deception n. 1. The use of deceit. 2. State or fact of being deceived. 3. Ruse; trickery; imposture. [Middle English decepcioun, from Latin decipere, to deceive.]
—Webster-Wangchi Unabridged Dictionary of Standard English Tomas y Hijos, Publishers
2465, Terran Standard Reckoning
The office of Vice Admiral Anson McLain, Commander in Chief Atlantic Fleet, was almost stark. Furniture was sparse, and the walls bore none of the usual outsized portraits of sailing ships or World War Two carriers fighting off kamikazes. Instead, they were adorned with framed photos of the sleek, high-tech warships of Admiral McLain's early twenty-first-century fleet, although a beautiful painting of two of the Iowa-class battleships which had recently been stricken at last to become memorial ships held pride of place behind his oversized desk.
McLain was tough as nails, young for his rank, and black. Regarded by some as the most brilliant naval officer of his generation, he'd paid his dues to crack the traditionally white ranks of the Navy's senior flag officers by being, quite simply, the best there was, of any color. He was a carrier man, a highly decorated pilot with four kills over the Persian Gulf, who had outraged big-ship aviators by supporting construction of Seawolf attack subs and supersonic V/STOL fighters at the expense of a thirteenth Nimitz-class carrier. That was typical of him, Commander Morris thought; Anson McLain did what he thought right, whatever the cost and without a trace of hesitation.
But at the moment, CINCLANT wore a definitely harassed look. Roosevelt was in for repairs, reducing his total deployable flight decks by a sixth, and two more CVNs had been diverted to watch the extremely nasty Falklands situation. Which left McLain's carriers understrength by half for normal deployments at a moment when the Balkans were heating up again. The fact that the People's Republic of China had just commissioned its second carrier didn't help matters one bit, but McLain, the CNO, and the JCS had twisted CINCPAC's arm hard enough to get the newest Nimitz, USS Midway, transferred from Pearl Harbor to the Atlantic. She was en route to reinforce him now, but for the present, he was stretched thin, indeed.
Far worse, Anson McLain had lost people. He was a cool, analytical man, but he was also implacable. Somehow, someday, he would discover who or what had killed or blinded a thousand of his people, and when he did—
Which explained the fiery light in his normally calm eyes.
"Well, Mordecai," he said mildly, standing and holding out his hand, "I hope your little jaunt was productive."
"It was, Sir," Morris replied as CINCLANT released his hand and gestured to a chair. "Captain Aston does know what happened, and why."
"I'm glad to hear that," McLain said softly, and his tone made Morris shiver. It reminded the commander forcibly of Colonel Ludmilla Leonovna. "But what, if you'll pardon my asking, was all the mystery about?"
"That, Sir, is going to be a bit hard to explain," Morris said slowly. He and Jayne Hastings had spent an intense twenty-four hours with Aston and Ludmilla, hammering out what needed to be done, and Morris was only too well aware how much depended on McLain's reaction. He knew his boss better than most, but he also knew what he was about to ask CINCLANT to believe.
"Then you'd better start, M&M," McLain said simply, and the commander drew a deep breath.
"Yes, Sir. To begin with . . ."
Unlike anyone else to whom the story had yet been told, Admiral McLain sat silently, elbows on his desk, chin on the backs of his interlaced fingers, without a single question. CINCLANT hated people who interrupted to demonstrate their own cleverness rather than waiting for the briefing officer to cover the points they were raising, but Morris found it a bit unnerving that the admiral could listen to this story with his usual calm.
He reached the end and stopped, painfully aware of how insane the whole thing sounded. McLain regarded him expressionlessly for a moment, toying with a presentation coffee mug from the crew of his last seagoing command. He ran a dark fingertip over the raised crest of the CVN Harry S. Truman and pursed his lips, then leaned well back in his swivel chair.
"A good brief, Mordecai," he said finally, steepling his fingers across his flat, hard belly muscles. "I only have one question."
"Sir?" Morris asked, hoping he looked less anxious than he felt.
"Do you believe a word of it?"
"Yes, Sir. I do." Morris met the admiral's eyes levelly.
"And this Colonel Leonovna is available to answer questions directly?"
"Yes, Sir." Morris was baffled by McLain's calm reaction. "Of course, we—Captain Aston and I, that is—are keeping her under wraps."
"We put her on a MAC flight as a Navy dependent and flew her into Virginia Beach, then hustled her out of sight. She and Captain Aston are at my home right now, keeping a very low profile."
"Really?" McLain smiled for the first time since Morris had begun his report. "And how is your wife taking all this?"
"Rhoda thinks Colonel Leonovna is Captain Aston's niece, Sir. We don't know what her EEG looks like."
"Um." CINCLANT pursed his lips again. "You are aware of just how incredible this all sounds, aren't you, M&M?"
"Yes, Sir. All I can tell you is what I believe to be the truth, Sir. That's what you pay me for."
"I see. All right, then, first things first," McLain said calmly, and reached for the phone on his desk. He punched in a number with slow deliberation and waited for an answer.
"Good afternoon," he said into the phone after a moment, swinging his chair slightly from side to side, "this is Admiral McLain. Please inform Admiral Horning that I must speak with him for a moment." He paused for a few seconds, and his face hardened slightly. "I'm sorry, Lieutenant," he said levelly, "but you're just going to have to interrupt them, then."
Morris tried to appear calm. Admiral Franklin Horning was the Surgeon General of the United States, and the commander could think of several unpleasant reasons for his boss to seek a medical opinion.
"Frank?" McLain leaned forward in his chair, and his eyes rested on Morris's face. There might have been the hint of a twinkle in them, Morris thought anxiously, as if the admiral could read his mind and was amused by what he was thinking. "Sorry to interrupt your conference, but I need a favor. I warn you—it's going to sound a little strange." He paused as Admiral Horning said something in reply, then chuckled. "Nope, stranger. You see, Frank, I need to see the President's EEG."
Morris had no idea of exactly how Horning responded to that, but as the commander sagged in his chair in relief, McLain winced and moved the phone away from his ear.
The Troll felt a slow, familiar throb of rage. His fragmentary information from Captain Santiago had not included the fact that so many radar stations guarded the Panama Canal Zone, and he'd been forced well out over the Pacific to avoid them, only to find the entire western coast of this "United States" covered by a seemingly solid belt of radar emissions. For a moment he'd wondered if they had somehow learned of his coming, but then he'd noted the large numbers of crude aircraft in evidence. So it was some sort of navigational control system, was it? Or, he amended, some of it was, anyway, for on a world so riddled with national competition and suspicions, there had to be military installations, as well.
The need to avoid detection by such primitives infuriated him. The hunger for destruction was upon him once more, and he longed for a few of the ARADs his dead masters had expended upon that never-to-be-sufficiently-accursed naval task force, but he mastered his fury sternly. Time enough for that, he reminded himself. Time enough when he knew more. When he was ready. For now he must be cautious.
He was. He brought his fighter down to within meters of the ocean and crept in slowly, tasting the radar pulses, seeking out chinks in the electronic fence. He found one and slid through it, crossing the coast in darkness at the mouth of the Rogue River. He settled into the Cascade Range just south of Crater Lake National Park and activated his servomechs to camouflage his vessel. He would not be here long, he hoped, but until he departed he could not afford to be disturbed.
He programmed the servomechs carefully, then turned to his other task. He shaped a careful mental hook and cast it out into the world about him, questing for prey. Somewhere out there were minds he could touch. Minds he could strip of the information he required.
He only had to find them.
"You mean to tell me we've been invaded by monsters from outer space?" the President of the United States demanded, staring at Vice Admiral McLain and the pudgy, rumpled commander beside him. "Are you serious, Admiral?"
"By one monster, Mister President," McLain corrected. He shrugged. "When Commander Morris came to me with it yesterday, I was only half-convinced. After speaking to Colonel Leonovna last night and seeing the artifacts she brought with her, I no longer doubt any of it. In my considered opinion, she's telling the exact truth."
"My God." The President stared at the admiral, but the initial shock was passing. He'd been astonished when the Atlantic Fleet commander requested a personal meeting to discuss "a grave national emergency," and even more when he discovered that neither the Chief of Naval Operations, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, nor even the Secretary of Defense knew anything about it. Had it been anyone else, the President would have refused with a curt, pointed comment about normal channels, but President Armbruster knew McLain's reputation well enough to know he was not given to fits of temporary insanity.
That faith in the admiral had been sorely tried when he heard what McLain had to say, yet it had been enough to get him a hearing. And now, to his own considerable surprise, Armbruster found that he was actually inclined to believe him.
"A question, Admiral," he said finally. "Why didn't you go through channels with this? Admiral Jurawski and Secretary Cone are a bit upset, you know."
"Both the CNO and the Secretary have expressed their disapproval to me, Mister President," McLain said with a faint smile. "Unfortunately, while I have not been able to examine Admiral Jurawski's EEG, I have managed to get my hands on Secretary Cone's. He's not on the safe list, Sir."
"I see." The President leaned back in his chair and nodded. The admiral was right—always assuming that he was not, in fact, insane. If there was a particle of truth in this fantastic story, absolutely no risks must be run. "But I am `on the safe list'?" he asked wryly.
"You are, Sir. Unfortunately, however, the Vice President isn't."
"Shit." President Armbruster reminded many people of Harry Truman—verbally, if not physically—despite his staunch Republicanism.
"Yes, Sir. The Surgeon General provided me with your records—most reluctantly, I might add."
"I can believe that," Armbruster snorted. "The old bastard has a nineteenth-century code of honor. It goes with the job."
"I realize that, Sir. Fortunately, he knows me rather well and I was able to convince him . . . eventually."
"If—and I say if, Admiral—this story holds up, the neurologists of Washington will be doing land-office business in the next few days," the President said.
"All right." Armbruster slapped his desk explosively. "Bring me this Colonel Leonovna, Admiral. Tonight after supper—say about eight. I'll have a word with the security types and see to it that she gets in." He snorted at a sudden thought. "I'd better come up with another name for her, I suppose. Something non-Russian." He thought for a moment, then grinned. "Ross, Admiral. Miss Elizabeth Ross."
"And, Admiral," Armbruster said softly as the officers rose to leave.
"You'd better not be blowing smoke up my august presidential ass on this one, Admiral."
"Understood, Mister President."
"I'm glad, Admiral. Good day."
Late afternoon sunlight coated the hidden fighter in glory and gold, but the Troll paid no heed. His attention was on things far more important, for his mind had touched another he might probe. He started to stab out, then forced himself to pause. He must take more time with this one, feel his way more cautiously. And that meant he must bring the mind to him, so that he might dissect it at leisure.
He "listened," refusing to open the two-way link just yet, and surface impressions trickled into his brain. He studied them carefully, seeing the face of a male human inches from his own and trying to understand the warm tingle of excitement as the face bent closer, pressing its lips to those of the one he'd reached.
It was a pity the male was blocked to him. He could have used them both, but one would do—for now. He took careful note of direction and distance, then activated two of his combat mechs.
They departed noiselessly, drifting through the forest shadows on silent anti-gravs, and the Troll returned to his tenuous link. Fascinating, he thought. So this was what the human mating ritual was like.
Annette Foreman sighed happily, snuggling against her husband in their shared sleeping bag. She always felt deliciously wicked making love on one of their camping trips, especially when they pitched camp early. She felt Jeff's hands stroking her flanks and nipped the side of his neck gently.
"Ouch!" He laughed, and pinched her firm bottom in retaliation. She squealed happily. "That'll teach you!" he said, as his hands did other, magic things. "And so will—"
He broke off, and she felt him stiffen. Her eyes flared open in sudden anticipation of embarrassment. Oh, no! She'd always known someone might interrupt them, that was part of what made it feel so wicked, but—
"What the hell?" Jeff raised himself on his elbow, and she turned her head, staring in the direction of his gaze.
She stiffened herself as she saw the two strange shapes emerging from under the trees, and her eyes widened. No! There was no such thing!
The two shapes floated a yard above the ground, sweeping closer with snakelike speed, yet so silent they seemed to drift, and the two humans watched in frozen disbelief as they climbed the slope towards them.
Jeff Foreman reacted first. Everything about those alien shapes—from their silent movement to the strange, golden alloy and stranger curves of their forms—roused a primal terror within him. He didn't know what they were, but he didn't have to. The caveman in his soul smelled danger, and he hurled himself out of the sleeping bag, heedless of his nudity, and reached for the short-hafted camp ax.
"Run, 'Nette!" he ordered, and his wife rose to her knees in shock. She'd never heard such harsh command in his voice.
"No! Come wi—"
"Shut up and run, goddamn it!" he shouted, and Annette stumbled to her feet in automatic response.
"Jeff—" she started, and he shoved her furiously.
"Get the fuck out of here!" he screamed, and the terrible fear in his voice—fear for her, she realized sickly—compelled obedience. She turned to flee further up the hill, stones and twigs harsh under her bare soles, and her mind whirled with fragmented images of terror as she pounded up the slope. Her thoughts came in jagged shards, lacerating her with their cruel edges, and the liquid spring sunlight gilded her horror with surrealistic beauty. What were those things? What did they want? How could she leave Jeff behind?! But his desperation could not be gainsaid, and she fled as he commanded . . . even as a part of her told her coldly that he must know it was futile.
She'd made it almost to the tree line when a burst of cold, green light exploded about her. The world pinwheeled, slivering her vision like some Impressionist nightmare of a kaleidoscope, and her scream of terror was a whimper as her voluntary muscles spasmed with a horrible, agonizing, twisting sensation. She smashed to the ground on her naked breasts and belly, barely conscious of the pain as light roared and howled in her head.
She thought she heard the clang of metal on metal, but her senses were hashed by the staticlike impact of the capture field. She fought the terrible paralysis, a prisoner in her own body, pounded by panic. There might have been another clang of metal, but then she heard a sound she could not mistake. One that drove her savagely abused awareness into the darkness on a gibbering wave of horror.
It was a scream—a dreadful, dreadful scream of agony. An inhuman sound, wrenched from a human throat she knew too well. . . .
"Colonel." Jared Armbruster held out his hand with the smile which had captivated millions of voters, but despite McLain's prior briefing, he was astonished by how young she looked. This was a fighter pilot? A superwoman from the distant future? The last hope of mankind? Preposterous!
But then she took his proffered hand, and he saw her cool, dark-blue eyes. In his political career, and especially in the last three years of presidential power, he'd seen many eyes. The eyes of people who wanted something, of people who feared the power of his office, of people who hated him or admired him. But never quite like these. Even foreign heads of state were aware of the power he wielded. It was there between them—a challenge to his adversaries, an invisible cloak of authority to his allies. He was surprisingly self-honest and self-deprecating, considering the driving ambition a man must have to seek the office he held, yet he'd become accustomed to seeing the reflection of presidential prestige in the eyes of those he met.
But not in these. These eyes measured him confidently—measured him, not the larger-than-life stature of the presidency—with the cool, distant impartiality of a cat. And it was in that moment, when he saw the lack of awe in Ludmilla Leonovna's face, that he truly began to believe.
"Mister President," she said simply, and her grip was stronger than that of any other woman he had ever met.
He held her hand a moment longer than protocol demanded, and she met his gaze calmly. Then he shook himself internally and smiled once more, releasing her to be introduced to Aston.
Ludmilla watched him shake Dick's hand. So this was the most powerful man on Earth. Despite her interest in history, she'd read very little about Jared Armbruster in her own time, for there had been neither wars nor major scandals to make his administration important to a military historian. Given the ominous international rumblings Dick had described to her, Armbruster must have been either very good at his job or extremely lucky to avoid the former, which seemed like a good sign. She hoped it was, at any rate, and she'd picked Dick's brain for every detail she could get about him. It hadn't been easy. Dick obviously respected Armbruster deeply, but perhaps because he knew he did, he had gone out of his way to be painstakingly honest and evenhanded in his analysis of the President.
Physically, Armbruster was about midway between her and Dick in height, his dark hair dramatically silver at the temples, and she rather liked the laugh wrinkles around his eyes even if he did seem to smile a bit too easily, with just a shade too much "spontaneous" charm. But he was a politician, she reminded herself, and it was the nature of the political animal to be charming. On the other hand, she'd asked Dick—and Mordecai—to describe the last presidential election to her in some detail as the best way to get a feel for the man who'd won it, and two things had stuck in her mind.
The first had been Mordecai's caustic description of the political insiders' reaction to the electorate's decision that presidential character mattered after all. None of the analysts had given the little-known junior senator from Montana any chance at all when Armbruster first decided to run, but that was because none of them had realized what he truly was: an honorable man whose tendency to speak his mind, sometimes just a little too colorfully but always bluntly and honestly, had resonated with the voters. It had actually convinced them to take one more shot at electing an honest President, and his campaign had crushed first the front-running candidate in his own party's primary and then an incumbent president who'd confidently anticipated that voter boredom would assure his reelection.
The second thing to stick in her mind was something Dick had said. Jared Armbruster had inherited a badly damaged office, one whose moral authority had been savagely wounded by the last two administrations, and whose prerogatives and power base had been severely curtailed by brutal infighting with the legislative branch. But he had dug in and begun the painstaking process of rebuilding with a combination of shrewdness and a determined effort to make good on his own campaign promises. He was also a staunch internationalist, who had somehow managed to convince an American public which had been intensely focused on domestic matters both to support his diplomatic initiatives and to accept that an effective military—and the investment necessary to produce one—was a vital necessity in a world which seemed determined to go to hell. Unlike Armbruster or the people who had elected him, Ludmilla knew what was waiting (or had been, in her own past, at least) less than ten years down the road . . . and that by the time the wars had finally hit in Europe, the United States' military had sufficiently recovered from its late twentieth-century nadir to keep them contained to Europe. Much of that recovery had occurred during Armbruster's administration, and the foresight and determination which had made that possible were impressive.
She had been inclined to agree with both Dick and Mordecai, based on that information alone, that Armbruster was both a good and honest man and a much more skilled politician than his defeated adversaries had allowed for. It remained to be seen whether or not he was also enough of a statesman to handle a situation like this one, yet she remembered the firmness of his grip and the intense, evaluating light in his eyes and felt a tinge of hope.
Armbruster turned away from her to shake Aston's hand, and this time he confronted something he understood. The captain was built like a defensive lineman, he thought, only bigger, and he was dauntingly fit for a man his age. He had the assurance of a professional military man, flavored by an instinctive but confident deference toward his commander-in-chief. The President was an ex-Marine, with the inbred, more-or-less tolerance for naval officers of the breed, but he recognized the tough, confident self-respect of thirty or forty years spent exercising command over one's self and others. It was something the true professionals never lost, he thought, and something the amateurs never gained.
Armbruster liked the deep, resonant voice. He flattered himself on his judgment of men, and this one felt solid. Dependable. Above all, truthful.
"Admiral. Commander." He greeted his other guests courteously, then gestured at the chairs arranged in a comfortable conversational circle. "Won't you be seated?" he invited.
They sank into the chairs, and he offered refreshments. Of necessity, the conversation was light and inconsequential until they'd been served and the servants had withdrawn. But as the door closed—and every surveillance device, much to the unhappiness of the Secret Service, was switched off—the President turned his brown eyes to Ludmilla, and they were no longer the smiling eyes of a politician. They were dark and thoughtful, challenging without being hostile, and Ludmilla felt a surge of relief as she met them.
Yes, she thought. This man was a statesman.
"And now, Colonel `Ross,' " Armbruster said with a slight, wry smile, "suppose you tell your story in your own words."
The Troll's vision receptors watched the planet's single moon drift among the clouds. It was a large moon, compared to the small, red-tinged satellites of the planet where he'd been assembled, and he wondered if he felt any kinship for it. This was the world of his genetic forebears, after all, but if the silent, silver orb meant anything to him, he could not find it.
He turned his attention inward, considering his newest information. It had been . . . entertaining to acquire it. So much more enjoyable than that whimpering, broken thing he'd sampled first. This one—this "Annette" one—had been different. Terrified, yes, but not broken. Not at the start.
If the Troll had possessed lips, he would have smiled . . . and not pleasantly. The female had been frightened when the combat mech delivered it, naked and bruised, bleeding from the abrasions of its fall. Frightened, but filled with a hate that almost matched his own. An ignorant hate, one which didn't begin to understand, but a savage, knife-edged emotion he understood.
It had pleased him.
Yes, he thought happily, its defiance had pleased him. It was almost like the Shirmaksu's stimulation of his pleasure centers, only brighter, sharper . . . stronger. He had encouraged it to fight by varying the power of his probe, letting it think it had driven him out and then driving in once more until it screamed in agony. Such a frail thing, compared to the endless web of power which backed his own organic component, and so delicious. He had toyed with it, delighting in its frantic resistance and the lovely essence of its hate, hurting it and savoring the exquisite bouquet of its terror and despair.
He tasted the pleasure once more in memory, then put it firmly aside. He had recorded it; he could return to its sweetness whenever he wished.
Yet there had been more than pleasure. He'd learned much—more of technique than of substance, to be sure, for the female had known little of immediate use. But what little it had known, he knew. He had stripped that lovely, hate- and agony-filled brain to its quivering core, raping away its knowledge, and his cruelty had been more than merely an end in itself, for he had refined his technique. If he wished, he probably could brain-strip his next subject without inflicting any damage at all.
If he wished. If he wished. He savored his self-direction. The heady power to act as he chose against these puny, fragile humans and their ignorance. To exert his omnipotence upon them.
He activated an interior pickup and looked down upon the husk which had been Annette Foreman, twenty-five, a schoolteacher and the mother of a little girl who would never know what had become of her parents. The once vital face was ugly with mindlessness, bruised and streaked with blood from the lips the female had bitten ragged in its extremity.
It was a pity they were so fragile, he thought regretfully, summoning a servomech to remove the carrion. They broke so quickly. This one had lasted barely six hours. Such a pity.
"All right," President Armbruster said finally. The coffee table was littered with empty cups and the remains of pastry. Armbruster drained his own cup and rubbed his eyes. It was four A.M., and he had a cabinet meeting at nine, but somehow that seemed utterly unimportant at the moment.
"All right," he repeated, "I believe you." He leaned back in his chair and his eyes swept their faces, seeing the mirror of his own weariness. "As one of my predecessors—a Democrat, unfortunately—said, `The buck stops here.' "
He pinched the bridge of his nose, marshaling his thoughts, then looked at Anson McLain.
"Admiral, you did exactly the right thing. All of you did. If Colonel Leonovna is right about this cyborg—this Troll of hers—we're in the worst mess this poor, abused planet's ever faced. And, Captain—" he looked at Aston "—you called it when you said security will be a copper-plated bitch." He smiled tiredly.
"Okay. You people have earned your pay, now it's time I earn mine. Admiral McLain."
"You're already in this up to your gold-braided ass, so as of this moment, the Navy is officially in charge. We'll work out of your office."
"I'm honored, Mister President," McLain said carefully, "but with all due respect, I'm a bit—"
"I know. I know." Armbruster waved his hand. "The Balkans are smoking, the whole damned South Atlantic is on fire, and I'm handing you a fresh can of gasoline. Well, Admiral, I think we'll just have to put out the immediate fire for you."
"Tomorrow morning—no, this morning, I suppose—I intend to invoke the War Powers Act." He smiled again, humorlessly. "I have no doubt half of Congress will be drawing straws to see who gets to move a vote to test its constitutionality, but by the time they do, you will have moved Second Fleet into position and I will have informed the United Kingdom and Argentina that the fighting is to stop." He smiled tiredly at Mordecai Morris's horrified expression.
"Don't panic, Commander. I happen to know the Brits want to stop. I'll warn the PM before I pull the plug, but she'll go along. Buenos Aires may be less happy about it, but they're getting the ever-loving shit kicked out of them. I think they'll accept without pressing their luck—they may even be grateful for it, later. But tell your boys and girls that if they don't, I will use whatever force is necessary to compel them, Admiral."
"Yes, Sir," McLain said tonelessly.
"I'm not just flexing my muscles, Admiral," Armbruster told him. "I've got other reasons, but we don't need a protracted crisis to drag on and divert our resources. Agreed?"
"Good. Now. I'll arrange EEGs on the cabinet, the Joint Chiefs, and the heads of the FBI, CIA, DIA, and NSA. The Congressional leaders are going to be tougher, but I think I can swing it." This time his smile was tight with the awareness of his own power. "I'll have my staff checked, too. I'm afraid we can be absolutely certain some of the people we need aren't going to pass muster, but if I go around firing them in wholesale lots for no apparent reason, the entire situation will blow up in our faces. So what we'll have to do is set up a deception within a deception.
"I intend to create two crisis teams. One will be charged with collecting and collating information on what's already happened and with looking for any signs of additional extraterrestrial interference. They'll operate under maximum security conditions—to prevent a public panic—but I intend to staff it primarily with people who fail the EEG test. That, I imagine, is no more than our Mister Troll will expect, and the fact that the team will know nothing beyond what it can dig up on its own ought to reassure him if he picks up on them.
"The real command team, Admiral, will be headed by you, with Commander Morris as your assistant. It will consist only of individuals the Troll can't tap, and you will report directly to me. Your mission will be to find the Troll and destroy it—at any cost. If at all possible, I want that fighter intact, but destroying the Troll takes absolute priority."
He paused and regarded them silently for just a moment, then spoke very slowly and distinctly.
"Understand me. When—and note that I say when, not if—this thing is found, we will kill it, wherever it is, and whatever it takes. If necessary, I will order a nuclear strike on my own authority to accomplish that end."
There was a chill silence as his grim determination soaked into his listeners.
"I hope, however," he said finally in a lighter tone, "to avoid that. Captain Aston, I understand you're due to retire next month?"
"Yes, Mister President."
"Not anymore, I'm afraid. Stan Loren will have to get along without you a bit longer—I need your operational expertise more than he does."
"I'll see to it you get that extra ring immediately, just to give you a bit more clout, but basically, Captain, you're going to be Admiral McLain's field commander. You will confer with Colonel Leonovna, and the two of you will determine what force structure you require. I want it kept in the family, so you'll assemble your personnel from the Corps."
"Yes, Sir. May I recruit SEALs, as well?"
"You swabbies!" Armbruster startled them all with a genuine chuckle. "All right, you can use them, too, if you want."
"Thank you, Sir."
"Colonel Leonovna, I realize you don't fall under my authority, but—"
"I do for the duration, Mister President," Ludmilla interposed.
"Thank you. In that case, we'll arrange suitable military rank for you. In the Corps, I think," he added, giving Aston a lurking grin. "I'm afraid no one would be ungallant enough to believe you look old enough to hold a colonel's rank, but we should be able to get away with making you a captain. At any rate, I would appreciate it if you would act for public consumption as Captain—I mean Admiral—Aston's aide."
"Certainly, Mister President."
"Thank you," he said again, and stood, stretching. "Unfortunately, we have no idea at all where this Troll is, where he may be headed, or what he intends to do once he gets there. We have no assurance that he's anywhere near our own territory or even the territory of one of our allies, and, given the nature of the threat, we cannot possibly justify leaving the entire rest of the world in ignorance. Which means, of course, that I'm going to have to tell at least some other people the whole story."
"Mister President," Ludmilla began, and he waved her to silence.
"Don't worry, Colonel. I'll be circumspect, I assure you. In regard to which, it looks like another set of EEGs is in order. Commander Morris, you seem like an inventive fellow. Are you?"
"Uh, I like to think so, Mister President," Morris said with a sinking sensation.
"Good," the President said with his most charming professional politician smile. "Think up a good, convincing argument I can use to get hold of President Yakolev's EEG."
"Sir?" Morris choked himself off before he could say anything else. "I'll try, Sir."
"So will I, Commander," Jared Armbruster said softly. "So will I."
The Troll completed his analysis of the data. The female's knowledge suggested that it might be even simpler than he had expected. This United States was a hopelessly inviting target, wide open to penetration even by its own criminal element and its purely terrestrial enemies, much less by him. The bare bones of a plan were already falling into place.
It was a pity the female had known so little about its country's atomic weapons production, but he had gleaned at least one name from its pitiful memory. Oak Ridge. Oak Ridge, Tennessee, he thought.
It was as good a place to start as any.