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1.


Percival Lowell Flight Deck. 12:03 A.M.

"Arlington's here, Mr. President." Rachel pointed to the scope over the heads-up display, where three blips had appeared. The objects were approaching from the rear, after having completed a long, looping orbit to allow them to match the Possum's trajectory. Dead ahead, Earth looked very big and very vulnerable.

Thank God. Charlie felt the weight shift on his shoulders. It was too easy to visualize this thing ripping through the planet's pink skies, blasting the lush brown soil of Kansas into the upper atmosphere, melting the underlying bedrock.

"Arlington's damaged," she continued. "It got hammered coming back from the Moon."

"I hope it holds together."

"I don't think there're any fears about that."

"Who are the others?"

"Ferries, Mr. President. The Alexei Kordeshev and the Christopher Talley."

Charlie raised his coffee in silent salute. They had been crew members on the Ranger.

Rachel was getting another transmission. She touched her earphones, nodded, and switched on the speaker.

"This is Arlington," said the radio.

"Good to see you, Arlington."

"Roger that. It's a big son of a bitch, isn't it?"

"Yes it is."

"Okay, I guess we're a little pressed for time. We've got the engineer and the equipment. We're going to set down and get locked in. You'll follow us, right?"

"Arlington, we'll be right behind you."

"Why are we going down with them?" asked Charlie.

"They need to use the laser drill. After they're set, we'll pick up some of their gear and their engineer and go tie down on our site." She flipped a switch on the PA. "Lee, are you ready?"

"Roger."

They watched Arlington make its approach. Feinberg had assigned it a site in the Plain. Its pilot moved in and turned control over to the navigational computers, which matched course and speed with the Possum, then duplicated rotation and tumble.

It touched down in the zero-g equivalent of a landing.

Lowell descended nearby, and Rachel told Cochran he was clear to go.

Arlington's airlock opened and two figures in p-suits emerged. One climbed down the ladder. The other, their engineer, began pushing out a series of large drums that had to be hauled to the surface by tether. The drums were followed by loops of heavy cable and spikes about two meters long. Cochran, assisted by Saber and Evelyn, moved the drill outside.

Cochran and the engineer examined the ground, conferred, and selected their sites. They used the drill to cut four sets of holes in the ground. Then they inserted the spikes, which telescoped out to twelve meters, into the rock.

"What's in the drums?" asked Charlie.

"Polycrete." Polycrete was a concrete derivative that had been used extensively in lunar construction.

While the teams worked, Charlie took a call from the British prime minister. The PM was preparing a public statement and wanted to know whether there was any good news he could pass on. Charlie switched off the speaker, but the subject of the conversation had to be obvious to Rachel, who watched him sympathetically. She's thinking she wouldn't have my job on a bet, "Nothing yet, Phil," he said. "But you can say the operation's on schedule and we're cautiously optimistic." He thought about it. "No, make it just plain optimistic."

"Yes," the PM said. "My thought entirely."

Kerr called moments later. There were more problems, mostly having to do with banks.

"Not now," Charlie said. "I don't have time to deal with banks"

"I think you better make time, Mr. President." Kerr's resort to formality irritated Charlie. "You don't want to save the planet, and then have to deal with a depression."

The problem was the loss of the financial centers along both seaboards, primarily in Los Angeles and New York. Mechanisms had to be put in place to keep the monetary system functioning through the crisis. Would the president agree to a few short-term measures? Would he support a new National Recovery Act? ("We should do so," Kerr advised.) There was a draft copy of one floating through the Senate, said the chief of staff, with provisions that were unworkable. "We need to put together our own version."

Disaster funds had been appropriated by the House and approved by the Senate in a late-night session. It would be a good idea to provide the presidential signature forthwith, Kerr said. Everybody in the country who still had access to a TV or a computer was watching it. "We need to do what we can to encourage the belief that there will be a tomorrow."

"Fax me a copy," said Charlie. "Along with your reaction, and Bert's in Commerce. And anybody else's you think I should see. If I like it, I'll sign it and get it right back to you."

Other calls came in, and by the time he got off the phone, more than two hours had passed. By that time four large cables, one forward, one aft, two amidships, restrained the space plane.

The Earth rose and set twice during that time, at widely divergent points on the horizon. It was growing rapidly larger.

He heard hatches open and shut.

"Clear," came Cochran's voice. "We've got our passenger."

Rachel nodded. "The engineer from Arlington is on board," she told Charlie. Then: "Lifting off."

The surface dropped away, and the rock began to spin again.

"Tokyo and Berlin are on approach, Mr. President," she said. "The cavalry's starting to arrive. And there's another ferry. Your Professor Feinberg's on it."

Good. The sense that he was alone in all this began to ebb. Charlie looked at the blinking lights on the display and asked which one.

Rachel tapped the screen with an index finger. "The Mabry," she said. "And it looks like time to tie down our own bronco." She withdrew the Lowell to about a kilometer and then took it around to the Back Country, gliding low over the melted terrain until her sensors told her she'd arrived. They settled toward a plateau. Ferry Antonia Mabry. 2:27 A.M.

Sitting in the passenger cabin, which was serving as Mission Control, Feinberg seemed to have forgotten his queasiness. He stared out at the rock. "It would be a much easier problem were it not tumbling," he said. "Our first objective will be to impose a degree of stability."

Carpenter knew the plan, but he understood that Feinberg was speaking for his own benefit, reviewing the operation to reassure himself he'd overlooked nothing.

The procedure would be too complicated to handle by voice command and manual control on the individual flight decks. Instead, the Mabry would serve as a command center, accepting readout data from the seven onboard navigational computers and returning firing instructions directly to the engines.

Because of the need to align the Possum's flight path with its long axis, the ships had to be placed to allow lateral thrust well beyond that provided by attitude clusters. This meant that, while all seven vehicles would face more or less in the same direction, which is to say pointed forward, they would be sited not quite in parallel.

Feinberg talked at length with Rachel Quinn in Lowell, to ensure the systems were in sync. Then he repeated the process with George Culver in Arlington. He'd already gone through the setup routine in detail at Skyport with the other pilots.

"The one thing that worries me," he said at last, looking across at Carpenter, "is fuel expenditure. We have none whatever to spare." He shook his head. "If we get through this, the president might be advised to think seriously about assembling a fleet of nuclear-powered vessels. The research is done. We know how to do it. Now it would be just a matter of building the ships."

"The president's out here," said Carpenter. "You can tell him yourself."

"I already have," he said. "I hope he's getting the message."

The pilot's voice came over the PA: "Mr. Carpenter?"

"Go ahead, Rita." To Feinberg, Rita seemed too young and too relaxed to be piloting a spacecraft.

"The other spacecraft have all checked in. The Russian plane is last in line. They're giving us an ETA of four A.M."

Carpenter acknowledged.

Feinberg looked out at the Possum. His expression seemed to reflect a degree of melancholy. But he said nothing.

• • • Percival Lowell Flight Deck. 2:29 A.M.

"For you, Mr. President. From the Mabry." Rachel relayed the call and Charlie felt the tingle of his handset.

"This is Orly Carpenter, sir." Charlie knew Carpenter, had spoken with him before on occasion.

"Hello, Orly," he said. "Nice to have you and Wesley with us." The problem throughout had been that this situation was essentially nonpolitical, Charlie had been in charge, and Charlie had no idea what he was doing. He hoped that Carpenter did.

"Good to be here, Mr. President. We're going to be running things from the Mabry. I thought you might want to join us. You'll have a better view of the overall operation from here."

The Lowell had just arrived at its own assigned site, and Jonathan Porter and the rest of the anchor team were preparing to go outside. Charlie glanced through the window at the softened mounds rising around the ship. The Sun was on the horizon, and they cast long shadows.

"Okay," he said. "How do you pick me up?"

"We can take you right out through the airlock."

"When?"

"Twenty minutes. We're on our way."

Charlie noted a strange expression, a flicker of contempt, on Rachel's features. And then it was gone.

"Orly?"

"Yes, Mr. President."

"I assume I'll be safer with you too, won't I?"

Carpenter hesitated. "Yes," he said. "You will."

He nodded. "I'll stay where I am," he said.

"Not a good idea, sir."

"Thanks anyhow. I'll stay put."

Carpenter's tone changed, acquired a hint of irritation.

"Mr. President, I really wish you'd reconsider. I have my orders…"

"Forget them," said Charlie.

Rachel glanced at him quizzically.

"Anything I can do from up there," he said, "I can do from here."



CHAPTER TEN | The Moonfall | cледующая глава