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TRANSGLOBAL SPECIAL REPORT. 3:53 A.M.


"This is Keith Morley on board the vice president's moonbus. Just minutes ago, Vice President Haskell successfully concluded an incredible rescue effort outside the ship" Micro Passenger Cabin, 4:07 A.M.

"Yes, Al, what is it?"

"Are you all right, Charlie?"

"I'm fine." That was hardly true, but considering the condition he might have been in, he was doing damned well. "I understand things are not so good at your end."

"Yes. Miami Beach, New Orleans, completely destroyed. Eastern seaboard hit from Maine to the Florida Keys. Not as hard. Not total. But it's-" His voice broke and he began to sob softly. Al Kerr.

Evelyn was climbing down from the flight deck, where she'd been in radio contact with Saber. She nodded and elaborately removed her oxygen mask.

"They're estimating tens of thousands of casualties," Kerr continued in a voice only slightly less shaky. "But God knows what the count really is."

Charlie's eyes squeezed shut. He thought of his own father and cousins, living at the Cape.

"It's a goddammed disaster, Charlie. I don't think any of us had any idea-"

"Okay." Charlie was trying to absorb what Kerr was telling him.

"Something else. I don't know whether you've heard or not, but the other plane is missing. Maybe it's just a radio failure. I know they lost contact with you for a couple of hours, too."

"The other plane? The one Rick's on?"

"That's what they're telling us. I don't think they're hopeful. I'm sorry." There was a long pause. "Charlie, right now it looks as if there'll be a million dead before this is over. The president would have talked to you himself, except that he's buried right now. You understand."

Buried.

"Charlie, you should be aware there's some doubt here whether the country can survive this."

"Yeah," he said. "I can see where there might be."

"Henry wants you to put the best possible face on things. Stay upbeat. I mean, you're our point man on this. You've been there."

"Al, you sound like Rick."

"Yeah. I guess in the end we all end up sounding like Rick. Listen, what were you doing outside the ship? Isn't that dangerous?"

"It's a bus."

"Whatever."

"I was trying to get a hatch open."

"Okay. Don't do it any more, okay? Meantime, we'll get out a press release. Haskell Takes Charge, right?"

"Let it go," said Charlie.

"Charlie, I think the president will insist. Listen, we need all the PR we can get."

Charlie didn't particularly like the president. But he knew that Henry took the job seriously, and had to be suffering all the torments of hell now. He wasn't a man to write off losses, to recognize that there were some situations in which you simply acted the best you could and hoped for the best. Charlie knew that Henry would be blaming himself. He could almost hear the president's explanation: Charlie, we should have started the evacuations right away. We were too worried about what we'd feed them away from their homes. We were worried about traffic jams, for God's sake. So they'd guessed wrong and a lot of people had died.

But Charlie knew that if he'd been there, he'd have found no fault with the course of action. He'd have gone along, thinking they were doing the right thing.

For a few moments, the responsibility of the office touched him. He wondered now for the first time during his political career whether he really wanted to become president of the United States. Suddenly it was a dark and fearsome vision.

When he got home and things settled down, he'd rethink things. Maybe withdraw his candidacy. It wasn't really that he was frightened of the office, but he needed to recognize his own limitations. The next president was going to be facing a wrecked nation. The simple truth was that they'd need someone better than Charlie Haskell. Charlie might have been okay for good times; but the United States had been plunged into a monumental disaster. The nation needed a Lincoln. Or a Teddy Roosevelt.

Where in hell were they going to find one?

Immediately after Kerr got off the phone, Saber reappeared at the airlock. She looked pleased with herself, and Charlie was happy for her. "You can't beat duct tape," she announced. And then she looked at Charlie, strapped down, his seat lowered. "You don't look so good." She wanted to give him something to help him sleep, but Charlie refused. Not tonight, of all nights. As if he could do something to help.

"How bad do I look?" he asked Evelyn after Saber had gone back to the flight deck.

"As if you've been in a fight. And lost." She held up a mirror: His face was bruised and he had two black eyes.

"A lot of people dead tonight," he said.

She nodded. "We heard."

He hovered between exhaustion and horror.

And there was more bad news. Saber called Evelyn up to the flight deck. When she came back she said they'd received word that communication had never been restored with the early flight. It was presumed lost with a hundred and one passengers and three crew.

They were all thinking about it, running the names of friends and colleagues, trying to recall who had been scheduled on which flight.

One hundred four people. It was minuscule compared to the vast numbers who had died on the ground. But it personalized the losses. Rick and Sam and God knew who else and a million others.

It was the darkest night in human memory. Manhattan. 4:01 A.M.

Larry stood by Marilyn's side, peering out over the rooftops and down at the new sea. Manhattan had become a cluster of concrete islands. The city was dark. The shattered Moon had long since set. "Goddam government," he said. "They told us there was nothing to worry about."

Someone pointed a flashlight over the side of the roof. Its beam bobbed up and down in the water. There were bodies.

Marilyn turned away. She'd been unable to sleep, and had eventually rejoined the quiet group gathered around a battery-powered radio.

The terrace doors were open and the curtains moved in a soft breeze. Approximately thirty people were still present. A few, who had drunk too much early in the evening, were asleep. The others looked listless and frightened.

Marilyn had relatives in Boston and friends on the Outer Banks. She'd tried to call them, but got only busy signals and recordings ("The number you dialed is currently receiving maintenance") until about three. Now the phone was completely dead.

The rooms were lighted by candles. "I wonder what our place looks like," she asked Larry. Their apartment was on the third floor, a high third floor, and should have been above water. But it was an effort to care. "We should try to get home," she said.

"How do you suggest we do that, love?"

She was surprised at the sense of disconnectedness that had come over her. She almost didn't care about anything. But she knew there were things to be said, pretenses to be made.

Louise was in the kitchen. There was no running water, of course. Louise had broken open a bottle of spring water and was pouring out a small portion for one of accountants. "Make it last, Bill," she said.

"Is that the entire supply?" asked Marilyn.

Louise looked at the container. About a gallon remained.

"This is it," she said. "We need to start thinking how we're going to manage if help doesn't come."

"Help'll come," said the accountant.

"I think," said Marilyn, "Louise is right."

Louise looked as if she hadn't slept all night. She's been worrying about how she'll feed everybody, Marilyn realized.

Larry came in behind her. "Maybe we should start by figuring out how we'll manage breakfast," he said. "Is there a grocery in the neighborhood?"

Louise nodded. Her customary energy had evaporated. "One block over toward Broadway. Across the street. It's called Barney's. But I'd think it's underwater at the moment."

"Listen," said the accountant, "the whole world knows we're caught here. Let's not go running off half-cocked. All we need to do is be patient."

"No." Marvin stepped into the candlelight. His voice sounded an octave deeper than usual. "I don't think we should just wait here to see what happens to us." He looked at Marilyn, and turned to Louise: "Is there anything in the building we can use for a raft?"



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