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2.


On the Possum. 2:34 A.M.

George Culver's instincts had been right about Jonathan Porter: He had always been the last kid picked, he had been put in right field, and he did bat ninth. Everything in his life had been like that. There was something in his manner that inevitably induced low expectations, that generated surprise when he performed well. Whatever it was, it had followed him into adulthood.

Jonathan was single, but not by choice. He seemed to be invisible to women. His acute intelligence did not lend itself to a sharp wit, and he had almost no sense of humor. He bored people, knew it, and so had never overcome his childhood shyness. But he had the respect of those in his immediate chain of command, and that was the reason they'd kept him at Skyport when they sent everyone else home. If something happened, he was the best they had, and they knew it.

Now he was being called on to use his skills to do far more than seal off puncture wounds around the station. He had suddenly become an integral part of the most significant engineering operation of all time. It was heady stuff. Jonathan was delighted to have the opportunity, and it was all he could do to keep himself from leaping off the melted surface of the Possum.

He'd inspected the images of the terrain before they came out, looked at the results of the sampling studies, and concluded the task would not be unreasonably difficult. He'd been satisfied with the composition of the rock into which he'd anchored Arlington. But here, standing at the site chosen for Lowell, he was not so sure. The texture was almost spongy. It had melted during the impact, had turned to lava and possibly plasma, and then cooled. A bare hand would still have found it warm.

But this was where they wanted the ship. Another engineer might have protested, but Jonathan accepted the challenge, looked around, chose where to sink his spikes, and decided what sections of the hull would best accept the cables.

Unlike the planes, the Percival Lowell had never been intended to enter an atmosphere. But the designers had expected there would be EVA activity, and they had consequently equipped her with guard rails, ladders, and a multitude of extrusions to expedite getting around on the ship's outer skin. She'd be much easier to secure than the space plane had been. His only reservation was whether the rock itself would hold.

He used chalk to mark the places where they'd sink the spikes. There would be eleven in all. He knew everyone was worried about the jury-rigged anchors, fearful that either Lowell or the Arlington would break loose from its moorings and hurl itself across the ground, killing its occupants and crippling the mission. And they were right to worry: Jonathan's portion of the operation was critical, though by necessity it had been put together almost haphazardly at the last minute with spare parts and rubber bands.

He'd been irritated by George Culver's reaction. The pilot, in private conversation with him, made no secret of his conviction that his plane would tear loose from Jonathan's restraints when he went to full thrust, would erupt into a fireball and spiral across the rockscape. But Jonathan knew that the cables could withstand a dozen times as much power as the plane's twin engines could generate, and they were securely locked to the spacecraft. What he knew for damned sure was that his cables and anchors would hold together. If the ground stayed firm, neither the Arlington nor the Lowell would be going anywhere.

They started at the rear of the Lowell, using the laser drill. When the rock had been softened to a sufficient depth, they inserted a polycrete-coated spike. At a signal from his remote, flanges sliced out all along the central core, locking the spike in place. "It'll take about an hour to cool," he said. "Then you'd need a bomb to move it."

When they finished planting the spikes, they attached the cables, looped them over the hull, and used a series of clips, clamps, and connectors to lock them in place. When they were finished, Jonathan stepped back to admire the work.

He watched as the woman they called Saber walked around, tugging on the lines, as if that could possibly tell her anything worth knowing. It was the equivalent of kicking the tires. Percival Lowell Utility Deck. 3:58 A.M.

"Kordeshev's approaching. Time to go, folks." It was Rachel's voice on the PA.

Jonathan, Doc Elkhart, the chaplain, and Evelyn gathered by the main airlock, awaiting transfer to the ferry. They were being moved out for several reasons: They'd be less at risk; there were more people than p-suits on board Lowell, and everyone would be required to wear a p-suit during the upcoming operation; they were a strain on the life-support system; and finally, if things went wrong, it would be easier to evacuate five people than nine.

Charlie, Saber, and Morley shook their hands and wished them well. "This has been quite a ride," said Pinnacle.

Charlie nodded. "It's not over yet, Mark."

Evelyn was slow to let go. He smiled at her and she squeezed his arm. "You've been outstanding, Mr. President," she said.

Minutes later they were gone, and Morley retreated to prepare for his next telecast. Saber had stayed on because she had some technical background and might be able to help in an emergency.

"Mr. President?" Rachel's voice from the flight deck.

"Go ahead, Rachel."

"Mr. Kerr is trying to reach you. And the Russian plane is on the scopes. We're all here."

"Good," said Charlie. "Put Al through."

There were more questions, problems dealing with the UN, issues related to terrorist acts in the Midwest, a general breakdown of the whole structure of civilized life along the frontiers of the catastrophe. Law enforcement agencies, where they still existed, were too busy coping with the general emergency to confront organized military groups. Several small towns in the Northwest and in West Virginia had even been seized by individuals who were trying to install themselves as local dictators.

"We're not going to let it happen," Charlie told Kerr. "But right now we're looking at first things first. Tell the governors to concede nothing. You can reassure them we'll give whatever support is needed to put down insurrection. Issue a statement to that effect in my name. I'll be home tonight and we can start looking at options. Meantime, make the calls, Al. You know what I want."

"Okay, Charlie. I'll tell them."

"Just hang on, okay? Are we still running the government from Camp David?"

"Yes."

"What kind of shape's the White House in?"

"The water's gone down. But the place is wrecked."

"You mean, what-carpets, furniture, that sort of thing?"

"Yeah. We've had OSHA people in. They've declared it unsafe. It'll be months before it's usable."

"Al," said Charlie, "the whole world's unsafe right now. I want the White House reopened by tonight. When I come back, that's where I'm headed."

"But Charlie-"

"I don't care about the furniture. Just see that it's got telephones and lights. Get a situation room up and running. Prop up the walls if you have to. And make sure there's a flag flying over the place."

Kerr sighed.

Charlie listened politely to a series of questions about political appointments, requests from foreign governments, a policy statement on relocation camps, and other issues. He responded as best he could, and finally cut off his chief of staff. "I've got to go, Al. You know what we need. Get it done. Meantime, I'll try to move this rock off the road." SSTO Moscow Flight Deck. 4:04 A.M.

"O Gospodi!" Dmitri Petrovik, Moscow's copilot, did not look optimistic.

Conversation on the flight deck had all but died as they approached the Possum. It might have been that seeing it through a window was different from watching it on the screens, or that it was just too massive when measured against the tiny lights scattered around its surface and blinking immediately overhead. Fireflies trying to move a broken chunk of sidewalk.

"Moscow," came the American voice, "this is Mission Control. Good to see you. Directional beacon is on Channel Four."

"Privet, Mission Control." Gregor Gregorovich Ilyanik picked up the beam, locked on, and turned control over to the autopilot. "We have it."

"Moscow, as soon as you're anchored down we'll start to rock and roll. The sooner the better."

"Roger. We'll be ready in a few minutes."

Gregor tugged at his pressure suit. He was unhappy; it was bulky and warm and he'd developed an itch he couldn't reach. But they'd been instructed to wear the gear throughout the operation.

His helmet lay off to one side.

The black rockscape filled their windows. They glided slowly across its midnight mounds and valleys.

Kolya Romanovna, his flight engineer, was watching a map of the Possum scroll across the navigational display. A green triangle designated their assigned site out on the Plain adjacent to Arlington.

"Moscow," said the voice from Mission Control, "we will initiate as soon as you are down."

"They're in a hurry," said Kolya.

Gregor looked ahead at the cloud-shrouded Earth. "Ya tak i dumal," he said. "I'm not surprised."

Moscow slowed. To their port side, at about two hundred meters, he could see Arlington's lights. His thrusters fired gently, brief bursts, forcing them down. The landing gear was up, safely out of the way of the device that the workmen at Hartsfield had attached to his undercarriage.

"Ready?" asked Kolya.

"Da."

She touched the black button on the newly installed box on the right-hand side of her console. The landing-gear wells opened but the wheels didn't move. Instead, two self-seating pitons exploded from their sheaths and bit deep into the rock. Toward the rear of the undercarriage, another panel slid back and a third unit repeated the process.

The spacecraft shuddered with the jolts.

Kolya looked at her display. "We should be locked," she said.

Gregor sensed that they had indeed become a fixture on the rockscape. "How do you release it?" he asked.

Kolya opened the lid of the yellow control box and showed him the switch.

"Very good." He fingered his mike. "Mission Control, this is Moscow. We are ready to rock and roll."

Kolya looked at him, startled at his use of the American phrase. He grinned back. "Soon we shall see, no?" Antonia Mabry, Mission Control. 4:10 A.M.

"All vessels, this is Mission Control. I'll remind you that as a precaution, all personnel in the SSTOs and the Lowell should now be in pressure suits. We will initiate program in four minutes. Gentlemen, and ladies, start your engines."



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