1 9 8 7


1 Black Tuesday II

As long as there are Greeks on earth, it’s a sure thing they will periodically remind the human race that Constantinople, the City of Light that stood so long against the Empire of Darkness, fell to the Turks on the first "Black Tuesday", ANNO 1453. Until 1987, as far as Greeks were concerned, there could be no darker Tuesday for the Western World. Many chroniclers from the Venerable Bede to Procopius and on to modern counterparts would have to agree after considering the primal role the imperial city played for over a millennium. Yet the first--however baleful an event-- would pale in comparison with the second.

It was a disaster it would take the world centuries to recognize for what it was. By then, of course, it was--shades of Troy, Nineveh, Babylon, Thebes, Rome, and Constantinople!--too late.

Tuesday, February 24, Cerro Gordo, Peru.

Thirty year old Hanno Spackle from Mississippi was one astronomer who never got tired looking at the skies.

What was he hoping to see from the vantage of so off-the-beaten-track and foreign a country? In Peru the place names couldn't even be counted on. The astronomical community went by the official government map and knew the site as "Cerro de la Estrella," "Mountain of the Stars." To its Peruvian neighbors, five thousand or so villagers, it was simply, less grandly, "Cerro Gordo," or "Fat [Man] Mountain, " since all the foreigners on it were considered to be rich, or "fat" in both wallets and bellies.

2:00 a.m. Spackle was passing through a sleepy cordon of AK-47-toting Peruvian guards and throwing them some packs of Lucky Strikes, their favorite. While crossing the compound Hanno did what he always did--star-gaze with the naked eye--as he walked the last several hundred meters to his work station, the massive-bulbed University of Carolina Observatory.

Extreme myopia failed to hold him back from his destiny. Born of poor but proud Mississippi river swamp people, he was too stubborn for that. Though refusing glasses, claiming that nothing could be worth seeing through "new fangled Yankee specs," he saw no contradiction in using the biggest eye-glass in the Western Hemisphere. Built by optical firms in eight countries, each zero-expansion glass ceramic mirror of the four weighed 22 tons. Ole Miss could have never funded the thing, of course, and Carolina was not likely either. How exactly the national treasury was raided to finance the world's largest optical telescope was hard to say. His colleagues speculated afterwards that the appropriation was mixed up with secret agencies and elite claques--the capital's "shadow government" in which certain old families of Southerners, for some reason, predominated. At any rate, Carolina's modest 16 incher was replaced with the incredible, world-champion 300 inch Zerodar Telescope after his arrival and nothing was said.

He stopped, removing his cob pipe to gaze up at the indescribable Magellanic galaxy. There, where he knew it hadn't been the night before, was a new glowbug--the most wondrous swamp glowbug he had ever seen

"By Ulysses Simpson Grant!" he swore, employing his worst oath.

He continued walking, his plaid shirt flapping round his gaunt frame like a scarecrow's from last summer in the brisk breeze of the high Andes.

Giving his head a slight shake to knock his night vision free of the nagging glowbug, he went on into the observatory and hunkered down to work on the latest observations.

Cerro Gordo Inter-American Observatory (CGIO) was a complex of seven observatories, built and staffed by a consortium of leading American universities under the sponsorship of the National Science Foundation. While Hanno Spackle methodically plowed through the usual preparatory paperwork on his work schedule, a fellow astronomer, Hal Ventura, in a nearby but much smaller observatory operated by the University of Nevada was looking at a photographic plate he had just made.

His eyes widened. A glowing spot of light was clearly captured, in the Large Magellanic Cloud galaxy. Exercising a scientific skepticism that had been born amidst the bright lights of Reno, he thought there was some flaw or mistake involved, but the plate could not be denied--it was proof he was looking at a stellar, exo-galactic event of the first magnitude--a SUPERNOVA.

Still unwilling to trust one single piece of evidence, he stepped outside. But there it was, plainly visible to his naked eye--a crimson gash in the heart of the soft-glowing Magellanic Cloud.

He went to look up Spackle and found him, head down as if asleep on his star charts.

"Caught you!" Ventura said, though he knew Spackle worked best that way, being so myopic. "Why, you old cuss, I'll report you yet!"

Only old friends can talk that way--in this case, friends who diplomatically ignored the Mason-Dixon line.

They chuckled and then got down to business.

Taking a look at Ventura's plate, Spackle darted a glance heavenwards, then swore something having to do with the former occupations of mothers of Yankees.

Ventura had to pull the plate out of Spackle's hands, or rather, he had to pry it away from his red, greasy face.

Careful not to take umbrage at a little slip into Confederate roots, Ventura persisted.

"Well, what do you think?" he blurted out, after an unbearable wait.

Spackle leaned back in his chair and heaved his "feet"--his incredibly smelly Adidas-shod clods--up on the star map table. Sizzling hot to the touch like a green manure pile, they were just right to him, since his lanky body came with the affliction of stone-cold feet and hands.

Ventura, meanwhile, was manfully fighting nausea and gagging. He could never get used to that overwhelming wave of ripe deadness that seemed to grow worse, if that was possible, even at that high, cool altitude.

"What do I think?" repeated Spackle, with a devilish rebel gleam in his weak eye. He spat to one side and more or less into a coffee urn, the top removed. "Well, I maybe ain't paid to think. What I see, my boy, is jist this. It's gotta be something a little out of the ordinary. I might jist add extra ordinary, and not be splittin' a hair on a sow's snout."

With that understatement Ventura had to make do for the moment. Spackle was famous for never letting on what he knew or surmised, not until he first saw how the winds blew, whether North or South.

Evenso, the moment Ventura had gone back to his work station, Spackle was scrambling upwards on a pile of trash to fit a giant improvised sun screen to the lens so he could have himself a good, close look at something out of the ordinary--how out of the ordinary on that Black Tuesday he would soon discover.

As for Ventura, he sat in his observatory, wondering what Spackle was already seeing, just from one look at the plate, that he would rather die than share with his fellow astronomers.

The Nevadan swore, he was so upset and frustrated.

It was so like Spackle to withhold, withhold, withhold! Other than his starcraft and tobacco, withholding was the cussed Reb’s passion and reason for being! Keep the Yankee world guessing, keep it from getting the right information, keep it wasting time and wandering about in unknown territory, keep it muddling and mucking about in the darkest swamps of the mind--and, eventually, somewhere down the road, the Confederate stars and bars would fly a notch higher than the stars and stripes. That, dreamt, prayed, plotted, was "the Great Astronomical Comeuppance," or, more to the point, "the Southern Fried Stellar Shift"--so great it was on par with Marlowe's Conversion of the Jews. The rebel underdog one day would be the “top dawg”--the secret dream, Ventura guessed, that lay at the heart of the man's cunning, obliquely withholding astronomy.

How the grungy likes of Spackle ever got to Cerro Gordo, or ever finished college and graduate school, much less grade school, was a sheer wonder to Ventura, rivaling pyramids, and Black Holes, and the Peruvians' adoration of Spackle. He had to have taken a quantum frog leap with those stinking, rotten feet, to make it to a Ph.D. Of course, oil found on the homestead might have helped a bit, plus a few, well-connected, corrupt relatives in the registrar’s office of the state university. However it was done, it was done. Spackle, from Catfish Row, Mississippi, had his wagon hitched to the stars. Other astronomers, with traditional ideas of what an astronomer should be like, could just go milk a cowbird!

Once Ventura thought he had to know something about Spackle's background, from the horse's mouth.

"Cajun?" he asked cheerily.

"Naa-a-a-ah," Spackle said.

There was a long pause of several minutes. Then: "We used to hog-tie those little suckers and run them off our swamps--they'd be springing our traps looking for their crawdads they like so much they'd risk us catchin' 'em." “Oh?” prompted Ventura, holding his breath and trying not to sound too excited.


Spackle took his time once again. He let loose a geyser of putrefaction from between his blackened teeth that missed the coffee urn spittoon and sprayed a hitech speckle camera on loan from JPL in Pasadena.

It was evidently a topic he didn't mind, for he continued.

“One time we had enough of their poachin’ and catched us some Cajuns. Hung ‘em above a gator pond on a role and after that they never caused any trouble. No sirre!”

Ventura was desperately trying to think of something to keep this Niagara of self-revelation going when the subject spoke again without cue.

"Folks Scotch-Irish and Seminole. Name used to be O'Flaugherty, but who could chaw that? So they changed to Spackle. Got it off a a box of the stuff at the gen'ril store. Worked jist fine ever since. Has a real nice, poetical ring to it, doun it?"

Though not born tone deaf (he was a concert-grade cellist), Ventura could not testify sincerely to the musical "ring."

2 Spackle in the Sky with Diamonds

Growing rapidly in number after Hanno Jefferson Davis Spackle's "chance" 2:00 a.m. sighting, the number of sightings quickly increased. The supernova soon climbed into world primetime news via telex, telephone, and computer at the Smithsonian-Harvard Astrophysics Center's Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams.

Everyone in scientific circles could see from the first moment of discovery that this was the chance of a lifetime, to observe one so close. It was almost four hundred years since the last such event--when the renowned Johannes Kepler of Denmark stumbled on to a supernova with the aid of a tiny telescopic lens in 1602.

But this one was different--and the differences were beginning to generate tremendous excitement-- building with every new sighting, even as the supernova grew so bright that astronomers were all following Spackle's lead by screening their lens to protect them from the glare.

The star producing the supernova had exploded 170,000 years ago. But Kepler could not have detected it, even with Spackle's "eye-glass," since the light took that long (though a relative eye-blink in astronomic time) just to reach the Earth. Now there was no time to waste. Across the globe scientists, with all manner of equipment, hurried to examine the exploded star's death throes, to learn all they could before it faded into the history book.

They soon discovered, however, SN 1987A was no textbook supernova.

The name of the Magellanic Cloud star that produced the phenomenon?

First, astronomers had to trace the explosion back to the point of origin, the hitherto unidentified star in the neighboring galaxy that had now changed Earth's history--and maybe Yankee dominance of America--for all time to come.

The world of astronomy was very surprised, everyone except Spackle, when it turned out the star had already been discovered and named, back in 1982, by a certain stench-footed, plug-chewing grad student in Oxford, Mississippi. In fact, the discoverer had won his degree with the discovery.

The star: Spackle -68%202.

The shortest dissertation on record, the name furnished both the candidate's dissertation title and the body of the dissertation itself, but it was rightly judged more than satisfactory by Spackle’s graduate committee.

Since then, its provenance being so obscure and reeking of tobacco, the benighted star had been discovered and named several times over--but now, at last, the controversy of who first discovered the star was concluded with a very big bang. The Yankee world could look up and take notice--a Confederate star (and supernova!) had been born. And, furthermore, it was the brightest in the hitherto solid Yankee firmament.

3Tempest in a Teapot

When the identity of the star and its true discoverer became generally known, the supernova took on overtones of genuine scandal. Any astronomer would concede the star to the discoverer, but why hadn't he published his finding? Dissertations were often published. Certainly one of this remarkable nature ought to have been.

Yet it had been allowed a quiet burial in the book racks of Ole Miss--a worse academic death could not be imagined across state lines. Since he had not published what ordinarily should have been recorded in a star catalog, what was his ulterior motive?

So the thinking went. Why had he withheld such a significant find from his scientific brethren? He had made quite a number of eminent astronomers look like fools after they found their claims to the SN-star were erroneous.

Cerro Gordo, naturally, was in an uproar when the waves of world opinion finally washed up on the bald, dome-pocked summit. They all had suspected Spackle had something up his dirty, reeking sleeve--but none guessed it had been a star, and especially a star that would produce the greatest, closest supernova since Kepler's classic, textbook sighting.

The Mississippian would not deny or acknowledge he knew anything about the star, however, when reporters flew in to tape his reaction to the world. When they were not satisfied with that, he gave a whistle that could raise the dead but brought the Peruvians running to rescue their hero with their AK-47s. He had no more trouble with Yankee reporters asking fool questions when he needed to smoke and do his telescoping of SN 1987A.

All they could do was circle the mount in their helicopters, filming the haunt of the now world-famous Spackle, without once setting foot on the sacred precinct. But even that privilege was soon denied. Annoyed by their flight patterns over his telescope, a few shots were fired, whether by intent or accident it was never clarified. The media helicopters retired to lower elevations and remained there.

Ventura ventured to sound Spackle on the question that was in everyone's mind. He soon found he was wasting his time. It was as if the star had perversely and arbitrarily named itself after Spackle, as far as the discoverer was concerned. A genius at withholding, he played the poccocurante and could not be drawn out on so trivial a topic, not if he were offered anything short of secession and official recognition of the Sovereign State of Mississippi as a nation equal to anything the Yankee feds of Washington, D.C. could muster.

"What were your thoughts, feelings, impressions, when you first saw this star’s supernova, which now is the cynosure of the world of astronomy?" inquired Hal Ventura, after one too many floridly-decorated bottles of Peruvian beer.

The discoverer belched. It was a belch of an Old Man River magnitude and velocity that could be expected to rock the observatory, and it did.

Astronomer Spackle Stinks to High Heaven

"Waaal," he drawled out finally in his slow, syrupy Deep South manner. "How 'bout anudder beer?"

Ventura had to concede the field--or was it swamp?--to Spackle. To the Mississippian, the furor over the star was a mere spouting of a teakettle--soon over when given a kick off the hot stove.

But Ventura was not so sure. Spackle's star was not your ordinary star, whether red giant or blue giant or white dwarf or even neutron. In every way possible, it was not ordinary--and the only thing that could truly be considered ordinary about it had somehow produced the supernova. Ordinary Main Sequence stars did not produce supernovae, but this one had.

4 Mouse or Lion?

A Main Sequence star the size of the Earth’s Sun but shining 100,000 times brighter, had prematurely used up all available fuel in its core and self-destructed after lasting only 1/1000 of the estimated lifetime of the Earth's sun. Impossible! Scientifically, astronomically, astrophysically, it couldn't happen according to current astronomic theory.

But Spackle -68%202 had done the impossible.

It had lasted only about ten million years, compared to our sun's projected nine or ten billion. Somehow its core had heated up to the 10 billion degrees Centigrade necessary to achieve supernovahood. And it had done so without producing the 10 to the 53rd power rate of neutrinos that, according to Dr. Chung Hui Hwang signals that a star has reached the volatile point of no return.

Specialized tools and instruments, the world over, went to work analyzing the odd, maverick star which had turned Main Sequence theory upside down (not to mention Dr. Hwang's neutrino-supernova theory).

It was a truly international effort. Earth-based telescopes in Peru, Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, New Zealand, Australia, the United States, and other countries were joined by New Zealand's NASA-adapted Kuiper C-141 Airborne Infrared Radiation Observatory (KCAIRO), Japan's X-ray Detecting Satellite (NXDS), the Soviet Space Station Mir for X-ray Detection (SSSMXD), Australian and American gamma ray balloons, the mile-long Gummglo-Ho Observatory Synthesis Telescope (GHOST), radio telescopes in southeastern Australia and Chile, NASA's Global Ultraviolet Explorer Satellite Station (GUESS), even an Australian X-ray telescope rocket named "Big Red."

Though not the usual red giant star that normally produces a supernova, the death of the much smaller star was unimaginably violent and vast. According to theorist Dr. Khor Fakkan of the Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics at Cambridge, Massachusetts: "If you could release all the energy of the observable Universe in a second's time, then you would equal the output of this single small star as it exploded." In less than a second the blast had hurtled the star's outer layers a distance comparable from our Sun to Uranus, a shock wave of incandescence that would carry heavy elements such as iron, calcium, carbon, gold and uranium to other galaxies of the Local Group.

Telescopes, rockets, balloons, flying observation planes, satellites, the whole immense artillery of the astronomic world was directed at Spackle -68%202. Although it no longer existed, they could work back through the elements of each event sequentially and calculate precisely what sort of animal the star had been.

Everyone knew the textbook profile of a dying star's supernova progression:

1. The star first produces helium while consuming its hydrogen at a profligate rate.

2. Hydrogen used up, its temperature is driven up to 170 million Kelvin's (K), equivalent to 170 million C; then when reaching 700 million K carbon begins fusion into neon.

3. Seven years before the supernova the core's temperature climbs to 1.5 billion K, consuming the neon.

4. About a year before the explosion, silicon is produced from oxygen.

5. Four days before the end, silicon is converted to iron--the point of no return, for then the star's fire goes out.

But Spackle -68%202 refused to follow the prescribed formula:

1. Its hydrogen was not used up; in fact, it had about four or five billion years' supply left at the time of the explosion (the same as estimated for Earth's Sun).

2. Its temperature was not abnormally high; it was about 6,000 C., or equivalent to the temperature of the Earth's sun., when suddenly the core superheated to the universal temperature limit of 6 billion centigrade.

3. There was evidenced no fusing of helium to carbon to neon to silicon and finally to the end product, iron.

4. The star's nuclear fusion engine simply shut down, and with fuel unspent and too hot a core to maintain stability it blew up, utilizing the vastly more explosive mass of hydrogen, of which there was a four or five billion years' supply on hand..

Obvious to all in time, astronomers were dealing with something new on the galactic horizon, the stellar Main Sequence mouse that roared like a Type III red super-giant.

The facts in, Ventura went to Spackle. He had to see if he could learn anything, anything at all, from the man who had, in a sense, started the whole thing.

"Well, what do you have to say about this queer star of yours now?" he pressed his colleague, who was busy at the moment pressing his own face to a photographic plate, reading at only a millimeter's space away from his bloodshot eyes.

He got only a grunt for his efforts that day.

Returning with some Peruvian fortification under his belt, Ventura tried another tactic.

He swept a dozen or so used tins of Red Man tobacco off a chair and sat down, acting as if he had all the time in the world.

Minutes passed as Spackle grunted, swore, smacked his lips, and made other customary sounds while he pursued his investigations.

Finally, Ventura had the uncanny feeling that Spackle was not at all engrossed in what he was studying; in fact, Ventura was sure Spackle was only interested in what Ventura had come to talk to him about.

Was now the time to broach the Big Question? Ventura wondered with great trepidation.

He couldn't help himself. "You knew all along what we would find, didn't you?"

The moment he blurted this out, he saw his gut feeling was correct, for Spackle shrugged.


"Well, how did you know?" Ventura exploded.

That was a Yankee mistake. He was presuming too much this time, he realized, with a sinking, dismal sensation.

Spackle stiffened in his fly-bedeviled shoulders, his back still turned to Ventura, but then he shrugged for the second time.

"I have my ways of knowin'. I happened to be lookin' that way a couple years ago with my telly and jist kept watchin' it and bye and bye--"

"Yes, bye and bye?" The suspense was literally killing Ventura, who had fallen off his chair at this point, his knees deep in discarded, tobacco-drenched star charts.

"Waaal, as I was lookin' close at her, I seen a mystery spot headin' her way and--"

As much as Ventura probed and probed, he would say no more.

Clucking like a stuffed Cajun hen, Ventura hobbled to his bunk, his nerves shattered. He had to leave Cerro Gordo soon after that, and the university assigned him to classroom teaching full time--a post for which he was more than well qualified.

Hanno Jefferson Davis Spackle? Before the supernova finally faded, leaving only a neutron star, Spackle himself retired from active astronomic work and went back to the catfish and crawdaddies of his beloved bayous. Some who knew him nearly as much as Ventura speculated that the roar had entirely gone out of the lion. Only Ventura knew the truth but was in no condition to communicate it to the world: Spackle simply didn't want to be around when the next discovery in connection with SN 1987A was made (or possibly re-discovered)--he was that put out by what he knew. Ventura counted the days, knowing it was just a matter of time before he heard Spackle was no more.

But on his last day at Cerro Gordo Spackle was not allowed to fade gently away like an old soldier. Oblivious to the condition in which he was leaving the observatory, he stuffed a ratty backpack full of star stuff and dynamite (only he knew what unreported wonders of the Universe, besides some data on increased rotation, he was carting away to Mississippian mold and mildew) and set off on gangrenous, oozing feet.

The colony of Cerro Gordo-Cerro de la Estrella astronomers was absolutely dumbfounded at what transpired when news of his leaving leaked out via the guards, who set off running like Royal Inca couriers to alert the whole countryside.

Before he got a hundred meters down the rocky side of Fat Mountain, whole villages and towns were streaming up from below to meet him. It was Peru gone utterly wild. Weeping women and young girls, empty Lucky Strike packages artfully sewn into their hair braids, threw flowers and then themselves down in his path, and the men were all for making him "El Presidente Spackle" of an Inca empire revived on the spot, but he wouldn't have it. He said one Mississippi was enough glory for the Earth to handle and continued on his way.

The Sacred Cow of Science Tries to Swallow an Anomaly and Chokes

5 "Now you see it..."

April 24. After a tremendous inter-collegiate cleanup operation, Dr. Sinki ibn Kasab and his co-worker Balakrishna Das uncovered Spackle's observatory at Cerro Gordo. Employing special instruments to avoid the blurring effects of Earth's atmosphere, the director of the Harvard-Smithsonian Institute for Astrophysics discovered a very bright and extremely fast-moving "Mystery Spot," two light-weeks away from the Spackle supernova (SN 1987A).

Having no reason to think otherwise, he thought he was the first to use the term on it.

There was no need, Kasab decided, to make a thorough check of previous sightings. Kasab assumed the Spot was not there before the supernova because then it would have been the brightest object in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) galaxy and everyone would have seen it. To reach its position at the point of discovery by Kasab it had to have been traveling at a minimum of half the speed of light.

Das, a bright young Indian graduate student, had been working on the trajectory. Sweat poured from his dark, earnest face as he submitted a paper of his results: the Spot's line of trajectory was calculated to align with the Earth's star and the Solar System, to arrive there sometime in the early part of ANNO 1912, with ample time to make contact since it had 170,000 years to complete the trip.

Dr. Kasab realized why his assistant's face was drenched. His too broke out and he had to sit down on a three-legged chair that had survived Spackle's barbecues, the only one available.

"Tell no one of this," he said, "until I have time to check your computations. We must be right about this. We must be right. And if we are right, should we start a world-wide panic? I do not think I can do it. So you will tell no one. Absolutely no one!"

He checked and rechecked. NEOs--near-Earth objects such as the twin asteroids named Toutatis and the comet Swift-Tuttle--became dangerous only as they dipped into the orbit of the Earth. Was this truly a NEO on a collision course or would it pass harmlessly like Toutatis, which zoomed by Earth at a distance of 2.2 million miles?

They were right, unfortunately. There had to be--rather, there had been a convergence. But why was there no sign of it? Even if it had struck the ocean, there would have been an impact generating catastrophic, world-wide tidal waves.

Kasab had other questions as well. Did the Mystery Spot originate in the LMC? Perhaps not. Kasab extended the line of trajectory back--if B were the LCM and C were the Earth and its Sun, then A (the previous site of the Mystery Spot) would be the controversial "exploding galaxy," M.82 in the Great Bear Constellation. 1l.5 million light-years away, the explosion happened about 1,500,000 years ago.

This too caused the good astronomer to sit down and mop his face with his white smock sleeve.

Working independently, astronomers at Imperial College, London, using the four-meter Anglo-Australian Telescope at Woomera Woomera (AATWW), confirmed the Kasab-Das estimate for the speed of the object. But subsequent observations did not show the Mystery Spot though the Kasab-Das team continued to search.

Dr. Kasab wrote to the Royal British Astronomical Society of the disappointing results, that "The Mystery Spot has vanished as mysteriously as it had appeared." He was careful to let it go at that, officially.

Privately, besides natural concern for the survival of Earth and the human race, he felt badly for himself and Das. The Mystery Spot, before its disappearance, had assured him a Nobel Prize. He would have even been happy to share it with his hard-working, loyal assistant.

Finally, growing apprehensive about the possibility of fixing a mathematical certainty concerning the exo-solar contact with Earth, he called off any further efforts.

Das, not quite so award-minded, perhaps, harbored no such misgivings. He dared to conduct further research against his superior’s wishes.

One day he came to Dr. Kasab with features lit with the joy of science.

“It’s really here, the impact occurred on schedule, I mean. There can be no doubt, sir.”

After the rather painful business of the missing Mystery Spot, the older man was inclined to approach the subject warily this time. Besides, his assistant’s bold disregard of his word on the subject annoyed him.

“Oh?” he replied with as little expression as possible.

“Yes, it’s here all right!” the student exclaimed. “I have full confirmation here, Doctor.”

Kasab was rather angry at this point, as he felt alarm coming back he thought he had put away in a deep-six file somewhere.

“Are you mad? That investigation is inconclusive. The Spot vanished for good, just as I reported to the Astronomical Society. And you were supposed to not do any more work on the question, as I instructed you.”

Das said no more. He laid out before Dr. Kasab a sheaf of computations confirming the Mystery’s Spot’s trajectory and Earth-impact.

Dr. Kasab scanned the first pages, then grabbed his reading glasses and got down to real work as he devoured Das’s findings.

Twenty minutes later he looked up at the grinning Das. His eyes glared in their sockets and the poor Das had no idea what to make of it.

“Shred all these papers immediately!” declared the astronomer. “I have not changed my position. And I will not change! They must not know! We are all finished if they see these findings. Finished!”

6 Skylab II: The Year of Sol

Dr. Tyler Simkins gave himself a push from the wall in the Orbital Workshop. He shot through the open airlock into the Multiple Docking Adapter (MDA) room. He was so good at it after 22 days of practice he could do it eyes closed if he wanted.

The work he had to do for the next four hours was sheer routine: check the CIM (Computer Imaging Module) consoles and watch for any sign of an expected comet, scheduled to show in the hour.

Not that comets were routine--just watching for them. He had spotted thirty eight so far--most of no consequence, their blackened bodies barely discernible even with Skylab's impressive array of eight sophisticated telescopes of all kinds housed in the Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM), the same place where the three, all-important, Skylab-stabilizing gyroscopes spun 8,000 times a second. to keep the lab stable in orbit.

Comets were objects of rarest beauty, when they still had some life to them and flared bright orange and yellow as they rocketed past the inner planets. Or, having by-passed the Sun too many times, they were seared so black they were actually darker than surrounding space.

He had hoped, before Skylab II was launched, to be viewing Dr. Kasab's Mystery Red Spot. But, like so many wannabe comets, it had fizzed to nothing by the time he was in orbit--fizzled, in fact, just like that unofficial "in-house" top priority investigation to find the goons who did in the poor old Challenger with some kind of ruby laser.

Like all other top priority congressional-space administration investigations, the constant leaks killed it just as it was zeroing in on the rather high-placed culprits.

That was just too bad too, for the laser-like beam that did havoc with the shuttle thruster rockets was awful similar to the one that blew the Apollo 13 Moon Mission--at least some older guys he knew still thought so over a decade after the mission was scrubbed.

He had just slipped his triangular shoe cleats into the aluminum gridwork of the "human waste deployment module" located on the lab floor, cleats that were necessary to hold himself in place as he sat down on the vacuum-powered "glory seat," when he was buzzed.

"Simkins, please report topside."

Simkins groaned to himself, but he couldn't help the frown that showed on the mission commander's console down at Control in Houston.

"But I'll have the Caratachea comet on screen for photographing any minute now," he responded, keeping his voice steady, firm, and cheery--just like an astronaut should respond when caught in a ticklish situation.

"Excellent. But Astronaut Lidwell will cover for you. You're more needed topside, to fix the X-ray scope--"

"What now? We just fixed it the day before--or was it two days ago?-I'm losing track of time with a sunset every ten minutes."

"The filter wheel requires manual adjustment. But Doug is already suited up. So beat it, er, commence orbital rendezvous in the OW, will you?"

Simkins decided that Nature could wait a bit more, unhooked his feet and rolled and flipped back into the Orbital Workshop. This time he did it blind, hoping he’d hit something and could plead disability. But he had no such luck.

Doug was suited up. When they were finally out on the hull, they broke the records for sky-walking. It took seven hours to fix the telescope. Fortunately, Ramboesque brawn was pitted with Simkins' brain. His partner Doug Douville was not called "the Hulk of Steel City" for nothing. The fourth generation Pittsburgh steelworker's son weighed over 200 lb. and consumed 3,500 calories a day (it would take $1,450,000 to feed him during the time aloft compared to about $600,000 for each of the others). He held the smaller, more agile Simkins under his arm like some hurdy-gurdyman’s trick monkey so he could reach out and work on the filter. They tried every tool in their inventory that Mission Control could think of, even the bone saw from the medical gear. It was finally an ordinary screwdriver that got the filter going--which only Simkins thought of using, naturally.

Victorious Simkins and Douville crawled back through the airlock. The chamber pressurized and then through another airlock they entered the OW, relief on their faces as they found the rest of the crew waiting with pop.

"The CO says we can celebrate. Seven hours topside, a record! We knew you two would pull it off! Give 'em a big one for great teamwork, guys!"

Coached by the Commander, Strobe Turbott, they cheered. At least they made a good effort. It was hard for human voices to carry in orbit.

Simkins was almost too wasted to get out of his 400-lb. suit. About all he could do at the moment was flip open his gold-sheathed mask. Someone stuck a plastic bottle of pop in his hand. He then shook it so it expelled wobbling marble after marble of pop, which he caught by keeping his mouth open as they drifted toward him. Everyone else who tried it had diet Pepsi or diet Coke (straight, "high octane" Mountain Dew, in the case of the Hulk) splatting against the wall or the nearly priceless instrumentation of the 5 billion dollar lab--something that caused the fellows back Mission Control to have a whale of a fit, naturally.

Later, unsuited to pants and tee shirt and back in the MDA, he tried to pick up where he left off at the Human Waste Deployment Module. This time he was not interrupted. Feeling much better, he resumed his other duties--the ones that had brought him to Skylab II in the first place.

Floating upwards light as a feather, he reached the array of comet consoles and didn't bother to harness himself this time, since he had left behind the pants with the harnass straps and could manage his work with one hand grip and the other hand free.

The comet, like he suspected, had proved a dud. But he had a list and Caratachea was only #39 out of 134 possibles. As unofficial Skylab "Comet coordinator," he wanted to made at least 100 sightings before the termination date. It would look well on his record, along with all the things he had fixed so far with the Hulk. Maybe, despite all his goofing off, Mission Control would recommend him for Skylab III--scheduled for launch and set up in 1992, if congressional funding levels continued as projected.

The digital calendar told him it was August 21. Six of the screens showed the sun--the mission's emphasis, with one featuring the sun's corona close up. Another viewed Earth. The last looked out toward Jupiter, where the comets came winging in toward the Sun. That was perhaps the most crucial screen, in his opinion.

00:00:55.16. It was late. The rest were snoring up a storm of Zzzz’s in the Ward Room and he was still up, trying to add to his Comet List, but he didn't care. He could always catch some shut-eye earthside. He'd show Mission Control who was the most dedicated in this bunch of lockstep deadbeats--if they didn't know that already!

00:01:12.43. He rubbed his sore eyes, his neck also giving him a twitch or two from all the straining he had done trying to fix the x-ray telescope. Then his eyelids started drooping and he relaxed his hold on the grip and gently floated toward the "floor".

Suddenly, opening his eyes, he saw an arc of reddish-tinged pale gold sweep across the periphera of his vision. But it was not on Screen #8, Jupiter's. Rather it was coming from all six solar observation telescope-consoles. He thought it was only a reflection and his eyelids dropped all the way shut and he continued drifting bodily away.

00:01.20.56. A buzz and a voice startled him instantly alert. "Simkins, this is Dr. Tan at Mission Control. Please tell us what is happening. Our telescopes are not nearly so clear as yours, but we are picking up something unusual from the telemetry, an active region of possibly unparalleled scope is doing something at the moment. Can you leave the comet watch listing for a moment and tell us what is happening? Simkins?"


He spun his body upwards to the console array and seized the grips. After all, it was, he knew, THE Dr. Tan. Some said he owed his position entirely to a secret cabal of English and Anglophobe American backers, but no matter, this man was the "Czar" of the entire solar part of the project--world-wide.

NASA and the whole scientific world had put him in charge since he stirred up such a fuss with his article on the sun's missing neutrinos back in 1985. Thanks to him, 1987 was designated the "Year of Sol" and a task force 200 astronomers and 150 solar observers from seventeen countries helped Skylab II's solar observation instrumentation, then watched to see what it would reveal on the question.

The lab's data-gathering telescopes included two X-ray instruments from American Science and Engineering and Marshall Space Flight Center; two ultraviolet instruments from the Naval Solar Research Laboratory and a third from Harvard Observatory; and a coronagraph from the Peabody Institute High Altitude Observatory in Colorado.

NASA contributed the Marshall telescope and might have added more, as requested by Dr. Tan's Orbital Solar Observation Task Force, but the Apollo moon project with its glamorous moon-walkers had drawn off so much juice in the 70's--well, there was no use complaining, it wouldn't make anti-space-program Proxmire and tight-fisted congressmen like him disappear! That left two NASA telescopes, one for viewing Earth, the other for comets. Not enough, of course, but better than nothing!

What a good thing the British and their major investors still held firmly behind American efforts! Without them holding the line, Proxmire, citing the decline in GNP and the disastrous wave of crop failures in the Midwest, would have given the whole space program the ax!

What he saw on the solar consoles he could not believe--a sunspot, or magnetic field, covering half the face of the Sun. Predictably, a "prominence" or flare erupted from the spot, but since it was only the middle of the Sun's eleven-year cycle of sunspots, he thought it probably wouldn't amount to anything unusual.

Stifling a yawn, he watched as a spear-shaped emission moved out from Sol's surface. After making hash of the corona, it kept growing and reached out toward the inner planets.

When was it going to stop? he wondered. This was no “solar hiccough,” and certainly more massive than a “solar belch.” It had seared an already scorched Mercury but was headed toward a Venus that was almost as hot.

He got a reading from the computer. The spear, from the point of emission on the sun's surface, had reached 67 million miles in five seconds and Venus was 67 million miles out.

Simkins shook his head. There had to be something wrong with the instruments.

He waited a couple seconds to get the latest position. A second reading registered 80.4 million. A math whiz, he did some fast computation of his own. At the speed of light, the emission would take five minutes to go 55,650,000 miles. Obviously, this one was going much faster--beyond the speed limit of light traveling through space--which he knew was scientifically impossible. Even worse, the sheer violence of the thing threatened to utterly destroy his solar concept, as well as the nice book he based on it.

"Hey, you can't do that to me!" he thought. "You're blowing away my text just when it's beginning to sell in all the schools with NEA backing!"

Despite his reputation for having a little fun on the job, he was all business when it came to exploiting science. He had written a textbook for high school science labs, The Docile Star, and here the star he had depicted as a tame servant of the Solar System, a jolly Sesame-street chicken on a bicycle towing the planets in a string of little wagons, was roaring like a lion and about to devour Earth!

Dr. Tan buzzed him again, twice in quick succession, which meant he had seen it too.

"What is happening, Simkins? We must know."

Simkins started coughing. He had to have more time. When he recovered he still hedged, not wanting to break the bad news to Earth.

"A flare of some sort, Sir. The magnitude and velocity are anomalistically interesting. It may affect communications any minute now, both here and earthside."

Silence on the other end.

Suddenly, Skylab began to roll, pitch and yaw.

"Oh, no, not those gyros acting up again!" Simkins thought.

He groaned.

Now I suppose the Hulk and I will have to go see what we can do. As commander, Strobe sucks. I thought we were astronauts, not jacks of all trades! Why didn't they fund a Lockheed maintenance mechanic or two for this project--so many things are always jamming up on us, it's downright spooky!

He let go of the grips, giving himself a push toward the closest hatch. Then darkness plunged over him.

Seconds later, Skylab's orbit began to decay as Simkins, a bat without sonar, banged against unlighted walls, floors, and instruments trying to get to the men strapped to beds in the Ward Room.

Mission Control, also plunged in darkness, missed seeing it soar back in. Head and tail streaming a fire of 50,000 degrees, it plunged down from the horizon toward Ayer's Rock in the Australian outback.

The remainder of the "Year of Sol"--as NASA valiantly tried to pick up the pieces of the Skylab II project and salvage what they could of congressional funding--was equally spectacular. The aurora borealis was never so brilliant and long-lasting, looking like hundreds of falling Skylabs. World-wide droughts set in. The winter, when it came, hit early and would hang on a full month longer than before.

In the U.S, best-selling, Book-of-the-Month-Club The Docile Star was quietly removed from high school curricula and libraries, and Dr. Tan and the solar physicists were left to stew in an even greater quandary than before.

As for the unusually strong and swift "magnetic field outbreak" or "super-flare" from the Sun, it swept by Earth and Mars and hit Jupiter in the navel, the exact area of the Great Red Spot. What that entailed no one knew or would hazard a guess.

Later, to get at least an educated guess, a lone reporter looked up the voice in the wilderness, to see if it were still on speaking terms with humanity.

The prophetic Dr. Tan had taken an early retirement--to cultivate orchids, he said. Interviewed at his beach home near Penobscot, Maine, by Star Hitch, a popular magazine that featured well-known personalities affiliated with space exploration, comets, and astronomical flukes, he had little to say at first after they had seated themselves on pillows on the polished wood floor and Mrs. Tan came in to serve rice cakes and, for refreshment, Gatorade in square masu cups.

Inscrutable as always, only one question seemed to provoke a flicker of emotion as Dr. Tan reached over to a flower arrangement on a low stand and stroked a new pink and green, genetically engineered orchid he had devised from the common Sizzler Firecracker and Epidendrum cochleatum.

The magazine editor, a young, continuously thinking editor in a pin-striped jacket with hot pink bow tie and white buck shoes, keep glancing at the oddly mixed pictures in the sparsely furnished living room. He couldn't put together the placid, cud-chewing British cows, Jersey black and white, or Guernsey brown, with the prints of the Great Fire of London, the destruction by quake of Lisbon and Tokyo, Dresden after the World War II bombing and firestorm, not to mention, Nagasaki and Hiroshima. And how did Gatorade fit masu cups? Yet somehow he liked it that he couldn't put them together--it suited the quixotic Dr. Tan, he thought.

"Now you foresaw this development, did you not, when you referred in your now classic article in the Smithsonian to 'greater solar turbulence'. How long would you say, Doctor, will the milk keep flowing? I mean, if Sol has kicked the bucket, then just how many years will it be until Earth--"

"Five hundred at the maximum," interrupted Dr. Zenith Tan as he set his cup on a serving tray which Mrs. Tan quietly whisked away. He glanced down for a moment at his orchid, a ghostly smile playing on his lips. "But it could be significantly less. We are living on--"

“--borrowed time?”

The editor rose up stiffly from his pillow as if it had scorched him. He then sat gradually down, keeping his eyes glued on the closed-lidded star-guru before him as his mind threatened to crash from case over-load.

"But Dr. Tan, what can scientists do to stop this development? That is, if technological man can do such a thing."

Dr. Tan simply stared at the editor in response, until the young man broke out in a sweat.

What he had just heard (rather, had not heard) instantly revolutionized his thinking--actually propelled him out of the realm of the Intellect and to the edge of something deep and mysterious beyond saying. For if science could not interpret the data and control the phenomenon, then, obviously, thinking people had no recourse but to seek out an alternative.

He couldn't keep still any longer. He rocketed off the pillow.. Flinging aside his bow tie, he went to look out at the sea--the equationless Unknown that no science had quite figured out.

Having read all of Alan Watts' books, he wondered if Dr. Tan were open to taking any disciples and starting an ashram to tackle the spiritual aspect of the problem.

7 Enigma of the Gleba

A stone's throw of Dr. Tan and a deeply impressed magazine editor, lurked a mystery every bit as great as the solar spear that transfixed Jupiter in the solar plexus.

Oceanus Atlanticus, a noble stream called "The Divine Water" by the ancient Aztecs, rolled in upon the shore. Beneath its ever-flowing, turbid waters swam a team of diver-researchers conducting a new line of research into microscopic pyloplankton and the tiny animals, the zooplankton, that fed on them.

Though their work did not grab headlines like Skylabs, Apollo moon walks, and other high-priority astronomical projects, they knew they were on to something unusual when they identified abnormal behaviors in a particular plankton feeder, the Glebalinia tridentata, nicknamed "Gleba."

The seven member team from oceanographic, botanical, and zoological departments of Harvard, Stanford, and the University of Hawaii had come to study planktonic life forms in the Gulf Stream off New England. Alice Packdredge, Robyn Woodsum, Felix Fingeroot, Ramos Aquirre, and Nguyen Marsolais respectively specialized in larvaceans, pelagic mollusks, salps, and ctenophores. Chabot Canover's chief interest was jellyfish and other pelagic coelenterates. Kip Hazelbaker and Maria Milotte contributed help on various projects, including studies on the marine protozoans whose shells constitute much of sea-deposited limestone bedrock. Amanda Metcaff completed the study team with arrowworms and various kinds of larvae. All together they formed a sparkling array of specialized talents working in tandem, doing something different: studying the oceanic plants and animal in their actual habitats instead of netting and dredging them up all broken and collapsed from the rough treatment as was previously done.

A week after Dr. Tan was interviewed the enigma of the Gleba unfolded to the divers and researchers.

Alice Packdredge, Ph.D., diving within the grid of lines hanging from surface floats that kept them from getting lost in deep ocean, found a specimen of shell-less, pelagic mollusk, a Gleba, she needed to tag with a bit of pink fluorescent dye. The harmless, biodegradable dye not only made the tiny, transparent animal visible but kept it from being studied twice.

Her strobe illuminating the animal, she reached out to squirt the dye only to find it was already "tagged."

Packdredge wasn't surprised. It could happen that the Gulf Stream, which was known

to eddy in places like any river would, had brought the mollusk back around to her after being tagged during a work session the day before.

Letting it go, she waited as it drifted away in the current, northerly.

It disappeared, swallowed up in darkness. Then she saw something coming up from the north--yet another Gleba.

This time, however, Packdredge scrutinized it intently on its approach.

Its leaf-like antennas extended and its lower body dyed pink, it was swimming frantically but feebly with its upper paddle-like feet and making very gradual progress against the 2-knot current.

"That's odd," she thought.

Obviously, her "Eddy Theory" did not hold water.

She let it come near, then watched as the Gleba, grown exhausted with its impossible swim "against the tide", collapsed into a diaphanous blob and drifted backwards in the current. Plunging for it, Packdredge got in front and it drifted right into her jar.

That gave her time to think.

Using the strobe light, she signaled to her attendant divers, two men who watched out for sharks, to come and see what she had. She wanted some record as she did it.

Fingeroot and Woodsum, both carrying brilliant strobes, swam down to her immediately.

She signed to them that she didn't know what was happening--which was the truth.

Then she took green dye from her underwater ditty bag and gave Gleba's upper body with the paddle-like feet a shot. Now the normally colorless Gleba was pink and green, a distinctive marking which would eliminate any confusion or question in succeeding research.

Gleba Is the Infinity William Blake Once Discovered in a Flower

Woodsum and Fingeroot watched as she released the Gleba, looking more a fairy creature in gossamer pink and green than, scientifically, a sea snail.

The darkness of the deep ocean soon enveloped Gleba as it drifted off out the strobes' range.

Nothing unusual happened in the next ten minutes as Packdredge captured several salps (Salpa maxima) and gave them the salp dye--fluorescent orange. A ctenophore, pulsing through the water northward in the current like a seagoing spacecraft, generated a spark of interest among the divers, since it was more rare than salps, but still no pink-and-green Gleba.

Packdredge pointed up with her thumb, meaning she would carry on her work alone and the shark-watch went back to their posts.

She felt relieved, for the Gleba's behavior, if repeated, would have provoked some astounding questions she would rather not be the first to ask.

Another ten minutes passed. A few more tagged specimens and she was ready to call it a day when something gleamed at the outer edge of her arc of illumination. It was coming from the north--a bad sign. It was pink and it was green. Two more very bad signs.

She waited, but this time the mollusk did not swim all the way to her fixed position. She saw it falter, barely moving its tiny paddles, then start to curl up in a helpless, floating blob.

"Oh, no, you don't!" Packdredge cried and gave a lunge that launched her after the evidence fast slipping from sight and the domain of science.

To get the Gleba she had to unfasten from her safety line and swim beyond the grid, but she chose to risk it.

Fingeroot looked at her with startled, handsomely dark eyes as she swept past into the open ocean.

Her protective cables, strung from the tender, a converted 60-foot Boston whaler, vanished behind her as she pursued the enigma.

Soon she was lost. She felt fright creeping in on her. Black water gave her no signposts whatsoever. She might be ten feet from the whaler and miss it forever.

And which way was up? In such dark waters she could swim to exhaustion and never find the surface.

Packdredge kept going in the direction some dim instinct in her told her was right, all the while playing the strobe's light ahead of her in broad, sweeping arcs.

Suddenly, instead of a desert of black salt water, shone an object--small but highly colored.

She was on it in a flash, and from long practice she had the jar waiting for it to drift into, careful not to touch it lest she damage the boneless, filmy organism.

But, clearly illuminated in her strobe, the Gleba had found some reserve of strength and, drawing upon it, was once again valiantly steaming forth southward against the current.

Astonished, she could not help but watch as it paddled past her and the open jar.

She was so entranced and bewildered all she could do was follow, jar in hand.

It was slow going, and slower going all the time, but the Gleba led her back toward the grid lines. She knew they were there because she saw Woodsum and Fingeroot's strobes flare like submerged Suns.

They hadn't dared go after her--the law among them prohibited that, since two could be lost as easily as one stray diver, and then the grim tally would surely be three.

She could see them waving frantically at her to get back inside the grid lines immediately, but she ignored them and continued following the Gleba. This time it didn't make it inside as it had before, but lost strength and collapsed outside.

But that was sufficient for Packdredge and the requirements of her profession. She scooped it up in her jar and, signing to her companions, swam topside to the whaler.

Woodsum and Fingeroot, she could tell at once as they climbed out and began pulling off gear, were pretty upset.

"We thought we had lost you!" said Fingeroot, evidently trying to keep his voice calm and scientific. "What is it with that Gleba you've got anyway that it's worth risking your fool life?"

Packdredge wouldn't say at first. She had always prided herself on being careful, where abnormalities were concerned. Theory was not something to be taken too seriously, but, then, too lightly was just as foolish. If the Gleba had done what she had seen it do, then the Model for Planktonic Life Forms of the Gulf Stream would have to be thrown out. That would cause shock waves through the botanical, zoological, and oceanographic departments of universities across the globe!

Fingeroot, seeing that she wouldn't rise to the bait, calmed down immediately. He handed her a fresh towel, then stood gazing at her as she took it and stepped past to the cabin, still carrying the jar with the Gleba.


Only later, after she had filled out a prospectus with every time and particular of her observations, did she let the team, which had rested on the whaler while she dove, in on what they were dying to know. Oh, the Gleba! What a marvel! she mused.

Packdredge and the Enigma of the Gleba

A stray dribble of wet ran down strands of salt-stiffened hair and beaded at the end of her long nape of neck, but she didn't notice or care. Science was exquisite and beautiful, even if she were not, she had always thought. The athletic Fingeroot was particularly manly in a tight swimsuit, but she made no sign it mattered to her when Maria went and made a fool of herself around him. A classic Castilian beauty from Lima, Peru, she ran the gamut of teases, until everyone thought Fingeroot would go crazy.

Yet Fingeroot didn't rise to the obvious bait and instead couldn't seem to stay away from Packdredge, a woman whose charms were less obvious than her commitment to science. He was always volunteering to dive and guard for sharks when she had to do research. As for Maria, she might just go and get chased around the tender by a barracuda or a Great White for all he seemed to care!

So, up against such exotic, good looks as the "Princess of Peru's," it was a degree flattering to Packdredge that the daring Fingeroot kept pressing her for information, when the others held back, letting him do it for them.

"Okay, now you're done with that nonsense!" he said to her when she finally laid down her pen. "Let us in on it! We share our findings, don't we? That's how we researchers boldly advance human knowledge to the perimeters and beyond--"

Packdredge shook her head and he stopped, perhaps sensing he had exceeded his own perimeters.

There was a moment of silence, so deep they all could hear the water slapping the hull on this perfect day for diving.

A gull, coming by for a stay tidbit, screamed when no tidbit flew into the air at the regular time.

Fingeroot put his big, hairy hand over Packdredge's trembling, sea-chilled one. It was so cold and stiff, in fact, it had been very difficult making out her report.

She pulled her hand away, though slowly, then looked them all in the eyes.

"I don't know. What happened, someone else will have to explain it."

Fingeroot struck his thigh with a clenched fist. "Well, if that isn't--"

She grabbed his hand. "No," she said determinedly, "I'm not telling you I don't know what happened, I'm only saying it cannot be explained. There is a big difference."

"Well, what happened then?" they all cried, mingling their voices in an excited babble of variously accented English.

Slowly, but gaining force, she got the report out to them just as it occurred--the untagged Gleba drifting northward to her the first time, her tagging it with pink to set it off from the other mollusks in the area, its return and then her swimming outside the grid to capture it, then yet another return southerly to the grid with her chomping at its heels with jar and lid.

Afterwards, she sat gazing down at the snail in her jar--so tiny, so fragile a life form, but so great an enigma in her eyes it might have been the Sphinx!

The day's work done, they headed back to Penobscot for the night.

Penobscot had one eating place they all liked--Chowderville, USA--for it did only one thing and did it better than anyplace else Down East.

They all sat at one table as usual and ordered the various varieties of clam chowder, then sipped wines, all except Fingeroot waiting for Packdredge to add to her account of the day's discovery.

He insisted on sitting so close to her that she had to put the precious specimen jar up on the table. The waitress was horrified when she found it was a still living sea snail, but recognizing them from previous visits let it stay there after taking their orders.

"Unless I seen it, I didn't guess there was any ickey slugs like that out in the water!" the waitress shivered after taking a closer look. "Even if they are kinda pretty colored, I'll think twice before I stick my hand in that jar! What did you say it's called?"

She had to repeat her question before Packdredge looked up and realized she was being addressed.

"Nice name for a nasty, little blob of crud like that!" laughed the waitress after she got her answer. "You scientific types sure can think of great things to call these slimey, creepy-crawlin' critters!"

The fortyish, two-hundred pound waitress waddled off shaking her pony tail--which happened to be a different color than the rest of her hair.

Somehow Packdredge's hand kept slipping against Fingeroot's under the table. She had a hard time concentrating on her meal. And he left his own corn chowder virtually untouched.

"What are you going to do now?" they asked her.

"See if there are any more that exhibit the same behaviors," she replied matter-of-factly, receiving a certain pressure from Fingeroot's hand which she could not help return.

That seemed to satisfy them, and the meal was enjoyed as previous meals--and those who fell up to it continued the night at local taverns.

Packdredge was not one to join in and Fingeroot, who was, begged off from the partying and walked Packdredge to her motel room.

"Thanks," she said at the door. "But I'm afraid they'll think--"

"Oh, let them think it!" Fingeroot laughed. "Besides, what if it's the truth?"

Packdredge reminded herself of her long nose, sallow complexion, lank hair and lack of significant curves, and slowly drew back. "Not with me it's not. See you at the dock in the morning!"

"But--" was all he could get out as she went in and slammed the door, drawing the deadbolt just in time as he shoved at the door.

He knocked a few times, waited a while, then knocked again without getting any response, then left her in peace. When she was sure he was really gone for the night, she went straight to bed, in her clothes.

In the morning, he was not at the dock but at her door.

She struggled out of bed to answer, finding him just as disheveled as she was.

Gulls were flying thick and screaming for breakfast.

"Rough night, wasn't it?" Fingeroot commented. "I doubt I got one wink!"

She nodded, unwashed, stringy hair falling in her face.

"Want to come in? The wind's kind of chilly. You can wait while I throw some soap and water on my face at least."


Her face washed and medicated with an anti-fungal preparation for divers that smarted and smelled like aerosol stove cleaner, she came out of the bathroom and found Fingeroot sprawled back on her bed, fast asleep. The size of his legs startled her. And they were longer than she had thought--reaching a foot beyond the bed. But she thought they were just right for such a powerful swimmer.

She looked at his face, boyish despite the dark shadow of his two day beard. She resisted the impulse to stroke it, gave in and somehow didn't wake him, then slipped out.

"He's overslept," she explained, as she met the others at the dock.

They all nodded knowingly to each other as Packdredge smiled to herself and the skipper got ready to cast off. For once she found she could take it as a compliment--not some sign of general contempt and pity for someone who would never look like a Maria.

The day's research went well, without any distraction Fingeroot's presence might have given her.

She tagged, re-tagged, and caught seven Glebas, all of which exhibited the same behaviors as her first Gleba.

But her research was no longer as hot as it had been, she soon found. The other divers were delightedly finding similar odd behaviors in their tiny charges. Marked, they could tell the various ctenophores, jellyfish, larvaceans were swimming southwards--as best they could against the current, that is.

After the last dive, the whaler's cabin was full of excited talk, not all scientific and detached.

Packdredge could see a storm was brewing, as well, when Maria the Latin prima donna turned to her, hurling hybrid idioms as a sure sign she had once again come unglued about something.

"Well, dear, I guess we took the wind out of your buckets! Why, that nasty, little Glebalinia tarantula--"

"--trudentata," corrected Packdredge incorrectly, not so prepared emotionally as she would have liked.

"--whatever it is, it isn't any big thing to fuss on! Why, there's all sorts of plankton doing the same thing now--swimming south to beat the bandmaster. And you--you ugly nothing, you act like you think you're got a royal thrush!"

"You're not being fair, are you, Maria?" interrupted Woodsum as he stepped in between Packdredge and Maria. "After all, she was first."

Maria turned on him with fury contorting her flawless face. "Oh, I'm not fair, am I? And you say she was first! I die, I drown, I get eaten up by the big fishes, before I let her--before--before--"

Sputtering out of reach of her vocabulary, she pointed at Packdredge with a jabbing finger like a thrust spear, while Packdredge looked down, trying to ignore the scene.

"She made everybody think she had something under us! Well, she got eggs in her belfry if she think her Gleba better than my protozoa! In shell, they can't swim, no? In the larva form, they are so weak, so tiny small it not possible they swim against the current like her Gleba-gleba--"

"Glebalinia tridentata," mumbled Packdredge, right this time.

Maria paused, she seemed to be thinking what best she might do, and then, her perfectly arched eyebrows raised, she shrugged. "We know the animals swim south because the moon is pulling then that way! What difference is that? It is of no importance! She is first about nothing, nothing at all!"

"Ha! Don't be so sure, babes!" blurted out Fingeroot. "Try telling our departments it's the moon--that's crack-brained amateur astronomy, if anyone wants my opinion!"

Though flushing dark in the face, Maria ignored him. Instead, she raised her hands as if to do something violent with Packdredge's lowered head with a harpoon hanging on the wall, then she spun and dashed out of the cabin.

"What's with her!" remarked Robyn Woodsum. "And why is she so up in the air about who is first or not? We'll all share in the glory, right?"

"You know!" Chabot Canova the aerobic, peace-loving Quaker roared with his deep voice. "Why say anything? I think we should just shut up about it and meditate on things we all have in common!"

The trip back to Penobscot and, later, Chowderville, USA, was not the same. It never would be, though they had to make five more trips out according to the schedule. Refusing to see anyone, Maria skipped the last five and stayed in her motel room making long distance calls to Lima, Buenos Aires, and Paris. Fingeroot insisted on hovering around Packdredge the rest of the term, making her work impossible. But by then a number of the team had faxed in reports to their departments.

Packdredge, still the cool one, sat on hers.

Fingeroot, having sent his, had to call her on it.

"Why haven't you sent in anything? You, after all, were the first to spot the phenomenon."

She couldn't argue with that, but still she said nothing and just looked out the restaurant window at wheeling gulls and plaid-shirted, cornfed Middle Westerners throwing bread bits and saltines to the wildlife while standing next to a big sign "Please Don't Feed Wildlife. Feeding can--"

"Well?" he persisted. "Oh, man! You are a strong one, aren't you? But I think, just the same, you have a soft spot for me! All I have to do is--"

She couldn't deny that either as he pressed closer, thigh to thigh. But she didn't want to concede any advantage, even if it were obvious, and said nothing.

They walked back to their motel. He stopped her at the door of her room, his knee touching her as he took her hands.

He looked right into her soul, as he peered into her eyes.

"My mama won't like me bringing you home as my girl friend, so why not my wife?

"Okay," she said simply.

He grinned, then pushed the door open for her.

She walked in, and then when he didn't follow, looked back in puzzlement.

He shook his head, smiling bravely.

"No, honey. Now that we're serious--there's no messing around now. Mama raised me real proper to show respect for women and marriage. Bible says they both got sanctity. This is for keeps, right? So I got to treat you right, and I might as well now--even if I am a bit tempted to get off on the wrong foot."

She examined him a moment, then nodded, and he pulled the door shut and leaned on it for a while, calming down slowly.

Later, from another motel, he called her room.

"Yes?" she said sleepily. Fingerroot's voice got her attention immediately, and she was suddenly fully awake.

"Meet me in the morning at 6 a.m., won't you? We'll go to breakfast together, just like something had happened, okay? We don't want people talking about us for no reason!"

She chuckled, then hung up.

But she was ready when there came a knock on the door. She went and found him with the same look as he left her with the night before. Only there was a bit of puzzlement.

"Al, are we crazy?" he said, giving her a penetrating look. "Could we be making the most fantastic mistake? I mean, all those planktonic animals, swimming southward, or at least trying to, are they a dream, or is it real? Do they know something we don't? Are they fleeing? Do they sense--?"

Baffled but somehow seeing clearer than he had hitherto seen, he gazed seaward. Alice followed his gaze as she leaned against a magnificent man called Fingeroot, leaning with the same intensity as she once leaned with all her heart, mind, and soul on the scientific method.

8 Catamaran and Mouse

The cat had its mouse, only this mouse was rather peculiar--it didn’t, perhaps couldn’t, realize the fact. Not only that, it fought with other mice caught by the cat’s claws. Wasn’t this the fatal pattern of human behavior, evidenced again and again?

Two professional, deepsea submersible researchers stood on the bridge of the catamaran. It was all windows, and twenty feet up gave them a wide-range view. While the Nag's Head Institute of Oceanography submersible, Ms. Minnie Mouse, underwent a last series of testing by the chief engineer, they enjoyed looking out over the site of their next project, waters covering the Mid-Atlantic ridge.

Dr. Zapatepac, by a full two decades, was the senior of the pair. He turned to face the young, blond, up and coming Dr. Hans Bohnen, raising his head to do so as Bohnen stood a foot taller and it would be, he knew, a hard fit to get him in the Mouse with yet a third member of the crew.

"What do you suppose those birds are doing, circling and circling out there?" he asked, lifting binoculars. "Some look like swallows, the others like a white dove. They've been doing that since we came, and that was four hours ago."

Bohnen glanced at the crested swallows and wood-doves, both migratory species, then back at the open Atlantic. "Oh, those! I hadn't noticed. They're outside my specialty. Go ask an ornithologist--if you can find one within six hundred miles!"

Zapatepac shrugged.

So this is the one-track brain type they're cranking out at the universities nowadays? Nobody wants to even hint he might be interested in something outside his field. He's not arrogant. He's just self-assured, when he hasn't yet earned the right. And until then he can't grasp the fact there may exist imponderables--things beyond the reach of science. No doubt he thinks the sea can be explained and demonstrated like a figure in geometry or calculus. I don't doubt he'd have a fit if he were ever assigned to dive for something like a lost ship! No wonder he's never mentioned it! He's probably ashamed for me, that I'd do something 'so unscientific,' 'so trivial'!"

Just as these reflections flashed through Dr. Zapatepac’s mind, the intercom paged them.

"Skip to bridge," the voice announced. "Minnie checks out from M to E. Come and get her! She's squeakin’ to see some real, big action!"

Bohnen first, the men hurried down the outside steps to the platform where Skip MacGregor the project engineer, sporting a faded red beret, was disconnecting some hose and oxygenating equipment.

Skip's narrow, deeply lined face was made even more narrow by the slouching beret, but whatever showed above his thin neck was all smile. "The Mouse is all yours, gentlemen! She'll do anything you want her to do, except maybe fly! Mice aren't so good at that, you know."

Its hatch open, the submersible floated ready to receive them., and ranged round on both sides of the catamaran's twin hulls the nine Nag's Head experts serving with Skip--all in red berets.

On the short tower, the paint crew back at Nag's Head was hard put to get all the letters on--"NAG'S HEAD OCEANOGRAPHIC INSTITUTION, OFFICE OF NAVAL RESEARCH, and Ms. MINNIE MOUSE.

Zapatepac looked at Skip. He thought how the engineer didn't look as important as he was. Chief of the Deep Submergence Engineering and Operations Section at Nag's Head, he looked so humble and ordinary he hardly ever got a second glance from dignitaries and guests at the institute--from those who didn't know him. Yet Zapatepac knew the Mouse was like a baby to Skip, and he was completely justified in his pride. Only 22 feet long, she was a gem of a research vessel, even if six times smaller than the cumbersome French Navy submersible, the Archimede, which dropped out of the project in favor of Nag's Head. Skip had even thought up the unique name after hearing the designers call her a "mini-submersible" several times. He had such a sense of fun allied with splendid professionalism, Zapatepac observed as he gave Skip a hearty thump of his hand on his back.

Bohnen didn't even glance at Skip, who didn't seem to mind as Bohnen brushed past and immediately climbed down into the submersible--after some difficulty in getting his lanky legs to fit the tower head.

Zapatepac took time, however, to thank and shake hands with everyone, from Skip to the twenty-man catamaran crew.

That accomplished, he felt ready to go. He climbed down to join Bohnen in the titanium-hulled 80-inch sphere, where the three of them (once the easy-going Vic Prather got through using the catamaran latrine!) would work squeezed together for the next nine hours.

Bohnen was mumbling something when Zapatepac settled into his "duty station".

"What's that?" Bohnen's eyes glared at him even in the gloom.

"Why is he always late? He'll always be a pilot and never make a scientist if he keeps projects waiting for him all the time!"

Zapatepac smiled to himself and let Bohnen stew. He's young, he thought. His type had to age a bit before they saw life wasn't going to always run on schedule--their schedule.

It was hot in the sphere, a sultry 90 degrees. Direct sun fell between the catamaran's hulls and was roasting Minnie's insides. But Zapatepac knew it would soon cool when they started their descent. At 9,000 it would be very cold, indeed! They would need their sweaters and thermals then--only there was no room for them.

"Yo, guys! What's up? Or should I say 'down'?" Vic Prather's legs, then badly rumpled, unfashionable plaid shorts, and finally a well-rounded, tee shirted upper torso (not very clean) and head (long, oily, 1960's hair), and thongs showed themselves. Zapatepac had hired him at once without bothering to read the resume--everyone knew he was a brilliant pilot, even if he did look like a slob. The French had no one his quality. No wonder, he thought, they were always having problems on their dives.

"You're late!" growled Bohnen. "What's the big idea?"

Prather laughed good-naturedly. "Oh, well, you wouldn't want me to have a little accident while we're down 9,000 feet, would you? When Mother Nature calls, it is my solemn duty to obey!"

As pilot, he crouched forward between Zapatepac and Bohnen, looking out the forward view port.

Bohnen made a noise that sounded like grinding clutch gears, then was silent as he turned back to instrument checking

To Prather's left, Zapatepac doubled up against the hot hull, which was only two inches thick titanium alloy, but strong enough to withstand a dive of 20,00 feet, double the pressure they would be experiencing. As the senior oceanographer aboard, it was mainly his job to supervise--see that they covered the course and attained the objectives, while photographing the entire mile long route, a depression in the undersea canyon between two 1,000 outcrops. Bohnen was radio and sonic instrumentation expert--he would keep in touch with the Cat, which was tracking them every second through Minnie's sonar and a gridwork of already laid "transponders," deep-sea echo devices which would repeat Minnie's constant barrage of sonic pulses, thus enabling the Cat to fix their exact position at every foot of the way.

Hans Bohnen paused and wrinkled his nose. Then his eyes squeezed shut. "Prather, do I smell feet? I told you I wasn't going to dive with you one more time if you didn't scrub your feet and get a new pair of thongs!"

"Sorry, buddy, but--" Prather began lamely, but Dudley Watkins, surface controller on the catamaran's bridge, came on the intercom-- it was time to shut up and run through the procedures of the predive check. Should Vic become incapacitated, the two scientists needed to know how to bring the submersible back to the surface.

Together, they ran through the check--feet and thongs momentarily pushed aside.

"Cat," radioed Prather, "hatch is battened down, no leaks so far, and blah blah blah! Request permission to sink this old tub to the bottom, Your Majesty!"

"What about the tracking pinger?" Watkins radioed back. "And is your underwater phone on? Anything registering on your joy bottom sounder yet?"

"Yes, yes, and definitely no, in that order," replied the saucy pilot. "Now, can we please dive? We haven't got all day. Besides, I want to get back to the Cat and watch a couple real classics, some John Waynes I brought along!"

Bohnen groaned and Zapatepac put a hand up to hide his smile.

"Roger, Minnie. You are clear to dive. Present water depth is 9,230 feet. Good luck and best wishes from the support team and crew."

"Yeah, I'm sure! Over and out!"

For good measure, Prather radioed his version of a gorilla's mating call.

Stifling a chuckle, Zapatepac could see it was going to be an eventful dive.

At 8,000 feet down, they were feeling the cold already. Moisture had collected on the inside hull. Zapatepac's arm, pressed against it, was chilled. His body temperature now, thanks to the cold, was now comfortable. Only Bohnen seemed to be out of sorts on the dive (his second so far with Zapatepac and Prather). Born to the country club and the tennis court (at least while he was residing with his parents), he could never seem to forget how high he was above others, even if he had to work with them on occasion for the sake of science.


Bohnen abruptly turned to the problem of life, which he saw was primarily Prather at the moment. "Move your foot, would you? I can't stand the smell of chronic athlete's foot and gangrene any longer!"

Minnie Mouse in a Deep Dive

"Where to, buddy?" laughed Prather. "Out this here little peep hole? Ain't big enough, and, besides, the water's too cold!"

The Cat broke in.

"Minnie, this is Cat. Your present position is X 55.6, Y 100.4. We suggest you drive a course of 82.3 degrees at 45 amps for 10 minutes, to close on your bottom target. Over."

Prather was silent as he smoothly maneuvered the submersible around to the heading of 80 degrees. Instead of a straight descent, they sloped down toward the target.

The instruction was perfect. It brought them right in on target between the two underwater sea-mounts that rose along a center ridge in the canyon floor.

Zapatepac hit the strobes and started photographing as Prather slowly moved Minnie along the seabed, foot by foot.

Prather, who had a port window, soon made a lot of noise. "Hey! Wow! Did you see that? What kinda fish has a tail like a rat and is as big as a VW, Bohnen babe?"

"I'm not here to observe fish!" snarled Bohnen. "This isn't a Sea World aquarium or the zoo! So stick to your driving, if you don't mind, so I can do my work!"

They continued on.

Zapatepac kept photographing though he had just made a mental note to take Bohnen aside for a talk as soon as they were back in the Cat. He also asked Prather to report to him, however, to tell him immediately when he saw fumerols or other signs of volcanic activity. The rift valley was supposedly largely volcanic, and the rest was due to tectonic plates pulling the immense, continent-sized area apart and constantly reshuffling the pieces.

They had gone half the designated route before Prather suddenly turned Minnie at a sharp angle as if he were driving a race course.

"What are you doing, stupid?" cried Bohnen unprofessionally. Prather didn't answer, and Bohnen repeated himself, even more angry.

Zapatepac also would have like to know the reason for the sudden shift in direction, but Prather was obviously ignoring them, he was so engrossed in following something only he could see. Evenso, Zapatepac had to take a look and did so, though it was so difficult to get closer.

Bohnen, unable to keep out of it, got his look as well.

What they saw made them leave it entirely in Prather's capable hands.

Finally, after three or four minutes of a quick-shifting course, they felt the submersible bump and scrape along obstructions on both sides and then grind to a halt so sudden they were thrown forward.

The propellers spinning uselessly, Prather let out a deep sigh after trying several maneuvers without any success. "I think we're in real trouble, guys. Something got us in here-- now it's got us stuck in a fissure. Here, both of you, any ideas? I'm open to suggestions."

Bohnen, in a rage, pushed Prather aside, knocking him against Dr. Zapatepac. He looked out.

"Yes, I can see you are correct. You have got us in some hole--and now you better figure out how to get us out! That's your job, not mine!"

Cat intervened. "Minnie, you're off course 180 degrees. Please return to plotted course. Why are you not moving? Do you read me? This is Cat."

"We're stuck--trapped like rats! The clutz that calls himself a pilot has got us all marooned here forever!" Bohnen cried. His voice suddenly broke. It became full of quavering panic. "I'm going to die down here! You've got to get us out! What if the sphere won't come free of the hull when I push the release button?"

Although he wasn't the military type and loathed pulling "rank," Zapatepac saw it was no time to to be chummily egalitarian. He needed to assert his mission authority at once. If Bohnen did as he threatened, two thirds of the multi-million dollar sub would be jettisoned. The sphere would rise rapidly--but could they survive so quick an ascent? Theoretically, yes, but it had never been done before with human beings in their present situation.

"Bohnen, Prather, listen up! No one's going to push that button until I give the okay! And Hans. Calm down! We've got other emergency procedures to try first. We can drop the battery tanks, which will lighten us considerably. Then the mechanical arm if that doesn't do it."

He reached out and gripped Bohnen's shoulder. Bohnen knocked his hand away and started flailing at him.

In a second the sphere was chaos, with Prather and Zapatepac trying to subdue a maniac. It wasn't working too well. Neither was Bohnen's match, and together they were not quite equal. His body building exercises and power aerobics working for him, Bohnen had the deciding edge and was giving them more than they could reciprocate.

Then, when the opposition was no longer in any condition to continue opposing him, Bohnen hit the rapid ascent button.

A week after the incident of the aborted mission, the Nag's Head board met and went over the testimony and the transcripts of both the catamaran and the submersible's in a laborious but necessary, moment by moment replay of the whole sorry affair.

Dr. Zapatepac's role was exonerated at every point, and so was Victor Prather's, though that was somewhat more surprising. Skip MacGregor explained satisfactorily how a valve had blown on the third decompression chamber containing Dr. Zapatepac--though he had rigorously checked all three before the dive.

Dr. Hans Bohnen, Ph. D., surviving the dive and nitrogen narcosis without even side effects, was discharged and charges were filed.

In his suit he charged Nag's Head with incompetent supervision on the project and in the submersible, citing the pilot's irresponsible navigation of the craft into a dangerous fissure that was not part of the pre-plotted route for the French-American deep-sea exploration project. Zapatepac's widow and Nag's Head representatives met with Bohnen out of court and a settlement was reached. Nag's Head paid him 2 million and he dropped his suit.

As such things were likely to occur, Bohnen and Prather's paths crossed later in a college-town bar in Newark, New Jersey. Bohnen was on his way to Princeton, his alma mater, for a couple courses of post graduate oceanography. Prather was just in a bar at the moment--any would do.

Two million richer, Bohnen was inclined to let the hatchet rest. But Prather had other ideas.

Despite Bohnen's superior size and prowess, Prather grabbed his front and Bohnen saw he wasn't going to get free without ripping at least his designer shirt to pieces.

"You know I had to do it! Yet you sued, you crumb, you jerk!"

Bohnen tried to smile it off. He also tried a laugh, which failed.

"I'm sure I don't know what you mean!"

Prather laughed in his face, and the laugh was half spit, half beer.

"Ha! You can get lawyers to defend you, but I know what happened down there. Zapatepac knew, too, before he got the bends so bad it killed him! You had to get us out whether we survived or not! Well, you'll never forget the truth--that money will rot in your soul to the day you--"

Bohnen recalled he was the stronger of the two and suddenly asserted himself. He shook Prather off, who stood looking up at him with glaring eyes like a small, fat, bulldog.

He started to move away, after throwing down some money for his single glass of draught.

Prather grabbed his arm.

"No, just one more thing. I want you to hear it one more time. The straight scoop, the truth, that is, not that kettle of beans you cooked up for the bosses and those stupid courts and lawyers. I want you to hear that I know what you didn't say, what you saw with your own eyes, just as I and Zap saw--the reason for me going down that fissure in the first place."

Bohnen looked to either side, then back to Prather. "What does it matter now what we saw? It's all water under the--"

Prather lunged round Bohnen as he moved again toward the door.

"--no, you lying ratfink! You saw it! Didn't you? Didn't you? You saw that thing, that light like a little red star drop down in the fissure, moving right ahead of us as the ground cracked apart for it, then it went straight down out of sight and we were stuck! That's what you should have told them! But, you coward, you wouldn't back me up, and let me and Zap look like fools--me and his written notes, that is. Made us look like absolute dummies, and now I'll never get a job again on any project! After losing 2 million, even Nag's Head, which believes my report against yours any day, is afraid to keep me on."

"Well, you are a fool!" laughed Bohnen harshly. "Haven’t you heard? Nag’s Head is finished! Washed up! America’s greatest private institution of deep-sea oceanography isn’t worth a dime to anybody! Now I've got a rental waiting for me down the street. Move aside. You've said it. I've heard you out. So get out of my way!"

Prather, staring numbly at his antagonist, stepped aside. The people in the bar, standing around, looked at him, then at Bohnen's retreated back, and went back, as Prather did, to their tables and the counter.

Victor Prather, impoverished and grown more hungry than thirsty, got a job eventually at the same car rental agency that Hans Bohnen had used. To get by, he had to eat a lot of nature co-op beans scooped out of big sacks. As for the Mouse, a good two-thirds remained over 9,000 feet down, trapped forever in a fissure in the Mid-Atlantic. Only the titanium sphere survived in a weedy, fenced back lot of Nag's Head Oceanographic Institution after it filed a Chapter 11 (then, failing to convince old patrons to help with a bail-out, closed down).

9 Last of the Great American Icons

The red starlet left very few corners unturned; that was the agenda, after all. If you are going to terminate something, you might as well know what it is--even to the core values of its existence. Following a cinematic trail that began in Hollywood and major studio film archives, it arrived at a national shine high in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Chad Horton Atkins, editor-at-large for the Smithsonian Magazine, groaned inwardly. Thunderclouds in and monsoons were not exactly what Black Hills travel agency brochures promised for the month of August. June and July were cold and rainy, but August was generally good enough to risk a trip. There was supposed to be a blue sky for a backdrop, not all this fog and heavy rain.

Atkins lifted his baby daughter to the telescope even though she wouldn’t be able to see a thing. It couldn’t possibly show her Lincoln, T. Roosevelt, Jefferson, and Washington, there was just too much cloud-cover. “Why had he dragged his wife and daughter on this goose chase anyway?” he wondered, kicking himself. He could have written his upcoming article debunking “Gutzon Borglum’s folly” without making a personal appearance. So why had he come?

Yet he couldn’t forget the time he was nine years old and first set eyes on the 450 ft. figure of the author of the Gettysburg Address and the Emancipation Proclamation. His parents had driven him all the way from California to see the old Rail-Splitter. To them Mt. Rushmore’s Memorial was a greater national shrine than anything the capital had to offer. Lincoln and the other presidents were carved in immortal granite, head to toe, and stood like Titans gazing out on the Great Plains from their mountain fastness. At that time the visitors’ center on top of the monument was open, and they could walk from there down a staircase through the sculptures and out to the base, where he recalled how small he was, dwarfed by the shoes of President Lincoln. Later, in the Fifties, cracks in the staircase tunnel and seeping water caused authorities to close it down and build a new visitor’s center on a hill across from the monument.

After the Mount Rushmore tour, cross-country trips were out of the question. His dad died of a brain tumor, his mom took a low-pay job in a nursing home cafeteria, and it was a long story of pinched pennies, years of schooling for him, and hard, sweaty carpenter jobs during the summer breaks until he won a degree and headed to Washington, D.C. He had done well, very well, since then. With the right ideas and help from friends he had broken through the glass ceiling that separated blue from the white collars. But maybe his slightly scaled-down Horatio Alger story was atypical--there was still too much Lincolnian struggle and poverty in it perhaps for easy peer-identification with his colleagues at the Smithsonian. He had done his best to hide his handicap, and thought he had succeeded--until now.

Chad lifted Stephanie his squirming daughter down from the boring, sightless telescope and let her run to her mother for something. He noticed a well-dressed extended family of parents, grandparents, and little ones from Japan. They all were toting electronic wizardry proclaiming the new Japan’s superpower status. He smiled and wondered if the clouds would clear enough to make the long trip from Osaka to Mount Rushmore worthwhile? And, more significantly, what would their impressions of the last great American icons be? How would they view the founders of a nation that nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki, surely the greatest crimes ever perpetrated against humanity. That might be worth inclusion in his article.

He doubted they would be as impressed as earlier generations of uneducated, uninformed Americans had been. Though basically adhering to animism and the Shinto religion, Japan had giant, golden Buddhas, but they were emblems of peace and compassion, not national arrogance and genocide. The Buddhas couldn’t possibly compare with what Gutzon Borglum and his son carved from a 1,300 foot mountain. Now just what question could he ask them that would get the right response? Before he could settle on the correct words, the thought was blown from his mind.

“SuuuEeeeeeee!” Stephanie screamed, turning back toward him, a warning bleep that meant she was not getting what she wanted from her mother. She gave him that look of hers that signalled an imminent iruption.

The rushed up to him and pushed hard, demanding the world in monosyllabic, ear-splitting supplications.

Chad tried to calm her down. The Japanese were observing him quietly, especially the grandparents. Finally, promising her the world and a little more too, he got her to see reason, and she calmed down. It was decided they would give up touring Mt. Rushmore for the moment and go direct to MacDonald’s in Rapid City.

Triumphant, Stephanie ran back to her mother, who was grimly shaking her head at him for caving in.

Chad, knowing it would mean a long drive in bad weather just to placate a little monster, sighed and avoided the all-knowing, pitying glances of the Japanese. He joined his wife. “You know perfectly well it was either that or she’d scream all the way back to the motel,” he protested to her in a voice he managed to keep controlled and low.

His wife gritted her teeth, took Stephanie’s hand, and they went to the gift shop, since Stephanie wanted to see the toys. Toys were her thing--especially little huggable bear cubs, fawns, and goslings she could maul to her heart’s content. Pricey Muppets like Miss Piggy were wasted by a single throttling squeeze and a rip of her claws that scattered Miss Piggy’s pearls and pink anatomy all over the room. She didn’t go in for preserving cute stuff--she loved it to death.

“What are we raising in our house?” Chad often wondered. Waiting for his family to return, Chad leaned on the wet railing of the observation platform and sighed. A passing cloud shed its condolences, firing big splattering drops around him like balloon bombs. The Japanese--the only souls braving the weather with him--changed their minds and hurried away toward the parking lot. Chad was left alone with his thoughts.

He had to wonder at his own reaction to the day’s dampened prospects. John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum’s creations were, as he well knew, products of a twisted racist and bigot, not wonderful expressions of a master sculptor and patriot. Gutzon Borglum had been a member of the KKK. That alone damned him beyond any possibility of a role in a gloriously pluralistic, socialist and non-sexist America. As for the Memorial, it was sheer bathos and vulgarity writ large on the American landscape.

It was all that, yet it didn’t seem to matter as much as it had back in Washington. “I’m just being over-sensitive about this lousy weather,” he reasoned, glancing at the soggy shrubbery, cold-blighted flowerbeds, and dripping pines. “So what if I don’t see these presidents. They’re nothing but over-blown icons of past political life, outmoded and--and they really shouldn’t be foisted on an impressionable young girl anyway. I must have been crazy to bring her here. She won’t be able to put them in the proper perspective.”

Even as he tried to make the best of his misspent trip, he knew his attempt didn’t wash. He ought to have sickened and amused in equal amounts, but something in the air excited him. What could it be? He looked around, trying to penetrate the clouds and rain that veiled the president’s gigantic forms high above on the mountain.

Giving up, he thought about his job. It was always nice to think about. He was doing very well. Even with a three-hour workday, he found precious little time for his family, however. There was golf with his colleagues, the Congressional Reform Club meetings, stimulating interviews on National Public Radio--plenty of things to keep him busy. Hillary, too, was scarce around the house. She taught quantum math at George Washington University instead of the modeling she really wanted to do. So far his objection to modeling while he held a job at the staid Smithsonian had kept her at GWU--but how much longer? She was brilliant, yes, but she preferred the bright lights to the lecturer’s podium.

He saw them coming out of the giftshop-interpretive center and winced. Even at a distance, he could see how fin de sicle his wife was. Obviously, her heart wasn’t in anything she did. She looked years older than she should, he thought. Her good looks--they were fast evaporating. Did she really hate GWU and a plush Watergate condo and all the rest of it? Surely, she was being a bit unreasonable! She had a career and a loving husband and a beautiful daughter, a lovely home and all the rest. What more could she want?

He thought they were going to join him, but, no, Stephanie must have forgotten MacDonald’s, for she dragged her mother off in another direction. Chad wasn’t going to give chase. He was getting wet enough where he was. His designer jogging sweats were drinking up the raindrops like blotting paper, clinging to his skin. “Best to let her tire herself,” he thought, “and then we’ll have an easier drive to Rapid City.”

He turned back to the rail, not expecting to see a thing, but just then the clouds opened and something like molten gold poured through a gap. Even with the light he still could not see any faces above, yet he sensed they were there--sensed them powerfully. Surprised by his own sudden revival of illicit, recidivist emotion, he glanced back around him quickly. Where were his wife and daughter?

He was going to go to the giftshop when the sky cleared even more and as the light blazed all around him he had to look upwards--just in case the trip wasn’t in vain. Considering the mix of bright sunshine with nearby rain and dark clouds, he wasn’t surprised to see a rainbow break on the scene. It was pretty in a postcard-y way, but the main attraction was far greater: the presidents. They had finally appeared in all their glory. All four--George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. Linked together in a kind of magisterial tetrarchy, they gazed out from the side of the mountain, just like his memory pictured them, nothing at all changed after two decades.

The rush of deja vu was nearly overwhelming. He could have glanced to his side and not been surprised to see his parents leaning on the rail, their faces lit with wonder and pride in America’s greatest leaders, as they could not help seeing them back then. A moment’s indulgement of this sentiment and Chad was blushing. His cheeks burned as he realized what he fool he was making of himself. What if his colleagues at the Smithsonian saw him, or even guessed what he was experiencing? He’d be out of a job! He knew he could never explain such feelings to them.

The rainbow was only garnish, however. It quickly passed and the figures loomed unadorned, all the more majestic and solemn in their dark, gray granite. Chad was looking at one in particular, Lincoln, when he saw a flash of bright red. Except for himself, the platform was deserted. Otherwise, he would have turned and asked people if they saw what he saw. For what was it?

The red spot glowed and began to circle Lincoln. Was it a dance of light and shadow from the boiling clouds that were again moving in? Just a trick or optical illusion of some kind? Or--the worst case scenario--an UFO? He grabbed the telescope, rammed in the quarter to start it, and trained it on the red glow.

For Chad Atkins time stood still. He forgot all about a jaded wife, an impossible daughter, his clever articles, a beautiful salary, the club, golfing, and all the other perks. He forgot about the pair of black, gold-flecked 1988 Jaguars, the condo, the summer house on the rugged Maine coast, the bulging IRA portfolio. None of it meant a thing at that moment, seeing what he saw.

One magic moment the red star was there taking a tour of the presidents, then all gone--poof! Off it flew toward another mountain, vanishing in the cloudbank. Then down swept a dull gray screen of swirling mist, extinguishing the stone megaliths one by one until the feet, too, disappeared from view.

He was back where he started. Or was he? He heard familiar screaming and crying behind him. He turned to see his wife struggling with Stephanie, evidently trying to coax her to the car. Following, Chad joined them just as another monsoon struck the park. With grim determination, they drove slowly through what looked like a series of flash floods and impossible fords, toward the nearest town with a MacDonald’s. Storm or no storm, they both knew they would have no peace until they set their little girl down with a party hat and a Mount Rushmore-Ronald MacDonald’s party combo.

The roar of the rain beating down was difficult to talk in, but Chad and his wife had nothing as usual to say to each other. Taking all his attention, the road disappeared from view for long stretches, so that he was driving blind. It was madness, he knew, to be out on the road. But once started, there seemed no advantage in turning back. And could they get back? The violent storm made that seem extremely problematical.

Turning a corner into what appeared like a bay instead of section of the highway with a turn-out for viewing the Memorial from a distance, flashing blue lights and red flares made him pull to a halt in standing, knee-deep water. A state patrolman’s face pressed against the window, shouting something.

Rolling the window down, it felt like someone had thrown a bucket of water at him, but Chad heard there was a rockslide dead ahead, blocking the only exit to the crossroad that linked up with Rapid City. “How long will it be before it’s cleared?” he shouted back in the streaming face of the officer. “Our little girl has her heart set on a Ronald MacDonald’s--”

The officer’s face showed disbelief. “Half the mountain fell down on the road, sir! You aren’t going anywhere if you mean to get to Rapid! We could use some help with sandbags. Care to join the park crew? They’re really short-handed and we’re can’t get another crew in her until tomorrow.”

Remembering a bad back, Chad politely declined.

“Didn’t think so!” the affable patrolman laughed. “Nobody would be out in this if they weren’t forced to it, or a bit crazy in the head like me!”

Chad gave him a sour look and rolled the window back down quickly. “Nothing’s going my way today,” he thought.

“What’ll we do now?” his wife complained. “I never wanted to go on this trip in the first place.”

Chad glanced over at his alien of a wife and their mutant, cranky daughter with some shock, as if seeing them for the first time. “What a place to be caught in with them!” he was thinking nastily. But it was a nasty situation. In fact, they didn’t look at all like the perfectly coifed wife and ribboned daughter he had set in gold frames on his desk.

As for Stephanie, she was no longer buying her daddy’s silence as a good omen. She began wailing the name of MacDonald’s, while her mother made frantic attempts to divert her with stale sour cream potato chips and a half-eaten caramel apple.

Chad swung the car around and headed back. It was a near miracle they made it to the motel, the waters were so high on the road. And more inches were coming down so hard he ran from the car to the office for an umbrella.

Stephanie would not wait. She escaped the car and ran to meet him. In a moment she was drenched head to foot. Her fat, impish face beamed for the first time that day--she loved it. She began to dance and skip about like a heavy fairy, enjoying the swamped parking lot while Chad stood wondering how to catch her without getting as wet as she was. He soon gave up the idea and just watched, glad she had forgotten all about MacDonald’s.

A cry called him back to his senses.

“Chad, hurry up with that umbrella!” his wife shrilled. “Chad, are you crazy, letting her get soppy wet like that so she’ll get pneumonia?”

When they slogged into the office together, Stephanie was a mess but Chad had never seen her so happy. Everyone was staring at them, particularly the Japanese family who had also been turned back by the landslide.

“Children love playing in puddles, don’t they?” he said lamely to the Japanese, whose immaculate offspring had not a drop of moisture or mud spot on them, he noticed.

Later, Stephanie was coughing and running a slight fever, and Chad and Hillary settled down in the same bed to keep her quiet, hoping she would go to sleep and stop saying how much fun she’d had.

“I’ve never seen her exhibit such behaviors before!” his wife murmured anxiously, eyes shut and head down on her pillow. “What is wrong with her? I’m really concerned. Should we take her in to a specialist? How about Ms. Wrack my therapist? She’s trained in behavioral disorders and phobias. I had a feeling I should have terminated my pregnancy. But you wanted this child. What’s your solution?”

Chad saw no explanation either. She had struck a nerve too, referring to his wanting Stephanie. That had been selfishly sexist of him--unequivocably. But it was too late to change the facts now. Though he wouldn’t begrudge the money, he suspected his daughter’s dementia was detected too late and now well beyond the reach of therapy.

Unable to sleep, hours after going to bed, Chad listened to the relentless drumbeat of rain on the motel roof. Though his eyes were shut, he could still see the strangest sight anyone could imagine.

His brain raced, keeping him wide awake. How on earth could he explain what he saw? No one at the Smithsonian would believe him anyway. It just didn’t fit their program against Judaeo-Christian cultural degeneracy at all. Racism, bigotry, sexism, gender identity, age-discrimination, patriotic delusions, poverty, chemical dependency, belief systems based on traditional values, the unfair distribution of wealth, the independence and profiteering of big business, eating disorders, gender-based bathrooms were really all one syndrome, and could be handled by public enlightenment through the media, vigorous government action, and re-education of the citizenry in the schools, courts, and military--but a little red, fiercely burning star that scanned one president after another with the thoroughness of a surveyor?

No, they’d never believe a word he had to say after that if his experience ever leaked out and people heard he’d sighted an UFO at Mt. Rushmore. Worse, the red-glowing object hadn’t been content to just circle and survey. Using the monument as a screen, it projected a climactic scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller, North by Northwest, in which Cary Grant and his lover were chased down and across the president’ faces by the head of a Soviet spy ring. The showing lasted only a few seconds, but the frames and the sculptured presidents made a perfect fit.

What was that sound?

Silence! The rain had stopped. All he could hear was the snoring of his wife and some mumbling from his daughter as they slept.

Chad lay for a moment, listening, then slid out of bed. He grabbed his clothes and shoes and made no sound as he let himself out. It was dark, and he dressed quickly, glad it was so early no one else was up. His shoes and stockings, he held in his hand as he waded toward his car. Without pausing to think what he was doing, he got in and eased himself out of the lot, and only then shut the door.

By this time the road had been cleared, and he passed through the slide area, all lit up with blinking hazard lights.

Where was he going? He had no idea. He just had to go. Life, he was sure of it, had slipped its rails. He felt compelled to find the track, if it was the last thing he did. “I’ve gone stark mad!” he thought. “It had to happen sooner or later with a daughter and a wife like mine, I suppose. Well, what have I got to lose?”

Thinking about that, he realized he could very well lose everything he had worked so hard to get--job, reputation, credibility among his peers--everything, if he kept going to God knows where, driving in the night to an unknown destination.

It was absolutely crazy, this early morning flight to nowhere, but he still kept going. He couldn’t even breathe back there at the motel!

Highway 16’s sign appeared in his lights. Why not? he thought, and swung onto it. Then came another turn. This time the road quickly became rutted gravel. It climbed and climbed. He could make out steep mountainsides, plunging falls here and there, millions of pines and increasingly bare stretches of granite as he gained elevation. There was only one sign telling him Thunderhead Mountain was 4 miles ahead.

The road twisted more sharply like a snake in pain, and it was slow going. Finally, he crested and came out on a football-sized lot lined with huge boulders. A scenic view area for Thunderhead Mountain? The road went on from there, if you could call it a road, but he halted to take a look in the moonlight--for the clouds had cleared away enough for the moon to show itself.

“There--that black shape above--that’s it!” he thought. It had to be the mountain. Nothing so big was anywhere near him. How many tons of granite does it hold? he wondered idly as he craned his neck. He shivered. Some raw, wet wind was running down the face of the mountain toward him, blowing his hair back, and reminding him he hadn’t brought a jacket. He could hear a lot of running water too. Rivers, streams, waterfalls, Thunderhead Mountain evidently had them all in abundance.

But even in the moonlight the mountain was too dark to see, and he decided to leave, wondering what had gotten into him to drag him halfway to Custer to see a mountain that meant nothing to anyone, except perhaps native Indians who were supposed to hold this territory sacred. He had his hand on the car door and was about to get in when he fell backwards, nearly on his head.

Fighting for his balance, he had no idea what had happened. Then he saw a red flare, like a torch thrown across the sky, heading toward him. He fell flat on the wet gravel and rocks as it passed close over him and then shot upwards.

Chad scrambled to his knees and glimpsed the red flare darting next around the summit of Thunderhead.

The red star? he wondered. The next moment he was rolling across the ground. His ears felt blown out. The ground then began to shake. His car, though in gear, with the brake pulled, was nowhere near him--something had shaken or blown it away, half way across the field!

This was pretty scary stuff. Chad decided it was probably wise to try to get to his car and get away if he could before worse happened.

Then he glanced and saw something that paralyzed him. The mountain! It had grown features--a man’s face! He had no time to absorb this information. Again, he was thrown flat and had to pick himself up again. When he looked for his car, it had become sandwiched between two granite slabs and vanished over the rim of the viewing area.

Really frightened, Chad began stumbling across the thrown up rocks and boulders of the field back toward the road. But another concussion flattened him. This time he was pelted with fragments of granite. He looked back as soon as he could. The mountain again, it had changed shape--the man’s face had been joined by neck, shoulders and bare torso. And the man was pointing with outstretched arm and a finger toward the distance boundary of the Lakota lands.

“What the--?” Transfixed, Chad stared at the instant mega-sculpture. This mountain was, he guessed, about 7,000 feet high, which meant it was over seven times higher than the Washington Monument. And the “red star” had done what no one had ever done--cut a gigantic figure on a horse out of mountain granite in just seconds! But what did the figure signify?

He knew! He remembered just then he had read somewhere Hollywood had a Grade B movie in the mill called “Crazy Horse Rides Again!” It starred John Wayne as Crazy Horse the Lakota chief and Lana Turner as the femme fatale Indian maiden who decoys Custer and his troops into the fatal battle. But why was the red star--whatever it was--recreating Crazy Horse here of all places? Inspired by the sets of the Twentieth Century Fox film, was it trying to go one better than Rushmore? What could be its purpose in that?

He couldn’t budge from the spot now. He had to find out. This was fantastic, stupendous--there was really no word for it. Sick to death of what he was, hoping to get a hold on anything real, he was willing to risk all. Somehow he knew this was it--his defining moment--the moment he had worked and sweated and compromised all his life to attain and had almost missed. So what if he had won everything he ever wanted and it had turned to stale chips in his mouth? Here--unexplanably--was his main chance. He strained his eyes, watching for the next move of this master definer of his destiny.

Suddenly, Chad was aware the whole world was falling. Or was it rising? He had only a fraction of time to think what it could possibly be. Thunderhead Mountain, and the sculptured colossi of a horse and the Lakoka hero chief who fought and bested General Custer, were no more.

Crazy Horse Monument

Uncountable tons of granite mountain rose up and then crashed down. Rock covered every trace of Chad Atkins and his Jag, including the skidding track he had made on the way up to the site of his life-defining moment.

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