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Hartsfield SSTO Maintenance Facility, Atlanta. 2:55 A.M.

A pair of SSTOs were berthed in the hangar; another waited outside. Work crews swarmed over all three vehicles. Sparks flew from welding torches. Exterior panels were removed while technicians poked at the planes' circuits.

The crew chief was satisfied that they were getting all the preliminary work done. There was still a question about the type of piton that would be installed. And that couldn't be resolved until whoever was doing the analyses of the Possum's surface made up his, or her, mind about specs. But once they knew, it would just be a matter of slapping in junction boxes, bolting on the mounts, and inserting the units.

"Four hours," the crew chief told his department head. "Minimum."

"Four hours?" The department head wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Look, Arvy, we've got the goddam president of the United States personally taking soil samples-"

"Well, that sure as hell makes me confident."

"Just have everything ready to go, okay?" AstroLab. 4:11 A.M.

Feinberg was sleeping on a couch in his office when the call came in. It was Al Kerr: the president would be grateful if the professor could see his way clear to accompanying the Possum mission.

He hesitated. Feinberg didn't like planes all that much, much less rockets. He argued that he was better placed to help at the AstroLab, but Kerr insisted. The president thought his presence might make the difference if problems developed. "Besides," Kerr said conspiratorially, "the country's in a panic right now. If you're there, people are going to feel better."

"They need me to hold their hand," he told Cynthia a few minutes later. "But I want you available. Stay here. Sleep in your office if you have to, but stay near the action."

A military escort had a helicopter waiting to take him to Atlanta. Cynthia Murray was therefore directing operations at the AstroLab when POSIM-38 reached its apogee, a little more than an hour later, and began to fall back toward Earth. Percival Lowell Flight Deck. 5:42 A.M.

Rachel Quinn moved into a parallel trajectory with POSIM-38. They circled the object and began mapping its surface. They made extensive and detailed images, concentrating on areas suggested by Feinberg, who was in communication from a military transport flying over Pennsylvania.

The chaplain had asked what he could do to help, and Rachel showed him how to operate the imaging equipment. It was really quite simple. When Feinberg, watching on his notebook, asked that the image be shifted, or rotated, or that they simply move on, the chaplain pushed the appropriate button.

When they were satisfied they had enough, Rachel laid in alongside the Possum and matched its tumbling motion, so that its rocky walls stabilized in Lowell's viewports while the stars and the Earth began to tumble. Feinberg had suggested a number of touchdown sites, and she began now to ease toward the first of these. The ship rotated and corrected.

In the right-hand seat, Charlie watched the cliff wall approach, tilt, move up past the window, become a plain. His stomach began to feel queasy. The chaplain smiled and told him it'd be over in a minute. "Try to think about something else," he said.

Charlie was looking out over a stretch of unearthly terrain. Not a moonscape; this was rather a profusion of rolling hills and flowing valleys, a spectral panorama possessing a dormant liquidity. This section of the Possum reminded him of the Dakota Black Hills, which he'd visited as a boy on one of his family's sight-seeing vacations. It had, like that bleak place, erupted and quickly cooled. This was the Back Country, the spheric area that made up three-quarters of the Possum's surface. It was dark, probably seared in the fireball. In the distance he saw Solitary Ridge, a long, ramrod-vertical cliff, distinctive by its angularity in this relatively uniform area.

Morley was once again equipped with a microcam, delivered at his request by Rachel. Now he used it to send close-ups back to his television audience while he described the mission. Samples, he explained, would be drawn and analyzed to provide data on density and to allow the analysts to estimate the Possum's mass. They were starting here because it was smooth and they could gain some experience before tackling the rougher sections.

But even Morley couldn't make the preparations for taking rock samples look exciting, so he signed off after ten minutes, promising to return if anything happened. There was a breathlessness in his tone, as if he thought something would happen, had to happen.

Getting the samples was Cochran's job, and when he announced the equipment was almost ready, the other two members of the "rock team"-Saber and Evelyn-retreated below and began changing into their gear.

Charlie had argued that Evelyn's EVA experience didn't compensate for her lack of strength, and that he should be the third member of the party, but Rachel was adamant that she wasn't going to risk a president. She was captain and she'd damned well make the call. Charlie saw that she was uncomfortable, and backed off. She was right anyway, he realized. The last thing the country needed just now would be to lose another chief executive.

Rachel laid the Lowell gently on the surface. Since there was no gravity to speak of, she had to use her thrusters to keep it in place. The flight deck was high enough to see over most of the mounds, and Charlie studied the horizon, which looked about as far away as the other end of a football field. It was horizontal rather than curved, and he had the sense of being atop a plateau.

When Rachel suggested, with considerable reluctance, that they could use his help with the laser drill, he readily complied. She added that she'd look forward to telling her grandchildren she'd once given direction to a U.S. president.

The drill was about the size of a large farm tractor. A spherical reflector was mounted on its hood, from which the laser beam would be transmitted. A pair of flex-jointed extractor rods, of different diameters, rose on either side.

The operator, seated on a saddle, could raise, lower, or extend the reflector in its manual mode, or he could turn the entire operation over to onboard computers. The semiconductor heart of the system was located inside a black box forward of the operator's position.

The unit normally traveled on six independently suspended wheels, which were obviously not going to be of much use in the Possum's zero-g environment. Wrestling it around wasn't going to be easy.

The drill was big and awkward and tended to want to stay where it was. When they got it moving, it was difficult to steer or stop. Cochran warned that, once outside, they'd have to be careful not to lose it.

Charlie's physics weren't good, but he could visualize the situation: The Possum was turning at a pretty fast clip and it would try to throw the laser drill into space, along with the three astronauts. Consequently, once clear of the ship, they'd have to bolt the unit to the ground. The situation was complicated by the fact that the Lowell's p-suits weren't equipped with grab shoes, so the astronauts would have to anchor themselves first. They'd cannibalized the modules that were to have served as living quarters on Mars to find cables and spikes from which to fashion anchors. In all, it was going to be a clumsy operation. Charlie suited up so he'd be ready to go outside in the event of trouble.

Morley came down and caught everything live as they loaded the unit into the airlock. Then they followed it in, closed the hatch, and minutes later emerged on the surface of the Possum.

Charlie listened on a headset and watched the action through cameras mounted on the hull.

The rock team, tethers attached, pulled the drill out onto the surface.

"Over there looks good," said Cochran. "Lift easy. No sudden jerks, okay?"

"I got it," said Evelyn. Then: "Look out; it's drifting."

"Hell, Evelyn, you're the one's drifting. Take in some of the tether."

"It's like trying to stop an elephant."

"You guys need help out there?" asked Rachel. "Want me to send the president?"


They tugged the unit into place and secured it with cables.

When that was done, Cochran swung a leg over the saddle. "Set for one meter. Power up."

Moments later the black box produced a ruby beam that bounced off a mirror, penetrated a lens, and was turned ninety degrees toward the ground by the reflector. After a wait of several seconds, the ground began to bubble. A wisp of smoke rose, and at Cochran's direction, one of the mantis arms telescoped into the rock, rotating at high speed. When he was satisfied, he withdrew it and deposited its contents into a gleaming plastic case. Then he reset for four meters, and they repeated the process.

They took samples down to depths of twelve meters. Then they came back inside, turned them over to Charlie, and Rachel made for a new location.

Charlie labeled the samples and delivered them to Morley. Morley and Doc Elkhart had received a quick course in using Lowell's geological lab. They ran the rocks through a series of simple procedures while Cynthia Murray monitored the results from the AstroLab and passed the data on to Feinberg.

The chaplain wondered aloud whether they might be taking another risk in attempting to lift the Possum to a more stable orbit. "Once the space planes start to work on that rock," he told Charlie, "I would think they'd have to succeed. Because if they don't, they'll change the impact point, won't they? Nobody'll know where it's coming down."

Charlie didn't press his own thoughts, that if things went that far it wouldn't much matter. Relocation Station, Bismarck, North Dakota. 5:11 A.M. Central Daylight Time (6:11 A.M. EDT).

Marilyn heard distant voices, commotion, the sound of trucks. It was cold in the army tent they shared with twenty others. Some were refugees from Louise's party, though Louise herself was gone, swallowed in the vast hordes arriving hourly by bus and plane from around the nation.

People were on their feet in the tent, dazed, frightened, discovering how much they missed the daily amenities of private shower and breakfast at leisure. There was no privacy, of course. She'd come to realize that was a civilized luxury.

"Let's go, everybody," said a shrill voice. Marilyn needed a moment to locate the speaker-a small, white-haired woman dressed in frumpy brown with a red and green arm patch identifying her as a Civil Emergency Corps volunteer. "We're moving out. Buses will be here in twenty minutes."

Larry rolled over on his cot and looked up at her. The early-morning air was cold and damp. "What's going on?" he asked. "Are we going someplace else again?"

An elderly man sat, trying to pull on his trousers while shielding himself with his blanket. "We're too close to Kansas," he said. "I heard somebody say we're going to Saskatoon."

Larry's eyes rolled. "Where the hell's Saskatoon?"

"Canada somewhere."

Somebody pulled a tent flap aside and a cold wind blew in. "North," Marilyn said. "We're headed north again." AstroLab. 7:17 A.M.

The Possum was composed primarily of crystals: plagioclase, pyroxene, ilmenite, olivine, and other minerals. Their size and arrangement suggested they'd crystallized as fluid lavas. Of course, considering the circumstances, that could hardly be news. But the terrain should be firm enough, Feinberg thought, to hold the anchors. He passed his conclusions, with recommended specifications for the equipment, along to the Johnson Space Center. Johnson relayed the specs to the primary contractor, and to LTA at Hartsfield. The contractor responded that they'd already shipped two dozen units of each of the potentially applicable models, so the pitons were already at the Atlanta airport awaiting installation.

This news was passed back to Feinberg, who was at that moment landing at Hartsfield.

He'd been keeping abreast of the varying fortunes regarding the SSTOs. Last night, when one of the planes had been destroyed trying to return from Skyport, he'd been informed that they were down to six, and that he'd have to find a way to make do. When he'd explained to Orly Carpenter at NASA that it simply wasn't possible, they'd found another one someplace.

Damned bureaucrats. Playing their games even when the life of the world was at stake.

Carpenter was waiting for him when he landed. The imaging data from Lowell had arrived and they retreated to a virtual tank to begin picking landing sites. Feinberg stared at the Possum, tumbling, rotating around its long axis once every fifty-three minutes and eleven seconds.

He was, in a way, gratified. His life had been devoted to the quiet collection of knowledge that should have had no practical value. Yet here he was, able to engage his specialty to save the United States of America, for God's sake, and maybe civilization itself. Not bad for an astrophysicist. It would be a rousing climax to a life lived, despite his awards, in relative obscurity. Knowledge was its own justification, of course. To discern how the solar engine worked, why galaxies formed, how long a given star could be expected to live. These kinds of issues were the proper pursuit of humanity. No matter that they might not provide a blueprint for how to build a better house or make the economy behave. (The issue of practical applications had driven him to fury last year when yet another effort to fund the supercollider had failed. The Congress had asked what benefit could be derived from understanding how creation had happened; and the physicists, to their eternal discredit, had no answer.)

Still, it felt good to apply his knowledge. To know that, because the astronomers had been here, this civilization would live.

"Here," he said, illuminating a point toward the rear, high in the Back Country. "And here." Toward the front of the Plain. "The real problem is that a lot of the ground's just too rough. They wouldn't be able to get close enough to lock the planes down. And in some places, the lava base is too weak. But we can make do." Eventually they agreed on the seven sites.