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2.


SSTO Arlington Passenger Cabin. 10:57 P.M.

Andrea Bellwether had relaxed somewhat after those early terrifying minutes. She'd been literally paralyzed by fear, unable to stop imagining what it would be like if one of the rocks struck the plane, splitting it open and dumping her and her seat into the void. She'd never thought of herself as a coward. There'd been times during her life when she'd stood up to be counted, when she'd confronted bullies, and even once a mob when an IRA demonstration had turned ugly in London. But this was different, and she was left weak and shaken in the aftermath.

If the fire had not entirely drained from the sky, at least it seemed to have subsided, and the constant hammering and banging on the hull had stopped. Periodically the captain spoke to them, reassuring them. Just now she needed to be treated like a child. Pat me on the head and tell me it's okay. Skyport Orbital Lab. 10:59 P.M.

Tory Clark was connected to a vast array of instruments in space and around the world, and data were pouring in. Windy Cross had gotten so excited, he'd forgotten his outrage at her. They were getting magnificent images, and the circuits were filled with excited voices. Infrared scans had penetrated the fireball. As predicted, the impact had shattered the Moon, had literally broken it apart. Pieces the size of Texas had torn loose and were adrift. It was too soon to ascertain where they were going, but theory suggested most of the debris would spread out at about the present lunar radius, with most of it remaining along the orbital line.

Some had argued that even if the comet did break up the Moon, gravity would soon draw the sphere back together. Looking at the images, Tory didn't think that was going to happen. Not now, and probably not in the foreseeable future.

At this point, one thing seemed certain: The world had received a scare, an object lesson far more impressive than the one Shoemaker-Levy 9 had delivered thirty years ago. Maybe Skybolt, which would be able to defend the planet with an array of chemical oxygen iodine lasers, would now become a popular cause. Moreover, Tomiko had demonstrated that we could not rely on having a year or two to get ready for an impact.

It struck her that losing the Moon might not be a bad trade-off if we got lucky and the Earth escaped without serious damage, provided we applied the lessons. Provided we made preparations for the next time.

Her displays carried images of the boiling cloud from several of the orbiters, from Mount Palomar, from Whipple and Kitt Peak.

One of her telltales began to blink furiously.

"POSIM-1," said Windy.

POSIM was Possible Impactor, the agreed term assigned to objects that might strike Earth. The determination that an object was potentially hazardous was made after evaluating approach angle, size, estimated mass, and velocity.

Tory tagged it for the Houston threat assessment unit. Houston might request more imaging, infrared, whatever; they might dismiss it as a nonthreat; or they might confirm and send out a warning to the good people of Tuscaloosa to clear out of town. It was going to be a nerve-wracking process because nobody knew in advance how fast the fragments would be coming, how many there might be, what would disintegrate and what wouldn't.

POSIM-1 was sixty meters in diameter, approaching at 180 kilometers per second. The front of the blast wave was just now approaching, and they were seeing mostly pebbles, gas, and dust. And a few rocks. POSIM-1 was the exception. Its trajectory would take it into the atmosphere at a wide angle, subjecting it to almost maximum friction before it hit ground. If it hit ground.

Tory watched a confusion of blips spreading across the displays. She wondered whether the instruments would be able to sort out the big rocks from the assorted rubble.

Houston responded to the hit: POSIM-1 would come to ground in the interior of South America, in the Gran Chaco Region. But not enough of it would remain to do serious damage, other than maybe scare a few cattle. Disregard.

POSIM-2 was slightly smaller, but on a tighter angle. Into the Pacific. Again, not big enough to do any damage.

At Zelenchukskaya, in the Caucasus, they were following the action. Someone, apparently annoyed that Skybolt had never been built, suggested sending the politicians up to beat the POSIMs off with sticks.

Radar put one fragment at a diameter of two hundred meters. But it did not get a POSIM listing because it was going to sail past the planet altogether and go into solar orbit.

The common wisdom was that the big stuff, if any was en route, would be moving more slowly and would therefore arrive later.

There had been speculation that nuclear missiles were being readied, but Tory knew there was no time for targeting. It was all happening too fast. They were just going to have to sit back and let events take their course.

The alarm sounded again.

"POSIM-3," said Windy. Point Judith, Rhode Island. 11:26 P.M.

Luke Peterson had followed the reports coming in from the moon ships and around the globe. He'd felt a wave of regret when they lost contact with the vice president's party, and again later when the space plane had disappeared.

Transglobal's Bruce Kendrick had explained on both occasions that the LTA and NASA were still optimistic, and believed the problems resulted from the communications breakdowns one would expect under these conditions. Luke stayed with them for another half hour or so, but there was no more word on Haskell or the missing plane. When they started interviewing another astronomer about comets, he shut off the TV, made a rum and Coke, and walked out onto his front porch.

The Moon, or the object that had been the Moon, was visible up over the trees on the west side of the house. It looked like a bilious, red-flecked cloud, and it cast a sanguine light across his garage and driveway. His gray coupe, parked in front, had acquired a bloody hue that chilled him.

Beyond the dunes, the Atlantic lay quiet in a rising tide. Lights moved in the channel. A destroyer, possibly. Headquarters for the Atlantic Destroyer Fleet was located at Newport, as it had been as far back as Luke could remember, and the ships often made training runs out to Block Island.

A buoy clanged.

He and Ann had spent numberless evenings out here in the early years of their marriage. It was easy to imagine her spirit still hovering over the place, whispering to him in the running of the tide. She'd grown up in Woonsocket, an old mill town, and when he'd brought her to Point Judith, it was as if she'd arrived in India. You're more interested in the ocean that you are in me, he'd told her. And she'd laughed and thought about it. It's all the same, she'd said. I can't imagine you anywhere else.

Nor I, you.

The phone rang. But he wasn't in a mood to talk to anyone at the moment. He listened until it stopped, and then he listened to the voices, his on the recorder, and Del Clendennon's on the phone, asking him to call when he had a minute. That would be about the Wednesday night poker session. On or off? Probably on. They'd all be back in town by then.

The destroyer's lights were far out. If Luke had been watching closely, he might have noticed that they'd begun to rise, and kept rising. But he was looking at them a moment later when they abruptly went out, as if something had passed between them and the shore.

The telephone began to ring again. Carlisle, Pennsylvania. 11:28 P.M.

Rain continued to fall, and the night remained overcast. Archie, who'd wanted to watch the show in the sky, was disappointed. He went out onto the deck and stared up at clouds and frequent lightning.

A stone mansion with turrets stood across the street wrapped in the dark. Lights blazed in the lower windows, and the turrets leaped into view with each lightning flash.

In the living room, the Esterhazys were watching a police show. He stayed outside and settled down to listen to the storm. After a while the front door opened and Claire joined him.

"Looks like the trip was pointless," she observed.

"Why do you say that?"

She shrugged. It seemed like such an ordinary night. "It's been an hour," she said. "Nothing's going to happen in Jersey."

"Yeah. Well, good." He did feel better, under the clouds.

She sat down in a rocker. "I can't imagine a piece of the Moon falling on anybody. Although I wouldn't mind if a chunk of it came through the ceiling in there and conked the Esterhazys."

Archie nodded. "I was thinking about trying to find a motel tomorrow. I can't stand another night with these people." Idly they watched a van drive down the street and pass in front of the house.

"If nothing's happened by tomorrow, we ought to be able to go back, shouldn't we?"

Before he could answer, her eyes widened and she looked up past his shoulder. He turned to see what had caught her attention. The dark skies were flickering, not in the rhythmic way that suggested more lightning, but in spasms. Abruptly a fireball streaked out of the overcast skies, came in over the trees, and plowed directly into the stone house. Archie was blown out of his chair. The world exploded around him, something knocked the wind out of him, and he went down in a fetal position listening to the roar go on and on. Small fires were burning everywhere, the deck had collapsed, and the van lay on its side in flames.

Slowly he got to his hands and knees. At that moment, he felt no pain, although his left shoulder had gone numb.

He didn't see Claire anywhere. The front door jerked open and Jeff Esterhazys head popped out. He delivered a string of expletives, the only profanities Archie had heard from him. The mansion, its lawn, the iron fence that lined the front walk, and the street with its elms, had disappeared into a hole. A plume of black smoke rose over the scene. The van exploded, sending fire cartwheeling into the trees.

"What happened?" demanded Esterhazy in a tone that suggested Archie was responsible.

"Don't know," he said.

The front window was blown in. Inside, he heard Mariel: "Don't touch her," and "Are you okay, Claire?"

A second fireball floated down out of the clouds, lit up the entire landscape for miles, and landed out to the east somewhere with a distant whump. More flames leaped into the sky.

"My God." Esterhazy stepped through the door, let it close behind him, and walked to the edge of the porch. "Look what it's done to the property."

Archie never heard the third one come in.

• • • Point Judith, Rhode Island. 11:30 P.M.

Luke could not account for the sudden uneasiness that settled over the house. It might have been the sense that he was alone, or virtually alone, in town. It might have been the accumulated drama of the evening's events, his concern for the people in the moon ships. It might have been an intensified perception of the sea that crouched only eighty yards from his front door.

The TV was muttering quietly in the living room. Luke had turned it back on and was looking for another snack, planning to stay up late and watch the news reports, knowing he wouldn't sleep no matter what. He'd just put on a fresh pot of coffee when he became aware of a new sound.

He listened, not able to place it, and went back out onto the front porch. The tide had gone out, and that was strange because it was supposed to be coming in. It was so far out that the water line was in darkness.

My God.

He hurried inside, grabbed his keys off the bookcase, thought about what else he should try to salvage, decided there was no time (although he sensed a degree of safety within the house), and sprinted for the car. The engine roared into life on the first try. He threw a U-turn and took off north on 108, past the beaches.

He floored the pedal, wondering how he could have been so complacent, so dumb. His rearview mirror showed neither stars nor sky. It was black back there, and the darkness moved.

He was past eighty-five, faster than he thought the car would go, when it caught him.



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