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REGRETS.


Lee Cochran was in back getting everyone settled. Rachel ran a copy, and when the bus had pulled away, she strolled back and showed it to him. He nodded, showing no emotion. "I wonder," he said, "if the mission will ever happen."

Lee's comment stuck in Rachel's mind while she stayed to help get everyone settled. It won't be that way, she thought. We have the instrument to break out into the solar system; and whatever happens here, we'll go.

We will go.

The passengers had been informed they'd be required to wear a breathing apparatus, but they looked askance at the devices anyhow. Several wanted assurances there were enough oxygen tanks to take care of everyone. Rachel thought how odd it was that people thought nothing of boarding a ferry or a moonbus without asking whether the life support system was adequate. But here, of course, they were holding the life support system in their hands and it worried them. There were other questions. How would they eat? In shifts. What if the mask came off while they slept? Don't worry, if we develop a problem you won't sleep through it. But in any case, we'll check on you regularly. When I have to change tanks, do I have to hold my breath until we get another one? It's a three-second changeover. You'll be fine. Why don't I get an oxygen mask? Everybody doesn't need one because there's enough air in the cabin to support eight people and then some. We'll take turns, Rachel explained, and everybody will get some time out of the mask.

They had a passenger list in advance and they assigned the older travelers to the astronaut quarters. Several families were with the group, four officials from various governments, one Russian industrialist, and two NASA heavyweights. Rachel knew both of course, and one, the comptroller, told her wryly that he was glad to see they'd found some use anyhow for Lowell.

Lee was acting as flight host. He'd collected a dozen viewers from L1 and had jacks installed throughout the ship so their riders could tap into the onboard library. He showed everyone where the galley and washrooms were located, and which buttons to punch if they needed help. He demonstrated the restraint systems in the various seats, and gave webbing to those who did not have seats. He stayed with them, helping them tie down, until he was satisfied they were safe.

Rachel put on her most reassuring manner. Flight time to Skyport would be about nineteen hours. They'd arrive around four o'clock Friday morning, have breakfast, and would then be able to board one of the space planes that would be waiting to take them home. Nothing to worry about, she said. Sorry about the inconvenience. Just remember to keep the mask on and breathe normally and we'll all do fine. If you need to take the mask off for any reason, go ahead, it's no problem. If you feel you have to keep it off, please be sure to let us know.

"You've got real talent for this," Lee told her.

She went back to the flight deck and looked out at the comet. It was east of the Moon, getting bigger. The tails were now easily visible to the naked eye.

She switched on the PA. "Ladies and gentlemen, we're about to get under way. We'll be taking it slow and easy, but you'll still feel some push. The ship will be accelerating for about ten minutes. Please don't try to move around until after we tell you it's okay to do so." She could still see the lights of the second bus, pale and lonely, drifting into the dark.

Lee came in and sat down beside her. "All set," he said.

She nodded and pushed the throttles forward.

The nuclear plant was quieter and smoother than a chemical rocket. NASA had done extensive testing of the nuke in the Mojave and at L1 and had run hundreds of simulations. The ship's crew had taken Lowell on a few local test flights. Around the Moon and back, that sort of thing. But this was the first time that a nuclear-powered spaceship could be said to be operational. "We live in historic times," Lee observed.

"Yeah." Her wrist was pale in the glow of the instrument panel. "That we do, lad." Arlington, Virginia. 9:16 A.M.

Mary-Lynn Jamison of Washington Online was working on the Arnold Cloud story when her phone rang. Cloud was a Midwestern congressman who had apparently hired a hit man to murder his wife. In this case, it appeared that the motive had not been another woman, nor even insurance. Rather, Cloud was in trouble in his home district, and he planned to claim that organized crime had wanted to send him a message. The cops were suspicious, but the congressman had the goods on a lot of people around Washington, and those persons, in a minor panic, were calling in favors. The authorities were under pressure to look the other way, but Mary-Lynn had enough thread to begin unraveling the entire story.

"Jamison," she said into the phone.

"Mary-Lynn, how are you?"

She recognized the secretary of transportation's voice. "Hello, Harold," she said.

"No recordings, Mary-Lynn."

She shut the machine down.

"Can we meet somewhere?"

"For lunch?"

"One o'clock," he said. "Willoughby's."

• • • Moonbase Spaceport. 10:03 A.M.

"Any problems, Tony?" Bigfoot was waiting for them as they debarked.

Tony shook his head. "Running like a good little puppy," he said. The program for landing at Moonbase was standardized, and the attitude jets were therefore not extensively used. They did generate enough vapor that Tony got more bogus readings on his way down. But it seemed trivial, and time was now of the essence.

"Okay. Glad to hear it. We've got enough to worry about." Bigfoot made a rumbling sound deep in his throat. "The space planes are here. And so are your passengers. Take ten minutes and be ready to go."

Saber smiled. "Plenty of time to relax, huh? Couldn't ask for more, Bigfoot."

"Sorry, babe," he said. "We're a little pressed." SSTO Berlin Flight Deck. 10:17 A.M.

Willem Stephan arrived on station and reported in. Copenhagen had already rendezvoused with one of the buses, call sign Wobble, and was taking on its first passengers. The schedule called for the buses to load as the most efficient windows came open. Copenhagen would depart lunar orbit Friday afternoon, and Berlin, Friday night.

He looked down at the lunar terrain. "I never thought I'd get here," he told his copilot.

The copilot was Kathleen Steadmann, from Bremerhaven. Kathleen squinted at the comet. "Just in time, looks like," she said. L1, SSTO Arlington Flight Deck. 10:23 A.M.

Arlington had also required a midcourse correction to compensate for the programming, but nevertheless she arrived at L1 almost exactly on time.

The station did not have standard docking facilities for the SSTO. Station personnel had converted a truck bay, and George guided the rounded prow of the big spacecraft into it. An airtight fit wasn't possible, so the area couldn't be pressurized. He still had red lights on his board when he'd gotten in as far as he could. He killed the engines on command and watched a group of technicians in p-suits swarm over the wings and hull, using cutaway cables to secure the spacecraft. The bay was located in the hub, which was stationary and therefore a zero-g area. The plane swayed and occasionally bumped against its mooring. Now a second team appeared, drawing a Fleming tube out from the boarding ramp. They connected it with the main airlock.

The Fleming tube was a pressurized, flexible, accordion-like walkway constructed of metal and plastic, designed to gain access to vehicles whose normal means of entry had been damaged. This one was about thirty meters long. George went back and stayed by the main door, which was somewhat forward of the center of the spacecraft. When the lights on the door went green, signifying pressure on the other side, he opened up.

A young woman in a dark blue uniform, similar to the one worn at Skyport but with an L1 patch, smiled out at him. "Welcome to LaGrange One, Captain," she said. "We're glad to see you."

An hour and a quarter later, George and his crew had cleaned up and returned to their plane. Two hundred twenty-four passengers were now on board. A few of the operational people remained at their posts until Arlington was clear.

"Do you have transportation?" George asked the radio voice with whom he'd been talking.

"Oh, yes. We've got the Antonia Mabry warmed up and ready to go. We'll be right behind you, Arlington."

"See you at Skyport, then," said George. He guided the plane onto its return heading and began to accelerate. Behind him, the lights of the space station were going out.



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