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2.


Seattle. 7:27 A.M. Pacific Daylight Time (10:27 A.M. EDT).

Matt Randall had no intention of getting caught when the tidal waves roared ashore. He lived on Vachon Island in Puget Sound. He habitually got up at six and ran for an hour before catching the ferry over to the mainland for his job with the Coastal Marine Insurance Company, where he managed the general casualty division. This was the unit that insured the uninsurable: teen drivers with bad records who'd been assigned to CMI under the Special Risk Plan. He felt as if he'd acquired another special risk, a very bad one, after watching the early news reports. The gray-haired man from Harvard was calm and almost dispassionate, and consequently very believable.

Matt made up his mind, skipped the run, and hustled his wife out of bed. She watched the interviews for a few minutes and agreed. They collected the kids, twin girls three years old, loaded up the station wagon, and managed to squeeze onto the ferry. Despite the early hour, there was already a small horde of their neighbors packing and clearing out. Once on the mainland, he threaded his way through downtown Seattle onto I-90, and headed east. At eight-thirty he called the office and got a strange voice. His secretary had called in sick.

Traffic was uncharacteristically heavy. It crawled along, mostly eastbound like them. The day was overcast and gloomy, laced with occasional showers. The fifty-mile drive out to Lake Easton State Park took almost three hours. There, just after they'd passed a rest area, the twins announced they needed a bathroom. Matt pulled off at the next exit and swung into a McDonald's. He bought a round of burgers and fries. It was midmorning, but the place was filled anyhow.

Getting back onto the expressway required a difficult left-hand turn across two lanes of southbound traffic, followed by a quick swing into the right-hand lane. He sat several minutes, watching for a break in the flow, saw one, and cut across the highway. He tucked into the left-hand lane and never saw the Voyager van that simultaneously pulled out to pass, expecting to make a left turn just ahead into a charge station. It hit him in the right rear panel and nudged him into the oncoming traffic. The girls screamed and his wife threw her hands against the dashboard. There was only a flicker of stark terror, and then the sky crumpled into darkness.

Four vehicles, carrying eleven people, were involved in the pileup. Of these, only the driver of the van escaped injury. Matt lost his wife and one of the twins.

For the Washington State Police, it was the beginning of a day filled with carnage. Skyport Flight Terminal. 11:03 A.M.

George's dozen flight attendants came by to wish him luck. They stood uncertainly in the passenger lounge, two or three in uniform, most not. Several offered to come if he wanted them along. He thanked them and said he'd see them Sunday when he got back.

Then he boarded the plane and ran through the preflights with Mary. He and his copilot would be carrying only about a hundred passengers, the last group of evacuees, on the return flight. He was happy that the load would be relatively light, because the spacecraft would be easier to maneuver. If, in fact, the giant spacecraft would be able to maneuver at all.

"Green board," said Mary.

George nodded. He began to ease out of the bay.

He felt good. For years he'd done nothing but fly back and forth from New York to London, and Kansas City to Miami, and then he'd made the big jump from Washington to LEO. Yesterday he'd flown out to the Lagrange One point. Now he was going the rest of the way to the Moon, and he was on a rescue mission. "Okay, Mary," he said, "let's do it." Moonbase, Grissom Country. 11:04 A.M.

"We need to think about what kind of spin we'll put on it."

Rick nodded. "This whole thing's a nightmare. Next time we'll know not to make pledges off the top of our head, won't we?"

Charlie squelched his irritation. The man, after all, was right.

Rick was sitting disconsolately, his hands thrust into his pockets, his jaw propped on one fist. "Who's getting left?" he asked abruptly.

"Evelyn. Jack Chandler. Other than that, I don't know. Some of their senior people, I think."

"Hampton's staying behind?"

"That's what she says."

"Gutsy woman. She's not in the chain of command out here. Doesn't have to do that." Rick looked as if he were about to say something more and thought better of it. Instead he took out a notebook and flipped it open. "We're scheduled out at one-twenty. Our plane leaves orbit around midnight tonight."

"Okay."

Rick shook his head. He'd tried to get them on the flight that was leaving orbit at one, but the White House orders hadn't come through yet and it was already too late to get to it. "We'll get through this, Charlie," he said.

The vice president stared at him a long time. "Some of us will," he said. Moonbase, Chaplain's Office. 11:27 A.M.

Mark Pinnacle was the product of a well-to-do, old-line Northumberland family. His recent ancestors, most of whom he knew by name and likeness, had been scholars, soldiers, and statesmen for the British Empire. When things went downhill for the landed aristocracy, the Pinnacles moved into trade and eventually into software development. George Pinnacle, Mark's grandfather, had secured fame and fortune with a wide range of games and practical applications for the home.

Mark was only the second Pinnacle in modern times to don the cloth. That he did so was less a tribute to his faith than it was irritation with his father Avery, who attended church each Sunday and liberally supported it with donations, while explaining to his children that there wasn't a word of truth anywhere in Christian dogma. The sole value of the Church, he contended, was to entertain the rabble and make them keep their socks up.

When in a fit of exasperation Mark charged his father with hypocrisy, the old man had laughed. Without Christianity, or some similar system, he said, civilization would be impossible. It teaches us, for example, to lie.

To lie, Father?

Imagine, my boy, what life would be like if we all blurted out what we really thought on every occasion. And then he'd grown serious. Think of the alternative: Suppose there were not a mechanism in place to scare the savages into behaving.

Every child who's worth a damn eventually issues a statement of independence. Mark's consisted of applying for entry to divinity school. He'd intended to limit himself to a year or so while his father squirmed. But in the end, impressed by the faith of his teachers, he'd stayed. And if the personified God who walked through Galilee seemed always somewhat remote to him, he never allowed any but his closest associates to glimpse his doubts.

When an uncle asked whether he was interested in becoming the first chaplain at Moonbase, he accepted immediately. He would be nondenominational, the uncle explained. No proselytizing. All faiths to be considered equal. We know better, of course, the uncle winked. But we won't let on, shall we?

It was a natural situation for Mark. He had taken to it with enthusiasm, and had now been at Moonbase two years, ministering to its collection of workers, technicians, and researchers. There were few among the lunies who could be described as devout, but they too needed someone to talk to on occasion, someone to take care of the ceremonies that mark life's various passages.

He performed the first lunar wedding, and poured water for the first lunar baptism. He presided over the first formal Hannukah celebration, and read the rites at the burial of the Moslem Isbn ben Mihal, who died when a faulty p-suit burst. No one seemed to mind that prayers were led by a man who might not formally have subscribed to the doctrine from which they sprang. It seemed to Mark that, on the Moon, the sharp definitions between the various faiths tended to blur.

Fortunately, there weren't many funerals. In fact, one of the joys of being Moonbase chaplain was that he blessed children and unions far more often than he had to console the bereaved. He discovered something else as well. At home, the majority of his parishioners went through the motions of their faith, but seldom thought about it in any meaningful way. It was merely something that was there, rather like the weather or the dial tone. But the people who came to Luna tended to have strong negative views about chapels and yet were inclined to gaze into the infinite and admit their doubts. These, Mark believed, were the ones especially worth saving.

Now that the comet had come, he wondered what purpose it was intended to serve. He shared the general dismay, the concern that went beyond whether this or that individual would get off in time. For the chaplain, as for many at Moonbase, something significant was drawing to a close. End of an era. And it was a painful time for him particularly, who subscribed to the notion that nothing happened by chance. How often had he listened to people argue that it is after all a Darwinian universe, cold and neutral? An engine that doesn't know we exist, cranking out stars, squirrels, and astronomers with equally insensate industry.

It was, they said, only our frustration at seeing this truth, at having it written large across our skies, that drove the invention of religion. Yet it seemed we had drawn someone's attention. The nucleus half-hidden in the ruddy glow of streamer and mist looked like nothing so much as a devil's eye. Moonbase, Communications Center. 11:46 A.M.

The young woman who'd attracted Rick's attention on his first-day tour of the public relations suite was Andrea Bellwether, a communications technician. She was British, a native of Portsmouth, where she'd grown up in sight of Nelson's Victory. She was the daughter of Frank Bellwether, commander of the Ranger on its fateful first voyage. Andrea had been six when her father tried to bring down the crippled vessel and had skimmed off the atmosphere and ricocheted in the general direction of Canopus.

That had been the darkest time of her life. She remembered the phone conversations with her father, she remembered not understanding why he could not come home, she remembered most of all his telling her to be brave. Your mother will need you.

After a while the calls stopped. Years later Andrea learned that when the crew began to run out of air they opened the hatches.

When she'd arrived at Moonbase, her coworkers assumed the appointment had been political. Something for the hero's daughter. In truth, it had been, but that didn't mean the appointment was weak. After a year and a half, Andrea was as good as anyone they had.

The commcenter had never been busier. The usually steady flow of traffic had become a torrent.

They planned to stay functional until midday Saturday. It would mean some of the technicians would have to go home on the late flight Saturday, the one that would barely get out before the collision. Andrea felt she should offer to stay. But life was sweet, and she wasn't sure she was ready to put it on the line quite so cavalierly.

Under ordinary conditions, four people were sufficient to staff the operation. But there were already seven technicians working when Andrea arrived. The supervisor set her up at a temporary routing position. "Just do the best you can," he advised.

Usually the work involved a run of administrative traffic, personnel data sheets, financial updates, confirmations of supply orders, advertisements hawking equipment that would be of value to Moonbase. There were responses to queries by Moonbase research people for project information of one kind or another, studies of chemical components in Arizona soil, comparisons of apparent magnitude of various stars as seen from Australia and the Moon, new information on ocean currents. Much of it had nothing to do with the Moon per se, but researchers were curious people, and they tended to try to keep up with everything.

But today every news service in the world wanted to know how Moonbase was doing, whether morale was holding up, whom they could interview. There's a great human interest angle, they were saying, people in a remote place facing a danger unlike anything we've seen before. How did it feel? Was anyone breaking under the strain?

The personal mail alone exceeded their usual total traffic. The voice channels were overloaded, which meant that person-to-person conversations simply weren't happening, unless you happened to be Evelyn Hampton or the vice president of the United States. Consequently, alternate channels were piling up. Thousands of requests for information about relatives and friends had already overloaded the buffers. They were also getting advice, warnings, suggestions from everyone with access to a keyboard.

"YOUR BEST CHANCE IS TO PUT THE SPACE PLANES ON EXACTLY THE SAME COURSE AS THE COMET, BUT WITH THE MOON DIRECTLY BETWEEN."

"YOU'LL BE SAFE IF YOU STAY ON THE MOON. ITS SPIN WILL REDIRECT THE ENERGY FROM THE COLLISION HARMLESSLY INTO SPACE. BUT STAY OFF THE PLANES."

"YOU PEOPLE SHOULD BE ASHAMED OF YOURSELVES. THIS IS ANOTHER EXAMPLE OF GOVERNMENT WASTE."

The bulk of incoming traffic came with distribution codes. But the rest of it could be anything, so Andrea had to look at each message, determine a recipient, and send it on. The obviously crank transmissions normally went to the chief of the watch, who dumped them. But today Andrea had been told to use her judgment. Get rid of the crazy stuff.

A programmed response was put together for the news organizations: MOONBASE APPRECIATES YOUR INTEREST, BUT REGRETS THAT IT IS UNABLE TO ANSWER INDIVIDUAL QUERIES AT THIS TIME. CORRESPONDENTS ARE ASSURED WE ARE MAKING PROGRESS IN OUR EFFORT TO EVACUATE EVERYONE SAFELY, AND ARE REFERRED TO OUR HOURLY NEWS BULLETINS.

There was a message for her, from her mother, who lived in Edinburgh: "I KNOW HOW MUCH THE JOB UP THERE MEANS TO YOU. BUT WE'LL BOUNCE BACK THE WAY WE ALWAYS DO." And to her surprise she found one from an old flame, from whom she hadn't heard since college: "ANDI, I STILL LOVE YOU. COME HOME SAFE."

That had been a long time ago.

A bell signaled the arrival of a priority message, to be signed for by Vice President Haskell. That meant a hard copy. She ran it off, looked at it, and saw that the VP was being ordered out early. On the next flight. To facilitate communications and assist in organizing the emergency response effort.

She had heard that not everyone was going to get out, so she wondered whether the White House was trying to rescue a heroic vice president who was determined to stay. Or get one out who'd talked too much and walked into an embarrassing situation.

She showed it to the chief of the watch.

"Okay." He took it from her. "I'll see that it gets delivered."



BBC WORLDNET. 9:05 A.M. | The Moonfall | FINANCIAL TIMES, WORLDWIDE EDITION. UPDATED 11:53 A.M.