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Mexico. 6:43 A.M. Mountain Daylight Time (8:43 A.M. EDT)

The path of totality, moving generally northeast, glided ashore at Mazatlan. Six minutes later the skies darkened over Durango. Strollers in the zocalo paused and glanced up. Lights came on in the shopping district.

At about the same time, the shadow of the Moon reached the continental divide. Birds along the shores of Laguna del Llano grew quiet. It swept over the Sierra Madres and the wide semi-arid plains, and while late risers were having breakfast, crossed into Texas. Traffic was heavy, as always, at the Piedras Negras and Eagle Pass border stations; but even here, among the banging of trunks and the roar of tractor-trailers, there was a brief pause, a momentary stillness.

It passed between San Antonio on the east and Lubbock on the west. Early arrivals for the Rangers' home opener against the A's watched the parking lot darken. It was moving more slowly now than it had been when the passengers of the Merrivale first observed it.

Teachers in Fort Smith, Arkansas, took classes outside so their students could experience the gathering dark. In the Batesville Regional School, a visiting astronomer from the Delmor Planetarium in Little Rock explained to an auditorium of third- and fourth-graders how eclipses happen, why people used to be afraid of them, and why they should never look directly at the Sun.

At thirty-seven thousand feet over Springfield, Missouri, the shadow overtook a specially modified Lockheed C-311 cargo jet, which was running northeast on a parallel course. The jet housed a sixty-inch telescope and associated equipment, a team of six astronomers, and a three-person flying crew. The telescope was mounted in a shock-absorbing cradle just forward of the left wing, and was equipped with gyros and sensors to keep it locked on target. It was cold in the plane, and the jet engines were very loud, for too loud to permit casual conversation. The astronomers needed headphones and microphones to talk with one another. They wore heavy woolen sweaters beneath down jackets. The team had begun their work as soon as the lunar disk bit into the Sun. But the period of totality was especially precious. The aircraft, trying to keep up with the racing umbra, would give them an extra minute or so. The mission was sponsored by NASA Goddard. It had a multitude of tasks, collecting data to help explain anomalies of the inner corona, conducting multi-wavelength studies, comparing active features on the solar surface, hoping to establish correlations with coronal gas velocities. And a dozen or so others.

They had almost six minutes of totality. Then the darkness left them behind, passed through the Mark Twain National Forest, and closed on St. Louis.

In Valley Park, a pleasant suburb with picket fences and shady lawns, Tomiko Harrington was using her keyboard to activate the imaging disk in her electronic Magenta 764XX reflector, which was temporarily mounted on the deck outside her observatory over the garage. Tomiko was a systems designer for the Capital Bank and Trust Company of St. Louis. She was also an amateur astronomer and had called in sick that day.

The morning was clear and crisp, perfect for an eclipse. There'd been predictions of storm fronts and overcast skies, but none had materialized. Tomiko's passion for astronomy had been ignited by another Missouri solar eclipse, seven years earlier. That had happened August 21, on her eighteenth birthday, and the event had seemed like a sign, an invitation from the cosmos to get beyond the parties and the frivolity and put some meaning into her life. It was an invitation she'd accepted. Tomiko was now a member of the University Astronomy Club, she had written a couple of scripts for the planetarium in Forest Park, and she was about to collect her master's from SLU. Today she'd get a complete visual record of the period of totality.

When a friend had asked why, she hadn't quite known how to answer. "Just to have," she'd said finally, knowing that at least one of the images would be mounted and framed on her brag wall, taking its place among her stunning color photos of the Pleiades, the Crab Nebula, Mars and Deimos, the gorgeous M31 whirlpool, the 2019 Hercules supernova, and her personal observatory.

She relaxed in the love seat with a Coke, facing four video displays, three of which depicted the dark lunar rim closing over the last of the light. One screen, mounted on her desk, carried the feed coming from her own telescope, a small clock in the lower right-hand corner ticking off the last minutes to totality. The other two were commercial programs. She'd turned off the sound on these, not wishing to allow a newscaster's commentary to spoil the moment. The fourth monitor provided a map of the eclipse's path through the Northern Hemisphere.

She finished her Coke and put it down on a side table. The sky was getting dark, and she shuddered with pleasure. A passing car switched on its headlamps.

When her father was alive, the rooms over the garage had been rented, usually to students at the Bible college. But Tomiko had no real need of funds, and the old apartment was situated far from streetlights, which made it ideal for use as an observatory. In addition, it was surrounded by a wide deck on which she could install mounts for her telescopes. When two students had broken their lease and run off in the middle of the night, owing her two months' rent, she'd been almost grateful. She'd taken it over, renovated it, installed computers and two reflectors and imaging equipment. She'd promised herself that if the big money ever came in, she'd remove the roof and make a real observatory out of the place.

Her lawn sprinkler snapped on.

Tomiko was diminutive, amiable, self-assured. She wore dark green slacks and a yellow blouse open at the throat. Her black hair was combed forward, almost concealing her left eye, in the fashion of the time. She had her father's penetrating gaze, but lacked the epicanthic fold of the Japanese ancestors on her mother's side. At times like this, when she was deeply engaged in her hobby, she wore a mildly distracted look. An observer would have concluded she was far away from the garage apartment.

A cool wind shook the trees. Somewhere a phone was ringing.

Now night came. The sky filled with stars. She felt utterly alone in the world.

The darkened Sun was in Pisces. She could see the Great Square of Pegasus just above the drugstore, Aldebaran up over Doc Edwards's house, Deneb at the top of the elm, and Betelgeuse down near the intersection. Jupiter, white and brilliant, was east of the Sun; and Venus, west.

Even Mercury was visible, riding its lonely arc.

She went out onto the deck and sat down in one of her wicker chairs, crossed her arms on the guard railing, and rested her chin on the back of her left hand. Lights came on in Conroy's kitchen.

A few degrees south of the Sun, just on the edge of the corona where the glare faded into night, Tomiko noticed a bright star.

What was that?

She measured it with her eye against the surrounding constellations, frowned, and hurried inside to her computer. She logged into the USL Celestik program, and brought up a star diagram.

• • • Moonbase, Grissom Country. 11:10 A.M.

Rick Hailey appraised Charlie's outfit, grinned at the Moonbase patch, and shook his head. "No," he said. "Don't do it."

"Why not?" Charlie thought it would be ideal for the situation.

"Because politicians who try to look like something they aren't inevitably come off looking dumb. You're too young to remember Michael Dukakis and his tank. But how about Bill Worthy?" Worthy had been knocked out of his party's nomination by Andrew Culpepper, then a relative unknown, after he'd tried on an astronaut's uniform for the cameras. He'd succeeded only in convincing the electorate he was frail and near death.

Charlie sighed. "Yeah," he said.

"I mean, I can see the editorial cartoons now. They'll send you to Mars."

It was annoying. He looked so good in this outfit.

"This is your day, Charlie," Rick said. "This afternoon we'll be creating our campaign theme. The future belongs to Haskell." He drank off a glass of moon rum, which was nonalcoholic.

"I'm a little uncomfortable about this," said Charlie. "I keep thinking the president should be here. Or maybe it's the low gravity." He grinned uncertainly.

"You'll do fine. Like you always do." Rick's voice dropped an octave. "Don't forget God," he said.

Charlie sighed.

"It's important. Out here, people expect you to notice creation. The blue Earth. The stars. The sense of human insignificance." He stopped and thought about it. "No," he continued, "not human insignificance. Your insignificance. Right? We don't want the voters to get the idea you think they're insignificant."

"I know."

Sometimes Charlie thought of his ascent to the vice presidency as some sort of cosmic joke. He couldn't recall having set out to become a politician. It was something that had just happened to him. He'd been running a small electronics business in Amherst twelve years ago when a dustup began over school prayer, evolution, creation science, and The Catcher in the Rye. Charlie, who'd thought those battles fought and won during the last century, had shown up at a school board meeting where he'd intended only to lend visible support to the English and science departments. But he'd been outraged by a tall, dark-haired, brimstone-eyed preacher who'd informed the board what their duties were, and left no doubt he was speaking for a higher power. The preacher had brought his congregation, one of whom was waving a sign with the number 649 on it, supposedly the number of obscenities in Catcher. Unable to contain himself, Charlie had taken on the preacher.

In hindsight, he hadn't thought he'd done well. The preacher was louder and more practiced than he, but the small group of school supporters liked what they saw. They asked him to run in the fall election, and as Charlie saw it, next thing he knew he was vice president.

He looked at his watch. "Give me a minute to change," he said. "And then we better get started."

"Yeah. Listen, on second thought, wear the jacket. Okay? It'll help you bond with these people. But the uniform's too much."

Rick's value lay in what Charlie liked to think of as an ability to see around corners. If there was a booby trap ahead, he could be counted on to find it before it exploded.

Wearing only the jacket would be a halfway measure. A sign of weakness. When Charlie came out of the bedroom, he'd pulled on his own custom-made gray suit.

Rick frowned. "I don't know why you keep me on," he said.

• • • Skyport, NASA/Smithsonian Orbital Laboratory. 12:13 P.M.

The Orbital Lab at the Earth satellite Skyport served as a worldwide clearinghouse for astronomical data. New variable pulsar analyses, fresh information on large-structure configurations, the latest findings on extra-solar terrestrial worlds supporting oxygen atmospheres-all were funneled into the Orbital Lab, collated, cross-indexed, relayed to interested consumers, and made available on the Web for the general public.

Tory Clark was watching the progress of the eclipse across North America on the overhead monitor while she looked through incoming reports. Although there was an enormous amount of activity connected with the event, nonrelated routine inputs did not slow down appreciably. She had, for example, a quasar update from Kitt Peak, a new report on R136a in the Large Magellanic, and corrections to the velocity measurements for the runaway star 53 Arietis. She also had something else.

"Windy?" She held up a hand to get the attention of her supervisor, Winfield Cross. "You want to take a look at this?"

Cross was in his fifties, medium size, medium build, medium everything. People tended to have a hard time remembering who he was, or what his name was. He was African-American, had grown up in south Los Angeles, gone to Princeton on a scholarship, and now seemed worried only by the possibility that his age would catch up to him before he achieved his one ambition. The automated observatory at Farside, the hidden side of the Moon, was going to be expanded and provided with a human staff. Windy hoped to get the director's job.

He held up one hand to signal that he understood, finished writing on a clipboard, and turned to his own screen. She heard him inhale. "What is it? You check it yet?"

They were looking at Tomiko's splinter of light.

"Don't know."

"Sun-grazer, you think?"

"I guess. Can't imagine what else."

There was nothing new, of course, about sun-grazing comets. They approached from the far side of the Sun and returned the same way. Consequently, they were virtually impossible to see from Earth, unless they happened to show up during a total eclipse, as this one had.

Windy's fingertips drummed on the computer table. "Who've we got?"

Tory was ready for the question. "Feinberg's at Beaver Meadow for the show." She was referring to the eclipse.

"Feinberg. Well, no point monkeying with the small fry. Okay, try to get him and ask him to take a look." Moonbase, Ranger Auditorium. 12:17 P.M.

The place was named for the only ship lost during the second wave of lunar exploration. The second vessel to go back to the Moon after more than thirty years, the Ranger had been less than forty minutes from reentry when a fuel line blew. The explosion damaged the navigational guidance system and forced Frank Bellwether, its skipper, to try an eyeball insertion, a seat-of-the-pants reentry. But the procedure was exceedingly difficult, and he'd misjudged the approach, had come in at too wide an angle. Ranger had skimmed off the atmosphere, and without enough fuel to return, had drifted into solar orbit. It had been the most traumatic incident of the age of space exploration, far more painful than the Challenger loss, because Bellwether and his crew were able to communicate for several days afterward, until their air supply ran out.

A plaque commemorating the captain was mounted in the auditorium. In addition, the five ferries that carried passengers between L1 and Skyport were named for the individual crewmembers.

When Charlie entered, a wallscreen was keeping track of the scene in Clifton, Ohio, where the high school band was lined up on the stage of a gymnasium. Concurrently with the lunar ceremony, the institution was being renamed the Andrew Y. Culpepper Memorial High School. The gym was crowded with students, and the band was playing an old tune, "Moon Over Miami." Well, it wasn't Miami, but Charlie imagined nobody cared about details. At Moonbase, some six hundred people, constituting visitors and virtually the entire population of the station not then on duty, had crowded into the auditorium.

Evelyn Hampton's technicians had erected a temporary platform and set out a row of chairs across it. A pair of double doors off to one side led out into Main Plaza, and a wide silver ribbon had been draped across these. The double doors were being treated symbolically on this occasion as the front entrance to Moonbase. The platform was decked with white, green, and blue bunting, the colors of Moonbase International. Flags of all (or almost all) the world's nations were mounted on the walls. A range of VIPs from international commerce, various governments, and the entertainment and academic worlds were seated on the platform. Prominent among these was Slade Elliott, known to millions of TV viewers as Captain Pierce on the immensely popular Arcturus Run. A recent poll had shown that Elliott had better name recognition than the president of the United States.

Evelyn saw Charlie and joined him. "Well, Mr. Vice President," she asked congenially. "Are you ready to do the honors? This is an historic moment. What you say here today, people will be quoting a thousand years from now."

"Thanks," said Charlie. "I really needed a little more pressure." He glanced toward the pool of journalists, many of whom he recognized. Rick had insisted that there was no more important skill for a politician than to remember the first names of the reporters. It was a habit Charlie had taken time to acquire. "Where are the TV cameras?" he asked.

She pointed to the far end of the auditorium, where a cluster of black lenses jutted out of the rear wall. Other cameras were concealed on either side of the platform.

Evelyn introduced him to the other guests, and Charlie was surprised when Elliott asked him to autograph a program.

Then it was time to proceed. His seat was located immediately to the right of the lectern, the place of honor secured by the fact that the U.S. government was Moonbase International's biggest shareholder. An attractive young woman in a Moonbase jumpsuit caught Evelyn's eye and held up both hands twice, fingers spread, signifying twenty seconds. Evelyn went to the lectern. The crowd grew quiet.

A display suspended from the ceiling acted as a monitor, and she glanced up to check her appearance. She looked pretty good for a CEO, Charlie thought.

A red lamp blinked on at the far end of the auditorium, which meant they were using the rear camera. The young woman did a silent countdown, and when she reached zero, Evelyn leaned forward and welcomed everyone, the entire world, to Moonbase. "Before we go any farther," she said, "I'd like to introduce our non-denominational chaplain, the Reverend Mark Pinnacle."

Pinnacle looked frail and ill at ease. He came forward clutching a sheet of paper, thanked Evelyn, put the paper on the lectern, and in a shaky voice began to read. He asked the blessings of the Almighty on this great effort and thanked him for past favors. One of the VIPs near Charlie whispered that if the chaplain hoped for results, he ought to speak up.

Pinnacle never got away from his monotone, but fortunately, he had the good sense to keep his remarks short. With obvious relief, he turned the program back to Evelyn.

She introduced several of the notables, each of whom spoke for a couple of minutes, with perhaps the most exhilarating moment coming when Slade Elliott strode to the microphone accompanied by the rousing strains of the theme from Arcturus Run. Slade contented himself with delivering a tag line from the show: "Borders exist only in the mind."

Charlie, the principal speaker, was of course last. His name was met with polite applause. "Thank you," he said. He glanced back at Elliott and then looked at the cameras. "I want to thank you for inviting me. This is an hour I'll never forget. And I suspect it's one the human race will never forget."

Two Secret Service agents were seated unobtrusively, in Moonbase jumpsuits, in the front row. Sam Anderson, who headed the unit, and his lone female agent, Isabel Heyman, watched the wings. Rick Hailey, on the aisle, studied him intently. He would be keeping score, of course.

"Moonbase is the future," continued Charlie. "We're taking our first tentative steps away from the home world, and you folks are showing the way." Rick nodded, urging him on.

Charlie looked into the cameras, speaking past the gathered "lunies," addressing himself rather to the voters back home, and maybe to the vast audience beyond American shores. "Moonbase is expensive. We've lost people to get here, and we'll lose others before we're done. We've spent a lot of our national treasure. And sometimes we wonder whether the investment is worth it. Why are we here at all?

"The simple truth is that the planet has become too small. Not for our populations, but for our dreams. We have a rendezvous with the stars. The seeds are already sown. They were sown when the first men and women looked up at the constellations. And they will come to flower in the fountains of the Moon.

"Today people still visit the site of the Apollo landing, where they can see Neil Armstrong's footprints." Charlie looked down at his audience and knew he had them. "Our distant descendants will visit Moonbase," he said, "or its equivalent in their age, and they will see the marks that we have made, you and I, and they will know that we too were here." He allowed his emotions to show. "We've come to believe that we have a cosmic heritage. We've come to the Moon. Within a few weeks, we'll launch the Percival Lowell for Mars.

"Slade Elliott and his alter ego, Captain Tobias Pierce, are absolutely correct: Borders exist only in the mind."

He lifted his right hand to salute his audience, turned from the lectern, waited for Evelyn to join him, and started across the platform. A small ramp led to ground level. An aide appeared beside the beribboned door with a pair of golden shears.

Charlie reached the ramp but decided instead to leap from the platform, forgetting he was at one-sixth g. Despite the weighted boats, he would have sailed out into space and ended in the front seats had Evelyn not seen it coming. She grabbed his jacket and pulled him back.

"Careful," she whispered.

Charlie, grateful to have been saved from a clumsy fall in front of a couple of billion viewers, thanked her. "I owe you a drink," he said.

"At least," she smiled.

The guests flanked him and the aide gave the shears to Evelyn, who passed them to Charlie. Two others held the ribbon for him. "On this eighth day of April," he said, "in the two-thousand and twenty-fourth year of our era, and the two hundred and forty-eighth of the independence of the United States, in the name of the United Nations, I declare this facility, Moonbase, to be operational."

He cut the ribbon. An electric motor in the wall hummed and the doors opened. Beyond, Main Plaza lay in darkness. But a spotlight mounted atop the administration building blinked on, highlighting a park, a cluster of elms, some benches, and a pool. Then the overhead solar panels brightened, and daylight came to the parks and shops and restaurants and overhead walkways.

Applause began. At first it was restrained and polite. Almost perfunctory. But someone cheered, and it built and became a crescendo and went on and on and on.