Heart of the Comet sample chapters
by David Brin and Gregory Benford
The dusty ice sheets were speckled and splashed, rainbow-mottled, pocked and scoured.
Carl Osborn spun his workpod and vectored down toward Halley Core. He flew away from the razor-sharp dawnline, aiming for the north pole where their base was finally taking shape.
The grainy gray and brown surface was changing rapidly now. Like tiny, fat ants, mechs moved over it, preparing docking areas and mooring towers. Spiders hammered holes into the ice, their endless microwave zzzzzzttts leaking faintly into some of the data channels. Carl muttered a quick correcting command to his suit's comm filler control and the interference stopped.
Shaft 3 was nearly finished, a yawning pit like a dead eye socket. The first group of sleep slots would be going down that way soon. A kilometer of sheltering ice would shield the sleepers from the fatal sting of cosmic rays and the sleeting solar storms.
Random gouges surrounded the shaft. Discharging mech fuel cells had pitted the crusty ice. Broken gear lay where teams had dropped it. Chem spills had condensed into powdery green and yellow splotches. Discarded girders and sonic cartridges and shockjackets lay everywhere. What mankind would study, Carl thought wryly, he first messes up.
Just barely visible over the curved horizon, now slowly coming into view along the dawnline, were the black gas-suppression panels. They were an ongoing experiment, armored against the high-velocity dust streams and designed to generate electricity from sunlight. Their shadows reduced the outgassing from one eighth of Halley Core's surface, introducing an asymmetry in the boiloff. The panels could be turned so that they trapped heat, too, increasing the outgassing on the night side of the core. The net effect was a faint, persistent push that could alter the comet's orbit, given time.
Or so the story went. To Carl the big black panels had been one solid week of grunt labor. They were too delicate to let the mechs do more than hold them in place, while he and Lani Nguyen and Jeffers had mounted them to the robo-arms that would turn them. The astroengineers were still tinkering with the gimmicks piling up data to analyze during the long outbound voyage.
It was hard to tell what was an intentional experiment and what was yesterday's garbage. He wondered how messy Halley Core could get. In nearly eighty years they might thoroughly trash even this much ice.
Carl could see a thin black stripe coming out of shadow at the dawnline -- the polar cable. It wrapped around Halley Core, pole to pole, and joined the equatorial cable at a perfect right angle, but separated by several meters for safety. The rails provided swift ways to zip around the surface. Still, Carl seldom used them. He liked to get free of the bleak ice, swim in serene blackness above it all.
Between him and the slowly spinning, potato-shaped iceworld were the swarming mechs he supervised. He thumbed instructions into his lap console, muttering code phrases automatically, making the distant dots turn their burden -- a huge orange cylinder. Its smooth sheen reflected glinting sunlight.
-- Channel D to Osborn. Real pretty, uh? -- Jeffers sent from below.
Awful color, he thought. And it's the inner-corridor lining. We'll have to look at it for seventy years.
The mechs dropped lower, angling the cylinder for Shaft 3, following his instructions. The potato-like shape of Halley Core revolved every fifty-two hours, just fast enough to make readjustment necessary as they approached. Subliming gas still rose from some of the active patches the scientists called "Sekanina-Larson" regions, making visibility hazy and creating a hazard of high-velocity dust. The thin fog blurred images at this distance -- 8.3 kilometers, his board said -- and made it hard to use his automatic aligning program.
He had backup on the Edmund, in case of a malf. Fine, in theory. But by the time he got somebody online, the mechs might dutifully try to stuff the cylinder into a hill of ice. Despite Virginia's earnest faith, computers could do only so much. From there on you had to eyeball it.
"Bringing it in slow," he sent.
-- Looks vectored up just a hair. Two clicks too high along the local y-axis, -- Jeffers replied.
Carl looked down, recalibrated, saw that Jeffers was right. "Damn."
-- You okay? --
"Yeah. Just keep those beacons going."
The four laser aligners bracketed Shaft 3 clearly, and Carl turned the mechs into configuration using the bright markers. A touch of delta V, a compensating torque. His board approved the shift. Good. But now the irregular ice was looming fast, and --
Gravity. He'd forgotten the damn gravity. Halley Core had only a ten-thousandth of Earth's pull... but in his half-hour descent from the solar-sail freighter the momentum had built... slow but steady... He punched in a correction, watching the equations ripple across his board.
Lights flashed red. "I'm braking," he sent, and fired the mechs' retros.
Damn the gravity anyway. Carl had been at Encke, worked around the rocky comet nucleus for weeks. It had been just like any deepspace work -- sometimes almost an elaborate waltz, smooth and sure, and a lot of grunt and sweat at crucial moments. Still, it was basically easy if you watched that your vectors matched, didn't push anything except at its center of mass, worked steadily, kept your head.
But Encke was a runt. An old prune of a comet, broiled by its long stay in the inner solar system. Halley had a lot more mass, mostly ice. On the surface you never noticed the slight tug, but coming in like this, taking your time to aim carefully, that ten-thousandth of a G could add up.
The mechs' blue jets fanned against the backdrop of ice, slowing the cargo. Carl saw suddenly that it wasn't enough. The ponderous, hundred-meter-long cylinder was coming in too fast.
He ordered the lower portwise mech to turn and thrust at full bore. The unit spun, fired its reserve.
-- What the hell you -- Jeffers began.
"Clear the shaft!"
-- What --
Standard procedure was to bring cargo to rest about fifty meters out, then nudge it in. His board said that was impossible. Instinct told him to try for something else.
He jetted forward, nearly caught up with the cylinder. A touch from the tower starboard mech, two quick torques here, a jolt sidewise to line her up --
An arrow from on high, aimed at a puckered black circle.
The orange cylinder struck the lip of Shaft 3, slowed -- broke off an edge of ice -- and drove on in, scattering flakes off into space.
Bull's-eye, he rejoiced as the cylinder disappeared within the hole.
Jeffers cried out, -- Hey! What's the idea? --
"She got away from me."
-- Hell she did! You're showin' off, is all --
Carl pulsed his own jets and landed easily, feet down. "Don't I wish! Nope, I just corrected at the last minute. Figured it was better to try for a clean hit than to burn fuel decelerating. Especially since I couldn't stop it anyway."
Jeffers shook his head, exasperated. -- Show-off, -- he insisted, and went to check for rips in the material.
There weren't any. Slick and snagproof, fiberthread could wriggle around sharp edges, which made it good for lining the snaking tunnels inside Halley Core.
The fifteen members of the Life Support Installation Group had ten days to honeycomb a fraction of the north polar region, line the shafts and tunnels with pressure-tight insulation, then flush it with air. Not long enough. And all that time the newly awakened scientists aboard the Edmund would be chafing.
Even with 112 mechs it was going to be a tight schedule. There were only so many hands to guide them. The entire expedition had only 67 "live" members at present. Nearly 300 more lay in the sleep slots, their body temperatures hovering within a degree above freezing.
Overhead, the spindly tugs waited with their human cargo. Their immense, gossamer solar sails were furled now, not needed for seventy years. Beside the whalelike Edmund, the silvery Sekanina, Delsemme, and Whipple looked like patient barracuda.
Still no word on the Newburn, Carl thought. How could it have gotten lost?
-- You guys all right? -- Lani Nguyen's light, tinkling voice came from somewhere.
Carl looked around and found the speck rapidly growing as she sped along the polar cable. She had one arm clamped on the stay-carry while she waved with the other, looking remarkably like a bird skimming the ground with only one wing flapping.
-- Jess fine, -- Jeffers sent.
-- I thought I heard some trouble.... --
She cut free of the cable and vectored their way, adroitly turning to shift her center of mass and avoid picking up any spin from the jet thrust. She's good, Carl thought. Damn good. Lani's light delicacy belied a firmly muscled physique. But why come to check on a minor malf?
"Nothing much to it," he answered.
-- Well, I was finished, just on my way inside. -- She landed with catlike agility ten meters away, kicking up only a small cloud of dust. -- Want to take a break? --
-- Can't, -- Jeffers said. -- We got to check out the tube, see it gets unsprung right. --
Lani looked at Carl. -- That's routine. It shouldn't take two. --
Carl said, "Cruz is riding our ass on safety."
She studied him through their dust-marred helmets. -- Sure? You're due to go off shift. --
-- Hey, I'm not working alone, li'l lady, -- Jeffers said goodnaturedly but firmly.
She shrugged. -- Okay. Just wanted a little R and R. I'm running a fraction ahead of schedule. --
-- See you tonight, then. -- Jeffers eyed her appreciatively but she seemed not to notice.
-- Right, -- she said to Carl. -- Tonight. --
She lifted off gracefully and headed for the main shaft.
-- Wouldn't mind that at all, -- Jeffers said dreamily on a closed comm channel. Carl ignored him.
-- We'll have to be thinkin' about pairin' off pretty soon now. --
"You'll be an icicle in a month."
-- Man has to plan ahead. --
"Think you can get her to share a shift with you?" Carl answered.
-- Might. Gonna be cold and lonely, later on. --
Carl laughed. "Your idea of foreplay is six beers and a game of pool. She's not your type."
-- Necessity makes funny bedfellows, isn't that what Shakespeare said? --
"Stick to grunt work, it's your strong suit." He gave Jeffers a friendly shove toward the shaft entrance.
-- Can't blame a man for tryin'. --
"Come on, your tongue is hanging out."
They flew their mechs ahead of them, down through the hollow center of the orange cylinder, popping free restrainer clips as they went. The fiberthread tube unflexed, articulating in sheets along the original axis. Every two minutes it extruded from itself a hundred-meter segment, automatically pressure-sealed the ends, and began pushing out another -- each barely narrower than the one before. To Carl, it resembled a gaudy tube-worm that continuously regenerated itself, burrowing into an apple.
Side tunnels took more care. The mechs cut holes for the intersections, fuse-sealed them, and deployed the smaller tube extruders. Carl and Jeffers had to maneuver them into place, yoke and unyoke, check joints and seals, and be sure nothing snagged on an outcropping of rock or jagged ice. In the tunnels chunks of icy cometary agglomerate rubbed off -- the mechs were sometimes clumsy -- and floated freely through the dark spaces, striking multi-colored halos around the spot torches the men carried. It was steady, meticulous, tiring work, even in near-zero gravity.
Their meal break was in a tunnel segment recently filled with air. They cracked their helmets and moored on a wall, enjoying the freedom even though the cold, tangy-flavored air cut sharply in their nostrils.
"Think you'll ever get used to it?" Jeffers asked, munching methodically on a self-warming ration bar. "Living in here?"
Carl shrugged. "Sure. The exercise wheel and electrical stimulation will take care of the low G, the docs say."
"Trust 'em for eighty years?" Jeffers's lean face seemed fitted for a skeptical expression; his mouth drooped down toward a pointed chin, eyes narrowed and quizzical. "Anyway, what I mean was the ice all around you. Feel how cold it is? And that's with all this insulation and our suit heaters goin' full bore."
"It'll warm up. That's a meter's insulation we just laid around this, remember."
"Gonna be a looong winter." Jeffers grinned. He would soon be swimming blissfully in the slots, and clearly relished the thought. Jeffers had been awake on the flight out. It had been boring, and now the work was hard and dangerous. He was ready for others to take over. The first watch.
Still, Carl couldn't understand the man's attitude.
"There's some risk in the slots, y'know. System malf, or --"
"I know, I know. My biochem might screw up in some way the experts missed out on. Or maybe you guys on watch throw a wrong switch, cut off my power, and the safeguards fail. Or an asteroid hits us all." He grinned again. "Still, it's a one-way trip across more'n a couple decades."
Carl frowned. "So?"
"I'd just as soon sleep through the dull part, accumulatin' Earthside pay." Jeffers's thin face twisted into a sardonic grin. "Comet farmin' in the outer system -- that'll be fun. But I can skip the kiss-ass politics."
"What do you mean?"
"C'mon, you're a Percell too. You know how this whole expedition's been set up."
"The Orthos! They're running everything." Jeffers ticked off the names on his fingers. "Cruz, then Oakes, Matsudo, d'Amaria, Ould-Harrad, Quiverian. Every section head is an Ortho."
"They think we're freaks!"
"Oh, come on."
"They do! Look at the way the Orthos are treating our people Earthside. Think these here are any different?"
"They aren't like that mob that burned down the center in Chile last week, if that's what you mean. Sure, I read about that stuff, and the other places. That's one reason I work in space, same as you."
"Space's no different."
"Sure it is. These Orth -- these people know they're really the same as us."
Jeffers said triumphantly, "But they aren't."
Carl smiled humorlessly. "Now who's being prejudiced?"
"Hell, you know we're not the same as them." Jeffers leaned forward, speaking earnestly. "Our bodies are better, that's for sure. And we're smarter, too. The tests show that."
"Hell they do."
"Can't argue with statistics!"
Carl grunted with irritation. "Look, we were boy wonders back when we were growing up -- before people started turning against us. All Percells were. Remember the scholarships? The special attention?"
"We earned that. We were smart."
Carl shook his head. "We turned out smart -- because of the VIP treatment."
"Naw. I've always been quicker than your typical Ortho, even if I don't bother to talk real well."
"And you are. But you're no better than people like Captain Cruz or Dr. Oakes." Carl got to his feet too rapidly and his velcro grips tore free of the fiberthread. He shot across the tunnel and banged his head against the ceiling.
Jefters snickered but said nothing. Carl rubbed his head as he drifted back, but refused to let his irritation show any further. Jeffers was like too many Percells -- wrapped up in their own sense of persecution, picking at every imagined slight like a festering sore. Arguing with them just encouraged it.
"Open your eyes," his friend persisted. "Who've they got in the dangerous jobs like ours? Percells!"
"Because a lot of us are trained for zero G. We had the scholarships to get into it."
"Then why not put a Percell in charge of all Manual Operations?"
"Well... we're not old enough yet. No Percell is as experienced as Cruz or Ould-Harrad or --"
"Come on! Look at who's doing the outgassing experiments. And developing longterm sleep slotting. All Orthos."
"That's where the real money'11 be! Learn how to steer comets with their own boiloff, show you can sleep and work in decade shifts -- and you can sell your talent anywhere in the system."
Carl couldn't help laughing. Jeffers sure did take the long view. "Come on, that's --"
"And what about Chem Section? If we turn up anything half as valuable as Enkon here. you know who 11 make out. And they're all Orthos, too, except Peters."
"We all signed patent agreements. Any techniques discovered, we all get a cut, after recouping basic expenses."
Jeffers's face contorted into a sour, sardonic mask. "The Orthos'll find a way around that."
Carl felt his own conviction wavering. What if he's right? But then he blotted out the thought. "Look, get off that line. We can't continue those stupid Earthside fights out here."
"We're not -- it's them."
Exasperated, Carl stuffed the remains of his lunch into his carry pouch. "Let's go -- I'd rather work than argue."
Still, that evening he entered the rec-lounge bar troubled, looking for Virginia. She was a reasonable Percell and might understand what he only slowly admitted to himself this afternoon -- that he halfway agreed with some of Jeffers's accusations. It was the man's tone, his black-and-white way of putting everything, that got Carl's back up.
He collected a drink, turned to go, and saw the sign, DUCK OR GROUSE just in time to remind him. He stooped and entered the lounge. The first week aboard, he and other Percells had slammed their foreheads into the doorjamb a dozen times; the Edmund's designers had apparently believed only Orthos socialized.
Lani Nguyen intercepted him near the smiling tungsten bust of Edmond Halley himself. "Ah, at last you appear."
She gave an immediate impression of slim, efficient design, every inch a spacer. Lean muscles bunched in her bare almond-colored arms, but otherwise she was covered in a draping, cool blue dress that moved in light pseudo-gravity with a graceful, modest independence. Carl liked the effect of shimmering cloth lagging behind her precise, delicate movements.
"Uh, yeah, we had some trouble with the tunnel articulation." He smiled cordially but tried to scan the lounge without seeming to do so.
Dr. Akio Matsudo was talking earnestly to Lieutenant Colonel Ould-Harrad, the head of Manual Ops. Through the viewport Halley Core glimmered and swam as the G-wheel turned. Captain Cruz stood ramrod-straight against the starry background, easily dominating the room, surrounded by the usual mesmerized pack of ladies.
Where was Virginia?
"Oh?" Lani asked with a distant smile, similar to the Buddha-grin of the sculpture over her shoulder. "That should be automatic."
Carl blinked. "Uh... we ran into a patch of boulders."
"I usually send a forward mech ahead to slice those off with a cutter. Then --"
Jeffers appeared out of nowhere and Carl snagged him. "Better tell this guy, he's the point man in our team. I'll just run a little errand...." And he was away, free, before Lani's pert surprise could turn to protest. Let Jeffers have an opening, Carl thought. He deserves it. A bit unfair to Lani, maybe, but first things first. Let's see, her shift should be up by now....
He passed the group surrounding Captain Cruz and on impulse slowed. He insinuated himself into the cluster. Cruz always spoke to the whole group, never leaving anyone out, and he smiled at Carl. "How's it going down there, Osborn?"
Carl was startled at being addressed personally. He had intended simply to listen in. "Uh, pretty tough, sir, but we can handle it."
"I saw that neat trick at Shaft Three." Cruz raised his eyebrows slightly and his gaze swept over the circle. Although an Ortho -- a natural human being -- he was as tall as most Percells.
Carl felt his face getting hot. He had to say something, but what? "Well, I guess I kinda --"
"Marvelous! A bull's-eye! I felt like applauding." The commander chuckled.
Carl was dumbfounded. "Well... I..."
"It's good to see a little audacity," Cruz said warmly.
Carl grinned self-consciously. Does he know it was a mistake? "Well, we got a schedule to keep."
"So we do. I only wish other sub-sections were moving as crisply as yours."
Carl wondered if that was a veiled joke. But Cruz raised his bulb of bourbon in salute and, to Carl's surprise, the crowd did too. Carl covered his confusion by taking a sip, watching the crowd for signs of mirth. No, they meant it. He felt a sudden delight. He had hobbled the maneuver, sure, but recovered well. That was what mattered to the captain.
Cruz caught Carl's eye and there passed between them the barest moment of understanding. He knows I screwed up. But he's rewarding initiative over timidity. Why? Carl had tried to perform well all during the Edmund's flight out, but until this moment Cruz had never paid him more than polite, distant attention.
That's it -- Kato and Umolanda. He doesn't want people getting spooked. He knows it was faulty equipment and plain bad luck that killed them, much more than carelessness.
"We'll make our deadlines, sir," Carl said firmly.
Cruz nodded. "Good." With practiced smoothness, the captain turned his attention to a woman communications officer standing nearby. "The new microwave antennas are up on schedule aren't they? Having trouble getting signals through the plasma tail?" Cruz asked.
"A little, yes."
"How soon can we deploy a microwave radar to search for the Newburn?"
"I'll have an estimate for you by tomorrow, sir."
Carl listened to the friendly, open way Cruz drew information out of the woman, commented on it, made a little joke that set the crowd to laughing. Now that's how to lead, Carl thought. He's in touch with everything, and never looks worried. I wonder if I'll ever learn the knack.
He would have liked to stay longer, but he wanted to find Virginia. He discovered her in a laughing group of varicolored Hawaiians, her dress a blue shimmer that suggested without revealing. The semiautonomous state of Hawaii had financed twenty percent of the expedition's cost. As the true capital of the pan-Pacific economic community, they invested heavily in space. Their representatives lent a cheery air to most ship functions.
He waited for a lull in conversation, caught Virginia's eye, and drew her away to an alcove. He quickly described Jeffers's complaints. "Do you think he might be right?" he asked.
"You mean, will the Orthos try to rake off whatever they can?" She smiled speculatively. "Sure. This isn't a charity operation."
"I didn't come just to make money." Carl drew back, folding his arms. He knew it would probably be smarter to appear urbane, even a shade cynical -- or at least that's what he thought attracted most Earthside women. But somehow his real self always came out.
"Offended?" Virginia smiled, her full lips drawing back to reveal startlingly brilliant teeth." Don't be so straitlaced. Even idealists have to eat."
"Did you sign any quiet little agreements Earthside?"
Virginia frowned. "Of course not. Look, there're always going to be rumors that so-and-so has a sweet extra deal to leak expertise. Who knows, maybe somebody'11 tightbeam stuff back before we return, have a bundle waiting for him in a Swedish account."
"It wouldn't surprise me. With four hundred people taking turns standing watch over seventy years, there'll be plenty of chances to cheat."
Virginia moodily stirred her bulb goblet of pina colada with a pink straw. To Carl the festive colors of the lounge seemed out of place when cold steel and vacuum lay only meters away. The psychologists probably thought tropical splashes of amber, green, and gold would take people away from raw reality, but for him it didn't work.
Virginia said slowly, "There's an old saying: Ordinary men choose their friends, but a genius chooses his enemies."
Carl grimaced. "Meaning?"
"The Orthos run this expedition, granted. If we create friction, they can do a whole lot more to make it hot for us."
He thought for a moment. "Okay. Conceded. That doesn't change my aims, though."
Virginia nodded. "Ah yes. Plateau Three."
Carl knew she thought his opinions were too simplistic, too much a rubber stamp of the NearEarth colonies' doctrine. Still, he honestly didn't see how she could disagree.
A century of struggle had finally given mankind the technology to exploit the solar system -- efficient transport, mech'd mining and assembly, integrated artificial biospheres of any size needed.
Now was the moment, the colonists argued, to move out.
Unmanned satellites had been the first level of space exploitation -- Plateau One. As far back as the 1980s people had made billions with communications satellites. Saved lives with weather sats.
Automated space factories using lunar materials had been the next rung up -- Plateau Two.
Each Plateau had been climbed by a few who saw the benefits well in advance and took huge risks for that vision. Plateau Two had nearly failed, then became a roaring economic miracle -- helping to pull the world out of the Hell Century.
Each ascent seemed to provoke an Earth-centered apprehension -- first, that the investment might go bust, then that the birthplace of mankind was being relegated to a mere backwater. This was aggravated by Earth's never-ending social problems -- malaises that the space colonies, by design, did not share. The Birth and Childhood Rules, which commanded that each space-born child must spend at least its first five years on the ground were a legal expression of an underlying fear.
Plateau Three was a dream, a political issue, an economic sore point, a faith -- all rolled into one. But big rotating colonies were possible now. The colonists now looked on the Birth and Childhood Rules as symbols of apronstrings they had long outgrown. They wanted to exploit the rocky asteroids and moons, but needed volatiles as well, for propellants and for biospheres. They'd even funded a small Ganymede ice mine, but that hadn't worked out well.
Some saw comets as the key, and fervently believed that humans could scatter through the solar system like dandelion seeds, if they could only learn to herd the ancient snowballs to orbits where they were usable.
Virginia leaned back languidly in her web-chair. "You can't expect Mother Earth to let go so easily."
"They have everything to gain! We'll bring them asteroids galore, raw materials, provide new markets --"
She held up her palm. "Please, I know the litany." An amused expression of feigned, longsuffering patience flitted across her face, instantly disarming him. Perhaps it wasn't intended that way, but with a single gesture she could make him see himself as gawky, thick-witted, too obvious. Well, maybe I am. I've lived in space over half my adult life."Just 'cause it's familiar doesn't mean it's wrong."
"Carl, do you really think mining comets for volatiles is going to ring in the millennium?"
"Where else can we get cheap fluids?" To him this was the trump card, a cold economic fact. At the very beginning of the solar system, the hot young sun had blown most of the light elements outward, away from the inner solar system. Only Earth had retained enough volatile elements to clothe its rocky mantle with a thin skin of air and water. When humans ventured into space to exploit the resources there, -- asteroids, the moon, Mars -- they had to haul their liquids up from Earth.
"Sure," Virginia said. "Get ice from comets! In eighty years we'll be back, Hail the conquering heroes! But by then somebody may've discovered frozen lakes deep in our own moon. Or even found a cheap way to chip iceteroids out of the Jovian moons -- who knows?"
Carl was startled. "That's crazy! No way you can pay the expense of dipping into Jupiter's grav well, just for water and ice. Jupiter Project is proving that."
She smiled impishly. "So? Chasing comets is easier?"
Her dark eyes teased, and Carl knew it, but he couldn't let go.
"It's worth a try, Virginia. Nobody'11 find a way to steer comets unless we make the outgassing method work. Nobody'11 find volatiles hiding on the moon or Venus because they've been baked out. You can't prospect and mine the asteroids with mechs alone -- because finding metals is still a craft, not a science. Dried-up comets like Encke can't be herded precisely because there's no way to use their outgassing to steer them. So --"
"I surrender, I surrender!" She held both hands high.
Carl blinked. Oh hell, he thought. Why do I always get carried away?
A deep male voice said from over Carl's shoulder, "Do not rush into defeat, Virginia. Ask for reinforcements first."
Carl turned as Saul Lintz settled into a soft green web-chair nearby and put his drink into a hold notch on their table. He was lean and weathered, his movements in low gravity deliberate.
"You're too late," Carl said, searching for something witty to say to redeem himself. "She's already conceded that I'm a bore."
"Then my help is unneeded." Saul chuckled as he said this, but Carl felt a quick jolt of irritation.
"I was arguing that we're all going to get rich out of this expedition, if we're patient," Carl said evenly. "And we should leave politics behind us."
Saul nodded, took a long pull at his drink. "Admirable sentiments."
"We've got to. Halley Core is too small for the kind of petty --"
"Insert coin for Lecture Twelve," Virginia said lightly.
"Well, it's true." Carl did not know how to take her, didn't like the way her attention had swerved to Saul Lintz the moment he joined them. She had turned halfway in her chair, nearly facing Saul, and barely glanced back as Carl finished. "And any hints that some people are going to profit more than the rest of us -- well, it'll cause trouble."
Saul lifted an inquiring eyebrow. He seemed to know how to comment on what you'd said with a minimal gesture or shrug, an economy of expression Carl envied.
"He refers to scuttlebutt below decks," Virginia explained. "The fact that, ah, non-Percells hold all the important slots."
"Non-Percells such as myself?"
"Now that you mention it," Carl said.
"Seniority. After all, none of you genetically preselected people are over forty."
"You sure that's all?" Carl leaned forward, hands knitted together, elbows on knees.
The older man frowned, sensing something in Carl's voice. "What else do you think it could be?"
"How about Earthside not wanting any of us where we could make trouble?"
Saul carefully put his drink down and sat back. "Exiles are ill powered to cause Pharaoh grief," he said as if to himself.
The remark seemed irritatingly opaque to Carl. "Why don't you just answer my question?"
"Was that a question? It sounded like an accusation."
Carl's voice had been more harsh than he had planned, but he'd be damned if he'd back down now. "Look at Life Support Installation, my group. Our section head is Suleiman Ould-Harrad, an..."
"Ortho?" Saul supplied quietly.
"Well, that's the slang, yeah."
"So he is. Genetically orthodox." Saul leaned back, making a steeple of his fingers. "Meaning an untampered zygotic mix from the sea of human genes -- no more. Genes do not carry opinions."
Carl shook his head. He disliked the pedantic manner the scientists always adopted, as if all that jargon made them better, smarter, wiser. "Look -- the outgassing work, the slot studies -- all in the hands of... you people."
"So you surmise that they will clutch these fruits to themselves? To sell their skills upon our return?"
Virginia said mildly, "It's not an impossible scenario, Saul."
Saul looked surprised to hear this coming from her. "I'm afraid for me it is. The direct implication that there is some conspiracy of the normal contingent --"
"See?" Carl pounced. "He calls his people 'normal' -- so we're not."
Saul said stiffly, "I did not mean it that way."
"That's the way it came out."
Virginia said, "Carl, you can't jump on every --"
"I'm not. I'm just looking to see if where there's smoke, there's fire." He felt warm, gulped his drink.
Saul paused, running his tongue meditatively over his lower lip. "Let me begin afresh. Carl, if you knew anything about me, you would understand that I am not hostile to you people. Precisely the opposite, in fact." He looked steadily at Carl. "I suppose you would find out sooner or later anyway... I worked for years with Simon Percell."
Carl was stunned. Virginia gasped and said, "You did? I'd heard rumors, but... I didn't believe them."
"Merely as a postdoc." Saul shrugged. "Our last project together studied deviations in the activation level of lupus erythematosus. You may remember that was one of the principal diseases Percell freed you people from. That awful, untreatable thing that attacked skin, connective tissue, spleen, kidneys."
Virginia nodded. "My mother died from it."
"Yes," Saul said. "And your grandmother as well."
Virginia's lips pursed in surprise, Saul shrugged. "I remember your case. Simon carried out the necessary alterations of your mother's DNA while I was first learning the techniques."
Virginia leaned forward. "Did you..."
"Do the actual work? I cannot remember, honestly. I performed as assistant for many gene-tailoring methods, some experimental, some fairly straightforward."
"Then you... could be..."
Saul blinked, sitting back in his chair, avoiding her rapt gaze. "It was a purely mechanical task by that time. Very little research to it, other than my part. I did studies of how the resulting... cells... responded to chemical incursions which, for normal lupus would cause a spontaneous rise in the disease."
Virginia said slowly, "And mine... did not?"
"Obviously, you were one of our successes. You have no trace of lupus, I trust?"
She shook her head. "Because of you."
"No; Simon Percell. I merely went to him to learn his techniques. It was during those few years when he enjoyed full support, when all things were possible. Or so we thought."
Carl said, "Still... I didn't know you'd worked with Percell." He felt chagrined. Saul had probably been present when Carl's mother's genes were delicately trimmed, freed of the microscopic molecular constellation that carried heritable leukemia. Then the gene wizards had added expert snippets of DNA to give him the suite of physical improvements that now marked every Percell. To Carl, that small, brave band of genetic engineers was legendary. He had never met one before.
Saul crossed his legs, smoothed his pants leg, visibly uncomfortable. Carl realized that the man must have been through similar meetings often, and was wary of the pent-up emotion that might burst forth from any Percell.
"I... I'm sorry about what I said," Carl murmured.
Saul nodded silently. He, too, was holding feelings behind a tight-lipped dam.
Virginia's eyes brimmed. "You... could be..."
Carl saw that she wanted to say You are my father, too but could find no way to state the complex blend of emotions she felt. Saul had helped give life to thousands who would have been blighted, killed, maimed. Those years could not be forgotten -- except by the braying, suspicious, hate-filled majority Earthside.
That kind had killed Percell, as surely as if they had pressed the muzzle of the .32 revolver to his temple. Simon Percell himself had pulled the trigger, driven into a depression over what was now obviously an unavoidable mistake.
One gene-editing error in a treatment to eliminate an inheritable kidney disease had killed an entire year's program of children. Worse, they had not died until the age of three. Then it struck suddenly.
The sight of so many writhing in agony, yellow-skinned and gnarled, their kidney and liver functions stopped abruptly -- it had been torture. Media bigots flashed the images around the globe. Coupled with the growing public chorus against him, the threats of prosecution, and the sudden cuts in his research support, it had been too much for a man who held himself to the very highest standards.
Carl shook himself. It was still so easy to touch off the memories. His own mother dying miserably. The years of waiting to see if he, too, would begin to show the signs. The final liberation when he knew it was all right, that he could go into space with a clean genetic record. Those memories cut deeply in him still.
"I... Look, let me buy you another drink," Carl said lamely.
"Why, sure," Saul said with a wobbly smile.
"Maybe a chess game later?"
"Certainly!" Saul said heartily. "This time, no quarter. I'm defending the honor of normal people." Then Saul paused, quickly turned aside, and sneezed. Both Carl and Virginia jumped slightly. Then they all laughed, the tension relieved.
"Well now," Saul said expansively as he put away his handkerchief, "that's one Percell modification I will take credit for. Tailoring in a suppression of the histamic response. Doesn't do me any good, but you people don't suffer as I do from pesky colds. I'll be envying you every time Akio Matsudo releases one of his damn challenge viruses!"
But years afterward, Carl would well remember that convulsive, startling eruption, the first -- but certainly not the last -- time he had heard Saul's explosive sneeze.
Newsflash -- WorldNet4 -- The International Olympic Committee, meeting today in Tokyo, bowed to pressure from the League of the Arc of the Sun and voted to bar genetically altered persons -- so-called "Percells" -- from participating in the 2064 Games in Lagos.
Members of the Progressive Bloc were the only nations to vote in opposition to the proposal. Bloc leaders Denmark, Hawaii, Indonesia, Texas, and the NearEarth Cluster emphasized their objections by withdrawing from the competition, which now promises to be the most controversial since the fractious Olympics of 2036.
Said IOC chairman Asoka Barawayandre, "The decision of these particular territories is no great surprise. They have received great numbers of Percells as immigrants from lands that no longer welcome that kind. Their national sports teams were already compromised by this questionable element."
Members abstaining included Greater Russia, the United States of America, Royal Wales, Soviet Georgia, and the Diasporic Federation.
Saul finished reading the printout and looked up at the man who had thrust it upon him.
"For this you waste paper in a printout, Joao? You could have fast-faxed it to my console just as easily."
Joao Quiverian was a slender, sallow-faced man with an untamable shock of black hair and a Roman, almost hawklike ornament of a nose. The man was not distracted by Saul's banter. He insisted on an answer.
"You'd just ignore a fast-fax. I want to know right away what you think of this vote, Saul."
"Where does my opinion matter?" Saul shrugged. "I'm disappointed the Diaspora only abstained. A worldwide federation of refugee peoples ought to take a stand on something like this. But they're trying so hard to win acceptance that it's really no surprise." He handed back the sheet. "Other than that, I'd say the world is acting true to form."
The answer obviously did not satisfy Joao, who had made chief planetologist only three weeks ago when a freak accident killed Professor Lehman. Saul knew this had to be a frustrating time for the Brazilian, anyway. Here he was, only a few kilometers from a truly great comet, and orders were that science would have to give way to engineering for weeks to come.
Quiverian had to rely on part-time help from Saul and a few other "amateur cometologists" who had been trained in the field as a second specialty. No doubt he looked forward to the awakening of some of the sleepers from the slot tugs and discussing cometary arcana with fully accredited peers.
Saul generally got along with the man, as long as they were discussing the primordial matter of the ancient solar system. This time, however, Quiverian was in a political mood.
"Come now, Saul. This news from Earth is important, a milestone! I had expected more out of you. An indignant protest. Perhaps a declaration that Percells are actually human beings."
Saul was here in the planetology lab to help analyze the delicate ice cores the spacers were bringing back from Halley -- the "second hat" he had been assigned because of his laboratory skills. He had not come to be goaded by Quiverian. He looped his left foot under the chair stanchion. "Come on, Joao, you wanted me to examine some organic inclusions for you. Let's look at the sample."
He held out his hand for the slender, sealed, eight-foot tube the Brazilian had laid on the table behind him.
But Quiverian was insistent. "Nobody's saying that these poor mutants are unhuman. Only that they were a horrible mistake. You cannot blame the people of Earth -- with the nations of the Arc of the Sun in the vanguard -- for calling for controls."
"I see" Saul nodded. "Controls like banning Percells from the Olympics. What's next, Joao? Segregated restrooms? Special drinking fountains? Ghettoes?"
Quiverian smiled. "Oh, Saul. It wasn't just those athletic records a few Percells had broken -- freakish performances that raised the ire of millions. Those were only the last straw. Your creations --"
"Not my creations." Saul shook his head insistently.
Quiverian held up a hand. "Very well, Simon Percell's creatures -- his monsters -- these people are living reminders of the arrogance of twentieth-century northern science, which nearly destroyed the world!"
Saul sighed. "Come on, Joao. You can't blame science and the Old North for everything. True, they used up more than their share of resources, but you talk as if the nations of the Arc were completely guiltless for the Hell Century. After all, who cut down the tropical forests in spite of all the warnings? Who raised the carbon dioxide levels --"
Quiverian interrupted him, red-faced: "You think I am unaware of that, Saul? Look at my homeland, Brazil. Only now, after massive struggle, are we beginning to recover from an environmental holocaust which wiped out a third of the Earth's species... all sacrificed at the altar of thoughtless greed."
"Very well, then the guilt is distributed --"
"Yes, certainly. But technology itself was partly at fault! We simply barged ahead with the best of intentions" -- Quiverian arched his eyebrows sardonically -- "doing good to the detriment of Nature herself!"
Obviously, the man believed this, passionately. Saul found it ironic. Back before the turn of the century, the nations of the Old North had preached environmentalism to an unheeding Third World -- after already reaping most of the planet's accessible wealth. Now, the pendulum had swung. The equatorial peoples in the Arc of the Sun seemed obsessed with a mystic passion for nature that would have astonished their land-hungry grandparents.
Why must conversions always come so late? Why do people apologize to corpses?
He was spared having to reply as a thickly accented voice rose from beyond a table stacked high with core samples.
"Hey! Did I miss something? Eh? Exactly what crimes was do-gooder science responsible for? I'll tell you which! Maybe our Brazilian friend refers to foreign doctors who came in to reduce infant mortality in countries such as his. Boom! Overpopulation. To your modern Arcist, that must have been the worst horror of them all!"
Quiverian's face colored. "Malenkov, you fat Russian hypocrite! Come out here and argue face to face like a man. You don't have to hide; I am no Ukrainian sniper!"
"Thank the saints for that much, at least." Nicholas Malenkov rounded the table holding a clipboard, smiling, a hulking giant of a man who moved with the grace of a wrestler, even in the awkward Coriolis tides of the gravity wheel.
Rescued, Saul thought gratefully and seized the chance to change the subject. "Nicholas, I hear Cruz and the engineers have preliminary results from the gas-panel experiments. Were you there?"
The stocky Slav grinned. "They wanted at least one of us ice-ball lovers around when they tried it out. You, Joao, and Otis were busy. So I sat in."
Along with Saul and the legless spacer, Otis Sergeov, Dr. Malenkov wore a second hat as a cometologist... much to Joao Quiverian's frequent protests of dismay. The big Russian spread his hands. "My friends, the results are encouraging. With only a few of the panels in place we have already altered the orbit of Comet Halley! The effect is small, but we've proved that controlling the comet's outgassing can let us make orbital changes!"
Saul nodded. "Of course, the method only works near perihelion, close to the sun."
"True. This run of tests showed only a small, dilninishing effect. Soon surface sublimation will cease altogether. The panel project will shut down for seventy years. But next time," Malenkov grinned, "when we are diving once more inward, toward the Hot..."
The Hot. It was the first time Saul had heard the sun referred to that way.
"... then this work will prove its usefulness. With the big Nudge rockets having their maximum effect at aphelion, and the evaporation-control panels working at perihelion, we will have the means to herd this ancient iceball into almost any orbit we want!"
Quiverian frowned darkly and shook his head. "Suppose all of this meddling works. Exactly what, Doctor, would you want to do with... with a herded comet?"
Oh, no. Saul saw where the conversation was heading.
"Who cares!" Malenkov said enthusiastically. "Ideas have bounced around for more than a century, about what people might do with comets."
"Crackpot ideas, you mean."
Malenkov shrugged. "Our present plan is to arrange a loop past Jupiter in seventy years, and use big planet's gravity to snare Halley into much more accessible orbit. Eventually, this iceball can supply cheap volatiles and help the NearEarth people create their Third Plateau in space."
Quiverian shook his head. "Propaganda. I have heard it a thousand times."
Malenkov went on unperturbed. "The possibilities are endless. When we have proven long-duration sleep slots, comets may make great space liners -- to cruise the solar system in safety."
Saul saw that a small audience had begun to gather at the open door to the lab, attracted from nearby offices. Malenkov noticed them and waxed even more enthusiastic.
"We might find more useful chemicals, maybe, like those Joao and Captain Cruz found on Encke. Why, there may even be some merit in that wild idea to use comets to terraform Venus or Mars! Eventually they might be made suitable for colonization."
"Hah!" Quiverian snorted.
"Gentlemen," Saul cut in. "I suggest we --"
But Quiverian ignored him, shaking a slender, elastic-coated sample tube at Malenkov. "This is the attitude I cannot bear. The original idea was to study comets, the most pristine of all God's handiworks. But now knowledge for its own sake doesn't seem to matter anymore. Now you not only want to harvest this comet, but recklessly alter entire worlds before we even understand them!"
Malenkov blinked in surprise at Quiverian's anger. Saul knev that Nicholas had few political opinions. He was one of the most brilliant people Saul had ever met, but the man never seemed to learn that to some people a disagreement was not a chess game, not a sport for gentlemen. In this respect, he was a most unRussian Russian.
Saul tried once more to stop this. "Joao! Nick was only talking about possibilities. In thirty years Earth will have had time to decide...."
But the angry Brazilian wasn't listening anymore. Quiverian's left hand clenched the core tube and his right formed a fist. "We have just emerged from the most terrible century in human history... the worst for our world since the holocaust of the Pleistocene... and now idiots want to send giant iceballs hurtling down onto planets?"
"I never said --"
Quiverian stepped menacingly toward Malenkov. "Tell me Doctor. How long before the target is not Mars, or Venus, but Earth?"
His arms chopped for emphasis, unwise in the weak pseudogravity. Quiverian flailed for balance and the long tube smashed onto the tabletop, splitting with a loud report. Dark brown ice laced with black and white veins, spilled out onto the lab bench.
"Idiot! Goyishe kopf!" Saul caught the Brazilian before his head struck the big core nucroscope. He swiveled quickly and pointed at the people standing by the door.
"All of you, out! Shut that hatch and trigger the air seal. Nick, Joao, go get masks!"
Saul pushed Quiverian off toward the emergency cupboard. Moving quickly he grabbed up a plastic recycling container and dumped its wad of crumpled printouts onto the floor. By the time Malenkov returned, fastening a small mask over his face and holding out another, Saul was sweeping slivers of swiftly melting ice into the tub.
The Russian's voice was muffled. "Your mask, Saul! Put it on."
Saul shook his head and kept working. He had complete faith in his little bloodstream symbionts -- in their ability to keep him safe from cyanide and other cometary poisons. They had better, or the colony wouldn't last long inside Halley. Right now he was more concerned about preventing contamination of the other samples than danger to himself.
The spilled slivers seemed to give off a faintly pleasant aroma... reminding him of the almond groves of Lake Kinneret, in the Galilee at springtime.
"My core!" Quiverian cried out as he returned, fumbling with his face mask. "What are you doing, you meddlesome Jew? That was the deepest core we had taken!"
Saul swept up the last slivers, threw the sponge into the tub, and sealed its lid. There were more than a trillion tons of ice out there under Halley, ready to be studied. This loss was no scientific tragedy.
"Oh, but that's not true, Joao," Malenkov said reassuringly. The stocky Russian sifted through the self-cooling tubes on the counter. "Why, only an hour ago my countryman, Otis Sergeov, returned with a new core, taken from a kilometer within Halley! Let me see if I can find it here."
"Sergeov!" Quiverian cursed. "That fanatical Percell mutant? 0h, fates! There were so many fine planetologists who might have come along! Why, oh why have I been saddled with such assistants -- a huge Russian fool, a legless Percell, and a genetic witch doctor!"
Malenkov shrugged and answered amiably, as if it were the most reasoaable question in the world, "I guess you're stuck with us because those other guys didn't come along, Joao."
Saul closed his eyes, and put his hands over them.
"Yaah!" Quiverian threw himself at the door, ignoring the yellow air-alert light, and burst out through the crowd outside.
"What is eating him?" Malenkov asked Saul after the door had shut again. He frowned. "Saul? What's the matter? Are you in pain?"
Saul uncovered his eyes at last. They were filled with tears.
"Saul? My friend, I..."
Saul slapped the console next to him and laughed out loud, unable to contain it any longer.
"Joao is right," he said, wiping his eyes. "Comet Halley definitely deserves better than this. But it's stuck with us."
Saul wasn't surprised, a while later, when an officer came around to investigate the spillage incident. But he did blink when Lieutenant Colonel Suleiman Ould-Harrad entered, a clipboard in one hand and a trace-gas detector in the other. The dark-skinned Mauritanian was the last man Saul expected.
Ould-Harrad's specialty was large, massive life-support systems, the kind they were installing on Halley right now. But he must have been the only one available at the moment to investigate the accident.
Everyone knew why Ould-Harrad was on this mission. The young officer had had friends in the Temple Mount Conspiracy, and only ties with the Mid-African royal family had won him exile instead of imprisonment for the crime of unwise associations.
The Mauritanian had spoken no more than ten words to Saul over the last three years. The regard had been returned.
Earth is far behind you, Saul reminded himself. And nothing can change the past. He stepped aside. "Come in, Colonel. I've already dictated an accident report. Go ahead and look around while I fast-fax a copy for you."
Ould-Harrad seemed ill at ease as he followed Saul into the lab, his broad nostrils flaring at the faint aroma of escaped cometary gases. His eyes kept flicking to the gauges of the instrument. His dour expression seemed little cheered by Saul's obvious good health.
"Dr. Lintz, you should not have remained here after the leakage alert was thrown."
Saul tapped the face of a sense-screen display. "Yes, yes. I know. But somebody had to stay and clean up the mess. Anyway, I might as well be the first guinea pig. It's appropriate, that I should give the blood cyanutes their first field test, no?"
The console spat out a small data pellet. Saul marked it with his name-chop. He smiled up at Ould-Harrad. "If I drop dead, we all might as well climb into sleep slots and wait a few centuries to be picked up, 'cause this expedition is over."
The spacer officer nodded curtly, accepting the logic. "There are rules, nevertheless. Procedures designed for collective safety and order."
Saul tossed the data pellet to the other man and laughed somewhat bitterly.
"Safety and order, yes. How well I remember those words. Didn't General Lynchon use that very phrase when his U.N. troops moved into the Judean hills?"
Ould-Harrad shook his head. "It was a consensus operation, Dr. Lintz. The coalition government of Israel-Inshallah invited them in."
Saul nodded. "After the Levites and Salawites assassinated enough opposing legislators to get a majority."
The African's voice was low, as if he dreaded this topic but was drawn to it like a moth toward a flame. "The world was tired of centuries of strife in a region that had never known peace."
"And is it better now? The High Priest in Jerusalem reigns over a balkanized realm, with sect sniping at sect as never before.
"And did it help the planet? From the Nile to the Euphrates, Israel-Inshallah had planted more trees than existed before in all of Africa north of the equator. Last I heard, a third of the forests were gone -- chopped down to make barricades."
Ould-Harrad's skin deepened darker than its already rich shade. Saul thought about pulling back. He has already been punished.
Yes, but enough?
"Dr. Lintz, I..."
Ould-Harrad shook his head. "I had nothing to do with the attempt to blow up the Great Temple. It's true. I had friends in the Conspiracy -- and in penance for that association I am on this ill-starred cruise -- but I never wanted to bring harm to the holiest shrine of three faiths. I assure you, I would rather have torn out my..."
"Oh, you poor bastard," Saul interrupted, half-pitying the fellow and laughing to crush his own painful memories. "For ten years you've heard but not listened, been punished but never understood. When, oh when will people like you ever come to understand that real Jews never wanted that blasted temple built in the first place?"
Ould-Harrad's gas sensor hung from one hand, forgotten. He stared. "A few kibbutzim, some secular humanists fought it, I know. But --"
"But nothing!" Saul leaned forward. "The vast majority of Jews, in Israel and abroad, voted against it, argued against it, fought it every step of the way. It was compelled on us, by murderous fanatics and by an ignorant world all too eager for peace."
Saul almost spat the word. "Peace! It wasn't enough to destroy my nation and my family, Colonel Ould-Harrad. They installed priests that actually had the effrontery to tell me how to be a Jew! Even Hitler did not try to do that!"
In the faint, centrifugal tug of the gravity wheel, Ould-Harrad seemed to lose the strength to stand. He sagged into a web-chair.
"But the leader of the New Sanhedrin is of your Cohen priestly clan! And the Lead Temple Attendant is a Levite.... The Pope's Legate, the other Christians and Muslims, must take second place to the oldest faith's precedence!"
Ould-Harrad shook his head. "My comrades objected to that humiliation -- and to the removal of the beautiful mosque that stood where the temple was to go -- but I don't understand what the Jews had to complain of. Was not two millennia of prophecy being fulfilled at last?"
Saul did not answer immediately. He looked across the room, where the picture wall depicted the onion domes of old Kiev. Sunset flared brilliant tints across the steppes beyond the city walls. New gilt crosses once again lopped the tower peaks, signifying Great Russia's return to its mystical past.
Ten years, he thought. And still it seems impossible to make anyone understand.
Perhaps he owed it to the man, out of charity, to try. But how could one explain that Judaism had changed over two thousand years of exile, since the Romans burned the Temple of the Maccabees to the ground, slew the priests, and scattered the people to the winds?
The remnants had wandered to strange climes, adopted alien ideas. Gradually, Hebrew farmers who pioneered the Polish and Russian plains were crowded by later peoples into cramped cities to become an urban folk. The priestly family line's -- the Cohens and Levites -- lost their influence. For how could they perform their rituals with no central site from which to make sacrifices to appease a terrible godhead?
Spiritual leadership fell upon the rabbi -- the teacher -- a role one did not inherit, but earned through learning and wisdom.
A role described in detail by Jesus, if the truth be told. Only he, too, had those who prophesied in his name. He, too, was followed by priests.
After a hundred years of strife and accomplishment, the alliance led by Israel had finally begun fraying during Saul's youth. The Hell Century took its toll even in the belt that folk called "The Green Land." Prophets appeared on streetcorners, and cults proliferated.
Islam, too, had suffered a hundred schisms, and Christianity was battered, divided.
Then someone had a bright idea... an obvious solution. And, like so many obvious solutions, it was disastrously wrong.
The Diaspora changed us, Saul thought. In exile, we became individualists, a people of books, and not of sacrifices on golden altars. We mourned the Temple. But wasn't its burning a sign that it was time to know God in other ways?
How would Ould-Harrad ever understand that no modern Jew wanted anybody to intercede for him? Everyone had to come to his or her own understanding with God.
Ould-Harrad looked down at his hands. "When the conspirators blew up the Al Aqsa Mosque in protest, it was intended that the Levites take the blame, not the kibbutzim. The plan... they never wanted a bloodbath...."
He seemed unable to continue. Saul realized that the man was haunted -- by guilt and also, perhaps, by a dread that he might not ever even understand the role he had played.
Saul blinked away a memory of smoke over the Judean hills. He shook his head, knowing that there was no way he could help this man.
"I'm sorry," he began softly. Then he cleared his throat. "Is that all, Colonel? If you're finished, I have some important experiments under way."
The black spacer looked up and nodded curtly. "I will report the situation under control."
Saul had already turned back to his microscope when he heard the door hiss behind him. He tried to return to the business that had been interrupted, first by Joao Quiverian's persistent questioning, and then by the dolorous Ould-Harrad, but his hands seemed locked over the controls.
"Room environment, dim lights by half," he commanded aloud, and the laboratory darkened in response.
Work, he knew, was a way to take himself away from the memories. "Sample AR 71B dash 78 S, on screen twelve" he said to the ever-listening, semisentient lab computer. "Let's see if those inclusions look as suspicious now as I thought they did before Joao stank up the place."
The last part was not for the computer. And although he hunched over the holistank to immerse himself in mysteries, Saul found that he did not really mind the faint scent of ice and almonds in the air.
This is the end of the sample chapters for Heart of the Comet. To continue reading, purchase this new edition from any store listed on this page.