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3.


Moonbase, Grissom Country. 12:03 P.M.

Charlie was alone when the message came. "… just received in the commcenter, Mr. Vice President. For you." The messenger was a boy, probably not eighteen. "I need you to sign for it, sir."

Charlie complied. "Why are you still here, son?" he asked. "When are you leaving?"

"I'm scheduled out tomorrow." The boy was an African-American, and he gazed at Charlie with the almost wistful respect that vice presidents automatically command from all except those who know them well. "The early flight."

"Good luck," said Charlie.

He smiled shyly. "You too, sir."

Then he was gone and Charlie was alone with his escape hatch. What a terrible break the Micro incident had been. They'd been close to turning all this around. Haskell hangs on until the end. It would have been dynamite, and might have carried him all the way to the nomination.

But now people were going to die. And he knew the other candidates would beat him into the ground with his early exit. In fact, he'd have little choice when he stepped off the plane except to withdraw from the race. Rick pretended not to think so, but Rick had a tougher skin than he did.

Charlie was tired.

Evelyn was going to stay.

Jack Chandler was also going to stay. Chandler was only a passing acquaintance, but Charlie had shaken hands with the man. Talked with him. Wished him luck.

Charlie had come face to face with himself and he didn't like what he was seeing.

He looked at his watch and thought about calling Evelyn. Wish her luck, ask if there were anything he could do. Say good-bye.

Son of a bitch.

However he tried to squirm out of it, he would remain forever the man who ran away. Moonbase, Chaplain's Office. 12:09 P.M.

A substantial number of people came by the chapel on this last full day to say good-bye and to wish Mark Pinnacle well. They all knew that some of the senior staff were staying behind, and Mark noted a range of reactions. People were pleasantly surprised, some maintaining that they'd expected the heavyweights to be the first ones clear. Others were skeptical, and suggested it was a hoax and nobody was really in danger. Most, however, were saddened.

There were rumors that those staying hadn't all been volunteers, that they'd been strong-armed to a degree by Evelyn Hampton. If true, it wasn't a heroic picture. Wouldn't look good in the history books, having to hold a gun at people's heads to get them to do the right thing. But no one was stepping forward and saying take me.

And why would anybody do that? Why would, say, a young man with his future before him, offer to sacrifice himself so his boss could escape? It was asking too much of human nature. At least in its Western manifestation.

The chaplain was struck by what he'd heard of Hampton's behavior. She had a reputation for ruthlessness, and he assumed it was well earned, in the way he assumed no one could rise to the top of any organization without incorporating in his, or her, soul a little DNA from Tamerlane. Still, Mark had a gift for looking at situations through other people's eyes, and he felt sorry for her when he considered the choices she'd faced.

They'd put him on the Saturday afternoon flight, so he'd be well on his way before the comet hit. But he'd known as soon as he heard the rumors about people having to stay that it presented a special problem for him. Would Christ have climbed on board one of the buses while others waited to die? How could he possibly do that? What did he really believe, anyway?

He'd struggled with it throughout the morning. Once, he'd picked up the phone, intending to call Jack Chandler, make the offer. But he'd only stared at the instrument while his heart pounded.

Once done, it could not be recalled.

Mark Pinnacle was thirty-one. He loved life, enjoyed a good drink, and had a wide circle of friends. He spent invigorating evenings with them in lively debate about life, death, and politics. He probably had a stronger interest in women than was proper for a man of the cloth. He looked forward to finding someone with whom he could share his life. He understood what the grand passion could be, and he'd determined to settle for nothing less.

He was thinking about that when he almost casually concluded that, if he went home, left someone else to die in his place, he'd be denying everything he thought he stood for.

He sat down beside the phone and picked up the instrument. His hand trembled as he punched in the director's number, which he'd not forgotten from his earlier attempt. The secretary wished him good afternoon, informed him that Mr. Chandler was busy, but passed him along when Mark insisted the call was important.

"Yes, Chaplain," said Chandler's gruff voice. "What can I do for you?"

Mark's blood pounded through his arteries. "I'll stay," he said.

Chandler seemed baffled, not sure what Pinnacle was talking about.

"Put my name on the list. Give my flight to someone else."

"Oh," Chandler said. "You're sure?"

Afterward the chaplain hung up and sank exhausted onto his couch. But a strange thing happened: The fear drained away and a startling sense of inner peace filled his soul. He began to understand that his mission had ended, his earthly existence (he smiled at the phrase) was drawing to a close, and there remained now only to keep his courage and await the judgment of his Creator.

He poured a drink and toasted his own valiant act. The thought crossed his mind that he had fallen into excessive pride. But he felt entitled.

When the first rush of emotion had passed, the fear came back. What a weak thing, he thought, is the unfortified soul. Even when guaranteed salvation, he was frightened in the baleful light of the approaching comet. Yet he had Christ at his side. What must it be at a time like this for unbelievers?

The room had grown cool, as if the life support system had shut down. He put on a jacket and went out to Main Plaza, where there were still people gathered in the parks and outside the shops, almost all of which were closed. He greeted acquaintances, and those whom he did not know but whose eyes rose to meet his, wishing them a good flight, and saying, yes, he'd look forward to seeing them again when they all got home safely. He smiled at his little joke.

He sat down finally on a bench outside a dark cookware shop with a red banner stenciled OPEN fastened diagonally across the show window. A row of newly planted saplings lined the walkway. The people sprinkled throughout the mall area did not give the impression that anything was terribly wrong. There was occasional laughter and the talk seemed light-hearted enough. Yet they did cling together.

Herd instinct.

His decision had done something to him, cutting the chain that joined him with his fellow creatures. He felt quite alone.



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