Arlington. Tuesday, February 18, 2234.
Harold Tewksbury woke from one of those curious disjointed dreams in which he was wandering down endless corridors while his heart fluttered and he had trouble breathing. Damned thing wouldn't go away anymore.
The doctors wanted to give him a synthetic heart. But he was over a hundred years old, and even if they could fix things so his body wouldn't be tired, he was. His wife was long dead, his kids had grown up sixty years ago. Somehow he'd been too busy for his family and he'd allowed himself to get separated from his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Now none of them knew him.
The commlink was chiming, and he heard Rhonda's soft voice. "Harold," she was saying. "The lab." Rhonda was the house A.I. "I don't like waking you for these calls, and I think you should let me deal with them."
"Can't, Rhonda. Just patch it through."
"At the very least, you should take your medication first. Are you all right?"
"Yes," he said, pushing up to a sitting position. "I'm fine. Just a little short of breath." He dumped a pill into his hand and swallowed it. And felt better almost immediately.
It was 3:17 a.m.
"Put them on," he said. And he knew, of course, why they were calling. The only reason they ever called at this hour except the time that Josephine had tripped over a rumpled carpet, broken an arm, and had to be taken off to the hospital.
"Harold." Charlie's voice.
"Yes, Charlie? It happened again?"
"Same as the others?"
"Right. No record there was ever a star there anywhere."
"We don't quite have the details down yet, but it looks like it."
A nova. But not really. Not the right intensity. Not the right spectroscopic reading. And no evidence of a star in the neighborhood. He shook his head. Can't have a nova without a star. "Where?"
"Near the Golden Crescent."
"On a line with the others?"
And that was what really chilled him. There had been three earlier events. On a line, as if something were marching through the sky.
"Did we catch it at the beginning? Or was it running when the package opened up?"
"At the beginning, Harold."
"Okay. Pipe it through."
He rearranged his pillows. A starfield winked on. The Golden Crescent, nursery to a thousand newborn stars, floated over his dresser. To his left, great smoky walls fell away to infinity. The Mogul, a small, dim class-G was close enough to illuminate the clock. And the long arm of the Milky Way passed through the center of the room.
"Five seconds," said a recorded voice.
He pushed himself higher and watched a dazzling light appear over his dresser. Brilliant and blinding, it overwhelmed everything else in the sky.
It looked like a nova. Behaved like a nova. But it was something else.
He ran it a few more times before shutting it down. They had this one from the beginning. If it was like the others, the light would sustain itself for sixty-one days before shutting down.
Through his window the lights of the Washington Monument were a distant blur. The White Eagle Hotel, usually a bright beacon in the night, had been swallowed by an unseasonable fog.
He sat quietly, allowing full reign to a rush of sheer pleasure. He was caught up in one of the great mysteries of the age, had no clue what was happening, suspected he would not get a reasonable explanation during his lifetime. And he could not have been happier. The universe, it seemed, was smart enough to keep them all guessing. Which was as it should be.
They'd started trying to sell Weatherman fifteen years ago. The idea was to use their FTL capability to put automated observation packages in strategic locations. They'd presented the program as a means for observing omega clouds, finding out what they were, and possibly learning how to combat them. Fifteen years ago that had been a very big deal. The clouds were still relatively new then. The news that one was headed toward Earth, even though it wouldn't get here for roughly nine hundred years, had scared the pants off the general public. But that fear had long since subsided.
The technology had never been right; the program was expensive and superluminals were needed to make the deliveries. Then there had been a huge piece of luck: the discovery of an alien vehicle at the Twins a few years ago provided new technology: a way to build compact self-contained FTL engines and install them as part of the observation package. Push a button and the Weatherman was on its way.
He had been a long time getting here, but he was on the job at last.
A month ago, the first long-range Weatherman package had arrived in the neighborhood of M68, a globular cluster 31,000 light-years away. Since then, several dozen units had unfurled their sails and powered up scopes and sensors and hyperlight transmitter. More units were on their way to hundreds of sites.
The first pictures had come in, and they'd popped the champagne. Sylvia Virgil, the director of operations, had come down and gotten wobbly. But that night nobody cared. They'd stood around looking at a sky filled with dusty clouds like great walls, vast star nurseries that rose forever. It was eerie, gothic, ominous, illuminated by occasional smears of light, like the Monument and the White Eagle. The 'walls' were, of course, thousands of light years across. And they'd watched everything through the eye of the Weatherman. Soon, he'd told himself, they would be everywhere.
Most of Harold's colleagues had been blasé about the kind of results they expected. At the time they thought they understood everything, knew how galaxies formed, had a lock on the life cycles of stars, grasped the general nature of the beasts that haunted the dark reaches between the stars. But right out of the box they'd gotten a surprise.
The first phase of the Weatherman Project consisted of the simultaneous launch of more than six hundred probes. When they'd all arrived at their stations, the Academy would have coverage of sites ranging from within two thousand light-years of the core all the way out to the rim, from Eta Carina to the Lagoon, from the Ring Nebula to the M15 cluster. They would take the temperature of dust clouds and nebulas, track down gravitational anomalies, and provide pictures of the controlled chaos around the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy. With luck, it would all happen during Harold's lifetime.
Actually, there'd been several surprises, from black jets to the galactic wind. But the great anomaly was the quasi-nova. Behind his back, his people were already calling them tewks. Star-like explosions, eruptions of enormous energy in places where there were no stars. And almost in a line. Not quite, but almost. It made his hair stand on end.
There was no use trying to go back to sleep. He disentangled himself from the sheets, wandered into the kitchen, got out two pieces of farm bread and slugged some strawberry jelly on it. One of his many guilty pleasures.
The explosions, though they were less than nova force, were nevertheless of sufficient intensity to be visible across tens of thousands of light-years. Probably all the way out to Andromeda. They were far away, and for that he felt grateful. Explosions of this magnitude, for which one couldn't account, were disquieting. Light from the four events would reach Earth toward the end of the millennium. They would be visible in the southern hemisphere, where they'd blaze across the sky, in Libra and Scorpius, not quite lining up. But close.
This was Priscilla Hutchins's second tour in the Academy bureaucracy. She'd served two years as transport chief, gotten bored, returned to piloting, gotten married, and accepted a tempting offer: assistant director of operations. She was at last content to leave the superluminals behind, to get away from the long voyages, to get out of the ships with their virtual beaches and their virtual mountainscapes and their virtual everything-else. The oceans and the breezes and the sand were real now. She had a man who loved her, and a daughter, and a house in the suburbs, and life was good.
But Sylvia Virgil was leaving for a lucrative position in private industry. She was effectively gone and Hutch had found herself assigned as Acting D.O. With an inside shot at getting a permanent appointment.
But the view from the top was turning out to be a bit more complicated than she'd expected. The days in which she made decisions of no consequence to anyone, invested countless hours formulating policy for the record, attended conferences at establishments with convenient golf courses, reviewed reports from the field, and took extraordinarily long lunches abruptly ended.
Hutch was now responsible for coordinating the movements of all Academy vessels, for deciding who piloted those vessels, and for determining passenger transportation. That sounded simple enough. In the old days, when Professor Hoskinson wanted to bump Dr. O'Leary from a flight to Pinnacle, Hutch had simply passed the issue along and let Sylvia make the call. Now she was in the middle of every food fight, and she had discovered that her clients, for the most part, owned substantial egos and were not above bringing to bear whatever pressure they could manage. Because these were inevitably the top people in their respective fields, the pressure they could bring was considerable.
She had also become responsible, within monetary constraints, for determining which projects the Academy pushed and which it neglected, and for establishing their priority, and the level of resources to be devoted to each. All of course controled by guidelines from the commissioner. She had a staff of scientific advisors, but the decisions tended more often than not to be based on political considerations. Who had clout with the Congress? Who had been supportive of the Academy during the previous fiscal year? Who did Asquith like?
Michael Asquith was the Academy commissioner, her boss, and a man who believed that scientific considerations were necessarily secondary to rewarding the Academy's supporters and punishing its critics. He called it taking the long view. "We have to give preference to our friends," he told her in strictest secrecy, as if it weren't a transparent policy. "If a little science doesn't get done as a consequence, that's a price we're willing to pay. But we have to keep the Academy in business and well-funded, and there's only one way to do that."
The result was that when a program that deserved support on its own merits didn't get it, Hutch took the heat. When a popular initiative went through and provided serious results, the commissioner got the credit. During the year and a half since she'd taken the job, she'd been bullied, threatened, harassed, and hectored by a substantial representation of the scientific community. Many of them seemed to believe they could take her job. Others promised reprisals, and there'd even been a couple of death threats. Her once benign view of academics, formed over more than two decades of hauling them around the Orion Arm, had gone downhill. Now, when they contacted her, she had to make a conscious effort not to get hostile.
She'd had a modicum of vengeance against Jim Albright, who'd called her to threaten and complain when his turn at one of the Weatherman units had been set back. She'd responded by indiscreetly mentioning the incident to Gregory MacAllister, an editor who'd made a long and happy career of attacking academics, moralists, politicians, and crusaders. MacAllister had gone after Albright with a bludgeon, depicting him as a champion of trivial causes and his program as "one more example of squandering the taxpayers' money counting stars." He hadn't mentioned Hutch, but Albright knew.
That didn't matter, because the bottom line was that she didn't hear from Albright again, although she learned later that he'd tried to have her terminated. Asquith understood what had happened, though, and warned her to call off the big dog. "If it comes out that we're behind any of that, we'll all be out on the street," he told her. He was right, and Hutch was careful not to use the MacAllister weapon again. But she'd enjoyed watching Albright go to ground.
She was currently in the middle of trying to decide how to persuade Alan Kimbel, who was at Serenity doing research on stellar jets, that he could not stay beyond the original timetable and would have to come home. Kimbel had appealed to her on the ground that there'd been a breakthrough discovery and he and his team needed a few more weeks. Please. The man had been almost in tears.
The problem was that it happened all the time. Space on the outlying stations was scarce, and there were already people enroute and more in line. Extensions could be granted under certain conditions, and her advisors had told her that Kimbel was correct in his assessment. But if she granted the extension, she'd have to tell another group already a week into their mission that, when they arrived at Serenity, they wouldn't be able to stay. She couldn't very well do that. And the only alternative was to cut someone else short. She'd looked at the possibilities and, for various reasons, there was no easy pick. In the end, she'd denied the request.
She was recording a response to Kimbel when her link chimed. Harold Tewksbury on the circuit.
Harold was the senior member of the astrophysics staff. He'd been with the Academy when Hutch had toured the place as a high school senior. He was an organization freak, a fussy little man with a penchant for order and procedure. His reputation in the field wasn't good. His colleagues thought him quarrelsome and uncommunicative, but no one seemed to doubt his capabilities. And he was always nice to Hutch. In fact, around women, he was a pussycat.
"Yes, Harold," she said. "What are you up to this morning?"
"You busy at the moment?"
She had a hatful of problems. "It isn't like the old days," she said. "But I can make time."
"Good. When you can, stop by the lab."
She found him sitting at his desk staring out into the courtyard. He shook his head when he saw her, signaling bewilderment. But he also managed a smile. "Something odd's going on," he said.
She thought he was talking about equipment. There had been recent problems with spectrometers. Replacing them would have been expensive, so they'd gone with upgrades. Harold didn't like upgrades, didn't like not having the top of the line. "Spend all this money to send out packages," he'd grumbled to her just a few days earlier, "and then skimp on the retrieval and analysis gear."
But he surprised her. "You know about the quasi-novas," he said.
The tewks. She knew, more or less. It seemed a bit esoteric to her, events a thousand light-years away. Hardly a matter of concern for any but the specialists.
He leaned toward her. His white hair was plumped up and one collar stuck out sideways. He presented the classic image of a researcher. His blue eyes became unfocused rather easily, he frequently lost his train of thought, and he was inclined often to stop in the middle of a sentence when some new idea had occurred to him. In the bright midday sunlight, he looked like an ultimate innocent, a man for whom physical law and mathematics were the only realities. Two cups of coffee arrived.
"They're almost in a line," he said.
"And the significance of that is--?"
"It shouldn't happen naturally."
She just didn't know where to go with it. "What are you telling me, Harold?"
"I don't really know, Hutch. But it scares me."
"You're sure they're not novas?"
"Positive." He tried his coffee, examined the cup, sighed. "Among other things, there's too much energy in the visible spectrum, not enough in the x-ray and gamma."
"You get more visible light for the amount of energy expended. A ton more. It's brighter. By a lot."
"A light bulb."
"You could almost say that."
"All right," she said. "I'll pass it on. You recommend any action?"
He shook his head. "I'd give quite a lot to have a Weatherman in place the next time one goes off."
"Can we do that? Can you predict the next one?"
Now he was looking at the spoon. "Unfortunately not. I can take a stab."
"A stab? What are the odds?"
"Harold, let's do this: Let's watch for a while. If you reach a point where we know an event is coming, where you can give me a target with a reasonable degree of certainty, we'll take a serious look. Okay?"
It wasn't something she could get excited about. She made a mental note to suggest Eric Samuels, the public relations director, get in touch with Harold to see whether the Academy couldn't squeeze some publicity out of it. Meantime, she was looking at a busy afternoon.
She had lunch with the president of the SPA, the Superluminal Pilots' Association. They wanted more money, a better retirement system, better career opportunities, you name it. She knew Ben Zalotski well, from her own days on the bridge. Ben was a decent guy, and a hard charger for the pilots. The problem was that he had no compunctions about taking advantage of their long association to get what he wanted. In reality, it wasn't even Hutch's area of responsibility. Jill Watkin in Personnel was supposed to handle all this stuff, but Ben had framed the hour as an opportunity for old friends to get together. She'd known what was coming, but couldn't very easily refuse to see him. She might have simply gotten busy, but she didn't like being devious. In the end she had to tell him she couldn't help, refused even to concede that she sympathized with his objectives, even though she did. But she was part of the management team and her loyalties lay in a different direction. Ben quoted some of her past comments back at her, the pilots are overworked, they can't keep their families together, and nobody gives a damn for them. They're just glorified bus drivers and that's the way they get treated. He allowed himself to look disappointed, and even implied that she'd turned her back on her old comrades.
So she returned to her office in a foul mood, listened to an appeal from Hollis Gunderson, "speaking for the University of the Netherlands," to have his pet project put on the docket. The project was a hunt for a white hole, which Hutch's scientific team had advised her didn't exist, couldn't exist, and would be a waste of resources. Gunderson had gotten past the appointments secretary by claiming someone had misunderstood his intentions. Hutch had made time to talk with him, on the assumption it was easier to see him while he was here than to call back and cancel him. Anyhow there was something to be said for not making enemies unnecessarily. Her now-retiring boss, Sylvia Virgil, had commented on her last evaluation that she had a tendency to put off confrontations. She'd suggested Hutch was too timid. Hutch had wondered how Virgil would have done on Deepsix, but let it go.
She heard Gunderson out and concluded the "misunderstanding" to which he'd referred was semantic rather than substantive. Call it by any other name, he still wanted to go looking for a white hole. She told him that, to have the project even considered, he'd have to provide a written statement supporting his views from two of the thirteen physicists certified by the Academy to rule on such matters. "Until you can satisfy two of them, Professor," she said, "I'm afraid we can't help you."
A young man had a complaint concerning one of the pilots. He'd been gruff, he said, and rude and generally not very talkative. All the way back from Outpost. Did Hutch have any idea what it was like to ride for weeks with a ship's captain who kept to himself? He was talking about Adrian Belmont, whom she'd like to get rid of because there were always complaints, but the SPA would come down hard on the Academy if she terminated him. Better to hire a hit man. Cleaner.
In any case, it wasn't an operational matter. "I'm terribly sorry," she told him. "You should be aware that the pilots frequently make those voyages alone. Some of them have simply learned to get along without a social life. We ask the passengers to be understanding. But if you really want to press the matter, I'm afraid you have the wrong department. You'll want Personnel. End of the corridor, turn right, thank you very much."
She gave an interview to a journalist working on a book about Moonlight, arranged special transportation to Paradise for Abel Kotanik, who'd been requested by the field team, juggled shipping schedules to get a load of medical supplies (which had been mistakenly dropped and left on the pier at Serenity) forwarded to the Twins, and decided to fire the chief engineer at Pinnacle for sins of commission and omission that stretched back three years.
Her final meeting of the day was with Dr. Alva K. Emerson. This was another example of granting an interview she would have liked to hand off to someone else. Anyone else. Hutch didn't intimidate easily, but she was willing to make an exception on this occasion.
Alva Emerson was an M.D., well into her eighties, and one of the great figures of the age. She had founded and led the Children's Alliance which had brought modern medical care to hundreds of thousands of kids worldwide during the past forty years. She'd mobilized the wealthy nations, gotten legislation passed by the World Council and in sixty countries around the globe to provide care for the forgotten peoples of the Earth. While we reach for the stars, she'd said in her celebrated remarks twenty years before at the Sudan Memorial, a third of our children cannot reach for a sandwich. The comment was engraved in stone over the entrance to Alliance Headquarters in Lisbon.
The world loved her. Political leaders were terrified of her. Everywhere she went, good things happened. Hospitals rose, doctors poured in, corporate donations swelled the coffers. (No one wanted to be perceived as stingy or mean-spirited when Dr. Alva came knocking.) She was credited with saving millions. She'd won the Peace Prize and the Americus, was on first-name terms with the pope and the president of the N.A.U., and had stopped a civil war in Argentina simply by putting her body in the way. And here she was to see Hutch. Not the commissioner. Not Asquith. But Priscilla Hutchins. By name.
Asquith had asked her why but Hutch had no idea.
"Whatever she wants," Asquith had instructed her, "don't commit the Academy to anything. Tell her we'll take it under advisement."
He didn't offer to sit in.
Hutch had seen Dr. Alva numerous times, of course. Everyone had. Who could forget the blood-soaked images of her kneeling over a dying girl during the aftershocks of the Peruvian earthquake of '21? Or leading the Counsellor himself through the wreckage of Bellaconda after the Peacekeepers finally put down the rebels? Or charging out of the flyer in plague-ridden South Africa?
But when she came through the door, Hutch would not have recognized her. She seemed smaller somehow. The windblown hair was under control. There was no sign of the no-nonsense attitude that was such a large part of the legend. She was reserved, polite, almost submissive. A woman, perhaps, headed out shopping.
"Dr. Emerson," said Hutch, rising to greet her. "It's a privilege to meet you." Her voice went a few decibels higher than normal.
"Priscilla?" Alva stretched out her hand. "It's my pleasure."
Hutch directed her to a wing chair and sat down beside her. "I hope you didn't have any trouble finding the office."
Alva wore a pleated navy skirt and a light blue blouse beneath a frayed velomir jacket. Part of the image. Her hair had gone white, "in the service of the unfortunate," as Gregory MacAllister had once put it. She was probably the only public figure for whom MacAllister had ever found a kind word.
"None at all, thank you." She arranged herself, glanced around the office, and smiled approvingly. It was decorated with several of Tor's sketches, images of the Twins and of the Refuge at Vertical, of the illuminated Memphis gliding through starlight, of Hutch herself in an antique Phillies uniform. She smiled at that one, and her eyes settled on Hutch. They were dark and penetrating. Sensors, peering through the objects in the room. This was not a woman to be jollied along.
"What can I do for you, Doctor?" she asked.
"Priscilla, I need your help."
Hutch wanted to shift her weight. Move it around a bit. Force herself to relax. But she sat quite still. "In what way?"
"We need to do something about the omega."
At first Hutch thought she'd misunderstood. She was of course talking about the one headed toward Earth. When people said the omega, that was always the one they meant. "It won't become a problem for almost a thousand years," she said uneasily. "Were you suggesting--?"
"I was suggesting we find a way to stop it."
That was easy to say. "We've been doing some research."
"It's been more than twenty years, Priscilla. Or is it Hutch?"
"Hutch is good."
"Hutch." Her tone softened. "Somehow, in your case, it is a very feminine name."
"Thank you, Doctor."
Hutch nodded and tried the name. It was a bit like sitting with Washington and calling him George.
Alva leaned forward. "What have we learned so far?"
Hutch shrugged. "It's loaded with nanos. Some of our people think it can create gravity fields. To help it navigate."
"And it doesn't like artificial objects."
"There's a lot of dust and hydrogen. The clouds vary in size by a factor of about thirty percent. They coast along at a pretty good clip. In the range of twenty million klicks an hour."
"That's how fast it's coming? Our cloud?"
"Yes." Hutch thought for a minute. "Oh, and they seem to come in waves. We don't know how wide the waves are because we can't see the end of them. The local waves are 160 light-years apart, give or take, and one of them rolls through the solar system approximately every eight thousand years."
"But they're not always the same distance apart? The waves?"
"No. It's pretty erratic. At the beginning, we assumed that the local pattern held everywhere, and that there were literally millions of clouds drifting throughout the Orion Arm. But of course that's not true. Fortunately."
"The waves are arcing outward in the general direction that the galaxy is turning. Joining the flow, I suppose."
"And that's it?"
"It strikes me there's not much we didn't know twenty years ago. As to the questions that come to my mind, we don't know where they come from. Or why they behave the way they do. We don't even know if they're natural objects.
"Or how to disable them."
Hutch got up. She could feel energy radiating out of the woman. "They're not easy to penetrate," she said.
Alva smiled. "Like a virgin."
Hutch didn't reply.
For a long moment, neither spoke. The commlink blinked a couple of times and then shut off. Incoming traffic. Hyperlight from Broadside, personal for her.
Alva smiled politely and fixed Hutch with those dark eyes. The woman looked simultaneously amused and annoyed. "Are we making a serious effort?"
"Well," said Hutch. "Of course."
"But we've nothing to show. After twenty years. Twenty-five years, actually."
"We're working on it." She was floundering.
Alva nodded. "We have to do better."
"Alva--." She had to struggle to say the word. "There's no hurry. I mean, the thing's a thousand years away."
Alva nodded again. But it wasn't a concession, an acknowledgement that she had a point. Rather it was a recognition that Hutch was behaving exactly as expected, saying precisely what Alva had known all along she would say. She straightened her collar. "Hutch, you've been to Beta Pac."
Home of the Monument-Makers, the lost race that had left majestic relics of their passing across several thousand light-years. Star-travelers while the Sumerians were learning to bake bricks. Nothing more than savages now, wandering through the ruins of their once-proud cities. "Yes, I've been there."
"I have not." Her eyes clouded. "I've seen quite enough decimation here at home." Another long silence ensued. Then: "I understand the Monument-Makers knew about the omegas. Well in advance of their appearance at Beta Pac."
"That's correct. They even tried to divert the things at Quraqua and at Nok. To save the local inhabitants."
"With no success."
Hutch saw where this was going. "They cut cube moons and inserted them in orbit around Nok hoping the cloud would go for them instead of the cities." She shrugged.
"In the end," said Alva, "they couldn't even save themselves."
"No. They couldn't. There's evidence they packed up a substantial chunk of the population and cleared out."
"Yet they had how long to prepare? Two thousand years?"
"A little longer, we think."
She was on her feet now, moving to the window, drawn by the sunlight, but still not looking at anything. "How do you think that could have happened? Are the clouds so irresistible that even the Monument-Makers, given two millennia, couldn't do something?"
"It's probably not easy. To stop one of the omegas."
"Hutch, I would suggest to you that two thousand years was too much time to get ready. That they probably put it off. Somebody else's problem. Get to it next year. Or sometime during the next century. And they continued delaying until it became too late."
"Maybe it's too late already," suggested Hutch. But she knew as soon as the words were out of her mouth that it had been the wrong thing to say.
Alva was a diminutive woman, but her presence filled the office. Overwhelmed it and left Hutch feeling like an intruder in her own space. "Maybe it is," Alva said. "But we'd best not make that assumption."
The office grew briefly darker and then brightened again. A cloud passing over the sun.
"You think," said Hutch, "we're going to let the situation get away from us."
Alva's eyebrows came together. "I know we are. What's going to happen is that people are going to talk and think exactly as you do. And, Hutch, you've seen these things in action. You know what they do." Her gaze turned inward. "Forgive me. I mean no offense. But the situation calls for honesty. We too are looking at the omegas as somebody else's problem. But when it comes, it will be our children who are here."
She was right, of course. Hutch knew that. Anyone who thought about the issue knew it.
Alva reached for a pad, scratched something on it, furrowed her brow. "Every day," she said, "it advances on us by a half-billion kilometers."
It was late. It was past five o'clock and it had been a horribly long day. What did this woman want anyhow? "You understand," Hutch said, "I don't make Academy policy. You should be talking to Dr. Asquith."
"I wasn't trying to influence Academy policy. It's too far down the scale to worry about, Hutch. Any serious effort to do something about the omegas is going to require political will. That doesn't get generated here."
"Then I don't see--?"
"I didn't come looking to get Academy support for this. It's your support I want."
"You're the public face of the Academy."
"No. You've got the wrong person. Eric Samuels is our public affairs chief."
"You, Hutch. You found the first cloud. You and Frank Carson and the others. Incidentally, someone told me you actually did the math. It was you who figured it all out. Is that true?"
"Yes," she said.
"And you're the woman from Deepsix. The woman who rescued her husband from that antique starship, the, what did you call it?"
"The chindi. But he wasn't my husband then."
"No matter. The point is you've been in the public eye for quite some time." She was back in her seat now, leaning toward Hutch, old friends who had been in combat together. "Hutch, I need you."
"--become the public persona of the Omega Society."
Well, it didn't take a mathematician to figure out what the Omega Society was going to be doing. "Why don't you do it, Alva? You're a bit better known than I am." She managed a weak smile.
"I'm the wrong person."
"Because I'm associated with charities. With medical care. Nobody's going to take me seriously when I start talking about long-range destruction. You aren't taking me seriously and yet you know I'm right and I'm sitting in the same room with you."
"No, that's not true," said Hutch. "I'm taking you seriously."
The woman had an infectious smile. She turned it on Hutch, who bathed in its warmth and suddenly realized the secret of her success. The mental agility, the worthiness of her causes, her singlemindedness, none of it would have mattered without that pure living charm. Nobody ever says no to me. Nobody turns away. This is the moment of decision.
"I'd stay in the background, of course," she said. "Board of directors stuff. But I'd be there if needed. We'd have a couple of major league scientific people out front to direct things, to run the organization. To provide the muscle. But you would be its face. Its voice."
Alva was right. In a moment of startling clarity Hutch saw the centuries slipping away while the cloud drew closer. Not our problem. There'll be a breakthrough. Don't worry.How many times had she heard that already? But there probably wouldn't be. Not without a concerted effort. And maybe there was a window that might close. There'd been talk of an all-out program when we'd first learned about the clouds. But when the initial shock wore off, and people began thinking how far away the thirty-second century was--. Well, it was like worrying about the sun exhausting its fuel.
If she accepted, Hutch would have to give up all claim to being taken seriously ever again. The few who worried about the omegas, even if they were backed by Alva, provided the material for late-night comedians. They were greeted in academic circles with amused smiles and people shaking their heads. And she'd be out front.
Alva saw she was reluctant. "Before you answer," she said, "I want to remind you that the public knows you're a hero. You've put yourself at risk on several occasions, and you've saved a few lives. You've gotten credit for your acts." The Academy's Johanssen Award, which she'd received after Deepsix, hung on one wall. Other plaques commemorated her accomplishments at the Twins and in the rescue of her husband. And of course there'd been the sim, in which Hutch had been portrayed by the smoky-voiced, statuesque Ivy Kramer. "This time," Alva continued, "there'll be no credit and no applause. No sim and probably no books. No one will ever really know what you've accomplished, because you'll have saved a world that's quite far away. And we do have short memories. You have a heroic past, Hutch. But this time, there isn't just one life, or a few lives, in the balance. Unless people like you come forward and act, we're all going the same way as the Monument-Makers."
The silence between them stretched out. The room seemed unsteady. "I'm sorry," said Hutch at last. "But I can't do this. It would involve a conflict of interest."
Don't look at me like that. It's true.
"My obligations to the Academy--. I can't take up a cause like this and keep my job here. There's no way I can do it."
"We have sufficient funding, Hutch. I'm sure you would find the compensation adequate."
"I really can't do it," said Hutch. "I have responsibilities here."
Alva nodded. Sure. Of course you do. How could I not have seen it? Perhaps I misjudged you.
She gave Hutch time to reconsider her decision. Then she rose and a business card appeared in her hand. "If you change your mind," she said, holding it out for her.
"I won't," said Hutch. "But I thank you for asking." And how hollow did that sound?
"I appreciate your hearing me out. I know you're a busy woman." Her gaze dissected Hutch and found her wanting. Not who I thought you were, it appears. Then she was gone, leaving Hutch with a feeling of rejection as overwhelming as any lover could have imposed.
The transmission that had come in during the interview was from Broadside, the newest of the deep space bases maintained by the Academy. At a distance of more than 3000 light-years, it was three times as far as Serenity, which had for years been the most remote permanent penetration. Its operational chief was Vadim Dolinsk, an easy-going former pilot who was past retirement age but for whom she'd bent the rules because he was the right man for the job.
Vadim was seated at his desk, and his usual blasé expression had lengthened into a frown. "Hutch," he said, "we're getting a reading on one of the clouds. It's changing course."
Hutch was suddenly aware of the room. Of the cone of light projecting down from the desklamp, of the flow of warm air from the vents, of someone laughing outside in the corridor.
Ironic that this would happen on the day that Alva had asked for help and Hutch had brushed her aside. Even Alva had not seen the real danger, the immediate danger. A few years ago, one of the clouds had drifted through the Moonlight system, had spotted the ruins on the third world, and had gone after them like a tiger after a buck. What would have happened had they been populated? Millions would have died while the Academy watched, appropriately aghast, unable to help. In the end, they would have shaken their heads, made some philosophical remarks, and gone back to work.
Within the next ten years, clouds would approach seven planetary systems that the Academy knew about. All were presumed empty, because virtually all systems were empty. But who knew? The systems in question were outside the range of finances rather than technology, so she simply didn't know.
"Data's attached," Vadim continued. "I've diverted the Jenkins to take a look. They were about to start home, so they won't be happy. But I think this is too important to let slide. I'll notify you when I have more.
"How's life in Woodbridge these days?"
Not as good as it was an hour ago.
She looked at the numbers. The cloud in question was another 500 light-years beyond Broadside. It was approaching a class-G sun known to have three gas giants, but that was all that was known about the system. The star was located in the direction of the Cat's Eye Nebula.
There were images of the cloud, and she recognized the streamers exploding away from it, trying to continue along the original course while the cloud turned a few degrees onto a new vector.
It had spotted something.
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