AstroLab. 5:07 A.M.
Feinberg had been talking with Windy Cross about POSIM-38, requesting adjustments in the imaging process when his power failed. A minute later, the phone lines went out.
But Feinberg had become a very big player, bigger perhaps than he realized. Ten minutes after everything had gone down, an army helicopter descended onto the front lawn and a young captain introduced himself. His name was McMichael and he'd been assigned to provide whatever transportation or communication the professor might need. Then he asked confidentially whether the Possum was as dangerous as the president said.
Feinberg assured him that the danger couldn't be overstated.
Somehow, despite everything, Wes Feinberg had missed the human dimension of the catastrophe. He knew what was happening around the world, but his attention had been focused on orbital mechanics, and now, the dynamics of the Possum. He'd alerted the president as soon as he realized the danger. But he'd felt no real human involvement. Looking into McMichael's gray eyes, feeling the man's fear, he recognized his own detachment. He understood its derivation: his sense that there was nothing to be done about the rock, just as there had been nothing to do about the comet. His advice to the president that he act had been given despite the fact that Feinberg believed no action was feasible. That, lacking Skybolt, the world had no tool at hand with which to defend itself. The human race was caught in a game of cosmic billiards. It was probably going to lose, unless it got very lucky. And because he could only watch, he'd felt no emotional involvement other than his excitement at being here on this day.
The Possum would pass Earth by the barest of margins, literally roaring through the ionosphere, close enough to see with the naked eye. But it had enough momentum to avoid being dragged down. For him, the interest lay in the trajectory and velocity with which it would emerge.
"The president has made a public statement about the Possum?" he asked.
"Yes, sir. He was conducting a press conference, but it went off the air. Power failure in D.C."
"Join the rest of the country," said Feinberg. "What did he say about the Possum?"
"That he was going to nuke it, sir."
"Yes, sir." He looked at his watch. "In a couple of hours, I guess. Right after it makes its pass over China."
Feinberg sighed. "Get me through to him, Captain."
"Sir, I'll do what I can."
Goddammed idiots. Don't politicians ever ask questions before they make decisions? The White House. 5:09 A.M.
They hurried the president and first lady through torrential rain across the west lawn, where three choppers were waiting. One lifted away as they slogged through the drenched grass. Actually, Henry was in better shape, despite his illness, than most of the middle-aged officeholders with him, and he ended by helping some of them. Kerr in particular was gasping and heaving before he'd gone more than a few steps.
The military people stayed on the fringe of the group to assist where needed. As Henry arrived at the waiting helicopter, a bolt of lightning illuminated the Capitol and the southeastern sky for what seemed a full minute. And he saw the wave. It looked to be literally a mile high, its white crest breaking over the top, a mountain of water racing down on them. The people coming up from behind gasped and scrambled into the helicopter. The chopper crew helped, literally dragging some in by the scruff of the neck while a Marine officer redundantly shouted, "Move move move." Henry helped Emily up, and then he was unceremoniously hauled on board and passed none too gently from hand to hand. He heard Emily's choked voice crying out Al's name, saw Kerr stumble again, his legs twisted, falling forward while a young lieutenant tried to hold him up. Twenty yards beyond the chief of staff, a handful of reporters ran through the steaming rain. Now a voice behind Henry was saying, "Go go," and the roar of the engines deepened and the chopper started to lift.
The president shouted for them to wait, ordered the pilot to set back down. Kerr was still on the ground, they didn't have everybody, there was room for more. But hands dragged him away from the open door and someone said it was all right, the other chopper would pick up the stragglers. But Henry knew there were too many for the remaining aircraft.
He was in one of the big cargo carriers. It rose so swiftly it threw him onto the deck. A crewman fell on him and held him. Someone else banged the door shut. "Hang on, sir," said the crewman.
Heavy winds beat on the aircraft. Henry couldn't see the wave anymore, couldn't see anything in the dark interior, couldn't get up to look because the deck swerved and rolled under him. Some of his aides had made it on board, some of the military people, a couple of the reporters, and one of the agents. But there'd been room for more. They'd left maybe twenty down on the lawn. Including Al.
The engines screamed. Henry found a handhold. There should have been a plan in place to get everybody out. Damn. His staff had screwed this up to a fare-thee-well. Or he had.
He felt especially responsible about the reporters. He'd called them to the White House, and had failed to make provision for them. As if he'd thought D.C. was a sacred place, somehow shielded from the catastrophe that was overwhelming the rest of the country.
The man who'd been on top of him, apparently satisfied that the president could no longer hurt himself, eased off. "Sorry, sir," he said. He wore single silver bars.
"It's okay, Lieutenant," said Henry. He looked around, found Emily, and was frightened by her empty eyes. He tried to talk to her but she could not speak.
Lightning flickered in the compartment. Sheets of rain hammered at the windows. The chopper lurched and dipped and rose again. The lieutenant leaned toward the cockpit, spoke briefly, and then nodded: "We're clear, Mr. President."
"Did the other helicopter get off?"
He spoke with one of the pilots again. "Yes, sir. They're in the air."
The roar of the engines eased and Henry got to his feet. The world below was full of liquid darkness and electricity. The lights were out, the ground was dark; he could see no streets, no homes, no monuments. He shivered.
Lightning glimmered against a black torrent pouring across the rotunda. The Lincoln Memorial, half-drowned, flickered in and out of existence.
He eased into the cockpit. "Pilot, can you contact the other aircraft? The one that took off behind us?"
The pilot nodded. "Welcome aboard, Mr. President," he said, and handed him a mike and a pair of earphones. "Bagel Three," he said, "the president would like to talk with you."
There was a long silence on the other end. Then: "This is Bagel Three. Glad you made it, Mr. President."
"Thank you. Were you able to get the people on the ground?"
Another long pause, long enough that Henry knew the answer. "No, sir. Not all of them. There wasn't time." The voice on the other end had become somewhat high-pitched. "There was nothing I could do, sir."
"I know, son. I was there."
"We just barely got off as it was, Mr. President. If I hadn't gone, everybody would have died."
"It's all right." He took a deep breath. "Is Al Kerr there?"
Emily squeezed his shoulder while they listened to people at the other end call Kerr's name. A jumble of voices, and then Henry heard him. "I'm here, Mr. President."
"Thank God, Al. Al, how bad was it? How many'd they have to leave?"
"Ten, fifteen. I'm not sure, sir." He didn't elaborate.
"Al, have you looked out the window?"
Another massive bolt of lightning hit. They were flying over a broad sea, with here and there a monument or a piece of the State Department projecting out of the water. "Yeah," said Kerr. "I saw it."
Henry wondered how many people had still been in the city. Taking his advice. "Al, where are we headed?"
"It's still dry at Camp David, sir."
They were turning to the northwest, running over the quiet waters, riding in relative silence now, save for the storm. "Mr. President." The pilot's voice again, breaking in, bringing him back from some other place.
"Yes. What is it?"
"You've got a call. Man named Feinberg."
"Patch him through, pilot."
Some clicks in his earphones. And then Feinberg's rasp: "Mr. President?"
"Hello, Wesley. You'll be interested in knowing we've just lost Washington."
"Mr. President, don't do it."
"Don't do what?"
"Don't nuke the Possum."
Henry looked down at the drowned city. "I think we've had enough, Wesley."
"No! If you persist, you'll only make things worse."
They were the last words Henry heard. He was about to reply, to ask how he could possibly make things worse, to observe that he was by God going to take the Possum out of the game, when someone screamed, the inside of the cockpit blurred, fire broke out, and the chopper's nightlights died. He was half-conscious, trying to find Emily in the dark, and he knew he was falling.