PART THREE. Cruithne

Darest thou now O soul,

Walk out with me toward the unknown region

Where neither ground is nor any path to follow?



— WALT WHITMAN

Emma Stoney:

Rockets, it turned out, were unsubtle.

The launch was a roaring vibration. She’d been expecting acceleration. But when each booster stage cut out, the engine thrust just died — suddenly, with no tail-off — so that the reluctant astronauts were thrown forward against their restraints and given a couple of seconds of tense breathing and anticipation; then the next stage cut in and they were jammed back once more. After a couple of minutes of this Emma felt bruises on her back, neck, and thighs.

But the thrust of the last booster stage was gentle, just a push at her chest and legs. Then, finally, the thrust died for good.

And she was drifting up, slowly, out of her seat, as far as her restraints would let her. She felt sweat that had pooled in the small of her back, spreading out over her skin.

The rocket noise was gone. There was silence in the cabin, save for the whirr of fans and pumps, the soft ticking of instruments, Malenfant’s quiet voice as he worked through his shutdown checklist.

And she heard a gentle whimpering, oddly high-pitched, like a cat. It must be Michael. But he was too far away for her to reach.

Now there was a series of clattering bangs, hard and metallic, right under her back, as if someone were slamming on the hull with great steel fists.

“There goes the last stage,” Malenfant called. “Now we coast all the way to Cruithne.” He grinned through his open faceplate. “Welcome to the Gerard K O ‘Neill. Don’t move yet; we aren’t quite done.”

This cabin was called the Earth-return capsule. The four of them sat side by side, their orange pressure suits crumpled in their metal-frame couches. Emma was at the left-hand end of the row, jammed between Malenfant and the wall, which was just a bulkhead, metallic and unfinished. She was looking up into a tight cone, like a metal tepee. She was facing an instrument panel, a dashboard that spanned the capsule, crusted with switches, dials, and softscreen readouts. On the other side of the panel she could see clusters of wires and optical fibers and cables, crudely taped together and looped through brackets. This was not the space shuttle, rebuilt and quality-certified after every flight; there was a home-workshop, improvised feel to the whole shebang.

Obscurely, however, she found that comforting.

The light, greenish gray, came from a series of small fluorescent floods set around the walls of the capsule; the shadows were long and sharp, making this little box of a spaceship seem much bigger than it was. But there were no windows. She felt deprived, disoriented; she no longer knew which way up she was, how fast she was traveling.

Malenfant reached up and took off his helmet. He shook his head, and little spherical balls of sweat drifted away from his forehead, swimming in straight lines through the air. “All my life I dreamed of this.” The helmet, released, floated above his belly, drifting in some random air current. He knocked it with a finger, and it started to spin.

Emma found her gaze following the languid rotation of the helmet. Suddenly it felt as if the helmet was stationary and it was the rest of the ship that was rotating, and her head was a balloon full of water through which waves were passing. She closed her eyes and pressed her head back against the headrest of her couch until the spinning sensation stopped.

There was a sound like a cough, a sharp stink of bile.

Emma opened her eyes and tried to lift her head, but her vision swam again. “Michael?”

“No,” Cornelius said, his voice tight. And now she saw a big ball of vomit, green laced with orange, shimmering up into the air above them. Complex waves crossed its surface, and it seemed to have ten or a dozen smaller companions traveling with it.

“Oh, Christ, Cornelius,” Malenfant said. He reached under his couch and pulled out a plastic bag that he swept around the vomit ball. When the vomit touched the surface of the bag, it started to behave “normally”; it spread out all over the interior of the bag in a sticky, lumpy mess.

It was like nothing Emma had seen before; she lay there and watched the little drama unfold, mindless of the stink.

There was a new series of low bangs, like guns firing, from beyond the wall beside Emma. With each bang she felt a wrench as her couch dragged her sideways.

“Take it easy,” Malenfant said to them all. “That’s just the hy-drazine attitude thrusters firing, spinning us up. We’re feeling transients. They’ll dampen out.”

There were metallic groans from the hull, pops and snaps from the latches that docked the Earth-entry module to the rest of the spacecraft cluster. It was like being in a huge, clumsy fairground ride.

But at length, as the spin built up, she felt a return of weight, a gentle push that made her sink back into her seat once more.

The attitude thrusters cut out.

“Right on the button,” Malenfant said. “We is pinwheeling to the stars, people. Let’s go open up the shop.”

He released his restraints. He stood up in his couch, his feet bouncing above the fabric, and he pulled at levers and straps until a central section of the instrument panel above him folded back. It was like rearranging the interior of a station wagon. Beyond the panel was a short tunnel leading to a hatch like a submarine’s — a heavy iron disc with a wheel at the center.

Malenfant said, “One, two, three.” He took a jump into the air. He drifted upward easily, floated sideways and gently impacted the wall of the tunnel. He grabbed on to a rung, his boots dangling. “Coriolis force,” he said. “Piece of cake.” He pulled himself farther into the tunnel, then reached up and hauled at the wheel.

But the wheel was jammed, presumably by the vibration of launch. What an anticlimax, Emma thought. Malenfant had to have Emma pass up a big wrench, and he used this to hit the wheel until it came loose. At last Malenfant had the wheel turning, and he pushed the hatch upward and out of the way. He floated easily through the hatch, his booted feet trailing after him. Emma, looking up beyond him, saw a disc of gray fluorescent light.

She glanced at Cornelius. “Me next?”

Cornelius’ face, still inside his helmet, was actually green. “I’ll pass Michael up.”

She took offher own helmet and stowed it carefully on Malen-fant’s vacated couch. Then, breathing hard, she undipped her restraints and laid them aside. She pushed down at her chair, cautiously. She drifted into the air a little way, fell back slowly. It was like wading through a waist-deep swimming pool.

She was aware of Michael watching her, his eyes round and bright inside his helmet.

She tried to think of something to say to him. But of all of them he seemed the most centered, she sensed, the most at home in this starkly new environment. How strange that was.

Without giving herself time to think about it, she bent her knees and pushed up.

She had leapt like an Olympic athlete, but she drifted away from her course and slammed, harder than Malenfant, against the wall of the tunnel. But she managed to grab on to a rung. Then she hauled at the rungs to pull herself through the tunnel. She seemed as light as a feather.

She emerged into a small chamber, a cylinder maybe ten feet across. The light was a flat, fluorescent gray-white. There was an odd smell, metal and plastic, a mix of staleness and antiseptic, air that had never been breathed. The walls were thick with equipment boxes, cables, pipes, softscreens, and displays. Above her there was a partition ceiling, an open-mesh diamond grill, beyond which she glimpsed more cylindrical chambers. Ducts and pipes coated with silver insulation snaked up through gaps cut in the ceiling. There were no windows here either, and her sense of enclosure increased.

Malenfant was standing here. He bent and grabbed under her shoulders, and hauled her up as if she were a child. “How do you feel?”

“For now, fine,” she said.

He pushed himself up into the air by flexing his toes. He seemed exhilarated, boyish. As he descended, slow as a feather, he was drifting sideways; and when he landed he staggered a little. “Coriolis. Just a little reminder that we aren’t under true gravity here, but rotating.”

“Like a bucket on a rope.” .

“Yeah. This compartment is what you might call ops. Controls for the cluster, computer hardware, most of the life-support boxes. We’ll use the Earth-return module as a solar storm shelter. Come on.”

He led her to a ladder at the center of the chamber. It ran straight up through a hole in the ceiling, like a fireman’s pole.

Emma walked forward cautiously. With every step she bounced into the air and came down swimmingly slowly, and the Coriolis forces gave her a small but noticeable sideways kick as she moved. It was disorienting, every sensation subtly unfamiliar, like walking through a dream.

Malenfant grabbed the ladder and began to pull himself upward. He moved effortlessly, like a seal.

Emma took the ladder but moved much more cautiously, taking the rungs one at a time, making sure her feet were firmly anchored. With every rung she climbed the weight dropped off her shoulders. But as if in compensation the sideways Coriolis push seemed that much more fierce, a tangible sideways shove prizing her loose of the ladder.

Malenfant had grabbed on to a strut. He reached down, took her hand, and helped her float up the last few feet. She seemed to drift over the open-mesh floor like a soap bubble. Malenfant babbled about cleated shoes he had brought along, but she found it hard to concentrate.

“This is the zero G deck,” he said, “the center of gravity of the cluster, the place we’re pinwheeling around. There are two more compartments above us. In here we have everything that needs a stable platform: astronomy, navigation, radar, antennae. We even have coelostats, little devices that will spin the opposite way to the ship, if we need them.”

“Malenfant, with this act — by launching again, by absconding from Earth — you’ve wrecked Bootstrap. You know that, don’t you? They’ll take apart everything you built up.”

“But it doesn’t matter, Emma. Because we’re here, now. On our way to Cruithne, and the downstreamer artifact, and everything. Nothing else matters.” He grinned and pulled at her hand. “Come see.”

She let herself be led toward small curving windows set in the wall. Each window was a disc of darkness. She pressed her face to cool glass and cupped her hands around her eyes.

The module’s hull was a fat, curving wall. Fastened to the outside she could see thick blankets: insulation and meteorite shielding. Solar-cell wings, seen edge-on, were filmy sheets of bluish glass, and slow ripples passed along them in response to some complex vibration mode. She was almost facing the sun here; the hull and the solar wings were brilliantly lit, and she could see no stars.

But now, swimming into her view, came the Earth.

It was a crescent, blue and white and brown. She could see a fringe of atmosphere, brilliantly bright, and the arc shape cupped a pool of darkness that was broken by strings of orange stars — cities, she realized, spread along the edge and river valleys of some continent on the night side of Earth. The ship’s rotation made the Earth turn, smooth as an oiled machine, over and over.

And as she watched, the Earth was growing smaller, visibly receding, as if she were riding into the sky in some glass-bottomed elevator.

She clutched Malenfant’s arm.

“I know,” he said, his voice tight. “Not even the Apollo astronauts saw it like this. They did a couple of orbits of Earth, time enough to get used to the situation before they lit out for the Moon. Not us; we’ve been thrown straight into the out.”

She checked her watch implant. She had a meeting with some East Coast investors booked right now.

On some level, deep in her mind, she sensed that this was wrong: not just the illegality and unexpectedness of it, but the very nature of the situation. She felt that she shouldn’t be here, that this was unreal; she felt as if she were outside the scene, somehow, looking in through a glass barrier.

She shouldn’t be here. And yet she was.

Perhaps she was in some form of shock.

The crescent Earth shrank, becoming more round, more three-dimensional, more vividly blue against the empty blackness of space, a planet rather than a world. And, she wondered, could it be really true that all the mind and love and hope in the universe was confined to that thin blue film of dirt and water and air?

Infomerdal

You know me.

Nowadays you probably know me better from my Shit Cola ads than for the one big successful glorious thing I did in my life. Which was to walk on the Moon.

Once. In 1971.

After that the whole damn thing was shut down.

Back in 1971 I thought that by now we would be well on the way to colonizing space. Why not? Airlines operate at just three times fuel costs. Why shouldn’t space operations be just as economical? Spacecraft are no more complex than airplanes — in fact, less so.

But since 1970 or thereabouts going to space has not been part of our national agenda.

NASA has kept complete control over space. But since 1970 NASA has produced paper, not spaceships. This was the agency, remember, that destroyed the Saturn V rather than allow it to launch cheap-and-cheerful Skylabs that would have threatened its bloated space station program.

In 1980 I joined the study group that convinced President Ronald Reagan that the statesman who led humankind to space would be remembered for millennia after Isabella the Great was forgotten. For a while, it looked as if something revolutionary might be done.

But then came the assassination attempt, and Cold War problems, and various other issues. The president left space to other people, wno couldn’t get it done.

NASA won its turf wars. We lost access to space.

But the dream — the reasons we need spaceflight, now more than ever — none of that has gone away.

Which is why I for one am fully behind Malenfant’s launch from the Mojave.

What else was he supposed to do? You just know those federal paper pushers were going to find every way they could to block him.

I want to emphasize that my personal problems are not the issue here, nor is my own career trajectory and related difficulties. To put it bluntly, I haven’t drunk a drop in four years, and my new marriage is working out just fine. What I am concerned about is that future generations should not be denied the opportunities denied to my own children and grandchildren.

That’s why I agreed to appear in this infomercial. Support Reid Malenfant. If you can’t bring yourself to do that, get off his back. The man is out there risking his hide for you and your

children.

Give him a break.

Emma Stoney:

Malenfant started up the life-support systems. Pumps and fans clattered into life, and Emma felt a breeze, flat and warm, in her hair. Then Malenfant clambered back up to the zero G deck to check the ship’s comms systems and navigation alignment.

The others gathered on the ops deck and stripped off their fat orange pressure suits. They changed into lightweight NASA-type jumpsuits that lacked a lot in style but were warm and practical and covered in pockets and Velcro strips. They shoved the pressure suits down the hole into the Earth-return capsule and dogged closed the hatch.

Michael had to be manhandled through all this. He was passive, unresponsive, like a week-old infant; it was possible to move him around, even strip and clean and dress him like a doll, but he seemed to have no will of his own. Emma let Michael stay on the ops deck, and made sure at least one of them was there with him the whole time.

She realized that she had a sneaking, selfish gratitude that Michael was aboard. Having someone else to think about would take her mind off her own utter disorientation.

She climbed the fireman’s-pole ladder to go up — or down — to the module’s other two compartments. The disorientation of the changing vertical wasn’t so bad if she spent a few seconds in the zero G bay giving herself time to adapt. Then she could put out of her mind the fact that the ops deck had just been down; now it was up, and the ladder down now led her to the other decks that used to be above her head.

It worked fine provided she didn’t look up through the mesh and see people dangling from the ceiling like chandeliers.

The bio sciences deck was a mix of lab and field hospital. There was some medical equipment: a collection of pills and lotions and bandages and inflatable splints, and more heavy-duty equipment, scary-looking stuff like a defibrillator. The small lab area was pretty much automated, with little requirement from the crew but to pump in regular samples of blood and urine. Everything was color coded and labeled and built into smart little plastic units you could just pop out of the wall to repair and replace.

The lowest deck — called, with nerdish humor, the meatware deck — was up against the outer bulkhead of the craft, and so was the farthest from the cluster’s center of gravity. They would eat and sleep here, under the strongest gravity available — about equivalent to the Moon, a sixth of Earth normal. It wasn’t exactly possible to walk normally here, but at least she could move around without getting a kick sideways the whole time.

There was exercise gear: foldaway treadmills and an exercise cycle. Bunks were neatly stacked against one wall. They had private curtains, zip-up sleeping bags, night-lights, and little personal stowage pockets. She looked inside one of the pockets and found a small softbook and music player with headset, a sleeping mask, and earplugs, all marked with Bootstrap logos. It was cute, like an airline giveaway pack.

The John — strictly speaking the Waste Management System — looked like it would be less fun. It was the old space shuttle design, a lavatorial veteran of decades of spaceflight. There was a commode with an operating handle and, God help her, a control panel. Liquid waste would be captured and pumped away for recycling. Solid waste wasn’t recycled; a valve would open to the vacuum of space to dry out the feces, and it would then be dumped overboard. When she turned the handle a vent opened and air started sucking its way down into the commode, big vanes turning in a very intimidating way.

The toilet could only be used four times an hour, she noted with apprehension. She suspected that in the early days at least they would need more capacity than that.

Each crew member had a personal hygiene kit, more airline-complimentary stuff: a toothbrush, toothpaste, dental floss, nail clippers, soap, a comb, a brush, antichap lipstick, skin lotion, stick deodorant, a tube of shaving cream and a shaver that, bizarrely, worked by clockwork. There was a little hand-washing station, a hole in the wall through which you thrust your hands, and jets of hot and cold water played over your skin. It was also, thankfully, possible to take a shower, with a hose and a nozzle that you passed over your body inside a concertina-type wraparound curtain. But the curtain was imprinted with stern instructions about the importance of washing down the shower properly after use, to

avoid algal growths.

The galley was a neat little unit the size of a domestic freezer. It had hot and cold water dispensers, serving trays, a range of plastic plates and cutlery, and a teeny-tiny microwave oven. On the door of the galley was a complete food list, everything from apple sauce to turkey tetrazzini. The food, stowed under the galley, came in dehydrated packages, sliced meats with sauce or gravy in foil packages, plastic cans with tear-off lids. There were also a few treat items like candy bars in, the labels said, “their natural form.” There was even a tap that would dispense Shit Cola, the relic of some long-forgotten sponsorship deal. Experimentally she found a cup, a globe with an inlet valve and nipple, and tried a little of the Shit. The carbonation didn’t seem to be working right — no doubt some low-gravity problem — and it tasted lousy.

There was enough food for the four of them for two hundred days in space: ninety days out, ninety back, twenty at the asteroid. No doubt that could be stretched by rationing if it came to it, but it did give a finality to the mission duration.

She was unstowing all of this from its launch configuration when Malenfant called her from the zero G deck. She glanced at her watch and was startled to find that already twelve hours had elapsed since the launch.

She pulled herself up the ladder to join Malenfant by a window. He grinned and took her arm. “You’ll want to see this. We’re here for a gravity assist. In fact, we’ll be doing this twice.”

Quietly, he talked about the difficulty of reaching Cruithne, with its highly elliptical and tilted-up orbit. To that end the impulse from the rocket stack would be boosted with gravity slingshots around the Moon. The ship would whip right around the Moon, to be hurled inward past the Earth, and then out past the Moon a second time. The theft of momentum by the O ‘Neill would mean that the Moon would forever circle the Earth a fraction slower.

She let his words wash over her. For, beyond the small, curving window, she saw black, gray, brown-white, a mesh of curves and inky darkness, sliding across her view like oil. It was a crescent bathed in sunlight, pocked with craters, wrinkled by hills. On the plains she could see boulders, pinpoints of brightness sending long, needle-fine shadows across the dusty ground. And the cres cent was growing. The ship was flying into the shadow of the

Moon toward the terminator, the line between night and day.

The sunlit crescent narrowed, even as it spread across space. It was soon too large to be captured by a single window, and she leaned forward to see the sweep of the Moon, from horn to skinny horn. At last the crescent narrowed to invisibility, and she was flying over the shadowed Moon, a hole in the stars.

She found she was holding her breath. The noises of the ship’s systems, little gadgets humming and ticking, seemed sacrilegious in this huge dark quiet.

There was an explosion of light. She craned to see.

Far ahead of the craft, the sun was rising over the Moon. A line of fire had straddled the horizon, poking through the mountains and crater rims there. The light fled across the bare surface, casting shadows hundreds of miles long from mountains and broken crater walls. The smaller, younger craters were wells of darkness in the flat light.

She checked her watch. It was early evening in Vegas. Right now, she thought, I am supposed to be wrapping up the day’s work, making my way out through the protesters to my apartment.

Instead, this. Already Earth, her life, seemed a lot farther away than twelve hours, a mere quarter-million miles.

The craft sailed over brightening ground.

“You know,” Malenfant said, “when we pass the orbit of the Moon we’ll already have traveled farther than anybody has ever gone before.” He cupped her chin and turned her head to him. He ran his thumb over her cheek. It came away wet. She was surprised.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t know it would be like this.”

He smiled. “I know it’s wrong. I know I’m selfish. But I’m glad you’re here.”

She let him hold her, and they stared out at the fleeing Moon.

But suddenly Michael was here, pushing between them, warm limbs flashing, tinny translated voice jarring. Watch the Moon, Malenfant. Watch the Moon!

“Jesus,” Malenfant snapped. He was terrified, Emma realized

Maura Della:

Maura had to decide whether to endorse a military response to

Bootstrap’s activities.

It was a big decision. Maybe the biggest of her life.

It may be, proponents of the military option concluded, that there was something on the asteroid that was indeed essential to the future of humankind. If that was so, then surely it couldn’t be left in the hands of Reid Malenfant: a rogue, a maverick, out of control. And who best to take control but the U.S. government?

Well, perhaps.

She tried to call Bootstrap’s various offices. All she got was voice jail, endless automated phone systems. Occasionally a cop or FBI officer picked up, as a break from impounding Bootstrap files and property. Eschatology, similarly, was being raided and shut down.

Meanwhile she read through the reports her staff assembled for her, and watched TV, and scoured the Net, and tried to get a sense of where the world was heading now that the Carter prediction doom-soon gloom had been so confounded and confused by the far-future light show from the sky.

The e-psychologists likened it to the trauma, at an individual level, of learning the date of one’s death.

There were some positive aspects, of course. Thanks to the far-future visions the science of cosmology seemed to be heading for an overnight revolution — at least, in the minds of those who were prepared to entertain the notion that the Cruithne images might be genuine. Similarly — in ways she failed to understand, relating to constraints on particle-decay lifetimes and so forth — various other branches of physics were being turned over. On the other hand, some philosophers argued it was bad for the mental health of the species to be given answers to so many questions without the effort of discovery.

The churches had pretty uniformly condemned the downstream visions for their godless logic. Science fiction sales in all media had taken a hammering — not that that was necessarily a bad thing, in Maura’s opinion — though she had heard that there were already several digital dramas being cooked up in Hollywood’s banks of story-spinning supercomputers, stories set against the death of the Galaxy, or orbiting a black hole mine.

And on a personal level, there were many people who seemed simply unable to cope with it all.

There were some estimates the downstream hysteria had claimed more than a thousand lives nationally already. People were killing themselves, and each other, because they believed the shadowy future visions weren’t real, that Carter must be right after all; others were killing themselves because they thought the Cruithne future was real.

A lot of the fear and violence seemed to have focused on the Blue children — and, just as distressing, those who were suspected of being Blue. Perhaps it was inevitable, she thought; after all, the children live among us, here and now. How convenient it is to have somebody to hate.

Meanwhile the FBI had reported on a new ritual-murder sect. The adherents believed they were “fast-forwarding” their victims to a point where they would be revived by the black hole miners or some other group of downstreamers and live in peace and harmony, forever in the future.

And so on. More and more she got the sense that she was stuck in the middle of an immature species’ crisis of adolescence.

Which shaped her view on the decision that faced her.

Personally Maura had severe doubts there would be anything to find on Cruithne, except for ancient dusty rock and Dan Ys-tebo’s peculiar squid. What was more important was the symbolism of the military action.

The government would act to show it was still in control of events: that it was not paralyzed by the Carter prediction, that even Reid Malenfant was not beyond its jurisdiction. It seemed to Maura that this was what Americans always strove to do: to take a lead, to take control, to do something.

And that was the subtext, the real purpose behind the military response. The think tank report argued that the resonance of action was essential now to restore the social cohesion of a wired-up planet.

And Maura, reluctantly, found she agreed.

Sorry, Malenfant, she thought.

She registered her recommendation, and turned, with relief, to other matters.

Reid Malenfant:

Removed from the swirling currents of humanity, the crew of the

Gerard K O ‘Neill sailed into darkness.

After just a couple of days, though Earth’s clouds and blue-green oceans were still visible, its disc had shrunk to the apparent size of the Moon from the ground. And the next day, it was smaller still. It would take ninety days of such phenomenal traveling to reach Cruithne, tracing out its own peculiar orbit all of forty million miles from home.

The celestial mechanics of the ship’s trajectory were complex.

Both Earth and Cruithne rounded the sun in about a year. Cruithne, tracing its ellipse, moved a tad faster. It meant that the O’Neill had to leap between two moving rocks, like a kid hopping from one roundabout to another. After the impulse given it by its booster throw, the ship was coasting through its own orbit independently of the Earth, a rounded ellipse that cut inside Earth’s path.

By the time they reached Cruithne the ship would be around twelve degrees in advance of Earth: twelve out of three-sixty, a thirtieth of the circumference of the planet’s orbit.

Malenfant liked to think he would be a couple of weeks ahead in time of the folks back home.

He treated the first bouts of motion sickness with Scop-Dex; he was glad when he could wean his crew off that because of the drowsiness it caused. They all suffered from low-G problems like the facial puffiness and nasal irritation caused by body-fluid redistribution. They were peeing too much as a result of their bodies’ confusion over this, and their hearts, with less work to do, were relaxing. And so on. Despite the artificial G and the exercise regime he imposed, their muscles were wasting, their hearts were shrinking, and their bones were leaching away.

It was all anticipated and well understood, of course. But that didn’t help make it easier to accept. Most of their decondi-tioning, in fact, had happened in the first nine hours in space, when they were still inside the orbit of the Moon. And after the nominal mission, after two hundred days in space, they would all be walking with a stick for months.

So it goes.

He kept Cornelius and Emma busy by cross-training them on the medical equipment. There was simple stuff like cardio-pulmonary resuscitation procedures, how to administer elec-troshock paddles, the use of chemicals like sodium bicarb. He gave them familiarization training on the drugs the ship carried, along with blood products. There were more grisly exercises, such as emergency tracheotomy and how to secure an intravenous catheter (the fat saphenous veins of the inner thigh were the best bet).

Of course he was no medic himself. He relied heavily on recordings and softscreen simulations to keep him on the right track.

But both Cornelius and Emma were intelligent; they both soon figured out the subtext of their training, which was that in the event of any real emergency there was little that could be done. A single serious injury would likely exhaust their medical supplies. And even if the patient, whichever unlucky sap it was, could be stabilized long enough to be kept alive and brought home, the others would have to nurse a nonfunctioning invalid all the way back to Earth.

Malenfant didn’t share with the others the training he’d gotten for himself on euthanasia, or on how to conduct a scientifically and legally valid autopsy.

During those first weeks they stayed healthy enough, luckily.

But once the adrenaline-rush excitement of the launch and the novelty of the mission wore off, all three of the adults — himself included — came crashing down into a feeling of intense isolation. He had expected this. He’d gotten some psychological training, based mainly on Russian experience, on long-duration spaceflight. Cornelius, for example, seemed locked in a bubble world of his own, his odd, smoothed-over personality cutting him off from the others like a second spacesuit. Malenfant left him alone as much as possible.

The general depression seemed to be hitting Emma hardest, however.

Oddly, when he looked into her eyes, it sometimes seemed as if she weren’t there at all, as if there were only a fragment of the Emma he knew, looking out at him, puzzled. How did I get here? It was understandable. He had, after all, shanghaied her, utterly without warning.

It would help if there were something to fill up her time, here on the O ‘Neill. But there was no real work for her to do beyond the chores and the training. He had softbooks, of course, but he’d only brought along technical manuals, a few books for the kid… Not a novel in the whole damn memory, and not even a yellowing hardcopy paperback. It would be easy enough to have stuff up-loaded from Earth, of course, but although the reports and telemetry he downloaded daily were surely being picked up by the NASA deep-space people, nobody down there seemed inclined to talk back to him.

He tried to handle his own deep sense of guilt.

He’d felt he needed to bring her along, on a whole series of levels. He still felt like that. But it would, after all, have been easy to push her away, there in the critical moments in the Mo-jave. To have kept from stealing her life from her.

If not for his Secret, maybe they’d be a little more open with each other. Of course, if not for the Secret, they wouldn’t be here at all.

But what was done was done.

Anyhow he’d refused to waste processor capacity on e-therapy programs, or any of that other modern crap that he regarded as mind-softening junk, despite recommendations from a slew of “experts” during the mission planning. The truth is, he knew, there were no experts, because nobody had gone out as far as this before. They would just have to cope, learn as they went along, support each other, as explorers always had.

He did worry about the kid, though. Even though Michael spooked him half to death. Wherever that came from, it surely wasn’t the kid’s fault…

Flight in deep space was, after all, utterly strange — even for Malenfant, who felt as if he’d spent his whole life preparing for this.

It was possible to forget, sometimes, that they were locked up here in this tiny metal bubble, with nothing out there save for a few lumps of floating rock that came to seem less and less significant the farther they receded from Earth.

But most times, everything felt strange.

If he walked too rapidly across the meatware deck, he could feel the Coriolis cutting in, a ghostly sideways push that made him stagger. Even when he washed or took a drink, the water would move around the bowl in huge languid waves, pulsing like some sticky, viscous oil. If he immersed his hands it felt like water always had, but it clung to his flesh in great globules and ribbons, so that he had to scrape it off and chase it back into the bowl.

And so on. Everything was strange. Sometimes he felt he couldn’t cope with it, as if he couldn’t figure out the mechanics or logic of the environment. Perhaps, he thought, this is how Michael feels all the time, living in this incomprehensible, fragmented world.

It was a relief to retreat to his bunk, eyes closed, strapped in, shut out from all stimuli, trying to feel normal.

But even here, in deepest space, with no sensory input at all, he could still feel something: the evolution of his own thoughts, the sense of time passing as he forged downstream into the future, the deepest, most inner sense of all.

There was no science to describe this. The laws of physics were time-reversible: they ran as happily backward as forward. But he knew in his deepest soul that time was not reversible for him, that he was bound on a one-way journey to the future, to the deepest downstream.

How strange, how oddly comforting that was.

He drifted into sleep.

Milton Foundation e-spokesperson

It distresses all of us that the general psychological reaction to the news of the future has focused on the Blue children. You have to understand that Foundation Schools have always worked for the children’s protection as much as their development.

When the children’s nature was first publicized, the Schools first established, the effect was, at first, beneficial for everybody concerned. Families started to understand they weren’t alone, that their superintelligent children were part of a wider phenomenon. But after all, there is much about the children we do not understand. Their common obsession with blue-circle motifs, for instance.

There have been many theories to explain the children’s origin, their sudden emergence into the world. Perhaps this is all some dramatic example of morphic resonance. Perhaps they are aliens. Perhaps they represent an evolutionary leap — maybe we have Homo superior living among us, soldiers from the future who will enslave us. And so on.

Hysteria, perhaps. But people are afraid.

At first the general fear manifested itself in subtle ways: Surrounding communities generally shunned the Schools, starving them of resources and access to local infrastructure, blocking approvals for extensions, that sort of thing.

Lately, matters have taken a turn for the worse. Much worse.

Foundation Schools in cities and towns around the planet — buildings, their staff and students — have been attacked. Some children have been injured; one child is dead.

And even beyond the Schools, in the homes, we know that parents have turned on their own children.

We deeply regret several unfortunate incidents within Foundation Schools. We have tried to ensure that our supervision of the children has been of the highest quality. However I have to emphasize that the Milton Foundation has no direct control over the Schools. The Schools are independent establishments run under national and regional educational policies; we aren’t responsible for this. We have actually acted to mitigate the conditions many children are kept in.

We do not oppose the closure of our Schools, the taking of the children into federal custody. It’s easy to be judgmental. But what are we to do?

Besides, some of the worst Schools have been American.

Oh. You didn’t know that?

(Name and Address Withheld)

Sir,

There has been a great deal of speculation in these columns and elsewhere over the origin of the so-called “Blue child” phenomenon.

Perhaps this is just a statistical fluke — maybe these superkids have always been among us and we never even noticed. Some, of course, believe the Blue children may have some supernatural or even divine origin. It seems rather more likely to me they are

mutant products of the ecocollapse.

For example, many children have difficulty digesting proteins, such as casein and gluten, contained in cows’ milk and wheat. These proteins may be broken down, not into amino acids, but into peptides that can interfere with the hormones and neurotransmitters used by the developing brain. Perhaps some such physical cause is the solution. Certainly we seem to be suffering a parallel “plague” of developmental illnesses that includes attention deficit syndrome, hyperactivity, and dyslexia.

Whatever the truth I believe the focus of the debate must now shift: away from the origin of the children, to their destiny.

I believe the children represent a discontinuity in the history of our species. If they are truly superior to us, and if they breed true, they are the greatest threat to our continued survival since the Ice Age.

The resolution to this situation is clear.

First. The existing children must be sterilized to prevent their breeding and further propagation.

Second. Tests must be developed (perhaps they already exist) for assessing the developmental potential of a child while still in the womb. Such tests must be applied — nationally and internationally — to all new pregnancies.

Third. Fetuses that fail the tests, that is, which prove to have Blue attributes, must be terminated immediately.

This must be done without sentiment and with maximum efficiency, before the children accrue the power to stop us.

At present they are young: small and weak and unformed and vulnerable. They will not always be so.

It will be hard. If governments will not listen, it is up to us, the people, to take action. Any and all sanctions are morally defensible. This is a time of racial survival, a crux.

I would point out that we emerged from the Ice Age crisis transformed as a species, in strength and capability. So we must purge our souls again. These need not be dark days, but a time of glorious bright cleansing.

Turning to the comparable issue of the enhanced cephalopods…

Burt Lippard

We’ve all seen the future now. That Reid Malenfant stuff. Holy smoke. The one thing we know for sure is human beings, us, won’t be able to cope with that.

We shouldn’t fear the Blues. They’re smarter than us, is all. So what? Most people are smarter than me anyhow.

I say we should give up our power to them. Sooner one Blue child running the world than a thousand so-called democrats. I’ll work with them, when the day comes.

I say this. The Blues are the future. Anyone who lays a finger on them now will have me to answer to.

Maura Della:

Maura flew to Sioux Falls and spent the night.

The next morning was bright, clear, the sky huge. On a whim she gave her driver the day off. She set off, heading toward Minnesota. Past Worthington she turned into Iowa. The sun was high and bright in a blue cloudless sky. She drove past huge Day-Glo fields of rape and corn. This was a place of farms, and worked earth, and people living in the same nouses their great-grandparents did. Even the agri-chemical corporate logos, painted by gen-eng on the cornfields, seemed unobtrusive today.

In these days of gloom and ecodisaster, after too long buried in the orange smog of Washington, she’d forgotten that places like this still existed. And in her district, too.

Was all the Malenfant stuff — talk of the future, messages from time, the Carter catastrophe, the destiny of humankind — just an airy dream? If there was no way to connect the grandiose dreams of the future to this — the day-to-day reality, the small, noble aspirations of the people of Iowa — could they be said to have any meaning?

I should spend more time out here, she thought.

In fact, maybe it was time to retire — not in a couple of years — but now.

She was too old for children of her own, of course, but not for the whitewashed farmhouse, the couple of horses. Anyhow, she knew when she looked into her heart she’d never really wanted kids anyhow. She’d seen how kids dropped from the sky and exploded people’s lives like squalling neutron bombs. She was honest enough to admit she was too selfish for that; her life, her only life, was her own.

Of course that didn’t qualify her too well for the visit she must make today.

She had received a plea for help.

It had come into Maura’s office, remarkably, by snail-mail. She opened the envelope and found a picture of a wide-eyed five-year-old, a letter handwritten in a simple, childish hand, far beyond the reach of any spell-checker software and replete with grammatical and other errors.

Reading a letter was a charge of nostalgia for Maura, in these days of electronic democracy.

The letter was from a family in a town called Blue Lake, in northern Iowa, right at the heart of her district, the heart of the Midwest. It was a college town, she recalled, but she was ashamed to find she couldn’t remember the last time she’d been out there. The letter was from two parents baffled and dismayed because the government was demanding they give up their son. It was all part of the greater scandal that had broken out nationally — indeed, worldwide — about the treatment of Blue children.

The thing of it was, Maura couldn’t see a damn thing she could do about it.

She reached for her softscreen, preparing to post an e-reply. Somehow, though, as she sat here holding the simple scrap of paper, the old-fashioned still photo with its smiling kid, that didn’t seem enough.

She had glared out the window at the dull Washington sky, heard the wash of traffic noise. She needed a break from all this hothouse shit, the endless Malenfant blamestorming.

She started going through her diary.

Blue Lake — pop. 9000 — seemed to be a classic small town, built around the wide, glimmering lake that had given it its name. The downtown — brick buildings and family-owned stores — was solid and immortal looking. There was a park at the edge of the lake, and from it ran a whole series of broad, leafy streets lined with big nineteenth-century homes. One of these turned out to be the street she was looking for.

She stopped the car and got out.

The air was fresh, silent save for a distant growl of traffic, a rustle of leaves over her head. The sidewalk felt oddly soft under her feet. It was smart concrete, of course: self-repairing, unobtrusive. She walked up a path past a glowing green lawn. There was a bicycle, child-sized, bright red, dumped on the grass. The house itself might still be in the middle of the nineteenth century, save for the solar collection blanket draped over the roof, the button-sized security camera fixed to the door, the intelligent garbage can half hidden by foliage. Thus technology could be used to improve the world: not to change it, or spin it out of touch with humanity. Sometimes we get it right, she thought; the future doesn’t have to destroy us.

This is a good place, she thought, a human place. And the federal government — no, Maura, admit your responsibility, / — I want to take away a child, spirit him off from this beautiful place to some godforsaken center in Idaho or Nevada or maybe even overseas.

She rang the doorbell.

Bill Tybee turned out to be thirtyish, slim, a little overawed by this congresswoman who had parachuted into his life. He welcomed her in, talking too fast. “My wife’s away on military assignment. She was thrilled you were coming out to see us. Tommy’s our older child. We have a little girl, Billie, not yet two; she is at a creche today…”

She put together a picture of the Tybees’ life from the little clues around the house: the empty box of fatbuster pills; the big softscreen TV plastered over one wall; the ticking grandfather clock, obviously ancient; a run-down cleaner microbot the size of a mouse that she nearly stepped on in the middle of the living room carpet. Bill kicked it out of the way, embarrassed.

Bill wore a silver lapel ribbon, the med-alert that marked him out as a cancer victim. Every time she looked, Maura counted more cancer victims among her electors than seemed reasonable. No doubt something to do with the breakdown of the environment.

Bill led her upstairs to a bedroom door. There was a sign, cycling around like a Times Square billboard: TOM TYBEE’S ROOM! DO NOT ENTER! SANTA CLAUS ONLY!

Bill knocked. “Tom? There’s a lady to see you. Can we

come in?”

Uh-huh.

Bill pushed open the door — there was some kind of junk behind it, and he had a little trouble — and he led Maura into the room.

It was painted bright yellow, with a window that overlooked the garden. Along one wall there was a wardrobe and a bunk bed with a giant storage locker underneath, against the other wall a big chest of drawers. The wardrobe and chest were both open, and clothes and other stuff just spilled out, all over the floor and the bed, to such an extent it was hard to believe it was possible, even in principle, to stow it all away. The spare acreage of walls was covered with posters: a map of the world, sports pennants, some aggressive-looking superhero glaring out of a mask.

It was a typical five-year-old boy’s room, Maura thought to herself. Not that she was an expert on such matters.

The most striking thing about the room was a series of photographs and posters, some of them blown up, that had been stuck to the walls at about waist height — no, she thought, at little-boy eye level — some of them even lapping over the precious sports pennants. They were pictures of star fields. Maura was no astronomer but she recognized one or two constellations — Scorpio, Cygnus maybe. A river of light ran through the images, a river of stars. The photographs made up, she realized, in a kind of patchwork way, a complete three-hundred-and-sixty-degree map of the Milky Way as it wrapped around the sky.

Tom himself — the kid, the Blue — was a very ordinary five-year-old; small, thin, dark, big eyed. He was sitting in the middle of the kipple-covered floor. He was playing some kind of game, Maura realized; he had toys — cars, planes, little figures — set out in a ring around him. He had a Heart, one of those electronic recording gadgets, sitting on the floor beside him.

“Hello,” the boy said.

“Hello, Tom.”

Bill kneeled down, with a parent’s accustomed grace. “Tom, this lady is from Congress.”

“From Washington?”

Maura said, “That’s right.” She picked up one of his toys, some kind of armed lizard in a blue cape. “What are you making? A fort?”

“No,” Tom said seriously. He took back the lizard and put it back in its place in the circle. He didn’t expand, and Maura felt very dumb.

She stood up and pointed at the Milky Way photos. “Did you find all these yourself?”

“I started with that one.” He pointed. It was Cygnus, an elegant swan shape, bright Vega nestling alongside. “I found it in my dad’s book.”

“An old astronomy encyclopedia,” Bill said. “Fixed-image. I had it when / was a kid. He found the other pictures himself. From books, the Net. I helped him process them and get them to the same scale, match them. But he knew what he was looking for. That’s when we first suspected he might be—”

Solitary. Brilliant. Obsessive. Uncommunicative. Pursuing projects beyond his years. Blue.

Tom said, “I have a telescope.”

“You do? That’s great.”

“Yeah. You can see it’s made up of stars.”

“The Milky Way?”

“The Galaxy. And it goes beyond Cygnus.” He pointed at his walls. “It starts in Sagittarius, over there. Then it goes through Aquila and Cygnus, and it brushes Cassiopeia, and past Perseus and Orion and Puppis, and then you can’t see it any more. I wanted to see it from the other side.”

Bill said, “He means the southern hemisphere. His mother brought him home a couple of images from postings in the Pacific.”

Tom pointed to his photos. “It goes to Carina, and you can see a lot more of it. And it goes to the Southern Cross and Centaurus and the tail of Scorpio, and it gets brighter, and then it goes to Sagittarius where it’s really wide and has a dark line in the middle. And then it goes on to Aquila and to Cygnus…”

“Do you know what it is, Tom? The Milky Way, I mean, the Galaxy.”

“It’s stars. And it’s a big whirly.”

“A spiral?”

“Yeah. Look, you can see. There’s the middle of the Galaxy, in Sagittarius, where it gets fat and bulgy. And all the arms wrap around that.

“We’re inside an arm. You can see one of the other arms between us and the center there, going through Centaurus and the Southern Cross and Carina. And there—” He pointed to the bright cloud in Carina. “ — that’s where it turns away from us, and you see it end-on, and that’s why it looks so bright, like a road full of cars coming at you. And then there’s a lane of dust and stuff that looks dark, the stuff between the arms, and that’s the black stripe down the middle. And then on the other side of Carina you can see the arm that wraps around the outside of the sun, and it goes—” He turned around and pointed to his northern sky.” — there, all the way across.”

Bill shrugged. “He figured all this out for himself.”

“He figured out he’s in the middle of a spiral Galaxy?”

“All by himself. Yes.”

The kid, Tom, talked on. He might have been any five-year-old — cute, friendly enough, a little subdued — except for his subject. Most kids his age, the kids in the neighborhood here, were surely barely aware they were in Iowa. Little Tom was already a galactic traveler.

She felt a brush of fear.

It was, she thought, this mix of the mundane with the strange — the childish toys and mess with the visions of galactic geography — that was so unsettling about these Blue children. A kid wasn’t supposed to be like this.

And she noticed, now, that every one of Tom’s toys — the cars and boats and figures he had put in a protective ring around himself — was blue.

Maura accepted some coffee, tried to put Bill at his ease.

Bill Tybee was a stay-at-home parent, the homemaker. He showed her, shyly, an animated postcard of his wife, June. It had been taken on an air base somewhere. She was a short, slightly dumpy blond, a wide Iowa smile, dressed in a crisp USASF uniform; when Bill lifted it into the sunlight the postcard cycled ten seconds of her saluting and grinning, over and over. She was enlisted, a technical specialist in a special forces unit.

After a few minutes, Bill started to open up about his fears for the boy. “I know he’s Blue. The school assessment proved it—”

“Then you should be proud. You know that means he’s exceptional.”

“I don’t want him to be exceptional. Not if it means he has to go away.”

“Well, that’s the law, Bill. I know how you feel. I know you’re concerned for his safety, and you’ve every right to be after what happened to him before.”

“They failed to protect him, and they expelled him, Ms. Della. I wasn’t going to give him back just because they said they changed their minds.”

“But you can’t keep him at home. The new centers aren’t run by some private organization like the Miltons, but by the federal government. There’s nothing to fear. It’s the best for him.”

“With respect, Ms. Della, I don’t think you know what’s best for my kid.”

“No,” she said. “No, I probably don’t. That’s why I’m here.”

“So he’s smart. But he still needs to grow, to have a life, to play with other kids. Is he going to get all of that at one of these fancy centers?”

“Well, that’s why the centers were set up, Bill.”

“I know the theory,” Bill said. “But that’s not how it is. That’s not what it’s like to live with this thing.” Bill talked on about the effect of TV and the Nets: the talk shows featuring kids with giant plastic dome heads, the TV evangelists who claimed that the kids were a gift from Jesus or a curse from Satan, and so on. “It’s a drip, drip, drip. There’s a whole host of ‘experts’ telling the world it’s okay to pick on my kid, because he’s different. And I’ve seen the reports of those places overseas, in Australia and places, where they beat up the kids and starve them and—”

“That’s not happening here, Bill.” She leaned forward, projecting a practiced authority. “And besides, I’ll ensure Tom is protected.”

Or at least, she thought, I will strive to minimize the harm that is done to him. Maybe that is my true vocation.

Bill Tybee burst out, “Why us, Ms. Della? Why our kid?”

To that, of course, she had no answer.

Emma Stoney:

Emma tried to care for Michael. Or at least to maintain some

kind of human contact with him.

But the boy would barely stir from his sleeping compartment down on the meatware deck. He seemed to spend the whole time sitting on his bunk bed over some softscreen program or another.

When they did force Michael out of his bunk, for food and exercise and hygiene breaks, the kid seemed to veer between catatonia and a complete freak-out, an utter inability to deal with the world. He would rock back and forth, crooning, making strange flapping motions with his hands. Or he would find some control panel light, flickering on and off, and stare at it for hours.

Meanwhile, no amount of encouragement or attention seemed able to root out Michael’s fundamental suspicion of them.

It disturbed Emma. She knew that when Michael looked at her, he just saw another adult in the long line who had mistreated him, subjected him to arbitrary rales, punished him endlessly. From Michael’s point of view, this new environment was just another setup, the kind hands and smiling voices just part of a new set of rales he had to learn.

Eventually, the punishment would return.

Once she tried to push him, with the help of a softscreen translator. “Michael. What are you thinking about?”

I am nothing.

“Tell me what that means.”

It means I am not special. I am nowhere special. I am in no special time. I would not know if the whole world were suddenly made one day older, or one day younger. I would not know if the whole world were moved to the left, this much. He hopped sideways, like a frog; briefly he grinned as a child. It means that the world was born, and will die, just as I will. He said this calmly, as if it were as obvious as the weather.

Cornelius stirred. “This is new. It sounds like the Copernican principle. No privileged observers. Every day he surprises me.”

Emma felt baffled, distracted by Michael’s software voice, which sounded like a middle-aged American woman, perhaps from Seattle. “Tell me how you know that, Michael.”

Because the sky is dark at night.

It took her some minutes of cross-examination, and cross-reference with sources she accessed through her softscreen, to figure out his meaning.

It was, she realized slowly, a version of Gibers’ paradox, an old cosmological riddle. Why should the sky be dark at night? If the universe was infinite, and static, and lasted forever, then Earth would be surrounded by an array of stars going off to infinity. And every direction Michael looked, his eye would receive a ray of light from the surface of a star. The whole sky ought to glow as bright as the surface of the sun.

Therefore, since the sky was dark — and since Michael had figured out that he wasn’t in a special place in the universe, and so there were no special places — the universe couldn’t be eternal and infinite and static; at least one of those assumptions must be wrong.

So the stars must have been born, as I was born, Michael said. Otherwise their light would fill up the sky. People are born; people fade; people die. I was born; I fade; I die. So the stars were born; the stars will fade; the stars will die. It is okay.

Big Bang to Heat Death, just from looking at the stars.

Cornelius said, “Maybe it comes from his belief system. His people had Christianity imposed on them, but the Lozi have kept many of their old beliefs. They believe in an afterlife, but it isn’t a place of punishment or reward. This world, of illness and crop failure and famine and short, brutal lives, is where you suffer. In the next life you are happy. They wear tribal markings so that when they die they are placed with their relatives.”

She asked Michael if he believed there would be a happy life for the world and the stars, after they died.

Oh yes, the translating machine said. Oh yes. But not for people. We have to make it right for others. Do you see?

“Moses,” Malenfant growled. “Moses and the Promised Land. Are bumans like Moses, Michael?”

Yes, oh yes.

But she was not sure if they had understood each other.

One day, cleaning up, Emma found, behind a ventilation grill, a cache of food — just scraps, crumbs in cleaned-out bags, fragments of fruit bars, a few dehydrated packets that had been chewed on, dry, as if by a rat. She left it all exactly as she had found it.

Cornelius Ta/ne

In a way Michael’s soul is the essence of the mathematician’s.

I know what he is feeling. I remember how strange it was when I realized that if I became a mathematician I could spend my life in pursuit of a kind of mystical experience few of my fellow humans could ever share.

Mystical? Certainly. Data can serve only as a guide in the deepest intellectual endeavors. We are led more by a sense of aesthetics, as we manufacture our beautiful mathematical structures. We believe that the most elegant and simple structures are probably the ones that hold the greatest truth. That is why we seek unified theories — ideas that underpin and unite other notions — in mathematics as well as physics.

We’re artists, we mathematicians, we physicists.

But more than that. There is always the hope that a mathematical construction, a product of the human imagination, nevertheless corresponds to some truth in the external world.

Perhaps you can understand this. When you learned Pythagoras’ theorem, you learned something about every right-angled triangle in the world, for all time. If you understood Newton’s laws, you grasped something about every particle that has ever existed. It is a sense of reach, of joy — of power.

For most of us such transcendent moments are rare. But not for Michael. The whole universe is the laboratory for his thought experiments. And given the most basic of tools to work with — even scratchings in the dirt — he attains that state of grace easily. He is in a kind of…

Ecstasy? Well, perhaps.

Of course it may be that his genius is associated with a deeper disorder.

There is a mild form of autism called Asperger’s Syndrome. This is characterized by introversion and a lack of emotion; it results in difficulty in communicating, a lack of awareness of and sympathy for the emotions of others. But it is also associated with a narrow focus, adherence to an obsession that takes precedence over mere social satisfaction.

Surely such a nature is essential for any intellectual success.

Emma Stoney claims that Michael’s withdrawn and suspicious nature has nothing to do with any autism, but is a direct result of how he has been handled by us, the adult world. Well, perhaps.

There are six classic symptoms of Asperger’s. I would claim Michael exhibits five of these.

I should know. I recognize four in myself.

June Tybee

For June Tybee, the pace of the training was ferocious. As a tech specialist who seemed likely to go into battle, her own workload was mostly physical stuff and combat.

She was put through parachute drops. She endured the rigors of” a centrifuge in a big navy lab in Pennsylvania. She floated for hours underwater in weighted-down pressure suits fighting mock battles against experienced NASA astronauts who would come swarming at her from any which way (think three-D! think three-D!). The training was clearly intended to desensitize her against the experiences of the upcoming spaceflight. There would be time enough during the mission, the long flight to Cruithne, to brief them all on operations at the asteroid itself.

And, suddenly, it was shipping-over time.

In the week before she was to be flown to California, she paid a last visit to Tom’s center in Nevada. Bill was here to meet her, of course. He’d been working as an unpaid assistant at the center since Tom had been brought here, leaving Billie with Bill’s sister back home.

They spent an unhappy, sleepless night in a motel, and then Bill drove her in to the center.

The security operation was ferocious. But it was obviously necessary. Bill pointed out a place where the desert sand was blackened and scarred, the wire fencing obviously repaired.

June, crisp in her Air Space Force uniform, wished she were wearing a weapon.

“I hate to think of you and Tommy in here, with this shit going on.”

Bill said tiredly, “Junie, don’t you follow the news? The whole damn world is going crazy. In here is about the safest place in the country we could be right now.”

Maybe so, June thought, as she returned the glare of the scowling grunt on the gate. As long as those goons don’t turn around and start firing inward.

They found Tom in a lab room filled with science equipment. Bill said the children worked on physics here.

“Physics? How can Tom be working on physics? He’s five years old.”

“June, things here are… different. Until you work with them, you wouldn’t believe it.”

And now here came little Tom himself, straight and serious in his gold uniform with that ugly blue band on his breast. He was still carrying the electronic Heart she had given him. At first he walked solemnly, almost cautiously, holding on to the hand of a girl, an older kid, tall and blond and staring.

But then Tom broke away and ran to his mother, and he was just Tommy, for a few moments more. She knelt down and grabbed his squirming warm body and buried her face in his hair, determined not to show him any tears.

She played with him for a while, and he showed her his work. Some of it was frankly beyond her, strings of symbols crossing bright plastic softscreens. But some of it was just kids’ stuff, paintings of stick people and fluffy yellow clouds, clumsy models of rockets and animals made of paper and clay.

The mix of the weird wonder-kid stuff and normal, everyday childishness was unnerving. She stole glances at Bill, and saw that he understood how she was feeling.

And the whole time the older girl, Anna, stayed near Tom, always watching, always silent.

When her time was up, June knelt down again and faced her son. “Tommy, you know I have to go away.”

“Into space. Dad told me.”

“I don’t know how long I’ll be gone.”

“Will you come back?”

A quick answer came to her lips, a mother’s white lie, but she bit back on it. She glanced up into Bill’s weary bafflement — into the gray, clear eyes of the girl, Anna — into the deep, unfathomable eyes of her own son.

“I don’t know,” she told him. It was the truth, of course.

He nodded gravely.

When she let him go, he went to Anna, who took him by the hand and led him to a group of the others, and soon he was immersed in physics, or quantum mechanics, or whatever the hell they were doing over there. And he was animated, engaged.

More than with her, his mother.

Bill wiped tears from her cheek. “Some space ranger you’re going to make.”

“We’re losing him,” she said. “That isn’t Tom any more.”

“It is Tom. It’s just that he’s found something more… interesting than anything we can offer him.”

“I’m going to be away for months,” she said.

“I’ll be here when you come back,” Bill said. “We’ll have each other. Even if that’s all.”

And he held her a long time.

And then, before she knew it, she found herself assembled with fifty others parade-ground style on a slab of concrete at Vanden-berg Air Space Force Base, California.

They were on a rise here, a foothill of the Casmalia Hills in fact, and she got a fine view of the ASFB facilities — blocky vehicle assembly buildings, gantries, gleaming fuel storage tanks — and the Pacific itself beyond, huge and blue and sleek like some giant animal, glimmering in the sun.

C-in-C Space Command, a four-star Air Space Force general, took the stand before them. He glared at them with hands on hips and addressed them through a booming PA: The USASF’s proudest moment since we took command of the high frontier on the occasion of our sixtieth anniversary in 2007… The finest candidates from all the services… a rigorous selection process… the first U.S. spaceborne troops…

The fifty of them were dressed in their space suits: bright silver with service epaulettes and name patches, white helmets under their arms, gloves neatly folded. Why the hell the suits should be silver she didn’t know — she looked like a cross between John Glenn and Buck Rogers — but she had to concede they looked magnificent, shining in the California sun, and maybe that was the point. TV cameras hovered around them, beaming their smiling faces across the planet. Symbols, she thought. But that made her feel good, to be a symbol of strength and reassurance in these difficult times. She stood a little taller.

And now there was action at the launch facility itself. One of the assembly structures started to roll back.

From the major conflicts of history we learn conclusive lessons: the Trojan Horse. Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps. The retreat of Napoleon s infantry from Moscow. All of these underscore the strategic necessity for effective transportation of troops and their support equipment. Each new era of human progress has brought with it an urgency for an expanded military transport capability, most recently to global ranges, and now to the truly interplanetary scale…

A spacecraft was revealed.

It was a blunt cylinder. It was capped by a truncated, rounded nose cone, and fat auxiliary cylinders — expendable fuel tanks? — were strapped to the hull. She looked at the base, searching for rocket nozzles, but she saw only a broad dish shape, like a pie dish. The hull was coated with what looked like space shuttle thermal blankets and tiles, black and white, and there were big USASF decals and lettering. TV camera drones buzzed around the walls like flies.

This new vessel is over two hundred feet tall, taller than the space shuttle, with a base diameter of eighty feet and a gross weight of fourteen million pounds. We have thirty-six combustion chambers and eighteen turbo pumps; the fuel system is liquid hydrogen and oxygen. The rocket engines are the most advanced available, developed by Lockheed Martin for the Ven-tureStar. They are based on the “aerospike “ principle, which I am assured will ensure optimal operation at all altitudes, from ground to interplanetary space. . .

The bird looked like a toy, gleaming in the sun. She couldn’t see how it could be big enough to lift all of them to orbit, let alone all the way to an asteroid.

It was only when she saw a technician walking past — an orange-hatted insect — that she got a sense of the ship’s true scale.

It was immense.

We call her Bucephalus. She is the outcome of a whole series of covert projects mounted since we were effectively grounded by the Challenger debacle. She is built on studies developed over decades, but she has been designed, tested, constructed in a couple of months. This is U.S. can-do at its best, rising to this new challenge. Bucephalus will develop a takeoff thrust of eighteen million pounds, which is two and a half times as much as the Saturn rocket that took us to the Moon, and it will be so damn loud our major problem will be preventing it shaking Vandenberg to pieces…

Laughter at that. Nervous, but laughter.

Ladies and gentlemen, she is named after Alexander the Great’s charger. Now she is your steed. Ride her now into the great out there, ride her to victory beyond the sky itself!

They cheered, of course. They even threw their white space helmets into the air. You had to make the four-star feel good about his project.

But June knew she wasn’t the only one who gazed down on the giant fat ship — scrambled together in just months and now destined to hurl them all off the planet — with deep, stomach-churning dismay.

Reid Malenfant:

The night before they reached the asteroid, Malenfant had

trouble sleeping.

Every time he turned over he would float up out of his bunk, or find his face in the breeze of the air-conditioning vent. When he took off his eye shield and earplugs the noise of the air system’s mechanical rattling broke over him, and the dimmed lights of the meatware deck leaked around the curtain into his compartment.

He dozed a little, woke up alone, one more time. He decided to pop a pill. He climbed out of his bunk and made for the galley.

There was movement far overhead. It was Emma, visible through the mesh ceiling.

For a heartbeat he was shocked to find her there, as if he’d forgotten she was here on the ship. He had to think back, to remember how he’d coerced her onto the ship at the Mojave.

She was up on the zero G deck. She seemed to be spinning in the air, as if she were performing somersaults.

He pulled himself up the ladder and joined her. When he arrived she stopped, looking sheepish. She was wearing a loose cotton coverall.

He whispered, “What’s up?”

“Just trying to see Earth.”

He looked out the window. There were Earth and Moon, neatly framed, a blue pebble and its wizened rocky companion, still the brightest objects in the sky save for the sun itself. They were spinning, of course, wheeling like the stars behind them, four times a minute.

“You know,” she said, “it’s funny. Every time I wake up I’m surprised to find myself here. In this ship, in space. In my dreams I’m at home, I think.”

“Let me try.” He braced himself on the struts behind her. He took her waist. He took his guide from Earth, the Moon turning around it like a clock hand, and soon he had her turning in synch. She stretched out her arms and legs, trying to keep herself stable. Her hair, which she was growing out, billowed behind her head like a flag, brushing his face when it passed him. When she slowed, he was able to restore her motion with a brushing stroke of her bare arm or leg. She laughed as he spun her, like a kid.

Her skin was soft, warm, smooth, full of water and life in this dusty emptiness.

He wasn’t sure how it happened, who initiated what. It did take a certain amount of ingenuity, however. The key, Malenfant discovered, was to brace himself against a strut for leverage.

Afterward she clung to him, breathing hard, her face moist with sweat against his chest, their nightclothes drifting in a tangled cloud around them.

“Welcome to the Three Dolphins Club,” he whispered.

“Huh?”

“How to have sex in free fall. If you can’t brace against anything, you do it like the dolphins do. You need a third person to push.”

She snorted laughter. “How do you knovil… Never mind. This was stupid.”

“We’re a long way from home, Emma. All we have out here—”

“Is each other. I know.” She stroked his chest. “Your skin is hard, Malenfant. That time in the desert toned you up. I think I can still smell it on you. Dry heat, like a sauna. You smell like the desert, Malenfant… I still don’t understand why you wanted me on this flight. I have a feeling you planned this whole damn thing from the beginning.”

Warm in his arms, she was waiting for an answer.

He said, “You have things I don’t, Emma. Things I need.”

“Like what?”

“A moral center.” *

“Oh, bullshit.”

“Really.” He waved a hand. “Remember the note left by that crazy, Art Morris, the guy who tried to shoot down the BOB. Look what you did, Malenfant.”

“He was crazy. You didn’t hurt his kid.”

“I know. But I have hurt a lot of people, to get us here. For example they probably threw poor George in jail. Look what I did. I think it’s worth it, all of this. I think it’s justified. But I don’t know” He studied her. “I need you to tell me, Emma. To guide me.”

“You screwed somebody else. You wanted a divorce. I disagree with everything you do. I don’t even understand how you feel about me.”

“Yeah. But you’re here. And as long as that’s true I know I haven’t yet lost my soul.”

She pulled away from him; her face was a pool of shadow, her eyes invisible.

Emma Stoney:

In the last hours Cruithne swam out of the darkness like some deep-ocean fish. Malenfant despun the O’Neill, and all of them — even Michael — crowded around the windows and the big light-enhanced softscreen displays to see.

Emma saw a shape like a potato, a rough ellipsoid three miles long and a mile wide, tumbling lethargically, end over end. Cruithne was not a world, neat and spherical, like the Earth; it was too small for its gravity to have pulled it into a ball. And it was dark: so dark she sometimes lost it against the velvet blackness of space, no more than a hole cut out of the stars.

The O ‘Neill crept closer.

Emma began to make out surface features, limned by sunlight: craters, scarps, ridges, valleys, striations where it looked as if the asteroid’s surface had been crumpled or stretched. Some of the craters were evidently new, relatively anyhow, with neat bowl shapes and sharp rims. Others were much older, little more than circular scars overlaid by younger basins and worn down, perhaps by a billion years of micrometeorite rain.

And there were colors in Cruithne’s folded-over landscape, spectral shades that emerged from the dominant grayish black. The sharper-edged craters and ridges seemed to be slightly bluish, while the older, low-lying areas were more subtly red. Perhaps this was some deep-space weathering effect, she thought; eons of sunlight had wrought these gentle hues.

Cruithne’s form was a dark record of its long and violent gestation. Cruithne had been born with the Solar System itself, shaped by the mindless violence of impacts in the dark and cold, and hurled around the system by the intense gravity field of the planets. And now here it was, drifting through the crowded inner system, locked into its complex dance with Earth.

Emma’s own brief life of a few decades, over in a flash, seemed trivial compared to the silent, chthonic existence of this piece of debris. But right now, in this moment of light and life, she was here. And she was exhilarated.

Malenfant pointed at the asteroid’s pole. “The methane plant is there. So that’s where we’re heading. We’re closing at forty feet per second, three feet per second cross-range, and we’re still go for the landing. Time to check out the hydrazine thrusters.” Though immersed in the detail of the landing procedure, he took time to glance around at his motley crew. “Everything’s under control. Remember your training.”

After endless rehearsals in the weeks out of Earth, they all knew the routine for the next few days. They would land close to the methane plant, make the O ‘Neill secure, then seek supplies to replenish their life support — principally water, nitrogen, and oxygen. Then they would refill O ‘Neill’s fat fuel tanks with asteroid methane to ensure they had an escape route, a fast way off this dirty rock. Once that was done, they would be free to pursue the main objectives of the mission, and—

And a golden droplet erupted from the surface of Cruithne.

They stood and watched, as if stunned, in the ticking calm and fluorescent light of the zero G deck. Emma could see how the droplet’s shape deformed as it rose from Cruithne’s shallow gravity well, oscillating like a jellyfish, and complex waves crisscrossed its surface, gleaming in sunlight. Emma glimpsed movement inside the translucent golden surface: small, strong shapes, darting in shoals, blurred and gray.

It was quite beautiful, a soundless ballet of water and light, utterly unexpected.

And it was growing, blossoming like a flower, heading toward O’Neill.

There was a jolt, a groan of torn metal. Red emergency lamps started to flash, and a harsh buzzing klaxon roared rhythmically.

“Master alarm,” Malenfant shouted. He was clutching Michael against his chest. “Everybody grab something.”

Emma looked around. The deck was spinning around her. She reached for a strut, but it was too far away.

“Emma!”

The open-mesh floor swept up to meet her.

“… Earth. Tell those fucking squid we’re from Earth. God damn it, Cornelius.”

“I told them. I just don’t think they believe us.”

Emma found herself lying on a mesh partition, loosely restrained by a couple of strips of bandage around her waist and legs. Michael’s face was hovering over her like a moon, small and round, split by white teeth, bright eyes. He seemed to be mopping the side of her face—

“Owl”

— -where something stung. She could smell the sharp stink of antiseptic ointment.

Am I in my office? What happened?

Here came Malenfant. Michael backed away.

She remembered it all: I’m in the spacecraft, in deepest space, not where I should be. Reality seemed to swim around her.

Malenfant braced on a strut and peered down at her. “You okay?”

She touched the side of her face. She felt open flesh, warm blood, a couple of elasticated bandages taped in place, slippery ointment. She lifted her head, and pain banged through her temples. “Shit.”

She tried looking around. The lights were dim, maybe half-strength. The master alarm lamp was still flashing — its pulsing hurt her eyes — but at least the siren was switched off.

There were starbursts in her eyes, explosions of pain in her head. The colors were washed out; she felt numb, her hearing dulled. She was like a ghost, she thought, only partially here.

Malenfant reached down and removed the loose ties around her waist. She felt herself drifting up from the partition. “You’ve been out for fifteen minutes. You were a hazard to shipping so we tied you up. Michael has been nursing you.” He glanced at the boy. “Good kid, when his head is in one piece.”

“Unlike mine right now. What happened, Malenfant?”

“They shot at us.”

“Who?”

“The squid. The damn squid. They fired a ball of water at us, hit the starboard solar panel. Ripped it clean off.” Which explained the dimmed power. “Took some work with the attitude thrusters to kill the spin, bring us under control.”

She heard the subdued pride in his voice. It was Malenfant’s first deep-space emergency, and he’d come through it; he was proud of himself. Even in the depths of peril there was a little boy buried deep in there, a boy who had always wanted to be a spaceman, under all the sublimation and rationalization of adulthood.

“So where does that leave us?”

He shrugged. “Things got more complicated. We can’t make it home on one panel and the nuke reactor. Maybe we can get more photovoltaic material from the surface, rig something up—”

“Or maybe not.”

He eyed her. “Right now we’re a long way from home, Emma. Come see the view.”

Michael, with his sharper eyes, had been the first to see, on Cruithne’s surface, the drops of gold.

The habitats were snuggled into the cups of deep craters, squeezed into ridges, lying in shadows and sunlight. It was as if the asteroid’s black, dusty surface had been splashed by a spray from some furnace: a spray of heavy, languid, hemispherical drops of gold. And sections of the asteroid were coated in what looked like foil: sheets extending from the droplets that clung to Cruithne’s wrinkled surface or hanging suspended in space from great ramshackle frames.

Malenfant pointed at the Cruithne image. “I think that must be the original Nautilus.” It was a bubble bigger than the rest, more irregularly shaped, nestled into a crater. The droplet’s meniscus was bound together by a geodesic netting, and the whole thing was tethered to the asteroid’s dusty surface by cables. There was a stack of clumpy machinery near the bubble, abandoned; perhaps that had once been the rest of the ship.

“I guess those sheets spread over the surface are solar arrays,” she said.

Cornelius nodded. “Manufactured from asteroid materials.”

“I don’t see any connections between the bubbles.”

Malenfant shrugged, distracted. “Maybe the squid tunnel through the asteroid. Inside the bubbles you’d be radiation-shielded by the water; that wouldn’t apply on the surface How have they tethered those new bubbles to the regolith? I don’t see the netting we used on the Nautilus.

“They don’t have any metals,” Cornelius said. “Because we didn’t show them how to extract metals. Only organic products, including plastics. I guess they just found a way to tether without metal cables and pitons.”

They watched the asteroid turn, slowly, a barbecue potato on an invisible spit, bringing more of the bubble habitats into view.

She said, “There are so many”

“Yes.” Cornelius sounded awed. “To have covered so much of the asteroid in a few months and we don’t know how far they’ve spread through the interior. They must be spreading exponentially.”

“Breeding,” Malenfant said.

“Obviously,” Cornelius snapped impatiently. “But the point is they must be keeping most of each spawned batch alive. Remember what Dan Ystebo told us about the first generation: the four smart cephalopods among the dozens of dumb ones?”

“So,” Emma said, “if most of the squid now are being kept alive—”

“They must be mostly smart.” Cornelius looked frightened.

“No wonder they need to keep building new habitats,” Malenfant said.

“But it isn’t enough,” Cornelius said. “Pretty soon they’re going to run out of asteroid.”

“Then what?”

“They are stranded on this rock in the sky. I guess they’ll turn on each other. There will be wars.”

“How long?” Malenfant said. “How long have we got before they eat up the asteroid?”

Cornelius shrugged. “Months at most.”

Malenfant grunted. “Then the hell with it. We can stay here for twenty days. If we haven’t got what we wanted and got out of here by then, we’re going to be dead anyhow.”

In a softscreen, Emma saw, something swam.

It was small, sleek, compact. It slid easily back and forth, its arms stretched before it, its carapace pulsing with languid colours. It had a cruel grace that frightened Emma. Its hide shimmered with patterns, complex, obviously information-packed.

“You’re talking to them,” Emma said to Cornelius.

“We’re trying.”

Malenfant growled. “We’re going way beyond the squid sign-language translator software Dan gave us. We need Dan himself. But he’s two hundred light-seconds away. And nobody is talking to us anyhow.”

Cornelius looked harassed. “Some of them think we’re from Earth. Some don’t think Earth even exists. Some think we’re here to trick them somehow.”

“You think the squid tried to kill us?”

“No,” Malenfant snapped. “If they’re smart enough to see us coming, to fire water bombs at us, they are smart enough to have destroyed us if they wanted to. They intended to disable us.”

“And they succeeded. But why?”

“Because they want something from us.” Malenfant grinned. “Why else? And that’s our angle. If we have something they want, we can trade.”

Cornelius snapped, “I can’t believe you’re seriously suggesting we negotiate.”

Malenfant, drifting in the air, spread his hands. “We’re trying to save our mission. We’re trying to save our lives. What can we do but talk?”

Emma said, “Have you figured out what it is they want?”

“That,” Cornelius said, “is the bad news.”

“Earth,” Reid Malenfant said.

“They know Earth, if it exists, is huge. Giant oceans, lots of room to breed. They want to be shown the way there. They want at least some of them to be released there, to breed, to build.”

Cornelius said tightly, “We ought to scrape those slugs off the face of this rock. They’re in our way.”

“They aren’t slugs,” Emma said evenly. “We put them here. And besides, we didn’t come here to fight a war.”

“We can’t give them Earth. They breed like an explosion. They already chewed their way through this asteroid, starting from nothing. They’d fill the world’s oceans in a decade. And they are smart, and getting smarter.”

Malenfant rubbed his eyes, looking tired. “We may not be able to stop them for long anyhow. Their eyes are better than ours, remember? It won’t be hard for them to develop astronomy. And they saw us coming; whatever we tell them, maybe they can track back and figure out where we came from.” He looked at Emma. “What a mess. I’m starting to think we should have stuck to robots.” He was kneading his temple, evidently thinking hard

Emma had to smile. Here they were in a disabled ship, approaching an asteroid occupied by a hostile force — and Reid Malenfant was still looking for the angle.

Malenfant snapped his fingers. “Okay. We stall them. Cornelius, I take it these guys aren’t going anywhere without metal-working technology. They already know how to make rocket fuel. With metal they can achieve electronics, computers maybe. Spaceflight.”

“So—”

“So we trade them metal-extraction technology. Trade them that for an unhindered landing and surface operations.”

Cornelius shook his head, the muscles of his neck standing out. “Malenfant, if you give them metal you set them loose.”

“We deal with that later. If you have a better alternative let’s hear it.”

The moment stretched.

Then Cornelius turned to his softscreen. “I’ll see what form of words I can come up with.”

Emma caught Malenfant’s arm. “Do you know what you’re doing?”

He grinned. “When did I ever? But we’re still in business, aren’t we?”

Whistling, he pulled himself down the fireman’s pole to the meatware deck.

Mary Alpher

Thank you for visiting my home page. I want to use this space to record my dissent at the national gung-ho mood right now- I am dismayed at the sending of troops to the near-Earth asteroid Cruithne.

›I’ve been writing and editing science fiction most of my working lifen and reading the stuff a lot longer than that-And this is not turning out to be the future I dreamed about.

›I wouldn’t call myself a Utopian. Nevertheless I always imagined, I think, on some level, that the future was going to be a better place than the present.

›In particular! space. I thought we might leave our guns and hatred and de-structiveness down in the murky depths of Earth, where they belong. Neil Armstrong was a civilian when he landed on the Moon, lile came in peace for all humankind. Remember that?

›I believed it. I believed — still believe — that we are, if not perfectible, at least improvable as a species. And that basic worldview, I think, informs much sf. Maybe all that was naive. Nevertheless I never dreamed that only our second expedition beyond the Earth-noon system should be a gunboat.

›0f course it’s not going to work. Anybody who thinks they can divert the course of the river of time with a few gunshots is much more naive than I ever was.

›Thanks for your attention. Purchasing details and a sample chapter of my latest noveln Black Hole Love-, are available ‹here›

Emma Stoney:

“That was the thruster burn to null out our approach and cross-range velocities. Now we’re free-falling in on gyro lock. GRS is active and feeding to the computer, the radar altimeter is online and slaved to the guidance. Confirmed green board. All that jargon means things are good, people. Should hit the ground at walking speed, no need to worry at all…”

To the accompaniment of Malenfant’s competent, comforting commentary, with the grudging permission of the squid factions, O ‘Neill was on its final approach.

Cruithne rock slid past the windows of the zero G deck.

They were so close now Emma could see the texture of the surface: shaped by bombardment, crater upon crater, plains cracked open and reassembled, all of it coated with glistening black dust like a burned-out bombing range. And now when the attitude thrusters pulsed they raised up dust that drifted off into space or fell back in silent, slow fans.

We are already touching Cruithne, she thought. Disturbing it.

She had no sense of coming in for a landing. The gravitational pull of the asteroid was much too weak for that. The asteroid wasn’t down but straight ahead of her, a curving wall, pockmarked, wrinkled. It was more like a docking, as if she were riding a small boat toward some immense, dusty, oceangoing liner.

Michael was staring at the asteroid, eyes wide, mouth hanging open. On impulse Emma took his hand and held it to her breast.

Cornelius said, “There go the penetrators.”

Emma saw the penetrators snake out from O’NeiWs hull. They were miniature spacecraft shaped like golf tees, three or four feet long, trailing steel hawsers. Each had an armored exterior and a body packed solid with sensors — computers, heating devices, thermometers, seismometers, comms equipment to transmit data along the hawsers to the O ‘Neill. She could see the pulse of the tiny rockets in the penetrators’ tails, a spray of exhaust crystals that receded from the asteroid in perfectly straight lines, shining in the sun.

The penetrators hit the asteroid surface at six hundred miles an hour, as hard as an antitank round, and disappeared in puffs of black regolith. Soon there were smoke rings, neatly circular, rising from the crater floor, with slack hawsers trailing back to the spacecraft. The penetrators, after suffering a deceleration of maybe ten thousand G, had come to rest six feet under Cruithne’s surface.

Designing a probe that could return precise science data and yet survive being driven at speed into a rock wall was quite a feat, a project on which Bootstrap had spent a lot of money. But right now science lay in the future. The penetrators’ main purpose was fixing the O’Neill to Cruithne’s surface, mooring the ship like a smack to a pier.

Now Emma heard a whirr of winches. Languid vibrations snaked along the cables, and she could see the surface inch closer. One penetrator came loose in a puff of dust; its cable went slack and coiled away, out of sight.

There was the softest of shudders, a brief blur of dust.

Then there was only silence and stillness — and a piece of Cruithne framed in the window.

Malenfant came clambering up the fireman’s pole, his face split by a grin. “The O ‘Neill has landed.” He hugged her; she could see Michael was grinning, responding to Malenfant’s vigor and happiness.

“Now,” Malenfant said. “Now we go to work.”

The chains of fireflies, as they hauled giant loads of regolith like so many metallic dung beetles, were comical and inspiring.

Emma was amazed how quickly the fireflies were able to work in the peculiar environment of Cruithne. Autonomously controlled, with surprising grace and skill, they levered their way across the surface with their tethers and pitons and claws. And the low gravity allowed them to shift large masses with ease.

It was just hours before Emma was able to crawl through a tight fabric tunnel from the O ‘Neill and into the new dome.

She stood up and looked around. She was standing on plastic sheeting that merged seamlessly with the walls. The whole thing was just a fabric bubble thirty feet wide at the base, like an all-in-one plastic tent. The roof above her, ten feet up at its tallest, was a pale translucent yellow, supported by air pressure. The fireflies had thrown a cable net over the roof and then shoveled regolith over that, to a depth of three feet, for radiation shielding. Equipment, transferred from O ‘Neill, was piled up in the center of the dome.

The lighting, from yellow tritium bulbs, was utilitarian and harsh. There was a smell of burning, like autumn ash: that was asteroid dust, she knew, leaked into their hab environment despite all their precautions, thin fine stuff that was slowly oxidizing, burning in the air.

She knelt down. Regolith was visible through the floor, blurred lumps of coal-black rock. The crater floor had been scraped smooth by the fireflies before the dome was erected; she could see grooves and ridges where ancient ground had been raked like a flower bed in a suburban garden. She pushed a finger into the sheeting. It was very tough stuff, tougher than it looked; she was only able to make a dent of an inch or so. And as she pushed she felt herself lifting off the floor in reaction; Cruithne’s feeble gravity stuck her only gently to the ground.

Michael had crawled after her. He seemed relieved to be out of the ship. He started running around the perimeter of the dome — or rather he tried to run; with every step he went sailing into the air, bounced off the curving roof, and came floating back down again for another pace. After a few paces he started getting the hang of it, and he picked up speed, pacing and pushing against the ceiling confidently.

The shelter was crude. But Emma felt her spirits lift. After ninety days it was a profound relief not to be confined to the cramped metal cans of the O ‘Neill, for a while at least.

It also didn’t smell as bad as the O ‘Neill had become.

That night they had a party in the hab dome, raiding their precious store of candy bars and washing them down with Cruithne water.

The next day the four of them prepared to explore Cruithne.

Huddled together, they stripped naked — after ninety days, all shyness was gone, though Emma did feel unaccountably cold — and, clumsy in the low gravity, they began to help each other don their skinsuits.

Malenfant kept up a running stream of instructions. “Make sure you get it smoothed out. If the pressure isn’t distributed right you’ll have blood pooling.”

Emma’s skinsuit was just a light spandex coverall, like a cyclist’s gear. The material was surprisingly open mesh; if she held up her hand and stretched out her fingers she actually could see her flesh through fine holes in the weave. The spandex, a pale orange that turned blue around any rips, was used to avoid the outgassing and brittleness suffered by rubber in a vacuum. The suit had a hood and gloves and booties, and the pieces fit together with plastic zippers at her neck, wrists, and up her belly to her neck. The only thing she wore inside the suit was a catheter that would lead to a urine collection bag.

The light, comfortable skinsuits had replaced the old pressure garments — giant, stiff, body-shaped inflatable balloons — worn by earlier generations of space travelers. But it was important to have the skinsuit fit properly; the pressurization had to be equal all over her skin.

But this was actually old technology. Burn victims had long needed elasticated dressings that would apply a steady pressure over an extended area of the skin so that scarring occurred in a way beneficent to the patient. It didn’t surprise her to learn that an offshoot of Bootstrap had bought up a medical supply company from Toledo that had specialized in such stuff for decades and was now making a profit by selling better burn dressings back to the hospitals.

Over the top of the skinsuit came more layers, loose fitting and light. First there was a thermal-protection garment, a lacing of water-bearing tubes running over her flesh to keep her temperature even, and then a loose outer coverall, a micrometeorite protection garment. This actually had her name stitched on the breast, NASA-style: STONEY. She put on her bubble helmet with its gold sun visor, and her backpack, a neat little battery-powered rucksack with pumps and fans that could cycle the air and water around her suit for as long as twelve hours.

Now I actually look like an astronaut, she thought.

Malenfant made each of them, in turn, sit in their suits and go to vacuum in the hab’s small collapsible airlock. He called it the suits’ final acceptance test.

Then, the last checks complete, it was time to leave.

They squeezed into the airlock. Emma could feel oxygen blowing across her face, hear the warm hums and whirrs of her backpack.

Michael, beside her in the airlock, clutched her hand. But he showed no fear. He had seemed calm and controlled, in fact, since they had arrived at Cruithne. It was as if, now they had arrived, he knew why they were here, what they would find.

As if he were meant to be here.

Malenfant unzipped the airlock’s fabric door, rolled it down, and stepped forward.

Emma glimpsed frozen air sailing away into the vacuum, frozen particles of it glinting in the sunlight, as if this handful of molecules were trying to expand to fill all of infinite space. The last noises disappeared, save for her own breathing, loud in her bubble helmet, and the sounds that carried through her suit: the rustle of fabric, the slither of the skinsuit against her flesh when she moved.

Still gripping Michael’s hand, Emma pushed her head out of the hatch. The sun’s light flooded over her, astoundingly bright after months in the dingy interior of the O ‘Neill. She took a step out of the airlock, and, gentle as a snowflake, settled to the dirt of Cruithne.

Where her blue-booted feet hit the regolith, with dreamy slowness, she kicked up a little coal-black asteroid dirt. It sailed into the air — no, just upward — for a few feet, before settling back, following perfect parabolas.

The four of them, huddled together in their glowing white suits, were the brightest objects in the landscape, like snowmen on a pile of coal. But already the clinging black dust of the asteroid had coated their lower legs and thighs.

The ground was coal black, layered with dust, and very uneven, extensively folded. She could see maybe a hundred yards in any direction before the ground fell away, but the horizon was close and crumpled, as if she were standing on a hilltop. The hab dome was a drab mound of regolith over orange fabric, and it was surrounded by ground that was scarred by firefly tracks. Beyond it she could see a cluster of equipment: the bulky form of the tethered O ‘Neill, and the coiling lines leading to Malenfant’s illegal nuclear power plant, now installed somewhere over the horizon of Cruithne.

And the shadows were already shifting under her feet, lengthening as she watched.

When she raised her head and looked into the sky, the sun was almost over her head, its glare steady and fierce, so that she cast only a short shadow. Off to her left she saw a point of light: blue, bright. It was Earth. But the Moon was invisible, as were the stars, washed out of her vision by the intense brightness of the sun.

Beyond sun and Earth there was nothing: above, behind, beyond her, like the depths of the deepest, darkest ocean, but spreading around her in all three dimensions. The sense of scale, of openness, after the enclosure of the ship and the hab dome, was stunning. Watching the sliding shadows, she understood on some gut level that she was indeed clinging to the outside of a rock that was tumbling in space. She swallowed hard; she absolutely did not want to throw up in a spacesuit.

A firefly robot came tumbling past, ignoring them, on some errand of its own. It was a hatbox covered with gleaming solar panels, and with miniature manipulator arms extending before it. It worked its way over the surface with a series of tethers that it fired out before itself, then winched in after it, never less loosely anchored than by two tethers at a time, and little puffs of exhaust vapour escaped from tiny kid’s-toy rocket nozzles at the rear. The firefly’s case was heavily stained with regolith; there were cute little wiper blades on each of the solar cell panels. The robot moved jerkily, knocked and dragged this way and that by its tethers and tiny rockets, but in the silence and harsh sunlight it was oddly graceful, its purposefulness undeniable.

The firefly disappeared over the close horizon. Emma wondered if it was from the O ‘Neill or the Nautilus. Ours or theirs.

She knew, in fact, that the way the firefly had gone was where the blue artifact stood in its excavated pit. A door to the future, a quarter-mile away.

The thought meant nothing. She was immersed, already, in too much strangeness.

And today, there was work to do. She turned back to the others.

e-CNN:

To recap, you are seeing pictures received live from Cruithne, broadcast from the asteroid just minutes ago. As you can see the image is a little nondescript right now, but our experts are telling us that we are seeing a stretch of Cruithne surface known as “regolith,” with the black starry sky in the background — or rather there would be stars but for overloading by the sunlight.

The slave firefly robot seems to be panning right now, under your command, and we’re trying to make out what we’re seeing. It is a little like looking for a black cat in a mine shaft, hah hah.

Just to remind you that you can take part in the live online exploration of Cruithne with the Bootstrap bandit astronauts. Just select your preference from the menu at the bottom of the picture and your vote will be polled, with all the others, once a second, and the recommendation passed straight to our camera firefly on Cruithne via our e-controller. You control the picture; you are on Cruithne right along with the astronauts; you can be a Bootstrap bandit, alongside the infamous Reid Malenfant.

Right now the image seems a little static; perhaps you folks are arguing amongst yourselves, hah hah.

There! Did you see that? Bob, can we rerun that? We can’t. Well, it looked to me like an astronaut, and it looked to me like he, or she, was waving at us. Maybe it was Reid Malenfant himself. If you folks out there want to start voting to pan back maybe we can get a good look…

Maura Della:

This was the Great Basin of Nevada.

Stretches of empty highway roller-coasted over mountain ranges and down into salt flats. The human hold on this land seemed tenuous: she drove past ghost towns, federal prisons, brothels surrounded by barbed wire. The corroded mountainsides were dominated by abandoned gold mines, and the land in between was sagebrush open range. Dust devils danced across the flats, eerie.

Eerie, yes. And, she thought, a kind of sinkhole for American national craziness too. To the south was the infamous Area 51, still a center of mystery and speculation. To the northwest, in the Black Rock desert, hippies and aging punks and other fringe meatware had gathered for decades for their Burning Man Festival, an annual orgy of gunplay, punk rock, and off-road driving.

Somehow it seemed an entirely appropriate place to site America’s largest education and protection center for the Blues — the strange, smart, alien children who had sprouted in the midst of humanity.

And Maura Della was on her way to visit little Tom Tybee there.

She stopped for gas in a place called Heston. The guy who came out to serve her was about sixty; he had a beard like Santa Claus, and a red baseball cap with the logo of a helicopter firm. The big plate glass of the gas station window was shattered; there were brutal-looking shards scattered over the forecourt.

Santa Claus saw her looking at the glass. She didn’t want to ask him how it got there, but he told her anyhow. “Sonic boom,” he said.

The thing of it was, the conspiracy theorists here had a point. If there was anywhere in the U.S. that was manipulated by remote and mysterious agencies it was Nevada, where 90 percent of the land was managed by the federal government, a remote and imperial power to the ranchers and miners who lived here. Nevada was America’s wasteland, the dumping ground for the rest of the country.

She paid, and got out of there.

At the center she was met by the principal, Andrea Reeve.

Reeve walked her around the center. It looked like well, a grade school: flat-roofed buildings with big bright windows, a yard with climbing frames and play areas and big plastic outdoor toys, a shiny yellow fireman robot patrolling the outer walls. But most schools weren’t surrounded by an electrified fence.

Inside, the center was bright, modern, airy. The rooms weren’t set out like the formal classrooms Maura remembered, with rows of desks in the center and a teacher and a blackboard at the front. The furniture was mixed and informal, much of it soft. The walls were covered by e-paintings that cycled every couple of minutes, and other aids like number tables and giant animated alphabet letters, as well as drawings and other pieces of work by the children.

Everything was low, Maura noticed. Here was a coatrack no more than four feet from the ground, a canteen where the tables and chairs looked like they were made for dolls. The walls were mostly bare beyond the height a small child could reach.

Reeve saw her looking. “Most of our children are young,” she said. “Very few are over nine. It’s only a few years ago that the Blue phenomenon became apparent, less time since the systematic searches for the children began. We’ve brought them here from all over the continental U.S., and some from overseas. Generally rescue cases, in fact.”

Reeve looked like schoolteachers always had, Maura thought: comfortably round, a little dowdy, hair streaked with gray. Maura found herself responding instinctively, trusting the woman. But, confusingly, this motherly woman was actually about two decades younger than Maura herself. Maybe parents feel like this all the time, she thought.

But Reeve looked overtired, a little baffled, evidently disturbed by Maura’s presence here.

They both knew Maura had no formal influence here. The truth was she wasn’t even sure where she stood, now, on the issue of the children. On the one hand she clung to her promise to oversee Tom Tybee; on the other she was a member of a government responsible for protecting the wider public from danger. Was it possible those two motivations conflicted?

She only knew one way to figure it out, and that was to come see for herself.

And now here were the children themselves. They were scattered through the rooms, working individually or in little groups. The children stood, sat, or lay on the floor without self-consciousness. Many of the children wore cordless earpieces and worked at bright plastic softscreens. There were teachers, but mostly the children seemed to be working with teaching robots: cute, unthreatening little gadgets covered in orange fur or shiny velvet.

“We refer to these rooms as laboratories,” Reeve said. “The children have differing individual needs, levels of achievement, and learning paces. So we use the robots, individually programmed and heuristically adaptable.

“A lot of the work we do is remedial, you might be surprised to know. Some of the children don’t even have much speech, and even from here in the U.S. they are often subliterate. They have tended to be taken out of school, or thrown out, as soon as their special abilities are recognized.” She eyed Maura. “You do need to understand the difficulties we face. Many of these children display some of the symptoms associated with autism. There is a mild form known as Asperger’s Syndrome, or mad scientist syndrome. Such a child may be highly intelligent, and driven by an obsession that pushes her to extraordinary achievements. But at the same time she may be extremely clumsy and uncoordinated. Also socially clumsy. You see, we have to protect them from themselves.” She sighed. “In some cases the disorder may be more severe. Some of the children seem to have only a peripheral response to pleasure and pain. That makes it difficult to control them.”

“Because they don’t respond to punishment?”

“Or to hugs,” Reeve said severely. “We aren’t monsters, Representative.”

“I don’t see how you can dissociate evidence of a disorder like that from, umm, the bruises left by the handling some of these kids have received.”

“No. And we don’t try. You must believe, Ms. Della, that we do our best for the children here, as intellectuals, and as children.”

“And once they are past the remedial stage—”

“Once past that, they are very soon beyond us” Reeve sighed. “All we can do is monitor them, try to ensure their physical needs are met, and give them some elements of a rounded education. And we try to develop social skills.” Reeve eyed Maura. “Often we have to all but drag them to the games, to the yard, and teach them how to play. A child is a child, no matter how gifted.”

“I’m sure you’re right.”

“But it isn’t made easier by the experts who come here,” Reeve said severely. “Of course we understand, it’s part of our charter that the more advanced children are essentially performing original research, with results that might benefit the broader academic community. And we have to make their results accessible. But to have teams of academics trampling through here, quizzing the children and disrupting their general education, all for the sake of seeking out some new nugget of knowledge that can be written up and published under their names—”

Maura half tuned her out. This was obviously Reeve’s particular grievance, her hobbyhorse. What was Reeve really concerned about? The fate of the children here, in this rather sinister place, or the fact that the jackdaw academics clearly didn’t credit her in their papers and theses?

Each child wore a pale gold coverall, zipped up the front, with a blue circle stitched to the breast.

“Why the uniforms?”

“Everyone asks that. We call them play suits. We had to come up with something when the blue-circle identifiers became federal law. They’re actually very practical. They are made of smart fabric that can keep warm in winter, cool in summer… Actually the children seem to find the blue-circle logo comforting. We don’t know why. Besides, it does help us identify the children if any of them escape.”

Nevada. Barbed wire. Uniforms. Escape. This was a school, perhaps, but with a powerful subtext of a cage.

Reeve led her into another laboratory. There was equipment of some kind scattered around the room on lab benches. Some of it was white-box instrumentation, anonymous science-lab stuff, unidentifiable to Maura. But there were also some pieces of apparatus more familiar from her own school days: Bunsen burners and big chunky electromagnets and what looked like a Van de Graaff generator.

There were five children here, gathered in a circle, sitting cross-legged on the ground. One of them was Tom Tybee. The children didn’t have any tools with them, no softscreens or writing paper. They were simply talking, but so fast Maura could barely make out a word. One of the children was a girl, taller than the rest, her blond hair plaited neatly on her head. But it wasn’t clear that she was in any way leading the discussion.

“We call this our physics lab,” Reeve said softly. “But much of what the children seem to be exploring is multidisciplinary, in our terms. And if you can’t follow what they’re saying, don’t worry. If they don’t know a word, they will often make up their own. Sometimes we can translate back to English. Sometimes we find there is no English word for the referent.”

“Clever kids.”

“Little smart-asses,” Reeve said with a vehemence that startled Maura. “Of course most of what they do is theoretical. We can’t give them very advanced equipment here.”

“If it’s a question of budget—”

“Representative Della, they are still children. And you can’t put a child, however smart, in charge of a particle accelerator.”

“I suppose not.”

Watching the children talking and working, quietly, purposefully, Maura felt a frisson of fear: the superstitious, destructive awe she so reviled in others.

The question was, what were they working toward? What was their goal, why were they here, how did they know what to do? The questions were unanswerable, deeply disturbing — and that was without being a parent, without having to ask herself the most profound questions of all: Why my child? Why has she been taken away?

Perhaps, she thought uneasily, they would all soon find out. And then what?

“Hello, Ms. Della.”

Maura looked down. It was Tom Tybee. He was standing before her, straight and solemn in his golden suit. He was clutching an orange football shape.

Maura forced a smile and bent down to Tom’s level. “Hello, Tom.”

The taller blond girl had come to stand beside him. She was holding Tom’s hand and was watching Maura with suspicious eyes.

“Look.” Tom held out his toy to her. It was his Heart: an emotion container, a sound-vision recording device that enabled the user to record his favorite experiences. Maura wondered what he found to record here.

“My mom gave it to me.”

“Well, I think it’s terrific.”

Reeve said, “Representative Della, meet Anna. Our oldest student.”

The girl stared at Maura — not hostile, just reserved, wary.

“Can I go?” Tom asked.

Maura felt unaccountably baffled, excluded. “Yes, Tom. It was nice to see you.”

Tom, his hand still in Anna’s, returned to the group and sat down, and the rich flow of their conversation resumed. Anna joined in, but Maura noticed that she kept her gray eyes on her and Reeve.

“You see?” Reeve said tiredly.

“See what?”

“How they make you feel!’1Reeve smiled and pushed gray hair out of her eyes. “Hello, good-bye. I know they can’t help it. But they simply aren’t interested in us. It’s impossible to feel warmth for them. People, the staff, tend not to stay long.”

“How do you vet your staff?”

“We use parents and relatives where we can. Tom Tybee’s father has done some work here, for instance I’ll take you through the recruitment procedures.”

“Where is Anna from?”

“The North Territory School.”

“Australia.” The worst in the world, a virtual concentration camp. No wonder she is so wary, Maura thought.

Well, this wasn’t a summer camp either, she reminded herself. It was a prison.

But the real bars around these children were intangible, formed by the fear and ignorance and superstition of the society that had given them birth. Until that got better, until some kind of public education worked its way into the mass consciousness to displace the hysterical fear and hostility that surrounded these children, maybe this fortress was the best anybody could do. But she promised herself that she would watch this place, and the others around the country, and ensure that here at least things did not get worse for Tom Tybee, and Anna, and the other children here, the Blues.

Some childhood, she thought.

She let Reeve take her to her office, and they began to go through staff profiles.

Reid Malenfant:

Malenfant stood tethered to the surface of Cruithne, waiting.

He was aware how grimy he had become. After a couple of weeks on the asteroid, everything — his suit, the fireflies and habitats, every piece of equipment — had turned to the dismal gray-black color of Cruithne, coated with coal-dark electrostatically clinging regolith dust.

A fabric canopy towered over him. Erected by the squid with their waldoes and fireflies, it was rigid, improbably skinny, a tent that could surely never remain upright on Earth; yet here, in Cruithne’s vacuum and miniature gravity, it could last years, unperturbed, until the fabric itself crumbled under the relentless onslaught of solar radiation.

An automated countdown was proceeding in his headrest. Impatient, he snapped a switch to kill the robot’s soft Midwestern female voice. What difference did it make, to know the precise second? This operation wasn’t under his control anyhow. This was all cephalopod now, and Malenfant was just an observer. And he was dog tired.

Meanwhile Cruithne turned, as it had for a billion years. Sun and stars wheeled alternately over him. When the raw sunlight hit him he could feel its strength, and the fans and pumps of his backpack whirred, the water in his cooling garment bubbling, as his suit labored under the fierce hail of photons to keep him cool and alive.

It was, without question, a hell of a place to be.

This operation was the fulfillment of Malenfant’s bargain with the squid.

The mining operation here was an order of magnitude more ambitious than the simple regolith scraping Sheena 5 had initiated after she first landed. The tentlike canopy had been set up over a suitable impact crater — which Emma had named, with her gentle humor, Kimberley. The canopy was just a low-tech way to contain ore thrown out by the robot dust kicker now burrowing its way into Cruithne. When the canopy contained enough ore it would be sealed up and moved to the processing site.

There, mechanical grinders would chew steadily at the ore within a rotating cylinder. The spin would force the grains of crushed ore through a series of sorting screens, and the sorted material dropped onto rotating magnetic drums. The idea was to separate nonmagnetic silicate grains from nickel-iron metal granules; every so often the metallic material would be scraped off the drums and recycled through the sorter, until only highly pure metal was left.

It was possible to cast raw asteroid metal directly, but the native metals were heavily polluted with carbon and sulfur, and the result would be an inferior product. So the ore would be passed through a solar toaster, as Malenfant thought of it — an inflatable solar collector working at a couple of hundred degrees centigrade. The toaster was the key to a process called gaseous carbonyl extraction, which allowed the extraction of ultra-pure metals — and, as a bonus, the direct fabrication of ultra-pure iron and nickel products in high-precision molds via chemical vapor deposition.

The objective of these first tentative steps was just to give the squid access to the most easily extracted metals: nickel and iron in the form of metallic alloy. In fact, locked up in Cruithne there were also troilite, olivine, pyroxene, and feldspar — minerals that could also serve as sources of ferrous metals when the nickel-iron was exhausted, even if their extraction was a little more complex. Besides that, the ore also contained other valuable metals like cobalt and the platinum-group metals, as well as nonmetals like sulfur, arsenic, selenium, germanium, phosphorus, carbon…

Cornelius Taine had been dead set against pointing the squid toward more advanced processing techniques. In fact, Cornelius had been all for reneging on Malenfant’s contract with the squid altogether. Malenfant had insisted on keeping his promise, but had given in to Cornelius on the advanced processing.

Not that it made much difference, he figured; the squid were smart and would surely not take long to figure out how to extract the full potential of these ancient rocks, whether humans showed them what to do or not.

Cornelius was right to have reservations, however. The squid, if they did get out of the resource bottleneck of Cruithne, would be formidable rivals. Maybe it wasn’t a good idea to start the relationship of the two species with a grudge.

All three of the adults had spent time out on the surface modifying firefly and miner robots, surveying the asteroid for a suitable crater to serve as a pit head, and operating test and pilot runs of the various processes involved. Cruithne had turned out to be a congenial environment to work in. The gravity here was better than zero G because tools, dust, and people tended to stay where you last put them rather than float away. But on the other hand structures did not have to be as strong as under Earth’s ferocious pull.

But the work hadn’t been easy. Though the skinsuits were a marvelous piece of lightweight engineering, a couple of hours of even the lightest physical work — shoveling crumbling regolith into the hoppers of the test plants, for example — left Malenfant drenched in sweat and with sores chafing at his elbows, knees, armpits, groin. Cornelius had actually suffered worse; a pressure imbalance caused by a rucking of his suit had given him a severe embolism on one leg, an incident that hadn’t helped improve his mood.

Anyhow it was over now. Malenfant was proud of what they had achieved here. The technological infrastructure they had built here was neat, elegant, simple, low maintenance.

Earth came into view, a bright blue disclet shadowed by the pallid Moon.

It struck him that it had been the dream of his whole life to come to a place like this: to stand here on the surface of another world, to watch heavy machinery tear into its rock and begin the construction of a living space, to watch the beginnings of the expansion of Earth life beyond the planet, fulfilling the dreams of Tsiolkovski and Goddard and Bernal and O’Neill and so many others.

Well, he’d gotten himself here, and he ought to be grateful for that. Not only that, his basic plan — using asteroid materials to bootstrap extraterrestrial colonization — was obviously working.

But he hadn’t expected it to be like this — in the hands of another species.

In a way, a part of him wished it wasn’t so: that this had been a simple story of asteroid mines and O’Neill colonies and homesteads in space, that the extraordinary future hadn’t intruded. Simple dreams, easily fulfilled. But that had never been an option.

The future, it seemed, was turning out to be one damn thing after another.

He turned away from the canopy, and began to make his way back to the O’Neill.

When the squid made their next surprising request Malenfant and the others held a council of war on the O ‘Neill ‘s meatware deck.

Cornelius Taine, as ever, was hostile to any form of rapprochement with the squid beyond what was absolutely necessary to maintain their base on this asteroid. “So they want to leave. Good riddance. They shouldn’t be here anyhow. They weren’t in the plan.”

Emma said severely, “You mean they should be dead.”

“I mean they shouldn’t exist at all. The plan was for one squid to live long enough to bootstrap the operation here, that’s all — not this whole new enhanced species we have to contend with.

Dan Ystebo should be prosecuted for his irresponsibility—”

“You aren’t helping, Cornelius,” said Malenfant.

“Let them split off their chunk of rock and go. We don’t need

them.”

“The point is, they are asking us where they should go. Another NEO, the asteroid belt.”

Cornelius’s face worked. “That ought to remain secure.”

Emma laughed. “Secure? Secure against what?”

Cornelius was growing angry. “We could be remembered as the ultimate suckers. Like the Native Americans who sold Manhattan for a handful of beads.”

“The asteroid belt is not Manhattan,” Malenfant said.

“No. It’s much more. Vastly more…” Cornelius started to list the resources of the Solar System: water, metals, phosphates, carbon, nitrogen, sulfur, rattling through the asteroids and the ice moons of Jupiter and the atmospheres of the giant planets and the Oort Cloud. “Take water. Water is the most fundamental commodity. We think the main-belt asteroids could contribute about half the water available on Earth. And a single ice moon, say Jupiter’s Callisto, has around forty times as much water as Earth’s oceans. Even if you exclude the Oort Cloud the Solar System probably contains something like three hundred times Earth’s water — and almost all of it locked up in small, low-gravity, accessible bodies.

“The Solar System may be able to sustain — comfortably, conservatively — as many as a million times the population of the Earth.” He watched their faces. “Think about that. A million human beings, for every man, woman, and child alive now.”

Emma laughed nervously. “That’s… monstrous.”

“Because you can’t picture it. Imagine how it would be if the human race reached such numbers. How often does an authentic genius come along — an Einstein, a Beethoven, a Jesus? Once a millennium? We could cut that down to one a day”

“Imagine a million people like me,” Malenfant growled. “We could have one hell of an argument.”

“Those cephalopods are ferocious predators, and they breed damn fast. If they start propagating through the Solar System they could take it all in a few centuries.”

“If the cephalopods are better adapted,” Malenfant said easily, “and maybe they are — that’s why we chose the squid solution in the first place — then maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”

“No,” Cornelius said, muscles in his cheek working. “This isn’t simple Darwinism. We created them.”

“Maybe that will turn out to be our cosmic role,” Emma said dryly. “Midwives to the master race.”

Malenfant growled, “Look, let’s keep Darwin and God out of it. Cornelius, face the facts. We don’t have a real good handle on what the squid are going to do here. They seem to be split into a number of factions. But some of them at least seem to be determined on carving off a chunk of this rock and going someplace. Population pressure is ensuring that. If we deceive them — if we try sending them off to freeze in the dark — and they survive, they aren’t going to be too pleased about it. And if we don’t give them any clear guidance…”

Emma nodded. “Then they’ll seek out the one place they know has the water they need.”

Cornelius said, “We can’t let them find Earth.”

“Then,” Malenfant pressed, “where?”

Cornelius shook his head, pressured, frustrated. “All right, damn it. Send them to the Trojan asteroids.”

Malenfant looked at him suspiciously. “Why there?”

“Because the Trojans cluster at Jupiter’s Lagrange points. By comparison, the belt asteroids are spread over an orbit wider than that of Mars. So it’s easy to travel between the Trojans. And we think they sometimes exchange places with the outer moons of Jupiter. You see? That means that access to Jupiter orbit from the Trojans — energetically speaking — is very cheap. While the asteroids themselves are rich.” Cornelius shook his head. “My God, what a Faustian bargain. We think the asteroid mass available in the Trojans is several times greater than that in the main belt itself. Not only that, they seem to be supercarbonaceous.”

“What does that mean?”

“They’re made of the same stuff as C-type asteroids and comet nuclei. Like Cruithne. But in different, more volatile-rich proportions. It was cold out there when the planets formed. Cold enough for the lighter stuff to stick.”

Malenfant frowned. “It sounds like a hell of a piece of real estate to give away.”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you,” Cornelius said. “Some of us think the Trojans might prove to be the richest resource site in the system. So surely even a species as fecund as the squid is going to take some time to consume them all. And even when they’re done they may choose to go to Jupiter and its moons rather than come back in toward the sun.”

Malenfant growled, “I see your logic. We’re giving them a big territory, enough to occupy them for centuries.”

“Time enough for us to do something about it,” Cornelius said tensely.

Malenfant looked at Emma. “What do you think?”

She shrugged. “Geopolitics are beyond me,” she said.

“This is beyond geopolitics,” Cornelius said. “We’re playing games with an opponent of unknown potential, over the future of the species.”

“We’ll tell them to aim for the Trojans,” Malenfant said, relieved the decision was made. “Cornelius, start working on trajectory information…”

It took the emigrant squid only days to build their cephalopod Mayflower.

They sent their robots to work leveling the floor of a small crater. Over the crater they built a roughly spherical cage of unprocessed asteroid nickel-iron. Then they began to manufacture the skin of the bubble ship that would take them to Jupiter’s orbit. It was simple enough: modified firefly robots crawled over the floor of the crater, spraying charged molecules onto a substrate, like spray painting a car, until a skin of the right thickness and precision of manufacture down to the molecular scale was built up.

Malenfant observed as much as he could of this. It was a manufacturing process called molecular-beam epitaxy that had been piloted on Earth decades before. But nobody had succeeded in developing it to the pitch of sophistication the squid had reached.

Malenfant was somewhat awed: it seemed to him the squid had simply identified their manufacturing problem, immediately devised a perfect technology to deal with it, and had built and applied it. It was a technology that would be worth uncounted billions to Bootstrap, in some unlikely future in which he made it back home and stayed out of jail.

Anyhow, when the fabricators had completed the bubble — a gold-tinted plastic — the squid started to fill it with asteroid water extracted by simple inflatable solar heaters. A cap of Cruithne substrate rock, sheared off the asteroid and anchored to the metal cage, would serve as feedstock for methane rockets and a source of raw materials for the habitat.

Though the technology was simple, it still seemed something of a miracle to Malenfant to see water bubbling up out of coal-black asteroid rock.

It would be a long, grim journey, Malenfant knew. Under the low acceleration of the methane drive it would take many years for this bubble ship to reach the cluster of Trojan asteroids, five times Earth’s distance from the sun. The current generation of squid — none of whom would live to see the conclusion of the journey — were surely condemning generations of their offspring to a journey through despair and darkness and squalor.

And it might not work. If population controls failed, there would be wars, he thought. Savage. Perhaps the fragment of civilization on this ship would fall so far there would be nobody left alive who knew how to fix the methane rockets or breaches in the habitat meniscus.

Somehow he didn’t think that would come about. Already this miniature colony, here on Cruithne, had survived long enough to show the cephalopods possessed a purpose — a ruthlessness — that far transcended the human.

And at last, the survivors would reach Jupiter’s leading Trojan point, where the sun would be a point source brighter than any star, and Jupiter itself a gleaming gibbous disc, and a million asteroids would swarm in the sky.

With the gentlest of nudges from spring-loaded latches the droplet parted from its asteroid parent. The moment had come: no countdown, no fuss.

The rise was slow; nothing that big was going to make any sudden moves. It sailed upward like a hot-air balloon, huge waves rippling softly over the golden structure, the cap of asteroid rock sullenly massive at the base.

When it reached the sunlight a glow exploded from the droplet’s interior.

As their great journey began — away from the complexities and politics of the crowded inner worlds, off to the wide-open emptiness, the calm and cold precision of the outer system — Malenfant thought he glimpsed the squid themselves, rushing this way and that, peering excitedly from their rising bubble ship.

But perhaps that was just his imagination.

He watched as the droplet shrank, receding, hoping to see the moment when it was far enough from the asteroid for the methane rockets to be lit in safety. But the flames would be invisible, and he was growing tired.

Malenfant raised his hand in salute. Good-bye, good-bye, he thought. Perhaps your great-great-grandchildren will remember me. Maybe they will even know I was the being responsible for sending their ancestors out there, for giving you this chance.

But they will never know how I envied you today.

It had taken fifteen of their twenty available days, here on Cruithne, to deal with the cephalopods. Now they had five days left — five days to confront the thing that lay on the other side of the asteroid, to confront the alien.

He turned and started to crawl back across Cruithne, and to home.

Bill Tybee:

There was a new assistant at the Nevada center, who started a

week ago. A big bullnecked Texan called Wayne Dupree.

Wayne did not look like any kind of teacher to Bill — he had the biggest, thickest arms Bill had ever seen on any human being — nor was he a parent or relative of any of the kids. And he had no noticeable skills in teaching or child care. He just supervised the kids in glowering silence, occasionally administering a shove or a prod, as they went about the routine of their lives.

Wayne was the first adult Bill saw strike one of the kids here.

Bill complained about that to Principal Reeve. She made a note in a file and said she’d look into it, but that she was sure Wayne wasn’t overstepping any mark.

And Bill was sure she didn’t do a damn thing about it, because he saw Wayne do it again, a day later.

The turnover of staff here had always been high. Bill had noticed that the professional types soon became discouraged by the kids’ baffling opacity and distance. After a few months Bill had become one of the more experienced helpers here; he was even assigned to train new folk.

But recently a new type of person, it seemed to him, had been appointed to work here.

Persons like Wayne.

Despite the shutting down of the Milton Foundation, the Blue kids continued to be the subject of feverish, superstitious awe and fear — a mood whipped up needlessly, in Bill’s opinion, by commentators who speculated endlessly about the children’s superhuman nature and cosmic role and so forth. There was still protection, of course. In fact security had gotten so tight it was virtually impossible for anybody outside of an armored truck to pass in or out of the center.

But it seemed quite possible to Bill that it might be becoming more acceptable to people at large that the Waynes of the world be recruited to “supervise” the Blue children, that the centers be allowed to evolve from education homes for gifted children to prisons for freaks, guarded by brutes, just like the Milton Schools. As long as it was out of sight, of course.

But none of it mattered, Bill thought doggedly, not as long as he was here with Tom, and could keep him from harm’s way.

Bill promised himself that if Wayne ever did raise a hand to his son, he would take on Wayne, despite any consequences, and that was that.

Sooner than Bill had expected, it came to a head.

Tom’s group, in their shiny gold uniforms, were working in the physics lab. Wayne and Bill were both on duty, sitting in chairs in opposite corners of the room.

The kids were building something: a cage of wires and electromagnets and batteries and coils. They’d been working all day, in fact, and Bill and the other assistants had had some trouble making them stop to eat, or even take toilet breaks, let alone do any of their other study programs.

The kids seemed to be growing more purposeful in their activities. They didn’t have a written plan, and they didn’t even speak to each other much, but they all worked together flawlessly, according to their abilities. The older ones, including Anna, did the heavier work like the bulky construction of the metal frame, and also more dangerous stuff such as soldering. The little ones generally worked inside the cage itself, their fine little fingers doing fiddly, awkward manipulations.

Bill watched Tom clambering around inside the cage like a monkey, snipping and twisting together bits of wire with flawless accuracy. As he concentrated, he stuck his tongue out of his mouth, just as he used to when he made clay soldiers or drew pictures of flowers for his mother.

As the day’s end approached the kids seemed to have finished their cage. It was a box that was taller than Tom. Anna made them stand back, threw a few switches, and watched. Nothing happened as far as Bill could see save for a dull humming, a sharp scent of ozone. But Anna nodded, as if satisfied.

Then the kids broke away and, as if going off duty, wandered off around the lab.

Some of them went to the bowls of food Bill and Wayne had put out around the room. They seemed to avoid the dishes Wayne had slyly dipped his fat fingers into. Others, Tom and Anna among them, began playing. They started to throw Tom’s electronic Heart around, catching it like a football, kicking it along the ground like a soccer ball. That was okay. The Heart was built for kids and was meant to last a lifetime, and was more than strong enough to take the punishment. The kids were noisy now, calling and yapping and even tussling a little.

As if they were normal.

Bill studied the wire cage, wondering how safe the damn thing was. At the end of each day the inspectors and experts crawled over everything the kids did. If it wasn’t self-evidently safe they would shut it down and pull it apart, or maybe amend it to remove the hazard. The next day the kids would just start putting it back the way it was, unless physically restrained from doing so. And so it would go on, like building that bridge in Apocalypse Now, a battle of stubbornness between the kids and their adult keepers, until the kids were forced — or sometimes chose — to move on to something else…

That was when it happened.

Bill saw that the Heart had rolled between Wayne’s feet. The kids were standing in a loose pack in front of Wayne, watching him.

The moment stretched, growing tauter.

Then Wayne looked at the Heart, and the waiting kids. Something like a grin spread over his face, and he lifted his hefty foot and pushed the Heart back along the floor.

A little boy called Petey, no older than Tom, collected the Heart. Petey, shyly, put the Heart back on the ground and rolled it back to Wayne.

Again Wayne returned it.

Back and forth the Heart went, a couple more times. The kids came a little closer to Wayne.

Then Petey picked up the Heart, and threw it at Wayne.

Wayne caught it one-handed, grinned wider, and threw it back to another kid.

Who threw it back again.

The game gradually built up steam. The kids seemed to be warming to this surprising new Wayne, this big bear of a man who was suddenly prepared to play ball with them. They ran around, starting to laugh and call, and threw the Heart to each other and to Wayne. Even Anna — Tom’s quiet, reserved, honorary sister — was joining in, her thin frame rising like a giraffe’s above the rest of the children.

Bill started to relax. If Wayne was playing with the kids, however unimaginatively, at least he wasn’t doing them any harm.

Bill kept watching, however.

Now Wayne got hold of the Heart, wrapped it in his huge fist, and lifted it high above his head.

The kids crowded around him, calling. “Me! Give it to me!” “No, me!” “Me, me! Give it to me! My turn!” Bill saw that Tom was at the front of the little crowd, jumping up and down right in front of Wayne, reaching for the Heart.

Wayne looked over the kids, one by one, still grinning, as if selecting. And Bill saw the change in his face, the hardening of his fist around the solid plastic toy.

To Bill it was a nightmare of paralysis. He knew he could never reach Wayne in time.

In slo-mo, down came Wayne’s arm, that heavy plastic ball nestled in his fist, the Heart heading straight for Tom’s big, fragile skull.

There was a blur of motion. That big arm was knocked sideways, with something clinging to it.

Wayne’s meaty forearm brushed Tom, knocking him back, and the boy screamed; but Bill knew in the first instant that he wasn’t badly hurt. The other children scattered away, yelling.

Wayne stood up, roaring, his face twisted, lifting his arm high above his head. The girl, Anna, had sunk her teeth deep into the flesh of his muscle. And now she was hanging on by her teeth, her arms and legs dangling, bodily lifted off the ground by Wayne’s brute strength.

Bill grabbed Tom and pulled him away.

Wayne shook once, twice; Anna’s head was rattled back and forth, but still she wouldn’t let go. So Wayne took a pace and slammed his arm against the wall. Bill heard a crack as Anna’s skull collided with the smooth plastic there. She came loose of his biceps. She seemed stunned, her limbs loose, and she slid to the floor like a crumpled doll. Her mouth was bloody, like some carnivore’s.

Wayne clutched his torn flesh, blood seeping through his fingers, snarling obscenities. Bill saw something white there, embedded in the flesh — one of Anna’s teeth, perhaps.

Bill tensed. One leap and he would be on Wayne’s back.

… And then something came ghosting through the wall. It was a glowing, fizzing bullet: just a point of light, yellow-white, bright as the sun, and it cast shadows as it moved.

Bill, shocked, skidded to a halt.

The light slid smoothly through the air, floating like Tinker-bell, heading downward and toward the center of the room.

Wayne, looming over Anna, didn’t see it coming.

The light slid neatly into the top of his head. There was a sharp smell of singed hair, burned meat. Wayne convulsed, eyes flickering. The light passed out at the nape of Wayne’s neck, following an undeviating straight line, as if the man, two hundred pounds of vindictive muscle, were no more substantial than a mass of mist and shadows.

Wayne, shuddering, toppled backward like a felled tree.

The children were wailing. Bill found Tom clutching his legs; he reached down, lifted up his son, and buried his face in the crying boy’s neck. “It’s all right. It’s all right—”

“What the hell—”

Bill turned. Principal Reeve and a couple of the other assistants had come in at a run. “Get the medic,” Bill said.

“What happened?”

He pointed to Anna. “She’s hurt. And her teeth—”

But Reeve was no longer listening to him, it seemed, despite the blood and fallen bodies.

At the center of the room, something was glowing, yellow-bright. Bill turned. It was the yellow dot, the glowing Tinkerbell. It had come to rest at the heart of the children’s wire cage; it bobbed to and fro, following complex paths.

The children were calmer now. A couple of them were with Anna, trying to help her sit up. But the rest had started to cluster around the cage and its imprisoned light point; its brilliance shone over their faces.

Bill followed them, his son still in his arms. Fascinated, Bill reached out a hand toward the cage. He felt something, a ripple, as if a mild electric shock were passing through his system. He reached farther—

A hand grabbed his arm, pulling it back. Tom’s hand.

Maura Della:

Bill Tybee was pretty distressed, and he had a right to be, Maura

thought.

Wayne Dupree had, it turned out, come from an extremist Christian group who believed the Blue children were the spawn of Satan, or some such, and so required destruction. He had gotten himself into the center on a fake resume and references from other members of his cult group: credentials that, Maura agreed, the most minimally competent vetting process should have weeded out.

On the other hand, Dupree hadn’t succeeded — and not because of the system or the presence of other adults, even a devoted parent like Bill, but because of the freakish plunging of the Tinkerbell anomaly into his body, just at the right moment.

“Which I can’t believe was a coincidence,” she told Dan Ys-tebo as they walked into the center’s physics lab, now crowded with researchers.

He laughed uncomfortably, his big belly wobbling. “I don’t know why you brought me here. This isn’t exactly my field. And you have no jurisdiction here.”

“But you spent long enough in the asylum with Reid Malen-fant. This is more spooky stuff, Dan. Somebody has to figure out what all this really means. If not us, who?”

“Umm,” he said doubtfully.

In the lab, they confronted the anomaly that had killed Wayne Dupree.

Tinkerbell in a cage, Bill Tybee called it, and that was exactly what it looked like. Just a point of light that glowed brightly, like a captive star, bobbing around in a languid, unpredictable loop inside its ramshackle trap of wire. The anomaly was so bright it actually cast shadows of its wire mesh cage: long shadows that fell on the white-coated scientist types who crawled around the floor, and on their white boxes and probes and softscreens and cameras and tangles of cabling, and even on the primary-color plastic walls of the schoolroom, which were still coated with kids’ stuff, blotchy watercolor paintings and big alphabet letters and posters of the last rhinos in their dome in Zambia.

It was this contradiction, the surreally exotic with the mundane, that made Maura’s every contact with these children so eerie.

Dan Ystebo was beside her. “It looks as if someone found a way to split the atom in the middle of a McDonald’s, doesn’t it?”

“Tell me what’s going on here, Dan.”

He guided her forward through the nest of cabling toward the glowing thing in the cage. There was a protective barrier of white metal thrown up a yard from the cage itself. “Hold your hand out,” he said.

She held her palm up to the glow, as if warming it by a fire. “By golly, I can feel the heat. What makes it glow?”

“The destruction of neutrons from the atmosphere. Step a little closer.”

She stepped right up to the protective barrier, nervous. This time she felt a ripple in the flesh of her hand, a gentle tugging. When she moved her hand from side to side she felt the wash of some invisible force.

“What’s that?”

“Gravity,” Dan said.

“Gravity? From the anomaly?”

“At its surface the gravity pulls about thirty thousand G. But it drops off quickly, down to less than one percent of G a yard away. The anomaly masses about a million tons. Which, if it were water, would be enough to fill a fair-sized swimming pool.”

“All crammed into that little thing?”

“Yup. It’s around a sixteenth of an inch across. Right now these guys, the physicists here, don’t have a good handle on its shape. It’s presumably spherical, but it may be oscillating.”

“So it’s pretty dense.”

“A little denser than an atomic nucleus, in fact. So dense it shouldn’t even notice normal matter. An anomaly like that should pass right through the Earth like a bullet through a cloud.”

“Then how come it doesn’t fall through the floor right now?”

Dan looked uncertain. “Because of the cage.”

“This contraption the children built?”

“Maura, it seems to generate a very powerful, localized magnetic field. It’s a magnetic bottle that holds up the nugget.”

“How?”

“Hell, we don’t know. We can do this — we have to build magnetic bottles for fusion experiments — but only with such things as superconducting loops, and at vast expense. How the kids do it with a handful of copper wire and an old car battery…”

She nodded. “But this is where the potential is. The technological potential.”

“Yeah. Partly, anyhow. If we could manipulate magnetic fields of that strength, on that scale, so easily, we could build an operational fusion reactor for the first tune. Clean energy, Maura. But that’s not all.”

“So what is Tinkerbell? Some kind of miniature black hole?”

“Not quite as exotic as that.”

“Not quite?’“

“It seems to be a nugget of quark matter. The essential difference from ordinary matter is that the individual quark wave functions are delocalized, spread through a macroscopic volume

It took some time for Maura, cross-examining him, to interpret all this.

In ordinary matter, it seemed, atomic nuclei were made of protons and neutrons, which in turn were made of more fundamental particles called quarks. But the size of a nucleus was limited because protons’ positive charges tended to blow overlarge nuclei to bits.

But quarks came in a number of varieties.

The ones inside protons and neutrons were called, obscurely, “up” and “down” quarks. If you added another type of quark to the mix, called “strange” quarks — a geeky term that didn’t surprise Maura in the least — then you could keep growing your positive-charge “nuclei” without limit, because the strange quarks would hold them together, And that was a quark nugget: nothing more than a giant atomic nucleus.

“We’ve actually had evidence of quark nuggets before — probably much smaller, fast-moving ones — that strike the top of the atmosphere and cause exotic cosmic-ray events called Cen-tauro events.”

“So where do the nuggets come from?”

Dan rubbed his nose. “To make a nugget you need regions of very high density and pressure, because you have to break down the stable configuration of matter. You need a soup of quarks, out of which the nuggets can crystallize. We only know of two places, in nature, where this happens. One place is — was — the Big Bang. And the nuggets baked back there have wandered the universe ever since. The theory predicts we should find Bang nuggets from maybe a thousand tons to a billion. So our nugget

is right at the middle of the range.”

“Where else?”

“In the interior of a neutron star. A collapsed supernova remnant: very small, very hot, very dense, the mass of the sun crammed into the volume of a city block. And when the pressure gets high enough quark matter can form. All you need is a tiny part of the core of the star to flip over, and you get a quark matter runaway. The whole star is eaten up. It’s spectacular. The star might lose twenty percent of its radius in a few seconds. Maybe half the star’s mass — and we’re talking about masses comparable to the sun, remember — half of it is turned to energy, and blown out in a gale of neutrinos and gamma rays.”

Quark matter runaway. She didn’t like the sound of that. “Which origin are we favoring here?”

“I’d back the Big Bang. I told you our nugget is right in the middle of the mass range the cosmogenic-origin theory predicts. On the other hand we don’t have a real good mass spectrum for neutron-star nuggets, so that isn’t ruled out either. But then there’s the slow velocity of our nugget. The nuggets should squirt out of neutron stars at relativistic velocities. That is, a good fraction of light speed. But the Big Bang nuggets have been slowed by the expansion of the universe…”

Slowed by the expansion of the universe. Good God, she thought. What a phrase. This nugget is a cosmological relic, and it’s right here in this plastic schoolroom. And brought here, perhaps, by children.

He spread his hands. “Anyhow that’s our best guess. Unless somebody somewhere is manufacturing nuggets. Ha ha.”

“Funny, Dan.” She bent to see closer. “Tell me again why Tinkerbell shines. Neutrons?”

“It will repel ordinary nuclei, because of the positive charges. But it can drag in free neutrons, which have no charge. A neutron is just a bag of quarks. The nugget pulls them in from the air, releasing energy in the process, and the quarks are converted to the mix it needs.”

Converted. Runaway. “Dan, you said something about a drop of this stuff consuming an entire star. Is there any possibility that this little thing—”

“Could eat the Earth?”

She’d tried to keep her tone light, but her fear, she found as she voiced the notion, was real. Was this the beginning of the Carter catastrophe, this little glowing hole in the fabric of matter?

“Actually, no,” Dan said. “At least we don’t think so. It’s because of that positive charge; it keeps normal nuclei matter away. In fact the larger it grows the more it repels normal matter. But if it were negatively charged—” He waved his ringers, miming an explosion.” — Ka-boom. Maybe.”

“Maybe?”

“Listen, Ms. Della, there are opportunities as well as threats here. If you feed a nugget neutrons or light ions it will eat them, giving off energy in the process. You could conceivably throw in radioactive waste. Tritium, for instance. Then, when the nugget is fat enough, you could bombard it with heavy ions to split it. Two nuggets. Then four, then eight… A safe, efficient, clean energy source. Extremely valuable. And—”

“Yes?”

“I don’t have to outline the weapons potential. More than half the researchers here are from military labs.”

“Okay. And I take it the children won’t tell you how they managed all this.”

“No.”

So, Maura thought, Tinkerbell was at once a great possible boon to humankind, and at the same time a great possible threat. Both carrot and stick. Almost as if the children planned it that way.

These Blue children, it seemed, had upped the stakes. For the first time a group of children had moved beyond eerie behavior and startling intellectual stunts to the physical, to something approaching superhuman powers.

Already we were terrified of them, she thought. But if… when this news gets out…

“Okay, Dan. What now?”

“The children want to talk to you.”

“Me? I have no power here.”

“But the children know you. At least, Tom Tybee does.”

She closed her eyes, took a breath. But who am I negotiating with, exactly? And on behalf of whom? It seemed humankind’s relationship with its strange Blue offspring was about to reach a new crisis.

Dan grinned. “It’s take-me-to-your-leader time, Representative.”

“Let’s do it.”

They walked out of the lab room. Her shadow, cast by the trapped cosmological glow, streamed ahead of her.

Anna was waiting for her in the principal’s office. Maura walked in with Reeve and Dan Ystebo.

When they entered, Anna backed away against the wall. Maura could see bruises on her neck, and when she opened her mouth she was missing a lower front tooth. “Just you,” Anna said to Maura. Her voice had the faintest trace of Aussie twang.

Principal Reeve said, “Now, Anna—”

Maura held up her hand.

“Just you,” Anna said. “That was the deal.”

Maura nodded. “If you say so. But I need your help. I’d like Dan here—” Maura indicated him. “ — to stay with me. I don’t understand as much of the technical stuff as I ought to.” She forced a smile. “Without Dan to interpret, it will take me a lot longer to figure out what you want. I guarantee, positively guarantee, he’s no threat to you. But if you want him to leave, he leaves.”

Anna’s cool gray eyes flickered. “He can stay. Not her.”

Reeve was visibly tired, stressed-out, baffled, angry. “Representative, she’s a child. And you’re letting her give you orders.”

“We nearly allowed her to be killed, Principal,” Maura said gently. “I think she has a right to a little control over the situation. Don’t you?”

Reeve shook her head, furious. But she left, slamming the door behind her.

Anna showed no reaction.

Maura said, “We’re going to sit down, Anna. All right? In these two chairs, on this side of the desk. You can sit, or stand, whatever you want.”

Anna nodded, and Dan and Maura sat down.

Anna said, “Would you like a drink?”

Maura was surprised. “I — yes. Yes, please.”

Anna crossed to the water cooler, neatly extracted two paper cups, walked gracefully around the table and handed them to Dan and Maura.

“Thank you,” Maura said, sipping the water. It was warm, a little stale. “Now, Anna. Tell me what it is you want.”

Anna dug her hand in a pocket of her gold jumpsuit, pulled out a crumpled piece of paper, and pressed it on the desk. She pushed it across to Maura.

The paper looked like a page torn out of an exercise book. It contained a list written out in a childish hand, complete with errors, a couple of the longer words even phonetically spelled.

She passed it to Dan Ystebo. “Deuterium,” he read. “A linear electrostatic decelerator Maura, I think they want to grow Tinkerbell. Maybe even make her some companions.”

Anna said, “We will give you the Tinkerbell. And others.” She frowned with the effort of speaking, as if English were becoming unfamiliar. “They could light cities, drive starships.” She looked at Maura. “Do you understand?”

“So far,” Maura said dryly.

“We have other gifts to offer,” said Anna. “In the future.”

“More technology?”

Anna was concentrating, a crease appearing in the middle of her perfect forehead. “We are still learning, here at this center. And elsewhere.”

Dan leaned forward. “Are you in touch with the others? The other children, like you? In the other centers? How?”

She returned his gaze calmly. “We have suggestions. Ways of making food. Ways to make medicine, to make ill people well, to make them—” that pause, the struggle with the language again “ — not grow old. And we have better ways for people to be together.”

Dan frowned. “What do you mean? Politics? Ethics?”

“I don’t know those words.”

Maura said, “Better ways for people like me to run things.”

“Yes. But nobody should have to run things.”

Dan laughed out loud. “She gotcha there, Representative.”

“We have to work all this out,” Anna said.

“I understand,” Maura said evenly. But the promise is there. “And you will give us all this.”

“In return.”

“In return for what?”

“No harm.”

Maura nodded. “You must understand I can’t promise you anything. Those in charge here have a wider duty, to protect people. Do you understand that people are frightened of you?”

Anna returned her gaze, and Maura felt chilled.

“This is an important time,” Anna said suddenly. “Everything we do now is very important. Because everything comes out of

here.”

“Out of the here and now,” Dan said. “The future flows from this moment. We cast long shadows. Is that what you mean?”

Anna didn’t reply. She seemed to be withdrawing.

Dan was frustrated. “Why are you here? To help us avoid the Carter catastrophe? Are you from the future, Anna?”

There was no reply, and Maura put her hand on Dan’s arm to silence him.

The sunlight outside the center buildings was hot, flat, glaring.

Tinkerbell in a cage.

Everything Maura had seen seemed unreal, remote, as if swimming away into space after Reid Malenfant.

“Quite a prospectus those kids offer,” Dan was saying.

“Yes.”

“New technologies, new medicine, new clean power. What sounded like a Utopian political and ethical framework. Peace and prosperity for all.”

“Absolutely,” Maura said.

“So, you think anyone will listen?”

“Not a hope in hell.”

Dan sighed. “But we’ll want the goodies even so, won’t we?”

“You bet. You think we can afford to give them what they want? The deuterium, the decelerator…”

“Representative, I’m not sure if we can afford not to.” Dan glanced around to be sure nobody else could overhear them. “So here we have these children building their magic cage just in time for this quark nugget — which has been wandering the universe since the Big Bang — to come floating in, ripe to be captured. And not only that, it arrives in the nick of time to save Anna from the evil clutches of wacko Wayne Dupree. And on exactly the right trajectory, too.”

“Coincidence?”

“What do you think?”

“Not in a million years,” she said.

Ystebo scratched his belly. “I’d offer you longer odds than that… I think we’re dealing with another of those damn causal loops. Somebody, far enough downstream, has the technology to reach into the past to deflect the path of a quark nugget just so, to make it arrive right on cue to save the day. It may have been traveling a billion years, just to get here and play its part. The ulti-

mate deus ex. machinal

“And that makes you feel…”

“Awed. Terrified.”

“Dan, are they threatening us?”

“Not directly. But, look: if we don’t cooperate, the children will know in the future, when they grow up, when they get downstream. I mean, they’ll remember what we did, and they’ll send more quark nuggets from the Big Bang and get what they want anyhow, maybe causing a lot more damage.” He seemed to be shivering, despite the heavy warmth of the sun. “If you think about it, it could happen any moment, depending on the decisions we make. It won’t even be necessary to wait for consequent actions to flow; the children will know. Representative, we can’t be sure what we’re dealing with here. A multiheaded monster spanning past, present, and future. The children have, effectively, unlimited power…”

The thought of the children, their grown versions, in the future — in the far downstream, with much enhanced powers — reaching back with some kind of time-manipulation technology to right the wrongs they suffered here was startling. Children have been victims throughout history, she thought bleakly; maybe all children should have such power, and we would treat them with respect.

But then she found herself thinking like a politician, as someone responsible for her nation’s destiny: Now, assuming this threat from the downstream children is real, how would you go about eliminating it?

Why, by making sure the children never reach the downstream. Of course.

Immediately she filed that ugly logic, its foul conclusion, in the back of her mind.

But she knew it would be with her, part of her calculation, from now on; and she hated herself for it.

“So,” Dan said. “What do we do now?”

“The same as always,” Maura said briskly. “We try not to do too much damage while we wait to see what happens next. Oh. Is there any way we can contact the mother? Tom Tybee’s mother?”

Dan laughed. “Don’t you know where she is right now?”

They walked on toward the security fence, where their car was waiting.

June Tybee

The throwing-up had started when Bucephalus was still on the

ground.

That was nerves rather than space sickness. But it began in earnest once the injection to Earth orbit was complete, and the crew were put through the complexity of docking with the preor-bited tanks of fuel required to reach Cruithne. Then when the diarrhea cut in, the recycled air filled with a stench so powerful June knew they would be living with it for the rest of the trip.

And you couldn’t open the windows, not once.

June suffered herself. Most of the troopers did. But she got over it four, five days out.

Not everybody adapted so well, however. Eight troopers — sixteen percent of the total — -just kept barfing and shitting and getting weaker and weaker, unable even to hold down a morsel of food. So they had been allocated a corner of one of the decks, screened off from the rest, and were basically treated as casualties, nonfunctional for the duration of the voyage, all the way out to Cruithne and back.

The rest of the troopers endured tough exercise regimes: three or more hours a day on treadmills, on elasticated ropes for stretching against, and so forth. Even so, the medics said, they would likely suffer some longer-term physiological damage: bone calcium depletion and other shit. But that could be treated later, when they got back to Earth. On their return in glory, after the medals and the handshakes from the prez, they would all be retired on fat pensions, with a full entitlement to sell their stories to the highest bidders. Plenty of time to put right a little calcium loss then.

What was more important now was getting through the mission in one piece, so June could get back to Bill and Tom and Billie and the rest of her life.

A week out, the troopers dismantled the interior of this big five-deck troop module, opening up a giant cylindrical space like a huge oil can, and they began their zero G exercises in earnest.

At first her head felt like a bag of fluid that just sloshed about every time she moved. But that passed, and she soon found herself ricocheting back and forth across the oil can, practicing landing, deploying the pitons and tethers that would hold her to the asteroid’s surface, readying her weapons, smoothly working up .to a fully suited drill. All of these maneuvers were basically impossible on Earth, despite the efforts at simulation in the big NASA flotation-tank facilities.

June found, in fact, that once she was over her sickness she reveled in the freedom of zero G — to be able to fly through the air, free to move in three dimensions, without the clinging resistance of water.

Some of the troopers groused when, three weeks out from home, they started exercises sealed up in their full space suits. But June welcomed it. Sealed off from the rest of the troopers, she only had to smell herself — a sour stink of sweat and determination.

Despite the distraction of the training, the long journey out soon became pretty hellish. She was out in the middle of interplanetary space, after all; she really hadn’t expected this sense of confinement, even claustrophobia.

And the tedium of life aboard a spacecraft was dismaying: the hours she had to spend every day on the dull, repetitive exercises or, worse, cleanup duties — scraping algae off of the walls, fixing water-recycling systems that had proven balky since they left Earth, and so on, a lot of such work in this thrown-together, gremlin-ridden ship.

The troopers’ spare time, what there was of it, was taken up with what you’d expect. TV, card games (Velcro strips on the back), and a surprising amount of casual sex — hetero, homo, bi, solo, couples, and larger groups — much of it exploring the possibilities of the zero G regime. June had avoided all of that, and nobody had bothered her; the fifty-fifty male-female ratio saw to that.

Instead, she spent a lot of her time reading.

The accounts of the early astronauts, for instance. Not the flash-bang glory of Apollo and the rest of the early U.S. program, but the Russians: dogged cosmonauts with names like Dobro-volsky, Patsayev, Volkov, Lazarev, Makorov, Popovich…

From as early as 1971 the cosmonauts had endured hundreds of days in low Earth orbit in Soviet space stations, the Salyuts and the Mir, just boring a hole in the sky, nowhere to go, trying to keep themselves alive and sane. Some of those old guys had traveled farther and longer than she had — if not in a straight line — and they had only dubious tractor-factory technology to rely on. And some of the cosmonauts hadn’t come home.

Reading their accounts somehow made the Bucephalus less of a prison, for her.

That and thinking about Tom and Billie.

Faster than Reid Malenfant, the Bucephalus streaked across space toward Cruithne.

Maura Della:

Open journal. March 3,2012.

It was, of course, the extraordinary incident at Nevada that led to the decision — the right one, I think — to shut down the Blue education centers. The idea was to try to liquidate the threat, eliminate the unknowns, represented by the Blue children. Those responsible for the safety of the nation had no other choice.

The media images of cold-eyed childcare professionals backed up by heavily armed troops going into the centers and bundling bewildered, unresisting kids out of their beds are offensive to anyone with a soul. However strange these children might be they are still just kids. But it had to be done.

Anyway I know that what offends people about those images is not so much the handling of the children itself but the way we were made to confront our own hypocrisy. Everybody has always known, in their hearts, that the true purpose of the centers was containment. Everybody is complicit. Guilty, ashamed, but still afraid, we turned away.

Now the children, separated from their fellows, have disappeared into secure environments, mostly military, all across the country. Out of sight they will be forgotten; separated, they will be contained. That’s the idea anyhow.

It isn’t particularly palatable. But the problem did appear to be approaching a resolution.

Except at Nevada itself.

The wisest thing for me to do would have been to keep out of it; no matter what the resolution to the situation, there was absolutely nothing to gain for me. But staying away just wasn’t an option. My damnable conscience, a true handicap for a -politician, saw to that.

Which is how I came to be at the center when the climax came…

Dan Ystebo was waiting at the security gate when Maura got back to the center.

A week after the quark-nugget incident, the grade-school facade of the place had been stripped away. Most of the staff, including Principal Reeve, were gone. Security was tighter than ever, with what looked to Maura like a substantial military force deployed around the perimeter fence and across the compound. Guys with guns, in heavy body armor.

Dan walked her briskly to the heart of the compound. He looked fat and flustered, but she suspected he was relishing his informality and sloppiness compared to the stiff military types who now ran the place. Many of the rooms had been cleared out and given over to military functions — weapons storage, surveillance, a command post — with here and there a discarded toy or the dangling corner of some child’s painting as deeply incongruous reminders of the life and youth that had, if briefly and under restraint, come to this corner of the Nevada desert.

“I prepared you a written report,” Dan was saying. “I can download it to—”

“Just summarize.”

“The first stage of the clearance operation went to plan. Inasmuch as these goons had a plan at all…”

Most of the children, Dan said, had been cleared out of the center on the first sweep. But a hard core of a dozen or so had barricaded themselves in one of the lab rooms and wouldn’t be moved. And one of the children was — had to be, of course — little Tom Tybee.

After two days it had been obvious the situation was turning into a siege. The commanders were seeking sanction to use greater force, and the whole thing threatened to become a horrible mess.

They came to a room Maura recognized. It was the physics lab. But much had changed.

It was much bigger than she remembered; evidently two or three of the center’s rooms had been knocked together. And it was brighter; the ceiling was coated with big fluorescent strips that dumped hard flat colorless light over everything, creating a

shadowless, pearly glow.

The room was ringed by soldiers and white-coated staff, monitoring, recording. There was a sharp stink of ozone, and a sour compound of sweat and feces and urine.

And, replacing the high-school type science instruments she had seen in here before, there was now a much more substantial array of gear. There were instruments of all kinds, mostly unrecognizable to her, all over the lab. Ducts and cables ran everywhere over the floor, taped together.

The main item was some kind of torus, a fat ring of metal tightly wrapped with wire coils, maybe fifteen feet across; it sat on a series of wooden trestles. Tubes led off to other assemblies of gear, one of them the crude Tinkerbell containment cage that Maura remembered from her last visit. And there was a new cage, a mass of wire and metal rods, growing out of the middle \ of the torus.

Suffusing everything was the bright glow of the object in the original wire cage: the Tinkerbell anomaly, still dipping and darting through the air. Its light was unearthly, easily casting shadows that could not be dispersed even by the powerful fluo-rescents above.

And, through the little jungle of equipment, the children moved.

They stepped carefully, carrying bits of gear to and fro, their childish gait uncertain. Three of them sat on the floor, surrounded by white equipment boxes, eating what looked like hamburgers. In a corner, a couple of kids were sleeping, curled up together. One, a dark little girl, had her thumb in her mouth. All the kids were wearing what looked like nightclothes — loose tunics and trousers, no shoes or socks. The pajamas were grubby, sometimes torn, but neatly stitched with blue circles.

The children looked ill to Maura, but maybe that was an artifact of the hard fluorescent light.

She said to Dan, “I take it we gave them what they wanted, what Anna demanded.”

“It was here in twenty-four hours, up and working twelve hours later.”

“Tell me what it’s for.”

“It’s a factory. As we thought. It makes quark nuggets, droplets of quark matter. The children are growing positively charged nuggets through neutron capture.” He pointed to the original cage, the darting Tinkerbell light. “Small nuggets bud off the big mother in there. We don’t know how that happens, incidentally; we thought that to make quark nuggets you would need to slam heavy ions together at near light speed in a particle accelerator.”

“Evidently not,” Maura said. “How small is small?”

“The size of an atomic nucleus. The nuggets come spraying out of the cage and pass through the magnetic spectrometer — that box over there — where a magnetic field separates them out from other products. We have Cerenkov radiation detectors and time-of-flight detectors to identify the nuggets. Then the nuggets pass through that device—” a long boxy tube “ — which is a linear electrostatic decelerator. At least we think it is. The children modified it. The quark nuggets emerge from the cage at relativistic velocities, and the decelerator—”

“Slows them down.”

“Right. Then the nuggets enter the torus, the big doughnut over there. That contains heavy water, which is water laced with deuterium, heavy hydrogen. The quark nuggets are fed protons to make sure they have a positive charge. That’s important because a negatively charged nugget would—”

“Cause a runaway. I remember.”

“The quark nuggets go on to another magnetic bottle, at the end of the line there, and they are allowed to grow by absorbing neutrons. In the process energy is released, as gamma rays.”

“And that’s how a power plant would be built.”

“Maura, this apparatus is already producing power, but not at useful levels yet.”

A taller girl walked through the room, giraffe thin. She turned, unexpectedly, and looked at Maura.

“Anna,” Maura said to Dan.

“Yeah. And there’s Tommy Tybee.” He was one of the three eating.

“We’re feeding them?”

Dan eyed her. “Of course we are. We haven’t yet reached the point where we are prepared to starve out children. Anyhow it’s siege psychology. The trick-cyclist types here are trying to keep up a line of dialogue with the kids; the food, three or four times a day, is one way. And the kids get what they want: junk food, soda, candy.”

“Not so healthy.”

“Not a green vegetable in sight. But I think the consensus is we’ll fix their health later.” He pointed. “The troopers even brought in a Porta-john. The kids don’t wash much, though. And not a damn one of them will clean her teeth.

“Here’s the deal. We don’t get to cross this perimeter.” A blue line, crudely sketched in chalk, ran across the polished floor. It looked to Maura like a complete ring, running all the way around the equipment and the children’s encampment. “We put food and stuff outside the line. Anna, or one of the others, collects it.”

“What happens if we cross the line?”

“We don’t know. The goons haven’t tried yet. They know what happened to that care worker. The bullet from the future.”

“The kids must sleep…”

“In shifts.” He pointed to the little huddle of sleeping forms. “Even now. They always have lookouts. And they move in clusters. It wouldn’t be possible to snatch one without others seeing, being close enough to react.” He scratched his beard thoughtfully. “There are some military-college types analyzing the patterns of the kids’ behavior. Turns out it’s very sophisticated. They work as if they are a single unit, but you don’t hear any of them giving commands or directing the others.”

“Then how? Telepathy?”

Dan shrugged. “They are all supersmart. Maybe they can all figure out the solution to this dynamic tactical problem. Maybe they just know.” He paused. “But it’s eerie to watch, Ms. Della. You can see the collective way they move. Like a pack.”

“Not human.”

“I guess not.”

The atmosphere here was one of tension and suspicion. An image came into her mind of Homo sapi children sitting around a fire, talking fast and fluidly, making fine tools and bows and arrows, surrounded by a circle of baffled and wary Neanderthal adults.

There was a sudden commotion on the other side of the lab: a brief scuffle, voices raised.

Somebody, an adult civilian, had stepped inside the blue chalk perimeter of the children’s domain. A couple of soldiers were reaching for him, weapons at their waist, but the intruder was out of reach.

“Oh, Christ,” Maura said.

It was Bill Tybee.

Little Torn came running out of the group of burger-munching kids, thin legs flashing. He ran straight to his father and clung to his legs, as if that were all that mattered, as if he were just some ordinary kid, and here was his father home from a day’s work.

Bill kneeled down. “You’ve got to come with me now, Tom. It’s over now. We’ll go back home, and wait for Mommy.”

As his father gently coaxed, Tom, clinging, was weeping loudly.

All around the room, Maura saw, weapons were being primed.

The girl Anna came forward now. Bill tensed, but let her approach the boy. Anna laid her own thin hand on Tom’s head. “Tom? You can go with your father if you want. You know that.”

Tom’s eyes were brimming pools of tears. His head tipped up; he looked from Anna to his father and back again. “I don’t want you to go, Dad.”

“But we both have to go.” Maura heard the effort Bill was making to keep his voice level. “Don’t you see? Everything will be fine. Your room is still there, just the way you left it.”

“No. Stay here.”

“I can’t.” Bill’s voice was breaking. “They are sending me away. The soldiers. I have to go now. And you have to come with me.”

“No—”

The girl stepped back. “Let him go, Mr. Tybee.”

Maura knew what was coming. Dread gathering blackly, she pushed forward; she got to the perimeter chalk line before she was stopped by a burly trooper. She called, “Bill. Come out of there.”

Bill grabbed the boy and straightened up, clutching Tom against his chest. “He’s my son. I can’t stand any more of this. Jesus, don’t any of you understand that?”

Maura said, as harshly as she could, “You have to let him go, Bill”

“No!” It was barely a word, more a roar of anger and pain. Holding Tom, Bill pulled away from Anna and tried to step out of the circle.

There was a flash.

Bill fell, screaming, grabbing at his leg.

Tom, released, tumbled; two children caught him and hauled him back to the center of the lab, out of reach.

Bill was on the ground, his lower right leg reduced to a mass of smashed flesh, shards of bone, a few tatters of cloth. A burly trooper in heavy body armor took a step forward, over the chalk line. He grabbed Bill around the waist — Maura heard the whir of hydraulics — and he hauled Bill bodily out of the blue circle, out of the room.

A trooper jumped on a table — a sergeant, Maura realized. “Let’s clear the room now, people. Let’s keep it orderly.”

“My God,” Dan Ystebo said.

Maura said, “Another bullet from the future?”

“The flash came from the bottle.” He pointed at the magnetic bottle at the end of the quark-nugget production line. “They shot him with a quark nugget.” He laughed, his voice strained. “They don’t need help from downstream any more.”

A trooper approached; they were hustled out of the room. But as she left, Maura couldn’t shut out of her head the sound of two people screaming: Bill Tybee, in the care of the paramedics, fighting to stay conscious; and his son, Tom, torn between warm past and chill future, a future he already knew his father couldn’t share.

And she knew, now, there were few options left.

Maura and Dan were restricted to a bunker a couple of miles from the center itself.

It was comfortable here: air-conditioned, clean, orderlies to serve coffee to the representative and her companion. But in the big central command, control, and communications room — C Cubed, as the military types called it — there was an air of tension.

Even though the target, monitored from a hundred angles, was just a group of eleven children, still confined to their blue-chalk circle. Just children: working, sleeping, eating, even playing. Eleven spindly, unwashed kids.

The first countermeasure was invisible.

When it was initiated some of the children — Maura counted them, four, five, six — fell down immediately. Maura could see them vomiting, and one little girl had a dark stain spreading over her backside as her bowels loosened. They were clutching their stomachs and crying — zoom in on twisted faces.

. Anna hauled the little ones into the big new cage they had built at the center of the heavy-water torus. As soon as they were inside the cage the children’s retching seemed to stop, and they immediately calmed. Anna sat the smallest girl on her lap and stroked her sweat-tangled hair.

Soon all the children were inside the cage, sitting or standing or lying. Anna led them in singing what sounded like a nursery rhyme.

“So much for that,” Dan said.

“What was it?”

“Deer savers,” he said. “Like on the hood of your car. Infrasound — very low frequency stuff. If you tune it right you can cause disorientation, nausea, even diarrhea. The FBI have been using it for years.”

“Good God almighty.”

“Every conspiracy nut knows about it. It was the best hope, in my opinion.”

“Hope of what?”

“Of a peaceful conclusion to this mess. But it didn’t work. Look at them. As soon as they got inside that cage of theirs they were immune. The cage is a barrier against infrasound.”

“Yes, and what else does it do?”

“I have a feeling we’ll find out. So… what next?”

Next turned out to be an invasion.

They kept the infrasound turned on for twelve hours. At least that kept the children trapped in their cage of steel and wire. Some of the kids managed to sleep, but there was no food in there, no water, no sanitation.

Then the troopers went in, eleven of them in their exo-suits: strictly SIPEs, for Soldier Integrated Protective Ensemble. They walked with a stiff, unnatural precision. Over each trooper’s head was a complex, insectile mask: a totally contained respiratory system, night-vision goggles, a heads-up display, even cute little sensors that would aim weapons the way the soldier happened to be looking.

Eleven supersoldiers, one for each superkid, stomping through grade-school corridors. Maura wondered what the troopers were feeling, how they had been briefed — how they were supposed to deal with this personally, even supposing they were successful.

In the event they didn’t even reach the lab.

Maura actually saw the quark nugget bullets come flying out through the walls of the compound, then falling into the body of the Earth.

Then the retreat began.

Three troopers had died. Two more were injured and had to be carried out by their companions. One came out with her SIPE half disabled, one leg dragging crazily.

The children, fragile-looking stick figures in their tent of wire, didn’t seem to have moved.

Dan Ystebo grunted. “One option left, then.”

It took another ten hours for the final approval to be obtained.

Far beyond her jurisdiction, Maura Della was nevertheless consulted by administration officials. She was invited to take part by e-presence at security meetings in the White House family theater. The attention was flattering, the weight of the decision overwhelming.

Before she made her final recommendation she took time out, went and sought out a shower room, stood in the jet for long minutes with the dial turned to its hottest, and the air filled up with sauna steam.

She hadn’t slept for maybe thirty-six hours. She couldn’t remember the last time she had sat down to eat. She had no idea how well her mind was functioning.

But this was, it seemed, a battlefield. The front line. And you don’t get much sleep on the battlefield…

Open journal. March 8,2012.

It’s clear that whether she meant it or not, Anna’s briefly sketched prospectus — a new social order devised by the Blue children — has finally crystallized hostility to them, even more than the physical threat they represent. Nobody is about to submit to an ideology drawn up by a bunch of swivel-eyed kids. And underlying that is an inchoate fear that even considering the proposals will somehow lead to a transfer of actual control to the children.

After all, what were Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union but triumphs of a centralized, planning, “scientific” elite? It seems to me that the human race simply isn’t advanced enough yet to be able to trust any subset of itself with the power to run the lives of the rest.

That isn’t to say that in all parts of the planet the response will be the same. Maybe some deranged totalitarian asshole is trying to recruit local Blue kids to prop up his lousy regime even now. And even some politically advanced parts of the world might not find the children’s proposals quite as instinctively repelling as Americans. The French, for example, have an instinct for centralization that dates back to Colbert in the seventeenth century. As a visiting American I have been bemused to observe how their senior people work, top managers trained in the grandes ecoles gliding between positions as ministerial advisers and captains of industry.

Not in America, though. America was after all built on the belief that centralized control is in principle a bad thing. And what about democracy? In fact I would be deeply suspicious of anybody, any stern Utopian, who advocated handing over power to any elite, however benevolent.

But I suspect there is a still deeper fear, even an instinct, that lies buried under the layers of rationalization. Even in my own heart.

It may be that these children are in some sense superior to the Homo sapiens stock from which they emerged. Maybe they could run the world better than any human; maybe a world full of Blues would be an infinitely better place, a step up.

Maybe. But as I was elected to serve the interests of a large number of Hsap — and as a proud Hsap myself — I’m not about to sit around and let these Blues take my planet away.

If this final solution is turned down now, presumably further military options will be discussed, rehearsed, tried out, in escalating severity. Maybe we will, in the end, come back to this point again, the unleashing of the fire. But by then it could be too late.

Time is the key.

But all this is rationalization. I have to decide whether to destroy eleven American children. That is the bottom line.

I did not enter politics to be involved in this kind of operation. But who did? And I have learned that leadership is, more often than not, the art of choosing the least worst among evils.

Always assuming we still have a choice.

Learning to live with myself after this is going to be interesting.

She turned off her shower. The steam dispersed, the air cleared, and she was instantly cold.

Once again she stood with Dan Ystebo in the C Cubed center. But the place was silent now save for the soft hiss of the air-conditioning, the whirr of the cooling fans of the equipment.

The various instruments monitoring the children’s physical state, their heartbeat and respiration and temperature, and measuring the temperature and air composition, and the electromagnetic fields and particles crisscrossing the rebuilt physics lab — all of this was ignored. Everybody was watching the softscreens, the visual images of the center’s exterior, the children in their cage.

And the moment came unexpectedly, softly.

There was an instant of blinding light.

Then it was as if a giant metal ball had dropped out of the sky. The center — the buildings, the drab dormitory, the fence, a few abandoned vehicles — seemed to blossom, flying apart, before they vanished, their form only a memory. A wave passed through the ground, neat concentric pulses of dirt billowing up, and it seemed to Maura that the air rippled as a monstrous ball of plasma, the air itself torn apart, and began to rise.

The sensor burned out. The screen image turned to hash, and the bunker turned into an electronic cave, sealed from the world.

The bunker was well protected. She barely felt the waves of heat and sound and light and shattered air that washed over it.

“A backpack nuke,” she said to Dan Ystebo.

“Cute name.”

“About a kiloton. They buried it in the foundations, weeks ago.”

A wall-mounted softscreen came back online, relaying a scratchy picture.

It was an image of the center. Or rather, of the hole in the ground where the center had been. A cliche image, the stalk of a mushroom cloud.

The camera zoomed in. There was something emerging from the base of the cloud. It was hard, round, silvery, reflective, like a droplet of mercury. It was impossible to estimate its size.

There was utter silence in the bunker, the silver light of the droplet reflected in a hundred staring eyes.

The droplet seemed to hover, for a heartbeat, two. And then it shot skyward, a blur of silver, too rapidly for the camera to follow.

“I wonder where they are going,” Dan said.

“The downstream, of course,” she said. “I hope…”

“Yes?”

“I hope they’ll understand.”

The mushroom cloud swept over the sun.

Emma Stoney:

And on Cruithne, Emma prepared to explore an alien artifact.

The continual shifting of the light, the slow wheel of the stars and the shrinking of her shadow, lent the place an air of surre-ality. Nothing seemed to stay fixed; it was as if craters and dust and people were swimming back and forth, toward her and away from her, as if distance and time were dissolving.

Somehow, standing here on the asteroid’s complex surface, it didn’t seem so strange at all that the “empty” space around her was awash with trillions of neutrinos — invisible, all but intangible, sleeting through her like a ghost rain. If she was going to hear echoes from the future anywhere, she thought, it would be here.

But nothing seemed real. It seemed wrong that she should be here, now; she felt like a shadow cast by the genuine, solid Emma Stoney, who was probably sitting in some office in New York or Vegas or Washington, still struggling to salvage something of Bootstrap’s tangled affairs.

But here was Malenfant’s voice crackling in her headset, barking orders in his practical way. “Make sure you’re attached to at least two tethers at all times. Do you all understand? Cornelius, Emma, Michael?”

One by one they answered — even Michael, in his eerie translated voice. Yes. I won ‘tfall off.

“Let’s get on with it,” Cornelius murmured.

Malenfant led them to a pair of guide cables. They were made of yellow nylon and had been pinned to the dirt by the fireflies.

Looking ahead, Emma saw how the tethers snaked away over the asteroid’s tight, broken horizon. Malenfant said, “Clip yourself to the guide cables. We’ve practiced with the jaw clips; you know how to handle them. Remember, always keep ahold of at least two cables…”

Emma lifted herself with her toes, tilted, and let herself fall gently forward. It was like falling through syrup. The complex, textured surface of the asteroid approached her faceplate; reflections skimmed across her gold visor.

She let her gloved hands sink into the regolith. She heard a soft squeaking, like crushed snow, as her gloves pushed into the dust.

This was the closest she had come to Cruithne.

On impulse, she undipped her outer glove, exposing her skin-suited hand. She could actually see her skin, little circles of it amid the orange spandex, exposed to vacuum, forty million miles from Earth. Her hand seemed to prickle, probably more from the effects of raw sunlight than from the vacuum itself.

She pushed her half-bare hand into the asteroid ground. The surface was sun-hot, but the regolith beneath was cold and dry. She felt grains — sharp, shattered, very small, like powder. But the dust was very loose, easily compacted; it seemed to collapse under her gentle pressure, and soft clouds of it gushed away from her fingers.

When she had pushed her hand in maybe six inches, the dust started to resist her motion, as if compacting. But her probing fingers found something small and hard. A pebble. She closed her hands around it and pulled it out. It was complex, irregularly shaped, the size of her thumb joint. It was made of a number of different rock types, she could see, smashed and jammed together. It was a breccia, regolith compacted so the grains stuck together, analogous to sandstone on Earth.

She rolled the pebble in her fingers, letting dust flake off on her skin, relishing the raw, physical contact, a window to reality.

She tucked the pebble back in its hole. She rubbed her fingers over each other to scrape off a little of the dust that clung to her skinsuit glove, and put back her outer glove. Snug in its layers of cooling and meteorite-protection gear, her hand tingled after its adventure.

When they were done, clipped to the cables in a line, Malenfant stood briefly to inspect them, then let himself fall back to the surface. “Here we go.” And he crawled away, toward the horizon.

Emma dug her gloved hands into the regolith and pulled herself along the ground. She could see the feet of Michael ahead, was aware of Cornelius bringing up the rear behind her. It was like skimming along the floor of a swimming pool; she just paddled at the regolith with one hand, occasionally pushing at the ground to keep up.

They covered the ground rapidly. Fireflies ghosted alongside them, scrabbling over the surface in a blur of pi tons and tethers, making this an expedition of scrambling humans and spiderlike robots.

Her perspective seemed to swivel around so that she no longer felt as if she were sailing over a sea-bottom floor but climbing, scrambling up the face of some dusty cliff. But this cliff bulged outward at her, and there was nothing beneath her to catch her.

And now the world seemed to swivel again, and here she was clinging to a ceiling like a fly. She found herself digging her gloves deep into the regolith. But she couldn’t support her weight here, let alone keep herself pinned flat against the roof. Her heart thumped, so loud in her ears it was painful.

A hand grabbed her shoulder.

It was dark, she realized. Without noticing she’d sailed into the shadow of the asteroid. She flipped up her gold visor, and now Malenfant loomed, a fat, ghostly snowman. There were stars all around his head. “You okay?”

She took stock. Her stomach seemed to have calmed, the thumping of her heart slowing. “Maybe moving around this damn rock is harder than I expected.”

She looked back. Cornelius came clambering along the guide ropes after her, paddling at the regolith like a clumsy fish. Despite the darkness of the asteroid’s short “night,” Cornelius wouldn’t lift his sun visor.

Malenfant grinned at Emma and made a starfish sign in front of his face, a private joke from their marriage. The poor sap has barfed in his suit.

Somehow that made Emma feel a whole lot better.

“Anyhow it’s over.”

“It is?”

Malenfant helped her to her feet. “We’re here.”

And she found herself facing the artifact.

It was just a hoop of sky blue protruding from the asteroid ground, rimmed by stars. It sat in a neat craterlike depression maybe fifty yards across.

She could see the marks of firefly pitons and tethers, the regular grooves made by scoops as the robots had dug out this anomaly from the eroded hulk of Cruithne. The fireflies had fixed a network of tethers and guide ropes around the artifact. They looked, bizarrely, like queuing ropes around some historic relic.

Malenfant, tethered to the dirt, stood before the artifact, facing it boldly. Cornelius and Michael were clambering along more tethers toward him, ghosts in the pale starlight, just outlines against a background of black dirt and wheeling stars and alien blue.

Emma approached the artifact. It was perfectly circular, as far as she could see, like a sculpture. A small arc at the base was buried in the dirt of Cruithne. There were stars all around the ring, in the night sky — but not within its hoop, she noticed now. The disc of space cut out by the hoop was black, blacker than the sky itself.

It was obviously artificial. A made thing, in a place no human had been before.

And it was glowing, here in the asteroid night. She glanced down at herself. There was blue artifact light on her, too, highlighting from the folds of her meteorite-protection oversuit.

Malenfant said, “Let’s not freak out. It’s not going to bite us. We’re not going to slacken up on our tether drill, and we’re going to watch our consumables every second of the stay here. Is that understood? Okay, then.”

Clipping themselves to the guide ropes, Emma firmly gripping Michael’s hand, the four humans moved in on the artifact.

Reid Malenfant:

Malenfant got to maybe six feet from the base of the hoop, where it slid into the regolith. The hoop towered over him. That interior looked jet black, not reflecting a single photon cast by his helmet lamp.

He glared into the disc of darkness. What are you for? Why are you here?

There was, of course, no reply.

First things first. Let’s do a little science here, Malenfant.

Sliding his tether clips along the guide ropes, he paced out the diameter of the hoop. Thirty feet, give or take. He approached the hoop itself. It was electric blue, glowing as if from within, a wafer-thin band the width of his palm. He could see no seams, no granularity.

He reached out a gloved hand, fabric encasing monkey fingers, and tried to touch the hoop.

Something invisible made his hand slide away, sideways.

No matter how hard he pushed, how he braced himself against the regolith, he could get his glove no closer than an eighth of an inch or so to the material. And always that insidious, soapy feeling of being pushed sideways.

He reported this to Cornelius, who grunted. “Run your hand up and down, along the hoop.”

Malenfant did so. “There are… ripples.”

“Tidal effects. I thought so.”

“Tidal?”

“Malenfant, that hoop may not be material.”

“If it ain’t material, what is it?”

Folded time.

That was Michael, skimming easily around the artifact, as if he’d been born in this tiny gravity.

Malenfant snapped, “What the hell does that mean?”

Cornelius said, “He’s saying this thing might be an artifact of spacetime.” He labored at the instruments the fireflies were deploying. The instruments, sleek anonymous boxes, were connected to each other and to a central data-collection point by plastic-coated cables, light pipes, and diagnostic leads. The cluster of instruments was powered by a small radiothermal isotope power generator. The cables refused to uncoil properly and lie flat. Cornelius stared at chattering data, avoiding the stern mystery of the thing itself. “I have a gravity gradiometer here. I’m picking up some strange distortions to the local gravity field that… I need to figure out some kind of gravity-stress gauge that will tell me more.” Mumbling on, he tapped at his softscreen with clumsy gloved fingers.

Malenfant understood not a damn word. He had the feeling Cornelius wouldn’t be much help here.

He walked back to the center of the hoop. That sheet of silent darkness faced him, challenging.

Abruptly the sun emerged from behind a hill to his left, as Cruithne’s fifteen-minute day rolled them all into light once more. His shadow stretched off, to his right, over the crumbled, glistening ground, shrinking as he watched.

The sunlight dimmed the eerie blue glow of the hoop. But where the light struck the hoop’s dark interior, it returned nothing: not a highlight, not a speckle of reflection.

He reached out a hand, palm up, to the dark surface.

No.

Michael was beside him. The kid reached up and grabbed Malenfant’s arm, trying to pull it back. But Michael was too light; his feet were dangling above the regolith, tethers snaking languidly around him.

Malenfant lowered him carefully.

Michael bent and rummaged in the asteroid dirt. He straightened up, hands and sleeves soiled, holding a pebble, an irregular chunk of breccia the size and shape of a walnut. He threw the stone, underarm, into the hoop.

It sailed in a straight line, virtually undisturbed by Cruithne’s feeble gravity.

Then the stone seemed to slow. It dimmed, and it seemed to Malenfant that it became reddish, as if illuminated by a light that was burning out.

The stone disappeared.

Michael was looking up at him, grinning.

Malenfant patted his helmeted head. “You’re a scientist after my own heart, kid. Hands on. Let’s go find that rock.” He started to work his way around the artifact to the far side. The ropes were awkward, and clipping and unclipping the tethers took time.

Michael stared around at the ground beneath the hoop. He was still grinning, the happiest he’d been since he had left Earth. My stone is not here.

“Dear God,” Emma said. “Just as we saw when the firefly went through.”

“Yeah. But seeing it for real is kind of spooky. I mean, where is that stone now?”

Michael found another stone, dug out of the dirt, and he threw it into the black surface. The stone slowed, turned red, winked out. This time it looked to Malenfant as if it hadflattened as it approached the surface.

“Malenfant.”

He turned. Emma was pointing.

The surface was churned up, pitted and cratered — but then, so was the surface all over the asteroid. What made this different was what lay in the craters.

Scraps of flesh. Dead squid, bodies crushed and broken, disrupted by vacuum, desiccated, life-giving fluids lost to space.

He loosened his tether and tried to get closer to her.

“There was a war here,” Emma said.

“Or an execution. Or—”

“Or suicide.” He felt Emma’s hand creep into his. “It’s just like home.”

“What do you mean?”

“Maybe these are the ones who explored the artifact. The Sheenas. Or maybe some of them were touched by the downstream signal.”

“Like Michael, and the other children.”

“Yes. And the others feared them, feared what they had become, and killed them.”

Or maybe, Malenfant thought, the smart ones won. He wasn’t sure which was the scarier prospect.

“What have we got here, Cornelius?”

“Ask the boy,” Cornelius snapped. “He’s the intuitive genius. I’m just a mathematician. Right now I’m trying to gather data.”

Malenfant said patiently, “Tell me about your data, then.”

“I didn’t know what to measure here. So I brought everything I can think of. I have photodetectors so I can measure the light that’s reflecting off that thing, and the light it emits, at a variety of energies. I have a gravity gradiometer, six rotating pairs of accelerometers, that they use in nuclear submarines to detect underwater ridges and mountains from variations in the gravity pull — nice plowshare stuff.

“There’s a powerful magnetic field threading the artifact. Did I tell you that?

“Oh, and I have particle detectors. Solid state, slabs of silicon that record electrical impulses set off by particles as they pass through. Nothing very elaborate. I even have a lashed-up neutrino detector that is showing some results; Malenfant, that thing seems to be a powerful neutrino source.”

Cornelius was talking too much. Spooked, Malenfant thought. Handling this less well than the kid, in fact. “What is an artifact of spacetime?”

Cornelius hesitated. “I shouldn’t have said that. I’m speculating.”

Malenfant waited.

Cornelius straightened up stiffly. “Malenfant, I feel like an ancient Greek philosopher, Pythagoras maybe, confronted by an electronic calculator. If we experiment we can make some guess about its function, but—”

And Emma was yelling. “Michael!”

Michael had taken off all his tethers. He looked back at Emma, waved, and then made a standing jump. In the low gravity he just sailed forward, tumbling slightly.

Emma grabbed for him, but he had gone much too far to reach.

He hit the black surface, square at the center, just as he’d clearly intended. He seemed to Malenfant to flatten — his image became tinged with red — and then he shot away, as if being dragged into some immense tunnel.

There was a screech in Malenfant’s headset, a howl of white noise loud enough to hurt his ears. He saw Emma and Cornelius clap their hands to their helmets in a vain attempt to block out the noise.

After a couple of seconds, mercifully, it ceased.

But Michael was gone.

Emma was standing before the artifact. “Michael!” The burnished hoop was gleaming in her gold faceplate. Malenfant couldn’t see her face. But he knew that tightness in her voice.

He looked for something practical to do. Emma was unteth-ered, he saw. He bent and picked up loose tethers and clipped them to her belt.

She turned to him. “So,” she said. “What do we do now?”

“Malenfant.” It was Cornelius. “Listen to this.” He tapped at his softscreen, and a recording played in Malenfant’s headset. Words, too soft to make out.

“It’s the screech,” Cornelius said. “It came from the artifact, a broad-spectrum radio pulse that—”

“Turn up the volume, damn it.”

Cornelius complied.

It was, of course, Michael — or rather, his translated voice.

I found my stone.

Emma Stoney:

The three of them beat a hasty retreat back to the dome.

Cornelius dragged off his suit, went straight to his softscreens, and started working through the data.

Malenfant patiently gathered up the discarded equipment. He hooked up their backpacks to recharge units. And then he got a small vacuum cleaner to suck up the loose dust.

Emma grabbed his arm. “I can’t believe you’re doing this.”

“We’ll all be finished if we forget the routines, the drills, our procedures.”

“We lost Michael. We all but kidnapped him, brought him all the way to this damn asteroid, and now we lost him. His oxygen will expire in—” She checked.” — ten more hours.”

“I know that.”

“So what are you going to do? “

He looked exhausted. He let go of the cleaner; it drifted to the floor. “I told Cornelius he has one hour, one of those ten, to figure out what we’re dealing with here.”

“And then what?”

He shrugged. “Then I suit up and go in after the boy.”

Emma shook her head. “I never imagined it would come to this.”

“Then,” Cornelius said coldly, “you didn’t think very far ahead.”

“Your language is inhuman,” Emma said.

Cornelius looked startled. “Perhaps it is. But to tell you the truth, I’m not sure Michael is fully human. He’s been one step ahead of us since we arrived here. It may be he knew exactly what he was doing when he walked through that portal, where he was going. It was his choice. Have you thought of that?”

An air-circulation pump clattered to a stop.

Malenfant and Emma stared at each other. After so many weeks in the O’Neill and the hab bubble, she’d gotten to know every mechanical bang and whir and clunk of the systems that kept her alive. And she knew immediately that something was wrong.

She followed Malenfant to Cornelius, who was sitting on a T-chair by the hab’s mocked-up control board. The softscreen display panels were a mess of red indicators; some of them were showing nothing but a mush of static.

“What’s happened?”

Cornelius turned to Malenfant, the muscles around his eyes tight with strain. “It looks like something fried our electronics.”

“Like what? A solar flare?”

“I doubt it.”

Malenfant tapped at a softscreen. “We’re not in any immediate danger. The surface systems seem to have gone down uniformly, but a lot of the hab systems are too stupid to fail.”

Emma said, “Have we taken a radiation dose?”

“Maybe. Depending what the cause of this is.”

“My God.”

Cornelius had produced an image on the softscreen.

It was a star field. But something, an immense shape, was occluding the stars, one by one. In the middle of the black cutout form, a light winked.

“That’s a ship,” Malenfant said. “But who—”

With a mechanical rattle, all the hab’s systems stopped working, and silence fell.

Cornelius turned to Malenfant. “Too stupid to fail?”

Emma felt hot, stuffy, and her chest ached. Without the air circulation and revitalization provided by the loop systems, the carbon dioxide produced by her own lungs would cluster around her face, gradually choking her.

She waved at the air before her mouth, making a breeze, fighting off panic.

The softscreen image, relayed by some surface camera, fritzed out.

“I think we’d better suit up again,” said Malenfant.

June Tybee

June lay loosely strapped into her couch. She was one of ten troopers in this big circular cabin, which was one of five stacked up at the heart of Bucephalus. The troopers in their armor looked like a row of giant beetles.

Her suit, after weeks of practice, felt like part of her body, even the bulky helmet with its thick connectors. The suit was colored charcoal gray, nearly black. Asteroid camouflage. It had been a relief for June when the order had come, just before the brilliant flash of the EMP bomb, to close up her visor. The troopers ought to be rad-shielded, here at the heart of the ship. But it didn’t do any harm to be wrapped in the suit’s extra shielding.

Now the covers on the cabin windows snapped open. The windows were just little round punctures in the insulated, padded walls. But they were enough to show her the stars — and something else.

A shape, charcoal black and massive, came swimming into her field of view. It looked like a barbecue brick that somebody had been taking potshots at. But there were structures on the surface, she saw: little gold domes, what looked like a spacecraft, a glimmer of electric blue.

There were whoops and shouts, and June felt her heart thump with anticipation.

It was Cruithne. They had arrived.

But then a series of bangs hammered at the hull of the carrier. She knew from experience what that was: blips of the attitude-control thrusters. But such a prolonged firing was unusual.

She felt a ghostly shove sideways. It took a while for a ship the mass of Bucephalus to change course. But right now it was trying mighty hard.

And something new came sailing past the window. It was a golden sphere, rippling and shimmering. It was inexplicable: beautiful, even graceful, but utterly strange — a golden jellyfish swimming up at her out of the darkness.

Suddenly it came to June where she was, what she was doing, how far she was from home. The Bucephalus suddenly seemed very fragile. Fear clutched at her chest, deep and primitive.

Emma Stoney:

“Jeez,” Malenfant said, his radio-transmitted voice crackling in

her ear. “It’s the cops.”

Emma was out in the open, locked into her suit, staring at the sky.

The ship was like nothing she had seen before.

It was a squat cylinder with a rounded snub nose. She could see no rocket nozzles at its flaring base. It had two giant finlike wings on which were marked the letters USA, and it had a USASF roundel and a Stars and Stripes painted close to the base. There were complex assemblies mounted on some parts of the hull: an antenna cluster, what looked like a giant swivel-mounted searchlight. The hull was swathed with thick layers of insulation blankets, pocked and yellowed by weeks in space.

Somehow it disturbed Emma to see that huge mass hanging over her in the Cruithne sky: a sky she had become accustomed to thinking of as empty save for the stars, the gleam of Earth, the lurid disc of the sun.

A few yards ahead of her a firefly robot was maneuvering, working its pitons and tethers, in a tight, neat circle, over and over, its carapace scuffed and blackened with dust. It was scrambled, like the equipment in the hab module.

But their suits were working fine. Malenfant had gotten into the habit of burying the suits under a few feet of loosely packed regolith. Just a little more protection, he always said. Now Emma was starting to see the wisdom of that.

“He’s coming down over the pole,” Malenfant murmured now, watching the ship. “Looks like a single-stage-to-orbit design. See the aerospike assembly at the base there? The base would serve as the heat shield on reentry. It’s one big mother. How could they assemble it, fly it so quickly, chase us out here?”

Cornelius shrugged, clumsy in his suit. “Shows how seriously they take you. Anyway now we know what happened to the electronics.”

“Oh,” said Malenfant. “An BMP.”

Emma asked, “BMP?”

“Electromagnetic pulse,” Cornelius said. “They set off a small nuclear weapon above the asteroid. Flooded our electronics with radiation.”

“My God,” Emma said. “How much of a dose did we take?”

They had no dosimeters, no way to answer the question. Emma felt her flesh crawl under her skinsuit, as if she could feel the sleet of hard radiation coursing through her body.

“Anyhow it was seriously dumb,” Malenfant said. “It’s made it impossible for us to talk with them.”

“Maybe they thought they had no choice,” Cornelius said. “They didn’t know what they were flying into here, after all—”

And then Emma saw something new: a sac of water, encased in rippling gold fabric, sailing up from the surface of Cruithne toward the intruder.

Malenfant clenched a fist. “God damn, it’s the squid. The ones who stayed. They’re fighting back.”

Emma’s heart sank. They were doomed, it seemed, to a battle, whether they wanted it or not.

Sparks burst from complex little clusters along the hull of the ship. The great ship began to roll, deflecting ponderously. But it wasn’t going to be enough.

The converging of the two giant masses, in utter silence, was oddly soothing to watch, despite her understanding of the great and deadly forces involved: they were like clouds, she thought: complex clouds of metal and water and fabric.

The water bomb’s membrane snagged on some projection on the ship’s hull. The water within gushed out, blossoming to vapor in a giant, slow explosion. The ship was set tumbling erratically, nose over tail, and the membrane, crumpled, fell away. Emma could see more sparks now as the pilots blipped their attitude thrusters, struggling to bring their craft under control.

“Not enough,” Cornelius said.

“What do you mean?” Emma said.

“If the collision had been head-on the squid missile would have wrecked that thing. Cracked it open like an egg. But that sideswipe is just going to inconvenience them.”

“You mean,” Malenfant said, “it will make them mad.”

Now little hatches in the ship’s hull slid back, and tiny, complex toys squirted out into space. They swiveled this way and that, tight and neat, and then squirted in dead straight lines over the horizons.

“Comsats,” said Malenfant. “For command, communications, control. So they can see all the way around the rock when they begin their operations.”

Emma asked, “What operations?”

“Taking Cruithne. What else?”

And then the ground shook.

They were all floating a little way upward, she saw, like water drops shaken off by a dog. When they landed they staggered. Emma thought she could feel huge slow waves working through the dust-laden ground.

Malenfant snapped, “What the hell now?”

Cornelius was pointing to the horizon.

From beyond Cruithne’s dusty shoulder, an ice fountain was bursting upward. Droplets fanned out in perfectly straight lines, gleaming like miniature stars, unperturbed by Cruithne’s feeble gravity.

“They’re hitting the squid,” she said. “Their domes—”

“Yeah,” Malenfant growled.

“How did they do that?” Emma asked. “How do you fight a space war?”

Malenfant said, “Maybe they fired a projectile. Like an anti-satellite missile.”

“No.” Cornelius pointed to the searchlight-type mount on the hull of the ship. “That looks like a laser-beam director to me. Probably a chemical laser, several megawatts of power, a mirror a few feet across.”

Emma asked, “Could they fire it again?”

“You bet,” Malenfant said. “The babies they developed for Star Wars back in the eighties were designed for thousands of shots.”

Already the ice fountain was dying.

Emma was glad some of the squid, at least, had been spared this, that they were on their way to the Jupiter-orbit Trojans, where they would be far beyond the reach of this heavy-handed military intervention.

Unlike herself.

“They’ll take out our habitat next,” Cornelius said. “Then trash theO’NeilL”

“They wouldn’t do that,” Emma said. “That would kill us.”

“They don’t know who’s firing at them. They’re going to shoot first—”

“ — and let Saint Peter sort us out,” Malenfant said grimly. “Hell, it’s what I’d do.”

Emma said, “Without the habitat, without O ‘Neill, we’ll be dead when the suits expire. Ten, twelve hours.”

Cornelius said tightly, “I think we know that.”

More hatches opened and tiny rockets hurtled out, trailing cables. The rockets fell over Cruithne’s tight horizon, and Emma saw sprays of regolith dust. The cables went taut, and the ship began to turn, grandly, like a liner towed by tugboats.

“He’s harpooned us,” Malenfant said. “And now he’s winching himself in.”

Another hatch was opening in the ship’s belly. She saw a rectangle of pale gray light, the figure of a person — a soldier — heavily armored. The soldier looked ant sized. For the first time she realized how big the ship really was.

Cornelius moved. “We have to get away. Come on.” He dragged his tethers out of the regolith, lay down flat, and began pulling himself by his fingertips over the surface. He wasn’t even bothering to anchor himself, Emma saw.

“Cornelius is in kind of a hurry,” she said.

Malenfant said grimly, “I suspect he knows something we don’t. We’d better follow him.”

Emma fell forward. Cruithne dust billowed around her, and she began to float-crawl forward, after the fleeing Cornelius.

June Tybee

June was ready by the closed hatch. Her harness, slung loosely about her suit, was attached to a guide rope that coiled loosely above her head.

Just like taking a parachute drop, she thought.

Except, of course, it wasn’t.

The hatch slid open.

Cruithne was framed in the hatchway: dark as soot, dimpled with craters of all sizes, here and there glistening blue or red. She could see the guide rope snaking, coils frozen in zero G, to a piton-tipped rocket buried in the dirt. There was no sense of gravity. It was like looking straight ahead at a wall, rather than down to a ground.

Such had been her proficiency in the zero G drills that she had been selected in the first wave. And so here she was in the hatchway of a spacecraft, and she was facing an asteroid.

Oh Christ oh Christ…

Someone slapped her on the back. She didn’t allow herself to hesitate. She gave her harness one last tug, floated forward, and pushed hard out the hatch.

She was floating between two vertical walls, as if crossing between two buildings, following the coiling cable. And when she looked down—

She looked down and saw stars.

To left and right, above, more stars. Space, above her and below her and all around her. The confinement of her months inside Bucephalus fell away, and the scale of the universe opened out from a few feet to infinity. She felt her stomach churn. Nothing, no amount of training or simulation, nothing had prepared her for the reality of this, of drifting in space.

They should have tried, though, she thought.

She clutched her weapon to her chest, focused on it to the exclusion of all else. Such weapons were her specialty — in fact she had trained others in their use. The gun was distorted in her view by her curved, tinted faceplate. It was a combination laser rifle and projectile weapon — ordinary bullets, the clips and barrels modified to take account of the vacuum. Big trigger for gloved fingers. A fancy graphite lubricant that wouldn’t seize in the vacuum. Big modular parts for easy repair. LED display to show her the laser’s power — right now, of course, it was fully charged. …

The transfer could only have taken a minute. It seemed much longer.

Here came the asteroid at last, its detail exploding, filling her faceplate. She saw how its surface was sculpted by craters, circles on circles, like the beach after the rain, like that day in Florida with Tom. But this beach was black as coal, not golden, and the sky was black too, not washed-out blue, and she was a long way from Florida.

Her radar pinged in her ear, warning her she was close.

She spread out her arms and legs, starfishing, as she’d been trained. She couldn’t tell from looking how far she was from the surface; the closer she got, the more craters and ragged holes she could see, so the surface texture was the same on every scale—

what was the word,/racta/?

It came as a shock when her hands pressed against soft, crumbling dirt.

She felt herself tipping. Then her knees and toes hit together. It felt as if she were clinging to a wall — and oh shit, she was bouncing, floating back into space. She scrabbled at the asteroid.

She was panicking.

She shut her eyes and took a deep breath.

She opened her eyes, reached for the pitons dangling from her belt, dug one into the surface, then a second, a third. Rapidly, efficiently now, she hooked her tethers to the ropes, tested them with quick tugs, and then — another deep breath, a moment of concentration — she ripped her harness clear of the guide rope, and she was no longer connected to Bucephalus.

She dug her piton out of the ground, moved her tether, crawled forward. And here she was, mountaineering up the face of an asteroid. The belly, arms, and legs of her suit were already streaked and stained black, and she had to stop every few minutes to wipe the shit off her faceplate. It was like crawling over a broad, soot-strewn hill, as if after some immense forest fire.

She could see the Bucephalus hanging in the sky like some complex metal sun. More troopers were coming down to Cruithne, sliding down the wire in absolute silence.

Holy cow, she thought, I made it. Her spirits lifted. Tommy, Billie, this will make a hell of a story for you and your kids. I hope somebody is recording this.

She saw a subsatellite sailing over her head, a little metal spider with glistening solar panels, filmy antennae. It spun and jerked, angling down in a straight line toward the horizon until it passed out of her sight. The gravity of Cruithne was too weak for useful orbits, so the subsats were using small thrusters to rocket their way around the asteroid. The lifetime of the sats was only a few hours, limited by their fuel, but that ought to be enough; if the asteroid wasn’t secured by then they would all be in trouble anyhow.

When she looked back Bucephalus was already hidden behind the close horizon. It was as if she were alone here.

She ought to wait. The orders, for now, were just to spread out over the first few hundred yards, and then to move steadily over the asteroid, keeping line-of-sight contact on a buddy basis. Then they would converge on the various installations.

Clinging to the dirt she sucked orange juice, sharp and cold, from the nipple dispenser inside her helmet, and she found a fruit bar in there and crunched it; when she pulled away a little more of the bar slid out toward her mouth.

She was in shadow right now, out of the sun, and she could see stars. The spin of the asteroid was becoming more apparent; she could see how the stars were wheeling slowly over her. And now here came Earth, fat and beautiful and blue, heavy with light, the most colorful thing she could see. It was just a mote in the sky; it was hard to believe that everything she had known before climbing aboard Bucephalus — the kids, Bill, her family, all the places she had lived, everywhere she had visited — all of it was contained in that pinprick of light.

Something sailed over her head, brilliant white in the sun. Another subsatellite?

But the thing she saw was wriggling. It had arms and legs. And some kind of cloud spreading around it, spherical, misty. Gradually the wriggling stopped. Like a stranded fish, she thought, numbly.

Something had gone wrong.

Then the asteroid shuddered and shook her loose, and she sailed upward into space.

There was a flash, ahead of her, in the direction of Bucephalus.

Now more objects came hailing over the horizon: complex, glittering, turning, moving in dead-straight lines, all in utter silence. Pieces of wreckage.

In that moment she knew she wasn’t going home again.

Emma Stoney:

The three of them were back at the artifact.

There was a shudder hard enough to make Emma cling to her tether. Little sprays of impact-smashed asteroid dust shot up from the ground.

Cornelius looked at his watch, a big mechanical dial strapped to his wrist. He made a clenched-fist, grabbing gesture. “Right on time.”

The tremor, or whatever it was, subsided. Emma looked around. Nothing seemed to have changed. The sun was wheeling slowly over her head. The blue circle protruded from the dust as if it had been there for a billion years, oblivious to the affairs of the humans who squabbled over the asteroid’s battered surface.

Malenfant said, “What have you done, Cornelius?”

“An X-ray laser.” Emma could hear the exultation in Cornelius’ voice. “A little Star Wars toy of my own. Small nuke as the power source Well. It worked. And we felt it, all the way around the asteroid to here, through three miles of rock.”

Emma snapped, “How many people have you killed?”

Cornelius, clinging to his tether, turned to face her. “They would have killed us. It was us or them. And we couldn’t give them access to the portal.”

“Why not? My God, they represent the government. And besides, there were troopers coming down off that ship. Sliding down a wire to the surface. I saw them. Do you really think you’ll have killed them all?”

“Take it easy,” Malenfant said. “First we have to figure out what’s happened. Did they have time to trash our hab, the O ‘Neilll If not, that’s the only place on the asteroid to survive, the only way any of us can get home.”

“You’re suggesting we can make some kind of deal?” Emma asked, incredulous.

“Emma, you know me. I spent my life making deals—”

And that was when somebody shot her.

June Tybee

June coughed and found she had vomited, orange juice and fruit

bar and other shit spraying over the inside of her faceplate.

She was dangling from a single tether, as if the asteroid had turned to a roof over her head. Another couple of tethers curled around her, ripped free of the regolith. There was only space below her, an infinite place she could fall down into forever.

The ship wasn’t there any more. It looked like it had burst like a balloon. There was just a cloud, slowly dispersing, of fragments: metal and plastic and ripped-off insulation blanket.

There were bodies, of course, fragments in the cloud. Some of them were unsuited, just shirtsleeved: the invalid troopers, maybe the pilots. They had never had a chance.

For some reason that, the merciless killing of those helpless people, made her more angry than anything else, more even than the fact of her own stranding here, the fact that she would never see Tom or Billie again.

She had to get back to the asteroid before her last tether gave way. Cautiously, hand over hand, she pulled herself along the curling rope.

When she got close enough to touch the regolith, she pounded more pitons into the surface.

She broke radio silence, and tried calling. The subsatellites still squirted over her head, darting this way and that like busy metal gnats, unable to comprehend the fact that the giant ship that had brought them here was gone.

No reply.

She had been the farthest from the ship at the moment of the explosion; maybe that was why she had been spared. There might be others, disabled somehow. If that was so there wasn’t a damn thing she could do about it.

Before she’d left the ship they’d been shown the position of the main squid habitats — since destroyed by the chemical laser — and the humans here, Malenfant and his associates. They had been heading for the far side of the asteroid.

That was where she must go.

The asteroid was a small place. She would surely find the enemy before her consumables expired. Even if not, she must leave enough margin to get back to their ship. If she wasn’t going home, neither were they.

She pulled out her tethers and began working her way once more around the asteroid. She had a positioning system built into a heads-up display in her faceplate, coordinates fed to her by the surviving subsats.

It wasn’t so hard.

She came through the wreckage of a squid bubble habitat.

There was little to see here. The habitat membrane had simply been burst open. Only a few shreds of fabric, a cluster of anonymous machinery, was left here. No squid. Presumably they had all been sent sailing off into space when their world ended, as had her own buddies.

Good. She only hoped the squid had been smart enough to understand death.

A little after that, she found herself coming into view of the blue circle. She pressed herself against the regolith. Such was the tight curvature of the asteroid, the claustrophobic nearness of its horizon, that she was uncomfortably close.

Three figures were standing near the artifact, loosely tethered. They moved to and fro in her sights, gesticulating, talking.

As she’d been trained, she braced her toes in the regolith and fixed her tethers tighter before she raised her weapon. Otherwise the recoil might blow her clean off Cruithne. She aimed. Unlike on Earth, the slug would travel in a dead-straight line, not significantly perturbed by Cruithne’s miniature gravity. She’d trained others for this; now they would never have a chance to put those skills to use.

She fired. And again.

Reid Malenfant:

The invisible slug hit Emma hard in the leg. She was knocked off the surface. The tether attached to her waist reached its full extent, jerked taut, and pulled her back. She came slamming down to the surface, landing on her back. And then she bounced, drifting upward and back along the length of the tether.

“Emma? Emma!” Clumsily, ignoring his own tether drill, Malenfant hurried to her. He hauled her in by her tether, like landing a fish, and picked her up. Her thigh was a bloody ruin. Malenfant could see blood boiling and popping. “We need a tourniquet.”

Regolith splashed at his feet.

Cornelius grabbed his arm. “No time,” he said. “They’re coming for us.”

Malenfant looked around at the pocked landscape. He could see nobody. There wasn’t even any sound to help him tell where the shots were coming from.

Another splash, another new crater.

There was no shelter, anywhere.

The blue circle towered over Malenfant, framing darkness. “This way,” he said. “Into the portal.”

Cornelius pulled back. “It’s one-way. We won’t be able to get back.”

“I know.” Malenfant studied Cornelius, wishing he could see his face. “But we’ll be alive. And something might turn up.”

“Like what?”

“Trust me,” Malenfant said.

And, clutching Emma in his arms, he loosed his tethers, braced against the regolith, and jumped.

There was a blue flash, an instant of astonishing pain—

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