Back | Next

Chapter One

Dr. Victor Hunt finished combing his hair, buttoned on a clean shirt, and paused to contemplate the somewhat sleepy-eyed but otherwise presentable image staring back at him from the bathroom mirror. He detected a couple of gray strands here and there among his full head of dark brown waves, but somebody would have had to be looking for them to notice them. His skin had an acceptably healthy tone to it; the lines of his cheeks and jaw were solid and firm, and his belt still rested loosely on his hips to serve its intended purpose of keeping his pants up and not to keep his waistline in. All in all, he decided, he wasn't doing too badly for thirty-nine. The face in the mirror frowned suddenly as the ritual reminded him of a typical specimen of middle-age male wreckage in a TV commercial; all it wanted now was for the mentally defective, bottle-brandishing wife to appear in the doorway behind to deliver the message on baldness cures, body deodorants, remedies for bad breath, or whatever. Shuddering at the thought, he tossed the comb into the medicine cabinet above the sink, closed the door, and ambled through into the apartment's kitchen.

"Are you through in the bathroom, Vic?" Lyn's voice called from the open door of the bedroom. It sounded bright and cheerful, and should have been illegal at that time in the morning.

"Go ahead." Hunt tapped a code into the kitchen terminal to summon a breakfast menu onto its screen, studied the display for a few seconds, then entered an order to the robochef for scrambled eggs, bacon (crisp), toast with marmalade, and coffee, twice. Lyn appeared in the hallway outside, Hunt's bathrobe hanging loosely on her shoulders and doing little to hide her long, slim legs and golden-tanned body. She flashed him a smile, then vanished into the bathroom in a swirl of the red hair that hung halfway down her back.

"It's coming up," Hunt called after her.

"The usual," her voice threw back from the doorway.

"You guessed?"

"The English are creatures of habit."

"Why make life complicated?"

The screen presented a list of grocery items that were getting low, and Hunt okayed the computer to transmit an order to Albertson's for delivery later that day. The sound of the shower being turned on greeted him as he emerged from the kitchen and walked through into the living room, wondering how a world that accepted as normal the nightly spectacle of people discussing their constipation, hemorrhoids, dandruff, and indigestion in front of an audience of a million strangers could possibly find something obscene in the sight of pretty girls taking their clothes off. "There's now't so strange as folk," his grandmother from Yorkshire would have said, he thought to himself.

It wouldn't have needed a Sherlock Holmes to read the story of the night before from the scene that confronted him in the living room. The half-filled coffee cup, empty cigarette pack, and the remains of a pepperoni pizza surrounded by scientific papers and notes strewn untidily in front of the desk terminal told of an evening that had begun with the best and purest of intentions to explore another approach to the Pluto problem. Lyn's shoulder bag on the table by the door, her coat draped across one end of the couch, the empty Chablis bottle, and the white cardboard box containing traces of a beef-curry dinner-to-go all added up to an interruption in the form of an unexpected but not exactly unwelcome arrival. The crumpled cushions and the two pairs of shoes lying where they had fallen between the couch and the coffee table said the rest. Oh well, Hunt told himself, it wouldn't make much difference to the rest of the world if the solution to how Pluto had wound up where it was had to wait an extra twenty-four hours.

He walked over to the desk and interrogated the terminal for any mail that might have come in overnight. There was a draft of a paper being put together by Mike Barrow's team at Lawrence Livermore Labs, suggesting that an aspect of Ganymean physics that they had been studying implied the possibility of achieving fusion at low temperatures. Hunt scanned it briefly and rerouted it to his office for closer reading there. A couple of bills and statements of account . . . file away and present again at the end of the month. Videorecording from Uncle William in Nigeria; Hunt entered a command for a replay and stood back to watch. Beyond the closed door the shower noises stopped, then Lyn sauntered back into the bedroom.

William and the family had enjoyed having Vic over on vacation recently and had especially liked hearing his personal account of his experiences at Jupiter and later back on Earth with the Ganymeans . . . Cousin Jenny had gotten an admin job at the nuclear steelmaking complex that was just going into operation outside Lagos. . . . News from the family in London was that all were well, except for Vic's older brother, George, who had been charged with threatening behavior after an argument about politics at his local pub. . . . The postgraduate students at Lagos University had been enthralled by Hunt's lecture about the Shapieron and were sending on a list of questions that they hoped he'd find time to reply to.

Just as the recording was finishing, Lyn came out of the bedroom wearing her chocolate blouse and ivory crepe skirt from the night before, then disappeared again into the kitchen. "Who's that?" she called, to the accompaniment of cupboard doors being opened and closed and plates being set down on a working surface.

"Uncle Billy."

"The one in Africa that you visited a few weeks ago?"

"Uh huh."

"So how are they doing?"

"He looks fine. Jenny's got herself fixed up at the new nuplex I told you about, and brother George is in trouble again."

"Uh-oh. What now?"

"Doing his pub lawyer act by the sound of it. Somebody didn't agree that the government ought to guarantee paychecks to anybody on strike."

"What is he—some kind of nut?"

"Runs in the family."

"You said it, not me."

Hunt grinned. "So never say you weren't warned."

"I'll remember that. . . . Food's ready."

Hunt flipped off the terminal and walked into the kitchen. Lyn, perched on a stool at the breakfast bar that divided the room in two, had already started eating. Hunt sat down opposite her, drank some coffee, then picked up his fork. "Why the rush?" he asked. "It's still early. We're not pushed for time."

"I'm not coming straight in. I ought to go home first and change."

"You look okay to me—fact, not a bad piece of womanry at all."

"Flattery will get you anywhere you like. No . . . Gregg's got some special visitors coming down from Washington today. I don't want to look 'groped' and spoil the Navcomms image." She smiled and mimicked an English accent. "One must maintain standards, you know."

Hunt snorted derisively. "It needs more practice. Who are the visitors?"

"All I know is they're from the State Department. Some hush-hush stuff that Gregg's been mixed up with lately . . . lots of calls coming in on secure channels, and couriers showing up with for-your-eyes-only things in sealed bags. Don't ask me what it's about."

"He hasn't let you in on it?" Hunt sounded surprised.

She shook her head and shrugged. "Maybe it's because I associate with crazy, unreliable foreigners."

"But you're his personal assistant," Hunt said. "I thought you knew about everything that happens around Navcomms."

Lyn shrugged again. "Not this time . . . at least, not so far. I've got a feeling I might find out today, though. Gregg's been dropping hints."

"Mmm . . . odd . . ." Hunt returned his attention to his plate and thought about the situation. Gregg Caldwell, Executive Director of the Navigation and Communications Division of the UN Space Arm, was Hunt's immediate chief. Through a combination of circumstances, under Caldwell's direction Navcomms had played a leading role in piecing together the story of Minerva and the Ganymeans, and Hunt had been intimately involved in the saga both before and during the Ganymeans' stay on Earth. Since their departure, Hunt's main task at Navcomms had been to head up a group that was coordinating the researches being conducted in various places into the volume of scientific information bequeathed by the aliens to Earth. Although not all the findings and speculations had been made public, the working atmosphere inside Navcomms was generally pretty frank and open, so security precautions taken to the extreme that Lyn had described were virtually unheard of. Something odd was going on, all right.

He leaned against the backrest of the bar chair to light a cigarette, and watched Lyn as she poured two more coffees. There was something about the way her gray-green eyes never quite lost their mischievous twinkle and about the hint of a pout that was always dancing elusively around her mouth that he found both amusing and exciting—"cute," he supposed an American would have said. He thought back over the three months that had elapsed since the Shapieron left, and tried to pinpoint what had happened to turn somebody who had been just a smart-headed, good-looking girl at the office into somebody he had breakfast with fairly regularly at one apartment or the other. But there didn't seem to be any particular where or when; it was just something that had happened somehow, somewhere along the line. He wasn't complaining.

She glanced up as she set the pot down and saw him looking at her. "See, I'm quite nice to have around, really. Wouldn't the morning be dull with only the vi-screen to stare at." She was at it again . . . playfully, but only if he didn't want to take it seriously. One rent made more sense than two, one set of utility bills was cheaper, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

"I'll pay the bills," Hunt said. He opened his hands appealingly. "You said it yourself earlier—Englishmen are creatures of habit. Anyhow, I'm maintaining standards."

"You sound like an endangered species," she told him.

"I am—chauvinists. Somebody's got to make a last stand somewhere."

"You don't need me?"

"Of course not. Good Lord, what a thought!" He scowled across the bar while Lyn returned an impish smile. Maybe the world could wait another forty-eight hours to find out about Pluto. "What are you up to tonight—anything special?" he asked.

"I got invited to a dinner party over in Hanwell . . . that marketing guy I told you about and his wife. They're having a big crowd of people in, and it sounded as if it could be fun. They told me to bring a friend, but I didn't think you'd be all that interested."

Hunt wrinkled his nose and frowned. "Isn't that the ESP-and-pyramid bunch?"

"Right. They're all excited because they've got a superpsychic going there tonight. He predicted everything about Minerva and the Ganymeans years ago. It has to be true—Amazing Supernature magazine said so."

Hunt knew she was teasing but couldn't suppress his irritation. "Oh for Christ's sake . . . I thought there was supposed to be an educational system in this bloody country! Don't they have any critical faculties at all?" He drained the last of his coffee and banged the mug down on the bar. "If he predicted it years ago, why didn't anybody hear about it years ago? Why do we only hear about it after science has told him what he was supposed to predict? Ask him what the Shapieron will find when it gets to the Giants' Star and make him write it down. I bet that never gets into Amazing Supernature magazine."

"That would be taking it too seriously," Lyn said lightly. "I only go there for the laughs. There's no point in trying to explain Occam's Razor to people who believe that UFOs are timeships from another century. Besides, apart from all that, they're nice people."

Hunt wondered how this kind of thing could still go on after the Ganymeans, who flew starships, created life in laboratories, and built self-aware computers, had affirmed repeatedly that they saw no reason to postulate the existence of any powers existing in the universe beyond those revealed by science and rational thinking. But people still wasted their lives away with daydreams.

He was becoming too serious, he decided, and dismissed the matter with a wave of his hand and a grin. "Come on. We'd better do something about sending you on your way."

Lyn headed for the living room to collect her shoes, bag, and coat, then met him again at the front door of the apartment. They kissed and squeezed each other. "I'll see you later, then," she whispered.

"See you later. Watch out for those crazies."

He waited until she had disappeared into the elevator, then closed the door and spent five minutes clearing the kitchen and restoring some semblance of decency to the rest of the place. Finally he put on a jacket, stuffed some items from the desk into his briefcase, and left in an elevator heading for the roof. Minutes later his airmobile was at two thousand feet and climbing to merge into an eastbound traffic corridor with the rainbow towers of Houston gleaming in the sunlight on the skyline ahead.


Back | Next