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5.


Lunar Orbit. 2:51 P.M.

The cloud that had settled around the Micro did not dissipate. The SSTO pilot, unable to communicate with the blinded vehicle, accelerated away to a distance of six hundred kilometers. Bigfoot dispatched one of the moonbuses, after it had offloaded onto Copenhagen, to help. But chasing down, and then getting close to, a vehicle that couldn't see and couldn't communicate but might decide to move at any time, was a tricky, time-consuming business. It looked as if the situation would require sending someone across. The bus's copilot was in the process of getting dressed for the attempt when Tony roared out of the haze, still leaking fuel.

By then Bigfoot had located the problem.

There were only so many things it could have been. And Bigfoot nailed it on the first guess by the simple expedient of checking the inventory.

Fortunately, no one had been injured in the incident, and repairs would be simple enough. But they'd lost several hours. And he knew whose fault it was.

They made up part of the time by transferring the Micro's passengers to the moonbus, which, after another two-hour chase, delivered them to Berlin. "Not in a very good mood," Stephan reported from the plane.

Since the Micro had already docked successfully at both Moonbase and L1, Bigfoot knew there was no risk bringing it directly back.

No problem, he told Tony. You're probably a little short of fuel, but not enough to matter.

Well, there was some good news. The Micro would be operational again as soon as they installed the correct valve.

But it was scant consolation. The flight schedule, with its carefully arranged windows, had been trashed; and by six P.M., Bigfoot still had not been able to devise a new one that got everybody off. Wrightstown, New Jersey. 2:58 P.M.

The Pine River Furniture Company occupied three and a quarter acres of prime land. It manufactured handcrafted leather chairs and sofas and teakwood desks and tables for the well-to-do. "Every Piece An Original," its flyers proclaimed. "No Finer Furniture At Any Price."

A small, family-run organization, it had resisted pressures to expand and diversify since its institution in 1961. The result was that while its competitors evolved away into other lines of business, or occasionally collapsed, Pine River chugged along, providing exquisite furnishings for the affluent, and consolidating its customer base. At last count it had logged forty-seven consecutive profitable years. At Pine River, conservatism was the faith.

Its chief operating officer was Walter Harrison, namesake and great-grandnephew of the founder. Harrison was a family man, a member of the Rotary, a devout Presbyterian, a contributor to dozens of good causes, an officer of the Coalition Advocating Decency in Media, and a Little League coach. He'd served in the army, had been with the peacekeepers in Africa and in Central America, and had alarmed everyone in his family except his father by marrying a Jew.

He had a tendency to overreact. He knew that, and understood it did not fit well with his conservative soul. Consequently, when trouble seemed to threaten, he treated his own instincts with caution. Today his instincts were screaming.

"What I would like to know, Marshall," he asked the short, gray-haired man seated in the leather chair (Bulhauer model) in front of his desk, "what I am concerned with is, where will we be if any of this actually happens? Are we insured against flood?"

Marshall Waring had been the company's lawyer for thirty-five years. He was a solid man, both feet on the ground, well versed in corporate law and product liability, a competent if unimaginative bridge partner, and an occasional luncheon companion. "Walt," he said, "we are twenty-five miles from the ocean. What are you worried about?"

The afternoon stillness was giving way to the roar of helicopter rotors. From the direction of Fort Dix. "They've been going all day," said Harrison. He leaned back in his chair and gazed steadily at the smaller man. "Why do you think they're doing that?"

"They always do that. There are always helicopters flying back and forth here."

"Not like this," said Harrison. "I think they're getting out." He caught the lawyer rolling his eyes. "I live here. You think I don't know something's happening?"

Waring, unsure how to respond, just held out his hands, like a supplicant.

"Okay." Harrison waved it away. "I've been looking over the policies. Paragraph sixty-six of the property and equipment coverage specifically excludes acts of God. Paragraph seventeen of the product policy contains the same exclusion. Now, am I safe in assuming that, if the worst happened, if a tidal wave came this far inshore, that we would be left with nothing, no factory, no product, nothing?"

Waring nodded slowly. "That's essentially correct, Walt. Yes. We are not insured against tidal waves. Or flooding. This is not a flood area. We'd also be cleaned out by an earthquake. Or if a volcano erupted." He frowned and crossed one leg over the other. "Why don't we look at it this way: If things get so bad that the tide comes all the way in to Wrightstown, you won't have to worry about the company. The country won't survive."

"I'm not trying to be funny here, Marshall." Harrison glanced around the office walls. They were covered with photos of himself supervising soapbox derbies, receiving the Chamber of Commerce Man of the Year Award, sharing a microphone with the commanding general of Fort Dix, shaking hands with the governor. "I'm not responsible for the country. But I am responsible for Pine River and its employees and customers, and I am damned well going to see the company and its people through this."

"How?" Waring asked.

"By biting the bullet." He punched his intercom. "Louise, would you send Archie in, please?"

"Be careful," said Waring.

"That's exactly what I'm trying to do." More helicopters roared overhead as the door opened and Archie Pickman came in. Harrison looked out the window, trying to follow the choppers. Then he turned and looked pointedly at the man standing in the doorway. "Come in, Archie. Sit down." He drummed his fingertips on the desktop. "What do you think about the helicopters?"

"Hell," Archie said, "they're getting out."

Archie Pickman was the plant manager, and Harrison's most trusted subordinate. He'd come to Pine River thirty years before with no particular skills, newly married, and in need of a job. The company traditionally hired only experienced craftsmen, but Harrison's father had seen something in the boy.

The CEO's eyes found the lawyer. "My brother-in-law," he said, "works at the Franklin Institute. He called this morning. Says there's reason to worry."

"I suggest we not get excited," said Waring.

"No one's getting excited," said Harrison. "But we're going to close down the operation tomorrow. Archie, I want to get the merchandise, all of it, onto trucks and moved over to Reading or somewhere in that area. Onto high ground. If there aren't enough company trucks, rent some."

Pickman's eyes opened wide. "I don't think the problem's all that serious," he said.

Harrison pushed back in his chair. "By God, I hope not. But if it is, we're not going to get caught here with our tails in the fan. If it's a false alarm, all the better, and we'll haul everything back next week. Figure out how many people we'll need, and have somebody call around, make arrangements for food and lodging. Okay?"

"Yes, sir," said Archie.

"Walter," said Waring, "you are overreacting."

"It's a safety measure, Marshall."

"You'll be a laughingstock when it's over."

"Maybe. I hope so." He turned back to Archie. "One more thing: Advise our full-time employees that if anyone wants to take his family to high ground-draw a line somewhere and figure out where we're talking about-the company will split the motel bill fifty-fifty for Friday and Saturday night. Okay? After that, we should know where we stand, and they're on their own." Moonbase, Press Briefing Room. 3:00 P.M.

Rick Hailey was satisfied they'd thought of everything.

Eight reporters had been chosen to ask questions. Two were at Moonbase. Others were on feeds from across the nation and around the globe: the BBC's Charles Young in London, and Erik Lachman in the Berlin office of NEWSNET. Chiang Tien was in Beijing for the New China News Service; Ali Haroud was in Egypt for the Cairo Times. Ellen Randall represented PBS; and Mark Able, CNN. Transglobal's Keith Morley and Pacific's Tashi Yomiuri were both at Moonbase, seated in the conference room with a small crowd, facing a lectern on which was suspended the vice presidential seal.

Hampton did the introduction, and she kept it simple: "Ladies and gentlemen, I have the honor of presenting Charles L. Haskell, the vice president of the United States."

Haskell entered the room, shook a few hands, took his place at the lectern, and smiled into the cameras. He looked good, far more presidential than Kolladner had ever managed, Rick thought. And self-possessed. He was obviously relaxed. He greeted his wotldwide audience, announced that he wanted to make a statement before the questioning began, smiled that aw shucks smile, and said, "Well, I know you're all a little worried about us, but I think everybody should know, first off, that we're in good hands." He looked across at Evelyn, who did what she could to appear on top of things.

Charlie was good that day. In Rick's view, he'd never been better. He sounded calm and reflective, utterly confident that the situation was under control. He even managed a few bad jokes. ("I hate to leave Moonbase. After all these years struggling with my weight, I finally get it down to thirty-seven pounds and they show me the door.") The jokes were part of his public persona, not clever-people didn't like clever jokes from their political leaders-but self-effacing. The vice president had a gift for playing off his audiences. This one seemed especially responsive. They laughed at his one-liners and warmed to him quickly.

When he finished, the reporters tossed him softballs. How was the morale at Moonbase? And then got a little more serious: In light of this unfortunate occurrence, had the space program proved after all to be a mistake? The Mars mission had been postponed, possibly indefinitely. If elected, would he support a new attempt?

Haroud wanted to know whether they were going to get everyone off the Moon safely.

"Certainly," said Haskell.

"I mean safely away, Mr. Vice President. It looks as if one or two of the rescue vehicles will not get much of a running start before the impact."

"If you're asking whether we're concerned, Ali, then my answer is yes. Of course we're concerned. But everything that can be done is being done." He paused to think it over. "Look, let me put it this way. I expect to be home in a few days. And I intend to be the last person to leave Moonbase. I will personally lock the door and turn out the lights."

Rick knew he meant it, but he wished he hadn't made it a public commitment.

WASHINGTON ONLINE. 3:18 P.M.

by Mary-Lynn Jamison

Sources close to the White House sold today that the president has been advised that the Saturday night comet impact on the Moon may eject debris that could land on Earth with deadly consequences. Large pieces of falling moonrock might devastate entire cities, the president has been told by high-ranking scientists. Another major concern: Fragments crashing into the oceans could generate giant waves. If that happens, population centers in coastal areas in the United States and around the globe are at risk. The sources indicate that a conspiracy of silence exists among world leaders, the scientific community, and the media regarding the probable consequences of the impact.



CLINTON RETURNS TO WHITE HOUSE FOR EDUCATION BILL CEREMONY | The Moonfall | TRANSGLOBAL SPECIAL REPORT. 4:22 P.M.