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6.


Skyport Orbital Lab. 4:31 A.M.

Tory Clark was never sure precisely when she had the idea. It seemed as if it had been flickering just beyond the limits of perception since dinner, since she'd heard about the three ferries that would accompany the SSTOs out to the Possum. The Kordeshev. The Mabry. The Talley. All named for crewmembers on Frank Bellwether's lost Ranger. And Andrea Bellwether, Frank's daughter, sat just a few paces away.

Bellwether.

Maybe the problem was that Feinberg and the rest of them were thinking in a box.

There might still be a way. Antonia Mabry, Mission Control. 4:32 A.M.

"No, Tory," said Feinberg. "It wouldn't work. It's too massive."

"Are you sure?"

Of course he was sure.

"What else have you got?" she persisted.

Feinberg had never liked Tory Clark. She was a little too pushy for his tastes, and what was her background anyhow? She was just one more camp follower. "I don't really have time to argue about this."

"What do you have time for, Professor? Why not try it? What's to lose?"

"What's to lose? I'll tell you what's to lose. We've already driven it too far. It's probably going to go down in the ocean. That's not the best possible outcome. Moreover, to even try your idea, we'd have to sacrifice the people in the ships. Is that what you want? "

"If it works, they'll be okay."

"It won't work, Tory. What part of that can't you figure out?" His eyes were damp again. "We've already done enough damage. Let it be." He broke the connection.

Orly Carpenter stared at him. "What did she want?"

"Nothing." Feinberg bitterly regretted having offered his services for the project. It had failed, it wasn't his fault, and there was no way anyone could ever say he was responsible. But it didn't matter. His fingerprints were all over it. And somehow he knew he should have prevented this. Skyport Orbital Lab. 4:33 A.M.

"What did he say?" asked Windy.

"He said no."

"That's all?"

Andrea's eyes darkened with anger. "How could he do that? Does he have a better idea?"

"He says it would only make things worse."

"Well," said Windy, "we tried. Nobody can say we didn't try."

"Dammit," snapped Andrea, "he's giving up. But it's not his decision to make."

On one of the TV screens, they watched people gathering outside a church in Boston. They were holding candles, and someone was leading a prayer.

"You're right," Tory said. "It's not his decision."

Windy was shaking his head. "So whose decision is it?"

"Hell," Tory continued, "the president's out there."

"Wonderful," said Windy. "You going to call him?"

"Why not? We know where he is." She reached for the phone.

"No," said Windy. "You have any idea what kind of trouble we'll get into?"

Tory punched buttons. Colonel Quinn's voice answered: "Lowell."

"Lowell, this is the Orbital Lab. I'd like to get through to the president."

"Get in line," Quinn said.

"Colonel, it's urgent."

"Everything's urgent right now. I'll put you in the queue."

"I need-" And she was talking into a dead circuit.

Andrea's small fists clenched. "There isn't time for this. I might know somebody who can get through to him." She leaned over her mike and stabbed the keyboard. "Kordeshev, this is the Orbital Lab. I need to talk to Chaplain Pinnacle. Right away, please." Percival Lowell Flight Deck. 4:34 A.M.

Charlie was on the line with Al Kerr, who was on the brink of panic. And Charlie had nothing to tell him.

Rachel looked at him and tapped her earphone. Another call. He'd instructed her he didn't want to talk to anyone except Carpenter and Feinberg. "Hold on, Al," he said. Then he glanced over at her, irritated. "Who is it?"

"Dr. Hampton wants to talk with you, sir."

My God. "Tell her, later."

"She says it's urgent. Says you need to talk to her."

Charlie nodded. "Put her on." Antonia Mabry, Mission Control. 4:37 A.M. Nineteen minutes to impact.

"Yes," Feinberg admitted. "It is possible. But it's a long shot. God knows what-"

"Do it."

"Mr. President-

"Do it, God damn you."

"We're not prepared. We're going to have to guess the firing sequence. If we get it wrong, and we probably will, we may lose everybody on the planet. Do you really want to take on that kind of responsibility?"

Images flashed through Charlie's terrified psyche: sundrenched slaves hauling blocks through Egyptian deserts; men inventing religions to give meaning to disease-ridden, violent, pointless lives, and then becoming subjugated by the religions; women trying without much luck to civilize their hunter-husbands; everyone trying to control rulers. All the battles, the plagues, the rise and fall of the rivers, the inquisitions, the futility… Sacrifices had been made by millions of individuals, most of whom never understood where the race was headed. Now, finally, the common effort was bearing fruit. To let the rock fall was to see it snatched away, to put everyone back in caves, to refight all the battles against war and disease and superstition, to do everything again.

"I understand," Haskell said. "The responsibility is mine." SSTO Arlington Passenger Cabin. 4:38 A.M. Eighteen minutes to impact.

George Culver opened the airlock hatch and Mary stepped inside. She looked weary and frightened. On the screen they could see the Christopher Talley, which was moving in to take them off. Curt leaned his helmet against the bulkhead, reluctant to leave. George put a hand on Curt's shoulder and eased him toward the lock.

"Look," said Mary. Her eyes were fixed on the monitor. The Talley had begun to move away.

"They're adjusting attitude," said George.

Curt shook his head. "I don't think so."

"Talley," said George, "We are ready to leave."

"Roger, Arlington. Change in plans."

Another voice, quiet, intense, the president's voice, broke in on the common channel. "Ladies and gentlemen," he said, "this is Charles Haskell. I need your help.

"You've seen the size of this thing, you know its velocity, and you know what will happen if it goes down." He paused, and they could hear his breathing. "We still have a chance to stop it. But it requires us, all of us, to stay out for a while longer. I'm sorry to ask you to do this, but I've no choice. We have no choice. Everything we've ever cared about, everyone we've ever loved, is at terrible risk. And there simply is nobody else to step in and do what has to be done." Antonia Mabry, Mission Control. 4:39 A.M. Seventeen minutes to impact.

Feinberg opened the common channel. "Everybody go to manual," he said.

The Possum continued to rotate around its own axis, once every fifty-three minutes and eleven seconds. The strategy required that the Plain be on the downside as the object hit the ionosphere.

Unfortunately, as things stood now, that wasn't going to happen. In eleven minutes the Plain would be in perfect position. Then it would begin to turn away. He needed to accomplish two objectives: to accelerate the Possum, so that it would arrive on the outskirts of the atmosphere as quickly as possible; and to slow the rotation.

"Everybody," he said, "go to full thrust and maintain. All vehicles adjust port-side attitude jets to perpendicular along the rotational axis, and fire." That was going to achieve very little, but it would create a rotational drag, and he'd take whatever he could get.

He'd thought there were other things he might try: manipulate thrust among the three vehicles-Lowell, Moscow, and Arlington-which had been sited directly parallel to the axis, and the others, which had been placed at offsetting angles. But there was simply not time for sophisticated maneuvers.

Carpenter read his mind and glanced at the fuel displays. He shook his head. "It's not going to be enough," he said. "Does it matter whether we burn the fuel now or later?"

"Now," said Feinberg. "Keep it simple." The Plain was sliding down toward the blue seas and distant shimmering clouds. But it continued to turn.

"We have to slow it down," Carpenter said.

Feinberg scanned the numbers and images on the screens, saw nothing, looked out the window, saw the lights of the Talley, saw Solitary Ridge just coming into view. "There might be something we can do."

The Mabry, the Kordeshev, and the Talley were designed to operate exclusively between L1 and Skyport. They never landed on a planetary surface, and they never had to climb from the bottom of a gravity well. Consequently, they produced nothing like the thrust of an SSTO, or of the Lowell. But they did generate a reasonable amount of power.

"Enough to slow the rotation down?" asked Carpenter, who grasped the idea immediately.

"We only need to buy a couple of minutes," said Feinberg. "Let's find out."

He opened channels to the pilots of the three ferries. He explained what they hoped to achieve. "The ferries will take up station along Solitary Ridge, Kordeshev on the left, Talley to the right. Find a good spot, but spread out, try to keep a half-k distance between ships. Set up posthaste. Nose in. Go to full thrust on my signal."

Jay Bannister, pilot of the Kordeshev, acknowledged, and then told him the idea was crazy. "We'll use up too much fuel," he said. "None of us'll get home. I've got four passengers on board."

"They'll have to take their chances along with the rest of us, Jay," said Carpenter. "Unless we turn this thing aside, there won't be any home to go back to."

And they heard from Rita, in their own ship: "I'm not sure the hull will stand up to this."

The big drawback was that the ferries, like the buses, had no throttle. Thrust was either on or off. So it now fell on the pilots to ease the vessels in against the ridge using their thrusters. "Snuggle in as best you can," Carpenter advised them. "Look for as flat a piece of wall as you can find."

The Possum was picking up speed.

A light winked on and the radioman pointed at it. "The president, sir," he said to Carpenter.

Feinberg sighed.

Carpenter listened to his earphones and nodded. "So far, okay, sir," he said. "I'll let you know."

They were looking out the window at the Back Country now, dropping to ground level. Rocks, mounds, and gulleys drifted past. Ahead, Feinberg could see Solitary Ridge, stretching away to the horizon on both sides. Off to port, the Sun was setting. It had become their job to hold it in the sky, to see that it didn't rise again. Like Joshua.

A radio voice crackled over static: "Kordeshev is in position."

"Stand by," said Carpenter.

Feinberg watched the clock.

Rita scanned the cliff wall for the flattest section she could find and glided toward it. If they were to have a reasonable chance to survive, the line of thrust had to be perpendicular to the face of the ridge. An imbalance, even a very slight one, could be fatal. She moved in carefully, cut all forward motion, and allowed the ridge to come to her.

In Mission Control, they felt the slight jar.

"Ready to go," she said. "But God help us."

"Are we ready to fire yet?" demanded Kordeshev.

"Not yet," said Feinberg. "We'll do this together."

Seconds later, Talley called in. They were having trouble finding a site. "The cliff face is rough over here," the pilot said. Talley was to their starboard side.

"We don't have time for a hunt," said Carpenter.



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