Time: 11:14 a.m., Jan. 20. Scene: the Situation Room at the White House, one floor down from the now-empty Oval Office.

Navy Capt. Gary Sick, like millions of Americans is watching television. His eyes are glued to the first limousine, carrying Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan in the motorcade up Pennsylvania Avenue.

A red phone is pinned to Sick's left ear, a white phone to his right.

The red phone connects him to an American intelligence command center filtering information ranging from Iranian propaganda broadcasts -- "the great Satan bows to all our conditions" -- to intercepted radio traffic to telephone calls from the Swiss ambassador in Tehran.

The white phone connects him to the first limousine and the man who has 46 minutes remaining in his tattered presidency. The captain's jaw shifts almost imperceptibly from one phone to the other.

Sick watches the big black limousine, its fender flags flying proudly, take the right turn up toward the Capitol. Quickly, Sick speaks into the white phone: No new word . . . the hostages still are in Iran . . . the Iranian news agency is indicating they might be out by 11:30. Sick's voice has a don't-hold-your-breath-on-that-one quality. The president says thank you in a voice that says he won't hold his breath.

The limousine pulls up to the Capitol. Carter and Reagan disappear into the Law Library entrance. The red phone is humming now, British and American news agencies are flashing word, quoting a Tehran airport policeman, that the hostages are airborne.

But the red phone has better sources. The white phone is connected now to a Capitol holding room for the president, and Sick's jaw turns toward it. "Don't believe the reports," Sick says. "Sorry, sir."

And then Carter walked out to the West Front of the Capitol, walking away from the instant communication of the presidency, walking away from the Situation Room and, perhaps, from the hostages. He fought back tears as he yielded his presidency, the last words from the Situation Room being "sorry, sir," and the hostages still on Iranian ground.

The last 444 days of Carter's presidency were unparalleled in American history and a bizarre chapter in modern world history. But, in many ways, the world had been building toward such an event for at least the last decade with a rising wave of hijackings, political kidnapings, diplomatic murders, assassinations and random violence growing out of the belief that authority, whether musclebound super-power or ghetto cop, could nuke but not nip.

It was as if, in an era with the capacity for instant megadeath as well as instant communication, political activists had adopted Andy Warhol's '60s theorem: Anyone, Texas sniper or obscure desert nation, could become a 15-minute celebrity.

Still, at the beginning, no one could possibly foresee what was coming when a handful, perhaps as few as five to seven Iranian students, plotted the assault on the American Embassy in Tehran. At the beginning, responsible Iranian officials, delicately attempting to keep their loose hold on authority in Tehran, assured Carter that the students would be expelled and the incident brought to a speedy conclusion.

They were wrong -- and soon were gone from power, victims of revolutionary turmoil in Iran that would leave Carter and America flailing in countless desperate directions for the next 14 1/2 months. At this moment, no one outside the innermost circles of government can claim to know the entire story of that turmoil and desperate negotiating, but some hidden episodes during those 14 1/2 months can now be revealed.

Carter, for one, did not give up entirely on the idea of military action after the first rescue mission ended in failure last April. He directed the Joint Chiefs to plan a second raid, one that would require more firepower and greater risk. It was never executed, however, because the militants in Tehran scattered the hostages to different locations, some of which the U.S. intelligence could not find.

In the closing weeks of negotiations, the Carter administration was exploring the possibility of settling with Iran for $9.5 billion of Iran's assets at the time of release. Because of legal complications, this arrangement would necessarily have involved the incoming Reagan administration in completing the terms. The proposition was tried out on the Reagan team, which "discouraged" the idea. In the end, Iran settled for several billion dollars less.

Finally, the complex deal hung together by tenuous legal threads and was threatened by collapse three times in the final 24 hours of Carter's presidency. One last crisis, a few hours before the inaugural ceremony, was created, strangely enough, by an American lawyer in Algiers, representing the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, refusing to sign a final "annex" that would send the money on its complicated international journey. Carter, in a final frustration of power, was informed that he could not command the lawyer to sign the paper because the lawyer worked for the "independent" Federal Reserve, not for the president.

Just so. These events, which came to be known collectively as the "hostage crisis," both in full bright colors of constant television coverage and in the underground world of secret diplomacy, were stranger than fiction.

Television commentators could bring together Iranian and American diplomats in split-screen debates that their leaders could not or would not permit. In a murky nether world unpenetrated by the television cameras, Carter desperately sent Hamilton Jordan scurrying off on secret missions carrying a wig for instant disguise. The president enlisted the aid of obscure leftist lawyers in France, of a Panamanian dictator who owed him a favor, of the pope and of a wheeling-dealing Argentine businessman who had been arrested in, of all things, a political kidnaping.

What the world didn't know, until now, was that a lawyer for Citibank of New York, acting independently of the U.S. government, opened his own channel to "Iranian contacts" seven months ago, and this backchannel became an important conduit for the negotiations that finally succeeded this month.

By the end, but only after the Iranians had decided that the hostages were becoming a liability, the president switched to more conventional diplomatic vehicles -- clandestine meetings between high administration officials and an Iranian official in Germany, a team of polished Algerian intermediaries who would talk privately to both sets of the antagonists, who spoke to one another only via TV.

In the long days and months in between, both societies were being subjected to incredible stresses.

In a sense, both were in the process of forming new governments, and the strain of those forces -- revolutionary in Iran and traditional in the United States -- played heavily on the crisis, led to seemingly irrational acts by both sides and formed the basis of major miscalculations by both Tehran and Washington.

Iran was attempting to build a revolutionary Islamic society in the ruins of the late Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's grandiose and repressive excesses. The United States, unknown even to itself, was evolving out of its own excesses of the '60s and frustrations of the '70s, and was entering a post-post Vietnam-era, in which an accumulation of overseas humiliations was welling up in national anger.

Television fed that, too. The Iranian revolutionaries welcomed American television cameras to the burning of American flags and the shouting of anti-American slogans outside the embassy in Tehran in those early days. The revolutionaries, steeled in the Vietnam experience, may have expected marches in American streets. What they didn't expect was student marchers chanting, U.S.A.!, U.S.A.!"

Along the widely disparate campaign trails of revolutionary Iran and traditional America in 1980, jockeying born-again Islamic politicians looked on as their supporters burned Carter in effigy, and jockeying born-again American policitians campaigned in Main Street drugstores with posters of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini framed in red gunsights.

The result was a cross between emotionally supercharged issues in both nations, combining highly technical issues of frozen funds and lawsuits with political futures and cultures that seemed unable to mesh.

Throughout the tortuous year of 1980, the Iranians badly miscalculated American public opinion and the length to which they could push an American president at moments of personal and emotional stress. Just before Election Day, they apprarently wanted to save Carter and block Reagan, but -- in their certainty the president would gamble -- they made the stakes far too high. Just before Christmas, Christendom's ultimate holy day, when they thought the Americans would yield to anything, the Iranians asked for three times as much as they ultimately would get.

Still, this was a crisis so twisted and tangled that the only certainty was that paradox was more predictable than prescience. Out of some of the most promising moments grew the greatest disappointments; out of the some of the most disappointing moments, such as the great depression at Christmas, grew the most promising results. The Plane Trick

Time: Shortly after midnight, Jan. 20. Scene: The Oval Office.

The president has been at his desk almost nonstop since Sunday, approaching 48 hours now. Hamilton Jordan, Jody Powell, Charles Kirbo, Vice President Mondale are there, rumpled and tired. Lloyd Cutler, the president's lawyer, who quit after the election but stayed on to help with Iran, shuttles in and out Treasury Secretary G. William Miller and Robert Carswell commute back and forth from their all-night vigil across the street at the Treasury building.

In suburban Maryland, Hollywood stars and California magnates are leaving the Reagans' inaugural gala in a traffic jam of limousines. In Tehran, the combat-jacketed head of the Iranian negotiating team, Bezhad Nabavi, is ranting that American bankers have sabotaged the hostage release with an unexpected codicil to the agreement. In Algeria, Warren Christopher, in a combination of exhausted disgust and last-minute negotiating bravado, has ordered his plane readied at the airport so he can leave without initialing the final deal.

"The old Anwar Sadat plane trick," one of the Oval Office occupants says with a brittle laugh, referring to Sadat's calls for his airplane when the Camp David negotiations bogged down. "I've never heard Chris so discouraged," says the president.

But by now, Carter has ordered the codicil amended to meet the Iranian objections. Cutler is on the phone with Carswell at Treasury, who is on the phone with the Bank of England in London, which is waiting for Telex confirmation of approval from Algeria, via Iran. At 1:50 Cutler puts his hand on the phone and turns to Carter: "The machine is burping." It is a false alarm, idle Telex operator chatter. Forty minutes later, the Telex burps again with the Iranian message: the official authorization that would start the money moving.

But the banking code at the top of the message is off by one digit. The message is garbled in places. The code at the bottom is accurate. The bankers balk at approval of the huge money transfer, as if someone is passing a bum check. Carter, drained and profanely angry for a moment, tells Treasury Secretary Miller to give the money transfer the guarantee of the U.S. government and get the typos fixed later.

For a brief time, the U.S. taxpayers are responsible for the entire $8 billion now shifting toward Iran. In the middle of the night, buttons are moving money through accounts around the world -- from the San Francisco Fed to the New York Fed, from the Iranian money cage in the bowels of the Lower Manhattan Federal Reserve vault to the London cage.

In the Oval Office, Mondale wondered how his wife, Joan, was enjoying her sleep in the Lincoln Room upstairs. As a departing gesture of thanks, Carter had told the Mondales they could spend the last night in the historic bedroom. Just so. The Back Alleys

At the beginning, no one thought the craziness could last any length of time. But by Day 5, as time now was counted, the Americans had their last official contact with any Iranian official. On that day, Nov. 9, 1979, members of the Iran Working Group in the State Department talked by telephone with Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr, then the unofficial foreign minister of Iran and soon to become the revolutionary Islamic republic's first president.

Bani-Sadr was a somewhat westernized moderate whose fortunes would ebb and flow as Iran developed its new identity, often using the hostages as part of the process of self-definition.

After that phone call, the official lines were dead between Washington and Tehran, and the Carter administration turned desperately for alternative and sometimes bizarre means of communication.

Early on, Pope John Paul II was enlisted. So was Kurt Waldheim, the aristocratic secretary general of the United Nations. So was Omar Torrijos, the Panamanian military strongman. So was Yasser Arafat, the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

So was Christian Bourguet, a leftist Parisian lawyer who had connections with Iranian foreign minister Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, who won an early power struggle with Bani-Sadr only to end up in jail himself much later. And so was Hector Villalon, an Argentine businessman who had made and lost fortunes in the international intrigue game and was successfully defended by Bourguet in a political-kidnaping case.

Within two weeks the Arafat connection paid off. The PLO leader, a stubble-bearded radical seen by most Americans as a one-dimensional portrait of a Middle Eastern terrorist, moved quickly through the back alleys of diplomacy and claimed credit for the release of a dozen American hostages -- eight blacks and four women.

Whether this was true, it encouraged the Carter administration to try more back alleys and more diplomatic nightwalkers. Bourguet and Villalon first were approached by Ghotbzadeh, who called them to Tehran and laid on a plan to release three more hostages at Christmas. That plan backfired, as would all the rest of the attempts to work wonders with bit players as amateur diplomats. The cast of characters and the stage on which the drama was being played began to look like an unsuccessful Russian novel.

Later, the freelance negotiators met secretly with Hamilton Jordan in London and hatched another plan that was to move the White House toward its greatest height of optimism since the embassy was taken. The plan was simple enough: A U.N. commission would examine the shah's "crimes" in exchange for a visit to the hostages and the transfer of the prisoners out of control of the student militants to the Iranian government. The White House believed this would lead to the hostages' release.

The plan, already previewed by Ghotbzadeh, was quickly approved by all parties. On Feb. 11 a somewhat shell-shocked Waldheim announced the plan to appoint the commision. On Feb. 23 the commission arrived in Tehran. The White House was exultant, especially with Carter riding as high in the opinion polls as he had been low before the hostage takeover.But highs were always deceptive in the Iranian crisis.

Day by day Ghotbzadeh kept up a front, but his own power was slipping away. The students, he declared, would turn over the hostages tomorrow. The students said Ghobzahdeh was lying. The U.N. commissioners couldn't get to first base, never did see all the hostages. After 17 days of frustration, the U.N. commission left Tehran, angry, hostile, refusing even White House urgings to stay longer.

The emotional high, so often deceptive in the 444-day ordeal, plummeted the White House into new emotional depths. Other developments were also disturbing. Carter's polls ratings were slipping at home. He humiliated Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in a pivotal Illinois primary, but one week later Kennedy stunned him in New York.

On April 2 Carter promised to back away from threats and hostile statements about Iran. Instead, he pushed for worldwide economic sanctions against Iran. Carter even proposed legislation that would allow the American hostage families to file claims against the frozen Iranian assets -- a proposal that later had to be quietly scuttled because it would have hopelessly snarled the ultimate negotiations over the status of Iran's billions in American banks. The promised legislation was never sent to Capitol Hill.

In any case, all this talk from Carter was a cover. On April 24 he launched a disastrous rescue mission that failed in the hot desert night. Eight were killed as the helicopters and C130s turned back.

What was unknown until now was that the Carter administration planned a second raid. The Joint Chiefs of Staff instructed their planners to design a mission involving a light infantry attack on Tehran and a simultaneous commando airlift that would presumably require more firepower -- and more risk -- than the already high-risk mission that failed. The planning continued through the summer, but finally was shelved, not because of the military chanciness, but because American intelligence could not confidently determine the location of the American hostages. The Night Jordan Slept

Time: 3:16 a.m., Jan. 20. Scene: The Oval Office.

Hamilton Jordan is sleeping on the couch. This night will become known among this tight group of Georgians, in their last of so many mutually endured crises, as The Night Jordan Slept.

All seems as good as signed, sealed and delivered now.

"We are thinking it is just a matter of hours before it is finally resolved," Powell recalls later, "and they'd [the hostages] be on their way before the sun was up."

But the highs-to-lows-to-highs are coming on the hour now. Suddenly the problem isn't with the Iranians. It is with the Federal Reserve lawyer, Ernest Petrinkis, who is with Warren Christopher in Algeria. Petrinkis won't sign the amended codicil, citing technicalities the president doesn't even want to hear about.

The president is furious. He calls Tony Solomon, head of the Federal Reserve Bank in New York and wakes him up. He asks Cutler, his lawyer, what powers the president has to order the Federal Reserve, an autonomous body, to sign the document.

Between 4:05 and 4:30 a.m., there are three conference calls to the lawyer in Algiers. At one point the president, in revealingly measured tones, tells the lawyer to call his boss. Carter, president of the United States, powerful world leader, is slowly reading Solomon's home phone number, digit by digit, to a middle-level government lawyer.

The lawyer apparently doesn't make the call. At 5:07, a Treasury Department lawyer, Rich Davis, gets on a conference call with Solomon and Petrinkis in Algiers, explaining why the document should be signed. It's signed.

"For the first time the way looks clear ahead," a dog-tired president says to the rumpled group around him. Mondale wonders how the Lincoln bed feels. Jody Powell wonders what can go wrong next. "Little did we know," he says later. A New Connection

Through the long, hot summer of 1980 the governments of Iran and the United States were working out transitions of power. The American media, so intently riveted on Iran during the past months, riveted now on the nominations of Carter and Reagan. Perhaps even more important political processes were evolving, with far less attention, in Iran.

The Iranian parliamentary elections were completed and the establishment of the Majlis in July raised the shaky Iranian revolution to a modicum of stability. With the selection by the Majlis of Muhammed Ali Rajai as prime minister, the Iranians had both a head of state -- Bani-Sadr -- and a head of government -- Rajai. For the United States, it meant that at last there was a governmental structure with which it might deal.

On July 27, the shah died in Cairo, removing the most emotional of Iran's anti-U.S. symbols and shifting the focus to the only real chip the United States had left -- Iran's frozen assets.

Perhaps most important, quietly, clandestinely, without a glimmer of television klieg lights, the West German government was opening channels of communication between the United States and Iran. It was a major step toward professionalsim, from the wiggy travels of Hamilton Jordan and the semi-pro shuttle diplomacy of Bourguet and Villalon.

The key player, briefly, was Gerhard Ritzel, the West German ambassador to Iran. In Tehran, Ritzel struck up a relationship with Sadegh Tabatabai, a key official in the prime minister's office whose sister was married to Khomeini's son. The conection apparently stimulated the first genuine turn toward a negotiated settlement.

On Sept. 12, U.S. officials were surprised by a declaration from Khomeini of four hostage-release conditions, a package far more reasonable than anything that had surfaced to that date. The conditions were return of the late shah's wealth, cancellation of financial claims against Iran, guarantees that the United States would not interfere in Iran's internal affairs and the unfreezing of Iranian assets.

Five days later, Warren Christopher used the cover story of an international economics conference in West Germany for a trip to Bonn. There he secretly met with Tabatabai, who was also there under cover as part of Iran's economic mission to Europe. It was the first high-level discussion between Iranian and American officials since the telephone conversation with Bani-Sadr nine months earlier.

However, beginning in June, John Hoffman, a lawyer representing New York's Citibank, one of the major U.S. banks holding Iranian assets, had begun his own private negotiations with representatives of Iran's Central Bank.This private negotiation was exploring ways to reestablish banking relations and, by September, offered a second secret channel for solving the crisis.

Stille, both Christopher and Tabatabai left Bonn convinced that the four conditions, plus the simple fact of their meeting, had laid the diplomatic framework for an agreement that would lead finally to the release of the 52 hostages.

On the Iranian side, the Majlis had to approve Khomeini's terms. On the U.S. side, the legal and financial details were the biggest hurdle remaining. u

Within a week a new obstacle and a new opportunity developed. Iran was invaded by it archrival neighbor, Iraq. The Majlis' attention was diverted immediately from handling the hostage situation to dealing with the war. On the other hand, the war began to put a severe financial drain on the Iranians, added to their international isolation and provided a new incentive for resolving the crisis with America.

Sometime in October some Iranians decided the approaching November election in the United States gave them the leverage for a quick and favorable settlement of the hostage crisis and a chance to tilt the election to Carter. But the Iranians overplayed their hand.

Just two days before the election, with Iranian leaders publicly declaring that release of the hostages was imminent, with Carter squirming to play down public hopes that could lead to a major preelection disappointment, the Majlis approved the four points.

Details did not arrive at the White House until election eve, and they proved to be so unintelligible that American experts threw up their hands in despair at handling the situation before the election. Carter lost in an electoral landslide, and the Iranians, naively trying to enter the American voting booth, couldn't understand what went wrong.

America's initial diplomatic response -- which turned out to be reasonably close to the final terms of settlement -- was drawn up by a task force headed by Christopher. The United States said that, because of legal problems, it could return immediately only a limited amount of money from the frozen assets. Even to go that far, Iran would have to settle its differences with American banks. An international commission would have to settle other claims. And no money at all could return to Iran without a simultaneous return of the hostages.

Christopher carried the response to Algeria Nov. 10 and built the foundation for the Algerians' role that evolved from messenger status to participant. The structure of diplomatic discourse became far more sophisticated than it had been earlier in 1980, when the ad hoc group was sometimes running messages on the backs of hotel laundry lists.

For the next 2 1/2 months, the most intricate financial and diplomatic deal in recent history was arranged, with the Algerians sitting in the middle of two parties that never spoke to each other. At times, the negotiating had the style and tone of premier financiers doing business. But, just as often, the bargaining resembled chatter in a Persian rug bazaar. b The Clock Ticks

The time: 6:47 a.m., Jan. 20. The scene: The Oval Office.

The morning light filters into an Oval Office in which Jordan has awakened. Pillows are being fluffed out and the atomsphere is one of exhausted satisfaction.

Treasury Secretary Miller tells Carter that the money transfer is complete to the Bank of England. Carter smiles in a sign of relief after a night that has been interrupted more often by a stream of unprintable presidential words. At 6:50 a.m., Carter phones Reagan across the street at Blair House to tell the president-elect that all is go. The president-elect is asleep and does not take the call.

But, minute by minute, the sand is draining out of Carter's hourglass. The bank in London does not respond to the transfer. A half-hour passes, then an hour. In London, the British are going over the documents line by line. In the Oval Office the weary group has a vision of a green-visored Englishman with a quill pen, picking away at the $8 billion transaction, dollar by dollar.

At 7:45, Carter is on the phone to Miller at Treasury.At the White House end, the words are abrupt, terse, angry.

"What's the holdup?" the president asks sternly.

"Why the hell not?"

"It's getting dark over there, for God's sake."

Carter does not put the phone down quietly. He has assurances that the Algerian pilots who will take the hostages out of Iran are willing to fly after dark. But in Tehran, with a war going on with neighboring Iraq, the airport normally closes at night. No one can be sure. Carter has only slightly more than four hours left in his presidency. The Fine Print

On Dec. 19, in the bargaining tradition of the bazaar and true to the Iranian pattern of tying outrageous demands to symbolic moments in the United States, the Iranians delivered their most comprehensive proposal, wrapped in the usual flamboyant rhetoric.

This was their "final" reply, they declared in Tehran. It required a "yes or no" answer. And it asked Carter for $24 billion.

In Washington, the message brought on a schizophrenic response from the men within the inner negotiating circle. The president and most of his top aides were in a brief state of shock over the price tag. But Christopher and the State Department's Iranian expert, Arnold Raphel, looked right past the staggering numbers in the new demand and saw within the details a structure that was close to the American position.

Within hours, the entire team was focusing on what Christopher had seen in the Iranian proposal. The $24 billion broke down simply: $14 billion for their frozen assets, a figure that was in some dispute, and $10 billion for the shah's assets in the United States. But the fine print implied that the Iranians might accept Algerian guarantees rather than outright payment.

Christmas is a time, psychologists often say, for unexpected depressions. Carter had his. His presidency was not only gone but in ruins. His one last reach for history's benign judgment seemed to be slipping away. On Christmas Eve, walking in his hometown of Plains, Ga., where he would soon be returning permanently, he seemed unusually bleak, especially about getting the hostages out before Jan. 20.

But, in part, the U.S. team decided to use the Christmas depression to play the bazaar game themselves. Reporters were plied with stories that the game was all but over, that there could be no reply to $24 billion, that the president didn't have legal powers to meet the demands and the whole mess might have to be left to Reagan.

President-elect Reagan helped the process along at the same time, intentionally or not, by denouncing the Iranians first as "criminals" and "kidnapers" and then, days later, as "barbarians" -- an epithet that particularly stung the Iranians.

Meanwhile, however, work in the United States was going on at two levels. At one level, the U.S. team was trying to determine how much of Iran's frozen assets could be delivered quickly, because past experience told them that any agreement was subject to myriad assaults inside the still-churning political morass of the Iranian revolution. At another level, the American bankers were still struggling to find a way to reopen their accounts and restore the loans that were terminated when the president froze Iranian assets. Both were nettling problems.

The American response was direct: Iran could get only $7 billion of its money and to get that they had to accomplish a settlement satisfactory to the American banks. It all had to be completed by Jan. 16, four days before the transition to a new presidency. Otherwise, the Iranians would have to start all over with the man who had just called them barbarians. A Matter of Waiting

The time: 8:17 a.m. Jan. 20. The scene: The Oval Office.

Carter is called to the telephone. Christopher, on the other end in Algiers, tells the president that the sturdy old Bank of England has completed its check list finally, that the transfer was made to the Bank of Algeria and that at 8:06, Washington time, the Algerians notified the Iranians that the money was moved.

Now, it is a matter of waiting, waiting with the speech that he still hopes to deliver to the nation as president, announcing that the hostages are airborne. Carter waits for word, Gary Sick handling the calls from the intelligence command center. He waits till 9, then 10. At 10:30 Ronald Reagan will be there in his morning coat for the traditional ride to the Capitol together, a gesture of continuity and civility between passing presidents.

At 10 Carter gives up on making the speech. At 10:30 he smiles his toothy grin as Reagan walks into the White House. The Agreement

The Iranians understood they were in a bargaining exchange over just how much of their frozen money they were going to get back when they finally released the Americans. Their reply price came back to Washington: a figure of $9.5 billion. To the U.S. negotiators, it was such a great relief to see Tehran backing off the $24 billion figure, they decided to see how close they could come to matching the new Iranian demand.

But there was one fundamental obstacle. The only way the United States could release that much of Iran's money would be to dip into the frozen Iranian assets held in the territorial United States, in addition to assets held in European branches of American banks. That would take more time, more than Carter had left in office. The only way such an arrangement could be certified would be with advance approval from the incoming Reagan administration.

A discreet inquiry was made to the Reagan team, which had been kept abreast of the broad outlines of the negotiations. The answer was swift and clear. The deal had to be completed before Reagan took office; no promises on what might happen afterward.

Thus, Carter sent word back to Tehran that Iran would have to accept a bit less than $9.5 billion -- $7.8 billion. Holding out for more would be impossible, unless Tehran wanted to chance it with the new president. w

The Iranians never responded. They also never asked for more.

Meanwhile the bankers had run into a deadlock of their own, one that might take weeks or months to solve. Suddenly, on Jan. 15, Tehran proposed a surprise solution, one that delighted the American banking interests. Instead of reestablishing normal relations of commerce as they had existed before the freeze, Iran wanted, in effect, to end relationships. In exchange, the Iranians would pay off all the outstanding bank loans in dispute -- a much better remedy than the American banks had hoped to achieve.

By Jan. 19, all these loose and complex threads were finally brought together in a genuine agreement.

The president announced the agreement in the early hours of Monday morning, unaware that he still faced another agonizing 24 hours of foul-ups and crisis and delays. Sands in the hourglass ran out. Wheels Up

The time: 12:33 p.m., Jan. 20. The scene: The White House Situation Room.

Gary Sick stand erect in front of his television set, the red phone pinned to one ear, the white pinned to the other. Sick, the Iranian expert on the National Security Council, had called his family 440 days ago to tell them that he, too, would be held hostage by his job until this mess in the embassy was over. He says they understood.

The red phone is a clatter of messages. Sick's jaw turns to the white phone, connected to a limousine just halting at Andrews Air Force Base with a load of former government employes.

"The first plane is off the ground," Sick says to the man on the other end.

It is wheels up for the hostages. Moments later it also is wheels up for the plane heading back to Plains, Ga.