Nightwatch: The Orion Affair
By Dan L. Hollifield

Nightwatch Created by Jeff Williams
Series Developed by Jeff Williams and Robert Moryiama





    10:16 PM, November 28th

    "This better be damned good," Simon Litchfield muttered groggily into his bedside telephone as he reluctantly answered it.
    "It isn't good at all, Doctor Litchfield," came the voice of Ian Callow through the ear piece. "But nevertheless, I need you to come to the Library right now."
    "Callow, I should wring your neck for waking me like this,"
    "You haven't time."
    "What?"
    "Never mind the witticisms, Litchfield. Get over here- Now!"
    The telephone went dead as Simon was about to deliver some rude retort.
    "All right, but if this is some kind of joke..." Simon trailed off, failing to remember a single time that Callow had called him at home to make a joke before. "Damn," he said to himself. "So much for my beauty sleep."
    "Hmph?" came the sound of a sleepy, feminine snort.
    "Business, my pet. Go back to sleep- and dream sweet dreams. I should be back before dawn."
    "Mumph," came the muffled reply. If it were in acknowledgment that he was leaving, or in satisfaction that his snores wouldn't be present for an extended period, Simon would never know.

    11:03 PM, November 28th

    "All right Callow, I'm here. What's so damned important that it couldn't wait 'until morning?"
    Simon stood in the Popular Culture section of the Nightwatch Institute's Library, facing his immediate superior across a polished table between several high bookshelves. The scent of furniture polish and old books tickled his nose as he longed for the taste of a good strong cup of coffee. Coffee will have to wait, he thought. But not for long.
    "The sky is falling," Callow coldly replied.
    "We've known that for months, Callow-"
    "Shut up," Callow replied. "This is an emergency."
    "What emergency?
    "I'm no happier to be called away from home than you are, Simon. But that's beside the point. You are to go to the Friendship Heights subway station at Western Avenue and 44th Street, and await contact."
    "Contact by whom?"
    "That's not for me to know."
    "What?"
    "Just shut up and do as you're told!" Callow angrily growled his reply. "I don't know any more than that. I was told to get you and tell you where to go. The rest is out of my hands."
    "The sky is falling?"
    "That is what your contact will use as a password, Litchfield. Whoever they are, they will have whatever answers you require. If it is any comfort to you, this is not of my doing. And I am even more in the dark than you are at the moment."
    Simon rubbed sleep out of his eyes as he considered Callow's angry attitude.
    "You aren't in the loop on this one?" Simon asked, yawning despite himself.
    "No," Callow replied angrily. "This order comes from much higher up than I dare contemplate. Something nasty is brewing, and you've been asked for by name. The Directors are acting decidedly screwy at the moment. They've made another dodgey deal with some other big outfit, and we poor underlings are left to cope with the situation. Someone from outside knows far more about the Institute than we've ever thought likely. And I don't like it one bit."
    "Our security has been breached?"
    "Very likely. Or worse."
    "What could be worse, Callow?"
    "That is a matter for you to find out, Litchfield. Apparently, I am not to know any more than I do already.
    "That must irk you, Callow."
    "Yes it does, Litchfield. Revel in it as much as you can. Now go! You have less than an hour to meet your contact."
    "All right Callow," Simon replied. His anger thrust to the fore as he continued. "But if this is some wild goose chase-"
    "Just shut up and go!" Callow snarled. He spun around in his chair in anger, turning his back on Simon. "I'm not allowed to know just what this is. Yet. You will be allowed to know- and right away. Feel smug about that, if it makes you feel better about yourself... Doctor Litchfield."
    Simon turned on his heel and left without another word.

    11:56 PM, November 28th

    Simon stood on the subway platform and seethed... The midnight train sped past without stopping. In disgust, Simon turned to leave when an old man on a nearby bench looked up at him intently.
    "Dr. Litchfield?"
    "Yes?"
    "The sky is falling."
    Simon stood silent for a moment.
    "You are the person that I am supposed to meet?"
    "Yes, Dr. Litchfield. We have little time. Please come sit down and I will brief you on what must be done."
    "Who are you? And who do you work for?"
    "My name is Darby, Tom Darby. And my employer is of no interest to you. You and I have a job to do. It is vital to the safety of the world that we do it- and the more time that we waste, the more danger the world will be in. Come, sit. I know you must be tired. Even a young man like you needs his rest. I apologize for disturbing your sleep, but it was unavoidable."
    Simon looked at the old man, who sat on the bench with a friendly smile warming his craggy face. Seventy, if he's a day, thought Simon. Looks fit enough for his age, but not exactly what one would expect in a covert op. Looks more like a geriatric Hell's Angel- sitting there in bluejeans and a leather jacket. And those boots! Simon glanced around at the otherwise empty subway station, wrinkling his nose slightly at the scent of stale sweat, tobacco smoke, urine, motor oil, and too many pungent perfumes in too small a space. That odor seemed to be the normal background fragrance of public transport stations around the world, these days. "Yes," Simon finally replied. "I think I would like to sit for a while. Perhaps you can enlighten me as to what is actually going on?" Suiting action to word, Simon sat and turned to face the white-haired old man.
    "Exactly why I'm here, Dr. Litchfield. And if you agree to accompany me afterwards... Well, as hard as it may be for you to believe, there are still a few nut-cases out there in the wide world who insist on acting like spy-movie villains..."
    "I'd find that quite easy to believe, actually."
    "Yes, quite. Sorry. We're alike in that way though, Doctor. You and I, we both tend to be called out at times like these. Sometimes I forget that I'm talking with a peer, so to speak. In any case, it has come to my employer's attention that several suspicious shipping transactions have taken place recently. Things that ought not to be shipped at all, are being shipped to several known, or suspected, smuggling operations around the globe."
    "What sorts of things?" Simon asked, sharply.
    "Dangerous things," came the reply. "Enriched uranium, plutonium, tritium, deuterium, cobalt, graphite, computer components, structural steel..."
    "Someone is building bombs, or reactors. Or both. I assume that there is some over-riding reason that  your employers can't simply raid these places to recover these-"
     "Not that simple, Doctor." The old man sighed. "What we want is the mastermind. What we have is part of a trail. One that might lead us to the right people, if we can follow it far enough before it peters out."
    "And what is my part in this?"
    "Besides being the best of Nightwatch's covert operatives?" The old man grinned. "My employers believe that you could be vital to finding out who and where the threat is hiding."
    "How so?"
    "Dr. Litchfield, what do you remember about the Orion Project?"
    "Mr. Darby, you ask interesting questions. Orion... British Rocket Society, back in the 1960s... They designed a spacecraft powered by nuclear bombs. Set off an A-bomb underneath it, and the ship gets thrown up into the air by the blast. Toss another bomb out before gravity reasserts itself, and the ship goes higher. Keep tossing bombs out at the right times, and the ship reaches orbit. The system even works for thrust after the ship reaches space. Any country that could build both an aircraft carrier and enough atomic bombs could construct an Orion. That's 1950s technology, at best. I did a college thesis paper on the project."
    "Yes, I've got a copy of your paper, among others. And that's the reason you were requested by my employers. You're already familiar with the problems inherent in such a project."
    "I think that setting off an atom bomb on the ground just to put a payload into orbit could be considered a 'problem', yes," Simon said dryly. "Wait a minute! Someone is actually building one? Now?"
    "Yes, or so my employer believes. And we have to stop it."
    "We? Just you and I?"
    "Yes, Dr. Litchfield. Just you and I."
    "Two old men?" Simon snorted in disgust. "Against an army of construction workers, research scientists, armed guards, mad scientists, and who knows what else?"
    "Yes, when you put it like that, it doesn't sound quite fair. But then, they asked for it."

**********

    "So how do we stop someone from launching their pet Orion?" Simon asked, tugging at the creases in his khaki trousers absent-mindedly.
    "Well sir, we can't just detonate the fuel supply. That'd negate the whole reason for trying to stop the launch in the first place."
    "We'll have to do more than simply pulling a few fuses out of the dashboard, Mr. Darby- or letting the air out of the tires."
    "Yes Dr. Litchfield, but I think we have a good chance of stopping them. If, that is, you're willing to play along with a minor deception or two along the way."
    "Mr. Darby, you have my full attention..."
    "The Quatermass Memorial Rocketry Society and the JSSA-"
    "The Japanese are helping to build nuclear bombs?" Simon gasped.
    "They don't know that, not officially. Which only means that the public hasn't been told anything about the project. And the Japanese government, by way of the JSSA, aren't actually allowing it to be done on their soil. So the honor of Nippon is not endangered, not in the strictest sense. On behalf of the Japanese government, the Space Sciences Agency is supplying some of the parts and man-power, and sharing in the design work with Quatermass. The JSSA has the cash, Quatermass has the  designs. Someone at Quatermass is actually in charge of the overall project to build an Orion. And more importantly to us, providing the fuel supply of nukes."
    "But why? And why now?" Simon's brow wrinkled in thought.
    "Simple. They don't trust the UN and their Space Initiative. What with the NEO scare last winter, the solar flares and world-wide computer and telecom problems that's plagued this whole year, plus those nasty computer virus attacks, they've all begun acting oddly. No government on Earth is sane these days. Quatermass and the JSSA intend to go it alone if the UN fails. Just as simple as that. There are too many profits to be made in space for them to let the UN monopolize everything. And let's face it- an Orion built in orbit, rather than one launched from the ground, wouldn't be a bad thing for the human race. Now would it? And we can't just invade a peaceful British/Japanese rocketry site."
    "I sense a 'but' trying to insinuate itself here," Simon said.
    "That's right," Tom Darby replied evenly. "And a big, ugly one it is, too. But- my employer thinks that Quatermass and the JSSA are being used by a third party. One that isn't interested in the world's existing problems. One that intends to use the Orion's atomic bomb fuel supply for a bit of nuclear blackmail, instead."
    "That's a particularly nasty speculation, Mr. Darby."
    "If it were mere speculation Doctor, I doubt seriously that I'd have been sent to get you out of bed. And since the project is being undertaken by a British private society and an official Japanese government agency, we can't very well just send in the Marines to mop up."
    "I see," Simon replied, thinking the situation over. "And where do the deceptions that you mentioned come into play?"
    "We'll have to fly to England and corner one of the Quatermass executives. We need to trick him into giving up the location of the Orion assembly project. The final trans-shipment point. That'll be where the mastermind is building his bombs. One good thing in our favor- the plutonium, deuterium, and tritium shipments were intercepted by another agency on this case. The bad guys won't have working fusion bombs, but fission bombs? Who knows how much uranium they actually got before the lid got clamped down?"
    "I see," Simon repeated. "I take it that we have little time. What is our next move?"
    "We need to get out to a private airfield- where our transportation awaits. I understand that you've done some flying?"
    "Yes Mr. Darby, I do hold a pilot rating. But I may be a bit rusty. It has been several years since I've flown anything at all. But I think I can remember enough to get by in a pinch."
    "Good, you can play copilot for me."
    "What type of plane are we talking about?" Simon asked, warily.
    "Oh- A small jet," the old man sounded evasive. "A new design. Twin-engine- uh, fixed wing. The plane is fueled and waiting for us."
    "And our transportation to this airfield has also been neatly arranged?"
    "Yes Dr. Litchfield, not thirty yards away is a car that my employer has requestioned for our use. This subway station connects to some of Washington's more- esoteric infrastructure. Some of the tunnels were begun during the re-construction after the Civil War, but we aren't going anywhere near those."
    "Oh?" Simon's eyebrows ascended skyward again. "Those might be rather interesting."
     "I'm sure," Tom Darby replied. "But a Capitol Hill tour would definitely be many miles out of our way. We are going to be allowed to pass through some sensitive areas. I have the necessary documentation for us, already. And our route to the airfield has been cleared- no witnesses."
    "Your nameless employers do seem to be rather highly-powered, Mr. Darby."
    "You're righter than you know, Doctor. Shall we be on our way?"

**********

    12:18 AM, November 29th

    Corridors. Endless empty corridors. Mile after mile beneath Washington DC stretched a maze of interconnecting passages- Some as wide as city streets.The secret tunnel system under Washington may have been in place for many a decade, but it was well kept and clean. Not like the public subway. After passing through a secret doorway between the subway station restrooms, then through an empty guard checkpoint, they find themselves in what looked like an underground parking garage, standing next to a peculiar three-wheeled automobile. Three perfectly ordinary golf carts and a brace of Segways sat- parked up along the near wall. Also parked there were a trio of oddly fat-looking motorcycles. Simon gingerly climbed into the three-wheeler's open cockpit as Tom Darby did the same. Wordlessly, they buckled up as Tom started the nearly soundless motor. Simon instantly recognized the familiar whine of an electrical capacitor charging up when Tom turned the key.
    "What's this little toy, then? I thought it was an antique Tri-Magnum when I first saw it, but my ears tell me that someone has tweaked the engine design a bit."
    "You have an interest in sports cars, Doctor? Your file didn't mention it. But then, I suppose I didn't see your complete file."
    "Humph," Simon grunted. "It is nice to know that I still have a few secrets."
    "Dr. Litchfield, please don't be angry. Most of what I read was from a report filed with the CIA about your recent trip to the Arctic Circle. And a fragment of a report about your Antarctic trip, as well. There was really very little that I'd consider to be biographical. My employer may have pried into your private affairs, but I'm certainly ignorant of them. Now, we were speaking about cars."
    "All right, Mr. Darby. I'll endeavor to play nicely. Cars, yes. From the outside, this is an antique RQ Riley design. Hand built, and powered by a motorcycle engine. But that whine doesn't sound like a motorcycle to me."
    "Well, it still has the motorcycle transmission and drive train, but the engine is electric. OSHA doesn't allow gasoline or diesel engines down here, so there are a lot of different electric carts and cars in use. But otherwise, this is a forty year old Riley T-Mag. The builder's finger prints are still in the fiberglass resin- in the engine compartment, mostly. The government bought up a lot of these neat little toys and replaced the bike motors with electrics. They even invested money in a small specialty bike shop and had new ones built, just for these tunnels. I hear that the President has an electric limo to use down here. Several different street cars have been modified with these electrics, too. But these T-Mags are the  real workhorses of the straight, outer tunnels. This isn't mine, by the way. This is just one that my employer hired from the tunnel system motor pool."
    "How does it compare to the original design?" Simon asked.
    "The cockpit cover has been removed and a short windshield substituted- No need for a car roof, down here. Same horsepower, same performance, but no pollution. It'll go for about three, maybe four hours on a full charge, at full speed the whole time. Longer, if there's only the driver..."
    "And the speed?"
    "Dr. Litchfield,  you may be prepared to run a hundred 'n' twenty miles an hour down a tunnel," Tom Darby replied, putting the car in gear and starting off down the first corridor. "But I assure you that I have a much greater concern for my personal safety. We need to drive about twenty minutes, at a safe and reasonable speed, before we get to our um, our airport. I'm sorry that there's no radio, but it wouldn't pick up any too well down here, in any case. The tunnel walls have Faraday cages built into the concrete, to protect the complex from magnetic pulse weapons..." Simon looked at the speedometer in alarm as the vehicle approached 85 MPH and his host kept babbling merrily. "This place is laid out in a grid, at least these outer sections are. The core areas are a bit more haphazard, seeing as how they're the oldest sections. But these new parts are designed for high-speed traffic Like an underground highway. This area we're in now is mostly empty storage. Rooms marked for future use. Lots of long, straight roads. I never even knew this place existed until yesterday... Are you all right, Doctor? Do you suffer from motion sickness? There's some pills for that in the glove box. Any way, back to sports cars- Have you ever driven a Jaguar?"
    And the miles rolled on...

**********

    12:37 AM, November 29th

    "We are still underground, I notice." Simon said as they passed through another empty guard post and beyond, into a dimly lit hanger bay.
    "Well, you can't keep something like that above ground in plain sight. People would talk." The old man waved a hand vaguely in the direction of their jet transport.
    "Wheeew," Simon whistled in appreciation when he saw their ride limned in the cavern's few spotlights. "What is this thing?"
    "Just a little something that someone cooked up from research done on the SR-71 and the F-117A. And the Russian stealth fighter, too."
    "May I?" Simon asked, gesturing as if he wanted to walk around the plane.
    "Please," Tom Darby replied. "Be my guest."

    Short and sweet, Simon thought. It was a flattened ovoid, painted stealth black, with rudimentary control fins, and no visible engine outlets. If someone took an SR-71, cut away most of the fuselage, rounded off the wingtips, and embedded the engines in the wing body- This is what it would look like. The view from the nose of the plane matched the Blackbird's cross section almost perfectly. When he got back to the tail section, Simon could see a boxy arrangement of fins covering the twin jet engine outlets. Obviously some system to cool the exhaust and cut down on infra-red visibility. The plane sat on what Simon took to be a launch cradle, modified from the normal aircraft carrier model that he was familiar with. "This thing is absolutely beautiful. Whose is it? What's her name?" Simon asked.
    "Call it Nightbird 5. This is only the fifth one ever built. My employer had it constructed some time ago, but apparently it hasn't seen much use. We're donating this one to Nightwatch. This plane is part of the bribe that my employer used on the Nightwatch Institute in order to um, obtain your services, Doctor. Your Board of Directors seemed quite interested in getting their hands on this little beauty. Once we bring it back, it'll belong to Nightwatch. And much joy of it, I wish them."
    "Suddenly, I'm greatly impressed with the danger of our current activities, Mr. Darby. If the Institute sees this as an equal value for my time-"
    "They don't know this thing's a white elephant yet," the old man laughed.
    "What do you mean?"
    "Well, think about it, Doctor. The most people it can carry is six. And that includes the pilot and co-pilot. That means four passengers, maximum. It has somewhat less cargo space than a Chevy van, so you can't take very much equipment along. The fuel costs out the wazoo, and it has to be special ordered from the manufacturer. The plane needs a support staff of over thirty people- mechanics, fuel crew, communications, ground crew. Plus, you can't use it in the daytime... Rather, you can't launch or land it in the daytime. It can't ever be parked above ground or out in the open- Unless Nightwatch has their very own Area 51 that I don't know about." Tom Darby chuckled again. "No, this thing is going to be pretty much useless, and damned expensive in up-keep. It is only good for getting a small group of people and a tiny amount of gear anywhere in the world in less than eight hours, as long as there's enough hours of darkness… And all at a huge cost." Tom Darby laughed again.
    "Where would we keep it, then?" Simon wondered aloud.
    "This silo comes with the plane, Doctor. There's an old, abandoned airfield overhead. The place been deserted since the '50s. Until my employer bought it and secretly had this launch silo built. How they got it added to the DC underground system, I'll never know. Maybe the base was already part of the underground tunnels- This silo looks old. All but the stuff installed for the Bird... In any case, Nightwatch owns it now, free and clear. All the necessary control rooms, ready rooms, maintenance bay, rest rooms, fuel tanks, et cetera- are already in place. This is all part of the bribe. Of course, Nightwatch will have to come up with the Staff for it all."
    "We are going to die, aren't we?" Simon grinned.
    "No, Doctor. Not if we play our cards right. Shall we go aboard?"
    "'Morituri te salutamus,' " Simon gravely intoned.
    "Cheer up, Doctor. People won't be shooting at us for... Oh, two hours or so. Come on. We have places to go, people to see, nuclear disaster to avert. This'll be fun!"
   
**********

    12:44 AM, November 29th

    "How do we get out?" Simon asked, once they were buckled in and the engines had been started.
    "Once the engines warm up, the roof slides back and the catapult tilts up. Then we shove the throttles wide open, unlock the brakes, fire the catapult, and gracefully leap into the air. We shouldn't pull more than three Gs when the catapult fires."
    "Three-" Simon groaned.
    "Only for a few seconds. Sit back, here we go! 3-2-1--Sh't!"
    Suddenly- the Fat Lady from the circus sat down in Simon's lap. Or at least, that's what it felt like. If she's not singing yet, he thought desperately, that's because she can't breathe, either. Long seconds later, the torture was over. Simon looked out the lower windows of the cockpit to see tiny city lights twinkling far below. Almost immediately, they were over the Atlantic and Tom Darby was pushing the throttle up towards Mach 2.5.
    "This is like flying a video game," the old man said. He grinned at Simon. "I've turned on the auto-pilot. Let me punch in a few map co-ordinates and we'll be set."
    "I wouldn't know where to begin to fly this thing," Simon said, enviously. "Lecture me."
    "Well, I never saw it before yesterday, but I had all of last night to become an expert. Anyway, like I said, this thing flys like a computer game, or a flight simulator. The computers do almost all of the work. So easy, the damn thing almost doesn't need us aboard. There are a few minor differences between this and an ordinary jet; instead of a steering yoke, you use this joystick and keypad to work the rudders, elevators, and flaps. You toggle the landing gear with this button. The throttles are these two sliders under the left-hand keypad. The slider beneath them controls the VTOL effect- something we stole from the Harrier. This button toggles the auto-pilot on and off. This one toggles the Heads Up Display through three different modes. The right-hand keypad, next to the joystick, controls the other HUD options, the navigation systems, the auto-pilot programming, electronic countermeasures, flares, chaff, and so forth. This left screen is the FLIR, this right-hand one is the radar, and this center one is an underbelly camera that can be toggled to either normal light or a Night-Vision light-amplified view. That's why this is up near the windscreen- so you can use it during landings. And the thing is also tied into the targeting and navigation systems. There aren't any weapons, though the original design called for two Sidewinders, two AMRAAMs, plus a .60 machine gun in the nose. There aren't any bomb bays either, we used that space for larger engines and fuel tanks, and the VTOL ducting..."
    Meanwhile, the Atlantic passed swiftly beneath them.

**********

    "Bentwaters Airbase, in merry old England, coming up." Tom Darby said as the instrument panel began beeping at them in an instant and annoying manner.
    "Already, Mr. Darby?" Simon asked wistfully. This was a fascinating airplane.
    "Yeah, time to slow down."
    "That's a rather public place to park, even at this time of night."
    "Not to worry, Doctor. There's a crew down there that's used to servicing stealth planes. Hand picked, the best men, and any top secret plane of any allied nation can land here for them to service. Part of NATO or UNIT or something. All very hush, hush. They'll arrive after we leave the base and depart before we return. Besides, this is really close to our first target. Everything's been taken care of. Except for one small thing..."
    "Oh?" Simon asked.
    "Our ground transportation."
    "Yes?"
    "I've never driven in England before. I'm afraid that you'll have to do the honors."
    Simon laughed aloud.

    2:17 AM, November 29th

    Only moments after touching down, they stood on the deserted tarmac next to a dark blue Jaguar XKE. Simon opened the right door and slid behind the wheel. "Nice ride," he said as Tom Darby got in on the left-hand side.
    "We aim to please," Darby replied. "Now head for that gate over there, and then take a right."
    Simon started the engine, thrilling to the sound of V-12 power emanating from underneath the bonnet, put the car into gear, and proceeded across the landing field towards the deserted gatepost that the old man had pointed out. They sped out through the open gate and Simon deftly swerved to the right, as instructed. The roar of the engine exhaust slowly faded as they sped off into the night.
    As soon as the sound faded into the distance, a dozen men silently swarmed the grounded Nightbird 5. The Bentwaters ground crew answered the call, with distinction. Not one detail was overlooked. Not one port or cover on the plane had been opened. Not even to re- fuel the Nightbird. It's secrets were safe. Soon, the jet was in pristine shape- Waiting on Simon and Tom Darby to return. The ground crew departed- some with a wistful backward glance. Except for the humming of hot light bulbs, silence ruled the night.

    2:40 AM, November 29th

    "Turn in at the next left," Darby said tensely. "Stop and turn the headlights off. Then you can put these Night-Vision goggles on so you can see to drive in the dark."
    "How very James Bond," Simon replied, smiling. "I take it that we have to invade that castle."
    "It is not a castle, just a big mansion." the old man replied calmly. "And we don't have to take it by storm. This is where a little breaking and entering by stealth needs to happen. We'll see what Mister Adrian Chessworth has in his office desk and his safe. After that we can decide if we need to question him um, more intimately."
    "The papers that you've brought have given me an idea, Mr. Darby. This is the way I think we should play it..."

**********

    "This looks like a good place to park, Mr. Darby."
    "Works for me, Doctor. What do you think is our best route in?"
    "That side door on the blueprints you showed me. It looked to be the least protected."
    "I'm told that there aren't any dogs or electronic alarms in the yard. I hope they're right."
    "Yes Tom, or this will be the shortest home invasion of all time."
    "All right. Doctor, let's get this over with."
    Crossing the yard proved to be no trouble. Simon disabled the single alarm on the door while Tom Darby worked at picking the lock. A moment later and they were standing inside the house. Looks like we're in the library, Simon thought. Creeping out into a hallway, they made their way to Chessworth's office. Luckily, Chessworth keeps his office on the ground floor. Silently, they began searching the office. Once they closed the door, Simon turned on a small desk lamp and began to search the desk. Tom Darby quickly found the safe and began to spin the dial. Within moments, he had cracked the combination and was shining a flashlight into the safe.
    "These are all perfectly innocent papers- Well, mostly innocent," Simon said quietly. "Have you got anything?"
    "I think so, Doctor. There are some shipping manifests in here that match up with what my  employer showed me. Looks like Chessworth is our man, all right."
    "His computer is still on," Simon observed. "And it isn't password protected, either"
    "Good. He probably uses only a start-up password. Look for some blank discs and start copying things out of it. Mr. Chessworth strikes me as being just a little lazy."
    "And a bit of a gun collector too, Tom." Simon pulled a pistol out of one of the desk drawers. "Look at this antique Webley."
    "Nice. And here I thought that guns were illegal in England."
    "Generally speaking, they are. Shhh- Did you hear that?"
    "Yes, Doctor. Sounds like Adrian is coming to see the play. Any last-minute changes that you want to make to the script?"
    "No, it should play out just fine. I'm the big bad UN representative, you're just hired help for the evening."
    "Got it," Darby replied. "Here he comes."
    Simon spread a sheaf of incriminating papers across the desk, placed the pistol atop them, then angled the lamp so that it pointed towards the door. Then he slid the chair back until he was sitting in the shadows. The old man eased back to stand in the shadows near the open safe. The door opened. Adrian Chessworth, looking suitably rumpled after being awakened, stood framed in the doorway. A mate to the pistol on the desk was gripped shakily in Chessworth's right hand.
    "Come in, Adrian. You've managed to get yourself into a lot of trouble. You'll be in prison before daylight, unless you let us help you," Simon spoke before Chessworth could react. "Come in. Close the door. Sit down, we've much to talk about before we can make a disposition in your case."
    "My- case?" Chessworth asked as he slid bonelessly into his guest chair. He started as he caught sight of Tom Darby out of the corner of his eye. Tom waved at him, then began photographing the documents that he'd removed from the safe. "This- this is an outrage! Who are you people?"
    "He's beginning to bluster, Mr. Darby."
    "Probably coming out of shock, Dr. Litchfield."
    "What is the meaning of this?"
    "Quietly, Adrian," Simon replied. "You don't want to wake up the household. There may yet be a way I can keep you out of prison, but you will have to cooperate with me. I'm warning you, I know everything that you've been up to. Every cheat, every scam. I know it all, Adrian. And I'll use it against you if you don't give me exactly what I want. Lie to me- once, just once -and you're history. You'll be staring up at the daylight coming through your cell's bars. Today. You're caught Adrian. Caught red-handed. The only way you can make things easier on yourself is to give me what I want."
    "What do you want?" The defeat in Chessworth's voice was palpable.
    "Names and places, Adrian. Names and places. There is enough information in these papers," Simon gestured towards the desk. "To put you away for the rest of your life. We know about the Orion. We know that Quatermass and the JSSA are building one. We know that you've been skimming money off of the project." Simon's voice was purest ice. "We also know that someone has perverted the project into a terrorist munitions plant-"
    "I have nothing to do with that!" Adrian shouted.
    "Quietly Adrian," Simon said soothingly. "No, you're a thief, but I don't think that you're a murderer."
    "What's he doing, then?" Adrian indicated Tom Darby with a quiver of his double chins. Darby was still photographing different papers from Adrian's safe.
    "He's here for your protection, Adrian. Mr. Darby represents the UN Attorney General's Office in this matter. He's here to insure that you are given every last chance to co-operate."
    "And you are?" Adrian's voice held just a trace of rekindled courage.
    "At the moment, I represent the United Nations Security Council and the World Court. You've heard of us? Good. We're not the world's policemen, but sometimes we are forced to become the world's watchdogs. The World Court has empowered me to serve you with a Cease and Desist order for the legal parts of your Orion project."
    "What?" Adrian asked in start confusion. "But-"
    "You failed to file all the proper paperwork," Simon said in a droll voice. "Understandable in a clandestine project, such as yours." Simon slapped down some of the papers that Tom Darby had brought. "This is an injunction against Quatermass and the JSSA, requiring them to end the project immediately. This," Simon produced his dissertation. "Is the Environmental Impact study that you neglected to file. Surprise! It turns out that launching spacecraft by way of nuclear bombs is very harmful to the world environment."
     "Who'd a thunk it?" Darby said, humorously.
    "Exactly, Mr. Darby." Simon glanced briefly at the old man, who winked in return. Simon again turned to the hapless embezzler. " No Adrian, you happen to be the man that Quatermass put in charge of building an illegal atomic spaceship. You're their 'fall guy', so to speak. And to top it off, you've been skimming cash from the budget. All that lovely Japanese yen, just sitting there, waiting to be used..." Simon's voice had gotten quiet, insistent, and somehow sinister. "And you used it. Oh yes, you used it." Simon paused to let Chessworth offer any input. Adrian looked to be going back into shock as the reality of his situation began to sink in. He shook his head, said nothing, and Simon continued. "You used it to line your pockets. You overcharged on materials, shipping costs, invented imaginary payrolls... You're quite the busy bee. But you're too patriotic to turn traitor, and too stupid to keep someone from pirating your project."
    "I never-" Adrian gasped.
    "I know," Simon replied, rising from the desk and going over to stand next to Chessworth. "But you know who did. And you're going to tell us, Adrian. You're going to tell us, if it takes all night. With this much at stake, we're prepared to be- very -persuasive."
    Adrian panicked at the implied threat. He looked over at the old man, as if to seek shielding from Simon's verbal attack. The old man simply grinned like a cannibal at a victory feast. Chessworth looked crushed, broken. he began to mutter repetitious babble to himself. Simon let him run on, letting the panic build. Wordlessly, Simon returned to the desk computer and resumed his copying of interesting files.
    "I didn't do it," Adrian said after a protracted silence.
    "We know," Simon replied. "You didn't. Who did?"
    "I don't know-"
    "Yes you do." Simon again moved to stand over Chessworth, who slumped further into the guest chair at Simon's approach. Tom Darby crossed the room to take Simon's place at Adrian's computer.
    And the interrogation continued...

**********

    The household slept on as Simon and Tom Darby exit the door that they'd rigged while entering. The alarms stayed silent.
    "Nicely done, with that tranquilizer," the old man said. "He was starting to babble there at the end. A good long sleep might help him come to his senses. You were easier on him than he deserved. And some of your questions..."
    "Someone was using him," Simon began.
    "Obviously," replied the old man. "He's too sloppy, too undisciplined to be the mastermind. No, he was skimming money off the books, but someone planted that other stuff for us to find. Did you find any clues?"
    "One recent file popped up when I was looking at his computer. A temporary secretary had to be assigned a new password. My money is on him to be the masterminds agent, behind Adrian. How about you?"
    "Thumb print, on one of the shipping orders," the old man replied. "The camera caught it. Built-in high contrast filter, shows fingerprints but not much else. Didn't match Adrian's. I put his in the camera's memory chip after my original briefing. Are there any fingerprint files attached to those personnel files you copied?"
    "Maybe," Simon replied. "What's your gut reaction?"
    "The Temp. You?"
    "The Temp. But we'll see. That assembly base?"
    "Yes, Simon?"
    "Adrian didn't know where it was. He was simply shipping components to the smuggling rings' public fronts. How did you dig the location of the base out of all all that paperwork?"
    "Part of my briefing was a chart of the usual routes these drug smugglers and gun runners use regularly. Out of the ones on Adrian's shipping orders, I looked for the point where their routes intersected. But that's all just guesswork. Until I can get to the computer on the plane."
    "I would have thought that you would carry a laptop or PDA," Simon said. "Especially on a job like this."
    "Well, I used to, but-"
    "Yes, Mr. Darby?"
    "People kept shooting them."
 
********** 

    3:12 AM, November 29th

     “Is this runway long enough?”
     “Doesn’t matter, Simon. We can VTOL up and away.
     “Oh yes, I forgot. Shall we?”
     “Just as soon as I set the waypoints for this leg of our trip into the auto-pilot- There! Done. And the engines ought to be warmed up enough by now. Fasten your seatbelts and lock your tray tables in the upright position.”
     Simon grinned over at the old man as they both buckled their safety harnesses. “No three G takeoff this time?”
     “No, this time it should be much gentler. We won't be running all that fast, so we'll have time to plot us a map. Then we can open her up a bit. Ready?”
     “As ready as I’ll ever be…”
     “OK Simon, let’s do this thing!” And with the feeling of an elevator going up, Nightbird 5 rose up into the darkness. Within moments, the only trace of the jet was a rapidly fading roar of power, heading towards the Atlantic.

**********

    "What does the computer say, Simon?"
    "The thumb print belongs to one Angelo Mosca. A Cuban national."
    "One of the minor smugglers on the list I was shown," the old man mused. "Maybe he wants a bigger slice of the pie?"
    "Or maybe he's just a big-time underling. What does he smuggle?" Simon asked.
    "Munitions, mostly. Some drugs, but mostly just to keep up old contacts. Been a long while since he's shipped serious drug traffic. Got busted at least twice. Did time. Hates the US with a passion. Calls himself Angel Fly when he's out and about... Don't think there was much more in the file."
    "What about the base?"
    "Using Angelo as the prime mover in the ring, we're talking mid-Atlantic."
    "Not  Cuba, surely?" Simon asked, scowling.
    "No. He's had to justify putting his base at a safe distance from anywhere populated. Quatermass would have seen to that. No, his smuggling routes led him past several uninhabited islands," Darby said as if lost in thought. "But which route and which island?"
    "Remember the other smuggling routes?" Simon asked.
    "Yes! That's it. Cross reference the others and the choices are- three."
    "Oh?"
    "Yes, Simon. One is too small to hide a revival meeting, much less a munitions plant."
     "And the next?"
    "All of it except for a lighthouse tower is about four feet under water at high tide."
    "And the third, Mr. Darby?"
    "The third is a tiny speck of land with the remnants of a long-ago exploded volcanic crater."
    "Is it big enough for a base?" Simon asked.
    "Sure, and launching an Orion out of an old volcano make a sort of sense, I suppose. All of the force would be directed upwards. As would all the radioactive dust and ash. The island outside the volcano would be partly shielded from the worst of the explosion."
    "My God," Simon gasped."It would be focused- plume up even further than normal -into the stratosphere. The dust cloud... It would drift all over the world..."
    "It would be awful," Darby replied.
    "And that's if they are actually building just the Orion, and not a string of cobalt-wrapped thermonuclear blackmail packages," Simon riposted. "I can read a manifest as well as you- I can see what they've been gathering to work with. The only reason they'd want cobalt would be to make the bomb as dirty as possible."
    "Yes Simon, but that's a worst-case scenario if I've ever heard one. Doesn't mean that you're wrong, just that you're pessimistic. I hope to God you're wrong."
    "Where was that island?"
    "Punching it into the auto-pilot now, Simon."
    "Uh... Tom? Look at the gages, will you?"

    3:30 AM, November 29th

    "We're running low on fuel," Simon observed, peering at the instruments.
    "Bentwaters wasn't cleared to re-fuel us. The Bird takes special juice- Still experimental. Not to worry though," Tom Darby replied. "We've got an in-flight pit-stop arranged."
    "And the expenses keep mounting up..." Simon said humorously.
    "This trip is on my employer's credit card. Check the radio, there ought to be a pre-set button for short-range communication."
    "There is," Simon replied after a moment. "Switched on."
    "Good," Tom Darby muttered. He toggled his helmet microphone and began to speak aloud- "Nightbird 5 to Gas Station, Nightbird 5 to Gas Station... Descending to 50,000 feet. Slowing to 500 knots. We're needing a pit-stop about now. You guys awake out there? Over..."
    "Gas Station to NB-5; We're here, little buddy. We've got a tank full of Experimental High Test for you-- JP-10, no less... You Mothers have got some major clout with the big boys- That's all I can say. This stuff ain't cheap. Over."
    "You got that right, GS. You got us on radar?"
    "Are you kidding? Your return is smaller than a bird. We're having trouble keeping you painted on radar, but you're showing up just fine on our rear IR. Your windshield is hotter than a Preacher in a whorehouse. Always remember that NB-5, you're only invisible from underneath. Slow to 300 knots and extend your refueling boom, please. Over."
    "Will do, GS. Slowing... Boom extended. Holding at 300 knots at 50,000 feet. Still can't make visual with you, GS. Wanna light 'em up? Over."
    "Our screens all read clean and green, NB-5. No one can see us or hear us. We're logging condition three-monkeys at 03:32 hours."
   
"We copy, GS. Initiating Three-Monkeys. Switching to Infra-Red. Simon, switch off the radar while I set the FLIR to give us an infra-red view... GS, all active detectors are off, passive sensors are on, HUD is in IR mode."
    "Roger that, NB-5. We're switching on our indicator lights in 5-- 4, 3, 2, 1-- lights are on, NB-5. Over."

    "There they are," Simon said. "Ahead and to the left."
    "I see 'em. Thanks, Simon. GS, hold your present course and speed. We'll dock in one. Over."
    "What is that thing?" Simon asked. "I can't make out anything but the lights."
    "Got you, NB-5. We copy and are holding steady. Over."
   
"And no one using anything that isn't an IR camera can even see that much. That's a modified stealth bomber- fairly new one, too. Been converted to a tanker to do in-flight refueling for spy planes and such. US government property. We're just hiring it for the day. Those lights are all IR lamps. No one would notice them with the naked eye. Perfect thing for night-time re-fueling operations. See that circle of lights at the end of their boom? That's my target. See the center of the FLIR screen? That's the Bird's refueling boom. All I have to do is thread that needle with this one..." There was a series of almost silent thumps and clicks as Tom Darby docked with the re-fueling boom dangling from underneath the tanker plane. He sighed as the fuel gages started climbing back towards the full mark. "GS, we have contact. Re-fueling in progress. Over."
    "Roger, NB-5. We copy. Over."
    "Like riding a bicycle," the old man sighed. "Once you learn, you never forget."
    "How many times have you done this?"
    "Counting this one, Doctor?"
    "Yes."
    "Once... But I spent several hours in a simulator-"
    "Don't tell me, let me guess- Yesterday?" Simon's voice dripped with good-natured sarcasm.
    "Right in one, Dr Litchfield."
    "Mr. Darby, you are not good for my blood pressure."
    "My apologies, Doctor."
**********
    3:40 AM, November 29th

    "GS, refueling complete. Disengaging from your boom. Over."  
    "We make it 42,257 pounds of fuel transfered, NB-5. Transaction complete. You're credit card has been billed for the service. Wish you guys could tell us what you're up to, but I know that's 3-monkeys. Been a pleasure, NB-5. See you again, sometime. Back off and we'll bank to port and out of your way. Over."
   
"Thanks muchly, GS. We are disengaged and angling for assent. Wish us luck, guys."
    "Godspeed, NB-5. See you on the ground, sometime."
   
"We owe you a brace of pizzas and a case of beer, GS. See you around! NB-5, making for 80,000 feet."
    "Look that that SOB go!" Simon heard the voice fading in his headphones- as Nightbird 5 climbed out of range of the stealth tanker ship's secure short-range radio signal.


**********

    4:10 AM, November 29th

     Nightbird 5’s auto-pilot began beeping again. The old man tapped a couple of buttons and switched one of the screens to show the view from the underbelly camera. Another quick adjustment caused a small square outline to appear on the screen. Simon stared at the screen intently as the view rapidly grew in size.
     “Still can’t make out anything, Tom.”
     “Not to worry. We’ll have to overfly it and come back on another sweep before we can land, anyway. A bit slower, though. And the camera system will be getting us some pretty pictures to add to our collection. The printouts will give us a fairly good map of whatever’s down there. And the computer now has the island's GPS co-ordinates.”
     “You can’t just zoom in here on the screen?”
     “No Simon, two different systems. We can’t use the NavCam and ReconCam on the same screen.”
     “Oh? Too bad.”
     “Yeah, well- Maybe it can be done, but I haven’t learned how yet. I’m no expert. I never even knew this plane existed-“
     “Until yesterday,” Simon said as he grinned at the old man.
     “’Tis truth, ‘tis truth. OK, we’ve flown past the co-ordinates. Time to start slowing down so we can make a turn. By the time I’ve got us turned around, the printout ought to be done. We’ll have to lose some altitude, too,” Tom Darby added. If there had been any eyes to see, they would have seen a pudgy black dart descend from the heavens, to hover above the wavetops. Nightbird spun like a compass needle, to point at the tiny landmass that hid the Orion project assembly base in the darkness. Almost soundlessly, it hovered over the waters of the Atlantic- as if in indecision.
    "All right,"the old man said. "We've got a couple or three options here. We can go into Bat-outta-Hell mode and hug the surface, or we can come in loud 'n' proud and hit the beach without any surprise factor at all..."
    "Or," replied Simon. We can?"
    "We kill as much engine noise as we can, hug the wavetops, and try and sneak in as quietly as possible."
    "I vote for option three."
    "That's good Simon," Tom Darby said. "Because option one requires air brakes that could stop us from hitting some trees at 500 miles an hour, an' we ain't got those. And option two is better suited to a landing force of Marines- pretty much stupid for two old geezers like us to try... I like the sneak approach, myself."
    "Let's do this thing," Simon joked.
    "We can't use the terrain-hugging radar- we'd get seasick. Have to lock us to the GPS network for a specific altitude. Looks like an average of six foot wavecaps, with the occasional ten-footer... OK, let's shoot for twenty feet above sea level and pray that we don't meet any really tall waves."
    "You're the pilot."
    "That's what worries me... Hold on to your hat-"
    "Oomph," replied Simon through clenched teeth.
    "Sorry, kinda lurched a little when I switched the auto-pilot to lock our altitude. The GPS reads a little different than the barometer. OK, I've got an idea. We'll boost up a bit faster and see if it works." Darby leaned forward and pushed the throttles about a quarter of the way up. Simon felt a slight jerk backwards into his seat, but not enough to become uncomfortable for long. "All right, we're making about- 200 miles per hour at about- 20 feet above the waves."
    "About?"
    "On average, Simon. On average." Darby spoke soothingly. "Slowing, slowing... Half flaps... Slowing, full flaps... Air-brake flaps open... Slowing..." The old man pulled the throttles all the way down, then leaned to the right as he put the Nightbird into a spin, using the VTOL thrusters for steering. "Spin 180° and thrust..." Darby shoved the throttles forward, hard, then quickly eased them back to zero. The jet gently rocked to a halt. "Dead stop, hovering 20 feet above sea level. I uh, I figured out how to decelerate. Wasn't time to explain, sorry. Anyway- We've arrived at Isla de San Carlo. Who'd of guessed this little spit of sand ranked a name? We're butt-first into the unknown, except that leaves us in a perfect position to start running away if anyone should start shooting at us right away. You can pry your hands loose from the chair-arms, Simon. We missed crashing into the trees by at least twelve feet."
    "You are a truly dangerous acquaintance, Mr. Darby."
    "Ah, Carpe diem Doctor."
    "In your case, I strongly suspect that it is more like carpe diem te scrotum, Mr. Darby."
    "Squeeze the day, so to speak?" They laughed. "Live life, Dr. Litchfield. Take big bites. Enjoy everything, and lots of it. Moderation is for monks."

**********

     “Hang on to your valuables, Simon. I’m going to snake us up over those trees and into that clearing on the other side.”
     “Thank goodness for that VTOL option,” Simon said.
     “Yeah, otherwise we’d need a mile-long runway.”
     “Those seem to be in short supply around here, Tom.”
     “Not to worry Doctor, I’ve flown trickier planes than this one before.”
     “Oh? Now that sounds interesting.”
     “Remind me to tell you about F-104s sometime…” the old man said absently as he put the jet through a complex maneuver that left them sitting in a clearing barely large enough for the plane. "Up... and over... gear down...touchdown in five..."
     “You flew a Starfighter?”
     “Not officially, Simon. Had to steal one once, to get myself out of Germany, four... I thought the bugger was going to shake itself to pieces, three... before I could manage to make it out. But that’s a tale for when, two... we’ve got a chance to sit in a nice club, one... somewhere, with a good bottle of Brandy, touchdown... to help my memory. OK, engines off, brakes locked, ramp opening- we’re down. Let’s get out there and see what’s what with this little island. We've only got a couple of hours before local daylight hits. Oh, don't touch the sides of the plane. The skin'll be hotter 'n' hell.”

**********

    "There's some gear back here in these lockers," Simon commented aloud. He'd been poking about in the cargo bay while he waited on the old man to answer a sudden call of nature. Looks like some of the same sorts of things that Melvin Squib finds for one of our little ventures.
    "Pull out both of those backpacks," came the old man's voice from behind a curtain that screened off a normal airliner restroom. "And feel free to pack your pockets with any little toys that take your fancy. I'll be with you in a minute."
    "Night-Vision goggles," Simon exclaimed as he found them. "We'll need those... "
    "And the locker next to them has some coveralls we can swap for these flight-suits," the old man said as he pulled the curtain aside and left the restroom. The sound of the toilet flushing was particularly eerie and unexpected for the interior of a stealth plane. "There's a thin layer of Kevlar in them. Enough to turn a knife, but not all that bulletproof. Body armor'd be too heavy and clumsy. This stuff is flexible and light."
    "Not to mention that they're not bright orange, like the flight-suits."
    "Yes, that's always a plus, Dr. Litchfield."
    "Oh, I concur, Mr. Darby. I think the midnight-gray camouflage ensemble is particularly striking tonight."
    "Excellent choice, Doctor. Now we don our gay apparel, and then go take a look-see at that base the cameras caught. Its got to be close. The whole island is less than two miles long."

**********

    "Who is running this place?" Tom asked. "Doctor No?"
    “I doubt it," Simon replied. "A real movie villain would have better detectors. Not to mention having more guards. This is downright spooky.”
    "Its too easy," the old man sighed. "This place is like a ghost town. First we boogie up from the beach to this volcano rim-"
    "Without seeing a single guard," Simon added.
    "Exactly. Then we find this entry into the base. Just sticking out of a crack in the cone's rim wall."
    "With the one guard to show us the staircase to the catwalk inside the volcano."
    "Yes Dr. Litchfield, it gives one pause for thought."
    "It does indeed, Mr. Darby... Just what are you thinking?"
    "I'm thinking that I should have listened to my mother, years ago."
    "Indeed? And what did she say?"
    "I don't know, Doctor. I never listened!"
    "How droll. And you stole that."
    "In a job like this," the old man said as he grinned at Simon. "The important thing is to know when to relieve the tension. Not how good the joke is. All right, we've got a base that's the size of a football stadium, built inside the rim of an extinct volcano."
    "I make it about a thousand feet across, Mr. Darby. And the rim is less than 800 feet high on the outside."
    "But that factory-floor down there is at least 300 feet below us. I make that either at- or just below -sea level. But what gets me is that there's hardly any signs of life. I don't like it, Dr. Litchfield. I don't like it at all."
    "Be thankful for small favors, Mr. Darby."
    "It looks like the Orion's construction crew's been long gone, Doctor."
    "Yes, no doubt laid off a few at a time by way of Adrian's budgetary cutbacks, Mr. Darby."
    "That thing'll never fly," said the old man. "Not without months of work by trained ship-builders."
    "Yes, and where is all the bustle of happy little terrorists building bombs to blast the Great Satan with?"
    "Except for those few guards, this place is a tomb."
    "Not an apt choice of words, Mr. Darby."
    "My apologies, Dr. Litchfield. But our bird has flown the coop. If our little Fly is down in that web, I'll be a monkey's uncle. Adrian did cave in a bit easily. Maybe he was working for Mosca after all?"
    "No," Simon said. "He was a tool, nothing more. We scanned his rooms for bugs, didn't we?"
    "Yes, and him too. If he was wearing a wire under his pajamas, my gadgets couldn't spot it."
    "Hmmm... unless we're wrong about Adrian and he telephoned Mosca after we left-"
    "Anyone could make a phone call, Doctor."
    "Point taken, Mosca could have left an agent in Adrian's staff... Or-"
    "Yes, Dr. Litchfield?"
    "I just had a terrible thought... We didn't check Adrian's computer for spy-ware..."
    "Good grief! Mosca was packing up and pulling out while we were still in Adrian's office."
    "It looks that way, Mr. Darby."
    "OK Dr. Litchfield, air-check my reasoning. Several months ago, three at the latest, the legitimate Orion construction crew was evacuated. What's left is Mosca's most fanatic mad-bombers, and a few of their hired guards..."
    "That sounds about right, Mr. Darby. As far as we know."
    "They've been working on trying to build little A-bombs. The kind of thing that only a physicist, a terrorist, or a general would get excited about. They're dumb as rocks, all the brainiacs are long gone, and our allies have cut off their supplies of almost everything needed to build big bombs. Whatever uranium they might have had would have been quickly used up. They can't have built many of the little bombs. And only hours ago, Mosca and his cronies lit out for safety..."
    "Again, as far as we know, yes."
    "So we've lost him- for now."
    "For now," Simon's voice was cold. "Yes."
    "Shit," said the old man, eloquently.
    "I agree completely, Mr. Darby."

**********

    "Look, up there..."
    "Where?"
    "On that highest peak of the far rim, Simon."
    "Bloody Night-Vision binoculars," Simon muttered under his breath. "So damn difficult to focus... There! Missiles? Surface to surface, surely. We can't let those things be functional when we call the Marines. It'd be a slaughter!"
    "I agree, Doctor," the old man said calmly. "But down there is our mission target."
    "Center of the volcano floor- I see. The skeleton of an Orion ship under assembly," Simon said. "The work has been halted, though. The ship is months away from completion."
    "Look over to your right, into the machine shop.
    "Where, Tom? I don't see... Oh, three empty casings for fusion bombs. 50 megatons, if the paperwork we got from Adrian is right. And the socket for the fission trigger looks about big enough for one of those illegal fractional-kiloton nukes. And there! The casing for one of them. About the size of a vacuum cleaner."
    "Where? I don't see it, Simon."
    "On the third workbench back. The center row..."
    "Oh, got it. Looks unfinished."
    "Thank God."
    "Yes Simon, thank God we're here in time. It doesn't look like they've got a nuke ready to use, yet."
    "How many guards do you make it?"
    "Maybe fifty."
    "The odds are in our favor then, Mr. Darby"
    "They'll never know what hit them, Dr. Litchfield."

**********
   "They're planning on using those micro-nukes for terrorism," Simon said as he and Tom Darby crept through the lower levels of the base.
    "Yes, the missile in the machine shop, ready to fit with a custom warhead. I saw it too. And the casings for finished bombs- At least a dozen. Thank God they were all empty."
    "Adrian ought to be hung for criminal stupidity."
    "Dr. Litchfield! Shame on you. Adrian's just another greedy idiot. Every organization has their share of those. They don't mean badly by their actions."
    "Mr. Darby, at this moment- Well, he's as much to blame as these fanatics."
    "I agree, but they rather seem to have been using Adrian, not the other way around."
    "Have you seen any indication of their targets?" Simon asked.
    "Not yet. Maybe up there in that big office. Halfway up," the old man waved his hand to indicate a huge bank of glass windows that towered over their heads. "Shhh- Guards! Duck!"

**********

    "I think," Simon aid when it was once again safe for them to talk. "That its pretty obvious that what they're after is those micro-nukes for missiles and terrorist bombers. Something far smaller than an ICBM. But almost as deadly. Easier to move, set up, launch... or detonate in a suitcase. The perfect unstoppable terrorist weapon."
    "So they're planning to mass-produce atom bombs? To use against civilian targets?"
    "Yes," Simon replied. "But we seem to have caught onto them in time. Try as I might, I can't see any finished bombs."
    "It'll be a cold day in Hell before I stand still for that sort of terrorism, Simon. With everything else going on in the world, I can't believe that some megalomaniac still thinks he can get away with nuclear blackmail. We're going to have to do something. How are you at um, drastic measures?"
    "Why Mr. Darby," Simon asked humorously. "Whatever did you have in mind?"
    "As a last resort- Setting off one of those little primer-charge nukes that they intend to use for the fusion bombs they're trying to build. It should be possible to rig up a timer of some kind- if we found a warhead that was ready to use."
    "Let's make that a very last resort, shall we?"
    "Of course, Simon. There's got to be something else we can do."
    "What have we got to work with?" Simon asked.
    "Plus the gear in the backpacks? I brought a few things from the plane. Some blackout gas, a few stun grenades- Oh, here's a taser for you. There's a holster pocket for it sewn into the left side of your coveralls. Ah... I've got some regular smoke grenades too, a few knock-out gas grenades- There's a gas mask and a small oxygen tank in the left thigh pocket of your coveralls. Make sure you strap it tight if we have to get close to our gas. Here's a dozen packets of C-4 and the timer-detonators for it. And- as a last resort, here's a spare .45 and half a dozen clips. Should be fifty six rounds in all- counting the 8 rounder in the gun already. There's a holster pocket for it sewn into the right thigh pocket. Pray we don't have to use the pistols."
    "Thank you, Mr. Darby. I hope we don't have to use them, to be sure. But why such huge handguns?"
    "I prefer .45 autos for a couple of reasons, Doctor. First and foremost- contrary to popular belief, one well-placed shot from a .45 will knock a man down without necessarily killing him. But he will be out of the action for a reasonable time. If he's not dead instantly, then chances are that he'll get to live out the rest of his normal lifespan. I'd rather not kill anyone if I don't absolutely have to. The Colt Army Auto may be the best "one shot stop" pistol ever invented.  Thank Moses Browning. These particular pistols are target models, too. They've been tweaked to be inhumanly accurate over a fifty yard distance. Most small pistols like this have only a thirty yard effective range."
    "Small?"
    "Well, my favorite pistol is a .50 Magnum Desert Eagle, but I don't think we're going to be hunting dinosaurs today."
    Simon chuckled along with Darby at the image of using a handgun to hunt giant sauropods.
    "Mr. Darby, I think we also need to take out that big control room- halfway up the building, there -with your C-4 charges, then get the hell out of Dodge with our evidence. We can send for the Marines as we make our escape."
    "I heartily agree, Doctor. There's not much else the two of us can do now that we have Adrian's computer files on disc, and the GPS co-ordinates for this base. Time for us to make a surgical strike and then get the hell out of here. We'll have to split up. I'll create a diversion while you raid the control room and set the bombs. Once I've got the guards occupied, I'll Obi-Wan my way over to those missiles up on that peak, and disable the launchers. Once those are deactivated, we can run like hell and report in. My employer will call for troops only after we're clear of the area."
    "Meet back here, or at the plane?"
    "At the plane, but Simon-  No heroics. If I'm not back before that plastique pops, you take off by yourself. I've taught you enough about the Bird to be able to get you up and on auto-pilot for home. One of us has to get our evidence back to Washington."
    "I won't leave without you, old man,"
    Tom Darby sighed. "I'm not planning anything foolish. I didn't live to be 82 in this business to make the- the grand gesture, now."
    "82?" Simon was shocked. I hope I'm in that good a shape at that age. "I would have taken you for being in your 70s, but not a day older."
    "I'm long past retirement, in a business that usually puts it's agents out to pasture when they reach their 50s. This isn't just one last fling for an old war-horse, Dr. Litchfield. I've got lots more to do before I can think about dying on a mission. Just worry about keeping your own head down, kid. This isn't my first megalomaniac, and I'll be damned if this piece of gutter trash is going to punch my ticket ahead of schedule."
    "That's the spirit, Mr. Darby." Simon chuckled. "I'll set the timers to detonate simultaneously-"
    "And pick up any discs laying around to take back to your Ms. Keel. Or whoever. And anything else that you can think of to grab."
    "Right. Good luck, Tom."
    "Thanks, Simon. Be careful, yourself. Good luck."
    They turned and went their separate ways.

**********

    A short while later, Tom Darby crept along behind a row of large packing crates that lined the edge of the lower level of the base. He could catch glimpses of some of the guards as he slipped from the shadow of one crate to the next. This looks like a good spot to draw them to, he thought. This is far enough away from the doorway I want to go through while all the excitement happens. Now if the timers on these flash-bangs can be set for long enough for me to get away from here, and over to that passageway to the missile launchers. The old man spread several of the noisemakers behind the crates, added a pair of tear gas grenades for insurance, then threw his last flash-bang as far as he could- back the way he’d come. The he ran for the doorway to the staircase that led up to the missile launchers. A hundred yards in less than ninety seconds. Not bad for an old man... When the first explosion went off, not a single guard looked anywhere else. And all of them began running towards the noise. He ran for the passageway as soon as the guards had turned their backs. As he slipped into the shadow of the doorway, he heard his other flash-bangs begin to detonate. He grinned as the guards started shooting into the crates. That ought to keep them busy for a few minutes. Damn, still have to climb back up all those stairs. I'm getting too old for this...

**********

     When Simon heard the faint crackle of small-arms fire, he waited for the nearby guards to rush out to the fray. Sure enough, they ran off towards the noise. I hope the old man’s alright, he thought. He’s bought me the time I need. Sounds like he’s set off a minor war. At the sound of a grenade going off, Simon took off for the control room, hugging the walls along the way. Taser in hand, he reached the room without being seen. Opening the control room door, he swept inside only to find himself face to face with one last guard. The guard grunted in surprise and fumbled for his rifle- Simon tasered him, then used the man’s belt to secure his arms behind his back. It was only the work of a few moments for Simon to spread the C-4 charges and timers out at strategic points about the room. Then he began stuffing the few computer discs that were visible into a shoulder bag. Damn, he thought. There isn’t much here. Then Simon spotted a pair of rack-mounted computers at the back of the room. These look important. Everything else is just standard equipment. These look custom built. But there’s no time to copy anything from them. Too bad, Stephanie could probably find something useful on the hard drives. Simon considered his options, then in a flash of inspiration he began to uncouple the wiring harnesses from the hard drives. If I can’t take copies, I’ll take the whole drive unit! Screwdriver, where’s that screwdriver? Ah! Here!  In less time than it takes to tell it, Simon had six hard drive units dismounted and stuffed into his bag. Only then did he re-set the timers on his explosives back to their full limits. Thirty minutes, that’s all we’ve got. Now to make my escape and high-tail it back to the plane. Simon paused only long enough to drag the still unconscious guard further away from ground zero.
     From the sounds of it, those guards have started shooting at each other. He pulled out two of his smoke grenades and set them off- rolling them along the passage that he’d have to traverse. Once the smoke thickened enough, he ran for the exit. Once there, he sent a tear gas grenade back along the way he’d come.

    5:04 AM, November 29th

    “You’re wounded!”
    "They just winged me, boy. One of the guards caught me wrecking the launchers. I must be getting slow in my old age. I did have time before that to... to swap some wires around on their control panels. Here, take my web-belt..."
    "Link it with mine and make a sling for your arm. I see. There. Now lean on me and let's get you into the plane. You've lost some blood, old man."
    "Didn't hit anything vital, or I wouldn't be up and moving, kid. I've been shot much worse than this before. Can't use my arm, though," the old man said as they came up the plane's side ramp. He pressed a switch inside the doorway, and the ramp began to rise back into place as Simon helped him up to the cockpit. He sank into the co-pilot's seat and waved Simon into the other. "You're going to have to fly the Bird," he said as he began strapping himself in. "Sit down. Strap in. Fire this sucker up and let's get the hell out of here!"
    “I can’t fly this thing!” Simon finally said.
    “Yes you can. Why do you think I gave you such a teach-in on the way out here? This thing flys like a game, anyway. You can fly it.You’ll have to, son. I damn sure can’t. Come on, let’s go. The natives have gotten restless.” The old man reached for a first-aid kit that unsnapped from the cockpit wall. Wordlessly he began searching for padding and tape for his bullet wound.
    "You damned fool," Simon said as he glumly sat down and buckled his harness. "You knew this was going to happen."
    "No Simon. I just prepared for the worst. Now listen close... About the airplane- The computer has been keeping everything ready for a quick take-off. I set it for that when we landed, in case we needed a getaway. All the controls are still live. When you're ready, VTOL to full vertical."
    "Got it," Simon replied as he reached for half-remembered controls. Moments later, the jet rose from the clearing.
    "Good, we're up, I can feel it. Now give the forward throttle about 30%."
    "Altitude, 60 feet. Forward 30%. Got it..." Simon repeated.
    "The VTOL throttle, back it down to 20%. Then punch in the auto-pilot."
    "Done, we're circling to head west- northwest."
    "Good Simon, we're on course for home. VTOL throttle to zero, forward throttle to 40%... Speed?"
    "Building up to 500 knots."
    "Good again, it takes at least 200 to lift the wheels off of a runway. Hmmm... Don't bat-outta-hell yet. Grab some altitude first."
    "Why, Tom?"
    "We need to stay subsonic- At least for now. The air at sea level- normal pressure is too thick to fly super-sonic. The heat build-up is too much. The jet's skin will melt if you push it too fast, too close to the ground, for too long. The auto-pilot will switch off when you move the joystick. Don't touch it until you're ready. Slow, easy movements, Simon. Just pull back on the stick and watch the numbers climb in the 8-ball. Good... Angle the nose up at 17° above the horizon- But gently! Then slowly ease the throttles up to sixty percent... All right. You're doing great, Simon. Hold it steady- In a few minutes we'll have some altitude. When you reach 60,000 feet, start dropping the nose down towards the horizon again. Try to level off at 82,000 feet. Adjust the throttle to hold you there once you reach altitude, then turn the auto-pilot back on. Nice and easy..."

********** 

    "There, Commander! The infidel! They rise! They flee!" The remaining guards had spotted Nightbird 5 lifting off from the beach.
    "Run to the missile emplacement! Target that jet! Fire!" The leader shouted, "Hurry, you fools, or I will kill the slowest moving among you."
    "The controls have been damaged, Commander," the first guard to arrive shouted in dismay"
     "What?"
    "They have tried to destroy our missiles, Commander. These wires will take time to repair."
    "Make it work! Lock onto them! Fire the missiles. One would be enough,." the guard commander shouted. Finally, one guard managed to hot-wire part of the damaged launching system. The first missile in the rack shuddered and groaned as the launching cradle raised it up to aim at the rapidly retreating jet. The engine finally fires, but the missile was still locked into place, courtesy of Tom Darby’s sabotage. As it rapidly heated towards the danger point, a pair of guards spotted the still-latched locks and tried to hammer them free. Stupidity, or fear of their commander, blinded them to the danger. Finally, the missile could withstand no more abuse- and the engine exploded. A small fireball enveloped the launch rack- and the missile's warhead reacted to the blast. The next missile's high-explosive warhead detonated moments later. And the next, and the next- until the last missile in the bank of hamstrung launch cradles is reached. The half-kiloton nuke fitted into the last missile could not withstand the normal munitions charges of the other missiles daisy-chained into a massive multiple blast. The one finished micro-nuke the terrorists possessed, reacted to the shock...

**********

    A red light began blinking on the control panel. Someone was trying to get a targeting lock on them. "Press the blue button labeled ECM, Simon. Someone's trying to aim something at us."
    "I thought you disabled those missiles."
    "We're in a stealth ship- relax. We'd be impossible to hit in a few minutes, anyway. I disabled the launchers, not their targeting systems. I don't think I could have done any more. I must have played hooky the day they gave the lesson on how to disarm an A-bomb. I didn't see one laying around on the work-benches, anyway. I did see those three casings for fusion bombs, and a room with a little bit of nuclear material stored. Uranium, mostly. There wasn't time for too much creative mayhem when I got to the launchers. I yanked out a few wires from the control panel, then disabled the transport locks on the launch racks. The doohickey that locks them safely in place for shipment. Shorted the solenoid that opened and closed the latches. Melted a wrench doing it- caught some of the electrical shock, too. Those things are locked down, Simon. You'd have to use a torch and cut through the steel latches- all four of them. On each missile. Only a fool would try to fire one off now. It'd just sit there, locked onto the rack and... eventually..."
     "Blow up?"
    "Yes Simon. But only a fool would-" The old man spotted several bright flashes of light in the jet's rear-view. "Scratch that, Simon... Shove the throttles all the way up!"
    "What?"
    "Do it! Now!"
    Simon did as requested and shoved the throttles home. Nightbird leaped for altitude- leaving a sonic boom in it's wake. Which was swallowed up in the nuclear fireball from what had been San Carlo- The Orion construction base is swallowed by an explosion one quarter the power of the Hiroshima bomb. The inside of the volcanic crater briefly reaches 5000°, birds fleeing the noise are incinerated in mid-flight. Guards and steel girders alike are vaporized. Isla de San Carlo is no more. The surrounding ocean for a third of a mile is instantly converted into steam. A shock wave slowly rises in the sleepy Atlantic waters. Fish for a mile away begin to die from the burst of radiation.
    Nightbird 5 shudders as the atomic wind strikes it's fleeing back. Simon wrested the controls back under his command, and the Bird settled down to head for home.

********** 

    "Nightbird 5 to base, Nightbird 5 to base," Tom Darby repeated into the jet's radio.
    "There should have been a better way," Simon muttered to himself.
    "Base, we're going to need a full-assisted landing," the old man reports. "And a Med-evac unit... Otherwise, mission accomplished. Sort of..."
    "There should have been a better way..."
    "I agree, Simon. I agree..."

    6:19 AM, November 29th

Arrive back at Washington DC

    "Callow.What are you doing here? I thought this place was supposed to be secret."
    "Yes Dr. Litchfield? You had a pleasant flight, I assume?"
    Simon and Callow stood in the underground hanger for Nightbird 5. A ground crew bustled around the jet, while medics wheeled a stretcher over to confront the old man. Simon could see Melvin Squib standing, off in the background of the chamber, drooling in mindless toy-joy over the Bird.
    "Your acting is quite bad, Callow. You want to know every detail. The Lower Echelon still hasn't let you in on the big picture?"
    "Perceptive as ever, Doctor. Is that your contact?" Ian Callow waved his right hand towards the military ambulance crew convincing Tom Darby to lie down on a stretcher so they could take him to a military base hospital that was nearby.
    "Yes, a very good man," Simon replied. "He goes by the name of Tom Darby..."
    "Yes, but do you know for whom he works? And how did he manage to break into our Institute to steal you away?"
    "He never mentioned his employer by name, Callow. And he flat-out told me that he used that stealth plane to bribe the Nightwatch Executive Board to get me assigned to this case."
    "Why you?"
    "My thesis? Maybe? Mostly that, I'm sure. Being one of your little pawns for the last few years must be part of it too, no doubt. Our ages, perhaps..."
    "Surely there's more? That's all that you brought me? A fingerprint and the arrest of a Quatermass director? Half a dozen computer drives and some scattered discs? Photographs of a place that no longer exists? Map co-ordinates to a bubble of boiling, radioactive water?"
    "We didn't see a nuke! Not a finished one. No fissionables at all. We found plenty of small casings. But not a single finished bomb-"
    "In other words, Dr. Litchfield, you missed it. Both of you. You managed to overlook an atom bomb."
    "Judging from what we did find, the bloody things weren't much bigger than a vacuum cleaner. They would have been easy to overlook in all the confusion. We didn't have time to make a detailed study of the place. We only wanted to find the base, then make it safe for troops to be called in to secure it."
    "Well, you certainly screwed up that objective."
    "Callow, not everything wraps itself up in a neat little bow, just for you. If Darby's past is such a concern to you, then look up the company that built that jet. He was assigned to that only two days ago. There'll be a paper trail of when he was assigned, and from where. He talked like he was part of a much bigger project, in any case. I'm guessing that he's NSA or OSI. He ought to have a record going back to the Korean war, almost. He's damn good, I'll tell you that."
   "The only record he may have is made out of vinyl. Officially, he doesn't exist. Nothing, no paper trail at all. And I've already found out who built that airplane," Callow replied coldly. Simon waited for him to elaborate, but Callow simply blustered back to the subject of Tom Darby. "You have only his word for what he found. And for what he did while you were nowhere around. For all you know he might have just set that nuke to go off. Your Mr. Darby seemed to be buddy-buddy with the builders of that plane." Callow paused and then shook his head ruefully. "He's not as snow-white as you want to believe, Doctor."
    "You'll have trouble convincing me of that, Callow. He's a good man."
    "I have no intention of trying to convince you of anything, Doctor. The facts will speak for me."
    "Why have me along, then? Your argument falls apart there, Callow. No one needed me there just to cover up their tracks by blowing up a compromised facility. And the arms dealer was long gone when we got there. He didn't blow himself up. He escaped before we got there. There were only a few guards and fanatics left at the base. It was like a ghost town. No, I was there because I was the price of the jet. That's not so sinister."   
    "You were necessary- as a trustworthy witness, Doctor. You can swear that what you saw was all that there was to the incident. You can put paid to the whole thing. The airplane is just a bribe to the Nightwatch Board to gain the use of you as a witness. The World Court won't look any further than your report. You saw no bomb, yet there obviously was a bomb. You saw no nuclear material, but you saw preparations to use large amounts of nuclear material. The makings of several micro-nukes, in fact. All unfinished. All highly illegal as well, according to at least two international treaties. No one is supposed to be manufacturing tactical nuclear devices. You saw a few guards, you saw a few terrorist fanatics. But- Where did the uranium go? Some arms dealer just ran off and left three unfinished H-bombs sitting around to melt in the aftermath?" Callow's smugness barely rose above his rage. "Your friend over there, leaving in the ambulance, I wouldn't be a bit surprised if you found his obituary in the papers sometime soon. A new face, a new name... Deep cover agents like him do that sort of thing all the time. I hope you said goodbye to him on the plane, Doctor. I predict that you'll never see him again."
    "He's an old man-"
    "He looks like an old man."
    "Why?" Simon asked, shaking his head. "Why are you always such a pain in the ass?"
    "Because that's frequently the shortest route to your brain, Doctor. Now, if there are no more stupid questions, I am going to go home and go back to bed. With any luck, this entire night will turn out to have been a particularly bad dream."
    "To sleep, perchance to dream... Oh my goodness!"
    "Do relax, Litchfield. My security agents are outside your home right now. I put them there as soon as you left the place. They haven't had to go inside. Nothing has happened there at all. They report that your date hasn't even woken up yet, in any case."
    "You put guards outside my home? You've never done that before."
    "You've never been sold before, Doctor."
    "Never thought of it like that, Callow. Not sure I like it."
    "I'm told that one grows used to the taste of being a pawn of the high and mighty. In time, that is. In time."

The End



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Text ©2004 by Dan L° Hollifield