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The impending collision out there somewhere in the great dark between a gas giant and a world very much like our own has some parallels to the eternal collision between religion and common sense. One is bloated and full of gas, and the other is measurable and solid. One engulfs everything around it, and the other simply provides a place to stand. One is a rogue destroyer that has come in out of the night, and the other is a warm well-lighted place vulnerable to the sainted mobs.
-- Gregory MacAllister, Have Your Money Ready
They came back to Maleiva III to watch the end of the world.
Researchers had been looking forward to it since its imminence was proclaimed almost twenty years earlier by Jeremy Benchwater Morgan, an ill-tempered combustible astrophysicist who, according to colleagues, had been born old. Even today Morgan is the subject of all kinds of dark rumors, that he had driven one child to tranks and another to suicide, that he'd forced his first wife into an early grave, that he'd relentlessly destroyed careers of persons less talented than he even though he gained nothing by doing so, that he'd consistently taken credit for the work of others. How much of this is true, no one really knows. What is on the record, however, is that Morgan had been both hated and feared by his colleagues and apparently by a deranged brother-in-law who made at least two attempts to kill him. When he'd died, finally, of heart failure, his onetime friend and longtime antagonist, Gunther Beekman, commented privately that he had beaten his second wife to the punch. In accordance with his instructions, no memorial was conducted. It was, some said, his last act of vindictiveness, denying his family and associates the satisfaction of staying home.
Because he had done the orbital work and predicted the coming collision, the Academy had given his name to the rogue world that had invaded the Maleiva system. Although that was a gesture required by tradition in any case, many felt that the Academy directors had taken grim pleasure in their action.
Morgan's World approached Jovian dimensions. Its mass was 296 times that of Earth. Diameter at the equator was 131,600 kilometers, at the poles about five percent less. This oblateness resulted from a rotational period of just over nine hours. It had a rocky core a dozen times as massive as the Earth. It was otherwise composed primarily of hydrogen and helium.
It was tilted almost ninety degrees to its own plane of movement, and half as much to the system plane. It was a gray-blue world, its atmosphere apparently placid and untroubled, with neither rings nor satellites.
"Do we know where it came from?" Marcel asked.
Gunther Beekman, small, bearded, overweight, was seated beside him on the bridge. He nodded and brought up a fuzzy patch on the auxiliary display, closed in on it, and enhanced. "Here's the suspect," he said. "It's a section of the Chippewa Cloud, and if we're right, Morgan's been traveling half a billion years."
In approximately three weeks, on Saturday, December 9, at 1756 hours GMT, the intruder would collide head-on with Maleiva 111.
Maleiva was the infant daughter of the senator who'd chaired the science funding committee when the initial survey was done, two decades earlier. There were eleven planets in the system, but only the doomed third world had received a name to go with its Roman numeral: From the beginning they called it Deepsix. In the often malicious nature of things, it was also one of the very few worlds known to harbor life. Even though locked in a three-thousand-year-old ice age, it would have made, in time, an exquisite new outpost for the human race.
"The collision here is only the beginning of the process," Beekman said. "We can't predict precisely what's going to happen afterward, but within a few thousand years Morgan will have made a complete shambles of this system." He leaned back, folded his hands behind his head, and adopted an expression of complacency. "It's going to be an interesting show to watch."
Beekman was the head of the Morgan Project, a planetologist who had twice won the Nobel, a lifelong bachelor, and a onetime New York State chess champion. He routinely referred to the coming Event as "the collision," but Marcel was struck by the relative sizes of the two worlds. It would most certainly not be a collision. Deepsix would fall into Morgan's clouds, like a coin casually dropped into a pool.
"Why doesn't it have any moons?" he asked Beekman.
Beekman considered the question. "Probably all part of the same catastrophe. Whatever ejected it from its home system would have taken off all the enhancements. We may see something like that here in a few centuries."
"In what way?"
"Morgan's going to stay in the neighborhood. At least for a while. It's going into a highly unstable orbit." He brought up a graphic of Maleiva and its planetary system. One gas giant was so close to the sun that it was actually skimming through the corona. The rest of the system resembled Earth's own, terrestrial worlds in close, gas giants farther out. There was even an asteroid belt, where a world had failed to form because of the nearby presence of a jovian. "It'll eventually mangle everything," he said, sounding almost wistful. "Some of these worlds will get dragged out of their orbits into new ones, which will be irregular and probably unstable. One or two may spiral into the sun. Others will get ejected from the system altogether."
"Not a place," said Marcel, "where you'd want to invest in real estate."
"I wouldn't think," agreed Beekman.
Marcel Clairveau was captain of the Wendy Jay, which was carrying the Morgan research team that would...Excerpted from Deepsix by Jack McDevitt. Copyright © 2002 by Jack McDevitt. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.