Skyport, Mo's Restaurant. 5:51 A.M.
Rachel Quinn hadn't slept. Like everyone else at the station, she'd been glued to the television. She recalled with mounting guilt her own anger that the Mars mission had been wiped out. But then, she'd had no idea the arrival of the comet would trigger anything like this.
Nevertheless, buried in the relentless accounts of waves, storms, and earthquakes, there were some encouraging stories; heroes were appearing everywhere. In Fort Lauderdale a man in a motor yacht picked up survivors and rode out several tsunamis. Doctors stayed at their posts in Baltimore, chopper-riding cops scooped people off rooftops in Houston, teenagers hurried toddlers to safety in Savannah. When a wave hit Vancouver Island, a man saved a group of his neighbors by piling them into a hydrogen balloon. He got clear with seconds to spare. In St. Augustine, a young woman helped several elderly couples climb an old stone tower to escape.
Even Skyport had been hit. Debris had blown out compartments on two decks, and three people were dead.
Rachel was in Mo's, having toast and coffee, watching CNN, when her cell phone trilled. The identifier indicated the call was from Operations. "Quinn," she said.
"Colonel, I'm Howard Chambers, special assistant to Belle Cassidy." Cassidy was the director of operations. "She'd like to see you if you could come by her office."
Ten minutes later Rachel was led through Cassidy's door. The director was standing in a corner of the room, bent over a console with two aides. She smiled at Rachel, dismissed the aides, and invited her to sit down. Belle Cassidy was in her early forties. There was something of the drill instructor in her demeanor. She stood ramrod straight, had short black hair, marble eyes, and wide shoulders. Rachel knew her, had even dined with her once when several of the astronauts had been passing through and the Skyport staff had given a dinner.
"Good to see you again, Rachel," she said, extending a hand. A gold chain tinkled on her wrist, a subtle flash of femininity in an otherwise masculine personality.
The office was big, as Skyport offices went. On the walls were framed documents detailing its occupant's services to various federal agencies, to foreign governments, and to the Lunar Transport Authority, her current employer. Belle folded her arms and remained standing. "Rachel," she said, "we need your help."
"In what way?"
"Were you aware President Kolladner is dead?"
"Yes," she said. "I heard about it a little while ago."
"The new president is stranded out there." Belle waved her hand in the general direction of the overhead. "In about seven and a half hours he's going to sail past here, doing forty thousand-plus kilometers an hour. Unless we get something out there that has the juice to catch him, they might as well swear in whoever's next in line. That idiot Speaker, I guess it would be."
Rachel's eyes widened. "You're asking for the Lowell?"
"It's all we've got. The ferries can't handle it."
"Sure," she said. "I'll get the numbers from your people, and we'll be ready to go."
"I appreciate it."
"It's my pleasure."
Regret showed in Belle's face. "I'll be honest with you. We spent the last couple of hours trying to figure out how to do it with our ferries. I mean, how often does the LTA get a chance to rescue a president?"
"No way, huh?"
"Well… if we had to, we could give it a good run. But it's too close to take the chance." She shook Rachel's hand. "So NASA gets the glory. Again."