TRANSGLOBAL SPECIAL REPORT. 4:26 A.M.
"… they've shut down the rockets. Right now the entire fleet, five SSTOs and the Percival Lowell, are still on the Possum, but nothing's happening. Bruce, I've been trying to get through to the command ship, which as you know is the Antonia Mabry, but they're not responding. I've also got a call in to President Haskell. I have to be honest, at the moment the situation here looks bleak." Skyport Orbital Lab. 4:27 A.M.
"They've given up." Windy Cross braced his elbows on his work table, and buried his face in his hands. "It's over."
Tory sat paralyzed, listening to the electronic burble of the equipment. Images of the Possum played across a dozen screens, including the main display from Rainbow Mission Control, on which the twin representations of the object, red and white, had drawn hopelessly far apart.
Andrea Bellwether was signaling for her attention. "I have Keith Morley on the circuit," she said. "He's trying to find out what's happening."
"Hell, we don't know anything," Windy said. "Tell him to call Carpenter."
"He says Carpenter isn't taking calls."
"Goddam right. I wouldn't either." His voice dropped an octave. "Tell him they've thrown in the towel, and you'll start a panic."
"You think there isn't going to be one anyhow?"
"That's okay. Let somebody else take the heat. We're out of it."
• • • Percival Lowell Flight Deck. 4:28 A.M.
"They're telling me it's not possible, Al."
"For God's sake, Charlie, what are we going to do?"
"I don't know." Rachel was watching Charlie as if she thought he might be on the verge of a stroke. "I don't know, Al. If you have any ideas, this'd be a good time."
"Listen, we're still doing a dance out there with the press. What do you want to tell them?"
So in the end it came down to that. As if it were somehow Charlie Haskell's fault that the world is about to end. What do you want to tell them?
A message light blinked on. "Carpenter," said Rachel's voice. "He says it's urgent."
"Hold a second, Al." He switched channels. "Haskell."
"Mr. President. We've got to evacuate. Do it now or forget it."
Charlie stared at the polished black handset. At that moment he'd have preferred to put a knife into his heart. SSTO Arlington Flight Deck. 4:29 A.M.
"Arlington, stand by for evacuation."
George listened to his own breathing, magnified inside the p-suit. Beside him, Mary released her harness.
No one said anything. They got slowly out of their seats. It almost looked as if they were laboring under heavy gravity.