alert adj. 1. Vigilant; attentive. 2. Mentally responsive and perceptive. 3. Lively; brisk. —n. 1. A warning of attack or danger; esp. a siren or klaxon. 2. The period during which such a warning is in effect. —on the alert. Prepared for danger or emergency; watchful. —tr.v. alerted, alerting, alerts. 1. To warn; to notify of approaching danger. 2. To call to action or preparedness. [French alerte, from Italian all'erta, "on the watch," from Latin ille, that + erta, watch.]
—Webster-Wangchi Unabridged Dictionary of Standard English Tomas y Hijos, Publishers
2465, Terran Standard Reckoning
Mordecai Morris's eyes popped open, and the phone rang again. He jerked up in bed and grabbed, cutting off a third ring before it woke his sleeping wife, then peered bleary-eyed at the bedside clock. Two-thirty? He'd kill the son-of-a-bitch!
"Morris," he mumbled thickly, then straightened. "What? Yes—yes, of course! No, wait." He rubbed his puffy eyes, feeling his brain wake up. "This is an open line. Hold the call—I'll be back in a minute."
He waited for an acknowledgment, then slid his left foot into a slipper, strapped the prosthesis to the stump of his right calf, and slipped silently out of the bedroom and downstairs to his library. He ignored the phone on his desk, unlocked a bottom desk drawer, and lifted out another one. He set the scrambled line on his blotter and punched buttons. Within seconds, he was speaking once more to the base communications center.
"All right, we're secure at this end now. Put him through." There was a moment of silence, then a familiar deep voice.
"Howdy, M&M," it said.
"Why the hell are you calling me on scramble at two o'clock in the damned morning?" Morris demanded.
"It seemed the most appropriate way to talk to someone as scrambled as you are, shit-for-brains," Richard Aston said cheerfully, and Morris's eyebrows crawled up his forehead in astonishment.
"Easy for you to say," he returned with automatic levity, but his mind raced. It was largely due to Dick Aston that he'd lost only a foot when the Islamic Jihad decided the US naval attaché in Jordan was responsible for certain difficulties they'd encountered. Aston had been in operational command of the SEAL teams which swam ashore in Lebanon and rescued six American and European hostages and left thirty-two Shiite dead behind, and Morris had assembled the information that targeted the terrorist safe houses for him. They'd used the emergency code phrase "shit-for-brains" exactly once—when Morris called Aston over an open line to report that he was being shadowed by three men. Aston and a team of Embassy Marines had arrived ten minutes later, finished off the remaining pair of terrorists who had him cornered behind his burning car, and gotten him into a hospital.
But that had been eight years ago! Still, it was also the one and only time they'd actually worked together. . . .
"Old memories die hard," Aston said cheerfully, and Morris's stomach muscles tightened at the confirmation. What in God's name—?
"What can I do for you, Dick?" he asked calmly.
"You still have that pretty assistant?"
"Jayne? Sure. What about her?"
"Well, I think you should visit Scotland for a vacation," Aston sounded totally unaware that his suggestion was outrageous, "and you might as well bring her with you."
"We're a bit busy right now, Dick," Morris said.
"Really? Oh, I guess you're all biting your tails over that business with the UFOs." There was something hidden in his voice, Morris thought, then tightened all over as the other went on. "I was single-handing across the Atlantic, you know. Saw the whole thing, shit-for-brains."
Dear God in heaven, he knew something! That was what this was all about! But what could Dick possibly know?
"Well, I might be able to clear a little time with the boss next week," he said, voice level despite the sweat beading his forehead as his brain settled into overdrive. This was one of the most secure lines in the world—and Aston evidently felt it wasn't secure enough. That, coupled with the repeated use of the code phrase and his request for Jayne Hastings's presence meant he had to believe he was onto something incredibly sensitive. But what? What?
"Aw, I don't know if I can hang around that long," Aston said. "C'mon! I'm sure you can make it sooner than that."
So. Whatever it was, it was urgent.
"It's tempting," Morris replied slowly, "but I'd really have to clear it with the boss, you know."
"I figured you would," Aston agreed, "but I'd keep it simple, if I were you. Don't tell him anything he doesn't need to know."
"You might be right," Morris said, trying to sound cheerfully normal. "All right—I'll do it."
"Knew I could count on you," Aston's relieved chuckle sounded genuine. "Oh, say! Did you get the results on that checkup of yours?"
Checkup? Despite himself, Morris lowered the handset and stared at it. Now what was he up to?
"Sure," he said into the phone after a moment. "Why?"
"Oh, just curious. Especially about the EEG. I've been worried about you ever since I heard, Mordecai. In fact, I kind of wish you'd bring it along just so I can be sure you've really got a brain. Hell!" Another chuckle, but Morris heard both tension and hidden meaning in it. "Bring Jayne's, too. We can compare them and show you what a functional brain looks like."
"Okay, why not?" Morris returned, his mind awhirl with confusion and speculation. Either Dick was onto something incredible, or his friend had gone totally off the deep end. At the moment, Morris was hardly prepared to place a bet either way, but he owed Aston the benefit of the doubt . . . however wacko it sounded.
"Great! Jack Rose and I will be waiting for you, M&M," Aston said quietly, and hung up.
Morris sat motionless long enough to hear the high, piercing tone that signaled a disconnected line, then hung up absently, staring blindly at his desk blotter in the quiet of the night as he tried to make sense out of the conversation. It was impossible, of course, but the longer he played it back, the more excited he felt. He knew Dick Aston, and he'd encountered enough weirdnesses dealing with purely terrestrial affairs to leave him with a wide-open mind about this. Aston would never have made that call unless he knew something—and if he knew anything at all, he was one up on anyone else on the damned planet.
The commander turned to his regular phone and punched more buttons. The bell at the other end rang several times before a sleepy voice answered.
"Jayne? Mordecai." He grinned at her reply. "Yes, of course I know what time it is . . . I'm going to tell you, if . . . Look, just listen, will you? Thanks. Now, have you ever had an EEG?" His grin grew even broader at the short, pungent reply. "Well, neither have I, but I think it's time we repaired that oversight. Get hold of the base hospital and set us up for this morning, will you?" The silence at the other end was deafening.
"It's important, Jayne," he said softly. "Don't ask me why, because I can't tell you. Just set it up—early, Jayne." He listened again, nodding to himself. "Fine. Handle it any way you want." He paused again, then chuckled. "Jayne, if you think you're pissed, I can hardly wait to hear Admiral McLain's reaction when I wake him up!" The sudden silence which greeted that remark from the other end of the line told him that it had set her brain as furiously to work as he'd expected. "Gotta run now, Jayne," he ended brightly. "Bye."
He hung up and drew a deep breath, then flipped through his rolodex to double-check the number for the admiral's quarters. Then he began punching buttons again, wondering how he was going to convince CINCLANT that his senior intelligence officer hadn't lost his mind.
Ludmilla gave Aston a disgusted look as he stepped into the isolation area of McKee's sickbay. The big Emory S. Land-class depot ships were designed to provide support—including hospital facilities—to a squadron of up to nine nuclear submarines, and their sickbays were scaled accordingly. For all that, McKee's sickbay was a spartan place, and Ludmilla looked thoroughly disgruntled as she sat on the edge of the bed.
"Well?" she demanded, and he smiled.
"I talked to Mordecai, and I think he got it all. I expect we'll be hearing more from him shortly, but remember it's only about three in the morning over there."
"Hmph!" She rose and crossed to the the scuttle, and he noted almost regretfully that someone had finally found her some pants. The dungarees looked a bit strange on her after all this time, but at least her chosen shirt was styled familiarly. She'd changed into yet another decorated tee-shirt—almost the right size, this time—which bore a huge, lovingly detailed head-on view of a B-2 "Stingray" stealth bomber.
"You were right about how they do brain scans here," she said over her shoulder. "Lordy! If the medics back home were—"
She broke off and turned at a discreet knock, then called out permission to enter. A brisk young woman wearing a white smock over a surgeon lieutenant's uniform stepped in. She had a round, Asiatic face, intelligent, determined eyes, and short-cut black hair, and her head barely reached the shoulder of the armed Marine sentry. The newcomer closed the door behind her and looked from Ludmilla to Aston and back again, raising her own eyebrows inquiringly.
"Dick, this is Doctor Shu. Doctor, Captain Richard Aston." Ludmilla made the introductions with a smile. Doctor Shu considered coming to attention, but Aston waved for her to relax, then sat down heavily himself. Lord, he felt wearier by the minute. He wasn't as young as he had been, he reminded himself again—not, he was certain, for the last time.
"We've met, Milla," he said. "I've been a busy fellow this morning, but I found time for an exam of my own."
"So that's where you've been, is it?"
"Partly." He turned back to Doctor Shu. "Are those the results, Doctor?" he asked courteously, indicating the clipboard under her arm.
"They are, Sir. Would you care to examine them?"
"Me?" He shook his head and gestured at Ludmilla. "I wouldn't know a neuron from a neutrino, Doctor. She's the one."
"Ah?" Doctor Shu glanced at Ludmilla with increased interest, then laid her clipboard on the bedside table and removed two long sheets of many-folded paper. The wavy lines traced across them meant absolutely nothing to Aston. He only hoped they did to Ludmilla. If they didn't— He stopped himself firmly before he shivered.
Ludmilla and the doctor bent over the graphs, spreading them out on the bed and speaking quietly to one another. The combination of fatigue and ignorance kept him from making much sense of their low-voiced conversation, but he was amused by Doctor Shu's expression. Ludmilla's questions were clear and concise, but they were evidently a bit out of the norm. Not surprisingly, he told himself wearily. Not given . . .
"Wake up, Dick!" A small, very strong hand shook him gently, and he snorted, astounded to discover that he'd dozed off in the straight, uncomfortable chair. Either he was even tireder than he'd thought or else he was recovering his ability to sleep anywhere, any time.
He straightened his back and rubbed his eyes. The angle of the sunlight streaming through the scuttle told him at least a couple of hours must have passed, and Doctor Shu was gone. He shuddered. Odd how a few hours of sleep could actually make a man feel worse.
"Ummm." He stretched and rotated his arms slowly, settling his joints, then looked up at Ludmilla with a grin. "Sorry about that."
"You needed it," she said, sitting back down on the edge of the bed. She smiled briefly, then frowned, tugging at a lock of chestnut hair.
"Problems?" he asked quickly, and she shrugged.
"I don't know. We use different mapping conventions, but I think Doctor Shu and I got it straight." She grinned suddenly. "I'm afraid the good doctor is a bit puzzled—in more ways than one. Some of my questions must've been bad enough, but my juiced-up neural impulses confused her readings, too, and I don't think she's the sort who likes mysteries." He frowned, and she waved a hand reassuringly. "Don't worry. She didn't ask questions. She's under orders to keep her mouth zipped, and I think she sees this as a case of the less she knows the better."
She stood again, moving with a tightly controlled, coiled-spring anxiety Aston had felt often enough. She leaned against the bulkhead, staring out the scuttle at the sun-dazzled waters of the loch.
"At any rate, I think we've identified the alpha spike we need, and it looks like you've got it, too—but what if I'm wrong?" She swung around to face him. "We've got to nail it down, Dick, and I was overconfident. I was certain I could pick it out without question, and I can't. This EEG of yours is just too different."
"Hold on," he said, rising and moving towards her. He wanted to slip an arm around her shoulders and hug her, but he didn't. At this moment they were strategists, not lovers.
"Hold on," he repeated. "We knew there might be surprises—especially with four or five centuries' difference in the technologies involved!"
"I know," she said wryly, then gave him a fleeting smile. "It's just so mortifying to be out of my depth. I'm not used to it."
He shrugged. "I hate to think what I'd be like in the twenty-fifth century, Milla! Face it—the time you spent on Amanda couldn't really prepare you for how different things are here and now. Now that you're out into the mainstream, as it were, you'll adjust pretty quickly."
"I hope so," she said, folding her arms under her breasts and drawing a deep breath. "In the meantime, we've still got our problem. I'd really hoped they'd have one of those . . . biofeedback machines?—" she glanced at him for confirmation of her terminology, and he nodded "—here. It would've made life a lot simpler."
"I know. But you're pretty confident you and Doctor Shu mean the same thing when you talk about alpha waves?"
"Positive," she said unhesitatingly.
"And you think you've found the spike?"
"I think so. If we had one of those biofeedback devices, I could be absolutely certain. Interceptor pilots use neural feeds to their fighters' computers, and we spend lots of time hooked up to monitors at flight school while we familiarize ourselves with them. If we can set it up so I can watch my alpha waves while I run through a standard flight check cycle, I know exactly what to look for."
"Okay, we can try that later," he said, "but in the meantime, we've got to convince the powers that be of how important it is. And we have to find some way of picking someone we can give the whole story to—otherwise, we're going to be too busy fending off perfectly legitimate questions from people we don't dare answer to get much accomplished."
"Agreed. And I think I may have thought of a way—assuming your Admiral Rose will go along." She raised an interrogative eyebrow, and Aston shrugged.
"I'm on a roll right now, I think. Unless I miss my guess, Mordecai's going to be here soon, and Jack knows it. Which means that, for the moment, at any rate, he'll support just about anything we ask for, however bizarre it sounds. Why?"
"Because what we have to do is pick a hundred or so more people at random and run EEGs on all of them."
"What?" He frowned in momentary surprise, then nodded slowly. "Of course. We know that roughly two-thirds of all humans have the spike, so we grab a bigger sample and compare them."
"Right. It may not be definitive, but it'll give us some confirmation and a basis for deciding who we can talk to. We still won't want to tell anyone we don't absolutely have to, but we've got to start somewhere."
"Agreed. In fact, we'd better get started right away—it's going to take a while, and we need to finish up before Mordecai gets here."
"Fine." She turned her back to the scuttle and grinned at him. "You do realize," she chuckled, "how Doctor Shu is going to react to this?"
"Please!" He shuddered. "If you had an ounce of decency, you'd tell her."
"Oh, I would," she agreed sweetly, "but I'm afraid I don't have any standing in her chain of command, now do I?"
"You're enjoying this, aren't you?"
"Well, I have to enjoy something, Dick."
Several thousand miles from Holy Loch, a silent shape lay hidden on a rough flank of the Meseta de las Vizcachas at the southern tip of the Andean Mountains. The flight from Antarctica had been irksome and boring, for the pilot had held his speed to a mere eight hundred kilometers per hour and his altitude to less than a thousand meters. He hadn't enjoyed that, but he had also had no choice, for he had encountered an irritatingly high number of radar sources as he approached Cape Horn. Despite all earlier expectations, the tension between Buenos Aires and London was on the boil again, and the United Kingdom—already facing an increasingly chaotic situation in Southeastern Europe and suspicious that Argentina hoped that chaos would distract it from other matters—was determined that there would be no repeat of the Falklands War. The British military presence in the Falkland Islands had been substantially reinforced over the past eighteen months, and now both sides glared at one another through the invisible beams of their radar installations.
The Troll had neither known nor cared why there was so much electronic activity. It was simply one more problem to be dealt with, and his threat receivers and onboard computers had analyzed busily away. The primitive nature of the detection systems baffled his usual ECM equipment, but once he had a broader database it should be relative child's play to adjust for it, he decided. In the meantime, he'd descended to an altitude of fifty meters and crept under them with no more than a flicker of resentment that he must slink along in such a fashion.
He'd picked his hiding place with care, settling into a craggy pocket on the mesa's flank before he deployed three of his combat mechs. They'd whined off into the darkness, nearly silent on their anti-gravs, to swoop upon the mobile radar station the Argentine Air Force had placed near Cape Blanco to cover a blind spot. It had amused him to borrow his erstwhile masters' "sampling" technique, but the results had been disappointing.
His internal visual pickup swiveled dispassionately over the tightly curled figure on the floor of his cramped "control room." The motionless human wore the uniform of a captain in the Argentine Air Force, and at least its sobbing whimpers had finally stopped. So had its mental processes, unfortunately. The Troll felt a glow of disgust as he regarded his victim. The humans of his own time had been far tougher than this worthless piece of carrion. It was disturbing to reflect that he shared a common genetic heritage with it.
Still, there were extenuating circumstances, he supposed. This business of insinuating himself into human brains wasn't quite as straightforward as he'd assumed it would be, though it didn't occur to him that only his own arrogance had suggested that it would be simple.
The inert lump of flesh on his deck had been terrified when a trio of silent, metallic shapes invaded its isolated radar post, but it had tried. The Troll had to allow the captain that much—it had tried. It had called frantically for assistance, but the Troll's mechanical minions had jammed all its communication circuits even before they crossed the post's perimeter and butchered the paratroopers assigned to provide security. The captain and its men had rushed out of the command trailer, and it had emptied its Browning automatic into one of the combat mechs at point-blank range. In fact, it had actually reloaded with trembling fingers and emptied its weapon a second time in the moments the war machines took to slaughter its small team of technicians, but its pistol had been as futile as the paras' assault rifles.
The uselessness of its weapons in the face of the otherworldly attack had replaced fear with horror and panic at last . . . or perhaps it had been the realization that it alone survived. It had turned to flee, but the IR systems of the combat mechs had picked it out of the darkness like a glowing beacon. In part, the Troll blamed himself for what had happened after that, but he'd been unable to resist the pleasure of drawing out the pursuit until the madly fleeing human collapsed in sweating, whimpering terror in the clammy fog. Only then had the combat mech closed in with the capture field and carried the twitching body away while its companions piled the dead in and around the trailer and set it afire.
The flames had arced into the heavens, turning droplets of fog into glittering tears of blood and gold, as the soulless mechanisms withdrew. Secondary explosions of generator fuel and ammunition had disemboweled the trailer, dismembering and scattering the victims' bodies, and the Troll had been content. He had his specimen, and even if he didn't understand the tensions which afflicted the region, he had observed enough to know there were two sides in conflict. He felt confident the side he had attacked would blame the other for it.
But Captain Santiago had proven a frustratingly imperfect prize. The Troll was fairly certain the human had begun to crack even before it recovered consciousness within the hidden fighter, but its mind had collapsed completely under the defilement and physical agony of his clumsy invasion. The Troll's grasping mental tendrils had time to snatch only the most jumbled of gestalts from the crumbling ruin before it lapsed into merciful catatonia, and nothing he'd tried had been able to drag it back from the escape of its self-imposed non-thought.
The Troll snarled a mental curse and summoned a combat mech. The machine whirred in on the big, low-pressure tires it used for ground movement and lifted the fetal curl of flesh in tireless arms. The Troll left the machine to its autonomous programming, too frustrated with his own clumsiness to find his usual pleasure in observing the death of a human, however mad, as the mech carried the captain outside and killed it.
The interior lighting fell to its normal, feeble levels, and the Troll considered the fragmentary information he'd gleaned. He had only a vague notion of who these "British" enemies of the captain were, but he had learned enough to be disinterested in them. He had, however, been surprised by how few nuclear-armed power blocs there were on this planet—surely that indicated an even cruder level of technology than he had anticipated? But it seemed that the only true so-called superpower lay further to the north on this same land mass. That was interesting. And it had an elective form of government. That was even more interesting.
The combat mech returned from its task, leaving behind a smoking pit containing a few ashy flakes of Captain Hector Santiago y Santos, Feurza Aerea Argentina. The hatch closed behind it, and four hundred feet of night-black silence rose into the dripping night with less sound than an indrawn breath. It skirted the southern slopes of La Meseta de las Vizcachas and dipped down into the valleys of the Andes, moving slowly and steadily north.