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«3001: The Final Odyssey», Arthur Clarke

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The excuse would have been perfectly valid: wrapping a comet's core in a sheet of reflective film only a few molecules thick, but kilometres on a side, was not the sort of job you could abandon while it was half-completed.

Still, it would be a good idea to obey this ridiculous request: he was already in disfavour sunwards, through no fault of his own. Collecting ice from the rings of Saturn, and nudging it towards Venus and Mercury, where it was really needed, had started back in the 2700s – three centuries ago. Captain Chandler had never been able to see any real difference in the 'before and after' images the Solar Conservers were always producing, to support their accusations of celestial vandalism. But the general public, still sensitive to the ecological disasters of previous centuries, had thought otherwise, and the 'Hands off Saturn!' vote had passed by a substantial majority. As a result, Chandler was no longer a Ring Rustler, but a Comet Cowboy.

So here he was at an appreciable fraction of the distance to Alpha Centauri, rounding up stragglers from the Kuiper Belt. There was certainly enough ice out here to cover Mercury and Venus with oceans kilometres deep, but it might take centuries to extinguish their hell-fires and make them suitable for life. The Solar Conservers, of course, were still protesting against this, though no longer with so much enthusiasm. The millions dead from the tsunami caused by the Pacific asteroid in 2304 – how ironic that a land impact would have done much less damage! – had reminded all future generations that the human race had too many eggs in one fragile basket.

Well, Chandler told himself, it would be fifty years before this particular package reached its destination, so a delay of a week would hardly make much difference. But all the calculations about rotation, centre of mass, and thrust vectors would have to be redone, and radioed back to Mars for checking. It was a good idea to do your sums carefully, before nudging billions of tons of ice along an orbit that might take it within hailing distance of Earth.

As they had done so many times before, Captain Chandler's eyes strayed towards the ancient photograph above his desk. It showed a three-masted steamship, dwarfed by the iceberg that was looming above it – as, indeed, Goliath was dwarfed at this very moment.

How incredible, he had often thought, that only one long lifetime spanned the gulf between this primitive Discovery and the ship that had carried the same name to Jupiter! And what would those Antarctic explorers of a thousand years ago have made of the view from his bridge? They would certainly have been disoriented, for the wall of ice beside which Goliath was floating stretched both upwards and downwards as far as the eye could see. And it was strange-looking ice, wholly lacking the immaculate whites and blues of the frozen Polar seas. In fact, it looked dirty – as indeed it was. For only some ninety per cent was water-ice: the rest was a witch's brew of carbon and sulphur compounds, most of them stable only at temperatures not far above absolute zero. Thawing them out could produce unpleasant surprises: as one astrochemist had famously remarked, 'Comets have bad breath'.

'Skipper to all personnel,' Chandler announced. 'There's been a slight change of programme. We've been asked to delay operations, to investigate a target that Spaceguard radar has picked up.'

'Any details?' somebody asked, when the chorus of groans over the ship's intercom had died away.

'Not many, but I gather it's another Millennium Committee project they've forgotten to cancel.'

More groans: everyone had become heartily sick of all the events planned to celebrate the end of the 2000s. There had been a general sigh of relief when 1 January 3001 had passed uneventfully, and the human race could resume its normal activities.

'Anyway, it will probably be another false alarm, like the last one. We'll get back to work just as quickly as we can. Skipper out.'

This was the third wild-goose-chase, Chandler thought morosely, he'd been involved with during his career. Despite centuries of exploration, the Solar System could still produce surprises, and presumably Spaceguard had a good reason for its request. He only hoped that some imaginative idiot hadn't once again sighted the fabled Golden Asteroid. If it did exist – which Chandler did not for a moment believe – it would be no more than a mineralogical curiosity: it would be of far less real value than the ice he was nudging sunwards, to bring life to barren worlds.

There was one possibility, however, which he did take quite seriously. Already, the human race had scattered its robot probes through a volume of space a hundred light-years across – and the Tycho Monolith was sufficient reminder that much older civilizations had engaged in similar activities. There might well be other alien artefacts in the Solar System, or in transit through it. Captain Chandler suspected that Spaceguard had something like this in mind: otherwise it would hardly have diverted a Class I space-tug to go chasing after an unidentified radar blip.

Five hours later, the questing Goliath detected the echo at extreme range; even allowing for the distance, it seemed disappointingly small. However, as it grew clearer and stronger, it began to give the signature of a metallic object, perhaps a couple of metres long. It was travelling on an orbit heading out of the Solar System, so was almost certainly, Chandler decided, one of the myriad pieces of space-junk that Mankind had tossed towards the stars during the last millennium and which might one day provide the only evidence that the human race had ever existed.

Then it came close enough for visual inspection, and Captain Chandler realized, with awed astonishment, that some patient historian was still checking the earliest records of the Space Age. What a pity that the computers had given him the answer, just a few years too late for the Mifiermium celebrations!

'Goliath here,' Chandler radioed Earthwards, his voice tinged with pride as well as solemnity. 'We're bringing aboard a thousand-year-old astronaut. And I can guess who it is.'

2 – Awakening

Frank Poole awoke, but he did not remember. He was not even sure of his name.

Obviously, he was in a hospital room: even though his eyes were still closed, the most primitive, and evocative, of his senses told him that. Each breath brought the faint and not unpleasant tang of antiseptics in the air, and it triggered a memory of the time when – of course! – as a reckless teenager he had broken a rib in the Arizona Hang-gliding Championship.


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