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Hartsfield SSTO Maintenance Facility. 8:14 A.M.

There were now five SSTOs at Hartsfield. The shipment of pitons lay gleaming in their crates while teams of technicians proceeded with installation.

In an adjoining building, the flight crews were receiving instructions on their new equipment from Orly Carpenter. Carpenter was tall and angular, with a full head of silvery hair that in his astronaut days was such a fiery color it had earned him the nickname "Red." His usual high-energy delivery was subdued that evening, probably because of the nature of the mission, possibly because he was still trying to put the loss of Copenhagen and his niece Wendy's death out of his mind.

They sat in a crowded conference room around a long table designed for half the actual number of attendees. "Ladies and gentlemen," he said, speaking from a lectern in front of a video screen, "welcome to Operation Rainbow." He saw the smiles, some skeptical, some in the best can-do military tradition. "The media have been saying we're going to attempt to lift the Possum into a higher orbit. That's true as far as it goes. We will change its course somewhat. More important, we are going to accelerate it. We are going to speed it up and we are going to move it across Earth's orbit before Earth arrives.

"After your planes have been equipped, we'll take them to Skyport, refuel, and rendezvous with the Possum. We estimate that all seven vehicles will be in position on the rock between three-thirty and four A.M. Since this thing is due to come down at four minutes to five, we won't be much ahead of the curve.

"The SSTOs should have eighteen to twenty minutes burn time left at full throttle when they arrive at the Possum. That's not much. But it will be enough. What's essential is that no fuel be wasted. When we arrive, we'll lock down at our designated spots, and at the designated angles, and shut off the engines. From that point, do nothing without instructions. Questions so far?"

A hand went up, from Ben West, the pilot of the L.A.-based plane. "If I understand this, we're going to burn up most, or maybe all, of our fuel during the operation. Is that right?"

"That's correct, Ben."

"How do we get home?"

Carpenter nodded. "That's a fair question. We'll have ferries standing by. When the mission's been completed, if planes are unable to leave the Possum under their own power, which will likely be the case, the ferries will pick up the crews."

"Orly." Willem Stephan, who had just come back from the Moon. "What happens then? To the SSTOs?" The pilots had a traditional affection for their spacecraft. Casting them loose wasn't entirely appealing.

"Unfortunately," Carpenter said, "we've no immediate way to refuel them. We do expect to get them back eventually. But we're taking this one thing at a time. The objective is to stop the rock, not to save the planes. Anyone else?"

No hands went up.

"Okay. Once you're in place, the pitons will anchor you to the Possum. You'll be able to release from them any time you want, but if you do so the pitons will remain in the ground. You won't be able to reattach. So we only get one shot at this. Everything has to work right the first time.

"The pitons will be handled from the flight engineer's station. You'll need relatively flat ground, and we've tried to pick sites accordingly. If when you get there you don't like the terrain assigned to you, let me know. Don't try anything that looks unduly risky. But tell me before you lock down. Afterward, it's too late. Is that clear to everyone? Please be careful about all this. We're at a point now, if we lose a single vehicle we're in deep trouble.

"I'll be aboard the ferry Antonia Mabry, which'll serve as our command center. We'll have another passenger and I'd like to take a moment to introduce him." He looked down at a short, stocky, bearded man who'd been sitting up front. "Professor, can I ask you to stand, please?"

The bearded man, obviously reluctant, did so.

"This is Professor Wesley Feinberg, who's done much of the planning behind the mission."

"Good morning, everybody," Feinberg said. "I'm pleased to be with you." And with that he sat down.

Carpenter resumed his place, looking somewhat startled at the brevity of Feinberg's remarks. "Thank you, Professor Feinberg," he said. "And I'd like to express our appreciation to the flight crews as well. I know you're all volunteers, and I won't try to downplay the dangers inherent in the operation we're undertaking. Nobody's ever tried anything like this before. But I see no reason we can't bring it off." Percival Lowell, Presidential Quarters. 8:28 A.M.

"Charlie, you've got to do something or it's not going to matter whether you push that rock aside."

"What do you need, Al?"

"We've got too many dead people. And that makes the survivors goddam nervous. When they hear the sky's coming down, they believe it. Hell, Charlie, we're telling 'em everybody between Canada and Mexico, from Ohio to Utah's at risk. What do you think they're feeling out there today?"

"You want me to talk to them?"


"But I don't know how reassuring I can be. We think we can do this, the experts are confident. But that's not exactly a sentiment that's going to send people to the barricades."

Someone was knocking. Charlie opened the door and saw

Evelyn. She was loaded up with coffee and eggs. She mouthed the word breakfast?

"Then lie" said Al.

"Haven't they had enough of that?"

"Goddammit, Charlie, the middle of the country's in a panic. Everybody's running for cover."

He nodded. "I've been watching the reports."

"Then you know you need to do something. Sir." Evelyn was setting a place for him, locking the coffee and food containers in place on a small table. "We've arranged to set aside a block of time with the networks. At ten A.M."

"Ten o'clock? Have you lost your mind, Al? It's, what, eight-thirty now."

"The sooner the better, Charlie. We've got to calm things down."

He felt his stomach tightening. "I'll get back to you," he said.

He disconnected. Evelyn maintained the silence for several seconds, but he knew she was watching him.

He shrugged. "I thought you were outside, working with Lee."

"We're between sites. Taking a break." Then her tone changed: "What are you going to do?"

She was a lovely woman. He'd have liked to retreat with her to a lonely island. Get away from all this. "What can I do? I'll make the broadcast."

"I mean, what will you say?"

That was a good question. "I'll tell them it's under control. I'll ask them to keep calm and stay home and remind them it's more dangerous on the road than it is under their own roofs."

She frowned, and her dark eyes hardened. "Isn't that the same thing Kolladner told them?"

"Son of a bitch, Evelyn. What do you want from me? What am I supposed to tell them?"

"The truth?" she asked.

"What's the truth? That I'm up here looking out the window at that goddammed flying Everest and when Feinberg tells me a few planes can make it go away I want to believe him but in my heart I just can't see it. That I think the whole god-dammed thing is going to fall in the middle of Kansas and break the country's back?"

"Oh," she said.

"No. My job right now is to keep a lid on. And give Carpenter and Feinberg a chance to do their work."

"If you lie to them," she said, "they'll know. I don't think you're a good liar, Charlie." And then, without warning, she looked at him and he understood the invitation. He hesitated, decided why the hell not, and embraced her. Her lips touched his cheek and then pressed against his mouth. She was warm and yielding and her breasts and hips melted into him. "Stay with the truth," she said. "It's who you are." Her cheeks were wet.

He found the nape of her neck and held her. They rocked gently.

"Stay with the truth," she repeated. "But don't give your opinion." Route 411, west of the Cherokee National Forest, Tennessee. 8:42 A.M.

They'd taken his revolver and cuffed his hands behind his back and put him in the rear of the colonel's white Ford van. There were no windows, save those atop the rear doors. He sat on the floor with the launcher and a spread of AN/415 Cobra heatseekers.

Up front, Tad and Steve didn't talk much. The radio was filled with the voices of disaster, people mourning friends and relatives, others predicting the end of the world. A tidal wave had struck Anchorage; and a rock had landed in China, triggering an earthquake that had swallowed several towns. Jack knew, had known, people in Los Angeles and Seattle, on Cape Cod and in Miami. His uncle Frank, who'd remembered him every Christmas when he was a kid, lived in Anchorage. Who was alive and who dead? And Jack had two children at home. What would happen to them and to Ann if his brother actually succeeded in downing one of the planes?

He'd pleaded with his brother as they rolled along the Blue Ridge Parkway. After a while he'd begun to scream at the men in the front seat until Tad had climbed back and gagged him.

Eventually they stopped, and Steve grumbled that the parkway was blocked, and Tad noted there were no cops visible anywhere, and it was just another demonstration of how quickly the government abandoned its responsibilities under pressure.

They exited onto a mountain road and drove through the night. Occasionally they stopped, once to get a charge, a couple of times to get snacks and ask directions. At one point Steve removed his gag, said how disappointed he was at Jack's behavior, but asked whether he wanted something to eat. Jack screamed for help and the gag went back on.

In spite of everything, Jack hated seeing the contempt in his brother's eyes. He'd made a lifelong effort to earn and keep Steve's respect. It was, in fact, the reason he'd joined the Jefferson Legion. The truth was, he thought life was not that bad under the government everybody else wanted to bring down. Although he'd never have said that to any of his compatriots. Least of all Steve.

They spent several hours somewhere, blocked by traffic.

After the Sun came up and he could see, he tried to load one of the heatseekers into the launcher, with a view to firing it through the front of the vehicle. But it wasn't possible with his hands cuffed, and he made so much noise he attracted attention and Tad came back and told him to stop or he'd put out Jack's lights.

By midmorning they were moving again and at noon Tad announced they'd crossed the Georgia line. The first of the space planes was scheduled to depart at about one. The media were on the scene and they were making an event of it. Crowds had lined up at Rico, Georgia, near the mouth of the underground launchway. The networks were giving it full coverage, interviewing people as far away as Chattanooga. Witnesses were on rooftops with binoculars and telescopes. Night launchings were best, one old man said. They really put on a show.

"So will we," said Steve.

The colonel had Interior Department maps, which he studied for the best attack site. Jack knew it had to be west of Rico, in the direction of the launch, but Tad commented that the area was built up and looked unlikely to provide, say, a covering patch of forest.

Tad remarked they didn't really have much choice, and that he'd stand out in the middle of the street and launch the missile if that's what the colonel thought they should do.

"I think we can improve on that," said Steve. "Here's the Chattahoochee. Somewhere along its banks there has to be shelter of some sort."

Jack saw blinkers ahead and they slowed down again. Accident, probably. He started to move toward the rear doors, hoping to throw them open and jump out, hoping for police. But Tad climbed back and stayed with him until they'd gotten past and were moving along again at a steady clip.

There were other slowdowns, and Tad complained they wouldn't make it by one.

Gallagher glanced at his watch. They'd switched places several times and Tad was driving now. "It's okay," he said soothingly. "We can take our time. All we have to do is knock down one plane. Doesn't matter which one it is." He looked at peace with the world. It was odd. He seemed to discount the risks they were taking. As if they were destiny's favorites.