<![if !supportEmptyParas]> <![endif]>
Nightwatch created by Jeff Williams
<![if !supportEmptyParas]> <![endif]>
Simon Litchfield raised his arms over his head and stretched until the vertebrae in his spine crackled and popped into better alignment. He opened and closed his hands several times, spreading the fingers as far apart as possible each time and flexing his wrists. Finally feeling that he had temporarily banished the stiffness and pain that had begun to plague him more frequently over the past months, he laid his right index finger on the fingerprint reader to unlock his office computer.
"Good morning, Doctor Litchfield," the computer said. "It is Tuesday, October 22nd, 8:05 AM. The temperature is 59 degrees Fahrenheit, humidity is 72 percent, and the probability of precipitation is estimated to be 32 percent."
"What's on the agenda today?" Simon asked. He could have consulted his handheld computer, but the damned thing hadn't been picking up wireless updates reliably since his trip to the Amazon -- probably mold in the works, or dust from the underground lab-cum-slave pens.
"You have no meetings scheduled," the computer said. "The scheduled Major Projects Committee meeting has been postponed due to an emergency situation."
Simon frowned. On the one hand, anything that got him out of a Major Projects Committee meeting was a blessing. On the other hand, Jared Molinski would not postpone the meeting unless there was a serious problem somewhere in the world -- one already involving the Nightwatch Institute or one where its services were likely to be needed.
"You have 12 messages, none marked urgent. Would you like to review them now?"
Simon pulled his chair closer to the desk with its built-in display. "Might as well."
"The first message is a voice-only communication from Melvin Squibb."
"Hey, Doctor Litchfield. I received your request to have someone take a look at your handheld. One of my boys will pick it up this afternoon and bring a loaner to ya. Hope the wireless protocols are working well enough to dupe your data..."
Simon rolled his eyes. Squibb was a master of gadgetry -- procuring it as soon as it was released from exclusive use by intelligence agencies, manufacturers, and -- for all Simon knew -- little green men. But somehow, his expertise did not cover the proper use of a microphone. This message, like every recording of Squibb's voice that Simon had ever heard, was punctuated by the sounds of Melvin's breathing, the scraping of the microphone against his clothing or hair, something that was probably chewing and swallowing ... The remark about using the handheld's wireless communications capabilities to copy data to the loaner unit was also a bit ridiculous, since it was the wireless communications that seemed to be failing. It was unfortunate that Stephanie Keel's group had given up its role in supporting the unending stream of new hardware that Squibb kept supplying. Thanks to Stephanie, they were the most competent bunch of circuit and software jockeys that Simon had ever dealt with.
"Next message," Simon said.
The following messages were mostly routine business -- updates on engineering projects that Simon had overseen on behalf of the Institute on three continents, a few forwarded jokes, one brief greeting from Morna -- still tinged with a mixture of affection and contempt, unfortunately. But the final message was something special.
"The twelfth and final message is from Erik Stevensson. It is in video format. Playing message."
Simon grinned. He hadn't heard from Erik Stevensson in several years. The Swedish bridge building specialist had worked on more than one project with Simon and personnel from UNESCO and other agencies, but had semi-retired almost five years ago. They'd had some interesting times together, though -- the big Swede was more than a decade older than Simon, but had proven himself in more than one of the 'situations' that Simon seemed to attract.
"Simon, my friend, greetings from the land of the most beautiful blondes in the world! When are you coming to Sweden so I can introduce you to some of my favorites?"
Simon shook his head. Stevensson was still lean and fit; his hair was as thick and wavy as ever, although it had probably been snow-white long before Simon's had even started to turn gray. No doubt he could still charm a roomful of women -- the bastard had stolen more than one from Simon's clutches.
"If that is not enough reason to come visit me, maybe this is -- I shot it last week while hiking in Abisko Park, near Mount Kebnekaise."
Stevensson's image was replaced by a grainy view of a late-twilight sky. Various digital artifacts suggested that the video had been enhanced to bring out more detail in the poorly lit landscape.
"The dark lump in the middle is Mount Kebnekaise," Stevensson's voice said. "You can make out a few stars, too -- the air is very clean in Sweden, compared to your cities -- and especially above the Arctic Circle. But it is not the mountain or the stars that will interest you, my friend. Watch the upper right corner of the picture -- now!"
At the indicated moment, two pinpricks of light appeared, brightening until they overwhelmed the camera's contrast circuitry and the picture dissolved into a chaotic pattern of black and white rectangles. Just before the image broke up, Simon thought he had seen the specks elongating, stretching from points into streaks of brilliance like sunlight penetrating a scratched piece of smoked glass.
Stevensson's face reappeared. "Whatever that was, it almost ruined my camera," he said. "Maybe you remember the stories of 'ghost rockets' over Sweden near the end of the Second World War, and again in 1947 -- this reminded me of those stories."
Simon grimaced. "Maybe you remember them, my friend -- I'm not quite that old." On the other hand, he was talking to a recording.
"The rockets observed during the war were early versions of the V2," Stevensson said. "The Swedish government even traded the remains of one to the British for other military materiel. But the ones from 1947 were never explained. Some theorized that they were Russian rocket experiments, performed with the help of captured German scientists from Peenemunde."
"Bloody fascinating, Erik, but why would you think I'd care?"
"You are interested in strange occurrences, as I recall," Stevensson said, almost as if he had heard Simon's question. "For some kind of rockets to be flying over Sweden is strange, but maybe not strange enough for you. But there is more."
Simon frowned. Now that he thought about it, the sudden appearance of the rocket exhaust in mid-air was peculiar. An aircraft going to afterburners would not have generated light anywhere near as bright as what he had just seen; on the other hand, any chemical rocket would have been visible as a moving spot or streak of light from the moment of launch until engine shutdown.
"I think I captured images of rockets carried to high altitude using balloons," Stevensson said. "That way, there would be no visible trace until the engines were ignited."
"The Canadian daVinci Project entry in the Ansari X Prize competition was like that," Simon said to himself. "Odd that someone would be recycling the idea now, but --"
"What is especially strange is that neither the hypothetical balloons nor the rockets ever showed up on radar," Stevensson said. "I have contacts in the Swedish Air Force who checked for any reports of unusual activity, and they came up with no unidentified radar tracks at the time of the recording."
"Stealth balloons? Stealth housings on the rockets as well?"
"So, my friend who enjoys mysteries -- why would someone be launching rockets in the far north, and making them as close to invisible as possible? Something to think about!"
"End of message," the computer said.
"Draft reply to message just played," Simon said. "Voice only. Message start: Erik, you old bastard, you've captured my interest. I don't think I'll be able to come to Sweden to tramp around the frozen north hunting more of your ghost rockets -- at least not right away -- but I would like to follow up on the ones you saw. If you can, please send me as much info as possible on the location where you shot that video -- map coordinates from your GPS, the exact time and date, and the approximate bearing. No, scrap that last -- if you provide your GPS coordinates, we can calculate the bearing from the image of Mount Kebnekaise."
"The only reason I can imagine for someone using stealthed balloons to launch stealthed rockets is that they wanted to keep the launches secret -- and failing that, they wanted to disguise the origin of the rockets. That's not a good sign, as I'm sure you guessed."
"Hope to hear from you soon. Save me a blonde or two -- depending on what I can uncover, maybe I will make it there for a visit. I've got cold weather gear, but a warm blonde beats a parka any day. End message. Transmit."
Simon absently massaged the knuckles of his right hand, trying to lessen the stiffness that was already creeping back in after his morning exercises. Did he need to involve Callow and the Lower Echelon in this? Perhaps not -- from the sound of things, they were likely to be occupied with whatever the crisis of the day turned out to be. In fact, once they had decided on a course of action, Callow would probably call on Simon to go forth and risk his impeccably clad butt yet again.
"Carpe diem," Simon said. "If I want answers on this, I'd best pursue them myself while I have the time."
While he waited for a reply from Erik, Simon researched the park that the Swedish engineer had mentioned. It was, indeed, above the Arctic Circle, somewhere only Erik would go in winter for 'fun'. The whole of Sweden, of course, was tantalizingly close to former Soviet territory -- the southern coast was a few hundred kilometers from the old Riga base, while the northern portion was separated from the Northern Fleet base at Murmansk by only four or five hundred kilometers. Dirigibles had crossed the Atlantic nearly a century ago -- the distance from former Soviet borders to Sweden was tiny by comparison.
Of course, as Alexei Yakonov had pointed out in Afghanistan only a few months ago, Soviet hardware and expertise had been for sale to anyone with enough money since the early 90's. And money -- especially hard currency, euros or American dollars -- could buy cooperation from governments struggling to function without the collective economic and military clout of Mother Russia behind them.
So -- postulate a group, not necessarily affiliated with any government, with the money to buy Soviet stealth and booster technology, able to operate from somewhere within dirigible range of Sweden. What were they launching? Not missiles -- at least not yet. There had been no reports of large-scale explosions attributable to any kind of high-yield warhead.
If the boosters were powerful enough, they could put fair-sized payloads into orbit -- polar orbit, anyway, like some of the ERTS mapping satellites. Polar orbits rather sucked for military or surveillance purposes; they passed over areas of interest for only a tiny fraction of the time. But why hide the launches if they didn't have some military or nefarious (he loved that word, and sadly, did get to use it a lot, working for Callow) purpose?
Maybe once he received a reply from Erik, he'd have enough to feed to his friends at the NSA and CIA. Stealthy or not, the ignition of rocket boosters at altitude had almost certainly been detected by the web of launch-detection satellites still orbiting from the good old days when ICBM attacks had been the expected mechanism for the start of Armageddon...
"Incoming message," the computer said.
"Mr. Callow's office," the computer replied. "Message is in text format. Message follows: Dr. Litchfield, please meet me in the usual place in ten minutes. End of message."
"Thus endeth my free time," Simon grunted. He stood, brushing the wrinkles from his crisp khaki trousers and jacket, and headed for the library.
On the way to the library, where Callow insisted on holding his semi-clandestine briefings, Simon found Stephanie standing outside the room that housed the Institute's main file servers. She had a handheld computer in one hand, and a few crumpled pages of some arcane report in the other, but her gaze was directed -- elsewhere.
"Stephanie, my dear, you look a bit lost," Simon said.
Startled, Stephanie took a step backward, exhaling sharply as her back hit the wall.
"What? I -- no, I was just thinking --"
"She's not dead," Simon said. "Celinde Gryphius is not dead. There was no body, and not even much blood anywhere near the spot where we found you."
Stephanie looked at him sharply. "I wasn't thinking about that," she said. "I -- she deserved to die, anyway -- the things she did to those people, the things she planned to do --"
Simon laid one hand on her shoulder. "You have to let it go, Stephanie. Celinde was a monster -- is a monster -- like her husband. Someday, she will emerge from hiding, and we will deal with her then. But you can't let what she did, or what you tried to do, take over your life."
"I tried to kill her," Stephanie said. "Whether she's alive or not, I tried to kill her, put at least three bullets into her. After all the times I've criticized you for -- for --"
"For taking lives," Simon said. "Don't imagine for a moment that I ever take a life gladly, or that I ever forget what I have done. I am an engineer, when Callow lets me be one -- my business is building things, fixing things, making life better for people. But there are times when innocent lives are in the balance, or my own life -- I haven't counted myself as 'innocent' in a long, long time. And at those times, sometimes taking one life, or even several, is the least of the available evils."
"Hardly a fit subject for discussion in the hallway, Dr. Litchfield," Callow said.
Stephanie seemed to retreat into herself, almost cringing, and Simon was torn between comforting her and breaking Callow's jaw.
"I was just on my way to see you, Callow," Simon said. He reached for Stephanie's hand, but she turned and vanished through the door of the server room.
"You should leave the psychotherapy to your friend Dr. Weldon," Callow said. "He knows far more than he should about our affairs, but that makes him a suitable resource for dealing with problems like Ms. Keel's."
"That's quite enough, Callow," Simon said. "Let's get your little briefing out of the way."
The Popular Culture section of the Nightwatch Institute library was empty, as usual. The bookcases and racks of magazines and discs formed a self-contained alcove near the rear of the room, insulated by distance and snobbery from the more frequented areas. Simon suspected that Callow had special sound-deadening materials built into the floor, ceiling, walls, and the bookcases themselves -- anything short of a shouting match would be unintelligible from more than a few meters away.
Callow had his handheld computer and a large fold-out display set up on the table as he had often done. There was a large, muscular man standing by the table, apparently standing guard; he left the area when he saw Callow returning.
"That's new," Simon said. "You've never posted a guard over your little home theater before."
"If you will please take a seat, you'll see that we've never faced a threat like this before, either," Callow said.
Grimacing, Simon complied. "So what is this 'threat'? Does it have anything to do with the emergency that made Jared cancel this morning's meeting?"
Callow said nothing, but tapped the screen of his handheld computer and gestured toward the larger screen.
An image appeared -- a satellite view of --
"Alaska?" Simon asked.
Callow nodded, but said nothing.
A dark silhouette filled the center of the screen, blotting out most of the satellite image. Then an electronically generated voice began to speak.
"You do not know us. You do not need to know us. What you do need to know is this: we have the means to cause devastating earthquakes in the state of Alaska and adjacent areas. This will destroy pipelines and refineries that provide a major part of the petroleum and natural gas supply of the Western United States. It will also trigger tsunamis -- tidal waves -- that will cause hundreds of billions, if not trillions, in damage to coastal areas around the northern Pacific. I need not mention that thousands of lives will also be lost."
Simon shook his head. "Is this from some straight-to-download spy movie?"
"Shut up, Dr. Litchfield. And watch, and listen."
The voice continued, "Gradual thawing of the permafrost in Alaska and the Canadian Arctic has already caused minor seismic events. We will accelerate this process a thousandfold, causing subsidence of the soil on a massive scale. Imagine the shock wave caused by a mass equal to that of the island of Manhattan dropping perhaps half a meter..."
The screen showed footage from the California earthquake of 1989 -- collapsed and burned out buildings, the top level of the Cypress viaduct of Interstate 880 pancaked onto the roadway below. Then the scene changed, showing news footage of quake damage in China, India, Mexico City ... Finally, a view appeared of an intact city that Simon recognized as Fairbanks, the largest city in Alaska.
"We will carry out this plan unless a fee of one trillion euros is deposited in the following accounts..."
Callow tapped his screen, pausing the playback. "The few experts who are cleared for this information say that the threat is plausible."
"Plausible? Exactly how would they melt a few trillion tonnes of frozen ground 'a thousandfold' faster than global bloody warming is already doing?"
"We don't know," Callow said. "But watch this next part." He tapped his screen again, and the video playback resumed.
"... Naturally, you doubt our ability to do what we have said. Accordingly, we will trigger a small seismic event -- approximate Richter magnitude 3.2 -- at 68 degrees 21 minutes north by 147 degrees 13 minutes west, at precisely 3 PM, Pacific Standard Time, on the date you receive this message "
"Those coordinates fall just east of the National Petroleum Reserve," Callow said.
"It's almost 3 PM Eastern Time," Simon said. "I guess we'll know in a few hours whether the threat is real."
Callow snorted. "Perhaps I should have mentioned that the message was received yesterday. We were called in because the predicted seismic event happened on schedule. It was a 3.1, not a 3.2, but that hardly matters."
"My God," Simon said. "What is being done? Are the governments in the affected countries raising the ransom?"
"They are trying," Callow said. "Obviously, a trillion euros is a rather significant sum, even for the United States or the European Union. The major part of the burden is falling upon the United States and Japan, as the two nations with the most to lose, but other Pacific Rim nations are contributing -- somewhat."
"They can't be using land-based equipment to do this," Simon said. "I can't think of anything that could affect that broad an area that wouldn't be screamingly obvious to even crude detection methods."
"Yet there are no orbiting facilities with anything resembling the specialized capabilities required for this," Callow said. "And a suitcase nuke would be a threat in itself, not something you would use to melt permafrost."
"Shit. There are no known orbiting facilities," Simon said. "Let me tell you about a message I just received from a friend of mine in Sweden..."
"I don't know what to do, Tom," Stephanie said. "I'm almost afraid to close my eyes, because every time I do, I'm back in the jungle. I can feel the gun jump in my hand, smell the smoke, hear the crack of each shot as I pull the trigger again and again. And I see her --"
Stephanie had called Tom Weldon as soon as she had finished her work in the Nightwatch Institute file server room -- something that had taken at least twice as long as it should have. Tom had agreed to see her immediately, rescheduling his afternoon appointments, and Stephanie had made the drive from Georgetown to Arlington before the worst of the afternoon rush turned the 395 into a parking lot. That, too, had taken longer than usual; all Stephanie's skills as a driver seemed to have been swept away by the rising maelstrom of guilt and anxiety. But finally, she had reached the L'Enfant Building and the safe haven of Tom's office.
Stephanie sat in one of the guest chairs, her hands gripping the carved wood of the armrests hard enough to make the tendons in her wrists stand out. Tom was in his big, battered leather captain's chair, the only piece of furniture in the room that looked sturdy enough to support his heavily muscled frame. Two cups of brandy-fortified coffee occupied the table between them, next to the not-quite-antique intercom box.
Stephanie took a cautious sip from her cup, wary of the amount of brandy that Tom had added. As she had suspected, the coffee to brandy ratio was perilously close to one to one.
Tom sighed. "Simon mentioned that you seemed agitated and distracted this morning," he said. "It's been several weeks now since we got back from Brazil. I thought you were coming to terms with what happened there -- but apparently I'm not as smart as I like to think I am."
He took a drink from his own cup, closing his eyes as the warmth of the brandy snaked its way through his body. After a moment, he said, "It would be more understandable if you had actually killed Celinde -- taking a life under any circumstances goes against conditioning that is deeply-ingrained in all of us. Except for psychopaths, of course, like Celinde and her not-so-dearly-departed husband."
Stephanie shook her head, hard enough to dislodge the pins holding her hair back. "I keep telling you, and Simon too -- what matters to me is that I tried to kill her. That cardenio somehow gave her the strength to escape even with three or four bullets in her doesn't matter -- I pulled the trigger. I tried to end her life. I was close enough to see what each bullet did to her, saw the blood spray, saw her body jerk with each impact, but I kept firing..."
"You knew what she had done," Tom said. "She had enslaved the Parumami, was working them to death, and was killing without conscience anyone who got in her way. God knows what kinds of hell her test subjects endured -- I suspect that the victims we found were only the latest in a long series. And you knew what she planned to do, selling the secrets of cardenio and other unique and dangerous drugs to the highest bidder. Any court on the planet would condemn her to death, or at least to life in prison."
"It doesn't matter!" Stephanie said. "I trained -- after Simon got me out of William Gryphius's clutches, I spent months learning to fight, to shoot -- Ora Namir, a female Mossad agent, taught me krav maga, taught me to use pistols, submachine guns, knives. But I never, never wanted to learn to kill."
"You're a long way from being a pacifist, Stephanie," Tom said. "Since I've known you, you've probably done more damage than I have --"
Stephanie laughed bitterly. "Only a fool or an egomaniac would pick a fight with you," she said. "I, on the other hand, am just a woman, so a lot of people figure I'm an easy target. That's what William Gryphius saw when he picked me to join his little menagerie -- just a woman, someone he could overpower and abuse at will."
Tom smiled. "Nobody makes that mistake anymore. At least not more than once."
Suddenly Stephanie's face crumpled and she began to cry. "It wasn't a mistake then. It wasn't."
Tom stood and walked around the table and took Stephanie in his massive arms. He and Simon were among the very few men whom Stephanie would allow to hold her without asking permission.
"This isn't just about Celinde, Steph," Tom said. "I see that now. It's about everything that's happened to you over the past few years. It's about control of your life -- William Gryphius took it away from you for a time, and Celinde Gryphius made you give it away, made you go against your most sacred beliefs out of rage and -- fear. God knows she scared the hell out of me -- I can take a punch, but she dropped me with one shot."
Stephanie laughed again, and this time it sounded more like the woman he knew -- allowing for the runny nose and the muffling effects of his shirt, of course.
Stephanie put her hands on Tom's chest and pushed him away, gently. She frowned, peering closely at his shirt, then laughed again.
"I think I left a little snot on your shirt," she said.
Tom winced, gingerly tugging at his damp shirtfront to unstick it from his chest. "I'll add the cleaning bill to your account," he said.
While Tom returned to his seat, Stephanie took a longer drink of her now-cooling coffee. "Do you think it's true?" she asked. "Are my nightmares about shooting Celinde tangled up with memories of what William did to me?"
"I think it's worth exploring," Tom said. "Having feelings you had safely buried exhumed on the trip down to Brazil, and then finding new horrors linked to another Gryphius -- I can't imagine how hard that must have been for you."
"I thought I had it under control," Stephanie said. "But Kevin getting shot, the Parumami, the dead infant -- who might have been an adult before Celinde started working on him -- I was afraid, and angry, and lost. And when Celinde jumped me, all I could think of was lashing out at her, making it all stop."
"And you had a gun in your hand, so 'lashing out' turned into pulling a trigger," Tom said. "If you had been unarmed, you probably would have tried to fight Celinde hand-to-hand. With her unnatural strength and speed against your training, I don't know who would have won -- but I'm betting that you would not be feeling as guilty as you do now. Assuming that you survived, of course -- Celinde wouldn't have hesitated to kill you."
Stephanie said nothing, so Tom continued. "You didn't set out to kill Celinde. She attacked you, and you reacted instinctively. With your stress levels already off the scale, maybe one might say you overreacted -- but there was only one killer in that dust-up, and it wasn't you."
"I lost control," Stephanie said slowly. "I let Celinde -- and the situation -- overwhelm me."
"I think that's part of what is causing you so much pain," Tom said. "After William Gryphius, you did everything you could to make yourself strong, so nobody could control you or abuse you again. Trying to kill Celinde seemed to show that you were weaker than you thought you were, weak enough to abandon your principles under pressure."
"That makes sense, I guess," Stephanie said. "If I'm weak, then I have cause to be afraid again."
"You're not weak, Steph," Tom said. "You're one of the strongest people I know, in every sense of the word. You've been on missions that Navy SEALs would turn down, faced danger and just plain weirdness that would turn most people into permanent basket cases. But everybody has limits, and at Pico Neblina, you had too much land on you at once. I'd bet my life that you'll be as effective as ever once you get your head around that fact. Failing once doesn't mean that you'll fail again -- it just means that you're human."
Stephanie sighed, then drained the last of the brandy-laced coffee from her cup. "Thanks, Coach, she said. "I feel a little better. Just talking to you about it helps a lot. The brandy doesn't hurt, either."
Tom laughed. "I'm charging that to your account, too. Normally I save this bottle to go with my monthly cigar."
"Simon tries to help me, but somehow talking to him about this makes me feel even more anxious," Stephanie said.
Tom nodded. "Makes sense, when we consider the William Gryphius factor. Simon was your knight in khaki armor -- but he was there, he's tangled up with the worst moments of your life. And he killed Gryphius, practically right in front of you, so he's both a hero -- and another monster."
"Promise me you'll never tell him that," Stephanie said. "I love him -- although not the way he might want me to -- and I know it would hurt him to think that being around him might cause me pain."
"Therapist - patient privilege," Tom said. "I don't tell him things that come out here -- and I don't tell you things that he tells me, either."
Stephanie paused in mid-sip. "You know all his secrets," she said.
Tom grinned. "Probably not all, but I know a few things that you don't."
Groaning, Stephanie said, "Now that will give me something different to obsess about!"
Within a few hours of Simon's query, Erik Stevensson sent back the GPS coordinates where he had recorded the 'ghost rocket' video. Simon relayed the information to his CIA and NSA contacts -- as it turned out, they were part of the task force assigned to deal with the massive blackmail scheme, and were able to give top priority to the new data.
"This is hot stuff, Simon," Alan Delarue said over a secure video link. "Fortunately for us, the satellites tasked with covering the sub bases at Riga and Murmansk were already performing surveillance of that general area. Once we knew where to look and what to look for, the computers flagged dozens of launch indications in the same general area as the ones your friend saw."
"And no one thought this was worth mentioning?"
Delarue shrugged. "The launch indications didn't match the profile for any known weapon or military aircraft, including air-to-air and cruise missiles. Besides, they were over Sweden -- not exactly a haven for terrorists or world-conquering armies."
"What in God's name could they be doing?" Simon asked. "Why dozens of launches?"
"If you're right and they're putting some kind of hardware up there to make Baked Alaska --" Delarue waited for Simon to laugh, but gave up after a few seconds and continued. "Ahem. They'd want as many birds in orbit as possible. If each launch put one or more doohickeys into a polar orbit, they'd need a lot of them to ensure they could get fairly constant coverage of the target area."
Simon nodded. "Whoever is behind this scheme may need a trillion dollars just to pay the bills. Any chance that the orbiting weapons we're not supposed to have could shoot some of these 'birds' down?"
Delarue shook his head. "The missile defense platforms were never intended to intercept stuff that's already achieved orbit. They were designed to catch things during the launch or reentry phases of a ballistic trajectory. Also, we still haven't been able to track the damn things -- the stealth technology is state of the art, way too effective for any of the space surveillance radar to see them."
"Then we have to find the launch site," Simon said. "Not Sweden, of course. I mean the place where the balloons or dirigibles or whatever they are being released."
"That could be tough, even if we retask every satellite that can have its orbit shifted to cover the area," Delarue said. "Your 'ghost rocket' carriers have a pretty low infra-red signature until the rocket engines are ignited, and they're probably camouflaged -- white on top, black on the bottom for night flying over snow, so they'll be hard to detect optically, as well."
"What about radar tracking?"
"Are you going 'deef', Simon? I told you, these things -- the rockets, the satellites, and even the balloons or whatever they're using to get them up and over Sweden -- they're all damn near invisible to any radar."
"Then they should cast a shadow of sorts," Simon said. "Suppose you did a radar sweep from high altitude, aimed downward. The signal would be reflected by the ground -- but not by our oh-so-stealthy dirigibles."
"Huh. If we put AWACS aircraft above the altitude where the launches take place -- not too much higher, because we'd want the targets to block a wide enough angle to make things obvious..."
"I leave it to you and our military counterparts to see if my idea is practical," Simon said. "Of course, we must hope that our extortionist friends keep launching more satellites until we can at least obtain a vector to their base."
"That, and that we can pull this off before the deadline," Delarue said. "I wonder if we can put in for a cut of the ransom money if we manage to stop this scheme?"
Simon grinned. "Perhaps I might -- but you work for the government, remember."
"Damn. Guess I'll have to settle for saving a bunch of people from getting quaked or tsunami-ed to death."
"Let me know how it goes," Simon said.
Delarue nodded and closed the video link.
It was painfully obvious to Simon that Stephanie's skills might be vital in the field once the extortionists' base was found. An assault team could storm any structure, no matter how well defended, but simply blowing up the control center for the rogue satellites might be worse than doing nothing at all. As an engineer, Simon guessed that the satellites had enough 'intelligence' built in to carry out their mission unless countermanded from the ground -- it was how he would have arranged things, if he were a psychopathic genius (or the group equivalent of one). No, someone would have to penetrate the control center and take over the computers controlling the operation of the satellites -- and Stephanie was the best-qualified person for the job.
But she had been suffering terribly since the events at Pico Neblina, doubting herself in everything she did. Tom Weldon, while refusing to discuss specifics, had hinted that her current state might be too deeply rooted to be easily cured.
Simon shook his head, hating himself for even thinking of asking her to go on another mission, but he could see no way around it. No one else at the Institute had Stephanie's combination of physical prowess and technical skills; even the NSA and CIA had indicated that they would depend on a radio link with experts based in Washington to talk field agents through any computer-hacking tasks required.
The eerily artificial voice from the video message came back to him, cold, emotionless, promising chaos and death:
... Hundreds of billions, if not trillions in damage ... thousands of lives will also be lost...
Simon knocked softly on the closed door to Stephanie's office. He'd never seen it closed before, not while she was in the building, and the polished wood seemed to be silently rebuking him for asking more from Stephanie when she might have nothing left to give.
"Come in, Simon," Stephanie said. "It is you, isn't it?"
Simon opened the door and entered the room. Stephanie had dimmed the overhead lights so the only illumination came from her computer display and an incongruously ornate Tiffany desk lamp that he had given her some years ago.
"I'm sorry to disturb you," he said. "I know that things have been difficult for you since our Brazilian -- vacation."
"I know what you're going to ask me," Stephanie said. "Callow already briefed me on the situation, because he said you'd probably be hesitant. The bastard was positively proud of himself for being too professional to care about my sanity."
"Stephanie, if you don't feel up to going into the field again so soon, I'll find someone else," Simon said.
"More likely two someone elses," Stephanie said. "One hacker, and one bodyguard for the hacker, big enough to carry the dweeb on his back if necessary. Hey, maybe Tom could be the beast of burden --"
"Stephanie, I --"
"I'm coming on the mission, Simon. I know what's at stake -- not just money, although the sum is large enough to seriously disrupt the U.S. economy, but lives and property on both sides of the northern Pacific. And if we don't neutralize these psychos now, there is nothing to stop them from using their equipment to do something worse. Think about it -- their plan depends on melting a huge expanse of permafrost in a short time. That means their satellites can deliver a huge amount of energy, either as heat, or as something that will be converted to heat when it strikes its target. I'd bet on microwaves -- did you know that there were 'masers' before there were lasers?"
"If you're correct, their satellites could be used to target anything that contains water," Simon said. "Crops, animals -- people..."
"Imagine Yankee Stadium with 50 thousand people in it -- and imagine those people being cooked in their own juices."
"My God," Simon said. "It's too horrible to contemplate -- but not too horrible to believe that the blackmailers might resort to such a thing."
"That's why I'm coming along whenever your NSA and military buddies find the bad guys' base," Stephanie said. "I've been driving myself crazy with guilt for even wanting to kill Celinde Gryphius. I am not sitting on my ass while thousands of innocent lives are at risk."
Simon nodded. "You are -- you have always been -- one of the bravest people I have ever met."
"One thing," Stephanie said. "I am not carrying a gun on this trip. If you put a gun into my hands, I will hand it back to you. Melvin Squibb can load me up with every non-lethal gadget in his inventory, but I will not even risk killing someone."
Simon sighed. "I hope you'll forgive me if I have to kill someone to protect you while you work."
"We'll see," Stephanie said. Then she leaned back in her chair, away from the light cast by the computer screen and lamp, and said, "Close the door on your way out, please."
"Secure video link with Alexei Yakonov established. Reciprocal encryption protocols enabled. Live feed in five ... four ... three ... two ... one --"
"Simon, are you there? It is Alexei, or what is left of Alexei after last trip we took together."
Alexei Yakonov's craggy, bushy-eyebrowed face filled the screen of Simon's desk display unit, looming close enough for Simon to count the pockmarks and deeply incised lines around the big Russian's eyes and mouth.
"Yes, Alexei, I'm here," Simon said. "You might want to lean back a bit -- I can only see half of your face at a time when you lean into the camera like that."
"Ha! With this face, you should be grateful!"
Yakonov moved back -- to a distance of perhaps 20 centimeters from the camera. Simon supposed that Yakonov still distrusted modern communications gear -- it had taken decades from the fall of the USSR for the last of the tech-export restrictions to be lifted, so reliable state of the art equipment had not been part of Alexei's life for long.
"I understand that you have been asked to be the Russian liaison with our little task force," Simon said.
Yakonov nodded. "They think we work well together. Me, I have bullet scar that says different, but no one listens to me."
Simon laughed. "I was not the one that shot you. They tend to be reluctant to let me have a gun, for some reason. Anyway, did you receive the latest data from our search for the blackmailers' base? Our AWACS planes and satellites have narrowed the search to northern Finland, but they haven't been able to pinpoint a location."
"Russian planes were able to fly closer to Finnish airspace than yours without causing big international fuss, of course. We have found the target, we believe, using your suggestion -- very clever, looking for holes in reflected ground clutter. There is a cluster of buildings in the middle of Finnish Lappland, about 100 kilometers inland from the Norwegian coast and 70 kilometers north of Inari -- buildings which do not exist according to our contacts in the Finnish government."
Simon grimaced. "I hope your sources aren't in direct contact with the blackmailers. It would be a shame if our little surprise party wasn't a surprise at all."
Yakonov shrugged. "They have been trustworthy in the past. But if the little we have been paying them could buy their loyalty, who knows what far more money might buy? Surprise ruined or not, the deadline for delivery of the ransom is only days away. Now we must decide how to proceed."
"The operation must be clandestine, of course," Simon said. "We'll be going in without any warning to the Finnish authorities, since we don't know who might be working with the ghost rocketeers."
Yakonov's eyes drifted downward. "We do not know who in Finnish government might be helping to conceal the blackmailers' base. But we believe we know who is brains of operation. I am embarrassed to say he is Russian, formerly an important man at Baikonur Cosmodrome."
Simon raised one eyebrow. "Disgruntled due to downsizing?"
"What? Down -- ah, I understand. Yes, after USSR broke apart, there was little money for space program. Doctor Yuri Baranoff was head of program to develop orbital habitat as stepping-stone to Mars and asteroid belt. Then the Earth became more important than the stars for government struggling to decide what it should be, so..."
"Well, a trillion euros would certainly solve his funding problems for a while."
Yakonov shrugged. "Even with cheap launching method, this scheme must have cost billions. Question is, who funded scheme? Governments not in circle of destruction? Corporations that will profit from reconstruction if disaster occurs?"
"With no material from the balloons or whatever or from the rockets or satellites themselves, it's impossible to even guess," Simon said. "If we are able to capture the base relatively intact, we'll be able to identify the components used, and perhaps find records -- or people who can be persuaded to talk."
"Before Iraq, I would have said leave interrogation to us," Yakonov said. "Now -- we can flip nice shiny euro coin."
"Let's figure out how to take the base before we worry about that little detail. This can't be a purely military operation. If troops or materiel from any nation were to be captured or left behind, it would be tantamount to a declaration of war --"
"Between U.S. or Russia and Finland? Declaration of very short war."
"Short or not, I think we would all prefer to avoid that sort of 'fuss', as you put it earlier. That's why it'll be a group from Nightwatch that will be the tip of the spear."
"If you are supplying spearhead, you are giving Russia the shaft, of course."
Simon sighed. "It's amazing how your English is quite fluent when you want to make a joke, and so -- unfluent at other times."
Yakonov grinned, displaying several gold teeth that he hadn't had the last time Simon had seen him. "I am just poor Russian peasant, working his way through military and diplomatic ranks."
"I've seen pictures of your dacha on the Black Sea. If you're a poor peasant, I'd like to know where I sign up."
"I will send you application forms. But for now, let me tell you about the 'shaft'."
"Oh, by all means, Alexei. Give me the shaft."
"We will send submarine from Murmansk base -- old Shchuka-B attack boat Tigr, converted to transport for Spetznaz. Not that we send commando units anywhere they are not wanted, of course."
"Is what NATO called Akula-II. Very confusing -- what we called Akula, NATO called Typhoon. Tigr was hunter-killer, not missile boat. With most of torpedo storage replaced with quarters for covert operations troops and their equipment, we will have to hope that Dr. Baranoff's backers don't have private navy to go with fleet of space weapons."
Simon shook his head. "We can't have Spetznaz troops involved in the actual infiltration of the base."
"What, you don't trust us?"
Simon rolled his eyes. "The temptation to, er, re-acquire Doctor Baranoff and his miniature weapons satellites might lead your boys into doing things that would strain our countries' current friendship."
"Send along SEALs or Rangers, CIA black ops types if you like. Your Nightwatch friends may need help to get through defenses anyway."
"I'd prefer it if we had neither Spetznaz nor SEALs on the mission. Both groups are prone to blow things up rather than taking them intact -- and we need the equipment on the base if Stephanie Keel is to have any chance of reprogramming the dozens or hundreds of satellites in Baranoff's fleet."
Yakonov frowned. "Your Ms. Keel is on mission? I had heard that she was -- indisposed."
"Bloody hell, Alexei, how could you possibly know that? It's hardly public knowledge, and it's not even something the U.S. intelligence community would have on file."
Yakonov shrugged. "To most of world, Nightwatch is think tank and charitable aid organization. We know it is more. So -- we watch Nightwatch. Especially we watch you, and Ms. Keel, and that large fellow, Weldon, who does not work for Nightwatch, but so often goes on your little expeditions."
Simon scowled. "It's bad enough I have Callow -- I suppose you have a file on him, too -- prying into my affairs. Now I have to worry about Moscow's opinion of my actions as well."
"Ha! It is hard to do cloaky-daggery things when you are famous for appearing wherever there is trouble."
"Believe me, Alexei, I'd rather be building hospitals and schools than chasing mad scientists and the horrors they create."
"Is lousy job, but someone has to do it. Better you than me!"
Simon said nothing, but called up a map of northern Finland and found Inari, the Finnish town that Yakonov had named.
"Looks like it would be faster to take the highway from Murmansk to Inari than to sail into a fjord and continue by what, reindeer-drawn sleds?"
"Faster, yes. But we wish our arrival to be a surprise. The Finnish Border Guards are few, but one place they are not so few is on the border with Russia. Norwegian coast and border between Norway and Finland are practically undefended by comparison."
"I notice you didn't contradict my remark about reindeer-drawn sleds," Simon said. "Please tell me that we will not be staring at the buttocks of reindeer for 100 kilometers of cross-country travel."
Yakonov laughed. "If we had time, it would probably be most stealthy way. But the trip would take many hours. Do not worry -- we Russians have much experience with traveling in deep freeze."
"I would have suggested that we parachute in, but we can't risk that Stephanie might be injured on a jump. Her skills are the key to neutralizing Baranoff's satellites."
"Is hard to find geek who is not a geek, eh?" Yakonov said. "SEALs and Spetznaz can blow up computer, but take control and use? Nyet."
"Indeed. Time is short, and dwindling as we speak. I will make arrangements to assemble our part of the team, and contact you to confirm our ETA in Murmansk."
"Pack thermal underwear, my friend. It is balmy minus 25 Celsius where we are going."
Yakonov leaned to one side and then the screen went blank. "Video link terminated."
Simon sighed. Callow would insist on arranging for SEALs or CIA black-ops types, as Yakonov had suggested, balancing the presence of the Spetznaz troops. It would be a challenge to keep the clandestine infiltration he had in mind from turning into a full-scale invasion, but he had to find a way. Baranoff would only need seconds to destroy the equipment that Stephanie would need to countermand the attack program; Stephanie would need to be practically at the control console before Baranoff even knew his base was under attack.
"Call Melvin Squibb," Simon said.
"Voice link open," the computer said.
"Melvin, we are planning a little trip to Norway and northern Finland. We'll need your best Arctic gear for myself, Ms. Keel, and a rather large friend who will be assisting us. I'm sending you his measurements now." Simon tapped out Tom Weldon's rather unusual measurements on his keyboard and clicked on 'send to'.
"Arctic clothing isn't something I keep in stock -- especially not in those sizes, don't ya know -- but I'll get ya what ya need quick as can be. When will ya be leaving?"
"As soon as possible, Melvin. Within the next 12 hours, if everything can be arranged within that time."
"I love a challenge, Doctor L., but I gotta say, ya sure push the envelope in that area. I'll be burning some favors on this one..."
"Thank you, Melvin."
Now to break the news to Tom and Stephanie...
The passenger cabin of Nightbird One had more than enough seats to accommodate Simon, Tom, Stephanie, and the three CIA black-ops agents drafted to accompany them, but it seemed crowded. Tom and the CIA agents all were considerably larger than average through the chest and shoulders, making Simon feel positively spindly by comparison. To make things worse, the CIA agents had insisted that their gear stay in the passenger cabin rather than in the spacious cargo hold, and Simon, irritated by their unaccustomed presence, had insisted that the same should apply to his, Tom's, and Stephanie's packs as well. The rear of the cabin was filled with the packs, secured in cargo nets fastened to the legs of the unoccupied seats.
Several hours into the flight from the Manassas airfield to Murmansk, the CIA agents had not so much as offered their names. Simon hoped that the Spetznaz troops would be more sociable -- and dreaded having to convince Alexei to limit their numbers to match the CIA contingent.
Simon decided that the Nightwatch and CIA groups at least needed to confirm that they would not be tripping over each other in the field. "Agent -- Agent -- you, the one with the dark hair -- I trust you have been briefed on the mission objectives and the -- rules of engagement?"
The dark-haired agent, who seemed to be in command, had a solid, sharply defined jawline, deep-set eyes, and prominent cheekbones -- not quite handsome, but appropriate for his overall action-hero appearance. His face had none of the puffy appearance common to steroid users, so Simon guessed that he had come by his impressive physique the hard way. His voice was the one aspect that didn't match Simon's expectations -- it was almost boyish, tenor where basso profundo would have seemed more fitting. Perhaps that was one reason the man had spoken so little.
"Yes, sir. The primary objective is to get the little lady there in to the control center of the enemy base. We are not to destroy any infrastructure until and unless she indicates that her job is done. Secondary objective is to neutralize any enemy combatants --"
"You mean kill," Stephanie said.
"Capture or kill, yes ma'am."
"Let's cross killing off the list, shall we?"
"Ma'am, I --"
Stephanie was out of her seat and had her stiffened fingers within a few centimeters of the agent's eyes before anyone could react.
"Don't call me 'ma'am' or 'little lady'," she said. "And don't patronize me by assuming that I'm harmless because I don't like killing."
To his credit, the agent had barely flinched when Stephanie's fingertips came rocketing toward his face. Nor had he tried to defend himself; he knew that he was expendable, but Stephanie was not. Still, his forehead shone with perspiration that hadn't been there a few seconds before.
Stephanie returned to her seat, shaking the tension out of her hands. "I don't expect you to stand there and let someone shoot you or gut you with a bayonet. But I do expect you to kill only as a last resort. We need to get in there without raising an alarm. That means getting around any guards without being noticed, if possible. Rendering them unconscious would be the second choice -- and we brought weapons designed to do that, even if they're wearing full Arctic gear and maybe body armor."
Simon exchanged looks of concern with Tom. Stephanie had always been 'feisty', but neither man had ever seen her so close to the edge before. If she was forced to watch as lives were taken in her defense, or worse, if she had to kill, it could undo all the healing and growth she had attained since her ordeal in William Gryphius's chamber of horrors.
"Perhaps this will make things simpler," Simon said. "We three -- Dr. Weldon, Ms. Keel, and myself -- will perform the actual infiltration of the base. Before you object, I will remind you that this team has performed missions of this type before -- something I'm sure was included in your briefing by the Agency -- and we have special equipment that should improve our chances considerably. You, and your Russian counterparts, will get us there, and secure the perimeter to prevent the escape of any of the technical staff, and Dr. Yuri Baranoff in particular."
"Sir, this is not acceptable. We are --"
"Not in charge of this mission," Simon interjected. "Keep in mind that we are engaging in an unauthorized incursion into another country. The U.S. government is not involved in the operation -- officially. While Nightwatch is sometimes viewed as an arm of the government, it is not. To be rather pompous about it, we are watchmen for the world as a whole, not just the United States."
"Sir, I object. My men and I have undergone the most rigorous training imaginable. We've been through shit that would make SEALs and SAS guys crap their camo pants. But we can't do our jobs if you tie us down with a bunch of namby-pamby civilian rules."
Simon laughed. "I suspect that I've been in more real firefights than you have, Agent Whatever. People try to kill me on a regular basis, even when I am doing nothing more and nothing less than trying to make their lives better by building a new school or a bridge or a power plant -- but I'm still here."
"Sir, that doesn't make you a professional."
"For which I am duly grateful," Simon said. "If you wish to confirm the command structure on this trip, you are welcome to use the communications suite in the next compartment. You'll have to move some of the gear out of the way, of course."
"Never mind -- sir."
"We'll be landing in Murmansk in about two hours," Simon said. "We should probably try to rest, or review the maps and satellite photos if sleep seems impossible."
Agent Whatever saluted Simon with a crispness that went well beyond the boundary separating respect from contempt. "Sir, yes sir!"
Simon hoped that the old Vietnam era practice of 'fragging the lieutenant' had not evolved into 'shooting the engineer' in the 21st Century. Failing that, he hoped Stephanie and Tom would be watching his back while he watched theirs.
It was dark in Murmansk when Nightbird One touched down. Of course, at that latitude, it was dark most of the time during the winter.
Alexei Yakonov was waiting on the tarmac outside the plane with two guards and a pair of old ZiL limousines. The cars were enormous by modern standards, hulking masses of gleaming black metal. Simon had vague memories of hearing that they had some ridiculous horsepower rating more suited to a medium tank than a passenger car.
"Simon! Welcome to the True North, strong and -- strong. Those Canadians took the good slogans, but we are as True North as they are." Yakonov's breath emerged in white clouds as exhaled moisture condensed in the bitter cold.
"Hello, Alexei," Simon said. "Your choice of transportation is a bit conspicuous, don't you think?"
Yakonov grinned, exposing tobacco-stained teeth. "You have spent hours in little plane. Soon we will all be spending more hours in little submarine. For a few minutes, all deserve a comfortable ride."
"In ZiL limos that look older than either of us?"
"You exaggerate as usual. These are classics -- ZiL 41041's, only 42 years old and driven by little old babushkas to visit the wonderful monuments and museums of Murmansk."
"At least they look big enough to take all of us," Simon said. "With Tom Weldon and the three traveling companions supplied by you-know-who, we'll need a lot of room. And that's not counting the 25-kilo backpacks."
"Not a problem. Trunk on one of these could hold all three of your -- friends. Believe me, I know from experience." He winked, a remarkable sight as one caterpillar-like eyebrow drooped to obscure most of one eye socket before climbing back to its usual position.
"Alas, they will be traveling with me all the way to our destination, and with luck, back home again. Are these two young fellows your special friends?"
Yakonov glanced at his two companions. "These? No, no, they are here only as our drivers. To be frank, they were too small to qualify for special-friend status."
Both 'drivers' were just shy of two meters in height and probably weighed as much as Tom Weldon, although their height made them seem slender by comparison. Simon found himself wondering where the Russian and American governments were finding their Special Forces types -- assuming they weren't growing them in a lab somewhere.
"Simon, can we get going? It's freaking cold out here, and I don't care what Melvin says about the 'superb thermal properties' of these suits, my butt is going numb."
"Doctor Weldon, I presume?"
"Yeah. You must be Alexei. I hear you got your leg shot up the last time you went somewhere with Simon. Me, I haven't been shot -- yet -- but I've had the crap beaten out of me more than once while following him around."
"And yet, here we go again," Stephanie said. "I'm Stephanie Keel, and I'll be your hacker on this little trip to Santa's workshop."
Yakonov's smile grew even wider, revealing a few back teeth that looked like stainless steel. Noting the direction of Simon's gaze, Yakonov said, "I insist on gold where it shows, but steel is better for chewing Russian beef. Ms. Keel, I have heard much about you. I am charmed, and I hope charming."
Stephanie snorted. "Very, in your own unique way. I'd offer you my hand to kiss, but I'm not sure you could find it in this damn glove -- mitten -- whatever it is."
Within minutes, the six backpacks had been stowed in the limos' trunks, which were indeed large enough to transport several bodies, and the Nightwatch and CIA groups had found seats in the padded-leather passenger compartments. To Simon's surprise, the seats looked and smelled new, and the cushions were quite comfortable.
"Recently refurbished," Yakonov said, noting Simon's expression. "They would not let me take nice new Mercedes up here, but I managed to get 'rich Corinthian leather' to make old cars feel like new."
"It's lovely," Tom said, "but it would be lovelier if you'd turn the heat up."
Yakonov sighed. "Heat is up. Otherwise there would be frost on nice leather."
Tom groaned. "At least tell me that the sub will be warmer than this."
Yakonov frowned, and Tom wondered if he had offended the big Russian. But then Yakonov grinned again, and said, "I did little arithmetic, and you will be warm enough. With so many big bodies in confined space, body heat will keep us all cozy."
The trip to the docks took no more than ten minutes. What little traffic there was moved out of the way when the lead limousine flashed its lights. The sheer size and power of the cars commanded respect, even now, when a Mercedes would have indicated that the occupants were wealthier, more powerful, or both.
The six Americans climbed out of the limousines and retrieved their gear from the trunks. Yakonov exited last, then nodded to the driver of the lead car, and both limousines rolled away into the night.
Simon shouldered his pack and moved to stand next to Yakonov. "Alexei, I have two concerns about the arrangements you have made. First, we need to keep the size of the party traveling to Baranoff's base reasonably small -- we're trying to sneak in, not overrun the place and give him time to do anything nasty. That means that we shouldn't take any more than two or three of your Spetznaz boys with us. Second, you said that we'd have about 100 kilometers of overland travel from landfall in Norway to our objective. We can't afford to take more than a few hours to cover that distance, especially considering that it will take at least several hours on the sub at -- what, 25 or 30 knots? -- to reach the inlet you indicated."
Yakonov raised his gloved hands in a placating gesture. "To make your large CIA friends happy, only one Spetznaz soldier will come with us to Baranoff's base -- yes, I am coming too -- but then only two of them can make trip. That way Russia will have two men, America will have two men, and Nightwatch will have you three. Our government trusts yours no more than your government trusts ours, but both sides trust Nightwatch -- they don't know you like I do. As for covering distance from Norwegian coast to base in Finland -- we have sent transportation ahead along with Spetznaz contingent. You will like these vehicles, I think, but I want to surprise you."
"I can't wait," Tom said, shivering.
Stephanie laughed, and Simon smiled. She sounded much better than she had during the flight from Virginia. Perhaps the prospect of imminent action that would make use of all her talents had broken through the guilt and confusion of the past weeks.
Agent Whatever shouldered his way between Simon and Alexei. "Did I hear that right? Did one of us come halfway around the friggin' world for nothing?"
Alexei shrugged. "Spare CIA man and spare Spetnaz troops can cover our overland escape route -- and keep eye on each other. Or one can stay here in comfort of nice Nightwatch plane, play video games, whatever. I leave it up to you."
Agent Whatever grabbed Simon's arm and was surprised when Simon pivoted, breaking his grip, and came perilously close to executing an arm bar and foot sweep before reason could override reflex.
"God damn it, Litchfield, what is with you people? First your hacker friend, now you, practically trying to kill me."
Simon stepped back, his face red. "I am sorry, Agent. My mind was wandering, and you startled me. As for Ms. Keel, she has a very low tolerance for being patronized --"
"Don't apologize for me, Simon," Stephanie interjected. "Agent -- damn, it's hard to talk to someone who won't tell you his name -- Simon is too polite to say so, but I can be a bitch when I'm tired and stressed out. You happened to push the wrong buttons at the wrong time, and I overreacted."
Shaking his head, the CIA agent retreated to the safety of his own group. The three men spoke in low voices for a few moments, then Agent Whatever returned to speak to Simon and Alexei again.
"Did you see that? I'm surprised they didn't bang their helmets together and yell 'break!' when they finished their little huddle."
Stephanie snorted and jabbed Tom in the ribs with her elbow. "Hush. I've been hoping that they won't be too trigger-happy, but if we piss them off any more, we'll be lucky if they don't shoot us."
Floodlights snapped on, illuminating a metal gangplank leading up to the deck of a looming black hulk.
"My friends, I give you K-157, the Tigr. Once one of our best attack submarines, now a cruise ship for peaceful pleasure trips."
"Well, it'll be peaceful if we don't get caught," Stephanie said. "I thought you said this thing was small. It's the size of a small football stadium."
"Compared to a Typhoon guided missile boat, it's a minnow," Agent Whatever said. "And the exterior size is deceptive -- with the double hull and miles of plumbing for the ballast system, plus torpedo and missile tubes, the inside is pretty cramped."
"I suppose you have interior layout memorized," Yakonov said. "Joke is on you then, because much of 'plumbing' is different now, with most of weapons and weapons storage removed to make room for passengers and their baggage."
"You mentioned something about it being cozy," Tom said. "Cozy as in warm. Cozy as in having some sort of bathroom facilities."
"I told you to go before we left Nightbird One," Stephanie said. "Honestly, we can't take you anywhere."
"Settle down, children, or we're all going back to Washington."
The CIA agents exchanged looks of disgust. "Goddamn amateurs," Agent Whatever muttered.
Yakonov moved closer to Simon and whispered, "These men could use good drink of vodka to dissolve broomsticks." Then he walked up the gangplank, waving his arms and shouting, "All aboard Good Ship Lollipop!"
As both Alexei and Agent Whatever had said, the exterior dimensions of the Tigr seemed to have little to do with the available space inside. The Nightwatch and CIA party had to snake their way single file through corridors so narrow that Tom had to walk with his shoulders at an awkward angle to avoid brushing against the bulkheads. In some areas, exposed pipes and conduits lined the walls and ceiling; the air smelled of old sweat, cooking odors, and pine-scented air freshener that added to rather than covering the olfactory chaos.
Their destination was a space that had been carved out of the former torpedo room, a 10-meter cube into which a dozen bunk beds in four triple-decker stacks and a large storage locker hand been crammed.
"Choose a berth, throw packs in unused berths," Yakonov said. "Rations will be delivered here so you will not have to go wandering around top-secret Russian boat. Head -- watercloset -- is just outside hatch we came through."
"Russian hospitality -- there's nothing like it," Agent Whatever said. "We wouldn't be jammed into a damn closet like this on one of our boats."
"Also would not know where you were going," Yakonov said. "It was Russian planes that found our objective, and it will be Russian vehicles that take you there."
"Can't we all just get along?"
Everyone turned to look at Tom, who had adopted an expression of child-like bewilderment to match the near-falsetto voice he had just used. He had also removed his coat and bulky sweater, so his powerful arms and chest were on display, only thinly covered by the usual black T-shirt.
One of the other CIA agents, a beefy-faced blond man whom Simon had designated as Agent Whoever, snorted. Then he turned toward his bunk and lowered his head. After a moment, his shoulders began to shake.
The third agent, a black man whose lean face seemed out of place on his heavyweight boxer's physique (dubbed Agent Whynot by Simon) blinked several times, then laughed. "Ah, screw it man. We've ridden in worse things than this."
"I gather we are having borscht or cabbage rolls or both for dinner," Simon said. "At least, it certainly smells like it. Tomatoes, onions, cabbage, beets -- you can smell the sugar content --"
Agent Whatever shook his head. "Guess you've never been on a sub before. That could be yesterday's dinner you smell. Or last week's."
"Or worse -- could be exhaust gases from last week's meals," Yakonov said. Now he was grinning. "Is very glamorous way to travel."
Yakonov squeezed past Tom and made his way back toward the exit. "I will go and have meals prepared. We will get under way immediately -- at flank speed, the trip of over 300 kilometers will take about 6 hours. Then we will have another 100 kilometers to travel over land. We will have little time to spare when we arrive."
"Tell me again why we couldn't have HALO jumped in," Agent Whatever said. "It would have been a hell of a lot faster."
Simon frowned. "You do recall that Ms. Keel is the key to this operation," he said.
"Yeah. She looks pretty fit -- even if she isn't jump-qualified, she could have buddy-jumped with one of us."
"And if she were injured on the landing, I suppose you would carry her on your back to the control room she would be trying to reach. Assuming that she wasn't injured in such a way that she would be unable to work, that is."
"Look, Litchfield, we're the pros here. Our people could have planned a mission that would not have us relying on some Russian colonel to deliver us to the target zone, instead of this half-assed amateur hour --"
"Infra-red," Simon said. "Against an Arctic sky, any aircraft and any jumper would be impossible to miss. And our adversaries would need only seconds to render our mission pointless, as opposed to the minutes it would take jumpers to land and mount an attack. General Yakonov assures me that he has ground vehicles that will allow us to approach the base undetected."
"Anyway, I refuse to jump out of a perfectly good airplane," Tom said.
"And I refuse to go if he's not with me," Stephanie said.
"And I'm in charge," Simon said.
"Dinner is served," Yakonov announced. "Nice cheese piroshki with sour cream and fried onions."
"Oh, my god," Tom groaned. "My stomach says yes, yes, yes, but my nose says we'll all regret it later."
"Indigestion?" Stephanie asked.
"Exhaust gases," Tom said.
The meal, while rather heavy for a group embarking on a dangerous journey, had been both satisfying and delicious. Unfortunately, Tom's joking prediction had turned out to be true, and Stephanie had taken to suspiciously frequent trips to the head, where the air was actually less pungent.
"Are we there yet, Simon?"
"No, Tom. And that last one was definitely you, and I'm pretty sure it was deliberate."
Agents Whatever and Whoever exchanged looks of disgust. "I still can't believe they put these guys in charge of us."
Stephanie returned, this time with Yakonov close behind. The big Russian's eyes actually crossed for a moment as he stepped over the sill of the watertight door and caught a noseful of the air in the torpedo room.
"American bellies do not cope so well with good Russian food," he said. "Is good thing that we are almost at point where we must leave Tigr. I have brought video player for final briefing."
Yakonov set up a fold out video screen near the watertight door and connected a small black box.
"Is that a --?"
"Yes, friend Simon. Latest toy from Korea. Price in rubles had many zeroes."
Yakonov pressed a thumb switch and the screen filled with video footage of a thin man with reddish brown hair, dressed in baggy coveralls. The man was standing in front of a window overlooking the floor of what looked like the Russian equivalent of a Vehicle Assembly Building. In the background, strap-on rockets were being mated with a Proton-M main booster.
"This is Dr. Yuri Baranoff at Baikonur in 1989. As you can see, he was involved in Soviet space program. For a Russian, he was well paid, had many privileges. Was Chief Designer on Project Dzarowit, developing plans for missions to Mars and asteroids."
"1989," Simon said. "A few years later, the USSR fell apart."
"And with it, Project Dzarowit. Baranoff was not happy man, although he retained most of special privileges on new job. No video for next part of his career -- he worked on Russian stealth technology, very secret."
"Rockets and stealth technology," Simon said. "I can see why your people think Baranoff's a good candidate for the science and technology side of this scheme."
"Even more interesting -- Baranoff also worked on directed energy project, microwave power transmission..."
"Put 'em all together, you have ghost rockets and satellites that can melt a million acres of permafrost."
"Da. Baranoff dropped out of sight almost two years ago. Made Federal Security Service crazy to have someone with so much secret knowledge running loose."
"Well, now you know what he's been doing with his time," Agent Whatever said. "If your intelligence agencies were better at their job, we wouldn't be in this situation."
"Is true. Is not helpful to say, but is true," Yakonov said. He glared at the CIA agent from under eyebrows lowered so far that they seemed to be trying to mate with the salt-and-pepper stubble on his cheeks.
"Baranoff certainly has all the scientific and technical skills for the role of Mad Scientist, but what pushed him over the edge?" Tom asked. "What made him give up a relatively comfortable life to hide out in the middle of deep-frozen nowhere?"
"Baranoff was born when Soviet space program seemed to have big lead in race to Moon," Yakonov said. "Grew up wanting to be cosmonaut -- but could not pass physical, had middle ear problems that caused attacks of vertigo. But was smart, genius even, so next best thing for him was to be rocket scientist."
"Which was fine until the USSR broke apart, and the money for 'pie in the sky' projects like Zar-oh-witch dried up."
"Yes. For next decade, most space money went to building and patching up military satellites. Then effort shifted to International Space Station. Baranoff called ISS orbiting money pit that made no progress toward deep space. This is speech Baranoff gave to Russian Science Academy in 1996. I have had interpreter's voice put on alternate audio track..."
Yakonov pressed the thumb switch again. "You can see most hair has gone gray, in only seven years."
Baranoff's face had grown shockingly gaunt in the years between his glory days at Baikonur and this speaking engagement. As Yakonov had said, his reddish brown hair had been replaced with an unruly mass of yellowish gray with only a few traces of the original color still visible.
"Jesus Christ, he looks like a zombie," Agent Whynot said.
Baranoff began to speak, and the interpreter's voice provided a simultaneous translation. The effect would have been almost comical, as the rhythm of the interpreter's voice was badly out of sync with Baranoff's lip movements, but the expression on the man's face drove any thought of laughter away.
"Once, I was proud of our nation, of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. We were on the verge of leaping ahead of the West, taking Mars and the asteroids as stepping stones out into the cosmos. But now -- now we crawl in the mud like swine rooting for scraps of food. I have heard that we will join with the Americans to make a space station. Ha! A collection of space junk is what it will be, a symbol of cooperation instead of a true platform for science and exploration."
"This is what glasnost and perestroika have brought -- our eyes search the gutters for pennies when we should be reaching for the stars!"
Yakonov thumbed the switch again, and the screen went black. "There is more -- much more -- but is all like that."
"Man, for somebody involved in a plot to extort a trillion euros, he seems kind of down on the whole capitalism thing," Tom said.
"I do not think money matters to him, except as way to build his rockets," Yakonov said. "Next I show you latest satellite views of target."
The screen lit up with a satellite photo that showed a white landscape dotted with dark splotches.
"Baranoff's base is here, with communications center and most activity centered in largest structure near center of camp." A large red circle covered a jumble of rectangles and less-regular shapes.
"That's our objective, then," Simon said. "A lot of open ground to cover, no matter which side we choose for our approach."
A klaxon sounded, followed by a staticky announcement in what Simon guessed was Russian, although the distortion was so bad it could have been Esperanto.
"Ah. We are surfacing soon. Please prepare yourselves." Yakonov folded up his display screen and stuffed it and the video unit into a pouch attached to his belt.
The Americans struggled back into their cold-weather gear, something of a challenge with bulky clothing, bulky packs, and several larger-than-average men in a confined space. By the time the last zipper had been closed and the last Velcro tab fastened, they were all sweating.
Yakonov, in his own white Arctic camouflage suit, appeared in the doorway. "All ready? Follow me, please, for lovely ride in best Russian inflatable launches."
The Russian general led the group back to the hatch through which they had entered Tigr six hours before. One at a time, they ascended the ladder and stepped out onto the slick black metal of the deck.
"Holy crap, it's cold out here," Tom said.
"But at least the air doesn't smell like -- the air doesn't smell," Stephanie said.
"Two boats. Best to divide large men between them," Yakonov said.
"Er, Alexei, you're not exactly a dwarf yourself," Simon pointed out.
"True. So I go in one boat, you and Stephanie go in other boat -- should be close enough to even loads."
"Simon, I think Alexei is saying that we're small," Stephanie said.
"I'd prefer the term svelte, but yes, I suppose he is," Simon said. "You must admit that by the standards of this group, we are rather puny."
"We can have the in-depth group therapy session about discrimination based on size when we're on dry land," Tom said. "I'm freezing, and the way this deck is rocking, pretty soon you won't just be smelling our dinner, you'll be seeing it."
"Into boats quickly, please," Yakonov said. "We do not want Tom Weldon's stomach juices burning holes in submarine hull."
Per Yakonov's instructions, Agents Whatever and Whoever joined Simon and Stephanie in one of the inflatable launches, while Agent Whynot, Tom, and Yakonov climbed down into the other. The Tigr crewmen cast off and started the outboard motors, and the boats surged forward across the mercifully calm water. Still, there was enough salt spray that they had to shield their faces with their gloved or mitten-clad hands.
They made landfall on a narrow rocky beach at the foot of what appeared to be almost perfectly vertical cliffs. Once Yakonov and the Americans had disembarked, the Tigr crewmen pushed the boats back into the water and started the return trip to the submarine.
"That thing I said about wanting to be on dry land? I was kind of hoping it would be drier than this. Also a lot warmer."
"We will not stay here long, Dr. Weldon," Yakonov said. "We should move on. To your left, look, there is a trail we must all follow. It will lead us to the top of this cliff..."
"That's about 30, maybe 40 meters of vertical distance," Stephanie said. "We're going to be sore tomorrow."
"Not if we fall," Tom said. "If we fall part of the way up, we'll be feeling no pain at all."
"Thank you for that morale-boosting thought, Tom," Stephanie said.
"Hey, Alexei -- wait for the rest of us!"
But Yakonov only waved without looking back, setting a moderate but steady pace up the narrow trail up the cliff face.
"Moves pretty good for a fat old Russki," Agent Whynot said.
"Also has excellent hearing," Yakonov called. "Less talking, more walking, please."
Simon winced at the prospect of the long uphill hike, his knees already aching from the damp cold that seeped through the vents in his white camouflage coverall. Tom looked at him, recognizing the signs of discomfort and understanding their cause immediately. Simon had admitted to Tom -- and only to Tom -- that his arthritis was flaring up with increasing frequency, in spite of a steady dosage of anti-inflammatory drugs.
"Need some help getting up the cliff, old man?"
Simon turned and glared at Agent Whatever, who seemed to know more than he should about Simon's problems. "No, thank you, son. I've managed a lot worse in my time."
"Hey, no offense intended," Whatever said in a low voice. "My dad's got arthritis pretty bad. I know it can make things tough."
"I'm not your dad," Simon said. "I will get through this on my own. I'd suggest you hurry and catch up with General Yakonov. I have some things to discuss with Dr. Weldon."
The CIA agent opened his mouth as if to say something else, and Simon braced himself for a complaint that this mission was no place for an arthritic old man. But Whatever just shook his head, pushed past Simon, and headed up the trail.
"How bad is it, Simon?"
"A bit like having an abscessed tooth the size of my fist in each leg," Simon said. "But sadly, I'm getting used to it."
"You could stay here," Tom said. "I'll get Alexei to call one of the boats back to pick you up."
Simon took a deep breath, forcing his diaphragm outward so that his lungs filled completely. Then he let the air hiss out between his teeth in a thin stream that flash-froze into a swirling cloud of ice crystals in the frigid night.
"I will be fine," he said. "Stephanie needs both of us, and the world needs Stephanie. From what Alexei told me about Dr. Baranoff, the man may carry out his threats whether the ransom is paid or not, if not today, then tomorrow, or next week. His satellites must be neutralized to prevent that possibility, and only Stephanie has both the skills to do the job and the physical toughness to make the trip."
"All right, Simon," Tom said. "If you're sure --"
Simon shook his head and laughed. "I haven't been sure of anything since Max Cory died. Doing Callow's bidding has never been without moments when I have wondered if I am doing more harm than good, but in those caves..."
"You made a mistake --"
"And Max Cory died. I have no regrets about some of the lives that I have taken, or that have ended because of my actions -- the late William Gryphius being the best example -- but Max was a good man, a brave man, trying to help me."
"Simon! Tom! Come on! Alexei's men and our transportation are up here waiting!"
"Just as well," Tom said. "This freakin' ice palace isn't what I consider to be an ideal place for a therapy session."
"Your office is much warmer," Simon said. "And it has a good selection of brandies and beers."
"Ah! Now that's what I call a good motivational speech! The sooner we get this job done, the sooner we can be warm, inside and out."
Simon grinned and headed up the trail. His strides grew longer as the exercise worked some of the stiffness out of his joints and let his still-strong muscles propel him upwards. Tom followed, alert for any signs of unsteadiness, but soon found that it was all he could do to keep up.
"I have to start doing more cardio in my workouts," he muttered. "This is just embarrassing."
When Tom finally caught up with Simon at the top of the cliff face, he found the engineer talking quietly with Yakonov while running his gloved hand over the oddly angled surface of an ungainly-looking white monstrosity. There were two more vehicles parked nearby, identical to the one Simon was examining, and three men in outfits matching Yakonov's.
"Those big white APCs are our rides, Tom," Stephanie said. "Weird-looking brutes, aren't they?"
Tom nodded. The three identical vehicles resembled the snow-white offspring of a dune buggy on steroids and a stealth fighter.
"I can't believe those things are stealthy. If they're as loud as they are large, we'll be causing earthquakes in Finland before the bad guys can shake up Alaska."
At the sound of Tom's voice, Simon turned and gestured for Tom to join him. "Tom, come over here," Simon said. Alexei's people have come up with some quite remarkable toys."
"Alexei, give Tom the sales pitch," Simon said.
Smiling with pride, Yakonov struck the side of the big white whatever-it-was with his fist. There was surprisingly little noise; Tom had expected a solid thump -- or maybe the crack of a fracturing knuckle.
"The BTR-95X, designed for Arctic conditions. Sound-absorbing materials inside radar-absorbent shell in low-radar-return shape. No open ports to leak noise or heat, air intake and exhaust fed through filters and baffles. Best of all -- very quiet."
Tom looked dubiously at the hulking white vehicle. "I've been around a few APC's in my time. They sound like garbage trucks with bad mufflers."
"BTR-95X uses electric motors, powered by fuel cells. Much quieter than diesel to start with. Then we add something special. Pavel Andreievitch, start engine please."
The big vehicle started to vibrate slightly, but almost no sound reached Tom's ears. "Pretty impressive, although I'll bet it's not quite that quiet when it's moving."
Yakonov laughed. "You would lose bet. Pavel, hush!"
The faint whine of the electric motors stopped, but the vehicle continued to vibrate.
"What the hell --" Tom stopped, worked his jaw to clear what he assumed was a pressure buildup in his ears.
"Is based on technology intended to reduce noise from aircraft. Microphones take in noise from engine, computers generate same noise, 180 degrees out of phase, and broadcast through directional speakers under skin of vehicle. Result -- silence."
"Do we have anything like this? If not, can we steal it?"
Yakonov waved his finger back and forth. "Tsk tsk. Typical American, taking results of Russian genius for own selfish use."
"Yeah, like the Russian SST wasn't based on the Concorde."
Yakonov clutched his chest. "Ah! You wound me. But better words than bullets, I think." He trudged over to the closest APC and set one foot on the bottom rung of the short ladder leading to the front hatch. "Time is short. All aboard, please. I will drive lead vehicle, Pavel Andreievitch will drive second vehicle. Passengers can distribute themselves however they like, but please do quickly."
Simon scratched his chin. Tom and Stephanie should stick together; Tom could hardly play the role of Stephanie's therapist in a vehicle overflowing with testosterone and adrenaline, but she had seemed to find Tom's presence reassuring since their return from Brazil. That meant that he would have to ride in the other vehicle, so at least one non-military type was on board as a buffer between the Russian driver and whichever CIA agent came along. The situation reminded him of the old logic problem with the farmer who has to get a fox, some hens, and himself across a river...
"I'll go with Alexei, if that's all right," Stephanie said.
"And if there's room, I'll ride with her," Tom added.
"I'll go in Pavel's vehicle," Simon said. "Perhaps I can pry more information about the sound suppression system from him. Alexei, alas, knows me too well to succumb to my devious ways."
Agent Whatever said, "I'll ride with Litchfield and Pavel what's his name. Agent Thiessen will ride with General Yakonov."
"Agent Thiessen! At last, a name! Glad to meet you, Agent Thiessen," Stephanie said.
The blond CIA agent smiled. "Likewise." He had been sneaking sidelong looks at Stephanie ever since her dazzlingly swift attack on board Nightbird One. Tom hoped that the man wouldn't do anything silly like making a pass at Stephanie. He wasn't her type -- especially since she didn't really have a type these days.
Yakonov's and Pavel's groups quickly clambered into their eerily quiet vehicles, the drivers through hatches near the front of each vehicle, the passengers through a second hatch on top.
The remaining CIA agent climbed into the final APC with the last two Spetznaz troops. Simon wondered if the lean-faced black agent could find a way to get along with his Russian counterparts without a civilian to keep their respective territorial instincts in check.
As they climbed into the second APC through the rear hatch, Agent Whatever said, "Great -- another sardine can. How can this thing be so tight inside when it's so huge outside?"
"Apparently Russian sound insulation isn't exactly compact," Simon said. "You must admit the electronic sound cancellation system is quite remarkable."
"Please to take seats," Pavel Andreievitch said. "The terrain is quite irregular and suspension can not compensate for all bumps."
Agent Whatever squirmed his way into one of the oversized bucket seats, which fortunately had been designed for men of his size in bulky winter gear. "How long is this going to take?"
Simon took one of the other seats. "General Yakonov said that we should make about 50 to 60 kilometers per hour, so we should reach our destination in at most two hours -- assuming we are able to follow a fairly straight course."
"I should have brought a book to read."
"I'm afraid I can't help you there -- but I must say that I am pleased that you read books. So few people do these days."
"Never did like reading from a screen, even those flexible 'electronic paper' things. Reading's better when you can hold a world in your hands, feel the texture of the paper, smell it. Plus you don't have to worry about the battery giving out just when you get to the best part."
"How did a man of letters end up in your line of work?"
"CIA grabbed me up when I was at Georgia Tech on a football scholarship. They pretty much paid my way through, which was a good thing, because I hurt my knee halfway through our first season. Not so bad that I couldn't go into -- this line of work, as you called it -- but bad enough that they wouldn't risk letting me play anymore."
"That was what -- ten years ago?"
Whatever laughed. "This round face of mine makes me look younger than I am," he said. "I'm closing in on 40. Not too many years before I'll be too old for this kind of running around."
Simon frowned, but said nothing.
"You think your lady friend can pull this off, if we can get her inside? Take control of those satellites and shut them down?"
Simon sighed. "She is my friend, but she is only a lady when it suits her. And yes, I think she can do the job. She has a remarkable talent for improvisation in matters of electronics and other technology, and I have never seen her fail at a task of this kind."
The vehicle hit a particularly large bump, causing both men to clutch at the sides of their seats.
"Sorry -- we just crossed road and started up slope on other side."
"If it was me driving, and we were in a good old Humvee, we'd be riding smooth as --"
"Welcome to walk the rest of way," the Russian said.
They rode the rest of the way in a silence much deeper than any electronic device could ever generate.
"You've known Simon a long time, haven't you, Alexei?"
"Da. We first met in Angola, 1995, I think. I was there as advisor to new government's security forces; he was building desalination plant. Insurgent forces -- hangers-on from old regime -- made trouble. By time I led half-trained police in, he was wounded, badly, but half-dozen of his attackers were down."
"He killed six people?"
"One or two did die, I think, landed badly when thrown, but most were out of fight because of broken limbs. Japanese technique, I think, aikido, judo, jiu jitsu, maybe. I was very impressed that skinny American could do so much."
Tom whistled. "I knew Simon was pretty dangerous in a fight, but I never realized he was that good."
"He trained under Japanese masters in Tokyo, even met aikido o-sensei. Never awarded high belt ranking, he was not there long enough, but yes, he is very good."
"Alexei -- I don't know if Simon spoke to you about this, but I -- I need to know that you and your man -- Pavel? That you will try not to take lives unless there is no other choice."
"Ah, Stefanya. I can not promise no one will die. We are invading foreign country in small way, and many lives are at risk. We will try, yes, because our goal is to infiltrate, to get you to center of things before we are detected. But once you are there, we must do whatever is needed so you can carry out task."
"I guess I can't ask for more than that," Stephanie said.
Tom saw the look of fear in Stephanie's eyes and he knew that hearing it put in those terms, that her companions might kill to defend her, had revived her qualms about being in the field again.
"Hey, Alexei. Got any really juicy stories about Simon? I'd love to have some new dirt to use on him the next time he gets a little too full of himself."
"Doctor Weldon, I am shocked you would ask such a thing. I would never tell you about that bar fight in Brazzaville..."
"We have arrived," Yakonov announced. "Baranoff's base is just over next hill. From here, is best we walk."
The big Russian climbed out through the driver's door while Stephanie, Tom, and Agent Whoever made their way out through the rear hatch. The second BTR-95X pulled up and Pavel, Simon, and Agent Whatever also disembarked.
Once everyone had gathered, Yakonov reached into his pockets and produced the fold out screen and video unit again. "Now we are out of water, we can see live transmission from satellites."
The screen lit up with a view similar to the one they had seen while on board the Tigr, but this time there were two additional white blobs some distance from the cluster of buildings. "We are here. If screen was larger, we could make out little bugs moving around, namely us."
"Looks like we’re about a hundred and fifty meters from the main building," Simon said.
"Then you're screwed," Agent Whatever said. "There's no way you can cross that free-fire zone without being seen."
Simon smiled. "Actually, there is. You said there were no guard dogs, and very little human activity at this time of night, correct, Alexei?"
"Is too cold for man or beast to spend much time outdoors. Unfortunately, people on mission like this don't qualify as either."
"Any indication that the ground is mined? I'm quite fond of my legs and would like to keep them."
"We made sweep with unmanned miniature air vehicles at very low altitude. Found no magnetic traces that would indicate mines or buried pressure pads -- but sweep was not thorough, only a few passes. Probably okay."
"Probably? How much am I getting paid for this again?" Tom asked.
"Same as usual," Simon said. "My thanks, a chance to see the world, a nice bottle of wine if we make it back."
"You mean when we make it back."
"What? Oh, of course, when we make it back."
"No guards, no dogs, no mines -- maybe -- but I'd bet there are surveillance cameras, with men or A.I. watching for any suspicious movement." Agent Whatever shook his head, crossing his arms over his massive chest.
Sighing, Simon pulled a gray box the size of a small pack of cigarettes from a zippered pocket on his left sleeve. "Tom, Stephanie, you both have your fuzz boxes?"
Tom and Stephanie each withdrew an identical device from the corresponding pockets on their sleeves.
"Agents, you may or may not have seen or heard of these devices before. Alexei, I would hope you haven't heard of them, but wouldn't bet much on the proposition, since Tom and I used a prototype when we visited Russia a few months ago."
Alexei nodded. "These are your electronic surveillance blockers, yes? I read reports of something that caused interference with surveillance tapes found at Alconost project site."
Agent Whatever spluttered, "What the hell are you people doing with those things? They're still being tested, haven't even been issued to our field agents --"
"Apparently, we've been doing the testing," Simon said.
"Nice to know that we're expendable guinea pigs, so the spooks don't have to risk their butts by trying stuff out in life-or-death situations," Tom said.
"Melvin -- he handles logistics, equipment, and general scrounging -- says that these have been improved from the model we tried out. Still no good against ultrasonic motion detectors, but more reliable for anything that depends on electromagnetic imaging -- infrared, visible, or ultraviolet."
"Jesus Christ, Litchfield, showing this stuff to a Russian general probably qualifies as espionage, treason even," Whatever said.
"He showed us his -- the stealth APC's with sound cancellation systems -- so it's only fair that we show him ours. Besides, he already knew that they existed in some form."
"My superiors are going to hear about this when we get back," Whatever said. "Then maybe you and your fellow clowns will be shut down and jobs like this will be left to professionals."
"It is heart-warming, this display of solidarity, but we have only few hours before Baranoff's deadline. Let us do job first, strangle each other later."
"You tell 'em, Alexei," Stephanie said. "I wish these boys would just drop trou, compare dicks, and get it over with -- er, not with me watching, of course --"
"Gee, and me without my notepad," Tom said. "I'll just have to remember this for our next session."
"You're her therapist?"
"Mine too, actually," Simon said. "But he's also quite useful when there are heavy objects to be moved, including recalcitrant people of size."
Red-faced, Stephanie said, "I'm going now. I might even turn on the stealth thingy, although at this particular moment, being captured and killed is actually kind of appealing."
"I suppose we should come with you, providing you'll allow us to keep our pants on," Simon said, laughing. "Alexei, Agent -- stand by for our signal. When we reach our objective, you will use any means at your disposal to draw attention away from the center of the base so Stephanie can have as few distractions as possible."
"No blowing up buildings," Stephanie said. "We don't know where the generators are, and I can't afford to lose power in the middle of hacking into Baranoff's computers."
Alexei nodded, and at his prompting, Pavel nodded as well. Agents Whatever and Whoever did likewise, although it was obvious that they did so reluctantly.
"Tom, Stephanie, activate your fuzz boxes, and let's see how reliable 'more reliable' is."
The Nightwatch operatives and their therapist / companion each pressed a sequence of three recessed buttons on their gray boxes.
"Nothing's happening," Agent Whatever said. "Are you sure those things work?"
Simon turned to Yakonov. "Have Pavel take a look at us through the BTR-95X cameras."
The Spetznaz soldier glanced at Yakonov for confirmation, then quickly climbed back into the cockpit of the stealth APC. After a few seconds, his head and shoulders appeared in the hatch, frowning when he saw Simon, Stephanie and Tom standing exactly where he had left them. He vanished back inside, then emerged again almost immediately, as if hoping to catch the Americans running away to hide. Finally, he shrugged and shook his head.
"To my eyes, they are there. To the cameras, they are not."
"If you're a good lad, Agent Whatever, I'm sure they'll let you have one of these sometime soon," Simon said. Then he turned and walked up the hill towards Baranoff's base, with Tom and Stephanie close behind.
The walk over the hill and across the open ground to Baranoff's base was torture. With every step, Simon expected alarms to sound, spotlights to zero in on him and his companions, bullets to punch through the light body armor built into their cold-weather gear. In spite of the biting cold that turned every breath into a miniature snow squall, he was sweating, and he felt his hands quivering with tension.
They walked without speaking, painfully aware of the crunch of fracturing ice crystals that accompanied every move they made. Simon thought it would be nice to have Alexei's sound-cancelling device added to the functions of the fuzz box, but then he realized that the box probably would have to be the size of a briefcase to provide enough separation between the microphones and speakers.
It took about two minutes to reach the building that Alexei said contained the control room and communications center. The single-story building looked like any pre-fabricated structure thrown together quickly to provide shelter, except that flat roof had a makeshift slanted covering tacked on to allow it to shed snow before too much weight accumulated. Aside from its size, there was nothing to distinguish the building from the others on the base; any antennas had been hidden, possibly under the roof cover.
No alarms had sounded; amazingly, Baranoff seemed unable to even conceive of the possibility that someone might have found him. Simon remembered something that Tom had once said: genius is sometimes characterized by tunnel vision. The ability to focus on an idea or an objective so perfectly implies blindness to anything that is not part of the goal.
So, having disguised the location of his base by igniting his rocket boosters hundreds of kilometers away, Baranoff thought he had eliminated any chance of detection. The hell of it was, he would have been right if not for one old Swedish engineer crazy enough to go hiking above the Arctic Circle with winter a couple of months away. A quick examination of the first door they found detected no signs of alarm system wiring, and Stephanie's hand-held electromagnetic field scanner detected no radio-frequency activity that would be present for a wireless system. Simon used a police-type lock gun to open the heavy deadbolt lock while Tom stood by with a high-powered taser in case there was a guard waiting inside.
Holding his breath, Simon turned the doorknob and pulled. The door swung open smoothly, releasing a wave of warm air heavily scented with the odors of cabbage and onions and beets.
Tom leaned in and snapped his body back out again without attracting gunfire or triggering any alarm system they had missed. He spread his hands in a small shrug, indicating that he thought the way was clear.
Simon and Stephanie drew their own tasers and the trio entered the building, pulling the door closed behind them.
Stephanie activated her E-M field scanner again, using her thumb to adjust the instrument to detect the specific patterns that would indicate computer activity. After a moment, she pointed to one side. "Lots of traffic, but computer traces are stronger that way."
The first person they encountered was a technician of some sort, based on his clothing and lack of weapons. He was still fumbling for the wireless panic button on his wrist when Tom's taser sent him into a convulsing heap on the floor.
"Let's hope he's not expected somewhere in the next few minutes," Simon said. "Tom, if you'll do the honors?"
Tom picked the man up in a fireman's carry and took him back around the corner to the dark corridor near the door. He returned a minute or so later, stuffing a bundle of plastic restraints back into his pocket with his right hand and holding something else in his left. "Hog-tied and gagged. I took this off him, just in case he figured out a way to trigger it with his nose or something."
Stephanie frowned at the plastic bracelet in Tom's hand. "Let me see that."
Tom shrugged and handed it over.
"Shit. When you took it off him, you broke a connection here, in the band." She aimed the E-M scanner at the bracelet and was rewarded with a flashing red light, indicating a strong signal.
"It's transmitting something, but I can't tell if it's an alarm signal, or if the damn thing always broadcasts a carrier."
Tom grimaced. "Should have thought of that. Damn it, it makes sense that they'd use something like those tamper-proof house-arrest ankle-bracelets."
"We'd better move fast."
The guard came out of nowhere, a big man, quiet and very fast. He brought a black baton down across Tom's shoulder with enough force to drop the psychologist to his knees, drew it back for a second blow, then gasped in sudden agony as Simon trapped his arm and twisted the baton from his hand. Stephanie stepped in and delivered a crushing elbow strike to the solar plexus, then kicked the man in the temple as he doubled over.
"Tom, are you all right?"
"Ow. Hell, no. That hurt like a son of a bitch."
Tom worked his shoulder back and forth, then shook his head. "I think the parka absorbed some of the force. I'm gonna be sore for a while."
"If it makes you feel any better, I'm pretty sure Simon dislocated his elbow."
"Simon Litchfield, the orthopedic surgeon's friend. Just like Angola."
Simon froze. "Angola? What about Angola?"
Tom grinned. "Your friend Alexei was telling tales on the trip here. Seems you've done a lot of unlicensed chiropractic work in your time..."
"Bloody hell. I can tell you stories about Alexei that make me look like a saint, and that would get him sent to a gulag if his superiors found out." Simon bent to the unconscious guard, wrenched his arm down so he could apply plastic restraints to his wrists, slapped restraints on his ankles as well, then used a third set to link the first two together. As a finishing touch, he stuffed a plastic ball into the man's mouth. The heat and moisture caused the specially treated ball to expand slightly, making it almost impossible to remove.
Stephanie removed her gloves and held one hand under the man's nose. "Good thing he doesn't have a head cold. Also good that I didn't break his nose."
"Let's move on," Simon said. "With luck, most of the remaining staff will be in the control room where we can deal with them all at the same time."
The trio walked on in the direction Stephanie indicated, now alert for the sudden appearance of more guards.
"If they have guns, they can deal with us," Tom said.
"I'm guessing you were not a member of the Glee Club in high school," Stephanie said.
"Of course not. That was my Goth period."
Simon shook his head. "I wasn't aware that Goth culture and bodybuilding were compatible."
"I didn't have this body back then," Tom said. "And trust me when I say that I had no tan whatsoever."
"Guys, I think this is it," Stephanie said. "Computer-type E-M is off the scale, plus a lot of traffic on satellite uplink frequencies."
"Party favors at the ready, then," Simon said. "Flashbangs and gas grenades, on my mark."
Stephanie holstered her E-M scanner and palmed a pair of ping-pong-ball-sized spheres from a pouch on her belt. Tom and Simon also grabbed compact grenades from their own belt pouches, while all three held onto their tasers in the opposite hand.
"One ... two ... three!"
Simon kicked in the door, managing to ignore the flaring pain in his knee, and threw his grenades. Tom and Stephanie hurled their grenades after Simon's, each aiming for a different part of the room.
There were three blinding flashes of light, three stunning blasts of sound, and then billowing clouds of green gas flooded the room. After about thirty seconds of silence, Simon threw in a handful of smaller pellets, each of which exploded into clouds of yellow smoke.
Where the green and yellow gases mixed, they both faded to white. Within minutes, no colored gas remained, and the remaining white smoke had risen to hug the ceiling of the room.
"According to Mr. Squibb, the gas has been neutralized and it's safe for us to enter."
"If we pass out, I'm going to sue."
Stephanie rolled her eyes. "I'm beginning to see what that CIA goon was complaining about. I'm going in. I'd appreciate it if you two could take time out from your improv routine and cover me."
Somewhat chastened, Tom and Simon followed Stephanie into the room. She made a quick survey of the consoles and chose one with a full keyboard and display.
"We're in luck -- this bozo didn't have time to log out before the gas got him." She pushed the unconscious man out of his chair and took his place.
"Uh oh. I guess we should have expected this."
"It's all in Russian, of course. I can handle it -- from the syntax, it's a Russian knock-off of a Unix version about 10 years out of date. But it's going to take a few extra minutes to set up a work-around."
"Proceed, my dear. Tom and I will man the ramparts and try to hold off any attempts to retake our captured fortress."
Stephanie sighed. "Whatever turns your crank, Simon. Just buy me some time."
Tom found a sheet-metal storage cabinet and opened the door. Finding nothing useful inside, he braced himself and pulled, tearing the door from its hinges.
"Very impressive, Tom. Also very loud. If there's anybody left conscious around here, they'll be coming to investigate."
Tom grinned. "There is a method to my madness. Watch and learn." He carried the cabinet door to the door Simon had kicked in, and wedged one end into the gap between the door and its threshold.
"That'll slow down anyone who tries to get in. When we're ready to leave, I can yank it out."
"If you say so. If I were the psychologist here, I would say that you were overcompensating for being taken by surprise by that guard."
"Angola. Angola, Brazzaville, Cairo."
"For an intelligence operative, Alexei has a remarkably big mouth."
While her companions continued their verbal spitball fight, Stephanie had connected her handheld computer to the keyboard and monitor connectors at the workstation she had commandeered. She then connected a fold-out keyboard to her handheld computer, providing her with an English-language input and display for the Russian system. Fortunately, the Russian vocabulary in the Unix variant was quite limited and the few words not in her computer's lexicon were ones she could puzzle out from the context.
As she had expected, the whole system was organized as nested pull-down menus, an interface design abandoned years ago in the West as too unwieldy for really complex systems. What the menu system did do for her was to make it possible to trace her way down the menu tree without having to understand the system as a whole.
"Got it," she announced. "I have a menu labeled 'sputnik', and an option that transliterates as 'komanda na samopodriv' -- I think..."
"Presumably, that's 'command for' something," Simon said. "The question is, is it 'self-destruct' or 'attack'?"
Stephanie's fingers rippled across her fold-out keyboard, scrolling up and down the list of 'sputnik' options. "It's the only one that has any kind of security lockout on it," she said. "All the others in this menu give you a window to input parameters of some kind when you select them. This one brings up a big red 'password required' message."
"A password? Lovely. Any chance we can wake up the fellow you tossed out of that chair?"
Stephanie prodded the technician with her toe. When that brought no response, she kicked the man in the shin, and then very gently in the groin. Simon and Tom both winced, but the technician didn't move.
"For future reference, next time, we should carry an antidote for that gas," Stephanie said.
"Time is running out, Stephanie. Do you think you can hack the password in time?"
Stephanie bit her lower lip, drummed her fingers on the desk, then said, "Yeah -- I'll have to splice some code from an old password-generator with the Russian translation modules in my computer, start the sucker up, and hope we get lucky."
Without further prodding, she set to work.
"Did you understand that last bit?" Simon asked.
"Not really," Tom said. "But I'm just the beast of burden and general-purpose goon on this trip."
"If your pack was heavier than mine, it was only because you insisted on bringing those leaden granola things along."
The sound of gunfire almost made Stephanie fall out of her chair. "Guys, I need a few more minutes. The password program is running, but there's no telling how much longer it might take."
Tom looked at Simon. "Was that outside the building or in?"
Simon shook his head. "Outside, I think, from the echoes. But it's moving this way."
"Apparently, the boys got tired of waiting for us to signal them to start the diversion. That, or they got careless, and somebody spotted them."
Simon raised his hand for quiet, and closed his eyes. "You're right -- I hear AK-74 and MP-5 fire, so at the very least, the locals are fighting our CIA friends. Of course, if Alexei and Pavel are using the same weapons as Baranoff's men, I could be wrong."
Something heavy crashed against the door, and only Tom's improvised doorstop prevented it from bursting open. Simon and Tom fell back, both preparing more flashbang grenades and bringing their tasers to bear on the doorway.
"Stephanie, this would be an excellent time for your program to find the password --"
A deafening explosion blew the door off its hinges and filled the room with acrid smoke. Stunned, Tom and Simon stumbled back, throwing their own flashbangs in the direction of the door to buy time to recover. The small stun bombs detonated like a string of firecrackers, most of their effect smothered by the choking clouds of smoke from the larger explosion. Still, the first man through the door cursed and fell back as his legs were scorched by a flashbang that went off practically under his feet.
Stephanie, further from the blast and partially shielded by another control console, slid out of her chair and took cover, fumbling through her pockets for her own weapons. Baranoff's men were not firing blindly into the room, presumably under orders to minimize the damage to the equipment if not out of consideration for their fallen compatriots, and that meant that the Nightwatch party still had some chance of survival. But could they stay alive without taking lives themselves?
Tom made out the silhouette of a man, oddly misshapen due to either a gas mask or an infra-red vision rig. Still half-prone on the floor, he triggered his taser and scored a hit, reducing the odds against them and buying a few more seconds of life.
"The MP-5 fire is getting closer," Simon shouted. With his ears ringing from the first explosion, he could barely hear his own voice, and wasn't sure if Tom or Stephanie were in any better shape. He was only able to identify the American submachine guns' fire by the rhythm of the faint tapping that penetrated the bales of cotton that seemed to be stuffed into his ears.
Shouting was a tactical mistake, Simon realized, pinpointing his location in spite of the blinding smoke. He threw himself to one side barely in time, taking a minor wound to the arm instead of a fatal volley to the chest. Then he fired his own taser at the shape that plunged toward him through the smoke, only to have the convulsing mass of another oversized guard fall on him. Years of martial arts training and practice were of no use against simple inertia. An elbow glanced off the side of his head and he fell back, barely conscious.
Tom saw Simon go down under the dead weight of a taser-stunned guard, and knew that he was out of the fight. There was no time to swap cartridges to reload his taser gun, and the grenades were worse than useless at close range. That meant he had to do things the old-fashioned way...
As another pair of guards skittered through the doorway, guns raised, Tom scrambled into a football player's crouch and immediately launched himself toward them. His massive shoulders were still level with the guards' hips when he slammed into them, knocking them back and off their feet. With a competitive wrestler's quickness, he clambered forward and drove his elbow into one man's jaw, then pivoted and struck the second man in the throat with his forearm.
He didn't see the boot that caught him in the side of the neck. A weaker man might have died from that blow; as it was, the shock penetrated the thick muscles and jolted him into unconsciousness.
"Surrender now, or your friends die!"
Stephanie's eyes filled with tears. Some of the tears were just a reaction to the stinging effect of the smoke. Some of them weren't. That any lives should be lost due to her actions horrified her. The possibility that Tom and Simon might die felt like a black hole in the center of her chest, devouring her from the inside out.
But thousands of lives were at stake if Baranoff was not stopped here and now. There was still a chance to accomplish the mission, if her password program finished its work before Baranoff's men ran out of patience.
Stephanie stood slowly, her hands raised over her head.
"A woman? The Americans sent a woman to ruin my work!"
Yuri Baranoff stood in the doorway with a single guard at his side. Each man held a handgun of some sort. Baranoff's was aimed at Stephanie, while the guard had his pistol aimed at Tom's head.
Stephanie glanced at her computer display. The password program had succeeded. The 'password required' message had been replaced by a simple prompt to 'Proceed: Y/N', with the 'Y' option highlighted. All she had to do was hit the Enter key, and Baranoff's satellites would be transformed from terror weapons into space junk.
All she had to do was hit the Enter key, and she, Tom, and Simon would all die.
Faintly, she could still hear the gunfire that Simon had identified as American MP-5 submachine guns. At least one of the CIA agents was still fighting. Could he reach them before the pre-programmed satellites began their lethal work?
"Step away from the console. I will not allow you to destroy my work again."
Stall, Stephanie, stall.
"I don't know what you're talking about."
Baranoff sneered. "When the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics collapsed, I was only months away from initiating a program that would have ensured our supremacy in space. We could have been on Mars by now. We could have a real space station, instead of that pitiful collection of cast-off parts that barely functions from day to day. The pressures of money, the temptations of capitalism, ended all that."
"The money from this scheme will allow you to start that program again. Is that the idea?"
Baranoff cackled, sending spittle flying across the room. "The money means nothing. Whether the ransom is paid or not, my satellites will strike a blow against the capitalist world, including the corrupt regime that has ruled Mother Russia for the last twenty years."
"A mad Russian rocket scientist. Is that two clichés or three?"
Baranoff's face contorted with rage and his gun hand swiveled toward Simon. Stephanie pivoted on one foot and poked the Enter key on her keyboard with one finger, then spun back into position.
A recorded voice began counting down, "Tri, dva, odin..."
Baranoff screamed. "It is not time for the satellites to fire. What is this countdown?"
"That would be your satellites self-destructing," Simon said, still pinned under the unconscious guard.
"Kill them! Kill them all!"
Stephanie drew her taser gun from under the desk and fired, catching the guard in the chest. His hand convulsed and his gun discharged, but the shot went wild, lodging in the ceiling.
Baranoff snarled and fired three shots toward Simon, then brought the gun around toward Stephanie. She threw herself to one side, but knew that it was no use as Baranoff's gun fired three more shots in rapid succession.
She was surprised to find herself still alive and uninjured, aside from bruises and what felt like a cracked rib from landing hard on the concrete slab floor. Somehow, Baranoff had missed.
"You okay back there, Ms. Keel?" Agent Whatever stooped and pulled a large matte black throwing knife from the lifeless body of Yuri Baranoff. He wiped the blade carefully on a clean section of Baranoff's jacket, then returned it to a sheath on his belt.
Stephanie climbed slowly to her feet, her whole body aching. The pain inside was worse than any bodily complaints -- she thought that she had saved Tom by taking out the guard who had been poised to kill him, but Baranoff had fired three shots at Simon, with Simon pinned down and unable to dodge.
"Agent, if you don't mind, could you please remove this great brute so I can stand?"
Stephanie shrieked. "Simon! You're alive!"
Simon groaned as Agent Whatever lifted the guard enough to free him. Stephanie felt relief washing away some of her pain as she saw the bullet wounds in the guard's chest. Simon was relatively uninjured.
"As you can see, my dear, the guard was kind enough to act as a human shield. Baranoff was so enraged by your destruction of his toys that his marksmanship was affected, and fortunately, the guard was a robust specimen -- none of the shots that struck him emerged to strike me."
"And Tom -- how are you, Tom?"
Stephanie turned to find Tom climbing to his feet, clutching the side of his neck and wincing.
"I never thought I'd be asking this in this frozen-over hell, but could somebody find me an ice pack? My neck is killing me."
"We all made it, then," Stephanie said. But she saw anger in Agent Whatever's eyes, and she knew that not everyone had been so lucky.
"Agent Brian Thiessen is dead," Whatever said. "So is that Russian guy -- Pavel, not your General Yakonov. Not your fault -- a couple of supply trucks came in, and they spotted us before we spotted them. Same damn noise cancellation gimmick as the BTR-95X's -- never heard a thing until the lead started to fly. Yakonov managed to call in the third APC in time to save our butts -- well, some of our butts. We were damn near out of ammunition by the time they arrived."
Stephanie sighed, feeling tears rising again. "I'm sorry. Maybe if I'd been faster, we could have gotten away without any casualties."
Simon took her face between his hands and looked into her eyes. "You saved Tom by taking down the guard standing over him. You saved me by stalling Baranoff until I was conscious enough to squirm a bit further under my involuntary human shield. And you saved bloody thousands of lives by destroying Baranoff's satellites. I will not hear you blaming yourself for any lives lost today. I was in charge -- I should have planned better. The blood is on my hands, and I don't like it -- but I'm more used to it than you will ever be."
"Things are very quiet here," Alexei Yakonov said. "Did I miss whole party? In that case, I think I will call for taxis to take us all home."
"Are you still having nightmares?"
Once again, Tom and Stephanie were comfortably ensconced in Tom's office, with brandied coffees and a plate of granola bars that Tom was eating with no help from Stephanie. She had tasted one once and had no desire to taste another.
"Sometimes," Stephanie admitted. "They're not as vivid as they were, thank God. I can usually go back to sleep after a while, so even when I do have them, I don't end up completely exhausted anymore."
"Time heals all wounds, or wounds all heels, or something like that," Tom said. "I think maybe the things Simon said back in Finland may actually have made an impression. You stuck by the promise you made to yourself. You never tried to kill anyone, and tried to discourage anyone else from killing on your behalf, which, under the circumstances, was the best you could do."
"People still died, on both sides."
"We all chose to be there, you, Simon, me, Alexei, Pavel, even the CIA agents, knowing that we could lose our lives. Even Baranoff and his guards were there by their choice, as warped as their judgment must have been. You were, and are, only responsible for your actions. You lost control once, with Celinde, but now you've proven that you can control your fear and anger under extreme circumstances. I'm proud of you, Stephanie, and so is Simon, and you should be too."
"Speaking of Simon, did you make notes about those stories Alexei told us? I'd hate to get the details wrong when I'm trying to bug him."
"It's all up here," Tom said, tapping the side of his head.
"I'd be happier if it was on disk. People keep trying to knock your 'up here' over there."
"Okay, fine, I'll write it up and give you a copy. In the meantime, you know what to say to get Simon going."
"That's the ticket. I find it works best when he has a drink in his hand."
"For a doctor, you're a cruel, cruel man."
"Why thank you. Now, let's talk about the shortcomings of CIA agents and a certain annoying Nightwatch official whose initials are I.C...."
<![if !supportEmptyParas]> <![endif]>
<![if !supportEmptyParas]> <![endif]>
Ó 2004 by John R. Murray. John R. Murray is a recently-retired engineer and jack-of-all-trades and an avid reader of thrillers and science fiction stories. With more time on his hands, he finally has time to write them, and thanks to Jeff W.'s Nightwatch project, he has great characters and settings to work with. Unfortunately, like Simon Litchfield, he also has arthritis 'on' his hands (and knees, wrists, hip joints ...) This is his first published story.
<![if !supportEmptyParas]> <![endif]>
<![if !supportEmptyParas]> <![endif]>