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PART 1: VISITOR FROM THE DEEP BLACK



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Chapter 1


For millions of years, the sun had merely been the brightest point of light in the sky, a cold beacon little different from the thousands of others visible in the ebon firmament. Now it was growing perceptibly larger month by month, year by year. The change was not without precedent. A billion years earlier, the planetoid had collided with a bit of orbiting debris out beyond Pluto. The force of the impact had altered its orbit forever. One hundred eleven times the planetoid had plunged deep into the fires of the inner Solar system, whirled quickly around the sun, and then retreated once more into the cold black. The ordeal had been presaged each time by a brightening of the distant yellow star.

About the time the sun began to show a visible disk, the ice plains and cliffs began to stir with ethereal winds as hydrogen and oxygen frost turned slowly to vapor. Initially these winds were as insubstantial as wraiths, little more than individual molecules escaping the planetoid's weak gravitation. Later, when the sun had grown still larger in the sky, the snowy surface began to emit gentle puffs of gas, dust, and vapor. Weak though it was, the planetoid's gravity was sufficient to wrap it with a wisp of vacuum-thin fog. By the time the flying mountain crossed the orbit of Uranus, the fog had grown thick enough to obscure it from anyone who might pick it out among the background stars.

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Amber Hastings sat at her desk and wistfully watched Farside Observatory's big hundred-meter-effective compound telescope swing ponderously into position. Her vantage point was almost directly up-sun from the giant instrument. As she watched, lengthening black shadows stretched across the floor of Mendeleev Crater. The view was from one of the pylon cameras situated to provide a panoramic view of the Solar System's largest astronomical instrument. In the background, the grey-brown wall of the crater's western rim thrust above the curved horizon in stark relief unsoftened by atmosphere.

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