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3.


Moonbase, Grissom Country. 8:05 A.M.

The vice president's call had come late the previous night, with the suggestion that Rick prepare appropriate remarks for a televised news conference today. A good opening statement. We want to be upbeat, Charlie had said. We should probably admit the uncertainties of the situation. But we're in the hands of good old American technology. We and our foreign friends are going to come through, blah, blah, blah. The president wants us to focus attention on Moonbase problems. He's hoping we can divert the public's attention and stop them from jamming up the highways at home. His voice had taken a strange tone. Charlie rarely showed negative emotions about others, but he'd sounded irritated with Kolladner. While you're at it, prepare a list of likely questions I'll be asked. And recommended responses.

Not that you'll use any of them, Rick had thought.

Anyhow, Rick arrived at the vice president's door loaded with suggestions. Charlie's voice invited him in. He was sitting on the sofa, turning pages in a notebook. "Good morning, Rick," he said. "I have some ideas how this should sound."

"Are they that nervous at home?" Rick asked.

"I understand the situation's improving. But the Man is uncomfortable. And he has reason to be. You ever play poker with him?"

Rick hadn't. But he knew the president's reputation. Kolladner didn't play now, of course. There'd be no way to keep it from the media, and the public could be made to frown on a poker player in the White House. It would be the kind of thing the talk show hosts and the late-night comedians loved.

"He's always claimed," Charlie said, "that he never bluffs. It isn't true, of course. But it makes the bluff effective."

"He's bluffing now? About Saturday night?"

"Yeah, I think so. He's scared."

Rick nodded. "If the worst happens, he could lose both seaboards."

A muscle moved in Charlie's jaw, but he said nothing.

Rick, who had an elemental dislike for downbeat conversations, waved it away. "I made some notes on how I think we should handle the news conference."

"Good. It's scheduled for eight. Prime time, all networks and Weblinks. There'll be several guests, including some groundside scientists who think there's really nothing to worry about. They've even got one who swears the comet's going to miss. They're going to have Kendrick anchoring the thing. He'll ask a few questions. I'm sure you can imagine what they'll be. And we want soothing answers." He sat back and looked closely at Rick. "Henry wouldn't admit this, but if I'm reading correctly between the lines, I think the fix is in. I wonder if the president has heard more than he's admitting."

"It's the wrong move," said Rick.

"Why? What makes you say that?"

"It's just going to stir up the people who think there is a major problem. I guarantee you, within an hour after the telecast, every Ph.D. who disagrees will be holding a press conference of his own. Our best bet would be to say as little as possible, photograph the president going about routine business, and for God's sake make sure they get pictures of his wife and grandkids down on a Florida beach."

"It's too late for that now."

"I guess. You know, I hate to criticize a colleague, but the president needs a decent press secretary." Rick sighed. "I saw some reports from your home state. Everybody's clearing out. Headed west."

"I think I would, too," said Charlie.

"Yeah," said Rick. "Especially after we tell them tonight there's nothing to worry about."

• • • Percival Lowell Utility Deck. 8:14 A.M.

Rachel received the mission postponement order while her second shipment of passengers were coming aboard.



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