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4.


Minot, North Dakota. 3:16 A.M. Central Daylight Time (4:16 A.M. EDT).

Minot might have had a little more steel in its blood than the average North Dakota town. Its citizenry was reinforced by a large population of air force dependents, who'd decided they couldn't do anything about the danger in the sky, but who'd gathered at two elementary schools and kept them open for the hundreds of lost and stranded people who were coming in from the south. Now, with some bacon and scrambled eggs in her stomach, Marilyn Keep felt much better. She stood with her husband in a small crowd outside the Dwight Eisenhower Elementary School auditorium, drinking coffee and half watching a battery-powered TV somebody had put on a chair.

Most of the USAF operational personnel were gone, hauling supplies to stricken areas, carrying out sick and injured, trying to get through the emergency as best they could. But the support people, and the dependents, were still in Minot.

Marilyn was asked about New York, and she described the flooded streets, the sense of being isolated on the rooftop, the child against whom she'd closed the door. ("It's okay" someone said, "you couldn't help it.")

The television carried a close-up of one of the space planes, the long fiery lances from its twin engines illuminating the dark rock. They were two minutes into the operation now, and the reporter said that everything was going well. So far. Even if it didn't, she thought, even if the situation broke down, surely they were far enough north to be safe.

Surely. Percival Lowell Utility Deck. 4:20 A.M. Zero plus six.

The reality was that Keith Morley had no idea how things were going. He was in effect doing play-by-play, and he'd assumed that he'd somehow be able to see the operation. But he had only the images being transmitted from the monitoring vessels, flashes of light in the darkness, recognizable on close-up as flames boiling out of rockets. But there was no way to know what, if anything, was happening with the Possum. He had no background against which to measure movement. For that matter, he couldn't be sure that any apparent movement wasn't a result of changes in the position of the sensors on the circling ferries.

He'd tried to stay close to the president, but Haskell was up front in the copilot's chair and Lee Cochran was up there too, so there was no room for Morley.

But this president seemed to be unusually aware of the influence of the media. He called to tell Morley they were on schedule, and that was good, but Morley still had no real details. Nevertheless, he knew approximately what was supposed to happen throughout the operation, so he began simply to fabricate an account, assuming everything was happening as it should, and that they'd tell him if something went wrong. And there was this: If he was wrong, if he was caught hanging out, the world was going to have bigger problems than to simply come after an unfortunate journalist.

"The Possum's tumble has slowed by about thirty percent," he told a global audience. SSTO Berlin Flight Deck. 4:21 A.M. Zero plus seven.

It may have been there were just too many things that could go wrong, too many moving parts, too much guesswork, too much improvisation.

The radio operator from the Mabry was reporting that the Possum was accelerating precisely along predicted lines. Gruder had never doubted it would be so. Assume success, adhere to the math, prepare for breakdowns, and keep focused on the task at hand. It was the formula around which he'd built his professional life. Unlike the bureaucrats, who were fond of saying "Win some, lose some."

So far there'd been little for him to do. He sat inside his p-suit, savoring the experience and contemplating a future filled with people pointing him out and saying, Yes, that's Gruder Muller; he was with the fleet when they turned the Possum aside. If he never did anything else it wouldn't matter. He could die tomorrow and his life would have been a success.

It was a glorious feeling. He'd always wanted to be a hero, and it was actually happening.

"Zero plus eight," said the Mabry. "Vector still looks good."

The Berlin crew had been on the Possum for almost three hours, and Gruder had detected a pattern in the way the Sun and Earth crisscrossed the skies of the microworld. It had been impossible to predict, except in very general terms, where a celestial body would rise. But he'd gotten the timing down. And now everything was running late. A good sign.

The view ahead was obstructed by a low mound, not much higher than the top of the spacecraft and flowing off into embracing ridges on either side. As he watched, the rim of Earth appeared over its left-hand incline.

Willem Stephan glanced at the fuel-use indicator. They had a ten-minute supply left at full burn. The program had nine minutes to run. Perfect. Stephan opened a channel to his crew. "I think we all deserve a good dinner when we get back," he said.

Kathleen, sitting beside him, raised her left hand to caution against premature celebration. Gruder, however, was of the same mind as the pilot, and had begun to think that sauerbraten and beer would fit the occasion well.

One of the imponderables had been the cohesiveness and stability of the rock. Feinberg had been forced to make estimates based on sensor readings and samples, which would not necessarily reveal, say, fissures or stress fractures. The rock in the area of the Berlin, which had melted during the collision with Tomiko, had not sufficiently rehardened before enduring a pair of subsequent collisions. As a result, it had developed a series of microscopic cracks. The twin rocket engines, operating at full thrust, were putting extreme pressure on the cracks. Now, while Gruder contemplated sauerbraten, one of them broke under the strain.

The port-side piton tore loose from the rock. The spacecraft twisted violently to starboard. Willem went immediately to manual, intending to shut off the engines. But it was too late. The rear piton broke apart within seconds, and the starboard side crumpled immediately thereafter. The SSTO roared across the rockscape and blasted into the mound at full throttle. Both fuel tanks exploded, and a fireball rose into the sky.



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