Moonbase, Grissom Country. 10:55 A.M.
The newscasts were now beginning to run simulations and comparisons. There was enough rock and ice in the comet head to fill the Grand Canyon a hundred and fifty times. Or to construct a covering fifty feet high completely around the Earth.
Here's what it'll look like Saturday night. Viewers could watch an animated graphic of the comet crossing the orbit of Venus, arrowing toward the Moon, and finally blending with it. A little cloud appeared at the point of impact.
People were packing. There was what one might describe as a sense of calm urgency. Jack Chandler's staff put together a departure schedule and copies were posted everywhere. Visitors would leave first, followed by all those deemed nonessential: astronomers, mathematicians, chemists, hydroponics experts, entrepreneurs, recreation directors, general maintenance workers, and everyone else not needed to launch spacecraft or keep the power on. They did need the life support technicians, the spaceport people, the communicators and systems analysts. And, Chandler decreed, senior managers. Even if they couldn't help directly.
Personnel from outlying stations were recalled. The issue of whether there should be an attempt to salvage equipment was raised and quickly discarded. Whatever we can't put on a disk, Chandler told his people, we'll forget about. A modest luggage allowance was announced and a duty officer was made available to receive suggestions or complaints, and to assist with problems.
Rick Hailey read the document on his wallscreen and noted that the Micro, which was to have carried the vice presidential party off at lunchtime, was preparing to leave momentarily with a different set of passengers. He'd gone to bed last night in a sedate facility that was looking forward to a long period of prosperity and discovery. This morning he'd awakened to chaos. In physics, he realized, as in politics, things can turn around in a hurry. And without warning.
His phone rang. "Hailey," he said quietly.
"Rick." It was the vice president. "Things have been happening. If you've got a few minutes, we need to talk."
Rick watched the news reports while he brushed his teeth. He saw an interview with Tomiko Harrington, saw an animation of the expected collision, noted the noncommittal stance taken by the White House. ("The president is watching developments. ")
When he reached Charlie Haskell's quarters, the agent stationed outside wished him good morning, knocked, heard a response, and opened up. Haskell was on the phone.
"Yes, Henry," he was saying, "everything's under control. As far as I can see."
That would be the president.
"No, you can tell them we're fine. There's plenty to eat and everybody'll be gone well before the thing gets here." Charlie was stretched out across his sofa with his long legs thrown across a coffee table. He pointed at a chair for Rick. "Henry, I assume we'll be getting back sometime Sunday morning. I'm not sure they have a detailed schedule yet."
Sunday morning? Rick frowned at the vice president, who held up a hand asking him to be patient.
"Yes, I know," Charlie continued. "And we appreciate it. As far as I'm aware, Evelyn and her people are taking care of everything. But I'll tell her." Charlie listened. And nodded. "Yes, sir. We will. See you in a few days." He looked at the phone thoughtfully and clicked off. "He's worried about us, Rick."
"So am I. What's this about getting in Sunday morning?" "They're sending four planes to evacuate us. Two will leave Friday and two on Saturday. The last flight will get away just an hour or so before impact."
"You lied to the president. You said they hadn't worked out a schedule yet."
"The schedule's tentative. My question to you, Rick: Which of the planes should the vice president be on?"
Rick sensed doors closing. "You can be a son of a bitch, Charlie."
Charlie held out his hands. "What choice do I have?"
Rick shook his head. "None that I can see."
The president wasn't in a very good situation either. Overnight, Moonbase had turned into a monumental political liability. And it would get worse in direct proportion to the size of the disaster. They would hope no one got killed, although it occurred to Rick, as it must have to the president, that a heroic VP going down would have a distinct upside. Or even, he thought with a chill, his media advisor. Valiant bureaucrat lost on Moon. But God forbid any innocents get hurt.
Charlie pursed his lips thoughtfully. "How about you?" he asked. "Do you want an early flight?"
Yes, Rick thought. By all means. "I'll stay until Saturday," he said. "But I don't think I want to go out on the late flight."
"Nor do I. But I'm not sure I'm going to be able to avoid it."
"Charlie, the campaign's not worth your life." Rick was angry, but not sure at whom.
"In the meantime, Rick, I'd like you to keep close. I'm going to be dealing with the press constantly over the next three days and I'll need some ideas. You know, comments on the courage and coolness of the lunies under extreme stress. Of, uh, the American personnel, especially. Can we find a way to say that without offending anybody?"
"Okay. And make sure we mention Evelyn Hampton. Get the names of some of the other women here, too. Brave women. Credit to their sex. Their ability to meet even this kind of emergency shows us, and so on."
"Charlie, that's a trifle sexist."
The vice president laughed. "That's why I need you, Rick. We're going to salvage what we can. So we'll want to point out that we still have the means to go on. Mustn't quit. The Dream. Invoke the Challenger accident. And Rick-"
"For God's sake, give me some poetry." Georgetown, Washington, D.C. 12:03 P.M.
George Culver wasn't particularly unhappy that the flight had been canceled. He took advantage of the unexpected day off to have lunch with friends at Hurst's Turn of the Century on Wisconsin Avenue. Hurst's had opened just after Christmas, 2000, and its murals incorporated scenes from those closing years of the Clinton era. Here was a gaudily outfitted band and there an antique Toyota Corolla. A bearded father and his son sat in a crowd, waving pennants for the old Washington Redskins. The grand opening itself had been captured in oil, with people dressed in the quaint fashions of the time, standing in line for the first day's fare.
Culver's friends were also pilots. Mel Bancroft flew for Continental; Rich Albert was an air force colonel. Usually they talked about their profession, or about women, but tonight the topic was the incoming comet, and the heavy outbound traffic they'd seen on the highways around the capital. People were afraid that pieces of the moon might fall into the ocean and that Chesapeake Bay would spill over. Mel was not unsympathetic with those who'd chosen to head inland for the duration. He admitted he'd probably clear out too if he lived here. But he didn't, and he had a flight in the morning. Saturday night, he'd be in Indianapolis. "So if a piece of the Moon really does fell into the ocean," he said, "I plan to read about it in the paper."
Rich worked a desk job at the Pentagon. He didn't like the assignment or the bureaucracy, but he was getting his ticket punched for a star. He looked older than he was, and George thought part of that might have been the result of the peacekeeping operations he'd been involved in. A lot of people got killed during the African missions, and Rich had been captured and held for four months by Tibaki rebels. It was an event he would not talk about, but he walked more slowly than he used to, and sometimes winced when he got in and out of cars. He sipped his drink and admitted that he'd put his wife and kids on a plane as soon as he heard. "Nothing to lose by going to Vermont to stay with her folks for a few days."
"What about you, Rich?" George asked.
"I'm on duty over the weekend." He was thickset, short, with a sand-colored mustache. Rich was a poker player and a golfer, and he was quite capable of being the meanest son of a bitch in the world. He was designed by nature to fight wars. "But if anything happens," he grinned, "we'll call in the choppers and get the hell out."
The waiter took their orders, chicken fingers for Mel, a tuna sandwich for Rich, a Caesar salad for George.
"I saw a tidal wave once," said Mel. "We were flying medical and food supplies into Ahmadabad. There'd been some sort of outbreak, and I was in Saudi Arabia between flights. They were scrounging pilots who were certified for the 328s. So we took one on, and we were coming in out of the Arabian Sea just as a wave went ashore. Most terrifying goddam thing I've ever seen. Apparently, there'd been warnings, but nobody had gotten them to the general population. I read later that fifteen thousand people drowned or disappeared." Mel's eyes turned bleak. "They were just standing around when the wave hit."
George had been fortunate. "I've led a quiet life," he said. "Never seen anything like that. Never hope to."
The subject turned to the infant baseball season, and they were still arguing over predictions when lunch arrived. George took one bite of his salad and his cell phone beeped. He excused himself, slid the instrument out of his jacket pocket, and spoke into it. "Culver."
"Yes, this is Culver."
"We need you, George. Right away."
He recognized the voice. "Pete, is that you?" He could hear control tower sounds in the background.
"I'm in the middle of lunch. I'm supposed to be off today."
"Life and death, buddy. For real. Get down here. Pack for a couple of days."
"What? What's going on?"
"Tell you when you get here."
"Pete, where am I going?"
Pause. Then: "The Moon."
• • •