Richard Aston was a competent man. Anyone who knew him would have testified to that, yet at the moment he felt anything but competent. He sat paralyzed on the spare bunk, staring across the tiny cabin at the young almost-woman lying in his own, and had no idea in the world what to do. Nor was there any way to ask anyone else.

He'd been confused, at first, when he tried to raise someone for advice only to find his radio stone-cold dead. In all his sailing, he'd never suffered the breakdown of a solid-state transmitter. He'd had them shot up, blown up, lost, and otherwise rendered useless in the field, but never aboard his ship. Yet neither, he slowly realized, had one of them ever been exposed to the EMP of multiple nuclear explosions. It wasn't a subject on which he was extraordinarily well-informed, but he remembered snippets from various briefings as he considered it. Solid-state electronics were highly susceptible to the electromagnetic energy burst associated with nuclear weapons, and his transceiver had simply burned out. And so, he discovered, had his commercial receiver. Not only could he not talk to anyone, he couldn't even know what (if anything) the rest of the world had to say about what he'd just seen.

All of which meant that he was very much on his own.

He pondered his options, but he really had only one. He was a bit more than halfway to Europe on the prevailing westerlies, which meant it would be faster to continue than to turn about, though he shuddered at the thought of explaining things to British customs when he arrived. Yet even that was less daunting than his total ignorance about how to care for the girl he'd rescued.

He rubbed his bald, tanned crown anxiously, then gave himself a mental shake and stood, remembering a lesson he'd learned long ago. If he couldn't see how to solve his whole problem, the thing to do was to start by solving the parts of it that he could.

The first thing was to get her out of her blood-stained, filthy flight suit. He still couldn't see any closures, but he'd already ruined her tailoring. He found a pair of huge sail-maker's scissors and went to work.

His patient—if such she was—was a sturdily built girl, he discovered, rather pleased with himself for managing to maintain an almost clinical attitude. She had the appropriate numbers of fingers and toes and perfect teeth without a single filling. As far as he could determine, there were absolutely no external differences between her and any other woman, except, perhaps, for how extraordinarily well developed her muscles were. They had a sleek, flowing vitality—the strength of conditioned endurance, not just brute power. He'd seen enough hard-trained people in his life to know the difference.

He peeled her out of the suit, discovering along the way that it had comprehensive and ingenious plumbing connections—which, however, apparently led nowhere—and that the flat case on her right hip was a snap-down holster. He thought of it as snapping down, anyway, although the exact nature of the closure evaded him. He saw no sign of any fastening, but when he pressed the flap down, it stayed there until he tugged it loose. In a strange way, that prosaic little trick impressed him even more than aerobatic streaks of light and nuclear explosions in the heavens.

The weapon itself was completely baffling. He knew it was a weapon—he'd handled enough of them to feel its lethality—yet he had no inkling of how it functioned. The barrel was a massive piece of alloy suspiciously like stainless steel, except that a check with a magnet showed that it was nonferrous. It was some sort of projectile weapon . . . he thought. But the bore was tiny, certainly no more than a millimeter in diameter, and there was no sign of a slide or ejector port. Hair-thin, almost invisible lines formed a square on the bottom of the pistol butt, and a pocket in the back of the holster held half a dozen blocky, featureless rectangular cubes of what appeared to be solid plastic which would have fitted perfectly inside the square and just about filled the "pistol's" grip—assuming the butt was hollow and there was some way to eject the cube already in it.

He handled the thing with extreme care. It undoubtedly made his .45 look like a big, noisy cap pistol, but he felt no particular desire to squeeze the button inside its trigger guard. There were three more small buttons or sliding switches recessed into the side of the barrel, and he kept his hands carefully away from them, as well. He was fairly certain any weaponeer would have the sense to build in a safety, but he had no intention of finding out the hard way which one wasn't it.

She wore a thin metal necklet of some sort, as well, and he scrutinized it with almost equal curiosity. It supported a plastic cube a half-inch square and a quarter-inch thick. Study it as he might, he could discern no apparent closures, readouts, or features of any sort, but it certainly didn't look like an ornament! He was a bit worried by its snug fit, wondering if it might interfere with her breathing, but then his probing fingertip touched a nearly invisible stud and the supporting band sprang open so suddenly he almost dropped it in surprise. He held it up for one last, close look, then shrugged and admitted defeat.

He slid the weapon back into the holster and tucked everything away in a locker, then turned back to his passenger. That was the best word, he decided: "passenger." Or perhaps he should think of her as a distressed mariner? The thought won a wry snort of amusement from him—the first levity he'd felt since she fell out of the sky at him.

One thing he could do was clean her up. Whatever her activities for the past few weeks, bathing hadn't been one of them. His supply of fresh water was limited, but he could spare enough for a sponge bath, and did, trying to ignore her firm softness without a great deal of success . . . until he discovered a second, larger pucker just below her left shoulder blade and barely half an inch from her spine.

He froze for only a moment, then made his hands continue their gentle cleansing, but his discovery had shocked him into remembering her alien nature. Those two marks were an entry and an exit wound—which meant something had passed entirely through her body, ripping its way through her lung and God knew what else at high velocity. And she'd survived it.

He laid her back down and did what he could with her hair (not much) as he tried to envision how anything, human or not, could survive that kind of traumatic damage. Unfortunately, his imagination was unequal to the task, and that scared him in a distant sort of way, for he was unused to questions he couldn't even begin to answer, and this shipwrecked girl was a mass of those. The sheer vitality her survival implied was frightening enough without wounds which, he noticed suddenly, had not only closed but were already beginning to heal.

He peered closely at the fading rawness of her damaged flesh, and the puckered marks already looked less livid and new. Moved by a sudden impulse to gather proof, he found his camera and snapped pictures of the wounds, resolving to take more at regular intervals. Not that he expected anyone to believe him even with photos.

He sighed and tucked the sheet over her, wondering what he should do next. With a comparably wounded human, he could just have buried her at sea; as it was, he had to assume she would live . . . unless he did something stupid and finished her off out of sheer ignorance. The ironic thought was less humorous than he'd expected, and his grin died stillborn. Damn it, it was important that she live! Whoever or whatever she was, she must be a treasure trove of data just waiting to be discovered—and she was a damned good-looking kid, too.

But how to keep her alive? He didn't even know her dietary requirements! What should he think about feeding her? Could she metabolize terrestrial food? Did she need vitamins he couldn't provide? Trace minerals? What about—?

He reined in his imagination before it did any damage. Manifestly, he thought, watching her breathe, she could handle terrestrial air, which was probably a good sign. Now. If she were a human, she would need lots of protein and liquids after losing so much blood. And while it looked like she was healing completely and with indecent speed, he couldn't know she was. There might be internal damage he didn't know about, too, though the fact that her abdomen showed no sign of distension encouraged him to believe that at least there was no major internal bleeding. But until he knew what shape her plumbing was in, solid food was out. Besides, how could he get anything solid down an unconscious patient in the first place?

Soup, he decided. Soup was the best bet, and he had literally cases of canned soup among his provisions.

He fired up his old-fashioned bottled-gas stove and put on a kettle of cream of chicken soup. He supposed something with vegetables might be better for her, but until she was able to chew on her own, he wasn't going to risk anything with solids. Actually, broth of some sort probably would have been best of all, but Aston had always hated broth and flatly refused to keep any in his galley.

He brought the soup to a simmer, stirring occasionally and checking his patient at frequent intervals. She showed no sign of waking, and before settling in to feed her—which he guessed might be a lengthy business—he took himself back topside and got Amanda back under sail. He waited long enough to be certain the self-steering was working properly (he hadn't done that once, and the results still made him shudder), then went back below, mentally rolling up his sleeves as he faced the daunting task of nursing an alien from God knew where while sailing single-handed across the Atlantic.

It was not, he reflected, a program which would appeal to the faint of heart. Odd; he'd never realized he was fainthearted.

He raised her head and shoulders and propped them with pillows before he half-filled a deep bowl (filling bowls to the brim was contraindicated aboard small craft) with soup. He carried it to a seat by her bunk and crooked a surprised eyebrow as her nostrils gave an unmistakable twitch. She'd shown absolutely no awareness as he undressed and bathed her, but now her eyes slitted blankly open, without any sign of recognition or curiosity, as the smell of the soup reached her.

He raised a spoonful to her lips, and her reaction banished any concern he'd felt over feeding an unconscious patient. Her mouth opened quickly, and when he tried to slide the spoon carefully into it, she snapped at it.

That was the only verb he could think of. He remembered Aardvark, a stray dog he'd taken in as a child—a miserable, three-quarters-starved rack of bones and hair which had become the most loving and beloved pet of his life. The first time Aardvark had smelled food, he'd gone for it with exactly the same desperation. There was something feral about the fierce way she accepted the soup, and the hazy fire in her unseeing eyes brightened. He had to tug to get the spoon back, and she released it with manifest unwillingness, only to snap even harder when he refilled it and proffered it once more.

He fed it to her one spoonful at a time. There was never the least awareness in her burning gaze, but she took each mouthful with the same ferocity. He emptied the bowl and got another. Then another. And another. He was uneasy about feeding her so much, but the almost savage way she ate convinced him she needed it. He made another kettle when the first was empty, and she ate half of it, as well, before she was satisfied.

It was obvious when she was sated, for her eyelids dropped abruptly and the soup lost all attraction for her. It happened so suddenly it caught him with a spoonful halfway to her mouth, and when he offered it to her she might have died between bites for all the interest she showed. For just a moment, he was afraid she had died—that the soup had proved some sort of deadly poison—but her slow, even breathing and the faint blush of color returning to her porcelain cheeks reassured him.

He sat back and shook his head in slow bemusement. She was more muscular than most women he'd encountered, but she was no more than five feet four, so how could she pack it away like that? He eyed the half-emptied kettle on the stove. She'd eaten over a gallon of soup, and he couldn't begin to imagine where she'd put it all. But he was rapidly coming to the conclusion that the only eventuality which should really worry him would be the discovery that he actually understood anything that was going on.

He sat there for half an hour, listening to her breathe and wondering if she was going to come around, but she never even moved. She was motionless but for the slow rise and fall of her breasts and an occasional very faint flutter of her eyelids, and he felt his own eyes growing heavy.

He glanced out a porthole and grinned tiredly. No wonder he felt weary. The sun was rising, and he'd been up all night, witnessed an impossible dogfight conducted with nukes and what had to be some sort of energy weapons, survived a multimegaton blast at entirely too close a range for comfort, and rescued a critically wounded and all too human-looking alien from certain death by drowning.

He rose and stretched, then checked his barometer carefully. It had risen very slightly since his last check, so maybe the good weather was going to hold. God knew he could use a spell of easy sailing if he had to play Florence Nightingale to Dejah Thoris for the foreseeable future!

He looked back down at his unexpected passenger. She didn't look very menacing, but perhaps it would be a good idea to nap topside in the cockpit, just in case.

He did, and if he was a bit shamefaced about hanging onto his .45 when he did, he didn't let it stop him from taking it along.


The next four days were among the most exhausting Dick Aston could remember. The girl did nothing but eat and sleep; she never even showed an inclination to rouse for a trip to the head, and that did almost more to convince him of her inhuman pedigree than anything else about her.

The only thing with the power to rouse her was hunger. Even that didn't bring her back to awareness, but she grew sufficiently agitated in her slumber to wake him less than three hours after he first fed her.

Too many years of a hazardous lifestyle had made him a very light sleeper, but the sounds drifting up the open companion hatch had been almost frightening. There was an eerie note to them—a keening sound of distress he couldn't immediately understand. He shoved himself up and hurried down to her, rubbing sleep from his eyes and trying frantically to understand what had brought her to a whimpering, twisting parody of liveliness.

He offered her water, and she drank greedily, but her agitation scarcely eased. It seemed inconceivable that hunger could possibly explain such obvious distress after she'd devoured so much soup, but nothing else suggested itself, and finally, in desperation, he opened a can of stew.

Her frantic, twisting whimpers redoubled the instant she smelled it, and he found himself back beside the bunk without even heating it, spooning cold, glutinous stew into his voracious patient. She ate even more fiercely than before, and it took four family-sized cans of the stuff to satisfy her before she slumped back, as instantaneously limp as the last time.

He stared at her in awe, glancing back and forth between her innocent, sleeping face and the empty cans. Lordy! She didn't look like she had a black hole concealed somewhere about her person. He only hoped he had enough food to complete the crossing!

The pattern was established. She never woke, but she roused once every two and a half hours—or, to be more precise, once every one hundred forty minutes almost to the second by his watch—demanding to be fed. It was hard to believe even when he saw it happening, but her voracity never flagged, and his supplies dwindled rapidly under its ruinous onslaught. By the third day, he was genuinely concerned that he would run short, despite the fact that he was well ahead of his originally projected progress.

He started spending more time with the huge spinnaker set, driving Amanda far harder—while he was awake, anyway—than he'd planned. A less curious man might have come to hate the demands his passenger placed on his own store of energy, but in Richard Aston's case, fascination overpowered all other emotions where she was concerned. By the middle of the second day, the wounds which should have killed her were faint, raised scars, and he half-suspected even those would vanish with time. All in all, she was a puzzle wrapped in a mystery, and his most driving desire was for her to wake up and talk to him.


Commander Mordecai Morris, who rejoiced in the nickname "M&M" among his ruder intimates, was not a happy man. He knew perfectly well that he wasn't alone in that; indeed, he found himself uncomfortably well-placed to observe and appreciate the unhappiness of others.

He sighed and stubbed out his forbidden cigarette (US military bases were officially smoking-free), then rubbed his weary eyes and wondered how many he'd smoked in the four days since it all hit the fan. Why did he even try to pretend he wasn't a nicotine addict, anyway? He managed to convince himself he was quitting—or cutting back, at least—for weeks on end, but only until the next crisis put him back into the pressure cooker. He suspected it stemmed from his ingrained dislike for admitting that he didn't really want to stop doing something he ought to stop.

He fumbled for another cigarette, but the pack was empty. He peered down into it for a moment, then crushed it and dropped it into the shredder bag under his desk.

"Well, Mordecai?" The voice from the door pulled his head around, and he summoned up a tired grin.

"Hi, Jayne," he said, gesturing at a chair, and Lieutenant Commander Jayne Hastings walked into the cluttered office, waving a hand ineffectually against the blue canopy of stale tobacco smoke. The office felt close and muggy for an April night, even in Norfolk, Virginia.

"I see the air-conditioning's still out," she observed, and Morris shrugged. She shook her head and sat, glancing at the full ashtray and clutter of empty coffee cups. "How long since you had a shower and a shave, Mordecai?" she asked gently.

"Shower? Shave?" He rubbed his nose and grinned. "What're they?"

"Twit," she said affectionately, and he made a face at her.

Morris was a small, dark man with an artificial right foot and eyes which were warm and brown when not ringed with red—the sort of man dogs and children loved on sight. He was also a highly respected intelligence analyst, as was to be expected of the man Commander-in-Chief Atlantic Fleet had chosen as his chief intelligence officer. At the moment, he was unshaven and red-eyed, his uniform wilted, but on his best day, no one would ever confuse him with the steely-eyed image of the professional intelligence operative. That was perfectly all right with him—a dozen people in various Federal prisons had judged by appearances. Several one-time terrorists in a Middle Eastern cemetery had also discovered how sadly deceived they'd been in the unassuming, cheerfully corruptible naval attaché. Their effort to correct their error in judgment had been impressive, however, and although it had fallen short of their intention, it had been enough to cost him a foot and put him behind a desk.

Jayne Hastings was a foot taller than her boss, with wheat-blond hair and bright green eyes. She styled her hair severely and hid her trenchant intelligence behind ridiculously large, round-lensed glasses, but her grooming was immaculate. It was one of the wonders of Morris's untidy life that she could spend just as many hours as he did on some critical project with never a misplaced crease or a hair out of place. It was unnatural.

Morris's expertise was people—he was downright brilliant at evaluating trends and intentions—and Hastings was the technician of the team, with four degrees and an impressive background in air-breathing and satellite reconnaissance, both photographic and electronic. They were an unusually effective team under normal circumstances, but at the moment they had no more to work with than anyone else in the world's intelligence services.

Everyone knew something had happened, but only the Americans and the Russians (and possibly the Chinese) had any idea what—and they were none too certain. At least all the major players seemed to have gotten enough advance warning from their space surveillance systems to know something was going on before all hell broke loose over the Atlantic. Fortunately. Morris shuddered to think what might have happened if they hadn't known. There'd been more than enough panic and suspicion as it was.

"Listen, M&M, you may've managed to inveigle me down here at—" Hastings glanced at the twenty-four hour clock "—three A.M. by finally getting your hands on that video, but the only way you're getting any work out of me is if I get a promise out of you, first."

"I wasn't aware this had become a union shop," Morris said mildly, and she snorted. "All right, Commander, what might that promise be?"

"That you'll get some sleep when we're done," she said, suddenly more serious. "You look like hell. Go home. Take a shower and get some sleep before you stroke out on me."

"I'd love to," he acknowledged her point with a sigh. "But I'm supposed to have a written brief for CINCLANT by oh-nine-hundred, and—"

"I'll assemble the brief," she interrupted firmly. "God knows I've written enough for you before! You go home and get at least a couple of hours of sleep before you present it—he'll probably have you shot if you turn up looking like this. Remember what he said last time?"

"You may have a point, Commander Hastings."

"I do have a point, Commander Morris."

"All right," he capitulated, "it's a deal." He grinned again and waved at the large-screen TV and VCR parked in the corner. "This one's going to be more your area than mine anyway."

"That's the video?" she asked, her eyes sharpening with interest as she stood quickly and picked up a plastic video cassette.

"Yup." Morris pushed back his own chair and watched her slip the tape into the VCR. "We're damned lucky to have it, too. That fighter jock was a long way from the big blast, so he didn't lose all his avionics, but a lot of his systems were fried, and he couldn't trust Roosevelt's electronics, either. It took a hell of a driver to put that bird onto a carrier by hand and eye. Matter of fact, I didn't know it could be done—and neither did Northrop-Grumman." He gave a brief snort of humor. "I understand the other aircrew were more than content to use their water wings, but not this guy. He and his RIO are the ones that nailed those first two missiles, too; they must have great, big brass ones. Anyway—" he shrugged "—here it finally is. I've got expert analyses out the ying-yang, and I've watched the damned thing a dozen times myself. Now it's your turn."

"What was all the delay about?" she demanded.

"CIA got their hands on it first, somehow," Morris snorted. "You know how compartmented they are over there. It's taken this long for them to find it and break it loose. The boss," he added dryly, "was not amused."

"Why am I not surprised?" Hastings murmured, and they grinned at each other. Admiral Anson McLain, Commander in Chief Atlantic Fleet, was not a good man to cross. Especially not by sitting on intelligence, collected by one of his pilots, which concerned the death and/or injury of over a thousand of his sailors and the loss of one of his ships.

"I think we can safely count on him to collect a few scalps," Morris agreed, then pointed at the TV. "Switch it on and take a look."

Hastings nodded and punched the play button on the remote. The unit clicked and whirred to itself for a moment, then a night sky replaced the quietly hissing snow on the TV screen. A small digital readout in the lower right corner gave the date and time at which the tape had been made and another in the left corner gave a distance-to-target reading; at the moment, it was whirring downward with disconcerting speed. The picture was black and white but almost painfully sharp.

"This from the new TCS?" Hastings asked absently.

"Yup," Morris said again. "Does a nice job, doesn't it?"

"I'll say. The old TISEO system and the first-generation TCS both looked good, but this is even better."

Morris simply nodded. The latest tactical camera system fitted under the nose of late marks of the F-14D used a whole new optics system, not to mention a long overdue infrared sensor. The Tomcat had never been designed to be a stealthy platform, but at least it finally had a reasonably effective passive search system which didn't require its massive radar to broadcast its presence to all and sundry. It was a useful retrofit to the aging fighter, and the Tomcat crews claimed their new imagery was so sharp they could count an OpFor pilot's warts at fifty miles, which was an exaggeration . . . he thought.

He leaned back and fought the weight of his eyelids, watching Hastings bend towards the television and wondering how she would react.

There! He saw her flinch at the speed with which the brilliant streaks of light came sweeping towards her, but she mastered her reaction instantly and leaned still closer, eyes intent. Six light sources swelled with freight-train speed, bobbing and weaving as they came. It was impossible to make out much detail, but the lights kept getting bigger and bigger. After a moment, it became clear they were well above the camera—and that the Tomcat pilot was maneuvering hard to keep them in view. They swept over the aircraft, and the pilot put the big fighter into a climbing loop. Stars swooped wildly in their field of view, and then the lights reappeared, moving away. The image trembled and rotated dizzyingly for just a moment as the pilot rolled his aircraft, then smoothed back out.

The lights continued to move away, but more slowly, and now the imagery showed at least some details of the craft which produced them. There were six of them, and four—all of which appeared identical—held a tight formation around a fifth, much larger shape while the sixth pursued them all. It was apparent now that the intense brilliance came not from the craft themselves but from a bowl-shaped curve of fire just ahead of each of them.

The shapes were in sight for no more than three or four minutes when an intolerable glare from ahead and below burned out the images entirely. Crazy patterns of interference flashed and danced for a moment, and then the screen went blank.

Lieutenant Commander Hastings was silent as she rewound the tape and played it again. Then she played it a third time, using the remote to freeze the picture repeatedly as she studied it. Finally she sighed and rewound the tape a final time, turning to Morris with a frown.

"Those things were big," she said softly.

"You might say that," he agreed. "The photo analysis people say most of the lead group were bigger than Spruance-class destroyers—and the biggie was the size of a CGN. The one in back was smaller, but not by a heck of a lot. They make it about—" he consulted a scratch pad "—three hundred to three hundred thirty feet, give or take."

"Oh, how I wish we'd had a camera bird up there to watch all this!"

"I understand the pulse from that big boom didn't do the Russkies' RORSAT a bit of good," Morris chuckled.

"Not too surprising. But at least they had one, so they knew it wasn't us shooting at them, thank God!"

"Amen," Morris said seriously. "I just wish we knew whether or not the PRC had satellite imagery of its own."

"You and me both," Hastings agreed with a humorless grin. "We know they've got at least some recon birds hidden up there amongst all those `commercial communications' birds of theirs. I have to agree with CIA and NSA that their main interest these days is Taiwan and that they're probably concentrating on the Pacific, not the Atlantic, but it would be nice to know. And the French—!"

She tossed both hands upwards with a grimace, and Morris nodded. As was not, unfortunately, uncommon in American diplomatic history, the US had overplayed the "China Card" badly. Unlike the defunct Soviet Union, the Chinese Communist Party was showing no particular signs of vanishing into the ash heap of history. Not that it showed any particular sign of remaining unswervingly attached to the principles of Marxism-Leninism, either. But any country with that many people and resources and an authoritarian government—whatever that government's ideology might be—was almost bound to attempt to expand its hegemony, and the Chinese had made it increasingly plain that Asia belonged to them. And that they were willing to threaten and even (probably) use military means to enforce that claim. As one consequence of that attitude, things were heating up over the Republic of Taiwan once more. That was why a two-carrier American task group had been deployed to the area, and it had become painfully clear that the US aerospace industry's efforts to improve the PRC's satellite launch capability had transferred rather more technology to the mainland Chinese in the last several years than anyone had realized at the time.

As for the French, their fundamental anti-Americanism had only grown more pronounced as the much anticipated European Union continued to stagger along as a concept rather than a reality. The EU's persistent failure to solve the smouldering issues of the Balkans or defuse the growing nationalist tensions between Russia and certain other of the old soviet empire's fragments hadn't helped much, either. France, in particular, had been savage in the derision it heaped upon America's bumbling efforts in the Balkans, and the French government had become even more anti-US as its own failure to solve the same problems drove it into an ever more defensive attitude. Mordecai knew Paris had had at least one recon satellite in position to watch what had happened, but it had also been much closer to the largest of the nuclear explosions. What it had seen—or transmitted back home, at least—before the blast reduced it to so much expensive junk was anyone's guess . . . and the French weren't telling.

"Speaking of explosions," Hastings went on after a moment, "what's the latest estimate on their yields?"

"Something like five hundred megatons for the big one." She whistled silently, and he nodded in heartfelt agreement. "The little fellows were down in the multi-kiloton range, but I understand they were all a lot cleaner than they should've been."

"For which we can only be grateful," she said quietly, and he nodded again. A brief silence fell as they pondered the tremendous destructive power which had erupted out of nowhere. The biggest explosion had been so brilliant and high as to be visible from both sides of the Atlantic, and its EMP had knocked out the avionics on seven different civilian airliners—all of which had crashed at sea with no survivors—as well as wreaking general havoc on the satellite communications industry and the Global Positioning Satellites everyone had come to take so much for granted. There was a very large hole in the orbital electronic network which had once covered the Atlantic, and Morris hated to think what that burst of fury had been like at closer range. It must have been like a foresight of Hell.

"But what do you think of our tape?" he asked finally.

"Impressive. Very impressive." She nibbled thoughtfully on a bent knuckle. "Whatever they were, they weren't ours. Or anyone else's, for that matter. Of course, SPASUR's track already proved that—this is just icing on the cake."

"But the fact that an F-14 in full afterburner lost ground on them that fast has more immediacy than tracking station reports, no?"

"True. And visual confirmation of their size is impressive, too." She shook her head. "I still can't understand how they got clear down to the edge of atmosphere before they were picked up, though. Anyone who could build those things should certainly be capable of foxing our radar, of course, but if they can do that at all, why stop? And just what were they doing in atmosphere, anyway?"

"That, I should think, is pretty obvious," Morris said. "Admiral Carson got mixed up in somebody else's war."

"Granted, but why here?" She shook her head and leaned back in her chair, crossing her legs and worrying an earlobe. "There's no way to prove it, but I think it's pretty damned obvious those things were designed for space, not atmosphere."

"Reasons?" he asked.

"Their size, for one, and then there's this. . . ." She restarted the tape and pushed the fast-forward button, then froze the image as the Tomcat pilot completed his roll and the picture stabilized. "See those bright hemispheres in front of them?" He nodded. "That has to be how they were able to pull that speed. Some sort of—well, call it a force field."

"That's what NASA figures," Morris agreed.

"Has to be," she said. "Their hulls would be white hot at that speed without them. But if they were meant primarily for atmosphere, the designers would have given more thought to what might happen if their shield failed, I think. Look here." She touched the image of the rearmost vessel. "See all those external bulges? And here and here—those look like aerials of some sort. There's no suggestion of any lifting surfaces, either. Add that blunt nose and these weird curved sections here, and they'd be in real trouble if they lost their shields at high Mach numbers. In fact, I'll bet that's how we managed to knock any of them down. A piddling little SAM wouldn't shoot one of those things out of the sky, but if it could screw up that force field . . ."

"Don't underestimate our SAMs," Morris cautioned. "Depending on what hit them, you're talking up to a ninety-pound warhead, and there were hundreds of the buggers flying around. Still, NASA and Point Mugu both tend to agree with you. According to them, it was losing whatever was protecting them that did them in—especially if they took enough battle damage to give the airflow something to shred."

"And that's why none of it makes any sense!" Hastings protested. "Why fight in a less than ideal environment? These were space ships, for God's sake! Even if you assume they just sort of wandered into our solar system from Out There, why fight in atmosphere?"

"Maybe we've been invaded," Morris suggested only half-humorously.

"It's a mighty strange invasion, then," Hastings snorted. "I've never had much patience with the notion that we're so important that mighty alien fleets are just lining up to conquer us, but even if they are, where is the fleet? And does the fact that there were obviously two sides mean one of them is friendly to us?" She shook her head.

"All excellent questions," Mordecai Morris agreed, standing and reaching for his jacket with a weary sigh. He draped it over his shoulder and grinned crookedly. "Do you have an opinion?"

"I don't know, yet," she said, nibbling her knuckle again. "At first glance, I'm inclined to think we were just more-or-less innocent bystanders who got caught in the crossfire, but there're too many unanswered questions for us to assume that. And at least one side's probably a bit ticked with us. Any better refinement on the kill data?"

"Nope," Morris said. "Turns out our `nuclear hardening' isn't quite as effective as we'd hoped, especially when the task force didn't have time to implement doctrine for surviving a nuclear attack. Most of Admiral Carson's electronics had fits from the EMP when whoever the hell it was nailed the Kidd, and every radar and almost all the computers went to hell when the pulse from that big bastard hit. But it looks like Antietam and Champlain managed to guide most of their SAMs into the targets before the big one flat-out killed their target illumination aerials, and the RAMs and AMRAAMs were on internal seekers. Visual estimates are that we got two, possibly three, out of the first group, with possible hits on a couple more. Obviously we didn't get them all," he added with a crooked smile.

"Obviously," Hastings agreed. "So we don't know who they were, how many of them we got, who killed what after we engaged them, who won, or where the survivors—if any—went afterwards!"

"Except for one thing," Morris said softly, and she quirked an eyebrow at him. "One thing everyone's agreed on—nobody tracked any of them headed back out. I suppose it's possible they wiped each other out, but I tend to think one side or the other probably won. And if neither side blocked our radar on the way in, why do it on the way out?" He shook his head.

"You mean one side, or possibly both of them, is still around?"

"I think we have to assume they could be," he agreed, slipping into his jacket. "And if it's only one, we'd better hope it's the side we didn't get any of. In either case, it looks to me like we'd better find out where they wandered off to, don't you think?" He headed for the door, then paused and looked back with an exhausted smile.

"Thanks for volunteering to write the brief, Jayne," he said. "Try to tie up all the loose ends nice and pretty. If the boss likes it, I'll take the blame—otherwise, you get all the credit."

He vanished out the door before she produced a fitting reply.