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6.


SSTO Tokyo Passenger Cabin. 2:38 P.M.

"You okay, Doc?" Carpenter leaned across the aisle and looked with concern at Feinberg, whose color was slowly coming back.

"Yes." His head sagged against the back of the seat, his eyes closed. "I'm fine."

"Good. We'll be leveling off in a bit now. The worst is over."

"Not a problem." He didn't once open his eyes. Chattahoochee River. 2:41 P.M.

The Atlanta area had escaped the general devastation almost without a scratch. Here, the disaster was something seen on television screens, impinging on personal lives only to the extent that the inhabitants had friends or family in danger, or that telephone and computer links had broken down. Consequently, when Frieda Harmon heard the shooting, there were still people manning the 911 lines. Her neighbor Harriet was lying outside her front door, bleeding severely, and there was another man in the street who looked dead, and please send the ambulance right away. Yes, she'd seen who did it, two men in a white van parked outside the Golden Apple Spa, which has been closed the last two months. Please hurry.

And no, the van wasn't still here.

Ambulance and police arrived within minutes. They whisked Harriet away to the hospital and cordoned off the street. And they took a statement from Frieda.

What had the killers looked like?

She gave them a reasonably complete description. The one who shot the man in the street was tall, about forty, very imposing, walked like he owned the place. The other was trim, wiry, maybe thirty years old, hard to tell, wearing a dark blue jacket. He had receding black hair. Looked like a thug.

She wasn't sure which had shot Harriet, but assumed it was the big man. And, oh, they were wearing army helmets. No, not uniforms, just helmets.

They'd had something with them that might have been rockets. Or shells. Looked like shells. The shells were on the ground when she first saw them. After the shootings, the men gathered them up and put them in the back of the van.

No, she was sorry, but she didn't get the license number. Her eyes weren't that good and she hadn't been wearing her glasses and everything happened so fast.

Police identified the body of Jack Gallagher, ran his name through NCIC. It came out negative. He had no criminal record.

Gallagher lived in Staunton, Virginia, they learned. They arranged to have a Staunton detective visit his home and inform the widow. Staunton police informed Georgia law enforcement that Gallagher had been a militiaman.

Steve Gallagher's name surfaced within minutes. They showed his picture to Frieda, who couldn't identify him. "He was too far away," she said.

The Atlanta area detective was Joe Calkins. He made some calls to ask questions about the militia unit, and he ran a check on Steve Gallagher, who also had no priors. While he sat in his unmarked car, pondering the killing, another SSTO soared into the sky.

He flipped a switch on the radio: "Request APB: two Caucasian males in white, late-model Ford van, probably Virginia plates" He gave everything he had to the dispatcher, thought a minute, and then added: "Better call Hartsfield. Tell them somebody might be trying to shoot down one of their planes."

Skyport Flight Terminal 3:27 P.M.

"That's it." Carpenter paused by a viewport and pointed at a boxy vehicle docked beside the Tokyo. It was dwarfed by the SSTO.

"I still think we'd be safer if we stayed on the plane," said Feinberg.

"Trust me, Wes," Carpenter said. "The plane's going to be pulling against its mooring. At full thrust. If it breaks loose" He shrugged. "The Mabry isn't very pretty, but it's a lot more likely to come back." Chattahoochee River. 4:01 P.M.

What had started out as a lark had developed into grim necessity. Steve knew it wouldn't be hard to connect Jack with the Legion, and subsequently with himself. The only real protection for him lay in obliterating the police, in demolishing the state that sent these goons out to hound innocent citizens. Actually, he recognized he might not be so innocent in this case. But he had only done what he had to do.

The way to bring down the state was to bring down one of the space planes.

He'd counted three launches so far. Still plenty of time to get the job done.

They were several miles southwest of the river now, starting to stretch the range of the Cobra, and still looking for a launch site. Steve had begun to think maybe they should just park, wait their chance, and take the spacecraft down from the middle of the street. Who'd try to stop two armed men anyway? Then he saw the Munson Funeral Home.

It stood on a mild rise about fifty yards back from the road. Thirty or so cars were parked in the adjoining lot, and a few people were standing near the front door. A secondary lot in the rear was empty save for a station wagon and a black limo. The property was lined by a thin screen of trees. Just enough to shield them. Hartsfield Airport, Security. 4:03 P.M.

"Police on line three, Mr. Martin."

Rob Martin frowned and picked up the phone. "Security. Can I help you?"

"Hello, Rob."

He knew the voice immediately. It belonged to Oscar Tate, a former FBI agent who was now the Fulton County chief of detectives. "Yeah, Oscar, what have you got?"

"A couple of militia types, we think with a missile launcher. They might be trying to bring down one of your planes."

"They picked a hell of a time to do it."

Martin could almost hear the shrug. "There's no accounting for loonies. Anyway, for what it's worth" His voice trailed off.

"Yeah. Thanks, Oscar. Let us know when you catch these guys, okay?"

He looked up at the photo of the Delta 787 hanging over his couch. Then he changed to another line. "Janet," he said, "get me Wolfy over at the LTA." Hartsfield SSTO Launch Tunnel Control, Atlanta. 4:05 P.M.

Wolfgang Bracken picked the phone up on the first ring. "Support Services," he said.

"Wolfy?" Rob Martin's voice. "We got a call from the police that there might be somebody out there with a ground-to-air missile trying to take down the SSTOs."

Bracken delivered an obscenity. "How sure are you?"

"The cops don't know. But I think you ought to put a hold on the operation until they have a chance to look around."

"Thanks, Rob." Bracken was a squat little man with huge black eyebrows, bulldog jowls, and an absolutely hairless skull. "We just launched one."

SSTO Los Angeles Flight Deck. 4:06 P.M.

Ben West was the only one of the LTA pilots who had not gotten his early experience in military jets. He had begun flying with his father's air cargo service in the Southwest, and had shown an affinity for the cockpit that eventually landed him a job as a test pilot for Allied, where he'd flown the first SSTO prototype, the Alpha-6. He was also the only SSTO pilot who had been invited into his job.

Ben was an African-American, divorced, with two teenagers. He was a bridge player of extraordinary ability, and had twice represented the United States in world competition. His kids were doing well in school, and after six years he'd finally found a woman who could engage his emotions and fill his life. Like the other volunteers of the Rainbow mission, he knew in very personal terms what he was trying to save.

His flight engineer was Tina Hoskin, who came equipped with a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality, a woman who was all quiet efficiency and decorum on the spacecraft, but whose off-duty bluntness alienated friends and occasionally offended management. She'd made too many enemies at higher levels, and Ben knew she'd never rise any higher than where she was at that moment. He occasionally wondered about the wisdom of flying with her, knowing that a lot of people were praying the plane would go down.

His copilot was Harmony Smith, attractive, cold, single-minded. If Ben was the only non-jet-jock among the flight crews, Harmony was the only one who'd done jail time. She'd once been a gunrunner. That was after six years as an air force pilot. But Harmony had come back, and the Lunar Transport Authority had thought enough of her skills to give her a chance. They hadn't been disappointed.

My two desperados. It stood to reason that when the crunch came, they hadn't hesitated to help chase down the Possum. The nature of this flight necessarily rendered it an emotional experience, and Ben was thinking just how much affection he had for the two women when Harmony mentioned almost matter-of-factly that there was something coming up behind them. Fast.

"I think it's a missile," she said, a hush in her voice.

The SSTO was too big to jink.

"Range ten miles," she said. "Closing at mach two. We've got maybe thirty seconds."

"Heatseeker?"

"Can't tell."

He'd have preferred to wait until the object got closer and then turn as sharply as he could and shut down the engines. But the spacecraft was too big and just not sufficiently maneuverable to wait. "Hang on," he said, and cut hard to port.

"Ben," said Tina, "we're getting a warning from the tower. They're telling us to look out for a missile."

"Good," said Ben. He counted to five and killed the engines.

"Twenty seconds," said Harmony. "It's turning with us."

"We need some chaff," said Tina. Chaff was routinely used by military aircraft to decoy missiles.

Ben opened his mike. "Tower," he said, "this is L.A. We've found your missile."

"We see it, Ben. We've been alerted there are a couple of loonies down there with a launcher."

"Five seconds," said Tina.

"It's on us," he told them.

The heatseeker exploded just aft of their starboard engine. The plane rocked hard to port. On the flight deck, trouble lights blinked on all over the board. Ben fought for control, expecting the fuel lines to rupture and the tanks to let go. But it didn't happen.

The tower was still talking to him.

"We're still in the air," he told the mike. And to Tina: "Any more?"

"Affirmative," she said. "Another one coming. But it's off-target. Don't restart."

Ben set the wings to manual and extended them to their full thirty-eight degrees for maximum lift.

"Starboard engine's off-line," said Harmony. "And we've got some hydraulic problems."

Tina raised a fist. "Missile's past," she said. "Sky's clear."

"Stand by to start portside." He opened the fuel line and hit the ignition. The engine roared into life.

Thank God for that.

"L.A., what's happening?"

The controls were stiff. "Tower, we have one engine offline, hydraulics. Not sure what else. But we have control."

The relief in the voice was audible. "Can you make it back?"

"Wait one." They were still losing altitude. Tina did a quick calculation and held up her thumb. "Affirmative," he said. "But we'll have to make it on the first pass."

"We'll have it wide open for you, Ben."

The plane felt heavy, awkward, slow. He had to compensate for the constant drift to starboard. And he was losing fuel from somewhere.

He checked the landing gear and was relieved to get a green light. "We'll be okay," he said.

"Maybe." Harmony's dark eyes were fixed on a point somewhere over his shoulder. "Maybe we will."



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