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Authors: Jack McDevitt

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“Be assured,” said Finizio, “that the Moon is not going to go flying off in all directions. Gravity will still be present, and whatever else happens, most of the rock that now composes the Moon will stay right where it is. Oh, it’ll get moved around a little. Broken apart. But no worse. I think the government’s wisest course is to simply keep everyone calm.” She glanced off to her left, where she must have been looking at an image of Feinberg.

The president wanted to applaud.

“I think that’s an extremely optimistic view,” said Feinberg.

“What do you want me to do?” asked Henry quietly. “Evacuate both coasts?”

“I’ll tell you what you
should
do,” said Finizio. “For starters, evacuate L1. It’s too close to the collision. And maybe Skyport, for good measure.”

Evacuate the stations. Well, that at least was easily done. And best of all, it wasn’t his responsibility. But he’d pass the advice along
.

Seeing he could get no farther with the experts, Henry broke away from them at the earliest opportunity, thanked them for their advice, and turned to his aides. “We don’t have much time,” he said. “I propose to answer the critical questions first.” He looked at Mercedes Juarez. “Can we stop this thing? What about nuking it?”

“It’s too big,” she said, “and it’s coming too fast. Johnson Space Center says we might as well try to hit it with a stick.”

“Should we issue a warning?”

“I don’t see how we can,” said Amos Pierson, his counsel. “Can you imagine trying to evacuate L.A. and New York by
Saturday?
Where would we put everybody? How would we
feed
them? We’d get giant traffic jams, people would die in accidents, and others would die because emergency vehicles wouldn’t be able to get to them.” He thumped two fingers on the table. “And there’d be a lot of looting unless we plan to leave the cops behind to take their chances. I guarantee you Mr. President, call for an evacuation, and we’ll see a disaster of monumental proportions.”

Harold Boatmann had folded his arms in a defensive posture as Pierson came to his point. “I can’t believe,” he said angrily, “that we’d tell people everything’s okay when we know damned well it might not be, and then sit back and hope nothing happens.”

“It won’t matter what we tell them,” said Russell. “They’re going to hear about it on TV anyway. Nobody’s going to pay much attention to what
we
say. People will panic, and it’ll be Katy bar the door.”

“I keep thinking,” said McDermott, “what’ll happen if you try to evacuate and it all just blows over.
The sky is falling
. I can see the editorial cartoons now.”

Afterward Henry returned with Kerr to his office and lowered himself into the leather chair that had been designed specifically to ease his chronically aching back. “You know, Al,” he said, “it doesn’t matter a damn what we do unless the media cooperate. If those sons of bitches decide to play everything up, we’ll have the biggest panic on our hands this country’s ever seen.”

They stated at each other. “Have Grace get McConnell on the line for me.”

5.

Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, Washington, D. C. 1:33
P.M.

The space plane resembled a rocket ship out of a 1950s science fiction film. It was long, silver, bullet-shaped, with stubby retractable wings and tail fins. It was fueled by a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen. The Reagan flights were propelled by a rocket booster along a seventeen-mile-long tunnel, traveling northwest beneath the Potomac into Maryland, and launching near Glen Hills. A nuclear-powered version was on the drawing board, but until someone could figure out how to allay environmental concerns, it was going to stay there.

Alexander Drummond, the operations boss for LTA Reagan, was short, fat, and bald. He word chain jewelry and his tie was pulled down and his shirt was open at the neck. He had bushy eyebrows and thick lips. His type had appeared in a thousand cop films as Mister Big. He was staring out his office
window, from which he could see both the SSTO and the launch track. “George,” he said without turning around, “your mission profile is on the desk.”

George Culver glanced down at the folder but made no move toward it.

“It asks you to do double duty,” Drummond said. He came back to his chair, waved George into the divan, and sat down. “
I’m
asking you to do double duty.”

Drummond had hired George, had looked after him, and George understood it was now payback time. “I’m listening,” he said.

“There’ll be four planes on the mission. Two of them will leave Skyport today and arrive in lunar orbit tomorrow around noon. Both will start back Friday, bringing as many people with them as possible.

“A third plane will go into lunar orbit Friday evening and will leave late Saturday afternoon. By then, there shouldn’t be too many people left.

“We want
you
to go to L1. You’ll get there at about eleven
A.M.
tomorrow. Pick up your passengers. Expect a full load. Return to Skyport. Your TOA should be about seven
A.M.
Friday.”

George shrugged. So far so good.

“Unload and refuel. As soon as you’re able, you’ll turn around and head for the Moon.”

“You’re not serious,” said George.

“You’ll be in lunar orbit by noon Saturday. Shortly after you get there, the third plane will leave.
You
pick up whoever’s left.”

“How many are going to be left?”

“Probably fewer than a hundred. But you won’t have them all on board until roughly nine-thirty. I’m sorry; I know that’s not much lead time.”

“You mean before the comet comes in.”

“Yeah. That’s what I mean.”

No wonder the son of a bitch was looking guilty. “Alex, what the hell are you setting me up for? You want me sitting out there when the place goes up?”

“You should be well on your way back before the event.”


Well on my way back?
What are we talking here? Twenty minutes?”

“An hour, George. I think I can promise you an hour. Minimum. Listen, I know it’s tight, but we don’t have any choice.”

“Sure you do. You’ve got a half-dozen or so other SSTOs sitting around. Use one of those and speed things up.”

Drummond’s chair squeaked. “Sending a fifth plane wouldn’t speed
anything
up, George. The bottleneck’s with the moonbuses. Getting people off the surface and up to the planes. It’s a slow process. So it doesn’t matter whether we use four planes or five. The last flight out is still going to be leaving at around nine-thirty
P.M.
Saturday.

“Now, we’re doing it the way we are for two reasons. One you’re the best I have. You might need to do some jinking on the way back, and there’s nobody I’d rather have in the left-hand seat. Two, sending you out to L1 will give you some experience in how the vehicle handles beyond earth-orbit.”

“Great,” said George. “I’m honored.”

Outside, a fuel truck moved across the concrete apron. “You don’t have to do it. I can’t force you. But there’ll be roughly a hundred people coming back with you. Their lives will depend on the pilot we send them. I want
you
. If you want to back off, I’ll understand and I’ll get one of the others.”

“Son of a bitch,” said George.

“Thanks.” Drummond picked up the mission profile and held it out to him.

Moonbase, Grissom Country. 3:05
P.M.

Evelyn took the call in her private suite. She was not a physicist, but she suspected what was coming, and the suspicion was confirmed when she recognized Kermit Hancock’s voice. Hancock was her second-in-command at corporate headquarters in Boston. “We got a call from the White House,” he said without ceremony. “They’re recommending we evacuate both space stations. Especially L1. They think it might get totaled.”

Totaled
. The term somehow trivialized the potential loss of so much. But at least they had the plane going out there. Just as well to get everybody off. “Do it,” she said. “I’ll make the calls.”

There was a long pause. “Evelyn, I’m sorry.”

“Me too, Kerm.” She felt very tired. “Me too.”

Microbus, approaching L1. 3:10
P.M.

The station floated against a background of stars. As Tony Casaway watched, it disgorged a ferry. The ferries were boxy vehicles, capable of carrying between twelve and forty passengers, depending on the model. Their sole mission was to move passengers and cargo between the space stations. This was the
Christopher Talley
. Tony was close enough to see people in the passenger cabin. They were probably dependents being sent to Skyport as a precaution against the comet.

Digital readings blurred on his screens as thrusters fired and the main engine, which had been braking the ship, went silent. They were rotating in sync with the satellite. The Moon, enormous at a range of only sixty thousand kilometers, and Earth drifted slowly across the windows in apparent pursuit of each other as the microbus turned on its axis.

Like Skyport, L1 used counter-rotating wheels to enhance stability and simulate a sizable fraction of lunar gravity. L1 was smaller than the Earth orbiter by almost a third, and because it
had no tourist pretensions, it was a far more spartan facility. Several thruster clusters helped maintain its position at the unstable Lagrangian point.

“Seven minutes to dock,” said Saber.

“Roger.” He locked onto the short-range beacons and maneuvered into the designated guide path while Saber talked to the flight controllers and started providing minute-by-minute course adjustments.

Then a new voice came on the circuit. “Tony.”

“Go ahead, L1.”

“Update. FYI, Tony, we just got word we’re evacuating the station.”

Tony thought he meant Moonbase. “Say again, please.”

“They’re looking for major trouble when the comet hits. We’re clearing out L1.”

Evacuating
L1? “By Saturday?”

“Roger. You’re instructed to unload your passengers and start back posthaste.”

The terminator arced across the lunar surface, dividing it sharply between dark and light. Tony glanced over at Saber.

“We’re a long way from the Moon,” she said. “How much damage can Tomiko do?”

6.

Skyport. 4:04
P.M.

The two planes making the early flight were from Berlin and Copenhagen. The pilots had left their flight attendants home. George had allowed his to come on the
Arlington
, with the understanding that they would make the first flight, to L1, but not the lunar mission.

The forth spacecraft, they were informed, would be coming from Rome.

The three flight crews spent an hour with operational per
sonnel in a ready room talking over details, setting up emergency communication protocols, trying to foresee what might go wrong, discussing the handling problems they could expect. The SSTOs weren’t designed to fly to the Moon, and if anyone had foreseen the eventuality, there was no evidence of it in operational contingency plans. They would drag a lot of mass in the form of airframe, atmosphere engines, and landing gear, making them sluggish. If they really were going to have to dodge flying rock, they would have their hands full.

They would go into their assigned orbits, and moonbuses would come to them. The lunies also had two trucks available. The trucks had no in-flight docking capabilities, but would have to employ extravehicular activity (EVA) to transfer passengers. These would, of course, be operational personnel. And there’d only be one of two at a time. Carrying capacity for passengers was small.

“Nonexistent is more like it,” said Nora Ehrlich, the British-born pilot of
Copenhagen
. “How tight is this operation?”

“You got it,” said the briefer. “We have no room for screwups.”

Shortly after he’d arrived, George had learned that other planes had been brought in to evacuate Skyport. Only operations people would remain to service the planes and take care of their passengers, and a few others deemed necessary to keep the station running. This was purely a precaution, management was saying.

After the conference, George and his crew went to Mo’s Restaurant for dinner. At six he called Operations. They were still taking care of the details, they told him. But he should be ready to leave by eight
P.M.

One of the details consisted of writing the navigational programming. The assignment was given to an overworked and underpaid technician whose job was to communicate with
one of the astronavigators, and translate his instructions into code for the onboard computers on the three spacecraft. This technician was Kay Wilmont, who was in her second tour on board Skyport, and who had just put in for a supervisor’s job.

The original plan had been to refuel the tanks to about half capacity, the level necessary to make the round-trip to either lunar orbit or L1. (There was no real difference.) But late planners had informed Operation that the SSTOs might have to do some maneuvering on the way home. Better be safe than sorry.

This was another breakdown. The only planes that might be forced to do violent maneuvering would be the two that would return Saturday. But no matter. The decision was taken to fill all tanks to capacity.

However, no one told Kay, or the people on her watch, of the change in plans. Consequently, the programs assumed a fuel weight that was fifty percent less than the amount actually carried. This was an error that, once caught, would require a series of midcourse corrections. In and of itself, it would involved no danger to the mission.

Transglobal Executive Suite, Manhattan. 4:47
P.M.

Twenty-seven years ago Bruce Kendrick had been the weatherman on the Channel 11 news out of Topeka. He’d been noticed by Captain Raymond L. McConnell when a Kansas City blizzard forced McConnell’s plane to divert and he’d had to spend the night at the local Sheraton. McConnell had liked the way the kid handled low-pressure fronts, had offered him a job with the network, and the rest, as they say, was history.

BOOK: Moonfall
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