Major Daniel Abernathy, USMC, didn't look like a man on the brink of mayhem, and the casual observer could have no idea how much effort it took to keep from slamming one huge, dark-skinned fist into the tough plastic window beside him. He was rather proud of that.
He set his teeth, staring down through that same window at the runways of Andrews AFB and hating the sight. He shouldn't be here. He should be back at Lejeune, engaged in a change of command ceremony which would have put him—him!—in command of the Second Marine Division's recon battalion. He'd sweated blood to earn that command, and he by God deserved it! Besides, the orders had already been cut . . . until some desk-bound asshole in Washington changed them.
He closed his eyes, leashing his temper yet again as the landing gear rumbled. He was a passionate, hard-driving man, and defeat—especially defeat which wasn't his fault—sat poorly with him. The fact that Second Force was on alert because of the South Atlantic War only made it worse. He'd trained for twelve years for what might be about to happen, and—
He chopped the thought off, forcing his mind into neutral as the plane moved along the taxiway. It was hard, but he actually managed to smile at his neighbors as he collected his hand luggage.
The Washington sun was as fierce as the one he'd left in North Carolina, and the muggy air felt suffocating. He settled his sunglasses, adjusted his cap, and followed the flow of the passengers. At least it would be air-conditioned inside.
It was, and there was also someone waiting for him—someone with the four rockers, three chevrons, and star of a Marine sergeant major on his short khaki sleeves—and Abernathy's eyebrows rose behind his glasses. Too many years ago, Gunnery Sergeant Alvin Horton had seen to it that a painfully young Lieutenant Abernathy made less mistakes than most with his first platoon. He supposed every Marine officer always felt a special respect for "his" first gunnery sergeant, but he'd known even then that Alvin Horton really was special.
The sergeant major snapped to attention and saluted, and Abernathy returned the salute. Then he removed his glasses left-handed and held out his right with his first genuine smile in the last twenty-one hours.
"Gunny," he said, squeezing firmly. "What the hell is going on here?"
"Sir?" Horton regarded him quizzically. "Why does the Major think the Sergeant Major knows anything he doesn't, Sir?"
"Cut the crap, Gunny. If anyone knows, you do."
"Major, I don't know anything. Honest."
Abernathy's eyebrows tried to rise again. Sergeant Major Horton was the fourth ranking noncom in the United States Marine Corps. He had to know what was going on. But if he said he didn't, he didn't.
"Excuse me, Sir," Horton broke into his thoughts, "but where's your baggage?"
"You're looking at it, Gunny." Abernathy waved his single small bag. "They didn't give me much time to pack."
"I see, Sir. If the Major would follow me, then?"
Abernathy fell in beside the sergeant major, and a path opened before them, though neither consciously noticed it. Abernathy was a powerfully built man, his mahogany skin bulging over hard-trained muscles, and he made an imposing figure in uniform. He wasn't especially tall, but he moved with catlike grace and a sense of leashed power, and the ribbons below his parachutist's wings were impressive.
For all that, and despite the gold leaf on his collar, Horton was even more impressive. He was four inches taller, the sandy hair under his cap cut so short it was all but invisible, and tanned almost as dark the major. He, too, wore jump wings, but the five rows of ribbons under his were headed by the white-barred blue one of the Navy Cross, followed by the red-white-and-blue one of the Silver Star with two clusters—each with the tiny "V" which indicated they'd been won the hard way: for valor.
He guided the major across the baking hot asphalt to a staff car, and Abernathy got a fresh surprise when Horton opened the door for him, closed it behind him, and then slid behind the wheel. Sergeant majors are not normally chauffeurs, and Abernathy's sense of the extraordinary grew stronger as Horton started the engine and pulled away.
"Tell me, Gunny," he said finally, "what do you know?"
"Nothing positive, Sir." Horton never took his eyes from the road.
"Last I heard, you were division command sergeant major at Pendleton," Abernathy mused aloud.
"Yes, Sir. I've been reassigned."
Abernathy digested that. Whoever had put the arm on him had also grabbed the senior noncom of the Third Marine Division. He didn't want to think about how General Watson had reacted to that.
"All right, Gunny, what is it we've both been reassigned to?"
"I understand the major and I will find out this afternoon, Sir."
"From Rear Admiral R. K. Aston, I presume?"
"Yes, Sir." Horton's tone caught Abernathy's attention, and his eyes narrowed. Aston . . . Aston. . . . Now that he thought about it, the name did have a familiar ring.
"Just who is Admiral Aston, Gunny?" he asked finally.
"He's good people, Sir," Horton said, and he wasn't a man who awarded accolades easily. "He started out with the Swift boats right at the end in Nam, then switched over to the SEALs, Sir."
"D'you mean Captain Dick Aston?"
"Yes, Sir," Horton said with a slight smile. "He's an admiral now."
"Well I will be dipped in shit," Abernathy said softly. Horton didn't respond, and Abernathy leaned back. That put a different slant on things. A very different slant. No wonder the name sounded familiar. No man had a higher reputation among the elite forces of the United States, and very few had one as good. It was Aston who'd pulled out the Lebanese hostages, he remembered, and then-Commander Aston's SEAL teams had fought their own short, victorious, and extremely nasty personal little war in Iraq, both before and during the Gulf War. It had been his SEAL teams that retook the Exxon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, too—without, as Abernathy recalled, a single civilian fatality or a single terrorist survivor. If he was involved, things might prove very interesting indeed, and he suddenly realized why Horton seemed so cheerful. The sergeant major had an instinct for these things.
"Well, now, Gunny," he said after a long, thoughtful moment, "I do believe this may not be such a waste of time as I thought."
"As the Major says," Horton said cheerfully.
"But you can't do it that way—sir," Blake Taggart said. He sat in an oddly proportioned chair facing a featureless metal bulkhead and felt no desire to smile at the absurdity of talking to a—what? A machine? A disembodied voice? A . . . presence? Not after tasting its driving, limitless hatred in his own mind. The experience had not been pleasant. No indeed. Not pleasant at all.
"Indeed?" The voice was still cold and mechanical, but it was picking up human-sounding emphasis patterns at almost frightening speed.
"No, sir." Taggart licked his lips. Whatever this thing was, it wasn't human—and not all that tightly wrapped, either. It scared the shit out of him, actually, but he'd already accepted that. He'd been a bit surprised by how readily he did accept it, and he wondered if this . . . thing . . . had done something to make him. There was no way of knowing, and it didn't matter. Taggart had seen too much of this incredible ship. Sane or not, the voice could do what it promised.
He smiled—a cold, amused smile—as he remembered his Bible. He had been taken up on a mountain and offered all the powers of the world. Only as a viceroy and not a ruler in his own right, to be sure, but offered nonetheless. Yet powerful as the voice was, it lacked any instinctive knowledge of people.
"Why not, Blake Taggart?" the voice demanded coldly.
"Assume for a moment that you can control the President," Taggart said. "Or, hell, assume you control the Vice President and knock Armbruster off. Either way, you control the White House, but it won't do you any good."
"He is the head of state," the Troll said flatly.
"But he doesn't work in a vacuum . . . sir. There's Congress and the Supreme Court, just for starters. If he suddenly starts acting strangely, there are plenty of people in positions to get in your way. No. If you want to take over, you have to start at the bottom. Build an organization and move in gradually." Taggart smiled nastily. "Do it right, and in a few years you can elect your own President—with a Congress that'll do anything you want."
"Wait," the Troll said, and considered the human's words. The Taggart human was unaware that he could hear its inner thoughts, that he knew it was already considering how to displace him, but that was all right. The Troll had selected it for its ambition, after all, and the human was unaware of the controls he had already set deep within it. A flick of thought could activate them, shutting down its fragile heart and lungs instantly. Not that those controls would be required; judiciously applied pain would provide all the effectiveness the Troll was likely to need.
But in addition to its ambition, the Troll had chosen it for its knowledge and the instincts he lacked. Unlike its master, it knew the workings of this world from the inside, and the Troll studied the fuzz of half-coherent concepts leaking from its thoughts. He already saw the basic workings of its plan, and what he saw pleased him.
"Very well, Blake Taggart," the Troll said. "Explain this to me."
"Yes, Sir," Taggart said eagerly. "First—"
"What I don't understand," Morris said, watching the taped destruction of the tanks, "is how that peashooter works, Milla. Where's the laser-tinted death? Where's the glowing ray of mass destruction? In short, where's the action?"
"Forgive him, Milla," Jayne Hastings said disgustedly. "Remember he's only a crude, unlettered savage."
"That's all right." Ludmilla smiled. "But I'm afraid I can't really answer your question, Mordecai. I mean, how well could you describe quantum mechanics—or, better yet, a printed circuit—to Copernicus?"
"I see your point," Morris conceded, "but I really am curious."
"Well," she brushed a strand of chestnut hair from her face and held up one of her blaster's featureless plastic magazines, "I'll try. This thing is a capacitor—a very powerful one, perhaps, but that's all it really is—and the energy pulse is a surge discharge. Theoretically, I could drain it in a single pulse, but the self-destruction would be pretty drastic."
"So all it really does is make a spark?" Morris asked incredulously.
"In a crude sense. Actually, it produces what you might think of as a pocket of plasma."
"Inside the blaster?" It was Jayne's turn to look dubious. "That must be one hell of a container, Milla."
"Not really. Oh, it's tough, but it never really `contains' the energy at all. Most of this—" she tapped the blaster lying on the table "—is ranging circuits and a tiny multi-dee." She saw the confusion on her listeners' faces. "Basically, when I press the stud the blaster computes the exact range to the nearest solid object in its line of fire. I can tinker with it to redefine `solid' a bit, which can be handy in, say, aquatic conditions, but that's not a big problem here." Hastings's eyes bulged slightly as she considered the effects of firing that mini-nuke underwater, but she said nothing.
"Anyway, once it's measured the range, it produces an energy pulse to the exact power and . . . dimensions I've set up. I can focus down to a cross section of two millimeters or up to a decameter, and about twice that for the linear dimension. But it doesn't `contain' the pulse, and it doesn't really `shoot' it at the target. Instead, at the instant the plasma is generated, the multi-dee blips it up into the alpha bands until the target coordinate is on top of the blaster, then brings it back down into normal-space." She shrugged. "For all practical purposes, the pulse first manifests on the target, which is why there's none of the ionization or thermal bloom associated with lasers or beamed energy."
"Good Lord," Hastings murmured. "What's the range on that thing?"
"Only five kilometers. You can't pick out a small arms target visually much above that range, even in space. The shoulder-fired versions have electro-optic sights and more range, but this is intended for close combat. Besides, in a planetary environment, you won't have many clear fire lanes even that long."
"`Only five kilometers,' she says!" Morris snorted. "Lady, with that little toy, you could—"
A knock on the door cut him off, and he quickly switched off the VCR while Ludmilla tucked the blaster out of sight inside her jacket.
"Enter," Morris called, and the three of them rose as a uniformed Richard Aston opened the door and stepped into the office. He wasn't alone, and Ludmilla felt a pang as she saw the muscular black major beside him. He looked so much like Steve Onslow it hurt. There was another man with them—a sergeant, only a few inches shorter than Dick, with calm, alert gray eyes that seemed to miss absolutely nothing.
She saw a flicker of surprise in the major's eyes as she came to attention with the automatic response she'd been cultivating ever since she became a junior officer again. The fact that these people had never heard of Thuselahs made them refreshingly unprejudiced, but it also meant every damned one of them judged her age by her appearance. Thank God President Armbruster hadn't decided to give her her own rank!
"People," Aston said, waving them back down, "let me introduce the newest members of our team: Major Daniel Abernathy and Sergeant Major Alvin Horton. Major, Sergeant Major: Commander Mordecai Morris, Lieutenant Commander Jayne Hastings, and Captain Elizabeth Ross." Ludmilla smothered a smile as he used her new name.
"Find a chair, and we'll bring you up to speed, gentlemen. And I warn you," he went on, "whatever you've been thinking, the truth is weirder." He smiled. "Believe it, people."
Ambassador Nekrasov was puzzled. President Armbruster seemed perfectly at ease, yet Nekrasov knew he was not. He couldn't have said how he knew, but he'd learned to trust his feelings, and he frowned as he sipped at his excellent cup of coffee.
"But, Mister President, my country cannot understand why—with no notice, no preliminary diplomacy, no negotiations—you should suddenly choose to impose an outside solution."
"I remind you of the Monroe Doctrine, Mister Ambassador," Armbruster said, and Nekrasov shook his head.
"Not applicable, Sir. Argentina clearly initiated hostilities, and Great Britain is an American power in this instance." He smiled wryly. "While the Russian Federation may deplore the imperialistic tradition which makes this true, it is, nonetheless, a fact."
"Well, then," Armbruster said with a sudden, impish grin, "let's just say I got pissed off."
Nekrasov choked on his coffee. His head spun slightly as he set down his cup and mopped his lips with his napkin, unable to believe that a head of state had just said such a thing to a foreign ambassador.
"Mister President," he said carefully. "I—" He broke off for a moment. Odd. The shock of what he'd just heard seemed to have thrown him off stride. He actually found it a bit difficult to choose his words.
"You are aware, Sir," he said finally, "that lives have been lost because you became—as you say—`pissed off'?"
"Bullshit," Armbruster said, watching him closely. "People got killed because the Argentinos were stupid enough to fuck with a Navy battle group." He noted the apparently bewildering effect of his words with satisfaction.
"Mister . . . Mister President—" Nekrasov broke off and rubbed his eyes, blinking rapidly. "I am afraid . . . That is—" He stopped and swallowed heavily, tugging to loosen his tie. "Forgive me, Mister President," he said thickly. "I feel . . . unwell. I—"
He started to rise, and then his eyes rolled up and he collapsed bonelessly.
Armbruster was on his feet in an instant, catching him and easing him back into his chair. He had beaten Stanford Loren by the breadth of a hair, and he shook his head as he looked up at the CIA director.
"Damn Russians. He's got the constitution of an ox."
President Pyotr Yakolev shook himself awake as the phone rang. He groped for it with a weary groan, hoping it was not yet another crisis.
"Yes?" he growled, then listened briefly and sat up with a jerk. "What?"
"I'm sorry, Mister President, but we don't have all the details yet." The voice on the other end of the phone was cautious. It belonged to Aleksandr Turchin, who considered Nikolai Nekrasov one of the outstanding thorns in his flesh. Unfortunately, that was because of how long Nekrasov and Yakolev had known one another, and that required the Foreign Minister to proceed with care. "The report just came in. Apparently Nikolai Stepanovich suffered a heart attack in the very office of the President."
"My God," Yakolev muttered. Then, "How bad is it?"
"I don't know, Mister President. They have flown him to their Bethesda Naval Hospital, the same place they take their own presi—"
"Yes, yes! I know that. When will we know more, Aleksandr Ivanovich?"
"I can't say, Mister President. Soon, I hope."
"I, too." Yakolev had few close personal friends, and Nikolai was one of them. He didn't want to lose him. "Is his wife with him?" he asked.
"I understand so," Turchin said.
"Deliver my personal sympathy to her," Yakolev directed.
"I will, Mister President. I'm sorry to have disturbed you, but I thought you would wish to know immediately."
"You thought correctly, Aleksandr Ivanovich. Thank you. Good night."
"Good night, Mister President."
Yakolev hung up slowly and lay back in his lonely bed. It was at moments like this he missed the supportive presence of his dead Marina. Poor Nikolai. He'd been working him too hard—he must have been. But Nikolai had always been so healthy. Like a kulak, he used to joke. Who would have thought Nikolai, of all people, would suffer a heart attack? And in the middle of a meeting at the White House?
Daniel Abernathy shook his head doggedly and glanced at Alvin Horton. The sergeant major appeared irritatingly composed, and the major was inclined to resent it until he saw the wonder hiding in Horton's eyes.
"So where do we come in, Admiral?" he asked finally.
"Where do you think, Major?" Aston replied, watching him closely.
"Well, Sir, it sounds like you've picked us to put together your strike team," Abernathy said slowly.
"Right the first time, Major. We'll discuss the details later, but basically what we have in mind is the creation of a provisional company for `experimental' purposes." He grinned. "I know it's not quite the same as getting your battalion, but I hope you won't be too bored."
"No, Sir, I don't imagine I will," Abernathy said with an answering grin. "I was a mighty pissed Marine this morning, Sir, but I think I'm getting over it."
"Good. Then you and the sar-major and I will go sit down and talk hardware. I'm afraid `Captain Ross' and Commander Morris have another appointment."
"Oh, and Major—"
"Certain people will have to know some of the truth about `Captain Ross,' but I decide who needs to know and what they need to be told. Not you, not Commander Morris, not even Admiral McLain. Me. Understood?"
"Good. Now, if you gentlemen will come with me?"
Nikolai Nekrasov opened his eyes slowly. He was lying on his back, he decided. In a bed. He rolled his head and took in the bright, cheerful airiness of a well-appointed private hospital room. What—?
His thoughts cleared suddenly and he sat up. The President! He'd been speaking with the President, and then—
He turned and looked into Jared Armbruster's eyes. There was amusement in them, and a touch of wariness, as well. He shook his head slowly, trying to understand. He'd collapsed, but he felt fine. So what . . . ?
"I owe you an apology, Mister Ambassador," Armbruster said calmly. "I'm afraid we slipped you a Mickey." Nekrasov blinked at him. "We drugged your coffee," Armbruster explained.
Drugged his coffee? It was unheard of! And if they had, why should Armbruster admit it? The ambassador stared around the room, fighting a flicker of panic. Surely the President had not run that far mad!
"I'm sorry," Armbruster sounded genuinely contrite, "but I believe we can explain why it was necessary."
"Indeed, Mister President?" Nekrasov was pleased that he managed to sound calm. "I should be interested to hear that explanation."
"Of course." Armbruster sat beside the bed. "First, I must also apologize for the cover story we put together. Your government has been informed that you suffered a severe heart attack. That—" he added quickly "—was unfortunately necessary to explain why we rushed you to Bethesda." Nekrasov started to speak, but Armbruster raised a hand.
"Please, Mister Ambassador. Time is short. Your Embassy's security people are not at all pleased that the doctors have refused to allow them into your room because of your `serious condition.' We'll let them in very shortly, but first I must explain some things."
"Very well," Nekrasov said, and settled back on his pillows, regarding the American suspicously.
"Thank you. Mister Ambassador, you asked me why I involved my country in the South Atlantic War. My answer was, I fear, facetious. The truth, sir, is that I needed a diversion."
"I beg your pardon?"
"In large part, Mister Ambassador, my reasons concern yourself. Oh, my original thought was to create a cover for certain military moves I must make, but then I realized it could also be used as a pretext for special diplomatic exchanges—like the information I'm about to share with you.
"I must tell you, Ambassador, that while we had you here—indeed, it was the entire reason we went to all this trouble to get you here—we ran an electroencephalogram on you." Nekrasov looked mystified, and Armbruster continued smoothly. "It was necessary to determine whether or not your brain waves contained a certain distinctive pattern. Fortunately, they do—and it is my sincere hope that President Yakolev's share it. Unhappily, the only way I have been able to think of to check his is to convince someone he knows and trusts—in short, a close personal friend—to find out for me."
"Mister President," Nekrasov said stiffly, "this is ridiculous. I—"
"No, Mister Ambassador, it is not ridiculous," Armbruster interrupted, and the cold determination—the ruthlessness—in his iron voice startled the Russian. "I believe you will agree with me on that point, and, if you do, I will ask you to return home—officially for health reasons and consultations regarding the situation in the South Atlantic—to tell President Yakolev that."
"I can conceive of no reason why I should," Nekrasov said flatly.
"We'll give you one," Armbruster said, his tone equally flat, "and to that end, I would like you to meet someone. If I may?" He rose and started for the door, and Nekrasov shrugged. The entire situation was patently absurd, but this madman was the President of the United States.
A naval commander and a ridiculously young captain of Marines entered the room, and Nekrasov wondered what possible bearing such junior officers could have on this affair.
"Ambassador, I'd like you to meet Commander Morris, Admiral Anson McLain's senior intelligence officer, and Captain Ross. Commander, Captain—Ambassador Nikolai Stepanovich Nekrasov." Nekrasov nodded to the newcomers, then looked impatiently back to the President.
"Mister Ambassador, Captain Ross is not precisely what she appears," Armbruster said, seating himself once more. "In point of fact, she's the reason you're here." Nekrasov frowned at the striking young girl. That seemed crazier than all the rest! Armbruster saw his frown and grinned.
"I assure you, you can't be more surprised than I was when I first met the captain, Ambassador. You see . . ."