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8.


SSTO Arlington Passenger Cabin. 2:28 P.M.

In its headlong flight, the Micro had caught up with and passed Arlington. Andrea had not been aware of it when it happened. But she was delighted, a few hours later, to see the gleaming, counter-rotating wheels of Skyport. Like virtually everyone else on the spacecraft, she felt lucky to be alive. Nevertheless, the overall mood was somber. The death of friends and colleagues on the lost flight, and fears for family and friends at home, weighed heavily on the passengers. They were also tired, sweaty, weary of plastic food, still frightened. It was, after all, no small thing to look out the window and see a rock the size of a small garage whistle past.

Debris now might come from any angle. The pilot explained that much of the material that had been blasted off the surface of the Moon had gone into orbit. It would, he added, probably constitute a navigational hazard for a long time to come. The unspoken implication, in Andrea's mind, was that transatmospheric flights might be discontinued.

Among those who'd been on the missing spacecraft were several close friends, a former lover, her favorite bridge partner, most of her work crew, and God knew who else. She'd find out when they were off the plane and she could get a look at the passenger manifest. Right now nobody was saying anything official.

They slipped nose-first into their cradle. The bulkheads moved past and steam leaked out of gargantuan fittings.

People behind long observation panels bent over consoles and talked into microphones. The bulkheads slowed, and there was a mild bump.

"This is Captain Culver." The pilot sounded as if he'd just concluded a routine flight. "Please remain in your seats until the light has gone off." He paused. "We were glad to be able to assist you, and I want to thank you for your cooperation during a difficult flight." The cabin lights blinked. "There'll be representatives of the Lunar Transport Authority waiting in the deplaning section to answer any questions you might have."

A minute later the warning sign went out. Andrea unbuckled and watched her fellow passengers get up.

They took her name as she went down the ramp, gave her some clothes, and assigned a room. She asked if it would be possible to get a passenger manifest for the lost flight. "Sorry," a woman in an emerald LTA jacket said. "They're not available yet." Then they asked whether she felt all right and did she want to talk to a counselor?

Andrea declined and went looking for her room. It was on B deck in an area usually reserved for flight crews. It had a gorgeous view of Earth, which was sunlit and peaceful and moving gradually from right to left across her picture window. She studied it for a minute or so, taking strength from it. Then she stepped out of her clothes and turned on the scrubbers. Ten minutes later, feeling clean again, she collapsed naked on the bed, grateful for the chance to stretch out. But despite her weariness, sleep wouldn't come.

She gave up after a while and went down to the main promenade to look for food. Almost all the shops were shut down. But there were a couple of restaurants. She selected Mo's, which was decorated heavily with a Three Stooges motif.

It was crowded. She looked around for familiar faces, saw a few from the plane, but settled alone into the only available table. A television mounted over a central bar carried news reports from groundside. Someone was talking about a memorial service for Henry Kolladner. It struck her that the president of the U.S. had died and she'd scarcely noticed.

She studied the menu, decided she wasn't really hungry but just wanted to chew on something that wasn't space-plane fare. Toast and coffee looked good. She punched in her selection and propped her chin in her hands. The tears she'd kept at bay for so many hours dribbled down her cheeks.

Mo's was too public a place to come apart, so she fought down the crying jag that threatened to erupt. Then a woman in a NASA jumpsuit was looking down at her.

"Hi," she said. "Mind if we share?"

She had dark hair, alert brown eyes, and an amiable expression that immediately changed to concern when she got a good look at Andrea. "You okay?" she asked.

Andrea sniffled, wiped her nose, and smiled. "I'm sorry. Yes, please. Of course, sit down."

The woman eased into a chair. "Lose somebody?" she asked carefully.

Andrea nodded and felt the tears come with a rush.

"Let it go," the woman said. "It's okay." She took Andrea's wrist, squeezed it reassuringly. "I'm Tory Clark," she said when the storm subsided. "I work at the Orbital Lab."

"Physics?"

"Astronomy."

Andrea nodded. "Must be an exciting time for you." She saw the sudden bleakness in the other woman's expression. "Sorry," she said. "I didn't mean that."

"It's all right. It's been hard on everybody."

Andrea felt as if she were moving through a dream. "I'm Andrea Bellwether." She extended her hand and smiled.

"Famous name." Tory smiled back.

Andrea nodded. "He was my father."

"Oh." Tory bit down her embarrassment. "Open mouth, insert," she said. "I'm sorry."

"It's okay. It was a long time ago."

They sat watching while an attendant brought two glasses and filled them with water. "Listen," Tory said, looking at the menu, "I think I need a real drink. How about you? My treat." AstroLab. 3:11 P.M.

Cynthia Murray had been the director at Kitt Peak for six years. She'd taken a leave of absence and come to the AstroLab to work with Feinberg on the effort to map cosmic directionality. And, more significantly, to understand it. She'd already established a reputation for her work in macrogalactic structures, and now, like everyone else in the field, had been diverted by events into the Possum watch. And specifically into tracking POSIM-38.

Cynthia had gone through five husbands. One had died; the others had grown wearisome for one reason or another. The only passions Cynthia had were for her two daughters (by the second and fourth spouses) and for the galaxies. That was, of course, a shortcoming in the eyes of most men, even other astronomers. But she couldn't help it, didn't want to help it, and had finally accepted the fact that she was simply not meant to be somebody's wife.

She recognized a mirror image of sorts in Feinberg except that he was lonely, although he'd never admit it. She, on the other hand, had felt alone only during those hours she was forced to spend in domestic harness, away from the telescopes.

Cynthia had been drinking coffee and watching the Possum after it struggled out of the atmosphere. Its velocity had diminished considerably, and of course it had emerged with a new heading. It had lost about five percent of its mass during passage.

Her display extended Possum's trajectory out over a long narrow arc, and then brought it back.

It was still too early to be sure. But her instincts told her that Feinberg was going to be right. Again.

She finished her coffee, sighed, and reached for the phone. AstroLab. 3:36 P.M.

Feinberg sat in his white Fleetwood under some trees (a contractor was pouring blacktop in the parking lot), looking up at the AstroLab. The building was a flat swirl of steel and glass, two encircling wings emanating from a crosspiece. At night, when the light was favorable, it resembled an SBa, a barred spiral galaxy. Now, in the middle of the afternoon, this afternoon, it looked vaguely like an oversized bat hiding from the daylight. He did not want to go inside. He'd hoped the Possum would just go away, had hoped the run through the atmosphere would not slow it down excessively, would give it a decent trajectory. So he'd pushed it away from his thoughts, much as he'd have liked to push it away from the planet, and gone home to sleep. To hide from it, knowing that if things did go as he expected, Cynthia would call.

And Cynthia had called.

The jangle of the phone had been enough. He'd looked at his watch and known before he picked it up, before Cynthia had simply breathed his name. It was all she'd said.

"Apogee?" he'd asked.

"Two hundred thirty-seven thousand k."

No surprise there.

"Perigee?"

"Close."

How close?

"Looks like a bell-ringer."

Two hundred thirty-seven thousand kilometers. That sounded like Tuesday. They weren't going to get much of a breather.

He climbed out of the car and started walking toward the lab.

It was a brilliant April afternoon, lazy and cool, the wind whispering in the trees, the Sun high and bright. The acrid smell of blacktop brought back memories of his boyhood in south Boston, where the streets were eternally being repaved. And where the future stretched on forever.

He trudged up the long, curving gravel walkway, mounted the wide stone steps, and pushed in through the glass doors. The security guard in the lobby looked up and smiled. "Good morning, Professor Feinberg," she said. She was about twenty-five, pretty in the way all women of that age are pretty. Her eyes lingered on him a moment too long, almost flirtatious but not quite. Her name was Amy, and she was, he had heard, recently engaged.

She looked at him, frowning. "Are you okay, Professor?" she asked.

Her pleasant air-conditioned world, with its automatic dishwashers and its video call-ups and its relative security, was crashing in on her. He wondered whether she understood that. "Yes," he said. "Everything's fine."

Cynthia was waiting for him. "I'm sorry, Wes," she said.

"Well, we knew it was going to happen, didn't we?" He pulled off his sweater and threw it across the back of a chair. Half a dozen of their associates were already there, gathered around the displays, talking in low voices.

He took time to go over the numbers, hoping to find a mistake somewhere. When he didn't, he sat back and massaged his forehead. Four fifty-six A.M. Tuesday. "We'd better let the president know," he said.

• • •



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