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6.


Percival Lowell Flight Deck. 9:11 A.M.

Rachel completed her final check and switched over to internal power. Cochran, at the navigation plot, gave her a thumbs-up. Exit protocols locked.

"Lowell," said a voice in her earphones, "you are go for launch."

"Launch" from Skyport meant that the magnetic couplings would release the ship, and four sets of piston clusters would ease her out of her bay and give her a gentle push away from the orbiter. At about the same time, Rachel would fire up the engine and adjust attitude. She'd move out to six kilometers, rotate to her heading, and begin to accelerate.

It had not been an easy morning. Everyone at Skyport, it seemed, wanted to be on board Lowell when she made her rendezvous with the Micro. The phones had rung constantly. People identifying themselves as engineers and communications specialists and every sort of professional in the book thought it would be a good idea if they were present in case of one emergency or another. The truth was, of course, they wanted to meet the new president. There had even been a couple of station bureaucrats who tried to suggest that a high-ranking Skyport representative should be present.

In fact, the only crew she needed was Lee Cochran. She was sorry, she explained patiently time and again, but anyone else would only be taking up space. And, more important, air. They would be at eight people for the return trip, which was already thirty-three percent over life-support design capacity. When some persisted, she simply explained it was against the rules. Even the most determined seemed to understand that.

Belle sent a physician. Just in case. The head man had been on leave when the emergency broke out, so the assignment went to the station's assistant chief medical officer, Dr. Arthur Elkhart. He came from the shy end of the bureaucratic spectrum. He was clearly unnerved at the possibility of acquiring a presidential patient, and would have preferred to stay home. But his position didn't allow it. Still, when Belle was gone, he openly admitted his jitters to Rachel and thereby won her respect. He was middle-aged, prematurely gray, built low to the ground. "I hope they're all okay," he said.

"This is Lowell" she told Control. "Ready to go."

There was a mild shove as the pistons started the ship out of the bay. The long viewport that looked out from Control passed on her left. She hit the intercom. "Moving out, Doc. Buckle in."

She got no answer and tried again: "Hit the yellow button to talk."

A moment. And then a click: "Thanks," he said. "I'm all set."

Twenty thousand miles below, the coastline of Ecuador and Peru emerged from cloud banks. The Pacific stretched away to the west, bright and calm in the midday sun. Like everyone else, she'd been dismayed at the reports of wholesale death and destruction coming in from around the globe. She'd been unable to reach her own family, who lived in Charleston. Looking down on the vast serenity, she thought about the tendency of people to transfer their troubles to the world around them. Whatever damage might be visited on homes, temples, and city halls around the Earth as a result of Tomiko, the planet itself would continue calmly on as though nothing had happened.

She lit the engine.

It came on-line quietly, a liquid rumble, utterly unlike the chemical power plants of the moonbuses and space planes, which roared furiously and shook bulkheads.

"All go," said Cochran.

She acknowledged, and gave the ship to the autopilot, which adjusted attitude and began to accelerate.

Lowell would do a three-quarters orbit and come out on a course parallel to, but well ahead of, the Micro. From that point they'd boost speed gradually and allow the bus to overtake them.

Rachel did not like going out into this sky. At first she'd thought it was because there were still too many rocks in it. But she gradually came to realize that she shared Doc Elkhart's nervousness about welcoming the president of the United States on board. She glanced over at Cochran, whose prime duty during the flight was to monitor internal power and life support. In other words, to stay awake in case of emergency. "Lee?"

"Yo?"

"How do you feel?"

"Fine. Why do you ask?"

She let it go. The astronauts were, with one or two exceptions, all former military air jocks. And the code of the brotherhood of combat pilots, admit no fear, was alive and well.

Rachel had mastered whatever uncertainties she might have had the first time she'd sat on top of a rocket and touched a match to it. She'd done well and come through it better than some of her male counterparts. She'd never backed down in her life from anybody or anything. But today she could feel her hands shake.

Below, the world turned green. They were eastbound, running above Brazil. Ahead, stars shone through portions of the pale cloud that had replaced the Moon.

The lunar cloud was already growing thin, drifting apart. The ancient sphere, mathematically perfect, reassuring in its promise of universal harmony, was gone. Micro Passenger Cabin. 10:15 A.M.

"Al, we're going to nationalize everything. Airlines, trucks, the power companies, you name it. Get Tierney to head up the effort." Tierney was respected by the major CEOs. Having him on board would deflect a lot of resistance.

"Okay, Charlie." They had by now gotten back to their old first-name basis. "Let me run it past counsel-"

"Forget counsel. Just do it."

"I'm not sure about the constitutionality-"

"Al, we've declared a national emergency. By definition anything I do is constitutional. People are dying in large numbers out there. We will do what we have to." He spelled out a long list of precisely what he wanted, leaving the details to Kerr.

"Something else, Charlie," Kerr said when he'd finished. "The Latin countries have been hit pretty hard. They're asking for help."

"We've none to give. Tell them they're on their own. Pass our regrets, but point out to them we've taken substantial losses. Ask whether they can help us. Tell them we need whatever they can spare. Get it coordinated. We'll take help from anyone who offers it. Oh, and Harmon was making jokes last night about the Chinese protest." Harmon was the secretary of state. "I have to wonder about the diplomatic skills of a man who finds anything funny about this kind of disaster. He's fired. Tell him."

"But Charlie-"

"I'd tell him myself but I'm busy. If he insists on hearing it from me, I'll do it, but warn him it won't be pretty."

Charlie had been on the phone all morning with Kerr, with cabinet members, with heads of state around the world, trying to coordinate a global response. But it wasn't enough. Talking to people here and there wasn't going to get the job done. They needed a global executive during the emergency. Ordinarily, the logical person for the choice would probably have been the U.S. president. But the U.S. was among the hardest-hit nations. That changed the chemical mix. Several candidates had already been put forward. One was the Belgian chief of state, whom Charlie knew to be able and honest. "Throw our weight behind him," he said.

Good news was still coming in. Other Possums were on the loose, but none constituted an immediate threat. The frequency and intensity of meteor strikes had declined precipitously. The storm seemed to be passing, and within a few more hours it might be possible to reduce the state of alert.

Everyone had been hit. But the Americas had suffered maximum damage. Offers of assistance had come from all major, and many minor, nations. Yes, Charlie had told them. We need food, clothing, medical supplies, transportation, and communication equipment. Whatever and whomever you can send. Multinational corporations were also mobilizing help. "Goddam selfish bastards," Kerr had said. "They're only in it because they know they have to keep their customers alive."

Charlie didn't care much about motivation.

By late morning he was emotionally exhausted. There'd been a sea change in the way people thought about their lives and their world. They were, he thought, closer together than they'd ever been before during his lifetime. Maybe than they'd been since people started keeping records.

Nevertheless, Charlie's position wasn't enviable. Virtually every political leader in the world was in difficulty, expected to head off further disaster. And no one more than he, who represented an administration that was widely held responsible for having failed even to warn its citizens.

His cell phone chimed.

"Pilot, Mr. President."

"Yes, Saber?"

"I just wanted to let you know. Lowell's on schedule. She'll be alongside in about five and a half hours."

"Thanks." He looked over at Evelyn, who was reading. The chaplain was asleep, and Morley was writing, listlessly punching the keys on his notepad. Probably recording everything for a book. The cabin was undoubtedly the most public setting from which any president had ever conducted business. His runaway White House.

Well, if he accomplished nothing else, he'd be a natural for future trivia questions.

Hilltop west of Staunton, Virginia. 11:47 A.M.

Lieutenant Colonel Steven R. Gallagher lowered his field glasses. He didn't like working his troops Sunday morning, when they should be at church, but he knew that the critical moment was drawing close and he wanted to ensure that the Legion was ready.

He was with the Blue Star Company, Third Freedom Battalion, Thomas Jefferson Legion. The exercise was in its fourth hour. He leaned his hefty frame against the Ford van that served as his command vehicle, and looked at his watch. "They're about out of time, Jack," he told his brother, who was wearing a major's oak leaves.

"Tad reports he's in position to take out a few more," said the major.

They were running a security exercise. Tad Wickett, with six men, had blown up a simulated arsenal. The security forces, charged with defending the target, could now hope for nothing better than to apprehend the strike force. But it was apparent they weren't going to do that either. "It's not entirely their fault, Colonel," said Jack, reluctantly. "Tad is very good."

Steve knew security assignments bored his people. They wanted to blow things up, not protect them. But the day was coming soon when they would have to defend installations against guerrillas. His accession to power in Virginia would be resisted. Not least of all by surviving government loyalists. But he understood he'd also have to face a lawless element that had simply been waiting for something like the Tomiko affair to seize power. And in the days to come, the only protection civilized life would have against the inevitable wilderness thugs was going to be the Jefferson Legion.

Tad was still pinned within the six-square-mile training area. There were two roads and two bridges by which he could leave, and all had been sealed off. But the security forces had failed to bring him to ground, losing several more people in the effort. Not a particularly good demonstration. "Did I explain about methodical?" he asked Jack. "Did we talk about how important it was that operations be systematic?"

His brother nodded. "Doesn't look like it took, Steve."

"No, it doesn't." The colonel looked at his watch. It was twelve o'clock. "Okay. Let's call it a day. Send the troops home and we'll get the officers in. We need to talk for a bit."

Legion headquarters was located in the east wing of the colonel's rambling frame house. There were seven officers all told, not counting himself. They were good, well trained, intelligent, loyal. A hell of a lot better than his critics knew.

A large family room in back served as his conference area. When Jack signaled that everyone had arrived, Colonel Gallagher entered from the side. They jumped to attention. "As you were, men," he said, and took his place at the lectern. (Actually, one of the captains was a woman, but no distinction in gender was ever noted, nor did she seem to object.)

The aroma of coffee filled the room. Someone handed the colonel a cup, and he began the proceedings by inviting Tad to explain how he'd evaded the security forces all morning. Wickett, who was only a captain, irritated his colleagues by observing it had been simple, that the security units hadn't been coordinated. He showed why, drew arrows on maps, and suggested alternate strategies. Wickett was one of the two people in the room with actual military experience. The colonel himself had never worn the uniform of his country. But no one other than his brother Jack knew that. To the rest, Steve Gallagher had served a dozen years with combat infantry and the Rangers. That he was able to carry off this imposture was a tribute to his extensive interest in, and ability for, military techniques and technology.

There was something cold and vaguely reptilian about Tad Wickett. Jack listened to him speak, watched his eyes move smoothly around the room, saw his tongue occasionally brush his upper lip, noted the sense of ongoing calculation about the man. He never missed a chance to make his colleagues look incompetent.

When Wickett finished, Steve invited comments, listened dutifully, and then added his own observations. Peterson's unit had been slow to react when their planning went awry; Barber had failed to anticipate several possibilities; as a result, the terrorist force had been completely successful and had escaped with only one casualty. It was, he implied, a pathetic demonstration by the security force.

If Steve Gallagher had never served, it hadn't been for lack of desire. He'd struggled with asthma and a multitude of allergies, and they'd kept him from the colors. The asthma was gone now, long since outgrown. He'd learned a lot since those early days when he wanted nothing so much as to qualify for the Rangers. Mostly he'd learned that the United States was governed by a small cabal of families who pretended to squabble but who kept power in their own hands and milked the nation's working people dry. Today he would never have considered defending the dictators.

He'd found a better way to serve the American Ideal. He'd founded the Thomas Jefferson Legion, a group of God-fearing, country-loving men and women dedicated to preserving liberty at home against the assorted shadowy manifestations of an oppressive government that was itself an arm of a world body whose only interest was to maintain its grip on power.

The colonel owned the Potluck Restaurant in downtown Staunton. The Potluck, founded by his grandfather, had been in the family thirty-eight years, and had thrown off a sister establishment in nearby Harrisonburg.

But the Potluck was not as profitable as it should have been. Unlike most Americans, whose tax money vanishes without their ever seeing it, the colonel was burdened with actually paying out substantial sums each month to an increasingly onerous and corrupt government. But that wasn't the worst of it. Regulators were everywhere. Inspectors from all levels of government, following the example set by the feds, harassed him continually with safety and health inspections, demanded licenses, controlled how much he paid his help, dictated whom he should hire and what medical plan he should provide. All the money went to support the vicious practices of a decadent nation, a nation that forbade God to enter the schoolroom, that allowed women to murder their children, that had so distorted the reproductive process that men were no longer necessary.

He had become over the years a fiery enemy of the invisible hand that weighed so heavily on his fortunes and on those of his countrymen. Right-thinking men and women across the state of Virginia had flocked to him, and the Jefferson Legion now had units in a dozen counties.

It wasn't only the godlessness and the corruption that enraged Steve Gallagher, much less the money or even the inspections. Rather, it was the condescension of the official agents, their obvious belief that he was not a man of honor, that he could not be trusted, that it was necessary to keep him on a leash.

In order to secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity

It hadn't happened.

Tom Jefferson had lost to the federalists, and his ideals had been sacrificed to Hamilton's notion of an oppressive central government. The colonials had exchanged one set of chains for another. But because the second set was emblazoned with an eagle, they hadn't noticed.

"Gentlemen," said the colonel, winding down his remarks and wanting to send them home with something to think about, "I'd like to talk with you for a moment about something other than the exercise." He drew himself to his full height. "As you're aware, last night was a disaster for the dictators. The people of this nation have finally seen their government for what it is, and the potential for revolt is everywhere. All that's needed now is a spark.

"Be aware that I've been in touch with our brothers-inarms around the state and in other parts of the country. We're almost ready to move. When the moment comes, and I can tell you that it's very close, we'll be ready to seize the power brokers and give the nation back to the real Americans."

They applauded, assured him they were with him, and went home. Afterward he sat alone in his kitchen and listened to the lazy hum of insects.

The horse is prepared against the day of battle. But when, O Lord? When?



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