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WILL WE LOSE HIM?


Luke liked Charlie Haskell. Like most Americans, he instinctively distrusted politicians, but he thought Haskell might be an exception. Luke's friends laughed when he said that. No such thing as an honest politician, they maintained.

But he'd decided that, if Haskell got the nomination, he'd vote for him. Luke didn't have the energy to try to sort out the issues. Both sides seemed reasonable when they presented their arguments for reducing the debt or handling the influx of immigrants or dealing with nanotech. Hell,

Luke didn't really understand what nanotech was. So his philosophy was to do the next best thing: find a candidate who seemed honest and put him in charge and hope for the best. His son Christopher liked to say that the country wasn't governable anyhow. Problems were too big, too intractable. The nation was too deep in debt. The borders were a joke. Every now and then some terrorist group took out a thousand people with nerve gas. Meantime, everybody who was out of power leveled all kinds of personal attacks against the people who were in power. Maybe Chris was right. Maybe even Andy Culpepper couldn't have dealt with things anymore.

Maybe the comet was a sign. Skyport Terminal. 9:12 P.M.

Tory Clark's flight left without her. It carried two hundred twenty-two passengers and a crew of fifteen. Prior to departure her phone bleeped for several minutes. She ignored it. SSTO Arlington Flight Deck. 9:25 P.M.

Their window was coming up. George watched anxiously while the last of the moonbuses arced in to dock.

They were down to four minutes before he had to lift out of orbit. Or forget about getting clear.

He listened to the rattle of conversation between Mary and the bus pilot, which seemed to go on interminably. Finally he broke in with a sharp warning and she acknowledged. He debated whether the clamps would hold if he tried to accelerate out while the bus was still attached. It wasn't something he wanted to try.

Listening over Mary's cell phone, he heard the inner hatch open, heard voices, gotta move, hurry up now, let's go let's go.

The comet was as big as the Earth, visibly inching forward. "Let me know as soon as they're aboard, Mary."

There were nineteen people on this one, including the two bus pilots. Full load.

He could hear Mary's voice counting heads as they came through. Fourteen, fifteen…

"We're down to two minutes, babe. Hurry it along." He switched to the public address system and warned the passengers to buckle in. "Departure is imminent," he said.

"Arlington." One of the moonbus pilots this time.

"Go ahead."

"Not set up yet for auto."

The plan was to let the autopilot ease the moonbus clear of the SSTO, which didn't have much flexibility for maneuver. "Forget it and get over here," said George. "Or we're leaving without you." He leaned back and looked at Curt. The port wing might clip the bus on the way out.

"I'll have a solution in a minute," Curt said. He worked over his console.

The comet was sinking. Not good.

"Nineteen," said Mary. "All accounted for."

"Get everybody buckled in. And stand by to jettison the bus."

She repeated the order and waited.

Curt's numbers flowed across George's display. "Ready to go," the flight engineer said.

"Cut it loose," said George. His control board winked.

"Bus away."

George applied Curt's solution and the SSTO wheeled to starboard and began to climb.

"Bus clear," said Curt. "Return to base course. Go for the window."

George went to full thrust and the space plane rose swiftly out of orbit.

• • • Micro. 9:26 P.M.

Tony and Saber, descending toward Alphonsus, overheard most of the conversation between Arlington and the bus. Saber thought she saw a brief flicker of light against the velvet sky, a flicker that might have been Arlington starting for home.

They were now alone with the monster.



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