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4.


Moonbase Spaceport. 12:33 P.M.

They were just beginning to admit passengers onto the boarding ramp when Tony Casaway arrived. He had originally been scheduled to carry the vice presidential party on the Micro to L1. But the schedules were in chaos today. He understood that management was trying to move as many people as possible to L1. The comet was coming, and people were excited, the way they got on roller coaster rides when they knew they were in for a deliciously scary time but one that ultimately would be safe.

Tony wasn't so sure. He'd caught a sense of worry when Bigfoot had brought him in to tell him about his shuffled assignments. Not desperation, by any means. But there had been a tightness in the air. He'd assigned it to the simple fact that Moonbase was going to get blitzed. But it might have been more than that.

Tony Casaway was an old test pilot, which is the best kind. He was different from the other pilots, who'd come to the Moon for reasons he could never understand. They talked a lot about frontiers and going to Mars. Tony came because Gina had gone shopping one day at a supermarket and walked into a hail of gunfire when a couple of goons tried to knock the place over. She was buried in a green hillside outside her native Kansas City, and Tony had gotten as far from that hillside as he could.

The Spaceport, like the rest of the facility, was submerged in the regolith. The hangers and pads were designed to accommodate a multitude of vehicles: the buses that connected Moonbase to L1, and a variety of space trucks and moon-hopping cargo carriers called lobbers that could haul equipment and products between the central complex and outlying factories and research posts.

A group of evacuees were milling about in the passenger lounge while technicians ran preflight checks on the two vehicles-a bus and the Micro-that were scheduled to depart within the half hour for L1. Most were middle-aged movers and shakers, VIPs who'd come to Moonbase for the ceremony. These included an eminent historian, a world-famous sculptor, and two Hollywood types. Wolfgang Weller, the German foreign minister, and his three-person entourage were also here.

Weller was tall and imposing, with cold gray eyes and an imperious manner. He looked annoyed, and Tony wondered whether the source of his irritation was the impending destruction of Moonbase or the fact that he was being herded about with the commoners. He looked like an easy man to dislike. Curious quality in a diplomat.

Or maybe the trouble was in Tony's mind. He didn't like high-powered types. They always seemed to need special attention, and to expect people to fawn over them. He made it a point therefore to seem unaware of the rank of any such passenger.

The passengers parted to let Tony through. He strode up the ramp and was greeted inside by Shen Ka-tai, the flight attendant. "Saber's on board," he told Tony.

Tony nodded and passed into the snug passenger compartment. There were four seats on either side of the aisle, set in pairs. The nature of traffic between L1 and Moonbase dictated the need for a compact, fuel-efficient vehicle to transport small groups and occasionally single persons. That vehicle was the Micro. Two more microbuses were currently under construction and were to join the fleet within the month.

His passengers were coming in behind him. Weller and three aides, and a family with two kids. Eight people in all. The manifest described the family as tourists and indicated their final destination as London. The two kids, a freckled girl about ten and her slightly younger brother, looked excited.

The parents, however, were brusque and nervous. They issued sharp commands to their progeny to sit down, buckle in, and please don't make so much noise. Tony reassured them, explaining that they'd be safely home when the comet arrived, a state of affairs that clearly disappointed the kids. The mother began a lecture about how this was not funny and they were lucky to be on their way.

Tony climbed the ladder and slipped through the overhead hatch onto the flight deck.

Saber was going through the preflight routine. "Hello, Tony," she said, smiling at him over one shoulder. She was tall and lean, almost six feet, with a boyish build. She had black hair and luminous blue eyes, and despite her lack of dimensions, never seemed to want for male escorts. Her name was Alisa Rolnikaya, and she'd been born in Florence into a Russian diplomat's family. She'd learned to fly when she was fifteen, returned to her family's home in St. Petersburg for her education, learned to fly jets, and spent several years with a NATO squadron whose pilots had been mostly Italian. There she'd acquired the code name "Saber," which had followed her to the Moon. The name fit, Tony thought. There was an edge to her personality, and to her sense of humor. She'd been with the Lunar Transport Authority three months, and her assignment to the Micro was her first. So far she seemed competent enough.

"Have you seen the comet pictures?" she asked.

He nodded. He was already making retirement plans. Below, Shen was getting the passengers seated.

"Switch to internal power," said Saber.

"Micro." Moonbase Control on the circuit.

"Go ahead, Control."

"You are unplugged and ready for departure in six minutes."

The Micro was a sphere set on top of a pair of landing treads. The flight deck was located inside a blister at the top of the sphere. At that moment Tony was looking out across the bay, where he could see the power and fuel umbilicals dropping away. The indicator lamps on his status board blinked yellow. Depressurization in the bay had begun.

The pad clamps released.

Tony listened to the sounds in the cabin below: footsteps, voices, luggage being placed in the overhead bins. Then the closing of hatches, inner and outer. The air pumps picked up a notch.

Shen reported the passenger cabin ready for departure.

Control again: "Micro, your turnaround time at L1 is going to be as quick as they can make it. Sleep when you can. It doesn't look as if you're going to have any down time until Friday."

"That's what I hear. It's going to get rank in the old Micro."

Saber smiled and shook her head. They both knew there'd be a quick break while the vehicle was being serviced after each flight. Not a lot of time, but enough to get scrubbed off and change into a fresh uniform.

"It's always been rank in the old Micro," said a new voice, which Tony recognized as that of the operations supervisor, Bigfoot Caparatti.

"Hello, Bigfoot," he said.

"See you when you get back, Tony," said Caparatti. "Good flight."

The overhead doors began to open.

"Green board, Tony," said Saber.

"Countdown to ignition. On my mark. Ten…"

The Micro mounted a single General Electric 7RV engine, capable of providing a steady one-g acceleration. At zero, Tony started it. It roared into life. The flight deck trembled and the Micro began to rise. Then they were out of the illuminated bay, ascending into the night. White House, Truman Room. 1:27 P.M.

"Al, is everyone here?"

The president had summoned his cabinet for a teleconference about the comet with two scientific experts.

Kerr had been talking with the secretary of defense when Henry entered. He glanced around the table, did a quick count, and nodded. "Yes, Mr. President. Only one missing is Hopkins."

Armand Hopkins, the secretary of the interior, was on the West Coast. Henry took his seat, trying not to show that he was in pain. He hurt all the time now, but only Emily knew. And probably Al.

Henry had been a vibrant, energetic head of state during the first two years. He still tried to maintain the pretense, but it was getting harder. The disease was sucking his life away. He'd have kept the story quiet if he could, but there'd been no way to do that. Still, as long as people didn't see it happening, he could continue to function. He'd become almost a tragic figure, perceived as a kind of saint, a man confronting eternity, with no motive to do anything other than what was right for the nation. Everyone treated him with deference, more or less as though the entire nation were attending a bedside vigil. It was a situation unique in American history. Other presidents had received the country's adulation in retrospect. Henry enjoyed it while in office. In the United States of 2024, it was not considered sporting or decent to attack the president. On the other hand, he was the ultimate lame duck.

"Mr. President," Kerr said, "unless you have a preliminary comment, we're ready to go remote."

"Do it."

Split-screen images, a man and a woman, flickered onto a wall display. Henry had seen the man's face before, but he couldn't put a name to it.

He had caught a second breath since his meeting with Juarez, and his basic philosophy, that everything turns out okay if people just don't panic, had taken hold. One of the TV images, the man, wore a graveyard demeanor. We don't want that dumb son of a bitch talking to the media, Henry thought. Who brought him in? But Henry thought his cabinet members and advisors also looked gloomy.

"Before we go any farther," said Henry, "let me caution everyone that we need to be careful what we say outside this room. The Moon story's already out, but the public reaction is going to depend to a fair degree on what comes out of this meeting." That wasn't so, of course. Henry knew that the media would be the ultimate influence and they would decide how to play the story. But he needed his people to do their part. And he particularly wanted to impress the outsiders that they should be careful what they say. "When we get out of here and talk for the record, let's try to think about the impact our words will have. Things are going to be difficult enough over the next few days. We don't want panic on our hands if we can avoid it." He saw his secretary of state frame the word panic on his thin lips as if the thought had not occurred to him. Henry pushed back in his chair and removed a gold pen from an inside pocket. "Now, Al, why don't you introduce our guests."

Kerr nodded. "Professor Alice Finizio from the Jet Propulsion Lab." An African-American, she wore bifocals attached to her lapel by a silver chain. Her orange blazer seemed a bit loud to the president, who believed that the inner self, and not one's clothing, should be the source of attention. She was a slim woman, with silver hair, probably close to seventy. She reminded him quite forcibly of his late grandmother. Kerr described her as an astronomer.

"And Professor Wesley Feinberg of the AstroLab." That explained why the face had seemed familiar. Feinberg was a leading scientist, had won at least one Nobel prize, and had been on the cover of Time or Newsweek recently. He'd even been a guest at a White House dinner, although Henry couldn't recall speaking with him.

Feinberg was thin, short, bleary-eyed, with a crop of gray hair pushed back on a balding skull. His expression suggested he had more important things to do.

"I'd like to welcome you both," the president said, "and we thank you for taking time to be with us today. I'm sure you were introduced earlier to the people at the table." He knew that wasn't so, but it didn't matter. "Mercedes," he said, "where are we?"

"We are now projecting a ninety-seven percent probability that Tomiko will strike the Moon."

"Any conflicting views?" This was aimed at the faces on the wallscreen.

Finizio's eyes were slits. "I'd say it's more like ninety-nine six. There's no question about this that I can see."

"Okay." Henry took a deep breath. "It's going to hit. What does that mean?"

"If it comes in the way we expect it to," said Feinberg, "it'll splash the Moon."

Finizio confirmed the estimate by her silence.

"I'm sorry," said Jessica McDermott, his secretary of defense. "I didn't catch that. What do you mean splash?" McDermott had been CEO at Rockwell before moving over to the Pentagon. She was in her sixties.

"It means that after Saturday night there probably won't be a Moon."

The men and women around the table shifted uneasily. Chairs creaked, people cleared their throats. Harold Boatmann, secretary of transportation, glanced up at a portrait of a smiling Harry Truman. "I guess we can get by without a moon," he said. "Are there any other consequences?"

"The Moon," said Feinberg, "will probably become a mass of loose rubble, plasma, dust, and gas. Some of that debris can be expected to come our way."

All eyes turned toward the president. Henry felt his mouth going dry. He'd spent the last couple of hours convincing himself that a collision occurring a quarter-million miles away could not present a serious threat to the well-being of the United States. He looked down the table at a line of worried faces. "What are we talking about, exactly?" he asked. "Are we in trouble?"

"Probably not a great deal," said Finizio. She even sounded like his grandmother. She looked directly at him. "I think the primary danger here is not from lunar debris, but from panic."

"That's nonsense," said Feinberg. "There's going to be a lot of rock flying around and we don't know where any of it will be going. Mr. President, anything can happen."

"Define anything."

"Earthquakes. Tidal waves. God knows what conditions will be like Sunday morning. But I'll give you an example of the possibilities: If a big enough chunk of rock were to fall into the Pacific, we'd all go for a swim. Damned near the whole planet."

Kolladner heard fingernails tapping. Someone coughed.

Finizio rolled her eyes. "That's a remote possibility, Wesley," she said, "and you know it."

"It's not at all remote."

"Of course it is. Listen, you've always had a tendency to exaggerate, but I think you need to curb yourself a little here."

Henry broke in before it could develop into a food fight. "Professor Finizio, tell us what you expect to happen."

"Very little, Mr. President. Understand, with an event like this, Wes is right. Anything is possible. But none of it is very likely. What I expect is that there'll be increased meteor activity. But I suspect we'll come through it quite nicely. You may have to deal with a few isolated incidents. But probably nothing worth getting alarmed over."

"There'll also be a problem about the axis," said Feinberg, as if Finizio hadn't spoken. "The obliquity of the ecliptic is, to a degree, sustained by the relationship between Moon and Earth. Take that away-"

"Oh, for heaven's sake," said Finizio.

"In English, please," said the president.

Feinberg nodded. "The seasons depend on the tilt of the Earth's axis. You know that, of course. We're farther from the Sun in July than in December. But that could all change now. Take away the Moon, and we're going to see a much more pronounced wobble."

"Do we care?" asked Patricia Russell, the press secretary.

"Summers will get hotter, winters colder. Higher latitudes will become unlivable. There'll be a problem with farming."

"Farming?" asked Henry. He looked back at Finizio for help.

"He means the wheat belt will move south," she said. "But that's something that won't happen for a very long time. Not anything we'll have to worry about."

"The next administration?" asked one of the political advisors.

Finizio laughed. "Maybe the next millennium," she said. "Certainly not earlier. Probably considerably later."

"That's true," admitted Feinberg, "but we need to think about the future."

"Let's stick with the present for now," said Henry. "Is there anything else?"

"Be assured," said Finizio, "that the Moon is not going to go flying off in all directions. Gravity will still be present, and whatever else happens, most of the rock that now composes the Moon will stay right where it is. Oh, it'll get moved around a little. Broken apart. But no worse. I think the government's wisest course is to simply keep everyone calm." She glanced off to her left, where she must have been looking at an image of Feinberg.

The president wanted to applaud.

"I think that's an extremely optimistic view," said Feinberg.

"What do you want me to do?" asked Henry quietly. "Evacuate both coasts?"

"I'll tell you what you should do," said Finizio. "For starters, evacuate L1. It's too close to the collision. And maybe Skyport, for good measure."

Evacuate the stations. Well, that at least was easily done. And best of all, it wasn't his responsibility. But he'd pass the advice along.

Seeing he could get no farther with the experts, Henry broke away from them at the earliest opportunity, thanked them for their advice, and turned to his aides. "We don't have much time," he said. "I propose to answer the critical questions first." He looked at Mercedes Juarez. "Can we stop this thing? What about nuking it?"

"It's too big," she said, "and it's coming too fast. Johnson Space Center says we might as well try to hit it with a stick."

"Should we issue a warning?"

"I don't see how we can," said Amos Pierson, his counsel. "Can you imagine trying to evacuate L.A. and New York by Saturday? Where would we put everybody? How would we feed them? We'd get giant traffic jams, people would die in accidents, and others would die because emergency vehicles wouldn't be able to get to them." He thumped two fingers on the table. "And there'd be a lot of looting unless we plan to leave the cops behind to take their chances. I guarantee you, Mr. President, call for an evacuation, and we'll see a disaster of monumental proportions."

Harold Boatmann had folded his arms in a defensive posture as Pierson came to his point. "I can't believe," he said angrily, "that we'd tell people everything's okay when we know damned well it might not be, and then sit back and hope nothing happens."

"It won't matter what we tell them," said Russell. "They're going to hear about it on TV anyway. Nobody's going to pay much attention to what we say. People will panic, and it'll be Katy bar the door."

"I keep thinking," said McDermott, "what'll happen if you try to evacuate and it all just blows over. The sky is falling. I can see the editorial cartoons now."

Afterward Henry returned with Kerr to his office and lowered himself into the leather chair that had been designed specifically to ease his chronically aching back. "You know, Al," he said, "it doesn't matter a damn what we do unless the media cooperate. If those sons of bitches decide to play everything up, we'll have the biggest panic on our hands this country's ever seen."

They stared at each other. "Have Grace get McConnell on the line for me."



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