White House. 1:15 A.M.
The president had been at a party at the Polish embassy when Haskell's message reached him: UNABLE COMPLY YOUR LAST. HAVE TO LOCK UP.
Henry read it several times. Damned fool.
The Iraqi ambassador, standing beside him, asked what was wrong.
"Nothing of significance, Oman," he said, sliding the paper into a pocket.
People had talked about Senator Butler's latest gaffe (calling the voters "morons" without realizing the mike was hot), the ongoing food fight between two of Washington's top journalists which had nothing to do with politics and everything to do with a fashion model, and the discovery that a respected late-night political commentator had been buying child pornography. But Henry could not stop thinking about his beleaguered vice president.
At around three, back at the White House, he called Kerr aside and showed him the news. "This is Hailey's idea," said Kerr. "They want more drama. They want you to go on TV and tell him to quit monkeying around and get on the plane."
"That's what I thought at first, Al. But he knows I can't do that. They've admitted they can't get everybody out and they're starting to release names of people who're staying behind. How will it look if I demand they send him back, and then we find out that a father with three kids had to stay instead? No. The damned fool had to get out before all this became public information. It's too late now." He shook his head. "You've got to admire him. I guess it's that goddam Teddy Roosevelt schtick." Ephrata, Pennsylvania. 1:50 A.M.
Claire was asleep in the cab of the Pine River Furniture truck. They'd stopped in the parking lot of the Old Rock Bank on Route 322. The rest of the convoy was God knew where because the phone system was overwhelmed and Archie couldn't patch through to anybody. Moreover, the truck's power cells had begun to weaken. Lines at the charge stations were a mile long, so they'd given up and pulled over to wait for morning. Weather permitting, the sun would recharge their cells.
The sky was lost in the glare of security lights. The rain had finally stopped, but the night was still damp.
The parking lot was small, with a chain drawn around its perimeter. A sign proclaimed: PARKING FOR BANK PATRONS ONLY. VIOLATORS WILL BE TOWED. They were sharing space with a half-dozen other vehicles. There was still occasional traffic, but the general crush had dissipated.
Archie admired Claire's ability to sleep in the truck cab. He'd tried every position he could, but he was still uncomfortable, dead tired, and wide awake. At no time during the entire exercise had the threat from tidal waves seemed more unreal.
The cell phone chimed.
Archie fumbled for it, trying to remember which pocket he'd put it in. "Hello?"
"Archie?" Susan's voice, obviously relieved.
"Hello, love. Are you okay?"
"I'm fine. I'm at Helen's. But it's been a nightmare. I've never seen anything like this. I've been trying to call all night. Couldn't get through."
"I know. I'm glad you're off the road."
"Archie, the expressway was terrible. It was bumper-to-bumper all the way from South Jersey. Where are you? Are you in Carlisle?"
"No. Traffic's been bad here too. But we're okay. We're parked for the night. The road looks pretty clear now. If it stays that way we'll be in Carlisle by noon."
"All right, champ. Be careful." SSTO Arlington Flight Deck. 5:50 A.M.
George brought the big spacecraft into lunar orbit precisely on schedule. He was three thousand kilometers above the surface, and it was a good feeling, watching the moonscape turn beneath him, watching Earth disappear beneath the horizon. For the first time in his life, he was out of sight of the home world.
And the comet looked very close.
Twenty minutes later, a moonbus arrived alongside, and his first passengers began to file aboard.