The wind dropped as Aston worked his way cautiously across the top of the Irish Sea through the gathering darkness. He could have done without the heavy mist which rose with the dying wind, but at least it clung close to the water, and the lighthouses on Rathlin Island burned bright above the fog.
The flukey wind veered, blowing out of the northwest as he headed for the Isle of Kintyre and the South Point light, and he heaved a sigh of relief at clearing the shipping lanes. He wished the wind would settle down, he thought, nosing Amanda into Sanda Sound between Kintyre and the Isle of Sanda; he still had over sixty miles to go, and he grumbled sourly under his breath when he finally admitted the breeze wasn't moving him fast enough and fired up the inboard. It irked him to putter across the Firth of Clyde under power, for these waters were a yachtsman's haven, and the purist in his soul was outraged by the engine thud of his need for speed.
Ludmilla grinned, blue eyes gleaming in the binnacle light, as he muttered balefully to himself. Aston wore a thick sweater against the chill of the Scottish waters, but she seemed perfectly comfortable in just her Harley-Davidson tee-shirt, he observed enviously. She'd watched with great interest as he bent over his large-scale coastal charts that afternoon, working even more carefully than usual because of his determination to make his crossing in darkness and arrive at his exact destination right at dawn. He'd been here before, but never when he was responsible for his own piloting . . . and without his usual GPS navigational aids.
"You are sure you know where you're going, aren't you?" she asked now, and he scowled at her, though it was hard to summon up a satisfying glower. Despite the fog and his need for speed, he was enjoying himself hugely as Amanda moved through the mist.
"Of course I am." He jerked his head to port, where occasional lights glimmered through the darkness hugging Kintyre. "That's Long Island and this is Puget Sound."
"Oh." She glanced around the breezy darkness and wrinkled her nose. "As long as you're sure." He chuckled, and her eyes narrowed as she realized he was teasing her, even if she wasn't quite certain how, and drew a deep breath.
"How about putting on a fresh pot of coffee?" he suggested quickly, and she closed her mouth and grinned appreciatively.
"Aye, aye, Sir," she murmured, and vanished meekly down the companion. Aston smiled after her, wondering how much longer he'd be able to bribe her with "real Terran coffee," then returned his attention to his helm.
He left Sheep Island to starboard and headed out across the mouth of Kilbrannan Sound towards the Pladda Island light off the Isle of Arran. The steeper swell of the Firth met Amanda, surging in from the Irish Sea, and he felt the wind freshen at last. The combined thrust of sails and engine was moving the ketch briskly indeed by the time Ludmilla arrived back on deck with the coffee.
He wrapped the fingers of one chilled hand about his mug and sipped gratefully. Years of Navy coffee had taught him the depths and heights the beverage could plumb, and he knew his own efforts deserved no more than a B-minus, but Ludmilla's rated four-oh by any standard. He glanced at her in the glow of the stern light, and she grinned back at him, raking windblown hair from her face with one hand.
"Take the wheel for a minute?" he asked, and she took his place confidently. She was a quick study—far quicker than he'd been—but he supposed anyone who could pilot a super-capable spacecraft at FTL speeds was accustomed to mastering far more complex tasks. On the other hand, he knew some hard-boiled fighter jocks who were positively terrified by a harmless little Hobie Cat.
He sipped more of his coffee, warming both hands around the mug, then reached for his glasses and peered past Pladda. He could just make out a faint sky-glow which was about right for Ardrossan over on the mainland, he thought. Must be a good thirty, thirty-five miles away yet. He was lucky to be able to pick it up, considering the visibility out here.
The misty night grew slowly older, and Amanda cleared the southern end of the Isle of Arran and turned north, bearing up for Little Cumbrae Island, standing like a sentinel between the big island of Bute and the mainland. The light on Holy Island fell slowly astern as the one on Little Cumbrae grew stronger, and the wind gathered still more strength, backing slightly southward and settling there. He killed the engine, driving on into the ashes of the night under sail alone, and Ludmilla sat beside him. Her head rested on his shoulder, and she napped comfortably, enveloped in the companionable world of rushing water and wind.
The lights of work boats passed them—fishermen headed out to sea, their engines throbbing across the dark—as he threaded between Little Cumbrae and the tip of Bute, and buoys and lights grew more frequent, lending him assurance as he picked up his piloting guides. Bute blanketed Amanda's sails, and he bore a little further offshore, picking up speed once more as he threaded his way into the gashed coast of Scotland. The Firth narrowed steadily as he passed Great Cumbrae, and the eastern sky began to lighten as he left Toward Point to port and picked up the lights of Dunoon to the northwest. He smiled with relief at the sight; they were nearing journey's end at last.
A flaming arc of sun rose sleepily above the looming land mass to starboard, burning like blood in the water between Gourock and Kilcreggan, as he dropped his sails at last and swung to port. The waters of Holy Loch were glassy, and tendrils of mist crept lazily above the mirror-smooth water. A blizzard of early rising gulls ruffled about him, individuals plunging towards Amanda only to lift effortlessly away and resume their intricate aerial gavotte. Loch Long stretched off to the north beyond Strone Point; ahead and to port he saw the sleeping yacht basin at Sandbank and the clustered masts of pleasure boats. But what caught his attention was the gaunt, high-sided ship moored off the pier of Kilmun on the north side of the loch. Her anchor lights glimmered palely above the sudden gold of the sun-struck mist, and other bright, efficient-looking lights glared behind her ashore.
He was relieved when Ludmilla went below without demur. He was the native guide around here, and he was coming in under power, so he didn't even need help with the sails, but he knew it irked her to be so dependent on him. Yet she understood why he wanted her out of sight, and she wasn't prepared to argue. Not yet, anyway. He doubted he could have matched her patience if their roles had been reversed.
He eased the wheel slightly, staying close to the north shore of the loch. The light grew stronger, and he heard the clear silver notes of a familiar bugle through the screams of the gulls. An equally familiar flag suddenly broke on the high-sided vessel ahead of him, and he paused to set the staff of his own flag into its transom socket. Then he opened the throttle wider and headed straight for the moored ship, wondering how long it would be before someone took notice of him.
Aha! His eyes lit as a squat, businesslike silhouette appeared from beyond his destination and turned purposefully towards him. A prominent, no-nonsense bridge loomed above the low-hanging mist, navigation lights twinkling faintly in the growing light, and the thimble shape of a pint-sized radar scanner showed on the mast above it. Now that he had their attention, he reduced power, slowing Amanda without altering course.
He watched appreciatively as the oncoming shape defined itself with growing clarity. One of the new Scimitar-class patrol boats designed to replace the old Archers, he thought, looking solid and aggressive as the white water plumed away on either side of her bow. The White Ensign streamed from her mast, and he saw movement as figures closed up around the forward gun mount. He raised his glasses in the rapidly growing light as the boat cut through the last golden barrier of mist. An Oerlikon KBA, he noted calmly, capable of spewing out six hundred twenty-five-millimeter rounds a minute. She'd mount another aft; not quite Vulcans, perhaps, but nasty enough to settle his hash.
The patrol boat thundered closer, and he saw more uniformed figures moving about her decks. Any minute now—
"Attention!" The amplified voice roared across the water on schedule, and he grinned. "Attention! This is a restricted naval anchorage! Put about immediately!"
He waved cheerfully and kept right on coming. The Scimitar altered course in a flurry of foam, and now both gun mounts were tracking him. Beyond her, the moored vessel was sharply defined in the strengthening light, and a low, whalelike shape nuzzled alongside her. So, one of the brood was home.
The patrol boat crossed his course and circled him, cutting across his stern as Amanda pitched over the turbulence of its wake, and he saw glasses trained on the lettering on his transom.
"Attention, Amanda!" the amplified voice snapped. "This is a naval area closed to private use! You are in restricted waters!"
The patrol boat came still closer, and he picked up his own loudhailer, moving slowly and carefully. He was reasonably certain no one was likely to get carried away, but he hadn't lived this long by taking things for granted when someone aimed a loaded weapon at him. He raised the loudhailer to his mouth and pointed it at the patrol boat.
"I know I am!" he shouted back. "I require assistance! My radios are out or I would have asked for it already!"
There was no immediate response, but the patrol boat slowed. He put his own prop into neutral and coasted slowly as the big, aluminum-hulled boat edged closer, powerful diesels burbling throatily with their three thousand leashed horses. He wondered what the boat's skipper made of him. There were any number of places he could have stopped with a normal problem; the fact that he hadn't must be giving someone furiously to think.
"State the nature of your difficulty, please." The amplified voice was more polite and closer to a conversational level as the Scimitar closed to within twenty yards. The gun muzzles had been deflected, but not by much; they could be back on target in an instant, he noted approvingly.
"Sorry," he said, grinning wryly, "but I can divulge that only to Admiral Rose."
There was another, longer silence, and he chuckled, imagining the back and forth flight of radioed questions. It wasn't all that hard to discover the squadron commander's name, but it wasn't all that easy, either. And it was unusual, to say the least, for pleasure craft to declare emergencies and then refuse to disclose the details to anyone short of the squadron CO.
"Amanda," the voice was back, "stand by to be boarded."
"Mind the hull," he said calmly, and stood easily beside the wheel as the Scimitar slid alongside.
She was twenty feet longer than Amanda and burly with power, a Percheron beside a quarter horse, but her coxswain handled her with delicate precision. Two seamen were at the side, clinging to a superstructure handrail with one hand each while they lowered fenders over the side. They were armed, and the L85 Enfield assault rifles slung over their shoulders bobbed with their movements.
Amanda shuddered gently and the fenders squeaked as the Scimitar blipped her throttles expertly and edged right alongside on reversed power. Two more armed seamen appeared, one on her foredeck and one aft. They sprang down lightly with mooring lines, but not until the pair tending the fenders had unslung their artillery. Most seamen of Aston's experience tended to look a bit self-conscious about small arms. They seemed to regard anything more puny than a cannon or missile as belonging to a world peopled by lesser creatures, like Marines or even soldiers. Not these lads. They showed neither hesitation nor bravado, only competence.
The line-handlers cleated their lines and unlimbered their own rifles. Aston stood calmly and patiently in plain sight, waiting until an officer in spotless whites appeared at the side, even with Amanda's cockpit. He wore a Browning automatic on a webbed belt, but the holster flap was snapped. Well, Aston mused, all the firepower he'd ever need was already prominently on display. He was a brisk, efficient-looking sort, fit and chunky, with the single-stripe shoulder boards of a lieutenant.
"May I come aboard, Sir?" he asked in a very English accent and with as much punctilious courtesy as if no guns were in evidence, and Aston grinned.
"By all means, Lieutenant," he said gravely, and the youngster swung himself down to Amanda's deck.
"Lieutenant Mackley," he introduced himself briskly, "Royal Navy. And you are?"
"In the same profession, Lieutenant," Aston said dryly, and drew a small leather folder from his hip pocket. He extended it, and the lieutenant flipped it open.
His eyes widened slightly, then darted back up to Aston's face. Aston was glad he'd shaved this morning.
"Sir," the lieutenant said, right hand rising sharply to the brim of his cap. Aston nodded his bare head in reply, and the lieutenant brought his hand down. His response had been automatic, but Aston could see his puzzlement and felt his own eyes crinkle in amusement. Mackley seemed at a loss for just a moment, but he recovered quickly.
"With respect, Captain Aston, this is a restricted mooring. I am instructed to discover the nature of your emergency and report to base."
"I know where I am, Mister Mackley, but I'm afraid I can't tell you why I'm here. No disrespect, son, but I have to talk to the American CO."
"Lieutenant," Aston interrupted pleasantly, "please believe that I wouldn't make waves for you if I could help it. As it happens, I can't help it, and that's all there is to it." The lieutenant seemed briefly at a loss again, and Aston smiled. "If I may make a suggestion, Mister Mackley?"
"Of course, Sir."
"What I'd recommend is that you leave a couple of your men on Amanda, then lead me in. I'll follow in your wake and be a good boy while you guide me to a secure mooring, then wait right here on board until we can get this situation straightened out."
"Very well, Sir," Mackley said after a very short pause. Clearly the lieutenant knew when to compromise, but Aston knew there was no way he would pull his armed party off Amanda, apparent rank or no, until he knew with absolute certainty that Aston was who he claimed to be. Aston was inclined to approve of young Mister Mackley. Indeed, he declined to mention the only thing he might have faulted. In Mackley's place, he would have insisted on a peek below before he escorted Amanda in—not that Aston had any intention of permitting that.
The lieutenant turned to his men, passing instructions, then turned back to Aston.
"Chief Haggerty will assist with your helm, Sir," he said with exquisite politeness while two of the seamen transformed the bow mooring into a tow line, and Aston grinned.
"That's very kind of the Chief," he observed, nodding to the boatswain's mate Mackley had indicated. The petty officer nodded back and took Amanda's wheel, and Aston slowly packed and lit his pipe, standing comfortably in a corner of the cockpit, as the patrol boat's engines throbbed back to life. Lieutenant Mackley clearly intended to take no chances with letting this particular fish off a nice, secure line until he had Aston parked precisely where he wanted him . . . and safely isolated from shore.
The Scimitar towed Amanda sedately towards the big ship, then alongside the platform of a semipermanent accommodation ladder that scaled the submarine tender's looming side—the side away from the moored nuclear attack submarine, Aston noted as the personnel the lieutenant had left aboard Amanda made the ketch fast.
"If you please, Sir?" The boatswain's mate spoke for the first time, in a pronounced Clydeside accent, and indicated the platform and the ladderlike steps reaching up to the tender's deck.
"Thanks, Chief," Aston said calmly, then paused. "Just one thing: nobody goes below while I'm gone." The boatswain's mate regarded him steadily, giving no indication of his thoughts. "I mean it, Bosun. Nobody goes below until I say they do or Admiral Rose countermands my orders. Is that clear?"
"Clear, Sir," the petty officer said after the barest possible hesitation, and Aston nodded and stepped onto the platform.
He reached the top and found himself facing another officer, this one an American senior grade lieutenant. A right hand came up in a sharp salute, echoed by the two armed Marines standing behind him, and Aston nodded again. He wished he'd thought to pack a uniform; he'd always been uncomfortable taking a salute he couldn't return properly.
"Good morning, Sir. I'm Lieutenant Truscot, the navigator. Welcome aboard McKee, Sir."
"Thank you, Mister Truscot. I'm sorry to have disrupted your routine this way."
"If you'll follow me, Sir?" Truscot requested politely, and Aston fell in amiably beside him. The Marines trailed respectfully but watchfully behind.
Truscot escorted him not to the bridge, but to the captain's day cabin, high in McKee's superstructure. He paused outside the closed door, tucked his uniform cap under his left arm, and rapped sharply.
"Come," a voice called, and the lieutenant opened the door and stood aside to let Aston enter, then closed it behind him.
There were two officers in the cabin, both standing as Aston entered. One was a four-striper he didn't recognize, obviously McKee's CO. The other was a short, burly rear admiral, and Aston felt slightly surprised by how quickly Rose had gotten here from the shore establishment.
"By God, it is you!" Rose said, stepping forward quickly and holding out his hand. Aston gripped it, profoundly grateful that he'd remembered John Rose had just been assigned to the Holy Loch command. The US Navy had recently resumed the practice of stationing nuclear submarines in UK waters, given the number of diesel/electric and nuclear boats—most Russian or Chinese-built, but more than a few from Western yards—which had been finding their way into various people's hands throughout the eastern Mediterranean, Persian Gulf, and Indian Ocean. They were Los Angeles- and Seawolf-class attack subs now, not missile boats, and Rose—always a fast-attack skipper at heart, not a boomer driver, and extremely comfortable with the Royal Navy—had been a perfect choice to command the Holy Loch-based squadron. More importantly, at the moment, however, he and Aston had known one another for years, despite the very different courses their careers had taken.
"I thought they'd bumped you another ring and retired you, Dick," the admiral added, returning Aston's grip firmly.
"They have, but my date of rank doesn't take effect until next month. Then they separate me and I go to Langley. I'm on—rather, I was on—extended furlough till then, Jack." He noted the captain's reaction to his use of the admiral's first name. "Sorry about all the drama, but I've got a problem."
"I figured that when they told me it was you," Rose said, "but you're lucky I was already over here for a scheduled conference. If they'd dragged me out of bed for this, I'd've ordered them to repel borders!" He released Aston's hand and turned to the other officer. "Captain Helsing, this is Dick Aston. You may have heard of him."
"I have, indeed, Admiral," Helsing said, offering his own hand. His eyes were thoughtful, as if weighing Aston's scruffy appearance against his reputation, and Aston wondered what conclusions he was drawing. "I hadn't heard you were retiring, Sir."
"I'm not, really," Aston said with a grin. "But I'm getting a bit long in the tooth to run around with SEAL teams, so I'm going to be a double-dipper. There's a slot waiting for me at CIA when I get home."
"I see. Won't you have a seat, Sir? Admiral?" Helsing waved at a pair of comfortable chairs, and Aston sat gratefully. The weariness of yet another all-night trick at the wheel was catching up with him, made still worse by relief. This calm, orderly ship was the height of normality—the clearest possible proof that the Troll had not made any overt moves. Yet his relief was flawed by his awareness that, in many ways, the hardest part was yet to come.
"Now, Dick," Rose said once they were seated, "what's this `emergency' of yours?"
"Jack," Aston ran a hand over his bald pate and let his anxiety show, "I'm not sure I should tell you." He saw surprise in the admiral's face and shook his head, irritated at himself. "Sorry. That didn't come out quite the way I intended." He thought for a moment, and Rose let him.
"I assume," Aston said at last, picking his words with care, "that you must've heard about what went on over the Atlantic a couple of weeks ago?"
"Hell, yes!" Rose snorted, then his eyes sharpened. "Why?"
"Because," Aston said very, very carefully, "I know what it was about."
There was absolute, dead silence in the cabin. Helsing knew Aston only by reputation, and he couldn't quite keep the incredulity off his face. Rose, on the other hand, knew him personally.
"How?" he asked finally.
"I can't tell you that," Aston said. "I'm sorry, but I don't know who I can tell. It's a very . . . delicate situation. Even more so than you can possibly guess."
"Dick," Rose said slowly, "we lost a Hummer and every man aboard the Kidd when it hit the fan. We've got over a hundred cases of blindness, and over two thousand dead civilians aboard airliners that lost their avionics and crashed . . . not to mention losing three Toms, one KA-6, and enough millions of dollars worth of electronics to put Roosevelt and two Ticos into the yard for a year. If you know what was behind it, you're going to have to spill it . . . and damned quick, too."
"I know, Jack," Aston said wearily. He shook his head. "Look, what I really need from you is three things: patience, a secure line to Norfolk, and a good neurologist with a limited sense of curiosity." He grinned tiredly at Rose's baffled expression. "I know it sounds crazy," he said, "and it gets better; I've got a young lady aboard my boat who I need brought aboard McKee with no questions and as little fuss as possible. And—" his eyes begged Rose for understanding "—I need an EEG run on her, very, very discreetly but absolutely ASAP."
"Do you really realize just how crazy that sounds?" Rose asked quietly, and Aston nodded.
"I do. Believe me, I do. I wish I could tell you all about it, but I can't. This thing's got a `Need to Know' hook that's going to be a copper-plated bitch. I need guidance from CINCLANT before I can even admit what I know to myself."
"All right," Rose said slowly. "I'll let you run with it as you think best—for now, at least." He turned to Helsing. "Captain, get your senior surgeon down to that ketch with a stretcher party and bring the young lady aboard covered up so tight nobody can tell what's in that stretcher, much less who. I want her isolated in sickbay with an armed guard posted round the clock. And tell them not a word. If they talk in their sleep, they'd better drink a lot of coffee until I personally tell them differently."
"As for you, Dick," Rose said grimly, "I think we can fix you up with a secure line." He grinned mirthlessly. "And I can hardly wait to hear what Admiral McLain has to say about this."