INTROIT: KYRIE ELEISON
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June 26, 1996
Arthur Gordon stood in the darkness by the bank of the Rogue River, having walked a dozen yards away from his house and family and guests, momentarily weary of company. He stood six feet two inches in height, losing no more than an inch to a slight stoop. His hair was a dusty brown color, his eyebrows a lighter shade of the same. He had a well-proportioned frame and a sufficient amount of muscle, but he lacked any trace of fat; his muscles showed clearly beneath the skin, giving him an appearance of thinness.
The same leanness added intensity and, falsely, a hint of villainy to his face. When he smiled, it seemed he might be thinking something unpleasant or planning mischief. But when he spoke or laughed, that impression was quickly dispelled. His voice was rich and even and calm. He was and always had been--even in his year and a half in Washington, D.C.--the gentlest of men.
The clothes Arthur Gordon owned tended to the professorial. His favorite outfit was an old brown pair of corduroy pants--he wore them now--a matching jacket, and a blue checked long-sleeved shirt. His shoes were few and sturdy, running shoes for wear around the house, and for work solid brown or black leather wing tips.
His only ostentation was a wide rectangular belt buckle showing a turquoise Saturn and silver stars set in rosewood above brass and maple mountains. He had done little actual astronomy for five years, but he kept that job-description close to his heart and quick to his lips, still thinking it the noblest of professions.
Kneeling in the starshadow of ash and maple, he dug his fingers into the rich, black leaf-crusted cake of humus. Closing his eyes, he sniffed the water and the tealike tang of rotting leaves and the clean soapy scent of moist dirt. To be alone was to reappraise. To be alone and know that he could go back, could return at any moment to Francine and their son, Marty, was an ecstasy he could hardly encompass.
The wind hissed through the branches overhead. Looking up, peering between the black silhouettes of maple leaves, Arthur saw a thick spill of stars. He knew every constellation, knew how the stars were born (as much as anyone did) and how they grew old and how a few died. Still, the stars were seldom more than lights on deep blue velvet. Only once in a great while could he make them fill out and see them for what they were, far participants in an intricate play.
Voices carried over the woods. On the broad single-story cabin's porch, vaulting on sturdy concrete pillars above the fern- and tree-covered bluff, Francine talked about fishing with her sister Danielle and brother-in-law, Grant.
"Men love hobbies full of guts and grease," Danielle said, her voice high and sweet, with a touch of North Carolina that Francine had mostly abandoned.
"Nonsense," Grant countered cordially, pure Iowa. "The thrill lies in killing God's innocent creatures."
Below Arthur, the river flowed with a whispering rumble. Still squatting, he slid down the bank on the heels of his thoroughly muddy running shoes and dipped his long-fingered hands into the cold water.
All things are connected to a contented man. He looked up again at the sky. "God damn," he said in awe, his eyes moistening. "I love it all."
Something padded close to him in the dark, snuffling. Arthur tensed, then recognized the eager whine. Marty's three-month-old chocolate Labrador, Gauge, had followed him down to the river. Arthur felt the pup's cold nose against his outstretched palm and rumpled the dog's head and ears between his hands. "Why'd you come all the way down here? Young master fickle? Not paying attention?"
Gauge sat in the dirt, rump wriggling, tail swishing through the damp leaves. The pup's moist brown marble eyes reflected twin star-glints. "Call of the wild," Arthur said on the pup's behalf. "Out here in the savage wilderness." Gauge leaped away and pounced his forepaws into the water.
Arthur had owned three dogs in his life. He had inherited the first, a ragged old collie bitch, when he had been Marty's age, on the death of his father. The collie had been his father's dog heart and soul, and that relationship had passed on to him before he could fully appreciate the privilege. After a time, Arthur had wondered if somehow his father hadn't put a part of himself into the old animal, she had seemed so canny and protective. He hoped Marty would find that kind of closeness with Gauge.
Dogs could mellow a wild boy, or open up a shy one. Arthur had mellowed. Marty--a bright, quiet boy of eight, spectrally thin--was already opening up.
He played with his cousin on the sward below and east of the patio. Becky, a pretty hellion with more apparent energy than sense--excusable for her age--had brought along a monkey hand puppet. To give it voice she made high-pitched chattering noises, more birdlike than monkeylike.
Marty's giggle, excited and girlish, flew out through the tops of the trees. He had a hopeless crush on Becky. Here, in isolation--with nobody else to distract her--she did not spurn him, but she often chided him, in a voice full of dignity, for his "boogy" ways. "Boogy" meant any number of things, none of them good. Marty accepted these comments in blinking silence, too young to understand how deeply they hurt him.
The Gordons had lived in the cabin for six months, since the end of Arthur's stint as science advisor to the President of the United States. He had used that time to catch up on his reading, consuming a whole month's worth of astronomical and scientific journals in a day, consulting on aerospace projects one or two days a week, flying north to Seattle or south to Sunnyvale or El Segundo once a month.
Francine had gladly returned from the capital social hurricane to her studies of ancient nomadic Steppes peoples, whom she knew and understood far more than he understood the stars. She had worked on this project since her days at Smith, slowly, steadily accumulating her evidence, pointing toward the (he thought, rather obvious) conclusion that the great ecological factory of the steppes of central Asia had spun forth or stimulated virtually every great movement in history. Eventually she would turn it all into a book; indeed, she already had well over two thousand pages of text on disk. In Arthur's eyes, part of his wife's charm was this dichotomy: resourceful mother without, bulldog scholar within.
The phone rang three times before Francine could travel from the patio to answer it. Her voice came through the open bedroom window facing the river. "I'll find him," she told the caller.
He sighed and stood, pushing on the corduroy covering his bony knees.
"Chris Riley from Cal Tech. Are you available?"
"Sure," he said, less reluctantly. Riley was not a close friend, merely an acquaintance, but over the years they had established a pact, that each would inform the other of interesting developments before most of the scientific community or the general media had heard of them. Arthur climbed the path up the bank in the dark, knowing each root and slippery patch of mud and leaves, whistling softly. Gauge bounded through the ferns.
Marty watched him owlishly from the edge of the lawn, under the wild plum tree, the monkey puppet hanging loose and grotesque on his hand. "Is Gauge with you?"
The dog followed, ears and eyes locked on the monkey, which he wanted passionately.
Becky lay on her back in the middle of the yard, luminous blond hair fanned over the grass, gazing solemnly at the sky. "When can we get the telescope out, Dad?" Marty asked. He grabbed Gauge's collar and bent down to hug him fiercely. The dog yelped and craned his neck to nip air as the monkey's plastic face poked him in the withers. "Becky wants to see."
"A little later. Tell Mom."
"She'll get it?" Marty was passing through a stage of doubting his mother's technical skills. This irritated Arthur.
"She's used it more than I have, buddy."
"All right!" Marty enthused, releasing the dog, dropping the puppet and running for the steps ahead of Arthur. Gauge immediately grabbed the monkey by the throat and shook it, growling. Arthur followed his son, turned left in the hallway past the freezer chest, and picked up his office extension.
"Christopher, what a surprise," he said affably.
"Art, I hope I'm the first." Riley's voice was a higher tenor than usual.
"Have you heard about Europa?"
"Europa. Jupiter's sixth moon."
"What about it?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"There's been a search on at Mount Wilson and Mauna Kea. The Galileo's still going strong out there, but it hasn't been aimed at Europa for weeks. JPL turned the cameras to where Europa should be, but there's nothing big enough to photograph. If it were there, it would come out of occultation again in about ten minutes. But nobody expects to see it. Calls from amateurs have been flooding JPL and Mount Palomar for sixteen hours."
Arthur couldn't shift gears fast enough to think how to react. "I'm sorry ... ?"
"It's not painted black, it's not hiding, it's just gone. Nobody saw it go, either."
Riley was a rotund, crew-cut, plaid sports-coated kind of scientist, shy in person but not on the phone, deeply conservative. He had always been critically deficient in the humor department. He had never pulled Arthur's leg on anything.
"What do they think happened?"
"Nobody knows," Riley said. "Nobody's even venturing a guess. There's going to be a press conference here in Pasadena tomorrow."
Arthur pinched his cheek speculatively. "Did it explode? Something hit it?"
"Can't say, can we?" He could almost hear Chris's smile in his voice. Riley did not smile unless he was faced with a truly bizarre problem. "No data. I've got about seventy other people to call now. Keep in touch, Arthur."
"Thanks, Chris." He hung up, still pinching his cheek. The smoothness of the moment by the river had passed. He stood by the phone for a moment, frowning, then walked into the master bedroom.
Francine reached high to rummage through the top shelf of the bedroom closet, Marty and Becky at her heels.
In their seventeen years together, his wife had moved over the line from voluptuous to zoftig to plump. The physical contrast between Arthur and Francine, all curves and fulfilling grace, was obvious; equally obvious was the fact that what others saw in them, they did not see in each other. She tended to wear folk art print dresses, and much of her wardrobe was a stylish acquiescence to matronliness.
Yet in his thoughts, she was eternally as he had first seen her, walking up sunny white-sanded Newport Beach in southern California, wearing a brief one-piece black swimsuit, her long black hair loose in the breeze. She had been the sexiest woman he had ever known, and she still was.
She pulled down the bulbous canvas Astroscan bag. Bending over, she rummaged for the box of eyepieces under a pile of shoes. "What did Chris want?" she asked.
"Europa's disappeared," Arthur said.
"Europe?" Francine smiled over her shoulder and straightened, passing the bag to him.
"Europa. Sixth moon of Jupiter."
Arthur made a face and shrugged. He took the telescope and its painted gray metal base and carried them outside, Gauge snorting at his heels.
"Uh-oh, kids. Dad's in robot mode," Francine called from the bedroom. "What did Chris really say?" She followed him down the stairs and onto the lawn, where he pressed the telescope base into the soft grass and soil.
"That's what he really said," Arthur replied, dropping the big red ball of the reflector gently into the three hollowed branches of the base.
Gray, dignified Grant and lithe blond Danielle stood by the railing on the east side of the rear deck, overlooking the yard and the plum tree. "It's a lovely night," Danielle said, holding Grant's arm. Arthur thought they most resembled models in upscale real estate ads. Still, they were good people. "Stargazing?"
"It's not secret or anything, is it?" Francine asked.
"I truly doubt such a thing can be kept secret," Arthur replied, peering into the eyepiece.
"One of Jupiter's moons has disappeared," Francine called up to them.
"Oh," her sister said. "Is that possible?"
"We have a friend. An acquaintance, really. He and Arthur keep each other up-to-date on certain things."
"So he's looking for it now?" her sister asked.
"Can you see Jupiter from here? I mean, tonight?" Grant asked.
"I think so," Francine replied. "Europa is one of the Galilean moons. One of the four Galileo saw. The kids were going to--"
Arthur had Jupiter in view, a bright spot in the middle of the blue-gray field. Stars formed a resolving fog in the background. Two pointlike moons, one bright and one quite dim, were clearly visible on one side of the brighter planet. The dim one was either Io or Callisto, the bright probably Ganymede. The third was either in transit across the planet or in Jupiter's cone of shadow, eclipsed --or behind the planet, occulted. He tried to remember Laplace's law regarding the first three Galilean moons: The longitude of the first satellite, minus three times that of the second, plus twice that of the third, is always equal to half of the circumference ... He had memorized that in high school, but it did him a fat lot of good now. He murmured the consequences of the law to himself: "The first three Galileans--that includes Europa--can never be all eclipsed at once, nor can they all be in front of the disk at once. If Io and Europa are eclipsed or occulted simultaneously, or in transit simultaneously . . . Ah, hell." He couldn't remember the details. He would just have to sit and wait for the four to be visible all at once, or for only three to make an appearance.
"Can we see?" Marty asked.
"Sure. I'm going to be out here all night, probably," Arthur said.
"Not Becky," Danielle said.
"Oh, Mooommm! Can't I see?"
"Go ahead," Arthur encouraged, leaning back. Marty squatted next to the telescope and showed his cousin how to look into the eyepiece. "Don't knock it," Arthur warned. "Franchie, can you get me the field glasses?"
"Where are they?"
"In the hall cupboard, above the camping gear, in a black leather case."
"What would cause a moon to disappear? How big a moon is it?" Grant asked.
"It's quite large as moons go," Arthur said. "Rock and ice, probably with a liquid water layer under an ice shell."
"That's not like our moon, is it?" Danielle asked.
"Very different," Arthur said. Francine handed him the glasses and he trained them on the sky in the general vicinity of Jupiter. After a few moments of sweeping and focusing, he found the dot of light, but couldn't hold the glasses still enough to make out moons. Becky pulled away from the telescope, rubbing her eye and making a face. "That's hard," she said.
"All right. Let me use it again," Arthur said.
Marty asked his cousin if she had seen it.
"I don't know. It was hard to see anything."
Arthur applied his eye to the eyepiece and found a third moon visible, also comparatively dim. Callisto, Io, and bright Ganymede. No sign of a fourth.
The rest of the family soon tired of the vigil and went inside, where they played a noisy game of Scrabble.
After two hours of straining his eyes, Arthur stood up. He felt dizzy. His legs tingled painfully from the knees down. Francine returned to the backyard around ten o'clock and stood next to him, arms folded.
"You have to see for yourself?" she asked.
"You know me," Arthur said. "It should be visible, but it isn't."
"Pretty big thing to lose, a moon, isn't it?"
"Any idea what it means?"
Arthur looked up at her. "There's only three. I know I should have seen four by now."
"What does it mean, Arthur?"
"Damned if I know. Somebody's collecting moons, maybe?"
"It scares me," Francine said. "If it's true." She looked at him plaintively. He said nothing. "Then it's true?"
"I suppose it is."
"Doesn't it scare you?"
Arthur stretched to relieve cramped muscles and took his wife's hands in his. "I don't know what it means yet," he said.
Francine moved almost as easily and blissfully in the sciences as he, albeit on a more instinctive level. He valued her insights, and the thought of her fear sobered him further. "Why are you scared?"
"A moon is bigger than a mountain, and if a mountain, or the river, disappeared without a trace, wouldn't you be afraid?"
"I might," he conceded. He picked up the telescope and replaced its aperture cover. "That's enough for tonight."
Francine wrapped her arms around herself. "Bed?" she asked. "Grant and Danielle and the children are asleep. Gauge is with Marty."
Arthur's mind raced as he lay next to Francine. The wide bed's flannel winter sheets hadn't been changed to the regular percale spring and summer sheets. He was glad for their fuzzy comfort. His emotions had caught up with him.
Europa had been around for billions of years, silently orbiting Jupiter. Some scientists had thought there might be life there, but that had never been proved or disproved.
If a mountain or the river disappears, that's much closer to home . . .
Arthur dreamed of fishing with his best friend, Harry Feinman. They sat in a boat on the river, fines trailing in the current, wearing wide-brimmed hats against a sun that was not all that bright. In the dream, Arthur remembered Harry playing with Martin at the house, lifting the boy high in the air and making an airplane noise as he ran around the tree in the backyard. Harry's wife--tall, stately Ithaca--had watched in this dream memory, her smile carrying a slight edge; she was barren, and had never given Harry the child he wanted. Only occasionally did Harry seem to regret the missed opportunities. I haven't seen Harry in over eight months, Arthur thought. Yet here he is.
How are you doing, fellah? Arthur asked Harry in the boat. Any nibbles? It was curious to realize that the figure of Harry, sitting with hat slouched over his face, was part of a dream. Arthur wondered what the dream Harry would say. You asleep?
He reached over to lift the hat.
The Earth's moon lay under Harry's hat, bright and full. Harry's face was in the craters and seas of its surface. Wow, Arthur said. That's really beautiful.
But he worried for the merest instant that he was not dreaming, and awoke with a start.