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Micro Flight Deck. 7:33 P.M.

The microbus lifted off for its last scheduled flight precisely on time. Saber watched the moonscape fall away. Bigfoot's voice sounded in her earphones. "Saber, the director wants to talk to Tony."

"Wait one." Tony was on the circuit with the pilot of the SSTO. She got his attention. "Mr. Chandler," she said.

"For me?"

"Put him through," Saber told the microphone.

Tony signed off with the SSTO.

"Stand by," said Bigfoot.

A new voice, precise, measured, weary: "Tony Casaway?"

"This is Casaway."

"Tony, this is Jack Chandler. I wanted to thank you for what you're doing. We're grateful."

"We want to get everybody out, sir."

"Don't we all? But we appreciate it. And I have a request. There's a TV reporter here with us. Keith Morley. You'll be taking him off, too. He'll want you to patch him through to his groundside relay."

"You want me to comply?"

"Yes. Please. Give him what he wants."

"Yes, sir. Will do."

"Good. It's a pleasure to have talked with you, Tony. Good luck."

Saber noticed no one had thanked her.

She looked down at the lunar surface.

"Looks as if we're moving up in the world," said Tony.

"Yeah. Well, you pull the right people out of the fire, it can do wonders for a career."

He looked at her as if she'd gone over a line.

"Hard to believe," she said.

"What's that?"

She pointed down. The entire bulk of the Moon lay between the comet impact site at Mare Muscoviense, in the northern hemisphere of Farside, and Moonbase. "With all that rock shielding it, you'd think Moonbase would be safe."

There were nine people in the passenger cabin, operational types and technicians, the people who maintained the power systems, the commcenter, and life support. And a couple of Bigfoot's technicians. They were the last group the Micro would deliver to the orbiting SSTO. Two more moonbuses would follow, and it would be over.

Except for the Micro's last run.

Saber was charged with monitoring inputs from ship's systems during launch, but she always made time to watch the moonscape. She loved these altitudes and this place, remote and stark, illuminated by the blue-white Earth. A casual visitor, gazing down into the 117-kilometer-wide crater, would not have noticed that women and men had walked there, had built there. For a range of practical reasons, Moonbase was buried. It would have taken a sharp eye from an altitude as close as a thousand meters to observe the antennas and the solar cells and the monorail. She preferred to believe, however, that it was not practicality that concealed Moonbase, but a sense of the fragile beauty of this world and a reluctance to repeat the old errors.

Not that it mattered now. The comet's glow pushed up past the horizon in three directions, signaling the approach of the monster. It was as if a gigantic sun was rising everywhere. The definition of distant peaks and crater walls had been sharpened. Beyond the western ringwall of Alphonsus, the black regolith of Mare Nubium, the Sea of Clouds, curved into the glare.

"Look at this," said Tony, switching on a computer simulation. A dime-sized disk and a tiny crescent, representing Earth and Moon, floated inside a white cone. The comet's tail.

"You'd think we'd be able to see it out here," said Saber. But the sky was black as ever. Only Earth seemed different. She wasn't sure, but it looked dimmer than usual, as if the sunlight were being turned aside.

"They're estimating the length of the tail," said Tony, "at seventy million kilometers. It goes all the way out to the orbit of Mars."

And it's the next thing to a vacuum, she thought.

As the Micro continued to rise into the lunar night, the summer-colored comet rose with them, and its light enfolded the Moon. Saber listened to the passengers react as they watched from their viewports.

She sensed that Tony's adrenalin was pumping constantly now. He actually seemed to be enjoying himself.

"Tony," she said, "do you think we can actually pull this off?"

He gave her a thumbs-up. "Sure," he said. "It'll be close, but we'll do it." He switched the comet display off the main screen. "Chandler says Keith Morley'll be with them. Broadcasting live from the Micro." He laughed. "We're going to be famous, Saber."

"As long as we're not dead."

He caught the tone in her voice. "Hey," he said, "Alisa. We'll be fine." Tony rarely used her given name. Only when he was striving for intimacy. In this case, to allow him to reassure her. "Bigfoot thinks we can do it."

"Bigfoot thinks he's throwing his life away."

Tony's expression darkened. He was usually amiable, but this was serious stuff. "That's not true."

"Of course it's true."

"He agreed to stay. Nobody held a gun to his head."

"Look, Tony. He was responsible for the screwup that put us in this position. What did you expect him to say when you told him you needed a volunteer?"

She knew that hurt him, but it was true. He denied it, of course. "Bigfoot wouldn't stay if he didn't think we could do it." He glared at her. "Goddammit, Saber, don't come if you don't think we can make this work. I can manage alone if I have to."

She looked at him a long time. "Tony, do you know you never asked me whether I wanted to do this?"

He paled, and she could see him thinking back, replaying the conversations. "Sure I did," he said. And then: "I'm sorry. I just assumed…"

In fact, left to her own devices, she did not believe she would have been willing to make the attempt. She liked living, and she didn't think much of the odds on this one. It wasn't as if a rescue effort was mandatory. You did what was possible. But nobody should be asked to throw her life away for no good reason.

So she was tempted to take him up on his offer. Let him try it alone. "You assume a lot, Tony. It would have been nice to ask."

He went into a brief pout. "I'm sorry. I thought you'd want to do it."

"Look, don't try to pile a lot of guilt on me. I'll go." And that quickly, with almost no thought, the decision was made. "But next time, I want to be asked. Up front."

"Okay," he said. "I apologize. But I wasn't trying to make you feel guilty."

"Forget it." Dammit. Never take an assignment with a hero. Moonbase Spaceport. 8:21 P.M.

The last three flights had gone out within fifty minutes of one another. Bigfoot stayed on the radio, talking to the pilots until they'd ridden their beacons into orbit. Then he handed them over to Arlington, pushed back in his chair, and looked around the operations center. In all that vast complex of workstations, boarding areas, launchpads, supply rooms, and communications gear, he was alone. Most of the lights were already off. The overhead doors to Bay Four were still open. Somewhere a steam fitting hissed.

Bigfoot had grown up in a blue collar family that had never been able to get into the black until he'd signed with the Packers. He understood what it meant to live from payday to payday, and he'd consequently learned not to waste things. Put as much on your plate as you want, but don't take anything you're not going to eat. When his injury in that first game had ended his career, he'd gone to work for the FAA, done a stint as an airline safety inspector, another as a controller, and demonstrated a capability to lead. People instinctively trusted him.

He felt he'd always deserved their trust. Until the incident with the microbus.

Considering the design of the valves, it had been an accident waiting to happen. It was just terrible luck that it occurred when it did. But it had been his responsibility.

The dinner would be over by now, but he supposed they were still up there, commiserating with each other on their mutual misfortune, trying not to think too much about what was coming. The fact that the vice president was supposed to attend, and that ordinarily Bigfoot would kill to eat with the number-two guy in the country, didn't change the fact that all these people expected to die. That was a social event he just didn't want to attend. Still, they'd invited him.

He closed the overhead doors to Bay Four and repressurized. That was where he'd receive the Micro when it came. But that was more than an hour and a half away, and the pumps would freeze if he didn't seal up. He tried to think what else needed to be done. But there wasn't much to do in advance that he hadn't already taken care of. There'd be no checkoff procedure this time. It'd be just refuel, board the passengers, and get the hell out.

Several of the monitors carried a computer simulation of the comet. He walked through the center, shutting them down, or if they were units he'd need later, switching to a different display. He decided the Spaceport was too quiet.

He tied in his phone to the radio so the pilots could reach him if necessary. Then he summoned the tram and rode it over to the Main Plaza, and took the elevator up to the administrative offices. Skyport Orbital Lab. 8:44 P.M.

"I'm not going," said Tory. "And that's all there is to it."

Windy pressed his fingers against his forehead and made noises like a man with a migraine. "You are directed to leave," he said. "It's not my call, so it's not debatable. Your flight goes out at-" he glanced down at the piece of paper on his desk. "At nine-twelve. Be on it."

Tory folded her arms. "Windy, the biggest astronomical event in human history, by a wide margin, is about to occur and you are ordering me away from my post."

"Let me try again, Tory. It is not my order."

"Whoever's. But I'm not going to be sitting in a cloud bank at ten thirty-five wondering what's happening. You understand? I'm not going to do it."

"You don't have a choice."

"When did that happen?"

"Look, Tory, why do you think they're evacuating this place? It's not going to be safe here for the next few days. For God's sake, catch your plane and watch everything on the inflight. What's the big deal?"

"Windy, please. I want to be here tonight. You owe me that."

"I don't owe you anything, Tory."

"Yeah you do. I've worked hard up here for two years and never asked for anything. Tonight I'm asking-"

"You're not listening to me. If the decision were mine to make, there'd be no problem. But it isn't."

They'd been evacuating Skyport all day. But it wasn't going to be a complete stand-down like L1. So-called essential operating personnel were remaining on board to keep the station running and to service the remaining SSTOs that would be coming in from Moonbase.

"How about telling them you need help?"

"Tory, the discussion's over."

"You do, you know. This place is going to be the center of the action for the next couple of days. Can't anyone see that?" The Orbital Lab controlled six satellite telescopes, as well as the automated observatory on Farside. The observatory was going to get bombed. But the others would become the early warning system for large pieces of debris headed, say, for Atlanta. "Things could get sticky here if the rocks come this way. And you'll be sitting here alone."

Winfield Cross was career Smithsonian, nominally a superstring specialist, but really more bureaucrat than astronomer. He'd stuck by the right boss at the right time and he'd been rewarded with a top job. He was okay, inclined to stay out of the way and give the technicians their head. All he really asked was that they keep him out of trouble. But he wasn't the man to butt heads for you. "I agree with everything you're saying, Tory. But it doesn't really matter. They want you out." He turned away from her.

"Off the record-" she said.

"There's no 'off the record.'"

"Off the record, what would happen if I didn't show up at flight time?"

"It'd serve you right to get your silly ass hung out to dry. But I'll tell you this: I'm responsible for the safety of my people. You will be at the gate at departure time, or you'll face disciplinary action."

"Windy, aren't you overreacting a little?"

"I don't think so. You're not the first person in here today talking like this. I'm logging the incident, and I'm warning you: Don't give me trouble."

Tory loved her job and had no wish to put a dagger into her career. Furthermore, she was by nature compliant. All her life she'd respected authority (within reason, of course), tried to stay out of trouble, and been a good soldier. So she considered her response very carefully. "No," she said.

"I beg your pardon."

"I'm not going home. At least not tonight."

Windy removed his glasses and laid them on his desk. "I can have you put on board."

"Why don't you leave it alone? If you want my job afterward, you can have it. I'll tell anyone who asks that this conversation never happened, that you had no way of knowing I'd stay behind. Windy, there's never been anything like this in the whole history of the species. I am not going to sit in the forward compartment of an SSTO tonight watching in-flight telecasts."