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6.


Skyport. 4:04 P.M.

The two planes making the early flight were from Berlin and Copenhagen. The pilots had left their flight attendants home. George had allowed his to come on the Arlington, with the understanding that they would make the first flight, to L1, but not the lunar mission.

The fourth spacecraft, they were informed, would be coming from Rome.

The three flight crews spent an hour with operational personnel in a ready room talking over details, setting up emergency communication protocols, trying to foresee what might go wrong, discussing the handling problems they could expect. The SSTOs weren't designed to fly to the Moon, and if anyone had foreseen the eventuality, there was no evidence of it in operational contingency plans. They would drag a lot of mass in the form of airframe, atmospheric engines, and landing gear, making them sluggish. If they really were going to have to dodge flying rock, they would have their hands full.

They would go into their assigned orbits, and moonbuses would come to them. The lunies also had two trucks available. The trucks had no in-flight docking capabilities, but would have to employ extravehicular activity (EVA) to transfer passengers. These would, of course, be operational personnel. And there'd only be one or two at a time. Carrying capacity for passengers was small.

"Nonexistent is more like it," said Nora Ehrlich, the British-born pilot of Copenhagen. "How tight is this operation?"

"You got it," said the briefer. "We have no room for screwups."

Shortly after he'd arrived, George had learned that other planes had been brought in to evacuate Skyport. Only operations people would remain to service the planes and take care of their passengers, and a few others deemed necessary to keep the station running. This was purely a precaution, management was saying.

After the conference, George and his crew went to Mo's Restaurant for dinner. At six he called Operations. They were still taking care of the details, they told him. But he should be ready to leave by eight P.M.

One of the details consisted of writing the navigational programming. The assignment was given to an overworked and underpaid technician whose job was to communicate with one of the astronavigators, and translate his instructions into code for the onboard computers on the three spacecraft. This technician was Kay Wilmont, who was in her second tour on board Skyport, and who had just put in for a supervisor's job.

The original plan had been to refuel the tanks to about half capacity, the level necessary to make the round-trip to either lunar orbit or L1. (There was no real difference.) But late planners had informed Operations that the SSTOs might have to do some maneuvering on the way home. Better be safe than sorry.

This was another breakdown. The only planes that might be forced to do violent maneuvering would be the two that would return Saturday. But no matter: The decision was taken to fill all tanks to capacity.

However, no one told Kay, or the people on her watch, of the change in plans. Consequently, the programs assumed a fuel weight that was fifty percent less than the amount actually carried. This was an error that, once caught, would require a series of midcourse corrections. In and of itself, it would involve no danger to the mission. Transglobal Executive Suite, Manhattan. 4:47 P.M.

Twenty-seven years ago Bruce Kendrick had been the weatherman on the Channel 11 news out of Topeka. He'd been noticed by Captain Raymond L. McConnell when a Kansas City blizzard forced McConnell's plane to divert and he'd had to spend the night at the local Sheraton. McConnell had liked the way the kid handled low-pressure fronts, had offered him a job with the network, and the rest, as they say, was history.

Transglobal was filled with stories like that. Most of the top brass, and virtually all of the top performers (which was what TV journalists had evolved into), had been handpicked by the Captain. He owned the network, he had an unerring talent for turning huge profits out of news and features, and he was arguably the most powerful person in the United States. Quite possibly in the world.

The Captain did not owe his title to a naval heritage. According to Transglobal lore, it had begun as a joke, a designation suggested by his autocratic manner. McConnell nevertheless liked the title. He encouraged its use, and it consequently became the accepted form of address by all. He was fond of telling public gatherings that it had derived from subordinates who wished to impress him. And he always got a laugh by adding that he would have preferred "Judge," or better yet, "Excellency," but that his staff had drawn the line.

Everyone who knew the Captain was aware there was no line.

Bruce Kendrick was no stranger to the eleventh floor of the Transglobal Building. McConnell customarily had him in on Thursday afternoons, along with his immediate boss, news director Chuck Parmentier. The purpose of the meetings was to allow the Captain to keep involved with the news operation. Let's take a look at where we've been this week, what we're emphasizing, what the slant has looked like, what's coming up. And perhaps most important, what we want to achieve and how best to go about it.

If McConnell was a dictator, he nevertheless knew enough to ask questions and listen to the answers. He withheld his own views until the very last, and as far as Kendrick could judge, kept an open mind until the time for decision arrived. He was even willing to entertain objections after a decision had been made, and had been known to reverse himself in the face of a compelling argument. It was a quality, Parmentier maintained, utterly unique in the executive suites of the giant news-gathering corporations.

But this was Wednesday, a day early. Kendrick went first to the news chief's office. "It has to be the comet," Parmentier said.

The Captain was not a physically imposing man. He was an inch or two under average height, his hair still black despite his seventy years. He was a lawyer by training, although he'd never practiced. He was standing by a window as they were shown into his suite, looking down at Central Park. The office was immense, decorated with original artwork, including a Remington and a Jardin. "Gentlemen," he said unceremoniously, "we have work to do." A steward wheeled in a tray of donuts and danish, and poured coffee all around.

The Captain circled his desk and sat down. His brows were heavy, his eyes scarcely visible. "Take a look at this," he said. He punched a button and the four o'clock news roundup began to roll.

The daytime anchor's girl-next-door features smiled out from the screen. "This is Janet Martin at the news desk," she said. "There's more fallout from the Comet Tomiko story this afternoon. People along both coasts and near large bodies of water around the world have begun to flee their homes. As Tomiko zeroes in on the Moon, scientists are warning of the possibility that debris might fall into the oceans, generating enormous waves." (Cut to pictures of jammed highways, traffic moving at a crawl.) "How serious is it? Dan Molinari is at the Beaver Meadow Observatory in New York with one of the people who are trying to find out. Dan, how's it look?"

Molinari was standing with a bespectacled little gray-haired man wrapped in a frumpy blue sweater. "Janet, this is Wesley Feinberg of Harvard's AstroLab. He came up here for the total eclipse and hasn't gone home yet. Professor Feinberg, I wonder if you can tell us what's going to happen this weekend."

Parmentier was watching the Captain to try to guess what was wrong.

"… really hard to say, Dan. Anything could happen. There's just no way to predict accurately the aftermath of an event this explosive."

"Professor, we've seen that a lot of people are worried about the oceans. How do you feel about that? Is there a real danger for those who live in coastal areas?"

"Certainly. If I lived on a beachfront, I'd want to be away from it for the next few days. Wouldn't you? Denver's nice this time of year."

McConnell muted the sound, leaving the two images to continue their conversation silently. He looked across the vast expanse of his cherrywood desk, directly at Parmentier. "Well, Chuck," he said, "what do you think?"

"It's a damned good story," said Parmentier. "I don't think I understand what you're driving at, Captain."

Kendrick looked from his boss to the Captain. Parmentier was usually pretty quick on his feet, but when he thought he had a story he could run with he sometimes became obtuse. Kendrick knew right away where this was going, but he was far too shrewd to embarrass the man who signed his paycheck.

McConnell's eyebrows drew together. "Have you considered," he asked, "what will happen if we succeed in panicking two hundred fifty million people? Not to mention our overseas audience?"

Parmentier's face reddened. "Captain, this is a very big story. What do you want us to do? Sit on it?"

"I don't like the way we're playing it, Chuck. We could instigate a major disaster. There've already been deaths out there."

"Accidents."

"They happen when people go around the bend. We are in the process of driving a lot of people around the bend." He spared a glance for Kendrick, who tried to look as if he'd thought all along they should be going easy on this.

"We have a responsibility to the public," Parmentier said.

"Goddammit, Chuck, save that kind of talk for the politicians. This is me. I will not be responsible for creating several nights of mayhem. For killing God knows how many people before this is over. And maybe inviting a few lawsuits."

Parmentier was not a man to be threatened lightly, even by the Captain. "We have no choice, sir," he said, pronouncing each word deliberately and with a touch of outrage, "but to present the truth to our viewers. The truth is that there may be major disruptions over the next few days. Places like New York are vulnerable. It's our job to tell them what we know."

McConnell's eyes grew hard and he looked at Kendrick. "Bruce, I wanted you in here because I thought this was something we all need to agree on. What's your opinion?"

Kendrick cleared his throat and started to talk in circles. "Never mind," said the Captain. "I can see you'll try to protect your boss. And that's good, Bruce. Up to a point. But this-" He got up and studied a Remington on his desk. "The truth is, Bruce, that we really don't know what's going to happen. Everything is speculation, and speculation should not be passed off as hard news. Do I make myself clear?"

"I suppose," said Parmentier, "we could shift the emphasis."

"Yes," said the Captain. "That's exactly what we will do. We will shift the emphasis."

His tone suggested that, unless anyone wanted to debate the issue, the interview was over. Parmentier and Kendrick rose. Kendrick said he'd get right on it. And both men started for the door.

"One more thing," said McConnell. "Over the weekend-"

"Yes, sir?"

"We'll do the network broadcasts from field stations. See Jim. He's already setting it up. I don't want any of our people in the building, or anywhere near the city, after tomorrow." White House, Oval Office. 4:48 P.M.

Feinberg smiled innocuously out of the screen. "Certainly. If I lived near an ocean, I'd want to be away from it for the next few days. Wouldn't you? Denver's nice this time of year."

Henry killed the picture. "Sometimes I wish for the old days," he said.

"How do you mean, Henry?" asked Kerr.

"When national leaders could have nitwits shot. There's a lot to be said for that." He'd just finished a conference call with his counterparts in Japan, Britain, Germany, Russia, and China. Everyone was adrift. Germany and Russia were acting, moving people inland. They could do that. They didn't have thousands of miles of coastline to concern themselves with. Others were taking moderate measures, stockpiling supplies, planning for disaster relief, and putting the military on standby. Britain and Japan, without any interior to speak of, were at the mercy of events.

Henry didn't like his own policy, which consisted of watching, waiting, and trying to reassure everyone. Of hoping he could ride it out. We'll deal with the consequences as they arise, he told himself. Maybe we'll get lucky. Some religious leaders were urging him to declare a national day of prayer. That was all the nation would need during a crisis, to see its president on his knees.

Nobody makes it to the Oval Office without taking a lot of heat. By the time he arrives, he's scarred, cynical, tough, single-minded. And he doesn't believe anybody or anything can't be handled. (Or she doesn't. The United States had had its first woman president. She'd served one term, 2017-2021, and refused the nomination for a second with the comment, Not worth it.)

She was wrong, of course. It was worth it. Henry knew that. And every other politician in the country worthy of the name knew it. Even in times like this, when so much depended on his decisions, and the way was so murky, it was worth it. Especially in times like this. There was no chance at greatness without a decent challenge. He'd been concerned that he would disappear into the history books with people like Polk and Cleveland, effective presidents who might have ranked high had a sufficient misfortune risen to confront them. You can't be a Lincoln without a civil war. It now appeared he had his civil war.

Despite the overwhelming nature of the problem, he'd thrown aside his dark mood of the morning. He needed to get everything right. And he needed to be lucky.

But there was no reason to believe that would not happen.



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