computed the angle between the Object’s last two bearings. Symbols blossomed on her forearm as she worked through the calculation. In both of the intervals between sightings the gray smudge had moved about two arc- pauses—but the second shift was slightly greater than the first. The true speed of the Object was unlikely to have changed, so its quickening progress against the background of stars could only mean that it had already moved measurably closer.

The change was far too small to yield accurate predictions, but Tamara couldn’t resist working through some crude estimates. Within a period perhaps as short as four stints—or perhaps as long as five dozen—the Object would make its closest approach to the Peerless. Just how close that would be was impossible to say, without knowing how fast the thing was moving through the void, but the lack of a discernible color trail put a ceiling on its speed. The upshot was, the Object would pass by at a distance of, at most, nine gross severances. In astronomical terms that was positively propinquitous: about a twelfth the distance of the home world from its star. No living traveler among them had ever been so close to another solid body.

Tamara resisted the urge to bolt from the observatory and start spreading the news; the protocols dictated that she should complete her shift in the face of anything less than an imminent collision. But it would not be wasted time; the Object could easily be accompanied by fellow travelers, fragments from the same parent body with similar trajectories. So she duly worked her way across her allotted segment of the sky, hunting for another speck of light or a dark silhouette against a star’s band of colors. Field after field was unblemished, as usual, but whenever the tedium of the search reached the point where her thoughts began to stray to the emptiness in her gut, she turned her mind back to the Object itself and savored again the thrill of discovery.

When she’d done her duty—with no further revelations—Tamara slipped out of the harness and pushed herself through the hatch at the base of the observatory. She drifted across the gap that separated the telescope’s stabilized mount from the imperceptibly spinning rock below, and her momentum carried her into the entrance tunnel, returning her to the Peerless proper. She grabbed a guide rope and dragged herself along to the office. Roberto was there, ready to start his own shift, while Ada was studying for an assessment, poring over a tattered set of notes on the art of navigational astrometry.

“I do believe we should expect company!” Tamara announced. She gave her fellow observers the three data points and waited while they made their own calculations.

“It does look close,” Roberto confirmed.

“How bright is it?” Ada asked.

“Five,” Tamara said.

“And you’ve only just seen it?”

“You know what it’s like, trying to spot things close to the horizon.”

To Tamara, they both sounded a shade resentful. She knew there’d been no special skill in what she’d done, and her luck would attract no great esteem. But what lay ahead now was open to everyone: the chance to observe a body of orthogonal matter in unprecedented detail.

“I wish we had some way to pin down the distance,” Roberto lamented.

“Do I detect a hint of parallax envy?” Tamara joked. On the home world, astronomers had had it easy: wait half a day and your viewpoint moved by the planet’s width; wait half a year and that became the width of the orbit. Once those baselines had been measured, the shifting angles they created had been revelatory. But whether you imagined it was the Peerless itself that was moving day by day, or the Object, without knowing the relative velocity to fix the baseline between successive views the most you could glean from the angles alone was the timing of the encounter, not the distance.

Roberto hummed with frustration. “This thing might come close enough for us to resolve its shape—and maybe even structural features, impact craters… who knows? Think how much more valuable all that would be if we knew their scale!”

Ada said, “It sounds like the perfect job for an infrared color trail.”

“What kind of gratitude is this?” Tamara demanded. “I bring my two friends the find of a lifetime, and all I get are fantasies about how things could be better!”

Ada was indignant. “What fantasy? I’m serious! The chemists have never made infrared a priority before, because they’ve never had a good enough reason.”

Chemicals sensitive to ultraviolet light had been known since before the launch, but no one had managed to achieve the same feat at the infrared end of the spectrum. Imaging a slow-moving object’s color trail in ultraviolet wasn’t all that helpful; even infinitely fast UV would lie closer to violet in the trail than violet was to red. But an infrared trail could stretch out to many times the length of the visible portion.

“And this will count as a good reason?” Roberto was amused. “The last time I asked for a favor from the chemists, I was told to wait until they’d solved the fuel problem.”

Ada said, “Maybe we can find a chemist who’s itching for a break. If you’ve spent half your life bashing your head against the same old problem, why not try something easier?”

“No, they all want the glory too badly for that,” Roberto declared. “Who’s going to waste their time inventing infrared-sensitive paper when they might be on the verge of inventing a way home?”

Tamara tried to put herself inside a chemist’s skin. The Peerless’s reserves of sunstone, burned in the usual manner, would barely be enough to bring the mountain to a halt, let alone carry their descendants back to the home world. She’d understood that unsettling fact since childhood, but to someone who’d made the fuel problem their vocation what interest could there be in the astronomers’ petty concerns? The orthogonal cluster and the debris that surrounded it were just obstacles to be avoided, and while gathering statistics on the distribution of this hazard was a worthwhile activity, it wouldn’t take an infrared color trail to recognize a head-on collision.

Then again, surely every chemist was at least a little curious as to how the sprinkling of orthogonal dust that had adhered to the surface of the Peerless had threatened to set the rock on fire, in the days before spin. Tamara wondered if she could sell them on the notion that establishing the size of any craters on the Object might shed light on that mysterious reaction. The trouble was, any ordinary rock that had struck the Object would have done so at such a great speed that the most likely result would have been, not a crater, but an all-obliterating fireball. The Peerless itself was almost certainly the only ordinary object in the region that had ended up more or less matching velocities with the orthogonal material—and if a leisurely encounter between the two kinds of matter was ever to be repeated, the Peerless would have to be involved again.

Tamara looked up at her friends and realized just how blind she’d been. Roberto had been right to refuse to accept the same old regime of half-useless observations; Ada had been right to insist that there could easily be better methods within their reach. But all three of them had been too timid by far.

Tamara said, “Why don’t we go there?”

Roberto blinked. “What?”

Ada emitted an excited chirp. “You mean start the engines and…?”

“No, no!” Tamara cut her off. “The Peerless is too big and unwieldy, and it would be insane to waste that much fuel. We should build a smaller rocket, just for this journey—something we can take as close to the Object as we dare. Then we can measure what we like, observe what we like… carry out experiments, maybe even bring back samples.”

Ada held up her navigator’s manual, regarding it with an almost fearful new respect. When Tamara had studied the same notes, she’d assumed that the only use she’d ever make of them would be to teach the theory to the next generation, keeping the knowledge from withering away while they waited for the infinitely remote prospect of commencing the journey home.

Roberto’s stunned expression gave way to one of pure delight. “If the tiniest speck of orthogonal rock is a liberator for calmstone,” he said, “who knows what the same material in bulk could do to our fuel?”

Tamara said, “I think we might be able to interest the chemists in helping us find the answer to that.”

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