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5.


Moonbase, Administrative Offices. 2:08 P.M.

Andrea Bellwether had never before seen her boss in so grim a mood.

Her boss was Teresa Perella, who was usually congenial and animated, and who'd never seen a problem that couldn't be solved or got around. Today she looked beaten. She stared out over the heads of her communications specialists, as if her mind had drifted far beyond the confines of the meeting room.

"We're ready to begin moving out," she said. Teresa was a tiny woman, with dark eyes and a persona that radiated presence. She'd buried two husbands. Exhausted them, the joke was. "We're going to keep the commcenter running until midafternoon tomorrow. I'll need three people to help. Those who stay will be on the late flight out. They're saying it's safe, but who knows?" She gazed at them, lips parted as though she had more to say but was hesitating. Those with no families.

Tommy Chan signaled he would wait.

Those with no future.

Eleanor Kile. Eleanor was a spectacularly beautiful woman, the loveliest at Moonbase, Andrea thought, but one of those who seemed to frighten males off. All but the wrong types.

Anybody else? Teresa drew herself up a little straighter. "We need one more."

Andrea Bellwether was riffling mental files, studying the texture of the wall, thinking of all the people she'd like to see again. Parents, uncles, a niece.

What would Teresa do if no one came forward?

She looked at Chan, and at Kile. Well, hell, they'd have an hour start. Andrea caught Teresa's eye and nodded. She was rewarded with a glimmer of respect. Wrightsville, New Jersey. 2:11 P.M.

The Pine River Furniture Company convoy was finally under way. Archie would have preferred an earlier start, because he wanted to get around Philadelphia before the rush-hour traffic began. But they'd underestimated the complexity of loading the stock safely, and overestimated the ability of the temporary help to follow simple instructions. There were eighteen trucks, filled with executive desks and leather divans and carved swivel chairs. The company had assigned its entire fleet, fourteen dark blue vehicles with white piping, carrying the logo designed by the original Walter Harrison, depicting a debutante curled into an overstuffed armchair on a riverbank. Four other vehicles had been rented from Wrightstown U-Haul.

Archie rode in the lead truck. Claire Hasson, a company driver, was behind the wheel. In the side mirror, Archie could see the convoy stretching back around a curve. They were on Route 68, which would connect via I295 with the Pennsylvania Turnpike. They were headed for Carlisle and the Blue Mountains. Ridiculous, in Archie's mind. But, by God, it would take one very large tidal wave to sink them up there.

Carlisle hadn't been the first choice. But they'd been unable to find commercial accommodations anywhere in Pennsylvania's mountain country. After hours of fruitless calls, Walter had pulled strings with lodge brothers who'd agreed to take the drivers into their homes. Archie wondered what the boss had promised in return.

The lack of motel vacancies had served as a warning. Archie dispatched his family that morning in the Buick station wagon to stay with his wife's sister in Troy, New York. Susan didn't like being separated from him, although she too maintained that nothing was going to happen. But she became visibly worried when Archie reported that Harrison took it all very seriously. We'll be back here next week joking about it, they'd agreed. Then she'd gotten into the Buick with their teenage son and daughter, both of whom had objected loudly to the forced removal, and driven off.

The convoy was moving at a brisk pace along the four-lane road. Now and then, Archie saw other caravans. Macro Electronics. Sonya Precision Timepieces. SolarWorks Complete Auto Power Systems. Occasionally clusters of new cars with dealer plates sped past.

Being out on the highway, watching people heading west, undercut Archie's self-assurance even more. "What do you think?" asked Claire.

"It's crazy," he said. But he knew he was saying it because he was a boss and skepticism was expected from him. "This is just the chief playing it very safe."

"I'm glad to hear you say it."

"I don't think there's anything to worry about." And a minute later: "Where's your family?"

"Home. We thought about going to my sister's for a few days, but it means pulling the kids out of school, and Ed couldn't get the day off."

"Yeah. I know how it is."

And after another long silence: "But I'll be glad when we're through it, Archie. The stuff on the TV scares me."

His cell phone beeped. "Pickman," he said.

"Archie, this is Brad." Brad Cabry was a staff assistant, riding at the rear of the convoy. "I don't know whether you've been listening to the radio, but they're saying traffic's already heavy on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. More than rush hour. They're cautioning people to stay off."

Archie looked out at the long line of cars and trucks ahead. "Too late for us," he said. "We'll stick with Plan A. If it takes all night, it takes all night."

Claire nodded. "Absolutely," she said. "I can use the overtime."

Archie shifted his weight and tried to get comfortable. The truck felt as if it had a broken spring. "Has this damned thing been serviced?"

She reached into the glove box, pulled out the maintenance record, and handed it to him. He looked down at the numbers, but he had trouble focusing on them. Manhattan. 3:36 P.M.

Marilyn Keep had looked at the pictures of jammed expressways, had watched news commentators smile condescendingly at the people who were on the run, had seen Chicken Little cartoons on New York Online. Anybody who was trying to head upstate was being portrayed as an idiot. Well, to those who were stuck in the city, it was comforting.

She was back working on Shadow of the Betrayer when the phone rang. It was Larry: "What are we doing tomorrow, love?"

She looked away from her chart, which recorded every physical and psychological detail of each character from the novel, and frowned at the phone. "Watching the Moon get plunked, I guess," she said. "What did you have in mind?"

"Louise is throwing a comet party tomorrow night. She'd like us to come."

"It's kind of last-minute, isn't it?"

"Well, it's kind of a last-minute comet. I think it'll be a kick."

Louise was one of Larry's colleagues, an economist at Kraus amp; Cole. Marilyn had socialized with her on a few occasions. She was twice divorced, a woman who claimed to have thrown out both husbands, although Larry said it had been the other way around. She was the unofficial office social director, putting together pot luck lunches, bowling teams, and mass trips to dinner theaters. "Sure," she said. "Let's do it."

The world seemed to have returned almost to normal. Late-night comics were doing comet jokes, and a TV preacher had announced that Tomiko had been headed originally for Alabama until he'd prayed it away. Political pundits were analyzing its effect on the fall campaign. (Most thought it would hurt Haskell's chances, despite what they perceived as his adroit grandstanding, because of the national investment in Moonbase, which was now irrevocably lost.) The Yankees, who were at home this weekend against the Tigers, announced that if the Saturday night game had not yet been completed by ten thirty-five, the time of impact, they would call a delay to proceedings and put the celestial show on the replay screens. The Moon would be in the west, not visible to the fans other than those in the right-field seats. Some fans objected, and suggested that management could put the show on the screen, but that was no reason to hold up the game.

Marilyn's third-floor apartment looked out across Central Park. Everything seemed as it always did: A couple of kids were trying to fly a kite while their mothers looked on, joggers moved along the pathways, and the usual number of people occupied benches. Panhandlers were working pedestrians, and the streets were filled with taxis, buses, and delivery trucks. The schools were open, and Wal-Mart had announced a big comet sale. ("Get your tail down here while the savings last.")

Shadow of the Betrayer struck her as one of the less imaginative murder mysteries to arrive on her desk. The killer was transparently visible from about Chapter Three, and only marginally motivated. The red herrings were all quite plainly red herrings. The pacing was off, the characters were dull. The narrative had a breakneck quality out of keeping with what should have been an atmospheric mystery. The reader never had time to stop and think about implications. And the novelist himself seemed to have missed several opportunities to create real drama. It was as though he'd been double-parked.

Unable to concentrate, she opened the balcony door and stepped outside. It wasn't much of a balcony, just big enough to accommodate two chairs and a small table. She stood for a while, leaning against the concrete rail, watching three men move furniture from a rented truck into the apartment building next door. San Francisco. 1:20 P.M. Pacific Daylight Time (4:20 EDT).

Everybody in the third-floor office of Bennett amp; McGee was staring at the TV. It was a split screen. A map of the Bay Area filled one side, from Richmond in the north to Santa Clara and the Los Altos Hills in the south, from the Pacific over to I680, encompassing more than eleven hundred square kilometers. An image of the comet's head, somewhat longish and irregular, cratered and torn, occupied the other. One huge crater took up about a fifth of the comet's visible surface. While Jerry watched, the outline of the Bay Area was superimposed over the comet nucleus. Then it was reduced until San Francisco and environs fit neatly into the big crater. A legend blinked on at the bottom of the screen: ACTUAL SIZE.

In a voice-over, Senator Mark Caswell was speaking with PugetWeb anchor Jane McMurtrie.

"… impeachment," he was saying. "It's absolutely unthinkable that a president of the United States would downplay this kind of threat. I think you'll see an appropriate congressional response in the near future."

"But Senator," said McMurtrie, "isn't that really an idle threat? I mean, if there's substance to the charge that the information is vital to the nation's survival, the damage is pretty much done. The rocks will fall and there won't be a Congress Monday. If, on the other hand, he's simply trying to control the alarmists, which is to say, if nothing happens, what will the charge be? I mean, he'll have been right, won't he?"

"Not at all, Jane. We don't intend to let Mr. Kolladner play fast and loose with the safety of the people of this nation. And I can assure you that when this is over, there will be a Congress, and there will be a United States. And there'll be a reckoning."

Half the staff had called in sick. They'd had to man the trouble desk with people from the equity branch. Manny's Coffeehouse across the street, where Jerry usually stopped to have toast and read the Chronicle, had been closed this morning. A sign on the window read: BACK MONDAY.

Jerry and Marisa had spent the previous evening with friends, exchanging quips about people they knew who were leaving town. They'd laughed a lot, but the general uneasiness had been noticeable.

His division head was Leo Gold, who'd been with the firm when the wagon trains came west. Leo's hair was snow white, and he had a voice like an electric saw. He was a model-train enthusiast. He called Jerry into his office. "Can you work tomorrow?" he asked without preamble.

Tomorrow was Saturday. It was the Saturday before April 15, which was a busy time for accounting firms. But Bennett amp; McGee had always prided itself on its ability to get the job done without having to go into crash mode during the tax season. No one below the level of general manager had ever worked the Saturday before the tax deadline. It was a matter of pride.

"But not this year," explained Leo. "All these people taking off the last couple of days, Jerry. It's put us in a bind."

Ordinarily, Jerry wouldn't have thought twice. But he knew Marisa was nervous about the comet. There was a possibility she'd want to leave, get out of its way, and they wouldn't be able to do that if he were committed to coming into work. "I was planning on a weekend out of town," he said.

Leo pressed his lips together. "Jerry." He canted his head. "Jerry, you're not serious."

How can you be so naive, Jerry? "It's not the comet, Leo," Jerry hastened to explain. "This trip's been planned for several weeks. We're going to see my wife's sister Helen."

"Jerry, we're all going to be here Monday. San Francisco will be here. Bennett amp; McGee will be here. And I need not tell you what date Monday is."

April fifteenth. It occurred to Jerry that if the worst predictions played out, the last official act of the United States government might be its annual mugging of its citizens. "You have a bright future with the firm," Leo went on. "Don't jeopardize it over…" He seemed at a loss for words, and settled for drawing a circle in the air with his right index finger.

In the end Jerry agreed, not because he feared for his career. Rather, Leo's demeanor made him feel he had to prove he wasn't afraid of the comet.



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