ALAN DEAN FOSTER ? ? Based on a story by Sean Clark WARNER BOOKS A Time Warner Company 1995 LucasArts Entertainment Company name and logo are registered
trademarks of Warner Books, Inc. ? ? Warner Books, Inc., 1271 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020 A Time Warner Company
Printed in the United States of America Hardcover Printing: January 1996. ? ? ? ? ? design by H. Roberts? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? To Steven Spielberg I waited forty years for those dinosaurs. Thanks. ? ? CHAPTER 1 ? ? "It's a rock, Mr. President." Warren Lyon Fraser—father, philanthropist, scion of a wealthy Illinois merchant family and at
present leader of the nominally Free World, glanced up absently from behind his desk. From
behind the desk, Earle reminded himself. The Chief Executive was preoccupied, his thoughts on
the Cabinet meeting scheduled for one o'clock and the state dinner being readied for theSpanish Premier.
Knowing this in advance it was incumbent upon Earle, as chief science advisor to the WhiteHouse, to couch his report in terms sufficiently strong to penetrate the social and diplomaticfog that permanently enveloped the President. That meant being straightforward and to the pointwhile keeping complex scientific terminology to a minimum. Words had to be chosen for immediateimpact as opposed to accuracy. Something had to be done about the situation, and done soon.
While very much aware of the President's busy schedule, Earle had insisted on the meeting. Thenews was too important, the need for a prompt and appropriate response too critical, for therelevant information to wend its way to the Chief Executive by means of the usual ruthlesslydistilled and bowdlerized written report. Not that Earle was a particularly forceful speaker,but there was no way he was going to try to convey these particular details through emotionlessprint or stammering underlings.
No, not these details. They were too weighty. In every sense of the word.
So he'd used every ounce of pull he possessed to get five minutes of the President's time,confident that when Fraser was made aware of the gravity of the situation, he would perk up andpay real attention. After all, what Earle had to say would instantly render irrelevant the mostimportant state dinner or Cabinet meeting.
"I take it you're referring to the 'object?" Fraser peered up at his science advisor out ofkindly, heavily lidded eyes that seemed never to blink. "Staff has been whispering about itsince yesterday, but I didn't see any point in wasting time on rumor and speculation. ThoughtI'd wait for the facts." The fingers of his right hand idly rotated a formal memo in slowcircles, as if he were absently polishing the desktop.
"I hope there aren't too many. Facts, that is. I've a partial Cabinet meeting in one hour.Nothing major; just the usual assortment of crises and catastrophes." Earle smiled politely asthe President eyed the elegant brass clock on his desk. "It's just that I'd like to grab a biteto eat first."
"Yes, sir." The Science Advisor wasn't intimidated. His briefings were usually deliveredelsewhere in the White House, but he'd spent more than a little time in the Oval Office and wascomfortable in its surroundings.
"Well, come on, then, Willy. So it's a rock. What kind of rock? Big, small, purple ... what?"The President waited, expectant but impatient.
Despite the prompting, Earle hesitated. Surely no similar report had ever been delivered insuch august surroundings, with the portraits of other presidents gazing down critically. Thatwas why it was so important for him to get it right the first time, to leave no room foruncertainty or equivocation.
"It's about a mile in diameter, Mr. President. My colleagues would chide me for not usingmetrics, but the details of the final report are going to be in all the papers tomorrow, andthat's a convenient size reference to use. Makes it easy to come to grips with it."
"A mile-long rock," the President murmured. "Or asteroid, rather."
"That's right, sir." Warren Lyon Fraser was no scientific sophisticate. His background andupbringing had been in business and politics. But you didn't get to be President of the UnitedStates without knowing a little something about everything. Or at least not without knowing howto fake it well.
"An asteroid, sir, that's right. That's the problem."
"I take it a mile in diameter is substantial, as asteroids go?"
"Substantial enough, sir."
"I'm beginning to get the feeling, both from what I've been hearing whispered around and nowfrom your attitude, Willy, that this isn't going to be something I'm going to be allowed toignore."
"I'm afraid not, Mr. President." The Science Advisor's expression was solemn.
Fraser sighed resignedly and leaned back in the thickly padded chair. It squeaked ever soslightly. "Why not?"
"There are two problems with this particular asteroid, sir. The first is that nobody saw itcoming. It's not big enough to announce itself boldly, but once it crossed the lunar orbit, itshould have been picked up by half a dozen observatories, or at least a few of the hyperactiveamateurs who do a lot of astronomy's dirty work."
"And it wasn't?" the President inquired.
"No, sir. It just kind of showed up. Solar objects don't play trick or treat. It's against therules. This thing has broken a lot of rules. One minute the immediate terrestrial vicinity isempty and the next it's home to this rock. Somebody should have seen it coming long before itentered orbit."
"So it's in orbit?" The President's interest was clearly piqued. "Don't these comets and suchjust go flashing past and then disappear?"
"Normally that's just what happens, sir. But not this thing. It came barreling in at God knowswhat velocity, skimmed the outer atmosphere, and slowed down. Slowed down astonishingly fast,as a matter of fact. We're very interested in how that happened. Initial observations indicatethat it's not a pallasite or—"
"Excuse me, Willy?"
"Sorry, sir.An exotic type of metallic meteorite. Preliminary analysis suggests that this one'scomposition is unremarkable, except for an occasional odd blip on isolated readouts."
"I'm glad to hear it." The President had a wicked sense of humor, which he chose to displayonly in private. Earle had been the recipient of it on more than one occasion.
"It's that occasional blip that has so many of my colleagues intrigued, sir. They wonder if itmight explain why no one saw this particular rock coming. It's not just our people either. TheRussians, the Japanese, the Europeans; they all missed it too."
"Maybe it's just that nobody was looking in the right place at the right time."
Earle nodded. "That's entirely possible, sir. In fact at the moment, that's the most reasonableexplanation. Especially when you consider that it came in over the Antarctic. Unfortunately,that doesn't help us with the second problem."
"It better be a big one." Fraser glanced significantly at the clock.
Earle squirmed inwardly, wishing some of the big boys from Houston were there to back him up.None of them could spare the time, however. They were all working furiously on the Problem.
"It's the orbit, sir. That's the trouble. It's a declining orbit. Rapidly declining, as amatter of fact. It really doesn't make any sense. Considering the speed at which the objectmust have entered the solar system, it should have zipped on past instead of letting itself becaptured. The calculations..." He fumbled clumsily with the inside pocket of his jacket. "Here,sir: I sketched it all out for you. I thought it might make the situation a little easier tounderstand." He smiled hopefully. "You know: a picture's worth...?"
Fraser straightened in his chair and took the drawing. With simple, straightforward lines itshowed the Earth, the Moon, and a tight ellipse encircling the Earth. At the far point of theellipse was a small dot.
The President glanced up at his advisor. "This isn't the kind of orbit the shuttles use, is it?Or any of our communications satellites?"
"No, sir. Those would be near-perfect circles, each representing a stable orbit. See howextreme this one is?" Leaning forward, he touched the ellipse where it came nearest to Earth."If something isn't done very soon, this asteroid's orbit will decay rapidly, and it will enterour atmosphere, at which point it will crash into the surface, either in one very large pieceand many tiny ones or in a number of fairly large ones. Again, much depends on its
composition." He straightened. "I'm told we'll have more accurate figures later thisafternoon."
Warren Fraser nodded slowly and rubbed his lower lip with the forefinger of his left hand. Heno longer looked at the clock. The President of the United States, Earle noted absently, hadhairy knuckles.
"What happens then? Worst-case scenario, Willy."
Earle considered. "I can't give you specifics, sir. No one can. Everything depends on the sizeof the pieces, their chemical makeup, and where they strike. If they come down in the vicinityof, say, Easter Island, we can expect possible tsunamis throughout the Pacific Basin. Middle ofthe Atlantic or Indian oceans, more of the same. If a lot of it burns up on entry, the effectscould be minimal."
"I see." The President's expression did not change. "What if these hypothetical pieces don'tland in the middle of the ocean? What if a big chunk were to come down somewhere near here?"
"Why, in that case, sir, no one would have to worry about which party is going to dominate thenext session of Congress. Or any other phase of government, for that matter. Personally, I'vealways thought it would be more appropriate for the capital to be located in a more centrallocation. Missouri, for example."
"As bad as that," the President muttered.
"Yes, sir, as bad as that. We might lose everything as far north as Philadelphia. Baltimore,certainly."
"So much for waterfront redevelopment." Fraser stared evenly at his advisor. "There's no wayyou can predict where it will come down?"
"No, sir. Nor in how many pieces, nor how big or small they'll he. Just that it's likely tomake an awful mess of wherever it strikes. Remember, we've only been on this for less thantwenty-four hours. The astronomy people have to coordinate observations with the chemists andso on. If it's mostly nickel-iron, well, that's not good. It means most of it's liable to comedown in one piece. We don't have a lot of time."
"But it could break up into small pieces, disintegrate on entry?"
"Yes, sir.Though I don't see much of an advantage in being tagged by a shotgun as opposed to arifle."
The President grunted softly. "All right.So much for wishful thinking. What do we do about it?Is there anything we can do about it?" He was reaching for the phone. The phone that couldcommand legions, or dollars. "I'm going to get on this myself. We'll appoint a top-flightcommittee—"
"Please, sir." Earle put forward a restraining hand. "I'm afraid that the standardcongressional speed of response isn't going to be adequate in this case. We have to do
Fraser left the phone in its cradle and steepled his fingers. "You wouldn't talk like thatunless there is something that can be done. Well, let's have it. I hope it won't cost too manyvotes."
"Waiting is liable to cost voters, sir. Thousands of them." Earle swallowed. This was reallywhy he'd sought the meeting with the President. Across the country, dozens of scientists andengineers were depending on him to sell the idea. He hoped he'd be able to. So far, it was the
"Preliminary modeling suggests that it should be possible to adjust the asteroid's orbit, tonudge it into a stable position."
"I see. I presume this can't be done by landing a few hundred players from the NFL on one sideof the object and having them all jump up and down simultaneously?"
Earle smiled, relieved that the President was able to find some levity in such a terriblyserious situation. "No, sir." Now came the difficult part. "Actually, it would involve the useof low-level nuclear explosives. Calculations show that they could be placed—"
Fraser interrupted. "Just a minute, Willy. Nuclear?"
"I'm sorry, sir. I know how controversial this is going to be. But nukes are really the onlythings with enough kick to affect an object of this size. There are no alternatives. And it hasto be precise. We don't want to bust this thing up. We just want to adjust its attitude."
"I'm going to have the same problem with Congress. Nukes." The President shook his head slowly."Can you see me going to a bunch of senators with this?"
"You have to, sir. Tell them that if we don't, and don't do it fast, a number ofrepresentatives are liable to lose something more than a few votes. Like entire districts, forexample."
Fraser sighed. "All right. That's my job. If I can't get authorization, we'll have to do it bypresidential decree. Assuming the procedure can be cleared, do we have anything suitable withwhich to do the work?"
"We have very little experience with anything but weapons-grade nukes, Mr. President. But theRussians have been using them for decades and—"
"Oh, wonderful. Congress is going to love this."
"It's not as bad as all that, sir." Earle tried to inject some enthusiasm into his voice."We've been sharing information with them for years, especially as regards long-term spacemissions."
Fraser considered. "A cooperative enterprise could be useful to both sides." He smiled thinly."It would also allow us to share the blame if this thing flops."
"We've already been in contact with the appropriate people in Moscow and Khabarovsk. Theyassure us that not only can their devices do the job cleanly and on the first try but that theyhave the necessary kilo tonnage on hand."
"These 'devices,'" the President murmured. "They'll fit on a shuttle? With no danger to thecrew?"
"Yes, sir. Fully shielded and ready to be armed. Actually, compared to some of the payloadswe've been putting in orbit recently, this one will be comparatively small. I've scanned theschematics, and the mechanics are pretty basic. The Russians have always tried to keep thingssimple."
The President's voice was soft. "It's a long way from using cherry bombs to blow up pop bottleson the Fourth. Used to do that when I was a kid. We won't be able to hide this one, Willy."
"No, sir. Everyone will be watching. Everyone on the planet. We can do this, Mr. President. TheRussians have the package, and we have the delivery system."
"Can't we just shoot the 'package' up there and avoid exposing our people to the possibleconsequences?"
"I'm afraid not, sir. In order for them to be maximally effective, the explosives have to besited precisely on the asteroid's surface. It means a shuttle trip, matching orbits, handplacement. There's no getting around that."
"I'll take your word for it, Willy."
"It's not my word, Mr. President. Several hundred people have been working overtime to put thistogether. It's the best chance we have."
Fraser was quiet for a long moment, gazing at something unseen. Eventually he looked again athis visitor. "You know what the hallmark of a successful politician is, Willy?"
"No, sir." Earle forced himself to listen. The President had a tendency to ramble.
"It's the ability to find some good even in the most godawful situation. For example, we're nottalking the end of the world here."
"No, sir," the Science Advisor murmured. "Only a meaningful portion of it."
"That's right; encourage me. Our people are sure the Russian nukes will work?"
"Reasonably sure, sir. In science nothing is certain. But they have used them before, to digtunnels for canals and expose large, deep ore bodies, and they've refined them over the years."
"Assuming they do, think of the possible benefits. It means that America can once again layclaim to being the world's savior. I realize that when I say something like that, it may soundunnecessarily cold to you, Willy, but as President I have to take everything into account. I dohope to be reelected in two years."
"Of course, sir." Earle kept his expression carefully neutral. In the previous election he hadvoted for Fraser's opponent.
"Now, let me see if I understand something correctly. If this rock can be properly stabilized,it will go into more or less permanent orbit around the Earth?"
"That's correct, sir."
"Then we could use it to replace many of our existing communications and scientific satellites,couldn't we?"
Earle smiled in what he hoped wasn't a patronizing manner. "Not entirely, sir. It would be astable orbit but not a geosynchronous one. But it could serve as a useful base for manyscientific programs. A cheap space station, and far larger than anything we could put up."
The President was nodding approvingly. "Good enough. The Earth will acquire a second moon.With potential economic benefits."
"Perhaps, sir. However, I don't think that should be our first priority."
Fraser swiveled slightly in his chair. "You don't have to justify expenses to Congress, Willy.I do. Wait and see. If we go through with this, there'll be half a dozen senators insisting we
U.S. territory. Then I'll have to mollify Kubiltov and his gang, and theclaim the rock as
Europeans will sulk, and ... well, you get the picture. There's more than science involvedhere."
"Yes, sir." Earle was growing impatient. "However it's handled, sir, we need to move on thisright away. Falling rocks know no politics."
"Rocks and politics both involve leverage, Willy. You've worked in Washington long enough toknow that."
"I have, sir. I'm just trying to emphasize the need for speed in this matter. Every moment isimportant. If we wait too long, the asteroid's orbit will decay to the point where no amount ofexplosive, nuclear or otherwise, will be able to affect it."
"I'll do the best I can, Willy. I promise I'll sign the necessary authorizations as soon as theCabinet has been consulted. We'll clear this afternoon's agenda so we can deal with this. NASAwill be the beneficiary of a presidential decree by five o'clock this evening." His eyes boredinto the Science Advisor. "God help you, Willy, if your people are wrong about these nuclearexplosives and they don't work properly."
Earle met the President's gaze evenly. "God help us, Mr. President, if they don't work,period." He turned to leave.
"One more thing, Willy."
The Science Advisor paused. "Yes, sir?" From the wall, Andrew Jackson seemed to be watching himintently.
"If this doesn't come off as planned, we could get the blame for whatever angle of approach theobject eventually takes."
"I know that, sir. This is an unprecedented situation. There are no guarantees. The only thingwe know for certain is that if we don't do something, and do it quickly, the asteroid willeventually strike the surface. It's only a question of where, and of how many will die."
Fraser nodded. "Then you'd better get going. You have people you need to talk to, and I have tomake some phone calls."
"Right, Mr. President." Earle left the Chief Executive reaching for one of the three telephoneson his desk. It was the direct line to Moscow. Not that it mattered what he and PresidentKubiltov said to each other. All that mattered now was setting off the right-size packages inthe proper places on the surface of a fast-moving rock the size of a small Iowa town.
The immediate priority was finding the best people to deliver those packages.
It was Low's favorite place in the city. Down by the water, close to where the incomparablebridge spanned the inconceivable crack in the exquisitely beautiful coastal mountains. Toimpoverished immigrants from Asia and the Pacific Basin, it doubtless still was a golden gate.To the residents of Marin County, it was a shorter commute. To tourists from around the countryand around the world, the ultimate souvenir picture.
Today the entire length was visible, devoid of mist. That would disappoint the tourists, heknew. More than a few expected the fog to perform on cue, as if the city had giant fog machinesinstalled outside the gate to create just the right photo-op when the tour boats were cruisingby.
Fog or not, Low loved the bridge. There was no more gracile public structure in the UnitedStates. Simple and functional, the Taj Mahal of the Far West. He never tired of looking at it.
Off to his right, the Alcatraz boat was just leaving. A covey of gulls swooped low in search ofedible debris. Two harangued him raucously.
He held up the empty sack from the fast-food restaurant. "Sorry, guys. No more French fries.Try something radical. Go look for fish." Thoroughly urbanized, the gulls refused to believehim. They settled on a nearby wave-washed rock and eyed him petulantly, in spite of the factthat he'd finished his meal twenty minutes earlier. He didn't blame the gulls. French frieswere an easier catch than tuna fry.
There weren't many people out on the point today. Besides himself, he'd seen only two couples.The point was inherently romantic, a fine place to smooch. Cold as it was, with the windskipping in past the Farallons, you naturally gravitated to your companion in search of bodyheat. In contrast, Low was alone, unless one counted the fish and the crabs, the plovers andthe gulls.
After morning rush hour, the bridge quieted down. He could see the first wall of fog, hoveringwell outside the gate, waiting for the slight change in temperature that would allow it to rollin and smother bay and city. That business about creeping in on little cat's feet was baloney,Low knew. The fog was an eager opportunist, charging forward to fill every crack and crevicethe instant it was meteorologically permissible.
He settled back in his heavy coat, altogether comfortable with his solitude and cholesterol-laden lunch. He did not expect to be disturbed.
That's when he saw a familiar face coming toward him. Harry Page. The NASA representativelooked the same as he had the last time they'd met, at the conclusion of some inane officialfunction. Low's last official function. How long ago had that been? Well over a year, anyway.
Now he was here, picking his way awkwardly over the rocks, an anxious expression on his wide,bearded face. It didn't bode well for the rest of the afternoon. It presaged formalconversation, which Low wanted no part of.
He could get up quickly, pretend he didn't see the visitor, and make a dash for his car. Pagecould never catch him. But Low knew there would be another car somewhere up above, on theaccess road, probably parked right next to his own. A featureless black or white, whollyfunctional government car. There would be a driver waiting for Page, and perhaps an assistant.
Resignedly, he wondered what Harry wanted. It must be important for them to send him all theway out here instead of communicating by phone or fax. Important enough to disturb hisretirement. He consoled himself a little with the knowledge that Page probably wasn't lookingforward to the encounter either.
Then it was too late to attempt a graceful exit, because the NASA rep was waving to him andcalling his name. Sensing coming awkwardness, the gulls took flight, deciding to try their luckdown by the wharf.
An indifferent Low slipped the crumpled, greasy bag into a jacket pocket. It was the kind ofsloppiness that would never have been tolerated on a shuttle mission, and he luxuriated in it,delighting in his Earth-bound status. He had an uneasy sensation that it was about to bedisturbed.
"Boston!" Page waved again, with studied enthusiasm. "How ya doin', Boz?"
"I'm fine, Harry. Pull up a rock." Page did his best, and Low watched him squirm uncomfortably."What brings you out to the edge of the continent?" Low already knew the answer: he waited tohear the corollary.
Page winced. The rocks didn't suit him. Though the two men were about the same age, what wasleft of the NASA rep's hair was streaked with gray. Low always believed the radiation inWashington was more damaging than any to be encountered in space.
"Partly the food, Boz. I had breakfast down on Fisherman's Wharf this morning. Dungeness crabomelet. Can't get that inside the Beltway."
Riding high in the water, a Liberian-registered container ship was entering the gate, steamingsmoothly beneath the bridge. On its way to pick up cargo bound for Yokohama, Low thought. OrSingapore, or Djakarta. He sighed. There was no escape there either. The bureaucrats hadconquered the planet, and you had to coexist with them no matter where you lived.
"How long you been looking for me?"
"Since then. I was told this was one of your favorite places." His smile, at least, seemedsincere. "We've missed you, Boston. The program misses you. I still don't understand why youdidn't take that administrative position down in Houston. I'll never be offered that kind ofsalary if I live to be ninety."
"Same reason I opted out of the whole program, Harry." Picking up a small pebble, he chucked itbayward. It struck the water with a satisfying splook. "I didn't know what I wanted next, but
I knew I wanted out."
Page squinted at the place where the thrusting bridge pierced the underside of Marin. Sunlightricocheted off the chilly water, harder on his blue eyes than on Low's.
"You heard about the rock?"
Low made a noncommittal noise. "Anybody who hasn't?"
Page chuckled. "Some rice farmer in Bangladesh, maybe, or a Mongol family out on the steppe.Everybody's heard about the rock. You see people all the time, just stopping to stare up at thesky. Wondering if it's going to come down near them. Wondering if it's going to come down on
Low didn't reply. He was as guilty as anyone else. Especially at night, when you could see itpass overhead. Knowing that with each pass it was sinking a little lower, coming a littlenearer. Vindication at last for Chicken Little.
A green crab was ensconced on the moist sand by his feet, using one claw to shove food into itsmouthparts like a miner panning for gold. Its body was the size of a silver dollar.
"Anybody ever figure out how the whole astronomical establishment managed to miss itsapproach?" he heard himself asking.
"Not yet." Page didn't see the crab. Like most of his kind, Page rarely took the time to lookdown and see what was happening right at his feet. "They're still arguing about it. We're justdamn lucky it went into an elliptical instead of coming straight down on top of Saint Louis, orsomething. At least this way we have a little time to try and do something about it."
"Damn right about that." Low continued to watch the crab. Unlike him, it was perfectly suitedto its profession.
"You know that the rock's in a rapidly decaying orbit."
"I'd heard." Low heaved another pebble waterward. A scavenging gull darted toward it, veeredoff when she saw it wasn't an edible. Her rowdy cry was reproaching. Behind the two men, ayoung couple in dark jackets were wrapped up in each other, oblivious to gulls, bridge, water,city, and the world in general. Low envied them.
"What are they planning to do about it?"
Page shook his head dolefully. "Man, you really are out of the loop, aren't you?" When Lowdidn't react, the rep continued. "The Russians are providing us with some state-of-the-artexcavation packages. Really sharp stuff, minimal residual rads. Only, they're not going to beused for widening canals or exposing deep ore bodies."
"Kick it out into deep space?" Low inquired casually.
Page shook his head again. "Too much bang required. Probably blow it into a thousand pieces.Big, dangerous pieces. The intent is to just nudge it, stabilize the existing orbit."
"That's asking a helluva lot of the explosives people."
"It's all been worked out." Page exuded confidence. "Even where the poppers are to be placed.Nobody expects any surprises. The operation's already been carried out a hundred times."
"Computer simulation," Low murmured.
"In Houston and at Langley. Results match up every time, to enough places to reassure even thecommittee people. No margin for error."
"There's always margin for error." Low frowned. The crab had moved on. "Be an awful mess ifsomebody's figured wrong and it comes down faster."
"They haven't and it won't." Page changed approach. "The President and Congress are kind ofenamored of the rock's potential. They see it as a mile-long space station."
Low let out a derisive snort. "I'll bet the toy manufacturers are ahead of the stationdesigners. So they could have a zero-gee bowling alley, so what? Unmanneds can do it safer,cheaper, and better." His left eye twitched, but Page didn't see it.
"Sure they can, but a big, solid platform is an easier sell. Sexier. There's a lot to be saidfor it, Boston." He leaned a little closer. "We've got to pacify the rock anyway. Why not tryto put a favorable spin on it?"
"I suppose." Raising his eyes, Low favored his visitor with that special gaze. The one thatonly people who have seen the Earth as a blue-white marble possess. It didn't unsettle Page.He'd been the recipient of it many times before, from a number of men and women. Dealing withit, and them, was part of his job. He could handle complex equations and engineering problems,but he could also handle people. Which was why he had been sent to the coast instead of one ofthe others.
Besides, he'd known Boston Low off and on for more than ten years. As much as anyone could getto know Boston Low.
Like a point guard spotting an opening to the basket, the fog was starting to make its move.Soon both bridge and bay would be hidden by thick white mist, and the mournful howling of thefoghorns would resound across the waters like a pride of homesick lions calling to one anotherin the night. He blinked at his old acquaintance.