"We want you to nuke Warhaven."
Percy and Mercy locked eyes for a moment. ("What are we doing here?") Then they stared at the bland face of the Case Officer ensconced behind his big desk.
"Okay," said Percy, smoothly. "Warhaven. No problem.... You mean Fairhaven, I suppose."
His agreement to the op was offered with some trepidation, but he knew the CO wouldn't tell them any more about it unless they first agreed to do it. That's the way it's done in Special Operations. If you express reservations about an op, SpecOps stops talking about it and sends you on your way.
("We should say `No thanks!' and get the hell out of here,") thought Mercy. ("This op already stinks to high heaven, and it can't get any better.") But she knew not to turn the CO down flat on any op, even one as bad as this one.
"It's Warhaven, now; they've declared their independence. They've grabbed our Star Service base there, and they're stopping all our merchant ships in `their' space and taking what they want. It's a Sumpter situation. Their illegal coup leaves us no choice but to strike back hard. Unfortunate as a nuking may seem, we have to deny them the starbase. That's what you'll hit. Just the base---from the nearby spaceport, where you'll probably land."
The beetle-browed, pipe-smoking SpecOps Case Officer leaned back in his hightop chair and steepled his fingers under his nose in a false gesture of relaxation and concentration.... Inwardly, Percy and Mercy shrank from the idea of killing thousands, instead of their usual quota of one or a few. Outwardly though, they seemed unfazed by SpecOps' awful scheme.
"Just how are we going to do this?" inquired Mercy. "Without getting burned?"
The case officer returned his elbows to his desktop. He shuffled through some papers and withdrew one. He handed it to her.
"This... You'll use one of these. You'll fly it to Warhaven from a mixed alien/human world that doesn't have the smell of imperial Terra on it. Your cargo will be legal and expected. Your ship's papers will be in perfect order."
The two agents scanned the sheet, which was marked TOP SECRET. On it, was a diagram of a tramp ship. They could see that an unconventional component had been added to one of its compartments.
"She's the Albatross, a small, fast tramp---passengers, valuable nonbulk cargo---that kind of stuff. We've installed a nuke in her reaction engine compartment. It's rendered in red on that diagram. The `egg' is welded into a natural housing, where it can't easily be discovered in a customs inspection."
"Even with radiation detectors?"
"It's protected from rad-detection by a new, lightweight shielding, highly-classified stuff. It's imperative that this egg be hatched, if only to destroy the shielding. We can't have that falling into the wrong hands."
"So, any attempt to access the egg will set it off---right?" asked Mercy, cynically. "We have to hope like hell the Haveners don't do any serious poking around in our engine room while we're aboard."
"Of course. But otherwise, when the egg hatches, you'll be far gone. You'll have the shipcomp set its timer, and you'll leave. You'll go upwind to a resort many kilometers away in a big park. We'll extract you from there with a stealthship. The usual arrangements. The egg is a small tactical device. If you're beyond the horizon, it won't bite you."
"Pursuit?" queried Percy, succinctly.
"You'll be offplanet before the survivors can react and track you. You'll do a complete change of identity after you leave the ship. Don't make resort reservations in advance. Just show up and bribe them for a room if you have to. You'll only be there a few hours, then you head off into the boondocks. The stealthship will home in on your handheld beacon. The whole operation should be routine."
("`Routine'!") The agents' reaction to this self-serving description was swift and sharp, but invisible. It was important for them not to show any doubt. This was a big op. They could either do it without a fuss, or lose their standing in The Org.
"Piece of cake," commented Percy, nonchalantly.
The bureaucrat expelled some fragrant pipe smoke and grinned like a Cheshire Cat. He liked it when his field-agents were cooperative.
"Good. We knew we could count on you two. You're the best we've got. Your record is first-class, and this op'll put you in real good with The Organization. After this one, nothing'll be too good for you."
Neither agent believed such an ideal status was possible.
"You said the cargo'll be expected on Fairhaven," inquired Mercy. "What cargo would that be?"
The CO stuck his pipe back into his mouth and consulted his papers, as if he didn't already know. He handed her another sheet of paper. "You'd never guess... monks."
"What?" replied both agents. They stared at the paper in disbelief.
"Monkcicles, I mean. They'll be in coldsleep containers."
When Percy Pape joined The Organization, somebody Upstairs thought it would be cute to partner him with Mercy Clarkson: Percy and Mercy. It was just too good to resist. But the combo clicked, and the two agents became successful in a way that couldn't have been predicted even by the haughty AIs which dominated Personnel.
Mercy was bi, rough-edged, and just short of plain. Off-assignment, she often butched her appearance and associated with similar types in Terminal City dives. This initially convinced Personnel that she could never be useful in fem roles, and that she wouldn't work well with male agents. But they were wrong. Mercy was too smart to be hopelessly typed. When she dolled herself up and put on a show, plain became attractive enough to fool targets.
Percy, on the other hand, was a sophisticated lady's man. He had three degrees in Terran and extraterrestrial history. He was also a tech-tinkerer of some skill. When the mischievous upstairs boys partnered him with Mercy, he saw more than they saw, and he did more than they expected him to do with what they'd given him. Smoothly, he cultivated Mercy, and smoothly she reacted to him. Under the skin, they were two of a kind: smart, educated, adaptable, resourceful. Soon, they were a working team, the likes of which had never been seen in The Organization.
They became good at Org tradecraft: Disguises--VERY GOOD. Social functioning--VERY GOOD. Targeting--GOOD. Escape and evasion--EXPERT. The only reason their Targeting rated merely GOOD was because they once assassinated the wrong target. But they returned later and got the right guy. That was really hazardous.
They also came to a congenial sexual arrangement. They managed to "cooperate" well without engaging too deeply. They moderated their needs on the job, and lived separate lives when off-duty. The AIs in Personnel were confounded by this. It went against what their massive human relations databases had accumulated.
Percy and Mercy knew they were special. Being that way was a great source of personal satisfaction for them and a boon to The Org, which had few good man/woman teams.
As assassins, they could be counted upon to reach their target, take the proper action---but deviate from their detailed orders if that became necessary---and return in triumph, often unrecognizably, in heavy disguise.
"I'm detecting a picketship, closing fast." A control-console alarm punctuated this report with its beeping. The Pilot killed the alarm.
The Engineer came forward and checked the scan display. "This far out? I hope it's not the first of several. I told you the name of this bucket was unlucky. I showed you that ancient poem.... But, what the heck. We're ready for inspection. Aren't we."
"The hell we are." grumbled Mercy, ever the pessimist.
"In a manner of speaking, I mean," corrected Percy, affably.
"Monks..." The inspector from Fairhaven stood, reading Albatross' ship's papers. He paged through them methodically, mumbling as he did. "For a monastery on Fairhaven... Order of Brothers of the Holy Veil... Burned out of their own house on Greenway...." He looked up from his reading. "Let's have a look at these monks of yours."
The inspector kept a serious mien, where Percy had laughed when he had learned of his odd cargo. The Lieutenant was a dedicated officer, but one who was long-overdue for a promotion. This made him somewhat superficial at the task of inspecting arriving ships. He hoped for a transfer to a cruiser, and for some battle experience to give him a boost up the ladder.
Percy led the uniformed man and his armed guard back to the cargo hold. There, resting soundly in their coldsleep containers, were the twelve monks who were being transported to their new home on Fairhaven.
The Inspector went down the line, checking the containers. Each lifemonitor showed its occupant to be in only fair shape.
"They don't look so good to me. They may not make it," commented the officer, who thought the holy men in their hooded habits seemed rather gray-faced, even for coldsleepers. "I don't know why they're in coldsleep, anyway. Your voyage from Greenway wasn't very long. Couldn't they have just prayed and meditated during the trip?"
Percy shrugged his shoulders. "I just transport my cargo, Lieutenant. I don't tell my shippers how to pack their... stuff."
He almost said "stiff."
Percy pulled at his scraggly beard with one hand, and scratched an armpit with the other. To the well-cut inspector from the picketship, Percy and Mercy appeared to be a typically-disheveled trampship crew who let themselves go during their intersystem voyages, and didn't spruce-up much when they arrived at their destinations, either. He wrinkled his nose at Percy's cultivated body odor and took notice of the dustbunnies in the corners of the dimly-lighted compartment.
He was correct about Albatross's cargo, though. These monks would never see the Monastery of the Holy Veil on Fairhaven, despite what their rigged lifemonitors showed about their condition.
Because they were dead.
They'd died asleep in their dormitory on Greenway of carbon monoxide poisoning when the building's furnace malfunctioned. In fact, it was their untimely deaths that gave SpecOps the idea of using them as a macabre cargo. The kind that would distract Warhaven inspectors.
"Okay. Let's have a look at your other compartments." Despite his cool demeanor, the inspector found Albatross's dark cargo hold with its dreary Monkcicles a bit spooky for his taste.
"This way," said Percy. He took the two men through the Albatross. When they reached the reaction-engine control room, he mentally crossed his fingers. The inspector did some routine scans, but his inspectometer registered nothing suspicious.
"Your engine control system needs some tuning," offered the officer.
"I'll get right on it," replied Percy. Then, he dared to snicker at the inspector. That was the way tramp crews were. The Lieutenant didn't expect much respect from them, anyway. But this blatant disrespect encouraged him to persist in hopes of finding something he could gig him for.
He began running his instrument over the bulkheads. He stopped and used his fingers to braille the screws that attached the bulkhead panels to the structural members. He could feel the burrs made by careless workers with screwdrivers.
"You've removed these panels, recently?"
Percy---who hadn't the foggiest notion about the panels---made a guess. "We had the insulation updated." He knew the ship had been thoroughly reconditioned by SpecOps for its last voyage.
"Oh?..." The inspector apparently believed he was onto something. He tapped the bulkhead with a fingernail. "Remove this panel. I want to see what's behind it."
Percy got a screwdriver and began removing the wideheaded screws that secured the panel, hoping that there would be no surprises. He removed the panel. Behind it there was, indeed, new insulation. His relief was almost apparent. "See... good stuff. The latest." But he noticed something of import that he filed away in his mind: the insulation glittered. He could see that it was full of metallic particles. ("What kind of heat insulation would have metal in it?") he wondered.
The inspector pulled from his belt a long bodkin and pushed it into the soft insulation block in two places. His needle stopped at the steel of the intermediate pressure hull on the other side. Satisfied that nothing was concealed behind the insulation, he said, "Okay. Let's move on."
The party visited every other compartment, but everything seemed to be in order. The inspector was visibly disappointed. Back at the outer hatch which opened to the 'tween-ships transfer sleeve, he handed the Albatross's papers back to Percy.
"Make sure you land at the capital city spaceport. No other. We're at war, now. All incoming and outgoing is strictly controlled."
"Yes, sir. Will do." Percy suppressed a perverse desire to snap a salute at the departing officer.
"How did it go?" asked Mercy.
Percy threw down the ship's papers. "He said the monks looked bad and might not make it."
"That's a fact," commented Mercy. "But will *we*?"
Percy ignored this rhetorical question. "I've got a bad feeling about this boat, Mercy. SpecOps installed new heat insulation behind the bulkheads in the engine room. Why would they do that? The ship is going to be vaporized, soon."
"Who cares, as long as we don't get vaporized with it?"
"`Small tactical device,' my ass. To do any serious damage to that base from the spaceport, SpecOps' egg has to be a city-buster."
"True," agreed Percy. "And maybe more."
"I'll show you when we land."
"The egg's inside there."
Percy pointed to a carefully-enlarged, closed subcompartment. It was the housing for the engine control system. Components had been removed or rearranged to make room for the bomb. This was what had caused the Fairhaven inspector to make his comment on the state of the reaction engines.
"Sealed shut, so it can't even be inspected by us," said Mercy.
Percy took a screwdriver from the tool locker and began removing the screws in a bulkhead plate. "I want you to see this weird new insulation." He removed the plate, exposing a block of solidfoam.
"Look at the metal particles in it. Does that seem right?"
"No. Let's have a closer look at it."
Percy used his screwdriver to pry loose the insulation block. He pulled it free---and almost dropped it.
"What the hell!... Feel how much it weighs." He handed the block to Mercy.
She hefted it. "It's full of heavy metal. No wonder this damn ship's been handling slugglishly. We're carrying some unlisted weight.
Percy removed a speck of the metal and put it into his SpectraBuddy, a portable analyzer. They both looked at the readout.
Cobalt. Rich in isotope 59.
"Shit! Those bastards have turned this ship into a cobalt bomb! It'll keep this whole region radioactive for years.... Fuck them. I'm not setting off a cobalt bomb, here or anywhere else."
Mercy's anger was not tempered by Percy's analysis. "They've probably clad the egg in cobalt, too. SpecOps is aiming for wide-area denial ---starbase, spaceport, and capital city.
Their discovery of the concealed nature of the bomb activated the agents' natural paranoia.
"If they've done something sneaky like that, we'd better assume the egg's timer is actually running right now," concluded Percy.
"Sure. In case we have a change of heart, or find out about this lovely `insulation' and say `no way!'"
"I don't know how to verify my suspicion, but the CO did warn us that the egg *had* to hatch, if only to protect its secret, new radiation shielding. So they must have figured that something bad might happen to us before we could start the timer. They'd have to allow for that possibility by timing the bomb to explode sometime after we were scheduled to arrive."
Mercy squinted her cold, gray eyes. "Sure. I'll bet we don't count at all. The clock's probably been running down since we took their good old Albatross out of the shipyard."
"Or worse... What if setting the timer triggers the bomb, right then and there? It wouldn't be the first time they've pulled that stunt, and sacrificed a field-agent.... It's time for us to modify our mission parameters---and leave this bucket."
"But, the cobalt? We can't salt this place with that stuff. I don't want to go down in history as a mass murderer and freak-maker."
Percy's face wrinkled as he furiously calculated their options. He began rummaging through the tool locker. "They've removed anything we might use to cut through the weldments on the housing." He turned to Mercy. "We can't get to the egg in time."
Fortunately for them, Mercy had a pilot's idea.
"The remote control... We can launch her from outside."
"That's it! We'll send our unlucky Albatross into the ionosphere, or as far up as it'll go before the egg hatches.... Where's that remote control?"
"It's in a lockbox on the bridge bulkhead."
They ran for the bridge.
"I hope they didn't remove the remote, too." Mercy got to the lockbox, first. "It has a codelock. Get a screwdriver."
"It's too strong for that. Where's the lock code? I can get a prybar if we can't unlock it."
"It must be in the shipcomp's general codefile." Mercy ran to the flight-control console and began tapping keys. After she input her Pilot's password, the shipcomp displayed a file of internal access codes. "Let's see... remote control unit... here... it's 4278."
Percy punched the code. The box's door unlatched. He opened it and retrieved the handheld unit inside. "Let's get her ready for launch, then grab our bags and go." Even when fleeing, Percy desired to be well-dressed. He was literally itching to change his identity to something more genteel.
"Skip the bags. We'll put some stuff into backpacks. We can't be burdened with bags. We've got to run for the hills. The bomb might go off when we launch the ship."
Their hands shook as they sat at the flight control console, prepping the Albatross for a remotely-initiated launch. Now they imagined, at every step, invisible actuators that might secretly trigger the bomb. The ship came alive with pre-launch sounds and lights. Soon, she needed only a radio signal from afar to send her leaping into the starry sky.
They rushed to their quarters.
The Fairhaven customs officials had told them to wait in the ship for an inspection. Percy looked out a porthole into the garishly lighted darkness of the spaceport. He could see no party heading for the Albatross from the distant Customs building.
Although it was night on this side of Fairhaven, the spaceport hummed and bustled with routine activity. The Haveners were hastily stocking up on imported goods before the imperial Terran authorities could institute trade sanctions against their world.
"There's a long inspection queue. They're checking the bigger ships, first. Monkcicles aren't a priority. Should we walk through Customs? Do we have time?"
"Screw Customs. We'll go through the fence. Bring a boltcutter."
Percy scrutinized the spaceport fence with his minibinoculars. "The fence looks flimsy, but it's probably intrusion-alarmed."
"We'll have to take that chance. We don't have time for formalities."
They gathered their goods and left the doomed Albatross to her fate.
Percy and Mercy made it to the spaceport fence without stirring up any hornets. They strode casually without looking back, as if they belonged out there. They cradled their backpacks before them like local workers carrying their burdens, but they expected to hear a security patrol's siren at any second.... None sounded, though.
They chose an area near the fence where some cargo containers were temporarily stored. Behind these, they could break out, so long as they didn't set off any alarms doing so. All "NO TRESPASSING" signs on the fence faced outward. There was a single, suspicious-looking, cable threaded through the holes at the top of the fence. The agents concentrated their vandalism at the bottom.
"These people don't seem to be on much of a wartime footing," said Percy as he strained at the cutter.
"They will be," replied Mercy.
He clipped the tough fence wires and bent them outward until he had made a hole big enough for the two of them to wriggle through. While he worked, Mercy kept a watch for patrol vehicles. In her hand was a plastic airpistol, a kind that was not detectable except by a body search. She was prepared to shoot, pneumatically, anybody who got seriously in their way.
"Let's move." They pushed their backpacks through the hole, then pulled themselves through. Mercy let out a string of curses when she jabbed herself on the sharp end of a clipped wire.
Outside the fence, they found themselves facing the rear sides of warehouses. Here, the long buildings were clustered in a string adjacent to the spaceport. "We're damn lucky we were screened from the street while you were working on that fence," said Mercy.
They moved between two brick warehouses to the street in front. Casually, but hurriedly, the duo made their way to a main avenue and hailed an autotaxi. The driverless vehicle took them to a maglev station, where they grabbed the first train headed away from the city.
Several times, Percy anxiously looked back toward the spaceport, until Mercy reminded him of the danger. "Don't look back. You want to lose your eyesight in case the egg hatches prematurely?"
"Nope." He looked forward at the onrushing darkness. "Just my job."
They peered over the crest of a hillock well outside the Fairhaven capital. This big bump in a grassy pasture offered them sufficient protection from a low-altitude airburst. From here, they could launch the Albatross by remote control.
"I can just make out the spaceport and the starbase," said Percy. "We should be farther out, but I want to see the ship going up. I want to know we succeeded in getting her off the surface."
They had alighted from the maglev at its outer suburban terminus, and had walked into a cow-manured pasture near a new housing estate. From the hillock, the higher lights of the distant capital city could also be seen.
"Let her rip," said Percy. "And hope the Haveners haven't boarded her and shut her down." He crossed his fingers.
Mercy pulled up the remote control's antenna and held it above the crest of the hillock for a clear shot at the squatting Albatross, while they ducked-down in case the egg hatched at launch. The ship awaited their signal. Mercy lifted a switch-cover. "Ready?"
"Do it." She pushed the button. On the unit, a red XMIT light glowed.
Then a green RCVD light---the ship sending back its confirmation of the order to launch.
They lay restlessly on the grass below the crest. They wanted to rise and watch the ship launching, but they were afraid they might be flooded with the awful flash of detonation, a pulse of radiation that from a low-altitude airburst could char paint, below.
Finally, Percy could stand it no longer. He dug out his minibinocs and scanned the sky for Albatross's rocket plume. "I see her. She's on her way."
Mercy grabbed the binocs and searched for the ship's fiery trace. "I can't see her.... Oh, there she is.... Go, you bitch bird!"
"We can relax, now. SpecOps' egg may hatch but it can't bite us."
The two would-be terrorists lay on the cold ground in silence, as the cobalt bomb theoretically increased its circle of damage. The plume dwindled to the size of a bright star. Finally it winked out, as the ship poked through some high cirrus clouds, heading for orbit. The agents talked about their futures, now in peril because of their failure to follow orders and hatch the egg properly.
"We ought to stay together 'til we get to someplace fairly safe," said Percy, wistfully. "Then we should separate to make it more difficult for them to find us."
Mercy agreed. "I know a nice humanoid world that wouldn't hand us over to imperial Terra for love or money. We could settle down there and lose ourselves in the crowd."
Percy mused. "I think I'll become a freeholder. I know gardening. I could go into truck farming. I've got some capital stashed in a place The Org doesn't know about."
"I can't picture you getting down and dirty in real dirt."
"Dirt's what we have under our fingernails, my dear. Plants grow in *soil*. But if you can't picture me doing that, The Org probably won't.... So, what do you plan to do in a city?
"Well, I thought I might..."
Their pastoral world was silvered, as though a photographer had just taken their picture with a large magnesium lamp. The ghastly white light marked the end of their special operation, the end of the old Albatross, and the beginning of a long flight from their employers.
It seemed so strange. After all their involvement with their big firecracker, they were unable able to hear its bang. No one could. The egg had hatched high in the rarefied air of Fairhaven's upper stratosphere.
Mercy said, softly, "I guess we've just created a new radiation belt around this planet."
"After the upper winds disperse it, the hot stuff will probably be spread too thin to have any serious effects," opined Percy with an uncertain optimism. "Anyway, better to have most of it up there than down here."
He checked his wristwatch.
"My watch has stopped. The EMP probably burned out every unshielded semiconductor device within kilometers of ground zero." They could see that the platform lights of the nearby maglev station were flickering. "I'll bet the street lamps in the city are out, now."
"Oh, darn. There goes our chance for hero medals."
Percy stood up. He stretched and yawned. "But we can sleep, now."
Mercy stood beside him. "Let's steal a groundcar, if we can find one that still works. We've got to get well-away from here. Some of that goddamn cobalt will fall out."
"Good idea." They began walking upwind.
"Yeccch!" exclaimed Mercy, as she stepped into a fresh cowpat, then scraped her shoe vigorously on the grass.
"Cow manure's good fertilizer," recalled Percy, his mind already on his future closer to the earth.
"No kidding, Farmer Brown? Tell me more."
Percy was correct. Unshielded semiconductor damage was widespread for many square-kilometers around ground zero at the spaceport. The bomb's electromagnetic pulse had disabled many electronic machines this part of Fairhaven routinely depended upon. Street lamps in the capital city and elsewhere were indeed extinguished for a time.
The egg's hatching had an unintended, but desirable effect.
The war between Fairhaven and imperial Terra sputtered to a halt. The two worlds were too far apart to sustain a serious conflict. Fairhaven didn't want any more nuclear bombings, so it reached a diplomatic accommodation with their former masters which set a precedent for colonial quasi-independence.
As part of the agreement, the Haveners had to allow Terrans to study the effects of the bombing. They were also obliged to hand over the "rogue" agents who had set off the bomb. But these had moved on to another planet where The Org's pernicious influence was weak.
Percy became a market gardener. He also sold fresh eggs. Later, he wrote a book about his and Mercy's experiences in The Org. It was banned on Terra and all its colonies, but it sold well elsewhere.
Mercy became a martial-arts and physical fitness instructor. When Percy's book came out, she quit her job and dropped out of sight.
The capital of Fairhaven was moved, and grass grew in the streets of the old city. It was a symbol of renewal.
Frederick Rustam is a retired civil servant who writes science fiction for the Web as a hobby. He formerly indexed technical documents for the Department of Defense. He finds constructing imaginary worlds of the future to be more rewarding than indexing the technology of our times.
As to other of his works, he says: "I have no webpage. My Web existence is entirely in ezines, mostly of the SFF&H variety. As a substitute for a webpage, I've been indexed by the Web search engines, and my readers can read some of my other stories by this means. As a former indexer, I find this gratifying."
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