TRANSGLOBAL SPECIAL REPORT. 7:02 P.M.
"This is Peggy Bitmauer at LTA headquarters in Indianapolis. A fleet of space planes will blast off from Atlanta tomorrow morning in an effort to head off the Possum, a large chunk of moonrock which scientists expect to fall in Kansas Tuesday morning. Lunar Transport Authority Commissioner Harold Stratemeyer, a few moments ago, said that the LTA's entire fleet of Single-Stage-To-Orbit spacecraft have been placed at the disposal of the Government____________________
Atlanta. 7:09 P.M.
Pete Telliard and his wife were celebrating their twenty-second anniversary at Horatio's, where no prices were printed on the menu and the meals were a hundred sixty per. Reservations were usually required weeks in advance; but tonight, like the city it served, Horatio's was three-quarters empty.
Pete squirmed in his jacket, uncomfortable with the formality of the waiters, trying to look as if he ate in establishments like this all the time. His wife smiled at him. "Next year," she said, "we'll go to the Steak and Ale."
His phone beeped. He pressed the face of the device and watched the antenna rise. "Telliard," he said.
"Pete." His boss's voice. From the shop. "We need you. Right away."
He stared at the instrument. "I can't make it," he said. "I'm with my wife. At Horatio's. Anniversary."
"I'm sorry, Pete. I really am. But we have to have you. They're bringing in the SSTOs for some refitting. It has to be done yesterday and there's no wriggle room." Skyport, Flight Control. 8:17 P.M.
George Culver gazed at a close-up of the ruined tail assembly. The hull was battered and scorched, most of his sensors were gone, the port wing was jammed shut.
"We just don't have the facilities to do the kind of repairs it needs, George." The speaker was Skyport's maintenance chief, a quiet, intense man in his fifties. "I can't certify it. It wouldn't hold together if you tried to take it down."
"So what happens now?"
He shrugged. "Not my department. But if they ask me, I'll recommend they salvage the parts and junk the rest."
"You might not have a choice about certification," George said. "They need all the SSTOs."
The eyes narrowed. "They already tried to pressure me, George. Look, if you try to take that thing down, odds are you're not going to make it. I told that to management and I told it to NASA. If my boss wants to override me and sign the paper, he's free to do so. I won't do it. And if I were you and they do certify the plane, I'd refuse to fly it. Quote me if you want." Skyport, Copenhagen Flight Deck. 8:36 P.M.
The engines were running.
Nora Ehrlich was an accomplished woman. Aside from flying the big space plane, she played a competent organ, had twice served on her school board, and had published two books of humorous aphorisms. She knew an event when she saw one, and she was taking notes for a third book, which would be an account of the rescue at Moonbase, followed by the pursuit of the Possum. The thing couldn't miss, and she already had the title: Blindside. She'd considered The Doomsday Rock and Moonwreck. But Blindside had a nice ring to it. Her first two volumes, Nude in the Fast Lane and Scatter My Ashes at Lord amp; Taylor, had been written under a pseudonym and had been modestly successful; Blindside would appear with her own name on the jacket. And she expected to make the best-seller lists.
Nora was a Londoner. She was tall, model-attractive, red-headed, a widow. She'd never lacked for dates, had married a wealthy Dane, moved to Copenhagen, had two daughters, and been successful at everything she touched. In the fall, her older daughter would be starting at the University of Zurich. Her husband had died three years earlier in a plane crash. She missed him, and had formed the unfortunate habit of contrasting everyone else against him. They all came up short.
But life without a steady man wasn't as bad as she'd imagined, and she was reasonably content. And the Tomiko Event, which was a disaster for everyone else, was developing into a godsend for her. She was at the center of the action. She knew that Keith Morley was riding out to the Possum now, and she expected to persuade him to do an interview with her. She expected to become an overnight celebrity, and that wouldn't hurt the book at all.
"Copenhagen." The voice was from Skyport flight control. "Ready to launch."
"Roger. On your count."
Her copilot, Johann Blakeslee, nodded. Boards green. The flight engineer was Wendy Carpenter, a friend since college days, and a niece of Orly Carpenter, NASA's director of operations at Houston.
"We're go," said Wendy.
Blakeslee was tall and blond. Chiseled chin, clear blue eyes, butter-wouldn't-melt smile. He was one of the few really good-looking guys Nora had met who was worth a damn. "Did you hear they got some complaints?" he asked. "Some people are upset because we're going back empty and they can't get home. I understand they were raising hell with the scheduling desk."
"Nothing surprises me anymore, Blakes," she said.
They launched precisely on schedule. The standard flight plan to Atlanta called for the spacecraft to complete almost three-quarters of an orbit before starting its descent. But they were barely away from the station when they were overtaken without warning by a storm of pebbles and dust. It tore at the plane, broke off antennas, smashed the radome, and cracked a passenger window in the rear. The window blew out and air pressure plummeted. Nora cut the engines, but that was a mistake. The debris, moving faster than the SSTO and coming at it from almost directly behind, penetrated the rockets and coated fuel pumps and the combustion chamber, and all but blocked the exhaust ports. Warning lights for both engines glowed blood red.
Rocks clattered against the hull. Klaxons sounded in the passenger compartment.
Nora opened a channel to Skyport. "This is Copenhagen" she said. "Mayday."
"I see it. Sit tight, Copenhagen. Wait one."
Abruptly the storm was gone.
Skyport came back: "Stay with it for one orbit. Then we'll abandon. Kordeshev will rendezvous."
"You can't do that," said Ehrlich. "They need the plane."
"Yeah, I can save it," she said. "I'm going to restart, and we'll bring her back."
"Negative, Copenhagen. Restart is not authorized."
Blakeslee's eyes had gone wide. "They're right. You can't take this kind of chance."
"We start one" she said. "We only need one."
Blakeslee shook his head. Not a good idea. Wendy caught Ehrlich's eye and nodded. Do it.
"Do not try to return," said flight control. "Copenhagen, acknowledge."
Nora used the thrusters to adjust attitude. All she needed to do was get a little lift. A little acceleration. "You're breaking up, Skyport," she said. "We cannot hear you." She glanced at Blakeslee. "Ready?"
The starboard engine misfired and ignited the fuel tank, which erupted. The blast broke the plane in half and set off a series of secondary explosions. A nearby satellite recorded the event.
It was almost a minute before the blinding light died.