Moonbase, Director's Dining Room. 9:27 P.M.
It was winding down. Jack Chandler felt a wave of regret when Bigfoot, after glancing several times at his watch, excused himself, explaining that he really shouldn't be here, that he should be at his station in case something went wrong.
What could go wrong? Chandler asked, but did not listen to the answer.
"We should probably all go," said Evelyn a moment later. "This isn't a good time to be late."
The others nodded, glanced at their watches, drained their glasses.
"Good luck," said Haskell, so low that the words were barely discernible.
Morley looked at the vice president and pointed to his throat mike. Haskell glanced at Evelyn, who shrugged. The vice president nodded and Morley withdrew to the far end of the room, took his microcam from his pocket and set it on the table. He aimed it at himself and began to speak into the mike. Chandler couldn't make out what he was saying.
The chaplain looked over at him and smiled encouragement. We're going to be okay, Jack.
"I know," said Chandler aloud.
He hadn't yet made up his mind what he was going to do. Or maybe he had, in some inner recess where no light lived.
And maybe that was why his heart pounded so fiercely, he thought the others must hear it.
"You okay, Jack?" asked Haskell. He was frowning.
"I'm fine. It's an emotional moment," he admitted.
They filed from the dining room into the adjoining passage, took the elevator, descended to ground level, and emerged through the front doors. It was, of course, night in Main Plaza. Post lamps provided pools of light, illuminating benches and shop fronts and walkways. It was a scene of almost painful tranquillity.
Chandler paused near an azalea bush. "Something I forgot," he told Evelyn. "Family pictures. I'll meet you at the Spaceport."
"Okay," she said. "But hurry it along, Jack."
"No, no. You go with the others. I'll be right over." He felt his face growing warm.
She looked at him for a long moment. The others were walking toward the tram station. Their leisurely demeanor had been replaced by something more precipitate. "Make it quick, Jack. Okay?"
He nodded, turned away, and descended the ramp to level three, where he walked back to his quarters in McNair Country, an area reserved for Moonbase managers.
His footsteps echoed through the empty corridors. He seemed preternaturally aware of the texture of the walls and the geometry of the passageways. There was a sense the place was alive, as if everything that had ever happened here had somehow been captured and stored.
He found his room, inserted his keycard, and opened up. When he'd left it to go to the dinner, he hadn't known whether he would return or not. Even now he wasn't sure about his intentions. But he was sure he did not want to go back groundside, back to the crushing weight in his chest, back to the constant fear he took to bed every night that he would not wake up in the morning.
He could probably arrange to live at Skyport, but there was no job for him there. He'd be a hanger-on, a pathetic former paper shuffler, sucking up space and resources. And zero gravity would only mean further decay anyway. No. What he needed was a clean end. Cut it off and be done with it. Moonbase Tram Station. 9:32 P.M.
The tram was waiting.
They climbed on board, Evelyn and Charlie, the chaplain and Morley. Morley asked if he could interview the vice president when they arrived at the Spaceport. Just get his reactions, very casual, very quick. Charlie knew that Rick would never agree to such an arrangement without preparation, fearing Charlie would say the wrong thing, admit to fear, express indecision, say something that would be used against him later. So he readily acceded. Then he sat back to take his last look at the interior of Moonbase. Beside him, Pinnacle looked distracted.
"You okay, Chaplain?" Charlie asked.
"Yes." His eyes seemed far away. "You're very fortunate, Mr. Vice President. However things go, you've accomplished a lot with your life."
Charlie thought about that as the vehicle drew away from the station. It navigated Main Plaza, penetrated copses and gardens, passed along rows of darkened shops that looked as if they'd been empty a long time. The smell of freshly cut green grass was in the air.
"I'm not so sure," Charlie said. "I'll admit I've done better than I would have ever thought possible. But it's all position. I don't know that I've ever actually accomplished anything." There were probably a lot of people out there who remembered the chaplain fondly for one reason or another. But whose life was better because Charlie Haskell had lived? "What would you change about your life?" he asked suddenly. "What would you do differently?"
The chaplain thought about it. "Veronica," he said.
"Veronica?" Charlie had expected an answer couched in piety, a failure perhaps to be sufficiently charitable. Not something as mundane as a woman's name. "An old girlfriend?"
"No. To my everlasting shame." Pinnacle smiled shyly. "I conceived something of a passion for Veronica years ago. When I was nineteen. I seem to harbor it still."
"Not much. We dated a few times. Over a period of three months. She lost interest."
"Oh." Charlie looked past the chaplain's shoulder at a cluster of elms. "It must have been a pretty strong passion to survive for so many years. What happened to her?"
He shrugged. "I took her at her word and never went back."
Pinnacle chuckled and shook his head. "Pride's a deadly thing, isn't it? The most destructive of the vices, I think."
They rolled through manicured parks and clicked into stations where no one waited. Eventually the greenery dropped away. They passed out of Main Plaza, crossed a bridge over an excavation that would have become the operating area for the Mining and Industrial Department. Then they slipped into a tunnel. The tram grew dark and lights came on. They were climbing now.
"What about you?" the chaplain asked. "What would you change?"
Charlie considered the question. "I'd like to have had a couple of kids."
"Are you married?"
"No," said Charlie. "I never got around to it."
"Things undone," said the chaplain.
"Regrets always involve things undone. Never stuff we did that we shouldn't have. Always opportunities missed."
"Yeah," said Charlie. "I think that's probably true."
"Mr. Vice President, if we get clear of this, I think I'll be a different man."
"We better hide the women," smiled Charlie.
But the chaplain said nothing more.
The mood had grown sober. After a while the tram began to slow down. Its automated voice warned them to exercise caution, that a curve was coming. Minutes later they emerged into the terminal. Before the vehicle stopped, Morley got up and twisted round to face everyone. "What I'd like to do when we arrive," he said, "is to get off and set up. And I'd like to send you guys and the tram back into the tunnel. Just for a minute. Then I'll bring you out again so I can get pictures of the arrival."
Charlie started to protest but Evelyn squeezed his arm. "Go along with it," she said. "He deserves some pictures."
"If we get caught," said Charlie, "people will accuse me of staging shots."
"Nobody'll ever know," said Morley as they arrived in the station.
"Do we know how to back up the tram?" asked the chaplain.
Morley had done his homework. He went to a control box, opened it, and smiled at them.