subversion n. The act of subverting or the condition of being subverted.
subvert tr.v. -verted, -verting, verts. 1. To ruin; to destroy utterly. 2. To undermine character or allegiance; to corrupt. 3. To overthrow completely. [Middle English subverten, from Latin subvertere, to turn upside down: sub-, from below, up + vertere, to turn.]
—Webster-Wangchi Unabridged Dictionary of Standard English Tomas y Hijos, Publishers
2465, Terran Standard Reckoning
"She did what?" Anson McLain demanded, and Mordecai Morris went off in a fresh peal of mirth. His ribs hurt, and he wondered how much his laughter owed to hysterical reaction.
"S-she almost shot . . . shot up t-the Saint Petersburg zoo!" he repeated, gasping the words between hoots.
"In God's name, why?!"
"She . . . she . . . Oh, my!" Morris broke off and wiped his streaming eyes. "President Yakolev thought she might . . . might enjoy seeing the sights," he managed in a more controlled voice. "So he had a guide take her around Saint Petersburg." He shook his head. "It all went fine until they got to the kangaroos."
"To the—" McLain broke off in sudden understanding. "Oh, no!" he moaned, covering his eyes with one hand.
"Exactly, Sir: Kangas. D'you realize, she even told us they were the height of a short human and had tails, but we never made the connection? We've all been too worried about the Troll to bother with what Kangas might or might not look like!"
"Dear Lord," McLain prayed fervently, "deliver me from oversights."
"Amen," Morris agreed, his eyes still damp from laughter. "She took one look and went for her blaster out of pure reflex, and she's fast, Sir. She had it out and aimed—ready to blow the whole damned herd, or school, or whatever the hell you call a bunch of kangaroos, to dust bunnies—before Dick could even move. Scared their guide to death." He shook his head. "Sir, she'd never even seen a real kangaroo."
"But she didn't shoot?"
"No, Sir," Morris reassured him. "She realized what it had to be in time. She was pretty pissed with Dick for not warning her, too, until she realized why he hadn't seen any reason she needed to be warned."
"Well, thank God for that," McLain said. "Jesus! We came that close to blowing the whole secret because of a bunch of ragged-assed kangaroos." He shook his head wonderingly, then glared at Morris. "I don't need any more surprises like this, Commander. Tell her that."
"Oh, I will, Sir. I will."
The Troll pivoted his fighter in a hovering circle, examining the hiding place. The Taggart human was right, he thought. It was perfect.
The cool darkness caressed the alloy skin of his vehicle/body, and he dropped another hundred meters, dipping into the oval valley. It was five and a half kilometers long and no more than two across at its greatest width, and night-struck trees were green-black below him, rising towards the star-strewn skies. There were no lights, no signs of human habitation, and his scanners peered and pried at the darkened forest, finding only life that flew, ran on four feet, or swam. Other scanners probed the darkened heavens, assuring him that no satellite or aircraft lingered overhead.
The silent fighter hovered twenty meters above the valley floor while the Troll selected the best spot. There. The slope was almost vertical behind that screen of trees.
He adjusted his position carefully, then activated the battery of special, low-powered power guns mounted under the fighter's prow, and muted blue lightning flared. It was far less brilliant than the sun-hot violence which had killed the cralkhi, and his heart-hunger for havoc longed for the beauty of that brighter, more savage power, but it was time for lesser thunders.
Azure brilliance splashed the mountain, and at its touch, destruction danced. Perhaps not the blazing, shuddering devastation he craved, but destruction nonetheless. Undergrowth and tree trunks vanished. Treetops plunged downward like spears, falling into the ring of light and vanishing with a near-silent whine, and then it was the turn of earth and stone.
The Troll's interior receptors watched his human bend over the vision screen his servomechs had built for it in the cramped "control room." He could feel the human's awe, and silent laughter rippled in his brain. So Blake Taggart thought this was power? What would it say if he told it that this was but an adaptation of a standard Shirmaksu mining tool? That, in the human's own terms, it was no more than a "drill"?
The mountain yielded more slowly than the vegetation which had crowned it, but the Troll chewed steadily deeper. Sixty meters in diameter he sank his shaft, and the humming power of his drill lined the bore with a slick, fused finish. Three hundred meters he pierced into the flank of the mountain, then the blue light died and he turned his ship and slid silently backward into the circular tunnel.
He settled to the floor of the tube and hatches opened, disgorging servomechs that scurried about, filling the tunnel mouth with earth for a depth of fifty meters. They left only one, smaller entrance, just large enough for the largest of the Troll's combat mechs . . . or his own combat chassis. By dawn, every sign of his coming had been carefully camouflaged.
The Troll was satisfied in his hide. There were drawbacks, of course. It would take many minutes to extricate his fighter from its snug nest, and his onboard scanners were inoperable through the rock and soil above him. But he was safe from any chance detection, and the Blake Taggart human had been correct: this was an ideal location.
Indeed, his new servant was proving useful in many ways. It had known, for example, that the Annette human had been wrong about Oak Ridge. No weapons-grade fissionables had been produced there in many years, and it was unlikely that such materials would be available there in the quantities he required. But Blake Taggart had known, as the female had not, of what it called the "Savannah River Plant" where fissionables were produced.
In some respects, the Troll would have preferred to be closer to the source, but Blake Taggart was correct. This isolated hiding place was within range of his combat mechs if a direct assault on Savannah became necessary, and far better placed for the other portion of his . . . No, be honest, the Troll thought, of their plan.
And for now, he preferred to avoid attacks on military installations. He wasn't yet certain his combat mechs were proof against the humans' heavy weapons: better to avoid exposure to them until he was. Besides, the human insisted no weapons assembly took place at Savannah, that the fissionables were shipped to other locations for that purpose. Sooner or later, one of those shipments would cross the Troll's area of mental influence.
"Obliging of them, especially after you almost wasted their zoo," Aston observed wryly. He grinned down at Ludmilla and she smiled back, but he knew the encounter had shaken her badly.
"Sorry," she said softly. "It was pure instinct, Dick. Seeing something that much like a live Kanga—brrrr!" She shivered, and he caressed the back of her neck gently. She accepted the comfort of the rare public gesture of affection gratefully.
"Anyway," she said with a less forced grin, "I think President Yakolev is trying to make up for how hard he was to convince."
"Yeah," Aston snorted, then chuckled. "But it makes a kind of sense to do it over here, too. For one thing, it's a real clincher for his technical people, and, for another, their power net is still unreliable enough that they can black out a main grid for a few hours without nearly as many explanations."
"True," Ludmilla agreed, turning back to the control room windows. She didn't care for what she'd seen so far of Russia, even if her ancestors had come from there. She'd never cared for the Soviet system, even when she'd studied it merely out of morbid historical curiosity, but now she had to deal with its actual transition period, and she could scarcely believe what people here managed to put up with. She'd always been rather proud of the Russian people's ability to endure and persevere, and of what the Russia of her own past had achieved (after, she admitted, the bloodbath of the self-inflicted conflagration of their nuclear exchange with Belarussia). But these Russians still weren't at all certain how to make democracy work . . . or even if they truly wanted to. Several people had told her how much they admired democracy, and how firmly they believed democracy would solve their problems in time, and how deeply committed they were to making democracy work. But what she actually saw had best been summed up by the taxi driver who had delivered her and Aston to the Saint Petersburg Zoo.
"Democracy!" he had exclaimed when he recognized Aston's American accent. "It is a wonderful thing—or it will be when someone who knows how to make it work takes over at the top!"
It was apparent that the notion that representative government ought to be predicated on the electorate making the politicians "at the top" behave themselves and govern responsibly had never crossed the cabby's mind. He still wanted someone to make it work, with top-down direction, and that, she admitted sadly to herself, was what had made the Succession Wars inevitable. It had left the entire political field to authoritarians of one stripe or another, and those squabbling for power—even the most idealistic and committed "democrats"—had been all too willing to toss principle overboard in pursuit of tactical goals, as if none of them had realized that principles and limitations, precedents and what the people of her own time had still called "the rule of law," were the skeleton upon which any stable, self-governing state depended. Even Yakolev, much as she had found herself admiring his determination and personal integrity, was clearly more comfortable with the strongman image and the tactics that went with it than he was with the image of a parliamentary leader. He knew how to give orders, she thought; what he didn't know—what no Russian politico she had yet met knew—was how to forge a lasting consensus or achieve genuine compromise.
Yet for all its factionalism, waste motion, and sense of impermanence, the present Russian system had its advantages for her own purposes. It had been incredibly hard for Nekrasov to convince Yakolev to give the Americans his EEG without explaining why, but once that hurdle had been cleared things had moved even more rapidly in the Russian Federation than in the USA. If Pytor Yakolev wanted EEGs run on his people, he simply had to tell them so, and he had.
There had been some problems, she understood, since the KGB head hadn't been on the safe list. But enough other members of Yakolev's inner circle were, and the fact that it was common knowledge that Yakolev and Foreign Minister Turchin had been at odds for months over both Belarussia and the Balkans had actually helped. Turchin was still an ultranationalist, and he still distrusted America's ultimate diplomatic objectives intensely, but he was no fool and, for all his nationalist paranoia, he was a patriot. That was what had convinced Yakolev to include him in his government in the first place, and Turchin did have the right EEG. Confronted with Ludmilla's presence and her technology demonstration to prove her story, Turchin had recognized the imperative need to cooperate with the Americans, however much he distrusted them in other matters. And it had been Turchin himself who proposed that Yakolev use a cabinet shakeup—ostensibly to get rid of Turchin himself, on the grounds that their foreign policy differences had become insurmountable—to dispose of the KGB head and two other ministers whose EEGs prohibited admitting them to the inner secret.
And that, Ludmilla mused, might be the best sign for Russia's future she had yet seen. Turchin was, in many ways, the ultimate Russian peasant: shrewd, canny, warmhearted in his own way, xenophobic, stubborn to the point of pigheadedness, and with that aura of willing brutality which only a people who had been subjected to generations of brutality themselves radiated. And yet he had seen the necessity to act and act swiftly, even at the probable cost of his own political suicide, and he had done it. In the history she remembered, he hadn't resigned. Indeed, it had been he who replaced Yakolev after the President's assassination . . . and who had led Russia into the fateful nuclear exchange with Belarussia. So perhaps her intrusion onto the past history of this universe, whether it was the one from whence she had sprung or not, would have more than one beneficial consequence.
And in the meantime, she could finally do something about the damage Dick had wreaked on her flight suit. The four Russian physicists now bent over the worktable beyond the control room windows had been frankly incredulous when she explained what she needed, but their attitudes had undergone a remarkable change in the past ten minutes.
Academician Arkadi Tretyakov had been the most skeptical of all, and he'd obeyed Yakolev's orders with patent resentment. When she gave him the voltage and amperage she needed he'd looked at her as if at a madwoman and told her it would require the full output of a dedicated nuclear plant.
Which was where they were right now, she thought with real amusement, and a ripple of laughter danced just behind her teeth as she remembered his reaction to the feed wire she'd produced from the heel of the flight suit. She supposed it was understandable—the superconductive ceramic-based wire's cross section was hardly larger than a single strand in one of Tretyakov's computer cables—and he'd sneered as he supervised the technicians who made the appropriate connections. But his sneer had turned into slack-faced shock when the switches were thrown and the feed drank every erg of power from his precious reactor without even warming up.
Now he and his colleagues watched with awe as the suit's self-repair systems did their job. It would take another hour or so, but when they were done, she would have her flight suit back, almost as good as new.
And that, she knew, might be more important than even Dick suspected.
The diesel locomotive thudded through the night, clattering over the rails of the Clinchfield Railroad beside the Nolichucky River. The lights of Poplar, Tennessee, had vanished behind it, its headlamp cut a diamond-white tunnel through the darkness, and Unaka Mountain loomed against the stars to the north as the special train rattled along toward Unaka Springs.
Ralph Twotrees was tense. He always was at times like this, and the hordes of military types riding with him were only part of the reason. There were few cars tonight, but those he did have carried trefoil-badged, white-painted containers of stainless steel, each surrounding an inner vessel of heavy shielding, and packed away in their hearts was the better part of a ton of weapons-grade plutonium.
Twotrees hated these trips. Though hazardous industrial chemicals were bad enough and the military had a sufficiency of other horrific cargoes, this was the worst. But he was the line's most senior engineer, and when a stinker came along, he was apt to be picked for it. He found it flattering, in an almost obscene way—until the next time they called on him.
And there would be a next time, he thought unhappily. He was a lifelong Democrat, and God knew there were still more than enough domestic problems which required attention, but even though he'd voted against Jared Armbruster, he respected and (grudgingly) liked the President. Worse, he'd loved the study of history since his high school days, and that made it harder for him to close his eyes to unpleasant realities than he could have wished. Given what was happening in the Balkans, and the Falklands, and the recent ratcheting up of tension in Kashmir, and Chinese saber rattling in support of Pakistan, and the renewed spread of nuclear weapons, the US had no option but to make certain of the effectiveness of its own nuclear force. Twotrees knew that, just as he knew that the Armbruster administration had found itself with an arsenal which previous administrations had deliberately allowed to dwindle in the earnest hope that nuclear weapons stockpiles truly could become a thing of the past. Well, Twotrees had hoped that, too, and he suspected Jared Armbruster had, as well. But things hadn't worked out that way, and Armbruster had brought Savannah River slowly back on-line—first simply to produce the tritium required to keep existing weapons functional and then, reluctantly, to produce the fissionables the military said it needed for entirely new weapons.
Twotrees hadn't minded the tritium too much. He wasn't clear on exactly how it functioned to enhance the effectiveness of nuclear warheads, but at least he'd known it was being produced only to replace other, no longer useful tritium in existing weapons. But these new warheads . . . Those worried him—a lot—and he rather doubted the Powers That Were would have been happy about just how much he disliked the thought of being a part of producing new weapons. Not that it would keep him from doing his job and seeing to it that the horrific freight got delivered safely, but still . . .
There was a major back in one of the two passenger cars, and enough firepower to fight a small war, but that didn't bother Twotrees. He was worried about his own job. He knew, intellectually, that the containment vessels would survive any accident he might contrive, but emotions were something else. This was his train, and the weight of his responsibility was like a load of Tennessee granite.
He glanced over at the Army captain riding the engine with him. Something about the man bothered him. He'd been brisk but friendly when he came aboard, yet in the last hour he'd grown progressively more silent. Now he stood to one side, swaying easily, with one hand on his holstered automatic, and his face was oddly blank.
Twotrees was about to say something when a light to the southwest caught his eye. More than one, actually. There were at least three of them, sweeping down No Business Knob towards the valley. He watched the bright, golden lights curiously. They were moving mighty fast. Must be helicopters. Could they be an unannounced military escort?
He was still wondering when Captain Steven Pound, US Army, drew his nine-millimeter automatic and shot him through the back of the head.
"The whole shipment?" Stan Loren stared at Dolf Wilkins in horror.
"Every ounce," Wilkins said flatly. He'd received the report forty minutes before Loren, and he had himself under tight control. "Point-nine-four tons of weapons-grade fissionables. Gone."
"How?" Loren demanded hoarsely.
"We're trying to put that together. The Army, the NRC, and the Department of Energy bomb boys are all going ape-shit, and Admiral McLain is just about as shaken. It would help if there were any survivors from the security detail or the train crew. There aren't."
"None?" Loren's face was bleak as he began recovering from the shock.
"None. They took out one troop car with explosives—some sort of explosively destructive weapon, anyway; we haven't actually confirmed any chemical residues yet—and just strafed hell out of the other with some kind of heavy-caliber automatic weapons. Our people on the scene tell me they've never seen anything like it. Even the container vessels are gone, and each of them weighs tons."
"None," Wilkins said again, even more grimly.
"Oh, Jesus," Loren whispered as their eyes met. They knew who—or, rather, what—had to be behind it.
"All right, Mordecai," Anson McLain said grimly. "At least we know whose side of the pond the bastard is on."
"Agreed. Assuming, of course, that he's gone to ground somewhere within his operational range of the hit." Morris tapped a red-crayoned circle on a huge map of the United States. It passed through Chicago, arced north of Detroit, cut right through Philadelphia, and reached as far south as Daytona Beach before it swept back up to the west of Saint Louis. "If that's the case, then he's somewhere inside that circle, Sir. He has to be. Milla says eight hundred kilometers is about the max range at which he can operate his combat remotes."
"That's an awful big circle, M&M."
"I know, Sir. Every recon plane in the eastern half of the country is up looking, and so are all the satellites we can sweep the area with, but we haven't found a thing. Which could mean nothing or a lot."
He turned from the map to face the admiral.
"We may just be missing him—it's not like we've had time to set up a well-organized search, and we figure we lost at least twenty minutes before the missed radio check alerted the security people, so he had a hell of a head start. On the other hand, it could mean that he's worked out the ECM devices he needs, or even that he'd already gone to ground before we started hunting. But the terrain in the area is extremely rough, Sir. Mountains, rivers, national forests, deer reservations. . . . Even if he's in fairly close proximity, we won't find him without a lot of luck. We'll try—he'll be expecting us to—but I'm not optimistic, Sir."
He fell silent, standing beside his boss while the two of them glowered at the map as if the combined force of their wills could somehow force it to give up the information they needed. Unfortunately, it couldn't.
"All right," McLain said finally. "We can leave the search up to the Army and Air Force. Put together everything we've got and every reasonable speculation you can come up with, then bring it in for us to go over. After that—" he smiled mirthlessly "—you and I are going to Washington. And I don't think our commander-in-chief is going to be happy to see us.