“Fans of Lucas Davenport and Virgil Flowers will eat this up.” --Stephen King
For fans of THE MARTIAN, an extraordinary new thriller of the future from #1 New York Times–bestselling and Pulitzer Prize–winning author John Sandford and internationally known photo-artist and science fiction aficionado Ctein.
Over the course of thirty-seven books, John Sandford has proven time and again his unmatchable talents for electrifying plots, rich characters, sly wit, and razor-sharp dialogue. Now, in collaboration with Ctein, he proves it all once more, in a stunning new thriller, a story as audacious as it is deeply satisfying.
The year is 2066. A Caltech intern inadvertently notices an anomaly from a space telescope—something is approaching Saturn, and decelerating. Space objects don’t decelerate. Spaceships do.
A flurry of top-level government meetings produces the inescapable conclusion: Whatever built that ship is at least one hundred years ahead in hard and soft technology, and whoever can get their hands on it exclusively and bring it back will have an advantage so large, no other nation can compete. A conclusion the Chinese definitely agree with when they find out.
The race is on, and an remarkable adventure begins—an epic tale of courage, treachery, resourcefulness, secrets, surprises, and astonishing human and technological discovery, as the members of a hastily thrown-together crew find their strength and wits tested against adversaries both of this earth and beyond. What happens is nothing like you expect—and everything you could want from one of the world’s greatest masters of suspense.
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John Sandford is the author of twenty-five Prey novels, most recently Gathering Prey; eight Virgil Flowers novels, most recently Deadline; and eight other books, including the Young Adult novels Uncaged and Outrage, written with Michele Cook. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Ctein is an internationally known photographer and expert on photographic printing. The holder of a double degree from Caltech in English and physics, he is the author of more than 500 articles, columns, books, and manuals, and is a well-known member of the science fiction community. He lives in San Francisco.
February 9, 2066
From ten kilometers out, the Sky Survey Observatory looked like an over-sized beer can. Yellow-white sunlight glittered from the can’s outward side, while the other half was a shifting funhouse reflection of the pale blues and pearly cloud-streaks of the Earth, a thousand kilometers below.
The can was not quite alone: an egg-shaped service module, human-sized, encrusted with insectile appendages, ports, windows and cameras, was closing in on it. Storage lockers and canisters surrounded the base of the egg. Had there been any air around it, and anything with ears, the faint twang of country music might have been heard vibrating through its ice-white walls: “Oh, my ATV is a hustlin’ on down the line, and them tofu critters are looking mighty fine...”
The handyman was making a house call.
The Sky Survey Observatory carried four telescopes: the Big Eye, the Medium Eye, the Small Eye, and Chuck’s Eye, the latter unofficially named after a congressman who slipped the funding into a veto-proof Social Security bill. The scopes stared outward, assisted by particle and radiation detectors, looking for interesting stuff.
All of the SSO’s remotely operable telescopes, radio dishes, and particle sensors, all the digital cameras and computers, all the storage systems and fuel tanks and solar cells, lived at the command of astronomers sitting comfortably in climate-controlled offices back on the ground.
Until the observatory broke. Then somebody had to go there with the metaphorical equivalent of a screwdriver.
One of the groundhuggers called, “Can you see it?”
Joe Martinez said into his chin mike, “Yeah, I can. Holy cow. Something really whacked that motherfucker.”
“What! What? Joe, what...”
“Just messin’ with you, Bob.”
“Hey, Joe? I’m pushing the button that cuts off your air.”
“Didn’t know you had one of those.”
“You don’t mess with astronomers, Joe. Cutting the air in 3-2-1...”
Martinez was a handyman; his official title was Chief of Station Operations, which meant that he kept the place running.
He hadn’t had much to do except drink coffee and read the current Guitar Riffs for last couple hours, waiting to make the approach to the SSO. Barring some weird million-to-one mishap, his trajectory was fixed by the laws of physics and the impulse from the low velocity rail-gun at the station; the computer said he was exactly on track. He sucked down some more of the decaf, his fingers unconsciously tapping out a counterpoint to the Blue Ridge Bitches, the band he currently favored.
Martinez wasn’t a scientist. He did mechanics and electronics, a little welding, a lot of gluing, the occasional piece of plumbing, and still more gluing. He had a degree in electro-mechanical engineering, but there were days when he thought he should’ve gotten one in adhesives. His engineering and academic background, combined with an instinctive love of machine tools, made him a quick study, but he didn’t have much interest in building new machines.
On the ground, he messed around with electric guitars, video games, propeller-driven airplanes and wooden speedboats. He loved real hardware even more than he loved his computer, and he did love his computer. If he could build it, fix it, refurbish it or just plain tinker with it, he was happy.
But he was happiest up in the sky, where he did a little of everything; he was the world’s best-paid handyman.
Bob Anderson came back: “What do you think?”
“I can’t see anything,” Martinez said. “I mean, nothing unusual.”
“Good. You going manual?”
“As manual as I can, anyway. And that would be...Now.”
He flipped the arming switch on the thruster joystick. Checking the intercept lidar -- less than five meters a second of residual velocity, very good -- he played the cradle’s thrusters. Practice born of hundreds of runs made his actions nearly unconscious, like riding a bicycle. His eyes took in the instrument readings while his fingers responded with bursts of thrust. It was safer, he’d told Amelia, his third ex-wife, than driving to work.
“What happens,” she’d hasked, “if everything fails? I mean, if everything fails down here, when you’re driving to work, you go in a ditch. What if everything fails out there?”
Well, then, he’d said, he’d get a free tour of the universe and would still be on tour when the sun finally died, a few billion years from now. She hadn’t laughed. Then or later.
Martinez had. As the shrinks had noted, isolation didn’t worry him.
“Radar says you’re there,” said Anderson.
“Close. Just a bit further.”
The egg’s attitude matched that of the SSO — there wasn’t any particular “upright” in space, but there had been when the can was put together on earth, and the lettering on the side of it appeared in the proper orientation to Martinez’s eyes. There’d been few visitors to read the lettering — in the eleven years that the observatory had been functioning, there’d been thirty visits, by fewer than a half-dozen different people, one egg at a time.
Of those thirty visits, Martinez had made eighteen. Most of the instruments and scopes were modular, boosted up into space as self-contained operational units, ready for deployment.
Some assembly was required. The instruments had to be fitted into the can, periodically serviced, and upgraded as new and better cameras, computers, and memories were invented. The SSO was the finest piece of astronomical machinery ever produced, and Americans – or the astronomical fraction of them – were committed to making sure it was equipped with the best the taxpayers could afford.
On this trip, Chuck’s Eye was getting an eye exam along with a new camera: Chuck had developed a tic. The vibration could have come from one of the servos inside the camera housing. It could have come from a wire that had worked free from its housing because of the heat-cold cycles. It could have come from any number of things, but whatever the cause, it had to be stopped. The cost of stopping it could vary from nothing at all, to a million bucks or so. The people on the ground were praying for “nothing at all,” since Congress was in one of its semi-decadal spasms of cost-cutting.
Martinez’s right hand played on the sensor panel, bringing up his work tools and assists. At the index finger’s command, power flowed to the servos on the manipulator arms and energized the tactile gloves. The thumb flipped a switch and dozens of tiny directional spotlights flicked on all over the exterior of the egg, banishing the darkness between the egg and the can – in space, flashlights were almost as vital as oxygen.
His right little finger swiveled the lights, bringing them to bear. Years of misspent youth at game consoles had given him reflexes and manual dexterity that a jazz saxophonist might have envied. As his right hand continued to play the instruments, his left worked the joystick, bringing the egg in close and slow. He circled the can one time, making a video, then eased the egg to a stop relative to the observatory.
Slowly, slowly, a mere millimeter a second, that was the trick. There wasn’t any danger to the observatory; the SSO’s own navigation computers could easily compensate for a bump, firing the observatory’s thrusters and running its orientation gyros to bring it back on point. But why waste the can’s limited fuel supply on a sloppy docking?
With the very faintest snick, the grappler on the egg latched onto one of the docking sockets that were all over the can’s skin. This particular socket was adjacent to the Chuck’s Eye instrument hatch. Once tied in, Martinez ran a last confirming test on the safety and security cameras. Everything inside and out was recorded during one of these house calls, because you never knew when a detail you missed might just save the job... or your life.
“We show you docked,” Bob said. “Good job. Barely a jiggle.”
“That’s why you hired a pro,” Martinez said. “You looking at the video?”
“Yeah, we’re running it against the last scan, and so far, we see no changes, no anomalies,” Bob said. Three seconds of silence. “Okay, the scan is finished, we see nothing at all on the exterior.”
“Good. Go ahead and cut the juice.”
“Cutting the juice: juice is cut. You’re clear.”
Killing the SSO’s power was a safety precaution, not for Martinez, who was well isolated and insulated in his egg, but for Chuck’s Eye: an accidental short or surge during servicing could result in one of those million-dollar repairs the groundhuggers were praying to avoid.
A moment later, a ground-based scope specialist named Diana Pike, whom Joe had never met, but with whom he often worked, called back and said in her familiar Southern accent, “We’re good, Joe. Want to look for that tic, first?”
“Hey, Di. Yeah, I’m putting some pucks out now.” Martinez used a spidery remote arm to drop a few micro-seismometer pucks on the can’s skin and the outer case of Chuck’s Eye. The bottom of the pucks had a layer of an electro-phosphoprotein adhesive, a synthetic based on the natural adhesive used by barnacles. With a tiny electrical current running through the adhesive, it would stick to almost anything; when the current shut off, the adhesive effect vanished. They were called Post-Its. What that had to do with yellow pop-up reminders on a workslate screen was anybody’s guess.
“Okay, Di, we’re set up here,” Martinez called. “Give me a rattle.”
“Here y’all go,” Pike said. “Three-two-one. Now.”
Two opposing thrusters fired on the can, each for just a tenth of a second and so closely spaced that a human eye couldn’t have told them apart. The can shuddered.
“Okay. We’re cycled. You see that?”
Martinez said, “Yeah, yeah, I see it.”
Martinez was watching his monitor readouts – the people on the ground were seeing the same thing – where the reports from the micros were popping up, giving him a directional reading on the vibration. It was near the surface of the superstructure, which was good, but outside the seismo array. “I’m gonna have to juggle some pucks,” Martinez said. “Wait one.”
He moved his micros, and called back to Pike: “Give me another cycle.”
“Cycling, three-two-one. Now. Cycled.”
Martinez looked at his monitor and called back, “It’s right near the surface. I’d say it’s between walls. I’m repositioning the pucks and moving a scope out to take a look.”
“It’s the insulating foam.” Pike was hopeful.
“Probably. I’m moving the pucks...”
Another shot and the micros gave him a precise location, within a half-centimeter of the source of the vibration. He moved a macro lens in and looked at the surface of the observatory. “There’s no external defect,” he said.
“Good,” Anderson said. If it had been a micrometeorite, the repairs could have been a bigger problem. They’d never had one penetrate both skins, but the possibility was always there.
“Gonna cut a hole,” Martinez said.
The process took an hour. Martinez drilled a three-millimeter hole in the meteorite barrier, then peeked inside with a fiber optic. As they’d suspected, some of the foam used as insulation between the two walls had shaken loose on Chuck’s Eye. There’d probably been a fracture during construction, or one created when the can was boosted into space; years of heat-cold cycles had finally shaken it loose. Martinez gave it a new shot of foam, specially formulated for this precise repair – they’d done three others just like it – sealed it with a carbon-fiber patch, and was done.
That had been the tricky bit. The next part, a monkey could do:
“Breaking out the camera package,” Martinez said.
“Okay. Got you down for the package extraction.”
The new package for Chuck’s Eye was less a single instrument than a spider’s-head complex of primary and secondary eyes, operating at all wavelengths from the mid-infrared to the far ultraviolet. Chuck’s Eye was like the scout that ran ahead of an expedition in the old West, taking in a wide field of view and maintaining a lookout for unusual objects and events. The bigger, more-impressive Eyes would do the research that mattered, but Chuck’s Eye would be the first to catch a new supernova or gamma ray burst, or whatever else might show up.
The cameras were modular and self-contained, and the new camera module looked exactly like the old one. Joe yanked the old one, slipped the new one into the rack, flipped the locking clamps and pinged Anderson:
“I got the old camera package out of the rack and the new one seated; it looks fine. Bob, you can power up again. Everything looks good here.”
“Looks good here, too. Powering up.”
And it was good. The repairs fell into the “nothing-at-all” category. Another of the mission scientists came on and said, “That’s nice work, Joe. We’ve run fifty cycles, got no vibes, and the new camera is online. You can go on home.”
“I’m gone,” Martinez said.
On the way back, he grabbed a bulb of proper caffeinated brew and pulled the heat tab, ate a few crumb-proof peanut-butter-and-cheese crackers, and contemplated the prospects of a proper meal. He’d been invited to dine with the station commander, Captain Naomi Fang-Castro and her fiancé, Llorena whose-name-he-couldn’t-remember. Better look that up before I commit a major faux pas, he thought. The captain and her first wife had divorced two years prior. The ex and their two college-age kids were on earth; the ex hadn’t been much for space. Fang-Castro was committed to the sky. Probably why he and the commander got along so well, Martinez mused...and probably why they were both divorced.
He took a call from the station, where Elroy Gorey, whom the groundhuggers called a farmer, was feeding the plants, or monitoring the nutrient cycles on the biotech program, depending on your need for long words.
Gorey had a PhD in botany and did a little plumbing and programming on the side, and was good with circuit boards. “That honey from Starbucks called,” he said. “She wants to know if you forgot about your coffee.”
“Nah, I’ve got a bulb here, but it’d be nice to have a fresh espresso waiting for me.”
“I’ll tell her,” Gorey said. “I think she wants to know me better.”
“I beg your pardon, there, Elroy, you’re more of a wingman type...”
The honey worked in Seattle, and hooked up to the station via an audio/video link that allowed her to make coffee for station personnel through an automated coffee machine. The face-to-face chatter was supposed to improve morale, and mostly did. Station personnel suspected that the baristas, male and female alike, had been chosen more for their good looks than their coffee-making abilities.
Back behind Martinez, at the can, Chuck’s Eye ran through its preprogrammed diagnostic sequence, firing off a series of wide-field photographs and forwarding them to the ground station at Caltech, in Pasadena, California. Once they’d been vetted, by an intern, for their utter routineness, Chuck’s Eye would be handed back to real astronomers for real work.
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