Kennedy Space Center.
Shuttle Mission Commander Centioli completed the last checklist of items for the Discovery launch at 001.26.53.222 and paused to check his horoscope for that day. He had a special link with a dial-a-psychic reading via Houston and it came up immediately on his intercom:
Aquarius (Sept. 23-Oct. 22): Co-workers are responsive to your ideas. Listen to your
your hunches and discover something important. Follow through on them in regard to a work- related matter. TONIGHT: Stay home, avoid the hot date.
Mission Control at Johnson Space Center overrode the channel and boomed:
CENTIOLI, THIS IS HOUSTON. YOU FOLLOW THAT ADVICE NOW! YOU MAY NEED YOUR SLEEP FOR THE NEXT MISSION, GETTING THAT SECOND SATELLITE UP IN TIME FOR CHIRON, RIGHT?
Happily married for over twenty years, a grandchild not far off, Centioli turned up his eyes as the mission specialists strapped in chairs behind him burst out laughing. There was no more time for reaction as ME-1 ignited at 26.47.222.
Next day they deployed the first Chiron astronomical observation satellite, sent it on its way to intercept the in-coming comet, and conducted an array of zero-gravity experiments. The crew was half-way through the week-long assignment when Houston broke in with special message for the commander.
"We are doing something you may not like," said Houston. "We have to abort the rest of the program. Discovery is needed earth-side, now. And forget about Chiron II for the Smithsonian, it won't be needed. As soon as you land, we'll have more details. Sorry."
"But, sir, if we scrub the rest of the mission, we've compromised some $650, 000, 000 from our sponsoring clients. They've paid into the mission for the experiments and will be very disappointed."
"No problem, commander. We appreciate your objection, but we've already talked to Grumman and the others and they understand perfectly that this is necessary. Now please abort. We need you back here as soon as possible--Criticality 7, Double X."
The main conference room at Edwards Air Force Base was under heavy security. Press had gotten wind because of a leak, but they could be kept waiting at the gates, fortunately. Commander Centioli was rushed from the dry lake landing strip to a conference that apparently had been going on for some time. To avoid the press, he was let in at a side gate. His escort quickly gave way to a general who led him into the room. He was dropped off at his chair and the confab continued.
"Where did they get this big a piece of mahogany?" he wondered. He could hardly see the end of it, and it was packed on both sides. Fortunately, he was seated only a dozen places from the head, so he could see the officiating general's expressions clearly.
"Steve," said General Howell, turning to an admiral after noting Centioli's entrance. "What if it hits the ocean instead? We'd have some big tidal waves, I suppose, but an ocean could absorb most of the impact, right?" The admiral shook his head and gave a boyish smile that made him look decades younger. "Sorry, I can't say that would be a good idea, to let that happen. It wouldn't stop at the sea bottom, sir, which is kind of thin compared to continental crust. No, the bollide would keep going, right through the mantle, at least twenty miles, and contact the magma. That, we know, would initiate an explosion that would take out most of the atmosphere as we now know it and possibly displace a thousand or two miles of the crust--"
Howell rubbed his chin ruefully. "I see. I was hoping, Steve, that's all. But we have Dick here. He'll think of something if we've missed it. What with his experimental craft flying experience and being liaison officer with the Skunk Works, he's known for fixing things--a true veteran of sticky situations! He'll know if we're on track or not."
Everyone chuckled obediently, even the ambitious nano tech expert who had come prepared with a scheme for disassembling the threat on the molecular level, reducing it to a harmless flying gob of spit. They were dead serious as they all turned like a many-bulbed spotlight on a lone performer on a stage too big for him.
Centioli began to feel the room was maybe too warm. He shifted in his plush chair and eyed what he could see of the gathering. Top army and navy brass, plus CIA, a brigade of consultants, even his chief of NASA sitting next to someone looking pretty strange and out of place in Hopi Indian costume.
"What is the problem specifically, gentlemen?" he said lamely. “I’ll do what I can.”
Howell exploded. "What? You mean nobody briefed you on the way here?"
"Affirmative, sir. We came directly and no one would say a word."
Howell took a handkerchief and stated to raise it to his perspiring brow, then gulped a glass of ice water instead as he stared at the Hopi’s feathers and elaborate beadwork. "Dick, Chiron is going to be no flyby this time. Some blame thing knocked it a hair off course and now we're targeted. Targeted! Did you get that?"
You could hear a pen being drawn across a piece of notebook paper. Though it was old news to the others by this time, hearing it spoken so authoritatively sent the adrenaline rushing all over again, from one end of the room to the other..
Centioli digested the news, then turned to the consultants, the Hopi soothsayer included.
Howell noticed his glance and flicked his pencil toward the phalanx of astronomical and engineering wonks, and, surprising Centioli, the Hopi fellow looked Centioli in the eyes gravely as he spoke up for the others.
"General Howell is correct. Chiron's nucleus, as you know, is 25 times bigger than Halley's. It has been flying harmlessly by us every 50.7 years. But this time something happened to deflect its trajectory. It's headed straight for us and will impact October 23, 2347 hours, EST. Thanks to Hubbell II, we were able to get an exact reading far enough away to be able to hold this meeting, in the hopes that this comet, which we in our nation traditionally call the Blue Horse Star--"
"Thank you, Chief Morning Sky," said Howell, turning back to Centioli. "Now your job is to input whatever information or strategy you think is most pertinent. Well?"
Centioli, in all his years testing secret Black Project anti-grav craft and coordinating various projects with NASA, had never been so challenged. "Well, for one thing, I can hardly believe Chiron's course has changed," he said, hoping to buy some time. "What could have done it?"
Howell broke in as the same Hopi Indian consultant began to rise with an enlargement of a rare 1946 color shot of a blue-tailed comet and a recent Hubbell II photograph on which a red spot showed next to the nucleus. “Absolutely beyond question, verified by astronomers, this is the Blood Hatchet Star, also known to us as the Red Chaser in our native tradition, which has now at the close of the present world cycle appeared--” Blunt as always, the general did not hesitate to interrupt anyone if he thought they had already covered the ground in question. He shook his head looking at the Hopi. "There's no time for that “show and tell” stuff, Chief. We've heard enough talk and still no scientific explanation for the mystery spot! Now take our word for it. Chiron is going to hit! That means the end of life on this planet, for a very long time. I'm speaking of human life and a great deal of the plants and animals. There won't be a building standing afterwards. The forests will all go--a world-wide firestorm will do it. My God, the responsibility! If we're not up to it, we might has well pack our bags and head home, and let the cockroaches take over whatever is left after the big fire! But I have complete confidence in you gentlemen. Now Dick, what do you say?"
Centioli felt queasy at that moment. He had no idea. They were the military, after all. What about nuclear warheads? Or the old ICARUS project?
Howell seemed to read his thoughts. "Of course, we'll send up all the warheads we have on-line. That has got to blow it off course. But this is where you come in, Dick. Will it be enough? We can’t afford to miscalculate something this important. You've been in space now more than any other astronaut, American or Soviet--Russian, that is. As for the Russians, they're sending up whatever rockets are still operative, which will be a big help, since a single rocket may tip the scale in our favor."
Centioli thought he recognized one of the consultants who had not as yet spoken up. Uwe Hantsbo? It was the right name for the guy. He wasn’t a military man. He had founded the ICARUS project years back at Harvard, think-tanking the means to stop any Earth-crossing comet or asteroid when nobody else could care less if an object, a kilometer in diameter (which arrived only every million years or so) knocked out India. After that he had spearheaded one or two SETI radio telescopes in America and Australia. Nothing yet had come of SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, but these types never seemed to burn out of hope. Despite the lack of confirmed signals, SETI kept plugging away, by hook or crook, despite the reluctance of government to fund it because it considered space exploration and space science--not pure observation of the Universe for extraterrestrial life--more important. It had, consequently, been quite a boost in morale when filmmaker Steven Spielberg, of Close Encounters and E.T. fame, greased SETI with a cool $100,000--just enough cash flow, in fact, to fund badly needed “Christmas Tree” control near a vital SETI facility in the Australian Outback. That, at a time when a secret government investigative agency said to be a feeler for the D.I.A. was making top security contact with extraterrestrial craft and intelligences who claimed to be former residents of the lost continent of Atlantis--a break-through that Centioli, being privy to so much ultra-touchy Black Project stuff--knew had happened but would never be released to the public, of course.
Hantsbo was now jotting something on his notepad, then he stopped and looked directly at Centioli, as he somehow knew all about the cover on the extremely sensitive Atlantean file that was doubling by the minute somewhere beneath Mt. Cheyenne’s NORAD complex. Centioli turned to Howell, desperate to keep his desperation from showing at that critical moment. "This is all somewhat sudden. I need a few minutes, sir. Could we break and--"
"Certainly!” agreed the general to Centioli’s amazement and utter relief. “Gentlemen, please be back here precisely at--"
"Uwe Hantsbo, Astronomical Knight Errant at your service!" the ICARUS consultant introduced himself the moment they were alone in the room. “Not many remember me since I took on SETI and dug in at Parkes in the Aussie outback. I was the one, by the way, who figured out what was cutting our underground cables--that strangling, burrowing monstrosity the natives so euphemistically called a Christmas Tree.”
Centioli's strong hand gripped Hantsbo's damp, wilted one--itself a kind of weak parasite next to Centioli’s vital, manly flesh.
‘Complements of the U.S. Treasury Department’s molds and presses, though they don’t know it, ” Hantsbo offered, his face lit with an annoying, Cheshire-cat smile. Centioli took the raffish, highly-illegal $100 bill with the Hantsbo acroynm (UHEAKE--” [Uwe Hantsbo, Esquire and Astronomical Knight Errant] and his knightly motto: HAVE RADIO TELESCOPE AND WATER HOLE, WILL TRAVEL.” Centioli looked around the room. He still could hardly believe it and quickly slipped the evidence of Hantsbo’s invasion of the Treasury Department into his pocket.
Hantsbo held out his notepad. "Look at this, please. I think I have something that may work."
Centioli took the pad and examined the diagram. It was simple, a trajectory for Chiron the Blue Centaur and a point of interception, plus the needed nuclear megatons to deflect the comet the critical degree. The veteran spaceman shrugged, his belief in the other man’s credibility taking a direct hit. "What is this going to do that NASA and the military haven't already thought of?"
Hantsbo laughed. "Not a thing! It's what they have in mind to do. I just wanted to show you that it won't work and will only make things worse!"
Centioli's eyes widened with appreciation.
Hantsbo took the notepad and tore off the first page, then made another couple notes and thrust it back as Centioli noticed the pencil he was using. Garfield in a Moon Walker’s suit was attached.
Centioli's eyes widened even further as he read, "Velocity behaviors added to the cometary mass will overwhelm any nuclear warhead. According to calculations this will only give it greater mass, which is the opposite of what we intend."
"Right on?" Hantsbo prompted, bobbing his chin. His eyes gleamed as he scrutinized the astronaut.
"Well?" said Centioli. "We've only got a minute more. Have you got an idea how we can deflect the thing and not double its size, which, I take it, would correct the deflection and send it directly again at Earth?"
Hantsbo shrugged and just let the question pass.
Now Centioli was really annoyed, and it showed by a cutting edge in his voice. "So you don't know what to do? Why call me aside to tell me this then? I needed to do some thinking of my own in the little time I have."
"You shouldn't assume I don't know what to do."
Hantsbo's condescending manner and silly grin were getting on Centioli's nerves. Then Hantsbo dropped his grin abruptly. "This isn't a waste of your precious time, commander. I just want to know if you really want to deflect the comet. As you can guess, NASA and the armchair generals' plan won't sail. But it's all they can come up with. I can't tell them mine, for they wouldn't buy it in a million light-years."
"What won't they buy? You haven't told them, you said. How do you know they would reject it? After all, you and your colleagues were in on the ground floor with the idea for stopping asteroids and such from ever impacting the Earth. That is why you're here today. So you’re in the catbird’s seat. You can call the shots, one way or the other.”
Hantsbo's Cheshire grin greeted his remark. "Sure they believe in me!" he laughed. "What odds will you give me I don’t get laughed out the door? Howell wouldn’t even give ten seconds to the nano tech guy. He’s got a workable idea too, only there’s no time for implementing it. No, they’re set on old strategy that they can all feel comfortable with, even though it hasn’t one chance in a trillion of succeeding."
Several generals came in the door, talking loudly, slapping shoulders, and smoking cigars. "That plan is absolutely brilliant!" crowed one to the other. "It'll blow the baby right out of the sky before it even knows what hit it! Why, it reminds me of the Gulf War when I--"
Hantsbo moved close to Centioli. "Did you hear that crap? That proves you're dead wrong about them. They won't consider what I have to say. They can't possibly order this done, even to save the Earth. They'd look ridiculous, and nobody would believe this was the best way to save the planet. It'd be their careers, and which do you think they’ll opt to save first--careers or poor, old Earth?!"
Centioli's expression hardened. His hand soiled in the staging of a dozen or so elaborate, high cover-ups by the Air Force, NASA, and various other agencies, he had grown into a cynic, but not to the point he couldn’t say no to his superiors. Yet he knew beyond doubt he was now dealing with a hopeless flake. Compared with Hantsbo, the feather-decked Hopi stargazer and soothsayer was a man in a gray flannel suit. "Thanks, I appreciate your suggestions, but the meeting is going to resume, and I have to make a run to the--"
Hantsbo stepped aside as Centioli made a quick exit to the officers' restroom. It was only an excuse. He had to get away to slap cold water on his face. Turning back, he walked along with a couple generals and regained his seat just as Howell sat down.
Howell and the others listened to his views on the cometary convergence, that he fully concurred with them that the best response was to go all-out nuclear at the critical point of Chiron's trajectory.
Hantsbo was not deterred. Through the rest of the meeting he sat quietly, but just before Centioli could get away at the end, he stepped in his path. "That was all military lickspittle and hogwash, admit it!" laughed Hantsbo. "When you want to do something realistic to save Earth, let me know. Here's my number."
“Well, it’s either that or take Chief Morning Sky’s suggestion that we all should pray, join in circles, and do pow wows as the comet converges with Earth,” Centioli shot back at Hantsbo.
Hantsbo shrugged at the cynicism. “What’s wrong with prayer and pow wows? In principle, a holistic approach like that could be the best answer. But I’m for hard-nosed, knuckle-cracking expedients, not answers, being irreligious at heart. Whose to say that we don’t need anything more this time than just getting by--by the skin of our teeth?”
Centioli shook his head. What could anyone do with a harebrained hacker like Hantsbo? Obviously, he would never fit any category. He glanced down at a card with telephone and fax numbers. He slipped it in his pocket just to be polite.
Centioli, after flying to Kennedy, could not sleep. He picked up the phone. "Hantsbo, this had better be good, or I'll personally see you never get into another top-level meeting with us again!"
The laugh at the other end was amazingly fresh for that hour of the morning. Actually, too fresh! It seemed to hover in the air like the smile of the Cheshire cat. "Sure, I'll agree to that! But, commander, I'm going to have to ask a lot of you."
"Go ahead," said the weary astronaut. "I'm game."
"Okay, to start off, you call that glorified tin can, Howell, and tell him you were afraid to tell him the truth in front of all these important stuffed-shirts. Say you really aren't sure about the trajectory reading. It could mean disaster if it isn't correct. Also, you've examined the data and don't feel the firepower will be sufficient for deflection. This is all true, so far, right? Then, with that under the general's Spandex stretch belt, you suggest that the Atlantis be sent up with enough nuclear payload to tip the scales--"
"Don't tell me," interrupted Centioli, yawning. "I can guess at this stage that you intend for me to turn kamikaze!"
Hantsbo snickered--the snicker hovering in the air too. "Naw! You'd only make it worse doing that! Think of the Cesium 137 and other nasty isotopes you'd add to the mess the generals are already prepared to cook up for Earth! No, I have a better way. It's a disaster, of course, but still it's the lesser by far of two evils."
Centioli rolled over on the bed, plumped his pillow, and tried to concentrate his remaining few degrees of interest in the crazy brainstorm he knew was coming.
"Commander we don't try to move Chiron. That's too risky at this date. It's just too close. No, we move ourselves!"
Centioli dropped the receiver. He lunged, caught it before it hit the floor, then jammed it against his ear. "What?" he yelled at the top his lungs.
"Warn me when you're going to do that!" complained Hantsbo, his voice sounding distant and pained. "I thought you'd be surprised, but now you can imagine how the generals would have reacted. What I mean is--"
"I know what you mean. Get on with it, your cockeyed plan!"
"As I was saying, Antarctica is an excellent, excellent site for the big blow. Absolutely super! Few people live there and few will ever live there. It’s mostly all ice and snow, and it's so cold whatever melts will almost instantly freeze solid again. Of course, we'll get enormous oceanic displacement anomalies for a while and may lose places like Hawaii and Miami Beach. But there shouldn't be much damage otherwise, since it's mostly all going to happen at the bottom of the world where all the animals are either aquatic or can fly away."
Centioli's mind was racing. In a flash what seemed absurd now began to take on possibility. A thousand "ifs remained flying about in his head like a blizzard in a paper weight, but he didn't hang up. "I still don't see how nuking Antarctica will do any good whatsoever. What one shuttle can carry would never tip the scales in that way. Earth is just too--"
"Yes, I know the mass--6.6 sextillion tons, to be exact. But deflection strategy is kinda my gig, remember? To put it in layman's terms, the planet wobbles, as you know. Catch it at the wobble, you can turn it out of its orbit a degree or two like Archimedes wanted to do with his giant screw. It'll probably correct in a few dozen rotations, but by that time Chiron will be long gone, long gone, missing us by a hair's breadth."
When Hantsbo finished Centioli had only one response. "Negative."
"Why not, sweetheart?"
"Like you said a number of times, they won't buy it. It would make them look ridiculous. Imagine moving the Earth! Even if it's one degree, everybody would think it was insane. No, they've got to try to deflect the comet. That's the way we're all trained to think! Everyone but you, that is!"
"Exactly! They won't buy the only sane plan. SO WE WON'T TELL THEM!"
Centioli burst out laughing. "Hantsbo, you're either a maverick genius or the worst menace in the world. I can't tell which!"
"Tell them what they want to hear. It's true enough as far as it goes. Just don't tell them what you're going to do with the shuttle payload."
Centioli couldn't take any more at the moment. Visions of Hantsbo’s idiotic smile, dancing over a vast soupy, heaving mass that used to be frozen up Antarctica, danced in his head. "I'll call you back. I've got to think about this. After all, there's a couple thousand personnel at the polar stations, not to mention the penguins. And I happen to like penguins even more than people! They’re wonderful creatures and make no trouble for anyone but the fish they eat.”
"Sorry, there's no time for sentiment and gush. You already know it has to be done. Who else would do it? I've studied your career for some time. You are willing to follow hunches. Nobody else in NASA dares to do that after the messy, unbelievable Challenger cover-up. I saw NASA's photographs of the launch. O-ring seals, ice build-up, my foot! It’s sabotage, sabotage, plain as my foot! What explains their handling of the whole thing is that NASA’s 's the most hidebound institution we have next to the D.A.R. They really believe they’re credible. Everybody knows that. And so far you've come out on top, a nice guy winner in a racket full of losers and prima donnas who don’t have a clew anymore when their pants have fallen down."
"Yes, so far!" growled the hunch-taker.
"Well, even if it doesn't work, you've at least haven't joined a mission you know from the start is doomed to failure."
Nice guy or not, Centioli could have bitten the receiver in two at that moment. He was beside himself. He leaped off the bed and the phone nearly tore from the jack. "Get this, Hantsbo!" he said in a strangled voice. "I'm throwing my career away. I'm still in uniform. You're free lance. You have NOTHING to lose. NOTHING! I'm the one going out on a limb, you know."
"Exactly,” said the bodiless head. “ Someone has to do it. You’re it."
Centioli sighed. "Okay, you win. But you have to get those people off Antarctica--all of them! Tell them terrorists, an Hantivirus outbreak, a super nano tech experiment with human brain dis-assembly gone awry, anything it takes to force an evacuation. Otherwise, it's no sail!"
"That's a tall order, commander. That big a hoax isn't easy to pull off. But I've been studying the classic Orson Welles' Mars invasion broadcast for some time and I think I can replicate a comparable panic."
"You HAVE to do it!"
There was no maddening snicker suspended in space this time.
"Colonel Centioli, enjoying your R & R?"
"How'd you trace me?"
"I know you're a dedicated family man and all. I knew sooner or later you would have to make a call home to your wife. She kept hanging up, then switched on the message machine on that weeds out unwanted callers, until I re-programmed it to accept my calls anyway. When I finally got her on the phone, she gave me your number the moment I explained a few little things."
Centioli groaned. "Thanks. I really needed to hear your voice again. You're the man responsible."
"Fair enough. But once all the hubbub dies down you can come out of hiding and face the court martial and be exonerated, with full retirement pay, of course."
"You really think they'll forgive me for blowing up Antarctica? I wiped out most of the world's penguins, you know. “
"Yes, you did. But it's all frozen again. Miami Beach, Hawaii, Cozumel, Cancun--they’re not so popular right now in the state they’re in. And the way some people remember these things I doubt whether they’ll ever strut their stuff again. But the important thing is there's an Earth. The teensy-weensy deviation in orbit afforded by the blast was just enough to avoid Chiron's contact with the Roche factor. We still have a planet here instead of a radioactive lump of lava the generals would have handed us. Don't forget that. They'll all come round to the fact eventually. Just give them time. Just give them time."
Centioli gave a bitter laugh. "What about next time? Chiron is due back in fifty years, remember? What if it changes course again and targets us? I won't be around to play sucker to your schemes, Hantsbo!"
There was a dead silence--a kind of breathless vacuum that sucked out every vestige of the eternal Hantsbo smile.
Centioli repeated what he had said. "Oh, I heard you, commander. I just wondered how you missed the news. Just after the flyby Chiron changed course a fraction and hit the Sun--another KassenPfaff anomaly. It'll never be a problem again!"
It took several long moments to absorb the news. "KassenPfaff?" Centioli gulped witlessly.
"You know, old Baron Emil von KassenPfaff in 1922 who came up with the refinement on Bishop Occam's Razor. Quote: 'Herren, diese grosse events events in astronomy happen nicht when we sind looking. Always they happen when we sind nicht looking.'--unquote. Well, the old pessimist has been proven wrong twice with Chiron! But that's over and yesterday's news. We have only one last thing to worry about."
"You mean that wasn't the end of it?"
"Not exactly. You see, commander, whatever sent Chiron our way is still out there, and space has plenty of comets and asteroids left. It could do the same thing with ten or even twenty of them. Then what would we do? What? Have you and your friends in the D.I.A. and the N.R.A. and their nasty little affliliates considered consulting the Atlanteans on that?"
Centioli, from pure Black Project reflex, decided to let Hantsbo’s little Atlantean jab pass. "I think I'll sleep on it, if you don't mind. It's really your problem. I've earned my retirement."
"Yes, I suppose," the caller mused. "The only thing we have to worry about is that red spot on the photograph. It shouldn't have been there at that critical moment in the trajectory. Well, good luck!"
But Centioli couldn't sleep. Feeling the pinch of separation of from his wife and family, Centioli placed a desperate 1-900-RAINBOW call via comsat. The recorded message came loud and clear:
Aquarius (Oct. 23-Nov. 21): Say yes to a dramatic career change. Get out of the tight, little box that’s trapping your potential Seize the main chance or someone else will. Creative impacts are highlighted. A loved one may feel amorous. Don't destroy the mood; break any ice in the relationship. Long-term benefits come with your high energy and willingness to fulfill responsibilities, go that second mile for a trusted friend, but chill out on spending at present time until your ship comes in. TONIGHT: Take a nice long drive in the countryside to think things through.
Centioli got up and looked out the porthole of his hydrofoil yacht. It lay anchored in a secluded Malaysian cove. Nothing but mangrove swamps, jungle and rain forest for a hundred miles.
And what was more beyond the pale than UFOs? Suspecting a government cover-up, he conducted his own investigation of the phenomenon and found there was, indeed, a massive, well-coordinated obfuscation of the facts going on. The classic “Roswell incident” in Roswell, Arizona, with an alien starship crashing in Arizona, leaving two aliens dead and one alive, then everything disappearing on a sealed top-secret flight to Washington, D.C., was just the tip of the iceberg. At least that was the story the authorities and government agencies involved refused to discuss intelligently with anyone. Cornering experts in JPL and NASA he kept asking questions until he got his first significant leak: photographic mapping of Mars in 1977 had identified a wreck of a Vimy Vickers bomber on Mars, plus some ancient Egyptian-style artifacts! As for that and other hard data, the public was the last to know while the government played the classic ostrich with its head, seemingly, deep in sand, even while it funded secret NASA space missions and a top-secret National Reconnaissance Agency with highly trained CIA staff, all dedicated to gathering information, artifacts, and other evidence, then hiding everything like pirate treasure. One wriggling end of the caterpillar denied the other wriggling end existed! That could happen only in government, which was so vast and bloated with unaccounted tax monies, incompetence, and sheer chicanery masquerading as science. What interested Hantsbo even more than the documentation, which was extensive, was the long series of hundreds of contacts with extraterrestrials, particularly those who called themselves “Atlanteans.” Hacking his way into practically every file the agency had on the subject, he ferreted enough information to form a fairly comprehensive picture of their spacecraft and the individual Atlanteans themselves.
What he saw drew him irresistibly into deeper, shark-infested waters. He still had questions he wanted answered. Finally, he saw the NRA files would take him only so far. Late in 1989 he requisitioned, illegally, a certain secret NASA probe involving reconnaissance of 1994TL66, the miniplanet in the Kuiper Cometary Belt that the Atlanteans had mined for more-precious-than-platinum orichalc, a mission which also yielded him valuable, never-seen-before evidence of the Vimy, confirming NASA-NRA skullduggery on Mars. Of course, as he suspected, “1994TL66” was a typical NASA cover-up misnomer, since it had been discovered theoretically and physically years before the official sighting by NASA-approved astronomers on the take. It pleased him to be able to once again get in both faces of NASA and the nefarious NRA at the same time with this one probe. But to get what he really wanted, to actually confront the horse of a dark color that was being kept from him, he would have to make a private call. That entailed getting on board an Atlantean spacecraft, and since humanity had nothing the Atlanteans needed or wanted, invitations were few and far between. No, he had to find something they wanted and only he could provide. What would it be? He reran the data day and night, searching for a clew to the Achilles’ Heel of the Atlanteans. Religion, philosophy, mechanics, science, physiology, value systems, society, power structure, spacecraft type and operation--he studied it all, again and again until he began to pull his hair out with frustration. Atlanteans liked big band swing. Was that it? He doubted it very much.
The 1963 interview with lower echelon Atlanteans and Agent 2310 of the NRA, the 1974 Q-23 series completed and culminating in the Q-99 1975 confab with top level Atlanteans, almost everything had gone down-hill from there. Suspicion, charges from the Atlanteans that the NRA was acting in bad faith, the break-off of all communications for a decade, then in 1984 another low-level meeting arranged between Agent 2532 and what seemed to be a head butler, with the exchange of B enny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey classics and a resumption of relations. But the thaw was false, and for some reason the Atlanteans broke off again from the NRA, despite promises of unlimited access to the big bands. After that the rate of abductions rose alarmingly, reaching the public press, and the NRA tried valiantly to regain lost ground with the Atlanteans without having to promise them anything more substantial than a truckload of “golden platters.” What more did the Atlanteans demand? Obviously, the NRA could not deliver it, not in sufficient quantities. The files themselves, he finally decided, would never divulge what he wanted. So he traced NRA agents on their supposed “off-duty hours,” and he knew he was onto the real thing when he found several had checked into blood banks a little too often--and thereafter the banks, instead of supplying hospitals and clinics, had sent out everything they had on hand to army bases Hantsbo knew were tied to NRA-Atlantean contacts.
“Yipes, they’re a bunch of vampires, born with somebody’s IV in their mouth!” Hantsbo realized. “With a taste for not only human blood but big band swing!”
Now, armed with his hypothesis, Hantsbo had no choice but to seek something that he could not possibly verify--except by overt contact. Having studied the every case he had of human abduction and cattle mutilation, he thought he had a handle on the missing factor, but he knew it had to be tested. And to test it, he had to face actual confrontation with the Atlanteans. And if he were wrong? Records revealed that a great many agents, perpetrating some unknown offense in protocol, had never come out of Atlantean spaceships alive or dead.
There was silence after it came to rest, with some flashing lights, but no movements from inside. Hantsbo crept back down the temple and stood a few yards from the craft, waiting for something to happen. He knew the established NRA-Atlantean protocols well enough. They either would accept his overture or they would refuse him. It was that simple, so he waited after he went and knocked twice on the ship hull..
Minutes later, though it seemed much longer, the ship’s main hatch opened with a loud hiss. Blue light glared out into the night, and Hantsbo could see his first Atlantean face to face. He was coming out!
Hantsbo, bowing, went forward to meet the Atlantean. He knelt down as agents before him had always done, presenting gifts. His gifts? A Tommy Dorsey and Frank Sinatra record and plasma in plastic IV bottles. He had several dozen, totaling 32 pints of the stuff, and fresh. It had to be fresh, or he was a dead duck. Virtual immortals, due to genetic engineering and some yet unidentified processes, the Atlanteans never forgot nor forgave the slightest offense. If your gifts did not please them, you were in big trouble the next time you met them.
The Atlantean strode out part-way, glanced at the plasma, made a sign to Hantsbo, and Hantsbo understood at once. He grabbed the gifts--strung like flattened sausages on a halter wrapped around his body--and hustled them into the ship after the contact. The door shut behind Hantsbo, and he turned and saw he was now inside. Free to examine an Atlantean ship! Every nerve ending in his body vibrating with excitement, Hantsbo looked around, his main chance gloriously achieved.
His mind whirling, Hantsbo began greedily devouring every detail of its make, mechanics, appearance, and function even as he followed the Atlantean deeper into the craft. Much more spacious inside than it appeared from outside, the honeycombed, hexagonal rooms grew in dimension as he climbed the ascending, curving hall, passing banks of glowing machinery and here and there an Atlantean, or slave--for the Atlanteans had quite a few menials serving them hand and foot.
Finally, stepping through a series of chambers, each one more crowded with Atlanteans and their menagerie of exotic pets than the next, they reached a room with only one person in it--a woman.
Here, Hantsbo’s guide left him with a personage that looked every inch an ancient Egyptian of Pharaonic times, complete to the pectoral and gold serpent-arm bands. She was seated at a large, stringless harp, as if they had interrupted her playing.
“Ah, this must be the face that sank a thousand NRA agents!” Hantsbo thought as she turned to him.
The woman, never taking her eyes off him, stepped toward him as he waited. What was he to do now? he wondered. Was this the chief Atlantean? Their queen? Or was she a mistress of the king? Whatever she was, she carried herself, he noted, with regal pride, her head held high. She walked partway round him, pausing to glance away for a moment at the door where guards waited her command. As if she had reconsidered, she turned to him.
Her nostrils distinctly flared as she drew breath, and when she spoke her words seemed to strike at him like a cobra. His blood ran cold as he heard his first Atlantean addressing him in a low whisper he had to strain to hear.
“Fake!” she said. “How dare you come in here, purporting to be a representative? I haven’t killed you yet because I have to decide exactly what punishment is best. Not one of your people has ever done this before. We shall need to make a lesson of you for the sake of future dealings.”
She was, indeed, the queen of hearts. This was going to be the fight of his life. Hantsbo saw that at once. Therefore, he pulled out all the stops. Why not? He had nothing to lose now.
Hantsbo threw himself down on the floor, writhing in paroxysms of grief, repentance, and shame. Adulation and flattery poured from him like great rivers of the Amazon basin. He quoted reams of Shakespeare, Swinburne, and Metaphysical poets by the raft--extolling the woman’s exquisite charms, magnificence, brilliance of intellect, brilliance of eye, perfection of form, and so on--and, though he couldn’t be sure--he detected a possible softening to a degree of her icy cold fury. Apparently, she didn’t get enough of this kind of treatment from her inferiors, and what she had to command was not all that satisfactory in performance.
Finally, just as he was about to run out of the most outrageous complements, she shrugged and strode off to the side of the room, considering something as she glanced at her nails. It was a dreadful moment until she turned again to him.
“What is it you want, coming here like this?”
Hantsbo sprang to his feet, his heart exulting at his success. At least now, there could be some form of negotiation. He might still be dead mutton, but she was apparently content to let him live a few more minutes. He bowed effusively, replying, “Your Sublime Grace and Majesty, I had heard report of the greatness of your power and your wondrous things here, and so I risked all to come and see myself if such things were true or mere fables and exaggeration.”
“Fables and exaggeration!” she spat out. “Look around you! How does one say this is a fable! I want that one dead! Who is he?”
Striding right up to him with all the aplomb and vigor of a double-crossed Barbara Stanwyck, it was made very clear to Hantsbo that she really did want the malefactor who dared impugn her greatness. What could he do? He confessed on the spot that it was the feckless director of the NRA--Clyde S. N. Purcell.
Her eyes burned into his as she absorbed the information. Slowly, her lips parted and that low voice seemed to hold back every word, letting it go with the greatest reluctance. “I knew it! I never trusted him! His gifts--they were nothing! I wouldn’t have that ugly, common creature for a slave even in the mines! I saw what he was the moment he appeared with his gifts. I should have killed him then. That was my mistake. Now if you are lying, seeking only to save yourself, you too are mistaken. For you haven’t gained your life by what you told me. You will have to do better than that. “
So close she stood! Hantsbo could have reached out that moment and touched her. But he could not even dream of it, rather than risk her sensing it. Touching her would be like touching a deadly cobra. He had all he could do to stand his ground as she eyed him with those incredible, dark-lined eyes of hers.
“You inquired, Your Everlasting Celestial Ineffable Highness, what brought me to the threshold of your peerless splendor--” he prompted her.
Her left brow lifted, but she said nothing. Feeling like he might retch, he went on. “--and--and I am your humble servant, seeking only what divine knowledge you are pleased to give a barbarian like me.”
The word ‘knowledge’ seemed to lift the plane of conversation a quantum or two. She gazed at him differently, as if he were not a worm that had crept in uninvited and needed to be squashed underfoot. She turned away, showing him her linen-draped back. “What is it you want to know? We know everything. Why should you be given our knowledge?”
Hantsbo leaped at the chance to drive in a wedge. “But science is dependent on the glories you have discovered. Why must they be kept hidden forever from view? They are too great for that. No, like wonderful jewels, they demand our eternal appreciation and ceaseless study.”
“‘Study?’” she broke in. “What is there to study? The ancient things have all been known since the earliest times. We do not need to learn them again. Like the secret of carving stone as if it were butter, or moving the largest stones about like feathers, they are our eternal inheritance.”
“Yes, of course!” Hantsbo gushed. “I am not disputing that! But if only the world knew of the wonders you have here, they would all rush to adore and worship Your Majesty as you deserve!”
The logic of that seemed to penetrate the queenly cobra for the first time. She did not turn round to look at him, but just the same Hantsbo felt his presence was accepted in the room for the first time. He was free--for a minute, or an hour--to explain himself without having to fear his head being chopped off by one of the guards.
She walked away, pausing before a mirrorlike viewscreen set on a gold pedestal. It flashed into life, showing scenes of a lost continent. She turned round and looked at him, stepping aside so that he could look into the viewscreen. What he saw in the next few moments confirmed his wildest fancies about Atlantis--they were absolutely true. But all that greatness, where was it now? As if to squelch that question, the cobra-woman signed for him to follow and she led him personally on a grand tour of the ship.
Meanwhile, someone had put his Tommy Dorsey music on the ship sound system. Hantsbo couldn’t have chosen better, he himself acknowledged, as he heard Frank Sinatra crooning , “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread...”
Two hours later, they were standing back in the room where the tour began. The tour guide had been thorough, though he was disappointed that she did not stoop to introduce him to anyone. Aside from that, he had seen everything, from control room and engines and ship library to mess and galley and sleeping quarters and amusement centers for the higher grades and even the private quarters of the “ship captain,” if that was what she was. Especially impressive, the command center was sheeted with gold and a viewscreen filled an entire wall, ablaze with a constantly revolving planispheric view of the night sky’s constellations. Perseus, Pegasus the Flying Horse, the Pleiades, Orion the Hunter...that was all he had time to recognize before she led him away. But the library--that was a place he could have spent all day. Though small in space, it must have contained millions of cassette-sized tablets, which all glowed to life at a touch of the hand. Then there was even a case of human books. He glimpsed the works of Bertrand Russell, Voltaire, David Hume, Robert Ingersoll, John Dewey, Margaret Sangford--authors with whom they evidently agreed. Most curious of all, he saw a film collection, containing Hitchcock thrillers, and cartoons mostly of the Sylvester and Tweetie, cat-and-mouse variety.
After seeing everything she wished to reveal, his unspoken question finally made her laugh. Though she spoke so quietly, her laugh was horrible and loud. He thought it was a wolf’s howl as it erupted full-throated from her after she threw her head back.
“So you wish to know me! I never desire to know one of you, but yet you must know me! You have amused me today. I will tell you one of my names. Elektra.”
Hantsbo’s mental gears smoked, trying to make sense of this latest data. That was a Titaness’s moniker--not Egyptian at all--passed down by the Greeks. Elektra, the daughter--according to the old accounts--of Atlas! Bestowal of her name, evidently, was the highest point of the interview. Her former coldness quickly iced over her features. Wait! he thought. I have so much I want to know about you Atlanteans! Wait!
He dared not throw himself down at her feet. Repetition bored her. What more could he do? He had to take a new tack to regain her interest. She had shown him her great ship, and now what? Obviously, he had to quicken something in her colossal ego that would again allow him to live a bit longer for her amusement.
It was a wild gamble, but he could think of nothing else. “You have not shown me how you arrived at the great wisdom that powers this wonderful ship, Your Majesty. What could this wisdom be? I cannot fathom it. You must show me a particle of it, or I will die in utter frustration, not knowing how great your wisdom truly is.”
Elektra stirred back to life. Her eyes narrowed as she considered his meaning. Again, almost against her own will, she took the bait. She walked away, signing for him to follow. She led him into a room where they had not been. It was lit with soft blue glows of many cubelike objects arranged on a low shelf. She went and took some and put them on pedestals set in the floor. Then she tapped on them and they suddenly sprang into life as holographic models of mathematical theorems and constructs.
Hantsbo went from one to the other, his mouth hanging open. After examining several his heart nearly stopped cold as he realized what the Atlanteans had in their possession. A propulsion system based on particles faster than light? His mind energized by the discovery, Hantsbo forgot everything else and moved around the glowing genius crystallized in the holograms, and took notes on a pad until his pencil broke.
Meanwhile, Elektra stood back away, eyeing him with half-scorn, half-amusement. Suddenly, one model flickered and shrank back to the cube state. Frowning, Elektra went to it and tapped it again. It sprang back but at only half its brilliance. She shrugged and walked away.
Hantsbo now saw it all. She need not tell him anything more. He had observed sections of the interior that looked as if a meteoroid had passed through, and the haphazard, crude repairs of the infrastructure. Then this malfunctioning cube! Obviously, the ship was falling apart and the Atlanteans were powerless to put things back into their original state.
Elektra must have been put out of humor by the failing cube. She turned and walked out of the room. A moment later a guard entered and grabbed Hantsbo. Another guard came, striking him so hard Hantsbo lost his notepad and glasses and half his consciousness.
Later, after the starship departed, a stocky-built man in dirty cut-off jeans and a green shirt crept out of hiding. He ejected the cassette in the recorder, then hurriedly took the path back to civilization and the nearest pulque taverna--unaware that eyes had observed him and marked his escape route.