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TRANSGLOBAL SPECIAL REPORT. 4:23 A.M.


"… just moments ago. Authorities haven't yet said what effect the loss of the plane will have on the mission. We can hope, Don, that the process was far enough along that the remaining six spacecraft will be enough to finish the job. As of this moment there's just no word. We're trying to get through now to get a statement. Meanwhile, let's break away to Kitt Peak where the astronomers have been watching developments closely.

"This is Keith Morley on the Percival Lowell, anchored on the Possum." Antonia Mabry, Mission Control. 4:24 A.M.

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, dammit!" Feinberg, who'd always prided himself on his aplomb, heard his voice going shrill. He was close to tears. The silhouettes on the display had separated and were growing steadily farther apart.

"If we keep pushing-" insisted Carpenter.

"It won't be enough. All we've done so far is move the impact point to the southeast."

"Where?"

"My God, I don't know. Do we care?"

"Yes, we care."

"Okay. Try eastern Florida. Jacksonville, maybe. Cape Canaveral. The ocean. Who knows?"

The phone sounded. "That'll be Haskell," said Carpenter. He looked panicked. "What do we tell him?"

"The truth," said Feinberg. "Tell him the truth. Meantime, I suggest we shut down." Percival Lowell Flight Deck. 4:25 A.M.

"So we just give up?" Charlie's blood pounded in his temples.

The steady thrum of Lowell's engine died as it went to its equivalent of idle. "We don't have any option, Mr. President."

"Why not? What do we lose by trying?"

There was a click and Feinberg was on the line. "You must accept the situation, sir," he said. "It cannot be done, and we are only pushing the impact point east. Toward the Atlantic. If this thing falls into the ocean, which is already a distinct possibility, you'll be looking at an even greater catastrophe."

Charlie sagged. "My God in heaven."

"There's simply nothing we can do," said Feinberg.

Carpenter came back: "We've directed the Kordeshev to stand by to pick you up, and the Talley is on its way to get the crewmembers off Arlington. Please be ready to go. We've only got thirty minutes to effect the rescues. We're going to direct the other spacecraft to release the pitons and get the hell off the rock."

"No," said Charlie. "Isn't there any kind of fallback plan at all?"

"No, sir. I'm sorry. We've done what we could. We've done everything we could." Feinberg again, sounding annoyed, defensive.

The flight deck swam. Charlie had conceived an animosity for the Possum, a personal loathing. He still had an option, he could still nuke the son of a bitch. He took a deep breath and reminded himself to keep his head. "We still have some time. Let's think about it. There must be something…"

"If you can come up with an idea, Mr. President, you're a better man than I am. Meanwhile, the Arlington and your own vessel are chained to the rock. If we don't get the crews out quickly, including yourself, you'll all go down with it."

"We'll stay put for now," said Charlie. "Nobody leaves until I give the order. You understand?"

"Mr. President-" Carpenter's voice. "Please-"

"Be ready to move if you have to. But not till I tell you." But physics is not politics. You can't make something work just by trying harder.

He broke the connection and stared into a red haze.

"You all right, sir?" Rachel's voice.

"I'm fine," he said. "We're not doing so good, but I'm fine."

"What was it with the Berlin? A blown piton?"

"I guess. I don't know."

She nodded. The flight deck was silent. "I've got all kinds of calls for you, Mr. President."

"Not now," he said.



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