instead?”

“Pulled enough strings to look like the puppet master I’m supposed to be. I may need you. You know I don’t pick candidates unless I’m sure they’ll yank my ass out of the fire later.”

He nodded. To be part of Hoffman's circle was to be groomed for importance. Until now, he had tried to overlook that as a truism.

“Do you remember the supernova sighted about the same time as the Stone?”

Lanier nodded; it had made a brief splash in the journals, and he had been too busy to find that low-profile coverage odd.

“It wasn’t a supernova. Just as bright, but it didn’t match any of the requirements. In the first place, it was first recorded by DST as an infrared object just outside the solar system. Within two days, the flare became visible, and DST detected radiation of frequencies associated with every atomic transition. The flare temperature started at a million degrees Kelvin and peaked at just over one billion degrees. By that time nuclear explosion detectors on satellites-the new GPS supervel-were picking up thermally excited gamma rays from nuclear transitions. It was clearly visible in the night sky, so DST had to make up a cover story, and that was the discovery of a supernova by space defense installations. But they didn’t know what they had.”

“And?”

“The display went out, everything got quiet and then a visual sighting was made in the same portion of the sky. It was the Stone. By that time, everybody knew they weren’t dealing with a simple asteroid.” The video pictures flickered and a chime sounded.

“Well, here it is. Joint Space Command has taken over the Drake and rotated it.”

The Drake was the most powerful orbiting optical telescope.

There were bigger instruments being built on lunar farside, but none yet in operation matched the Drake. It had no Defense Department connection. Joint Space Command legally had no jurisdiction-except in time of national security crisis.

The Stone appeared on the screen greatly enlarged and cradled in numbers and se4ence data graphs. Much more detail was evident big crater at one end of the oblong, smaller craters all over, a peculiar band running latitudinally.

“It still looks like an asteroid,” Lanier said, his voice lacking conviction.

“Indeed,” Hoffman said. ”We know the type. A very large mesosiderite. We know the composition. But it’s missing about forty percent of its mass. DST confirmed that this morning. That chunk’s profile through the center resembles a geode. Geodes don’t occur in space, Garry. The President has already accepted my recommendation that we organize an investigation. That was before the elections, but I think we can push it with the new administration-cracker-barrel mentality or not.

Just as a precaution, we’re scheduling six orbital transfer vehicle flights before the end of February. And I’m laying my bets down early. I think we’re going to need a science team, and I’d like you to coordinate for me. I’m sure we can arrange something with Orbicom.”

“But why the secrecy?”

“Why, Garry, I’m surprised.” She smiled warmly at him. “When the aliens arrive, the government always goes in for secrecy.”


Two
August, 2001
Podlipki Airfield, near Moscow

“Major Mirsky, you are not concentrating on your task.”

“My suit is leaking, Colonel Mayakovsky.”

“That is irrelevant. You can stay in the tank for another fifteen or twenty minutes.”

“Yes, Colonel.”

“Now pay attention. You must complete this maneuver.”

Mirsky blinked sweat from his eyes and strained to see the American-style docking hatch clearly. The water was already up to his knees in the pressure suit; he could feel the stream entering through the seam at his hip. There was no way of telling how copious the flow was; he hoped Mayakovsky knew.

He had been instructed to wedge the bent metal bar into the two sensor ports. To get the necessary traction to jam it home, he hooked his ankle and fight wrist to the circular lip of the hatch, using the I-shaped attachments on his boots and glove.

Then with his left hand -(how they had tried to discourage him in school in Kiev, now gone, all of his teachers and their nineteenth-century ideas; how they had tried to get him to use his right hand exclusively, until finally, in his late teens, an edict had come down officially pardoning gauche children)-Mirsky slammed the bar.

He unhooked his wrist and ankles and pushed back.

The water was up to his waist.

“Colonel-”

“The hatch will pause before opening. Three minutes.”

Mirsky bit his lip. He twisted his neck around within the helmet to see how his teammates were doing. The five lined-up hatches were manned-two men and Yefremova. Where was Orlov?

There-pushing his helmet back, Mirsky saw Orlov being hauled to the surface of the tank, three wet-suited, scuba-equipped divers assisting him to shadowy obscurity. The surface, the lovely surface, sweet air and no water streaming in. He couldn’t feel it now. The level was above his hip.

The hatch began to move. He could hear the mechanism whining.

Then it stopped, only one-third open.

“It’s stuck,” he said, stunned. He was reasonably sure the exercise was supposed to be over as soon as he could enter the hatch, and the hatch was supposed to be foolproof, it was supposed to open when properly jimmied. American word, American technology, reliable, no?

“Loosen it. Your bar is obviously not positioned properly.”

“It is!” Mirsky insisted.

“Major-”

“Yes, yes!” He jammed the heel of his heavily gloved hand against the bar again. He hadn’t hooked his ankles and right wrist; he floated away from the hatch and had to waste precious seconds reeling in his line and dragging himself back.

Hook. Pound. Unhook. No result.

Water up to his chest, cold, slopping past his neck seal into his helmet when his angle shifted. He swallowed some accidentally and choked. There. Colonel will think I’m drowning and show mercy!

“Jiggle it,” the colonel suggested.

His gloves were almost too thick to reach into the groove where the bar now resided, held in place by the partly open hatch. He pressed, his sleeves filled with cold and his fingers numbing. He pressed again.

His suit was no longer neutrally buoyant. He was starting to sink.

The bottom of the tank was thirty meters below, and all three of the divers had accompanied Orlov. There was nobody between him and drowning if he could not make it to the simulated Soviet hatch on his own power. And if he did not leave now-but he didn’t dare. He had wanted the stars since adolescence, and panicking now would put them out of his reach forever. He screamed in his helmet and slammed his glove tip into the groove, causing a sharp freezing jolt of pain to go up his arm as his fingers crammed into the inner fabric and Casing.

The hatch began to move again.

“Just jammed,” the colonel said.

“I’m drowning, goddammit!” Mirsky shouted. He hooked his wrists onto the lip of the ring and sputtered water from his mouth. The suit’s air entered and exited just above the neck ring of his helmet, and he could already hear the suck and gurgle.

Floodlights came on around the tank. The hatches were suspended in watery noon brightness. He felt hands under his arms and around his legs and saw the three other cosmonaut trainees vaguely from the corners of his foggy faceplate. They kicked away from the hatch complex and hauled him higher, higher, to his grandmother’s archaic and welcome heaven.

They sat at their special table away from the two hundred other recruits and were served fine thick sausages with their kasha. The beer was cold and plentiful, if sour and watery, and there were oranges and carrots and cabbage cores. And for dessert, a big steel bowl of fresh-made, rich vanilla ice cream, unavailable for months while they trained, was set before them by a smiling mess officer.

When dinner was over, Yefremova and Mirsky strolled across the grounds of the Cosmonaut Instructional Center with its hideous black steel water tank half-buried in the ground.

Yefremova came from Moscow and had a fine eastern slant to her eyes; Mirsky, from Kiev, could as easily have been German as Russian.

Still, coming from Kiev had its advantages.

A man without a city: this was something Russians could sympathize with, feel sad about.

They spoke very little. They thought they were in love but that was irrelevant. Yefremova was one of fourteen women in the Space Shock Troops program. Her femaleness kept her even busier than the men. She had trained as a pilot in the Air Defense Forces before that, flying Tu 22M training bombers and old Sukhoi fighters. He had come into the military after graduating from an aerospace engineering school. His deferment had been most fortunate; instead of being inducted into the army at eighteen, he had qualified for a New Reindustrialization scholarship.

In the engineering school, he had gained excellent marks in political science and leadership, and they had earmarked him immediately for the difficult position of Zampolit in a fighter squadron in East Germany, but then had transferred him to Space Defense Forces, which had only been in existence for four years. He had never heard of it before the transfer, but such a stroke of luck ... He had always wanted to be a Yefremova’s father was a high-ranking Moscow bureaucrat.

He had put her into what he thought would be a safe military training program rather than let her run wild with Moscow’s infamous Young Hooligans. She had turned out to be very capable and very bright; her future was promising, though not what her father had expected.

Their backgrounds were worlds apart, and chances were they would never even have a chance to date, much less conduct an affair or get married.

“Look,” Yefremova said. ”You can see it clearly tonight.”

“Yes?”

He knew immediately what she meant.

“There.” She leaned her head close to his and pointed above the summer’s long blue twilight to a tiny spot of light just beside the full moon.

“They will get there before we do,” Yefremova said sadly. “They always do, now.”

“So pessimistic,” Mirsky said.

“I wonder what they call it,” she said. ”What they will name it when they land.”

“Not ‘the Potato,’ surely!” Mirsky chuckled.

“No,” Yefremova agreed.

“Someday,” Mirsky said, squinting to make the Spot out more clearly.

“Someday what?”

“Perhaps the time will come when we will take it away from them.”

“Dreamer,” Yefremova said.

The next week, a two-man vacuum chamber imploded on the outskirts of the airfield. Yefremova was testing a new suit design in one half of the chamber. She was killed instantly.

There was great concern about the political repercussions of the accident, but as it turned out, her father was not unreasonable.

Better to have a martyr in the family than a hooligan.

Mirsky took an unscheduled day’s absence with a bottle of brandy smuggled in from Yugoslavia. He spent the day alone in a Moscow park and did not even open the bottle.

After a year, he finished his training and was promoted. He left Podlipki and spent two weeks in Starry Town, where he visited Yuri Gagarin’s room, now a kind of shrine for spacefarers. From there, he was flown to a secret facility in Mongolia, and then ... to the Moon.

And always he kept his eye on the Potato. Someday, he knew, he would go there, and not as an ISCCOM exchange Russian.

A nation could only stand so much.


Three
Christmas Eve 2004
Santa Barbara, California

Patricia Luisa Vasquez opened the car door to release her seat harness. She was anxious to get into the house and start the festivities. The psychological testing at Vandenberg the past few days had been exhausting.

“Wait,” Paul Loper said. He put a hand on her arm, then stared at the dashboard. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons played on the ca stereo. ”Your folks aren’t going to want to know-”

“Don’t worry about it,” she said, pulling back a strand of very dark brown, almost black, hair. The lower half of her round face was illuminated by an orange streetlight, light olive skin pink’ in the sodium glow. She regarded Paul solicitously, tying her hair into two braids parted in the middle. Her square, intense eyes reminded him of a cat’s gaze just before pouncing.

“They’ll love it,” she said, laying hand on his shoulder and stroking his cheek. ”You’re the first non-Anglo boyfriend I’ve ever introduced them to.”

“I mean, about us rooming together.”

“What they don’t know won’t hurt them.”

“I feel a little awkward. You keep talking about your parents being old-fashioned.”

“I just wanted you to meet them, and to show you my home.”

“I want that, too.”

“Listen, with the news I have tonight, nobody’s going to worry about my maidenhood. If Mom asks how serious we are, I’ll let you answer.”

Paul grimaced. ”Great.”

Patricia pulled his hand toward her and made a rude sound against the palm with her lips, then opened the door.

“Wait.”

“What now?”

“I’m not ... I mean, you know that I love you.”

“Paul ...”

“It’s just ...”

“Come on inside and meet my family. You’ll calm down. And don’t worry.”

They locked the car door and opened the trunk, pulling groceries out of the back. She huffed up the front walk with a box, her breath clouding in the cold night air. She wiped her feet on the front step mat, swung the screen door wide, caught it with her elbow and shouted, “Mama! It’s me. And I brought Paul, too.”

Rita Vasquez took the box from her daughter’s arms and laid it down on the kitchen table. At forty-five, Rita was only slightly plump, but the clothes she wore invariably conflicted with even Patricia’s rudimentary sense of fashion.

“What is this, a care package?” Rita asked. She held her arms out and folded Patricia in them.

“Mama, where did you get that polyester suit? I haven’t seen one of those in years.”

“I found it in the garage, packed away. Your father bought it for me before you were born. So where’s Paul?”

“He’s carrying in two more boxes.” She removed her coat and savored the smells of tamales steaming in corn husks, baking ham and sweet potato pie. ”Smells like home,” she said, and Rita beamed.

In the living room, the aluminum tree was still bare-decorating the tree on Christmas Eve was a family tradition-and a gas log burned brightly in the fireplace. She reacquainted herself with the old plaster bas-reliefs of grapes and vines and leaves beneath the cornice, and the heavy wooden beams across the ceiling. She smiled. She had been born in this house. Wherever she went, however far, this would be home to her. ”Where are Julia and Robert?”

“Robert’s been stationed in Omaha,” Rita answered from the kitchen. “They can’t make it this year. Be out in March, maybe.”

“Oh,” Patricia said, disappointed. She returned to the kitchen.

“Where’s Papa?”

“Watching TV.”

Paul came in the kitchen door heavily loaded. Patricia took one of the boxes from him and laid it on the floor next to the refrigerator for unloading. ”We were expecting an army, so we brought lots of stuff,” she said.

Rita pushed through layers of food and shook her head.

“It’ll get eaten. We’re having Mr. and Mrs. Ortiz from next door, and cousin Enrique and his new wife. So this is Paul?”

“Yup.”

Rita hugged him, her arms barely meeting around his back.

She took hold of both his hands and stood away, surveying. He smiled.

Tall, thin Paul, with his brown hair and light skin, looking more Anglo than the others. Still, Rita smiled as they talked. Paul could hold his own.

She walked down the hall to the den where her father would be sitting in front of the television. They had never been well-off, and the TV was a twenty-five-year-old model that made a rainbow ghost whenever it received 3-D transmissions.

“Papa?” Patricia said quietly, sneaking up behind him in the half-dark.

“Patty!” Ramon Vasquez looked around the rear cushion of his chair, a big grin lifting his pepper-gray mustache. He had been partly paralyzed by a stroke three years before and even with surgery hadn’t fully recovered. Patricia sat on the divan “I’ve brought Paul home with me,” she said. ”I’m sorry Julia can’t be here this time.”

“Me, too. But that’s air force.” Ramon had been in the air force for twenty years before retiring in 1996. Except for Patricia, the family was enmeshed in the air force. Julia had met Robert at a party on March Air Force Base six years ago.

“I’ve got something to tell everybody, Papa.”

“Oh? What’s that?” Had his speech improved since they last talked face to face? It seemed so. She hoped so.

Rita called out from the kitchen. ”Daughter! Come help me and Paul put away this stuff.”

“What’re you watching?” Patricia asked, reluctant to leave.

“News.”

A commentator-and his scarcely less formidable ghost-was leading into a story about the Stone. Patricia lingered despite her mother’s second call.

“As more and more personnel are sent to the Stone, citizen and scientific groups are asking for an open forum. Today, in the fourth year of a joint NATO-Eurospace investigation, the cloak wrapped around the Stone is as impenetrable as ever.” So it was no news after all.

“-Russian participants are particularly unhappy with the requirements for secrecy. Meanwhile, protestors from the Planetary Society, the L-5 Society, the Friends for Interstellar Relations and other groups have gathered around the White House and around the so-called Blue Cube in Sunnyvale, California, protesting military involvement and alleging a cover-up of major discoveries within the Stone.” An earnest, clean-cut and conservatively dressed young man appeared on the screen. He stood in front of the White House and spoke with exaggerated gestures. ”We know it’s an alien artifact, and we know there are seven chambers inside-huge chambers. We didn’t put them there. There are cities in every chamber-deserted cities-all but the seventh. And there’s something incredible there, something unimaginable.”

“What do you think it is?” the interviewer asked.

The protestor flung his hands up. ”We think they should tell everybody. Whatever’s there, we as taxpayers have the right to know!”

The commentator added that NASA and Joint Space Command spokespersons had no comment.

Patricia sighed and placed her hands on Ramon’s shoulders, automatically rubbing his muscles.

Paul watched her closely at dinner, waiting for her to find the right opportunity, but she didn’t. She felt uncomfortable with the friends and neighbors present. This was something only her immediate family should know, and she couldn’t tell even them as much as she wanted.

Rita and Ramon seemed to accept Paul. That was a plus.

Eventually, they would have to know about the living arrangements if they hadn’t figured it out already: that Patricia and Paul were more than just dating acquaintances, that they were living together in that haphazard way reserved for coed dormitories.

So many secrets and discretions. Perhaps they wouldn’t be as shocked as she expected-wanted?-them to be. It was a little disturbing to think that her parents might regard her as a grown-up, sexual being.

She was not nearly as open about it as most of her friends and acquaintances.

Eventually, she and Paul would be married, she was sure.

But they were both young, and Paul was not going to ask until he felt he could support them both. Or until she convinced him that she could-and even with her doctorate, that wasn’t likely for several more years.

Not counting, of course, the pay she would receive from Judith Hoffman’s group. That money would go into a separate security account until her return.

When the dishes were cleared and everyone had gathered around the tree, family and friends helping to decorate, she signaled her mother that they had to talk in the kitchen. ”And bring Papa.” Rita helped Ramon into the kitchen on his aluminum crutches and they sat around the battered wooden table that had been in the family for at least sixty years.

“I have something to tell you,” Patricia began.

“Oh, madre de Dios," Rita said, clasping her hands and smiling rapturously.

“No, Mama, it’s not about Paul and me,” she said. Her mother’s face stiffened, then relaxed.

“So what, then?”

“Last week, I received a phone call at school,” Patricia said. ”I can’t tell you all about it, but I’m going to be gone for a couple of months, even longer. Paul knows about it, but I can’t tell him any more than I’ve just told you.” Paul entered the kitchen through the swinging doors.

“Who was it called you?” Ramon asked.

“Judith Hoffman.”

“Who’s that?” Rita asked.

“The woman on television?” Ramon asked.

Patricia nodded. ”She’s an advisor to the President. They want me to work on something with them, and that’s as much as I can tell you.”

“Why should they want you?” Rita asked.

“I think they want her to build a time machine,” Paul said.

Whenever he had said that before, Patricia had become angry, but now she shrugged it off.

She couldn’t expect Paul to understand her work. Very few people did-certainly not her parents and friends. ”Paul has some other crazy theories, too,” she said. ”But my lips are sealed.”

“Like a clam,” Paul said. ”She’s been hard to live with the past few days.”

“If you wouldn’t keep trying to get me to talk!” She sighed dramatically-she was doing a lot of that lately-and looked at the cream-colored ceiling, then turned to her father. ”It’s going to be very interesting. Nobody will be able to reach me directly. You can send mail for me to this address.” She drew the phone pad across the table and wrote down an APO address.

“Is this important to you?” Rita asked.

“Of course it is,” Ramon answered.

But Patricia didn’t know. It sounded crazy, even now.

After the guests had left, she took Paul on a nighttime tour of the neighborhood. For a half hour, they walked in silence, passing from one streetlight glow to the next. ”I’m coming back, you know,” she said finally.

“I know.”

“I had to show you my home, because it’s very important to me. Rita, Ramon, the house.”

“Yes,” Paul said.

“I think I’d be lost without it. I spend so much time in my head, and what I do there is so different ... so bizarre to most people. If I didn’t have a center, a place to return to, I’d get lost.”

“I understand,” Paul said. ”It’s a very nice home. I like your folks.”

She stopped him and they faced each other, holding hands at arm’s length. ”I’m glad,” she said.

“I want to make a home with you, too,” he said. ”Another center, for both of us to come back to.”

Her expression was so intense she seemed about to leap on him.

“Cat’s eyes,” Paul said, grinning.

They circled back and kissed on the front porch before going in to join her parents for coffee and cinnamon cocoa.

“The last pit stop,” she said as they prepared to drive back to Caltech.

She walked down the hall to the bathroom, past the graduation pictures and the framed contents page of the issue of The Physical Review her first paper had appeared in.

She stopped in front of the cover and stared intently at it.

Suddenly, her heart seemed to miss a beat, leaving a peculiar hollow in her chest, a brief, almost pleasant sensation of falling, fading, then returning to normal.

She’d felt it before. It was nothing serious, just a cold wind down the middle of her chest, every time she truly accepted the idea of where she was going.


Four
1174, Journey Year 5
Nader, Axis City

The Presiding Minister of the Axis City, Ilyin Taur Ingle, stood in the broad observation blister, staring out across the Way through the city’s blue glow at lanes bright with the continuous flow of traffic between the gates.

Behind him stood two assigned ghosts and a coporeal representative of the Hexamon Nexus.

“Do you know Olmy well, Ser Franco?” the Presiding Minister picted, using graphicspeak.

“No, Set Ingle, I do not,” the corporeal representative replied, “though by reputation he is famous in the Nexus.”

“Three incarnations, one more than law allows because of his extraordinary service. Olmy is one of our oldest citizens still corporeal,” the minister said. ”An enigmatic personality. He would have long since forfeited his majority rights and retired to City Memory if it wasn’t for his usefulness to the Nexus.” The P.M. instructed a sprayer to release his special variety of Talsit. The mist filled a cubic area surrounded by faintly glowing purple traction fields. Ingle entered the field and took a deep breath.

The ghosts hadn’t moved, their images fixed until called upon, visible only to indicate their City Memory personalities were tuned in to the chamber, listening and watching.

“He is of Naderite background himself, I believe,” the corporeal assistant said.

“Yes, he is,” the minister said, nodding. ”But he serves the Hexamon regardless of who is in power, and I have no doubt where his loyalties lie. A most unusual man. Tough, in the old sense of the word-a man who has lived through great changes, great pain. ’I’ve had him recalled from one point three ex nine. He’s been supervising our preparations for the Jart offensive. But he can be of more use to us here. He is the one to send now. Axis Nader can’t disagree with him or accuse us of partisan assignment; his reports to them are always detailed and accurate. Inform the President that we are accepting the task and sending Olmy.”

“Yes, Ser Ingle.”

“I believe the ghosts have their questions answered, now?”

“We listen,” said one ghost. The other did not move.

“Fine. Now I will meet with Ser Olmy.”

The ghosts faded and Corprep Franco left, fingering his neck torque to pict a flag of official business over his left shoulder.

The P.M. turned off the traction fields and the chamber became smoky with more Talsit. The smell was disconcerting, sharp like old wine, as Olmy entered.

He approached the minister quietly, not wishing to interrupt his reverie.

“Forward, Ser Olmy,” the minister said. He turned as Olmy walked up the steps to the blister platform. ”You’re looking fit today.”

“And you, ser.”

“Men. My wife made me a wonderful forgetting last turn. Removed much unpleasantness from my twentieth year. That was not a good year, and the loss was a relief.”

“Excellent, ser.”

“When will you marry, Olmy?”

“When I find the woman who can purge my twenty-first year, first incarnation.”

The minister laughed heartily. ”I hear you keep a fine advocate company in Axis Nader. What’s her name?”

“Suli Ram Kikura.”

“Yes, of course ... She’s been active smoothing things between the Nexus and the Korzenowski hot heads, has she not?”

“Yes. We seldom discuss it.”

The minister sucked in his breath, looked concerned and stared down at the platform. ”Well, just so, then. I have a difficult mission for you.”

“My joy to serve the Hexamon.”

“Perhaps not this time. No mere investigation of illegal gate commerce. Every few years, we send someone back to the Thistledown to check stability. But we are doubly motivated this time. The Thistledown has been reoccupied.”

“Someone crossing the Forbidden Territories?”

“No. More puzzling. Nothing has disturbed our sentries at the first barrier. Apparently the occupants have entered the Thistledown from outside; perhaps more startling, they are human. Not in great force, but they’re organized. There’s no use speculating where they come from; the information is too equivocated. You’ll have authority, of course, and the necessary transportation. Ser Algoli will inform you about the other requirements. Understand?”

Olmy nodded. ”Ser.”

“Good.” The minister leaned over the railing and peered at the surface twenty kilometers below. A maelstrom of lights swirled around several of the lanes. ”There appears to be a jam-up at that gate. Ah, it’s the season for worries. The month of the Good Man.” He turned to Olmy. ”Good luck. Or, as the Eld put it: Star, Fate and Pneuma be kind.”

“Thank you, ser.”

He stepped back from the platform and left the chamber, taking the lift up the long, slender pylon to the Central City, where he arranged his affairs for a protracted absence.

The assignment was a privilege. Return to the Thistledown was forbidden for any purpose not essential to the Nexus.

Olmy hadn’t been there for well over four hundred years.

On the other hand, of course, it could be a very dangerous mission-especially with information so equivocated. He could help ensure his mission’s success by bringing along a Frant.

If there were humans in the Thistledown, and they weren’t city renegades-the most likely explanation-then where did they come from?

Far too narrow and equivocated for his ease.
Top ^


Chapter One: April 2005

On the first leg of the trip, in the passenger cabin of the long-bed shuttle, Patricia Vasquez had watched the Earth’s cloud-smeared limb on a video monitor. Before her own transfer, cameras mounted in the shuttle bay had shown her the long waldos maneuvering the huge cargo out of the bay into the waiting arms of the OTV-orbital transfer vehicle-as if to spiders were trading a cocoon-wrapped fly. The operation had taken an hour, and with its slow fascination had distracted her from thoughts about her present circumstances.

When her own turn came and she donned the passenger bubble to be guided across the ten meters to the OTV’s lock, she worked hard to appear calm. The bubble was made of transparent plastic, so she did not suffer from claustrophobia-almost the opposite, in fact. She could feel the immensity of the blackness beyond the spacecraft, though she could not make out stars. They were outdone by the glow of the Earth and the close, brightly lighted surfaces of the OTV, a train of clustered tanks, balls and prisms wrapped in aluminum beams.

The three-man, two-woman crew of the OTV greeted her warmly in the narrow tunnel as she “hatched,” then guided her to a seat just behind theirs. From that vantage, she had a clear, direct view, and now she could see the steady pinpoints of stars.

So confronted, with none of the comfortable separation of a video monitor frame, space seemed to extend into a mating of infinite, star-cluttered halls. She felt as if she could walk down any one of the halls and become lost in altered perspective.

She still wore the black jumpsuit she had been handed in Florida just six hours before...She felt dirty. Her hair, even though tied up in a bun, !et loose irritating wisps. She could smell her own nervousness.

The crew floated around her, making last-minute checks, punching readings into slates and processors. Patricia examined their colored suits-the women in red and blue, the men in green and black and gray-and idly wondered how they were ranked and who commanded.

Everything seemed casually efficient with no deference in voice or manner, as if they were civilians. But they were not.

The OTV was a registered unarmed military vehicle, subject to the restrictions imposed after the Little Death. It was one of dozens of new vehicles that had been constructed in Earth orbit since the appearance of the Stone, and it differed substantially from the vehicles that had serviced the Joint Space Force’s Orbital Defense Platforms. It was larger and capable of traveling much greater distances; by treaty, it could not carry cargoes to the ODPs.

“We’re leaving in three minutes,” said the shuttle’s copilot, a blond woman whose name Patricia had already forgotten. She touched Patricia on the shoulder and smiled.

“Everything will be hectic for a half hour or so. If you need a drink or have to use the lavatory, now’s the time.”

Patricia shook her head and returned the smile. ”I’m fine.”

“Good. Virgin?”

Patricia stared.

“First flight, she means,” the other woman clarified.

Patricia remembered her name-Rita, just like her mother.

“Of course,” Patricia said. ”Would I be sitting here acting like a cow in a slaughterhouse, otherwise?”

The blond laughed. The pilot-James or Jack, with beautiful green eyes-looked over his shoulder at her, his head framed by the belt and sword of Orion. ”Relax, Patricia,” he said. So calm. She was almost intimidated by their professional assurance. They were spacefarers, originally assigned to the near-Earth orbit platforms and now working the distances between Earth, Moon and Stone. She was just a young woman fresh out of graduate school, and she had never in her life even left the state of California until traveling to Florida for the shuttle flight from Kennedy Space Center.

She wondered what her father and mother were doing now, sitting at home in Santa Barbara. Where did they imagine their daughter to be?

She had said good-bye just a week ago. Her stomach still churned at the memory of her last few moments with Paul. His letters would get to her, that was guaranteed forwarded through the APO address. But what could she tell him in her return messages? Very likely, nothing. And her time in space had been estimated at two months, minimum.

She listened to the rumble and purr of the OTV machinery.

She heard fuel pumps, mystery noises, gurgles like large water bubbles popping behind the passenger cabin, then the sharp tings of the attitude motors driving the craft away from the shuttle.

They began rotating, their axis somewhere near the middle of the cocoon cargo, clamped where a spare hexagonal fuel tank would have otherwise been. The OTV lurched forward with the impulse of its first engine burn. The blond, still not in her seat, landed on her feet against the rear bulkhead, flexed her knees with the impact and finished her sequence on the Then everyone buckled in.

The second burn took place fifteen minutes later. Patricia closed her eyes, nestled into the couch and resumed work on a problem she had put aside more than two weeks before. She had never required paper during the, initial stages of her work.

Now, the Fraktur Symbols paraded before her, separated by her own brand of sign notation, invented when she was ten years old. There was no music-she usually listened to Vivaldi or Mozart while working-but nevertheless, she became immersed in a sea of abstraction. Her hand went to the pack of music coins and the slate stereo attachment in her small effects has.

A few minutes later, she opened her eyes. Everyone was in their seats, staring intently at instrument panels. She tried to nap.

Briefly, before dozing off, she ran through her Big Question again: Why had she, in particular, been chosen from a list of mathematicians that must have been meters long? That she had won a Fields Award didn’t seem reason enough; there were other mathematicians of far greater experience and stat Hoffman hadn’t really offered an explanation. All she had said was, “You’re going to the Stone. All that you’ll need to know is up there, and it’s classified, so I’m not allowed to give you documents while you’re here on Earth. You’ll have a hell of a lot of studying to do. And I’m sure it will be glorious fun for a mind like yours.”

As far as Patricia knew, her expertise had no practical use whatsoever, and she preferred it that way.

She didn’t doubt her talents. But the very fact that they were calling on her-that they might need to know about (as she had expressed it in her doctoral dissertation, Non-gravity Bent Geodesics of n-Spatial Reference Frames: An Approach to Superspace Visualization and Probability Clustering)-made her even more apprehensive.

Six years ago, a Stanford math professor had told her that the only beings who would ever fully appreciate her work would be gods or extraterrestrials.

In the dark, sleepily drifting away from the OTV noises and the sensation of her stomach pressing always upward, she thought of the Stone. The governments involved did not discourage speculation but provided no fuel to feed the fires.

The Russians, allowed on the Stone only the last year, hinted darkly at what their researchers had seen.

Amateur astronomers-and a few civilian professionals who hadn’t been visited by government agents had pointed out the three regular latitudinal bands and the odd dimples at each pole, as if it had been turned on a lathe.

The upshot was, everyone knew it was big news, perhaps the biggest news of all time.

And so it wasn’t incredible that Paul, putting a few odd facts together, had told her he thought she was going to the Stone.

“You’re just too far-out a mind to be going anywhere else,” he had said.

Gods and extraterrestrials. Still, she managed to nap.

When she awoke, she saw the Stone briefly as the OTV swung around for its docking maneuver. It looked much like the pictures she had seen many times before published in newspapers and magazines-bean-shaped, about a third as wide in the middle as it was long, heavily cratered between the smoothly artificial excavated bands.

Ninety-one kilometers in diameter at its widest, two hundred ninety-two kilometers long. Rock and nickel and iron and not nearly as simple as that.

“Approaching south polar axis,” the blond said, leaning around in her chair to look back at Vasquez. ”A little briefing, in case they haven’t told you already. Blind leading the blind, honey.” She glanced meaningfully at her shipmates. ”First, some facts and figures important to mere navigators. Note that the Stone is rotating on its long axis. That’s nothing surprising everyone knows that. But it’s rotating once every seven minutes or so-”

“Every six point eight two four minutes,” James or Jack corrected.

“That means,” the blond continued, unfazed, “that anything loose on the outer surface will fly away at a pretty good clip, so we can’t dock there. We have to go through the pole.”

“There’s stuff inside?” Patricia asked.

“Quite a lot of stuff, if they’re keeping everything-and everyone-we’ve been bringing up in the past few years,” James or Jack said.

“The Stone’s albedo matches any of a number of siliceous asteroids. Apparently, that’s what it was at one time. Here’s the south pole now,” Rita said.

In the middle of the large polar crater was an indentation-judging from the scale of the Stone itself, quite tiny, no more than a kilometer deep and three or four kilometers wide.

The Stone’s rotation was easily discernible. As the OTV matched course with the Stone, then began its approach along the axis, the crater enlarged and showed even more detail.

With hardly any surprise at all, Patricia realized the floor was marked by shallow hexagons, like a beehive.

At the center of the indentation was a circular black spot about a hundred meters across. A hole. An entrance. It loomed larger and larger but lost none of its intense blackness.

The OTV slid into the hole.

“We have to maintain our position about five minutes, until they bring the rotating dock up to speed,” James or Jack said.

“We did all this?” Patricia asked, her voice unsteady. ”In just five years?”

“No, honey,” the blond said. ”It was here already, I’m sure you’ve heard the Stone is hollow inside with seven chambers. We have a fair number of personnel and thousands of tons of equipment in there, doing God knows what and finding things we’d give our eyeteeth to see, believe me. But this is where our knowledge stops, and we’ve been instructed not to pass along rumor. You won’t be needing it.”

“We’ve been riding a docking signal for the last seven minutes,” James or Jack said. ”Voice contact any second.”

The radio chimed. ”OTV three-seven,” a calm tenor male voice said. “We have prime dock rotating. Advance at point one meters per second.”

Rita flipped a switch and the OTV’s floods came on, partially illuminating the inside of a gray cylinder that dwarfed the craft.

Four rows of lights appeared ahead of them, wobbling back and forth slightly as the rotating dock adjusted its speed. ”Here we go.” The OTV advanced slowly.

Patricia nodded and held her hands tightly in her lap. The bump was hardly discernible as the OTV motors went ting all around and brought them to a stop inside the tunnel. A hatch opened ahead of the ship and three men in space suits floated into view, carrying cables.

They used suit thrusters to fly around the OTV and tie it down.

“You’re hooked, OTV three-seven,” the radio voice said a few minutes later. ”Welcome to the Stone.”

“Thanks,” James or Jack said. ”We have a big load in the hopper and precious cargo up front. Treat them gently.”

“Foreign or domestic?”

“Domestic. Best California vintage.”

Patricia didn’t know whether they were talking about a cargo of wine or her. She was too nervous to ask.

“Got you clear.”

“Any more mysteries to leak to us, guide?” the blond asked.

“My people want the hopper cargo released in five minutes.”

“Timing on.”

“More mysteries. Let’s see. Why is a raven like a writing desk?”

“Bastard. I’ll think on it,” James or Jack said. He switched off the mike and floated up from his couch to help Patricia with her belts.

“Closemouthed, all of them,” he said, guiding her to the lock access corridor. ”I leave you to their tender mercies. And promise us, someday-pretty please?-” he patted her shoulder paternally “-when all this is settled and we’re reminiscing in a bar in Sausalito ...”

He grinned at her, knowing how ridiculous the image was.

“Tell us what the hell happened up here, step by step? We’ll savor it the rest of our lives.”

“Why do you think they’ll tell me?” Patricia asked.

“Why, don’t you know?” Rita joined them in the lock. “You’ve been given top billing. You’re going to save their collective hide.”

Patricia climbed in to the transfer bubble and they closed the lock behind her. Watching through the lock port, she could see the curious hunger in their faces. The lock hatch swung open and two men in spacesuits reached in to pull the bubble from the OTV. She was passed along hand-to-hand through a circular opening in the dock’s dark gray surface.
Top ^


Chapter Two

Twenty-five kilometers below the axis, the Stone’s spin produced a force of six-tenths of a g. Garry Lanier took daily advantage of that to perform gymnastic feats difficult or impossible for him on Earth. He swung back and forth, blowing out his breath forcefully and grunting, holding his legs straight together and propelling himself high over the parallel bars and the pit of fine white sand. It was easy to twist and reverse his position. Almost as easy was swinging his legs into the air, spinning and doing a reverse that way.

The exercise cleared his mind of everything else-for a few minutes, at least-and took him back to his days as a college gymnast.

The Stone’s first chamber, viewed in cross section, resembled a squat cylinder, fifty kilometers in diameter and thirty across the floor.

Since each of the Stone’s first six chambers were wider in diameter than in length, they resembled deep valleys, and that’s what they were sometimes called.

Lanier paused for a second with toes pointed together and stared up at the plasma tube. Rings of light passed through ionized gas only slightly denser than the near-vacuum around them, sweeping along the axis from the bore hole to the opposite side of the chamber with such speed that the eye interpreted their passage as a continuous hollow shaft or tube.

The plasma tube-and extensions in the other chambers-provided all the light for the Stone’s interior and had been doing so for some twelve centuries.

He dropped to the sandy bed and rubbed his hands on his sweatpants. He worked out for an hour-no more-whenever his schedule allowed, which wasn’t often. His muscles were feeling the lack of Earth gravity. At least he was acclimated to the thin air.

He ran his hand through his short black hair, face expressionless, pumping his legs slowly to cool them down.

Soon, back to the small office in the administration bungalow, back to signing slates allocating materiel to the various experiments, looking over the science team shifts in the five cramped labs, ‘scheduling equipment and central processor time ... back to the memory blocks and the information coming out of the second and third chambers And to the security squabbles, the Russian team’s constant complaints about limited access.

He closed his eyes. Those things he could handle. Hoffman had once called him a born administrator, and he didn’t deny it-handling people, especially brilliant, capable people, was his meat and drink.

But he would also go back to the tiny figurine in the top drawer of his desk. For him, the figurine symbolized everything peculiar about the Stone.

“It was a lifelike three-dimensional image of a man, encased in a block of crystal. On the base of the block, which stood just under twelve centimeters high, a name had been engraved in neat round letters: KONRAD KORZENOWSKI.

Korzenowski had been the main engineer on the Stone, six hundred years ago.

That was where it began. The Library Beast, he thought of it, threatening to consume him-the knowledge that had every day taken a bit of his humanity and rubbed it thin, pushing him closer to some sort of personal crisis. There was no way-yet-to deal with what he knew-he and only ten other people. Soon, an eleventh would arrive.

He felt sorry for her.

The gymnastics pit was half a kilometer from the science team compound, midway between the compound and the barbed wire fence that marked the boundary beyond which no one could go, unescorted, without a green badge.

The valley floor was covered with a soft, sandy layer of soil, not dusty though dry. A few scrubby patches of grass grew out of the soil, but for the most part the first chamber was arid.

The compound itself, one of two in the first chamber, resembled an old Roman encampment, with an earthworks rampart and a shallow, dry moat surrounding the buildings.

The rampart was topped with electronic sensors mounted on stakes every five meters. All these precautions dated back to the days when it was reasonable to suspect there might still be Stoners in the chambers and that they might present some danger. Out of force of habit-and because the possibility had never been completely ruled out-the precautions were maintained.

Lanier crossed the sturdy wooden bridge spanning the moat and climbed a set of steps on the rampart, waving his card at a reader mounted on one of the stakes.

He passed the men’s and women’s barracks and entered the administration bungalow, tapping his finger on Ann Blakely’s desk and waving as he walked past. Ann had served him as secretary and general assistant for over a year. She swiveled on her chair and reached for the memo slate.

He shook his head without looking at her and continued on up the stairs. ”Five more minutes,” he said.

On the second floor, he slipped his card into the verification lock on his office door, pressed his thumbs onto the small plate and entered.

The door swung shut automatically behind him.

He removed his sweatpants and shirt, substituting the blue science team jumpsuit.

The office was neatly organized but still looked cluttered. A small desk manufactured from OTV tank baffles was flanked by chromium bins filled with rolls of paper. A narrow shelf of real books hung next to racks of memory blocks sealed behind tough, alarm-equipped plastic panels. Maps and diagrams were taped to the walls.

A broad window looked out over the compound buildings.

North across the valley’s barren floor of dirt, sand and scrub loomed the massive gray presence of the far chamber cap.

He sat on a lightweight director’s chair and propped his feet on the window frame. His dark eyes, underscored by fatigue lines, focused on a distant point at one o’clock high where the plasma tube butted up against the cap. Through the tube’s diffuse glow, it was difficult to make out the hundred-meter-wide bore hole that pushed through the cap into the second chamber. The bore hole opened five kilometers above the atmosphere in the chamber.

In two minutes, his private time would be over. He organized his slates and processors, looking over the day’s schedule, preparing himself mentally to be a mover-and-shaker.

There was dirt beneath one fingernail. He removed it with another fingernail.

If he could only explain the simple things the figurine, the barbed wire used to string up the fence, the crate wood used to make the bridge over the moat-it would all fall into place.

The Stone would explain itself.

The only explanations he had now were much too incredible to be sane.

His comline hummed.

“Yes, Ann.”

“Are you on duty now, Garry?”

“That I am.”

“Transmission down the hole. OTV approach.”

“Our savior?”

“I presume.”

Hoffman had said this young woman was important, and the Advisor’s word was one of the few things Lanier felt he could count on. In the four years since that night at the party, he had learned a great deal about politics in and out of world capitals, and how nations handled crises.

He had come to realize how truly extraordinary Hoffman was.

Capable, and with uncanny intuition.

But at that party, she had been dead wrong about one thing.

The Stone’s appearance did not signal the arrival of aliens, not in the strict sense of the word.

He picked up two slates and a processor. ”Anything else?” he asked, standing by Blakely’s desk.

“In and out,” she said and handed him a cube of messages.

There was always a mild, cool breeze flowing down the almost vertical slope of the cap. Sometimes snow fell, piling up in drifts against the nickel-iron wall. The elevator entrance, a perfect semicircular arch, had been blasted out of asteroid material, as had all the tunnels, serviceways and bore holes of the Stone, by a fusion torch of extremely high power and efficiency. The sides of the short hall had been polished smooth and etched with acid by the Stoners to reveal the beautiful triangular Widmanstiitten patterns, veined with rocky troilite intrusions.

The elevator was cylindrical, ten meters in diameter and five meters high, and was used for both personnel and freight.

There were handgrips along the perimeter and tie-downs dimpled the floor. It followed a sloping tunnel to the staging areas surrounding the external bore hole. As the elevator climbed, its angular velocity declined, weakening the centrifugal force of the Stone’s rotation. By the time it reached the vicinity of the bore hole, the spin produced only one-tenth of one percent g.

The trip took ten minutes. The elevator decelerated smoothly and stopped, its opposite hatch flush with a pressurized runnel leading to the staging areas.

Taking an electric miner’s cart, one of the two dozen or so brought up from Earth, Lanier rose most of the remaining distance along a magnetic rail.

The cart whined to a stop and Lanier drifted the rest of the way, pulling himself along guide ropes.

The first landings in the bore hole had been tricky. There had been no power to the rotating docks at that time, and very little illumination.

The OTV pilots had proved their skill again and again.

The first spacesuited explorers had shown great courage in leaving their craft and approaching the bore-hole walls, which rotated at about three-quarters of a meter per second.

Now that the dock and staging area equipment had been refurbished and brought back into operation, the transfer process was much easier.

The three docks were simple, massive and efficient.

Cylinders within the hole rotated to compensate for the Stone’s spin, each accelerated like the rotor in a giant electric motor.

One engineer in a booth below the prime dock controlled all of the docks, opening and closing hatches, coordinating cargo and passenger unloading.

The staging areas themselves had been thoroughly customized by the engineering team, outfitted with near-freefall workshops and machine shops. Here was where bulky cargoes were checked out, repackaged and either shipped down the elevators to the valley floor or flown along the axis to the next hole and chamber down the line.

The director of the engineering team, Lawrence Heineman, was talking to a slight, dark-haired young woman in the prime dock staging area as Lanier pulled himself in. They stood in a broad oval of light, hands on guide ropes, watching as large vacuum doors slid across to reveal the OTV’s cocoon cargo resting on joists. The cargo dwarfed them.

Heineman, a short, crew-cut, muscular aerospace technician from Florida, smiled broadly and waved his hands, explaining something to the young woman. As Lanier approached, Heineman turned, held out the palm of one hand and bowed slightly in his direction.

“Patricia, this is Garry Lanier, the closest thing to a civilian boss we have. Garry, Miss Patricia Luisa Vasquez.”

He shook his head and blew his breath out with an enthusiastic “Whoo!” Lanier shook Vasquez’s hand. She was small and pretty in a fragile way. Round face, silky dark brown hair, thin wrists, narrow legs, broad hips for her size: an altogether unpractical-looking woman, he thought. Beneath wide square eyes as black as his own, and a small, sharp nose, she had drawn her mouth into a tight line. She looked scared.

“My pleasure,” Lanier said. ”Larry, what have you told her so far?”

Heineman parried the question with a sidelong glance.

“Patricia, I’m only a blue-badge for now-and I hear you’re going to get a green. Garry is worried I might pass along some of the ignorant suppositions of an axis-hugger. I’ve only been telling her about this level of operations, I swear.” He held up his right hand and clapped his left to his chest. ”Garry, I’ve read some of this lady’s papers in a half-dozen math and physics journals. She’s fantastic.”

There was a question on his face, however, which Lanier had no trouble interpreting. What in hell is she doing here?

“So I’ve heard.” He pointed at the cocoon. ”What’s that?”

“My ticket to a green badge, finally,” Heineman said. “Packing slips say it’s the tuberider. And the V/STOL is coming in on the next OTV, a few hours from now.”

“Then let’s get it unwrapped and see what sort of modifications we’ll have to make.”

“Right. Pleased to meet you, Patricia.” Heineman started to leave, then stopped and turned back slowly with a puzzled expression.

“What you write about, it’s really more a hobby for me, way beyond my expertise.” He raised his eyebrows hopefully. ”Maybe we can talk more later, though, when I get my green badge?”

Patricia smiled and nodded. Teams of men and women in gray jumpsuits were already gathering around the cocoon like ants tending a queen.

Heineman joined them, calling out orders.

“Miss Vasquez-” Lanier began.

“Patricia’s fine, really. I’m not very formal.”

“Neither am I, if I can help it. I’m the science team coordinator.”

“So Mr. Heineman told me. I have so many questions ... Mr. Lanier, Garry, is this really a spaceship, a starship, the whole thing?” She swung her arm wide, her feet lifting from the deck momentarily.

“It is,” he said, feeling the familiar, peculiar pleasure.

Even though the Stone had nearly driven him crazy in the past few years, with its endless layers of surprise and shock, he was still more than a little in love with it.

“Where did it come from?”

Lanier held up his hands and shook his head. Vasquez suddenly noticed how exhausted he appeared, and that subdued her excitement some.

“First, I’m sure you’ll want to rest and get cleaned up. Our facilities in the valley-the chamber floor-are quite nice. Then you can visit our cafeteria, meet a few of the team scientists, take it from there. One step at a time.”

Vasquez examined him intently. Her eyes made the inspection seem less than sympathetic, even aggressive. ”Is something wrong?”

Lanier raised his brows and glanced to one side. ”We have a name for what this place does to you. We call it getting Stoned. I’m just a little Stoned, is all.”

She looked around the staging area and experimented with the centrifugal force, pushing herself up a few centimeters with a nudge of her toe. ”It looks so familiar,” she said. ”I expected an alien artifact to be mysterious, but I can identify almost everything, like it was built on Earth, by us.”

“Well,” said Lanier, “Heineman and his people have been busy up here. But keep an open mind. If you’ll follow me, we’ll descend to the floor of the first chamber. Use the ropes.

And if Larry hasn’t already said it, allow me to welcome you to the Stone.”
Top ^


Chapter Ten

Patricia and Lanier passed through the fence and security checks, entered the second chamber library and followed the strips of lights across the empty floor and up the stairs. On the fourth floor, they entered the reading area with its dark cubicles.

Lanier sat her down in the lighted cubicle and went off into the stacks, leaving her alone to again feel the chill, the spookiness that seemed-even amid all the strangeness-reserved for the library alone.

When he returned, he held four thick books in his arms.

“These are among the last books printed for mass distribution, before all information services became solid state. Not on the Stone, but on Earth. Their Earth. I suppose you’ve already guessed what sort of library this is.”

“A quaint one. A museum,” she said.

“Right. An antique library, better suited to those with antique habits, no? When you get to the third chamber library, you’ll become acquainted with the Stoners’ state-of-the-art systems.”

He held out the first volume. It was printed in a style similar to that of the Mark Twain book, but with heavier boards and thick, even tougher plastic paper. She read the spine. ”‘Brief History of the Death, by Abraham Damon Farmer.”

She opened to the printing history and read the date. ”2135. Our calendar?”

“Yes.”

“Are they talking about the Little Death?” she asked hopefully.

“No.”

“Something else,’ she murmured. She read the chronology heading the first chapter. ”‘From December 1993 to May 2005.”

She closed the book on her thumb.”

“Before I read any more, I want to ask a question.”

“Ask away.” He waited, but it took her some time to phrase it properly in her head.

“These are history books about a future, not necessarily our own, correct?”

“Yes.”

“But if this chronology is ... right, appropriate ... if it could possibly be our future ... then there’s going to be a catastrophe in less than a month.”

He nodded.

“I’m supposed to prevent it? How? What the hell can I do?”

“I don’t know what any of us can do. We’re already working on that angle. If ... a big if... it’s going to happen at all. At any rate, it should be obvious to you, as you read these books, that the Stone’s universe is not the same as ours in at least one important respect.”

“And that is ... ?”

“In the Stone’s past, no giant asteroid starship returned to the Earth-Moon vicinity.”

“That might make a difference?”

.”I’d think so, wouldn’t you?”

She turned the page. ”How long do I have?”

“I’m leaving tomorrow for Earth. You’ll be going to the first circuit the day after.”

“Two days.”

He nodded.

“I’ll be staying here?”

“If you find it acceptable. There’s an office behind the stacks outfitted as a sleeping area, with food and hot plate. Porta-potty. The guards will check on you every couple of hours. You’re not to tell any of them what you’re reading. But if you feel any sort of distress, let them know immediately. Any sort of distress. Even just getting sick to your stomach. Understand?”

“I’ll stay here with you this first time.” He squeezed her shoulder gently. ”Take a break with me in a couple of hours, okay?”

“Sure,” she said.

She watched him settle into a cubicle seat. He took a slate out of his pocket and quietly typed on it.

She turned the page on the first chapter and began. She did not read in a linear fashion, instead skipping from the middle of the book to the beginning, then to the end, looking for pages where the major events were synopsized, or conclusions were.

Page 15

In the last years of the 1980s, it became apparent to the Soviet Union and its client states that the Western world was winning-or would soon win-the war of technology and therefore ideology both on Earth and in space, with consequences unforeseen for the future of their nations and their system.

They contemplated several ways of overcoming this technological superiority; none seemed practical. In the late 1980s, with the deployment of the first United States space-based defense systems, the Soviet states stepped up their efforts to obtain technological “fixes” through espionage and importing of embargoed goods-computers and other high-technology equipment but this was soon shown to be inadequate. In 1991, the space-based defense systems they themselves had deployed were shown to be inferior in design and ability, and it became obvious to the Soviet leadership that what had been predicted for years was in fact happening; the Soviet Union could not compete with the free world in technology.

Most Soviet computer systems were centralized; privately owned or noncentralized systems were illegal (with a few exceptions-namely, the Agatha experiments), and the laws were rigorously enforced.

Young Soviet citizens could not match the technological “savvy” of their counterparts in the Western bloc nations. The Soviet Union was soon going to suffocate under the weight of its own tyranny, remaining a twentieth- (or nineteenth-) century nation in a twenty-first-century world. They had no choice but to attempt, in the football (q.v.) terminology of the time, an “end run.” They had to test the courage and resolve of the Western bloc nations. If the Soviets failed, then by the turn of the century, they would be far weaker than their adversaries. The Little Death was inevitable.

Patricia took a deep breath. She hadn’t seen reports of the Little Death handled from quite so distant-so historical-a perspective. She remembered nightmares as a girl, after living through the incredible tension and fear, and then seeing the results on television. She had learned to cope since, but these cold, critical evaluations-ingested in such an authoritative environment-brought back the shivers all too effectively.

By comparison, the Little Death of 1993 was a low-technology bungle. A minor contretemps causing embarrassment as much as horror, it resulted in an insincere international resolve that resembled the mocking promises of young children. Afraid of their weapons, during that first conflict, the Western bloc and Soviet forces constantly “pulled their punches,” relying on the tactics and technology of past decades. When the engagements became nuclear-as all in command knew in their hearts they would-the space-based defense systems, still young and unproven, showed themselves to be remarkably effective. They could not, however, stop the near-shore submarine launches of the three missiles which destroyed Atlanta, Brighton and part of the coast of Brittany. The Russians could not protect their city of Kiev. The nuclear exchange was limited, and the Soviets and Western bloc countries capitulated almost simultaneously. But the rehearsal had already been conducted, and the Soviets had emerged with less “hits” than their adversaries.

They had gained nothing but a deadly resolve: that they would not be defeated under any circumstances, nor would history overtake their outmoded system.

The Death, when it came, was completely earnest and open. Every weapon was used as it had been designed to be used. There seemed to be no compunction about consequences.

Page 35

In retrospect, it seems completely logical that once a weapon is invented, it will be used. But we forget the blindness and obfuscation of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, when the most destructive weapons were regarded as walls of protection, and when the horror of Armageddon was seen as a deterrent no sane society would risk.

But the nations were not sane-rational, composed, aware, but not sane. In each nation, the arsenal included potent distrust and even hatred ...

The Little Death resulted in 4 million casualties, most in Western Europe and England. The Death resulted in approximately 2.2 billion casualties, and the numbers will always be uncertain, for by the time the body counts were “completed,” it is possible that as many bodies had rotted as had been counted. And, of course, as many more had been completely vaporized.

Patricia wiped her eyes. ”This is awful,” she murmured.

“You can take a break if you want,” Lanier said solicitously.

“No ... not yet.” She continued skimming, back and forth ...

In summation, the naval battles were hideous jokes of technology.

During the Little Death, submarines were hunted (and in some cases, sunk) up to and even after the capitulation, but the great fleets only skirmished. In the major conflict, once the war began in earnest, about two hours after the first hostile actions, the navies of East and West went “in harm’s way.” In the Persian Gulf, the Northwestern Pacific, the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean (Libya had provided the Soviets with a Mediterranean base in 1997) the battles were fierce and quick. There were few victors. Sea battles during the Death lasted an average of half an hour, and many took less than five minutes. On the first day, while strategic intentions were being tested and before the large-scale escalations, the navies of the Eastern and Western blocs destroyed each other. They were the last great navies allowed on the oceans of the Earth, and their radioactive scrap still pollutes the waters, 130 years later.

A peculiar phenomenon of the latter half of the twentieth century was the increase in “retreatists.”

These people-usually in groups of fifty or less-staked out isolated country tracts as their territory, expecting a disaster of major proportions to destroy civilization, resulting in anarchy. With their stores of food and weapons and their “strictly survival” attitude-a willingness to isolate themselves morally as well as physically-they embodied the worst aspects of what Orson Hamill has called “the conservative sickness of the twentieth century.” There is no room here to analyze the causes of this sickness, where individual power and survival counted above all other moral considerations and where the ability to destroy was emphasized over any nobility of spirit, but the ironies of the outcome are rich.

The “retreatists” were right-and wrong. The catastrophe did come, and much of the world was destroyed, but even in the Long Winter that followed, civilization did not crumble into complete anarchy.

Indeed, within a year, highly cooperative societies emerged. The lives of one’s fellows became almost infinitely precious-and all of the Death’s survivors became fellows. Love and support of neighboring groups were essential, for no single group had the means or the stamina to survive long without aid. The retreatist enclaves-heavily armed and viciously indiscriminate about how they defended themselves or whom they killed-soon became targets of hatred and fear, the sole exceptions to this new perception of brotherhood.

Within five years after the end of the Death, most of the retreatist enclaves had been sought out and their half-crazed members killed or captured.

(Unfortunately, many isolated “survivalist” [q.v.] communities were also included in the sweep. The distinction made between these branches with similar inclinations is a historical one, and was ignored by the authorities of that time.) Many of the retreatists were put on trial for crimes against humanity-specifically, for refusing to participate in the recovery of civilization. In time, these purges extended to all who advocated the right to bear weapons, and even, in some communities, to all who favored high technologies.

Those military personnel who had survived were forced to undergo social reconditioning.

The landmark trial of 2015-where high-ranking politicians and military officers of both the Eastern and Western blocs were accused of crimes against humanity-capped this grim but not-unexpected reaction against the horrors of the Death.

It didn’t seem real. She closed her book and shut her eyes.

Here she was, reading a book about events that hadn’t taken place-yet-and had happened in another universe.

She swallowed the lump in her throat. If it was real, and if it was going to happen, then something should be done. She leafed through the appendices.

On page 567, she found what she was looking for. Every city in the world that had been bombed was listed in the next two hundred pages, with approximate casualties and deaths.

She searched for California and found it: twenty-five cities, each receiving from two to twenty-three warheads. Los Angeles, twenty-three, spaced over a two-week period.

(“Spasm,” an asterisked footnote commented.) Santa Barbara, two.

San Francisco-including Oakland, San Jose and Sunnyvale-twenty over a three-day period. San Diego, fifteen. Long Beach, ten. Sacramento, one, Fresno, one.

Vandenherg Space Operations Center, twelve evenly spaced al0ng the coastal strip.

Air bases hit in or near the cities, including civilian airports which could be used for military purposes: fifty-three. All space centers around the world had been destroyed, even in noncombatant countries (again the footnote: “Spasm”).

Patricia felt dizzy. The book seemed to recede from her.

There was no tunnel vision, no loss of sensation, just a kind of isolation. She was Patricia Luisa Vasquez, twenty-four, and because she was young she would have a long time to live. Her parents, because she had known them all her life, would not die for a very long time-an inconceivably long time. And Paul-because they had just begun knowing each other, because he was the one man she had met who had even tried to know what she was about-Paul would be safe, too.

And all of them lived in zones that would be (might be) vaporized from the face of the Earth.

It was simple, really. She would take this book with her when she left, which would be soon, days perhaps. She would take it back to Earth and show people. (Perhaps something like that had already been done.) And if the universes were close enough that a similarity in immediate futures was possible, then people would be forced to act.

Faced with the prospect of nuclear war, people would start disarming, start apologizing, Jesus, I’m sorry we came so close; let’s take this as a blessing and-”Oh, CHRIST!” She closed the book and stood.

Lanier walked with her through the decrepit park near the library.

She cried for five minutes, then pulled herself together.

The questions she wanted to ask were so difficult to express in words.

And if she knew the answers, she might go mad ...

“Has anyone made comparisons? I mean, between their history and our own?” she asked.

“Yes,” Lanier said.. ”I have, and so has Takahashi.”

“He knows as much as we do?”

Lanier nodded.

“What did you find? I mean, are the universes similar?”

“The differences in the history records are small enough that they can be interpreted as differences of fact between two sources. No major differences. Until the Stone.”

“And the situations these books describe they sound like what’s happening on Earth, now, don’t they?”

“Yes.”

“The Little Death didn’t teach anybody a thing?”

“Perhaps not.”

She sat beneath a dead tree, on a concrete planter wall. ”Do they know, down on Earth?”

“Eleven people know, here and there.”

“What are they doing about it?”

“All that they can,” Lanier said.

“But the Stone can change things. It’s the crucial difference. Isn’t it?”

“We hope so. In the next few weeks, we’ll need all the answers we can get-to questions about alternate time-lines, universes, where the Stone came from. Can you help?”

“You need to know why the Stone is here, and how similar the universes might be, to decide whether we’re going to have a war on Earth?”

Lanier nodded. ”Very important.”

“I don’t see how any results I get can be detailed enough.”

“Hoffman believes that if anyone can tell us, you can.”

Patricia nodded and looked away. ”Okay. Can I make conditions?”

“What sort of conditions?”

“I want my family evacuated. I want some friends taken into the countryside, put under protection. Put where the generals and politicians will be.”

“No.” He walked around the tree slowly. ”I’m not angry with you for asking, but no. None of us has asked for anything like that. Thought about it, certainly.”

“Do you have family?”

“A brother and a sister. My parents are dead.”

“Wife? No. You’re single. A girl friend, fiancé?”

“No major attachments.”

“So you can be more objective than I can,” Patricia said angrily.

“You know that has nothing to do with it.”

“I’m going to work up here, for you people, and wait until my parents, my boyfriend, my sister, all the people I love die in a disaster I already know about?”

Lanier stopped before her. ”Think it through, Patricia.”

“I know, I know. There are hundreds of people aboard the Stone. If we all know and ask, things go haywire. That’s why the libraries are off limits.”

“That’s one reason,” Lanier said.

“And to keep the Russians from knowing?”

“That too.”

“How smart.” Her voice was soft, just the opposite of what he had expected. She sounded rational and if not calm, not terribly upset, either. ”What happens when I get mail from home?” she asked. ”What if I don’t write back?”

“It won’t matter much, will it? The dates are only a few weeks away.”

“How will I feel, getting letters? How will I be able to work?”

“You’ll work,” Lanier said, “knowing that if we get the answer soon enough, we might be able to do something about it.”

She stared hard at the ground with its dry, yellow grass.

“They said shuttle landing areas were bombed. In that book.”

“Yes.”

“If it happens, we’ll be stuck up here, won’t we?”

“Yes. Most of us. We won’t want to go back soon, anyway.”

“That’s why you’ve started farming. We won’t get anything from Earth for ... how long?”

“If there’s a war, and it’s as described, perhaps thirty years.”

“I ... I can’t go into the library now. Is that all right, if I stay out here for a while?”

“Sure. Let’s return to the first chamber and have dinner. And remember-I’ve had to live with this information for some time now. There’s no reason you can’t, as well.”

She got to her feet without responding. Her legs and hands were steady. She was in amazingly good shape, considering.

“Let’s go,” she said.
Top ^
 
 
Chapter Thirty-three

So I suppose you want to get away from it all. Feel like it’s very remote.

-Yes.

Go chasing down the corridor after her. Why?

-To save my goddamn soul, that’s why.

You haven’t done badly.

-The Earth is in ruins, the Stone is half-occupied by surly Russians, and I’ve lost the one person I was specifically told to protect.

But the Stone is still here, and the situation seems to be stabilizing -Belozersky. Yazykov. Vielgorsky. OM-liners, hard-liners. Yes. They’re trouble, and shouldn’t you stick around to blunt their particular axes? You’ll leave Hoffman with all the problems.

-She’ll let me go because she knows I’m at the end of my rope. I can’t take any more. I’m of no use to her or the Stone ... except to go find Patricia.

Lanier opened his eyes and looked at his wristwatch: 0750 hours.

He felt paralyzed. The voices continued in his head, back and forth.

His mind was trying to cope with the intolerable-and to find his place in a new situation.

He kept thinking of Earth, of people-friends, co-worker’s, perhaps the very people he had met a few weeks before-crawling through the rubble.

Very likely, there was not a single person alive on Earth whom he knew personally. That was good statistics but a lousy thought, lousy psychology. Most of his contacts (his people) had lived in cities or worked in military centers.

One exception was Robert Tyheimer. A submarine commander, he had been married to Lanier’s sister, who had died of a stroke two years before Lanier was assigned to the Stone.

They hadn’t talked since a year after her death. Tyheimer might still be alive, under the ice, waiting. If he hadn’t already contributed to the general destruction, then Tyheimer would guard his warheads and wait ... and wait ... for the next exchange. For the final blows.

“I hate you,” Lanier said out loud, eyes closed again. He didn’t even know whom he meant. Three psychiatrists gathered in his head and discoursed; one, a cliche Freudian, always twisted the worst and most sordid interpretation out of his every fleeting glimmer of thought.

Yes ... and your mother ... and what did you say then? Meant yourself, didn’t you?

Another sat quietly, smiling, letting him hang himself in his own ropy confusions.

The third nodded and recommended work therapy. The third resembled his father.

He turned over in the bed and opened his eyes again. No sleep, no rest. How long would it take for the people on the Stone to crack? How many, and how seriously? Who would contend with the problem, himself or Hoffman?

But the decision had already been made. He had given Hoffman the grand tour-and had encountered Mirsky in the third chamber library, sitting before a teardrop. The Russian lieutenant general had been accompanied by three bodyguards, even though the library was otherwise empty. He had appeared exhausted, and ignored them.

Showing Hoffman to a seat some distance away from the Russians, Lanier had taught her how to use the facilities. He had passed the keys to her, and she had welcomed them.

He sat up and flipped on the intercom. Blakely was back at her desk and still in charge of the central switchboard.

“I can’t sleep,” he said. ”What’s Heineman’s schedule now?”

“He’s awake, if that’s what you want to know,” she said.

“Fine. And in the seventh chamber, no doubt.”

“No, schedule here says staging area in the southern bore hole.”

“Call him, please.”

“Will do.”

“Tell him I want to leave tomorrow, early, eight hundred hours.”

“Yessir.”

The crew of the V/STOL had already been chosen: himself, Heineman, Carrolson-perhaps the only one Hoffman would have difficulty doing without-and Karen Farley. The mission was simple and direct: they would travel a maximum of one million kilometers down the corridor, assuming it extended that far, stopping at several points along the way and descending to the floor. Who knew what the nature of the corridor would be that far north? They would then return, with or without Patricia or any evidence of her whereabouts.

There were a lot of uncertainties, but they were of a type Lanier welcomed. He had been dealing with horrors for so long that a sleek, cleanly dangerous adventure seemed like heaven.

He dressed and gathered his personal kit into a little black bag.

Toothbrush, razor, change of underwear, slate with package of memory blocks.

Toothbrush.

Lanier started to laugh. The laughter seemed forced, but it gathered in waves until he was helpless. He lay on the bunk and doubled up, his face knotting painfully. Finally he stopped, gasping, and then thought of the tiny lavato on the aircraft, with its tiny shower. He thought of taking a crap as they rode the singularity and the laughter broke out anew.

Minutes passed before he could control it, and then he sat up straight on the edge of the bunk, taking deep breaths and rubbing his sore jaw and cheek muscles. ”God in heaven,” he sighed and stuffed the toothbrush into the little black bag.

The dead Soviet trooper floated twenty meters from the research scaffold in the seventh chamber bore hole. How he had gotten so far was anybody’s guess. He did not seem to have been wounded; perhaps he had feared the fall and stayed near the axis until his air gave out.

He was slowly drifting back down the bore hole, toward the sixth chamber. There wasn’t enough time to snag him and bring him down. He cast a tangible gloom over the farewells. He seemed to watch with great interest, his pale face visible behind the faceplate, eyes wide.

Hoffman hugged Lanier, Carrolson and then Farley, their bulky suits interfering with the intent if not the emotion.

Heineman was already aboard the V/STOL, which was attached remora-like to the tuberider.

They stood around the blunt end of the singularity for a moment, silent, and Hoffman said, “Garry, this isn’t a wild goose chase. You know that. We need that little Chicana. Whoever took her away from us may have known how much we need her. Of course, I’m suspicious by nature. At any rate, you folks are on a very important mission. Godspeed.”

Farley turned toward Hoffman. ”We reached a decision last night-Hna Ling and the rest of us, all the Chinese. It wasn’t to he announced until this evening, but nobody will object if I tell you now. We are with the Western bloc. The Soviet science team made some overtures, but we decided to support you. I think the Soviet scientists wish they could follow our lead. But I just wanted you to know, before we left.”

“Thank you,” Hoffman said, gripping Farley’s glove.

“We’ll be curious. No need to tell you that. Learn all you can. There’s a few hundred or more of us who wish we could go along.”

“That’s why I volunteered first,” Carrolson said.

“Time’s a-wastin’,” Heineman drawled. ”All aboard.”

“Shut up and let us be sentimental,” Carrolson scolded him.

“Everything will be fine,” Hoffman told Lanier as they hugged again and held each other back to peer through faceplates.

“Let’s go,” Lanier said. They hooked their safety lines to a long pole stretched out near the aircraft and kicked away one by one to enter the hatch. Two people fit into the airlock; they cycled twice, Lanier waiting until last. With the hatch sealed and air pressure restored, he removed his suit and folded it into the compartment beneath the airlock controls.

With only four passengers, the aircraft interior was spacious.

The forward part of the cabin was filled with boxes of scientific equipment; Carrolson and Farley checked them out before strapping in.

Lanier joined Heineman in the cockpit.

“All fuel and oxygen cables clear,” Heineman said, checking the instruments. ”I’ve run the diagnostics on the tuberider. Everything’s go.”

He looked expectantly at Lanier.

“Then go,” Lanier said.

Heineman swung out the pylon which held the tuberider controls and locked it before him. ”Hang on,’ he said. Then, over the intercom, “Ladies, barf bags are in the pouches of the seat in front of you. Not suggesting, you understand.”

He depressed the clamp controls. Slowly, smoothly, the tuberider began to slide along the slender silver pipe of the singularity. ”A little more,” he said: Lanier felt himself pressed back into his seat.

“And a little more still.”

They were heavy now, lying on their backs in a cockpit and cabin suddenly upended. ”Last bit,” Heineman said, and they effectively weighed half again more than they would have on Earth. ”There’s a rope ladder I’ll unroll down the aisle, just in case anybody has to go to the bathroom.” He grinned at Lanier. ”I don’t recommend the lavatory in these conditions. We didn’t get enough specs to design for comfort. I’ll let up on the clamps if anyone gets desperate.”

“Count on it,” Carrolson said from the cabin.

Lanier watched the corridor moving slowly, majestically around them.

Through the windscreen, the floor of the corridor merged in the distance with the pearly central glow of the plasma tube ... stretching perhaps forever.

“The ultimate escape, isn’t it?” Heineman asked, as if reading his thoughts. ”Makes me feel young again.”
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