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Moonbase, Grissom Country. 5:50 A.M.

Evelyn Hampton stood in Charlie's doorway. Her usually placid features were unsettled.

Under other circumstances, Charlie would have been grateful for the company. One of the disadvantages of his office was that, if he didn't travel with an entourage, he had no one to talk to. Except reporters. Reporters always wanted to talk, of course. And that was okay. But it was business. Politics. And despite his good relations with the press, Charlie understood the need for caution. There was no such thing as a casual conversation with the Washington Post.

"Hi," he said, wondering why she was there, knowing it was not good news.

She pushed the door shut behind her. "Problem, Charlie."

He made room for her to sit. "How did I guess?" he said.

Her eyes were dark pools. "We're running behind."

He nodded, feeling the world close in. "How far?"

"Looks like six people."

That wasn't possible, and Charlie wanted to believe he'd misunderstood. "Six who won't get off?"

"That's what it looks like."

"So few," he said. "Surely they can be squeezed in somewhere." Her features remained unyielding, and Charlie started thinking about political implications. But when he saw that her cheeks were damp, he felt a twinge of embarrassment. "What are you going to do?"

"Jack says he'll stay."

"Maybe it won't be as bad as we think." He didn't know what else to say.

"I doubt we can count on it. Anyway, you need to think about covering your own rear end."

I will personally lock the door and turn off the lights. Yeah, he was in an uncomfortable situation.

She turned back to the door. "I've got to go."

"What will you do about the others?"

"I haven't decided yet."

"Ask for volunteers," Charlie said. "You only need five. I know this sounds harsh, but you can always find people who're willing to be heroes if you phrase the request right." That was a corollary of Rick's primary principle that most people can be talked into damned near anything if you find the right emotional icon to appeal to. God, country, whatever.

Her eyes hardened. "You're a cynic, after all, aren't you?"

"No. I…" He squirmed under that dark gaze, saw contempt creep into it. "That's not what I meant…"

She started for the door. "Doesn't matter. Anyway, I only need four."

He stared at her. "You don't have to do that," he said. "You're not assigned here."

Evelyn looked suddenly vulnerable. "You can't do that speech, Charlie, unless you're willing to stay yourself. You know, captain of the ship and all that."

Something passed between them, a communication at a level so visceral that Charlie shuddered. He groped to recover the situation. "Is there anything I can do?"

"Get us another bus," she said. Her hand was on the doorknob. "The problem's the buses."

He felt unclean. "How many know?"

"Jack's over now telling his people. We'll deny everything until this evening. That should give you time-"

"-to get myself bailed out."

"Yes." The word was like a knife, although her tone was gentle. "I'm sorry. I gave you bad information before. I thought there'd be no trouble about the evacuation. Maybe it was wishful thinking."

Charlie was back to the problem he'd faced earlier: A man hoping to lead the United States could not afford to be perceived as hightailing it when danger threatened. But the game had changed. Somebody wasn't going to get out.

"I suggest you inform the president immediately. You have a private channel, of course?"

Sure. Let him know the situation and he'll order me back to D.C. But it has to be done before the bad news breaks.

"I suspect," she was saying, "he'll discover he needs you immediately, and we'll get a request to put you on the next bus." She looked up at him and her eyes were unreadable. "Nobody'll ever know."

"Thanks, Evelyn," he said. Relief mixed with guilt flooded through him.

She smiled. It was a bland, emotionless smile. "Good luck, Mr. Vice President." She opened the door and paused. "When you get the order, let me know. I'll see there are plenty of witnesses."

After she had left, Charlie sat a long time, staring at the door. Moonbase, Main Plaza. 6:06 A.M.

Evelyn rode the elevator up to ground level and stepped out into Main Plaza, where the soft gray light reflected the early hour. (The illumination panels kept pace with the twenty-four-hour cycle.)

She felt empty. Drained. The end of her life had come upon her with desperately little warning, and she was wondering whether she'd ever really lived. What was missing?

She really didn't know. She'd accomplished all the goals she'd set for herself, had gotten one good husband out of two tries-not bad, on average. Her countrymen were better off because of her efforts. She'd wielded the kind of power most people only dream about. And she'd even contributed substantially to the effort to start the human race on the road to the stars.

What was missing?

Why had she felt a kind of cruel satisfaction in going before the vice president of the United States and demonstrating her superiority of character over him? In watching his discomfort? Was she so uncertain of her own virtue?

She had no quarrel with Charlie Haskell.

A group of technicians, wearing Moonbase jumpsuits, came up one of the ramps and strolled along a walkway, headed for the administration building. One of them recognized her and smiled.

Maybe, she thought, when you get without warning to a point from which your life can be counted in hours, and you're not ready to go out of the daylight, it has to be like this. Maybe it doesn't matter who you are or what you've done.

Evelyn, only in her late thirties, had already experienced more sheer joy and gained more of a sense of accomplishment than anyone has a right to expect. Maybe that was the reason that, when the tears came, she could not quell them. Moonbase, Director's Conference Room. 6:55 A.M.

As director of Moonbase, Jack Chandler wore a second hat: He was also head of the Department of Management, which included administration, personnel, finance, security, materiel, education, and public relations. There were two other departments: Health and Safety, and Technical Services, each with its own group of divisions.

He hadn't slept since talking with Caparatti, and he was bleary-eyed, his senses dulled. But the adrenalin was still pumping and he could feel his heart pounding as he looked out over the nineteen faces that represented his co-department heads and their division directors. He'd put out coffee, rolls, and bagels; and he wandered through the group, warning key people by his demeanor that the news was bad. Finally, at seven, he walked to the lectern. The room quieted. His private secretary slipped in, carrying a handful of papers.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he said, "As you probably know, we had a problem last evening. One of the buses suffered a delay and threw us off schedule. It now appears that we will not be able to evacuate everyone prior to impact."

They'd known it was coming. There'd been no way to keep it quiet. Still, the official confirmation froze the moment. Chandler listened to the low hum of the ventilation system. There was the financial division director, her thin, worn cheeks suddenly bloodless; and the head of Technical Services, staring down at the table; and the public relations chief, nodding as if he'd just outlined an admirable strategy. Each in his or her own way tried to hold the reality at arm's length.

The expressions of shock metamorphosed into dismay. "We've adjusted the evacuation schedule somewhat," Jack continued, "and each of you will be given a copy as you leave this morning. Senior personnel will stay behind until everyone else has been gotten off. It now looks as if six people are going to have to ride out the impact at Moonbase. We're carrying maximum weight load on every bus, and we're making the best possible flight times. I'm sorry this is happening. I honestly do not know how we could reasonably have foreseen this kind of eventuality and provided for it.

"If your name is among the last six, please stay a few minutes. The rest of you please confirm your departure time with Transportation. Miss a flight, you get to stay." He felt close to tears. "Thank you." He wanted to say more but he didn't trust his voice.

His own name, and Evelyn's, were at the bottom of the list. The other four were Angela Hawkworth and Herman Eckerd, the two department heads; Jill Benning, the personnel director; and Chip Mansfield, director of the engineering support division. "I want you to be aware," he told them after the room had cleared, "that we'll do whatever we can. But I don't want to hold out any false hope."

Benning was a small woman, about forty, trim, dark-haired, intense. "By what right," she asked, "do you decide for us that we should be left behind?"

"What would you suggest?" asked Chandler evenly. "That you and I clear out and leave a few secretaries to deal with it?"

"This is not in my contract," she said. "I've a family at home. Others are dependent on me. I can't just let you throw my life away." She looked desperately around for support. The faces of her colleagues were masked. They would, he thought, be delighted to see her win her argument. But they weren't anxious to take her side openly.

"The corporation," said Chandler, "will see that your family is looked after. Scholarship funds will be established, and other matters will be taken care of, as appropriate. I'm sorry to be so cold-blooded about this, but we have neither options nor time."

"And what happens if I go down and get on one of the buses?" she demanded, glaring at him.

"They won't let you on, Jill. If your name isn't on the list, they won't let you on."

Eckerd cleared his throat. "I'm willing to stay," he said. "I can't say I like the idea very much, but I don't see that we have much choice."

Benning turned a furious stare in his direction. Then she swung back to Chandler. "You'll hear from my lawyer," she said.

He looked at her and couldn't be angry. "If we get home, Jill," he said, "I'll be more than happy to debate this in court." When they'd left, he sagged into a chair. He had thought, when he came here, that he would never return groundside. He didn't want to go back, not to the dead weight in his chest and his heart fluttering with every breath.

So maybe it was unfair. It was harder on them than it was on him, and he was playing a heroic role, volunteering himself, expecting them to follow his example. But he didn't dare tell them how he really felt, didn't dare do anything that would complicate his need to get them to stay voluntarily. Or as voluntarily as he could arrange. Skyport. 8:17 A.M.

Tory Clark had heard that the Percival Lowell was approaching, bringing the first group of evacuees from Moonbase. She took a break and went up one deck to the Earthlight Grill, picked up some cinnamon buns, and looked out the window. It was there, skimming the planetary haze, long and gray and lovely. It was smaller than the SSTOs, and not as sleek, but somehow it encompassed a greater aura of power within its frame.

"Headed for the junk pile," said someone behind her.