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Authors: Jack McDevitt

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BOOK: Moonfall
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“How else do you want me to say it? Think of a bag of loose rock.”

Evelyn picked up a pad and began to scribble. They had three moonbuses, which among them could carry forty people out to L1. Round-trip took a little over five hours. Between now and ten thirty Saturday night they could make seventeen round-trips.

“Jack,” she said, “how many people do we have at Moonbase now?”

He was already working on it. “Seven hundred thirty-four,” he read off his screen. “Plus twelve on their way from L1.”

Evelyn stared at him.

“I don’t think we can get them all off,” he said.

2.

Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, Washington, D.C. 8:47
A.M.

The SSTO
Arlington
was about a half hour from launch. George Culver tried to concentrate on his checkoff sheet. He’d finally scored with Annie last night and his mind was filled with images of her. In back, he could hear the passengers beginning to come on board. He shook himself and tried again to read his instruments.

The Single Stage To Orbit space plane had capacity for two hundred thirty-five passengers, and usually carried a crew of twelve. It was slightly more compact than ordinary jumbo airliners, and baggage restrictions were far tighter. But contrasted with the old shuttles, it constituted a remarkably cheap and efficient means of getting into orbit.

George had started his career as a carrier pilot. He’d flown the A-77 Blackjack jet, had become a squadron commander, gotten married, and made the jump to civilian aviation. In all, he’d married three times—all medical types, one physician, one nurse, one hospital systems analyst. He’d gotten bored with each, and had pulled the plug on all three. His wives didn’t seem to be all that upset when it happened, and the marriages had ended more or less amicably. None had lasted two years.

He was just finishing with the preliminary readouts when Mary Casey, his copilot, strolled onto the flight deck and sat down.

“How we doing, Mary?” he asked.

“Guidance wasn’t lining up,” she said. “I put in another box.”

He nodded, reached for his clipboard, and gazed at the manifest. “How’s Billy?”

Billy was her son. He was a teenager now, just learning to drive, just beginning to assert his independence. His grades
were down, and George knew that Mary was unhappy with his choice of friends. “He’s been better,” she said.

The plane was only three-quarters full, not unusual for a Wednesday morning. There were some vacationers among the passengers, but not many. Fares to the space station were still high, and despite its obvious attractions, Skyport remained out of range for persons of moderate means. But the Lunar Transport Authority, a semiautonomous corporation, was promising that costs would come down dramatically with the planned arrival next year of the second-generation SSTO.

Mary pulled on her headset and adjusted the mike, still talking about Billy.

The captain listened politely. “All part of growing up,” he said. “I bet you weren’t easy to handle.”

The SSTO flew three times weekly from Reagan to the space station. George’s crew also made occasional direct runs from Reagan to Moscow, Rome, and London. But this was the flight they enjoyed, riding the thrusters all the way into orbit.

Mary tapped the mike. “Tower,” she said, “this is Flight One-seventeen. Comm check.”

“Flight One-seventeen,” returned a female voice in their earphones. “Check is five by.”

“Where’s Curt?” asked George.

“Right here, Captain.” The flight engineer poked his head in. “Just getting my coffee.”

The flight to Skyport would take one hour, forty-three minutes. They’d unload, refuel, pick up returning passengers and cargo, and be back in time for a late lunch.

Mary finished her procedure. George handed her the passenger list and pointed at a couple of names. Big-time singers. She also recognized a well-known TV critic and an Arab oil dealer. There were some kids back there, too. Headed for the vacation of their lives. And a couple of families were going all the way to Moonbase.

“Flight One-seventeen, Tower.” Same female voice.

“Go ahead, Tower.”

“Your flight is cancelled. Unload your passengers and stand by.”

Mary frowned at the captain, who had not yet put on his earphones. She switched on the speaker. “Say again, Tower.”

“One-seventeen, abort the flight.”

George took off his cap and pulled on his headset. “What’s the problem, Tower? What’s the reason for the delay?”

“FAA did not give us a reason, One-seventeen. This is
not
a delay. The flight is
canceled
. Please return your passengers to the gate.”

“What am I supposed to tell them? The passengers?”

A baritone replaced the other voice. “Tell them there won’t be any flights to Skyport today. Just say it’s a mechanical problem.”

“What
is
the problem?”

“One-seventeen, can we talk about this later? Tell your passengers that agents will be waiting to assist.”

Moonbase. 9:04
A.M.

Charlie was touring the mining and manufacturing section when Al Kerr got through to him on his cell phone. “The place is going to get hammered, Charlie. The president wants you out of there.”

Charlie walked away from the small group of VIPs. “Come on, Al, it can’t be
that
big.”

There was an irritating three-second delay while the radio signals traveled between Earth and Moon.

“All I’m telling you is what the experts are saying. There’ll be a general evacuation.
You
are to leave Moonbase posthaste. Hampton knows and is arranging it now.”

Suddenly Sam came out of nowhere, huddled with his people, and they all looked over at Charlie. The agents must
have gotten a call at about the same time, he figured.

“Okay, Al,” he said to Kerr. “I think the word’s getting around.”

“Good. Henry’ll be relieved to know you’re on your way back.” Kerr switched off, leaving Charlie looking at his phone and wondering whether anybody got less respect around Kolladner’s White House than the vice president.

Sam took him aside. “You heard, sir?”

“Yes.”

“They’ve got a bus leaving at noon. We’ll be on it.”

But Charlie was wondering what the voters would think of an aspiring president who caught the first ride out of town. “No,” he said. “They’re saying Saturday night. We have plenty of time.”

Sam frowned. “Mr. Vice President—”

Charlie shook his head and signaled that the conversation was over.

It had been a shattering few minutes. The space program was probably dead. More important, public opinion would crucify the president and everyone associated with him. Half a trillion dollars in Treasury-held MBI stock would become worthless overnight. And how much had the nation invested over the years in development costs?

He cut his tour short and went up to the administrative offices looking for Evelyn. The secretary was startled to see him, but after a whispered conversation with her boss, she took him to Chandler’s office, where Evelyn was still meeting with the director.

“Hello, Charlie,” she said, rising as he walked in. “I see you got the news.”

“Yeah. A few minutes ago.” He nodded a greeting to Chandler, then turned back to Evelyn. “The White House sounds rattled. How bad is it?”

She waved him to a seat. “It isn’t good. Everybody I talk to
thinks Moonbase won’t survive. Some of them think the
Moon
won’t survive. I talked to Wes Feinberg a few minutes ago.” Charlie didn’t know who Feinberg was, but he caught the inflection in Evelyn’s voice that implied he was the reigning expert.

“So what did Feinberg say?”

She shook her head in the manner one might use discussing a dying patient. They stared at each other for a long moment. “I can’t believe this is happening,” she said at last.

“What are you going to do?”

“What
can
I do? We’ll evacuate.” She asked whether he wanted coffee. He did, and she poured a mug and handed it across the desk.

“Anything I can do to help?”

“Get us more buses.” She smiled.

“I don’t think we have them in our inventory.” And then, seriously: “You’re not suggesting you can’t get everybody out, are you?”

“Things are a bit tight,” said Chandler.

Evelyn nodded in agreement. “We don’t have enough buses to take everyone over to L1.”

Charlie’s stomach tightened. “So,” he said, “What do we do? Are there more buses somewhere?”

“Under construction. And one so far down for repairs as to be useless. No. Jack suggested we bring in the SSTOs.”

“The space planes?” said Charlie. “But my understanding was they could only fly between Skyport and the ground.”

“It’s true,” said Chandler, “they aren’t designed for long-range space flight. Too much mass, inefficient fuel usage. But any port in a storm.”

“Can they
land
out here?”

Evelyn shook her head. “But they can go into orbit around the Moon, and we can send the buses to them. They’ll be closer than L1, so the bus ride’ll be shorter. Not by much, but
enough that we can get everybody out. While we’re waiting for them, we’ll keep moving people over to L1.”

“Thank God,” said Charlie. He was relieved, not only because no one would be left behind, but because he already foresaw the political impact if people died while he escaped.

BBC WORLDNET
. 10:01
A.M.

“A spokesman at Moonbase International headquarters in Boston revealed today that a general evacuation of Moonbase has begun. The spokesman stressed there is no danger to base personnel or to visitors. The evacuation has been prompted by the impending collision with Comet Tomiko early Sunday morning, Greenwich mean time. The collision will not be visible from London.

“In a related development, astronomers at the Royal Observatory are speculating that the object is not strictly a comet, as the term is traditionally understood. “Comets are members of the Sun’s family,” said Wilfred Hodge, a staff member and well-known science writer. “Tomiko is an interstellar object, probably a cometary body that was expelled from another star system, and has been traveling for millions and perhaps billions of years.”

Moonbase, Grissom Country. 10:17
A.M.

Evelyn Hampton found herself, in the supreme operational crisis of her life, with little to do. Jack Chandler was organizing the evacuation, and the last thing Moonbase needed was a second boss. So she’d withdrawn into the role of Visiting Dignitary Who Had To Be Rescued.

This status gave her a perspective similar to Charlie’s. Consequently, it seemed almost in the natural order of things that the two of them arranged to meet in the private dining room of the Huntress, a bistro set back in a grove of trees in Main Plaza, where (while the agents watched) they exchanged condolences and words of encouragement. “No blame should attach to either of us,” said Evelyn, “but it will. It’s Hampton’s Law.”

“What’s Hampton’s Law?” asked Charlie. The vice president looked dazed, as if he hadn’t quite caught up with events.

“When things go wrong, whatever the circumstances, it’s always somebody’s fault.”

As a rule, Evelyn disapproved of politicians. They tended to break down into two categories: the completely unprincipled, who composed the vast majority; and those who lived by their principles no matter who suffered. Her early impression of Charlie was that he did not fit easily into either category. It was almost as if he’d somehow wandered in off the street and gotten into the wrong profession. He embodied a kind of casual, we’re-all-in-this-together approach to business relationships that she wouldn’t have believed for a minute coming from the other seekers-after-power whom she had known. And even with Charlie she was mildly skeptical. For one thing, they
weren’t
all in it together. Charlie might have to face some political fallout, but Evelyn stood to lose everything—the corporation, her holdings, her career. Her reputation.

“So what will you do now?” Charlie asked. “Do you see a way to salvage any of this?”

She shrugged. “It doesn’t look hopeful.”

They were having coffee and toast. About half the tables in the main dining area were occupied. People strolled casually along the walkways, and somebody was riding a hang glider down from the top of the dome. “How about the evacuation?” he said. “Any problems?”

“I don’t think so. The LTA says they’ll cooperate and get the planes out here forthwith. It’ll be tight; some of us leaving on the last flight Saturday will have a damned good view of the fireworks. But everybody will be off. Barring glitches.” She bit into her toast. “We always assumed the most likely emergency would be an upturn in the solar flare cycle. Something like that. That all we’d have to do would be to get people under
cover. I don’t think it ever occurred to anybody we’d have to evacuate the entire complex. We’re talking about the
Moon
, for God’s sake.” She was having a hard time keeping her voice steady. “We’ve already shipped off the first load of people to L1.”

Opposite them, a virtual mountain brook ran through a tank. There were rocks in the water, and a broken cupola stood off to one side, half-submerged in the stream. Evelyn glanced at it, watched the image change and dissolve into a
USA Today
headline:

 

COSMIC BULLET TO STRIKE MOON
Narrow Miss For Earth,
But Other Objects Have Come Closer

 

The headline was replaced by an image of the comet. All comet heads—at least, all the ones whose pictures she’d seen—looked alike. Below the golden halos they were dark fissured chunks of ice and dirt, occasionally cratered, irregularly shaped. They were singularly uninteresting, and she never quite understood why anyone would care about them. This one was no exception. It had a couple of craters, and some long parallel rifts, as if someone had taken a scraper to it. “It looks pretty ordinary,” she said.

BOOK: Moonfall
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