/ Language: English / Genre:sf

Lucifer's Hammer

Larry Niven

The gigantic comet had slammed into Earth, forging earthquakes a thousand times too powerful to measure on the Richter scale, tidal waves thousands of feet high. Cities were turned into oceans; oceans turned into steam. It was the beginning of a new Ice Age and the end of civilization. But for the terrified men and women chance had saved, it was also the dawn of a new struggle for survival — a struggle more dangerous and challenging than any they had ever known… Nominated for Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1978.

Lucifer’s Hammer

by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

To Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the first men to walk on another world; to Michael Collins, who waited; and to those who died trying, Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee, Ed White, Georgi Dobrovolsky, Viktor Patsayev, Nikolai Volkov, and all the others.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Excerpts from GIFFORD LECTURES, 1948 by Emil Brunner. Excerpt from a private speech by Robert Heinlein. Reprinted by permission.

Prom “Pure, Sweet, Culture” by Frank Garparik. Copyright @ 1977 by Frank Garparik. Used with permission of the author.

From How The World Will End by Daniel Cohen. Copyright 1973, McGraw-Hill. Used with permission of McGraw-Hill Book Co.

From The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris. Copyright McGraw-Hill 1967. Used with permission of McGraw-Hill Book Company.

Excerpt from The Cosmic Connection by Carl Sagan. Copyright 1973 by Carl Sagan and Jerome Agel. Reprinted by permission of Doubleday Company, Inc.

Excerpts from The Coming Dark Age by Roberto Vacca, translated from the Italian by Dr. J. S. Whale. Translation Copyright 1973 by Doubleday Company, Inc. Reprinted by permission of Doubleday Company, Inc.

From Moons and Planets: An Introduction to Planetary Science by William Hartman. Copyright 1972, Wadsworth Publishing Co., Inc. Used with permission of Wadsworth Publishing Co., Inc.

Excerpts from Sovereignty by Bertrand de Jouvenal. Copyright 1957 by University of Chicago Press. Used with permission of University of Chicago Press.

From The Elements Rage by Frank W. Lane. Copyright 1965 by Chilton Book Co. Used with permission of Chilton Book Co.

Song “The Friggin Falcon” 1966 by Theodore R. Cogswell. All rights reserved, including the right of public performance for profit. Used by permission of the author and the author’s agent, Kirby McCauley.

DRAMATIS PERSONAE

TIMOTHY HAMNER, amateur astronomer

ARTHUR CLAY JELLISON, United States Senator from California

MAUREEN JEEETSON, his daughter

HARVEY RANDALL, Producer-Director for NBS Television

MRS. LORETTA STEWART RANDALL

BARRY PRICE, Supervising Engineer, San Joaquin Nuclear Project

DOLORES MUNSON, Executive Secretary to Barry Price

EILEEN SUSAN HANCOCK, Assistant Manager for Corrigan’s Plumbing Supplies of Burbank

LEONILLA ALEXANDROVNA MALIK, M.D., physician and kosmonaut

MARK CZESCU, biker

GORDON VANCE, Bank President and neighbor to Harvey Randall

ANDY RANDALL, Harvey Randall’s son

CHARLIE BASCOMB, cameraman

MANUEL ARGUILEZ, sound technician

DR. CHARLES SHARPS, Planetary Scientist and Project Director, California Institute of Technology’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories

PENELOPE JOYCE WILSON, fashion designer

FRED LAUREN, convicted sex offender

COL. JOHN BAKER, USAF, astronaut

HARRY NEWCOMBE, letter carrier, US Postal Service

THE REVEREND HENRY ARMITAGE

DR. DAN FORRESTER, Member of technical staff, JPL

LT. COL. RICK DELANTY, USAF, astronaut

MRS. GLORIA DELANTY

BRIGADIER PIETER JAKOV, kosmonaut

FRANK STONER, biker

JOANNA MACPHERSON, Mark Czescu’s roommate

COLLEEN DARCY, bank teller

GENERAL THOMAS BAMBRIDGE, USAF, Commander in Chief, Strategic Air Command

JOHN KIM, Press Secretary to the Mayor Of Los Angeles

THE HONORABLE BENTLEY ALLEN, Mayor of Los Angeles

ERIC LARSEN, Patrolman, Burbank PD

JOE HARRIS, Investigator, Burbank PD

COMET WARDENS, a Southern California religious group

MAJOR BENNET ROSTEN, USAF, Minuteman Squadron Commander

MRS. MARIE VANCE, wife of Gordon Vance

HARRY STIMMS, automobile dealer in Tujunga, California

CORPORAL ROGER GILLINGS, Army

SERGEANT THOMAS HOOKER, Army

MARTY ROBBINS, Tim Hamner’s assistant and caretaker

JASON GILLCUDDY, writer

HUGO BECK, owner of a commune in the foothills of the High Sierra

Prologue

Before the sun burned, before the planets formed, there were chaos and the comets.

Chaos was a local thickening in the interstellar medium. Its mass was great enough to attract itself, to hold itself, and it thickened further. Eddies formed. Particles of dust and frozen gas drifted together, and touched, and clung. Flakes formed, and then loose snowballs of frozen gases. Over the ages a whirlpool pattern developed, a fifth of a light-year across. The center contracted further. Local eddies, whirling frantically near the center of the storm, collapsed to form planets.

It formed as a cloud of snow, far from the whirlpool’s axis. Ices joined the swarm, but slowly, slowly, a few molecules at a time. Methane, ammonia, carbon dioxide; and sometimes denser objects struck it and embedded themselves, so that it held rocks, and iron. Now it was a single stable mass. Other ices formed, chemicals that could only be stable in the interstellar cold.

It was four miles across when the disaster came.

The end was sudden. In no more than fifty years, the wink of an eye in its lifetime, the whirlpool’s center collapsed. A new sun burned fearfully bright.

Myriads of comets flashed to vapor in that hellish flame Planets lost their atmospheres. A great wind of light pressure stripped an the loose gas and dust from the inner system and hurled it at the stars.

It hardly noticed. It was two hundred times as far from the sun as the newly formed planet Neptune. The new sun was no more than an uncommonly bright star, gradually dimming now.

Down in the maelstrom there was frantic activity. Gases boiled out of the rocks of the inner system. Complex chemicals developed in the seas of the third planet. Endless hurricanes boded across and within the gas-giant worlds. The inner worlds would never know calm.

The only real calm was at the edge of interstellar space, in the halo, where millions of thinly spread comets, each as far from its nearest brother as Earth is from Mars, cruise forever through the cold black vacuum. Here its endless quiet sleep could last for billions of years… but not forever. Nothing lasts forever.

1

THE ANVIL

Against boredom, even the gods themselves struggle in vain.

Nietzsche

January: The Portent

The bay-trees in our country are all wither’d
And meteors fright the fixed stars of heaven;
The pale-faced moon looks bloody on the earth
And lean-look’d prophets whisper fearful change.
These signs forerun the death or fall of kings.

William Shakespeare, Richard II

The blue Mercedes turned into the big circular drive of the Beverly Hills mansion at precisely five after six. Julia Sutter was understandably startled. “Good God, George, it’s Tim! And dead on time.”

George Sutter joined her at the window. That was Tim’s car, yup. He grunted and turned back to the bar. His wife’s parties were always important events, so why, after weeks of careful engineering and orchestration, was she terrified that no one would show up? The psychosis was so common there ought to be a name for it.

Tim Hamner, though, and on time. That was strange. Tim’s money was third-generation. Old money, by Los Angeles standards, and Tim had a lot of it. He only came to parties when he wanted to.

The Sutters’ architect had been in love with concrete. There were square walls and square angles for the house, and softly curving free-form pools in the gardens outside; not unusual for Beverly Hills, but startling to easterners. To their right was a traditional Monterey villa of white stucco and red tile roofs, to the left a Norman chateau magically transplanted to California. The Sutter place was set well back from the street so that it seemed divorced from the tall palms the city fathers had decreed for this part of Beverly Hills. A great loop of drive ran up to the house itself. On the porch stood eight parking attendants, agile young men in red jackets.

Hamner left the motor running and got out of the car. The “key left” reminder screamed at him. Ordinarily Tim would have snarled a powerful curse upon Ralph Nader’s hemorrhoids, but tonight he never noticed. His eyes were dreamy; his hand patted at his coat pocket, then stole inside. The parking attendant hesitated. People didn’t usually tip until they were leaving. Hamner kept walking, dreamy-eyed, and the attendant drove away.

Hamner glanced back at the red-coated young men, wondering if one or another might be interested in astronomy. They were almost always from UCLA or Loyola University. Could be… Reluctantly he decided against it and went inside, his hand straying from time to time to feel the telegram crackle under his fingers.

The big double doors opened onto an enormous area that extended right through the house. Large arches, rimmed by red brick, separated the entry from the living areas: a mere suggestion of walls between rooms. The floor was continuous throughout: brown tile laid with bright mosaic patterns. Of the two hundred and more guests expected, fewer than a dozen were clustered near the bar. Their talk was bright and cheery, louder than necessary. They looked isolated in all that empty space, all that expanse of tables with candles and patterned tablecloths. There were nearly as many uniformed attendants as guests. Hamner noticed none of this. He’d grown up with it.

Julia Sutter broke from the tiny group of guests and hurried to meet him. There was a tight look around her eyes: Her face had been lifted, and was younger than her hands. She made a kissing motion a fraction of an inch from Tim’s cheek and said, “Timmy, I’m glad to see you!” Then she noticed his radiant smile.

She drew back a little and her eyes narrowed. The note of mock concern in her voice covered real worry. “My God, Timmy! What have you been smoking?”

Tim Hamner was tall and bony, with just a touch of paunch to break the smooth lines. His long face was built for melancholy. His mother’s family had owned a highly successful cemetery-mortuary, and it showed. Tonight, though, his face was cracked wide apart in a blazing smile, and there was a strange light in his eyes. He said, “The Hamner-Brown Comet!”

“Oh!” Julia stared. “What?” That didn’t make sense. You don’t smoke a comet. She tried to puzzle it out while her eyes roved to her husband — was he having a second drink already? — to the door — when were the others coming? The invitations had been explicit. The important guests were coming early — weren’t they? — and couldn’t stay late, and—

She heard the low purr of a big car outside, and through the narrow windows framing the door saw half a dozen people spilling out of a dark limousine. Tim would have to take care of himself. She patted his arm and said, “That’s nice, Timmy. Excuse me, please?” A hasty intimate smile and she was gone.

If it bothered Hamner it didn’t show. He ambled toward the bar. Behind him Julia went to welcome her most important guest, Senator Jellison, with his entourage. He always brought everyone, administrative assistants as well as family. Tim Hamner’s smile was blazing when he reached the bar.

“Good evening, Mr. Hamner.”

“Good it is. Tonight I’m walking on pink clouds. Congratulate me, Rodrigo, they’re going to name a comet after me!”

Michael Rodriguez, laying out glasses behind the bar, missed a beat. “A comet?”

“Right. Hamner-Brown Comet. It’s coming, Rodrigo, you can see it, oh, around June, give or take a few weeks.” Hamner took out the telegram and opened it with a snap.

“We will not see it from Los Angeles,” Rodriguez laughed. “What may I serve you tonight?”

“Scotch rocks. You could see it. It could be as big as Halley’s Comet.” Hamner took the drink and looked about. There was a group around George Sutter. The knot of people drew Tim like a magnet. He clutched the telegram in one hand and his drink in another, as Julia brought the new guests over and introduced them.

Senator Arthur Clay Jellison was built something like a brick, muscular rather than overweight. He was bulky, jovial and blessed with thick white hair. He was photogenic as hell, and half the people in the country would have recognized him. His voice sounded exactly as it did on TV: resonant, enveloping, so that everything he said took on a mysterious importance.

Maureen Jellison, the Senator’s daughter, had long, dark red hair and pale clear skin and a beauty that would have made Tim Hamner shy on any other night; but when Julia Sutter turned to him and (finally!) said, “What was that about a—”

“Hamner-Brown Comet” Tim waved the telegram. “Kitt Peak Observatory had confirmed my sighting! It’s a real comet, it’s my comet, they’re naming it after me!”

Maureen Jellison’s eyebrows went up slightly. George Sutter drained his glass before asking the obvious question. “Who’s Brown?”

Hamner shrugged; his untasted drink slopped a little onto the carpet, and Julia frowned. “Nobody’s ever heard of him,” Tim said. “But the International Astronomical Union says it was a simultaneous sighting.”

“So what you own is half a comet,” said George Sutter.

Tim laughed, quite genuinely. “The day you own half a comet, George, I’ll buy all those bonds you keep trying to sell me. And buy your drinks all night.” He downed his scotch rocks in two swallows.

When he looked up he’d lost his audience. George was headed back to the bar. Julia had Senator Jellison’s arm and was steering him toward new arrivals. The Senator’s administrative assistants followed in her wake.

“Half a comet is quite a lot,” Maureen said. Tim Hamner turned to find her still there. “Tell me, how do you see anything through the smog?”

She sounded interested. She looked interested. And she could have gone with her father. The scotch was a warm trace in his throat and stomach. Tim began telling her about his mountain observatory, not too many miles past Mount Wilson but far enough into the Angeles Mountains that the lights from Pasadena didn’t ruin the seeing. He kept food supplies there, and an assistant, and he’d spent months of nights watching the sky, tracking known asteroids and the outer moons, letting his eye and brain learn the territory, and forever watching for the dot of light that shouldn’t be there, the anomaly that would…

Maureen Jellison had a familiar glazed look in her eyes. He asked, “Hey, am I boring you?”

She was instantly apologetic. “No, I’m sorry, it was just a stray thought.”

“I know I sometimes get carried away.”

She smiled and shook her head; a wealth of deep red hair rippled and danced. “No, really. Dad’s on the Finance Subcommittee for Science and Astronautics. He loves pure science, and I caught the bug from him. I was just… You’re a man who knows what he wants, and you’ve found it. Not many can say that.” She was suddenly very serious.

Tim laughed, embarrassed; he was only just getting used to the fact. “What can I do for an encore?”

“Yes, exactly. What do you do when you’ve walked on the moon, and then they cancel the space program?”

“Why… I don’t know. I’ve heard they sometimes have troubles…”

“Don’t worry about it,” Maureen said. “You’re on the moon now. Enjoy it.”

The hot dry wind known as the Santa Ana blew across the Los Angeles hills, clearing the city of smog. Lights glittered and danced in the early darkness. Harvey Randall, his wife, Loretta, beside him, drove his green Toronado with the windows open, relishing the summer weather in January. When they arrived at the Sutter place he turned the car over to the red-jacketed attendant, and paused while Loretta adjusted her smile before moving through the big front doors.

They found the usual mob scene for a Beverly Hills party. A hundred people were scattered among the little tables, and another hundred in clumps; a mariachi group in one corner played gay background music and the singer, deprived of his microphone, was still doing pretty well telling everyone about the state of his corazon. They greeted their hostess and parted: Loretta found a conversation, and Harvey located the bar by searching out the thickest cluster of people. He collected two gin and tonics.

Bits of conversation ricocheted around him. “We didn’t let him on the white rug, you see. So the dog had the cat ‘treed’ in the middle of the rug and was pacing sentry duty around the perimeter…”

“…was this beautiful young chick one seat ahead of me on the plane. A real knockout, even if all I could see was her hair and the back of her head. I was thinking of a way to meet her when she looked back and said, ‘Uncle Pete! What are you doing here?’ ”

“…man, it’s helped a lot! When I call and say it’s Commissioner Robbins, I get right through. Haven’t had a customer miss a good option since the Mayor appointed me.”

They stuck in his mind, these bits and pieces of story. For Harvey Randall it was an occupational hazard of the TV documentary business; he couldn’t help listening. He didn’t want to, really. People fascinated him. He would have liked to follow up some of these glimpses into other minds.

He looked around for Loretta, but she was too short to stand out in this crowd. Instead he picked out high-piled hair of unconvincing orange-red: Brenda Tey, who’d been talking to Loretta before Harvey went to the bar. He made for that point, easing past shoals of elbows attached to drinks.

“Twenty billion bucks, and all we got was rocks! Those damn big rockets, billions of dollars dropped into the drink. Why spend all that money out there when we could be—”

“Bullshit,” said Harvey.

George Sutter turned in surprise. “Oh. Hello, Harv… It’ll be the same with the Shuttte. Just the same. It’s all money thrown down the drain—”

“That turns out not to be the case.” The voice was clear, sweet and penetrating. It cut right through George’s manifesto, and it couldn’t be ignored. George stopped in midsentence.

Harvey found a spectacular redhead in a green one-shoulder party gown. Her eyes met his when he looked at her, and he looked away first. He smiled and said, “Is that the same as bullshit?”

“Yes. But more tactful.” She grinned at him, and Harvey let his own smile stay in place instead of fading away. She turned to the attack. “Mr. Sutter, NASA didn’t spend the Apollo money on hardware. We bought research on how to build the hardware, and we’ve still got it. Knowledge can’t go into the drink. As for the Shuttle, that’s the price to get out there where we can really learn things, and not much of a price at that…”

A woman’s breast and shoulder rubbed playfully against Harvey’s arm. That had to be Loretta, and it was. He handed her her drink. His own was half gone. When Loretta started to speak he gestured her silent, a little more rudely than he usually did, and ignored her look of protest.

The redhead knew her stuff. If careful reason and logic could win arguments, she won. But she had a lot more: She had every male’s eye, and a slow southern drawl that made every word count, and a voice so pure and musical that any interruption seemed stuttered or mumbled.

The unequal contest ended when George discovered that his drink was empty and, with visible relief, broke for the bar.

Smiling triumph, the girl turned toward Harvey, and he nodded his congratulations.

“I’m Harvey Randall. My wife, Loretta.”

“Maureen Jellison. Most pleased.” She frowned for half a second. “I remember now. You were the last U.S. newsman in Cambodia.” She shook hands, formally, with Harvey and Loretta. “And wasn’t your newscopter shot down over there?”

“Twice,” Loretta said proudly. “Harvey brought his Air Force pilot out. Fifty miles of enemy lines.”

Maureen nodded gravely. She was fifteen years younger than the Randalls, and seemed very self-possessed. “So now you’re here. Are you natives?”

“I am,” Harvey said. “Loretta’s from Detroit—”

“Grosse Pointe,” Loretta said automatically.

“—but I was born in L.A.” Harvey could never quite bring himself to tell Loretta’s half-truth for her. “We’re scarce, we natives.”

“And what do they have you doing now?” Maureen asked.

“Documentaries. News features, mostly,” Harvey said.

“I know who you are,” Loretta said in some awe. “I just met your father. Senator Jellison.”

“That’s right.” Maureen looked thoughtful, then grinned broadly. “Say, if you do news features there’s somebody you ought to meet. Tim Hamner.”

Harvey frowned. The name seemed familiar, but he couldn’t place it. “Why?”

Loretta said, “Hamner? A young man with a frightening grin?” She giggled. “He’s a teensy bit drunk. He wouldn’t let anyone else talk. At all. He owns half a comet.”

“That’s him,” Maureen said. Her smile made Loretta feel part of a conspiracy.

“He also owns a lot of soap,” Harvey said.

It was Maureen’s turn to look blank.

“I just remembered,” Harvey said. “He inherited the Kalva Soap Company.”

“May be, but he’s prouder of the comet,” Maureen said. “I don’t blame him. Dear old Dad could have been President once, but he’s never come close to discovering a comet.” She scanned the room until she spotted her target. “The tall man in the suit with white and maroon in it. You’ll know him by his smile. Get anywhere near him and he’ll tell you all about it.”

Harvey felt Loretta tugging at his arm, and reluctantly looked away from Maureen. When he looked back someone else had snared her. He went to fetch another pair of drinks.

As always, Harvey Randall drank too much and wondered why he came to these parties. But he knew; Loretta saw them as a way to participate in his life. She didn’t enjoy his field trips. The one attempt to take her on a hike with their son had been a disaster. When she went with him on location she wanted to stay in the best hotels, and if she dutifully came to the small bars and gathering places Harvey preferred, it was obvious that she was working hard to hide her unhappiness.

But she was very much at home at parties like this one, and tonight’s had been especially good. She even managed a private conversation with Senator Jellison. Harvey left her with the Senator and went to find more drinks. “Light on the gin, Rodriguez. Please.”

The bartender smiled and mixed the drink without comment. Harvey stood with it. Tim Hamner was alone at one of the little tables. He was looking at Harvey, but the eyes were dreamy; they saw nothing. And that smile. Harvey made his way across the room and dropped into the other chair at the table. “Mr. Hamner? Harvey Randall. Maureen Jellison said I should say ‘Comet.’ ”

Hamner’s face came alight. The grin broadened, if that were possible. He took a telegram out of his pocket and waved it. “Right! The sighting was confirmed this afternoon. Hamner-Brown Comet.”

“You skipped a step.”

“She didn’t tell you anything? Well! I’m Tim Hamner. Astronomer. Well, not professional, but my equipment’s professional. And I work at it — anyway. I’m an amateur astronomer. A week ago I found a smear of light not far from Neptune. A dim smear. It didn’t belong there. I kept looking at it, and it moved. I studied it long enough to be sure, and then I reported it. It’s a new comet. Kitt Peak just confirmed it. The IAU is naming it after me — and Brown.”

For just that moment, envy flashed through Harvey Randall like a lightning strike. It was gone as quickly; he made it go, shoving it into the bottom of his mind where he could pull it up and look at it later. He was ashamed of it. But without that flash he would have asked a more tactful first question. “Who’s Brown?”

Hamner’s face didn’t change. “Gavin Brown is a kid in Centerville, Iowa. Ground his own mirror to build his telescope. He reported the comet at the same time I did. The IAU rules it a simultaneous sighting. If I hadn’t waited to be certain…” Hamner shrugged and continued, “I called Brown this afternoon. Sent him a plane ticket, because I want to meet him. He didn’t even want to come until I promised to show him around the solar observatory at Mount Wilson. That’s all he really cares about! Sunspots! He found the comet by accident!”

“When will we see this comet? That is,” Harvey backtracked, “will it be visible at all?”

“Much too early to ask. Wait a month. Watch the news.”

“I’m not supposed to watch the news. I’m supposed to report the news,” said Harvey. “And this could be news. Tell me more.”

Hamner was eager to do that. He rattled on, while Harvey nodded with a broadening grin. Beautiful! You didn’t have to know what all the words meant to know the equipment was expensive, and probably photogenic to boot. Expensive and elaborate equipment, and the kid with a bent pin for a hook and a willow stick for a rod had caught just as big a fish as the millionaire!

Millionaire. “Mr. Hamner, if this comet turns out to be worth a documentary—”

“Well, it might. And the discovery would be. How amateur astronomers can be important…”

Hooked, by God! “What I was going to ask was, if we can make a documentary on the comet, would Kalva Soap be interested in sponsoring it?”

The change in Hamner was subtle, but it was there. Harvey instantly revised his opinion of the man. Hamner had a lot of experience with people after his money. He was an enthusiast, but hardly a fool.

“Tell me, Mr. Randall, didn’t you do that thing on the Alaskan glacier?”

“Harvey. Yes.”

“It stunk.”

“Sure did,” Harvey agreed. “The sponsor insisted on control. And got it. And used it. I didn’t inherit control of a big company.” And to hell with you, too, Mr. Timothy Comet Hamner.

“But I did. And this would be worth doing. You did the Hell’s Gate Dam story too, didn’t you?”

“Yes.”

“I liked that one.”

“So did I.”

“Good.” Hamner nodded several times. “Look, this could be worth sponsoring. Even if the comet never becomes visible, and I think it will. Lord knows they spend enough of the advertising budget sponsoring crap that nobody wants to watch. Might as well tell a story worth telling. Harvey, you need a refill.”

They went to the bar. The party was thinning out fast. The Jellisons were just leaving, but Loretta had found another conversation. Harvey recognized a city councilman who’d been after Harvey’s station to do a show on a park that was his current goal. He probably thought Loretta would influence Harvey — which was correct — and that Harvey had influence over what the network and its Los Angeles station did — which was a laugh.

Rodriguez was busy for the moment and they stood at the bar. “There’s all kinds of excellent new equipment for studying comets,” Hamner said. “Including a big orbital telescope only used once, for Kahoutek. Scientists all over the world will want to know how comets differ, how Kahoutek was different from Hamner-Brown. Lot of scientists right here. Cal Tech, and the planetary astronomers at JPL. They’ll all want to know more about Hamner-Brown.”

Hamner-Brown resonated in his mouth, and Tim Hamner obviously loved the taste. “You see, comets aren’t just something pretty up in the sky. They’re left over from the big gas cloud that formed the solar system. If we could really learn something about comets — maybe send up a space probe — we’d know more about what the original cloud of gas and dust was like before it fell in on itself and made the Sun and the planets and moons and things like that.”

“You’re sober,” Harvey said in wonder.

Hamner was startled. Then he laughed. “I meant to get drunk just to celebrate, but I guess I’ve been talking instead of drinking.” Rodriguez came over and put drinks in front of them. Hamner lifted his scotch rocks in a salute.

“The way your eyes glow,” Harvey said, “I thought you must be drunk. But what you say makes a lot of sense. I doubt we could get a space probe launched, but what the hell, we could try. Only you’re talking about more than a single documentary for something like that. Listen, is there a chance? I mean, could we send a probe into the comet? Because I know some people in the aerospace industry, and…”

And, thought Harvey, that would be a story. Who can I get for editor? he wondered. And Charlie Bascomb’s available to do camera…

“Jellison, too,” Hamner said. “He’d be for it. But look, Harv, I know a lot about comets, but not that much. It’s all guesswork right now. Be a few months before Hamner-Brown gets to perihelion.” He added quickly, “Closest point to the Sun. Which isn’t the same as the closest point to the Earth…”

“How close will that be?” Harvey asked.

Hamner shrugged. “Haven’t analyzed the orbit yet. Maybe close. Anyway, Hamner-Brown will be moving fast when it rounds the Sun. It will have fallen all the way from the halo, out there beyond Pluto, a long way. You understand, I won’t really be computing the orbit. I’ll have to wait for the professionals, just like you.”

Harvey nodded. They lifted their glasses and drank.

“But I like the idea,” Hamner said. “There’s going to be a lot of scientific pressure for studies of Hamner-Brown, and it wouldn’t hurt to push the idea with the general public. I like it.”

“Of course,” Harvey said carefully, “I’d have to have a firm commitment on sponsorship before I could do much work on this. Are you sure Kalva Soap would be interested? The show might pull a good audience — but it might not.”

Hamner nodded. “Kahoutek,” he said. “They were burned on that one before. Nobody wants to be disappointed again.”

“Yeah.”

“So you can count on Kalva Soap. Let’s get across why it’s important to study comets even if you can’t see them. Because I can promise the sponsorship, but I can’t promise the comet will deliver. It might not be visible at all. Don’t tell people anything more than that.”

“I have a reputation for getting my facts straight.”

“When your sponsor doesn’t interfere,” Hamner said.

“Even then, I have my facts straight.”

“Good. But right now there aren’t any facts. Hamner-Brown is pretty big. It has to be, or I couldn’t have seen it out that far. And it looks to get pretty close to the Sun. It has a chance of being spectacular, but really, it’s impossible to tell. The tail could stretch way-y-y out, or it could just blow away. It depends on the comet.”

“Yeah. Look,” Harvey said, “can you name one newsman who lost his reputation because of Kahoutek?” He nodded at the puzzled look that got. “Right. None. No chance. The public blamed the astronomers for blowing it all out of proportion. Nobody blamed the news people.”

“Why should they? You were quoting the astronomers.”

“Half the time,” Harvey agreed. “But we quoted the ones who said exciting things. Two interviews. One man says Kahoutek is going to be the Big Christmas Comet. Another says, well, it’s going to be a comet, but you might not see it without field glasses. Guess which tape gets shown on the six o’clock news?”

Hamner laughed. He was draining his glass when Julia Sutter came over.

“Busy, Tim?” she asked, but didn’t wait for an answer. “Your cousin Barry is making a fool of himself out in the kitchen. Can you get him to go home?” She spoke low and urgently.

Harvey hated her. Was Hamner sober? Would he remember any of this in the morning? Damn.

“Be right with you, Julia,” Hamner said. He broke free and made his way back to Harvey. “Just remember, our series on Hamner-Brown is going to be honest. Even if it costs ratings. Kalva Soap can afford it. When do you want to start?”

Maybe there was some justice in the world after all. “Right away, Tim. I want some footage of you and Gavin Brown up at Mount Wilson. And his comments when you show him your setup.”

Hamner grinned. He liked that. “Right. Call you tomorrow.”

Loretta slept quietly in the other bed.

Harvey had been staring at the ceiling long enough. He knew this feeling. He would have to get up.

He got up. He made cocoa in a big mug and carried it into his study. Kipling greeted him with tail-thumping joy, and he rubbed the German shepherd’s ears absently as he opened the drapes. Los Angeles was semidark below. The Santa Ana had blown away the smog. Freeways were rivers of moving light even at this late hour. Other major streets were marked by a grid of lights whose yellow-orange brilliance Harvey noticed for the first time. Hamner had said they played hell with the seeing at Mount Wilson Observatory.

The city stretched away endlessly. High-rise apartments in shadowed darkness. Blue squares of still-lit swimming pools. Cars. Bright flashing light winking at intervals, the police helicopter on patrol. He left the window and went to the desk, picked up a book, set it down; scratched the dog’s ears once more; and very gently, because he didn’t trust himself to move rapidly, put the cocoa on the desk.

He’d never had any trouble getting to sleep in the mountains on camping trips. He’d get into his sleeping bag just after dark and sleep all night. It was only in the city that he had insomnia. For years he’d tried to fight it by lying rigid on his back. These nights he got up and stayed up until he was sleepy. Only he didn’t usually have trouble on Wednesdays.

Wednesdays, he and Loretta made love.

He’d tried to fight that habit once, but that was years ago; and yes, Loretta would come to his bed on a Monday night; but not always, and never in the afternoon when it was light; and it was never as good on a Tuesday or a Saturday because on Wednesdays they knew it was coming, they were ready. By now the habit had set like concrete.

He shook away those thoughts and concentrated on his good fortune. Hamner had meant it. The documentary would be made. He thought about problems. They’d need an expert on low-light photography; probably time-lapse for the comet itself. This would be fun. Have to thank Maureen Jellison for putting me onto Hamner, he thought. Nice girl. Vivid. More real than most of the women I meet. Too bad Loretta was standing right there…

He submerged that thought so quickly that he was barely aware of it. It was a habit he’d developed long ago. He knew too many men who talked themselves into hating their wives when they didn’t really dislike them at all. The grass wasn’t always greener on the other side of the fence; a lesson that he’d learned from his father and never forgotten. His father had been an architect and builder, always close to the Hollywood set but never quite catching the big contracts that would make him rich; but he’d gone to plenty of Hollywood parties.

He’d also had time to take Harvey up into the mountains, and on those long camping hikes he would tell Harvey about producers and stars and writers who spent more than they earned and built themselves images that could never be satisfied. “Can’t be happy,” Bert Randall would say. “Keep thinking somebody else’s wife is better in bed, or just prettier at parties, and talk to themselves enough that they believe it. This whole damn town’s got itself believing its own press agents, and nobody can live up to those dreams.”

And it was all true. Dreams could be dangerous. Better to concentrate on what you had. And, Harvey thought, I have a lot. A good job, a big house, a swimming pool…

None of it paid for, and you can’t do what you want on the job, a malicious voice said inside his head.

Harvey ignored it.

The comets were not alone in the halo.

Local eddies near the center of the maelstrom — that whirling pool of gas which finally collapsed to form the Sun — had condensed into planets. The furious heat of the newly formed star had stripped the gas envelopes from the nearest, leaving nuggets of molten rock and iron. Worlds further out had remained as great balls of gas which men would, in a billion years, name for their gods. There had also been eddies very distant from the whirlpool’s axis.

One had formed a planet the size of Saturn, and it was still gathering mass. Its rings were broad and beautiful in starlight. Its surface churned with storms, for its center was furiously hot with the energy of its collapse. Its enormous orbit was tilted almost vertically to the plane of the inner system, and its stately path through the cometary halo took hundreds of thousands of years to complete.

Sometimes a comet would stray too near the black giant and be swept into its ring, or into the thousands of miles of atmosphere. Sometimes that tremendous mass would pluck a comet from its orbit and swing it out into interstellar space, to be lost forever. And sometimes the black planet would send a comet plunging into the maelstrom and hellfire of the inner system.

They moved in slow, stable orbits, these myriads of comets that had survived the ignition of the Sun. But when the black giant passed, orbits became chaos. Comets that fell into the maelstrom might return partially vaporized, and fall back, again and again, until nothing was left but a cloud of stones. But many never returned at all.

January: Interlude

Be the First in Your Block to Help Blow Out the Electric Power Network of the Northeast

East Village Other is proud to announce the first annual blackout of the Werewolves which is fixed for 3 P.M. on Wednesday, August 19, 1970. Once more let me put the system to the test. Switch on all the electric equipment you can lay hands on. Help the companies producing and distributing electric power to improve their balance sheets by consuming as much as you can; and even then find some way of using a bit more. In particular, switch on electric heaters, toasters, air conditioning, and any other apparatus with a high consumption. Refrigerator’ turned up to the maximum, with their doors left open, can cool down a large apartment in an amusing way. After an afternoon’s consumption-spree we will meet in Central Park to bay at the moon.

TUNE IN! PLUG IN! BLOW OUT!

Hospitals and other emergency services are hereby warned, and invited to take necessary precautions.

The East Village Other (an underground paper) July 1970

On a clear day the view stretched out forever. From his vantage point on the top floor of the San Joaquin Nuclear Project, Site Supervisor Barry Price had an excellent view of the vast lozenge-shaped saucer that had once been an inland sea, and was now the center of California’s agricultural industry. The San Joaquin Valley ran two hundred miles to his north, fifty to the south. The uncompleted nuclear-power complex stood on a low ridge twenty feet above the totally flat valley — the highest hill in sight.

Even at this early hour there was a bustle of industrial activity. His construction crews worked a full three shifts, through the night, on Saturdays and Sundays, and if Barry Price had had his way they’d have worked Christmas and New Year’s too. In their latest flurry of activity they’d finished Number One reactor and had a good start on Number Two; others had begun excavation for Three and Four, and none of it did any good. Number One was finished, but the courts and lawyers wouldn’t let him turn it on.

His desk was buried in paper. His hair was cut very short, his mustache was neatly trimmed and thin as a razor’s edge. He wore what his ex-wife had called his engineering uniform: khaki trousers, khaki shirt with epaulets, khaki bush jacket with more epaulets; pocket calculator swinging from his belt (when his hair was all brown it had been a slide rule), pencils in his breast pockets, notebook in its own pocket sewed to the jacket. When forced to — as he increasingly was by court appearances, command performances before the Mayor of Los Angeles and its Commissioners of Water and Power, testimony before Congress and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or the State Legislature — he reluctantly put on a gray flannel suit and tie; but on his home turf he gratefully changed back to field clothing, and he was damned if he’d dress up for visitors.

His coffee cup was empty, dead empty, and there went his last excuse. He keyed the intercom. “Dolores, I’m ready for our visiting firemen.”

“Not here yet,” she said.

Reprieved. For a little while. He went back to his papers, hating what he was doing. As he worked he muttered to himself. “I’m an engineer, dammit. If I’d wanted to spend all my time with legal briefs or sitting in a courtroom, I’d have been a lawyer. Or a mass murderer.”

Increasingly he regretted taking the job. He was a powersystems man, and a damned good one; he’d proved that by becoming Pennsylvania Edison’s youngest plant supervisor and keeping the Milford nuclear plant operating with the highest efficiency factor and best safety record in the country. And he’d wanted this position, to be in charge of San Joaquin and get the plant on line, four thousand megawatts of clean electric power when the project was completed. But his job was to build, to operate, not to explain. He was at home with machinery; more than that, with construction people, power operators, linemen and switchyard workers, his enthusiasm for nuclear power was infectious and spread through all those who worked for him — and so what? he thought sourly. Nowadays he spent all his time on paper work.

Dolores came in with more urgent memos that had to be answered. Every one of them was a job for a public-relations type, and every one of them came from people important enough to demand the time of the supervising engineer. He hefted the stack of memoranda and documents she dropped into his IN basket. “Look at this crap,” he said. “And every bit of it from politicians.”

She winked. “Illegitimi non carborundum,” she said.

Barry winked back. “It ain’t easy. Dinner?”

“Sure.”

He felt the anticipation from the bright promise in her quick smile. Barry Price sleeps with his secretary! I suppose, he thought, I suppose the Department would get upset if they knew. And to hell with them.

He felt the quiet: The building should be humming with the faint vibrations of turbines, the feel and sound of megawatts pouring into the grid, feeding Los Angeles and its industries; but there was nothing. Below him was the rectangular building that contained the turbines, beautiful machines, a paean to man’s ingenuity, weighing hundreds of tons and balanced to micrograms, able to spin at fantastic speeds and not vibrate at all… Why couldn’t people understand? Why didn’t everyone appreciate the beauty of fine machinery, the magnificence?

“Cheer up,” Dolores said, reading his thoughts. “The crews are working. Maybe this time they’ll let us finish.”

“Wouldn’t that make the news?” Barry asked. “Actually, I’d rather it didn’t. The less publicity we have, the better off we are. And that’s crazy.”

Dolores nodded and went to the windows. She stared across the San Joaquin Valley toward the Temblor Range thirty miles away. “Haze out there,” she said. “One of these days…”

“Yes.” That was a cheerful thought. Southern California had to have power, and with natural-gas shortages the only ways were coal and nuclear — and there was no way at all to burn coal and not get some haze and smog. “We’ve got the only clean way to go,” Barry said. “And we’ve won every time the public got to vote. You’d think even lawyers and politicians would get the message.” He knew he was preaching to the converted, but it helped to talk to someone, anyone, who would be sympathetic, who understood.

A light went on at his desk and Dolores flashed a parting smile before hastening out to greet the visiting delegation from the State Assembly. Barry prepared for another long day.

Morning rush hour in Los Angeles: streams of cars, all moving, thin smell of smog and exhaust fumes despite last night’s Santa Ana wind; patches of morning mist from the coast dying as warmer winds from inland swept them away. There was this about the morning rush hour: The freeways were jammed, but not necessarily with idiots. Most drove the same route at the same time every morning. They knew the ropes. You could see it at the off ramps, where nobody had to swerve across lanes; and at the on ramps, where the cars seemed to take turns.

Eileen had noticed it more than once. Despite the stand-up comics who had made California drivers the joke of the world, they were much better on freeways than any people she had seen anywhere else — which meant that she could drive with half her attention. She knew the ropes, too.

Her routine seldom varied now. Five minutes to finish a last cup of coffee before she got to the freeway. Stow the cup in the little rack she’d got from J. C. Whitney, and use the hairbrush for another five minutes. By then she was awake enough to do some real work. It would take another half-hour to get to Corrigan’s Plumbing Supplies in Burbank, and she could get a lot done with the dictaphone in that time. It improved her driving, too. Without the dictaphone she would be tense and nervous, pounding the dash in helpless frustration at every minor trafiic jam.

“Tuesday. Get on Corrigan’s back about the water filters,” her voice said back to her. “We’ve had two customers install the damned things without knowing there were parts missing.” Eileen nodded. She’d taken care of that already, and smoothed out the rage of a guy who’d looked like a barge tender and turned out to be related to one of the biggest developers in the valley. It just went to show, you could never kiss off a deal just because it looked like a one-item sale. She hit the rewind, then recorded: “Thursday. Have the warehouse people check every one of those filters in stock. Look for missing Leed nuts. And send a letter to the manufacturer.” She returned to PLAYBACK.

Eileen Susan Hancock was thirty-four years old. She was on the thin side of very pretty, and the reason showed in her hands, which were always in motion, and in her smile, which was nice, but which flashed always too suddenly, as if she’d turned on a light bulb, and in her walk. She had a tendency to leave people behind.

Somebody had once told her that was symbolic: She left people behind both physically and emotionally. He hadn’t said “intellectually,” and if he had she wouldn’t have believed him, but it was largely true. She’d been determined to be something more than a secretary long before there was anything like a women’s rights movement; and she’d managed that despite the responsibilities of a younger brother to raise.

If she ever talked about it, she laughed at how trite the situation was: Older sister puts younger brother through college but can’t go herself; helps younger brother get married, but never marries herself; and none of it was really true. She’d hated college. Maybe, she sometimes thought (but never said to anyone), a very good college, a place where they make you think, maybe that would have worked out. But to sit in a classroom while a timeserver lectured from a book that she’d already read, to teach her nothing she didn’t already know — it had been sheer hell, and when she dropped out the reasons weren’t financial.

And as to marriage, there wasn’t anybody she could live with. She’d tried that once, with a police lieutenant ( and watched how nervous he was to have her living there without benefit of City Hall license), and what had been a good relationship came apart inside a month. There had been another man, but he had a wife he wasn’t going to leave, and a third, who’d gone east for a three-month assignment that hadn’t ended after four years; and…

And I’m doing all right, she told herself when she thought about such things.

Men called her “hyperthyroid” or “the nervous type,” depending on education and vocabulary, and most didn’t try to keep up with her. She had an acid wit that she used too much. She hated dull talk. She talked much too fast, otherwise her voice was pleasant with a touch of throatiness derived from too many cigarettes.

She’d been driving this route for eight years. She took the curve of the four-level interchange without noticing; but once, years before, she had swept her car down that curve, then pulled off at the next ramp and parked her car and strolled back to stare at that maze of concrete spaghetti.

She’d been laughing at her own picture of herself as a gawking tourist, but she’d stared anyway.

“Wednesday,” the recorder told her. “Robin’s going to come through on the Marina deal. If he does, I stand to be Assistant General Manager. If he doesn’t, no chance. Problem…”

Eileen’s ears and throat were red in advance, and her hands shifted too often on the steering wheel. But she heard it through. Her Wednesday voice said, “He wants to sleep with me, it’s clear it wasn’t just repartee and games. If I cool him, do I blow the sale? Do I go to the mat with him to clinch the deal? Or am I missing something good because of the implications?”

“Shit-oh-dear,” Eileen said under her breath. She ran the tape back and recorded over that segment. “I still haven’t decided whether to accept Robin Geston’s dinner invitation. Memo: I should keep this tape cleaner. If anyone ever stole the recorder, I wouldn’t want to burn his ears off. Anyone remember Nixon?” She switched the recorder off, hard.

But she still had the problem, and she still felt burning resentment at living in a world where she had that kind of problem. She thought of how she’d word the letter to the goddamn manufacturer who’d sent out the filters without checking to see that all the parts were enclosed, and that made her feel a little better.

It was late evening in Siberia. Dr. Leonilla Alexandrovna Malik was finished for the day. Her last patient had been a four-year-old girl, child of one of the engineers at the space development center here in the Soviet northern wastes.

It was midwinter, and the wind blew cold from the north. There was snow piled outside the infirmary, and even inside she could feel the cold. Leonilla hated it. She had been born in Leningrad, so she was no stranger to severe winters; but she kept hoping for a transfer to Baikunyar, or even Kapustin Yar on the Black Sea. She resented being required to treat dependents, although of course there was little she could do about it; there weren’t many with pediatric training up here. Still, it was a waste. She had also been trained as a kosmonaut, and she kept hoping she’d get an assignment in space.

Perhaps soon. The Americans were said to be training women astronauts. If the Americans looked likely to send a woman into space, the Soviet Union would do it also, and quickly. The last Soviet experiment with a woman kosmonaut had been a disaster. (Was it really her fault? Leonilla wondered. She knew both Valentina Tereskovna and the kosmonaut she’d married, and they never talked about why her spacecraft had tumbled, ruining the chance for the Soviet Union to make the first space docking in history.) Of course, Valentina was much older, Leonilla thought. That had been in primitive times. Things were different now. The kosmonauts had little to do anyway; ground control made all the important decisions. A silly design philosophy, Leonilla thought, and her kosmonaut colleagues (all male, of course) shared this view, but not loudly.

She put the last of her used instruments into the autoclave and packed her bag. Kosmonaut or not, she was also a physician, and she carried the tools of the trade most places she went, just in case she might be needed. She put on the fur cap and heavy leather coat, shuddering a little at the sound of the wind outside. A radio in the next office had a news program, and Leonilla paused to listen when she heard a key word.

Comet. A new comet.

She wondered if there would be plans to explore it. Then she sighed. If there was a space mission to study the comet, it wouldn’t include her. She had no skills for that. Pilot, physician, life-support-systems engineer; those she could do. But not astronomy. That would be for Pieter or Basil or Sergei.

Too bad, really. But it was interesting. A new comet.

On Earth there was plague. Three billion years after the planet’s formation there came a virulent mutation, a form of life that used sunlight directly. The more efficient energy source gave the green mutant a hyperactive, murderous vigor; and as it spread forth to conquer the world, it poured out a flood of oxygen to poison the air. Raw oxygen seared the tissues of Earth’s dominant life and left it as fertilizer for the mutant.

That was a time of disaster for the comet, too. The black giant crossed its path for the first time.

Enormous heat had been trapped in the planet’s formation; it would be pouring out to the stars for a billion years to come.

A flood of infrared light boiled hydrogen and helium from the comet’s tissues. Then the intruder passed, and calm returned. The comet cruised on through the cold black silence, a little lighter now, moving in a slightly changed orbit.

February: One

On the other hand, it is necessary to shape the social structure of the worker’s world in such a way as to take away his fear of being a mere cog in an impersonal machine. A true solution can come only through the conception that work, whatever it must be, is the service of God and of the community and therefore the expression of man’s dignity.

Emil Brurmer, Gifford Lectures, 1948

Westwood Boulevard was not even remotely on the way between the offices of the National Broadcasting System and the Randall home near Beverly Glen, which was the main reason Harvey Randall liked the bars there. He wasn’t likely to run into any of the network officials and he wasn’t likely to find any of Loretta’s friends.

Students wandered along the wide street. They came in assortments: bearded and wearing jeans; clean-cut with expensive jeans; deliberately weird, and young-fogey conservative, and everything between. Harvey strolled with them. He passed specialty bookstores. One was devoted to gay lib. Another called itself the Macho Adult Bookstore and meant it. And another catered to the science-fiction crowd. Harvey made a mental note to go in there. They’d probably have a lot of stuff about comets and astronomy geared to a general readership; after he read that he could go to the UCLA campus store and get the really technical material.

Past the sisterhood place was a plate-glass window. Letters in Gothic script said SECURITY FIRST FEDERAL BAR Inside were stools, three small tables, four booths, a pinball machine and a jukebox. The walls were decorated with whatever the customers preferred, a supply of marking pens lay on the bar, and the walls were whitewashed at intervals. Paint peeled away in places to reveal comments made years before, a kind of pop-culture archeology.

Harvey moved into the dimness like a tired old man. As his eyes adjusted he spotted Mark Czescu on a stool. He pulled himself up next to Czescu and propped elbows on bar.

Czescu was thirty-odd, almost ageless, a perpetual young man about to launch himself on his career. Harvey knew Mark had been in the Navy for four years, and had tried several colleges, starting at UCLA and working down through community junior colleges. He sometimes called himself a student even yet, but no one believed he’d ever finish. He wore biker’s boots, old jeans, a T-shirt and a crumpled Aussie digger hat. He wore his black hair long and his black beard full. There was ground-in dirt under his nails and fresh streaks of grease on the jeans, but his hands and clothes had been freshly washed for all of that; he just didn’t have any pathological need to be scrubbed pink.

When Mark wasn’t smiling he had a dangerous look, despite the respectable beer belly. He smiled at lot; but he could take some things very seriously, and he sometimes moved with a tough crowd. They were part of his image: Mark Czescu could run with the real bikers if he wanted to, but he didn’t want to. Just now he looked concerned. “You don’t look good,” he said.

“I feel like killing somebody,” said Harvey.

“You feel that way, I could maybe find somebody,” Mark said. He let it trail off.

“No. They’re my bosses. They’re all of them my bosses, damn their innumerable souls.” Harvey ordered a pitcher and two glasses, and ignored Mark’s suggestion. He knew Mark couldn’t arrange a real murder. It was part of the Czescu image, to know more than you did about whatever subject came up. It usually amused Harvey, but just now he wasn’t in the mood for games.

“I want something from them,” Harvey said. “And they know they’re going to give it to me. How the hell can they not know? I’ve even got the sponsor wired! But the sons of bitches have to play games. If one of them fell off a balcony tomorrow, I’d be in for an extra month breaking in a new one, and I can’t afford the time.” It didn’t hurt to humor Czescu; the guy could be useful, and a lot of fun — and maybe he could arrange a murder. You never really knew.

“So what are they going to give you?” Mark asked.

“A comet. I’m going to make a whole series of documentaries about a new comet. The guy who discovered it chances to own seventy percent of the company that will sponsor the documentaries.”

Czescu chortled. Harvey nodded agreement. “It’s a beautiful setup. Chance to make the kind of films I really want to do. And to learn a lot. Not like that last shit, interviewing doomsters, everybody with his own private vision of the end of the world. I wanted to cut my throat and get it over with before that one was finished.”

“So what’s wrong?”

Harvey sighed, and drank more beer, and said, “Look. There are about four guys who could really tell me to go take a flying frig and make it stick. But that’d be a mistake, right? The New York people won’t put up with blowing a sponsored series. They’re going to buy the show. But how will anyone know they’ve got the power to say no if they don’t hesitate and demand I write up treatments and do budget estimates and all that crap? None of that shit gets used, but they’ve got to have a sound basis for decisions.’ Four fucking prima donnas who actually have the power.

“Okay, I could live with them. But then there are a couple of dozen who couldn’t stop a Time for Beany revival, but they want to show how important they are, too. So to show each other they could really stop the show if they wanted to, they raise as many objections as they can. Got the best interests of the sponsors in mind, right? Don’t want to get Kalva Soap mad, right? Bullshit. But I’ve got to put up with it.” Harvey was suddenly aware of what he sounded like, “Look, let’s change the subject.”

“Right. You’ve noticed the name of this place?”

“Security First Federal Bar. Cute. Stolen from George Carlin. About time, too.”

“Right! Now maybe some others will pick up the idea. Can you see Crazy Eddie’s Insurance?”

“Why not? They bought cars from Madman Muntz. How about Fat Jack’s Cancer Clinic?”

“Fat Jack’s Cancer Clinic and Mortuary,” Czescu said.

The tightness in Harvey’s neck and shoulders was going away. He drank more beer, then went to a booth where he could lean against something. Mark followed and took the opposite seat.

“Hey, Harv, when we making another run? Your bike still work?”

“Yeah.” A year ago — no, dammit, two years and more — he’d said the hell with it and let Mark Czescu lead him on a ride up the coast, drinking in little bars, talking to other drifters, camping where they felt like it. Czescu took care of the bikes, and Harvey paid the bills, not that they amounted to much. It had been a time of no worries. “The bike works, but I won’t get a chance to use it. When this series gets going it’ll take full time.”

“Anything I can get in on?” Mark asked.

Harvey shrugged. “Why not?” Mark often worked on Harvey’s shows. He carried cameras or clipboards and did maintenance or just plain acted as gofer. “If you’ll shut up once in awhile.”

“I’m hip.”

The bar was filling up. The jukebox ran out of sound, and Mark got up. “Something just for you,” he said. He retrieved his twelve-string guitar from behind the bar and took a chair at the end of the room. This, too, was part of his routine: Czescu sang for drinks and meals in bars. On their run up the coast Mark had got them free steaks in half the places between L.A. and Carmel. He was good enough to be professional, but he wouldn’t discipline himself; whenever he got a regular gig it didn’t last a week. To Mark, those who made steady money were magicians with a secret that he couldn’t quite learn.

Mark strummed an experimental chord, then began a prologue. The tune was the old cowboy number, “Cool Clear Water.”

All day I face the TV waste, without a trace of culture,
Pure culture.
With soapbox operas all day long, and giveaway shows that run too long,
And lead you on,
From culture.
Pure… sweet… culture.

Harvey laughed approval. A fat man at the bar sent over a pitcher of beer and Mark acknowledged with a toss of his head.

The sun goes down, and through the town you hear the cry for culture,
Sweet culture.
While lawyers grin, and cops will win, to stop the sin of culture.
Culture. Pure… culture.

There was a short break as Mark picked at the guitar. The chords jangled, obviously wrong, but obviously right too, as if Mark were searching for something he could never find.

Keep a tunin’, friend, it’ll set you in a trend, And your mind it’s goin’ to bend,
And hook you in the end, With culture. Culture. Pure culture.
Friend, can’t you see, for you and me, and a mind that’s free,
It’s pay TV for you and me,
And culture. Culture. Pure… sweet… culture.

The guitar stopped and Mark said in a plonking voice, “Almost as much as you get from an old Bogart movie.”

PURE, SWEET, CULTURE.

“Leonard Bernstein conducts the London Symphony Orchestra and the Rolling Stones in a dazzling display of

“CULTURE. Pure, sweet, culture.

“Folks, tonight we have a debate between the president of the United Farm Workers versus twenty-two hungermaddened housewives armed with butcher knives. It’s

CULTURE. P*U*R*E, S*W*E*E*T, C*U*L*T*U*R*E.”

Jesus, thought Harvey. Jesus, I’d like to play a recording of that in a goddamn executive council meeting at the network. Harvey leaned back to enjoy his moment. It wouldn’t be long before he had to go home to dinner, and Loretta, and Andy, and Kipling, and the home he loved but whose price was just so damned high.

The Santa Ana still blew, hot and dry across the Los Angeles basin. Harvey drove with open windows, his coat thrown onto the seat beside him, tie atop the pile. Headlights picked up green hillsides among bare trees, palm trees at intervals. He drove in the full summery darkness of a California February and he noticed nothing unusual about it.

He hummed Mark’s song as he drove. One day, he thought. One day I’ll slip a tape of that onto the Muzak system so three-quarters of the business people in Los Angeles and Beverly Hills will have to listen to it. Half concentrating, he daydreamed in fragments that shattered when some car ahead slowed and the flare of brake lights surged like a wave.

At the top of the hill he turned right onto Mulholland, right again onto Benedict Canyon, downhill slightly, then right onto Fox. Fox Lane was one of a cluster of short curved streets lined with fifteen-year-old houses. One of them belonged to Harvey, courtesy of Pasadena Savings and Loan. Further down Benedict Canyon was the turn onto Cielo Drive, where Charlie Manson had proved to the world that civilization was neither eternal nor safe. After that Sunday morning of horror in 1969 there was not a gun or a guard dog to be had in Beverly Hills. Back orders for shotguns stretched delivery time to weeks. And ever since, despite Harvey’s pistol and shotgun and dog, Loretta wanted to move. She was searching for safety.

Home. A big white house with green roof, trimmed front lawn, a big tree and small porch. It had a good resale value, because it was the least expensive house on the block; but least expensive is a relative thing, as Harvey well knew.

His house had a conventional driveway, not a big circular entry like the house across the street. He took the corner at a good clip, slowed in the drive, and zapped the garage door with the radio-beam widget. The door swung up before he could reach it; perfect timing, and Harvey scored a mental point with himself. The garage door closed behind him and he sat for a moment in darkness. Harvey didn’t like driving in rush hours, and he drove the rush hour twice nearly every day of his life. Time for a shower, he thought. He got out of the car and walked back down the drive toward the kitchen door.

“Hey, Harv?” a baritone voice bellowed.

“Yo,” Harvey answered. Gordie Vance, Randall’s neighbor on the left, was coming across his lawn with a rake trailing behind him. He leaned on the fence, and Harvey did the same, thinking as he did of cartoons of housewives chatting this way; only Loretta didn’t like Marie Vance, and would never be seen leaning on a back fence anyway. “So, Gordie. How are things at the bank?”

Gordie’s smile wavered. “They’ll keep. Anyway you’re not ready for a lecture on inflation. Listen, can you get away on the weekend? Thought we’d take the scouts up for a snow hike.”

“Boy, that sounds good.” Clean snow. It was hard to believe that no more than an hour away, in the Angeles Forest Mountains, was deep snow and wild, whistling wind in the evergreens, while they stood here in their shirt sleeves in the dark. “Probably not, Gordie. There’s a job coming up.” Christ, I hope there’s a job coming up. “You better not count on me.”

“What about Andy? Thought I’d use him as patrol leader this trip.”

“He’s a little young for that.”

“Not really. And he’s got experience. I’m taking some new kids on a first hike. Could use Andy.”

“Sure, he’s up on his schoolwork. Where are you going?”

“Cloudburst Summit.”

Harvey laughed. Tim Hamner’s observatory wasn’t far from there, although Harvey had never seen it. He must have hiked past it a dozen times.

They discussed details. With the Santa Ana blowing there’d be melt-off on all but the top elevations, but there would certainly be snow on the north slopes. A dozen scouts and Gordie. It sounded like fun. It was fun. Harvey shook his head ruefully. “You know, Gordo, when I was a kid it was a good week’s hike to Cloudburst. No road. Now we drive it in an hour. Progress.”

“Yeah. But it is progress, isn’t it? I mean, now we can get there and still keep a job.”

“Sure. Damn, I wish I could go.” By the time they’d driven up — an hour — and hiked in and got the gear out of their backpacks and set up camp, and got damp wood burning and their backpack stoves going, the freeze-dried mountain food always tasted like ambrosia. And coffee, at midnight, standing in a shelter out of the wind and listening to it whistle above… But it wasn’t worth a comet. “Sorry.”

“Right. Okay, I’ll check with Andy. Go over his gear for me, will you?”

“Sure.” What Gordie meant was, “Don’t let Loretta pack for your son. It’s hard enough hiking at that altitude without all the crap she’d make him carry. Hot-water bottles. Extra blankets. Once even an alarm clock.”

Harvey had to go back for his jacket and tie. When he came out of the garage he went another way, into the backyard. He’d thought of asking Gordie, “How do you feel about calling it ‘Gordo’s Bank and Kaffeeklatsch’?” From the look on Gordie’s face when the bank was mentioned, it wouldn’t go over. Some kind of trouble there. Private trouble.

Andy was in the backyard, across the pool, playing basketball solitaire. Randall stood quietly watching him. In zero time, in what must have been a year but felt like a week, Andy had changed from a boy into a… into a stick figure, all arms and legs and hands, long bones poised behind a basketball. He launched it with exquisite care, danced to catch the rebound, dribbled, and fired again for a perfect score. Andy didn’t smile; he nodded in somber satisfaction.

Kid’s not bad, Harvey thought.

His pants were new, but they didn’t reach his ankles. He’d be fifteen next September, ready for high school; and there was nothing for it but to send him to Harvard School for Boys, certainly the best in Los Angeles; only the school wanted a fortune just to hold a place, and the orthodontist wanted thousands now and more later. And there was the funny noise from the pool pump, and the electronics club Andy was involved in, it wouldn’t be long before the boy wanted a micro-computer for himself and who could blame him?… And… Randall went inside, quietly, glad that Andy hadn’t noticed him.

A teen-age boy used to be an asset. He could work in the fields — drive a team, or even a tractor. The pressure could be shared, shifted to younger shoulders. A man could ease off.

There was wrapping paper in the kitchen wastebasket. Loretta had been shopping again. Christmas had been on charge accounts, and those bills would be coming to roost on his desk. He’d already heard the stock-market report on the radio. The market was down.

Loretta was nowhere around. Harvey went into the big dressing room off the bathroom and stripped, got into the shower. Hot water beat down on his neck, draining away tension. His mind was turned off; he imagined himself as meat being massaged by hydraulic pressure. Only. If only his mind would really turn off.

Andy has a conscience. God knows I never tried to make him feel guilty. Discipline, sure. Punishment, standing in a corner, even a formal spanking, but when it’s over it’s over, no lingering guilt… but he knows guilt anyway. If Andy knew what he’s costing me in dollars and cents — and in the years of my life. If he ever knew what it does to the way l have to live, the shit I put up with to keep that goddamn job and win the bonuses that keep us afloat… What would Andy do if he knew? Run away? Get a job as a street sweeper in San Francisco to try to pay me back? He damned well is not going to know.

A voice in the roar of water. Huh? Randall came out of the internal world and found Loretta smiling through the glass shower door. She mouthed, “Hi. How’d it go?”

He waved. Loretta took it as an invitation. Randall watched her undress slowly, lasciviously, and slide through the glass door quick so the water wouldn’t splash out… and it wasn’t Wednesday. Harvey folded her in his arms. The water beat down on them, and they kissed. And it wasn’t Wednesday.

She asked, “How’d it go?”

He had read her lips the first time, but she couldn’t guess that. Now he had to answer. “I think they’ll do it.”

“I don’t see why not. It doesn’t make sense. If they wait, CBS will take it.”

“Right.” The magic went out of the shower/orgy scene, poof.

“Isn’t there any way to tell them how silly they’re being?”

“No.” Harvey fiddled with the shower head. The water expanded to a fine spray.

“Why not?”

“Because they know. Because they’re not playing the same game we are.”

“It all depends on you. If you insist on doing it your way, just once…” Loretta’s hair darkened and dampened under the shower. She held him in her arms and looked up into his face, looked for the strengthening of purpose that would mean she’d convinced him: that he would stand by his principles and force his superiors to face the consequences of their mistakes.

“Yeah. It all depends on me. Which makes me the obvious target if anything goes wrong. Turn around and I’ll do your back.”

She turned her back. Harvey reached for the soap. His will loosed its hold on the muscles of his face. His soapy hands made patterns in the slippery contours of Loretta’s back… slowly, every move a caress… but he was thinking, Don’t you know what they’d do to me? They’d never fire me, but one day my office is an inside broom closet, the next day the rug is gone. Then my phone doesn’t work. By the time I quit, everyone in the industry has forgotten I exist. And we’re still spending every cent I make.

He had always loved Loretta’s back. He searched his mind for growing lust… but he felt nothing.

She was in on this from the beginning. It’s her life too. Not fair to lock her out. But she just won’t understand. I can get Mark off a subject! He’ll drink my beer and talk about something else, if I make it plain enough. But I can’t talk to Loretta like that… What I need is a drink.

Loretta washed his back for him, and then they dried each other with the big towels. She was still trying to tell him how to handle the situation at the studio. She knew something was wrong, and as usual she probed at it, trying to understand, trying to help.

Myriads of orbits later, when true humans were spreading through a world held fast in the grip of an ice age, the black planet came again.

The comet was larger now. It had grown, snowflake by isolated snowflake, over a thousand million years, until it was four and a half miles across. But now its surface warmed in a bath of infrared heat. Within the comet’s tissues, pockets of hydrogen and helium vaporized and seeped through the crust. The tiny sun was eclipsed. The ringed black disk covered a third of the sky, leaking the heat of its birth.

Then it had passed, and calm returned.

The comet had healed from a previous pass. Centuries, millennia, what are they in the cometary halo? But time had come at last to this comet. The black giant’s passing had stopped it cold in its orbit.

Slowly, urged by the faint tugging of the Sun’s gravity, it began to drop toward the maelstrom.

February: Two

It appears that the inner planets have ceaselessly been bombarded since their formation. Mars, Mercury, and Earth’s Moon have undergone repeated strikes by objects ranging in size from micrometeorites to whatever cracked the Moon and created the large lava basin called Oceanus Procellarum.

Although it was originally thought that Mars, because it was at the edge of the asteroid belt, experienced a higher rate of meteoric bombardment, examination of Mercury indicates that Mars is not exceptional, and the inner planets have approximately equal probabilities of being struck…

Mariner Preliminary Report

The TravelAll was crammed with equipment: cameras, tape recorders, lights and reflectors, battery belts; the myriad paraphernalia of the roving TV interview. Charlie Bascomb, cameraman, was in the back with the sound man, Manuel Arguilez; everything normal, except that Mark Czescu was in the front seat when Harvey came out of the NBS offices.

Harvey beckoned to Mark. They walked across the studio lot toward Mercedes Row, where the executives parked. “Look,” Harvey said, “your job title is Production Assistant. That theoretically makes you management. It has to be that way because of union rules.”

“Yeah — ” Mark said.

“But you aren’t management. You’re a gofer.”

“I’m hip.” Mark sounded hurt.

“Don’t get upset and don’t get huffy. Just understand. My crew has been with me a long time. They know the game. You don’t.”

“I know that, too.”

“Fine. You can be a big help. Just remember, what we don’t need is—”

“Is me telling everybody how to do their job.” He flashed a big grin. “I like working for you. I won’t blow it.”

“Good.” Harvey detected no signs of irony in Mark’s voice It made him feel better. He had been worried about this interview — it had to be said, but that didn’t make it easier. One of his associates had once remarked that Mark was like a jungle, all right but you had to chop him back every now and then or he’d grow all over you.

The TravelAII started instantly. It had been through a lot with Harvey Randall: from the Alaska pipeline to the lower tip of Baja, even into Central America. They were old friends, the TravelAII and Harvey: a big three-seat International Harvester four-wheel drive, truck motor, ugly as sin, and utterly reliable. He drove in silence to the Ventura Freeway and turned toward Pasadena. Traffic was light.

“You know,” Harvey said, “we’re always complaining how nothing works, but here we are going fifty miles for this interview, and we count on being there in less than an hour. When I was a kid a fifty-mile trip was something you packed lunches for and hoped you’d make it by dark.”

“What’d you have, a horse?” Charlie asked.

“No, just L.A. without the freeways.”

“Yuk.”

They drove through Glendale and turned north on Linda Vista to go past the Rose Bowl. Charlie and Manuel talked about bets they’d lost a few weeks before.

“I thought Cal Tech owned JPL,” Charlie said.

“They do,” Mark told him.

“Sure put it way the hell far from Pasadena.”

“Used to test jet engines there,” Mark said. “JPL. Jet Propulsion Laboratories, right? Everybody thought they’d blow up, so they made Cal Tech put the labs out in the Arroyo.” He waved to indicate the houses outside. “Then they built the most expensive suburb in this end of L.A. just around it.”

The guard was expecting them. He waved them into a lot near one of the large buildings. JPL nestled into its arroyo and filled it with office buildings. A big central steel and glass tower looked strangely out of place among the older Air-Force standard “temporary” structures erected twenty years before.

There was a PR flack waiting for them. She led them through the routine: Sign in, wear badges. Inside, it looked like any other office building, but not quite: There were stacks of IBM cards in the corridors, and almost no one wore coats or ties. They passed a ten-foot color globe of Mars gathering dust in a corner. No one paid any attention to Harvey and his people; it wasn’t unusual to see TV crews.

JPL had built the Pioneer and Mariner space probes, had set Viking down on Mars.

“Here we are,” the PR flack said.

The office looked good. Books on the wall. Incomprehensible equations on the blackboards. Books on every flat surface in view, IBM print-outs all over the expensive teak desk.

“Dr. Sharps, Harvey Randall,” the flack said. She hovered near the door.

Charles Sharps wore glasses that curved around to cover his whole field of view; very modernistic, vaguely insectile against his long pale face. His hair was black and straight, worn short. His fingers played with a felt-tip pen, or fished into his pockets, always moving. He looked to be about thirty, but might have been older, and he wore a sport jacket and tie.

“Now let’s get this straight,” Sharps said. “You want a lecture on comets. For yourself or for the public?”

“Both. Simple for me camera, as much as I can understand for me. If it’s not too much trouble.”

“Too much trouble?” Sharps laughed. “How could it be too much trouble? Your network tells NASA you want to do a documentary on space, and NASA sends up red rockets. Right, Charlene?”

The PR flack nodded. “They asked us to cooperate—”

“Cooperate.” Sharps laughed again. “I’d jump through hoops if I thought it would help get a budget. When do we start?”

“Now, please,” Harvey said. “The crew will set up while we chat. Just ignore them. I take it you’re the resident expert on comets.”

“I suppose so,” Sharps said. “Actually I like asteroids, but somebody has to study comets. I gather you’re interested mainly in Hamner-Brown.”

“Right.”

Charlie caught Harvey’s eye. They were ready. Harvey gave them the nod. Manuel listened and watched the indicator, and said, “Speed.”

Mark stepped in front of the camera. “Sharps interview, take one.” The chalkboard came together with a loud clack! Sharps jumped. They always did, first time. Charlie busied himself with the camera. He kept it aimed at Sharps; they’d film Harvey asking the questions later, when Sharps wasn’t around.

“Tell me, Dr. Sharps, will Hamner-Brown be visible to the naked eye?”

“Don’t know,” Sharps said. He sketched something unlikely on the IBM print-out in front of him. The sketch might have been of a pair of mating Loch Ness monsters. “A month from now we’ll know much better. We already know it’s going to get as close to the Sun as Venus, but — ” He broke off and looked at the camera “What level do you want this at?”

“Anything you like,” Harvey said. “Make me understand, then we can decide how to tell the public.”

Sharps shrugged. “All right. So there’s the solar system out there.” He waved toward one wall. A big chart of the planets and their orbits hung next to the blackboard. “Planets and moons, always where they should be. They do a great complicated dance around each other. Every planet, every moon, every little rock in the asteroid belt, all dancing to Newton’s song of gravity. Mercury got a little out of step and we had to revise the universe to make it fit.”

“How’s that?” Harvey asked. And I’d have preferred to do the poetry myself, but what the hell…

“Mercury. Orbit changes just a little every year. Not much, but more than Newton says it should. So a man named Einstein found a good explanation, and incidentally managed to make the universe a stranger place than it was before.”

“Oh. I hope we don’t need relativity to understand comets—”

“No, no. But there’s more than gravity to a comet’s orbit. That’s surprising, isn’t it?”

“Yes. Are we going to have to revise the universe again?”

“What? No, it’s simpler than that. Look…” Sharps jumped to his feet and was at the blackboard. He looked for chalk and muttered “Here you go.” Mark took chalk from his pocket and handed it.

“Thanks.” Sharps sketched a white blob, then a parabolic curve. “That’s the comet. Now let’s put in planets.” He drew two circles. “Earth and Venus.”

“I thought planets moved in elliptical orbits,” Harvey said.

“So they do, but on any scale you could draw you can’t see the difference. Now look at the comet’s orbit. Both arms of the curve look just the same, coming in and going out. Textbook parabola, right?”

“Right.”

“But here’s what the comet really looks like when it falls away from the Sun. A dense nucleus, a coma of fine dust and gas” — he was drawing again — “and a plume of dusty gas streaming away from the Sun. Ahead of the comet, going out. The tail. A big tail, a hundred million miles long, sometimes. But it’s nearly a vacuum. It has to be — if it were thick, there wouldn’t be enough matter in the comet to fill that much space.”

“Sure.”

“Okay, and again like the textbooks. Material boils out of the head of the comet into the coma. It’s a thin gas, tiny particles, so tiny that sunlight can push them around. Light pressure from the Sun makes them stream away, so the tail always faces away from the Sun. Okay? Tail follows the comet going in, leads it coming out. But—

“The stuff boils out unevenly. When the comet first falls into the system, it’s a solid mass. We think. Nobody really knows. We have several models that fit the observations. Me, I like the dirty-snowball model. The comet’s made of rocks and dust, the dirt, balled up with ices and frozen gases. Some water ice. Methane. Carbon dioxide — dry ice. Cyanogen and nitrogen, all kinds of stuff. Pockets of these gases thaw and blast out to one side or the other. Like jet propulsion, and it changes the orbit.” Sharps was at work with the chalk, holding it sideways. When he finished, the incoming arm had jogs and jiggle in it, and the outgoing arm was blurred into a wide sweep not unlike the comet’s tail. “So we don’t know how close to Earth it’s coming.”

“I see. And you don’t know how big the tail will be.”

“Right. But this seems to be a new comet. Maybe it’s never made the trip down close to the Sun before. Not like Halley’s Comet, which comes every seventy years and gets smaller each time. Comets die a little every time they pass near the Sun. They lose all that tail material forever. So each time the tail’s smaller, until eventually there’s nothing left but the nucleus, and that comes as a handful of rocks. Meteor showers. Some of our best shooting stars are pieces of old comets falling onto Earth.”

“But this one’s new—”

“That’s right. So it ought to have a spectacular tail.”

“I seem to remember people said that about Kahoutek.”

“And I seem to remember they were wrong. Wasn’t there an outfit selling commemorative medals that would show Kahoutek exactly as it appeared? You see there’s no way to know. But my guess is that Hamner-Brown will be quite a sight. And it ought to pass fairly close to Earth.”

Sharps drew a dot within the blur of the comet’s outgoing course. “There’s where we’ll be. Of course we won’t see a lot until the comet passes the Earth, because until it gets by we’ll be looking straight into the Sun to see it. Hard to observe then. But when it’s passed us, it should be quite a sight. There have been comets with tails across half the sky. See them in daytime. We’re overdue for a big comet this century.”

“Hey, doc,” Mark said. “You’ve got Earth right in that thing’s path. Could it hit us?”

Harvey turned to look daggers at Mark.

Sharps was laughing. “Chances are zillions to one against it. You see the Earth as a dot on the blackboard. Actually, if I drew this to scale you wouldn’t be able to see the Earth in the drawing. Or the comet nucleus either. So what’s the chance that a couple of pinpoints will come together?” He frowned at the board. “Of course, the tail is likely to go where we do. We might be in it for weeks.”

“What does that do?” Harvey asked.

“We went through the tail of Halley’s Comet,” Mark said. “Didn’t hurt a thing. Pretty lights, and—”

This time Harvey’s look was enough.

“Your friend’s right,” Sharps said.

I knew that. “Dr. Sharps, why do all the astronomers get so excited about Hamner-Brown?” Harvey asked.

“Man, we can learn a lot from comets. Things like the origins of the solar system. They’re older than Earth. Made out of primordial matter. This comet may have been out there way past Pluto for billions of years. Present theory says the solar system condensed from a cloud of dust and gas, an eddy in the interstellar medium. Most of that blew away when the Sun started to burn, but some is still in the comet. We can analyze the tail. The way we did with Kahoutek. Kahoutek was no disappointment to astronomers. We used tools we’d never had before. Skylab. Lots of things.”

“And that was useful?” Harvey prompted.

“Useful? It was magnificent! We should do it again!” Sharps’s hands waved around in dramatic gestures. Harvey glanced quickly at his crew. The camera was rolling, and Manuel had that contented look a sound man has when things are going well in his phones.

“Could we get something like Skylab up there in time?” Harvey asked.

“Skylab? No. But Rockwell’s got an Apollo capsule we could use. And we’ve got the equipment here at the labs. There are big military boosters around, things the Pentagon doesn’t need anymore. We could do it, if we started now, and we weren’t chicken about it.” Sharps’s face fell. “But we won’t. Too damn bad, too. We could really learn something from Hamner-Brown that way.”

The cameras and sound equipment were packed away and the crew went out with the PR lady. Harvey was saying his farewells to Sharps.

“Want some coffee, Harvey? You’re in no hurry, are you?” Sharps asked.

“Guess not.”

Sharps punched a button on the phone console. “Larry. Get us some coffee, please.” He turned back to Harvey. “Damnedest thing,” he said. “Whole nation depends on technology. Stop the wheels for two days and you’d have riots. No place is more than two meals from a revolution. Think of Los Angeles or New York with no electricity. Or a longer view, fertilizer plants stop. Or a longer view yet, no new technology for ten years. What happens to our standard of living?”

“Sure, we’re a high-technology civiliz—”

“Yet…” Sharps said. His voice was firm. He intended to finish. “Yet the damned fools won’t pay ten minutes’ attention a day to science and technology. How many people know what they’re doing? Where do these carpets come from? The clothes you’re wearing? What do carburetors do? Where do sesame seeds come from? Do you know? Does one voter out of thirty? They won’t spend ten minutes a day thinking about the technology that keeps them alive. No wonder the research budget has been cut to nothing. We’ll pay for that. One day we’ll need something that could have been developed years before but wasn’t — ” He stopped himself. “Tell me, Harv, will this TV thing of yours be big or will it get usual billing for a science program?”

“Prime time,” Harvey said. “A series, on the value of Hamner-Brown, and incidentally on the value of science. Of course, I can’t guarantee people won’t turn to reruns of ‘I Love Lucy.’ ”

“Yeah. Oh — thank you, Larry. Put the coffee right here.”

Harvey had expected styrofoam cups and machine coffee. Instead, Sharps’s assistant brought in a gleaming Thermos pitcher, silver spoons and sugar-and-cream service on an inlaid teak tray.

“Help yourself, Harvey. It’s good coffee. Mocha-Java?”

“Right,” the assistant said.

“Good.” He waved dismissal. “Harv, why this sudden change of heart by the networks?”

Harvey shrugged. “Sponsor insists on it. The sponsor happens to be Kalva Soap. Which happens to be controlled by Timothy Hamner. Who happens—”

Harvey was cut off by shrieks of laughter. Sharps’s thin face contorted in glee. “Beautiful!” Then he looked thoughtful. “A series. Tell me, Harv, if a politician helped us with the study — helped a lot — could he be worked into the series? Get some favorable publicity?”

“Sure. Hamner would insist on it. Not that I’d object—”

“Marvelous.” Sharps lifted his coffee cup. “Cheers. Thanks, Harv. Thanks a lot. I think we’ll be seeing more of each other.”

Sharps waited until Harvey Randall had left the building. He sat very still, something unusual for him, and he felt excitement in the pit of his stomach. It might work. It just might. Finally he punched the intercom. “Larry, get me Senator Arthur Jellison in Washington. Thanks.”

Then he waited impatiently until the phone buzzed. “He’ll talk to you,” his assistant said.

Sharps lifted the phone. “Sharps here.” Another wait while the secretary got the Senator.

“Charlie?”

“Right,” Sharps said. “Art, I’ve got a proposition for you. Know about the comet?”

“Comet? Oh. Comet. Funny you mention that. I met the guy who discovered it. Turns out he was a heavy contributor, but I never met him before.”

“Well, it’s important,” Sharps said. “Opportunity of the century—”

“That’s what they said about Kahoutek—”

“God damn Kahoutek! Look, Art, what’s the chance we could get funding for a probe?”

“How much?”

“Well, take two cases. Second best is anything we can get. The lab can cobble up an unmanned black box, something that goes on a Thor-Delta—”

“No problem. I can get you that,” Jellison said.

“But that’s second best. What we need is a manned probe. Say two men in an Apollo with some equipment instead of the third man. Art, that comet’s going to be close. From up there we could get good pictures, not just the tail, not just the coma, there’s a fair chance we could get pix of the head! Know what that means?”

“Not really, but you just told me it’s important.” Jellison was silent for a moment. “Sorry. I really am, but there’s no chance. Not one chance. Anyway, we couldn’t put up an Apollo if we had the budget—”

“Yes we can. I just checked with Rockwell. Higher-risk mission than NASA likes, but we could do it. We’ve got the hardware—”

“Doesn’t matter. I can’t get you a budget for that.”

Sharps frowned at the phone. The sick excitement rose in his stomach. Arthur Jellison was an old friend, and Charlie Sharps did not like blackmail. But… “Not even if the Russkis are putting up a Soyuz?”

“What? But they’re not—”

“Oh, yes, they are,” Sharps said. And it’s not a lie, not really. Just an anticipation—

“You can prove that?”

“In a few days. Rely on it, they’re going up to look at Hamner-Brown.”

“I will be dipped in shit.”

“I beg your pardon, Senator?”

“I will be dipped in shit.”

“Oh.”

“You’re playing games with me, aren’t you, Charlie?” Jellison demanded.

“Not really. Look, Art, it’s important. And we need another manned mission anyway, just to keep up interest in space. You’ve been after a manned flight—”

“Yeah, but I had no chance of getting one.” There was more silence. Then Jellison said, more to himself than Sharps, “So the Russkis are going. And no doubt they’ll make a big deal of it.”

“I’m sure they will.”

Another silence. Charlie Sharps almost held his breath “Okay,” Jellison said. “I’ll nose around the Hill and see what kind of reactions I get. But you better be giving it to me straight.”

“Senator, in a week you’ll have unmistakable evidence.”

“All right. I’ll give it a try. Anything else?”

“Not just now.”

“Okay. Thanks for the tip, Charlie.” The phone went dead.

Abrupt he is, Sharps thought. He smiled thinly to himself, then punched the intercom button again. “Larry, I want Dr. Sergei Fadayev in Moscow, and yes, I know what time it is over there. Just get him on for me.”

The legend of Gilgamesh was a handful of unconnected tales spreading through the Earth’s Fertile Crescent in Asia… and the comet was nearly unchanged. It was still far outside the maelstrom. The orbit of the runaway moon called Pluto would have looked like a quarter held nearly on edge, at arm’s length. The Sun, an uncomfortably bright pin point, still poured far less heat across the comet’s crust than had the black giant at its worst. The crust was mostly water ice now; it reflected most of the heat back to the stars.

Yet time passed.

Mars swallowed its water in another turn of its long, vicious weather cycle. Men spread across the Earth, laughing and scratching. And the comet continued to fall. A breath of the solar wind, high-velocity protons, flayed its crust. Much of the hydrogen and helium in its tissues had seeped away. The maelstrom came near.

March: One

And the Lord hung a rainbow as a sign,

Won’t be water but fire next time.

Traditional spiritual

Mark Czescu looked up at the house and whistled. It was California Tudor, off-white stucco with massive wood beams inset at angles. They’d be real wood. Some places, like Glendale, had the same style of house with plywood strips to fake it, but not Bel Air.

The house was large on a large lot. Mark rang the front door bell. Presently it was opened by a young man with long hair and pencil-thin mustache. He looked at Mark’s Roughrider trousers and boots and at the large brown cases Mark had set on the porch. “We don’t need any,” he said.

“I’m not selling any. I’m Mark Czescu, from NBS.”

“Oh. Sorry. You’d be surprised how many peddlers we get. Come on in. My name’s George, I’m the houseboy.” He lifted one of the cases. “Heavy.”

“Yeah.” Mark was busy looking around. Paintings. A telescope. Globes of Earth,’ Mars and the Moon. Glass statuary. Steuben crystal. Trip toys. The front room had been set up as for a theater party, couches facing the TV. “Must have been a bitch moving that stuff,” Mark said.

“Sure was. Here, put that in here. Anything tricky about it?”

“Not if you know video recorders.”

“I ought to,” George said. “I’m a drama student. UCLA. But we haven’t had that course yet. You better show me.”

“Will you be running it tonight?”

“Nah. I’ve got a rehearsal. Wild Duck. Good part. Mr. Hamner will do it.”

“Then I’ll show him.”

“You’ll have to wait, then. He’s not home yet. Want a beer?”

“That’d go nice.” Mark followed George to the kitchen. A big room, gleaming chrome and Formica everywhere; two double sinks, two gas ovens, two ranges. A large counter held trays of canapes covered with Saran Wrap. There was a desk and bookshelves which held cookbooks, the latest Travis McGee thrillers and Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares. Only the thrillers and Stanislavski showed any signs of use. “I’d have thought Hamner would find himself an astronomy student—”

“Last guy here was,” George said. He got out beer. “They fought a lot.”

“So Hamner fired him.”

“No, he sent him up to his place in the mountains. Hamner likes to fight, but not when he’s at home. He’s easy to work for. And there’s color TV in my room, and I get to use the pool and sauna.”

“Hard to take.” Mark sipped at the beer. “This must be one swinging party pad.”

George laughed. “Like hell. The only parties are when I bring in a show cast. Or like tonight, relatives.”

Mark eyed George carefully. Pencil mustache. Actor’s fine features. What the hell, he thought. “Hamner gay or something?”

“Christ, no,” George said. “No, he just doesn’t go out much. I fixed him up with the second lead in our last show Nice girl, from Seattle. Hamner took her out a couple of times, then nothing. Irene said he was polite and a perfect gentleman until they were alone, then he leaped at her.”

“She should have leaped back.”

“That’s what I said, but she didn’t.” George cocked his head to one side. “That’s Mr. Hamner coming now. I recognize the engine.”

Tim Hamner went to the side door and into the small suite that he thought of as his home. It was the part of the house he felt most comfortable in although he used the whole place. Hamner didn’t like his house. It had been chosen by the family money managers for resale value, and it had that; it gave him plenty of space to display the things he’d collected; but it didn’t seem like a home.

He poured himself a short scotch and sank into an Eames chair. He put his feet up on the matching footstool. It felt good. He’d done his duty. He’d gone to a directors’ meeting and listened to all the reports and congratulated the company president on the quarterly earnings. Tim’s natural inclination was to let those who liked playing with money do it, but he’d had a cousin who lost everything that way; it never hurt to let money managers know you were looking over their shoulders.

Thinking of the meeting reminded him of the secretary at the office. She’d chatted pleasantly with Tim before the meeting, but she’d pleaded a date when he asked her for dinner for tomorrow. Maybe she did have a date. She was polite enough. But she’d turned him down. Maybe, he thought, maybe I should have asked her for next Friday. Or next week. But then if she said no there’d have been no doubt about why.

He heard George talking with someone out in the living room and wondered idly who it might be. George wouldn’t disturb him until he came out; that was one nice thing about this house, he could have this suite to himself. But then Tim remembered. That would be the man from NBS! With the cut scenes, the ones Tim had liked but hadn’t got into the documentary. He got up in enthusiasm and began changing clothes.

Penelope Wilson arrived about six. She had never answered to Penny, her mother had insisted. Tim Hamner, looking at her through the spy-eye in the door, suddenly remembered that she had given up Penelope too. She’d taken to using her middle name, and Tim couldn’t remember it.

Be brave. He threw the door wide and, letting his agony show, cried, “Quick! What’s your middle name?”

“Joyce. Hello, Tim. Am I the first?”

“Yes. You look elegant.” He took her coat. He had known her forever: since grade school, anyway. Penelope Joyce had gone to the same girls’ prep school as Tim’s sister and half a dozen girl cousins. She had been the homely one, with her wide mouth and too-square jaw and a figure best described as sturdy. In college she had begun to bloom.

She was indeed elegant tonight. Her hair was long and wavy and complexly arranged. Her dress was clean of line and of a color and texture soft to the eye. Tim wanted to touch it. He’d lived with his sister long enough to know how long it must have taken to get that effect, even if he had no hint as to how it was done.

Wanting her approval was automatic. He waited as she inspected his living room, wondering to himself why he’d never invited her before. Finally she looked up with an expression Tim hadn’t seen her use since high school, when she’d decided she was judge of all morals. “Nice room,” she said approvingly. Then she giggled, ruining the pose.

“Glad you like it. Damned glad, in fact.”

“Really? Is my opinion so important?” She was still teasing him with facial expressions from their childhood.

“Yes. In a few minutes the whole damned family’s going to be here, and most of them haven’t seen this place. You think like they do, so if you like it, they will.”

“Hmm. I guess I deserted that.”

“Hey, I didn’t mean…” She was laughing at him again. He got her a drink and they sat.

“I’ve been wondering,” she mused. “We haven’t seen each other for two years at least. Why did you ask me here tonight?”

Tim was partly prepared for that. She had always been direct. He decided to be truthful. “I was thinking about who I wanted here tonight. A big ego thing, right? The show about my comet. And I thought of Gil Waters, the top of my class at Cate, and my family, and you. Then I realized I was thinking of all the people I wanted to impress most.”

“Me?”

“Right. We used to talk, remember? And I never could tell you what I wanted to do with my life. The rest of my family, everyone we grew up with, they make money, or collect art, or race cars, or do something. Me, I only wanted to watch the sky.”

She smiled. “I’m really flattered, Tim.”

“You really do look elegant. Your own creation?”

“Yes. Thank you.”

She was still easy to talk to. Tim was finding that a pleasant rediscovery when the doorbell rang. The others had come.

It was a pleasant evening. The caterers had done their job well, so there was no trouble with the food, even without George to help. Tim relaxed and found he was having fun.

They listened.

They never had before. They listened as Tim told them how it had been: the cold, dark hours of watching, of studying star patterns, of keeping the log; of endless hours poring over photographs; all with no result except the joy of knowing the universe. And they listened. Even Greg, who usually made no secret of how he felt about rich men who didn’t pay proper attention to their money.

It was only a family gathering in Tim’s living room, but he was elated, and nervous, and quiveringly alert. He saw Barry’s smile and headshake and read Barry’s mind from that: What a way to spend a life! He’s actually envying me, Tim thought, and it was delicious. Tim glanced up to catch his sister watching with wry amusement. Jill had always been able to tell what Tim was thinking. He’d been closer to her than either had been to their brother Pat.

But it was Pat who trapped him behind the bar and wanted to talk.

“Like your place,” Pat said. “Mom doesn’t know what to make of it.” He tilted his head to indicate where their mother was wandering around the room, looking at gadgets. At the moment she was fascinated by the Kalliroscope’s random and strange patterns. “Bet I know what she’s thinking. Do you?”

“Do I what?”

“Bring girls here. Have wild parties.”

“None of your goddamn business.”

Pat shrugged. “Too bad. Man, there are times when I wish I… to hell with it. But you really ought to take advantage. You won’t have forever. Mom will have her way.”

“Sure,” Tim said. Why the hell did Pat have to bring that up? His mother would, before the night was over. Timmy, why aren’t you married yet?

One day I’ll answer, Tim told himself. One day I’ll say it. “Because every time I find a girl I think I could live with, you scare her spitless and she runs away, that’s why.”

“I’m still hungry,” Penelope Joyce announced.

“Good Lord.” Jill patted her stomach. “Where do you put it? I want your secret. Only don’t tell me it’s your clothes. Greg says we can’t afford your creations.”

Penelope took Tim’s hand. “Come on, show me where the popcorn is. I’ll shake. You get the bowls.”

“But—”

“They’ll find their own drinks.” She led him to the kitchen. “Let them talk about you while you’re out here. They’ll admire you even more. After all, you’re the star tonight.”

“Think so?” He looked into her eyes. “I can never tell when you’re putting me on.”

“There’s luck. Where’s the butter?”

The show was great. Tim knew that when he saw his family watching it, watching him on television.

Randall had gone all over the world, showing amateur astronomers staring at the sky. “Most comets are discovered by amateurs,” Randall said. “The public rarely appreciates how much these skywatchers aid the big observatories. Of course, some amateurs aren’t amateur at all.” The scene cut to Tim Hamner showing off his mountain observatory, and his assistant, Marty, demonstrating equipment. Tim had thought the sequence would be too short, but when he watched his family watching him and it ended with them eager for more he realized that Harv Randall had been right. Always leave them wanting a little more…

“And,” Randall’s voice said, “some are more amateur than others.” The camera zoomed in on a smiling teen-age boy with a telescope. The instrument looked competent, but it was obviously home-built. “Gavin Brown, of Centerville, Iowa. Gavin, how did you happen to be looking for comets at the right time and place?”

“I wasn’t.” Brown’s voice was not pleasant. He was young, and shy, and he talked too loud. “I made some adjustments to the setting circles because I wanted to look at Mercury in the daytime, only you have to have everything adjusted right to find Mercury because it’s so close to the Sun, and—”

“So you found Hamner-Brown by accident,” Harvey Randall said.

Greg McCleve laughed. Jill gave her husband a sharp look.

“Tell me, Gavin,” Randall said. “Since you didn’t see the comet until well after Mr. Hamner did, but you reported it almost at the same instant — how did you know it was a new comet?”

“It was something that didn’t belong there.”

“You mean you know everything that does belong there?” Randall said. The screen showed a photograph of the sky around Hamner-Brown. It was full of stars.

“Sure. Doesn’t everybody?”

“He does, too,” Tim said. “He stayed here a week, and I swear, he can draw star maps from memory.”

“He stayed here?” Tim’s mother asked.

“Sure. In the spare room.”

“Oh.” Tim’s mother stared very hard at the set.

“Where’s George tonight?” Jill asked. “Another date? Mother, did you know that Tim’s houseboy has been dating Linda Gillray?”

“Pass the popcorn,” Penelope Joyce said. “Where is Brown now, Tim?”

“Back in Iowa.”

“Those commercials sell much soap?” Greg asked. He pointed at the set.

“Kalva does all right,” Tim said. “Twenty-six point four percent of the market last year—”

“Jeez, they must be better than I thought,” Greg said. “Who’s your advertising man?”

Then the program was on again. There wasn’t much more about Tim Hamner. Once discovered, Hamner-Brown Comet was the world’s. Now the star was Charles Sharps, who talked about comets and the importance of knowing the Sun and planets and stars. Tim wasn’t disappointed, but he thought the others were. Except for Pat, who watched Sharps and kept nodding. Once, Pat looked up and said, “If I’d had a science professor like him in my freshman year, I might have discovered a comet myself. Do you know him very well?”

“Sharps? Never met him. But I’ve got more of him on the video recordings,” Tim said. “There’s more of me, too.”

Greg pointedly glanced at his watch. “Got to be in the office at five A.M.,” he said. “The market’s going crazy. And after that show, it will be worse.”

“Huh?” Tim frowned. “Why?”

“Comets,” Greg said. “Signs in the sky. Portents of evil change. You’d be surprised how many investors take things like that seriously. Not to mention that diagram the professor drew. The one that showed the comet hitting Earth.”

“But it didn’t,” Pat protested.

’Tim! Could it?” his mother demanded.

“Of course not! Didn’t you listen? Sharps said it was billions to one,” Tim said.

“I saw it,” Greg said. “And he said comets did hit the Earth, sometimes. And this one will be close.”

“But he didn’t mean it that way,” Tim protested.

Greg shrugged. “I know the market. I’m going to be in the office when the big board opens—”

The phone rang. Tim looked puzzled. Before he could get up, Jill answered it. She listened for a moment, then looked puzzled as well. “It’s your answering service. They want to know whether they should put through a call from New York.”

“Eh?” Tim got up to take the phone. He listened. On me TV a NASA official was explaining how they might, just might, be able to get up a probe to study the comet. Tim put the phone down.

“You look dazed,” Penelope Joyce said.

“I am dazed. That was one of the producers. They want me to be a guest on the ‘Tonight Show.’ With Dr. Sharps, Pat, so I’ll meet him after all.”

“I watch Johnny every night,” Tim’s mother said. She said it admiringly. People who got on the “Tonight Show” were important.

Randall’s documentary ended in a blaze of glory, with photographs of the Sun and stars taken by Skylab, and a strong plea for a manned probe to explore Hamner-Brown Comet. Then came the last commercial, and Tim’s audience was leaving. Tim realized, not for the first time, just how far apart they’d grown. He really didn’t have much to say to the head of a stockbroker firm, or to a man who built town houses, even if they were his brother-in-law and his brother. He found himself mixing drinks for himself and Penelope (Joyce!) alone.

“It felt like opening night in a bad play,” Tim said.

“In Boston with an allegory and the Shriners are in town,” Joyce teased.

He laughed. “Hah. Haven’t seen Light Up the Sky since… by golly, since you were in that summer drama thing. And you’re right. That’s what it was like.”

`’Poo.”

“Poo?”

“Poo. You always did think like that, and there never was any reason to, and there isn’t one now. You can be proud Tim. What’s next? Another comet?”

“No, I don’t think so.” He squeezed lime into her gin and tonic and handed it to her. “I don’t know. I’m not strong enough on theory to do what I really want.”

“So learn the theory.”

“Maybe.” He came around and sat next to her. “But anyway, I made the history books. Skoal.”

She lifted her drink in salute. She wasn’t mocking him. “Skoal.”

He sipped at his drink. “I’ll follow it as far as it goes, whatever else I do. Randall wants another documentary, and we’ll do it, if the ratings aren’t too bad.”

“Ratings? You worry about ratings?”

“You’re teasing me again.”

“Not this time.”

“Hmm. All right. I’ll back another documentary. Because I want it. We’ll go heavy on the space probe. With enough publicity we might get the probe up, and somebody like Sharps really will understand comets. Thanks.”

She put a hand on his arm. “You’re welcome. Run with it, Tim. Nobody else here tonight has done half of what they want to do. You’ve already got three-quarters, and a shot at the rest.”

He looked at her and thought, If I married her, Mom would heave a great sigh of relief. She was in that limited class of women. They all seemed to know his sister Jill; they’d gone east to college, and to New York during vacations; they’d broken the same rules; they were not afraid of their mothers; they were beautiful and frightening. The sex urge in a teen-age boy was too powerful, too easily twisted and repressed. It made the beauty of a young woman into a flame, and when that flame was coupled to total self-confidence… a girl like any of Jill’s friends could be a fearsome thing, to a boy who had never believed in himself.

Joyce wasn’t fearsome. She wasn’t pretty enough.

She frowned. “What are you thinking?”

God, no! He couldn’t answer that one! “I was remembering a lot.” Had he been deliberately left alone with Joyce? Certainly she had stayed after the others had left. If he made a pass now…

But he didn’t have the courage. Or, he told himself, the kindness. She was elegant, yes, but you don’t go to bed with a Steuben crystal vase. He got up and went to the video recorder. “Want to watch some of the other clips?”

For a moment she hesitated. She looked at him carefully, then just as carefully drained her glass and set it on the coffee table. “Thanks, Tim, but I’d better get some sleep. There’s a buyer coming in tomorrow.”

She was still smiling when she left. Tim thought it a bit forced. Or, he wondered, am I just flattering myself?

The maelstrom was intolerably crowded. Masses of all sizes whirled past each other, warping space into a complex topology that changed endlessly. The inner moons and planets were all scar tissue, worn craters beneath the atmospheres of Earth and Venus, naked ring walls and frozen lakes of magma spread across the faces of Mars, Mercury, Earth’s Moon.

Here was even the chance of escape. The gravity fields around Saturn and Jupiter could fling a comet hack out into the cold and the dark. But Saturn and Jupiter were wrongly placed, and the comet continued to fall, accelerating, boiling.

Boiling! Pockets of volatile chemicals burst and spurted away in puffs of dust and ice crystals. Now the comet moved in a cloud of glowing fog that might have shielded it from the heat, but didn’t. Instead the fog caught the sunlight across thousands of cubic miles and reflected it back to the comet head from every direction.

Heat at the surface of the nucleus seeped inward. More pockets of gas ruptured and fired like attitude jets on a spacecraft, tossing the comet head this way and that. Masses tugged at it as it passed. Lost and blind and falling. The dying comet dropped past Mars, invisible within a cloud of dust and ice crystals the size of Mars itself.

A telescope on Earth found it as a blurred point near Neptune.

March: Interludes

None of the astronauts ever walked on solid lunar rock, because everywhere they have gone there was “soil” underfoot. This powdery layer is present because the Moon has been bombarded by meteorites throughout geologic time. The unceasing barrage has so pulverized the surface that it has created a residual layer of rocky debris several meters thick.

Dr. John A. Wood, Smithsonian Institution

Fred Lauren made delicate adjustments to the telescope. It was a big instrument, a four-inch refractor on a heavy tripod. The apartment cost him too much money, but he had to have it for the location. His only furniture was a cheap couch, a few cushions on the floor, and the big telescope.

Fred watched a darkened window a quarter-mile away. She had to come home soon. She always did. What could she be doing? She’d left alone. No one had come for her. The thought frightened him, then made him sick. Suppose she had met a man somewhere? Had they gone for dinner, and then to his apartment? Even now he might be putting his filthy hands on her breasts. He would have hairy hands, rough, like a mechanic’s, and they would be sliding downward, caressingly down across the flat curve of her belly.

No! She wasn’t that kind. She wouldn’t let anyone do that to her. She wouldn’t.

But all women did. Even his mother. Fred Lauren shuddered. Unwanted, the memory came back, when he was just nine, when he’d gone in to ask his mother to say his prayers, and she’d been lying on the bed with the man he called Uncle Jack on top of her. She was moaning and writhing, and Uncle Jack had leaped from the bed.

“You little bastard, I’ll cut your goddamn balls off! You want to watch? You’ll sure to God watch? Stand there and if you say one word, I’ll cut your prick off!”

He’d watched. And his mother had let that man—

The window came alight. She was home! Fred held his breath. Was she alone? Was she?

She was carrying a big bag of groceries, which she took to the kitchen. Now she’ll have her drink, Fred thought. I wish she wouldn’t drink so much. She looks tired. He watched as the girl mixed a martini. She carried the pitcher with her to the kitchen. Fred didn’t follow with the telescope, although he could have. Instead he teased himself, waiting.

Her face was triangular, with high cheekbones and a small mouth and big dark eyes. Her long, flowing blond hair was tinted; her pubic hair was very dark. Fred had forgiven her that small deception, but he’d been shocked.

She came back with the pitcher and a glass spoon. There was a silver-handled martini spoon in the gift shop down the street, and Fred had often stared at it, trying to get up the nerve to buy it for her. Maybe she’d invite him to her apartment. Only she wouldn’t until he’d given her gifts, and he couldn’t do that because he knew what she liked and she’d want to know how he knew that. Fred Lauren reached out to touch her through the magic mirror of his telescope… but only in his mind, only in his hopeless yearning.

Now. Now she’d do it. She didn’t have many dresses good enough to wear to work. She worked in a bank, and although the banks let the girls wear trousers and all the ugly things girls were wearing lately, she didn’t. Not Colleen. He knew her name. He wanted to keep his money in her bank, but he didn’t dare. She dressed well to win promotions, and she’d been promoted to New Accounts, and Fred couldn’t talk to her there. He was proud of her promotion, but he wished she’d stayed a teller, because then he could come in and go to her window and…

She took off the blue frock and carefully hung it in the only closet. Her apartment was very small, only one room with a bathroom and kitchen alcove. She slept on the couch.

Her slip was frayed. He’d watched her mending the straps at night. Under the slip she wore lacy black underpants. He could see the color through the slip. Sometimes she wore pink ones with black stripes.

Soon she’d be taking her bath. Colleen took long baths; Fred could be knocking at her door before she finished. She’d open the door. She trusted people. Once she’d opened the door wearing nothing but a towel, and the man outside had been a telephone man, and another time it was the building superintendent, and Fred knew he could imitate the super’s voice. He’d followed the super to a bar and listened to him. She would open the door…

But he couldn’t do it. He knew what he’d do if she opened her door to him. He knew what would happen afterward. This would be his third time. Third sex offense. They’d lock him up with those men, those animals. Fred remembered what the caged men had called him and how they had used him; he whimpered, throttling the sound as if she might hear.

She put on her robe. Her dinner was in the oven, and she sat in the robe and turned on the TV set. Fred scurried across the room to turn on his own set and tune it to the same channel, then moved quickly back to the telescope. Now he could watch over her shoulder, watch her own TV, and hear the sound, and it was as if Fred and his girl were watching TV together.

It was a program about a comet.

The stocky man’s hands were large and smooth, slender, stronger than they looked. They moved over Maureen, knowingly, cunningly. “Purr,” said Maureen. She pulled him suddenly against her, and arched sideways, wrapping him in her long legs.

He gently pushed her away and continued to stroke her, playing her like… the attitude jets on a Lunar Lander. The bizarre image stuck in her mind, jarring. His lips moved against her breast, his tongue darting. Then it was time, and she could lose herself in him. She had no thought of technique now. But he had; he was always in control. He wouldn’t be finished until she was, and she could depend on it, and now there was no time for thought, only the waves of shuddering feeling.

She came home from a long way away.

They lay together, breathing each other’s breath. Finally he stirred against her. She caught a handful of curly hair and tilted his face up. Standing, he was just her height; astronauts are generally short. Lying above her, his head reached her throat. She lifted herself to kiss him, and sighed contentment.

But now her mind was turned on again. I wish I loved him, she said to herself. Why don’t I? Because he’s too invulnerable? “Johnny? Does your mind ever turn off?”

He thought it through before answering. “There’s a story they tell about John Glenn…” He rolled onto an elbow. “The space medicine boys were trying to find out what we could go through and still function. They had John Glenn wired with widgets so they could watch his heartbeat and perspiration while he went through a program on the Gemini flight simulator. Right in the middle of it they dropped a shitload of scrap iron onto a tilted iron plate, right behind him. The whole room rang with it, and it went on and on. Glenn’s heartbeat went blip!” Johnny’s finger sketched a tepee shape. “He never even twitched. He went through the whole sequence, and then he said, ‘You sons of bitches…’ ”

He watched her laugh, and then he said a bit sadly, “We can’t get distracted.” He sat up. “If we’re going to watch your program we ought to be getting up.”

“Yes. I suppose. You first.”

“Right.” He bent to kiss her again, then left the bed. She heard the shower running and thought of joining him. But he wouldn’t be interested now. She’d said the wrong thing, and now he’d be remembering his ruined career; ruined not by any mistake of his, but by America’s retreat from space.

She found his robe where he’d left it for her. Forethought. We can’t get distracted. One thing at a time, and do that perfectly. Whether it was crawling along a ruined Skylab and repairing it in orbit, or conducting a love affair, he did it right. And he was never in a hurry.

When they met, Baker had been in the Astronaut Office in Houston and was assigned as liaison to Senator Jellison and party. Johnny Baker had a wife and two teen-age kids, and had been a perfect gentleman, taking Maureen to dinner when the Senator was called away, keeping her company for the week the Senator was in Washington, taking her to the launch in Florida…

A perfect gentleman up to the time they’d had to go back to her motel room for her purse — and she still wasn’t sure who had seduced whom. She didn’t sleep with married men. She didn’t like sleeping with men she didn’t love, for that matter. But, love aside, he had something, and Maureen had no defense against it. He had a single goal and the ability to go after it no matter what.

And she was young and had been married once and had taken no vow of chastity and the hell with what you’re thinking, girl! Maureen rolled off the bed fast and switched on the TV with a vicious click. Just to break the chain of thought.

But I am not a tramp.

His divorce is final next week, and I had nothing to do with that. Ann never knew. Ann doesn’t know now. But maybe he wouldn’t have let her go? If that’s my fault, all right, but Ann never knew. We’re still good friends.

“He’s not the same anymore,” Ann had told her. “Not since he flew the mission. Before that it was always tough here, he was on training missions all the time, and I had only a little part of him — but I had something. And then he got his chance, and everything worked fine, and my husband’s a hero — and I don’t have a husband anymore.”

Ann couldn’t understand it. I can, Maureen thought. It wasn’t flying the mission, it was that there aren’t any more missions, and if you’re Johnny Baker and all your life you’ve worked and trained to do one thing, and nobody’s ever going to do that again…

One goal in life. Tim Hamner had a touch of that. Johnny had it, and maybe she had tried to borrow a piece of it. And now look: Johnny had used up his one goal, and the most important thing in Maureen Jellison’s life was a fight with a silly Washington hostess.

It still bothered her every time she thought of it.

Annabelle Cole was liberated. Six months ago it had been the threatened extinction of the snail skimmer; in six months more it might be the decline of artistic tradition among Australian blackfellahs. At the moment there was nothing for it but to blame men for everything bad that had ever happened. Nobody really minded. They didn’t dare. No mean amount of the world’s business was conducted at Annabelle’s parties.

Maureen must have been edgy the night Annabelle braced her for her father’s support. Annabelle wanted Congress to fund studies on artificial wombs, to free women from months of slavery to their suddenly altered bodies.

And I told her, Maureen thought. I told her that having babies was part of the sex act, and if she was willing to give up being pregnant she could give up fucking too. I said that! And I never had a baby in my life!

Dad might miss some important contacts through his daughter’s exercise in tact, but Maureen could handle that. In six months, when Annabelle found a new cause, Maureen would host a party and invite someone Annabelle had to meet. She had it all worked out. That was the problem: As if a fight with Annabelle Cole was the most important event in her life!

“I’ll fix some drinks,” Johnny called. “Best get your shower, the program’s on in a minute.”

“Yo,” she answered, and she thought: Him? Marry the man. Promote him a new career. Get him to run for office, or write his memoirs. He’d be good at anything he tried… but why couldn’t she find goals of her own?

The room was definitely a man’s room, with books, and models of the fighter planes Johnny Baker had flown, and a Skylab, with broken wings; and a large framed picture of a bulky-suited man crawling in space along one of those wings, a faceless, alien shape, disconnected from the spacecraft, risking the loneliest death ever if he let go for even an instant. The NASA medal hung below the picture.

Mementos of times past. But only the past. There were no pictures of the Shuttle, delayed once more; no reminders of the Pentagon, Johnny’s present assignment. Two pictures of the children, one with Ann in the background, short, browned, competent Ann, who already had a look of puzzled unhappiness in the photo.

His hand was wrapped around the glass, but he had forgotten glass and hand. Maureen could watch his face without his knowing it. Johnny Baker saw only the screen.

Parabolic orbits diagrammed against the concentric circular paths of the planets. Old photos of Halley’s Comet and Brooks’s Comet and Cunningham’s Comet and others, culminating in a blurred pinpoint that was Hamner-Brown. A man with large insectile glasses lectured with fierce intensity:

“Oh, we’ll get hit someday. It probably won’t be an asteroid, either. The orbits are too nearly fixed. There must have been asteroids whose orbits intersected Earth’s, but those have had four billion years to hit us, and most of them eventually did,” said the lecturer. “They hit so long ago that even the craters are gone, weathered away, except for the biggest and the newest. But look at the Moon!

“The comets are different.”

The lecturer’s pointer traced a parabola drawn in chalk. “Some mass way out there beyond Pluto, maybe an undiscovered planet… we even have a name for it. Persephone.

Some mass disturbs the orbits of these great snowballs, and they come down on our heads in a wake of boiling chemicals. None of them have ever had a chance to hit the Earth until they get thrown down into the inner system. One day we’ll be hit. We’d have about a year’s warning. Maybe more, if we can learn enough about Hamner-Brown.”

Then an antiseptic young woman proclaimed that she wasn’t married to her house, and was told that was why Kalva Soap had invented a new disinfectant for her toilet bowl… and Johnny Baker came smiling back into the world. “He really makes his points, doesn’t he?”

“It is well done. Did I tell you I met the man who put it together? I met Tim Hamner, too. At the same party with Harvey Randall. Hamner’s a case. Manic. He’d just discovered his comet, and he couldn’t wait to tell everyone.”

Johnny Baker sipped his drink. Then, after a long pause, he said, “Some funny rumors in the Pentagon.”

“Oh?”

“Gus called. From Downey. Seems Rockwell’s refurbishing an Apollo. And there’s some mutters about diverting one of the Titan boosters from a Big Bird to something else. Know anything?”

She sipped her drink and felt a wave of sadness. Now she knew why Johnny Baker had called yesterday. After six weeks in the Pentagon, six weeks in Washington with no attempt to see her, and then…

And I was going to surprise him. Some surprise.

“Dad’s trying to get Congress to fund a comet-study mission,” Maureen said.

“This for real?” Johnny demanded.

“It’s for real.”

“But…” His hands were shaking. His hands never shook. John Baker had flown fighters over Hanoi, and his maneuvers were always perfect. The MIGs never had a chance. And once he’d taken splinters out of his crew chief when there wasn’t time to get the medics. There was a splinter in the chief’s chest and Baker had removed it and sliced deftly to expose the artery, clamped it together with steady fingers while the chief screamed and the Cong mortars thudded onto the field, and his hands had never shaken.

But they were shaking now. “Congress won’t put up the money.”

“They might. The Russians are planning a mission. Can’t let them outdo us,” Maureen said. “Peace depends on showing them we’re still willing to compete if that’s the way they want it. And if we compete, we win.”

“I don’t care if it’s Martians we’re competing with. I’ve got to go. I’ve got to.” He drained his scotch His hands were suddenly steady.

Maureen watched in fascination. He’s stopped shaking because he’s got a mission. And I know what it is. Me. To get me to get him on that ship. A minute ago he might really have been in love with me. Not now.

“I’m sorry,” he said abruptly. “We don’t have all that much time together, and I’m laying this on you. But… you had me dead to rights. My mind doesn’t turn off.” He drank deeply of his ice-diluted scotch. His attention went back to the screen, and left Maureen wondering if she’d been imagining things. Just how clever was John Baker?

The commercial mercifully ended and the cameras zoomed in on the Jet Propulsion Laboratories.

Harry Newcombe hastily chewed the last of his sandwich while he drove the mail truck with one hand. The regulations gave him time off for lunch, but Harry never took it. He used the time for better purposes.

It was long past noon when he got to Silver Valley Ranch. As usual he stopped at the gate. There was a spot where he could look through a pass in the foothills to the majesty of the High Sierra to the east. Snow gleamed off their tops. To the west were more foothills, the sun not too far above them. Finally he got out to open the gate, drove through, and carefully closed the gate behind him. He ignored the large mailbox on its post beside the gate.

He stopped along the drive to pick a pomegranate from the grove that had started as one tree and was still, untended, propagating itself downhill toward the stream. Harry had seen it grow in the half-year he’d been on the route, and was guessing when the pomegranates would roll all the way downhill into the cocklebur patch. Would they choke out the burrs? He had no idea, really. Harry was a city boy.

Harry was an ex-city boy. Hah! And if he never saw a city again he’d be happy.

He was grinning as he shouldered his load and walked lopsided to the door. Rang. Set the bag down.

The dimly heard hurricane of a vacuum cleaner calmed. Mrs. Cox opened the door and smiled at the bulging bag beside Harry. “That day again? Hello, Harry.”

“Hi. Happy Trash Day, Mrs. Cox!”

“And a Happy Trash Day to you too, Harry. Coffee?”

“Don’t stay me. It’s against guv’mint regulations.”

“Fresh coffee. And new-baked rolls.”

“Well… I can’t resist that.” He reached into the smaller pouch that still hung at his side. “Letter from your sister in Idaho. And something from the Senator.” He handed her the letters, then shouldered the bag and wobbled in. “Anyplace special?”

“The dining table’s big enough.”

Harry spilled the contents of the larger bag across a polished table of lovely grain. It seemed to have been carved out of a slice of a single tree, and must have been fifty years old. They didn’t make tables like that anymore. If there was furniture like that in the caretaker’s home, what must it be like in the big house up the hill?

The wood grain was hidden under a deluge: begging letters from charities, from several political parties, from colleges. Offers to join lotteries by buying records, clothing, books, subscriptions to magazines. “YOU MAY ALREADY HAVE WON $100 A WEEK FOR LIFE!” Religious tracts. Political lessons. Single-tax literature. Free samples of soap, mouthwash, detergent, deodorant.

Alice Cox brought in the coffee. She was only eleven, but she was already beautiful. Long blonde hair. Blue eyes. A trusting girl, as Harry knew from seeing her when he was off duty. But she could be trusting here; nobody was going to bother her. Most of the men in Silver Valley kept rifles slung on racks in their pickups, and they damned well knew what to do with anybody who’d bother an eleven-year-old girl.

It was one of the things Harry liked about the valley. Not the threat of violence, because Harry hated violence; but that it was only a threat. The rifles came off their racks only for deer (in season or out, if the ranchers were hungry or the deer got into the crops).

Mrs. Cox brought in rolls. Half the people on Harry’s route offered him coffee and eats, on days when he ignored regulations and brought the mail up to their houses. Mrs. Cox didn’t make the best coffee on the route, but the cup was definitely the finest in the valley: thin bone china, much too good for a half-hippie mailman. The first time Harry had been to the house he’d drunk water from a tin cup and stood at the door. Now he sat at the fine table and drank coffee from bone china Another reason to stay out of cities.

He sipped hurriedly. There was another blonde girl, this one over eighteen and legal, and it would be Trash Day for her house, too. She’d be home. Donna Adams was always home for Harry. “Lot here for the Senator,” Harry said.

“Yes. He’s back in Washington,” Mrs. Cox answered.

“But he’s coming soon,” Alice piped.

“Wish he’d hurry,” Mrs. Cox said. “It’s nice here when the Senator’s in residence. People coming and going. Important people. The President stayed at the big house one night. Secret Service made a big fuss. Men wandering all over the ranch.” She laughed, and Alice giggled. Harry looked puzzled. “As if anybody in this valley would harm the President of the United States,” Mrs. Cox said.

“I still think your Senator Jellison’s a myth,” Harry said. “I’ve been on this route eight months, and I haven’t seen him yet.”

Mrs. Cox looked him up and down. He seemed a nice enough boy, although Mrs. Adams said her daughter paid him entirely too much attention. Harry’s long, flowing, curly brown hair would have looked good on a girl. His beard was beautiful. The real masterpiece was the mustache. It came to long points which, on formal occasions, Harry could curl and wax into circles like small spectacles.

He can grow hair, Mrs. Cox thought, but he’s little and skinny, not as big as I am. She wondered again what Donna Adams saw in him. Car, maybe. Harry had a sports car, and all the local boys drove pickups like their fathers.

“You’ll likely meet the Senator soon enough,” Mrs. Cox said. It was a sign of ultimate approval, although Harry didn’t know that. Mrs. Cox was very careful about who the Senator met.

Alice had been sifting through the mound of multicolored paper on the table. “Lot of it this time. How much is this?”

“Two weeks,” Harry said.

“Well, we do thank you, Harry,” Mrs. Cox said.

“So do I,” Alice added. “If you didn’t bring it up to the house, I’d have to carry all of it.”

Back in the truck, and down the long drive, with another stop to look at the High Sierra. Then on to the next ranch, a good half-mile away. The Senator kept a big spread, although a lot of it was dry pasture, shot through with ground-squirrel holes. It was good land, but there wasn’t enough water to irrigate it.

At the next gate George Christopher was doing something incomprehensible in the orange groves. Probably setting up to smudge, Harry decided. Christopher came plodding up as Harry opened the gate. He was a bull of a man, Harry’s height and two or three times Harry’s width, with a thick neck. His head was bald and tanned, but Christopher couldn’t be a lot over thirty. He wore a checkered flannel shirt and dark trousers, muddy boots.

Harry set the bag down and got out beside it. Christopher frowned. “Trash Day again, Harry?” He studied the long hair and extravagantly trimmed beard and the frown deepened.

Harry grinned in return. “Yup, Happy Trash Day, every two weeks, like clockwork. I’ll take it up to the house for you.”

“You don’t have to.”

“I like to.” There wasn’t a Mrs. Christopher, but George had a sister about Alice Cox’s age, and she liked to talk to Harry. A very bright little girl, pleasant to talk to and full of news about Harry’s valley.

“All right. Mind the dog.”

“Sure will.” Harry never worried about dogs.

“Ever wonder what the advertising industry would give for your head?” Christopher asked.

“I’ll trade ’em question for question,” Harry said. “Why does the government give them a lower rate so they can waste more of our time? And your taxes?”

Christopher’s frown faded and he almost smiled. “Have at ’em, Harry. Lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for. And the taxpayer’s cause is about as lost as they come. I’ll close the gate behind you.”

Day’s end. Clockout time. Harry went into the sorting rooms behind the Post Office. There was a note pinned to his station.

“Hairy the Wolf wants to see you. Gina XXX”

Gina — tall, black, erect of posture and large of bone, the only black in the valley as far as Harry knew — was at the counter. Harry winked at her, then knocked at the supervisor’s door.

When he entered, Mr. Wolfe regarded him coldly. “Harry. Happy Trash Day,” Wolfe said.

Oops! But Harry smiled. “Thank you, and a Happy Trash Day to you, sir.”

“Not funny, Harry. Why do you do it? Why do you separate out the commercial mail and reserve it for one day every two weeks?”

Harry shrugged. He could have explained: Sorting junk mail took so much of his time that he didn’t have a chance to chat with his customers, so he’d started letting it pile up. It had begun that way, but it had become popular with his people. “Everybody’s happy with it,” Harry said defensively. “People can go through the stuff or just drop it in the fireplace.”

“It is illegal to withhold a citizen’s mail,” Wolfe said.

“If someone has complained, I’ll take him off the list,” Harry said. “I like to keep my customers happy.”

“Mrs. Adams,” Wolfe said.

“Oh.” Too bad. Without Trash Day he wouldn’t have an excuse to go up to the Adams house and talk to Donna.

“You will deliver the commercial mail according to regulations,” Wolfe was saying. “As it comes in. Not in batches Trash Day will cease.”

“Yes, sir. Any other way I can be obliging?”

“Shave your beard. Cut your hair.”

Harry shook his head. That part of the regulations he knew.

Wolfe sighed. “Harry, you just don’t have the right attitude to be a mailman.”

Eileen Susan Hancock’s office was small and cramped, but it was an office; she had worked for years to get an office of her own, away from the area behind the counter. It proved that she was more than a secretary.

She was poking at the buttons on her calculator, frowning, when a sudden thought made her burst into rippling laughter. A moment later she realized that Joe Corrigan was standing in her doorway.

Corrigan came into the office. He had unbuttoned the top button of his trousers again, and it showed. His wife wouldn’t let him buy larger sizes. She hadn’t given up hope that he would reduce. He put his thumbs into the waistband and regarded her quizzically.

Eileen’s laughter cut off. She went back to the calculator, and now she wasn’t even smiling.

“Okay,” Corrigan said. “What’s the punch line?”

Eileen looked up with wide eyes. “What? Oh, no. I couldn’t possibly tell you.”

“If you drive me nuts, you think you can gain control of the company, right? Because it won’t work. I’ve covered that.” Corrigan liked to see her like this. Eileen was all-or-nothing: very serious and hard at work, or enjoying herself to the full. “Okay,” Corrigan sighed. “I’ll give away my secret for yours. I’ve had the decorators in. You see, Robin Geston signed up for the Marina deal.”

“Oh? That’s good.”

“Yup. Means we’ll need more help. As of the first, you’re Assistant General Manager, if you want the job.”

“Oh, I want it. Thank you.” She smiled flickeringly (like a flashbulb, on and off almost before you saw it) and turned back to the desk calculator.

“I knew you would. That’s why I had the decorators in. They’re turning that room next to mine into a new office for you. I’ve told them to consult you after they do the preliminaries.” Corrigan lowered his weight onto the corner of her desk. “There. I was keeping it for a surprise. Now what’s your secret?”

“I’ve forgotten,” Eileen said. “And I do have to get these estimates done so you can take them to Bakersfield with you.”

“Okay,” Corrigan said. He went back to his office, defeated.

If he knew, Eileen thought. She had an urge to giggle, but she held it back. She wasn’t really trying to tease Corrigan. She had been thinking: Well, I did it. And Robin was nice. Not the world’s greatest lover, but he didn’t pretend to be either. The way he’d suggested a rematch: “Lovers need practice,” he’d said. “The second time is always better than the first.”

They’d left it vague. Maybe, just maybe, she’d take him up on it sometime; but probably not. He’d also told her definitely that he was married; she’d only suspected it before.

Never had there been any suggestion that business had anything to do with their private lives. But he’d signed up with Corrigan’s Plumbing Supplies for a very large deal — and she felt funny about that, and wondered if she’d have been as careless about finding out Robin’s marital status if the deal hadn’t been pending. But he’d signed up.

So here she was, adding up numbers, pushing papers around, and suddenly she’d asked herself: What does this have to do with plumbing? I don’t make pipe. I don’t lay pipe. I don’t ream it out, or tell people where to put it. What I do is push paper around.

It was an important job. Measure it by the chaos she could create with one random mistake or one malicious error: Thousands of tons of supplies might be sent to the ends of the Earth by a slip of her pen. But what she did had no more to do with creation, with making the things that held a civilization together, than income tax, or being the fireman on a diesel train.

Mr. Corrigan would probably spend the whole day wondering why she’d suddenly burst into sparkling laughter, and there was no way she could tell him. It had just come to her, unexpected and irresistible: What she had done with Robin Geston on the night before last was the closest she had ever come to any activity actually connected with plumbing.

The car wouldn’t be reported stolen for hours. Alim Nassor was pretty sure of that, sure enough that he would sit in it for another ten minutes. Alim Nassor had been a great man. When he had made himself great again, he would have to hide what he was doing now.

Before he was great he had been George Washington Carver Davis. His mother had been proud of that name. She’d said the family was named for Jefferson Davis. That honky had been a tough dude, but it was a loser’s name, no power in it. He’d had a lot of street names since. His mother hadn’t liked those. When she threw him out he took his own.

Alim Nassor meant wise conqueror in both Arabic and Swahili. Not many knew what it meant, and so what? The name had power. Alim Nassor had a hell of a lot more power than George Washington Carver ever did. You could read about Alim Nassor in the newspapers. And he could still walk into City Hall and get in to see people. He’d been able to do that ever since he broke up a riot with his switchblade and the razor blades in his shoes and the chain he carried around his waist. There was all that Federal money around for a tough dude. The honkies shoveled out money. Anything for quiet in the black ghetto. It had been a damn good game, and too bad it was over.

He cursed quietly. Mayor Bentley Allen. Los Angeles had itself another black mayor and this goddam Tom had cut off the pipeline. New people in city council. And that stupid son of a bitch of a black congressman who couldn’t be satisfied with the take, no, that asshole had to put all his relatives on the community payroll and the fucking TV reporters found out. A black man in politics needed a snow-white rep these days…

Well, the game was over, and he’d started another. Eleven jobs, each one worked fine. They’d taken… what? A quarter of a million dollars in loot in four years? Less than a hundred thousand after the fences went through it. Twenty thousand each for four men in four years. That wasn’t even wages! Easy to say, now, that some of it should have been stashed for lawyers’ fees, but at five thousand a year?

This would be the thirteenth. It wouldn’t be long now. The store did a lot of business. Alim waited, always aware of the time. Two customers left, and nobody was coming down the street.

He wasn’t happy about this job. He didn’t like ripping off blood. Honkies were fair game, but you ought to leave brothers alone. He’d hammered that into his followers’ heads, and what were they thinking of him now? But he was boxed in, he had to act fast.

The place was ripe, and he’d been saving it for an emergency, and this was one shitpot motherfucker of an emergency. His honky lawyer would probably beat this for him, but lawyers and bondsmen wanted bread, and now. It was crazy, robbing a store to pay a lawyer to get him off for robbing a store, Someday things would be different. Alim Nassor would make them different.

Almost time. Two minutes ago one of his brothers had got himself stopped for a traffic violation fourteen blocks away and that took one pigmobile off patrol. Twenty minutes ago another brother had a “family argument” and the sister called the station house, and there went the other fuzzwagon. There’d be only the two. Black areas didn’t get patrolled the way honky business districts did. Blacks didn’t have big insurance policies, or know how to kiss ass down at City Hall.

Sometimes he used as many as four diversions, with traffic jams thrown in; they only took spreading some bread among the kids to get them playing in the streets. Alim Nassor was a natural leader. He hadn’t been busted since juvenile days, except for that last one where an off-duty cop had come out of a laundromat. Who’d have thought that brother was a pig? He still wondered if he should have shot it out. Anyway, he hadn’t. He’d run into an alley and ditched the gun and the mask and the bag. Lawyers could take care of those. The only other evidence was the honky storekeeper’s identification, and there were ways to talk him out of testifying…

Time. Alim got out of the car. The mask looked like a face from ten feet away you wouldn’t know it was a mask at all. The gun was under his windbreaker. Windbreaker and mask would be gone five minutes after the job. Alim’s mind closed down, shutting out past and future. He walked across at an intersection. No jaywalking, nothing to attract attention. The store was empty.

It went down nice. No problems. He had the money and was on the way out when the brother came in.

A man Alim had known for years. What was that bastard doing over in this part of town? Nobody from Boyle Heights ought to be here below Watts! Aw, shit. But that brother knew. Maybe from his walk, maybe anything, shit, he knew.

It took him a second to make up his mind. Then Alim turned, aimed and fired. A second shot to be certain. The man went down, and the old storekeeper’s eyes were big with horror, and Alim fired three times more. One more robbery wouldn’t have upset anyone, but the pigs worked hard on murder. Best leave no witnesses. Too bad, though.

He came out fast, and didn’t go to the stolen car across the street. Instead he walked a fast half-block, went through an alleyway and came out on another street. His arm still tingled with that unique, atavistic thrill. Man was made to use a club. and a gun is the ultimate in clubs. Point and make a fist, and if the enemy is close enough to see his face, one blow will knock him over dead. Power! Alim knew people who had got hooked on that sensation.

His brother (mother’s son, not just blood) waited for him in a car that wasn’t hot. They drove off just at the speed limit, fast enough not to attract attention, slow enough not to get busted.

“Had to waste two,” Alim said.

Harold winced, but his voice was cool. “Too bad. Who were they?”

“Nobody. Nobody important.”

March: Two

Most astronomers envisage comets as forming a vast cloud surrounding the solar system and stretching perhaps halfway to the nearest star; the Dutch astronomer I. H. Oort, after whom the cloud is usually named, has estimated that the cloud contains perhaps 100 billion comets.

Brian Marsden, Smithsonian Institution

They loaded them up well in the Green Room. Two ushers and an astonishingly pretty hostess poured their glasses full as soon as they were half empty, so that Tim Hamner had drunk more than he liked. At that, he thought, I’m well off compared to Arnold. Arnold was a best-selling writer, and Arnold never talked about anything that wasn’t in his books. When Tim told him Hamner-Brown was now visible to the naked eye, Arnold didn’t know what Tim was talking about; when Tim told him, Arnold wanted to meet Brown.

One of the ushers signaled and Tim got unsteadily to his feet. The stairs hadn’t seemed so steep when he came down them. He arrived onstage to hear the last of Johnny’s smoothly professional monologue and to bask in the audience applause.

Johnny was in full form, joking with the other guests. Tim remembered from the monitor downstairs that Sharps of JPL had been giving a lecture on comets, and that Johnny seemed to know a great deal about astronomy. The other guest, a dowager whose breast equipment had, twenty years ago, given a new word to the English language, kept interrupting with off-color jokes. The dowager was quite drunk. Tim remembered that her name was Mary Jane, and that no one ever called her by her stage name anymore. At her age and weight it would have been ridiculous.

The opening chatter got Tim through a terrible moment of stage fright. Then Johnny turned to him and asked, “How do you discover a comet? I wish I’d done that.” He seemed quite serious.

“You wouldn’t have time,” Tim said. “It takes years. Decades sometimes, and no guarantees, ever. You pick a telescope and you memorize the sky through it, and then you spend every night looking at nothing and freezing your can off. It gets cold in that mountain observatory.”

Mary Jane said something. Johnny was alarmed but didn’t show it. The sound man with his earphones gave Johnny a high sign. “Do you like owning a comet?” Johnny asked.

“Half a comet,” Tim said automatically. “I love it.”

“He won’t own it long,” Dr. Sharps said.

“Eh? How’s that?” Tim demanded.

“It’ll be the Russians who own it,” Sharps said. “They’re sending up a Soyuz to have a close look from space. When they get through, it will be their comet.”

That was appalling. Tim asked, “But can’t we do something?”

“Sure. We can put up an Apollo or something bigger. We’ve got the equipment sitting around getting rusty. We even did the preliminary work. But the money has run out.”

“But you could put something up,” Johnny asked, “if you had the money?”

“We could be up there watching Earth go through the tail. It’s a shame the American people don’t care more about technology. Nobody cares a hang as long as their electric carving knives work. You ever stop to think just how dependent we are on things that none of us understand?” Sharps gestured dramatically around the TV studio.

Johnny started to say something — about the housewife who ran a home computer as a hobby — and changed his mind. The studio audience was listening. There was a careful silence that Johnny had long since learned to respect. They wanted to hear Sharps. Maybe this would be one of the good nights, one of the shows that ran over and over, Sundays, anniversaries…

“Not just the TV,” Sharps was saying. “Your desk. Formica top. What is Formica? Anyone know how it’s made? Or how to make a pencil? Much less penicillin. Our lives depend on these things, and none of us knows much about them. Not even me.”

“I always wondered what makes bra straps snappy,” Mary Jane said.

Johnny jumped in to give the show back to Sharps. “But tell me, Charlie, what good will it do to study that comet? How will that change our lives?”

Sharps shrugged. “It may not. You’re asking what good new research does. And all I can answer is that it always has paid off. Not the way you thought it would, maybe. Who’d have thought we’d get a whole new medical technology out of the space program? But we did. Thousands are alive right now because the human-factors boys had to develop new instruments for the astronauts. Johnny, did you ever hear of the Club of Rome?”

Johnny had, but the audience would need reminding. “They were the people who did computer simulations to find out how long we could get along on our natural resources. Even with zero population growth—”

“They tell us we’re finished,” Sharps broke in. “And that’s stupid. We’re only finished because they won’t let us really use technology. They say we’re running out of metals. There’s more metal in one little asteroid than was mined all over the world in the last five years! And there are hundreds of thousands of asteroids. All we have to do is go get ’em.”

“Can we?”

“You bet! Even with the technology we already have, we could do it. Johnny, out there in space it’s raining soup, and we don’t even know about soup bowls.”

The studio audience applauded. They hadn’t been cued by the production assistants, but they applauded. Johnny gave Sharps an approving smile and decided how the program would go for the rest of the night. But first there was a frantic signal: time for a Kalva Soap commercial.

There was more after the commercial. When Sharps got going he was really dynamic. His thin, bony hands waved around like windmills. He talked about windmills, too, and about how much power the Sun put out every day. About the solar flare Skylab’s crew had observed. “Johnny, there was enough power in that one little flare to run our whole civilization for hundreds of years! And those idiots talk about doom!”

But they were neglecting Tim Hamner, and Johnny had to bring him into the conversation. Hamner was sitting there nodding, obviously enjoying Sharps. Johnny carefully maneuvered the scientist back onto the comet, then saw his chance. “Charlie, you said the Russians would get a close look at Hamner-Brown. How close?”

“Pretty close. We’ll definitely pass through the tail of the comet. I showed you why we can’t tell how close the head will come — but it’s going to be very close. If we’re lucky, maybe as close as the Moon.”

“I wouldn’t call that luck,” Mary Jane said.

“Tim, it’s your comet,” Johnny said. “Could Hammer-Brown actually hit us?”

“That’s Hamner-Brown,” Tim said.

“Oh.” Johnny laughed. “What did I say? Hammer? It would be a hammer if it hit, wouldn’t it?”

“You know it,” Charlie Sharps said.

“Just what would it do?” Johnny asked.

“Well, we’ve got some pretty big holes left from meteor strikes,” Tim said. “Meteor Crater in Arizona is nearly a mile wide. Vreedevort in South Africa is so big you can’t see it except from the air.”

“And those were the little ones,” Sharps said. They all turned to look at him. Sharps grinned. “Ever notice how circular Hudson’s Bay looks? Or the Sea of Japan?”

“Were those meteors?” Johnny asked. The thought was horrifying.

“A lot of us think so. And something pretty big cracked the Moon wide open — a quarter of its surface is covered by that so-called ocean, which was once a sea of lava welling up from where a big asteroid hit.”

“Of course, we don’t know what Hamner-Brown is made of,” Tim said.

“Maybe it’s time we found these things out,” Mary Jane said. “Before one of them does hit us. Like this one.”

“It’s only a matter of time,” Sharps said. “Give it long enough and the probability of a comet hitting us approaches certainty. But I don’t think we have to worry about HamnerBrown.”

Henry Armitage was a TV preacher. He’d been a radio preacher until one of his converts left him ten million dollars; now he had his own slick-paper magazine, TV shows in a hundred cities, and an elaborate complex of buildings in Pasadena, complete with editorial staff.

For all that, Henry wrote much of the magazine himself, and he always did the editorials. There were too few hours in the day for Henry. He gloried in the troubles of the world. He knew what they meant. They were the signs of a greater joy to come.

For the disciples had asked the Master, “ ‘Tell us, when shall these things be? And what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?’

“And Jesus answered and said unto them, ‘Take heed that no man shall deceive you. For many shall come in my name saying “I am Christ”; and shall deceive many.’ ” Henry had seen the entry on the Inyo County, California, police blotter: “Charles Manson, also known as Jesus Christ, God.”

“And you shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places.”

Matthew was Henry’s favorite Gospel; and of all the Bible, that was his favorite text. Were these not the times Christ spoke of? The signs were all present in the world.

He sat at his expensive desk. The TV was concealed behind a panel that opened when Henry touched a button. It was a long way from the wood-frame, whitewashed one-room church in Idaho where Henry had started in the Thirties. The ostentatious wealth sometimes disturbed Henry, but his supporters insisted on it, even if Henry and his wife would have been as happy in plainer surroundings.

Henry toyed with his editorial, but he didn’t feel inspired. As a lesson in humility he had the TV turned to an interview show; the lesson was to watch that shallow frivolity without hating those who took part in it; and that was hard, hard…

Something caught his attention. A thin tall man in a herringbone sport jacket, arms waving about. Henry admired his technique. The man would make an impressive preacher. He focused all attention on himself, and his words washed across the listener.

The man was talking about a comet. A comet. A sign in the heavens? Henry knew what comets were, but because comets were natural did not mean that their timing was not miraculous. Henry had seen many healed by prayer and the doctors later “explain” the miracle.

A comet. And it would pass very close to Earth. Could this be the final sign of all? He drew a yellow lined tablet toward him and began writing in sloppy block print, using a dozen pencils. He was through three sheets before he knew his headline, and he turned back to the first page.

In two weeks his magazine would be in half a million homes around the world; and across the cover in blazing red twenty point type would be his headline:

THE HAMMER OF GOD

It would make a good text for his TV shows, too. Henry began writing frantically, feeling the way he had felt nearly forty years before, when he’d really begun to understand Matthew 24 and had carried the message to a world that didn’t care.

The Hammer of God was coming to punish the decadent and the willful. Henry wrote eagerly.

April: One

From the fury of the Norsemen,
Spare us, good Lord.
From the great comet,
Good Lord deliver us.

Medieval litany

Tim Hamner arrived in a taxi just as Harvey’s TravelAII reached JPL. As Tim handed the driver a twenty and waved him away, Harvey swore; then he put on his best face as Tim came over to join him.

Hamner looked sheepish. “Look, Harvey, I said I wouldn’t interfere — and I won’t. But I met Sharps on that interview show.”

“Yeah, I saw that,” Harvey said. “Sharps was great.”

“He sure was,” Hamner said. “I want to meet him again. I called JPL and they said you were coming here for an interview. Harvey, I want to come along.”

Inwardly Harvey felt anger, but it was a reasonable request from a sponsor. “Sure.”

Charlene, the PR lady, was waiting, and she didn’t make any fuss about Tim Hamner’s unexpected appearance with the crew. Sharps’s office hadn’t changed. There were different books scattered across the expensive desk, and instead of an IBM print-out there was a large diagram. The cast changes, Harvey thought, but the play’s the same.

“What ho,” Sharps said. He lifted a brow at Hamner. “Sponsor coming along to check on you? Harvey, I hope this won’t take long. I’m due in the labs shortly.”

Harvey waved to the crew. Charlie was already setting up, and Mark moved around with the light meter. Mark had become pretty good at this job, and he’d stayed around longer then Harvey could remember him keeping a job before. If he left, Harvey would miss him.

“We’re interested in the probe,” Harvey said. “Does it look as if it will really go?”

Sharps smiled broadly. “Looks good, looks good. Thanks to Senator Arthur Jellison. Remember our conversation about that?”

“Right.”

“Well, he’s the man. I’d appreciate any good publicity you can give him.”

Harvey nodded. He signaled to the crew. “Let’s run it.”

“Speed,” Manuel said. Charlie was behind the camera. Mark stepped out with the board. “Sharps interview, take one.” Clack.

“Dr. Sharps,” Harvey said, “there’s been some criticism of the proposed Apollo mission to study the comet. It’s said it will be too dangerous.”

Sharps made a gesture of dismissal. “Dangerous? We’ve done it all before. A tried-and-true booster and a proven capsule. Not so many months of planning as NASA likes, but ask the men who’ll fly it. Ask the astronauts if they think it’s too dangerous.”

“Has the crew been chosen yet?”

“No — but there are forty volunteers!” Sharps grinned at the camera.

Harvey went on with his questions. They talked about the instruments the Apollo would carry. Many of them were being put together at JPL, and at Cal Tech. “Students and technicians working overtime without pay,” Sharps said. “Just to help out.”

“Without pay?” Harvey asked.

“Right. They get their regular work done, the things we have contracts for, and then put in overtime on comet packages. Without pay.”

That ought to go well, Harvey thought. He made a note to interview some of the technicians. Maybe he could find a janitor who worked overtime to help.

“It sounds like you can’t carry enough gear,” Harvey said.

“Well, we really can’t,” Sharps agreed. “Not all we’d like to carry. But what’s enough? We can take up enough to learn a lot.”

“Right. Dr. Sharps, I understand you’ve done a new plot of Hamner-Brown’s orbit. And you’ve got new photos of it.”

“Hale Observatories has the photos. We did the orbit. We’re safe in saying it will be a big comet. It’s got the largest coma ever recorded for this distance from the Sun. That means there’s a lot of ice left in the snowball. And it’s going to come quite close. First it will pass at a reasonable distance, and we’ll see a spectacular tail. Then it goes inside the orbit of Venus and most of it will vanish, although some of the tail may be visible for a while. Naked-eye visible, I might add. After that it will be too close to the Sun for us to see from here, but of course the Apollo crew will be able to get good observations from space. We won’t see it again until it gets very near Earth on its way back out. By then the sky should be filled with the tail. I’m willing to bet that tail will be visible in daytime.”

Mark Czescu whistled. Manuel didn’t glitch so Harvey knew it hadn’t got onto the tape. Harvey felt like whistling himself.

The office door opened. In came a short, rounded, vague man, about thirty years old. He had a trimmed dark beard and thick glasses. He wore a green Pendleton wool shirt, and both pockets bristled with pens and pencils of every imaginable color and nib. A pocket computer hung at his belt. “Oh — sorry, I thought you were alone.” His voice was apologetic. He began to back out.

“No, no, stay and hear this,” Sharps said. “Let me introduce Dr. Dan Forrester. His job title is computer programmer. His degrees say Ph.D. in astronomy; around here we usually call him our sane genius.”

Mark was muttering behind Harvey. “If they call him a genius in this outfit…”

Harvey nodded. He’d thought of that too.

“Dan’s been doing more recasts of Hamner-Brown’s orbit. He’s also working on the optimum launch date for our Apollo, given the limited amount of equipment we can take, and the limited amount of consumables—”

“Consumables?” Harvey asked.

“Food. Water. Air. They take mass. We can only put up so much mass, and so we trade consumables for instruments. But consumables mean time in orbit. So Dan’s working on the problem: Is it better to launch earlier, with less equipment, so they can stay longer but get less information—”

“Not information,” Forrester said. His voice was apologetic. “Sorry to interrupt—”

“No, tell us what you mean,” Harvey said.

“We’re trying to maximize information,” Forester said. “So the problem is, do we get more information by having more data about a shorter time, or less data about a longer time.”

“Oh.” Harvey nodded. “So what have you got on Hamner-Brown? How far away at its closest point?”

“Zero,” Forrester said. He didn’t crack a smile.

“Uh — you mean it’s coming down our throats?”

“I doubt it.” Now he smiled. “Zero within the limits of prediction. Which is a good half-million miles error.”

Harvey relaxed. So, he noticed, did everyone in the room, including Charlene. They took Forrester seriously here. He turned to Sharps. “Tell us, what would happen if the comet did hit us? Suppose we got unlucky.”

“You mean the head? The nucleus? Because it looks as if we might actually pass through the outer coma. Which is nothing more than gas.”

“No, I mean the head. What happens? The end of the world?”

“Oh, no. Nothing like that. Probably the end of civilization.”

There was silence in the room for a moment. Then for another. “But,” Harvey said, his voice puzzled, “Dr. Sharps, you told me that a comet, even the head, is largely foamy ice with rocks in it. And even the ice is frozen gases. That doesn’t sound dangerous.” In fact, Harvey thought, I asked to get it on the record.

“Several heads,” Dan Forrester said. “At least it looks that way. I think it’s beginning to calve already. And if it does it now, it will do it later. Probably. Maybe.”

“So it’s even less dangerous,” Harvey said.

Sharps wasn’t listening to Harvey. He rolled his eyes toward the ceiling. “Calving already?”

Forrester’s grin widened. “Ook ook.”

Then he noticed Harvey Randall again. “You asked about danger,” he said. “Let’s look at it. We have several masses, largely the same material that boils off to form the coma and the tail: fine dust, foamy frozen gases, with pockets where the really volatile stuff has been long gone, and maybe a few rocks embedded in there. Hey — ” Randall looked up at Forrester.

Forrester was grinning his cherubic smile. “That’s probably why it’s so bright already. Some of the gases are interacting. Think what we’ll see when they really get to boiling near the Sun! Ook ook.”

Sharps was getting that thoughtful, lost look again. Harvey said quickly, “Dr. Sharps—”

“Oh. Yes, certainly. What happens if it hits? Which it won’t.

Well, what makes the nucleus dangerous is that it’s big, and it’s coming fast. Enormous energies.”

“Because of the rocks?” Harvey asked. Rocks he could understand. “How big are those rocks?”

“Not very,” Forrester said. “But that’s theory—”

“Right.” Sharps was aware of the camera again. “That’s why we need the probe. We don’t know. But I’d guess the rocks are small, from the size of a baseball to the size of a small hill.”

Harvey felt relief. That couldn’t be dangerous. A small hill?

“But of course that doesn’t matter,” Sharps said. “They’ll be embedded in the frozen gases and water ice. It would all hit as several solid masses. Not as a lot of little chunks.”

Harvey paused to think that over. This film would take careful editing. “It still doesn’t sound dangerous. Even nickel-iron meteors usually burn out long before they hit the ground. In fact, in all history there’s only been one recorded case of anyone being harmed by a meteor.”

“Sure, that lady in Alabama,” Forrester said. “It got her picture in Life. Wow, that was the biggest bruise I ever saw. Wasn’t there a lawsuit? Her landlady said it was her meteor because it ended up in her basement.”

Harvey said, “Look. Hamner-Brown will hit atmosphere a lot harder than any normal meteorite, and it’s mostly ice. The masses will burn faster, won’t they?”

He saw two shaking heads: a thin face wearing insectile glasses, and a thick bushy beard above thick glasses. And over against the wall Mark was shaking his head too. Sharps said, “They’d bore through quicker. When the mass is above a certain size, it stops being important whether Earth has an atmosphere or not.”

“Except to us,” Forrester said, deadpan.

Sharps paused a second, then laughed. Politely, Harvey thought, but it was done carefully. Sharps took pains to avoid offending Forrester. “What we need is a good analogy. Um…” Sharps’s brow furrowed.

“Hot fudge sundae,” said Forrester.

“Hah?”

Forrester’s grin was wide through his beard. “A cubic mile of hot fudge sundae. Cometary speeds.”

Sharps’s eyes lit up. “I like it! Let’s hit Earth with a cubic mile of hot fudge sundae.”

Lord God, they’ve gone bonkers, Harvey thought. The two men raced each other to the blackboard. Sharps began to draw. “Okay. Hot fudge sundae. Let’s see: We’ll put the vanilla ice cream in the center with a layer of fudge over it…”

He ignored the strangled sound behind him. Tim Hamner hadn’t said a word during the whole interview. Now he was doubled over, holding himself, trying to hold in the laughter. He looked up, choked, got his face straight, said, “I can’t stand it!” and brayed like a jackass. “My comet! A cubic mile of hot… fudge… sun… dae…”

“With the fudge as the outer shell,” Forrester amplified, “so the fudge will heat up when the Hammer rounds the Sun.”

“That’s Hamner-Brown,” Tim said, straight-faced.

“No, my child, that’s a cubic mile of hot fudge sundae. And the ice cream will still be frozen inside the shell,” said Sharps.

Harvey said, “But you forgot the—”

“We put the cherry at one pole and say that pole was in shadow at perihelion.” Sharps sketched to show that when the comet rounded the Sun, the cherry at the oblate spheroid’s axis would be on the side away from Sol. “We don’t want it scorched. And we’ll put crushed nuts all through it, to represent rocks. Say a two-hundred-foot cherry?”

“Carried by the Royal Canadian Air Force,” Mark said.

“Stan Freberg! Right!” Forrester whooped. “Shhhh… plop! Let’s see you do that on television!”

“And now, as the comet rounds the Sun, trailing a luminous froth of fake whipped cream, and aims itself down our throats… Dan, what’s the density of vanilla ice cream?”

Forrester shrugged. “It floats. Say two-thirds.”

“Right. Point six six six it is.” Sharps seized a pocket calculator from the desk and punched frantically. “I love these things. Used to use slide rules. Never could figure out where the decimal point went.

“A cubic mile to play with. Five thousand two hundred and eighty feet, times twelve for inches, times two point five four for centimeters, cube that… We have two point seven seven six times ten to the fifteenth cubic centimeters of vanilla ice cream. It would take a while to eat it all. Times the density, and lo, we have about two times ten to the fifteenth grams. Couple of billion tons. Now for the fudge…” Sharps punched away.

Happy as a clam, Harvey thought. A very voluble clam equipped with Texas Instruments’ latest pocket marvel.

“What do you like for the density of hot fudge?” Sharps asked.

“Call it point nine,” Forrester said.

“Haven’t any of you made fudge?” Charlene demanded. “It doesn’t float. You test it by dripping it into a cup of cold water. Or at least my mother did.”

“Say one point two, then,” Forrester said.

“Another billion and a half tons of hot fudge,” Sharps said. Behind him Hamner made more strangled noises.

“I think we can ignore the rocks,” Sharps said. “Do you see why, now?”

“Lord God, yes,” Harvey said. He looked at the camera with a start. “Uh, yes, Dr. Sharps, it certainly makes sense to ignore the rocks.”

“You’re not going to show this, are you?” Tim Hamner sounded indignant.

“You’re saying no?” Harvey asked.

“No… no…” Hamner doubled over and giggled.

’Now, she’s coming at cometary speeds. Fast. Let’s see, parabolic speed at Earth orbit is what, Dan?”

“Twenty-nine point seven kilometers per second. Times square root of two.”

“Forty-two kilometers a second,” Sharps announced. “And we’ve got Earth’s orbital velocity to add. Depends on the geometry of the strike. Shall we say fifty kilometers a second as a reasonable closing velocity?”

“Sounds good,” Forrester said. “Meteors go from twenty to maybe seventy. It’s reasonable.”

“Right. Call it fifty. Square that, times a half. Times mass in grams. Bit over two times ten to the twenty-eight ergs. That’s for the vanilla ice cream. Now we can figure that most of the hot fudge boiled away, but understand, Harvey, at those speeds we’re just not in the atmosphere very long. If we come in straight it’s two seconds flat! Anyway, whatever mass you burn up, a lot of the energy just gets transferred to the earth’s heat balance. That’s a spectacular explosion all by itself. We’ll figure twenty percent of the hot-fudge energy transfers to Earth, and” — more buttons pressed, and dramatic rise in voice — “our grand total is two point seven times ten to the twenty-eighth ergs. Okay, that’s your strike.”

“Doesn’t mean much to me,” Harvey said. “It sounds like a big number…”

“One followed by twenty-eight zeros,” Mark muttered.

“Six hundred and forty thousand megatons, near enough,” Dan Forrester said gently. “It is a big number.”

“Good God, pasteurized planet,” Mark said.

“Not quite.” Forrester had his own calculator out of the belt case. “About three thousand Krakatoas. Or three hundred Thera explosions, if they’re right about Thera.”

“Thera?” Harvey asked.

“Volcano in the Mediterranean,” Mark said. “Bronze Age. Where the Atlantis legend comes from.”

“Your friend’s right,” Sharps said. “I’m not sure about the energy, though. Look at it this way. All of mankind uses about ten to the twenty-ninth ergs in a year. That’s everything: electric power, coal, nuclear energy, burning buffalo chips, cars — you name it. So our hot fudge sundae pops in with about thirty percent of the world’s annual energy budget.”

“Um. Not so bad, then,” Harvey said.

“Not so bad. Not so bad as what? A year’s energy in one minute,” Sharps said. “It probably hits water. If it hits land, it’s tough for anyone under it, but most of the energy radiates back out to space fairly quickly. But if it hits water, it vaporizes it. Let’s see, ergs to calories… damn. I don’t have that on my gadget.”

“I do,” Forrester said. “The strike would vaporize about sixty million cubic kilometers of water. Or fifty billion acrefeet, if you like that. Enough to cover the entire U.S.A. with two hundred and twelve feet of water.”

“All right,” Sharps said. “So sixty million cubic kilometers of water go into the atmosphere. Harvey, it’s going to rain. A lot of that water is moving across polar areas. It freezes, falls as snow. Glaciers form fast… slide south… yeah. Harvey, the historians believe the Thera explosion changed the world’s climate. We know that Tamboura, about as powerful as Krakatoa, caused what historians of the last century called ‘the year without a summer’. Famine. Crop failure. Our hot fudge sundae will probably trigger an ice age. All those clouds. Clouds reflect heat. Less sunlight gets to Earth. Snow reflects heat too. Still less sunlight. It gets colder. More snow falls. Glaciers move south because they don’t melt as fast. Positive feedback.”

It had all turned dead serious. Harvey asked, “But what stops ice ages?”

Forrester and Sharps shrugged in unison.

“So,” Hamner said, “my comet’s going to bring about an ice age?” Now you could see the long lugubrious face of his grandfather, who could look bereaved at a $60,000 funeral.

Forrester said, “No, that was hot fudge sundae we were talking about. Um — the Hammer is bigger.”

“Hamner-Brown. How much bigger?”

Forrester made an uncertain gesture. “Ten times?”

“Yes,” said Harvey. There were pictures in his mind. Glaciers marched south across fields and forests, across vegetation already killed by snow. Down across North America into California, across Europe to the Alps and Pyrenees. Winter after winter, each colder, each colder than the Great Freeze of ’76–’77. And hell, they hadn’t even mentioned the tidal waves. “But a comet won’t be as dense as a cubic mile of h-h-h—”

It was just one of those things. Harvey leaned back in his chair and belly-laughed, because there was just no way he could say it.

Later he made his own tape, alone, in a studio approximation of an office — fake books on the shelves, worn carpet on the floor. Here he could talk.

“Sorry about that.” (This would run just after one of Harvey’s breakups. He’d done that several times in the Sharps interview.) “The points to remember are these. First, the odds against any solid part of Hamner-Brown hitting us are literally astronomical. Over these distances even the Devil himself couldn’t hit a target as small as Earth. Second, if it did hit, it would probably be as several large masses. Some of those would hit ocean. Others would hit land, where the damage would be local. But if Hamner-Brown did strike the Earth, it would he as if the Devil had struck with an enormous hammer, repeatedly.”

April: Interludes

Fifty thousand years ago in Arizona:

Friction with the air makes the surface incandescent as the oxygen in the atmosphere blowtorches the iron. From this great flying mass, sputtering chunks as large as houses fly of’ as the meteoroid, travelling at a low angle, nears the ground. A huge cylinder of superheated air is forced along by the meteoroid and, as it strikes, this air is forced across the surrounding countryside in a fiery blast that instantaneously scorches every living thing for a hundred miles in every direction.

Frank W. Lane, The Elements Rage (Chilton, 1965)

Leonilla Malik scribbled a prescription and handed it to her patient. He was the last for the morning, and when the man had left her examining room, Leonilla took the bottle of Grand Marnier from her lower desk drawer and poured a small, precious glass. The expensive liqueur was a present from one of her fellow kosmonauts, and drinking it gave her a delicious feeling of decadence. Her friend also brought her silk hose and a slip from Paris.

And I’ve never been outside Russia, she thought. She let the sweet fluid roll over her tongue. No matter how I try, they will never let me go.

She wondered what her status was. Her father had been a physician with a fairly good reputation among the Kremlin elite. Then had come the “Doctors’ Plot,” an insane Stalinist delusion that the Kremlin physicians were trying to poison The Revolutionary Leader of Our Times, Hero of the People, Teacher and Inspired Leader of the World Proletariat, Comrade Josef Vissarionovich Stalin. Her father and forty other doctors had vanished into the Lubianka.

One of her father’s legacies was a 1950 copy of Pravda. He had carefully underlined every mention of Stalin’s name: ninety-one times on the front page alone, ten times as Great Leader, and six as Great Stalin.

He should have poisoned the bastard, Leonilla thought. It wasn’t a pleasant concept; there was a long tradition about that. The Oath of Hippocrates wasn’t taught in Soviet medical schools, but she had read it.

As the daughter of an enemy of the people, Leonilla’s future hadn’t seemed very bright; but then had come a new era, and Dr. Malik was rehabilitated. By way of reparations, Leonilla had been rescued from secretarial work in an obscure Ukrainian town and sent to the university. A liaison with an Air Force colonel had resulted in her learning to fly, and from that, weirdly, to her ambiguous status in the kosmonaut corps. The colonel was now a general and long since married, but he continued to help her.

She had never been in space. She had been trained for it, but she had never been chosen. Instead, she treated flyers and their dependents, and got in flying time when she could, and hoped for a lucky break.

There was a tap at the door. Sergeant Breslov, a young man of no more than nineteen years, proud to be a sergeant in the Red Army; only, of course, it wasn’t the Red Army anymore and hadn’t been since Stalin had been forced to rename it during what he had to call The Great Patriotic War. Breslov would have preferred the Red Army. He often talked of carrying freedom across the world on the point of his bayonet.

“There is a long message for you, Comrade Captain. You have been transferred to Baikunyar.” He frowned at the bottle which Leonilla had forgotten to put away.

“Back to work,” Leonilla said. “That is worth celebration. Will you join me?” She poured a glass for Breslov.

He drank standing at stiff attention. It was one way of showing disapproval of officers who drank before lunch. Of course, many of them did, which to Breslov was another indication of how things had gone downhill since the Red Army days his father boasted of.

In three hours she was flying toward the spaceport. She could hardly believe it: urgency orders, authorizing her to fly a jet trainer, her belongings to be sent after her. What could be so important? She pushed the question from her mind and reveled in the joy of flying. Alone, in the clear skies, no one looking over her shoulder, no other pilots eager for their chance at the stick: ecstasy. Only one thing could be better.

Could that be why they’d sent for her? She knew of no space missions. But perhaps. I’ve been lucky for a long time. Why not more luck? She imagined being in a real Soyuz waiting for the big boosters to roar and fling the spacecraft up into clean space, and for the hell of it she flipped the jet trainer into a series of aerobatics that would have got her grounded if anyone had been watching.

A sudden gust across the San Joaquin Valley shook the trailer slightly, bringing Barry Price to instant wakefulness. He lay still, listening for the reassuring sound of the bulldozers, his crews were still at work on the nuclear power plant. There was light outside. He sat up carefully to avoid waking Dolores, but she stirred and opened one eye. “What time is it?” she asked, her voice heavy with sleep.

“About six.”

“Oh, my God. Come back to bed.” She reached for him. The covers fell away, revealing her tanned breasts.

He moved away, avoiding her, then caught her hands in one of his and held them while he bent to kiss her. “Woman, you’re insatiable.”

“I haven’t had any complaints yet. Are you really getting up?”

“Yes. I’ve got engineering work to do, and we’ve got visitors later, and I’ve got to read that memo McCleve sent over yesterday. Should have got to it last night.”

She grinned muzzily. “Bet what we did was more fun. Sure you won’t come back to bed?”

“No.” He went to the sink and ran water until it was hot.

“You wake up faster than any man I’ve ever known,” Dolores said. “I’m not getting up at the crack of dawn.” She pulled the pillow over her head, but she continued to move slightly under the covers, letting him know she was awake.

Still available, Barry thought. Yo ho! Then why am I putting on my pants?

When he was dressed he pretended to think she was asleep and quickly left the trailer. Outside he stretched in the morning sunshine, breathing deeply. His trailer was at the edge of the camp that housed much of the San Joaquin Nuclear Project work force. Dolores had one far away, but she didn’t use it often these days. Barry walked toward the plant with a grin that faded as he thought about Dolores.

She was wonderful. And what they did in their copious free time hadn’t affected their work at all. She was more administrative assistant than secretary, and he knew damned well he couldn’t get along without her; she was at least as important to his work as the operations manager, and that terrified Barry Price. He kept waiting for the possessiveness, the not unreasonable demands for his time and attention that had made life with Grace so unpleasant. He couldn’t believe that Dolores would remain satisfied simply to be his… what? he wondered. Mistress wasn’t right. He didn’t support her. The idea was funny: Dolores wasn’t about to let any man have that kind of control over her fife. Make it lover, he thought. And enjoy it and be glad.

He stopped to get coffee from the big urn at the construction supervisor’s shack. They always had excellent coffee. He carried a cup up to his office and took out McCleve’s memo.

A minute later he was screaming in anger.

He hadn’t calmed down when Dolores arrived about eight-thirty. She came in with more coffee to find him pacing the office. “What’s the matter?” she asked.

Another thing I love about her, Barry thought. She never demands anything personal at the office. “This.” He lifted the memo. “Do you know what those idiots want?”

“Obviously not.”

“They want me to hide the plant! They want us to bulldoze up a fifty-foot earth embankment around the whole complex!”

“Would that make the plant safer?” Dolores asked.

“No! Cosmetics, that’s all. Not even cosmetics. Dammit, San Joaquin is pretty. It’s a beautiful plant. We should be proud of it, not try to hide it behind a lot of dirt.”

She put the coffee down and smiled uncertainly. “You have to do it?”

“I hope not, but McCleve says the Commissioners like the idea. So does the Mayor. I’ll probably have to, and dammit, it messes hell out of the schedule! We’ll have to pull men off the excavations for Number Four, and—”

“And meanwhile, your PTA ladies are due in fifteen minutes.”

“Lord God. Thanks, Dee. I’ll compose myself.”

“Yes, you’d better do that. You sound like a bear. Be nice, these ladies are on our side.”

“I’m glad somebody is.” Barry went back to his desk and his coffee and looked at the piles of work he still had to do, and hoped the ladies wouldn’t take long. Maybe he’d get a chance to call the Mayor, and just maybe the Mayor would be reasonable, and then he could get to work again…

The plant yard buzzed with activity. Bulldozers, forklifts, concrete trucks moved in an intricate, seemingly random pattern. Workmen carried materials for concrete forms. Barry Price led the group through this maelstrom almost without noticing it.

The ladies had seen the PR films, and they’d dressed sensibly in slacks and low shoes. They hadn’t made any fuss about wearing the hard hats Dolores got for them. So far they hadn’t had many questions, either.

Barry took them to the site of Number Three. It was a maze of steel girders and plywood forms, the dome-shaped containment only partially finished; it would be a good place to show them the safety features. Barry hoped they’d listen. Dolores said they’d seemed very reasonable to her, and he was hopeful, but past experience kept him on his guard. They reached a quieter area where there weren’t any construction workers at the moment; there was still noise from the bulldozers and the carpenters putting up forms, boilermakers welding pipes…

“I know we’re taking a lot of your time,” Mrs. Gunderson said. “But we do think it’s important. A lot of parents ask about the plant. The school’s only a few miles away…”

Barry smiled agreement and tried to show her that it was all right, that he knew their visit was important. His heart wasn’t in it. He was still thinking about McCleve’s memo.

“Do all those people really work for you?” one of the other ladies asked.

“Well, they’re employed by Bechtel,” Barry said. “Bechtel Engineering builds the plants. The Department of Water and Power can’t keep all those construction crews on permanent payroll.”

Mrs. Gunderson wasn’t interested in administrative details. She reminded Barry of himself: She wanted to get to the point, and quickly. An ample woman, well dressed. Her husband owned a big farm somewhere nearby. “You were going to show us the safety equipment,” she said.

“Right.” Barry pointed to the rising dome. “First there’s the containment itself. Several feet of concrete. So that if anything does happen inside, the problem stays inside. But this is what I wanted you to see.” He indicated a large pipe that ran into the uncompleted dome “That’s our primary cooling line,” he said. “Stainless steel. Two feet in diameter. The wall thickness of this pipe is one inch. There’s a cut piece over there and I’ll bet you can’t pick it up.”

Mrs. Gunderson went over to try. She hefted at the four foot piece of pipe but was unable to move it.

“Now, for us to lose coolant, that would have to break completely,” Barry said. “I’m not sure how that could happen, but suppose it did. Inside the containment the men are putting in the emergency cooling tanks now. Yes, those big things. If the water pressure from the primary cooling lines ever falls, those dump water at high pressure directly into the reactor core.”

He led them through the structure, making them look at everything. He showed them the pumps which would keep the reactor vessel filled with water, and the 30,000-gallon tank that would contain makeup water for the turbines. “All of that is available for emergency cooling,” Barry said.

“How much does it take?” Mrs. Gunderson asked.

“One hundred gallons a minute. About what six garden hoses can put out.”

“That doesn’t seem like very much. And it’s all you need?”

“All we need. Believe me, Mrs. Gunderson, there’s nobody more concerned about your children’s safety than we are. Most of these so-called accidents we prepare for have never happened. We have people whose job it is to think up strange accidents, silly things that we’re sure will never happen, just so that we can prepare for them.” He let them wander through, knowing they’d be impressed by the massive size of everything. So was he. He loved these power plants; he’d spent most of his life preparing for this job.

Finally they had seen everything, and he led them back to the visitors’ center, where the PR people could take over. Hope I did it right, he thought. They can help us a lot, if they want to. They can hurt us, too…

“One thing still concerns me,” Mrs. Gunderson said. “Sabotage. I know you’ve done all you can to prevent accidents, but suppose somebody deliberately tried to… to make it blow up. After all, you won’t have that many guards here, and there are a lot of crazy people in this world.”

“Yeah. Well, we’ve thought of ways people can try,” Barry said. He smiled. “You’ll excuse me if I don’t tell you about them.”

They smiled back, uncertainly. Finally Mrs. Gunderson said, “Then you’re satisfied that some bunch of nuts can’t harm the plant?”

Barry shook his head. “No, ma’am. We’re satisfied that they can’t harm you by anything they can do to us. But nobody can protect the plant itself. Look at the turbines. They turn thirty-six hundred revolutions a minute. Those blades are spinning so fast that if drops of water got in the steam lines, the turbines would break apart. The switchyard is vulnerable to any idiot with dynamite. No, we can’t stop them from wrecking the plant, but then we can’t stop them from setting fire to the oil tanks at a fossil plant. What we can do is see that nobody outside the power plant site gets hurt.”

“And your own people?”

Barry shrugged. “You know, nobody thinks it’s remarkable that police and firemen are dedicated to their work,” he said. “They don’t hear so much about power workers. They’d think different if they ever saw one of our apprentices standing up to his waist in oil to turn a valve, or a lineman up on a pole in the middle of an electrical storm. We’ll be on the job, Mrs. Gunderson. If they’ll just let us.”

The wind was warm and the skies clear in the Houston suburb of El Lago. The rainy season had ended, and a hundred families had come out into their backyards. The local Safeway was almost sold out of Coors beer.

Busy, hungry, and happy to be home for a whole weekend, Rick Delanty scooped hamburgers off the grill and slid them between buns. His fenced backyard was warm and smoky and noisy with a dozen friends and their wives. From the distance they could hear the children shouting as they played some new game. Children get used to glory, even if they don’t see it very often, Rick thought. Having Daddy home wasn’t such a big deal to them.

“…nothing new about the idea,” his wife was saying. “Science fiction writers have been talking about big space colonies for decades.” She was tall and very black, and she wore her hair in the tiny braids called corn rolls. Delanty could remember when she straightened her hair.

“For that matter, Heinlein wrote about them,” Gloria Delanty said. She looked to Rick for confirmation, but he was busy at the grill, and remembering his wife when they were both students in Chicago.

“It is new,” said a member of a very exclusive club. Evan had been to the Moon — almost. He’d been the man who stayed in the Apollo capsule. “O’Neill has worked out the economics of building these giant space colonies. He’s proved we can do it, not just tell stories.”

“I like it,” Gloria said. “A family astronaut project. How do we sign up?”

“You already did,” Jane Ritchie said. “When you married the test pilot there.”

“Oh, are we married?” Gloria asked. “I wonder. Evan, can’t you people in the training office ever manage to keep a schedule?”

John Baker came out of the house. “Hey, Rickie! I thought I had the wrong house. There wasn’t any sign of action from out front.”

There was a chorus of greetings, warm from the men who hadn’t seen Colonel John Baker since he went off to Washington, not so warm from the women. Baker had done it: got divorced after his mission. It happened to a lot of the astronauts, and having him back in Houston set the others to wondering.

Baker gave them all a wave, then sniffed. “Do I get one of those?”

“I’ll take your order, sir, but unless there’s a cancellation… ,,

“Why is it you never serve fried chicken?”

“I’m afraid of being stereotyped. Because I’m—

“Black,” Johnny Baker said helpfully.

“Eh?” Rick looked at his hands in apparent dismay. “No, that’s just hamburger grease.”

“So who are they picking for the big comet-watching flight?” Evan demanded.

“Damned if I know,” Baker said. “Nobody in Washington’s talking.”

“Hell, they’re sending me,” Rick Delanty said. “I have it on good authority.”

Baker froze with his beer half opened. Three other men nearby stopped talking, and the wives held their breath.

“I went to a fortune-teller in Texarkana, and she—”

“Jesus, give me her name and address, quick!” said Johnny. The others smiled as if hurt and went back to talking. Johnny whispered, “That was a terrible thing to do,” and giggled.

“Yeah,” Rick said without shame. He began turning the hamburgers with a long-handled spatula. “Why won’t they tell us earlier? They’ve had a dozen of us training for weeks, and still no word. And this’ll be the last flight for anyone until they finish the Shuttle. Six years I’ve been on the list, and never been up. Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth it.”

He set the spatula down. “I wonder, and then I remember Deke Slayton.”

Baker nodded. Deke Slayton was one of the original Seven, one of the first astronauts to be chosen, and he never went up until the Apollo-Soyuz handshake in space. Thirteen years before a space mission. He was as good an astronaut as anyone, but he was better in ground jobs. Training, mission control; too good on the ground. “I wonder how he stood it,” Johnny Baker said.

Rick nodded. “Me too. But I am the world’s only black astronaut. I keep thinking that’s got to be worth something.”

Gloria came over to the grill. “Hi, Johnny. What are you two talking about?”

“What,” Jane shouted from near the beer cooler, “do astronauts always talk about when there’s a mission planned?”

“Maybe they’re waiting for the right moment,” Johnny Baker said. “Race riots. Then they can send up a black man to prove we’re all equal.”

“Not funny,” Gloria said.

“But as good a theory as any,” Rick told her. “If I knew how NASA picks one man over another, I’d be on every mission. What the hell brings you back from the five-sided funny farm, anyway?”

“Orders. Start training again. I’m in the pool for Hammerwatch.”

“Hmm.” Rick poked at one of the burgers. Almost done. “And wouldn’t that do it,” he said. “Two in a row. You’d have a first.”

Baker shrugged. “I don’t know how it works either. Never have understood how I got on the Skylab—”

“You’d be a good one,” Rick said. “Experience in space repair work. And this thing’s being cobbled up fast, no time for all the tests. It makes sense.”

Gloria nodded, and so did the others, who weren’t quite listening to them. Then they went back to their conversations. Johnny Baker hid his expression of relief by draining the Coors. If it made sense to them, it probably made sense to the Astronaut Office at Houston. “I do bring some word from Washington, though. Not official, but the straight stuff. The Russians are sending up a woman.”

Odd, how the silence spread in a growing circle.

“Leonilla Malik. An M.D., so we don’t have to take a doc.” Johnny Baker raised his voice for a wider audience. “It’s definite, the Russians are sending her up, and we’ll dock with their Soyuz. My source is confidential, but reliable as hell.”

“Maybe,” said Drew Wellen, and he was the only one talking, “maybe they think they have something to prove.”

“Maybe we do too,” someone said.

Rick felt it like a soft explosion in his belly. Nobody had promised him anything at all, but he knew. He said, “Why is everybody suddenly staring at me?”

“You’re burning the hamburgers,” said Johnny.

Rick looked down at the smoking meat. “Burn, baby. Burn,” he said.

At three in the morning Loretta Randall followed strange sounds into the kitchen.

Yesterday’s newspaper was spread across the middle of the kitchen floor. Her largest rectangular cake pan was in the middle, and was filled with a layer of flour. Flour had sprayed across the newspaper and beyond its edges. Harvey was throwing things into the cake pan. He looked tired, and sad.

Loretta said, “My God, Harvey! What are you doing?”

“Hi. The maid’s coming tomorrow, isn’t she?”

“Yes, of course, it’s Friday, but what will she think?”

“Dr. Sharps says that all craters are circular.” Harvey posed above the cake pan with a lug nut in his fingers; he let it drop. Flour sprayed. “Whatever the velocity or the mass or the angle of flight of a meteor, it leaves a circle. I think he’s right.”

The flour was scattered with shelled peas and bits of gravel. A paperweight had left a dinner-plate-size circle now nearly obliterated by smaller craters. Harvey backed away, crouched, and hurled a bottle cap at a low angle. Flour sprayed across the paper. The new crater was a circle.

Loretta sighed with the knowledge that her husband was mad. “But, Harvey, why this? Do you know what time it is?”

“But if he’s right, then…” Harvey glanced at the globe he had brought from his office. He had outlined circles in Magic Marker the Sea of Japan, the Bay of Bengal, the arc of islands that mark the Indies Sea, a double circle within the Gulf of Mexico. If an asteroid strike had made any one of those, the oceans would have boiled, all life would have been cremated. How often had life begun on Earth, and been scalded from its face, and formed again?

If he could explain succinctly enough, Loretta would lie awake in terror until dawn. “Never mind,” he said. “It’s for the documentary.”

“Come to bed. We’ll clean this up in the morning, before Maria gets here.”

“No, don’t touch it. Don’t let her move it. I want photographs … from a lot of angles…” He leaned groggily against her, their hips bumping as they returned to bed.

April: Two

No one knows how many objects ranging in size from a few miles in diameter downward may pass near the Earth each year without being noticed.

Dr. Robert S. Richardson, Hale Observatory, Mount Wilson

Tim Hamner was waiting by the TravelAII when Harvey came out of the studio building. Harvey frowned. “Hello, Tim. What are you doing out here?”

“If I go inside, it’s a sponsor calling, and that’s a big deal, right? I don’t want a big deal. I want a favor.”

“Favor?”

“Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you about it.”

Harvey eyed Tim’s expensive suit and tie. Not really appropriate for the Security First. He drove to the Brown Derby. The parking attendant recognized Tim Hamner, and so did the hostess; she led them in immediately.

“Okay, what’s it about?” Harvey asked when they had a booth.

“I liked being out at JPL with you,” Hamner said. “I’ve sort of lost control of my comet. Nothing I can do the experts can’t do better, and the same with the TV series. And it is your series. But…” Tim paused to sip his drink. He wasn’t used to asking for favors, especially from people who worked for him. “Harvey, I’d like to come along on more interviews. Unpaid, of course.”

Oh, shit. What happens if I tell him it can’t be done? Will he talk to his agency? I sure as hell don’t need a test of strength just now. “It’s not always so exciting, you know. Right now we’re doing man-in-the-street interviews.”

“Aren’t those pretty dull?”

“They can be. But sometimes you get pure gold. And it doesn’t hurt to check in with the viewers now and then.” And I work my way, goddammit!

“What are you looking for? Can you use much of it?”

Harvey shrugged. “I won’t throw away good film — but that’s not the point. I want attitudes. I want the unexpected. If I knew what I was after, I could have someone else do it. And…”

“Yeah?” Tim’s eyes narrowed in the dim light. He’d seen a funny expression on Randall’s face.

“Well, there are strange reactions I don’t understand. They started after Johnny called it the Hammer—”

“Damn him!”

“And they’ll probably get stronger after we air the Great Hot Fudge Sundae strike. Tim, it’s almost as if a lot of people wanted the end of the world.”

“But that’s ridiculous.”

“Maybe. But we’re getting it.” Ridiculous to you, Harvey thought. Not so ridiculous to a man trapped in a job he hates, or a woman forced to sleep with a slob of a boss to keep her job… “Look, you’re the sponsor. I can’t stop you, but I insist on making the rules. Also, we start early in the mornings—”

“Yeah.” Tim drained his glass. “I’ll get used to it. They say you can get used to hanging if you hang long enough.”

The TravelAII was crammed full of gear and people. Cameras, tape equipment, a portable field desk for paper work. Mark Czescu had trouble finding a place to sit. Now there were three in back, since Hamner claimed the front seat. Mark was reminded of trips out to the desert with the dedicated bike racers: motorcycles and mechanic’s equipment braced with care, riders shoved in as afterthought. As he waited for the others to come out of the studio building, Mark turned on the radio.

An authoritative voice spoke with the compelling quality of the professional orator. “And this Gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come. When ye therefore see the abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel the prophet stand in the holy place: then let them which be in Judea flee into the mountains.” The voice quality changed, from reader to preacher. “My people, have you not seen what is now done in the churches? Is this not that abomination? ’Whoso readeth, let him understand.’ And the Hammer approaches! It comes to punish the wicked.

“’For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world unto this time, no, nor ever shall be. And except those days be shortened, there should be no flesh saved.’”

“Really lays it on,” a voice said behind Mark. Charlie Bascomb got into the TravelAII.

“The Gospel has been brought to you by the Reverend Henry Armitage,” the radio announcer said. “The Voice of God is broadcast in every language throughout the world in obedience to the commandment. Your contributions make these broadcasts possible.”

“Sure hear him a lot nowadays,” Mark said. “He must have a lot of new contributors.”

They drove out into Burbank and parked near the Warner Brothers Studios. It was a good street: lots of shops, from hole-in-the-wall camera stores to expensive restaurants. People flowed along the wide avenue. Starlets and production people from the studios mingled with straight business types from insurance offices. Middle-class housewives parked station wagons and took to the streets. A famous TV personality who lived in nearby Toluca Lake strolled past. Mark recognized the ski-shaped nose.

While the crew set up camera and sound equipment, Harvey took Tim Hamner into a restaurant for coffee. When everything was ready, Mark went inside. As he neared the booth he heard Randall speaking. Harvey’s voice had an edge that Mark recognized.

“…whole purpose is to find out what they think. What I think, I hide in neutral questions and a neutral voice. What you think, you hide in silence. Clear?”

“Absolutely,” Hamner drawled. He looked more awake than he had on the drive out. “So what do I do?”

“You can look useful. You can help Mark with the release forms. And you can stay out of the way.”

“I’ve got a good tape machine,” Hamner said. “I could—”

“We couldn’t use anything you’ve got,” Randall said. “You’re not in the union.” He looked up and saw Mark, got the nod and left.

Mark walked out with Hamner. “He gave me that same routine,” Mark said. “Really ate me out.”

“I believe you. I think if I blew an interview for him he’d abandon me on the spot. And cabs home from here cost a lot.”

“You know,” Mark said, “somehow I got the idea you were the sponsor.”

“Yup. That Harv Randall is one tough mother,” Hamner said. “Have you been in this business very long?”

Mark shook his head. “Just temporary, just working for Harv. Maybe one day I’ll do it permanently, but you know how the TV business is. It’d cut into my freedom.”

There was smog in Burbank. “I see Hertz has reclaimed the mountains,” Hamner said.

Mark looked up in surprise. “How’s that?”

Hamner pointed northward where the San Fernando Valley horizon faded into a brown smear. “Sometimes we keep mountains up there. I even have an observatory on one of them. But I guess Hertz Rent-A-Mountain has taken them back today.” They reached the TravelAII. The cameras were set up, ready to zoom in for close-ups or pan out for a wide view. Harvey Randall had already stopped a muscular man in hard hat and work clothes; he looked out of place among the shoppers and business types.

“…Rich Gollantz. We’re putting up the Avery Building over there.”

Harvey Randall’s voice and manner were intended to get the subjects talking; his questions could be filmed again if they were needed on camera. “Have you heard much about the Hamner-Brown Comet?”

Gollantz laughed. “I don’t spend as much time thinking about comets as you might expect.” Harvey smiled. “But I did see the ‘Tonight Show’ where they said it could hit the Earth.”

“And what did you think about that?” Harvey asked.

“Buncha… crap.” Gollantz eyed the camera. “Same kind of thing peopIe are always saying. Ozone’s gone, we’ll all die. And remember ’sixty-eight, when all the fortune-tellers said California was going to slide off into the sea, and the crazies took to the hills?”

“Yes, but the astronomers say that if the head of the comet hit. it would cause—”

“Ice age,” Gollantz interrupted. “I know about it. I saw that thing in Astronomy magazine.” He grinned and scratched under the yellow metal helmet. “Now that’d really be something. Think about all the new construction projects we’d need. And the Welfare boys could pass out polar bear furs instead of checks. Only, somebody’d have to shoot bears for them. Maybe I could get that job.” Gollantz grinned widely. “Yep, it might be fun. I wouldn’t mind trying life as a mighty hunter.”

Harvey dug for more. The interview wasn’t likely to produce usable film, but that wasn’t its purpose. Harvey was fishing, with the camera as bait. The network didn’t approve of this method of research. Too expensive, too crude, and unreliable, they said. They got that opinion straight from the motivational-research outfits that wanted NBS to hire them.

A few more questions. Science and technology. Gollantz was enjoying being on camera. Had he heard about the Apollo shot to study the comet, and what did he think of that?

“Love it. Be a good show. Lots of good pictures, and it’ll cost me less than I paid for Rose Bowl tickets, I guarantee you that. Hey, I hope they let Johnny Baker go up again.”

“Do you know Colonel Baker?”

“No. Wish I did. Love to meet him. But I saw the pictures of him fixing Skylab. Now that was construction work. And when he got back down, he sure gave those NASA bastards hell, didn’t he? Hey, I got to be moving. We got work to do.” He waved and moved off. Mark chased him with a release form.

“Sir? Moment of your time?”

The young man walked with his head down, lost in thought. He was not bad-looking, but his face was curiously wooden. He showed a flash of anger when Randall interrupted his thoughts. “Yes?”

“We’re talking with people about Hamner-Brown Comet. May I have your name?”

“Fred Lauren.”

“Have you any thoughts on the comet?”

“No.” Almost reluctantly he added, “I watched your program.” Muscles knotted at Fred Lauren’s jaws, in a manner that Harvey recognized. Some men go through life perpetually angry. The muscles that clamp their jaws and grind their teeth are very prominent.

Harvey wondered if he had found a mental patient. Still… “Have you heard there’s a chance the head of the comet might hit the Earth?”

“Hit the Earth?” The man seemed stunned. Abruptly he turned and walked away striding rapidly, much faster than he’d approached.

“What was that all about?” Tim Hamner asked.

“Don’t know,” Harvey said. Man on his way to do murder? The violently insane are constantly released back to the public. Not enough hospitals. Was Lauren one of those, or just a man who’d had a nonfight with his boss? “We’ll never know. If you can’t stand not knowing, you’re in the wrong game.”

Fred had not been watching Randall’s previous program. He had been watching Colleen watch a program about a comet… but some of what he had heard began to surface. The Earth was in the comet’s path. If the comet hit, civilization would end in fire.

The end of the world. I’ll be dead. We’ll all be dead. He gave up all thought of going back to work. There was a magazine stand down the street and he walked rapidly toward it.

There were other interviews. Housewives who’d never heard of the comet. A starlet who recognized Tim Hamner from the “Tonight Show” and wanted to be filmed kissing him. Housewives who knew as much about the comet as Harvey Randall did. A Boy Scout taking a merit badge in astronomy.

There were few trends that Harvey could spot. One wasn’t surprising: There was a lot of space industry in Burbank, and people there overwhelmingly approved of the coming Apollo shot. Still, the near unanimity was unusual, even for this area. People, Harvey suspected, wanted another manned shot and more looks at their heroes, the astronauts, and the comet was a good excuse. There were mutters about costs, but, like Rich Gollantz, most thought they paid more for worse entertainment every month.

They were about to pack it in when Harvey spotted a remarkably pretty girl. Never hurts to have a few feet of beauty, Harvey thought. She seemed preoccupied, and scurried along the sidewalk, her face abstracted with weighty matters and lean with efficiency.

Her smile was sudden and very nice. “I don’t watch much television,” she said. “And I’m afraid I never heard of your comet. Things have been hectic at the office—”

“It will be a very big comet,” Harvey said. “Look for it this summer. There’s also a space mission to study it. Would you approve?”

She didn’t answer immediately. “Will we learn a lot from it?” When Harvey nodded, she said, “Then I’m for it. If it doesn’t cost too much. And if the government can pay for it. Which seems doubtful.”

Harvey said something about the comet study costing less than football tickets.

“Sure. But the government doesn’t have the money. And they won’t cut back on anything. So they’ll have to print the money. Bigger deficit. More inflation. Of course we’ll get more inflation no matter what, so we might as well learn about comets for our money.”

Harvey made encouraging noises. The girl had turned very serious. Her smile faded into a pensive look that turned to anger. “What difference does it make what I think, anyway? Nobody in government listens. Nobody cares. Sure, I hope they do send up an Apollo. At least something happens. It’s not just pushing papers from one basket to another.”

Then that smile was back again, a sunburst on her face. “And why am I telling you about the political sorrows of the world? I’ve got to go.” She scurried off before Harvey could ask her name.

There was a conservatively dressed black man standing patiently, obviously waiting to get on camera. Muslim? Harvey wondered. They dressed that way. But he turned out to be a member of the Mayor’s staff who wanted to tell everyone that the Mayor did care, and if the voters would approve the Mayor’s new smog-control bond issue, people would be able to see the stars from the San Fernando Valley.

“You might be on for all of five seconds. A flash of that lovely smile,” Tim Hamner was saying. “And ‘HamnerBrown? What’s that?’ Then cut to someone who’s sure it’s going to blast Culver City to smithereens.”

She laughed. “All right. I’ll sign your form.”

“Good. Name?”

“Eileen Susan Hancock.”

Hamner wrote it carefully. “Address? Phone number?”

She frowned. She looked at the TravelAll, and all the camera gear. She looked at Hamner’s expensive leisure suit, and the thin Pulsar watch. “I don’t see—”

“We like to check with people before we use them on camera ” Tim said. “Blast. I didn’t mean it that way. I’m not really a professional at this. Just unpaid labor. Also the sponsor. And the man who discovered the comet.”

Eileen made a face: mock astonishment. “How… incestuous!” They both laughed. “How did you get to be all that?”

“Picked the right grandfather. Inherited a lot of money and a company called Kalva Soap. Spent some of the money on an observatory. Found a comet. Got the company to sponsor a documentary on the comet so I could brag about it. See, it all makes perfect sense.”

“Of course, it’s all so simple now that you’ve explained it.”

“Listen, if you don’t want to give me your address—”

“Oh, I do.” She lived in a high-rise in West Los Angeles. She gave him her phone number, too. She shook his hand briskly, and said, “I have to run, but I’m really glad I met you. You’ve made my day.” And she was gone, leaving Hamner with a dazed and happy smile.

“Ragnarok,” the man said. “Armageddon.” His voice was strong, persuasive. He had a great beard, a full black beard with two tufts of pure white at the chin, and mild, kindly eyes. “The prophets of all lands saw this day coming. The Day of Judgment. The war of fire and ice is foretold by the ancients. The Hammer is ice, and it will come in fire.”

“And what do you advise?” Harvey Randall asked.

The man hesitated; he may have feared that Randall was mocking him. “Join a church. Join any church you can believe in. ‘In my father’s house are many mansions.’ The truly religious will not be turned away.”

“What would you do if Hamner-Brown happens to miss?”

“It won’t.”

Harvey turned him over to Mark and the release form, and gave Charlie the signal to pack it in. It had not been a bad day; they had a few minutes he could use, and Harvey had learned something about the mood of his viewers.

Mark came up with the form. “Went well, didn’t it. You will notice that I kept my mouth shut.”

“So you did. Nice going.”

Hamner came grinning at some private pleasure. He stowed his recording equipment in the truck and climbed aboard. “Did I miss anything?”

“Ragnarok is coming. Earth will die in fire and ice. He had the best beard I’ve ever seen. Where the hell were you?”

“Getting a release form,” said Tim. He wore that sappy smile all the way back to the lot.

From the NBS lot Tim Hamner drove to Bullocks. He knew what he was after. From there to a florist, and then to a drugstore. At the drugstore he bought sleeping pills. He was going to be keeping strange hours.

He flopped on the bed, fully dressed. He was deeply asleep when the phone rang around six-thirty. He rolled over and felt around for the receiver. “Hello?”

“Hello, I’d like to speak to Mr. Hamner, please.”

“This is me. Eileen? Sorry, I was asleep. I was going to call you.”

“Well, I beat you to it. Tim, you really know how to get a girl’s attention. The flowers are beautiful, but the vase — I mean, we’d only just met!”

He laughed. “I take it you’re a Steuben crystal fan, then. I’ve got a nice collection myself.”

“Oh?”

“I go ape over the animals.” Tim shifted to a sitting position. “I’ve got… Let’s see, a blue whale, a unicorn, a giraffe I got from my grandmother, it’s in an older style. And the Frog Prince. Have you seen the Frog Prince?”

“I’ve seen pictures of His Majesty. Hey, Tim, let me take you to dinner. There’s an unusual place called Dar Magrib.”

A man would usually pause when Eileen asked him to dinner. With Tim the pause was barely noticeable. “Mr. Hamner accepts, with thanks. Dar Magrib’s unusual, all right. Have you been there?”

“Yes. It’s very good.”

“And you were going to let me go without warning? Without telling me I’d be eating with my fingers?”

Eileen laughed. “Test your flexibility.”

“Uh-huh. Why don’t you come over here for cocktails first? I’ll introduce you to His Majesty and the other crystal” Tim told her how to get there.

Fred Lauren came home with a stack of magazines. He dropped them beside the easy chair, sank into the sagging springs and began reading the National Enquirer.

The article confirmed his worst fears. The comet was certain to hit, and nobody had any idea where. But it was going to hit in summer, and therefore (the sketch made clear) it would hit in the Northern Hemisphere. Nobody knew how massive the comet head would be, but the Enquirer said it might mean the end of the world.

And he had heard that radio preacher, that fool who was on all the stations. The end of the world was coming. His jaw tightened, and he picked up the copy of Astronomy. According to Astronomy it was a hundred thousand to one against any part of the head striking the Earth, but Fred barely noticed that. What drew him were the artist’s conceptions, infinitely vivid, of an asteroid strike sending up jets of molten magma; of an “average” asteroid poised above Los Angeles for comparison; of a comet head striking ocean, the sea bed laid bare.

The pages had grown too dark to see, but Fred didn’t think of turning on the light. Many men never believe they are going to die, but Fred believed, now. He sat in the dark until it occurred to him that Colleen must have come home, and then he went to the telescope.

The girl wasn’t in view, but the lights were on. An empty room. Fred’s eye suddenly painted it with flame. The stucco wall around the window flashed blinding light, which died slowly to reveal curtains flaming, bedclothes, couch, tablecloth and table, everything afire. Windows shattered, splinters flying. Bathroom door — opened.

The girl came out struggling into a robe. She was naked. To Fred she glowed like a saint, with a beauty almost impossible to see directly. An eternity passed before she closed the robe… and in that eternity Fred saw her bathed in the light of Hammerfall. Colleen glowed like a star, eyelids clenched futilely shut, face speckled with glass splinters, robe charring, long blonde hair crisping, blackening, flaming… and she was gone before they had met. Fred turned away from the telescope.

We can’t meet, the voice of reason told him. I know what I’d do. I can’t face prison again.

Prison? When the comet was coming to end the world? Trials took time. He’d never reach prison. He’d be dead first. Fred Lauren smiled very strangely; the muscles at the corners of his jaw were knotted tight. He’d be dead first!

May

By the 1790’s, philosophers and scientists were aware of many allegations that stones had fallen from the sky, but the most eminent scientists were skeptical. The first great advance came in 1794, when a German lawyer, E.F.F. Chladni, published a study of some alleged meteorites, one of which had been found after a fireball had been sighted. Chladni accepted the evidence that these meteorites had fallen from the sky and correctly inferred that they were extraterrestrial objects that were heated from falling through the earth’s atmosphere. Chladni even postulated that they might be fragments of a broken planet — an idea that set the stage for early theories about asteroids, the first of which was discovered seven years later. Chladni’s ideas were widely rejected, not because they were ill conceived, for he had been able to collect good evidence, but because his contemporaries simply were loath to accept the idea that extraterrestrial stones could f all from the sky.

William K. Hartmann, Moons and Planets: An Introduction to Planetary Science

The young man walked with a decided limp. He almost tripped on the thick rug in the big office, and Carrie, Senator Jellison’s receptionist, took his arm for a moment. He shrugged her angrily away. “Mr. Colin Saunders,” Carrie announced.

“What can I do for you?” Senator Jellison asked.

“I need a new leg.”

Jellison tried not to look surprised, but he wasn’t successful. And I thought I’d heard ’em all, he thought. “Have a seat.” Jellison glanced at his watch. “It’s after six…”

“I know I’m taking up your valuable time.” Saunders’s voice was belligerent.

“Wasn’t thinking about my time,” Arthur Jellison said. “Being it’s after six, we can have a drink. Want something?”

“Well… yes, please, sir.”

“Fine.” Jellison got up from the ornate wooden desk and went to the ancient cabinet on the wall. The building wasn’t that old, but the cabinets looked as if they might have been used by Daniel Webster, who was reputed not to wait until six. Senator Jellison opened the cabinets to reveal a huge stock of liquor. Nearly every bottle had the same label.

“Old Fedcal?” the visitor asked.

“Sure. Don’t let the labels fool you. That’s Jack Daniels bourbon in the black bottle. The rest of ’em are top brands, too. Why pay brand prices when I can get it from home a lot cheaper? What’ll you have?”

“Scotch.”

“Right here. I’m a bourbon man myself.” Jellison poured two drinks. “Now tell me what this is all about.”

“It’s the VA.” Saunders poured out his story. This would be his fourth artificial leg. The first one the Veterans Administration gave him had fit fine, but it had been stolen, and the next three didn’t fit at all, they hurt, and now the VA wasn’t going to do anything about it.

“Sounds like a problem for your representative,” Jellison said gently.

“I tried to see the Honorable Jim Braden.” The young man’s voice was bitter again. “I couldn’t even get an appointment.”

“Yeah,” Jellison said. “Excuse me a second.” He took a small bound book from a desk drawer. “HAVE AL LOOK INTO PRIMARY OPPOSITION FOR THAT SON OF A BITCH,” he wrote. “THE PARTY DON’T NEED CREEPS LIKE THAT, AND THIS AIN’T THE FIRST TIME.” Then he drew a memo pad toward him. “Better give me the names of the doctors you’ve been dealing with,” he said.

“You mean you’ll really help?”

“I’ll have somebody look into it.” Jellison wrote the details on the memo pad. “Where’d you get hit?”

“Khe Sanh.”

“Medals? It helps to know.”

The visitor shrugged. “Silver Star.”

“And Purple Heart, of course,” Jellison said. “Want another drink?”

The visitor smiled and shook his head. He looked around the big room. The walls were decorated with photographs: Senator Jellison at an Indian reservation; Jellison at the controls of an Air Force bomber; Jellison’s children, and staff, and friends. “I don’t want to take any more of your time. You must be busy.” He got up carefully.

Jellison saw the visitor to the door. Carrie had to unlock it. “That’s the last,” she said.

“Fine. I’ll stick around awhile. Send Alvin in, and you can go home — oh, one thing. See if you can get me Dr. Sharps at JPL first, will you? And call Maureen to tell her I’ll be a little late.”

“Sure.” Carrie grinned to herself as the Senator went back into his office. Before she finally left he’d have nine other last-minute items. She was used to it. She looked into the staff rooms on the other side of her office. Everyone was gone except Alvin Hardy. He always waited, just in case. “He wants you,” Carrie said.

“So what else is new?” Al went into the big office. Jellison was sprawled out in his judge’s chair, his jacket and narrow striped tie laid across the desk, his shirt unbuttoned halfway down. A big glass of bourbon sat next to the bottle. “Yes, sir?” Al said.

“Couple of things.” He handed Al the memo. “Check this story out. If it’s true, I want a medium-size fire built under those people. Let ’em save money on their goddamn salaries, not cheating a Silver Star vet out of a leg that fits.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And then you can take a look at Braden’s district. Seems to me the Party ought to have a bright young chap in there. I mind a city councilman—”

“Ben Tyson,” Al said helpfully.

“That’s his name. Tyson. Think he could beat Braden?”

“He might. With your help.”

“Look into it. I’ve about had it with Mr. Braden being so goddam busy saving the world he hasn’t got time to look after his constituents.” Senator Jellison wasn’t smiling at all.

Al nodded. Braden, he thought, you’re dead. When the boss gets in that mood—

The intercom buzzed. “Dr. Sharps,” Carrie said.

“Right. Don’t go, Al. I want you to hear this. Charlie?”

“Yes, Senator?” Dr. Sharps said.

“How’s the launch going?” Jellison asked.

“Everything’s fine. It would be even better if I didn’t have every VIP in Washington calling me to ask about it.”

“Goddammit, Charlie, I went out on a long limb for you. If anybody’s got a right to know, it’s me.”

“Yes. Sorry,” Sharps said. “Actually, things are better than we expected. The Russians are helping a lot. They’ve got a big booster, and they’re taking up a lot of consumables they’ll share with our team. Lets us take up more science packages. For once we’ve got a division of labor that makes sense.”

“Good. You won’t ever know how many favors I used up getting that launch for you. Now tell me again how valuable all this is.”

“Senator, it’s about as valuable as we can get — given what we’re doing. It’s not going to cure cancer, but we’ll sure learn a lot about planets and asteroids and comets. Also, that TV fellow, Harvey Randall, wants you in his next documentary. He seems to think the network ought to thank you for getting this launch.”

Jellison looked up at Al Hardy. Hardy grinned and nodded vigorously. “They’ll love us in L.A.,” Al said.

“Tell him I like it,” Jellison said. “Any time. Have him check with my assistant. Al Hardy. You got that?”

“Right. Is that all, Art?” Sharps asked.

“Nooo.” Jellison drained the whiskey glass. “Charlie, I keep getting people in here who think that comet’s going to hit us. Not crazies. Good people. Some of ’em with as many degrees as you have.”

“I know most of them,” Sharps admitted.

“Well?”

“What can I say, Art?” Sharps was quiet for a moment. “Our best projected orbit puts that comet right on top of us—”

“Jesus,” Senator Jellison said.

“But there’s several thousand miles’ error in those projections. And a miss by a thousand miles is still a miss. It can’t reach out and grab us.”

“But it could hit.”

“Well… this isn’t for publication, Art.”

“Didn’t ask for it for publication.”

“All right. Yes. It could hit us. But the odds are against it.”

“What kind of odds?”

“Thousands to one.”

“I recall you said billions to one—”

“So the odds have narrowed,” Sharps said.

“Enough so we ought to be doing something about it?”

“How could you? I’ve spoken with the President,” Sharps said.

“So have I.”

“And he doesn’t want to panic anybody. I agree. It’s still thousands to one against anything happening at all,” Sharps insisted. “And a complete certainty that a lot of people will get killed if we start making preparations. We’re already getting crazy things. Rape artists. Nut groups. People who see the end of the world as an opportunity—”

“Tell me about it,” Jellison said dryly. “I told you, I saw the President too, and he’s got your opinion. Or you’ve got his. I’m not talking about warning the public, Charlie, I’m talking about me. Where will this thing hit, if it does?”

There was another pause.

“You’ve studied it, haven’t you?” Jellison demanded. “Or that crazy genius you keep around, uh, Forrester, he’s studied it. Right?”

“Yes.” The reluctance was plain in Sharps’s voice. “The Hammer has calved. If it does hit, it’s likely to be in a series of strikes. Unless the central head whams us. If that happens, don’t worry about preparations. There aren’t any.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah,” Sharps said. “That bad.”

“But if only part hits—”

“Atlantic Ocean, for sure,” Sharps said.

“Which means Washington…” Jellison let his voice trail off.

“Washington will be under water. The entire East Coast up to the mountains,” Sharps said. “Tidal waves. But it’s long odds, Art. Very long. Best guess is still that we get a spectacular light show and nothing more.”

“Sure. Sure. Okay, Charlie, I’ll let you get back to work. By the way, where’ll you be on That Day?”

“At JPL.”

“Elevation?”

“About a thousand feet, Senator. About a thousand feet. Goodbye.”

The connection went before Jellison could switch off the phone. Jellison and Hardy looked at the dead instrument for a moment. “Al, I think we want to be at the ranch. Good place to watch comets from,” Jellison said.

“Yes, sir—”

“But we want to be careful. No panic. If this gets a big play the whole country could go up in flames. I expect Congress will find a good reason for a recess that week, we won’t have to do anything about that, but I want my family out at the ranch, too. I’ll take care of Maureen. You see that Jack and Charlotte get there.”

Al Hardy winced. Senator Jellison had no use for his son-in-law. Neither did Al. It wouldn’t be pleasant, persuading Jack Turner to take his wife and children out to the Jellison ranch in California.

“May as well be hung for a sheep,” Jellison said. “You’re coming out with us, of course. We’ll need equipment. End-of-the-world equipment. Couple of four-wheel-drive vehicles—”

“Land Rovers,” Al said.

“Hell no, not Land Rovers,” Jellison said. He poured another two-finger drink. “Buy American, dammit. That comet probably won’t hit, and we sure as hell don’t want to be owning foreign cars after it goes by. Jeeps, maybe, or something from GMC.”

“I’ll look into it,” Al said.

“And the rest of it. Camping gear. Batteries. Razor blades. Pocket computers. Rifles. Sleeping bags. All the crap you can’t buy if—”

“It’s going to be expensive, Senator.”

“So what? I’m not broke. Get it wholesale, but be quiet about it. Anybody asks, you’re… what? You’re going along on a junket to Africa. There must be some National Science Foundation project in Africa—”

“Yes, sir—”

“Good. That’s what all this is for, if anybody asks. You can let Rasmussen in on the plot. Nobody else on the staff. Got a girl you want to take along?”

He really doesn’t know, Al thought. He really doesn’t know how I feel about Maureen. “No, sir.”

“Okay. I’ll leave it to you, then. You realize this is damn foolishness and we’re goin’ to feel awful silly when that thing has passed by.”

“Yes, sir.” I hope we are. Sharps called it the Hammer!

“There is absolutely no danger. The asteroid Apollo came within two million miles, very close as cosmic distances go, back in 1932. No damage. Adonis passed within a million miles in 1936. So what? Remember the panic in 1968? People, especially in California, took to the hills. Everyone forgot about it a day later — that is, everyone who hadn’t gone broke buying survival equipment that wasn’t needed.

“Hamner-Brown Comet is a marvelous opportunity to study a new kind of extraterrestrial body at comparatively — and I emphasize comparatively — close range, and that’s all it is.”

“Thank you, Dr. Treece. You have heard an interview with Dr. Henry Treece of the United States Geological Survey. Now back to our regularly scheduled program.”

The road ran north through groves of oranges and almond trees, skirting the eastern edge of the San Joaquin Valley. Sometimes it climbed over low hills or wound among them, but for most of the way the view to the left was of a vast flatland, dotted with farm buildings and croplands, crossed by canals, and stretching all the way to the horizon. The only large buildings visible were the uncompleted San Joaquin Nuclear Plant.

Harvey Randall turned right at Porterville and wound eastward up into the foothills. Once the road turned sharply and for a moment he had a view of the magnificent High Sierra to the east, the mountaintops still covered with snow. Eventually he found the turnoff onto the side road, and further down that was the unmarked gate. A U.S. Mail truck had already gone through, and the driver was coming back to close the gate. He was long-haired and elegantly bearded.

“Lost?” the mailman asked.

“Don’t think so. This Senator Jellison’s ranch?” Harvey asked.

The mailman shrugged. “They say so. I’ve never seen him. You’ll close the gate?”

“Sure.”

“See you.” The mailman went back to his truck. Harvey drove through the gate, got out and closed it, then followed the truck up the dusty path to the top of the hill. There was a white frame house there. The drive forked, the right-hand branch leading down toward a barn and a chain of connected small lakes. Granite cliffs reared high above the lakes. There were several orange groves, and lots of empty pastureland. Pieces of the cliff, weathered boulders larger than a California suburban house, had tumbled down into the pastures.

An ample woman came out of the house. She waved to the mailman. “Coffee’s hot, Harry!”

“Thanks. Happy Trash Day.”

“Oh, that again? So soon? All right, you know where to put it.” She advanced on the TravelAII. “Can I help you?”

“I’m looking for Senator Jellison. Harvey Randall, NBS.”

Mrs. Cox nodded. “They’re expecting you, up to the big house.” She pointed down the left-hand branch of the drive. “Mind where you park, and look out for the cats.”

“What’s Trash Day?” Harvey asked.

Mrs. Cox’s face already wore a suspicious look. Now it changed to deadpan. “Nothing important,” she said. She went back onto the porch. The mailman had already vanished inside the house.

Harvey shrugged and started the TravelAII. The drive ran between barbed-wire fences, orange groves to the right, more pasture to the left. He rounded a bend and saw the house. It was large, stone walls and slate roof, a rambling, massive place that didn’t look very appropriate for this remote area It was framed against more cliffs, and had a view through a canyon to the High Sierra miles beyond.

He parked near the back door. As he started around to the big front porch, the kitchen door opened. “Hi,” Maureen Jellison called. “Save some walking and come in this way.”

“Right. Thanks.” She was as lovely as Harvey had remembered her. She wore tan slacks, not very highly tailored, and high-top shoes, not real trail shoes but good for walking. “Waffle-stompers,” Mark Czescu would have called them. Her red hair looked recently brushed. It hung down just to her shoulders, in waves with slight curls at the ends. The sun glinted off in pleasing highlights.

“Did you have an easy drive?” she asked.

“Pleasant enough—”

“I always like the drive up here from L.A.,” Maureen said. “But I expect you can use a drink right about now. What’ll you have?”

“Scotch. And thanks.”

“Sure.” She led him through a service porch into a very modern kitchen. There was a cabinet full of liquor, and she took out a bottle of Old Fedcal scotch, then fought with the ice tray. “It’s always all over frost when we first come up,” she said. “This is a working ranch, and the Coxes don’t have time to come up and fuss with the place much. Here, it will be nicer in the other room.”

Again she led the way, going through a hall to the front room of the house. The wide verandah was just beyond it. A pleasant room, Harvey decided. It was paneled in light-colored wood, with ranch-style furniture, not really very appropriate for such a massive house as this. There were photographs of dogs and horses on most of the walls, and a case of ribbons and trophies. mostly for horses, but some for cattle. “Where is everybody?” Harvey asked.

“I’m the only one here just now,” Maureen said.

Harvey pushed the thought firmly down into his unconscious, and tried to laugh at himself.

“The Senator got caught by a vote,” Maureen was saying. “He’ll catch the red-eye out of Washington tonight and get here in the morning. Dad says I’m to show you around. Want another drink?”

“No, thank you. One’s enough.” He put the glass down, then picked it up again when he realized he’d set it on a highly polished wood lamp-table. He wiped the water ring off with his hand. “Good thing the crew didn’t come up with me. Actually they’ve got some work to finish up, and I’d hoped we could get the footage on Senator Jellison tomorrow morning, but if he couldn’t be available tomorrow I’ve got the gear in the car. I used to be a fair cameraman. They’ll be here in the morning, and I thought I would use the evening to get acquainted with the Senator, find out what he’d like to talk about for the camera…” And I’m chattering, Harvey thought. Which is stupid.

“Care for the grand tour?” Maureen asked. She glanced at Harvey’s Roughrider trousers and walking shoes. “You won’t need to change. If you’re up to a tough walk, I’ll show you the best view in the valley.”

“Sure. Let’s go.”

They went out through the kitchen and cut across the orange groves. A stream bubbled off to their left.

“That’s good swimming down there,” Maureen said. “Maybe we’ll have a dip if we get back early enough.”

They went through a fence. She parted the barbed wire and climbed through effortlessly, then turned to watch Harvey. She grinned when he came through just behind her, obviously pleased at his competence.

The other side of the fence was weeds and shrubs, never plowed or grazed. The way was steep here. There were small trails, made by rabbits or goats. They weren’t really suited for humans at all. They climbed several hundred feet until they got to the base of a great granite cliff. It rose sheer at least two hundred feet above them. “We have to go around to the left here,” Maureen said. “It gets tough from here on.”

Much tougher and I won’t make it, Harvey thought. But I will be damned if I’ll have a Washington socialite show me up. I’m supposed to be an outdoorsman.

He hadn’t been hiking with a girl since Maggie Thompkins blew herself up on a land mine in Vietnam. Maggie had been a go-get-’em reporter, always out looking for a story. She had no interest in sitting around in the Caravelle Bar and getting her material third- or fourth-hand. Harvey had gone with her to the front, and once they’d had to walk out from behind Cong lines together. If she hadn’t been killed… Harvey put that thought away, too. It was a long time ago.

They scrambled up through a cleft in the rocks. “Do you come up here often?” Harvey asked. He tried to keep the strain out of his voice.

“Only once before,” Maureen said. “Dad told me not to do it alone.”

Eventually they reached the top. They were not, Harvey saw, on a peak at all. They were at one end of a ridge that stretched southeastward into the High Sierra. A narrow path led up into the rock cliff itself; they’d come all the way behind it, so that when they got to its top they faced the ranch.

“You’re right,” Harvey said. “The view’s worth it.” He stood on a monolith several stories high, feeling the pleasant breeze blowing across the valley. Everywhere he looked there were more of the huge white rocks. A glacier must have passed through here and scattered the land with these monoliths.

The Senator’s ranch was laid out below. The small valley carved by the stream ran for several miles to the west; then there were more hills, still dotted with bungalow-size white stones. Far beyond the hills, and far below the level of the ranch, was the broad expanse of the San Joaquin. It was hazy out there, but Harvey thought he could make out the dark shape of the Temblor Range on the western edge of California’s central valley.

“Silver Valley,” Maureen announced. “That’s our place there, and beyond is George Christopher’s ranch. I almost married him, once — ” She broke off, laughing.

Now why do I feel a twinge of jealousy? Harvey wondered. “Why is it so funny?”

“We were all of fourteen at the time he proposed,” Maureen said. “Almost sixteen years ago. Dad had just been elected, and we were going to Washington, and George and I schemed to find a way so I could stay.”

“But you didn’t.”

“No. Sometimes I wish I had,” she said. “Especially when I’m standing here.” She waved expressively.

Harvey turned, and there were more hills, rising higher and higher until they blended into the Sierra Nevada range. The big mountains looked untouched, never climbed by human. Harvey knew that was an illusion. If you stooped to tie your bootlaces on the John Muir Trail, you were likely to be trampled by backpackers.

The great rock they stood on was cloven toward the edge of the cliff. The cleft was no more than a yard wide, but deep, so deep that Harvey couldn’t see the bottom. The top of the rock slanted toward the cleft, and toward the edge beyond it, so that Harvey wasn’t even tempted to go near it.

Maureen strolled over there, and without a thought stepped across the cleft. She stood on a narrow strip of rock two feet wide, a three-hundred-foot drop in front of her, the unknown depth of the cleft behind. She looked out in satisfaction, then turned.

She saw Harvey Randall standing grimly, trying to move forward and not able to do it. She gave him a puzzled look; then her face showed concern. She stepped back onto the main rock. “I’m sorry. Do heights bother you?”

“Some,” Harvey admitted.

“I should never have done that — what were you thinking of, anyway?”

“How I could get out there if something happened. If I could make myself crawl across that crack—”

“That wasn’t nice of me at all,” she said. “Anyway, let me show you the ranch. You can see most of it from here.”

Afterward, Harvey couldn’t remember what they’d talked about. It was nothing important, but it had been a pleasant hour. He couldn’t remember a nicer one.

“We ought to be getting back down,” Maureen said.

“Yeah. Is there an easier way than the one we came up?”

“Don’t know. We can look,” she said. She led the way off to their left, around the opposite side of the rock face. They picked their way through scrub brush and along narrow goat trails. There were piles of goat and sheep droppings. Deer too, Harvey thought, although he couldn’t be sure. The ground was too hard for tracks.

“It’s like nobody was ever here before,” Harvey said, but he said it under his breath, and Maureen didn’t hear. They were in a narrow gully, nothing more than a gash in the side of the steep hill, and the ranch had vanished.

There was a sound behind them. Harvey turned, startled. A horse was coming down the draw.

Not just a horse. The rider was a little blonde girl, a child not more than twelve. She rode without a saddle, and she looked like a part of the huge animal, fitted so well onto him that it might have been an undergrown centaur. “Hi,” she called.

“Hi yourself,” Maureen said. “Harvey, this is Alice Cox. The Coxes work the ranch. Alice, what are you doing up here?”

“Saw you going up,” she said. Her voice was small and high-pitched, but well modulated, not shrill.

Maureen caught up to Harvey and winked. He nodded, pleased. “And we thought we were the intrepid explorers,” Maureen said.

“Yeah. I had enough trouble getting up by myself, without taking a damn big horse.” He looked ahead. The way was steep, and it was absolutely impossible for a horse to get down there. He turned to say so.

Alice had dismounted and was calmly leading the horse down the draw. It slipped and scrambled, and she pointed out places for it to step. The horse seemed to understand her perfectly. “Senator coming soon?” she asked.

“Yes, tomorrow morning,” Maureen said.

“I sure like talkie’ to him,” Alice said. “All the kids at school want to meet him. He’s on TV a lot.”

“Harvey — Mr. Randall makes television programs,” Maureen said.

Alice looked to Harvey with new respect. She didn’t say anything for a moment. Then, “Do you like ‘Star Trek’?”

“Yes, but I didn’t have anything to do with that one.” Harvey scrambled down another steep place. Surely that horse couldn’t get down that?

“It’s my favorite program,” Alice said. “Whoa, Tommy. Come on, it’s all right, right here — I wrote a story for television. It’s about a flying saucer, and how we ran from it and hid in a cave. It’s pretty good, too.”

“I’ll bet it is,” Harvey said. He glanced at Maureen, and saw she was grinning again. “I’ll bet there’s nothing she can’t do,” Harvey muttered. Maureen nodded. They scrambled up the sides of their dry wash when it ended in a thicket of chaparral. The ranch was visible again, still a long way down, and the hillside was steep enough that if you fell, you’d roll a long way and probably break something. Harvey looked back and watched Alice for a second, then stopped worrying about her and the horse. He concentrated on getting himself down.

“You ride alone up here a lot?” Maureen asked.

“Sure,” Alice said.

“Doesn’t anybody worry about you?” Harvey asked.

“Oh, I know the way pretty good,” Alice told him. “Got lost a couple of times, but Tommy knows how to get home.”

“Pretty good horse,” Maureen said.

“Sure. He’s mine.”

Harvey looked to be sure. A stallion, not a gelding. He waited for Maureen to catch up to him. Masculine pride had kept him trying to lead the way, although it was obvious that they ought to leave that to Alice. “Must be nice to live where the only thing to worry about is getting lost — and the horse takes care of that,” he told Maureen. “She doesn’t even know what I’m talking about. And last week a girl her age, about eleven, was raped in the Hollywood Hills not more than half a mile from my house.”

“One of Dad’s secretaries was raped in the Capitol last year,” Maureen said. “Isn’t civilization wonderful?”

“I wish my boy could grow up out here,” Harvey said. “Only, what would I do? Farm?” He laughed at himself. Then the way was too steep for talking.

There was a dirt road at the bottom of the steep hillside. They were still a long way from the ranch, but it was easier now. Alice somehow got onto the horse; Harvey was watching the whole time, but he didn’t see how she managed it. One second she was standing next to the animal, her head lower than its back, and the next moment she was astride. She clucked and they galloped off. The illusion that she was somehow a part of the beast was even stronger: She moved in perfect rhythm with it, her long blonde hair flowing behind.

“She’s going to be one real beauty when she grows up,” Harvey said. “Is it the air here? This whole valley’s magic.”

“I feel that way sometimes too,” Maureen told him.

The sun was low when they got back to the stone ranch house. “Little late, but want to catch a swim?” Maureen asked.

“Sure. Why not? Only I didn’t bring a suit.”

“Oh, there’s something around.” Maureen vanished into the house and came back with trunks. “You can change in there.” She pointed to a bathroom.

Harvey got into the trunks. When he came out, she was already changed. Her one-piece suit was a shiny white material. She had a robe over one arm. She winked at him and dashed off, leaving Harvey to follow. The path led by a pomegranate grove and down to a sandy beach by a bubbling stream. Maureen grinned at him, then plunged quickly into the water. Harvey followed.

“Ye gods!” he shouted. “That’s ice water”

She splashed water onto his dry chest and hair. “Come on, it won’t hurt you.”

He waded grimly out into the stream. The water was swift, out away from the banks, and the bottom was rocky. He had trouble keeping his feet, but he followed her upstream to a narrow gap between two boulders. The water plunged out swiftly there, threatening to dump both of them. It was just chest-deep for Harvey. “That cools you off fast,” he said.

They paddled around in the pool, watching small trout dart near the surface. Harvey looked for larger fish, but they were keeping out of sight. The stream looked perfect for trout, deep pools below small rushing falls. The banks were overhung with trees except for two places where they’d been cleared, obviously by someone who liked fly fishing and had opened the banks out for his back cast.

“I think I’m turning blue,” Maureen shouted finally. “You finished?”

“Tell the truth, I was done ten minutes ago.”

They climbed out onto another of the enormous white boulders, the contours smoothed by floodwaters. The sun, low as it was, felt good on Harvey’s chilled body, and the rock was still hot from old sunlight. “I’ve been needing this,” he said.

Maureen turned over on belly and elbows to look at him. “Which? The freezing water, or the acrophobia, or the climbing your legs off?”

“All of the above. And not interviewing anyone today, I needed that, too. I’m glad your father didn’t make it. Tomorrow — shazam! I’m Harvey Randall again.”

She had changed back into the tan slacks. Harvey came out to find she’d also made drinks.

“Stay for dinner?” she asked.

“Well… Sure, but can I take you out somewhere?”

She grinned. “You haven’t sampled the wild night life of Springfield and Porterville. You’ll do better here. Besides, I like to cook. If you want, you can help clean up.”

“Sure—”

“Not that there’s much cooking involved,” Maureen said. She took steaks out of the freezer. “Microwave ovens and frozen food. The civilized way to gourmet meals.”

“That thing’s got more controls than an Apollo.”

“Not really. I’ve been in an Apollo. Hey, you have too, haven’t you?”

“I saw the mock-up,” Harvey said, “not the real thing. Lord, I’d like to do that. Watch the comet from orbit. No atmosphere to block it out.”

Maureen didn’t answer. Randall sipped at his scotch. There was an edge on his hunger. He searched the freezer and found frozen Chinese vegetables to add to the meal.

After dinner they sipped coffee on the porch, in wide chairs with wide, flat arms to hold the mugs. It was chilly; they needed jackets. They talked slowly, dreamily: of the astronauts Maureen knew; of the mathematics in Lewis Carroll; of social politics in Washington. Presently Maureen went into the house, turned off all the lights and came back out feeling her way.

It was incredibly dark. Randall asked, “Why did you do that?”

A disembodied voice answered, “You’ll see in a few minutes.” He heard her take her chair.

There was no moon, and the stars lit only themselves. But gradually he saw what she meant. When the Pleiades came over the mountains he didn’t recognize them; the cluster was fiercely bright. The Milky Way blazed, yet he couldn’t see his own coffee cup,

“There are city people who never see this,” Maureen said.

“Yeah. Thanks.”

She laughed. “It could have been clouded over. My powers are limited.”

“If we could… No, I’m wrong. I was thinking, if we could show them all what it looks like — all the voters. But you see star scenes on the newsstands all the time, paintings of star clusters and black holes and multiple systems and anything you could find out there. You’d have to take the voters up here, a dozen at a time, and show them. Then they’d know. It’s all out there. Real. All we have to do is reach out.”

She reached out (her night vision had improved that much) and took his hand. He was a bit startled. She said “Won’t work. Otherwise the main support for NASA would come from the farming community.”

“But if you’d never seen it like this… Ahh, you’re probably right.” He was very aware that they were still holding hands. But it would stop there. “Hey, do you like interstellar empires?” Harmless subject.

“I don’t know. Tell me about interstellar empires.”

Harv pointed, and leaned close so she could sight down his arm. Where the Milky Way thickened and brightened, in Sagittarius, that was the galactic axis. “That’s where the action is, in most of the older empires. The stars are a lot closer together. You find Trantor in there, and the Hub worlds. It’s risky building in there, though. Sometimes you find that the core suns have all exploded. The radiation wave hasn’t reached us yet.”

“Isn’t Earth ever in control?”

“Sure, but mostly you find Earth had one big atomic war.”

“Oh. Maybe I shouldn’t ask, but just where are you getting your information?”

“I used to read the science fiction magazines. Then around age twenty I got too busy. Let’s see, the Earthcentered empires tend to be small, but… a small fraction of a hundred billion suns. You get enormous empires without even covering one galactic arm.” He stopped. The sky was so incredibly vivid! He could almost see the Mule’s warships sweeping out from Sagittarius. “Maureen, it looks so real.”

She laughed. He could see her face now, pale, without detail.

He slid onto the broad arm of her chair and kissed her. She moved aside, and he slid in beside her. The chair held two, barely.

There is no harmless subject.

There was a point at which he might have disengaged. The thought that stopped him was: tomorrow, shazam! I’m Harvey Randall again.

Inside the house it was utterly black. She led him by the hand, by touch and memory, to one of the bedrooms. They undressed each other. Their clothes, falling, might as well have fallen out of the universe. Her skin was warm, almost hot. For a moment he wished he could see her face, but only for a moment.

There was gray light when he woke. His back was cold. They lay tangled together on a made bed. Maureen slept calmly, deeply, wearing a slight smile.

He was freezing. She must be too. Should he wake her up? His slow brain found a better answer. He disentangled himself, gently. She didn’t wake. He went to the other of the twin beds, pulled off the bedclothes, took them back and spread them over her. Then — with the full conviction that he was about to climb under the covers with her — he stood without moving for almost a minute.

She wasn’t his wife.

“Shazam,” Harvey said softly. He scooped up an armload of his clothes, careful to miss nothing. He padded out into the living room. He was starting to shiver. The first door he tried was another bedroom. He dumped the clothes on a chair and went to bed.

Not dead, but transmuted! The comet is glorious in its agony. The streamer of its torn flesh reaches millions of miles, a wake of strange chemicals blowing back toward the cometary halo on a wind of reflected light. Perhaps a few molecules will plate themselves across the icy surfaces of other comets.

Earth’s telescopes find the comet blocked by the blazing sun itself. Its exact orbit is still uncertain.

The glory of the tail is reflected sunlight, but more than sunlight glows in the coma. Some chemicals can lie intimately mixed at near absolute zero, but heat them and they burn. The coma seethes in change.

The head grows smaller every day. Here, ammonia boils from the surface of an ice-and-dust mixture; the hydrogen has long since boiled out. The mass contracts, and its density increases. Soon there will be little but rock dust cemented together by water ice. There, a stone monolith the size of a hill blocks the path of a gas pocket that grows hourly warmer, until something gives. Gas blasts away into the coma. The stony mass pulls slowly away, tumbling. The orbit of Hamner-Brown has been changed minutely.

June: One

The lord Himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangeal’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. The dead in Christ will rise first; then we who remain alive shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord.

Paul of Tarsus, First Thessalonians

There at the top of the great disintegrating totem pole, there in that tiny space at the tip, Rick Delanty lay on his back with his smile blinking on and off. His carefully enunciated voice gave no hint of that. It sounded just like Johnny’s; and Johnny Baker wore the slight frown of a man doing delicate work.

“Switch to internal power.”

“Internal power check. In the green.”

“T minus fifteen minutes, and counting.”

Whenever he glanced over at Rick, at that wavering smile, then Johnny’s lips twitched at the corners. But Johnny Baker had been up before; he could afford to be supercilious. Fifteen minutes, and no glitches. It would take a man his whole life to write down all the glitches that could stop an Apollo launch.

Delanty kept smiling. They’d picked him! He’d gone through the training, and the simulators, and then off to Florida. Two days ago he’s been doing barrel rolls and loops and Immelmanns and dives above Florida and the Bahamas. That final loosening-up flight two days before a launch was just too firm a tradition to get rid of. It worked the tension out of the chosen astronauts and laid it on the ground crew, who could go nuts wondering if their crew would smear themselves in a jet trainer, after all that careful planning…

“T minus one minute, and counting.”

Those final, hurried, crammed hours ended when Wally Hoskins led him up the elevator and arranged him, clumsy in his pressure suit, within the Apollo capsule. After that he could lie on his back with his knees above his head, waiting for the glitch. But the glitch hadn’t come yet, and it looked like they were going, it really—

“Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Ignition. First motion…”

Going!

“We have lift-off…”

The Saturn rose in thunder and hellfire. A hundred thousand official visitors and more, newsmen, science fiction writers with scrounged press passes, dependents of astronauts, VIPs and friends…

“There he goes,” Maureen Jellison said.

Her father looked at her curiously. “We mostly call those ships ‘she.’ ”

“Yes. I suppose so,” Maureen said. Why do I think I’ll never see him again?

Behind her the Vice-President was muttering, just loud enough to hear. “Go, go, you bird — ” He looked up with a start, realized others were listening, and shrugged. “GO, BABY!” he shouted.

It did something to the watchers. The power of the thundering rocket, the knowledge that had gone into it; to the older watchers it was something impossible, a comicbook incident from their childhood. To the younger ones it was inevitable and to be expected, and they couldn’t understand why the older people were so excited. Space ships were real and of course they worked…

Inside the Apollo the astronauts smiled the rictus smile of a cadaver, as several gravities pulled their facial muscles back onto their cheeks. Eventually the first stage shut down and fell away, and the second stage did the same, and the third stage gave them a final push… and Rick Delanty, in free fall, was still smiling.

“Apollo, this is Houston. You’re looking good,” the voice said.

“Roger, Houston.” Delanty turned to Baker. “Now what, General?”

Baker grinned self-consciously. He’d been promoted, just before the launch, so that he’d be the same rank as the Soviet kosmonaut.

“On one condition,” the President had said when he handed Baker his stars.

“Yes, sir?” Baker asked.

“You don’t tease your Russian counterpart about his name. Resist the temptation.”

“Yes, Mr. President.”

But it was going to be hard. Pieter Jakov didn’t have a double meaning in Russian — but Comrade General Jakov spoke very good English, as Baker knew from their orientation meeting at Houston. He’d also met the other one, a dish — but only in Russia. She’d been officially too busy to come to the U S.

“Now we find that bloody garbage can, Lieutenant Colonel Delanty,” Baker said. “Great up here, isn’t it?”

“You know it.” Delanty peered out, eyes wide in wonder. They had showed it all to him, many times, in simulators. There were movies, and the other astronauts talked incessantly of space: they put him in wet suits underwater to simulate no-gravity. But none of that mattered. This was real.

There was the absolute black of space ahead, stars shining brightly, although the Sun lit the Earth below. There were Atlantic islands, and coming up ahead was the coastline of Africa, looking just like a map with bits of cotton stuck on it for clouds. Later, to the north, was Spain, and the Mediterranean Sea, and after a while the dark green slash across the wastelands of Egypt, the Nile with all its bends and crooks.

And then they were in sunset, and the lights of the fabled cities of India lay below.

They were above the darkness covering Sumatra when Delanty got the blip on his radar screen. “There it is,” he said. “Hammerlab.”

“Rojj,” Baker acknowledged. He looked at the Doppler; they were slowly drawing up to the capsule. They’d catch up to it in dawn over the Pacific, just as Houston’s computer had predicted. They waited. Finally Baker said, “Unlimber the cage. We’ve got to catch our house.” He thumbed the downlink set on. “Goldstone, this is Apollo. Hammerlab is in visual range, we are beginning final rendezvous maneuver.”

“Apollo, this is Houston, what did you say was in visual range, interrogative?”

“Hammerlab,” Baker said. He looked over at Delanty and grinned. Officially it was Spacelab Two; but who called it that?

They approached rapidly: slowly to the astronauts, who were themselves moving at 25,000 feet each second. Then it was time. Delanty flew the Apollo. Jets edged their craft closer to their target: a big steel garbage can, forty feet long and ten in diameter, with viewports along the sides, one airlock, and docking hatches at each end.

“The economy-price spacelab,” Baker muttered. “It’s tumbling. I make that one rotation in four minutes, eight seconds.”

First to match completely with Hammerlab: Fire the Apollo’s attitude jets in just the precise pattern, so that it would tumble with the target. Then move closer to the thing, waiting for the chance, until the big docking probe on Apollo could enter the matching hole in the end of Hammerlab… and they were in darkness again. Rick was amazed at how long it had taken him to fly what looked like far less than a mile. Of course they’d also come 14,000 miles in the same fifty minutes…

When dawn came Rick was ready, and made one pass, and a second, and cursed, and eased forward and felt the slight contact of the two ships, and the instruments showed contact at center, and Rick drove forward, hard…

“Virgin no more!” he shouted.

“Houston, this is Apollo. We have docking. I say again, we have docking.” Baker said.

“We know,” a dry voice said from below. “Colonel Delanty’s mike was live.”

“Whoops,” Rick said.

“Apollo, this is Houston, your partners are approaching, SOYUZ has you in visual. I say again, Soyuz has visual contact.”

“Roger Houston.” Baker turned to Rick. “So now you stabilize this mother while I talk to friendly Asian brother — and sister. SOYUZ. SOYUZ, this is Apollo. Over.”

“Apollo. this is SOYUZ.” a male voice said. Jakov’s English was grammatically perfect, and almost without accent. He’d studied with American-speaking teachers, not Britishers. “Apollo, we copy you five by five. Is your docking maneuver completed, interrogative? Over.”

“We are docked with Hammerlab. It is safe to approach. Over.”

“Apollo, this is Sovuz. By ‘Hammerlab’ do you mean Spacelab Two, interrogative? Over.”

Baker said. “Affirmative.”

Delanty was aware that he was using too much fuel. No one but a perfectionist would have noticed that; the maneuver was well within the error program devised by Houston. But Rick Delanty cared.

Eventually they were stable: Apollo, its nose buried in the docking port in one end of the garbage can that was Hammerlab, both now stable in space, not wobbling and not tumbling. The Apollo led, at 25,000 feet per second: Baker and Delanty, ass-backward around the Earth each ninety minutes.

“Done,” Rick said. “Now let’s watch them try.”

“Rojj,” Baker said. He activated a camera system. There was a cable connector in the docking mechanism, and the picture came through perfectly: a view of Soyuz, massive and closer than they’d expected, approaching Hammerlab from the far side. The Soyuz grew, nose on. It wobbled slightly in its orbit, showing its massive bulk: Soyuz was considerably larger than the Apollo. The Soviets had always had their big military boosters to assist their space program, while NASA designed and built special equipment.

“That big mother better not have forgotten the lunch,” Delanty said. “Or it will get hungry up here.”

“Yep.” Baker continued to watch.

The Soyuz was vital to the Hammerlab mission. It had brought up most of the consumables. Hammerlab was packed with instruments and film and experiments; but there was food and water and air for only a few days. They needed SOYUZ to stay for Hamner-Brown’s approach.

“Maybe it will anyway,” Johnny Baker said. He looked grimly at the screen, and at the maneuvering Soviet vehicle.

Watching was painful.

SOYUZ floundered like a dead whale in the tide. It nosed violently toward the camera and shied as violently back. It edged sideways, stopped — almost; tried again and drifted away.

“And that’s their best pilot,” Baker muttered.

“I didn’t look too good myself—”

“Bullshit. You had a tumbling target. We’re as stable as a streetcar.” Baker watched a few moments more and shook his head. “Not their fault, of course. Control systems. We’ve got the onboard computers. They don’t. But it’s a bloody damned shame.”

Rick Delanty’s mahogany face wrinkled. “Don’t know I can take much more of this, Johnny.”

It was excruciating for both of them. It made the fingers flex, itching to take over. Back-seat drivers are formed by such tensions.

“And he’s got the lunch,” Baker said. “When’s he going to give up?”

They entered darkness. Communications with Soyuz were limited to official messages. When they came into the light again, the Soviet craft approached once more.

“It’s going to get hungry up here,” Delanty said.

“Shut up.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Fuck you.”

“Not possible in a full pressure suit.”

They watched again. Eventually Jakov called: “We are wasting needed fuel. Request Plan B.”

“Soyuz, roger, stand by to implement Plan B,” Baker said with visible relief. He winked at Delanty. “Now show the commies what a real American can do.”

Plan B was officially an emergency measure, but all the American mission planners had predicted privately that it would be needed. In the U.S. they’d trained as if Plan B would be the normal mode of operation. Across the Atlantic it was hoped it wouldn’t be needed — but they’d planned on it too. Plan B was simple: The Soyuz stabilized itself, and the Apollo-Hammerlab monstrosity maneuvered to it.

Delanty was flying a spacecraft and a big, clumsy, massive tin can. (Now picture an aircraft carrier trying to maneuver under a descending airplane.) But he also had the world’s most sophisticated computer system, attitude controls painstakingly turned out by master machinists with thousands of hours’ experience, instruments developed in a dozen laboratories accustomed to making precision instruments.

“Houston, Houston, Plan B under way,” Baker reported.

And now the whole damned world’s watching me. Or listening, Rick Delanty thought. And if I blow it…

That was unthinkable.

“Relax,” Baker said.

He didn’t offer to do it himself, Delanty thought. Well. Here goes. Just like on the simulator.

It was. One straight thrust; check just before contact, and a tiny pulse of the jets to move the two crafts together. Again the mechanical feel of contact, and simultaneously the flare of green lights on the board.

“Latch it,” Rick said.

“Soyuz, we are docked, latch the docking probe,” Baker called.

“Apollo, affirmative. We are locked on.”

“Last one inside’s a rotten egg,” Baker said.

They shook hands, formally, all around, as they floated inside the big tin can. A historic occasion, the commentators were saying below; but Baker couldn’t think of any historic words to say.

There was just too damned much to do. This wasn’t a spectacular, a handshake in space like Apollo-Soyuz. This was a working mission, with a hairy schedule that they probably couldn’t keep up with, even with luck.

And yet… Baker had the urge to laugh. He might have if it wouldn’t have needed so many explanations. He would have laughed at how good they all looked.

God bless us, there’s none like us. Leonilla Alexandrovna — Malik was darkly beautiful. With her imperious self-confidence she could have played a czarina, but her smooth, hard muscles would better have fitted her for the prima ballerina’s role. A cold and lovely woman.

Heartbreaker, Johnny Baker thought. But secretly vulnerable, like Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes. I wonder if she’s as coldly polite with everyone as she is with Brigadier Jakov?

Brigadier Pieter Ivanovitch Jakov, Hero of the People (which class? Baker wondered), the perfect man to illustrate an enlistment poster. Handsome, well muscled, cold eyes: He looked a lot like Johnny Baker himself, and this wasn’t really more surprising than Rick Delanty’s superficial resemblance to Muhammad Ali.

Pour of us, fully mature specimens in the prime of athletic good health — and photogenic as hell to boot. Pity that Randall fellow from NBS isn’t here to take a group picture. But he’ll get one. Eventually.

They floated at strange angles to each other, and shifted as in vagrant breezes, smiling at nothing. Even for Baker and Jakov it was exhilarating, and they’d been up before. For Rick and Leonilla it was sheer heaven. They tended to drift toward the viewports and stare at the stars and Earth.

“Did you bring the lunch?” Delanty asked.

Leonilla smiled. The smile was cold. “Of course. I think you will enjoy it. But I will not harm Comrade Jakov’s surprise.”

“First we have to find a place to eat it,” Baker said. He looked around the crowded capsule.

It was crammed with gear. Electronics bolted to the bulkheads. Styrofoam packing around amorphous lumps suspended on yellow nylon strapping. Plastic boxes, racks of equipment, canisters of film, microscopes, a disassembled telescope, tool kits and soldering irons. There were multiple copies of diagrams that showed where everything was stowed, and Baker and Delanty had drilled until they could literally lay their hands on any item in total darkness; but it made for crowding and gave no sense of order.

“We can eat in the Soyuz,” Leonilla suggested. “It is packed, but…” She waved helplessly.

“It is not what we have been given to expect,” Jakov said. “I have spoken to Baikunyar, and we are now on our own for a few hours until we can deploy the solar wings. But I suggest we eat first.”

“What’s not what you’ve been given to expect?” Delanty asked.

“This.” Jakov waved expressively.

John Baker laughed. “There wasn’t time to do any real planning. Just pile the stuff aboard. Otherwise, everything here would have been designed especially for comet watching, at half the weight—”

“And nine times the cost,” Delanty said.

“And then there would have been no need of us,” Leonilla Malik said.

Jakov looked at her coldly. He started to say something, but decided not to. It was true enough, and they all knew it.

“Jesus, they sure packed it in,” Delanty said. “Let’s eat.”

“You feel no effect? From the free fall?” Leonilla asked.

“Him? Old Iron Ear?” John Baker laughed. “Hell, he eats lunch on roller coasters. Now me, I feel it a bit, and I’ve been here before. It goes away.”

“We should eat now. We are entering darkness, and we will want to deploy the solar wings in light,” Jakov said. “I, too, suggest the Soyuz, where there is more room. And we have a surprise. Caviar. It should be eaten in bowls, but doubtless we can make do from tubes.”

“Caviar?” Baker said.

“It is high in food value,” Leonilla said. “And soon the new canal will be finished and there will be plenty of water in the Caspian and the Volga for our sturgeon. I hope you like caviar—”

“Sure,” Baker said.

“Shall we get to it?” Jakov led the way into the Soyuz.

No one noticed that Rick Delanty held back, as if reluctant to begin lunch after all.

Delanty and Baker were outside. Thin lines connected them to Hammerlab; around them was the vacuum of space, brightly lit in sunshine, dark as the darkest cave in shadow.

Skylab had wings covered with solar cells. They were supposed to deploy automatically, but they hadn’t.

Hammerlab had a different design. The wings were folded against the body, and were designed to be deployed by human muscle power. Baker and Delanty supplied that.

The solar-cell power was all needed. Without it they couldn’t operate the laboratory — or even keep it cool enough to live in. Space is not cold. It has no temperature at all: There is no air to give it a temperature. Objects in sunlight absorb heat, which must be pumped out. Human beings generate even more heat No man can live long in an insulated environment, whether a pressure suit or a space capsule. A man generates more heat inside each cubic inch of his body than the Sun does in each cubic inch of its surface. Of course, there are a great many cubic inches of Sun…

So they needed the solar cells, and that took work. They moved large masses — in space there is no weight, but the mass remains — against friction. Their pressure suits resisted every motion, but eventually it was done. Nothing was broken, nothing was jammed. The system had been designed for simplicity — and to use the talents of intelligent men in orbit.

“At last,” Johnny Baker said. “And we’ve got a few minutes’ oxygen left. Rick, take a moment to enjoy the view.”

“Good,” Rick huffed into his mike.

Baker didn’t like the way he said it. Delanty was breathing too hard, and too irregularly. But he said nothing.

“I thought that last one would never come loose,” Delanty puffed.

“But it did come loose. And if it hadn’t, we’d have fixed it,” Baker said. “Those goddam bastards with their perfect black boxes. Well, this time they gave me the tools for the job. There’s nothing a man can’t do with the right tools.”

“Sure, it’s all a piece of cake now.”

“Right. No worries. Barring a few international tensions, a possible Cuban hijacker, and several masses of dirty ice moving at fifty miles a second — our way.”

“That’s a relief.” Huff! “Hey, John, I see South Africa. Only — you can’t tell where the international boundaries leave off. No national borders. Johnny, I’m on the verge of a philosophical breakthrough.”

“You can’t see the lines of latitude and longitude, either, but that doesn’t make them unimportant.”

“Um.”

“So you can’t see international borders from space, and everyone tries to make a big point of it. If we keep that up, you know what’ll happen?”

Rick laughed. “Yeah. Everybody’s gonna start painting their borders in neon orange a mile wide. Then all the college kids will scream about damage to the environment—”

“And blame you for starting it. Let’s go in.”

June: Interludes

But what about a direct head-on collision with a comet? How trig and massive are the heads of comets? The head of a comet consists of two parts. The solid nucleus and the glowing coma. We only have to worry about the nucleus. of course, comets vary a good deal in size. One estimate is that the nucleus of an average comet is 1.2 miles in diameter. But a really huge comet may have a nucleus thousands of miles in diameter. Any comet that hits the earth directly is going to pack quite a wallop.

Daniel Cohen, How the World Will End

“Woe to you, my people! For have you not raised the abomination of desolation across the earth? Have you not seen the wickedness of the cities, and smelt the very stench of the air itself? Have you not defiled the earth, which is the very temple of the Lord?

“Hear the words of the Prophet Malachi: ‘For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble; and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of Hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch.

“ ‘But unto you that fear my name shall the Son of righteousness arise with healing in his wings.’

“My people, the Hammer of God comes to smite the wicked and the proud; but the humble shall be exalted. Repent, while there is yet time; for no man can escape the mighty Hammer that even now blots out the stars. Repent, before it is too late. There is yet time.”

“Thank you, Reverend Armitage. You have heard the Reverend Henry Armitage and ‘The Coming Hour.’ ”

Mark Czescu had the saki heating in a reagent bottle with a ground-glass stopper. He poured refills into tiny cups, then poured more saki into the bottle and set it back in water simmering on the stove.

“I had two plants sitting on my desk,” he said. “One was a rubber marijuana plant, with ‘cannabis sativa’ stamped under the leaves. The other was an Aralia elegantissima. If you don’t know, it looks a lot like marijuana.” He handed a cup to Joanna, another to Lilith. “One day my boss came in with a bigwig from the central office. They didn’t say anything that day, but the next day my boss was saying, ‘Get rid of it.’ ” He handed Frank Stoner the third cup, and settled in the armchair with his own. “I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘I’m not completely ignorant, you know. I know what that is.’ Carol Miller went into hysterics. She called the other guys in and we made him repeat it. They all knew what it was.”

Frank Stoner sprawled in sinful comfort on the couch, with Joanna MacPherson under one arm and the other around Lilith Hathaway’s waist. Lilith was his own height, five nine, but tiny Joanna’s shoulders just fit beneath Frank’s thick arm. He asked, “How long ago was that?”

“Couple of years. They had to lay me off two months later.”

Frank grinned. “By one of those interesting statistical flukes?”

“Huh? No, it had nothing to do with the rubber marijuana. They just had to lay off some people. Since then… Well, the steadiest work has been with Harv Randall.” Mark leaned forward, eyes sparkling. “Those man-in-the-street gigs are fun. We met this army colonel who was afraid to open his mouth, afraid something would get out. There was a guy at a wrestling match who couldn’t wait for Hammerfall. That’s when the real he-men will rule the world, right?” He smiled at Lilith, who was a pale blonde with a lovely heart-shaped face and big boobs. He’d met Lilith at the Interchange, the topless bar where she danced.

Frank Stoner was sipping just enough saki to be polite. Mark hadn’t noticed. He emptied his cup in one swallow — you had to drink it fast or it would get cold — and said, “We even interviewed some bikers. The Unholy Rollers were in that night. I don’t think they took it seriously, though.”

Joanna laughed. “End of the world. No cars on the road. No fuzz. Your biker friends would think that was fat city.”

“But they couldn’t say that.”

“It’s maybe true,” said Frank Stoner. He and Mark had met on the dirt tracks, fighting it out for prize money across the country. “We can go places cars can’t. We don’t use as much gas. We stick together. We don’t mind a fight. If we had some gas cached somewhere… Hey. What are the chances?”

Mark waved a hand and almost hit his cup. “Almost zilch, unless you believe the astrology columns. Sharps says we might go through the tail, though. Man, won’t that be a kick!”

Joanna explained, “Sharps is one of the astronomers they interviewed.” She got up to refill saki cups.

“Yeah, and he was stranger than any of them! You’ll see it on TV. Hey, did you know that Hot Fudge Sundae falls on a Tuesdae this month?” He gave it a good dramatic pause — during which Joanna got the giggles — before he went on.

An hour later, and Lilith had had to go to work. The saki was dwindling fast. Mark was feeling good. Joanna was feather-light in his lap, while he and Frank talked around her.

Mark had been living with Joanna for almost two years now. Sometimes it struck him as strange, that he had gotten himself involved with a total monogamist. It had changed his life-style, sure — and he liked it. Granted he didn’t dare sleep with anyone else; but he didn’t get into as many fights either. And he still met interesting people. He’d been afraid that would end…

“You’d have a hell of a time getting back in shape,” said Frank.

“Huh?” Mark tried to remember what they’d been talking about. Oh, yeah: the duels they’d fought on the racing circuit years ago. For Mark the dirt tracks were a spectator sport these days. He still had the muscles, but he had grown a great soft pillow of a beer belly. He glanced down and said, “Right. Well, Joanna’s making me have the baby.”

“Fair’s fair,” Joanna said. “You lost the toss.”

“I’m gettin’ too old for fooling around. I should sign up permanently with Randall.” He picked up Joanna and set her on her feet (yes, the muscles were still there) and went to the kitchen for the last of the saki. He called, “What do we do if the Hammer hits?”

“Don’t be there,” Stoner answered. A few seconds later “Don’t be at the beach either. Don’t be near a coastline Three out of four it’d be an ocean strike. Bring me a beer.”

“Yeah.”

“You got a map of the fault lines in California, don’t you?”

Mark was sure he did. He began hunting for it.

Frank said, “I think I’d want the same bike I took to Mexico. The big single, the Honda four-stroke. Not so much problem getting spare parts.” Frank let his mind track possibilities, taking its time. He and Joanna and Mark, they’d known each other a long time. They didn’t have to talk just to fill in silences, though Mark did have a touch of that. “You’d have to think about riots and rip-offs. The rain and the tidal waves and earthquakes, they’d wipe out all the services, cops included. I guess I’d want gas and bike parts hidden outside the city, some place where nobody could steal them.”

“Guns?”

“I brought a souvenir back from ’Nam. Registered lost.”

“So did I.” Mark gave up on the map. “We’d want a siphon. For awhile you’d find abandoned cars—”

“I always carry a siphon.”

“Hey. Why don’t we get together about the time the head’s supposed to pass?”

Frank didn’t answer immediately. Joanna said, “Even if nothing happens, it’d be a great comet-watching party. Maybe we could get Lilith in.”

Frank Stoner thought it over for a few seconds longer than was tactful. He did not make promises lightly, and the comet was becoming real to him. Mark was a good man in a fight, but he couldn’t always do what he said he could do, and he tended to drop things, and there was that brand-new beer belly. To Frank, that belly was a piece of personal sloppiness. Still… “Yeah. Okay. Not here, though. Say we take some sleeping bags up onto Mulholland the night before.”

Mark raised his saki cup in salute. “Good. It’d take a bitch of a tsunami to reach that high. And we could go off the road if we had to.” He would have been displeased if he could have followed Frank’s reasoning.

Frank was concerned for Joanna. He didn’t think Mark could protect her. And Joanna, with her kung fu training and Women’s Lib self-confidence, probably thought she could protect herself.

It took Eileen almost half a minute to realize that Mr. Corrigan was sitting on the edge of her desk, studying her. Bolt upright at her desk, she sat with her fingers motionless on the keyboard. Her eyes seemed to study a blank wall… and then, somehow, they found Corrigan in the foreground. She said, “Yah!”

“Hi. It’s me,” said Corrigan. “Care to talk about it?”

“I don’t know, Boss.”

“About a month ago I would have sworn you were in love. You’d come in with that sappy look, and sometimes you’d be dead tired and grinning all over. I thought your efficiency would go down, but it didn’t.”

“It was love,” she said, and smiled. “His name’s Tim Hamner. He’s indecently rich. He wants me to marry him. He said so last night.”

“Um,” said Corrigan, not liking that. “The crucial question, of course, is whether the business will collapse without you.”

“Naturally that was the first thing I thought of,” said Eileen, but with a pensive look that Corrigan didn’t quite know how to take.

“Occupational hazard,” he said briskly. “Do you love him?”

“Oh… yes. But… nuts. I’ve already made up my mind,” she said, “but I don’t have to like it.” And she attacked her typewriter with a ferocity that drove Corrigan back to his own desk.

She called Tim three times before she found him home. Her first words were, “Tim? I’m sorry, but the answer’s no.”

Long pause. Then, “Okay. Can you tell me why?”

“I’ll try. It’s… it’d make what I’ve been doing look silly.”

“I don’t see that.”

“Just before we met I made Assistant General Manager at Corrigan Plumbing Supplies.”

“You told me. Listen, if you’re afraid of losing your independence, I’ll settle, say, a hundred thousand dollars on your cringing head and you’ll be as independent as anyone.”

“I don’t know how I knew you’d say that, but… that isn’t it. It’s me. I’d change more than I’d like. I made myself what I am, and I want to stay proud of the result.”

“You want to keep your job?” Tim had trouble getting the word out; he must have thought the idea was silly. But — “Okay.”

Eileen pictured herself arriving at Corrigan’s every morning in a chauffeured limousine — and she laughed. After that, things went all to hell.

Colleen was reading a paperback novel. Her hair was in curlers. She’d switched on the stereo, and sometimes her fingers tapped in rhythm on the table beside her easy chair.

Fred wondered wistfully what she was hearing. He knew what she was reading; he couldn’t see the title, but the cover bore a woman in long, flowing garments in the foreground and a castle in the background, with one lighted window. Gothics were all alike, outside and in.

And he didn’t mind the curlers. She looked cute in them.

Half the joy was in the anticipation. Soon, soon, they would meet.

Sometimes the guilt was overwhelming. Then the mad temptation would come on Fred Lauren: to destroy his telescope, to destroy himself, before he could hurt Colleen. But that really was insane. A month and a week from now he would be dead anyway, and so would she. Any hurt he did her would be a passing thing, and done for love.

For love. Fred yearned for the girl in his telescope. His hands were tender on the little wheels that controlled the image, and the fingers trembled. It was too soon, much too soon.

June: Two

General, you don’t have a war plan! All you have is a kind of horrible spasm!

Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, 1961

The policy of the United States remains unchanged. Upon confirmation of actual nuclear attack on this nation, our strategic forces will inflict unacceptable damage on the enemy.

Pentagon spokesman, 1975

Sergeant Mason Jefferson Lawton was SAC and proud of it. He was proud of the sharply creased coveralls, and the blue scarf at his throat, and the white gloves. He was proud of the .38 on his hip.

It was late afternoon in Omaha. The day had been hot. Mason glanced at his watch again, and just as he did, the KC-135 swept out of the sky and down the runway. It taxied over to the unloading area where Mason waited. The first man out was a colonel permanently stationed at Offutt. Mason recognized him. The next man fit the photograph Security had furnished. They came over to the jeep.

“ID, please?” Mason asked.

The colonel took his out without a word. Senator Jellison frowned. “I just came in on the General’s plane, with your own colonel—”

“Yes, sir,” Mason said. “But I need to see your ID.”

Jellison nodded, amused. He took a leather folder from an inside pocket, then grinned as the sergeant came to an even more rigid position of attention. The card was Jellison’s Air Force Reserve Officer ID, and showed him to be a lieutenant general. And that, Jellison thought, ought to shake the kid up.

If it did, Mason showed no other signs. He waited while another officer brought Jellison’s bag and put it in the jeep. They drove down the runway past the specially equipped Looking Glass ship. There were three of those ships, and one was in the air at all times. They carried a Strategic Air Command general officer and staff.

Back at the end of World War II, SAC Headquarters was put in Omaha, at the center of the U.S. The command center itself was built four stories below ground, and reinforced with concrete and steel. The Hole was supposed to withstand anything — but that was before ICBMs and H-bombs. Now there were no illusions. If the Big One came off, the Hole was doomed. That wouldn’t keep SAC from controlling its forces, because Looking Glass couldn’t be brought down. No one except its pilots ever knew where it was.

Mason ushered the Senator into the big brick building and up the stairs to General Bambridge’s office. The office had an old-fashioned air about it. The wooden furniture, most with leather upholstery, was ancient. So was the huge desk. The walls were lined with shelves, each holding USAF models: WWII fighters, a huge B-36 with its improbable pusher props and jet pods, a B-52, missiles of every description. These were the only modern features except the telephones.

There were three on the desk: black, red and gold. A portable unit containing a red and a gold phone stood on a table near the desk. Those phones went with General Bambridge: in his car, to his home, in his bedroom, in the latrines; he was never more than four rings from the gold phone and never would be during his tour of duty as Commander in Chief, Strategic Air Command. The gold phone reached the President. The red one went downhill, from Bambridge to SAC, and it could launch more firepower than all the armies in history had ever employed.

General Thomas Bambridge waved Senator Jellison to a seat, and joined him in the conversation group near the big window overlooking the runway. Bambridge didn’t sit behind his desk to talk to people unless there was something wrong. It was said that a major once fainted dead away after five minutes standing in front of Bambridge’s desk.

“What the hell brings you out here like this?” Bambridge asked. “What couldn’t we settle on the phones?”

“How secure are your phones?” Jellison asked.

Bambridge shrugged. “As good as we can make them.”

“Maybe yours are all right,” Jellison said. “You’ve got your own people to check them. I’m damned sure mine aren’t safe. Officially, it’s what I told you, I need some help understanding budget requests.”

“Sure. You want a drink?”

“Whiskey, if you’ve got it here.”

“Sure.” Bambridge took a bottle and glasses from the cabinet behind his desk. “Cigar? Here, you’ll like ’em.”

“Havana?” Jellison said.

Bambridge shrugged. “The boys get ’em in Canada. Never have got used to U.S. cigars. Cubans may be bastards, but they sure can roll cigars.” He brought the whiskey to the coffee table and poured. “Okay, just what is this all about?”

“The Hammer,” Arthur Jellison said.

General Bambridge’s face went blank. “What about it?”

“It’s coming pretty close.”

Bambridge nodded. “We’ve got some fair mathematicians and computers ourselves, you know.”

“So what are you doing about it?”

“Nothing. By order of the President.” He pointed to the .gold phone. “Nothing is going to happen, and we mustn’t alarm the Russians.” Bambridge grimaced. “Mustn’t alarm the bastards. They’re killing our friends in Africa, but we shouldn’t upset them because it might mess up our friendship.”

“It’s a hard world,” Jellison said.

“Sure it is. Now what is it you want?”

“Tom, that thing’s coming close. Really close. I don’t think the President understands what that means.”

Bambridge took the cigar out of his mouth and inspected the chewed end. “The President doesn’t take much interest in us,” he said. “That’s good, because he leaves SAC pretty much to run itself. But good or bad, he’s President, which makes him my Commander in Chief, and I’ve got funny notions. Like I ought to obey orders.”

“Your oath’s to the Constitution,” Jellison said. “And weren’t you a Pointer? Duty, Honor, Country. In that order.”

“So?”

“Tom, that comet’s coming really close. Really. They tell me it’ll knock out all your early-warning radars—”

“They tell me that, too,” Bambridge said. “Art, I don’t want to be a smart-ass, but aren’t you trying to teach your grandmother to suck eggs?” He went to the desk and brought back a red-covered report. “We’ll see what looks like an attack that isn’t really there, and we won’t be able to see a real one — if there is one. Sure, the day they think they can win clean, they’ll hit us, but Air Intelligence tells me things are pretty quiet over there right now.” Bambridge thumbed through the document again, and his voice fell. “Of course, if we can’t see them coming, they couldn’t see us—”

“Get that look off your face!”

“Well, I can’t be court-martialed just for thinking.”

“This is serious, Tom. I don’t think the Russians will start anything — so long as it’s only a near miss. But…”

Bambridge cocked his head to one side. “Jesus! My people didn’t tell me it would hit us!”

“Nor did mine,” Jellison said. “But the odds are now hundreds to one against. Used to be billions. Then thousands. Now it’s only hundreds. That’s a little scary.”

“It is that. So what am I supposed to do? The President ordered me not to go on alert—”

“He can’t give you that order. Your charter says you have authority to take any measure needed to protect your forces. Anything short of launching.”

“Christ.” Bambridge looked out the window. The Looking Glass KC-135 was taking off, which meant that the airborne ship would be coming in after its replacement was safely airborne and lost. “You’re asking me to defy a Presidential direct order.”

“I’m telling you that if you do, you’ve got friends in Congress. You might lose your job, but that’ll be the worst.” Jellison’s voice was very low and urgent. “Tom, do you think I like this? I doubt that goddam comet will hit Earth, but if it does and we’re not ready… God knows what will happen.”

“That’s for sure.” Bambridge tried to imagine it. An asteroid strike in some remote part of the Soviet Union — would they believe it wasn’t a U.S. sneak attack? Or why remote? Moscow! “But if we’ve gone to alert status, they’ll know it, and it’ll give ’em that much more reason to think we did it,” Bambridge said.

“Sure. And if we haven’t gone to alert, and they see this as a golden opportunity? If the Hammer hits, Washington may be gone, Tom. Washington, New York, most of the eastern seacoast.”

“Shit. All we’d need would be a war on top of that,” Bambridge said. “If the Hammer really does hit, the world is going to be in a big enough mess without starting the Big One to go with it. But if it hits us and not them, they’ll want to finish the job. It’s what I’d do, if I was them.”

“But you wouldn’t—”

“Not from this office,” Bambridge said. “Not even if I got orders that I’ll never, thank God, get.” The General stared at the missile models on the far wall. “Look, what I can do is see that my best people are on duty. Put my top men in the holes, and I’ll be up in Looking Glass myself. But how do I tell a meteor hit from a missile attack?”

“I think you’ll know,” Jellison said.

Outside was night and glory. In the Apollo capsule Rick Delanty was moored to his couch. His eyes were tightly closed and he lay rigid, fists clenched. “All right, dammit. I’ve been sick ever since we came up. But don’t tell Houston. There’s nothing they could do anyway.”

“You damn fool, you’ll starve,” Baker told him. “Hell, it’s no disgrace. Everybody gets space sickness.”

“Not for a whole week.”

“You know better. MacAlliard was sick the whole mission. Not as bad as you, but he had help. And I’m getting Dr. Malik.”

“No!”

“Yes. We haven’t got time for macho pride.”

“That’s not it and you know it.” Delanty’s voice was pinched. “She’ll report it. And—”

“And nothing,” Baker said. “We’re not going to scrub this mission just because you keep puking up your guts.”

“You’re sure of that?”

“Yeah. They can’t abort unless I say so. And I won’t. Unless—”

“Unless nothing,” Delanty said. “That’s the whole point. Good God, Johnny, if this flops because of me… Hell, I wish they’d picked somebody else. Then it wouldn’t matter so much. But I’ve got to keep going.”

“Why?” Baker demanded.

“Because I’m—”

“A gentleman of color?”

“Black. Try to remember.” He tried to grin. “All right, get the lady doc. Something’s got to help. Mothersills, maybe?”

“Best thing is to keep your eyes closed.”

“Which I’m doing, and a fat lot of help I am,” Delanty said. His voice was bitter. “Me, old Iron Ear, space-sick. It’s insane.” He realized Baker had left, and nervously began buttoning up his fly.

The official name was “sustained duty clothing.” Everyone else would have called them long johns. Or a union suit. What the well-dressed spaceman will wear. It’s a very practical costume, but Rick Delanty couldn’t quite hide his nervousness: He wasn’t used to having women see him in his underwear. Especially not white women.

“Man, will the old boys in the back towns in Texas go nuts over this,” he muttered. …

“What is this you have not reported?” Her voice was sharp, totally professional, and blew away any residual thoughts Rick Delanty might have had. She came into the capsule and unclipped a lead from Rick’s union suit. She plugged it into a thermometer readout. The other end of the lead went inside the long johns and up inside Rick Delanty. All astronauts became gun-shy about their anuses — not that it did them any good.

Leonilla said, “Have you eaten anything at all?” She read the thermometer and made a note.

“Nothing that stays down.”

“So you are dehydrated. We will try these, first. Chew this capsule. No — do not swallow it whole. Chew it.”

Rick chewed. “Jesus Christ, what is this stuff? That’s the nastiest—”

“Swallow, please. In two minutes we will try a nutrient drink. You need hydration and nourishment. Do you often fail to report illnesses?”

“No. I thought I could make it.”

“In every space mission approximately one-third of the personnel involved have experienced from mild to extreme forms of space sickness. The probability that one of us would have the difficulty was very high. Now drink this. Slowly.”

He drank. It was thick and tasted of oranges. “Not bad.”

“It is based on American Tang,” Leonilla said. “I have added fruit sugars and a vitamin solution. How do you feel? No, do not look at me. It is important that this stay down. Keep your eyes closed.”

“It’s not too bad, this way.”

“Good.”

“But I’m no damned use with my eyes closed! And I’ve got to—”

“You’ve got to rehydrate and stay alive so the rest of us can stay here,” Leonilla said.

Delanty felt something cold on his forearm. “What—”

“A sleeping injection. Relax. There. You will sleep for several hours. During that time I will give you an intravenous. Then when you are awake we can try other drugs. Good-night.”

She went back into the main Hammerlab compartment. There was room in the center of it now; the equipment had been stowed in proper places, and much of the styrofoam packing had been ejected out into space.

“Well?” John Baker demanded. Pieter Jakov asked the same thing, in Russian.

“Bad,” she said. “I think he has not kept water in his system for at least twenty-four hours. Possibly longer. His temperature is thirty-eight point eight. Badly dehydrated.”

“So what do we do?” Baker asked.

“I think the drugs I have given him will keep the drink down. I gave him nearly a liter, and he showed no signs of distress. Why did he not tell us before?”

“Hell, he’s the first black man in space. He doesn’t want to be the last one,” Baker said.

“Does he think he is the only one under pressure to succeed?” Leonilla demanded. “He is the first black man in space, but the physiological differences between races are small compared to those between sexes. I am the second woman in space, and the first failed…”

“It is time for more observations,’; Pieter Jakov said. Leonilla, assist me. Or must you attend to your patient?”

With the gear properly stowed, there was still very little room to spare in Hammerlab. They had found ways to achieve some privacy: Delanty in the Apollo, Leonilla Malik m the Soyuz. Baker and Jakov traded off watchkeeping and slept in Hammerlab when they slept at all. With three to cover the work of four, there wasn’t a lot of time for sleep.

And Hamner-Brown was approaching. Tail-first it came, directly toward them, the tenuous gas that streamed from it already engulfing Earth and Moon and Hammerlab. They took hourly observations, visual, and daily went outside to gather samples of nothing: the thin vacuum of space, bottled to take back to Earth, where sensitive instruments could find a few molecules of a comet’s tail.

At first there was little to see. Only in the direction of the comet was it obvious that the tail was streaming across space to cover hundreds of millions of miles; but later, as it came closer, they could see it in any direction they looked.

When they weren’t watching the comet they could take observations of the Sun. There were another dozen experiments, in crystallography, in thin-film research, to occupy any spare time left from that.

It made for a busy day.

They hadn’t much privacy, but they had some. By mutual agreement and ship design, the personal facilities were in the spacecraft, not the lab capsule. For Baker and Delanty the system was simple enough: a tube to fit over their male members, with a tank to pee in. It flushed.

This time when Baker used the system he felt Delanty’s eyes on him.

“You’re supposed to be asleep. Not watching me piss.”

“You I’m not interested in. Johnny… how does Leonilla manage it? In space”

“Yeah. I managed to forget I don’t know. I’D ask her, huh?”

“Sure. Do that. It’s a cinch I’m not gonna.”

“Me neither.” Johnny opened a valve. Urine jetted from the Apollo into space. Frozen droplets formed a cloud around the craft, like a new constellation of stars, and gradually dissipated. “Why the hell did you get me worrying about that again?”

“I should be the only one with trouble?”

“How’re you getting along?”

“Pretty good.”

Two days later, Delanty was much better — but Baker didn’t have an answer.

He had just returned from taking a vacuum sample, and was alone with Jakov when Baker said, “I can’t stand it.”

“I beg your pardon?” the Russian said.

“Something bothering me. How does Leonilla take a leak in free fall?”

“This concerns you?”

“Sure. It’s not even idle curiosity. One reason we never sent women into space, the design boys couldn’t come up with proper sanitary facilities. Somebody suggested a catheter, but that hurts.” Jakov said nothing. “So how does she do it?” Johnny demanded.

“That is a state secret. I’m sorry,” Pieter Jakov said. Could he be joking? It didn’t show. “It is time for a new series of solar observations. Will you help me with the telescope, please.”

“Sure.” I’ll ask Leonilla, Johnny thought. Before we get down, anyway. He glanced sideways at the Russian. Maybe Jakov didn’t know either.

“How you doing?” Baker asked.

“Fine,” Delanty said. “Does Houston know?”

“Not from me,” Baker said. “Maybe from Baikunyar. I don’t guess Jakov keeps much from his people. But why should they tell Houston?”

“I hate it,” Rick said.

“Sure you do. So what? You’ve proved whatever you needed to. You’re here, and we got the wings opened out. Christ, man, if you can do that kind of work while you’re sick, they ought to call you Ironman. You’ll be working tomorrow.”

“Yeah. You solve that problem that was bothering you?”

Baker shrugged. “No. I asked Pieter. ‘State secret,’ he said. State secret my ass.”

“Well, maybe we can find out. We’ve sure got enough cameras…”

“Sure. That’ll look good in the report. Two U.S. Air Force officers sneaking into the lady’s powder room with cameras. Well, I’ve got the watch. I’ll go wake up Comrade Brigadier. See you.” Johnny Baker floated out of the Apollo capsule and across Hammerlab. It was quiet out there; Leonilla was asleep in Soyuz, Delanty strapped down in Apollo, and Jakov supposedly catching a nap before going on watch.

Baker swam toward the Russian’s bunk. In the maze of telescopes and cameras and growing crystals and x-ray detectors Jakov floated, lightly strapped to a nylon web. He was grinning at the bulkhead. When Johnny reached him, the grin blinked out.

Like he just gave somebody a hotfoot, Johnny Baker thought. And was caught in the act.

State secret my ass.

June: Three

Then let them which be in Judaea flee into the mountains.

Matthew 24

The outer receptionist was new, and she didn’t send Harvey Randall on into the big executive suite on the third floor of Los Angeles City Hall. Harvey didn’t mind. There were others waiting out there, and his crew wouldn’t be up with the cameras for a few minutes anyway. He was early for his appointment.

Harvey took a seat and indulged in his favorite game: people-watching. Most of the visitors were obvious. Vendors, political types, all there to see one of the deputy mayors or an executive assistant. One was different. She was in her twenties, and Harvey couldn’t tell if early or late twenties. She wore jeans and a flowered blouse, but they’d come from an expensive shop, not from The Gap. She stared frankly, and when Harvey looked at her she didn’t let her eyes drop in embarrassment. Harvey shrugged and crossed the room to sit next to her. “What’s so interesting about me?” he asked.

“I recognized you. You do TV documentaries. I’ll remember your name in a minute.”

“Fine,” Harvey said.

That did make her look away; but she turned back to him with half a smile. “All right. What is it?”

“You first.”

“Mabe Bishop.” Her accent was definitely native.

Harvey fished into his memories. “Aha. People’s Lobby.” “Right.” She didn’t change expressions, which was curious; most people would be pleased to have a national documentary reporter recognize their name. Harvey was still finding that surprising when she said, “You still haven’t told me.”

“Harvey Randall.”

“Now it’s my turn to say ‘aha.’ You’re doing the comet shows.”

“Right. How did you like them?”

“Terrible. Dangerous. Stupid.”

“You don’t mince words. Mind telling me why?” Harvey asked.

“Not at all. First, you’ve scared the wits out of fifty million halfwits—”

“I did not—”

“And they should be scared, but not of a damned comet! Comets! Signs in the heavens! Evil portents! Medieval crap, when there’s plenty to worry about right here on Earth” Her tones were full and bitter.

“And what should they be scared of?” Harvey prompted. He didn’t really want to know, and cursed himself the instant he said it. It was a reporter’s automatic question, but the trouble was, she’d sure as hell tell him.

She did. “Spray cans ruining the atmosphere, destroying ozone, causing cancer. A new atomic power plant in the San Joaquin Valley making radioactive wastes that will be around for half a million years! The big Cadillacs and Lincolns are burning m-megatons of gasoline. All these things that we’ve got to do something about, things we should be scared of, and instead everyone’s hiding in the root cellar afraid of a comet!”

“You’ve got a point,” Randall said. “Even if I don’t think all of those are good causes—”

“Oh, don’t you? And which ones aren’t?” she demanded. Her voice was full of hate, and readiness for attack.

My, my, Harvey thought. There were times when he wanted to take his reportorial objectivity, roll it tightly and stuff it in an anatomically uncomfortable place about the person of a pompous professor of journalism.

“I’ll tell you,” he said. “The reason people are still burning gas in those big comfortable cars is that they can’t get enough electricity to run electric cars. They can’t get electricity because the air’s already full of crap from fossil fuel plants and we’re running out of fossil fuels, and damned fools keep delaying the nuclear plants that might get us out of that particular box.” Harvey stood up. “And if I ever hear the words ‘spray can’ and ‘ozone’ again, I’ll track you down wherever you hide and throw up in your lap.”

“Huh?”

Harvey went back to the receptionist. “Tell Johnny Kim that Harvey Randall is out here, please,” he said. His voice was commanding. The new receptionist looked at him in alarm, then turned to her intercom.

Behind him Harvey could hear Mabe Bishop spluttering. It gave Harvey great satisfaction. He went over to the door that led into the executive suite and waited. In a second it buzzed. “Go right in, Mr. Randall,” the receptionist said. “I’m sorry I kept you waiting—”

“’Sall right,” Harvey mumbled. The door let him into a long hall. There were offices on both sides of it. An Oriental of indeterminate age, over thirty and under fifty, came out of one of them.

“Ho, Harv. How long did that quim keep you waiting?”

“Not long. How are you, Johnny?”

“Pretty good. The Mayor’s got a conference running overtime. Community-development thing. Mind waiting a see?”

“Not really — the crew should be up pretty soon.”

“They’re coming up now,” John Kim said. He was Mayor Bentley Allen’s press secretary, speechwriter and sometimes political manager, and Harvey knew that Kim could be in Sacramento or Washington if he wanted to be; probably would be anyway, if he stayed on with Bentley Allen. “I sent down to have them come up the private elevator.”

“Thanks,” Harvey said. “They’ll appreciate that—”

“Hah. The conference is breaking up. Let’s go in and see Hizzoner until the crew gets up.” Kim led Harvey down the hall.

There were two offices. One was large, with expensive furniture and thick rugs. Flags hung on the walls, and there were trophies and plaques and framed certificates everywhere. Past the ornate formal outer office was a much smaller room, with an even larger desk. This desk was piled high with papers, reports, books, IBM print-outs, and memos. Some of the memos held large red stars. A few held two red stars, and one had three. The Mayor was just picking that one up when Kim and Harvey Randall came in.

He looks good, Randall thought as the Mayor read the memo. Los Angeles’ second black mayor. He’d kept to a winning game: He was tall and fit and dressed like a wealthy professional man, which he’d been before getting into politics.

His mixed blood showed, and his education showed because he let it. Bentley Allen was not going to talk down to people. He didn’t need the political jobs; he was technically on leave from a tenure appointment on the faculty of a wealthy private university.

“Documentary, Mr. Randall?” Bentley Allen asked. He initialed the memo and put it in an OUT tray.

“No, sir,” Johnny Kim answered. “Evening news this time.”

“So what’s newsworthy about me tonight?” the Mayor asked.

“Fallout from the documentaries,” Harvey Randall said. “Network news, all networks. What are public officials doing on the day Hamner-Brown doesn’t hit Earth.”

“All networks?” Johnny Kim asked.

“Yes.”

“Wouldn’t have been a bit of pressure on that, would there?” Kim asked. “Like from an off-white house on Pennsylvania Avenue?”

“Might have been,” Harvey admitted.

“And what The Man wants is good vibes,” the mayor said. “Keep calm, cool and collected on Hot Fudge Sundae.”

“Which falls on a Tuesdae next week,” Harvey responded automatically. “Yes, sir—”

“So what if I screamed panic?” Mayor Allen asked. There was a gleam of amusement in his eye. “Or said, ‘Here’s your chance, brothers! Burn whitey out! Get yours, you’ll never get a better time’?”

“Aw, bullshit,” Harvey said. “I thought everybody wanted to be on the evening national news.”

“You ever get impulses like that?” Bentley Allen asked. “You know. Irresistible impulses to do the one thing that would put you in a new line of work? Such as spilling a martini down the dean’s wife’s dress? Which, I may add, I did once. Purely accidental, I assure you, but look where it got me.”

Now Harvey really did look worried, and Mayor Allen let the grin play across his face. “Needn’t worry, Mr. Randall. I like this job. Or another one, in a somewhat larger office back east…” He let his voice trail off. It was no secret that Bentley Allen would like to be the first black President; there were serious political managers who thought he could do it in another dozen years or so.

“I’ll be a good boy,” Mayor Allen said. “I’ll tell the people how we expect full attendance in all city offices, and I’ll be right here — well, literally here, but I’ll tell them there,” he added, pointing to the ornate office. “And I expect all my top people to set the same example. I may or may not say that I’ll have a color TV going, because I’m damned if I’m going to miss a show like that.”

“Business as usual with time off for a light show,” Harvey said.

The Mayor nodded. “Of course.” His face took on a serious look. “Privately, I’m a bit worried. Too many people taking off. Do you know that almost every U-Haul trailer in the city has been rented? By the week. And we’ve even had a big surge of requests for time off from my police and firefighters. Not granted, of course. All leaves canceled on Hot Fudge Sundae.”

“Worried about looting?” Harvey asked.

“Not enough to say so in public. But yes,” Mayor Allen said. “Looting and burglaries with all the homes that have been or will be abandoned. But we’ll handle it. If your crew is set up out there, we’d better get to it. I’ve a meeting with the director of Civil Defense in half an hour.”

They stood and went into the outer office.

The traffic on Beverly Glen was nice. Very light for a Thursday evening. Harvey drove with a wide grin. I’ve got a hell of a story, he thought. Even if I never get another foot in the can, I’ve got a story. Not only do millions think the world’s going to end, but millions more hope so. It shows in their attitudes. They hate what they’re doing, and keep looking nostalgically at the “simple” life. Of course they won’t voluntarily choose to be farmers or live in communes, but if everybody has to…

It didn’t really make sense, but people’s attitudes often didn’t. That didn’t bother Harvey Randall at all.

And there’d be another great story in follow-up. The day after the world didn’t end. That’s a good title for a book Harvey thought. Of course there’ll be a thousand novelists scrambling to beat each other into print. Books with titles like Chicken Little, and The Day the World Didn’t End (not as good as his title) and Rock, Won’t You Hide Me? Come to that, some of the radio stations were playing disaster-religious songs twenty-four hours a day, and end-of-the-world preachers were doing a land-office business.

There were also the Comet Wardens, a Southern California sect who were putting on white robes and praying the comet away. They’d staged a couple of stunts to get publicity, and about half their leaders were out on bail for blocking traffic or getting into the outfield during televised baseball games. That had stopped; a judge had ordered that no more be released on bail until next Wednesday…

Hell, I could write a book, Harvey thought. I ought to. I never wanted to before, but I’m literate, and I’ve done the research. I’m way ahead of the flock. The Day After the World Didn’t End. No. No good. Too long, for one thing. I can call mine Hammer Fever. And of course there’ll be plenty of publicity, we’ll have a show on the air just afterward.

I could even make some money on this. A lot of money. Enough to pay off the bills and take care of the tuition at Harvard School for Boys and…

Hammer Fever. I like it.

Only one problem. It’s real. Like a war scare.

He’d found that everywhere. Coffee, tea, flour, sugar, any staple capable of being hoarded, was in short supply. Freezedried foods were gone. Clothing stores reported runs on rain gear (in southern California, with the next rains due in November!). You couldn’t find outdoorsman’s clothing anywhere, no surplus hiking boots in the stores. And nobody was buying suits, white shirts, or neckties.

They were buying guns, though. There wasn’t a firearm to be bought in Beverly Hills or the San Fernando Valley. There wasn’t any ammunition, either.

Backpacking stores were sold out of everything from hiking boots to trail food to fishing equipment (more hooks than flies; you could still get dry flies, but only the expensive American-made ones, not the cheap ones from India). There weren’t any tents to be had, nor sleeping bags. There was even a run on life jackets! Harvey grinned when he heard that one. He’d never seen a tsunami himself, but he’d read about them. After Krakatoa a great wave had deposited a Dutch gunboat miles inland at an elevation of two hundred feet.

Then there were the mail-order “survival packages” that had been sold for the past few weeks. They’d not be getting any more orders, of course, not this close to Hammerfall. Maybe — just maybe — they weren’t intending to deliver? Have to look into that. There were four companies selling them. For from fifty to sixteen thousand dollars you could get anything from just a food supply to the whole thing in one lump. The foods were nonperishable and constituted a more or-less-balanced diet. (Which religious sect was it that required all its members to keep a year’s supply of food? They’d been doing that since the Sixties, too. Harvey made another mental note. They’d be worth interviewing, after That Day had passed.)

The cheap outfits were food only. There was progressively more, up to the sixteen-grand package, which included a Land Cruiser, clothing from thermal underwear out, machete, sleeping bag, butane stove and tank, inflatable raft, almost anything you could name. One included membership in a survival club: You were guaranteed a place if you could get there, somewhere in the Rockies. The different companies didn’t sell identical items, and none of the four included guns (courtesy of Lee Harvey Oswald; and how many people has the ban on mail-order guns saved or killed, depending on whether or not the Hammer falls?).

But all four companies sold you the same outfit whether you lived on a mountain or a seashore or the High Plains. Harvey grinned. Caveat emptor. The stuff was all overpriced, too. Lord, what fools these mortals be…

The traffic was very light. He’d reached Mulholland already. The San Fernando Valley spread out below him. The wind had been strong today and there was no smog.

The valley stretched on for miles. Row after row of California suburban houses, rich areas and poor areas, stucco subdevelopments and old wooden frame homes, here and there a magnificent Monterey style, ancient, the only remnants of the time when the valley had been orange groves — and every one of them built in a flood basin. The neat squares of the valley were cut through by freeways — and there weren’t many cars out there.

All over the basin, on four successive midmornings, the outbound freeways were more crowded than the inbound. Cars, trucks and rented trailers loaded with a lifetime of clutter, all moving out of the basin toward the hills beyond, or over the passes into the San Joaquin. All over the L.A. basin, stores had closed for the week, or for the month, or forever; and the remaining businesses were suffering badly from absenteeism. Hammer Fever.

There was almost no traffic on Benedict Canyon. Harvey chuckled. Here were the people coming home from work… but the ones with Hammer Fever were elsewhere. Hammer Fever had sent the mountain resort business to an all-time high, all across the country. The Treasury Department was worried: Consumer credit levels had broken all records; people were buying survival gear on credit cards. Employment up, economy up, inflation up, all because of the comet.

It’s going to make one hell of a story.

Unless the damned thing does fall. It hit him, just then: If the Hammer fell, nobody was going to give a damn about the story. There’d be no programs. No TV. Nothing.

Harvey shook his head. His smile faded as he glanced at the package in the passenger seat. His compromise with Hammer Fever: an Olympic target pistol, .22 caliber, with a sculpted wooden grip that wrapped fully around the hand, steadying and bracing the wrist. It would be inhumanly accurate, but it was nothing anyone could point to while bellowing, “Look, Old Harv’s got Hammer Fever!”

Only maybe I wasn’t so damned smart after all, Harvey thought. He began to take inventory in his head.

He had a shotgun. Backpacking gear too, but only for himself. The idea of Loretta carrying a backpack was ludicrous. He had taken her on a hike, just once. Did she still have the shoes? Probably not. She couldn’t exist at distances greater than five miles from a beauty shop.

And I love her, he reminded himself firmly. I can play rugged outdoorsman whenever I want to, and have elegance to come back to. Unwanted there came to him the memory of Maureen Jellison standing high on a split rock, her long red hair blowing in the wind. He pushed the memory very firmly back down into his mind and left it there.

So what can I do to prepare? Harvey wondered. Not a lot of time left. Supplies. Well, I can compromise. Canned goods. Good hedge against inflation anyway. They’ll get us through a disaster, if any, and we can still eat them when the damned thing’s gone past. And bottled water… No. Neither one. There’s been a run on both. I’d be lucky to find much this week, and I’ll pay a premium.

He turned into the driveway and braked sharply. Loretta had stopped the station wagon in the drive and was carrying packages into the house. He got out and started helping her, automatically, and only gradually realized that he was carrying bag after bag of frozen food. He asked, “What is this?”

Puffing slightly, Loretta set her load on the kitchen table. “Don’t be angry, Harv. I couldn’t help it. Everyone says — well, says that comet may hit us. So I got some food, just in case.”

“Frozen food.”

“Yes. They were nearly out of cans. I hope we can get it all in the freezer.” She surveyed the bags doubtfully. “I don’t know. We may have to eat Stouffer stuff for a couple of days.”

“Uh-huh.” Frozen food. Good God. Did she expect power lines to survive Hammerfall? But of course she did. He said nothing. She meant well; and while Loretta had been out getting useless supplies, Harvey Randall had been dithering and doing nothing; it came down to the same thing, except for the money, and she’d probably saved them money if the Hammer didn’t fall. Which it wouldn’t. And if it did — why, money wouldn’t be important anyway. “You done good,” Harvey said. He kissed her and went out for another load.

“Hey, Harvey.”

“Yo, Gordie,” Harvey said. He went over to the fence.

Gordie Vance held out a beer. “Brought you one,” he said. “Saw you drive up.”

“Thanks. You want to talk about something?” He hoped Gordie did. Vance hadn’t been himself the last few weeks. There was something bothering him. Harvey could sense it without knowing what it was, and without Gordie knowing that Harvey knew.

“Where you going to be next Tuesday?” Gordie asked.

Harvey shrugged. “L.A. somewhere, I guess. I’ve got crews for the national stuff.”

“But working,” Gordie said. “Sure you don’t want to come hiking? Good weather in the mountains. I get some time off next week.”

“Good Lord,” Harvey said. “I can’t—”

“Why not? You really want to stick here for the end of the world?”

“It won’t be the end of the world,” Harvey said automatically. He caught the gleam in Vance’s eye. “And anyway, if that Hammer doesn’t fall and I haven’t been busy covering it, it’s the end of my world. No can do, Gordie. God. I’d like to get away, but no.”

“Figures,” Vance said. “Loan me your kid.”

“What?”

“Makes sense, doesn’t it?” Vance said. “Suppose that thing does hit. Andy’d have a much better chance up in the hills with me. And if it doesn’t — well, you wouldn’t want him to miss a good hike just to hang around in the L.A. smog, would you?”

“You make plenty of sense,” Harvey said. “But… where’ll you be? I mean, in case something does happen, how do I find you and Andy.”

Vance’s face took on a serious look. “You know damned well what your chances of living through it are if it does hit and you’re in L.A…”

“Yeah. Slim and none,” Harvey said.

“…and besides, I’ll be just about where you’d want to go. Out of Quaking Aspen. The old Silver Knapsack area. Low enough to get out of in bad weather, high enough to be safe no matter what happens. Unless we’re under it, and that’s a random chance, isn’t it?”

“Sure. You ask Andy about this?”

“Yeah. He said he’d like to go, if it’s okay with you.”

“Who all’s going?”

“Just me and seven boys,” Gordie said. “Marie’s got charity work to do, so she can’t come…”

Harvey envied Gordie Vance just one thing: Marie Vance went on hikes. On the other hand, she wasn’t very easy to live with in town.

“…which means under scout rules the girls can’t come,” Gordie was saying. “And some of the others — well, they’re just not available. Hell, Harvey, you know the area. We’ll be fine.”

Harvey nodded. It was safe trail and a good area. “Right,” he said. He drank most of the beer. “You all right, Gordie?” he asked suddenly.

Vance’s face changed, subtly, and he was trying to hide the change. “Sure. Why wouldn’t I be?”

“You just don’t seem yourself lately.”

“Work,” Vance said. “Too much work lately. This hike will fix everything.”

“Good,” Harvey said.

The shower felt good. He let hot water pound on his neck and he thought: Too late. The sensible, phlegmatic ones would stick it out, with the odds still hundreds, maybe thousands, to one in their favor. The panicky ones had already bought supplies and struck for the hills. There were also the sensible, cautious ones like Gordie Vance, who’d planned his hike months before, and who could say he wasn’t letting a comet spoil his vacation — but who’d be in the hills anyway.

Then there were the ones in between. There must be tens of millions, and Harv Randall was one of them, and look at him now: scared too late, and nothing to do but wait it out. In five days the nucleus of Hamner-Brown would be past, on its way to that strange, cold region beyond the planets…

Or it wouldn’t be.

“There must be something.” Harvey said, talking to himself in the privacy of a roaring shower. “Something I can do. What do I want out of this? If that damned dirty snowball ends the blessings of civilization and the advertising industry… okay, back to the basics. Eat, sleep, fight, drink and run. Not necessarily in that order. Right?”

Right.

Harvey Randall took Friday off. He called in sick, and by sheer bad luck Mark Czescu was in and took the call.

Mark got obvious pleasure out of asking it. “Hammer Fever, Harv?”

“Knock it off.”

“Okay. Making a few plans myself. Meeting a couple of friends, getting to a nice safe place. Forgot to tell you. I won’t be around on Hot Fudge Sundae, which falls on a Tuesdae next week. Want we should swing by your place after — if, as and when?”

He got no answer, because Harvey Randall had already hung up.

Randall went to a shopping center. He made his purchases carefully, and all on credit cards, or with checks.

At a supermarket he bought six big round roasts weighing twenty-eight pounds, and half their stock of vitamins, and half their stock of spices and considerable baking soda.

At a health-food store two doors down he bought more vitamins and more bottled spices. He bought a respectable amount of salt and pepper, and three pepper grinders.

Next door, a set of good carving knives. They’d needed new kitchen knives for a year. He also bought a sharpening stone and a hand-operated knife sharpener.

There was a tool kit he’d been wanting for years, and this was the time, he decided. While he was in the hardware store he picked up other odds and ends. Plastic plumbing parts, cheap stuff, that would thread onto iron pipe. There might be a use for it one day, if; and it would be handy around the house if not. There wasn’t a camp stove to be had, but the clerk knew Harvey and obligingly fetched out four hand-pumped flashlights and two Coleman lanterns that had just come in, along with four gallons of Coleman fuel. He also gave Harvey a knowing look that Randall was coming to recognize.

At the liquor store he bought a hundred and ninety-three dollars’ worth of everything in sight: gallons of vodka and bourbon and scotch; fifths of Grand Marnier, Drambuie and other esoteric and expensive liqueurs. He loaded everything into the wagon and then went back for bottles of Perrier water. He paid by credit card — and got another knowing look from the clerk.

“I’m ready to throw one hell of a party,” he told Kipling. The dog thumped his tail on the seat. He liked to go places with Harvey, although he didn’t get the chance as often as he wanted. He watched as his master went from store to store; to drugstores for sleeping pills and more vitamins, iodine, first-aid cream, the last box of bandages; back to the grocery for dog food; back to the drugstore for soap, shampoo, toothpaste, new toothbrushes, skin cream, calamine lotion, suntan lotion…

“Where do we stop?” Harvey asked. The dog licked his face. “We have to stop somewhere. Good Lord, I never thought much about the blessings of civilization before, but there are just a lot of things I wouldn’t want to live without.”

Harvey took his purchases home, then went back down the hill to collect the TravelAII from the mechanic who usually worked on it. If Harvey hadn’t been a very old and valued customer, he’d never have got squeezed in for tuneup, oil change, grease job, and general before-trip checkup; the garage wasn’t taking on new jobs for a week, and there were dozens of cars waiting for rush jobs.

But he got the TravelAII, and filled both tanks with gas. He filled the strap-on tanks for good measure, but he had to go to three service stations to do it; there was unofficial gas rationing in the L.A. basin.

After lunch it was bloody work. Twenty-eight pounds of beef had to be sliced into thin strips — thin! The new knives helped, but his arms were cramped by dinner time, and the job still wasn’t done. “I’ll need the bottom oven for the next three days,” he told Loretta.

“It is going to hit us,” Loretta said firmly. “I knew it.”

“No. Odds are hundreds, thousands, to one against it.”

“Then why that?” she asked. It was a good question. “My kitchen is just covered with little slices of raw meat.”

“Just in case,” Harvey said. “And it keeps. Andy can use it for hikes, if we don’t.” He got back to work.

The easy way to make beef jerky is not the way the Indians used. They employed a slow fire, or a summer sun, and their quality control was poor. Far better to set a modern oven at 100° to 120° and leave the thin strips of beef in for twenty-four hours. The meat isn’t supposed to cook; it’s supposed to dry. A good strip of beef jerky is bone-dry, and hard enough to kill you if you file the end to a point. It will also keep practically forever.

Beef jerky is too limited a diet to keep a human being alive forever. The time can be greatly extended with vitamin supplements, but it’s still dull. So? If the Hammer fell, boredom would not be the major cause of death…

For bulk and carbohydrates, Harvey had grits. Nobody else in Beverly Hills, it seemed, had thought of them, and yet several of the stores carried them. He’d also found a sack of cornmeal, although there’d been no wheat or rye flour.

The fat from the beef he pounded into pemmican, mixing it with the little sugar they had around the house, with salt, with pepper, and some Worcestershire sauce for a bit of flavor. That he’d partly cook, keeping the fat that melted out for more pemmican, and to store bacon in. Bacon covered with fat and kept protected from air will keep a long time before going rancid.

So much for food, he decided. Now for water. He went out to the swimming pool. He’d started emptying it last night. It had almost drained, and he began filling it again. This time it wouldn’t get chlorine. When it was filling well he put the cover over it to keep leaves and dirt out.

Take a long time to drink all that, he thought. And there’s the contents of the hot-water heater at any given time. And… He rooted around in the garage until he found a number of old plastic bottles. Several had held bleach and still smelled of it. Perfect. He filled them without rinsing. The others he washed out carefully. Now, even if the pool went, there’d be some water.

Eat, drink. What’s next? Sleep. That one was easy. Harvey Randall never threw anything away, and he had, in addition to his regular backpacking bag, a U.S. Army Arctic sleeping bag, a summer-weight bag, bag liners, Andy’s discarded bag, and even the one he’d bought that only time Loretta had tried a hike. He took them all out and hung them on the back clothesline. Solar heat. The simplest and most efficient solar power system known to man: Hang your clothes out to dry, rather than use an electric or gas dryer. Of course not many “conservationists” did it; they were too busy preaching conservation. And I’m being unfair, and why?

Because I’ve got Hammer Fever, and my wife knows it. Loretta thinks I’ve gone crazy — and I’m scaring her, too. She’s convinced I think it’s going to hit.

And the more he did to prepare for Hammerfall, the more real it became. I’m even scaring myself, he thought. Have to remember that for the book. Hammer Fever. “Hey, hon…”

“Yes, darling?”

“Don’t look so worried. I’m doing research.”

“On what?” She brought him a beer.

“Hammer Fever. I’m going to write a book on it, once the comet’s gone past. I’ve done all the work. It might even be a best seller.”

“Oh. I’d love it if you had a book. People look up to an author.”

Which, Harv thought, they do. Sometimes. Okay. Now we can eat, drink and sleep. That leaves fight and run.

Fight. Not so good. He had no faith in his skill with guns; either the shotgun or the target pistol. No gun would have given him real confidence. There was no limit to how good a weapon the other guy might have, or how skillful he might be with it, and Harvey Randall had spent the war as a correspondent, not as a soldier.

But there’s also bribe. The liquor and spices might buy my way out of trouble. And if I can hang on to them, in a few years they’ll be literally priceless, providing there’s any surplus food left for luxuries, and there usually is, for someone. For centuries the price of black pepper was fixed, all across Europe, at its own weight in gold, ounce for ounce, and not everybody’s going to have thought of hoarding pepper.

Harvey was proud of that idea.

So. That leaves running, and the TravelAll’s in as good a shape as I can get it. Bicycles will fit on top, if, as and when. And there’s Sunday to go for things I haven’t thought of.

Harvey went in, exhausted, but with a feeling of satisfaction. He wasn’t exactly ready, but at least he could pretend to be prepared. And a lot better than most. Loretta had waited up for him, and she had the Ben-Gay out. She didn’t bug him with a lot of questions; she just rubbed him down good, decided he wasn’t interested in anything more intimate and let him get to sleep.

As he dropped off he thought about how much he loved her.

June: Four

The Earth is just too small and fragile a basket for the human race to keep all its eggs in.

Robert A. Heinlein

It was night below on Earth. Every ninety minutes Hammerlab passed through day and night; time aboard was kept by a clock, not by light and dark outside.

Cities glowed across Europe at the world’s edge, but the black face of the Atlantic covered half the sky, hiding nucleus and coma of Hamner-Brown. In the other direction stars blazed through thin mist. The comet’s tail streamed up from the horizon on all sides, doming the black Earth with luminous blues and oranges and greens streaming upward to the dome’s star-pierced dark apex. Far off to the side the half-moon floated in a matrix of shock waves, like diamond patterns in a still photograph of rocket flame. It was a sight that no one could tire of.

They had broken off work for dinner. Rick Delanty ate steadily, his attention on the glory beyond the windows. They had all lost weight — they always did — but Rick was already nine pounds light, and was trying to make up for it. (Considerable ingenuity had gone into devising a gadget to find a human’s weight in null-gravity.)

“So long as you’ve got your health,” Rick said, “you’ve got everything. Wow, it’s good not to vomit.”

He got puzzled looks from the kosmonauts, who had never watched American TV commercials. Baker ignored him. The Sun exploded over the world’s edge. Rick closed his eyes for a few moments, then opened them to watch dawn’s blue-and-white arc roll toward them. Yesterday’s hurricane pattern still squatted on the Indian Ocean like a sea monster on an ancient map. Typhoon Hilda. Far to the left was Everest and the Himalaya massif. “That’s a sight I’m never going to get tired of.”

“Yes.” Leonilla joined him at the viewport. “But it seems so very fragile. As if I could reach out and… run my thumb across the land, leaving a path of destruction hundreds of kilometers wide. That is an uneasy feeling.”

Johnny Baker said, “Hold that thought. The Earth is fragile.”

“You are worried about the comet?” Her expression was hard to read. Russian face and body language is not quite the same as American.

“Forget the comet. The more you know, the more fragile we are,” said Johnny. “A nearby nova could sterilize everything on Earth except the bacteria. Or the Sun might flare up. Or cool off a lot. Our galaxy could become a Seyfert galaxy, exploding and killing everything.”

Leonilla was amused. “We need not worry for thirty-three thousand years. Speed of light, you know.”

Johnny shrugged. “So it happened thirty-two thousand, nine hundred years ago. Or we could do it to ourselves. Chemical garbage killing the ocean, or heat pollution—”

Rick said, “Not so fast. Heat pollution could be the only thing saving us from the glaciers. Some people think the next Ice Age started a few centuries back. And we’re running out of coal and oil.”

“Sheesh! You can’t win.”

“Atomic wars. Giant meteor impacts. Supersonic aircraft destroying the ozone layers,” said Pieter Jakov. “Why are we doing this?”

“Because we aren’t safe down there,” Baker said.

“The Earth is large, and probably not as delicate as it looks,’ Leonilla said. “’But man’s ingenuity… sometimes that is what I fear.”

“Only one answer,” Baker said. He was very serious now. “We’ve got to get off. Colonize the planets. Not just here, planets in other systems. Build really big spacecraft, more mobile than planets. Get our eggs into a lot of baskets, and it’s less likely that some damn fool accident — or fanatic — will wipe us out just as the human race is becoming something we can admire.”

“What is admirable?” Jakov said. “I think you and I would not agree. But if you are running for President of the United States, you have my support. I will make speeches for you, but they will not let me vote.”

“That’s a pity,” said Johnny Baker, and thought for a moment of John Glenn, who had run for office, and won. “Back to the salt mines. Who’s going out for samples this morning?”

The nucleus of Hamner-Brown was thirty hours away. In the telescopes it showed as a swarm of particles, with a lot of space in between. The scientists at JPL were excited at the discovery, but for Baker and the others it was a pain in the ass. It wasn’t easy to get Doppler shift on the solid masses, because everything was immersed in the tail, and the gas and dust was streaming away at horrendous speeds, riding the pressure of raw sunlight. The masses were approaching Earth at around fifty miles per second. Finding a sideways drift was even more difficult.

“Still coming straight at us,” Baker reported.

“Surely there is some lateral motion,” Dan Forrester’s voice said.

“Yeah, but it’s not measurable,” Rick Delanty told him. “Look, Doc, we’re giving you the best we’ve got. It’ll have to do.”

Forrester was instantly apologetic. “I’m sorry. I know you’re doing all you can. It’s just that it’s hard to make the projection without better data.”

And then they had to spend five minutes soothing Forrester’s ruffled feathers and assuring him they weren’t mad at him.

“There are times when geniuses drive me crazy,” Johnny Baker said.

“Easy way to fix that,” Delanty said. “Just give him what he wants. You don’t hear no complaints about my observations.”

“Shove it,” Baker said.

Delanty rolled his eyes. “Where?” He drifted over to Baker. “Here, I’ll punch in the numbers. Just read ’em off.”

When they finished the morning observations and had a few moments to relax, Pieter Jakov coughed apologetically. “There is a question,” he said. “I have wanted to ask it for a long time. Please do not take it wrong.”

It struck Johnny that Pieter had waited until Leonilla had gone into the Soyuz and closed the hatchway. “Go ahead.”

Pieter’s eyes tracked back and forth between the two Americans. “Our newspapers tell us that in America the blacks serve the whites, the whites rule the blacks. Yet you seem to work together very well. So, bluntly: Are you equal?”

Rick snorted. “Hell no. He outranks me.”

“But otherwise?” Pieter suggested.

Rick’s face would have looked serious enough, except to another American. “General Baker, can I be your equal?”

“Eh? Oh, sure, Rick, you can be my equal. Why didn’t you say something before?”

“Well, you know, it’s a delicate subject.”

Pieter Jakov’s expression wasn’t cryptic at all. Before he could explode, Johnny asked, “Do you really want a serious lecture on race relations?”

“Please yourself.”

“How does Leonilla pee in free fall?”

“Hm. I… see.”

“See what?” Leonilla came wriggling back through the double hatch.

“A minor discussion,” Johnny said. “No state secrets involved.”

Leonilla clung to a handhold and studied the three men. John Baker was tapping numbers into a programmable hand computer, Pieter Jakov grinned broadly, watching in apparent admiration… but they all wore that broad, irritating, I’ve got-a-secret grin. “They give you good equipment,” said the kosmonaut. “There are not many things that we do better in space than you do.”

Delanty seemed to have trouble with his breathing. Baker said quickly, “Oh, this pocket computer isn’t NASA issue. It’s mine.”

“Ah. Are they expensive?”

“Couple of hundred bucks,” Baker said. “Um, that’s a lot in rubles, not so much in terms of what people make. Maybe a week’s pay for the average guy. Less for somebody who’d actually have a use for it.”

“If I had the money, how long would it take to get one?” Leonilla asked.

“About five minutes,” Baker said. “Down there, in a store. Up here it might be a while.”

She giggled. “I meant down there. They have… those… in stores, to buy?”

“If you’ve got the money. Or good credit. Or even not-so good credit,” Baker said. “Why? You want one? Hell, we’ll find a way to get you one. You too, Pieter?”

“Could that be arranged?”

“Sure. No problem,” Baker said. “I’ll call the PR man at Texas Instruments. They’ll give you a pair of them for the publicity. Help ’em sell more. Or would you rather have a Hewlett-Packard? Those use a different kind of notation, but they’re fast—”

“That is what is confusing,” Pieter said. “Two companies, two different rivals making such fine equipment. Wasteful.”

“Maybe wasteful,” Rick Delanty said, “but I can take you into any damn electronics store in the country and buy one.”

“No politics,” Johnny Baker warned.

“This ain’t politics.”

There was an awkward silence. Pieter Jakov drifted over to the UV camera with its digital readouts. He ran a hand lovingly over it. “So precise. So intricately machined, and the complex electronics. It is a real pleasure to work with your American machinery.” He gestured around Hammerlab, at the containers of growing crystal, at the cameras and radars and recorders. “It is amazing how much we have learned on this short mission, thanks to your excellent equipment. As much, I think, as on any of our previous Soyuz flights.”

“As much?” Leonilla Malik’s voice was sarcastic. “More.” Her voice held a bitterness that snapped three heads around in surprise. “Our kosmonauts go along for the ride. As passengers, to prove that we can send men into space and sometimes bring them down alive. For this mission we had nothing to contribute but food and water and oxygen — and one launch to your two.”

“Somebody had to bring the lunch,” Rick Delanty said. “Pretty good, too.”

“Yes, but it is all we brought. Once we had a space program—”

Jakov interrupted in rapid-fire Russian. He spoke too rapidly for Johnny or Rick to follow, but what he was saying was obvious.

She answered with a short, sharp syllable and then continued. “The basis of Marxism is objectivity, is it not? It is time to be objective. We had a space program once. Sergei Korolev was as great a genius as anyone who ever lived! He could have made our space arm the greatest instrument for knowledge in the world, but those madmen in the Kremlin wanted spectaculars! Khrushchev ordered circuses to shame the Americans, and instead of developing our capabilities we gave the world stunts! The first to have three men in orbit — by taking out all the scientific instruments and jamming a third man, a very small man, into a capsule built for two, for one orbit! Circuses! We might have been the first to the Moon, but now we have yet to go there.”

“Comrade Malik!”

She shrugged. “Is any of this news? No. I thought not. So we had our spectaculars, and we used up our opportunities to gain headlines, and today the best pilot in the Soviet Union cannot dock his spacecraft with a target the size of a comfortable dascha! And you offer to give us, give us as a promotion, something that the best engineers in the Soviet Union cannot build or buy for themselves.”

“Hey, didn’t mean to get you upset,” Johnny Baker said.

Jakov made a final remark in Russian and turned away in disgust. Rick Delanty shook his head in sympathy. What had got into her?

They were quiet and formally polite until she went into the Soyuz. Baker and Delanty exchanged looks. They didn’t need to say more. Johnny Baker went to the corner where Jakov had busied himself. “Need to get something straight,” Johnny said.

“Yes?”

“You’re not going to get her in trouble, are you? I mean, there’s no need to report everything that gets said up here.”

“Of course not,” Jakov agreed. He shrugged. “We are all men of the world. We know that every twenty-eight days women become irrational. What married man does not know?”

“Yeah, that must be it,” Johnny Baker said, and exchanged another glance with Delanty.

“And of course the State has been her parent,” Jakov said. “Her father and mother died when she was young. It is not surprising that she would like to see our country more advanced than it is.”

’’Sure.’’ Sure, Rick Delanty thought. Bullshit. If she had problems with her period she’d have told the Russian groundcontrol people and somebody else would have been sent up. Wouldn’t she? I’d have told them about space sickness if I’d known I was going to get it. I’m sure I would have…

Whatever her problem, it would be wise to treat Leonilla Malik diffidently during the next day or so. Hell. And Hamner-Brown was so close!

Barry Price laid down the telephone and looked up with excitement. Dolores had just come in with coffee. “Guess what happens next Tuesday!” he shouted in glee.

“A comet hits the Earth.”

“Huh? NO, no, this is serious. We go on line! I’ve got all the permissions, the last court suit was dismissed — San Joaquin Nuclear Plant becomes a fully operational facility.”

She didn’t look as happy as he’d thought she would. “I suppose there’ll be some kind of ceremony?” she asked.

“No, we keep a low profile — why?”

“Because I won’t be here. Not unless you absolutely need me.”

He frowned. “I always absolutely need you—”

“Better get used to it,” she said. She patted her stomach. There was no sign of a bulge, but he knew. “Anyway, I’m going to see Dr. Stone in Los Angeles. Thought I’d stay over and visit Mother, and come back Tuesday night.”

“Sure. Dee?”

“Yes?”

“You want to keep this baby, don’t you?”

“Yes. I’m going to.”

“Then marry me.”

“No, thanks. We’ve both tried that before.”

“Not with each other,” he said. He tried to sound convincing, but secretly was relieved. And yet… “Is it fair to the kid? Not having a father…”

She giggled. “Not being parthenogenetic, I’m relatively certain he has one. And I’ve a good idea who he is.”

“Oh, dammit, you know what I mean.”

“Sure.” She put his coffee down on the desk and opened his calendar. “You have lunch with the Lieutenant Governor. Don’t forget.”

“That moron. If there was anything that would get me out of my euphoric mood, you’ve just said it. But I’ll be nice. You can’t believe how nice I’ll be.”

“Good.” She turned to leave.

“Hey,” he called, stopping her. “Look, let’s talk about it. When you get back from Los Angeles. I mean, it’s my kid too…”

“Sure.” Then she was gone.

“Hey, baby, that Hammer’s gonna waste this town.”

“Bull-fucking-shit,” Alim Nassor said, and he smiled. “We’re gonna do the wasting.” He’d heard all the talk about what the comet was going to do. The preachers in their storefronts were getting big crowds, pulling in lots of bread. End of the world coming, make your peace with Sweet Jesus, and give money…

More power to them. One thing that comet was doing — it was sucking the honkies right out of their houses. Alim’s cruises through Brentwood and Bel Air turned up lots of houses with milk bottles and old newspapers on the porches. He went through in an old pickup truck, lawn mowers and garden tools piled in back. Who’d look twice at black gardeners? So when they stopped to collect the papers and milk cartons nobody noticed. And now he had the addresses, and they’d cleaned up so nobody else would come try a ripoff…

They’d go through Bel Air and Brentwood like a mowing machine. Alim Nassor had set it up with half a dozen burglary outfits, with men who weren’t so good at taking orders, but knew a good thing when they saw it. A Hammer of God didn’t come twice in a man’s lifetime.

Some of these places had to be setups. Pigs on stakeout. There were ways to take care of that little problem, too. It only took planning. They even mowed some yards. Did good work and that way they could watch the whole block, see people piling stuff into trailers and taking off. Bel Air was half deserted. It was going to be easy pickings tonight! And afterward… maybe the political game could be played again. A lot of brothers would have bread, for awhile.

Still… there were so many honkies moving out. Rich honkies, people who knew things. Down at City Hall everybody was nervous, too. Maybe that thing could really hit?

Alim had gone through the newspapers and magazines. He could read pretty well. A little slow, but he could puzzle it out, and some of the drawings made it all clear. You didn’t want to be on low ground. Waves a thousand feet high! The cat who drew them had some imagination. He showed the L.A. City Hall part underwater, the tower rising out of the flood, and the County Administration and the Courthouse with their roofs just sticking up. All them pigs dead, wouldn’t that be something? But he sure didn’t want to be here when that happened.

Maybe it wouldn’t, and all the honkies would come home. “Won’t they be surprised,” Alim murmured.

“Huh?”

“The honkies. Won’t they be surprised when they get home?”

“Yeah. Why just these places? If we hit just the richest houses in a lot bigger territory, we—”

“Shut up.”

“Sure.”

“I want us close to each other. If one of these places turns out to be full of pigs, we can call for help on the CB.”

“Okay, sure.”

Hammer of God. What if it was real? Where could they go? Not south, that was for sure. Politicians could talk about black-brown unity, but that was jive. Chicanos didn’t like blacks, blacks hated chicanos. There were clubs where you had to kill a black to join down there in chicano turf, and they were tough mothers, and the further south you went the more there were.

“We take guns tonight,” he said. “We take all the guns.”

Harold flinched, and the truck swerved a little. “You think we’ll get trouble?”

“I just want to be ready,” Alim said. And if that fucking comet… Better to have guns and bullets, tonight and tomorrow. And take some food. He’d stash it himself, so as not to upset the brothers.

At least they’d be high up, if it came.

Patrolman Eric Larsen had come to Los Angeles from Topeka with a university degree in English and an urgent impulse to write for television and the movies. The need to support himself and a chance opportunity led him to the Burbank Police Department. He told himself it would be valuable experience. Look what Joseph Wambaugh had managed from a police career! And Eric could write; at least, he had a degree that said he could.

Three years later he still hadn’t sold a script, but he had confidence, strange tales to tell and a considerably better understanding of both human nature and the entertainment industry. He’d also done a lot of growing up. He’d lived with a woman, been engaged twice and got over his inability to have casual friendships with girls, even though he hadn’t lost a strong tendency to idealize women. It hurt Eric to see young runaways exploited by the street people. He kept thinking of what they might have become.

He’d also learned the police view of the world: All humanity is divided into three parts — cops, scumbags and civilians. He hadn’t yet adopted an attitude of contempt toward civilians. They were the people he was supposed to protect, and perhaps because he was not a career policeman (although Burbank didn’t know that) he could take his job seriously. The civilians paid him. One day he would be one of them.

He’d learned to curse the judicial system, while keeping enough literary objectivity to admit that he didn’t know what to replace it with. There were people who could be “rehabilitated.” Not many. Most scumbags were just that, and the best thing to do with them would be to take them out to San Nicholas Island and put them ashore. Let them victimize each other. The trouble was, you couldn’t always tell which ones should be put away forever and which could fit back into the real world. He often got into arguments with his partners over that. His buddies on the force called him “Professor” and kidded his literary ambitions, and the diary he kept; but Eric got along with nearly everyone, and his sergeant had recommended him for promotion to Investigator.

The comet fascinated Eric, and he’d read all he could about it. Now it dominated the skies above. Tomorrow it would be past. Eric drove with his partner through strangely active Burbank streets. People were moving about, piling goods into trailers, doing things inside their houses. There was a lot of traffic.

“Be glad when that thing’s past,” his partner said. Investigator Harris was all cop. The brilliant light show in the skies above was only another problem to him. If it was a pretty show, he’d look at films of it after it was past. Right now it was a pain in the arse.

“Car forty-six. See the woman at eight-nine-seven-six Alamont. Reports screaming in the apartment above her. Handle Code Three.”

“Ten-four,” Eric told the microphone. Harris had already sent the cruiser around a tight curve.

“That’s not a family-fight house,” Harris said. “Singles apartments. Probably some guy can’t take no for an answer.”

The cruiser pulled up in front of the apartment building. It was a large, fancy place, swimming pool and sauna. Rubber trees grew on both sides of the entrance. The girl standing behind the glass lobby doors wore a thin robe over a blue silk nightgown. She seemed scared. “It’s in three-fourteen,” she said. “It was horrible! She was screaming for help…”

Investigator Harris stopped just long enough to look on the mailbox for 314. “Colleen Darcy.” He led the way up the stairs, his nightstick drawn.

The even-numbered apartments on the third floor faced onto an interior hallway. Eric thought he remembered seeing the building from the other side. It had little private balconies, screened from the street. Probably good places for girls to sunbathe. The hall was freshly painted, and the impression was of a nice building, a good place to live for young singles. Of course the best apartments would be on the other side, overlooking the pool.

The hall was quiet. They couldn’t hear anything through the door of 314. “Now what?” Eric asked.

Harris shrugged, then knocked loudly on the door. There was no answer. He knocked again. “Police,” he said. “Miz Darcy?”

There was no answer. The lady who’d called them was coming up the stairs behind them. “You sure she’s in there?” Eric asked.

“Yes! She was screaming.”

“Where’s the manager?”

“Not here. I called him, but there wasn’t anyone there.”

Eric and his partner exchanged glances.

“She was screaming for help!” the lady said indignantly.

“We’ll probably catch hell for this,” Harris muttered. He stood to one side and gestured to Eric. Then he drew his service revolver.

Eric stepped back, raised his foot and smashed it at the locked door. Once. Then again. The door burst open and Eric darted inside, moving quickly to one side the way he’d been taught.

There was only one room. There was something on the bed. Later Eric remembered thinking just that: “Something.” It looked so little like a girl in her twenties…

There was blood on the bed and on the floor beside it. The room smelled of bright copper and expensive perfume.

The girl was nude. Eric saw long blonde hair, arranged carefully on the pillow. The hair was spattered with blood. One of her teats was gone. Blood oozed from punctures below the missing breast. Someone had drawn figures in the blood, tracing an arrow down to point to her dark pubic hair. There was more blood there.

Eric doubled over, struggling with himself, holding his breath. His partner came in.

Harris took one look at the bed, then looked away. He sent his eyes searching the room, saw no one, then looked for doors. There was a door across the room, and Harris moved toward it. As he did, the closet door opened behind him and a man darted out, breaking for the opening to the hallway. He was past Joe Harris, running toward the screaming lady who’d called the police.

Eric breathed deeply, got control of himself and moved to intercept the man. The man had a knife. A bloody knife. He raised it high, point toward Eric. Eric brought up his pistol and leveled it at the man’s chest. His finger tightened on the trigger.

The man threw up his arms. The knife dropped from his hand. Then he fell to his knees. He still said nothing.

Eric’s pistol followed the man. His finger tightened again. A half-ounce more… No! I am a police officer, not a judge and jury.

The man held his hands in supplication, almost as if in prayer. When Eric moved closer, he saw the man’s eyes. They did not hold terror, or even hatred. The man had a curious expression, of troth resignation and satisfaction. It did not change when he looked past Eric Larsen at the dead girl.

Later, after the detectives and the coroner had come, Eric Larsen and Joe Harris took their prisoner to the Burbank City Jail.

“You’ll get him there alive.” The voice was a whine. It belonged to a lawyer who lived in the apartment building. He’d come while they were still questioning the suspect, and shouted that the police had no right to keep after the man. He advised the man to keep silent. The man had laughed.

Eric and Harris took their prisoner to the patrol car and put him inside. He would be turned over to the L.A. County Jail the next day.

During the whole time the man had said nothing. They knew his name from his wallet: Fred Lauren. They’d also heard his record from R I. Three previous sex offenses, two with violence. Probation, probation, then parole after psychiatric treatment.

When they reached the station, Eric hauled Lauren roughly out of the car.

“That hurts,” the man said.

“That hurts. You son of a bitch!” Harris moved close to Lauren. His arm jerked, sending his elbow into the pit of the prisoner’s stomach. He did it again. “Nothing that ever happens to you will hurt the way you…” Harris couldn’t say anything else.

“Joe.” Eric moved between his partner and the prisoner. “He’s not worth it.”

“I’ll report you!” Lauren screamed. Then he giggled. “No. What’s the point? No.”

“Now he’s scared,” Eric said. “Not when he was arrested.” And not now, Eric saw: As soon as Harris moved away and they began walking Lauren into the station, the fear vanished, replaced by the look of resignation. “Okay, tell me,” Eric said. “You think the judge will give you probation again? You’ll be on the street in a week?”

The man giggled. “There won’t be any streets in a week. There won’t be anything!”

“Hammer Fever,” Eric muttered. He’d seen it before: Why not commit a crime? The end of the world was coming. The papers had a lot of stories about that. But none like this, and none in Burbank before.

“I’ll be glad when that goddam thing’s past,” Harris said. He didn’t mention the body on the bed. You lived with that, or you quit; but you worked it out on your own.

“It’s going to be a long night,” Eric said.

“Yeah, and we’ve got morning watch tomorrow.” Harris looked up at the glowing sky. “Be damned glad when that thing’s past.”

They camped at Soda Springs. It was a good campground, surprisingly uncrowded; Gordie Vance had expected a dozen other scout troops to be there. Instead, there was only Gordie and the six scouts he’d brought with him. Hammer Fever, Gordie thought. Nobody wants to be this far from roads and civilization.

They dropped their packs with relief. The boys went dashing off to the spring. There were two springs: One bubbled with clear mountain water, pure and cold; the other was rusty in color, and tasted awful, although the boys pretended they liked it. The water was naturally carbonated, and they made Wyler’s root beer in their canteens. Gordie didn’t bother telling them not to drink too much. Nobody ever did.

They cooked supper over the Svea gasoline backpacker stoves. Gordie let Andy Randall choose the dinner; Andy would have to get used to leading the group. It wouldn’t be long before…

“But my teacher said it might,” one of the younger boys was saying.

“Nuts,” Andy Randall told him. “Dad’s been out to JPL dozens of times, and their computer says it won’t. Besides, Mr. Hamner told me—”

“You know him?” the younger scout asked.

“Sure.”

“But he invented the Hammer.” Involuntarily they looked upward, to the huge glowing smear in the evening sky. “It sure looks close,” the younger scout said.

The long mountain twilight ended, and the stars came out. The Hammer glowed fiercely in the night sky before it sank behind the Sierra. Gordie got the boys into their sleeping bags. They wanted to stay up and watch; there were bright aurora displays across the sky, with the stars showing through jagged lines of green and red.

Gordie climbed into his own sack. As usual he dropped straight off to sleep, programmed to wake in a couple of hours so that he could walk around and see that the boys were all right. I’m a conscientious bastard, he thought, just before he dozed off. It was funny, but Gordie wasn’t laughing.

He woke at midnight — and that was all the sleep he got that night.

The sky was frantic. It streamed overhead like luminescent milk in black water. Stars winked in Hamner-Brown’s tail, then sank into the background as blazes of color flashed across from horizon to horizon. Somewhere in the far distance there were brighter flashes, and after a long time, thunder. Gordie made his rounds in a trance.

Andy Randall was awake. He hadn’t bothered to set up a tube tent, although it often rains in the Sierra in June. Andy lay in the open, his head propped on his pack, his long arms under his neck. “Quite a show,” he whispered.

“That it is,” Gordie said. He was careful to keep his voice cheerful and under control. When they asked later, Andy would have to say that Gordon Vance had shown no signs of depression. “Get some sleep,” Gordie said. “We don’t have far to go tomorrow, but the trail’s tricky in places.”

“I know.”

“Right,” Gordie said. He walked a little way uphill, to be alone, and sank down in the long grass.

Tomorrow it won’t matter, he thought. I don’t need any sleep.

He had the cliff all picked out. A fatal fall… it would have to be fatal. A mistake would leave him injured but alive the kids frantic, while a rescue team moved in to get him to a hospital. He’d be in a hospital bed when the bank examiners found the shortages. Crippled, maybe. Not even able to run.

Not that he would run. He’d had that chance, and it was no good, no good at all. Where would he go? The money was gone, and there was nothing for an American exile without money. Besides, children ought to grow up in their own country. Gordie glanced over to where his own son, age twelve, lay huddled in his sleeping bag. It was going to be rough on Bert, but there wasn’t any help for it.

Funny about that cliff. Gordie could remember it perfectly. The trail wasn’t all that narrow there, but the edge was crumbly, and if you stood too close… he’d seen that two years ago, when they passed by it. He’d had different thoughts then.

I sure wish Bert wasn’t along.

A red velvet curtain rippled across the sky. Magnificent show for my last night, Gordie thought. He tried to watch the sky, but he kept seeing the cliff.

One moment. One carefully careless moment and he’d be at the bottom with a broken neck, and worse. There was a path down, easy enough for the kids. Andy would see that they went down properly. Then Andy Randall would be in charge, and that would be okay. Gordie had been training Andy for two years. Not for this — well, yes, for this, just in case of a genuine accident. Funny how things work out.

The crescent moon rose over the hills, washing out some of the stars and blending its own eerie colors into the light show. Gordie imagined he could see shock waves in the comet tail — but that was probably imagination. The astronauts up there would be seeing it, though, with instruments if not with their eyes. Wonder what it’s like to be up there? Gordie had been a flyer, for a short time, until he’d been low scorer in his class and washed out of flight school to become a navigator for the Air Force. Should have stayed in, he thought. But I had to be a banker…

Too damn bad to ruin the boys’ trip. No choice. None at all, and an accident solves all problems. Half a million in insurance, enough to cover all the bank shortages and leave Marie and Bert in pretty good shape. Call it three hundred thousand left, at seven percent. It’s not magnificent wealth, but it’s sure as hell better than having your father in prison and nothing to live on…

Toward dawn the frantic sky became even more frantic. There was a bright spot in there. If it was the head, it was hard to see, looking down through the luminous tunnel of the tail. Cold light and shifting shadows, faint color splashes of aurora even in daytime. Then the land was afire with dawn, but the light was still funny. Elfin. Gordie shivered.

He went back to his sleeping bag and slid in. No point in catching a nap. It won’t be long…

The Svea was laid out with the fuel bottle, pan of water next to it. Gordie reached out with one arm and primed the tiny stove. His sleeping-bag breakfasts were a standard joke with everyone who’d been camping with him. He didn’t really feel like eating, but it would be dangerous to change the routine. He brought a pan of water to a boil and made hot chocolate. It was surprisingly good, and then he was ready for oatmeal, and a big cup of Sherpa tea, strong tea with brown sugar and a lump of butter…

One by one the boys woke. Gordie chortled to hear Andy Randall tell Bert, “You mean you slept through it? All night?”

No campfire. Not enough wood. Every year there were fewer and fewer places you could build a real fire. Not very many of the kids knew how to cook over a wood fire. Be bad if they really had to be out on their own, but that didn’t happen anymore. Nowadays, if you get lost, you clear an area fifty feet in diameter and light a match in the middle of it. Pretty soon a fire patrol will be out to give you a citation. There aren’t any deep woods anymore, not like when I was a kid…

I should have got some sleep, Gordie thought. My mind’s wandering. It doesn’t matter, though. It’s not very far now. I think I’ll have one more cup of chocolate.

He put the water on. “Let’s get it together,” he called. “Time to be finishing up. Stuff your bags and lace your boots. 1 want us on the trail in five minutes.”

The comet’s nucleus is bathed in light. The tail and coma trap sunlight throughout a tremendous volume and reflect it, some to Earth, some to space, some to the nucleus itself.

The comet has suffered. Explosions in the head have torn it into mountainous chunks. Megatons of volatile chemicals have boiled away. The large masses in the head are crusted with icy mud from which most of the water ice has boiled out.

Yet the crusts retard further evaporation. Other comets have survived many such passages through the maelstrom. Much mass has been lost, poured into the tail; but much of the coma could freeze again, and the rocky chunks could merge; and crystals of strange ices could plate themselves across a growing comet, out there in the dark and the cold, over the millions of years… if only Hamner-Brown could return to the cometary halo.

But there appears to be something in its path.

2

THE HAMMER

And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as a sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood; and the stars of heaven fell unto the earth.

The Revelation of Saint John the Divine

Hammerfall Morning

There is a place with four suns in the sky — red, white, blue, and yellow; two of them are so close together that they touch, and star-stuff flows between them.

I know of a world with a million moons.

I know of a sun the size of the Earth — and made of diamond.

Carl Sagan, The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective

Rick Delanty woke on a wonderful morning, with a rectangle of hot sunlight crawling across his arm. The wonderful mornings came every hour and a half aboard Hammerlab, and he hadn’t tired of them yet. He used the tube and crawled out of the Apollo.

The larger windows in Hammerlab were filled with telescopes and cameras and other instruments. You had to crane around them, holding on to handholds on the bulkheads, swimming across open spaces.

Baker and Leonilla Malik were feeding data into the onboard computer. She looked up and said quickly, “Hello, Rick,” but turned back to work too quickly to see his quick grin.

It was time for work, but Rick Delanty was still partly tourist, and his eagerness was for the dawning of the comet. He found an observation scope unused at the moment, it had a big sun shield built into the optics, so that he could look at the comet without going blind.

The view was something like a stylized sunburst done in Day-Glo, and something like falling down a deep well while high on LSD. The gay streamers of the tail flowed outward as sluggishly as a lunar eclipse. There at the heart of the beast was a hint of graininess.

“Roger, Houston. We do have sideways motion relative to us. It should be coming onto your telemetry right now,” Baker was saying. “And there’s still activity, although that’s been dying out ever since the Hammer rounded the Sun. We got only one explosive event last watch, nothing big, not like the monster we observed yesterday.”

“Hammerlab, there appears to be something wrong with the Doppler data. JPL requests you get optical tracking on the largest piece you can find. Can do?”

“Can try, Houston.”

“I’ll get it, Johnny,” Rick said. He cranked up the resolution on the telescope and peered into the murk. “Leonilla, can you lend a hand? Slave the output onto the telemetry—”

“Right,” she said.

“Mark, mark, I’m off, mark, mark…”

Baker continued his report. “Houston, that nucleus is pretty well spread out, and the coma is huge. I fed the angular diameter into the computer and I get a hundred and forty thousand kilometers. As big as Jupiter. It could envelope the Earth without noticing.”

“Don’t be silly,” a familiar voice crackled. “Gravity… rip it to pieces…” Charlie Sharps’s voice began to fade.

“Houston, we’re losing you,” Baker said.

“That’s not Houston, that’s Sharps at JPL,” Rick said without looking up from the scope. “Mark, mark…”

“It comes through Houston. Damn. The comet stuff is playing pure hell with the ionosphere. We’re going to have communications problems until that thing’s past. Better record every observation we can get, just in case they’re not going through.”

“Rojj,” Delanty said. He continued to stare into the telescope. Hamner-Brown’s nucleus was spread out before him. He was having trouble keeping the cross hairs exactly centered on the mass he’d picked. There wasn’t enough contrast to use an automatic tracking system; it had to be done by eye. Delanty smiled. Another blow for man-in-space. “Mark, mark… ~’

He saw thick, glowing dust in sluggish motion, and a handful of flying mountains, and many more smaller particles, all jumbled, without order, parts moving in random patterns as they responded to light pressure and continuing chemical activity. It was the primal stuff of chaos. His mouth watered with the need to take a spacecraft into that, land on one of the mountains and walk out for a look around. The fifty-mile per-second velocity of those mountains was not evident. But it would be decades before NASA could build manned ships that good. If anyone built them at all. And when it was done, Rick Delanty would be a tired old man.

But this won’t be my last mission. We’ve got the Shuttle coming up, if those goddam congresscritters don’t turn it into pork for their own districts…

Pieter Jakov had been working with a spectroscope. He finished his observations and said, “They have set us a hectic schedule for this morning. I see that extravehicular activity for final check of external instruments is optional. Should we? There are two hours left.”

“Crazy Russian. No, we’re not going to EVA into that. A snowflake at that speed can’t hole the Hammerlab, but it can sure as hell leave a hole in your suit the size of your fist.” Baker frowned at the computer readouts. “Rick, that last optical. What did you pick?”

“A big mountain,” Rick said. “About the center of the nucleus, just as they asked. Why?”

“Nothing.” Baker thumbed the microphone. “Houston, Houston, did you get the optical readings?”

“…squeal… negative, Hammerlab, send again…”

“What the hell is it, Johnny?” Rick demanded.

“Houston and JPL get a miss distance of nine thousand kilometers,” Johnny said thoughtfully. “I don’t. Feeding your data into the onboard I come up with about a quarter of that. They’ve got more computing power down there, but we’ve got better data.”

— “Hell, two thousand kilometers is two thousand kilometers,” Delanty said. He didn’t sound confident.

“I wish we didn’t have a glitch in the main Doppler antenna,” Baker said.

“I will go out and work on it,” Jakov said.

“No.” Baker’s answer was abrupt; the commander speaking. “We haven’t lost anyone in space yet, and why start now?”

“Shouldn’t we ask ground control?” Leonilla asked.

“They put me in charge,” Johnny Baker said. “And I’ve said no.”

Pieter Jakov said nothing. Rick Delanty remembered that the Soviets had lost men in space: the three Soyuz pilots on reentry that the world knew about, and a number of others, known only by rumors and tales told at night over vodka. He wondered (not for the first time) if NASA had been too cautious. With fewer safety precautions the United States could have reached the Moon a little sooner, done a good deal more exploring, learned more — and, yes, created a martyr or two. The Moon had been too expensive in money, but too cheap in lives to gain the popularity it needed. By the time Apollo XI reached it, it was dull. Routine.

Maybe that’s what we ought to do. The picture of Johnny Baker crawling out on the broken Spacelab wing, of a man out in that hostile environment risking the loneliest death ever — that had given the space program almost as big a boost as Neil Armstrong’s giant leap.

There was a ping. Then another, and red warning lights flared on the monitor board.

Rick Delanty didn’t think. He leaped for the nearest redpainted box. A square box, duplicate of others that were put at various places in Hammerlab. He opened it and took out several flat metal plates with goop on one side, then some larger, rubberlike patches. He looked to Baker for instructions.

“Not holed,” Johnny was saying. “Sand. We’re being sandblasted.” He frowned at the status board. “And we’re losing efficiency in the solar cells. Pieter, cap all the optical instruments! We’ll have to save ’em for closest approach.”

“Rojj,” Jakov said. He moved to the instruments.

Delanty stood by with the meteor patches. Just in case.

“It depends on just how large that nucleus is,” Pieter Jakov called from the far end of the space capsule. “And we have yet to get firm estimates of how widely the solid matter extends. I think it highly likely that the Earth — and we — will be hit by high-velocity gravel if nothing worse.”

“Yeah. That’s what I was thinking,” Johnny Baker said. “We’ve been looking for sideways drift. Well, we found it, but is it enough? Maybe we ought to terminate this mission.”

There was a moment of silence.

“Please, no,” Leonilla said.

“I second that,” Rick added. “You don’t want to either. Who does?”

“Not me,” Jakov said.

“Unanimous. But it’s hardly a democracy,” Baker said. “We’ve lost a lot of power. It’s going to get warm in here.”

“You stood it in Spacelab until you got the wing fixed,” Delanty said. “If you could take it before, you can take it now. And so can we.”

“Right,” Baker said. “But you will stand by those meteor patches.”

“Yes, sir.”

Minutes later Hamner-Brown’s nucleus dropped behind the Earth. The Moon rose in its ghostly net of shock waves. Leonilla passed out breakfast.

Dawn found Harvey Randall in an easy chair on the lawn, with a table to hold his cigarettes and coffee and another to hold the portable television. Dawn washed out the once-in-a-lifetime sky show and left him a little depressed, a little drunk, and not really ready to start a working day. Loretta found him in the same state two hours later.

“I’ve gone to work in worse shape,” he told her. “It was worth it.”

“I’m glad. Are you sure you can drive?”

“Of course I can.” That was an old argument.

“Where are you going to be today?”

He didn’t notice the worry in her voice. “I had a hell of a time deciding that. I really want to be everywhere at once. But hell, the regular network science team will be at JPL, and they’ve got a good crew in Houston. I think I’ll start at City Hall. Bentley Allen and staff calmly taking care of the city while half the populace runs for the hills.”

“But that’s all the way downtown.”

Now he heard it. “So?”

“But what if it hits? You’ll be miles away. How can you get back?”

“Loretta, it’s not going to hit us. Listen—”

“You’ve got the swimming pool filled with fresh water and I couldn’t use it yesterday and you covered it up!” Her voice rose. “You made a couple of hundred dollars’ worth of dried beef and you sent our boy into the mountains and you filled the garage with expensive liquor and—”

“Loretta—”

“—and we don’t drink that kind of thing, and nobody could eat that meat unless they were starving to death. So you think we’ll be starving. Don’t you?”

“No. Honey, it’s hundreds to one against—”

“Harvey, please. Stay home today. Just this once. I never make a fuss about you being off somewhere all the time. I didn’t complain when you volunteered for another tour in Vietnam. I didn’t complain when you went to Peru. I didn’t complain when you took three weeks extra in Alaska. I’ve never said anything about having to raise your boy, who’s smarter than I am only he’s seen less of his father than Ralph Harris ever saw of his. I know your job means more to you than I do, but please, Harvey, don’t I mean something to you?”

“Of course you do.” He grabbed her and pulled her to him. “Lord, is that how you feel? The job doesn’t mean more than you do.” It’s just the money, he thought. And I can’t say that. I can’t say that I don’t need the money, you do.

“Then you’ll stay?”

“I can’t. Really can’t. Loretta, these documentaries have been good. Really good. Maybe I’ll get an offer from ABC. They’ll need a new science feature editor pretty soon, and that’s real folding money. And there’s a real chance of a book…”

“You’ve been up all night, Harvey, you’re in no shape to go anywhere. And I’m scared.”

“Hey.” He hugged her tightly and kissed her hard. And it’s all my fault, he told himself. How could she not be scared, after all the stuff I bought? But I can’t miss Hammer Day… “Look. I’ll send somebody else down to City Hall.”

“Good!”

“And I’ll have Charlie and Manuel meet me at UCLA.”

“But why can’t you stay here?”

“Got to do something, Loretta. Manly pride if nothing else. How can T tell people I sat at home in the root cellar after telling everybody else there wasn’t any danger? Look, I’ll get some interviews, and the Governor’s in town for a charity thing at Los Angeles Country Club, I’ll go over there just after the thing has gone by. And I won’t ever be more than ten or fifteen minutes from here. If anything happens, I’ll come home fast.”

“All right. But you still haven’t eaten your breakfast. It’s getting cold. And I filled your Thermos, and put a beer in the TravelAII.”

He ate quickly. She sat and watched him the whole time, not eating anything at all. She laughed when he made jokes, and she told him to be careful when he drove down the hill.

Communications were still bad. Mostly they spoke into recorders. It would be important to get their observations because the instruments weren’t going to be much use. Too much sandblasting. They had preserved the big telescope that could be attached to the color TV, though, and they’d record the video as well as try to send it back to Earth.

“Solar power’s down to about twenty-five percent,” Rick Delanty reported.

“Save the batteries,” Baker said.

“Rojj.”

It was getting warm in the spacecraft, but they needed the power for the recorders and other instruments.

Leonilla Malik spoke rapid-fire Russian into a mike. Jakov played with the transmitter controls, trying to get some response from Baikunyar. No luck. Leonilla continued to record. She had moored herself oddly, twisting to watch the observation port and still see the instrument board. Rick tried to follow what she was saying, but she was using too many unfamiliar words. Waxing lyrical, Rick thought. Letting her poetic streak have its way. Why not? How else could you describe being inside a comet?

They now knew less about Hamner-Brown’s path than Houston did. The last report from Houston was a miss by one thousand kilometers, but Rick wondered. Was that based on his visual observation? Because if it was, it meant only that that particular mountain would be that far off, and the cloud of solid gup was large. Not that large, though. Surely not that large.

“We are effectively inside the coma,” Leonilla was saying. “This is not especially evident. The chemical activity is long past. But we see the shadow of the Earth like a long tunnel leading through the tail.”

Rick caught that last phrase. Nice, he thought. If I get a chance to broadcast live to Earth, I’ll use it.

They all had work, which they did while they chattered into recorders. Rick had a hand-held camera, a Canon, which he worked like a madman, changing lenses and film as rapidly as he could. He hoped the automatic features were in good order, and forced himself to take a few frames with widely different speeds and apertures, just in case.

The status board inexorably ticked off seconds.

The long lens gave a good view through the observation port. Rick saw: half a dozen large masses, many more small ones and a myriad of tiny glinting points, all enmeshed in pearly fog. He heard Baker’s voice behind him. “Duck’s-eye view of a shotgun blast.”

“Good phrasing,” Rick said.

“Yeah. Hope it’s not too good.”

“I have lost all signal from the radar,” Pieter Jakov said.

“Roger. Give it up and make visuals,” Baker said. “Houston, Houston, are you getting anything from the inside TV?”

“…roger, Hammerlab… JPL… Sharps is in love, send more… higher-power transmission…”

“I’ll put on higher power when the Hammer’s closer,” Baker said. He didn’t know if they heard. “We’re saving the batteries.” He looked up at the status board. Ten minutes before the solid objects got to closest approach. Twenty minutes maybe for it all to pass. A half-hour. “I’ll increase transmitter power in five minutes; say again, increase to full power transmission in five minutes.”

CLANG!

“What the fuck was that?” Baker demanded.

“Pressure remains unchanged,” Jakov said. “Pressure holding in all three capsules.”

“Good,” Rick muttered. They’d closed the airlocks to Apollo and Soyuz; it seemed a reasonable precaution. Rick stood by with the meteor patches anyway. Hammerlab was by far the largest target.

And just how did the engineers estimate the size that a meteor patch ought to be? Rick wondered. From their size — about the maximum-size hole it would be worth repairing? Anything bigger would finish them anyway? To hell with it. He went back to his photographs. Through the Canon lens he looked into a galaxy of foamy ice, a tremendous, slow shotgun blast that was visibly coming toward them, spreading around Hammerlab rather than sliding sideways. “Jesus, Johnny, it’s coming close.”

“Rojj. Pieter, get the main telescope uncovered. I’m going to full power. We’ll send transmissions from here on in. Houston, Houston, visual indicates Earth is in the path of outer edges of nucleus; I say again, Earth is in the path of outer nucleus. Impossible to estimate size of objects that may strike Earth.”

“Make certain that message gets through,” Leonilla Malik said. “Pieter, see that Moscow knows as well.” There was urgency and fear in her voice.

“Eh?” Rick Delanty said.

“It is passing east of the Earth,” Leonilla said. “The United States will be more exposed, but there will be more objects close to the Soviet Union. The opportunities for deliberate misinterpretation are too great. Some fanatic—”

“Why do you say this?” Jakov demanded.

“You know it is true,” she shouted. “Fanatics. Like the madmen who had my father killed because Great Stalin was not immortal! Do not pretend they do not exist.”

“Ridiculous,” Jakov snorted, but he went to the communications console, and Rick Delanty thought he spoke urgently.

Hammerfall: One

In 1968 the close approach of an asteroid called Icarus set off a small but very definite end-of-the-world scare. There had already been rumors that a series of world-wide cataclysms was going to begin in 1968. When news that Icarus was heading toward earth and was going to make its closest approach on June 15, 1968, got around, it somehow became combined with the other end-of-the-world rumors. In California groups of hippies headed for the mountains of Colorado saying that they wanted to be safe on high ground before the asteroid hit and caused California to sink into the sea.

Daniel Cohen, How the World Will End

“O my people! Hear the words of Matthew! Does he not say that the sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give off her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven? And does this not come to pass even in this very hour?

“Repent, my people! Repent, and watch, for the Lord cometh, the Hammer will fall upon this wicked Earth. Hear the words of the Prophet Micah: ‘For behold, the Lord cometh forth out of his place, and will come down, and tread upon the high places of the Earth. And the mountains shall be molten under him, and the valleys shall be cleft, as wax before the fire, and as the waters that are poured down a steep place.’

“For He cometh! For he cometh to judge the Earth, and with righteousness to judge the world, and the peoples with his truth!”

“You have heard the Reverend Henry Armitage on ‘The Coming Hour.’ This and all broadcasts of ‘The Coming Hour’ have been made possible by your donations, and we ask the Lord to bless those who have given so generously.

“No further donations will be needed. The hour comes and is now at hand.”

It was a bright, cloudless summer day. A brisk wind blew in from the sea, and the Los Angeles basin was clear and lovely.

Bloody good thing, Tim Hamner thought.

He’d been faced with a terrible problem. The spectacular night skies could best be seen from the mountains, and Tim had stayed at his Angeles Forest observatory for most of the week before; but the best view of Hamner-Brown’s closest approach would be from space. Since he couldn’t be in space, Tim wanted the next best thing: to watch all of it on color television. It hadn’t been hard to persuade Charlie Sharps to invite him out to JPL.

But he was supposed to be there by nine-thirty, and the clear skies with their bright velvet ribbons of light had kept him up until dawn. He’d stretched out on the couch, careful not to go to bed, but a few minutes’ rest wouldn’t hurt…

Of course he’d overslept. Now, muzzy-headed and wateryeyed, Tim aimed rather than drove his Grand Prix down the Ventura Freeway toward Pasadena. Despite his late start he expected to be on time. There wasn’t much traffic.

“Fools,” Tim muttered. Hammer Fever. Thousands of Angelenos taking to the hills. Harvey Randall had told him that freeway traffic would be light all week, and he’d been right. Light traffic for — in Mark Czescu’s brilliant phrasing — Hot Fudge Sundae (which fell on a Tuesdae this week).

There was a flare of red ahead, a ripple of red lights. Traffic slowed. Tim cursed. There was a truck just ahead of him, so he couldn’t see what was fouling things up. Automatically he cut over into the right-hand lane, acing out a sweet little old lady in a green Ford. She cursed horribly as Tim cut in front of her.

“Probably wears her tennis shoes to bed,” Tim muttered. Just what was happening ahead? The traffic seemed to have stopped entirely. He saw a parking lot that stretched away before him as far as he could see. All the way to the Golden State interchange, Tim thought. “Damn.” He glanced over his shoulder. No highway patrolmen in sight. He cut onto the shoulder and drove forward, passing stopped cars, until he came to an off-ramp.

To his right was Forest Lawn Cemetery. Not the original one, fabled in song and story, but the Hollywood Hills colony. The streets were thick with traffic too. Tim turned left and went under the freeway. His face was a grim mask of worry and hate. Bad enough not to be in his observatory on Hot Fudge Sundae Tuesdae, but this! He was in beautiful downtown Burbank, and his comet was approaching perigee. “It’s not fair!” Tim shouted. Pedestrians glanced at him, then looked away, but Tim didn’t care. “Not fair!”

The air was electric with storm and disaster. Eileen Hancock felt it as ghostly fingers brushing her neck hairs. She saw it in more concrete form while driving to work. Despite the light traffic, people drove badly. They fought for dominance at the wrong times, and they reacted late, then overreacted. There were many U-Haul trailers piled high with household possessions, reminding Eileen of newsclips from the war: refugees, only no refugees in Asia or Africa ever carried birdcages, Beautyrest mattresses, and stereo sets.

One of the trailers had overturned on the eastbound Ventura, blocking all three lanes. A few cars squeezed past on the shoulder, but the others were immobile behind a tumbled mass of furniture. The light pickup that had pulled the trailer was angled across the fast lane with a VW embedded in its side.

Thank God I came up the Golden State, Eileen thought. She felt a moment of pity for anyone trying to get to Pasadena this morning, and she cursed the trailer and its owner. People on her side of the freeway slowed to gawk at it, and it took five minutes to get the hundred yards to her off-ramp into Burbank. She drove viciously on the surface streets and pulled into her parking space — with her name on it, Corrigan kept his word about that — with a feeling of relief that the Burbank police seemed to be elsewhere.

Corrigan’s was a storefront office near a supermarket, deceptively small because the warehouses were across an alley behind. The entry room was finished in blue nylon, brown Naugahyde, and chrome, and the chrome needed polishing. It always did; Eileen believed that wholesale customers ought to get the impression of a sound business able to keep its commitments, but not of opulence which might tempt them to dicker too hard on prices. The front door was already unlocked. “What ho?” Eileen called.

“Me.” Corrigan stumped out of his office. A smell of coffee followed him; Eileen had long ago installed an automatic Silex system with a timer, and she set it up last thing before she left in the evenings. It had improved Corrigan’s morning disposition wonderfully; but not this morning. “What kept you?” he demanded.

“Traffic. Wreck on the eastbound Ventura.”

“Umph.”

“You feel it too, huh?” Eileen said.

Corrigan frowned, then grinned sheepishly. “Yeah. I guess so. I was afraid you wouldn’t show up. There’s nobody in the front office, and only three back in the warehouse. Radio says half the shops in the city are missing half their people.”

“And the rest of us are scared.” She went past Corrigan to her own office. The clean glass surface of her desk shone like a mirror. She put her tape recorder down on it and took out her keys, but she didn’t open the desk yet. Instead she went back out into the reception area. “I’ll take the front office,” she said.

Corrigan shrugged. He was looking out through the big plate-glass window. “Nobody’s coming in today.”

“Sabrini’s due at ten,” Eileen said. “Forty bathrooms and kitchens, if we can get the decor he wants at the right price.”

Corrigan nodded. He didn’t seem to be listening. “What the hell’s that?” He pointed out the window.

There was a line of people, all dressed in white robes, all singing hymns. They seemed to be marching in step. Eileen looked closer and saw why. They were chained together. She shrugged. The Disney Studios were a few blocks away, and NBC not much further; they often used Burbank for city location shots. “Probably contestants for ‘Let’s Make a Deal.’ Group effort.”

“Too early,” Corrigan said.

“Then it’s Disney. Silly way to make a living.”

“Don’t see any camera trucks,” Corrigan said. He didn’t sound very interested. He watched for a few moments longer. “Heard from that rich boy friend of yours? This is his big day.”

For just a moment Eileen felt terribly lonely. “Not for awhile.” Then she began pulling out folders of color pictures and arranged them to show attractive combinations of accessories: the bathroom your clients dream of.

Alameda was fairly speedy. Tim Hamner tried to remember the connections to the arroyo north of Pasadena. There were high hills just in front of him, the Verdugo Hills that cut through the San Fernando Valley and divided the foothill cities from Burbank. He knew there was a new freeway in there somewhere, but he didn’t know how to find it.

“Goddammit!” he shouted. Months to prepare, months waiting for his comet, and now it was approaching at fifty miles a second and he was driving past the Walt Disney Studios. Part of his mind told him that was funny, but Tim didn’t appreciate the humor in the situation.

Take Alameda to the Golden State, Tim thought. If that’s moving, I’ll get on it and back onto the Ventura. If it isn’t, I’ll just go on surface streets all the way and the hell with tickets… and what was that ahead?

Not just cars jammed across an intersection, motionless under a string of green lights. This was more, cars jockeying for room, cars pulling into driveways and through them to the alley beyond. More cars, stopped, and people on foot moving among the swarm. There was just time to get over into the right-hand lane. Tim turned hard into a parking lot, hoping to follow the moving cars into an alley.

Dead end! He was in a large parking lot, and the way was completely blocked by a delivery truck. Tim braked viciously and slammed the shift lever into PARK. Carefully he turned the key off. Then he pounded the dash and swore, using words he hadn’t remembered for years. There was no place to go; more cars had come in behind him. The lot was jammed.

I’m in trouble, Tim thought. He abandoned the car to walk toward Alameda. TV store, he thought. If they don’t have the comet on, I’ll buy a set on the spot.

Alameda was jammed with cars. Bumper-to-bumper, and none of them moving at all. And they were screaming up ahead, at the intersection where the focus of action seemed to be. Robbery? A sniper? Tim wanted no part of that. But no, those were screams of rage, not fear. And the intersection swarmed with blue-uniformed policemen. There was something else, too. White robes? Someone in a white robe was coming toward him now. Hamner tried to avoid him, but the man planted himself in Tim’s path.

It wasn’t much of a costume, that robe; probably a bedsheet, and there was certainly conventional clothing under it. The fuzzy-bearded young man was smiling, but insistent. “Sir! Pray! Pray for the safe passage of Lucifer’s Hammer! There is so little time!”

“I know that,” Tim said. He tried to dodge past, but the man moved with him.

“Pray! The Wrath of God is upon us. Yea, the hour is approaching and is now here, but God will spare the city for ten just men. Repent and be saved, and save our city.”

“How many of you are there?” Tim demanded.

“There are a hundred Wardens,” the man said.

“That’s more than ten. Now let me go.”

“But you don’t understand — we will save the city, we Wardens. We have been praying for months. We have promised God the repentance of thousands.” The intense brown eyes stared into Hamner’s. Then recognition came. “You’re him! You’re Timothy Hamner! I saw you on TV. Pray, brother. Join us in prayer, and the world will know!”

“It sure will. NBC is just down the road.” Tim frowned. There were two Burbank policemen coming up behind the Comet Warden, and they weren’t smiling at all.

“Is this man annoying you, sir?” the larger cop asked.

“Yes,” Tim said.

The policeman smiled. “Gotcha!” He took the robed man by the arm. “You have the right to remain silent. If you give up—”

“I know all that crap,” the Warden said. “Look at him! He’s the man who invented the comet!”

“Nobody invents a comet, you idiot,” Tim said. “Officer, do you know where there’s a TV store? I want to see the comet pictures from space.”

“Down that way. Could we have your name and address—”

Tim took out a card and thrust it at the policeman. Then he scurried toward the intersection beyond.

Eileen had an excellent view through the storefront window. She sat with Joe Corrigan and sipped coffee; it was obvious that their architect wasn’t going to get through that traffic jam. They brought over big chrome chairs and the glass coffee table, making a picnic out of watching a lot of angry people.

The cause of it all was diagonally across from them. Twenty or thirty men and women in white robes — not all of them bedsheets — had chained themselves across Alameda from lamppost to telephone pole. They sang hymns. The quality of singing had been pretty good for awhile, but the police soon led away their white-bearded leader, and now they were discordant.

On either side of the human chain an infinite variety of cars were packed like sardines. Old Ford station wagons, for grocery shopping; chauffeured Mercedeses — stars or studio executives; campers, pickup trucks, new Japanese imports, Chevies and Plymouth Dusters, all packed together, and all immobile. A few drivers were still trying to get out, but most had given up. A horde of robed preachers moved through the matrix of cars. They stopped to speak with each driver, and they preached. Some of the drivers were screaming at them. A few listened. One or two even got out and knelt in prayer.

“Some show, eh?” Corrigan said. “Why the hell didn’t they pick some place else?”

“With NBC practically next door? If the comet goes past without smashing anything, they’ll take credit for saving the world. Haven’t we seen a few of those nuts on TV for years?”

Corrigan nodded. “Looks like they hit the big time with this one. Here come the TV cameras.”

The preachers redoubled their efforts when they saw the cameramen. The hymn stopped for a moment, then began again: “Nearer My God to Thee.” The preachers had to talk fast, and sometimes they broke off in midspeech to avoid the police. Blue uniforms chased white robes through the honking cars and screaming drivers.

“A day to remember,” Corrigan said.

“They may just have to pave the whole thing over.”

“Yep.” For a fact that traffic jam was going to be there a long time. Too many cars had been abandoned. He could see more civilians darting among the cars, flowered sports shirts and gray flannel suits among the white robes and blue uniforms. And coveralled drivers. Many were bent on murder. More had locked their cars and gone looking for a coffee shop. The supermarket next door was doing a land-office business in Coors beer. Even so, a fair number were clustered oh the sidewalks, praying.

Two policemen came into the store. Eileen and Corrigan greeted them. Both had regular beats in the neighborhood, and the younger, Eric Larsen, often joined Eileen for coffee at the local Orange Julius. He reminded Eileen of her younger brother.

“Got any bolt cutters?” Investigator Harris was all business. “Big heavy jobs.”

“Think so,” Corrigan said. He lifted a phone and pushed a button. He waited. Nothing happened. “Goddam warehouse crew’s out watching the show. I’ll get them.” He went back through the office.

“No keys?” Eileen asked.

“No.” Larsen smiled at her. “They chucked them before they came here.” Then he shook his head sadly. “If we don’t get those crazies out of here pretty soon, there’ll be a riot. No way to protect them.”

The other cop snorted. “You can tell Joe to take his time for all I care,” he said. “They’re stupid. Sometimes I think the stupid will inherit the Earth.”

“Sure.” Eric Larsen stood at the window watching the Wardens. Idly he whistled “Onward Christian Soldiers” through his teeth.

Eileen giggled. “What are you thinking about, Eric?”

“Huh?” He looked sheepish.

“The Professor’s writing a movie script,” Harris said.

Eric shrugged. “TV. Imagine James Garner marooned out there. He’s looking for a killer. One of the drivers is out to commit murder. He does it, pulls out a sheet and a chain, and we come take him away before Garner can find him…”

“Jesus,” Harris said.

“I thought it was pretty good,” Eileen said. “Who does he kill?”

“Uh, actually, you.”

“Oh.”

“I saw enough pretty girls killed last night to last me twenty years,” Harris muttered. For a moment Eric looked like he’d been rabbit-punched.

Joe Corrigan came back with four pairs of long-handled bolt cutters. The policemen thanked him. Harris scribbled his name and badge number on a receipt, and handed two pairs to Eric Larsen. They carried them out to distribute to the other policemen, and blue uniforms moved along the chain, cutting the white robes free, then chaining them again with handcuffs. They jostled the Wardens toward the sidewalk. Few of the robed ones fought, but a good many went limp.

Corrigan looked up in surprise. “What was… ?”

“Huh?” Eileen looked vaguely around the office.

“I don’t know.” He frowned, trying to remember, but it had been too vague. As if clouds had parted to reveal the sun for a few moments, then closed again. But there were no clouds. It was a bright, cloudless summer day.

It was a nice house, well laid out, with bedrooms sprawling out like an arm, away from the huge central living room. Alim Nassor had always wanted a fireplace. He could imagine parties here, brothers and sisters splashing in the swimming pool, roar of conversation, smell of pot thick enough to get you high all by itself, a van delivering a great cartwheel of a pizza… Someday he would own such a house. He was robbing this one.

Harold and Hannibal were scooping silverware into a sheet. Gay was searching for the safe, in his own peculiar fashion: Stand in the middle of a room, look slowly around… then look behind paintings, or pull up rug… move to another room, stand in the middle and look around, and open closets… until he found the safe sunk in concrete beneath the rug in a hall closet. He pulled the drill out of his case and said, “Plug this in.”

Alim did it. Even he followed orders when the need came. “If we don’t find nothing this time, no more safes,” he ordered.

Gay nodded. They’d opened four safes in four houses and found nothing. It looked like everyone in Bel Air had stashed their jewels in banks or taken them along.

Alim returned to the living room to look through the gauze curtains. It was a bright, cloudless summer day, and dead quiet, with nobody in sight. Half the families had fled to the hills, and the rest of the men were doing whatever they did to have houses like this, and anyone who stayed home must be inside watching TV to see if they’d made a mistake. It was people like this who were afraid of the comet. People like Alim, or Alim’s mother with her job scrubbing floors and her ruined knees, or even the storekeeper he’d shot — people with something real to be afraid of didn’t worry about no damn light in the sky.

So: The street was empty. No sweat, and the pickings were good. Fuck the jewels. There was silver, paintings, TV sets from tiny to tremendous, two or three or four to a house. Under the tarps in the truck bed they had a home computer and a big telescope — strange things, hard to fence — and a dozen typewriters. Generally they’d pick up some guns, too, but not this trip. The guns had gone with the running honkies.

“Shit! Hey, brothers—”

Alim went, fast. He and Hannibal almost jammed in the doorway. Gay had the safe open and was hauling out plastic sandwich bags. It was stuff that couldn’t be stashed in no bank vault. Three bags of good golden weed; oh, Mr. White, do your neighbors know about this? Smaller amounts of heavier stuff: coke, and dark hashish, and a small bottle of what might be hash oil, but you’d be crazy to try it without seeing a label. Gay and Harold and Hannibal whooped and hollered. Gay fished around and found papers; he started to roll a joint.

“Fuck that!” Alim slapped at Gay’s hands, scattering paper and weed. “You crazy? In the middle of a job and four houses to go? Give me that! All of it! You want a party, fine, we’ll have a fine party when we’re home free!”

They didn’t like it, but they passed the bags to Alim and he stashed them in the pockets of his baggy combat jacket. He slapped their butts and they went, carrying heavy bedsheet sacks.

He hadn’t gotten it all. It didn’t matter. At least they wouldn’t be blowing the tops of their heads off till this was over.

Alim picked up a radio and a Toast-it-Oven and followed them out. He blinked in the daylight. Gay was in the back, adjusting tarpaulins. Harold started the motor. Good. Alim stopped with the truck door open to look down the driveway.

He saw a tall tree on the lawn casting two sharp shadows.

And that smaller tree: two shadows. He looked down and saw his own two shadows, one moving. Alim looked up and saw it, a second sun dropping down the sky, dropping below the hill. He blinked; he squeezed his eyes shut, hard. The violet afterimage blocked everything.

He climbed in. “Get going,” he said. While the truck rolled down the drive he started the CB. “Come in, Jackie. Come in, Jackie. Jackie, you motherfucker, answer me!”

“Who’s that? Alim Nassor?”

“Yeah. Did you see it?”

“See what?”

“The comet, the Hammer of God! I saw it fall! I watched it burn its way down the sky till it hit! Jackie, listen good, ’cause these CB things ain’t gonna be any good in a minute. We’ve been hit. It’s all gonna come true, and we got to link up.”

“slim, you must’ve found something real special. Coke, maybe?”

“Jackie, it’s real, the whole world been hit. There’s gonna be earthquakes and tidal waves. You call everyone you can and tell them we meet at… the cabin up near Grapevine.

We got to stick together. We won’t drown because we’re too high, but we got to meet.”

“slim, this is crazy. I got two houses to go, we got lots of stuff, and you come on like the end of the world?”

“Just call someone, Jackie! Someone’s got to have seen it! Look, I got to call the others while we still got the CB.” Alim switched off.

They were still in the driveway. Harold was the color of wet ashes. He said, “I saw it too. George… Alim, do you think we’re too high to drown? I don’t want to drown.”

“We’re about as high as we can get. We got to go down before we get to Grapevine. Get movie’, Harold. We want to be across the low spots before it rains too much.”

Harold took off, fast. Alim reached for the CB. Were they really too high to drown? Was anybody, anywhere?

Hot Fudge Tuesdae: One

I ran to the rock to hide my face,
but the rock cried out, NO HIDING PLACE!
No hiding place down here…

The crest of the Santa Monica Mountains was a thoroughly inconvenient place to live. Shopping centers were far away. Roads were an adventure. Driveways tended to be nearly vertical in spots. Yet there were many houses up here, and it was only indirectly due to population pressure.

Population pressure produced the cities.

The view from the crest on Monday night was incredible; unique. Downslope on one side was Los Angeles; downslope on the other, the San Fernando Valley. At night the cities became carpets of multicolored light stretching away forever. Freeways were rivers of light moving through seas of light. It looked like the whole world had turned to city, and loved it!

Yet there were vacant patches on the crest. Mark and Frank and Joanna left Mulholland Drive at sunset, took their motorcycles up the side of a hill. They camped in a rocky area out of sight of wandering fuzzmobiles, a couple of blocks distant from the houses on both sides.

Frank Stoner walked around the crest of the hill, looked at the slopes on both sides, then nodded to himself. Undevelopable. Too much danger of mudslides. Not that it mattered a damn why no one had built a house here, but Frank Stoner didn’t like unanswered questions. He came back to where Joanna and Mark were setting up the Svea backpacker stove.

“We may have nervous neighbors,” Frank said. “Let’s get dinner over while there’s light. After dark, no flashlights and no fires.”

“I don’t see — ” Mark began.

Joanna broke in impatiently. “Look, these houses are a long way from the nearest police station. People wandering up here would tend to make them nervous. We do not need to spend the night before Hot Fudge Sundae at Malibu Sheriff Station.” She went back to reading the directions on the freeze-dried dinner they’d brought. She was not a good cook; but if she left it to Mark, he’d do it however he felt, which might turn onto well and might not. Following the directions was sure to produce something edible, and she was hungry.

She looked at the two men. Frank Stoner towered over Mark. A big man, strong, physically attractive. Joanna had felt that before. He’d be damned good in bed.

She’d felt that before, but she hadn’t found herself thinking she was teamed up with the wrong man before. The thought puzzled her. Living with Mark was a lot of fun. She didn’t know if she was in love with Mark, because she wasn’t sure what love was, but they were compatible in bed, and they didn’t often get on each other’s nerves. So why this sudden pash for Frank Stoner?

She emptied the beef Stroganoff into a cooking pot and grinned down at it so the others couldn’t see. They’d want to know why she was grinning, and it wasn’t something she wanted to explain. If she wondered why she was getting the hots for Frank Stoner…

But it bothered her. Joanna had a very good education, courtesy of her upper-middle-class parents. She didn’t make much use of it, but it had left her with considerable curiosity, particularly about people — which included herself.

“This is just about perfect,” Mark said.

Frank grunted disapproval.

“No? Why not? Where else?” Mark demanded. He’d picked this spot and was proud of it.

“Mojave is better,” Frank said absently. He laid out his sleeping bag and sat on it. “But that’s a long way to go for nothing. Still… we’re on the wrong plate.”

“Plate?” Joanna said.

“It’s plate tectonics,” Mark said. “You know, the continents float around on top of the melted rock inside the Earth.”

Frank listened absently. No point in correcting Mark. But the Mojave was certainly a better place. It was on the North American plate. Los Angeles and Baja California were on another. The plates joined at the San Andreas Fault, and if the Hammer fell the San Andreas would sure as hell let go. It would shake both plates, but the North American would get it less.

It was just an exercise anyway. Frank had checked with JPL; the odds of the Hammer hitting Earth were low. You were in more danger on the freeway. This business of camping out was for drill, but it was Stoner’s nature that if he did anything, he did it right. He’d made Joanna bring her own bike, although she preferred riding behind Mark on his. Take all three; we might lose one.

“All for drill,” Frank said. “But maybe the drill’s worth the effort.”

“Eh?” Joanna had the stove going now. It roared in the late afternoon.

“Nothing silly about being ready for the collapse of civilization,” Frank said. “Next time it won’t be the Hammer, it’ll be something else. But it’ll be something. Read your newspapers.”

That’s it, Joanna thought. He’s got me thinking that way. And that’s why… it sure made more sense to be teamed up with Frank Stoner than Mark Czescu if civilization was coming to an end.

And Frank had wanted to go to the Mojave. Only Mark talked him out of it. Mark couldn’t quite admit to Hammer Fever. It would look silly.

They ate earlier than they usually did. Frank insisted. When they finished, there was just enough light to boil out the cooking pots. Then they lay down on their sleeping bags in near darkness, watching the glow die out over the Pacific, until the night grew cool and they climbed in. Joanna had brought her own bag and hadn’t zipped it together with Mark’s, although they usually did on camp-outs.

The light died in the west. One by one the stars came out. At first there were only stars. Then the turning sky brought a luminous film up from the east. It blended with the glowing lights over Los Angeles, grew brighter, until by midnight it was brighter than L.A., as bright as a good northern aurora. Still it thickened and brightened until only a few stars showed through the Earth-enveloping tail of Hamner-Brown Comet.

To keep themselves awake, they talked. Crickets talked around them. They had slept that afternoon, though neither Frank nor Mark would tell that to the others. It would have been an admission that each was in his thirties and feeling it. Frank told stories about the ways the world might end. Mark kept interrupting to make points of his own, adding details, or anticipating what Frank would say and saying it first.

Joanna listened with increasing impatience. She fell silent, brooding. Mark always did that. It never bothered her before. Why was she getting pissed off at him now? Part of the same pattern. Wow, Joanna thought. Female instincts? Glom on to the strongest guy around? That didn’t make sense. It certainly wasn’t part of her philosophy. She was Joanna, fully liberated, her own person, in control of her life…

The conflict made her think of other things. She wasn’t yet thirty, but she was getting there, and what had she done? What was she doing? She couldn’t just go on, making a few bucks when Mark was out of work, bopping around the country on a motorcycle. That was a lot of fun, but dammit, she ought to do something serious, one permanent thing…

“I bet I can get the packs set so nobody can see the stove,” Mark was saying. “Jo, want to make coffee? Jo?”

Full dawn found Frank and Joanna asleep. Mark smiled as if he’d won a contest. He enjoyed watching dawn break. It didn’t happen often enough these days. Today’s dawn still carried an elfin light, sunlight faintly thinned and transmuted by gases and dust brought inward from interstellar space.

It occurred to Mark that if he started breakfast now, he could reach a telephone while Harv Randall could be expected to be still at home. Randall had invited him to join the news team on Hot Fudge Tuesdae, but Mark had dithered. He dithered now. He set up the stove and pans for breakfast, debated waking the others; then crawled back into his own bag.

Frying bacon woke him.

“Didn’t call Harv, huh?” Joanna said.

Mark stretched elaborately. “Decided I’d rather be watching the news than making it. Know where the best view in the world is right now? Right in front of a television set.”

Frank looked at him curiously. He turned his head to indicate the height of the Sun. When Mark didn’t get it, he said, “Look at your watch.”

It was nearly ten! Joanna laughed at Mark’s expression.

“Hell, we’ll miss it,” Mark complained.

“No point in racing anywhere now,” Frank chortled. “Don’t worry, they’ll be showing instant replays all day.”

“We could knock at one of the houses,” Mark suggested. But the others laughed at him! and Mark admitted he didn’t have the guts. They ate quickly, and Mark broke out a bottle of Strawberry Hill wine and passed it around. It tasted perfect, fruity flavor like morning juice, but with some authority.

“Best pack up and — ” Frank stopped in midsentence.

There was a bright light over the Pacific. Far away, and very high, and moving downward fast. A very bright light.

The men didn’t speak. They just stared. Joanna looked up in alarm when Frank fell silent. She had never seen him startled by anything, and she whirled around quickly, expecting to see Charles Manson running at them with a chain saw. She followed their stare.

A tiny blue-white dwarf sun sank rapidly in the South, setting far beyond the flat blue Pacific horizon. It left a burning trail behind it. In the moment after it was gone, something like a searchlight beam probed back along its path, rose higher, above the cloudless sky.

Then nothing for one, two, three heartbeats.

Mark said, “Hot—”

A white fireball peeked over the edge of the world.

“Fudge Tuesdae. It’s real. It’s all real.” The edge of a giggle was in Mark’s voice. “We’ve got to get moving—”

“Bullshit.” Frank used just enough volume to get their attention. “We don’t want to be moving when the quakes hit. Lie down. Get your sleeping bag around you. Stay out in the open. Joanna, lie down here. I’ll tie you in. Mark, get over there. Further.”

Then Frank ran to the bikes. He carefully laid the first one on its side, then rolled the next away from it and laid it down too. He moved quickly and decisively. He came back for the third bike and moved it away.

Three white points glared at them, then winked out, one, two… The third and brightest must have touched down, far to the southeast. Frank glanced at his watch, counting the ticking seconds. Joanna was safe. Mark was safe. Frank brought his own bag and lay near them. He took out dark glasses. So did the others. The bulky sleeping bag made Frank look very fat. The dark glasses made his face unreadable. He lay stretched out on his back with his thick forearms behind his head. “Great view.”

“Yeah. The Comet Wardens will love this,” Mark said. “I wonder where Harv went? I’m glad I decided not to get up and go join him. We ought to be safe here. If the mountains hold up.”

“Shut up,” Joanna said. “Shut up, shut up.” But she didn’t say it loud enough to hear. She whispered, and her whisper was drowned out by rumbling that rolled toward them, and then the mountains began to dance.

The communications center at JPL was jammed with people: newsmen with special passes; friends of the Director; and even some people, like Charles Sharps and Dan Forrester, who belonged there.

The TV screens were bright with pictures. Reception wasn’t as good as they’d have liked; the ionized tail of the comet roiled the upper atmosphere, and live TV pictures were apt to dissolve into wavy lines. No matter, Sharps thought. They’ll make onboard recordings in the Apollo, and we’ll recover them later. And there’ll be all those film pictures, taken through the telescope. We’ll learn more about comets in the next hour than we have learned in the last hundred thousand years.

That was a sobering thought, but Sharps was used to it. It was the same for the planets, for the whole solar system. Until men went — or sent probes — into space, they were guessing about their universe. Now they knew. And no other generation could ever discover so much, because the next generation would read it from textbooks, not from the universe itself. They would grow up knowing. Not like when I was growing up and we didn’t know anything, Sharps thought. God, what exciting times. I love it.

A digital clock ticked off the seconds. A glass panel with a world map showed the current position of the Apollo capsule.

Apollo-Soyuz, Sharps reminded himself, and he grinned, because if the one hadn’t gone, the other wouldn’t have either. U.S.-Soviet rivalry was still good for something. Sometimes. To force U.S.-Soviet cooperation, if nothing else.

Pity we’re having communications problems. Power losses on Hammerlab. Didn’t anticipate that. Should have. But we didn’t think it would be this close when we threw Hammerlab together.

“How close?” Sharps said.

Forrester looked up from his computer console. “Hard to say.” He played his fingers across the keys like E. Power Biggs at the Milan Cathedral organ. “If that last input hadn’t been garbled, I’d know. Best estimate is still around a thousand kilometers. If. If that garbled reading was right. And if the one I threw out because it didn’t fit the others is wrong. There are a lot of ifs.”

“Yeah.”

“Taking shots… number thirty-one filter… handheld…” They could barely recognize Rick Delanty’s voice.

“One of your accomplishments,” Dan Forrester said.

“Mine? Which one is this?”

“Getting the first black astronaut a mission,” Forrester said, but he said it absently, because he was studying squiggles on the oscilloscope above his console. He did something, and one of the TV pictures improved enormously.

Charlie Sharps looked at the approaching cloud. He saw it only as a batch of not very sharply focused grays, but one thing was evident — it wasn’t moving sideways at all. The seconds ticked on relentlessly.

“Where the devil is Hamner?” Sharps asked suddenly.

Forrester, if he heard, didn’t answer.

“…path of outer edges of nucleus; say again, Earth… Outer… impossible… may strike…” The voice faded.

“Hammerlab, this is Houston, we do not copy, use full power and say again; I say again, we do not copy.”

More seconds ticked off. Then, suddenly, the TV pictures on the screens swam, blurred and became clearer, in color, as Apollo used the main telescope and full transmission power.

“Jesus, it’s coming closer” Johnny Baker’s voice shouted. “Like it’s going to hit…”

The TV screens changed rapidly as Rick Delanty kept the main telescope trained on the comet head. The comet grew and grew, shapes appearing in the maelstrom of fog, larger shapes, details, lumps of rock, jets of streaming gas, all happening even as they watched. The picture swung on down, until the Earth itself was in view…

And flaming spots appeared on the Earth. For just one long moment, a moment that seemed to stretch out forever, the pictures stayed there on the TV screen: Earth, with bright flashes, light so bright that the TV couldn’t show it as more than bright smears and lapses of detail.

The picture stayed in Charlie Sharps’s mind. Flashes in the Atlantic. Europe dotted with bright smears, all over, with a big one in the Mediterranean. A bright flash in the Gulf of Mexico. Any west of that wouldn’t be visible to the Apollo, but Dan Forrester was playing with the computer. All the data they had, from any source, was supposed to go into it. Speakers were screaming. Several of them, on different channels, different sources, riding over the sudden static.

“FIREBALL OVERHEAD!” someone’s voice shouted.

“Where was that?” Forrester called. His voice was just loud enough to go over the babble in the room.

“Apollo recovery fleet,” came the answer. “And we’ve lost communications with them. Last words we got were: ‘Fireball southeast.’ Then ‘Fireball overhead.’ Then nothing.”

“Thank you,” Forrester said.

“Houston, HOUSTON, THERE IS A LARGE STRIKE IN THE GULF OF MEXICO; I SAY AGAIN, LARGE STRIKE THREE HUNDRED MILES SOUTHEAST OF YOU. REQUEST YOU SEND A HELICOPTER FOR OUR FAMILIES.”

“Jesus, how can Baker be so calm about it?” someone demanded.

What damn fool is that? Sharps wondered. New man. Never heard the astronauts when there’s a real problem. He glanced over to Forrester.

Dan Forrester nodded. “The Hammer has fallen,” he said.

Then all the TV screens went blank, and the loudspeakers hissed with static.

Two thousand miles northeast of Pasadena, in a concretelined hole fifty feet below ground, Major Bennet Rosten idly fingered the .38 on his hip. He caught himself and put his hands on the Minuteman missile-launch-control console. They strayed restlessly for a moment, then one went to the key on its chain around his neck. Bloody hell, Rosten thought. The Old Man’s got me nervous.

He had justification. The night before, he’d got a call direct from General Thomas Bambridge, and the SAC Commander in Chief didn’t often speak personally to missile squadron commanders. Bambridge’s message had been short. “I want you in the hole tomorrow,” he’d said. “And for your information, I’ll be up in Looking Glass myself.”

“Goddam,” Major Rosten had answered. “Sir… is this the Big One?”

“Probably not,” Bambridge had answered, and then he’d gone on to explain.

Which wasn’t, Rosten thought, very reassuring. If the Russkis really thought the U.S. was blind and crippled…

He glanced to his left. His deputy, Captain Harold Luce was at another console just like Rosten’s. The consoles were deep underground, surrounded by concrete and steel, built to withstand a near miss by an atomic bomb. It took both men to launch their birds: Both had to turn keys and punch buttons, and the timing sequence was set so that one man couldn’t do it alone.

Captain Luce was relaxed at his console. Books were spread out in front of him: a correspondence course in Oriental art history. Collecting correspondence degrees was the usual pastime for men on duty in the holes, but how could Luce do it, today, when they were unofficially on alert?

“Hey, Hal…” Rosten called.

“Yo, Skipper.”

“You’re supposed to be alert.”

“I am alert. Nothing’s going to happen. You watch.”

“Christ, I hope not.” Rosten thought about his wife and four children in Missoula. They’d hated the idea of moving to Montana, but now they loved it. Big country, open skies, no big-city problems. “I wish—”

He was interrupted by the impersonal voice from the wiregrill-covered speaker above him. “EWO, EWO,” the voice said. “EMERGENCY WAR ORDERS, EMERGENCY WAR ORDERS. THIS IS NO DRILL. AUTHENTICATION 78-43-76854-87902-1735 ZULU. RED ALERT. RED ALERT. YOUR CONDITION IS RED.”

Sirens screamed through the concrete bunker. Major Rosten hardly noticed as a sergeant came down the steel ladder to the entrance and slammed shut the big Mosler Safe Company bank-vault door. The sergeant closed it from the outside and twirled the combination dial. No one would get into the hole without blasting.

Then, as regulations required, the sergeant cocked his submachine gun and stood with his back to the big safe door. His face was hard, and he stood rigidly, swallowing the sharp knot of fear.

Inside, Rosten punched the authentication numbers into his console, and opened the seals on an envelope from his order book. Luce was doing the same thing at his console. “I certify that the authentication is genuine,” Luce said.

“Right. Insert,” Rosten ordered.

Simultaneously they took the keys from around their necks and put them into the red-painted locked switches on their consoles. Once inserted and turned to the first click, the keys couldn’t be withdrawn without other keys neither Luce nor Rosten had. SAC procedure…

“On my count,” said Rosten. “One. Two.” They turned the keys two clicks. Then they waited. They did not turn them further. Yet.

It was mid-morning in California; it was evening in the Greek isles. The last of the sun’s disk had vanished as two men reached the top of the granite knob. In the east a first star showed. Far below them, Greek peasants were driving overloaded donkeys through a maze of low stone walls and vineyards.

The town of Akrotira lay in twilight. Incongruities: white mudwalled houses that might have been created ten thousand years ago; the Venetian fortress at the top of its hill; the modern school near the ancient Byzantine church; and below that, the camp where Willis and MacDonald were uncovering Atlantis. The site was almost invisible from the hilltop. In the west a star switched on and instantly off, blink. Then another. “It’s started,” MacDonald said.

Wheezing, Alexander Willis settled himself on the rock. He was mildly irritated. The hour’s climb had left him breathless, though he was twenty-four years old and considered himself in good shape. But MacDonald had led him all the way and helped him over the top, and MacDonald, whose dark red hair had receded to expose most of his darkly tanned scalp, was not even breathing hard. MacDonald had earned his strength; archeologists work harder than ditchdiggers.

The two sat crosslegged, looking west, watching the meteors,

They were twenty-eight hundred feet above sea level on the highest point of the strange island of Thera. The granite knob had been called many things by a dozen civilizations, and it had endured much. Now it was known as Mount Prophet Elias.

Dusk faded on the waters of the bay far below. The bay was circular, surrounded by cliffs a thousand feet high, the caldera of a volcanic explosion that destroyed two thirds of the island, destroyed the Minoan Empire, created the legends of Atlantis. Now a new black island, evil in appearance and barren, rose in the center of the bay. The Greeks called it the New Burnt Land, and the islanders knew that some day it too would explode, as Thera had exploded so many times before.

Fiery streaks reflected in the bay. Something burned blue-white overhead. In the west the golden glow faded, not to black, but to a strange curdled green-and-orange glow, a back drop for the meteors. Once again Phaethon drove the chariot of the sun…

The meteors came every few seconds! Ice chips struck atmosphere and burned in a flash. Snowballs streaked down, burning greenish-white. Earth was deep in the coma of Hamner-Brown.

“Funny hobby, for us,” said Willis.

“Sky watching? I’ve always loved the sky,” MacDonald said. “You don’t see me digging in New York, do you? The desert places, where the air’s clear, where men have watched the stars for ten thousand years, that’s where you find old civilizations. But I’ve never seen the sky like this.”

“I wonder what it looked like after you-know-what.”

MacDonald shrugged in the near-dark. “Plato didn’t describe it. But the Hittites said a stone god rose from the sea to challenge the sky. Maybe they saw the cloud. Or there are things in the Bible, you could take them as eyewitness accounts, but from a long way away. You wouldn’t have wanted to be near when Thera went off.”

Willis didn’t answer, and small wonder. A great greenish light drew fire across the sky, moving up, lasting for seconds before it burst and died. Willis found himself looking east. His lips pursed in a soundless Oh. Then, “Mac! Turn around!”

MacDonald turned.

The curdled sky was rising like a curtain; you could see beneath the edge. The edge was perfectly straight, a few degrees above the horizon. Above was the green-and-orange glow of the comet’s coma. Below, blackness in which stars glowed.

“The Earth’s shadow,” MacDonald said. “A shadow cast through the coma. I wish my wife had lived to see this. Just another year…”

A great light glared behind them. Willis turned. It sank slowly — too bright to see, blinding, drowning the background . — Willis stared into it. God, what was it? Sinking… faded.

“I hope you hid your eyes,” MacDonald said.

Willis saw only agony. He blinked; it made no difference. He said, “I think I’m blind.” He reached out, patted rock, seeking the reassurance of a human hand.

Softly MacDonald said, “I don’t think it matters.”

Rage flared and died. That quickly, Willis knew what he meant. MacDonald’s hands took his wrists and moved them around a rock. “Hug that tight. I’ll tell you what I see.”

“Right.”

MacDonald’s speech seemed hurried. “When the light went out I opened my eyes. For a moment I think I saw something like a violet searchlight beam going up, then it was gone. But it came from behind the horizon. We’ll have some time.”

“Thera’s a bad luck island,” Willis said. He could see nothing, not even darkness.

“Did you ever wonder why they still build here? Some of the houses are hundreds of years old. Eruptions every few centuries. But they always come back. For that matter, whattre we doing — Alex, I can see the tidal wave. It gets taller every second. I don’t know if it’ll reach this high or not. Brace yourself for the air shock wave, though.”

“Ground shock first. I guess this is the end of Greek civilization.”

“I suppose so. And a new Atlantis legend, if anyone lives to tell it. The curtain’s still rising. Streamlines from the nucleus in the west, Earth’s black shadow in the east, meteors everywhere…” MacDonald’s voice trailed off.

“What?”

“I closed my eyes. But it was northeast! and huge!”

“Greg, who named Mount Prophet Elias? It’s too bloody appropriate.”

The ground shock ripped through and beneath Thera, through the magma channel that the sea bed had covered thirty-five hundred years before. Willis felt the rock wrench at his arms. Then Thera exploded. A shock wave of live steam laced with lava tore him away and killed him instantly. Seconds later the tsunami rolled across the raw orange wound.

Nobody would live to tell of the second Thera explosion.

Mabel Hawker fanned her cards and smiled inwardly. Twenty points: Her hand was a good one. Her partner, unfortunately, wasn’t. The way Bea Anderson was bidding, they’d be out a hundred dollars by the time the plane landed at JFK.

The 747 was high above New Jersey in its descent into New York. Mabel and Chet and the Andersons were seated around a table in the first-class section, too far from the windows to see anything. Mabel regretted the bridge game. She’d never seen New York from the air; but she didn’t want the Andersons to know that.

The windows flashed again.

“Your bid, May,” Chet said.

People in the window seats were craning out. First class buzzed with voices, and Mabel heard the fear that lies buried in every passenger’s mind. She said, “Sorry. Two diamonds.”

“Four hearts,” Bea Anderson said, and Mabel cringed.

There was a soft ping. The sign lit: “FASTEN SEAT BELTS.”

“This is Captain Ferrar,” said a friendly voice. “We don’t know what that flash was, but we’ll ask you to fasten your seat belts, just in case. Whatever it was, it was a long way behind us.” The pilot’s voice was very calm and reassuring.

Did Bea have a jump bid? Oh, Lord, did she even know what an opening “two diamonds” meant? Have to bull it through. …

There was a sound: like something very large being slowly torn in two. Suddenly the 747 was laboring, surging forward.

She’d read that experienced travelers kept their seats belts fastened loosely, so she had done that. Now Mabel deliberately unfastened the belt, laid her cards face-down, and lurched toward a pair of empty window seats.

“Mother, should you do that?” Chet asked.

Mabel winced. She hated being called “Mother.” It sounded country hick. She sprawled across the seats and looked out.

The big plane nosed down, diving, as the pilots tried to compensate for a sudden tail wind moving nearly with the speed of the plane. The wings lost all lift. The 747 fell like a leaf, yawing, lurching, as the pilots fought to hold her.

Mabel saw New York City ahead in the distance. There was the Empire State Building, there the Statue of Liberty, there the World Trade Center, looking just as she’d imagined them, but poking out of a landscape tilted at forty-five degrees. Somewhere out there her daughter would be going to JFK to meet her parents and introduce the boy she was going to marry. …

Flaps were sliding from the wing’s trailing edge. The plane lurched and shuddered, and Mabel’s cards flew like startled butterflies. She felt the plane surging upward, pulling out of its dive.

Far above, black clouds ran like a curtain across the sky, faster than the plane, sparking with lightning as they moved. Lightning everywhere. An enormous bolt struck the Statue of Liberty and played along the grande dame’s upraised torch Then lightning struck the plane.

Beyond Ocean Boulevard there was a bluff. At the bottom of the bluff, the Pacific Coast Highway, and then the sea. At the edge of the bluff the bearded man watched the horizon with a look of surpassing joy.

The light had flashed only for a second or two, but blindingly. Its afterimage was a blue balloon in the bearded man’s field of view. A red glow… strange lighting effects outlining a vertical pillar… He turned with a happy smile. “Pray!” he called. “The Day of Judgment is here!”

A dozen passersby had stopped to stare. Mostly they ignored him, though he was a most impressive figure, with his eyes glowing with happiness and his thick black beard marked with two snow-white tufts at the chin. But one turned and answered. “It’s your Day of Judgment if you don’t step back. Earthquake.”

The bearded man turned away.

The black man in the expensive business suit called more urgently. “If you’re on the cliff when it falls, you’ll miss most of Judgment Day. Come on now!”

The bearded man nodded as if to himself. He turned and strolled back to join the other on the sidewalk. “Thank you, brother.”

The earth shuddered and groaned.

The bearded man kept his feet. He saw that the man in the brown suit was kneeling, and now he knelt too. The earth shook, and parts of the bluff fell away. It would have carried the bearded man with it if he hadn’t moved.

“For He cometh,” the bearded man shouted. “For He cometh to judge the Earth…”

The businessman joined in the psalm “…and with righteousness to judge the world, and the peoples with His truth.”

Others joined. The heaving earth buckled and rolled. “Glory be to the Father and—”

A sharp sudden shock threw them to the ground. They scrambled back to their knees. The shaking stopped, and some of the group hurried away, looking for cars, running inland.

“Oh, ye Heavens, bless ye the Lord,” the bearded man cried. Those who had stayed joined in the canticle. The responses were easy to learn, and the bearded man knew all the versicles.

There were surfers out in the water. They had floated through the violent upheavals. Now they were invisible in a blinding curtain of salt rain. Many of the bearded man’s group ran away into the wet darkening. Still he prayed, and others from the apartments across the street joined him.

“Oh, ye Seas and Floods, bless ye the Lord: praise Him and magnify Him forever.”

The rains came hard, but just in front of the bearded man and his flock a trick combination of winds drove a clear path that let them see down the bluff to the deserted beach. The waters were receding, boiling away to leave small things flopping on the rainy wet sands.

“Oh, ye Whales, and all that move in the waters, bless ye the Lord…”

The canticle ended. They knelt in the driving rain and flashing lightning. The bearded man thought he saw, far away, through the rain and beyond the receding waters, beyond that to the horizon, the ocean was rising in a hump, a straight wall across the world. “Save us, Oh God: for the waters are come in, even unto my soul,” the bearded man cried. The others did not know the psalm, but they listened quietly. An ominous rumble came from the ocean. “I stick fast in the deep mire, where no ground is; I am come into deep waters, so that the floods run over me.”

But no, the bearded man thought. The rest of that psalm is not appropriate. Not at all. He began again. “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.”

The water rushed forward. They finished the psalm. One of the women stood.

“Pray now,” the bearded man said.

The noise from the sea drowned out all other words, and a curtain of rain swept over them, warm rain to hide the sea and waves. It came in a rush, a towering wall of water higher than the highest buildings, an onrushing juggernaut of water foaming gray and white at the base, rising as a green curtain. The bearded man saw a tiny object moving across the face of the water. Then the wall swept over him and his flock.

Gil rested face-down on the board, thinking slow thoughts, waiting with the others for the one big wave. Water sloshed under his belly. Hot sunlight broiled his back. Other surfboards bobbed in a line on either side of him.

Jeanine caught his eye and smiled a lazy smile full of promises and memories. Her husband would be out of town for three more days. Gil’s answering grin said nothing. He was waiting for a wave. There wouldn’t be very good waves here at Santa Monica’s Muscle Beach, but Jeanine’s apartment was near, and there’d be other waves on other days.

The houses and apartments on the bluff above bobbed up and down. They looked bright and new, not like the houses on Malibu Beach where the buildings always looked older than they were. Yet even here there were signs of age. Entropy ran fast at the line between sea and land. Gil was young, like all the young men bobbing on the water this fine morning. He was seventeen, burned brown, his longish hair bleached nearly white, belly muscles like the discrete plates of an armadillo. He was glad to look older than he was. He hadn’t needed to pay for a place to stay or food to eat since his father threw him out of the house. There were always older women.

If he thought about Jeanine’s husband, it was with friendly amusement. He was no threat to the man. He wanted nothing permanent. She could be making out with some guy who’d want her money on a permanent basis…

He squinted against the brilliance. It flared and he closed his eyes. That was a reflex; wave reflections were a common thing out here. The flare died against his closed eyelids, and he looked out to sea. Wave coming?

He saw a fiery cloud lift beyond the horizon. He studied it, squinting, making himself believe…

“Big wave coming,” he called, and rose to his knees.

Corey called, “Where?”

“You’ll see it,” Gil called confidently. He turned his board and paddled out to sea, bending almost until his cheek touched the board, using long, deep sweeps of his long arms. He was scared shitless, but nobody would ever know it.

“Wait for me!” Jeanine called.

Gil continued paddling. Others followed, but only the strongest could keep up. Corey pulled abreast of him.

“I saw the fireball!” he shouted. He panted with effort. “It’s Lucifer’s Hammer! Tidal wave!”

Gil said nothing. Talk was discouraged out here, but the others jabbered among themselves, and Gil paddled even faster, leaving them. A man ought to be alone during a thing like this. He was beginning to grasp the fact of death.

Rain came, and he paddled on. He glanced back to see the houses and bluff receding, going uphill, leaving an enormous stretch of new beach, gleaming wet. Lightning flared along the hills above Malibu.

The hills had changed. The orderly buildings of Santa Monica had tumbled into heaps.

The horizon went up.

Death. Inevitable. If death was inevitable, what was left? Style, only style. Gil went on paddling, riding the receding waters until motion was gone. He was a long way out now. He turned his board, and waited.

Others caught up and turned, spread across hundreds of yards in the rainy waters. If they spoke, Gil couldn’t hear them. There was a terrifying rumble behind him. Gil waited a moment longer, then paddled like mad, sure deep strokes, doing it well and truly.

He was sliding downhill, down the big green wall, and the water was lifting hard beneath him, so that he rested on knees and elbows with the blood pouring into his face, bugging his eyes, starting a nosebleed. The pressure was enormous, unhearable, then it eased. With the speed he’d gained he turned the board, scooting down and sideways along the nearly vertical wall, balancing on knees…

He stood up. He needed more angle, more. If he could reach the peak of the wave he’d be out of it, he could actually live through this! Ride it out, ride it out, and do it well…

Other boards had turned too. He saw them ahead of him above and below on the green wall. Corey had turned the wrong way. He shot beneath Gil’s feet, moving faster than hell and looking terrified.

They swept toward the bluff. They were higher than the bluff. The beach house and the Santa Monica pier with its carousel and all the yachts anchored nearby slid beneath the waters. Then they were looking down on streets and cars. Gil had a momentary glimpse of a bearded man kneeling with others; then the waters swept on past. The base of the wall was churning chaos, white foam and swirling debris and thrashing bodies and tumbling cars.

Below him now was Santa Monica Boulevard. The wave swept over the Mall, adding the wreckage of shops and shoppers and potted trees and bicycles to the crashing foam below. As the wave engulfed each low building he braced himself for the shock, squatting low. The board slammed against his feet and he nearly lost it; he saw Tommy Schumacher engulfed, gone, his board bounding high and whirling crazily. Only two boards left now.

The wave’s frothing peak was far, far above him; the churning base was much too close. His legs shrieked in the agony of exhaustion. One board left ahead of him, ahead and below. Who? It didn’t matter; he saw it dip into chaos, gone. Gil risked a quick look back: nobody there. He was alone on the ultimate wave.

Oh, God, if he lived to tell this tale, what a movie it would make! Bigger than The Endless Summer, bigger than The Towering Inferno: a stirring movie with ten million in special effects! If only his legs would hold! He already had a world record, he must be at least a mile inland, no one had ever ridden a wave for a mile! But the frothing, purling peak was miles overhead and the Barrington Apartments, thirty stories tall, was coming at him like a flyswatter.

What was once a comet is a pitiful remnant, a double handful of flying hills and boulders of dirty ice. Earth’s gravitational field has spread them across the sky. They may still reach the halo, but they can never rejoin.

Craters glow across the face of the Earth. The sea strikes glow as brightly as the land strikes; but the sea strikes are growing smaller. Walls of water hover around them, edging inward.

The water hovers two miles high around the Pacific strike. Its edges boil frantically. The pressure of expanding live steam holds back the walls of water.

And the hot vapor goes up in a column clear as glass, carrying salt from vaporized seawater, and silt from the sea bottom, and recondensed rock from the strike itself. At the limits of Earth’s atmosphere it begins to spread in an expanding whirlpool.

Megatons of live steam begin to cool. Water condenses first around dust and larger particles. What falls out of the pattern are the heavier globules of mud. Some join as they fall. They are still hot. In the drier air below, some water evaporates.

Hammerfall: Two

O! Sinner man, where you going to run to?
O, sinner man, where you going to run to?
O, sinner man, where you going to run to?
All on that day.

The TV store was closed. It wouldn’t open for an hour. Tim Hamner searched frantically — a bar, a barbershop, anyplace that might have TV — but he saw nothing.

He thought fleetingly of taxis, but that was silly. Los Angeles taxis didn’t cruise. They’d come if you called them, but it might be forever. No. He wasn’t going to get to JPL — and Hamner-Brown’s nucleus must be passing right now! The astronauts would see it all, and send their films down to Earth, and Tim Hamner wouldn’t see any of it.

The police had removed some of the Wardens, but that had no effect on the traffic jam. Too many abandoned cars. And now what? Tim thought. Maybe I can…

It was as if a flashbulb had gone off behind him: blink and gone. Tim blinked. What exactly had he seen? There was nothing to the south but the green-brown hills of Griffith Park, with two horseback riders trotting along the trail.

Tim frowned, then thoughtfully walked back toward his car. There was a telephone in it, and he might as well summon a taxi.

Two white-robed Wardens, one with red trim on a tailormade robe, came toward him. Tim avoided them. They stopped another pedestrian. “Pray, ye people! It is even now the hour, but it is not yet too late …”

The horns and shouts of anger had reached a crescendo when he got to his car—

The earth moved. A sudden, sharp motion, then something more gentle. Buildings shook. A plate-glass window crashed somewhere nearby. There were more sounds of falling glass. Tim could hear them because the car horns were suddenly quiet. It was as if everyone were frozen in place. A few people came out of the supermarket. Others stood in doorways, ready to get outside if it continued.

Then nothing. The horns began. People were yelling and screaming. Tim unlocked the car and reached inside for the radiophone—

The earth moved again. There were more sounds of falling glass, and someone screamed. Then, once again, silence. A flight of crows came winging out of the wooded patch at the corner of the Disney lot. They screamed at the people below, but no one paid any attention. The seconds stretched on, and the horns were once again beginning to sound when Tim was thrown violently to the asphalt parking lot.

This time it didn’t stop. The ground shook and rolled and shook again, and whenever Tim tried to get up he was thrown down again, and it seemed that it would never stop.

The chair was on its back under a pile of catalogs, and Eileen was in it. Her head hurt. Her skirt was around her hips.

She rolled out of the chair very slowly and carefully, because there was shattered glass all the hell over the place, and pulled her skirt down. Her nylons were in ruins. There was a long, thin smear of blood along her left calf, and she watched afraid to touch the spot, until she was certain there was no more blood coming out of her leg.

The front office was a chaos of catalogs, broken glass coffee table, tumbled shelving and the remains of the big plate-glass window. She shook her head dizzily. Silly thoughts boiled in her head. How could one window have had so much glass? Then, as her head cleared, she realized that each of those heavy shelves and their books had missed her head as it fell. She sagged against the receptionist’s desk, dizzy.

She saw Joe Corrigan.

The plate-glass window had fallen inward, and Corrigan had been sitting next to it. Pieces of glass lay all about him. Eileen staggered to him and knelt, cutting her knee on a glass sliver. A-dagger-size glass lance had gouged his cheek and bitten deep into his throat. Blood pooled beneath the wound but there was no more flowing out. His eyes and mouth were wide open.

Eileen pulled the glass splinter free. She covered the wound with her palm, surprised that it wasn’t bleeding more. What do you do about a throat wound? There were police outside, one of them would know. She took a deep breath, made ready to scream. Then she listened.

There were plenty of people screaming. Others were shouting. The noises from outside were chaotic. People, and rumbling sounds, as if buildings were still falling. Automobile horns, at least two, jammed on, not quite steady, wavering in mechanical agony. Nobody was going to hear Eileen call for help.

She looked down at Corrigan. She couldn’t feel a pulse. She probed at the other side of his neck. No pulse there. She found a tuft of fuzz from the rug and put it on his nostrils. It didn’t even quiver. But that’s crazy, she thought. The neck wound couldn’t have killed him, not yet! He was dead, though. Heart attack?

She got up slowly. Salt tears rolled down her cheek. They had the taste of dust. Automatically she brushed at her hair and her skirt before going outside, and she felt an impulse to laugh. She choked it down. If she started that, she wouldn’t stop.

There were more sounds from out there. Ugly sounds, but she had to get outside. There were police outside, and one was Eric Larsen. She started to call to him, then she saw what was happening and she stood quietly in the ruined doorway.

Patrolman Eric Larsen was from Kansas. To him the earthquake was completely disorienting, completely terrifying. His urge was to run in circles, flapping his arms and squawking. He couldn’t even get to his feet. He tried, and was thrown down each time, and presently decided to stay there. He put his head in his arms and closed his eyes. He tried to think of the TV script he could write when this was over, but he couldn’t concentrate.

There was noise. The Earth groaned like an angry bull. That’s a poetic image, where did I hear it? But there was more, cars crashing, buildings crashing, concrete falling, and everywhere people screaming, some in fear, some in rage, some just screaming. Eventually the ground stopped moving. Eric Larsen opened his eyes.

His world had come apart. Buildings were broken or tilted, cars wrecked, the street itself buckled and crumpled. The parking lot was a jigsaw of asphalt at crazy angles. The supermarket across the street had fallen in on itself, walls collapsing, roof tumbled. People dragged themselves out of it. Still Eric waited, willing to take his lead from the natives. Tornadoes in Kansas, earthquakes in California: The natives would know what to do.

But they didn’t. They stood, those few remaining, blinking in the bright, cloudless summer day, or they lay on the ground in bloody heaps, or they screamed and ran in circles.

Eric looked for his partner. Regulation blue trousers and black shoes protruded from under a load of plumbing supplies fallen from a truck. A crate labeled “Silent Plush” stood where the head should have been. The crate was very flat on the ground. Eric shuddered and got to his feet. He couldn’t go near that crate. Not just yet. He started toward the supermarket, wondering when the ambulances would come, looking for a senior officer to tell him what to do.

Three burly men in flannel shirts stood near a station wagon. One walked completely around it, inspecting for damage. The wagon was heavily loaded. A porch with a railing of ornamental iron scrollwork had dropped through the back end. The men cursed loudly. One dug into the back of the wagon. He took out shotguns and handed them to his friends. “We won’t get out of here because of those motherfuckers.” The man’s voice was quiet and strangely calm. Eric could barely hear him.

The others nodded and began thrusting shells into their guns. They didn’t look back at Eric Larsen. When the guns were loaded, the three raised them to their shoulders and aimed at a dozen Wardens. The white-robed preachers screamed and pulled at their chains. Then the shotguns went off in volley.

Eric put his hand to his pistol, then drew it away quickly. Hell! He walked toward the men, his knees unsteady. They were reloading.

“Don’t do that,” Eric said.

The men jumped at the voice. They turned to see police blue. They frowned, their eyes wide, their expressions uncertain. Eric stared back. He had already noticed the “SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL POLICE” bumper sticker on the station wagon.

The oldest of the three men snorted. “It’s over! That was the end of civilization you just saw, don’t you understand?”

And suddenly Eric did understand. There weren’t going to be any ambulances to take the injured to hospitals. Startled, Eric looked back down Alameda, toward the place where St. Joseph’s was. He saw nothing but buckled streets and collapsed houses. Had St. Joseph’s been visible from here? Eric couldn’t remember.

The spokesman for the men was still shouting. “Those motherfuckers kept us from getting up into the hills! What use are they?” He looked down at his empty shotgun. It lay open in his hand. His other hand held two shells, and kept straying toward the breech of the gun, not quite inserting them.

“I don’t know,” Eric said. “Are you going to be the first man to start shooting policemen?” He let his eyes go to the bumper sticker. The burly man’s followed, then looked down at the street. “Are you?” Eric repeated.

“No.”

“Good. Now give me the shotgun.”

“I need it—”

“So do I,” Eric said. “Your friends have others.”

“Am I under arrest?”

“Where would I take you? I need your shotgun. That’s all.”

The man nodded. “Okay.”

“The shells, too,” Eric said. His voice took on a note of urgency.

“All right.”

“Now get out of here,” Eric said. He held the shotgun without loading it. The Wardens, the few that survived, watched in silent horror. “Thank you,” Eric said. He turned away, not caring where the burly men went.

I’ve just watched Murder One and done nothing about it, he told himself. He walked briskly away from the traffic jam. It was as if his mind were no longer connected to his body, and his body knew where it was going.

The sky to the southwest was strange. Clouds flew overhead, formed and vanished as in a speeded-up film. It was all familiar to Eric Larsen, as familiar as the way the air felt in his sinuses. Anyone from Topeka would know. Tornado weather. When the air feels like this, and the sky looks that way, you head for the nearest basement, taking a radio and a canteen of water.

It’s a good mile to the Burbank City Jail, Eric thought. He studied the sky judiciously. I can make it. He walked briskly toward the jail. Eric Larsen was still a civilized man.

Eileen watched the incident in horror. She hadn’t heard the conversation, but what happened was plain enough. The police… weren’t police any longer.

Two of the Wardens were messily dead, five more writhed in the agony of mortal wounds, and the rest were writhing to free themselves from the chains. One of the Wardens had a pair of bolt cutters. Eileen recognized them. Joe Corrigan had given them to the police only minutes, or lifetimes, before.

The scene outside was incomprehensible. People lay in heaps, or dragged themselves from ruined shops. One man had climbed on top of a wrecked truck. He sat on the cab, feet dangling over the windshield, and drank deeply from a bottle of whiskey. Every now and again he looked up and laughed.

Anyone wearing a white robe was in danger. For the Wardens in chains it was a nightmare. Hundreds of enraged drivers, more hundreds of passengers, many fleeing the city, not really expecting Hammerfall but heading out just in case — and the Wardens had stopped them. Most of the people in the street were still lying flat on their backs, or wandering aimlessly, but there were enough men and women converging on the robed and chained Wardens, and each carrying something heavy — tire irons, tire chains, jack handles, a baseball bat…

Eileen stood in the doorway. She glanced back at Corrigan’s body. Two vertical lines deepened between her eyes as she watched Patrolman Larsen’s retreating back. A riot was starting out there, and the only cop was walking away, fast, after calmly watching murder. It wasn’t a world Eileen understood.

World. What had happened to the world? Gingerly she picked her way back through the broken glass toward her office. Thank God for medium heels, she thought. Glass crunched underfoot. She moved as quickly as she could, without a glance at the smashed goods and broken shelves and sagging walls.

A length of pipe, torn loose from the ceiling, had half crushed her desk, smashing the glass top. The pipe was heavier than anything she had ever lifted before, and she grunted with the effort, but it moved. She pulled her purse from underneath, then scrambled about looking for the portable radio. It seemed undamaged.

Nothing but static. She thought she heard a few words in the static. Someone shouting “Hammerfall!” over and over again, or was that in her head? No matter. There was no useful information.

Or, rather, there was, in that fact itself. This wasn’t a local disaster. The San Andreas had let go. Okay, but there were plenty of radio stations in southern California, and not all of them were near the fault. One or more should still be broadcasting, and Eileen knew of nothing an earthquake could do that would cause so much static.

Static. She went on through the back of the store. She found another body there, one of the warehousemen. She knew from the coveralls; there wouldn’t have been any point in looking for a face. Or for an upper torso, either, not under that… The door to the alley was jammed. She pulled and it moved, slightly, and she pulled again, bracing her cut knee against the wall and straining as hard as she could. It opened just far enough to let her squeeze through, and she went out and looked up at the sky.

Black clouds, roiling, and rain beginning to fall. Salt rain. Lightning flashed overhead.

The alley was blocked with rubble. Her car couldn’t possibly get through. She stopped and used the mirror from her purse, found a Kleenex and wiped away the dirty tear streaks and blood; not that it mattered a damn how she looked, but it made her feel better.

More rain fell. Darkness and lightning overhead, and salt rain. What did that mean? A big ocean strike? Tim had tried to tell her, but she hadn’t listened; it had so little to do with real life. She thought about Tim as she hurried down the alley, back toward Alameda because it was the only way she could go, and when she got to the street she couldn’t believe what she was seeing. Tim was there, in the middle of a riot.

The earthquake rolled Tim Hamner under his car. He stayed there, waiting for the next shock, until he smelled gasoline. Then he came out, fast, crawling across the buckled pavement, staying on hands and knees.

He heard screams of terror and agony, and new sounds: concrete smashing on street pavement, concrete punching through metal car bodies, an endless tinkle of falling glass. And still he couldn’t believe. He got up, trembling.

People in white robes, blue uniforms, street clothes, lay sprawled on shattered street and sidewalks. Some moved. Some did not. Some were obviously dead, twisted or crushed. Cars had been overturned or smashed together or crushed by falling masonry. No building stood intact. The smell of gasoline was strong in his nostrils. He reached for a cigarette, jerked his hand violently away, then thoughtfully put his lighter in a back pocket, where he’d have to think before finding it.

A three-story building had lost its east face; the glass and brick had disintegrated, spilling outward across the parking lot and side street almost as far as where Tim Hamner had been lying. A chunk with part of a bay window in it had dropped through the passenger section of Hamner’s car. Gasoline ran from it in a spreading pool.

From somewhere he heard screams. He tried to shut them out. He couldn’t think of anything to do. Then the riot spilled around the corner.

It was led by three men in white robes. They were not screaming; they were panting, and saving all their breath for it. The screaming came from those behind them, and not from those in the lead.

One of the robed ones screamed at last. “Help! Please!” he screamed at Tim Hamner and ran toward him.

The mob pursued. They were looking at Tim Hamner, all those eyes at once, and he thought, They’ll believe I’m with them! Then a worse thought: I could be recognized. As the man who invented the Hammer…

Time was too short to consider the idea. Tim reached into the trunk and brought out the portable tape unit. The robed youth running toward him had a wispy blond beard and a lean face set in classic lines of terror. Tim shoved his microphone toward the Warden and said loudly, “One moment, please, sir. Just how—”

Insulted and betrayed, the man swiped at the microphone and ran past him. The other two fugitives, and most of the mob, had continued on down the street — toward the dead end, and of course that was a pity. Some burly types ran past Tim, chasing the robed man into the broken building. One stopped, panting, and looked at Tim.

Hamner lifted the microphone again. “Sir? Have you any idea how all this happened?”

“Hell, yes… buddy. Those sons of bitches… those Wardens blocked us off just as we… were taking off for Big Bear. They were… going to stop the comet by praying. Didn’t… work, and they… trapped us here, and we’ve… already killed about… half of the motherfuckers.”

It was working! Somehow nobody ever thinks of killing a newsman. Too vividly public, maybe: The whole world is watching. Other rioters had stopped, were crowding around, but not as if they were waiting their turn to kill Tim Hamner. They were waiting for a chance to speak.

“Who you with?” one demanded.

“KNBS,” Tim said. He fumbled in his pockets for the press-card Harvey Randall had given him. There it was. Tim flashed it, but kept his thumb over the name.

“Can you get a message out?” the man demanded. “Send for—”

Tim shook his head. “This is a recorder, not a remote unit. The rest of the crew will be here soon. I hope.” He turned back to the first man. “How are you planning to get out now?”

“Don’t know. Walk out, I guess.” He seemed to have lost interest in the fleeing Wardens.

“Thank you, sir. Would you mind signing…” Tim brought out a stack of NBS release forms. The big man stepped back as if they’d been scorpions. He looked thoughtful for a second.

“Forget it, buddy.” He turned and walked away. Others followed, and the whole crowd melted away, leaving Tim alone by the ruins of his car.

Hamner put the press card into his shirt pocket, adjusting it so that the big lettering, PRESS, was visible, but his name wasn’t. Then he put the recorder’s strap over his shoulder. He also carried the microphone and a stack of release forms. It was all heavy and awkward, but it was worth it. He did not laugh.

Alameda was filled with horrors. A woman dressed in an expensive pant-quit was jumping up and down on a lumpy white robe. Tim looked away. When he looked back, there were more people swarming around him. They carried bloody tire irons. A man swung toward him, swung an enormous handgun toward Tim’s navel. Tim pointed the microphone at him. “Excuse me, sir. How did you manage to get trapped in this mess?” The man cried as he told his tale…

There was someone at Tim’s elbow. Hamner hesitated, not wanting to look away; the man with the gun was still talking, tears of rage running down his face, and his gun still pointed at Tim’s navel. He looked earnestly into Hamner’s eyes. Whatever he saw, he hadn’t fired yet…

Who the devil was that? Someone reaching for the release forms—

Eileen! Eileen Hancock? Tim held the microphone motionless as Eileen stepped briskly to his side. He let her take the release forms.

“Okay, Chief, I’m here,” she said. “Bit of trouble back there…”

Tim almost fainted. She wasn’t going to blow his cover, thank God she had brains for that. Tim nodded, his eyes still fixed on his interview subject. “Glad you got here,” Tim said from the corner of his mouth, speaking low as if worried about ruining the interview. He did not smile.

“…and if I see another of the sons of bitches I’ll kill him too!”

“Thank you, sir,” Tim said gravely. “I don’t suppose you’d care to sign—”

“Sign? Sign what?”

“A release form.”

The gun swung up to point at Tim’s face. “You bastard!” the man screamed.

“Anonymous subject,” Eileen said. “Sir — you do know there’s a newspersons’ shield law in California, don’t you?”

“What—”

“We can’t be forced to reveal our sources,” Eileen said. “You don’t need to worry. It’s the law.”

“Oh.” The man looked around. The other rioters had gone, somewhere, and it was raining. He looked at Tim, and at Eileen, and at the gun in his hand. There were more tears. Then he turned and walked away. After a few steps he ran.

Somewhere a woman screamed, short and sharp. The background noise was screams and moans and thunder, thunder always, and very near. A brisk wind had risen. Two men were atop an intact car with a shoulder-carried television camera. No way to tell how long they’d been there, but they were all alone on an island of privacy. And so were Tim and Eileen.

“Rioters are publicity-shy,” Tim said. “Glad to see you. I’d forgotten you work around here.”

“Worked,” Eileen said. She pointed toward the ruins of Corrigan’s. “I don’t suppose anyone will be selling plumbing supplies…”

“Not from Burbank,” Tim said. “I am glad to see you. You know that, don’t you? What do we do now?”

“You’re the expert.”

Lightning crackled nearby. The hills of Griffith Park were aflame with blue flashes.

“High ground,” Tim said. “And fast.”

Eileen looked puzzled. She pointed at the lightning.

“That might hit us,” he agreed. “But we’ve a better chance out of this river valley. Feel the rain? And there may be…”

“Yes?”

“Tidal wave,” Tim said.

“Jesus. It’s real, isn’t it? This way, then. Up into the Verdugo Hills. We can hike across. How much time do we have?”

“I don’t know. Depends on where it hit. They hit, probably,” Tim was surprised at how calm his voice was.

Eileen began walking. East on Alameda. The route led toward the head of the traffic jam, where the huddled bodies of the Wardens lay. As they got near, a car roared off through the intersection, into a filling station beyond, then onto the sidewalk. It squeezed through between a wall and a telephone pole, scraping paint off the right side.

The car that had been behind it was now clear, and it was unlocked. Keys dangled in the ignition. Eileen waved Tim toward it. “How good a driver are you?” she demanded.

“Okay.”

“I’ll drive,” she said firmly. “I’m damned good at it.” She got into the driver’s seat and started the car. It was an elderly Chrysler, once a luxury car. Now the rugs were worn and it had ugly stains on the seat covers. When the motor turned over with a steady purr, Tim thought it the most beautiful car he’d ever seen.

Eileen took the route of the previous car. They drove over a white robe, bump; she didn’t slow. The space between the telephone pole and the wall was narrow, but she went through it at speed, twenty miles an hour anyway, without worrying about it. Tim held his breath until they were through.

The street curved gently ahead of them. There were cars jammed in both lanes of traffic, and Eileen kept on the sidewalk, veering off into yards when she had to to avoid more utility poles. She drove through rose beds and manicured lawns until they were past the traffic jam.

“Lord God, you are a good driver,” Tim said.

Eileen didn’t look up. She was busy avoiding obstructions. Some of the obstructions were people. “Should we warn them?” she asked.

“Would it do any good? But yes,” Tim said. He opened the window on his side. The rain was coming down hard now, and the salt stung his eyes. “Get to high ground,” he shouted. “Tidal waves. Flood! Get to high ground,” he shouted into the rising wind. People stared at him as they went by. A few looked around wildly, and once Tim saw a man grab a woman and dash for a car in sudden decision.

They turned a corner, and there were red flames. A whole block of houses was burning out of control, burning despite the rain. The wind blew flaming chips into the air.

Another time they slowed to avoid rubble in the street. A woman ran toward them carrying a bundled blanket. Before Eileen could accelerate, the woman had reached the car. She thrust the blanket in the window. “His name is John!” she shouted. “Take care of him!”

“But — don’t you want—”

Tim couldn’t finish. The woman had turned away. “Two more back there!” she screamed. “John. John Mason. Remember his name!”

Eileen speeded up again. Tim opened the bundle. There was a baby in it. It didn’t move. Tim felt for a heartbeat, and his hand came out covered with blood. It was bright red, copper blood, and the smell filled the car despite the warm salt smell of the rain.

“Dead,” Tim said.

“Throw him out,” Eileen said.

“But—”

“We aren’t going to eat him. We won’t be that hungry.”

It shocked Tim, so much that he thrust the baby out the window and let go. “I — it felt like I was letting some of my life drop onto that pavement,” he said.

“Do you think I like it?” Eileen’s voice was pinched. Tim looked at her in alarm; there were tears streaming down her cheeks. “That woman thinks she saved her child. At least she thinks that. It’s all we could have done for her.”

“Yes,” Tim said gently.

“If… When. When we’ve got to high ground, when we know what’s happening, we can start thinking civilization again,” Eileen said. “Until then, we survive.”

“If we can.”

“We will.” She drove on, grimly. The rain was coming down so hard that she couldn’t see, despite the windshield wipers speeding away, smearing grime and salt water across the windshield.

The Golden State Freeway had cracked. The underpass was blocked with wreckage. A tangle of cars and a large gasoline tank truck lay in the midst of a spreading pool of fire.

“Jesus,” Tim said. “That’s… shouldn’t we stop?”

“What for?” Eileen turned left and drove parallel to the freeway. “Anyone who’s going to survive that has got out already.”

They were driving through a residential area. The houses had mostly survived intact. They both felt relief; for a few moments there was no one hurt, broken or dying. They found another underpass, and Eileen drove toward it.

The way had been blocked by a traffic barrier. Someone had torn down the barrier. Eileen drove through it. As she did, another car came out of the rain ahead. It dashed past, horn screaming.

“Why would anyone be going into the valley?” Tim demanded.

“Wives. Sweethearts. Children,” Eileen said. They were climbing now. When the way was blocked by twisted remains of buildings and cars, Eileen turned left, bearing north and east always. They passed the ruins of a hospital. Police in blue, nurses in rain-soaked white poked at the wreckage. One of the policemen stopped and looked at them. Tim leaned out the window and screamed at him. “Get to high ground! Flood! Tidal wave! High ground!”

The policeman waved, then turned back to the wreckage of the hospital.

Tim stared moodily at the swirling smears on the windshield. He blinked back tears of his own.

Eileen had a moment to glance at him. Her hand touched his before returning to the wheel. “We couldn’t have helped. They’ve got cars, and enough people…”

“I guess.” He wondered if he meant it. The nightmare ride went on, as the car climbed toward the Verdugo Hills, past wrecked stucco houses, a fallen school, burning houses and intact houses. Whenever they saw anyone, Tim screamed warning. It made him feel a little better for not stopping.

He glanced at his watch. Incredibly, less than forty minutes had passed since he’d seen the bright flash. He muttered it: “Forty minutes. H plus forty minutes, and counting.”

The wave rushes outward from the center of the Gulf of Mexico, moving at 760 miles an hour. When it reaches the shallows along the coast of Texas and Louisiana, the foot of the wave stumbles. More and more water rushes up behind, piling higher and higher until a towering monster half a kilometer high falls forward and flows up onto the land.

Galveston and Texas City vanish under the pounding waves. The water that flows westward through the swamps into El Lago, further west into Houston itself, is now filled with debris. The wave strikes all along the arc from Brownsville, Texas, to Pensacola, Florida, seeking lowlands, rivers, any path inland and away from the burning hell at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.

The waters pile high along the Florida west coast; then they break across, carrying with them the sandy soil. They leave behind channels scoured clean, a myriad of passages from the Gulf to the Atlantic Ocean. The Gulf Stream will be cooler and much smaller for centuries to come.

The waters crossing Florida are capricious. Here a reflected wave joins the main body of rushing water to build even higher; there a reflection cancels, leaving parts of the Okefenokee Swamp untouched. Havana and the Florida Keys vanish instantly. Miami en joys an hour’s respite until the waves from the Atlantic strikes rush down, meet the outrushing waves from the Gulf, overpower them, and crash into Florida’s eastern cities.

Atlantic waters pour into the Gulf of Mexico through the newly formed cross-Florida channels. The saucer bowl of the Gulf cannot hold it all, and the waters once again flow west and north, across the already drowned lands. One wave rushes up the Mississippi. It is forty feet above flood level when it passes Memphis, Tennessee.

Fred Lauren had been at the window all night. The bars didn’t hide the sky at all. They’d put him alone in a cell after they photographed and fingerprinted him, and they left him. At noon he’d be taken to the Los Angeles Jail.

Fred laughed. At noon there wouldn’t be a Los Angeles Jail. There’d be no Los Angeles. They’d never get a chance to put him in with those other men. Memories of another prison came, and he swept them away with better thoughts.

He remembered Colleen. He’d gone to her door with presents. He only wanted to talk. She’d been afraid of him, hut he was inside before she could bolt the door, and he’d brought very nice presents for her, nice enough that she’d let him stand by the door while she stood on the other side of the room and looked at the jewelry and the gloves and red shoes, and then she’d wondered how he knew her sizes, and he told her.

He’d talked and talked, and after awhile she was friendly and let him sit down. She’d offered him a drink and they’d talked some more, and she had two drinks for herself, and then another. She’d been pleased that he knew so much about her. He didn’t tell her about the telescope, of course, but he’d told her how he knew where she worked, and where she shopped, and how beautiful she was…

Fred didn’t want to remember the rest of it. How she’d had one drink too many, and told him that even though they’d just met she felt she’d known him a long time and of course he really had known her even if she didn’t know it, and she’d asked if he wanted to stay…

Tramp. Like all of them. A tramp. No, she couldn’t have been, she really loved him, he knew she did, but why had she laughed, and then screamed and told him to get out when—

NO!

Fred always stopped remembering then. He looked up at the sky. The comet was there. Its tail blazed across the sky just as he’d seen in the paintings in the astronomy magazines, and when the sky was blue with hidden dawn, brightening in that tiny patch of western sky that Fred could see, there were still the wisps of comet among the clouds, and people moved on the streets below, the fools, didn’t they know?

They brought him breakfast in his cell. The jailers didn’t want to talk to him. Even the trustees looked at him that way…

They knew. They knew. The police doctors must have examined her, and they knew she hadn’t been, that he couldn’t, that he’d tried but he couldn’t and she laughed and he knew how he could do it, but he didn’t want to, and she laughed again, and he bit her until she screamed and then he’d be able to only she kept on screaming!

He had to stop thinking. He had to, before he remembered the shape on the bed. The cops had made him look at her. One had held his hand in a certain way and bent his fingers until he opened his eyes and looked and he didn’t want to, didn’t they understand that he loved her and he didn’t want…?

The sky glowed strangely through the cracks of the buildings across the street. Somewhere to the left, far south and west. The glow died before he’d seen anything at all, but Fred smiled. It had happened. It wouldn’t be long now.

“Hey, Charlie,” the drunk across the block called. “Charlie!”

“Yeah?” the trustee answered.

“What the fuck was that? They making movies out there?”

“Don’t know what you’re talking about. Ask the sex maniac, he’s got western exposure.”

“Hey, Sex Maniac—”

The walls and floor jerked suddenly, savagely. He was flying… He threw out his arms to ward the wall from his head. The stone wave broke against his arms, and Fred howled. Agony screamed in his left elbow.

The floor seemed to stabilize. The jail was solidly built. There’d been nothing damaged. Fred moved his left arm and moaned. Other prisoners were shouting now. One screamed in agony. He must have fallen from an upper bunk. Fred ignored them all and moved again to the window. He felt real fear. Was that all?

One ordinary day, with… clouds. Jesus, they were moving fast! Churning, forming and vanishing, streaming north and west. A lower cloud bank, calmer and more stable, began moving south and west. This wasn’t what Fred had expected. One wave of fire, that was what he had prepared for. Doomsday was taking its own sweet time.

The sky darkened. Now it was all black clouds, swirling, churning, flashing with continuous lightning. The wind and the thunder howled louder than the prisoners.

The end of the world came in blinding light and simultaneous thunderclap.

Fred’s mind recondensed to find him on the floor. His elbow was shrieking agony. Lightning… lightning must have struck the jail itself. There were no lights in the corridor, and outside was dark, so that he could see only in surrealistic flashes like a strobe-lit go-go bar.

Charlie was moving along the cellblock. He carried keys. He was letting the prisoners out. One by one. He opened the cells and they came out and moved down the corridor — and he had already passed Fred’s cell. The cells on either side were open. His was locked.

Fred screamed. Charlie didn’t turn. He went on until he reached the end of the cellblock, then he went out and down the stairs.

Fred was alone.

Eric Larsen looked to neither the right nor the left. He walked in long strides. He stepped around the dead and the injured, and ignored pleas for help. He could have helped them, but he was driven by a terrible urgency. His cold eyes and the carelessly carried shotgun discouraged anyone from getting in his way.

He saw no other policemen. He barely noticed the people around him, that some were helping the injured, some were disconsolately staring at the ruins of their homes and shops and stores, some were running aimlessly. None of it mattered now. They were all doomed, as Eric Larsen was doomed.

He might have taken a car and driven away into the hills. He saw cars race past him. He saw Eileen Hancock in an old Chrysler. If she’d stopped he might have gone with her, but she didn’t, and Eric was glad, because it was tough enough to keep his resolve.

But suppose he wasn’t needed? Suppose it was a fool’s errand? There was no way to know.

But I should have taken a car, he thought. I could have finished it and had a chance. Too late now. There was the station house, City Hall, and the jail. They seemed deserted. He went into the jail. There was a dead policewoman under the wreckage of a huge cabinet that had stood against the wall. He saw no one else, living or dead. He went through, behind the booking cage and up the stairs. The cellblocks were quiet.

It was a fool’s errand. He was not needed. He was about to go back down the stairs, but he stopped himself. No point in coming this far without being sure.

There’d been talk of a tidal wave following Hammerfall. There were people in the Burbank Jail, people that Eric Larsen had put there. Drunks, petty thieves, young vagrants who said they were eighteen but looked much younger. They couldn’t be left to drown like rats in forgotten jail cells. They didn’t deserve that. And Eric had put them there — it was his responsibility.

The barred door at the top of the stairs stood open. Eric went through and used his big flash in the near darkness. The cell doors stood open. All but one.

All but one. Eric went to the cell. Fred Lauren stood with his back to the corridor. His left arm was cradled in his right. Lauren stared out the window, and he didn’t turn when Eric flashed the light on him. Eric stood watching him for a moment. No one deserved to drown like a rat in a cage. No human did. The thieves and drunks and runaways and…

“Turn around,” Eric said. Lauren didn’t move. “Turn around or I’ll shoot your kneecaps out. That hurts a lot.”

Fred whimpered and turned. He saw the shotgun leveled at him. The policeman was holding the light off to one side, almost behind himself, so that Fred could see.

“Do you know who I am?” the policeman asked.

“Yes. You kept the other policeman from beating me last night.” Fred moved closer. He stared at the shotgun. “Is that for me?”

“I brought it for you,” Eric said. “I came to turn the others loose. I couldn’t let you loose. So I brought the shotgun.”

“It’s the end of the world,” Fred Lauren said. “All of it. Nothing will be left. But…” Fred whimpered deep in his throat. “But when? Would… please, you’ve got to tell me. Wouldn’t she be dead now? Already? She couldn’t live through the end of the world. She’d have died and I’d never have talked to her—”

“Talked to her!” Eric brought the shotgun up in rage. He saw Fred Lauren standing calmly, waiting, and he saw the bed and the ruins of a young girl, and the closet with the pathetically small wardrobe. There was a smell of copper blood in his nostrils. His finger tightened on the trigger, then relaxed. He lowered the shotgun.

“Please,” Fred Lauren said. “Please—”

The shotgun came up quickly. Eric hadn’t known it would kick so hard.

Hot Fudge Tuesdae: Two

Oh, I run to the hills and the hills were a-fallin
Run to the sea and the sea was a-boilin’,
Run to the sky and the sky was a-burnin’
ALL ON THAT DAY.

Static roared in the crowded room. Random blobs and colors filled the large TV, but twenty men and women stared at the screen where they had watched lights blaze and die above the Atlantic, above Europe, Northwest Africa, the Gulf of Mexico. Only Dan Forrester continued to work. The screen above his console held a computer-drawn world map, and Forrester laboriously called up all the data received at JPL, plotting the strikes and using their locations as input for more calculations.

Charles Sharps felt that he ought to be interested in Forrester’s calculations, but he wasn’t. Instead he watched the others. Open mouths, bulging eyes, feet thrusting them back into their chairs. They cringed back from their blinded consoles and screens, as if these were the danger. And still Forrester typed instructions, made precise movements, studied results and typed again…

“Hammerfall,” Sharps said to himself. And what the hell do we do about it? He couldn’t think of anything, and the room depressed him. He left his station and went to the long table against one wall. There were coffee and Danish there, and Sharps poured himself a cup. He stared into it, then lifted it in a mock salute. “Doom,” he said. He kept his voice low. The others began to rise from their stations.

“Doom,” Sharps repeated. Ragnarok. And what use now was man’s proud civilization? Ice Age, Fire Age, Ax Age, Wolf Age… he turned to see that Forrester had left his station and was moving toward the door. “What now?” Sharps asked.

“Earthquake.” Forrester continued to walk rapidly toward the exit. “Earthquake.” He said it loudly, so that everyone could hear, and there was a rush toward the door.

Dr. Charles Sharps poured his cup almost full. He took it to the tap and ran a splash of cold water into it. It was Mocha-Java made less than an hour ago with a Melitta filter and kept in a clean Thermos. A pity to water it; but now it was just cool enough to drink. How long would it be before ships crossed major oceans again? Years, decades, forever? He might never taste coffee again. Sharps drained the cup in four swallows and dropped it onto the floor. The heavy china bounced and rolled against a console. Sharps went outside at a run.

The others had passed Forrester in the hall; the glass doors at the entrance were just closing behind him. That urgent waddle: Dan Forrester had never been athletic, but surely he could move faster than that? Did they have time to spare, then? Sharps jogged to catch up.

“Parking lot,” Dan puffed. “Watch it—”

Sharps stumbled, recovered. Dan was dancing on one leg. The ground had jerked, emphatically, once. Sharps thought: Why, that wasn’t bad. The buildings aren’t even harmed—

“Now,” Forrester said. He continued toward the parking lot. It was at the top of a long flight of concrete stairs. Dan stopped near the top, blowing hard, and Sharps got a shoulder under his armpit and managed to half-carry him the rest of the way to the top. There Dan lay down and rolled over. Sharps watched him with concern.

Forrester puffed, tried to say something and failed. He was too winded. He lifted one arm and gestured with palm down. Sit.

Too late. The ground danced under his feet, and Sharps sat down too hard, then found himself rolling toward the stairs. This time there was the sound of breaking glass, but when Sharps looked over the JPL complex he didn’t see any obvious damage. Down below, the reporters were beginning to stream out of the Von Karman Center, but many paused after the mild quake, and some went back inside.

“Tell them…” puff puff. “Tell them to get out,” Forrester said. “The worst one is coming—”

Charles Sharps called to the reporters. “Big shock coming! Get everyone outside!” He recognized the New York Times man. “Get them out!” Sharps called.

He turned to see that Forrester was on his feet and moving rapidly toward the back of the parking lot, away from the cars. He was walking as fast as Sharps had ever seen him move. “Hurry!” Sharps called to the others.

Men and women were spilling out of all the JPL buildings. Some came toward Sharps and the parking lot. Others milled about in areas between buildings, wondering where to go. Sharps gestured viciously, then looked at Forrester. Dan had reached a clear area, and was sitting down…

Sharps turned and ran toward Forrester. He reached him and sprawled onto the asphalt. Nothing happened for a moment.

“First shock… was the ground wave… from the Death Valley strike,” Forrester huffed. “Then… the Pacific strike. Don’t know how long until it triggers—”

The earth groaned. Birds flew into the air, and there was an electric feeling of impending doom. Down at the end of the parking lot a group had just come to the top of the stairs and were moving toward Forrester and Sharps.

The earth groaned again. Then it roared.

“San Andreas,” Forrester said. “It will let go completely. Way overdue. Hundred megatons of energy. Maybe more.”

Half a dozen people had cleared the stairwell. Two came toward Sharps and Forrester. The rest sought their own cars. “Get them out of there,” Forrester huffed.

“Get into the clear!” Sharps screamed. “And clear off that stairwell! Get off!”

A TV camera appeared at the top of the stairs. A man was carrying it, followed by a woman. There was a knot of people behind them. The TV crew started across the parking lot—

And the earth moved. There was time for them to curl up hugging their knees in the two or three seconds it took the quake to build strength. The earth roared again, and again, and there were other sounds, of people screaming, of falling glass and crashing concrete, and then the sound lost all form and became the shapeless chaos of nightmare. Sharps tried to sit erect and look back toward JPL, but nothing was solid. The asphalt rippled and ripped. The hot pavement slid gratingly away, throwing Sharps into a double somersault, then heaved and bucked once more, and the world was filled with sound and roaring and screams.

Finally it was over. Sharps sat and tried to focus his eyes. The world had changed. He looked up toward the towering Angeles mountains, and their skyline was different, subtly, but different. He had no time to see more. There was sound behind him, and he turned to see that part of the parking lot was gone, the rest tilted at strange angles. Many of the cars were gone, tumbled over the precipice that had developed between him and the stairs — only there weren’t any stairs. They, too, had tumbled onto the lower parking lot. The remaining cars butted each other like battling beasts. Everywhere was sound: cars, buildings, rocks, all grinding together.

A Volkswagen rolled ponderously toward Sharps, like a steel tumbleweed, growing huge. Sharps screamed and tried to run. His legs wouldn’t hold him. He fell, crawled, and saw the VW tumble past his heels, a mountain of painted metal. It smashed itself half flat against a Lincoln… and now it was only Volkswagen-sized again.

Another small car was on its back, and someone was under it, thrashing. Oh, God, it was Charlene, and there wasn’t a hope of anyone getting to her. Abruptly she stopped moving. The ground continued to tremble and groan, then thrashed. More of the parking lot separated, dipped, slid slowly downhill, carrying Charlene and her killer car. Now Sharps no longer heard the roar. He was deaf. He lay flat on the shuddering ground, waiting for it to end.

The tower, the large central building of JPL, was gone. In its place there was a crumpled mass of glass, concrete, twisted metal, broken computers. The Von Karman Center was similarly in ruins. One wall had fallen, and through it Sharps saw the first unmanned lunar, the metal spider that had gone to the Moon to scoop up its surface. The spacecraft was helpless under the falling roof. Then the walls collapsed as well, burying the spacecraft, and burying the science press corps.

“End! When will it end?” someone was screaming. Sharps could barely hear the words.

Finally the quake began to die. Sharps stayed down. He would not tempt the fates. What remained of the parking lot was tilted downslope and bulged in the middle. Now Sharps had time to wonder who had been on the stairway behind the cameramen. Not that it mattered; they were gone, the camera people were gone; everyone who had been within fifty feet of the stairwell had vanished into the mass below, covered by the hillside and the mangled remains of cars.

The day was darkening. Visibly darkening. Sharps looked up to see why.

A black curtain was rolling across the sky. Within churning black clouds the lightning flared as dozens, scores, hundreds of flashbulbs.

Lightning flared and split a tree to their right. The instantaneous thunder was deafening, and the air smelled of ozone. More lightning crashed in the hills ahead.

“Do you know where you’re going?” Tim Hamner demanded.

“No.” Eileen drove on, speeding through empty, rainwashed streets. “There’s a road up into the hills here somewhere. I’ve been up it a couple of times.”

To their left and behind them were more houses, mostly intact. To the right were the Verdugo Hills, with small side streets penetrating a couple of blocks into them, each street with its “Dead End” sign. Except for the rain and lightning, everything seemed normal here. The rain hid everything not close to them, and the houses, mostly older, stucco, Spanishstyle, stood without visible damage.

“Aha!” Eileen cried. She turned hard right, onto a blacktop road that twisted its way along the base of a high bluff, a protruding spur of the lightning-washed mountains ahead. The road twisted ahead, and soon they saw nothing but the hill to the right, the brooding mountains looming above and a golf course to their left. There were neither cars nor people.

They turned, turned again, and Eileen jammed on the brakes. The car skidded to a halt. It stood face-to-face with a landslide. Ten feet and more of flint and mud blocked their way.

“Walk,” Tim said. He looked out at the lightning ahead and shuddered.

“The road goes a lot further,” Eileen said. “Over the top of the hills, I think.” She pointed to her left, at the golf course protected by its chain link fence. “Tear a hole in the fence.”

“With what?” Tim demanded, but he got out. Rain soaked him almost instantly. He stood helplessly. Eileen got out on the other side and brought the trunk keys.

There was a jack, and a few flares, and an old raincoat, oil-soaked as if it had been used to wipe the engine. Eileen took out the jack handle. “Use that. Tim, we don’t have much time—”

“I know.” Hamner took the thin metal rod and went over to the fence. He stood helplessly, pounding the jack handle into his right hand. The task looked hopeless. He heard the trunk lid slam, then the car door. The starter whirred.

Tim looked around, startled, but the car wasn’t moving. He couldn’t see Eileen’s face through the driving rain and wet glass. Would she leave him here?

Experimentally he put the jack handle between the wire and a fence post and twisted. Nothing happened. He strained, throwing his weight onto the handle, and something gave. He slipped and fell against the fence, and felt his wet clothing tear as a jagged point snagged him. It cut him, and the salt on his clothes was in the wound. He hunched his shoulders against the pain and hopelessness, and stood, helpless again.

“Tim! How are you doing?”

He wanted to turn and call to her. He wanted to tell her it was no use, and that he was miserable, and he’d torn his clothes, and…

Instead, he crouched and inserted the jack handle again, twisting and prying at the wire, until it broke free of the post. Then again, and again, and suddenly the whole length of fence was loose there. He went to the next post and began his work.

Eileen gunned the car. The horn sounded, and she called, “Stand aside!” The car left the road and came at the fence rammed it, tore it loose from another post and flattened it onto the grass, and the car drove over it. The car motor raced. “Get in,” she called.

Tim ran for it. She hadn’t stopped completely, and now it seemed she wasn’t going to stop at all. He ran to catch up and tugged open the door, threw himself onto the seat. She gunned the car across the fairway, leaving deep ruts, then came to a green. She drove across it. The car tore at the carefully manicured surface.

Tim laughed. There was a note of hysteria in it.

“What?” Eileen asked. She didn’t take her eyes off the grassy fairway ahead.

“I remember when some lady stepped on the Los Angeles Country Club green with spiked heels,” Tim said. “The steward nearly died! I thought I understood Hammerfall, and what it meant, but I didn’t, not until you drove across the greens…”

She didn’t say anything, and Tim stared moodily ahead again. How many man-hours had gone to produce that perfect grassy surface? Would anyone ever again bother? Tim had another wild impulse to laughter. If there were golf clubs in the car, he could get out and tee off on a green…

Eileen went completely across the golf course and back to the blacktop road up into the hills. Now they were in wilderness, high hills on either side of them. They passed a picnic ground. There were Boy Scouts there. They had a tent set up, and they seemed to be arguing with the scoutmaster. Tim opened the car window. “Stay on high ground,” he shouted.

“What’s happened below?” the scoutmaster asked.

Eileen slowed to a stop.

“Fires. Floods. Traffic jams,” Tim said. “Nothing you’ll want to go into. Not for awhile.” He motioned the adult closer. “Stay up here, at least for the night.”

“Our families…” the man said.

“Where?”

“Studio City.”

“You can’t get there now,” Tim said. “Traffic’s not moving in the valley. Roads closed, freeways down, lot of fires. The best thing you can do for your families is to stay up here where you’re safe.”

The man nodded. He had big brown eyes in a square, honest face. There was a stubble of red beard on his chin. “I’ve been telling the kids that. Julie-Ann, you hear that? Your mother knows where we are. If things were really bad down there, they’d send the cops after us. Best we stay here.” He lowered his voice. “Lot of rebuilding to do after that quake, I guess. Many hurt?”

“Yeah,” Tim said. He turned away. He couldn’t look into the scoutmaster’s eyes.

“We’ll stay another day, then,” the scoutmaster said. “They ought to have things moving again by tomorrow. Kids aren’t really prepared for this rain, though. Nobody expects rain in June. Maybe we ought to go down into Burbank and stay in a house. Or a church. They’d put us up—”

“Don’t,” Tim said. His voice was urgent. “Not yet. Does this road go on over the top?”

“Yes.” The man brought his face close to Tim’s. “Why do you want to go up into that?” He waved toward the lightning that flashed on the peaks above. “Why?”

“Have to,” Tim said. “You stay here. For the night, anyway. Let’s go, Eileen.”

She drove off without saying anything. They rounded a bend, leaving the scoutmaster standing in the road. “I couldn’t tell him either,” Eileen said. “Are they safe there?”

“I think so. We seem to be pretty high.”

“The top is about three thousand feet,” Eileen said.

“And we’re no more than a thousand below it. We’re safe,” Tim said. “Maybe it would be better to wait here, until the lightning stops. If it ever does stop. Then we can go on or go back. Where do we get if we go over?”

“Tujunga,” Eileen said. “It’s a good eighteen hundred, two thousand feet elevation. If we’re safe, Tujunga should be.” She continued to drive, winding further into the hills.

Tim frowned. He had never had a good sense of direction, and there were no maps in the car. “My observatory is up Big Tujunga Canyon — at least, you can get to it by going up that road. I’ve done it. And the observatory has food, and emergency equipment and supplies.”

“Hammer Fever?” Eileen teased. “You?”

“No. It’s remote up there. I’ve been snowbound more than once, a week at a time, more. So I keep plenty of supplies. Where are we going? Why don’t you stop?”

“I’m — I don’t know.” She drove on, more slowly, almost crawling along. The rain had slackened off. It was still pouring down, hard for Los Angeles, unheard of for summer, but just then it was only rain, not bathtubs of water pouring out of the sky. In compensation the wind rose, howling up the canyon, screaming at them so that they were shouting at each other, but the wind was such a constant companion that by now they didn’t notice.

They came around another bend, and they were on a high shelf looking south and westward. Eileen stopped the car, despite the danger of slides from above them. She turned off the motor. The wind howled, and lightning played above and ahead. The rain beat down so that the San Fernando Valley was obscured, but sometimes the wind whipped the rain in a thinner pattern and they could see blurred shapes out there. There were bright orange flares down on the valley floor. Dozens of them.

“What are those?” Eileen wondered aloud.

“Houses. Filling stations. Power-plant oil storage. Cars, homes, overturned tank trucks — anything that can burn.”

“Rain and fire.” She shivered, despite the warmth inside the car. The wind howled again.

Tim reached for her. She held back a moment, then came to him, her head against his chest. They sat that way, listening to the wind, watching orange flames blur through driving rain.

“We’ll make it,” Tim said. “The observatory. We’ll get there. We may have to walk, but it’s not that far. Twenty, thirty miles, no more. Couple of days if we walk. Then we’ll be safe.”

“No,” she said. “No one will ever be safe. Not again.”

“Sure we will.” He was silent a moment. “I’m… I’m really glad you found me,” he said. “I’m not much of a hero, but—”

“You’re doing fine.”

They were quiet again. The wind continued to whistle, but gradually they became aware of another sound — low, rumbling, building in volume, like a jet plane, ten jets, a thousand jets roaring for takeoff. It came from the south; and as they watched, some of the orange flares ahead of them went out. They didn’t flicker and die; they went out suddenly, snuffed from view in an instant. The noise grew, rushing closer.

“Tsunami,” Tim said. His voice was low, wondering. “It really did come. A tidal wave, hundreds, maybe thousands of feet high—”

’’Thousands?” Eileen said nervously.

“We’ll be all right. The waves can’t move far across land. It takes a lot of energy to move across land. A lot. Listen. It’s coming up the old Los Angeles River bed. Not across the Hollywood Hills. Anyone up there is probably safe. God help the people in the valley…”

And they sat, holding each other, while lightning played around and above them, and they heard the rolling thunder of lightning and above the thunder the roar of the tsunami, as one by one the bright orange fires went out in the San Fernando Valley.

Between Baja California and the west coast of Mexico is a narrow body of water whose shoreline is like the two prongs of a tuning fork. The Sea of Cortez is as warm as bathwater and as calm as a lake, a playground for swimmers and sailors.

But now the pieces of Hamner-Brown’s nucleus sink through Earth’s atmosphere like tiny blue-white stars. One drops toward the mouth of the Sea of Cortez until it touches water between the prongs. Then water explodes away from a raw orange-white crater. The tsunami moves south in an expanding crescent;. but, confined between two shorelines, the wave moves north like the wave front down a shotgun barrel. Some water spills east into Mexico; some west across Baja to the Pacific. Most of the water leaves the northern end of the Sea of Cortez as a moving white-peaked mountain range.

The Imperial Valley, California’s second largest agricultural region, might as well have been located in the mouth of a shotgun.

The survivors crawled toward each other across the broken JPL parking lot. A dozen men, five women, all dazed, crawling together. There were more people below, in the wreckage of the buildings. They were screaming. Other survivors went to them. Sharps stood dazed. He wanted to go below and help, but his legs wouldn’t respond.

The sky was boiling with clouds. They raced in strange patterns, and if there was daylight coming through the swirling ink, it was much dimmer than the continual flash of lightning everywhere.

Wonderingly, Sharps heard children crying. Then a voice calling his name.

“Dr. Sharps! Help!”

It was Al Masterson. The janitor in Sharps’s building. He had gathered two other survivors. They stood beside a station wagon that rested against a big green Lincoln. The station wagon was tilted at a forty-five-degree angle, two wheels on the blacktop, two above it. The crying children were inside it. “Hurry, please, sir,” Masterson called.

That broke the spell. Charlie Sharps ran across the parking lot to help. He and Masterson and two other men strained at the heavily loaded station wagon until it tilted back to vertical. Masterson threw open the door. There were two young faces, tearstained, and an older one, June Masterson. She wasn’t crying.

“They’re all right,” she was saying. “I told you they were all right…”

The station wagon was packed to the roof and beyond. Food, water, cans of gas lashed to its tailgate; clothing, shotgun and ammunition; the stuff of survival, with the children and their blankets fitted in somehow. Masterson was telling everyone who would listen, “I heard you say it, the Hammer might hit us, I heard…”

A corner of Sharps’s mind giggled quietly to itself. Masterson the janitor. He’d heard just enough from the engineers, and of course he hadn’t understood the odds against. So: He’d been ready. Geared to survive, with his family waiting in the parking lot, just in case. The rest of us knew too much…

Family.

“What do we do, Dr. Sharps?” Masterson asked.

“I don’t know.” Sharps turned to Forrester. The pudgy astrophysicist hadn’t been able to help right the car. He seemed to be lost in thought, and Sharps turned away again. “I guess we do what we can for survivors — only I’ve got to get home!”

“Me too.” There was a chorus of voices.

“But we should stay together,” Sharps said. “There won’t be many people you can trust—”

“Caravan,” Masterson said. “We take some cars, and we all go get our families. Where do you all live?”

It turned out there was too much variety. Sharps lived nearby, in La Canada. So did two others. The rest had homes scattered as far as Burbank and Canoga Park in the San Fernando Valley. The valley people had haunted eyes.

“I wouldn’t,” Forrester said. “Wait. A couple of hours…”

They nodded. They all knew. “Four hundred miles an hour,” Hal Crayne said. A few minutes ago he’d been a geologist.

“More,” Forrester said. “The tsunami will arrive about fifty minutes after Hammerfall.” He glanced at his watch. “Less than half an hour.”

“We can’t just stand here!” Crayne shouted. He was screaming. They all were. They couldn’t hear their own voices.

Then the rain came. Rain? Mud! Sharps was startled to see pellets of mud splatter onto the blacktop. Pellets of mud hard and dry on the outside, with soft centers! They hit the cars with loud clatters. A hail of mud. The survivors scrambled for shelter: inside cars, under cars, in the wrecks of cars.

“Mud?” Sharps screamed.

“Yes. Should have thought of it,” Forrester said. “Salt mud. From the sea bottom, thrown up into space, and…”

The strange hail eased, and they left their shelters. Sharps felt better now. “All of you who live too far to get to your homes, go down and help the survivors in the building area. The rest of us will go get our families. In caravan. We’ll come back here if we can. Dan, what’s our best final destination?”

Forrester looked unhappy. “North. Not low ground. The rain… could last for months. All the old river valleys may be filled with water. There’s no place in the Los Angeles basin that’s safe. And there will be aftershocks from the earthquake…”

“So where?” Sharps demanded.

“The Mojave, eventually,” Forrester said. He wouldn’t be hurried. “But not at first, because there’s nothing growing there now. Eventually—”

“Yes, but now!” Sharps demanded.

“Foothills of the Sierras,” Forrester said. “Above the San Joaquin Valley.”

“Porterville area?” Sharps asked.

“I don’t know where that is…”

Masterson reached into his station wagon and fished in the glove compartment. The rain was falling heavily now, and he kept the map inside the car. They stood outside, looking in at June Masterson and her children. The children were quiet. They watched the adults with awed eyes.

“Right here,” Masterson said.

Forrester studied the map. He’d never been there before, but it was easy to memorize the location. “Yes. I’d say that’s a good place.”

“Jellison’s ranch,” Sharps said. “It’s there! He knows me, he’ll take us in. We’ll go there. If we get separated, we’ll meet there.” He pointed on the map. “Ask for Senator Jellison’s placer Now, those that aren’t coming with us immediately, get down and help survivors. Al, can you get any of these other cars started?”

“Yes, sir.” Masterson looked relieved. So did the others. They’d been used to taking orders from Sharps for years; and it felt right to have him in command again. They wouldn’t obey him like soldiers, but they needed to be told to do what they wanted to do anyway.

“Dan, you’ll come on the caravan with us,” Sharps said. “You wouldn’t be much use down below—”

“No,” Forrester said.

“What?” Sharps was certain he’d misunderstood. The thunder was continuous, and now there was the sound of rising wind.

“Can’t,” Forrester said. “Need insulin.”

It was then that Sharps remembered that Dan Forrester was a diabetic. “We can come by your place—”

“No,” Forrester screamed. “I’ve got other things to do. I’d delay you.”

“You’ve got—”

“I’ll be all right,” Forrester said. He turned to walk off into the rain.

“The hell you will!” Sharps screamed at Dan’s retreating back. “You can’t even get your car started when the battery’s dead!”

Forrester didn’t turn. Sharps watched his friend, knowing he’d never see him again. The others pressed around. They all wanted advice, orders, some sense of purpose, and they expected Charles Sharps to provide it. “We’ll see you at the ranch!” Sharps called.

Forrester turned slightly and waved.

“Let’s move out,” Sharps said. “Station wagon in the middle.” He looked at his tiny command. “Preston, you’ll be with me in the lead car. Get that shotgun and keep it loaded.” They piled into their cars and started across the broken lot, moving carefully to avoid the huge cracks and holes.

Forrester’s car had survived. He’d parked it at the very top of the lot, well away from any others, well away from trees and the edge of the bluff — and he’d parked it sideways to the tilt of the hill. Sharps could just make out Forrester’s lights following them down to the street. He hoped Dan had changed his mind and was following them, but when they got to the highway, he saw that Dan Forrester had turned off toward Tujunga.

The fire road narrowed to a pair of ruts tilted at an extreme angle, with a sloping drop of fifty feet or more to their right. Eileen fought for control of the car, then brought it to a stop. “We walk from here.” She made no move to get out. The rain wasn’t quite so bad now, but it was colder, and there was still continuous lightning visible all around them. The smell of ozone was strong and sharp.

“Let’s go, then,” Tim said.

“What’s the hurry?”

“I don’t know, but let’s do it.” Tim couldn’t have explained. He wasn’t sure he understood it himself. To Hamner, life was civilized, and relatively simple. You stayed out of the parts of town where money and social position weren’t important, and everywhere they were, you hired people to do things, or bought the tools to do them with.

Intellectually he knew that all this was ending as he sat. Emotionally… well, this couldn’t be Ragnarok. Ragnarok was supposed to kill you! The world was still here, and Tim wanted help. He wanted courteous police, briskly polite shopkeepers, civil civil servants; in short, civilization.

A towering wall of water sweeps eastward through the South Atlantic Ocean. Its left-hand edge passes the Cape of Good Ho pe, scouring lands which have been owned in turn by Hottentots, Dutch, British and Afrikaaners, sweeping up to curl at the base of Table Mountain, foaming up the wide valley to Paarl and Stellenbosch.

The right-hand edge of the wave impacts against Antarctica, breaking of] glaciers ten miles long and five wide. The wave hursts through between Africa and Antarctica. When it reaches the wider expanse of the Indian Ocean the wave has lost half its force: Now it is only four hundred feet high. At four hundred and fifty miles an hour it moves toward India, Australia and the Indonesian islands.

It sweeps across the lowlands of southern India, then, focused by the narrowing Bay of Bengal, regains much of its strength and height a’ it breaks into the swamplands of Bangladesh. It smashes northward through Calcutta and Dacca. The waters finally come to halt at the base of the Himalayas, where they are met by the floods pouring out of the Ganges Valley. As the waters recede, the Sacred Ganges is choked with bodies.

They trudged through the mud, climbing steadily. The fire road went over the top of the hill in a saddle, not far below the peaks, but far enough; the lightning stayed above them.

Their shoes picked up huge gobs of mud, and soon weighed three or four times what they should. They fell in the mud and got up again, helped each other when they could, and staggered up over the top and down the other side. The world condensed into a series of steps, one step at a time, no place to stop. Tim imagined the town ahead: undamaged, with motels and hot water and electric lights and a bar that sold Chivas Regal and Michelob…

They reached blacktop pavement, and the going was easier.

“What time is it?” Eileen asked.

Tim pressed the button on his digital watch. “Just about noon.”

“It’s so dark — ” She slipped on wet leaves and tumbled onto the blacktop. She didn’t get up.

“Eileen…” Tim went over to help her.

She was sitting on the pavement, and she didn’t seem hurt, but she wasn’t trying to get up. She was crying, quietly.

“You’ve got to get up.”

“Why?”

“Because I can’t carry you very far.”

Almost she laughed; but then her face sank into her hands and she sat huddled in the rain.

“Come on,” said Tim. “It’s not that bad. Maybe everything’s all right up here. The National Guard will be out. Red Cross. Emergency tents.” He felt it evaporating as he named it: the stuff of dreams; but he went on, desperately. “And we’ll buy a car. There are car lots ahead, we’ll buy a four-wheel drive and take it to the observatory, with a big bucket from Colonel Chicken sitting between us. You buying all this?”

She shook her head and laughed in a funny way and didn’t get up. He bent and took her shoulders. She didn’t resist, but she didn’t help. Tim lifted her, got his arms under her legs and began staggering down the blacktop road.

“This is silly,” Eileen said.

“Damn betcha”

“I can walk.”

“Good.” He let her legs drop. She stood, but she clung to him, her head against his shoulder.

Finally she let go. “I’m glad I found you. Let’s get moving.”

“Count off,” Gordie called.

“One,” Andy Randall answered. The others sang out in turn: “Two.” “Three.” “Four.” “Five,” Bert Vance said. He was a little late, and glanced up nervously, but his father didn’t seem to have noticed. “Six.”

“And me,” Gordie said. “Okay, Andy, lead off. I’ll play tail-end Charlie.”

They started down the trail. The cliff was less than a mile away. Twenty minutes, no more. They rounded a bend and had a magnificent view stretching eastward across the tops of the pine trees. The morning air was crystal clear; the light was… funny.

Gordie glanced at his watch. They’d been hiking ten minutes. He was tempted to skip his compulsory halt for bootlace adjustments. What difference would it make? Nobody would have blisters, not in another half-mile, and walking along, trying to be natural, was harder than the decision had been.

There was a bright flash to the east. Brilliant, but small. Much too bright to be lightning, and out of a clear sky? It left an afterimage that blinking couldn’t get rid of.

“What was that, Dad?” Bert asked.

“Don’t know. Meteor? Hold up, up in front. Time for boot adjustments.”

They dropped their packs and found rocks to sit on. The bright afterimage was still there, although it was fading. Gordie couldn’t look directly at his bootlaces. Then he noticed that the wind had died. The forest was deathly still.

Bright flash. Sudden stillness. Like—

The shock wave rumbled across them with a thunder of sound. A dead tree crashed somewhere above them, thrashing in final agony among its brothers. The rumbling went on a long time, with rising wind.

Atom bomb at Frenchman’s Flats? Gordie wondered. Couldn’t be. They’d never test anything that big. So what was it?

The boys were chattering. Then the ground rumbled and heaved beneath them. More trees fell.

Gordie fell onto his pack. The other boys had been shaken off their rocks. One, Herbie Robinett, seemed to be hurt. Gordie crawled toward him. The boy wasn’t bleeding, and nothing was broken. Just shaken up. “Stay down!” Gordie shouted. “And watch for falling limbs and trees!”

The wind continued to rise, but it was shifting, moving around to the south, no longer coming from the east, where they’d seen the bright flash. The earth shook again.

And out there, far beyond the horizon, rising high into the stratosphere, was an ugly cloud, mushroom-shaped. It climbed on and on, roiling horribly. It was just where the bright flash had been.

One of the boys had a radio. He had it to his ear. “Nothing but static, Mr. Vance. I keep thinking I hear something else, but I can’t make out what.”