Moonfall

An Excerpt

by Jack McDevitt



Skyport Orbital Laboratory. 10:59 p.m.

   Tory Clark was connected to a vast array of instruments in space and around the world, and data were pouring in. Windy Cross had got so excited he’d forgotten his outrage with her. They were getting magnificent images and the circuits were filled with excited voices. Infrared scans had penetrated the fireball: as predicted the impact had shattered the Moon, had literally broken it apart. Pieces the size of Australia had torn loose and were adrift. It was too soon to ascertain where they were going, but theory suggested most of the debris would spread out at about the present lunar radius, with most of it remaining along the orbital line.
   Some had argued that even if the comet did break up the Moon that gravity would soon draw the sphere back together. Looking at the images, Tory didn’t think that was going to happen. Not now, and probably not in the foreseeable future.
   At this point one thing seemed certain: the world had received a scare, an object lesson far more impressive than the one Shoemaker-Levy 9 had delivered thirty years ago. Maybe Skybolt, which would be able to defend the planet with an array of chemical oxygen iodine lasers, would now become a popular cause. Moreover, Tomiko had demonstrated that we could not rely on having a year or two to get ready for an impact.
   It struck her that losing the Moon might not be a bad trade-off if we got lucky and no real damage was done, provided we applied the lessons. Provided we made preparations for the next time.
   Her displays carried images of the boiling cloud from several of the orbiters, from Palomar, from Whipple and Kitt Peak.
   One of her tell-tales began to blink furiously.
   “POSIM One,” said Windy.
   POSIM was Possible Impactor, the agreed term assigned to objects that might strike the Earth. The formula for assigning a catalog number to an object incorporated approach angle, size, estimated mass, and velocity.
   Tory tagged it for the Houston threat assessment unit. Houston might request more imaging, infra-red, whatever; they might dismiss it as a nonthreat; or they might confirm and send out a warning to the good people of Tuscaloosa to clear out of town. It was going to be a nerve-wracking process because nobody knew in advance how fast the fragments would be coming, how many there might be, what would disintegrate and what wouldn’t.
   POSIM One was sixty meters in diameter, approaching at one-eighty kilometers per second. The front of the blast wave was just now approaching, and what they were seeing was mostly pebbles, gas, and dust. And a few rocks. POSIM One was the exception. Its trajectory would take it into the atmosphere at a wide angle, subjecting it to almost maximum friction before it hit ground. If it hit ground.
   Tory watched a confusion of blips spreading across the displays. She wondered whether the instruments would be able to sort out the big rocks from the assorted rubble.
   Houston responded to the hit: POSIM one would come to ground in the interior of South America, in the Gran Chaco Region. But not enough of it would remain to do serious damage, other than maybe scare a few cattle. Disregard.
   POSIM Two was slightly smaller, but on a tighter angle. Into the Pacific. Again, not big enough to do any damage.
   At Zelenchukskaya, in the Caucasus, they were following the action. Someone, apparently annoyed that Skybolt had never been built, suggested we send the politicians up to beat the POSIM’s off with sticks.
   Radar put one fragment at a diameter of two hundred meters. But it did not get a POSIM listing because it was going to sail past the planet altogether and go into solar orbit.
   The common wisdom was that the big stuff, if any was enroute, would be moving more slowly and would therefore arrive later.
   There’d been speculation that nuclear missiles were being readied, but Tory knew there was no time for targeting. It was all happening too fast. They were just going to have to sit back and let events take their course.
   The alarm sounded again.
   “POSIM Three,” said Windy.



Point Judith, Rhode Island. 11:26 p.m.

   Luke Peterson had followed the reports coming in from the Moon ships and from around the globe. He’d felt a wave of regret when they lost contact with the Vice President’s party, and again later when the space plane had disappeared. Bruce Kendrick had explained on both occasions that the LTA and NASA were still optimistic, and believed the problems resulted from the communications breakdowns one would expect under these conditions. Luke stayed with them for another half hour or so but there was no more word on Haskell or the missing plane. When they started interviewing another astronomer about comets he shut it off, made a rum and Coke, and walked out onto his front porch.
   The Moon, or the object that had been the Moon, was visible up over the trees on the west side of the house. It looked like a bilious red-flecked cloud, and it cast a sanguine light across his garage and driveway. His gray coupe, parked in front, had acquired a bloody hue that chilled him.
   Beyond the dunes the Atlantic lay quiet in a rising tide. Lights moved in the channel. A destroyer, possibly. Headquarters, Atlantic Destroyer Fleet was located at Newport, as it had been as far back as Luke could remember, and the ships often made training runs out to Block Island.
   A buoy clanged.
   He and Ann had spent numberless evenings out here in the early years of their marriage. It was easy to imagine her spirit still hovering over the place, whispering to him in the running of the tide. She’d grown up in Woonsocket, an old mill town, and when he’d brought her to Point Judith it was as if she’d arrived in India. You’re more interested in the ocean than you are in me, he’d told her. And she’d laughed and thought about it. It’s all the same, she’d said. I can’t imagine you anywhere else.
   Nor I, you.
   The phone rang. But he wasn’t in a mood to talk to anyone at the moment. He listened until it stopped, and then he listened to the voices, his on the recorder, and Del Clendennon’s on the phone, asking him to call when he had a minute. That would be about the Wednesday night poker session. On or off? Probably on. They’d all be back in town by then.
   The destroyer’s lights were far out. If Luke had been watching closely, he might have noticed that they’d begun to rise, and kept rising. But he was looking at them a moment later when they abruptly went out, as if something had passed between them and the shore.
   The telephone began to ring again.



Carlisle, Pennsylvania. 11:28 p.m.

   Rain continued to fall, and the night remained overcast. Archie, who’d wanted to watch the show in the sky, was disappointed. He went out onto the deck and stared up at clouds and frequent lightning.
   A stone mansion with turrets stood across the street wrapped in the dark. Lights blazed in the lower windows, and the turrets leaped into view with each lightning flash.
   In the living room the Esterhazy’s were watching a police show. He stayed outside and settled down to listen to the storm. After a while the front door opened and Claire joined him.
   “Looks like the trip was pointless,” she observed.
   “Why do you say that?”
   She shrugged. It seemed like such an ordinary night. “It’s been an hour,” she said. “Nothing’s going to happen in Jersey.”
   “Yeah. Well, good.” He did feel better, under the clouds.
   She sat down in a rocker. “I can’t imagine a piece of the Moon falling on anybody. Although I wouldn’t mind if a chunk of it came through the ceiling in there and conked the Esterhazys.”
   Archie nodded. “I was thinking about trying to find a motel tomorrow. I can’t stand another night with these people.”
   “If nothing’s happened by tomorrow, we ought to be able to go back, shouldn’t we?”
   Before he could answer her eyes widened and she looked up past his shoulder. He turned to see what had caught her attention: the dark skies were flickering, not in the rhythmic way that suggested more lightning, but in spasms. Abruptly a fireball streaked out of the overcast, came in over the trees and plowed directly into the stone house. Archie was blown out of his chair. The world exploded around him, something knocked the wind out of him and he went down in a fetal position listening to the roar go on and on. Small fires were burning everywhere, the deck had collapsed, and a passing van lay on its side in flames.
   Slowly he got to his hands and knees. At that moment he felt no pain although his left shoulder had gone numb.
   He didn’t see Claire anywhere. The front door jerked open and Jeff Esterhazy’s head popped out. He delivered a string of expletives, the only profanities Archie had heard from him. The mansion, its lawn, the iron fence that lined the front walk, and the street with its elms, had disappeared into a hole. A plume of black smoke rose over the scene. The van exploded, sending fire cartwheeling into the trees.
   “What happened?” demanded Esterhazy in a tone that suggested Archie was responsible.
   The front window was blown in. Inside he heard Mariel: Don’t touch her and Are you okay, Claire?
   “Don’t know,” he said.
   A second fireball floated down out of the clouds, lit up the entire landscape for miles, and landed out to the east somewhere with a distant whump. More flames leaped into the sky.
   “My God.” Esterhazy stepped through the door, let it close behind him, and walked to the edge of the porch. “Look what it’s done to the property.”
   Archie never heard the third one come in.



Point Judith, Rhode Island. 11:30 p.m.

   Luke could not account for the sudden uneasiness that settled over the house. It might have been the sense that he was alone, or virtually alone, in town. It might have been the accumulated drama of the evening’s events, his concern for the people in the moonships. It might have been an intensified perception of the sea that crouched only eighty yards from his front door.
   The TV was muttering quietly in the living room. Luke was looking for another snack, planning to stay up late and watch the news reports, knowing he wouldn’t sleep no matter what. He’d just put on a fresh pot of coffee when he became aware of a new sound.
    He listened, not able to place it, and went back out onto the front porch. The tide had gone out, and that was strange because it was supposed to be coming in. It was so far out that the water line was in darkness.
   My God.
   He hurried inside, grabbed his keys off the bookcase, thought about what else he should try to salvage, decided there was no time (although he sensed a degree of safety within the house), and sprinted for the car. The engine roared into life on the first try. He threw a U-turn and took out north on 108, past the beaches.
   He floored the pedal, wondering how he could have been so complacent, so dumb. His rear-view mirror showed neither stars nor sky. It was black back there, and the darkness moved.
   He was past eighty-five, faster than he thought the car would go, when it caught him.



Coast Guard Cutter Diligent. 11:32 p.m.

   Dilly was in open water, about fourteen nautical miles southeast of Rockaway Inlet, outward bound with lookouts posted fore and aft and on both beams. Captain Bolling had been advised to put at least a hundred twenty feet of water under his keel. They were at ninety now.
   His crewmen could not keep their eyes off the luminous cloud that had replaced the Moon. There was an unusual mood on the cutter. Bolling had seen his coasties in difficult situations, had seen them work to rescue the survivors of a yacht swamped by high seas, had seen them face down drugrunners at night. This was different: they were quiet, thoughtful, almost intimidated. The usual banter that accompanied forays into risky situations was gone. Tonight they simply manned their stations and kept a weather eye on the sky.
   Dilly’s messenger appeared at his side, holding out a transmission. Bolling took it, glanced at it, and handed it without comment to Packard.

POSSUM APPROX 41 N. LAT. 73 W. LONG. ETA 140447Z.
   (The transformation from POSsible IMpactor (POSIM) to POSSUM had already taken place in military communications, the media, and common parlance.)
   “That’s right down our stack,” said the exec. He exchanged glances with Bolling. “Extra lookouts?” he suggested.
   “I think it’s time.” The captain looked at Jay Willoughby, his nineteen-year-old radar operator. “Keep on the scope, Jay. Anything unusual, anything at all, don’t keep it to yourself.”
   Packard summoned the crew chief and passed the order. A minute later more coasties with binoculars appeared on deck. “It shouldn’t be hard to spot,” observed the exec, scanning the skies.
   The sea smelled clean and fresh. Bolling loved it out here, away from the greasy odors of the East River and Long Island Sound. If he’d been independently wealthy, he’d have bought a yacht and spent his life at sea. It had been a boyhood dream, and the Coast Guard was as close as he’d been able to come.
   “There,” said Packard. A long narrow light creased the clouds dead ahead. Coming down. Pieces exploded away from it, and then it was gone, leaving only a few glimmers. “Didn’t look like much, Skip.” His voice reflected his conviction that he’d known all along they were on a fool’s errand.
   “If that was it, Dan,” said Bolling, “it’s running early.” He scribbled the time and position of the sighting on a message sheet and sent it to the radio room for transmission.
   The exec’s face was blue in the subdued light of the bridge. A second streak trailed across the sky and winked out. The water was dead black. “They look like ordinary shooting stars to me,” he said.
   “I hope so.” Bolling keyed the radio room. “What are you hearing?” he asked Herb Bitzberger, the operator.
   “Nothing out of the way, Skipper,” Bitzberger said. “The ships are talking to one another, but it’s the usual kind of chatter.”
   “Anything from Breakwater?” Breakwater was Coast Guard Activities Command, New York.
   “Negative, sir. They’re quiet.”
   Bolling could see the lights of freighters strung out along the horizon.
   “Coming up on a hundred feet, sir,” said the helmsman.
   “Very well,” said Packard. “Steady on course. Reduce speed to one-quarter.”
   The boat settled into the water and the throb of the twin engines subsided. Bolling and Packard had agreed that the best course of action, once they were safely on station, was to assume there would be a major emergency, and to preserve fuel while simultaneously maintaining some headway. (This was to prevent being capsized should a wave appear at short notice.) Neither of the two had any experience with tsunamis. Nor did anyone else they knew. But Bolling had done some research: the books said there was nothing to fear in deep water. Tsunamis are barely noticable until they move into coastal areas or shallows, where the water tends to bunch up. Of course they weren’t exactly in deep water.
   Another glowing track appeared in the sky. Coming their way. It got big, got bigger, and finally exploded and rained fire onto the sea. “Some of those hit the water,” said the exec.
   Bolling didn’t think so. It was hard at night to know where anything was.
   Fresh coffee came up from below. The crewman reported that contact had been re-established with the moonbus carrying the Vice President. “They aren’t broadcasting from the bus itself,” he explained. “But they say they’re tracking them on radar.” Bolling was pleased to hear it. He liked Haskell. But more to the point, he thought that the nation would look bad if it couldn’t rescue its number two executive from a disaster they’d seen coming for five days.
   Another message came up from the comm center:

TSUNAMI STRUCK COAST FROM NEW LONDON TO MARTHA’S VINEYARD, NANTUCKET, AND THE CAPE 140430Z. DETAILS FOLLOW.
   How big? How much damage?
   They picked up Transglobal coverage of the wave off the satellite. First reports were sporadic, but Bolling wondered whether the alarmists might not have been right after all. He snapped on the intercom and told his people what he knew. “We’ll pass along whatever else we get as it comes in,” he concluded. They maintained a southeasterly course, beneath a now-quiet sky. Their depth reached one hundred twenty feet. The wind began to blow and the water started getting choppy.
   At 1152 hours he was handed a general broadcast message from an oil tanker:
TEXACO QUEEN REPORTS SEA WAVE NORTHBOUND 40.7 N Lat, 71.8 W LONG - APPROACHING COAST.
   He hardly needed to look at a chart: more trouble for Rhode Island.
   “Pass it to the station,” he said.
   “We’ve done that, Captain,” said the messenger.
   Bolling raked the horizon with his night glasses. It was flat as a pancake.
   Another fireball raced silently out of the clouds to starboard. The sea turned red in its glow. It passed overhead and, throwing off streamers, plunged into the sea. A thunderclap broke over them. The sound had barely died to echoes before the last of the fragments had fallen a few points to port and the world was dark again.
   “I’ve got the con, Dan,” said Bolling. “Helmsman, come to port fifteen degrees. All ahead standard.”
   “Aye aye, Captain.”
   He scribbled a quick description of what they’d seen and handed it to the messenger. “Add our position and send it,” he said.
   The cutter dipped into a deep trough.
   “Captain?” Willoughby, on radar. “Look at this.”
   They were getting a solid reading almost dead ahead. It looked as if a wall had been built across the ocean.
   “It just appeared,” he continued. “Range six miles.”
   “Helmsman, make your course one-zero-zero. Right into it.”
   One of the forward lookouts shouted Wave! and pointed. Bolling stared at it through his glasses. It looked big.
   “Everybody tie down,” shouted the exec.
   “Flank speed,” said Bolling. “Let’s put our lights on it.”
   Twin halogen lamps came on and their beams stabbed through the night.
   The cutter leaped forward.
   “Three miles,” said Willoughby.
   It was visible now, a vast rolling surge without a crest.
   “My God,” said Packard, “I thought you said we didn’t need to worry about anything like this in open water.”
   “Complain when we get home,” he said. “Hang on.” They tied the wheel down to ensure they stayed on course, and then he directed the helmsman and the radar operator to lash themselves to their positions. He followed his own instruction and watched Packard do the same.
   Then it was on them, a dark roiling mountain. Dilly rode up its face. Bolling lost his balance and fell against the bulkhead. The prow bit into the ocean and water thundered across the deck and crashed through the bridge. He was thrown down hard and lost track of direction and for a terrible moment thought they were going to capsize, maybe had capsized. The ocean boiled around him. Then they hovered on its crest and the boat’s lights looked down into a bottomless trough and lost themselves in mist.
   Dilly slipped into the trough. It seemed to Bolling that they were free-falling, and the fall went on and on. Water roared over his head, and then it was gone and he was trying to wipe his eyes clear and get the sea out of his throat.
   “You okay, Captain?” shouted Packard.
   Their lights played across a churning sea.
   “I’m fine. Radar?”
   “It’s out, Captain,” said Willoughby. “Blown.”
   The helmsman was dazed. Packard took the wheel. Bolling could see nothing immediately threatening. He keyed the intercom. “Radio room.”
   “Aye, Captain.”
   “Get a message to Breakwater. That wave was forty feet. It’s moving west northwest, approximate two zero zero knots.”
   “Aye, sir.”
   Bolling knelt beside the helmsman, but looked up at his exec. “We need a head count, Dan,” he said. “Let’s make sure we’ve still got everybody.”



CNN NEWSBREAK: SPECIAL REPORT
(Groton, Connecticut, 11:33 p.m.)

   “This is Mark Able in the mobile unit above Groton. The lights are out down there and we can’t see much yet, but here’s what we know: a giant wave went through here a few minutes ago. There’s heavy flooding on the ground. We can see overturned rail cars. There’s debris everywhere, as if a big tornado had hit the area. Downtown is just flattened. John, I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s just awful. There’s nothing moving on the Connecticut Turnpike at all. And as far as I can see there aren’t any cars on it anywhere. There are some overturned vehicles north of the highway. And, yes, John, I think that’s what happened: the wave just swept the road clear.
   “We have no estimates yet as to casualties, but I can’t believe anyone down there could have lived through this. A couple of Army helicopters have just arrived and are using spotlights to look for survivors. We’re going to try to find a place to land, and we’ll be staying on top of this developing story.
   “Back to you, John....”




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