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b1_The Contact_full_1563x2500_01 Prologue

The spacecraft reaches Mercury at the intended time and begins sending signals to determine the precise orbit of the planet. The experiment begins that evening. A command is sent to increase the speed of Mercury from the Experiment Control Centre at the moon base. Three hours later, the International Space Station, scientists at the moon station and also many other groups of scientists on Earth, register a decrease in the diameter of Mercury’s orbit round the Sun by two percent. Once the experiment is over, Mercury’s orbit is slowed down to its previous level.

Soon after, a Chilean observatory observes a space object moving from outer space which could potentially collide with Earth. Precise calculations of its flight trajectory are not yet possible because it is so far away, and the orbital telescopes, even those in orbit round the gas giants, are currently being used in support of an experiment testing remote manipulation technology. In view of the low speed of the object, the time for it to reach the Earth’s orbit is estimated as hundreds of years, so a low priority is given to clarifying its trajectory. Nevertheless, the instruction is entered into the central computer for a second observation of the object a week later, to confirm the low priority status.

At the next observation session, the object is not detected. The telescope control system probes the space sectors in the region of the assumed location. The unidentified space body is eventually detected, but its actual position differs greatly from that initially assumed. Following its programmed instructions, the telescope computer corrects the calculation data and raises the priority for finally calculating the trajectory. The third observation session is appointed for 24 hours later.

The third observation session reveals an even greater calculation error. The Chilean telescope’s automatic control system has to notify the scientific personnel…

 

Error

With his dirty trainers up on the table, Steve, a final year astrophysics student working as a junior scientific assistant at the observatory in his spare time, was fast asleep. A relay suddenly clicked, switching on the display of the main monitor, shining a broad ray of bright light oppressively on the sleeping Steve. He half-opened one eye and sleepily looked at the message:

UNIDENTIFIED OBJECT FOUND.

MAY COLLIDE WITH INNER PLANETS.

IMPOSSIBLE TO CALCULATE ITS TRAJECTORY.

In a hoarse voice (due to an excess of cold beer and loud serenades last night), Steve commanded:

“Give additional information.”

Columns of figures floated onto the screen. His head was working slowly, but his gaze automatically picked up the main information: the size of the object, the parameters of its motion, its brightness…

“So what’s the problem?” thought Steve.

He got up and went to pour himself a coffee. Opening the kitchen cupboard door, he discovered, with astonishment, that there was an amulet on his right wrist. It took a full minute for him to recall what had happened after he left the student pub “Minus Alpha” with his friends. They had been to a party there, nothing had come of it. He scratched the back of his neck, fetched a mug, filled it from the percolator and went back to his place.

The main screen was still filled with information about the strange object from the depths of the Universe. Steve sat down, took a gulp of coffee and grimaced, pushing the mug away, and began quickly leafing through the contents of the log file.

First observation more than a week ago. Trajectory… Speed… Direction… Second observation. Trajectory… Speed… Direction… Error correction… Speed correction factor twenty three and five? Somewhat high. Third observation, error correction factor seventy eight?

“Well, that’s way too much,” Steve thought.

He reached out for the mug, picked it up, but remembering how vile the contents had tasted, put it back. He had finally woken up.

Speed estimate error of seventy-eight-fold, why so great? The telescope had never made an error before at distances like that. When they measured Mercury’s orbit a fortnight ago, it was accurate to within one hundredth of a permille. But here… Yes, the object was at the edge of the Solar System, but…

Steve started the orbit simulator. The simulation program opened where it had ended last time – on “advanced collision model”. Steve, sitting at the computer, rolled up his eyes and sighed. ‘ADVANCED COLLISION MODEL’, what sort of an idiot would call his degree thesis that? The ACM was the brainchild of Clive, one of his fellow students on the same course, and probably the most famous nerd in the whole space science faculty. Steve remembered him from his very first days at the university. The first-year students, still wet behind the ears, gathered in the lecture hall and were given instructions by the entire teaching staff, including the Dean of the faculty. The Dean’s speech was interrupted by Clive raising his hand. The Dean, Mr. Shelby, well respected by the students for his informal and honest manner, broke off his speech, smiled and asked Clive what he wanted to know. Clive stood up, coughed, quoted a passage from the work of some theoretical astrophysicist and asked Shelby what he thought of it. The grey-haired old man looked round the new students and his colleagues, and then turned back to Clive, who was waiting in silence.

“Very interesting work,” replied Shelby, still smiling. “One of our research groups is studying this question. Ask Dr. Kubinski, he will be glad to answer all your questions.”

Clive, as cool as a cucumber, wrote down the group leader’s name, thanked Shelby and sat down.

Steve, observing from the sidelines, thought Clive’s behaviour was contrived. He thought at that time that he was just showing off to an audience. But over the past few years, having come to know him better, Steve realised that this was not a game. It was in Clive’s nature, he really was like that: rather inept in social relations, but a truly gifted person as far as science was concerned.

Steve’s thoughts returned to the computer. He selected “Solar System”. With its usual deftness, the computer simulated the Sun and the planets. He added the strange object, clarified its parameters and started the simulation. If the speed of the object was the same as for the previous measurement, the object should not be anywhere near where it actually was. Could the computer be in error again? Steve commanded:

“Assume object acceleration.”

The computer altered the parameters of motion of the object and assumed that the object was moving at a constant acceleration.

“Find acceleration value.”

If it was assumed that the object was accelerating, the trajectory anomaly disappeared. That was fine, but this object was not any kind of spacecraft. How could an object of natural origin accelerate so far from high-mass celestial bodies?

So. What could accelerate this object? Ejection of material? Highly unlikely, that could not impart so much force. Judging from its trajectory, it was flying in from outer space, from the direction of the Omega Nebula. The distance – Steve looked it up in the catalogue of celestial bodies – was about five thousand light years. He looked at his reflection in the switched-off monitor to his right and carried on thinking, “The body really is increasing its speed. It doesn’t appear to be an artificial object, though that will have to be checked.”

He waved a finger, and the virtual problem icon appeared on the main monitor. Steve, now under the spell of scientific curiosity, commanded:

“Try to identify object as human made artefact. Go.”

“Failed to identify object as human made artefact.”

Steve looked inquiringly at his reflection on the black display on the right. The reflection declined to comment. Steve absentmindedly took a gulp of coffee and immediately spat it out.

“Ugh, that’s vile!”

He tipped the coffee into Clive’s flower vase. The guy would be annoyed, but there was no time to think about that right now. Steve ordered the computer to check if any lost spacecraft could be on the course of the strange object. Taking account of fuel reserve and engine thrust, several craft were theoretically able to carry out the necessary manoeuvre and come onto such a course. Yes, but why? And how?

Four lost craft had the required fuel reserve: two of them were transports, completely automatic interplanetary shuttles. One was used for delivering materials for construction work on Europa, a satellite of Jupiter. The other was transporting fuel. They had both been lost in the vicinity of Mars. Assuming that they had begun this strange manoeuvre at once, there would theoretically have been time for them to become this strange intruder from space. The third lost spacecraft had people on board – a group of tourists, making a tour round the gas giants. The ship entered the shadow of Saturn and was never seen again. Unfortunately, communication with this spacecraft was impossible, because all the communication satellites in orbit round Saturn were out of radio visibility at the time. The fourth spacecraft was a military one. It had been on a routine patrol in the space between the inner and outer planets. All of a sudden it extinguished its position beacons, after which it too was never seen again.

Naturally, they were searched for. The transport shuttles were half-heartedly sought for the insurance companies, and soon written off. A long time was spent searching for the tourists, although anyone who had worked in the space industry realised that it was a hopeless case. Civilian ships have numerous position beacons. If a ship had come out from Saturn’s radio shadow, it would have been recorded at once by the Interplanetary Flight Coordination Centre. But this did not happen. The last pulse had been sent from one of its beacons minutes before it entered the shadow. Its course was known. After a little over three hours, the tracking computer sounded the alarm. Immediately on receiving the signal, the communication satellites were moved into position to probe the space close to the planet in the radio shadow region. But the ship was not found. It could not have emerged without being noticed, therefore it must have fallen onto the gas giant. As for the military patrol vessel, it was virtually impossible to find it without position beacons. Anyway, the search and rescue function was the responsibility of the military, who were well known for saying as little as possible.

His thoughts were interrupted by the wall clock, which beeped briefly, marking the beginning of a new hour. Steve lifted his eyes to the wall, then looked down at his watch, sighed and switched the computer off. It was already getting dark, the Sun was slowly sinking. It was time to go home and make up for the hours of sleep he had lost in the night-time party.

Steve got up, screwing up his left eye a little because of his headache (he really had had too much to drink the previous evening), and set off.

 

Something about the stars

Clive, the biggest pain in the neck in the astrophysics faculty, was patiently drawing a Hertzsprung-Russell diagram on the board. He could of course simply have called it up on the screen by lightly waving his finger, but no, as Clive liked to put it, food for thought is only digested when it is thoroughly chewed.

Completing the curve of the sub-giants, Clive turned to the class. The first-year students, who were already used to his little ways, were calmly copying the clumsy squiggles scribbled on the board by Clive. Earlier, the most daring of them would try to criticise Clive’s methods, but this hubris was soon stilled under the unyielding pressure of the Great Pain in the Neck’s logic. The Great Pain in the Neck possessed one very valuable quality: he knew how to explain even the most difficult material in simple language. It was for this reason that the first-course students preferred his lectures to those of the others, and were willing to put up with his grumbling throughout the entire semester. Their reward for this was outstanding knowledge and, as a rule, a good assessment – Clive was a pain in the neck, but he was an honest one, and if a student knew the subject, no power in the Universe could make Clive give him or her a poor assessment.

“So, we can see from the diagram that most stars are in the so-called main sequence. Stars in this category obtain their energy from nuclear synthesis reactions, converting hydrogen to helium. Now a question for the audience. How did the heavier elements form in the Universe?”

A suppressed whispering went round the hall, but no-one was willing to answer. Clive would not have been an outstanding teacher if he had not judged the mood of his audience correctly. The students had lost interest – heavy elements, light elements, who cared?

“As I can see, the importance of this question has not quite been understood.”

Clive did not mock their lack of knowledge of such elementary matters; after all, students attended his course to gain that very knowledge.

“Let us turn to the beginning of the Universe. We are on the time axis at the point of zero plus an infinitely small space of time. The Universe has just been created by the Big Bang. What do we see? Nothing. Space is opaque, it is filled with energy, seething with radiation. The monstrous temperature prevents the formation of material. All that exists is energy, compressed into an unimaginably small space to an unimaginably high density. And now the Universe begins to expand.” Clive noted with satisfaction that he had recaptured the attention of the hall and was holding it in his firmly clenched hand.

“Let a few instants elapse, allow the Universe to expand, and we find its temperature has fallen to such an extent as the result of its expansion that atoms can form. What is formed first? The simplest elements, naturally – those at the beginning of the periodic table. Hydrogen, my friends, hydrogen! What does a hydrogen atom consist of? This element has the atomic number One, therefore its atom contains only one proton and one electron rotating round it. You couldn’t imagine anything simpler. Free protons, scurrying around hither and thither in the Universe, each pick up one electron and form an atom of a certain substance. This process took place an incalculable number of times in the Universe, and as a result, even today, 14 billion years later, the most widespread substance is still this same hydrogen.

“But look at your hand.”

The students in the hall obediently began looking at their hands as if they had never seen them before.

“What do you see? You see organic material containing carbon, probably the most important building brick of life. Look at your fingers. Some of you will see rings of precious metals, silver, gold, platinum… Where did these elements come from, if initially there was only hydrogen?

“If we look at the diagram I have drawn, we will see that the majority of stars convert hydrogen to helium by nuclear synthesis. These two elements differ in their atomic numbers – One and Two respectively. As I said earlier, a nuclear synthesis process takes place in the cores of stars, as a result of which a new element is born in the periodic table. This is accompanied by the release of energy, thanks to which we can observe the luminosity of the stars. Sooner or later the time comes when a star has synthesised all the hydrogen in its core and turned it into helium. The hydrogen synthesis process still proceeds at the periphery, and the star enters the next stage of evolution. If the star is heavy enough, the process of transition from the first stage continues until all the material of the star has been transformed into iron. That is how the elements up to iron appear.”

At this point, Clive decided that the scientific material had been chewed thoroughly enough. With a wave of his hand, he called up a visualised model of the transformation of a star into a red giant on the big screen in the middle of the hall. Against a black background, a yellow sphere appeared, ejecting impressive splashes of plasma from time to time.

“As we see,” Clive continued, “the star is now precisely in the stage of synthesising helium from hydrogen. Now let us see what happens when only iron remains. In stellar terms, iron is nothing other than ash. That which is left when everything is burned up.”

Clive gestured to the computer to simulate the process. The yellow star began to grow, and its colour changed to dark red.

“We see that the star has increased in size. The outer layers are beginning to move out from the core” – the red sphere on the screen continued to grow – “and to cool down as a result of their expansion. This explains why the colour changes from bright yellow to dark red. I must add that at this moment, the star is leaving the main sequence curve and passing into the giant category. Back to the outer layers. They are continuing to expand, and as a result, fly off into space and…”

The enormous red sphere grew to an incredible size, then the red shell became transparent, ceased to shine and merged into the vastness of space.

“…the star has thrown off its outer shell, and along with it the elements born within itself. The new elements are scattered in every direction throughout the Universe. Some of them eventually collect into a cloud from which planets subsequently formed. The planets then lay the foundation for biological life. And we, you and I, are no exception either. Our bodies consist of stellar ash, born by a star which exploded billions of years ago somewhere in the depths of the infinite Universe.”

Having finished this sentence, Clive fell silent and looked up at the wall clock over the entrance. The second hand had only three divisions to go to the end of the lecture. The bell rang.

“Thank you for your attention. At the next lecture, we shall learn how the rest of the elements appeared. The task for today’s theme, as always, can be found on my webpage.”

He was impressed but not surprised that he had managed to get through all the planned material in time. Such precision can only be achieved by few, only by those who plan their actions accurately and strictly adhere to their plan. Those like Clive.

Today’s studies had ended. With a feeling of deep satisfaction, Clive put his things in his briefcase and left the class.

The evening sun was no longer burning, but just giving a pleasant warmth. The sultry heat of the day had given way to the cool of the evening. Clive enjoyed every moment, walking unhurriedly in the direction of the observatory.

Steve was walking towards him and wasn’t keen to stop and talk, but Clive had already noticed him and Steve was reluctant to be seen deliberately to be avoiding a meeting. Yes, Clive was a nerdish sort of chap, but all the same, they were colleagues in their work at the observatory. And they’d been on the same course. And anyway, Clive wasn’t that bad, a bit of a nerd, but not a bad guy. When they were level with each other, they stopped.

“Hi, Clive,” Steve casually waved his hand in greeting.

“Steve,” Clive nodded in reply. “Is anything going on?”

“No, everything’s still as it was.” Of course, Steve could have told him about the interesting object, but not now. If he said a word about his discovery, Clive would bombard him with questions and add a couple of theories too, and he’d never get away.

“You look kind of tired, are you preparing for the seminars?” asked Clive.

“Uh-huh,” replied Steve. “Spot on. That’s all I’m thinking about.”

The thing Steve liked about Clive was that he did not understand irony, and it was very easy to make fun of him. Also, Clive rarely took offence, and if he did, quickly got over it, and although he didn’t forget it, he behaved as if nothing had happened.

“I’d better get going. Are you going straight to the observatory?”

“Yes I am, it’s my shift. And apart from that, I have to figure something out.”

“Oh yes, I saw that – Advanced collision model?”

“That’s right! And do you know what I found?” Clive’s face stretched into a smile as he prepared to talk to Steve at length.

“Something interesting, no doubt, but you can tell me about it tomorrow. Excuse me, Clive, but my head’s bursting at the seams from my own models. Not now.”

Steve certainly did not want to listen to Clive’s latest theory. He had theories for everything. For example, a crystallisation anomaly theory. Or a theory of condensates. The first explained why ice cubes in Clive’s freezer did not form in order, but in some other sequence. The second threw light on why Clive’s spectacles always misted up more on the left than on the right when he entered the refrigeration chamber in the biology faculty to pick up his lunch pack. The most nerdish thing in all these flights of fancy was the fact that he backed up his theories with mathematical calculations and checked them experimentally. That was why it was so difficult to argue with him. He always had empirical data obtained strictly according to the rules of science.

“Well, it’s up to you.” Clive shrugged. “Till tomorrow, then.”

Clive went on his way to the observatory, where an extremely interesting evening awaited him, alone with his favourite model. A computer model.

 

Night

Steve woke up with a start. He opened his eyes. He looked up for a few seconds, then turned his head sharply to the side. He looked round the side of his room, still not understanding where he was. Then he raised himself a little, leaning on his elbow, and looked round the other part of the room. The window was open, letting in the cool, scented night air. A wind was lightly rustling round the room, blowing on one object after another. A book open on the table rustled as it was caught by gusts of wind, the open page turned forward and then unhurriedly back, which was somehow comforting, but also created a barely perceptible feeling of inexplicable anxiety. The room was slightly illuminated by the moon shining through the trees.

Steve’s consciousness slowly returned from the world of dreams to the real world. A few minutes previously, Steve had had a very eventful dream. His brain was fully working, but now he couldn’t remember even roughly what it had been about. Finally he realised where he was – at home in his room, in his apartment. He was renting it from some guy he had never seen – he had only spoken to him once, on the phone. This guy left the key for Steve in the university front office in a yellow envelope. Steve paid his rent regularly, never raised hell (at least, not at home), and didn’t create any problems. The guy never bothered Steve either. He just never appeared at all. At one time, Steve even thought that he could have disappeared somewhere, and he need no longer pay for the apartment. But he decided not to check this theory, and went on paying his rent. Peace and quiet were worth more to Steve than money, more anyway than the money he was paying for what was basically a good apartment at a cheap rent, in a little house near a small lake.

In the evenings, shortly before sunset, when the sun was just disappearing over the horizon, frogs croaked on the lake, creating a real concert. It began quietly. First one frog would croak, then another would answer it, a third one would join in, and they were away. Having croaked all they wanted, the frogs gradually quietened down and presumably went peacefully to sleep. Steve liked this concert. These entertaining croaks alone were worth the money Steve was paying for the apartment.

Steve gradually dragged his thoughts together. He was fully conscious now. He lay on his back entangled in a light blanket. Steve glanced at the clock, which showed ten past two. Half the night over already.

On the previous evening, Steve had gone to bed early, as soon as he got back from the observatory. He probably lay down at about nine and dropped off straight away. He was no longer hearing frogs. And now he was lying eyes open in the middle of the night, with no desire to sleep at all.

Generally speaking, Steve did not like going to bed early, because if he did, he would wake up in the middle of the night and then toss and turn until he fell asleep again somewhere about four. This particularly applied if he had to get up early the next morning.

But he would not have to get up tomorrow, it was a day off, so he could lie in as long as he liked, and think. Steve loved moments like these – lying half asleep and half-dreaming about something, window wide open, wind blowing round the room, quiet, calm, pacifying…

Steve untangled the blanket, turned on his other side, covered himself properly and closed his eyes. Paradise…

He was lucky to have come across such a great apartment, trees all round, hardly any people in the area, a lake nearby, and then there were the frogs. On the whole, he had been lucky throughout his life. He had not been a favourite of the teachers in school, he was a bit of a rogue, but he graduated from school with good marks, particularly in the exact sciences, of which he had a very strong grasp. Then he applied to the university, to the astrophysics faculty. There were entrance exams, but Steve passed them without any particular problems. When the semester began, Steve found he had much in common with the other guys in his faculty. Many of them were very much like him. While he was at school, Steve had thought that the university would be full of nerds, but on the whole the students, in his faculty at any rate, weren’t bookworms, but they weren’t complete dimwits either. Just normal lads, knowing, in their spare time, what to say and what not to say to the female students, but also not forgetting that in a university, you also have to acquire knowledge. In short, the world surrounding Steve was very much like his own internal world, and a stable balance was established in a natural way. In general, life was going as it should.

On the other hand, his studies were coming to an end, and Steve had not yet decided what he would do after he had got his degree. Should he go into the private sector or go for a post-graduate degree? Projects in the private sector were less impressive than in science; however, they were well paid. Yet science gave you more opportunity to think and to work at a higher intellectual level, but you had to be content with less in the financial sense. Steve was still on the fence.

Humanity had managed to go far into space. The private sector had already totally assimilated the Solar System within the orbits of the inner planets, and was gradually extending further, beyond the asteroid belt, towards the outer planets. Leisure and educational tours round the gas giants, Jupiter and Saturn, had been going on for decades and were now quite normal, and indeed practically mandatory for anyone with an interest in space. So normal that you could no longer surprise anyone by the fact that you had been to their orbits.

Steve himself had now twice viewed the rings of Saturn from a distance of only a few thousand miles. A fascinating spectacle, it must be said. The gigantic sphere of the planet and the even rings round it – Steve could not stop gazing at them for a long time. In the first moments, as their ship was approaching Saturn and the porthole covers were opened, everyone said “Wow!”, and Steve felt a lump in his throat, it was so moving to see the power of Nature.

Towards the end of the journey, on the way back to Earth, Steve had the opportunity to speak to the ship’s captain while sitting at the bar. The captain admitted that even after twenty years of space flights and more than a hundred opportunities to see other planets from close up, he was touched anew by the spectacle every time. According to him, his colleagues felt the same, most of them at least. But the captains of transport craft lost all interest after a while. There were even those who while waiting for a cargo in orbit, never even opened the hatch covers to take a glance at the planet in real life. Maybe transporting mundane things such as fuel or minerals dulled the senses. Maybe.

Steve thought about it, and decided he did not want to become like that. He loved stars, planets and comets. If he had a stone from another planet in his hand, Steve could study it from all sides for a long time, imagining that stone lying on the surface of Mars. A stone has no concept of “life”, it can lie for thousands, millions, billions of years, all the time in one and the same place, seeing the planet changing, the oceans evaporating, the atmosphere becoming thinner and thinner as Mars’ neighbour Earth came to life, changing from a red-hot rock into an azure pearl. Steve was enchanted by such thoughts when he was turning extraterrestrial stones in his hands.

Thinking, Steve opened one eye and looked at the table, on which there was just such a stone. Steve had won it at chess from one of his observatory colleagues who had a whole collection of such stones. After winning the stone, Steve had ordered a quartz sphere from the university workshop and sealed this stone inside it. It looked amazingly good. The stone contained iron, which gave it a reddish tint. It was smooth on one side and uneven on the other. Steve, examining it under an electronic microscope, came to the conclusion that the stone had been melted on the smooth side. The irregularities on the other side showed that the stone had been broken from a big rock.

Steve got up, opened the shutters, leaned out slightly and took a deep breath. The coolness of summer was pleasantly humid from the dew on the grass. There was a barely perceptible aroma from plants of some kind. Two steps from the window stood a mouldering tree stump with several fireflies fluttering round it. Steve took another deep breath and looked out at the night sky. His eyelids became heavy, he felt sleepy. Steve went back to bed, lay down and fell into a deep sleep almost at once. He had no more dreams that night.

 

The Doppler Effect

Steve opened the observatory door and entered the dark hall. The servers twinkled with a calming green light. All the monitors except one were on standby; only one was lit, showing some kind of data. Steve did not switch on the light, he preferred the semi-twilight round his workplace. He went up to it unhurriedly and sat down in the armchair. He put his legs up on the table, which was his favourite pose.

If Clive had been next to him, he would have certainly begun grumbling. Clive could never understand how you could get anything done in such a position. Firstly the spine was distorted; hadn’t Steve been taught to sit up straight? Secondly, feet on the table – what a bad habit, they’re dirty.

Steve brushed aside the books, cups and other clutter, and pressed the button to switch on the console. The whole hall at once came alive with various-coloured lights, monitors lit up showing the latest news accumulated over the past 24 hours – spectral analyses of expected supernovas and far-off galaxies, the orbital characteristics of the bodies of the solar system… In fact, everything was as before. Then Steve remembered the strange object noticed a few days ago. His evening tiredness vanished as if blown away by the wind.

With the accustomed wave of his hand, Steve called up the log of observations of the object over the past 24 hours. He did not beat about the bush by looking at mathematical models of its flight, he simply started the visualisation. Of course, much that was interesting could not be seen in the visualisation, such as the various trajectory anomalies, but it gave a good idea of the general picture. Real astrophysicists, such as Clive for example, began by digging around in columns of figures before starting something as commonplace as visualisation, but fortunately Clive was not present.

“Time scale?” asked the computer.

Steve rubbed his chin, thinking about it.

“Make it one to three thousand six hundred.”

At such a scale, each second of the visualisation would represent an hour of real time, and the whole history of the past 24 hours would be shown in less than half a minute. Lights winked on the computer console, and in the blink of an eye, it showed the solar system – the planets, satellites and their orbits round the central star. Twenty-four hours ago, the unknown object had been outside the orbit of Pluto. The simulation went from real time into the scale Steve had set.

For the first few moments, the object did not move, then it rapidly picked up speed, bypassed the orbits of Pluto, Neptune and Uranus, and passed by Saturn at minimum distance, losing speed as if it had encountered an invisible barrier, got as far as Jupiter and went into orbit round it. The simulation ended, the objects faded and vanished, and the screen filled with columns of figures.

“Repeat?” asked the computer. Steve suddenly realised that he was sitting there sweating, with his mouth open.

“Where is the object now?” he asked.

“In orbit round Jupiter,” the computer replied immediately.

“Is there visual contact?”

“There is no visual contact at the present time. The object entered the planet’s shadow thirty minutes ago. If its orbital trajectory remains unchanged, it is expected to come out of the shadow in one hour twenty-three seconds.

“During the past 24 hours, the object has entered the field of vision of other telescopes. Request photos of the object?”

“Yes!”

The solar system vanished, and the star-filled sky took its place. The computer had only two photos of the unknown object. In the first, the object was seen against the background of the stars. In the second, the object was barely distinguishable against the bright background of Saturn’s rings. The pictures were of too low resolution to see the details. The object was only a point of light on them.

The problem was that the object had not been subjected to direct observation. It had only been visible on those images by chance. All the world’s observatories, on Earth, on the Moon and on other planets and satellites, were connected in a single system. Space within the solar system was constantly viewed by various observatories and orbital telescopes – scientific, commercial and military. Special telescopes continuously observed the space routes, supplying information to the Interplanetary Space Flight Centre. Therefore, virtually any sector of solar-system space in the orbital plane of the planets was in the field of vision of some telescope at any moment in time.

Steve thought about it. The object was nearby, in Jupiter’s orbit. By aligning any powerful telescope with Jupiter, it would be possible to determine the size of the object. By joining several telescopes into a linked group, it would be possible to obtain a detailed picture, from which the shape of the object could be found, a spectral analysis of the slide could be made, and other possibilities explored. Steve thought furiously. Clive would be very useful in this situation, he compiled the operating schedule of the telescopes…

Steve gestured to the computer to start the communication module. Images of people in the observatory’s database appeared on the main screen. Steve feverishly leafed through one page after another, looking for Clive. There he was. Connect.

“Clive Sinclair speaking.” Clive’s voice rang out all over the hall. He must have been sitting at his desk for the connection to have been made so quickly. Steve gestured to lower the volume to a normal level and turned to face the camera above his console.

“Hi, Clive, this is Steve!”

“I can see it’s you, what’s your problem now?”

All their telephone conversations began this way. Steve found it very irritating that Clive always accused him of some kind of shabby trick. As if, because he was ringing Clive, he must have done something wrong and didn’t know what to do next. Although, to be honest, more often than not, this was the reason he called Clive. Particularly if he was calling from the observatory.

“This time, no problem – at least, none that’s my fault.”

“So what have you got there?”

“Listen, you’re not busy, are you? If not, could you look in at the observatory, I’ve come across something interesting and I need your help.”

Steve had to force himself to say the last few words. He hated having to ask Clive for anything, but that was the best and, most importantly, tested way of getting Clive to come to the observatory without lots of questions, discussions and stories from Clive about how busy he was.

“Well, since you’re not getting anywhere without my help, so be it… I’m in the library, I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”

“OK, but put your skates on, if you can.”

“What’s so important?”

“I don’t know how important it is, but it’s urgent, that’s for sure.” Steve was afraid the object might disappear from view, be lost, fly back to where it had come from, whatever… The chance of seeing something like this did not come along every day. You could spend all your life in the observatory and never see the like again.

Clive nodded and hung up. His image disappeared from the screen.

Exactly fifteen minutes later, Steve heard the sound of the door opening, and jumped out of his chair to meet Clive.

“So what’s going on?” asked Clive.

“Sit down, I’ll show you.”

Steve sat Clive down in the armchair, stood behind him and restarted the simulator.

“It all began during my shift yesterday. The telescope picked up an object from distant space. On its initial trajectory, it would have intersected Earth’s orbit, but…”

“What do you mean, ‘on its initial trajectory’? You mean its flight trajectory is changing?” interrupted Clive.

“Yes, it’s changing. Just listen, don’t interrupt. It was first picked up beyond the orbits of the outer planets, coming from the direction of the Omega Nebula.”

Steve leaned on the back of Clive’s chair and gesticulated with his free hand, showing the position of the object in the Solar System depicted on the screen.

“On the basis of the results from the first analysis of its flight trajectory, it would have intersected the Earth’s orbit in about two hundred years. The repeat observation didn’t find it at first, the data for velocity had to be corrected. The third time, the data still didn’t match. That’s when the object first came to my attention.”

Steve moved away from the back of the chair in which Clive was sitting, sat back down in his own chair, took a gulp of tea and recovered his breath. It was obvious that Clive was intrigued, but so far his eyes still showed a trace of scepticism. After taking another gulp, Steve continued.

“When I got the data about the object and looked at its flight trajectory, I realised at once that it was accelerating. But as you know, the computer does not consider such possibilities; we are not observing artificial objects. And yet it was clear that the object was accelerating. I reset the acceleration to other than zero, and immediately everything about its motion fell into place. But that wasn’t the end of the surprises.”

Steve had already foreseen Clive’s next question and jumped in before he had a chance to ask it.

“Yes, I compared it with the spacecraft database, it’s not there. No position beacons either. There were no other data, but as you must realise, a distance of more than forty astronomical units would be quite a long way for an object of that size.”

Clive was now completely intrigued. He didn’t even notice the coffee grounds on the petals of his flower. He moved the vase a little to one side, so that it didn’t impede his view of the auxiliary monitors.

Meanwhile, Steve increased the tempo of his story till he was talking nineteen to the dozen.

“Well, I racked my brains, and wondered if it might be one of the lost ones. I skipped the stories more than five years old, before that it would have been physically impossible for them to have performed such a manoeuvre, the engine thrust would not have been sufficient. I also took a look at the search operation logs – there were a couple of candidates, but it would be quite strange to assume that they had been zooming away at top speed for five years in one direction, and then suddenly changed their minds completely and decided to come back. What’s more, if they had been noticed on the way back at a distance of forty astronomical units, they would also have been noticed while they were much nearer. In short, theoretically it can’t be ruled out, but in practice it’s highly improbable that we have simply come across a lost craft.”

Steve finally stopped talking. Clive looked him in the eyes for a few more seconds, then silently turned to look at his flower. Silence reigned, broken only by the slight sound of the air conditioner and the buzzing of the servers.

“Could they be military? We don’t have complete information about military spacecraft. Let’s assume that during a flight to Saturn a spacecraft was travelling in stealth mode, but on the return trip, without it,” proposed Clive.

Steve smiled condescendingly.

“I haven’t told you everything yet. In the past day, the object has picked up speed. Enough to travel thirty astronomical units. In less than 24 hours.”

Clive tried to work out in his head the speed and power reserve needed for this. But whichever way you looked at it, the difference between the present-day capabilities of the best engines and the thrust of this object was tremendous.

“Perhaps the initial coordinates are wrong? Could it have started from much nearer?” suggested Clive.

Steve shook his head and continued.

“At this speed the object whistled past Saturn, then obviously became caught up in its atmosphere, lost speed…” Clive’s eyes began to widen. “flew on, reached Jupiter and became its satellite.”

Clive, shaken, reached out for the bottle of water without looking, but it slipped out of his hand. The water poured out right onto his shorts. He swore, picked up the bottle, put it back and looked accusingly at Steve as though it was his fault.

Steve assumed an imperturbable air and observed the quivering Clive as an adult looks at a clumsy child. It was satisfying to see Clive actually spill something for once after frequently accusing Steve and other colleagues of clumsiness! After a short pause while Clive wiped himself dry, Steve ended his story.

“Since then, the object has been in orbit round Jupiter.”

“Was there any visual contact?” asked Clive.

“There was, but as the object was not being specially tracked, there are only random photos from the general database. And those were only taken by small telescopes; in other words, what photos there are aren’t worth anything, they don’t provide any clarity.”

“Show me!”

Steve gestured to let the computer know what he wanted. The computer obeyed, and displayed both shots on the main monitor and the flight trajectory data on the auxiliary ones.

Clive stared intently at the screen. His gaze swung from one picture to the other, as if he were looking for some sort of trap. This went on for about half a minute. Steve would have liked to say something, but Clive gestured to him to stop him doing so. Clive had just come over from the main monitor to the auxiliary one and was greedily absorbing the columns of figures.

“So while it’s circling round Jupiter, we ought to look at it more closely!” exclaimed Clive, without looking away from the figures.

“We need a telescope array. And as you know, a decent array of telescopes can only be lined up on the Dean’s signature. And before all this bureaucracy is finished, at least one whole day will have elapsed” replied Steve.

Clive knew this, of course.

“Hmm, yes, that’s no use…” Clive thought deeply. “You know, we have orbital telescopes round the gas giants, let’s line them up on it,” he proposed.

Steve had completely forgotten about this. Yes indeed, these telescopes had been specially aligned for an experiment about the remote manipulation of Mercury’s orbit, but now they were virtually idle. Being low-power and highly specialised, they were of little interest to the scientific community. They weren’t particularly useful for commercial organisations either, because they did not have suitable instruments for tracking artificial objects. It would have been too inconvenient to use them to track interplanetary transport craft.

“Do you happen to know anyone from their control centre personally?” asked Steve. “Because if we go through the official channels, there will be the same bureaucratic delay.”

Clive’s duties in the observatory included, among other things, the allocation of telescope time. This job was not usually entrusted to students, but Clive was an exception. Firstly, he had already completed his studies and had of course already let all the professors know that he planned to apply for a postgraduate studentship (in other words, he had already thoroughly got on everyone’s nerves). Secondly, Clive was unequalled for pedantry and responsibility. So when the question of appointing an allocator of telescope time arose, he was the obvious front-runner.

The scientific community often called on each other for help, particularly in matters of allocating telescope time. And Clive was no exception. At first he ignored requests from colleagues at other research centres to take one or two photographs bypassing the official channels, but in time he came to realise that you couldn’t get by without mutual backscratching. He himself had occasion to ask things of others. Thus he created for himself a wide circle of acquaintance ready to help with telescope time.

“I know. Look up our colleague Sanchez in my address book,” said Clive.

Steve quickly found the required contact number and commanded the computer to make the call. The weary face of the duty operator appeared on screen.

“Control centre Jupiter-Alpha, Sanchez, how can I help?”

“Hello, sorry to dis…” Clive started, but Steve interrupted him.

“Hello, Jupiter-Alpha, we are calibrating our equipment and we need the support of your telescope array. Could you turn a couple of your lenses onto a small asteroid in orbit round Jupiter? We just need a short series of shots, there’s no need to track it. Four telescopes would be about right.”

“I’d be glad to, but I can’t give you more than two, the others are switched off. Send the trajectory parameters and I’ll do it. In which spectral bands do you want the shots?”

“The visible spectrum would be sufficient, but the infrared might come in handy too,” replied Steve as he sent the object’s trajectory data.

“As you wish. We are using the telescopes ourselves right now, but they’ll be free in about 30 minutes. You can expect the results then,” Sanchez replied.

“That’s fine, thank you.”

“No problem, ask again any time!”

Clive turned to Steve.

“While we’re waiting for Sanchez to send the pictures, let’s look at Saturn’s atmosphere,” he proposed. Steve nodded approvingly.

Clive moved his chair back to its place behind the operator’s table. His console immediately sprang to life with little signal lights of various colours. With the usual gestures, Clive only took a few moments to go through the authorisation routine, and take over control of the telescope.

“Have you put the data on the object in the general directory?” he asked.

“Wait, I’m doing that right now,” replied Steve. “Ready.”

Having made the data available, Steve turned back towards Clive. As always, Clive managed to be controlling the computer at the most interesting times.

Clive was already fully engaged, sending the parameters to one of the orbital telescopes. For convenience, so that Steve would not have to keep looking at his screen, he displayed a copy of his monitor on the hall’s main monitor. In the centre of the hall, the orbital telescope showed as a man-sized symbol. It slowly turned round its axis, turning the lens towards Saturn.

How much time it took to turn! Steve couldn’t stand watching this snail-like pace. Clive apparently felt the same way. They both, as if responding to an order, looked away from the screen. Steve wiped his forehead, Clive impatiently wiped his hands.

“Have you thought about what it might be?” asked Clive suddenly.

Silence reigned for a few seconds.

“To be honest, no. I found out about the object during my last shift, but then it was just behaving a little strangely. I only learned of the recent events half an hour before you did, there wasn’t time to check various theories, you know how it is.”

“And now, off the cuff, what do you think?”

“When did you start taking an interest in what I think, off the cuff? And what are the possibilities?”

“I don’t know, that’s why I’m asking you,” said Clive, persisting with his questions.

“Let’s take a look at Saturn’s atmosphere anyway, after that it might be a bit clearer,” snapped Steve. He didn’t like this conversation. Putting forward unsubstantiated theories was all very well over a glass of something foaming, but it was not very fruitful to fantasise in actual science. Both Steve and Clive were sufficiently experienced in astronomical observations to know this.

“Look, the telescope has finished turning,” said Steve, changing the subject.

Clive threw a quick glance at the main screen and quickly turned back to the console. The auxiliary monitor was schematically drawing the trajectory of the object through Saturn’s atmosphere.

Clive made some manipulations on the console and looked back at the main screen in the centre of the hall. No track or trace of the object was visible in either of the spectra.

“We ought to take a shot of the atmosphere from the other side, so that the Sun illuminates it. Perhaps then the spectral analysis will show something,” proposed Steve. “Taking its speed into account, the shock must have been of colossal force; if it lost any material we should be able to see something at the point of impact. Frankly, I don’t understand how the object didn’t break up from such a shock, it should have exploded!”

“That’s a riddle to me too,” said Clive. “However that may be, after entering the more or less dense layers of the atmosphere, the surface of the object must have been heated to very high temperatures. Possibly it created a plasma cloud round itself, which acted as a cushion and reduced the atmospheric resistance?”

Steve thought over what Clive had said for a few moments, then sceptically shook his head.

“But are you sure that a plasma cushion would act in just that way? I somehow don’t think a turbulent plasma cloud can screen the pressure of the oncoming flow of gas. We’d have to ask the engineers.”

“I know that it’s possible to move through an atmosphere very quickly, I read something about it in a scientific journal. The resistance of a gaseous medium grows in proportion to speed in the fourth degree. But the energy required to create a plasma cloud of the required density does not grow that fast.”

“Clive, you’re just wriggling. I’m sure that the plasma cloud there is not simply turbulent, it is ordered in some way. And that, you must agree, radically changes the effect of a plasma cushion.”

Clive nodded in agreement. Steve was obviously right.

“I’ve just had a thought,” said Clive suddenly. “Why in fact did we decide that the object did not disintegrate? It’s quite possible that it broke up under the shock, part of it burned up on Saturn and the rest is now flying round Jupiter.”

“So, you’re inclining towards the comet theory. In your opinion, the rough external shell was swept off by the atmospheric impact, and the core flew on? But what about the comet tail? As I understand it, we haven’t seen it.”

“Don’t forget that the object was first noticed at a vast distance from the Sun, where the intensity of the solar wind and radiation is not so great,” Steve continued. “I simply make this comment in passing, I did not mean that the object is a comet. The object must be something like an asteroid, consisting entirely of solid material, but must have, let us say, some irregular shape. As it intersected the atmosphere, part of it broke off and the rest flew on. Fine particles burned up on Saturn, but a large fragment managed to retain enough energy to continue its flight, and was then caught by Jupiter’s gravitational field. This, by the way, would not be particularly unusual. Jupiter picks up all sorts of things.”

Clive nodded in agreement. “Let’s say the body behaved as you said and broke up in the atmosphere of Saturn. True, I don’t know how it succeeded in doing that without being noticed, considering its speed, but let us assume that it did. But what about the acceleration?”

Steve spread his arms.

“I don’t know, Clive. I honestly don’t know. Have we ever seen anything like it in astronomical practice?”

“No.”

“Then why ask about it, if we have no data? We have never come across such a thing before. No such phenomena are predicted in any theory I know. I have no guesses and no explanations. Not for now, at least. We’ll get the data, look at it, whatever, it will become clear. Only I fear the object may fall onto Jupiter and never be seen again. Which would be a great shame.”

“Stop being such a prophet of doom. If that happens, I’ll go out of my mind. To catch something like that and lose it without having explained how this object performed its pirouettes, I couldn’t stand it.”

There was nothing left for them to do now except wait for the shots from the Jupiter telescopes.

The second hand of the wall clock circled round the white dial agonisingly slowly. Steve silently gazed at the main monitor, Clive leaned back in his chair and looked at the ceiling.

“It’s fifteen minutes since they promised to send the shots, could they have forgotten?” Steve couldn’t help saying eventually.

“Not at all likely,” answered Clive in a calm voice. “They’ll send them, just be patient.”

Suddenly there was an announcement on the screen.

“Data transfer from Jupiter-Alpha, downloading.”

Their sleepiness vanished instantly. Steve and Clive eagerly followed the progress of the data transfer – twenty per cent, thirty, forty… Two minutes left, one minute (time seemed to be standing still), thirty seconds, twenty…

“Message received, open message?”

“Yes,” commanded Steve.

“Message contains visual three-dimensional information, visualise it?”

“Yes!” This time Clive got in first.

Jupiter appeared on the huge monitor. The computer always began visualisation against a general background, selecting a scale at which all objects would be visible at once. The object was too small against the great gas giant, its position was only marked by a symbol. The computer assigned it the name ‘delta-two’.

“Object delta-two, maximum magnification,” commanded Steve.

The object could be seen in all its beauty. There were not many details, but enough to see that this was no asteroid. The object was a dark metallic colour and had the regular shape of a droplet just about to fall from a tap. Other details could not be distinguished, they simply weren’t there. Steve grimaced somewhat disappointedly. The euphoria of expectation evaporated. Further observations would probably not bring any more clarity. The only thing left to do was to send an automatic module to the object to feel it out, take samples, probe its internal structure…

“The message also includes video, did you notice?” asked Steve.

Clive silently started the video. Sanchez’s face appeared on the main monitor.

“Lads, we’re colleagues, you needn’t have kidded me about it being an asteroid. It gives you a strange feeling when an asteroid winks at you with a laser! OK, enjoy the pictures, goodbye till next time.”

Steve looked questioningly at Clive.

“What was he talking about?” asked Steve.

“I don’t know,” Clive replied.

“Repeat the video.”

Clive ordered the computer to show the clip again. After looking at it once more, Clive scratched the back of his neck.

“What laser?” he asked, after briefly thinking about it.

“You heard the same as I did, how should I know? Was it the object he was talking about? Only I don’t understand what lasers have to do with it,” answered Clive.

“Sanchez said that the object was winking with a laser.”

“That’s how I understood it, but that’s absurd! Could he have meant something else?”

“OK, let’s call him again, what’s the point in guessing?” proposed Steve, with some irritation.

Clive gave the command to repeat the call. A second or two later, Sanchez’s face appeared on the central monitor.

“Miguel, it’s us again. Excuse me asking, but what lasers were you talking about?” asked Clive.

Sanchez grimaced, but his tone remained friendly.

“Clive, is this a practical joke? When I turned our lenses onto your ‘asteroid’ and took a bearing on it with a laser distance gauge, it winked at me in reply.”

“What do you mean, winked? Who winked, the asteroid?”

“Who else?”

Clive exchanged glances with Steve.

“All right, Miguel, thanks.”

Sanchez grimaced again and hung up.

“Maybe he’s making fun of us?” asked Steve after a short pause.

“I don’t know him well enough for him to be playing jokes on me.”

Steve stroked his chin. He didn’t want to propose crazy theories. Clive apparently thought the same. Each of them simply waited to see what the other would propose.

“We have a transport route tracker a few light seconds from Jupiter, let’s get it to light up the object with a laser. That will give us its precise orbit at the same time,” suggested Steve.

Clive turned to the console and gave a request to determine the trajectory of the object.

“Ready.”

A little less than an hour and a half later, the main screen came alive and showed columns of figures, defining precisely the parameters of the object’s trajectory. Steve opened the tracker log from his console.

In taking the bearing of a transport, trackers always tried to identify the spacecraft by sending the appropriate interrogation. By protocol, the identification number was requested via a laser link. The laser had the advantage of being directional, so by comparison with radio waves, it did not clutter up the ether with noise unwanted by other spacecraft.

Steve rapidly looked down to the end of the recording, containing the craft identification data.

“Identification status: no result. Reason: unknown protocol.”

Steve turned to Clive.

“Look at the end of the recording, where it reports on the identification. You see what it says about the unknown protocol?”

“I see it. I’m just trying to understand what it can mean,” replied Clive.

“Damn, it could have said a bit more about it.”

“Too true.”

“So, the object could not be identified,” said Steve, thinking aloud. “That was to be expected. The tracker asked for its number through the laser link and the object did not reply. But what does ‘unknown protocol’ mean? Did the tracker receive a reply after all?”

“Perhaps the object is simply reflecting the signal?” suggested Clive.

“But trackers ought to be able to distinguish such cases,” answered Steve.

“Ought to, ought not to… You mustn’t forget that they are not meant for tracking random objects, but spacecraft, and a craft’s plating does not reflect a laser beam like a mirror. The tracker knows this and can distinguish a laser reflection from a response pulse. But our object consists of some other material. There it is.” Clive pointed to the large screen “In the photo, it’s almost mirror-like. Possibly the intensity of the reflection is so strong that the tracker mistakenly takes it for a response. As a result, it sees its own interrogation, and since an interrogation protocol differs from a response protocol, it can’t identify it. Therefore, naturally, it issues the error signal ‘unknown protocol’.”

“That’s pretty crude, even for a tracker, don’t you think? And what about the time lag between question and response? If the tracker sees the reflection of its own signal and takes it for a response, the craft under interrogation has no ‘thinking time’. Don’t you think the tracker would notice that?” objected Steve.

“There are vast numbers of trackers, and so they are kept primitive due to cost considerations. Therefore, in designing the standard routines of trackers, they act on the principle ‘the simpler the better’, and don’t bother to think about what else they could teach it just in case it might come in handy in the future. And what practical use is there in calculating the time lag between receipt of signal and response? Incidentally, the log ought to include both the interrogation and the response. Compare their binary structure,” said Clive.

Steve commanded the computer to compare the two packets of data. The response was instantaneous: coincidence 99.998%.

Steve looked at Clive and spread his arms, smiling.

“The percentage of error could well be ascribed to errors in transmission.”

“I think so too.”

Steve looked at the protocol again. Something wasn’t quite right.

“Hang on a minute, Clive. The laser reflection is precisely the same as the signal.”

“Well, yes, it should be exactly the same.”

“Oh? Are you sure?”

“We can assume it.”

“And what about the Doppler effect?”

“What about it?”

“The reflector is moving away, yet we don’t see any Doppler effect. How do you explain that?”

“If you think about it, the signal really ought to show some red shift. Here we don’t see this. Wait, don’t be hasty. Maybe we haven’t taken something into account?” said Clive.

“Clive, your theory about the reflection has bitten the dust. I don’t believe that a tracker can’t distinguish its own signal from something else’s. And then there’s the Doppler effect, the object is undoubtedly sending signals! It’s simply first making a correction for spectral shift,” said Steve.

This thought had long been at the back of Steve’s mind, he was simply reluctant to put it into words. Up to this moment. At first all this business about the manoeuvres, then slowing down in Saturn’s atmosphere, the external appearance of the object, and for dessert, the Doppler effect too! The object was not of natural origin, it was a spaceship.

Clive was silent. Silence reigned.

“OK, let’s take your theory as a starting point.” Clive spoke in a quiet and unbelievably calm voice. “Two possibilities remain. The first is that it is military, fitted with all sorts of technology we civilians know nothing about. The second possibility is that we are dealing with an extraterrestrial civilisation. Frankly, I don’t know which of the two is the crazier.”

“Clive, there are no other possibilities!”

Steve extended his hand towards the monitor, which was still showing the photograph of the object. The photo was not crisp and detailed like movie alien spaceships, but dull, lacking contrast, quite ordinary.

“Do you really think asteroids look like that?” he asked Clive, pointing to the photograph.

“No, of course not,” Clive replied.

“And can they accelerate to sub-light speeds, all on their own?”

“I agree with you.”

They spent some time sitting in the semi-darkness of the hall, just staring at the image of the object on the auxiliary monitor.

“What now?” asked Clive.

“I think for a start we ought to consult Shelby,” suggested Steve.

Clive unexpectedly burst out laughing.

“He must have a problem with his nerves,” thought Steve, dumbfounded by such behaviour.

Clive, noticing Steve’s reaction, laughed all the louder. He explained, smiling:

“No, Steve, I’m all right. I was just imagining you phoning Shelby and saying” – Clive continued in imitation of Steve’s voice – “Mr. Shelby, could you come to the observatory? We’ve just found some aliens!”

“You’re right, he wouldn’t come alone, he’d bring a team of men in white coats with him,” said Steve. Seeing the funny side of the situation, he laughed too.

“OK, joking aside, it’s a serious matter. Call Shelby,” said Steve.

“It’s late, he’ll be angry.”

“You don’t get angry about this sort of thing.”

“That’s true too,” said Clive, and called Shelby’s number.

After at least a dozen rings, the Dean’s sleepy face appeared on the screen.

“Shelby here,” said Shelby, sounding friendly enough in spite of the call at a clearly inappropriate time.

“Mr. Shelby, good evening, forgive me for calling so late,” began Steve.

“Good evening? It’s more like night… Not to worry. So what have you got there, lads?”

“Something very important has cropped up here. You will have to come to the observatory.”

Steve paused briefly, then continued.

“You know we would not bother you at such a time for anything trivial. But this certainly isn’t. We’ll explain everything to you when you arrive.”

The Dean’s face instantly became serious. He obviously had a foreboding that something terrible had happened.

“Is it very bad?” he asked, in a quite different tone of voice.

“No, but it’s important. Believe me, nothing terrible has happened, you may be sure.”

“Understood, I’ll come out.” Shelby hung up before he had even finished the last word.

[END OF THIS SAMPLE]

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