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Authors: Jack McDevitt

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The Moonbase flight terminal, the Spaceport, was located on the floor of Alphonsus just outside Main Plaza, accessible via trams.

Charlie planned to spend two days touring the facility and establishing in the world’s eyes the American interest in and support for the lunar enterprise. There’d be a round of luncheons and celebrations. Dignitaries were here from around the world, and on the whole, the vice president looked forward to the experience.

Wednesday afternoon he’d board a bus for L1, catch the ferry to Skyport, the earth-orbiting space station; and then take the SSTO space plane into Reagan. If all went well, he’d arrive home with plenty of momentum going into the late spring primaries.

2.

Mexico. 6:43
A.M.
Mountain Daylight Time (8:43
A.M.
EDT)

The path of totality, moving generally northeast, glided ashore at Mazatlán. Six minutes later the skies darkened over Durango. Strollers in the
zócalo
paused and glanced up. Lights came on in the shopping district.

At about the same time, the shadow of the Moon reached the continental divide. Birds along the shores of Laguna del Llano grew quiet. It swept over the Sierra Madres and the wide semi-arid plains, and while late risers were having breakfast, crossed into Texas. Traffic was heavy, as always, at the Piedras Negras and Eagle Pass border stations; but even here, among the banging of trunks and the roar of tractor-trailers, there was a brief pause, a momentary stillness.

It passed between San Antonio on the east and Lubbock on the west. Early arrivals for the Rangers’ home opener against the A’s watched the parking lot darken. It was moving more slowly now than it had been when the passengers of the
Merrivale
first observed it.

Teachers in Fort Smith, Arkansas, took classes outside so their students could experience the gathering dark. In the Batesville Regional School, a visiting astronomer from the Delmor Planetarium in Little Rock explained to an auditorium of third- and fourth-graders how eclipses happen, why people used to be afraid of them, and why they should never look directly at the Sun.

At thirty-seven thousand feet over Springfield, Missouri, the shadow overtook a specially modified Lockheed C-311 cargo jet, which was running northeast on a parallel course. The jet housed a sixty-inch telescope and associated equipment, a team of six astronomers, and a three-person flying crew. The telescope was mounted in a shock-absorbing cradle just forward of the left wing, and was equipped with gyros and sensors to
keep it locked on target. It was cold in the plane, and the jet engines were very loud, far too loud to permit casual conversation. The astronomers needed headphones and microphones to talk with one another. They wore heavy woolen sweaters beneath down jackets. The team had begun their work as soon as the lunar disk bit into the Sun. But the period of totality was especially precious. The aircraft, trying to keep up with the racing umbra, would give them an extra minute or so. The mission was sponsored by NASA Goddard. It had a multitude of tasks, collecting data to help explain anomalies of the inner corona, conducting multi-wavelength studies, comparing active features on the solar surface, hoping to establish correlations with coronal gas velocities. And a dozen or so others.

They had almost six minutes of totality. Then the darkness left them behind, passed through the Mark Twain National Forest, and closed on St. Louis.

In Valley Park, a pleasant suburb with picket fences and shady lawns, Tomiko Harrington was using her keyboard to activate the imaging disk in her electronic Magenta 764XX reflector, which was temporarily mounted on the deck outside her observatory over the garage. Tomiko was a systems designer for the Capital Bank and Trust Company of St. Louis. She was also an amateur astronomer and had called in sick that day.

The morning was clear and crisp, perfect for an eclipse. There’d been predictions of storm fronts and overcast skies, but none had materialized. Tomiko’s passion for astronomy had been ignited by another Missouri solar eclipse, seven years earlier. That had happened August 21, on her eighteenth birthday, and the event had seemed like a sign, an invitation from the cosmos to get beyond the parties and the frivolity and put some meaning into her life. It was an invitation she’d accepted. Tomiko was now a member of the University Astronomy Club, she had written a couple of scripts for the
planetarium in Forest Park, and she was about to collect her master’s from SLU. Today she’d get a complete visual record of the period of totality.

When a friend had asked why, she hadn’t quite known how to answer. “Just to have,” she’d said finally, knowing that at least one of the images would be mounted and framed on her brag wall, taking its place among her stunning color photos of the Pleiades, the Crab Nebula, Mars and Deimos, the gorgeous M31 whirlpool, the 2019 Hercules supernova, and her personal observatory.

She relaxed in the love seat with a Coke, facing four video displays, three of which depicted the dark lunar rim closing over the last of the light. One screen, mounted on her desk, carried the feed coming from her own telescope, a small clock in the lower right-hand corner ticking off the last minutes to totality. The other two were commercial programs. She’d turned off the sound on these, not wishing to allow a newscaster’s commentary to spoil the moment. The fourth monitor provided a map of the eclipse’s path through the Northern Hemisphere.

She finished her Coke and put it down on a side table. The sky was getting dark, and she shuddered with pleasure. A passing car switched on its headlamps.

When her father was alive, the rooms over the garage had been rented, usually to students at the Bible college. But Tomiko had no real need of funds, and the old apartment was situated far from streetlights, which made it ideal for use as an observatory. In addition, it was surrounded by a wide deck on which she could install mounts for her telescopes. When two students had broken their lease and run off in the middle of the night, owing her two months’ rent, she’d been almost grateful. She’d taken it over, renovated it, installed computers and two reflectors and imaging equipment. She’d promised herself that if the big money ever came in, she’d remove the roof and make a real observatory out of the place.

Her lawn sprinkler snapped on.

Tomiko was diminutuve, amiable, self-assured. She wore dark green slacks and a yellow blouse open at the throat. Her black hair was combed forward, almost concealing her left eye, in the fashion of the time. She had her father’s penetrating gaze, but lacked the epicanthic fold of the Japanese ancestors on her mother’s side. At times like this, when she was deeply engaged in her hobby, she wore a mildly distracted look. An observer would have concluded she was far away from the garage apartment.

A cool wind shook the trees. Somewhere a phone was ringing.

Now night came. The sky filled with stars. She felt utterly alone in the world.

The darkened Sun was in Pisces. She could see the Great Square of Pegasus just above the drugstore, Aldebaran up over Doc Edwards’s house, Deneb at the top of the elm, and Betelgeuse down near the intersection. Jupiter, white and brilliant, was east of the Sun; and Venus, west.

Even Mercury was visible, riding its lonely arc.

She went out onto the deck and sat down in one of her wicker chairs, crossed her arms on the guard railing, and rested her chin on the back of her left hand. Lights came on in Conroy’s kitchen.

A few degrees south of the Sun, just on the edge of the corona where the glare faded into night, Tomiko noticed a bright star.

What
was
that?

She measured it with her eye against the surrounding constellations, frowned, and hurried inside to her computer. She logged into the USL Celestik program, and brought up a star diagram.

Moonbase, Grissom, Country. 11:10
A.M.

Rick Hailey appraised Charlie’s outfit, grinned at the Moonbase patch, and shook his head. “No,” he said. “Don’t do it.”

“Why not?” Charlie thought it would be ideal for the situation.

“Because politicians who try to look like something they aren’t inevitably come off looking dumb. You’re too young to remember Michael Dukakis and his tank. But how about Bill Worthy?” Worthy had been knocked out of his party’s nomination by Andrew Culpepper, then a relative unknown, after he’d tried on an astronaut’s uniform for the cameras. He’d succeeded only in convincing the electorate he was frail and near death.

Charlie sighed. “Yeah,” he said.

“I mean, I can see the editorial cartoons now. They’ll send you to Mars.”

It was annoying. He looked so good in this outfit.

“This is your day, Charlie,” Rick said. “This afternoon we’ll be creating our campaign theme.
The future belongs to Haskell
.” He drank off a glass of moon rum, which was nonalcoholic.

“I’m a little uncomfortable about this,” said Charlie. “I keep thinking the president should be here. Or maybe it’s the low gravity.” He grinned uncertainly.

“You’ll do fine. Like you always do.” Rick’s voice dropped an octave. “Don’t forget God,” he said.

Charlie sighed.

“It’s important. Out here, people expect you to notice creation. The blue Earth. The stars. The sense of human insignificance.” He stopped and thought about it. “No,” he continued, “not
human
insignificance.
Your
insignificance. Right? We don’t want the voters to get the idea you think
they’re
insignificant.”

“I know.”

Sometimes Charlie thought of his ascent to the vice presidency as some sort of cosmic joke. He couldn’t recall having set out to become a politician. It was something that had just happened to him. He’d been running a small electronics business in Amherst twelve years ago when a dustup began over school prayer, evolution, creation science, and
The Catcher in the Rye
. Charlie, who’d thought those battles fought and won during the last century, had shown up at a school board meeting where he’d intended only to lend visible support to the English and science departments. But he’d been outraged by a tall, dark-haired, brimstone-eyed preacher who’d informed the board what their duties were, and left no doubt he was speaking for a higher power. The preacher had brought his congregation, one of whom was waving a sign with the number 649 on it, supposedly the number of obscenities in
Catcher
. Unable to contain himself, Charlie had taken on the preacher.

In hindsight, he hadn’t thought he’d done well. The preacher was louder and more practiced than he, but the small group of school supporters liked what they saw. They asked him to run in the fall election, and as Charlie saw it, next thing he knew he was vice president.

He looked at his watch. “Give me a minute to change,” he said. “And then we better get started.”

“Yeah. Listen, on second thought, wear the jacket. Okay? It’ll help you bond with these people. But the uniform’s too much.”

Rick’s value lay in what Charlie liked to think of as an ability to see around corners. If there was a booby trap ahead, he could be counted on to find it before it exploded.

Wearing only the jacket would be a halfway measure. A sign of weakness. When Charlie came out of the bedroom, he’d pulled on his own custom-made gray suit.

Rick frowned. “I don’t know why you keep me on,” he said.

Skyport, NASA/Smithsonian Orbital Laboratory. 12:13
P.M.

The Orbital Lab at the Earth satellite Skyport served as a worldwide clearinghouse for astronomical data. New variable pulsar analyses, fresh information on large-structure configurations, the latest findings on extra-solar terrestrial worlds supporting oxygen atmospheres—all were funneled into the Orbital Lab, collated, cross-indexed, relayed to interested consumers, and made available on the Web for the general public.

Tory Clark was watching the progress of the eclipse across North America on the overhead monitor while she looked through incoming reports. Although there was an enormous amount of activity connected with the event, nonrelated routine inputs did not slow down appreciably. She had, for example, a quasar update from Kitt Peak, a new report on R 136a in the Large Magellanic, and corrections to the velocity measurements for the runaway star 53 Arietis. She also had something else.

“Windy?” She held up a hand to get the attention of her supervisor, Winfield Cross. “You want to take a look at this?”

Cross was in his fifties, medium size, medium build, medium everything. People tended to have a hard time remembering who he was, or what his name was. He was African-American, had grown up in south Los Angeles, gone to Princeton on a scholarship, and now seemed worried only by the possibility that his age would catch up to him before he achieved his one ambition. The automated observatory at Farside, the hidden side of the Moon, was going to be expanded and provided with a human staff. Windy hoped to get the director’s job.

He held up one hand to signal that he understood, finished writing on a clipboard, and turned to his own screen. She heard him inhale. “What is it? You check it yet?”

They were looking at Tomiko’s splinter of light.

“Don’t know.”

“Sun-grazer, you think?”

“I guess. Can’t imagine what else.”

There was nothing new, of course, about sun-grazing comets. They approached from the far side of the Sun and returned the same way. Consequently, they were virtually impossible to see from Earth, unless they happened to show up during a total eclipse, as this one had.

Windy’s fingertips drummed on the computer table. “Who’ve we got?”

Tory was ready for the question. “Feinberg’s at Beaver Meadow for the show.” She was referring to the eclipse.


Feinberg
. Well, no point monkeying with the small fry. Okay, try to get him and ask him to take a look.”

Moonbase, Ranger Auditorium. 12:17
P.M.

The place was named for the only ship lost during the second wave of lunar exploration. The second vessel to go back to the Moon after more than thirty years, the
Ranger
had been less than forty minutes from reentry when a fuel line blew. The explosion damaged the navigational guidance system and forced Frank Bellwether, its skipper, to try an eyeball insertion, a seat-of-the-pants reentry. But the procedure was exceedingly difficult, and he’d misjudged the approach, had come in at too wide an angle.
Ranger
had skimmed off the atmosphere, and without enough fuel to return, had drifted into solar orbit. It had been the most traumatic incident of the age of space exploration, far more painful than the
Challenger
loss, because Bellwether and his crew were able to communicate for several days afterward, until their air supply ran out.

BOOK: Moonfall
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