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The Hercules Text

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The Hercules Text

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Author: Jack McDevitt
Publisher: Meisha Merlin Publishers, 2000
Sphere, 1988
Ace Books, 1986

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: First Contact
Hard SF
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(32 reads / 15 ratings)


From a remote corner of the galaxy a message is being sent. The continuous beats of a pulsar have become odd, irregular... artificial. it can only be a code. Frantically, a research team struggles to decipher the alien communication. And what the scientists discover is destined to shake the foundations of empires around this world - from Wall Street to the Vatican.


| | | ONE | | |

Harry Carmichael sneezed. His eyes were red, his nose was running, and his head ached. It was mid-September, and the air was full of pollen from ragweed, goosefoot, and thistle. He'd already taken his medication for the day, the latest antiallergen. It seemed to accomplish little other than to make him drowsy.

Through the beveled stained-glass windows of the William Tell, he watched the Ramsay Comet. It was now little more than a bright smudge, wedged in the bare, hard branches of the elms lining the parking lot. Its cool, unfocused light was not unlike the cool glow of Julie's green eyes, which seemed preoccupied with the long, graceful stem of her wineglass. She'd abandoned all attempts to keep the conversation going and sat frozen in a desperate solitude. She felt sorry for Harry. He could see it in the set of her jaw, in her tendency to gaze past him, as though a third person hovered behind his right shoulder. Years from now, he suspected, he would look back on this evening, remember this moment, recall the eyes and the comet and the packed shelves of old textbooks that, in the gloomily illuminated interior, were intended to create atmosphere. He would remember his anger and the terrible sense of impending loss and the numbing conviction that he was helpless. That nothing he could do would change anything. But most of all, it would be her sympathy that would sear his soul.

Comets and bad luck: It was an appropriate sky. Ramsay would be back in twenty-two hundred years, but it was coming apart. The analysts were predicting that on its next visit, or the one after that, it would be only a shower of rock and ice. Like Harry.

"I'm sorry." She shrugged. "It's not anything you've done, Harry."

Of course not. What accusation could she bring against faithful old Harry, dull Harry, who'd taken his vows seriously, who could always be counted on to do the decent thing, and who'd been a reliable provider? Other than perhaps that he'd loved her too deeply.

He'd known it was coming. The change in her attitude had been gradual but constant. The things they'd once laughed over had become minor irritants, and the irritants scraped at their lives until she came to resent even his presence.

So it had come to this, two strangers carefully keeping a small round table between them while she used a shining knife and fork to slice methodically into beef that was cooked a little more than she would have preferred.

"I just need some time to myself, Harry. To think things over a bit. I'm tired of doing the same things, in the same way, every day." I'm tired of you, she was saying, finally, with the oblique words and the compassion that peeled away his protective anger like the skin on a baked potato. She put the glass down and looked at him, for the first time, it might have been, during the entire evening. And she smiled. It was the puckish, good-natured grin that she traditionally used when she'd run the car into a ditch or bounced a check. My God, he wondered, how could he ever manage without her?

"The show wasn't so good either, was it?" he asked drily. The William Tell was a dinner theater, and they'd just suffered through a dreary mystery-comedy. Although Harry could hardly be accused of having made an effort to follow the proceedings. Fearful of what was coming later, he'd spent the time trying to foresee and prepare for all eventualities, rehearsing responses, defenses, explanations. He'd have done better to watch the performance.

The final irony was that there were season tickets in his pocket.

"No," she said. "I didn't really care much for it." She didn't add anything that might have given him comfort, that she was distracted, that it was a difficult evening, that it was hard to keep her mind on anything so trivial while her marriage was disintegrating. Instead, she surprised him by reaching across the table to take his hand.

His love for her was unique, the only truly compelling passion he had ever known, the single element that fueled his days, that gave purpose to everything he did. The passing years had not dimmed it; had in fact seeded it with the shared experience of almost a decade, had so entwined their lives that no emotional separation would be possible, now or ever. Harry would not be able to leave her behind.

He took off his glasses, folded them deliberately, and pushed them down into their plastic case. His vision was poor without them. It was an act she could not misinterpret.

Bits and pieces of talk drifted from the next table, where two people, slightly drunk, whispered angrily at each other about money and relatives. Harry and Julie had never done anything like that. Relations between them had always been cordially correct. Even when, at last, the knife had come out.

A handsome young waiter, a college kid probably, hovered in the background, his red sash insolently snug round a trim waist. His name was Frank. It was odd that Harry, who usually forgot incidental names immediately, should remember that, as though the detail were important. Frank arrived every few minutes, refilling their coffee cups, asking whether he could get anything else for them. Near the end, he inquired whether the meal had been satisfactory.

It was hard now to remember when things had been different, before the laughter had ended and the silent invitations, which had once passed so easily between them, stopped. "I just don't think," she said abruptly, "we're a good match anymore. We always seem to be angry with each other. We don't talk--" She looked squarely at him now. Harry stared back at her with an expression that he hoped suggested his sense of dignified outrage. "Did you know that Tommy wrote an essay about you and that idiot comet last week? No?

"Harry," she continued, "I don't exactly know how to say this. But do you think, do you really believe, that if anything happened to Tommy, or to me, that it would have any real impact on you? That you'd even notice we were gone?" Her voice caught and she pushed the plate away and stared down into her lap. "Please pay the bill, and let's get out of here."

"It isn't true," he said, looking for Frank the waiter, not wanting to endure a scene in the restaurant. But Frank was preoccupied. Harry counted out some twenties, dropped them on the table, and stood up. Julie slowly pulled her jacket around her shoulders and, with Harry in her wake, strode between the tables and out the door.

Tommy's comet hung over the parking lot, splotchy in the September sky, its long tail splayed across a dozen constellations. Last time through, it might have been seen by Socrates. The data banks at Goddard were loaded with the details of its composition, the ratios of methane to cyanogen and mass to velocity, of orbital inclination and eccentricity. Nothing exciting that he had been able to see, but Harry was only a layman, not easily aroused by cold gas. Donner and the others, however, had greeted the incoming telemetry with near ecstasy.

There was a premature chill in the air, not immediately evident perhaps because no wind blew. She stood on the gravel, waiting for him to unlock the car. "Julie," he said, "ten years is a long time to just throw away."

She watched a van pull into the lot. "I know," she said.


Harry took Farragut Road home. Usually, he would have used Route 214, and they'd have stopped at Muncie's for a drink, or possibly even gone over to the Red Limit in Greenbelt. But not tonight. Painfully, groping for words that would not come, he guided the Chrysler down the two-lane blacktop, through forests of elm and littleleaf linden. The road curved and dipped past shadowy barns and ancient farmhouses. It was the kind of highway Harry liked. Julie preferred expressways, and maybe therein lay the difference between them.

A tractor-trailer moved up behind, watched its chance, and hammered by in a spasm of dust and leaves. When it had gone, its red lights faded to dim stars against dark forest, Harry hunched forward, almost resting his chin on the steering wheel. Moon and comet rode high over the trees to his left. They would set at about the same time. (Last night, at Goddard, the Ramsay team had celebrated, Donner buying, but Harry, his thoughts locked on Julie, had gone home early. She seemed not to have noticed.)

"What did Tommy say about the comet?" he asked.

"That you'd sent a rocket out there and were bringing a piece of it back. He promised to take the piece in to show everybody." She smiled. He guessed it took an effort.

"It wasn't our responsibility," he said. "Houston ran the rendezvous program."

He felt the sudden stillness and sneezed into it. "Do you think," she asked, "he cares about the administrative details?"

The old Kindlebride farm lay cold and abandoned in the moonlight. Three or four pickups and a battered Ford were scattered across its overgrown front yard. "So where do we go from here?"

There was a long silence that neither of them knew quite how to handle. "Probably," she said, "it would be a good idea if I went to live with Ellen for a while."

"What about Tommy?"

She was looking in her bag for something. A Kleenex. She snapped the bag shut and dabbed at her eyes. "Do you think you could find time for him, Harry?"

The highway went into a long S-curve, bounced across two sets of railroad tracks, and dipped into a tangled forest. "What's that supposed to mean?" he asked.

She started to reply but her voice betrayed her, and she only shook her head and stared stonily through the windshield.

They passed through Hopkinsville, barely more than a few houses and a hardware store. "Is there somebody else?" he asked. "Someone I don't know about?"

Her eyelids squeezed shut. "There's nobody else. I just don't want to be married anymore." Her purse slid off her lap onto the floor, and when she retrieved it, Harry saw that her knuckles were white.


Bolingbrook Road was thick with leaves. He rolled over them with a vague sense of satisfaction. McGorman's garage, third in from the corner, was brightly lit, and the loud rasp of his power saw split the night air. It was a ritual for McGorman, the Saturday night woodworking. And for Harry it was an energetic island of familiarity in a world grown slippery.

He pulled into his driveway. Julie opened her door, climbed smoothly out, but hesitated. She was tall, a six-footer, maybe two inches more in heels. They made a hell of a couple, people had said. A mating of giants. But Harry was painfully aware of the contrast between his wife's well-oiled coordination and his own general clumsiness.

"Harry," she said, with a hint of steel in her voice, "I've never cheated on you."

"Good." He walked by her and rammed his key into the lock. "Glad to hear it."

The babysitter was Julie's cousin, Ellen Crossway. She was propped comfortably in front of a flickering TV, a novel open on her lap, a cup of coffee near her right hand. "How was the show?" she asked, with the same smile Julie had shown him at the William Tell.

"A disaster," said Harry. He didn't trust his voice sufficiently to elaborate.

Julie hung her cardigan in the closet. "They did all the obvious gags. And the mystery wasn't exactly a puzzle."

Harry liked Ellen. She might have been a second attempt to create a Julie: not quite so tall, not quite so lovely, not nearly so intense. The result was by no means unsatisfactory. Harry occasionally wondered how things might have gone had he met Ellen first; but he had no doubt that he would in time have betrayed her for her spectacular cousin.

"Well," she said, "it was a slow night on the tube, too." She laid aside the book. The strained silence was settling into the room. She looked from one to the other. "It's getting late," she said. "Gotta go, guys. Tommy's fine. We spent most of the evening with Sherlock Holmes." That was a reference to a role-playing game. Tommy enjoyed being Watson and loved prowling the tobacco shops and taverns of 1895 London in the company of the great detective.

Harry could see that Ellen knew about their problem. It figured that Julie would have confided in her. Had she known that her cousin intended to end it tonight?

Ellen kissed him and held him a degree tighter than usual. Then she was out the door, Julie strolling casually behind, and he heard them talking in hushed tones on the walkway. Harry shut off the television, went upstairs, and looked into his son's room.

Tommy was asleep, one arm thrown over the side of the bed, the other lost beneath a swirl of pillows. As usual, he'd kicked off the spread, which Harry adjusted. A couple of Peanuts books lay on the floor. And his basketball uniform hung proudly on the closet door.

He looked like a normal kid. But the upper right-hand drawer of the bureau contained a syringe and a vial of insulin. Tommy was a diabetic.

The wind had picked up somewhat. It whispered through the trees and the curtains. Light notched by a venetian blind fell across the photo of the Arecibo dish his son had bought a few weeks before on a visit to Goddard. Harry stood a long time without moving.

He'd read extensively over the last year about juvenile-onset diabetes, which is the most virulent form of the disease. In an earlier age, Tommy would have faced a high probability of blindness, or an army of other debilities, and a drastically shortened life expectancy. Maybe not now. Research was moving ahead, and everyone was hopeful. The breakthrough could come at any time.

No one knew how it had happened. There was no history of the disease in either of their families. But there it was. Sometimes, the doctors had said, it just shows up.

Son of a bitch.

He would not give up the child.

But before he got to his bedroom, he knew he would have no choice.


It began to rain about 2:00 A.M. Lightning quivered outside the windows, and the wind beat against the side of the house. Harry lay on his back, staring straight up, listening to the rhythmic breathing of his wife. After a while, when he could stand it no more, he pulled on a robe and went downstairs and out onto the porch. Water rattled out of a partially blocked drainpipe. The sound had a frivolous quality, counterpointing the deep-throated storm. He sat down on one of the rockers and watched the big drops splash into the street. A brace had fallen off, or blown off, the corner streetlight. Now the lamp danced fitfully in gusts of wind and water.

Headlights turned off Maple and came slowly down the street. It was Hal Esterhazy's Plymouth. It pulled into his driveway, paused while the garage door rolled open, and vanished inside. Lights blinked on in Hal's house.

Sue Esterhazy was Hal's third wife. There were two exes wandering around out there somewhere, and five or six kids. Hal had explained to Harry that he remained on good terms with his former wives and visited them when he could though he admitted it wasn't very often. He paid alimony and child support to both. Despite all that, he seemed perfectly content with his life. And he owned a new van and a vacation home in Vermont.

Harry wondered how he did it.

Inside, the telephone was ringing.

Julie picked it up in the bedroom before he got to it. She came to the head of the stairs and looked down. "It's Goddard," she said.

Harry nodded and put the handset to his ear. "Carmichael."

"Harry, this is Charlie. I hate to bother you at this hour, but the Hercules signal changed tonight. I just got off the line with Ed. He's pretty excited."

"So are you," said Harry. Charlie was the duty officer at the Research Projects Lab. "Why? What's going on?"

"You've been following the operation, right?"

"A little." Harry was assistant director for administration, a personnel specialist in a world of theoretical physicists, astronomers, and mathematicians. He tried hard to stay on top of Goddard's various initiatives in an effort to retain some credibility, but the effort was pointless. Cosmologists tended to sneer at particle physicists, and both groups found it hard to credit astronomers, perceived as restricted to confirming the notions of theorists. Harry's M.B.A. was, at best, an embarrassment.

His job was to ensure that NASA hired the right people, or contracted out to the right people, to see that everyone got paid, and to keep track of vacation time and insurance programs. He negotiated with unions, tried to prevent NASA's technically oriented managers from alienating too many subordinates, and, when necessary, lent a hand to the public-relations director. He'd stayed close to Donner and the comet but had paid little attention to any of Goddard's other activities over the past few weeks. "What sort of change?"

At the other end, Charlie was speaking to someone in the background. Then he got back on the line. "Harry, it stopped."

Julie had come halfway down the staircase, watching him curiously. He almost never got calls at night.

"I thought you'd want to know," Charlie said.

Harry's physics wasn't very good. Ed Gambini and his people had been observing an X-ray pulsar in the Hercules constellation since early spring. They thought the system consisted of a red giant and a neutron star. But the last few months had been a difficult period for them because most of Goddard's facilities had been directed toward the comet. "Charlie, that's not all that unusual, is it? I mean, the goddam thing rotates behind the big star every few days, right? Is that what happened?"

"It's not due to eclipse again until Tuesday, Harry. And even when it does, we don't really lose the signal. There's an envelope of some sort out there that reflects it, so the pulse just gets weaker. This is a complete shutdown. Ed insists something must be wrong with the equipment."

"And you can't find a problem?"

"The Net's fine. NASCOM has run every check it can think of. Harry, Ed's in New York and won't get back for a few hours. He doesn't want to fly into Reagan. We thought it might be simplest if we just sent the chopper."

"Do it. Who's in the operations center?"


Harry squeezed the phone. "Okay," he said. And, as if it mattered: "I'm on my way."

"What is it?" asked Julie. Ordinarily, she would have been impatient with a late call from Goddard. But tonight, she only sounded subdued.

Harry explained about Hercules while he dressed. "It's an X-ray pulsar," he said. "Ed's been watching it on and off for several months." He grinned at his own joke. "Charlie says they aren't picking it up anymore."

"Why's that important?"

"Apparently because there's no easy explanation for it." He climbed the stairs, walked past her, and went into the bedroom.

She followed him in, shrugged off her nightshirt, and slipped into bed. "Maybe it's just some dust between here and the source."

He grabbed an armful of clothes. "Skynet isn't affected by dust. At least not the X-ray telescopes. No, whatever it is, it's enough to bring Gambini back from New York in the middle of the night."

She watched him dress. "You know," she said, striving for a casual tone but unable to keep the emotion entirely out of her voice, "this is what we've been talking about all evening. The Hercules Project is Gambini's responsibility. Why do you have to go running down there? I bet he doesn't head for your shop when some labor-relations crisis breaks out."

Harry sighed. He hadn't got where he was by staying home in bed when major events were happening. It was true he didn't have direct responsibility for Hercules, but one never knew where these things might lead, and a rising bureaucrat needed nothing so much as visibility. He resisted the impulse to suggest she was no longer entitled to an opinion anyway and simply told her he'd lock the door on the way out.


The X-ray pulsar in Hercules was somewhat unusual. It was believed to be a completely independent system, unattached to any other body of stars. More than a million and a half light-years from Goddard, it was adrift in the immense void between the galaxies.

It was also unusual in that neither of the components was a blue giant. Alpha Altheis, the visible star, was brick red, considerably cooler than Sol, but approximately eighty times larger. If it were placed at the center of our solar system, it would engulf Mercury.

The Alpha component was well along in its helium-burning cycle. Left to itself, it would continue to expand for no more than ten million years before erupting into a supernova.

But the star would not survive that long. The other object in the system, Beta Altheis, was a dead sun, a thing more massive than its huge companion, yet so crushed by its own weight that its diameter probably measured less than thirty kilometers, the distance between the Holland Tunnel and Long Island Sound. Two minutes by jet, maybe a day on foot. But Beta was a malignancy in a tight orbit, barely fifteen million miles from the giant's edge, so close that it literally rolled through its companion's upper atmosphere, spinning violently, dragging an enormous wave of superheated gas, dragging perhaps the giant's vitals.

It was the engine that drove the pulsar. There was a constant flow of supercharged particles from Alpha to the companion, hurtling toward it at relativistic velocities.

But the collision points were not distributed randomly across Beta. Rather, they were concentrated at the magnetic poles, which were quite small, a kilometer or so in diameter and, like Earth's, not aligned with the axis. Consequently, they also were spinning, approximately thirty times per second. Incoming high-energy particles striking this impossibly dense and slippery surface tended to carom off as X-rays. The result was a lighthouse whose beams swept the nearby cosmos.

Harry wondered, as his Chrysler plowed through a sudden burst of rain, what kind of power would be required to shut down such an engine.

The guards waved him through the gatehouse. He made an immediate left and headed for Building 2, the Research Projects Laboratory. Eight or nine cars were parked under the security lights, unusual for this time of night. Harry pulled in alongside Cord Majeski's sleek gray Honda and hurried under dripping trees into the entrance at the rear of the long, utilitarian building.

The Hercules Project had originally been assigned a communication center with an adjoining operations area. But Gambini was politically astute, and his responsibilities and staff had kept growing. He'd acquired two workrooms, additional computer space, and four offices. The project itself had begun as a general-purpose investigation of several dozen pulsars. But it had quickly focused on the anomaly in the group, which was located five degrees northeast of the globular cluster NGC6341.

Harry strolled into the operations center. Several technicians sat in the green glow of monitors. Two or three, headphones pushed off their ears, drank Cokes and talked quietly. Cord Majeski leaned frowning against a worktable, scribbling on a clipboard. He was more linebacker than mathematician, all sinew and shoulder, with piercing blue eyes and a dark beard intended to add maturity to his distressingly boyish features. He was a grim and taciturn young man who nevertheless, to Harry's bewilderment, seemed inordinately successful with women. "Hello, Harry," he said. "What brings you in at this hour?"

"I hear the pulsar's doing strange things. What's going on?"

"Damned if I know."

"Maybe," said Harry, "it ran out of gas. That happens, doesn't it?"

"Sometimes. But not like this. If Beta were losing its power source, we'd have detected a gradual decline. This thing just stopped. I don't know what to think. Maybe Alpha went nova." He dropped the clipboard onto the table. "Harry," he said, "we need access to Optical. Can you pry Donner loose for a few hours? He's been looking at that goddam comet for three months."

"Submit the paper, Cord," said Harry.

Majeski tugged at his beard and favored Harry with a growl. "That takes time. We're supposed to be able to observe a target of opportunity."

"And you shall," said Harry. "Take a few minutes from your schedule and complete the form."


Harry told him he'd be in his office if needed and went back out to the car.

He had no serious interest in pulsars. In fact, on this night, nothing short of a black hole bearing down on Maryland could have engaged his attention. But it was an opportunity to get away from the situation at home. To give it a rest and hope maybe it would all go away.

The rain slackened to a cold drizzle. He drove north on Road 3 and eased into the lot outside Building 18, the Business Operations Section. His office was on the second floor. It was a relatively spartan place, with battered chairs and bilious green walls and government wall hangings, mostly cheap art deco that GSA had picked up at a cut-rate price from one of its bargain-basement suppliers. Photos of Julie and Tommy stood atop his desk, between a Rolodex and a small, framed reproduction of a lobby card from The Maltese Falcon. Tommy was in a little-league uniform, Pirates scripted across his chest. Julie stood in profile, thoughtful against a gray New England sky. It was from their honeymoon.

He lit the desk lamp, turned off the overhead lights, and lowered himself onto a plastic sofa that was a little too short for him. Maybe it was time to quit. Find a deserted lighthouse somewhere along the coast of Maine. He'd seen one advertised in Providence once for a buck, but you had to move it. Maybe he could get a job in the local general store, change his name, and spend the rest of his life playing bridge.

His years with Julie were over. And in the terrible unfairness of things, he knew he'd lost not only his wife but Tommy as well. And a sizable portion of his income. He felt a sudden twinge of sympathy for Alpha, burdened with the neutron star it couldn't get rid of. He was forty-seven, his marriage was a wreck, and he suddenly realized he hated his job. People who didn't know what it was like envied him. He was, after all, part of the Great Adventure, directing the assault on the planets, working closely with all those big-shot physicists and astronomers. But the investigators, though few were as blunt, or as young, as Majeski, did not count him as one of them.

He was a compiler of schedules, the guy who answered questions about hospitalization and retirement benefits and other subjects so unutterably boring that Gambini and his associates could barely bring themselves to discuss them. He was, in the official terminology, a layman. Worse, he was a layman with a substantial amount of control over operational procedures at Goddard.

He drifted off to a fitful sleep. The wind died and the rain stopped. The only sound in the building was the occasional hum of the blowers in the basement.

When the phone rang, the office was full of daylight. Harry looked at his watch. It was just after eight. My God, had he slept that long?

"Harry." It was Charlie again. "The pulsar's kicked back in."

"Okay," said Harry. "Sounds like the equipment. Make sure you haven't overlooked anything. I'll get maintenance to run some checks later." This was a Sunday. He'd wait until tomorrow unless someone pressed him. "Ed get here yet?"

"We expect him anytime."

"Tell him where I am," said Harry. He hung up, convinced that the night's events would unquestionably be traced to a defective circuit board.

The Space Flight Center was peaceful Sunday mornings. And the truth was that, although he tried not to examine his motives too closely, he was always happy for sufficient reason to sleep in his office. It was odd. Despite his passion for Julie, there was something in the surrounding hills, in the mists that rose with the sun, in the solitude of this place that was usually so busy, that drew him. Even now. Maybe especially now.






(Washington Post News Service)--A coalition of northern Democrats and farm belt Republicans voted down an administration defense package, handing the President another setback--













(New York Times)--Nearly three-quarters of all marriages now end in the courts, according to a recent study conducted by Princeton University--



Copyright © 1986 by Jack McDevitt


The Hercules Text

- tbritz13


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