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5.


SSTO Tokyo Passenger Cabin, Transatmospheric Terminal, Hartsfield Airport, Atlanta. 2:31 P.M.

Orly Carpenter sat across the aisle from Wes Feinberg. The physicist looked drawn. "First time into orbit?" Carpenter asked.

Feinberg managed a smile. He looked out at the tarmac, which was moving slowly past the windows, and back at Carpenter. "Yes," he admitted.

"Nothing to be afraid of, Doc."

"Don't be ridiculous," he said. "I'm not afraid of these things. Truth is, I have a touch of indigestion."

"Good. It's not much different from an ordinary airplane."

Feinberg nodded. His position required him to fly occasionally, and he knew the statistics, that he could fly around the world a hundred thousand times or so before he would become due for a crash. But he also remembered the story of the man who'd drowned in a stream that averaged only eight inches in depth. Numbers were funny, and he preferred being able to keep his feet on the ground.

The forward motion stopped. The spacecraft seemed to rise slightly and then settle back down again. "What was that?" asked Feinberg.

"We got loaded onto the launch ramp."

Carpenter was at the apex of a long and distinguished career. He'd been a fighter pilot, a test pilot, a trainer at the Navy's Top Gun school, and he'd become an astronaut at precisely the right moment to participate in the return to the Moon.

The week's events had shaken him, and he'd heard all the talk about closing NASA down, about cutting losses with Moonbase International and the LTA, about returning to the ground and rebuilding the cities and letting future generations worry about space. But he was by God not going to let that happen. What we had here was an object lesson in what could occur when defenses weren't in place. The next big comet could come down on North America. In fact, they had a big rock trying to do precisely that.

But with the new president in the thick of the action, Carpenter recognized a historic opportunity. And it wasn't simply a matter of selling him on Skybolt. The reality was that humans had to get off-world. They needed the resources the solar system could provide, and they now had the technology to make it happen. All that was necessary was will.

After they turned the Possum aside, Carpenter knew he could find a way to reach this president. And consequently touch the future. "We are going to make this happen, aren't we, Doc?" he asked.

Feinberg nodded. "If everybody gets there, if nobody burns too much fuel, if the pitons hold, yes. If everything goes according to schedule, we will most certainly make it happen."

The pilot's voice sounded over the intercom: "Buckle in, gentlemen. We are one minute to launch."

"Doc," said Carpenter, "sit back and enjoy the ride. You and I are going to make history tonight." Chattahoochee River. 2:34 P.M.

Very carefully, they removed the launcher and two heat-seekers from the van and laid them on a strip of canvas. Then, while the colonel inspected the weapons, Tad climbed in and pushed Jack onto his back. "You're goddam worthless, you know that?" he said in a voice pitched too low for Steve to hear. Jack's eyes were yellow around the edges.

Tad got Jack's belt off, looped it around the rear stanchion of the front seat, and dragged him forward. When Jack tried to resist, Tad twisted his arm until his face grew white.

But it was an awkward business. And when Tad bent over him, trying to secure the belt to the handcuffs, sudden agony exploded in his groin. He rolled over and Jack scrambled out of the van.

Tad shut down the pain, lay breathing steadily for a few moments while his mind cleared. Somewhere far off he heard a door open. He could see Jack, hands cuffed behind him, stumbling toward the street. A U-haul rounded a corner and moved slowly past. Its driver looked but didn't stop.

Tad pulled his Smith amp; Wesson out of his pocket, and dropped slowly, and very tentatively, onto the asphalt. His legs were wobbly. He kept thinking what a clumsy son-of-a-bitch operation this was turning into.

The door he'd heard opening belonged to the house with the dog. A woman had come out onto the lawn and was watching. Tad raised the weapon and caught her in the sights. She suddenly became aware of the gun. She tried to get back inside, but he pulled the trigger, heard the explosion, watched her go down.

Jack's movements became even more frantic. He'd reached the street and was running for the cover of a group of trees at the corner. Tad tracked him with the weapon, leading him slightly. But the colonel stepped in, covering Tad's gun hand with his palm. "He's my brother, Tad," he said quietly. "My responsibility."

He raised his own pistol, a.45, and fired once. Jack lurched forward and fell.

"We'll have to find someplace else," Steve said, pushing the weapon back into a shoulder holster. They put the missiles back in the van, rolled out onto the street, and as they passed Jack's crumpled body, the colonel fired three more rounds into it. "God forgive me," he said quietly. • • •



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