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2.


Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, Washington, D.C. 8:47 A.M.

The SSTO Arlington was about a half hour from launch. George Culver tried to concentrate on his checkoff sheet. He'd finally scored with Annie last night and his mind was filled with images of her. In back, he could hear the passengers beginning to come on board. He shook himself and tried again to read his instruments.

The Single Stage To Orbit space plane had capacity for two hundred thirty-five passengers, and usually carried a crew of twelve. It was slightly more compact than ordinary jumbo airliners, and baggage restrictions were far tighter. But contrasted with the old shuttles, it constituted a remarkably cheap and efficient means of getting into orbit.

George had started his career as a carrier pilot. He'd flown the A-77 Blackjack jet, had become a squadron commander, gotten married, and made the jump to civilian aviation. In all, he'd married three times-all medical types, one physician, one nurse, one hospital systems analyst. He'd gotten bored with each, and had pulled the plug on all three. His wives didn't seem to be all that upset when it happened, and the marriages had ended more or less amicably. None had lasted two years.

He was just finishing with the preliminary readouts when Mary Casey, his copilot, strolled onto the flight deck and sat down.

"How we doing, Mary?" he asked.

"Guidance wasn't lining up," she said. "I put in another box."

He nodded, reached for his clipboard, and gazed at the manifest. "How's Billy?"

Billy was her son. He was a teenager now, just learning to drive, just beginning to assert his independence. His grades were down, and George knew that Mary was unhappy with his choice of friends. "He's been better," she said.

The plane was only three-quarters full, not unusual for a Wednesday morning. There were some vacationers among the passengers, but not many. Fares to the space station were still high, and despite its obvious attractions, Skyport remained out of range for persons of moderate means. But the Lunar Transport Authority, a semiautonomous corporation, was promising that costs would come down dramatically with the planned arrival next year of the second-generation SSTO.

Mary pulled on her headset and adjusted the mike, still talking about Billy.

The captain listened politely. "All part of growing up," he said. "I bet you weren't easy to handle."

The SSTO flew three times weekly from Reagan to the space station. George's crew also made occasional direct runs from Reagan to Moscow, Rome, and London. But this was the flight they enjoyed, riding the thrusters all the way into orbit.

Mary tapped the mike. "Tower," she said, "this is Flight One-seventeen. Comm check."

"Flight One-seventeen," returned a female voice in their earphones. "Check is five by."

"Where's Curt?" asked George.

"Right here, Captain." The flight engineer poked his head in. "Just getting my coffee."

The flight to Skyport would take one hour, forty-three minutes. They'd unload, refuel, pick up returning passengers and cargo, and be back in time for a late lunch.

Mary finished her procedure. George handed her the passenger list and pointed at a couple of names. Big-time singers. She also recognized a well-known TV critic and an Arab oil dealer. There were some kids back there, too. Headed for the vacation of their lives. And a couple of families were going all the way to Moonbase.

"Flight One-seventeen, Tower." Same female voice.

"Go ahead, Tower."

"Your flight is cancelled. Unload your passengers and stand by."

Mary frowned at the captain, who had not yet put on his earphones. She switched on the speaker. "Say again, Tower."

"One-seventeen, abort the flight."

George took off his cap and pulled on his headset. "What's the problem, Tower? What's the reason for the delay?"

"FAA did not give us a reason, One-seventeen. This is not a delay. The flight is canceled. Please return your passengers to the gate."

"What am I supposed to tell them? The passengers?"

A baritone replaced the other voice. "Tell them there won't be any flights to Skyport today. Just say it's a mechanical problem."

"What is the problem?"

"One-seventeen, can we talk about this later? Tell your passengers that agents will be waiting to assist." Moonbase. 9:04 A.M.

Charlie was touring the mining and manufacturing section when Al Kerr got through to him on his cell phone. "The place is going to get hammered, Charlie. The president wants you out of there."

Charlie walked away from the small group of VIPs. "Come on, Al, it can't be that big."

There was an irritating three-second delay while the radio signals traveled between Earth and Moon.

"All I'm telling you is what the experts are saying. There'll be a general evacuation. You are to leave Moonbase posthaste. Hampton knows and is arranging it now."

Suddenly Sam came out of nowhere, huddled with his people, and they all looked over at Charlie. The agents must have gotten a call at about the same time, he figured.

"Okay, Al," he said to Kerr. "I think the word's getting around."

"Good. Henry'll be relieved to know you're on your way back." Kerr switched off, leaving Charlie looking at his phone and wondering whether anybody got less respect around Kolladner's White House than the vice president.

Sam took him aside. "You heard, sir?"

"Yes."

"They've got a bus leaving at noon. We'll be on it."

But Charlie was wondering what the voters would think of an aspiring president who caught the first ride out of town. "No," he said. "They're saying Saturday night. We have plenty of time."

Sam frowned. "Mr. Vice President-"

Charlie shook his head and signaled that the conversation was over.

It had been a shattering few minutes. The space program was probably dead. More important, public opinion would crucify the president and everyone associated with him. Half a trillion dollars in Treasury-held MBI stock would become worthless overnight. And how much had the nation invested over the years in development costs?

He cut his tour short and went up to the administrative offices looking for Evelyn. The secretary was startled to see him, but after a whispered conversation with her boss, she took him to Chandler's office, where Evelyn was still meeting with the director.

"Hello, Charlie," she said, rising as he walked in. "I see you got the news."

"Yeah. A few minutes ago." He nodded a greeting to Chandler, then turned back to Evelyn. "The White House sounds rattled. How bad is it?"

She waved him to a seat. "It isn't good. Everybody I talk to thinks Moonbase won't survive. Some of them think the Moon won't survive. I talked to Wes Feinberg a few minutes ago." Charlie didn't know who Feinberg was, but he caught the inflection in Evelyn's voice that implied he was the reigning expert.

"So what did Feinberg say?"

She shook her head in the manner one might use discussing a dying patient. They stared at each other for a long moment. "I can't believe this is happening," she said at last.

"What are you going to do?"

"What can I do? We'll evacuate." She asked whether he wanted coffee. He did, and she poured a mug and handed it across the desk.

"Anything I can do to help?"

"Get us more buses." She smiled.

"I don't think we have them in our inventory." And then, seriously: "You're not suggesting you can't get everybody out, are you?"

"Things are a bit tight," said Chandler.

Evelyn nodded in agreement. "We don't have enough buses to take everyone over to L1."

Charlie's stomach tightened. "So," he said, "What do we do? Are there more buses somewhere?"

"Under construction. And one so far down for repairs as to be useless. No. Jack suggested we bring in the SSTOs."

"The space planes?" said Charlie. "But my understanding was they could only fly between Skyport and the ground."

"It's true," said Chandler, "they aren't designed for long-range space flight. Too much mass, inefficient fuel usage. But any port in a storm."

"Can they land out here?"

Evelyn shook her head. "But they can go into orbit around the Moon, and we can send the buses to them. They'll be closer than L1, so the bus ride'll be shorter. Not by much, but enough that we can get everybody out. While we're waiting for them, we'll keep moving people over to L1."

"Thank God," said Charlie. He was relieved, not only because no one would be left behind, but because he already foresaw the political impact if people died while he escaped.



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