TRANSGLOBAL SPECIAL REPORT. 5:47 A.M.
"This is Angela Shepard at Camp David, Maryland. An army helicopter carrying President Henry Kolladner was reported down minutes ago outside Washington. The president had been evacuated moments before a sea wave swept over the capital, and was en route here, where a command post had been set up to coordinate the government's response to the ongoing lunar crisis. The helicopter was apparently struck by lightning. Official sources are telling us that rescue units have been sent in, and that they still hold out hope.
"I talked to a member of the president's staff who was on board an accompanying aircraft, and who asked not to be named. She was in tears, Don. She said the president's helicopter caught fire and, in her words, 'fell like a rock.' She added that she doesn't believe anyone could have lived through it." Micro Passenger Cabin. 5:48 A.M.
"Charlie, it's confirmed," said the voice on his cell phone. "They found the wreckage."
"Emily. What about Emily?"
"She was with him when it happened."
"My God…" Micro Flight Deck. 5:49 A.M.
"What is your status, Micro?"
"We are still here, Skyport. Life support looks good. The cargo deck has been penetrated again, but otherwise we're okay."
"We copy, Micro."
"Fuel is almost gone."
"Roger that. Continue to try to conserve. We'll get to you as quickly as we can."
They were currently moving at 8.1 kilometers per second, gaining speed as they fell toward Earth. Consequently, no rescue vehicle could be sent out to rendezvous until after they'd passed Skyport, which would happen around one-thirty P.M.
"Are you in any danger at the present moment?"
There was a hesitation at the other end. Then the bad news: "Micro, we project a solar orbit."
"Roger." Saber would have no fuel available for braking. So they would roar past the Earth satellite at present velocity plus whatever they picked up firing the engine and falling down the gravity well. "Skyport, I make it that we'll be moving too fast for a ferry to rendezvous."
"Keep the faith, Micro. You have a VIP on board. Two of them, in fact."
Saber ran the numbers through her computer. After they passed the planet, a ferry could chase them down, but the effort would require too much fuel. There wouldn't be enough left after the rescue, not nearly enough, to brake into earth-orbit. The ferry and the Micro would both sail out into deep space. To add to her worries, they would start running out of air again around six P.M. That was a long way off, but this time there'd be no onboard fix. Fortunately, however, there was an easy solution, and if Skyport didn't think of it, she'd suggest it herself.
She signed off, rubbed her eyes, and looked at the radar screen, which was mercifully quiet again. She'd recovered Tony's body and stored it below with Bigfoot. That had been a sad business. But at least his sacrifice hadn't been to no purpose. Unless something took a wicked turn on her, the Micro would bring in Charlie Haskell and the other volunteers.
She'd tried to get through to St. Petersburg, to see how her family was. The Russian city had been struck by a series of withering electrical storms and subsequent flooding. But telephone communications were impossible. So, since there was nothing else she could do, she put it out of her mind.
The Micro still had to burn fuel occasionally, to move out of harm's way. She wasn't seeing the storms of pebbles and sand anymore. The debris now tended to be limited to boulders and slabs. But they were relatively infrequent, and no longer racing past the Micro. The microbus was moving far more quickly than it had been during the early minutes of the event, and the rocks were traveling more slowly.
A few were enormous. One in particular measured out at more than eighty kilometers across. A moonlet. She reported it to the Orbital Lab at Skyport, where it turned out they'd already tagged it. The woman she talked to told her it was going into orbit.
"Good," said Saber. "You wouldn't want this thing coming down."
The woman's name was Tory Clark. And Tory made herself memorable to Saber by passing on a news item: "By the way," she said, "they've confirmed the death of the president. Take care of Charlie Haskell."
It had been a long night and Saber needed about thirty seconds to realize she was now carrying the president of the United States.
She knew she should simply fly the bus, but she couldn't resist dropping down through the hatch to wish him well. To be the first to do so, because she was sure no one else in the passenger cabin had the information. Maybe even he didn't know, although the lamp over his telephone circuit had been burning continuously. Poor son of a bitch, he's half-dead up here and they still won't leave him alone.
She approached his chair. He had the phone to his ear, listening, taking notes. She stopped beside him and waited. He glanced up at her, held up his hand, signaling her to wait a moment, and then, when he could, asked the person on the other end to wait.
"Yes, Saber," he said, "what can I do for you?"
"Mr. President," she said, pronouncing the word with effect, and drawing the attention of everyone around her, "I wanted to wish you good luck."
That set off something of an explosion. Was it true? Had they found Henry Kolladner?
It had occurred to Charlie when he'd first gotten the news that Henry might have been fortunate. It was probably the only way he could have saved his reputation. Now he accepted their good wishes, embracing Evelyn and Saber and shaking hands with Keith and the chaplain. Then he went back to the telephone.
Saber tried to find him some privacy, but the only accessible sections on the microbus were the galley and the washroom. The galley wasn't very private and the washroom lacked ambiance. The new president would have to make do where he sat in the passenger cabin. He asked only that Keith Morley use nothing he overheard without getting specific approval.
Saber returned to the flight deck, and shortly afterward heard the hatch open. The chaplain's smiling face looked up. "I hope you don't mind," he said. "I was wondering if I could see how this thing operates."
She signaled for him to strap down in the copilot's seat.
He looked out at the luminous Earth. After a few inconsequential remarks he fell into a contemplative silence. "The universe seems very neutral," he said at last.
"How do you mean?"
"Not for publication."
"Of course not."
"Are you a believer?"
She thought about it. "I don't know, Chaplain. Probably not."
He nodded. "I cannot believe Jesus would permit what happened last night. Not the Jesus I know." Saber didn't know how to respond, understood that the comment needed no response. "Tell me, Saber," he said after a moment, "is there life on Mars?"
"Yes," she said, wondering what he was getting at. "But of a primitive order."
The chaplain nodded. "Doesn't matter how primitive. Conditions will allow what they will allow. Elsewhere conditions will be better. Right? Caribbean-style beaches. Cool, moist valleys. Rolling plains. Other Scotlands exist out there somewhere."
"Yes," she said. "I'd think that would have to be so. It's inconceivable that it isn't."
"Oh, it's conceivable that we're alone. I can conceive of it, and I wish it were so."
"Why?" she asked. Everyone she'd ever known had wanted the search for alien life-forms, alien civilizations, to succeed. The notion that anybody, anybody, would prefer an empty universe shocked her.
"Because then the story of Jesus would make sense. But in a universe like this, where we suspect there are perhaps millions of other races like our own, his sacrifice hardly seems applicable to the existing nature of things." The chaplain shook his head. "Either the crucifixion saves them all, or it does not. If it saves them all, we're asked to believe that out of this plenitude of worlds, He chose ours for His demonstration."
She could hear the chaplain's doubts, welling up from some long-blocked inner spring. She could hear the capitalized pronouns, could hear the plea for intervention. "If the crucifixion does not save everyone, then it must be carried out, in one form or another, countless times in countless places. What then becomes of His agonies, of the special sacrifice made for us?"
She thought about it for several minutes. "I never did understand the logic of the crucifixion," she said at last. "Maybe the point is supposed to be simply that he came."