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7.


Talley Flight Deck. 4:41 A.M. Fifteen minutes to impact.

"There," said Ahmad.

"You call that flat?" Pilot Oscar "Hawk" Adams was a part-owner of Mo's Restaurant on Skyport. He was the only millionaire among the flight crews.

"I don't think there's anything else here," said Skip Wilkowski, the flight engineer. They needed a relatively smooth piece of rock face, something against which to place the prow. But this part of Solitary Ridge was severely gouged. "We're going to have to make do."

"Son of a bitch," said Adams. He steered toward it. Antonia Mabry, Mission Control. 4:43 A.M. Thirteen minutes to impact.

The ferries fired in unison. Mabry groaned and popped, but did not break open as Rita had feared. Carpenter and Feinberg hadn't taken time to get into p-suits, not that it would have mattered had things gone amiss. After a few uneasy moments, Carpenter returned his attention to the data coming in from the other vehicles. "All three running hot," he said. "I wouldn't have thought these units would stand up under this."

Feinberg watched the screens and thought how good it was to be alive. He'd always feared death, feared the final annihilation of light and the long plunge into oblivion. He saw his own mortality as a kind of personal black hole, dragging him inexorably through his days to suck him down at last. And he wondered now, with the ferry's rocket engine hurling itself against the vehicle's frail frame, using that frame to hold back the enormous mass of the Possum, whether he hadn't already slipped inside a Schwarzschild radius.

He had neither a religious faith to console him nor a functional philosophy to fight off the demons. For the first time in his life, he was behaving in a manner that could suitably be defined as heroic. And he suspected that eventually he'd be recognized for this day's deeds. If they succeeded. But if he was dead, if he wasn't on the platform to accept whatever medal might be offered, then of what use was any of it?

In the darkness stirred up by his fears, he searched for a presence, for a God who might intervene. If you're there, he murmured, please get me through this. He didn't try to close a deal, didn't promise to amend his life. He asked only for help. It was as close as Feinberg had come to a prayer in more than twenty-five years. Percival Lowell Utility Deck. 4:46 A.M. Ten minutes to impact.

The most frustrating aspect of the entire problem for Charlie was his sense that he could not actively participate in the effort, other than to sit helplessly in Lowell, as he had earlier sat helplessly in the Micro, and watch events unfold. He remained on a direct link with Mission Control, but he wished now that he'd been able to take Feinberg's suggestion-or had it been Carpenter's?-to monitor events from the Mabry.

He had retired from the flight deck, relinquishing his seat to Saber. It was almost as if, knowing he could not help, he did not wish to watch.

The only other person with him was Keith Morley. Morley was talking into his mike, and looked up when Charlie came in. He signaled, silently requesting permission to ask the president a few questions on camera. But Charlie shook his head no and collapsed into a seat.

Up front, calls kept coming in for him. Rachel had a waiting list a couple of hundred deep. He'd accepted a few. Twenty minutes ago, when things had begun to go wrong, Charlie had taken a call from the pope. Were they going to be successful? the pontiff asked. And Charlie responded, not entirely diplomatically, that it was anybody's guess, and that if the pope had any influence this was a good time to use it.

His cell phone chimed. The Mabry tone. "Haskell," he said. His heart pounded.

Carpenter's voice: "We got two planes with dry tanks. But we've got a chance. We've slowed it down a little. Feinberg's a genius."

"Yeah," said Charlie. "He's pretty good." But thank God for the woman at the Orbital Lab. And Evelyn. (And, though he did not know it, Chaplain Pinnacle.) Talley Flight Deck. 4:50 A.M. Six minutes to impact.

Hawk Adams had maintained the delicate balance between the ferry's prow and the rugged cliff wall. It was essential to keep the plane of the cliff precisely at a ninety-degree angle to the central axis of the ship. Should that angle go even slightly out of balance, Talley's engine would demolish the ferry, break her spine, in effect drive the rear of the ship through the forward compartments and crush the flight deck and the people in it. That scenario never left Hawk's mind.

In fact, he held the ferry steady longer than he would have thought possible. But something-a hiccup in the fuel lines, a computer blip, a distraction, something-momentarily tipped the flow of power. The end came so quickly that Hawk never knew there was a problem. Antonia Mabry, Mission Control. 4:51 A.M. Five minutes to impact.

"We've lost Talley."

Feinberg nodded.

Carpenter looked at the displays. "What do you think?"

"Not yet." Percival Lowell Flight Deck. 4:52 A.M. Four minutes to impact.

The fans had come on in her suit and cool air bathed her face. "Getting warm," said Saber.

Rachel nodded. "Going to get warmer." They were into the ionosphere now. The ship wasn't designed for atmospheric travel. It was going to heat up very quickly.

Streaks of light, charged solar particles, were raining down on the surrounding rockscape. The sky was turning pink and the stars had winked out.

Among the SSTOs, only Arlington was still firing. And, of course, so was the Lowell.

"Hang on," said Rachel, and she switched to the PA. "Brace yourselves, gentlemen. It's about to get rough." SSTO Arlington Flight Deck. 4:53 A.M. Three minutes to impact.

The last of the fuel ran out and the engines shut down.

"That's it," said George. There was something terribly final about the silence that now engulfed them. They were indeed bound to the rock, headed presumably for Florida.

A low ridge to starboard exploded, and the pieces flew backward, whipped from sight.

"Atmosphere," said George. Crunch time. Antonia Mabry, Mission Control. 4:54 A.M.

Feinberg watched the numbers spin across his display. His mind had gone numb and he could do nothing now but wait. Not that it mattered: Events were moving far too fast for analysis, blurring, flowing into a jumbled stream of scattered images and physical forces and sheer terror. Everything depended on whether they'd got enough of the angle and whether the Possum's underbelly was sufficiently flat.

Carpenter sat strapped in his seat. Now that there was no more to be done, he'd withdrawn into some interior space to await the outcome.

Questions, demands for information, crackled over the intercom. The Brits, the Russians, the Japanese, even that impossible woman, what's her name, Tory Clark, sitting safe and secure at Skyport: "Did we do it?" "What's our status?"

"Rainbow, are you still there?"

What's our status?

A low murmur began. Gusts of wind blew up out of nowhere and rocked the Mabry. The bulkheads creaked and the storm exploded into a hurricane. Feinberg was thrown violently against his restraints. The cabin tumbled and rolled. Already he could feel the temperature rising.

It went on for almost a full minute before their pilot got the ship under a condition that might pass for control. "We've been blown clear of the rock," she announced over the P.A. As if it weren't obvious.

He waited for his stomach to settle and opened the general channel. "This is Rainbow," he said. "We are evaluating the situation." And he laughed. Roared at his own joke. Yes, give me two minutes and I will tell you precisely how we are doing.

The storm continued to hammer at them. Something, a piece of rock, maybe a piece of the ship, rang against the hull. Skyport, Orbital Lab. 4:55 A.M.

No one dared speak. But Tory watched the Possum descend through sunlight, sinking toward the Atlantic. The ocean was dark and eternal beyond the pools of light that marked the southeastern coast of the U.S.

The rock passed gradually into the night.

She saw one of the ferries, both of the remaining ferries, tumble clear. The rock was still turning on its axis, enveloped in flames. A plume tracked behind it.

The plume glittered in the red light. But its downward curve was leveling off!

An ocean of air had gathered beneath the Possum. Forming a barrier.

The rock was beginning to skid.

Like a pebble skipping across the surface of a pond.

Fiery particles blew away. Some fell down the sky; others soared back into sunlight.

Like the Ranger. Percival Lowell Utility Deck. 4:56 A.M.

Charlie Haskell couldn't bring himself to watch the images any longer. The Lowell was trying to shake itself to pieces and the roar of the engines seemed to have become louder. Rachel was still trying, he thought, still pitting the nuclear fire against the vast dead weight of the Possum, trying to lift it out of the atmosphere, to haul it away from the fragile terrestrial surface.

The glut of voices asking mission control for a status report had faded into background noise. If Feinberg didn't respond in any meaningful way, it could only be because he had no news to give. They had done everything they could, thrown the full weight of the world's fleet into the effort. And it hadn't been enough.

POSIM-38 rumbled across the sky, and Charlie rode with it, he and thirty-odd others, like Slim Pickens in the old movie riding the H-bomb to its target.

Dead.

They were all dead and the world with them.

Charlie was usually inclined to take an optimistic view of events. If on this occasion he'd given up and concluded all was lost, it was easy enough to understand: the Percival Lowell was engulfed in flames and shaking itself to pieces, Feinberg was cackling on the command channel, and he was suddenly beginning to feel the tug of gravity after a long period of zero-g.

That the latter fact was a good sign, that it indicated the rock was changing course, never occurred to him. He waited for the killing blow, consoled only by the knowledge he had given his best effort.

At forty-eight hours, his would be the shortest presidency on record, easily eclipsing William Henry Harrison's thirty-one days. He wondered whether he might not also be the last U.S. president. He was considering that doleful possibility when his cell phone trilled. It was a remarkably prosaic sound, cool and mundane amid the chaos. He pulled the instrument out of his pocket. "Haskell," he said, impressed at how good his voice sounded.

"Mr. President." It was Feinberg. "Congratulations. We've done it. It's headed back out."

Charlie felt his pulse throbbing. "You're sure?"

"Yes. I'm sure."

"Thank God," he said.

"It'll take a while to analyze the new orbit. We need to determine whether, and to what degree, the Possum will remain a threat."

"But it's not coming down today?"

"No, Mr. President. I can assure you it's not coming down today."

Charlie clicked off, closed his eyes, and allowed himself to luxuriate in the moment. He was drenched, and was deliriously happy. And he suddenly realized he was starved.

Rachel's voice broke in. "Good show, Mr. President," she said.

Within minutes Charlie was talking to a global audience, giving them the news. The world began to celebrate in its time-honored fashion: church bells rang, drums beat, fireworks exploded, politicians made speeches. At that moment, Charles L. Haskell could have been elected planetary chief executive, had such a position existed. He knew that his popularity could not fail to carry him to the White House. He also understood that the acclaim would last only until the first recession.

But it was a thought unworthy of the hero of the hour.

Up front, Rachel's comm board had lit up. The entire population of the Earth wanted to talk with him.

The first call he took was from Evelyn.



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