Thursday, April 11
L1, Pilots' Quarters. 3:06 A.M.
The phone brought Rachel Quinn out of a deep sleep. She flicked on the table lamp and looked at her watch. "Quinn," she said into the speaker.
"Rachel." The voice was familiar, but she couldn't immediately place it. "I'm sorry to wake you at this ungodly hour."
The station director. "It's okay, John. What's wrong?"
"I wonder if you could come by my office."
"Please. It's urgent."
She slipped out of bed and fifteen minutes later emerged from an elevator in the executive suites of the administration section. Lights were on and people were working. The director's secretary looked up as she entered. "Please go in, Colonel."
John Barringer was arrogant, ruthless, and capable of throwing tantrums. When she walked in he was bent over printouts with an aide. He signed for her to take a seat, dismissed the aide, and came over to her. "Rachel," he said, "When were you planning on taking Lowell back to Skyport?"
"Tomorrow," she said.
"I wonder if I could have you move your schedule up a little bit?"
All she needed to do was get some supplies on board. Food and water. "I don't see why not," she said. "When did you want us to get under way?"
"ASAP. We've got our hands full with the evacuation, and you can help."
"Sure. What do you need?"
Barringer leaned back and crossed one leg over the other. "There's a crunch at Moonbase. They have a lot of people to get out. Right now they're shipping them over here. You could go home by way of Luna, pick some of them up, and get them clear. Help take a little of the pressure off."
"I didn't realize it was that close," she said. "I understood there was no problem."
"Let's say they've tried to keep the public statements optimistic. In any case, we'd appreciate the assistance."
"Sure," she said. "We'll do what we can. But keep in mind that Lowell's only designed to carry six. Lee and I are two. That means we can only accommodate four more. That doesn't sound like much help."
Barringer leaned forward. "Why only four?"
"We'll be squeezing life support. But we can manage maybe a couple extra. Make it six."
"Good," he said. "That's a start. Suppose we put oxygen masks on board. Then how many can you take?"
"I don't think I want to risk carrying people all the way to Skyport using individual breathing gear."
Barringer nodded. "I don't think you quite understand what I'm trying to say, Rachel. People you don't take might get left."
"My God, is it that bad?"
"How many do you want to put on board?"
"About twenty. Maybe a few more if you can manage."
"They're not going to be comfortable."
"We're not worried about comfortable."
"Okay," she said. "Give me twenty. No, make it twenty-five."
Barringer was a man easily lost in a crowd: round face, receding hairline, unremarkable features. She'd never thought much of him, truthfully. Rachel believed that a man was best judged by what he cared about, and Barringer, in her presence, talked only about accounting techniques and personnel procedures. He visibly toadied to visiting VIPs, and (if reports were accurate) rarely had a kind word for his employees. But this morning she felt sorry for him.
"I'll have the tanks and masks loaded within the hour," he said. He studied her briefly. "I know there are only two of you. Do you need a spare pilot?"
"No," she said. "Thanks."
"Thank you, Rachel."
She nodded, got up, and started for the door.
"One more thing." He hesitated. "Have they officially canceled the flight yet?"
He was talking about Mars. The mission. "No," she said. "Not yet. I guess they have other things to think about."
"I'm sorry," he said.
She understood: Barringer had been around long enough to know that if the mission went kaput, there'd be another crew on board when NASA finally sent it out. And the mission was certainly kaput.
"Yeah," she said. "Thanks." Micro. 3:52 A.M.
Tony deposited his third load of passengers at L1 and started back. He was getting bored. He had now spent almost fifteen consecutive hours on the flight deck of the Micro. With two and a half days to go.
As he accelerated away from the station, he passed Hal Jenkins's bus, inbound with another sixteen refugees, which was how he'd begun to think of the people fleeing back toward the home world. The bus blinked its lights. Tony returned the greeting, but his attention was captured by Tomiko, which hovered just above the other ship's cabin lights. It had moved out of the Sun's glare and become a fuzzy star.
Coming fast and coming faster.
It looked harmless enough. "Where's its tail?" asked Saber.
"I heard somebody on TV saying you can't see a tail because it's pretty much pointed in our direction. They also think it's moving too quickly and the Sun isn't getting time to heat it up."
He put the scopes on it and went to full mag. The comet seemed to have a pulse, a rhythm that brightened and dimmed with his heartbeat.
There won't be much use for moon pilots after this weekend.
She must have read his mind. "Will you retire, Tony?"
"Yeah," he said. "I might. I don't think I could go back to flying groundside. Not after this."
Her lashes looked damp.
"You okay, Saber?"
"You're lucky," she said.
Saber aroused Tony's paternal instincts. It was a bitch to get this far and have somebody just yank it away. He'd heard a story about one of the medieval popes getting angry at a comet and excommunicating it. He didn't know whether the story was true or not, but he could understand the gestures of humans whose lives were upset by a visitor they couldn't touch, couldn't ward off. He stared at the image on the overhead display, glowing and peaceful and even beautiful, and he wished he could reach out, cast a spell, crush it.
"I wonder if they've been able to track it back," Saber said.
"To where it started."
"I doubt it's possible. The thing's probably a billion years old."
"It's strange," said Saber. "A billion years, and all this time it's been running hot and true for the Moon." She stared at the image, and Tony could see emotions rippling through her eyes.
He released his restraints and got up. "How about something to eat?"
"Sure," she said.
He opened the hatch to the passenger cabin and dropped down. The galley was located aft in a separate compartment. He walked back on grip shoes, opened the refrigerator, took out a couple of cheese sandwiches, and put them in the microwave. He sliced some tomatoes and onions, made up a salad, picked up the ranch dressing, filled the thermos with coffee, and carried everything back up to the flight deck.
"Thanks," she said, digging in. "I didn't realize I was hungry"
"I miss Shen," grinned Tony. "Not used to getting our own stuff." They'd left the flight attendant at L1. One less to carry.
Saber took a second helping of the salad. "I wonder if it's alone," she said.
"How do you mean?"
"Sometimes these things travel in clusters. There could be more of them out there, coming this way."
"That's a cheerful thought."
When they'd finished, Saber offered to clean up. But Tony wanted an excuse to move around. He took the remnants of the meal back down to the galley, put the salad into a plastic bag, and stacked the dishes. L1, Percival Lowell Flight Deck. 4:18 A.M.
"What frustrates me," said Lee Cochran, "is that we could still run the mission."
"Isn't that a little selfish?" asked Rachel.
"No, I don't mean that," said the geologist. "We could make the Moonbase pickup, deliver them, collect the crew at Skyport, and be on our way. There's really no reason we couldn't do that." His eyes, which were usually pretty sexy, just looked empty now. "We haven't received any direction yet, I guess?"
"No," she said. "Nothing yet. But we're certainly going to get scrubbed."
"Why? The launch window's open. Why not salvage the mission? There's no reason to scrub."
He was right. The brute work was done, the ship ready to go. There was no operational reason they couldn't leave from earth-orbit. Still, she understood the political realities: the Lowell couldn't go sailing off to Mars while people at home were scrambling to avoid a disaster.
Her cell phone bleeped. "Colonel?"
"Go ahead, Jim." James Hoffer was the rescue coordinator.
"The cushions are here."
"Okay. Put them on board. I'll be back to show you where."
"Cushions?" asked Cochran.
"For our passengers."
Cochran sat down beside her. "After we drop these people off at Skyport, why don't we keep going?"
She grinned. "Steal the Lowell? We'd better plan to stay on Mars."
But it wasn't really funny, and Cochran looked genuinely in pain. This was the professional culmination for all of them. For Lee and herself, for their four crewmates who'd just arrived at Skyport prior to shipping over to L1.
"Look," she said, hoping to end the discussion, "Moonbase is going down and the gloss will be off the program. The politics won't be right for a launch."
"Goddam politics. If they scrub, it'll be years before we go. Or before somebody goes."
"Lee," she said, "let's concentrate on the immediate problem: Where do we put our passengers?"
"Damned if I know."
"I think it's time we figured it out. Let's go take a look."
She wanted the passageways clear. They could put six people in the tiny cubicles that would have served as crew's quarters. Two more could be seated at unused duty stations. There was room for another six in the rec/community space, and the rest would be safest in the equipment locker. There they could sit in the Mars rover and the mobile laser drill, where they could belt down.
The drill looked like a tractor with a praying mantis astride the hood. Lee paused before it, and Rachel could read his thoughts. It was designed to reach a hundred meters beneath the Martian surface and bring back samples. He would have been in the saddle, wielding the ruby beam, sending the collector deep, and retrieving Martian history.
Now they both knew it was never going to happen. When the Lowell went, in two or three years, if it happened at all, there would be a whole new crew.
"Look at it this way," she said. "We have a chance to demonstrate the usefulness of a nuclear-powered vessel. Maybe when this is over, somebody'll realize the advantage of having a Percival Lowell. I mean, we've built the first one. This is the one that cost all the money. Now it's just nickels and dimes." Micro Flight Deck. 6:51 A.M.
The Micro was approaching the Spaceport. They were on auto, following the beacon down, when the radio came alive. "Tony? This is Moonbase." Bigfoot's voice.
"Go ahead, Moonbase. We copy."
"Change in plans. They're sending the Percival Lowell over this morning. You and another of the buses are going to rendezvous with it. You'll have about forty-five minutes' turnaround time. You'll take nine people up." That was the usual eight, plus one for the vacancy they'd created by losing Shen.
"Roger that, Bigfoot. We get to see the nuke in action, huh?"
"Nothing but the best for the jocks."
"I wonder how many people they have to move off," Saber asked.
Tony didn't respond, and she switched her attention to the comet, which was showing a second tail in the scopes.
"Maybe it's breaking up," he said. "Maybe we'll get lucky."
"That would be nice." Saber looked at her screen. "But don't count on it. It says here that two tails are common."
"Oh." The comet had begun to take on a personal aspect, as if it were a living thing. It would have given Tony a great deal of visceral pleasure to watch it come apart.
The green lamps, the GO indicators, were blinking on Saber's board. Lights were coming on in the center of Alphonsus as the Spaceport opened its doors to receive them. The attitude jets fired, fired again, and the Micro rotated, aligning itself to the approach corridor. Had either Tony or Saber been watching closely, they might have seen traces of gray haze outside the bus. Whether the haze would have been recognized as unburnt fuel, as powdered aluminum being forced into an engine at twice the rate it could be used, is doubtful. But it would have given someone pause.
Alphonsus was pocked with numerous rills and secondary craters. The central uplift, which was characteristic of large craters, threw a harsh shadow across the terrain. Moonbase itself was safely tucked beneath the regolith, its location marked only by its lights.
"Micro," said Moonbase, "you are looking good."
The jets fired again. Tony felt the bus turning on its axis.
"Hot and normal," said Saber.
"Micro, you are cleared to land."
Forty-five minutes. Just enough time to eat. "Want to try for breakfast?" he asked.
"Yeah." She nodded. "Good idea-"
An orange warning lamp blinked on. Saber looked at the overhead display. "Fuel consumption's up. Attitude jets."
Tony followed her eyes. They'd lost a few pounds.
"Something loose maybe," he suggested.
"Don't know. It was all right before the six-thousand maintenance."
Tony grumbled about Moonbase techs. "We'd be better off if they'd just leave it alone." He flipped the comm switch. "Moonbase, this is the Micro. Attitude jets are using excess fuel."
"Check it out for me during the turnaround, okay? It's probably just a leak."