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WPYX REPORTING. 4:33 A.M. PDT (7:33 A.M. EDT).

(Helicopter in the background, rotors slowly turning.)

"… atop the New County Courthouse in Los Angeles. From our perch up here we can see the Hall of Justice, the Federal Building, the Civic Center. Everywhere, frightened crowds are breaking into whatever buildings, whatever skyscrapers, they can, hoping to get up high." (Crowd noises, explosions, gunfire audible in background.)

"We can see lights and people moving on the upper floors of police headquarters and at the Museum of Contemporary Art. As far as we can tell, there is no longer an organized police force left in the city. The streets are filled with people. I don't know where they keep coming from.

"Our best information is that all highways out of the city remain hopelessly blocked. PacRail, of course, stopped operating earlier this evening, so right now the only salvation anyone has is to get above the water level. Whatever that might be. In fact, they're signaling me that we can hear people moving up in this building.

"Okay, that's the story from Hill Street and Beverly Boulevard. We're going to switch over now to Linda Tellier, who's in our news copter at Redondo Beach. Linda?"

"Thanks, Rod. We're about a half mile off shore, awaiting the first of the waves that the National Weather Service has been predicting for the last few hours. We're just over the water now, and while you can't see it in the dark, Redondo Beach is experiencing an extraordinarily low tide. That's one of the sure signs of an approaching wave.

"Looking east, we can see the lights of Torrance and Inglewood. Interstate 405 is almost dark, Rod. It's filled with abandoned cars. Police and military units were up there until about an hour ago, just pushing vehicles off the highway, but they're gone now too. And when we looked at it a few minutes ago, we saw only a few people wandering aimlessly, and some who were stripping cars.

"We were in touch with the Coast Guard-wait, I think I see something now. You're not getting this in your picture, but I can see what looks like a wall across the horizon. The ocean just seems to be rising up. And up." (Long pause.) "And up. God help us, Rod, it's hard to tell for sure, but that thing might be fifteen stories high.

"I hope everyone's out of Redondo." Pacific Coast. 4:39 A.M. Pacific Daylight Time (7:39 A.M. EDT).

The first wave struck well before dawn. It roared ashore between Point Conception and Santa Barbara and boiled into the Santa Ynez Mountains. Forewarned, the population had scattered to high ground, and only a handful of casualties were recorded. The National Park Service estimated that the wave was one hundred fifty feet high.

Within minutes other tsunamis hit Seattle and Coos Bay. The Seattle wave was initially reported to have been a half-mile high when it struck the city, but videos taken from office buildings and aircraft put the crest at only a tenth of that figure. It was enough.

Between four thirty-five and five A.M., the Pacific rose from its bed and overwhelmed the coastline from Juneau to San Carlos. In the Los Angeles area, the city simply disappeared, save for a few downtown skyscrapers and the surrounding hilltops. Most of Santa Monica and Redondo, Inglewood and Long Beach went with it.

San Francisco also died. A wave estimated at six hundred fifty feet took down the Golden Gate Bridge, submerged the city from the Presidio on the north to San Andreas Lake on the south. It buried Oakland and Berkeley, and poured through the Simi Valley and the bays north of San Francisco into the California interior. The San Joaquin Valley became an inland sea.

Initial estimates put the death toll at two million in greater Los Angeles alone. Curiously, throughout the bombardment San Diego remained untouched. It reported lower than normal tides.

In Mexico the ocean surged over Baja California, spilled into the Gulf of California, and maintained enough power to impose severe damage on the eastern shore from Isla Del Tiburon to Mazatlan. County Route 6, southeast of San Francisco. 4:59 A.M. PDT (7:59 A.M. EDT).

There were no emergency services. Phones were dead and the radio in the police car brought only a carrier wave. As the first gray light of dawn was appearing, a helicopter owned by Short Haul Airways arrived with a doctor and some medical supplies.

"Best I could do," said the pilot, whose name Marisa never caught. "It's pretty grim out there."

Among the group trapped by the landslide, there'd been only one physician, and he'd broken his back. Marisa and Jerry had taken charge of the rescue effort.

They had converted the restaurant into a makeshift hospital, and the antique shop into a morgue. She'd tried to treat the seriously injured where they fell, despite the threat presented by the cliff. But the ground had continued to shake, and eventually she'd bitten the bullet and ordered everyone away. Ten minutes later the mountain had collapsed.

Jerry had rounded up volunteers and they pitched in to help, cleaning wounds, setting bones, and applying tourniquets. The doctor who'd come in aboard the chopper had been vacationing at a mountain cabin when Short Haul found him.

They had about forty people who needed hospital treatment. "Not going to happen," said the doctor. His name was Hardacre and he was in his early thirties. He was a young, good-looking guy who complained that it was his first vacation in three years. He seemed to regard the disaster as a personal imposition. But he'd come, and he seemed competent, so Marisa wasn't complaining.

"What do you mean, it's not going to happen?" she demanded.

"You been watching the TV?" he asked.

"Not for the last hour or so."

"When you get a minute, take a look. Whatever hospitals are left will be swamped. It's likely to be a long time before anybody's going to have beds available."

She looked around at her patients. They had no cots, so the patients had all been placed on the floor and made as comfortable as conditions allowed. Hardacre had grabbed some painkillers and other supplies from the cache at the resort where he'd been staying, and they'd helped, had helped a lot. But these people needed serious treatment. What were they going to do?

As if to underscore the point, a distant murmur was becoming audible. Marisa's first thought was that the rest of the mountain was coming down. They were well across the road, far enough away to be safe, but the sound was different from the one she'd heard earlier. And it was coming from the opposite direction, from the San Joaquin. Maybe the part of the mountain they were sitting on was going to go this time.

She put it out of her mind and went back to changing a dressing. The patient was a middle-aged woman with a shattered leg and a sliced arm. Hardacre had put twenty stitches in the arm and supported the leg as best he could. The woman's husband, who'd come through untouched, was beside her.

Marisa's thoughts returned to Jerry. They'd set up a center for the lost kids wandering around. Jerry had seen that it was properly staffed. Now he was busy on the far side of the restaurant, changing bandages. It wasn't something he liked to do and, in fact, Jerry had never liked blood very much, but he was shining this morning.

When she finished with the woman, she went on to other patients. The distant sound was getting louder. It was nothing like the fearful roar of the avalanche, but it was disquieting all the same, as if something were coming.

She was changing a dressing when one of the volunteers charged through a door. "The valley's filling up!" she cried.

Marisa was almost immune to alarms by now. She finished what she was doing and strode to a back window that looked down into the San Joaquin.

It spread out before her, a vast basin rimmed by mountains lost in early-morning mist. Toward the west, a deluge was gushing out of a narrow defile and spreading out across the valley floor.

Later, when she took a break and went to see Erin and Jimmy, they hugged her and asked when they were going home. By then an inland sea, quiet and tranquil, stretched toward the morning sun as far as she could see.

"We are home," she said quietly. Micro Passenger Cabin. 8:03 A.M.

"Say again, Al."

Charlie tried to keep his voice low so he couldn't be overheard. But the conversation among the other passengers always stopped as soon as he got on the phone. He knew they weren't trying to eavesdrop, except maybe Morley, whose job it was, but human nature was at work here. It was useless to try for privacy under these circumstances. Anyway, what did it matter?

"I said NASA tells us you'll be okay. They've figured out how to rescue you."

"I didn't know I needed to be rescued."

"My God, are you serious? You're on your way to Pluto or something. They're sending the Lowell after you."

Charlie waved it away. In the face of everything else that had landed on him, the news seemed almost anticlimactic. "Okay," he said.

He'd been off and on the phone with Al Kerr for the better part of two hours, getting updates on a series of increasingly desperate situations. The United States had literally millions of people on the road for whom there was neither shelter nor food, swamping efforts by relief agencies. Both coasts and the Hawaiian Islands had been heavily damaged by waves and storms. In some places earthquakes had been triggered. Property damage would be in the trillions. And God knew how much loss of life. Medical authorities were already warning about the possibility of infectious outbreaks; more tidal waves were reported in the Pacific.

Financial experts were pointing out that the functional loss of New York and Los Angeles would destroy the banking system, and were advising the government to move immediately.

"What do they suggest?" Charlie asked.

"I don't think they have any idea at this point, Mr. President. But they want us to know that action is of the essence."

What else?

There were major power outages in the Northeast and Northwest; tens of thousands of Mexican refugees for whom no provision could be made were streaming north; a freak electrical storm had virtually destroyed Tucson.

There were, however, some pieces of genuine good news: The heartland was still intact. The federal government was functioning well; early indications were that its agencies and the military were performing miracles. Europe and Asia had not been hit as hard as the Americas, and their allies, and even a few old enemies, were helping where they could. Best of all, the missiles were locked and loaded, and by nine A.M. the Possum would be history.

Charlie outlined his priorities. Foremost, they needed to concentrate on the refugee problem. "Do whatever's necessary to get food and services out. There's a potential here for even worse losses. We need to figure out what we can do for the people on the road, and we need to get it right the first time. And don't feel you have to wait for presidential authorization. Something needs to get done, do it. Just keep me informed. I'll support you."

"Or fire me," said Al, obviously uncomfortable. Kerr had never been a supporter of Charlie Haskell, and now he expected to pay the price.

Charlie had more important things to think about. "I want action plans waiting for me as soon as I get back. Assemble a working group to get ahead of the curve. I don't want to be just reacting to disasters. Put some people together to figure out what else might happen, what else we can do."

"What specifically did you have in mind, Mr. President?"

"Cholera and typhus, for one thing." He took a deep breath because he sensed the man's timidity. Anger flowed through him. There just wasn't time now for people who weren't ready to get things done. "Goddammit, Al," he said, "if I knew, I wouldn't need the working group. Keep it small. I want ideas, not ass-covering. What do we need to do to keep the country alive? Not just people, but the institutions. You got that?

"Get somebody from the military. CDC. FEMA. Some academics. Figure it out. We got blindsided this week, Al. And I think we've had all we can stand. No more surprises."

Was there anything else?

Yeah, there was. His voice softened: "I'm sorry about Henry and Emily. I know you and they were close."

"Thank you, Mr. President."

"I'll expect you to stay on as chief of staff. At least until we get through this."

"Yes, sir."

He broke the connection, wandered back into the passenger cabin, where everyone pretended to be busy reading. "Everything okay, Mr. President?" Evelyn asked.

They'd all gone formal on him again. And maybe it was just as well. He wondered how much Lincoln would have accomplished if everyone in the neighborhood had called him Abe.

"Fine," he said. "We're doing fine."

Which reminded him. He went up the ladder-he was getting good at zero-g moves now-and came in behind Saber. "Hello, pilot," he said.

She raised a hand without looking around. "Hello, Mr. President."

"I understand we're not going to Pluto after all," he said.

"Oh," she said. "You know about that. No, we'll be okay. We were never at risk."

He slid into the copilot's chair. "You're sure?"

"Yes, sir," she said.

"Anything I ought to know about?"

"No, Mr. President."

"If there's another problem, I'd like to be informed," he said.

"Yes, sir. I didn't think of it as a problem. I mean, I knew they had the Lowell in reserve." She smiled up at him. Saber was, he decided, a beautiful woman. Somehow, there hadn't been time to notice before. "I thought you had enough to worry about. Getting the Micro back was my job."

"Do we have any fuel left at all?"

"We've got a couple hundred pounds. Not very much. I'm trying to save it."

"Okay. What's the drill on the rescue?"

She relaxed a little. "Lowell will catch up with us around four. We'll transfer over and cut the Micro loose. They haven't sent me an ETA yet, but I'd guess we'll get back to the station by late evening. That's only a guess. I don't know what the capabilities of the Lowell are."

Charlie looked at the myriad blinking lights and telltales on the Micro's displays. "Can we see the Possum from here?"

She touched a key, and the rock appeared on a heads-up screen. "That's the view from one of the satellites."

The media descriptions said the Possum looked like something that had been cut in half. One side was flat, the other curved and rugged. It was more oblong than spherical, almost resembling a club. He was glad that idea hadn't occurred to anyone in the media. He watched it tumbling slowly across the display.

Saber's fingers moved over the keyboard. "Here's something to compare it with." An image of the Micro blinked on. It shrank until it was almost invisible against the object. "That's us." She pressed another key, and a series of micro-icons lined up along the length of the rock. "There are sixty-one of them," she said. "End to end."

"And how big are we?"

"Twenty-eight meters and change, blister to treads. We're pretty compact."

"We'll be well rid of the thing," he said.

The Possum exerted a near-hypnotic influence. He watched it turning, watched, on another screen, the blue globe of Earth.

The second image, Saber explained, was from the Micro's telescopes.

The distance between the vice presidency and the office of the chief executive, Charlie was discovering, is measured in light-years. It might be that no one really understands that who hasn't stood on both sides of the chasm. A few hours ago he was only worried about saving himself. That concern now seemed almost trivial.

The third decade of the twenty-first century had, until a few days earlier, been a good time for the planet. A hundred million Chinese were driving cars, almost everyone agreed that military incursions were in bad taste, the old economic cycle of boom and bust appeared to have been tamed, and the great powers had discovered that collaboration was more fruitful than competition. Technology was providing better lives for almost everybody. Science was forging ahead, and people now lived longer and stayed younger than ever before. Most cancers were curable; powersats supplied virtually unlimited energy; and the long struggle to reverse environmental damage had finally turned the corner. In the United States, racial tensions had been steadily easing, GNP was up every year, crime rates and population growth were down.

This is not to say there were no problems. There were far more people than the world's natural resources could comfortably support, and ancient traditions and religious groups fought every effort to reduce the numbers. There was still too much crime, and too much of it violent, particularly in Russia, the United States, and China. A recent survey of American adults by USA Today suggested that three-eighths of the population were functionally illiterate. This was the highest ratio of any industrialized society, and it continued to climb steadily. The advantages of participating in the global communications network were still not available to a quarter of the U.S. population, and to more than a third of those living in other Western nations. Every major government carried a staggering burden of debt.

These were the problems a Haskell administration would have reasonably expected to confront. Anticipating the possibility of victory in the fall, Charlie had already staffed out work and formulated some ideas on his own. He'd talked to the people on the front lines, teachers and parents and cops and emergency room physicians and first-line supervisors in a wide range of occupations. He thought he was ready to assume the burdens of the presidency with a series of initiatives to attack these problems across a broad front.

As things had turned out, he could hardly have been less prepared.

Saber frowned and touched her earphone. "Wait one," she said and looked at Charlie. "For you, Mr. President." But his lamp hadn't lit up, so the call wasn't coming in on his private channel. "Do you want to talk to a Wesley Feinberg?"

"I've got it." Charlie opened his cell phone. He'd never met Feinberg, but he knew him by reputation. And Al had briefed him on his part in the planning. Called him a troublemaker. "Good morning, Professor Feinberg. This is Charles Haskell."

"Mr. President." The voice was strained. "I've been trying to get through to you for hours. Are you still planning to execute the nuclear strike against the Possum?"

"Yes," said Charlie. "Of course."


Charlie's heart sank. "Why not?"

"We don't know enough to be able to change its trajectory. That's what we really need to do. But we don't know how."

"So we give it a try. What's to lose?"

"What's to lose? Mr. President, you blow it apart and you'll create a cloud of radioactive particles and debris that would be just as likely as the Possum to come back around and hit us later. Except that, if it were to happen, the consequences would be even worse."

"Worse how? My information is that the Possum would kill a few more millions. Maybe send us back to a dark age."

"Mr. President, a healthy radioactive cloud would have a good chance to kill everybody on the planet. I'm talking about an extinction event."

Charlie visualized a storm of hot pebbles ripping into the global landscape and the oceans, hot particles settling into the atmosphere, hot rain pouring down out of diseased clouds. "Why didn't you tell this to Henry?"

"I did. Or I tried to. I was talking to him when we got cut off. I think it was probably at the time his helicopter went down."

"What did he say?"

"He didn't have a chance to say anything." Saber was watching Charlie. "You must stop the attack," Feinberg went on. "It will gain nothing, but it raises the stakes dramatically for us if it comes down."

"But it might not come down. Is that right?"

"There's no way to be sure."

"For God's sake, Feinberg, isn't there a way to find out?"

"After it leaves the atmosphere, give us a few hours."

A few hours would put it out of range of the missiles. They'd have to wait, and hit it inbound. His own people had advised him that was a much more dangerous procedure. "Are you at all optimistic? Is there a chance it'll just go away?"

"Give me a few hours, Mr. President."

After the call, Charlie sat for almost ten minutes. He refused all calls and considered his options and the potential consequences. He thought about Feinberg's reputation, and he'd read enough between the lines of Al Kerr's account to understand the scientist had given Henry good advice.

But a lot of people thought the nukes were a good way to get rid of the goddam thing. If Charlie failed to pull the trigger and it came around and hit them, who was going to get the blame?

On the other hand, would it matter who got the blame?

He looked at his watch. The birds would fly in less than an hour. Beside him, Saber was very quiet. "You overheard all that?"

"I heard your end."

He punched in Al Kerr's number.

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