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Chapter 2

Yuan Li Tzu glanced towards the hated gaping mouth of the mine. His shift was due to make their descent into the depths, and he would be in trouble if he were late. He could not resist another careful reading of the letter from his father, mentally sucking from it all hints of hope. He paused and looked at his rough, scarred hands. They had once belonged to a talented and promising fourteen-year-old piano student in Shanghai. Then the cultural revolution descended. The Red Guards had labelled the piano a decadent instrument of the West. Yuan recalled the fear and bewilderment he had felt as he was banished to the copper mine in the high mountains near Tibet. He had spent over a decade, his young manhood, in bitter detention in the mine, sickly, torn from his family, his education, his chosen way of life.

Now this letter from his father gave the first ray of hope. A chance, still slim, that relatives in the United States could take advantage of the burgeoning political ties with China to free him from his slavery and to offer him a new life in a new country. Yuan's mind spun fantasies of escape as he carefully folded the letter and tucked it safely in a pocket of his tunic.

He arrived at the mine too late — the crude elevator had already begun its descent. As he expected, a member of the revolutionary cadre noted his tardiness and began to shout exhortations of devotion to the people and the party. Yuan suffered the tirade in numb silence.

As the elevator reached bottom, a small tunnel bored upward through the rock. The tunnel arced over smoothly and then headed downward once more into the depths of the earth. The plane of the arc paralleled the main horizontal shaft of the copper mine. The apex lay about forty feet above the shaft and twenty feet to one side. The small tunnel briefly existed intact. The stress fractures grew outward from it, shooting rapidly down and across in multiple fissures through the mine-shaft weakened bedrock.

No one noticed the first cracks widening in the ceiling and wall of the shaft. Then small rocks crumbled down along with sifting dust. Several miners cried in alarm and men began to scatter in both directions from the weakened portion. The ceiling of the shaft released with a roar and the whole section of rock from the small recently bored tunnel to the mine shaft collapsed in, sealing off the mine with tons of rubble. Those few lucky enough to be on the upward side fled towards the elevator, help, and freedom. Scores of men in the depths of the main felt the cold clutch of darkness and fear settle about them.

On the surface, a silent ominous shaking of the earth interrupted the diatribe from the party member. A faint rumbling sound rolled from the elevator shaft followed by the shouts of panicked men. After another moment the elevator creaked into action, cranking upward. The mining camp burst into turmoil.

Amid wild shouts and men scurrying in every direction, Yuan turned and walked slowly back to his tiny dormitory room. There he sat on his mat, removed the letter from his tunic, carefully spread it out, and began to read once again.


He had exulted then, revelling in the feeling of immense forces responding to his control, lifting him to a soaring state of grace like a surfer in the curl of a perfect wave.

Now crashing waves, forlorn and bitter, pounded bun. He cradled the smooth butt of the small pistol in his palm and recalled with agony the feelings that had swept through him then, now so completely foreign. He drifted into a dream, back to that day of ecstasy...

He stood before the penthouse window and gazed at the sweep of the sleeping city of Vienna arrayed at his feet, the Cathedral of Saint Stephen and the Hapsburg summer palace lit with spotlights, suburban street lamps diffusing into the gloom of the dark woods beyond. He played again in his mind the complex themes, a fugue for the intellect only he could hear, now poised for the final resolution: the long hours of meetings, the frenzied stolen moments for his own work, the pills to keep it all going, and passionate interludes with the woman.

He knew that he had dominated the meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency both by his fresh ideas and the force of his personality. He would help them in their pitiful stumblings to control the dirty monster they had created. What they did not suspect was that the true focus of his energies were the moments stolen for his own work, a vision that had become a reality in his mind only this evening, a reality that swept away as irrelevant not only all that they did in the meeting, but the concerns of a major piece of mankind.

He thought of the steps he would have to take to realize that which he now knew to be possible, the resources he would have to muster, the personnel to be assembled and, when necessary, pirated from competing efforts. As so often before, he could see the object of his desires take shape like a gigantic erector set, each element responding effortlessly to his will. He basked in the knowledge that he could do it on his own, with the power he already commanded. The world would bumble along unknowing until he chose to reveal his supreme accomplishment in its fullness. He felt the drug wearing off, but had no compulsion to renew the charge. No artificial aid could give him the feeling that presently coursed through his veins.

The view before him was replaced by one of time, spanning into the future, ten, a hundred, a thousand years — his name spilling as readily from a schoolchild's lips as that of Washington, Lincoln, as that of any resident of this proud city, Beethoven, Napoleon, Freud, as that of any scientist, Einstein.

'Paul?' The sleepy voice, muffled by covers and accent, came from the bed.

Silently, he continued to face the window, but his thoughts turned to her. What a delightful find she was. On top of everything else, what luck to come across this political fugitive at one of the parties scheduled to fill their evenings. Not only was she beautiful, a stimulating outlet for his more physical passions, but a consort guaranteed to tweak the maximum number of bureaucratic noses. The Russians were still smarting from her recent escape through Czechoslovakia with three male friends. He hoped that her promptly taking up with a well-known American scientist and lavishly sampling the best capitalistic delights Vienna had to offer would embarrass the hell out of them. As for his side, they would never be sure she wasn't a plant, and there would be shocked speculations about their pillow talk throughout the western security establishment. He chuckled to himself.

'Paul, it's nearly four A.m. Come to bed.' Her voice was low, sultry, inviting. He heard the rustle of bedclothes and knew she was looking at him.

Neither could a woman give him the feeling that suffused him now, the intense mental orgasm of an earth-shattering idea come to fruition, but you can't make love to a concept.

He thought ahead of the day to come. An hour with her now, to relax, a couple of hours' sleep, then a couple more to continue his calculations over breakfast before the meeting resumed.

He turned and walked softly across the dark room to the bedside. For a long moment he stood looking down at her, the covers pulled up to her dun, the halo of short black hair in stark contrast to the pillow. He could not see her face clearly in the faint city light reflected in the window, but he could picture the lovely contours of her face, the high Slavic cheekbones, the sparkling eyes reflecting intelligence, a free spirit, and, deep within, an irrepressible sadness.

He reached for the covers near her feet and slowly drew them down, exposing her nakedness, the bed-warmth of her body palpable in the darkness. He leaned over and gently pressed his lips to the sweet angle where breast joins rib...

The desk before him came back into focus. The papers strewn across it screamed at him, confirming the feeling that had been in his gut for months, ignored. It had all gone wrong, disastrously wrong! Everything his career had stood for was demolished. Rather than emerging as man— land's saviour, he had visited an incomprehensible horror on an unsuspecting populace. That he, of all people, could have made such an error!

He looked towards the fire flickering in the grate and lifted the pistol.

Maria Latvin glanced at her watch as she pulled the long serrated-blade knife from the drawer. 3:45 A.M. I can't keep him from working all night, she thought, but at least I can keep food in his stomach. She turned to the butcher block island in the centre of the kitchen and carved two thick slices from the loaf of pumpernickel. She spread a healthy layer of Dijon mustard on the bread then carefully stacked interlaced layers of corned beef, Swiss cheese, ham, turkey, and finished off with some lettuce. From somewhere in the quiet house she heard a sound, a muffled pop. She could not identify it, but the noise caused her to slip into a fatigue-driven reverie.

After six weeks of furtive, exhaustive trekking and hiding, they slogged through the snow, eyes fixed on the chain link fence topped with ragged strands of barbed wire. They were in a clear, unforested area, lightly patrolled since the approach was exposed. Then they heard that pop. A half kilometre away, a squad of Czechoslovakian soldiers aimed at them and more pops came. Their guides pointed at the place where the fence was closest and ran for the copse of trees and cover. Maria remembered her eyes almost frozen shut" with tears of joy and fright during their adrenalin-charged dash through the drifts, hauling the ladder, planting it, scrambling up, leaping and landing. In Austria !

Austria. Vienna. Paul, sweeping her into a vortex that left her head and heart swimming. Now, two years of travel to places of which she had not known to dream, interspersed with retreat to this magnificent isolation, a feeling of freedom so strong it made her ache.

Paul. Strong, excited in his high moods, his energy drawing her like a magnet. The sudden, unexpected periods of despondency worried her, though, and this was one of the worst. She had learned to be patient. With time, he would bounce back.

She put a steaming cup of coffee on the tray next to the sandwich. She carried the tray through the living room, past the massive adobe fireplace and into the hall leading to the study.

'Paul, I -'

She froze in the doorway of the study, gripping the tray, knowing in an instant that it was all gone. She walked slowly across the room and set the tray on the edge of the desk. She looked at the familiar, handsome face, the thick brown hair laced with silver, the well-shaped head lolling against the back of the high-backed desk chair.

Then she forced herself to look at the small, neat hole a few centimetres above his ear. There was hardly any blood, but it was so dark, a bleak desolate pit that reminded her of all she had struggled to leave behind. The hole was in such an odd place. Not the temple, but higher, further back. Perhaps he had flinched, his spirit rebelling even as his finger tightened on the trigger. The small silver-plated twenty-two calibre pistol still dangled from his forefinger. Such a trivial weapon to still such a vibrant life.

A month ago he was fired with enthusiasm for this project which he had begun before they had met. He had been working on it in Vienna. Then the depression set in, ever deepening. Now something had pushed him over the edge. She examined the scattered pages on the desk. They were filled with incomprehensible calculations. What had the letters and numbers meant to him? she wondered. Which among them triggered this ultimate retreat? She felt what they meant to her — the end of a freedom too good to last.

In the stillness of the room, the faint flutter shouted at her. Her eyes locked on him. Yes!! There it was again! She knelt by his side, placed two fingers on his throat, and nearly fainted with relief at the weak irregular beat that massaged her fingertips.

At midmorning Isaacs concentrated on the report he had received from Saris the previous afternoon concerning new arms stashes in eastern Mozambique. The photographs were unmistakable, but the big question went unanswered. Whose were they? Baris's group had concluded they were not an unadvertised ploy by the Marxist government, nor did they belong to the active guerrilla movement. They seemed to mark a new force whose motives and intentions were a cipher. Boswank had to get somebody in on the ground.

A commotion in the outer office caught his attention. He heard Kathleen announce over the intercom and through the door as it crashed open, 'Mr Deloach to see you.'

Earle Deloach raced across the room and leaned with his fists on Isaacs's desk, highly distraught, eyeglasses askew on his round face, a lock of normally slicked-back hair dangling over his temple. He passed a hand fitfully at the errant strand, causing more disarray.

'They've blown it up!' he shouted.

Isaacs rose quickly and circled his desk.

'Who's blown up what?' he asked as he closed the connecting door.

'My FireEye! The Russians! They blew it up!' 'Here, sit down Bark,' said Isaacs, firmly. He guided Deloach by the elbow into a chair. 'Nosy what are you talking about?' he asked, regaining his own chair. 'Are you sure? What did they do?'

'One of their satellites — Cosmos... Cosmos 2112 — from a couple of hundred miles away, must have been a laser. Didn't just fry a few circuits; we have photos from one of our other satellites. FireEye's gone! Vaporized!'

'Oh, damn!' exploded Isaacs, wrenched by a decidedly schizophrenic reaction. His gut knotted with the instant realization that this was the Russians' idea of a justifiable reaction to the Novorossiisk affair. The first step into the abyss of a new unknown mode of war. War in space. At the same time a quiet professional voice inside him gave grudging praise. Clever bastards, this voice said, the Cosmos 2112 was one of the recently launched satellites they had not been able to categorize. It had been camouflaged well. He had convinced himself that it was, after all, a recon satellite. A working laser! Well, they tipped their hand there, might be some profit to be had, anyway. Aloud to Deloach he said, 'Why would they pick on FireEye? Because it's our latest?'

'Well,' Deloach looked chagrined, 'we decided to have a quick look at the Novorossiisk after all.'

Isaacs leaned forward intently. 'We?' But he already knew.

'Yes, uh, Kevin and I got to talking after the meeting with the Del yesterday morning. No one seemed to have any ideas, so we thought it couldn't hurt to at least take a look. I had an orbit change worked up to minimize manoeuvring fuel and we slid the orbit a little.'

And afterwards, thought Isaacs, it would have slid to a station over Tomsk. That underhanded son-of-a-bitch!

'So you manoeuvred over towards the Med,' said Isaacs in a biting tone, 'and the Russians chose to regard that as an aggressive act, and they raised the ante out of sight by blowing FireEye out of the sky with a laser we didn't even know existed.

'Good Lord, Earle! Do you know what you've done? Not only lost a seventy-seven million dollar satellite, but drawn us into a whole new kind of war we've been desperately trying to avoid.'

'How was I to know?' Deloach cried, hysterically defensive. 'We've looked at their carriers before, all the time.'

'Hey, okay,' Isaacs calmed his voice. 'The Novorossiisk was special, but you couldn't know they would react this way. The important thing now is to prevent any escalation and to find out what really did happen to the Novorossiisk so we can defuse the whole thing.

'Earle, thanks for filling me in. The Director will want a meeting. We'll work it out.' He rose and Deloach stood in turn.

'Okay,' said Deloach with resignation, 'but dammit, the gear on FireEye was a work of art. It's like losing a baby.'

'We know that, Earle, but you can do it again. The next generation will be even better.'

As Isaacs ushered him out, Deloach's mind was already turning over a couple of the sweet ideas he'd been forced to omit from FireEye when the budget was drawn. He could do it better and cheaper now.

Isaacs returned to his seat in gloom. This was bad all around. They still did not know what had happened to the Novorossiisk. There would be strong quarters in the Pentagon plotting retaliation to the Soviet attack. And in his own nest, McMasters would be sending up smoke screens all over the Agency to hide his tremendous error. If the crunch came, Isaacs knew, McMasters would even sacrifice Deloach, his unwitting ally. That would be a tragedy. For all his faults, Deloach was too good at what he did best.

Two days later Isaacs sat at his desk, forehead cradled in his hands, intently reading the report before him. Every few minutes he would lower his right hand to turn a loose— leaf page and then replace it on his head, thumb to temple, fingers shading his eyes. Across from his desk, Vincent Martinelli sat, legs crossed, reading the same report. Boswank had done his job. The report, fresh from the translator, was taken directly from the file of the Soviet Admiralty. Isaacs finished first and leaned back gazing at the ceiling, mulling what he had read, waiting for Martinelli.

After a few minutes, Martinelli looked up. 'What do you make of that? Sure as hell something more going on than a match in a gas tank. There's nothing in here about a spacebased weapon, though.'

'Someone higher up must have reached that conclusion after reading this,' Isaacs said. 'Let's see how the thinking may have gone. There is widespread agreement from the hands on the flight deck that there was some kind of noise, a hissing, growing in intensity, and coming apparently from overhead.'

'That's no reason to think whatever it was came from something in orbit.'

'Granted, but it is a peculiar precursor. I can't think of anything offhand to account for it.'

'You've got me there.'

'Then the fire breaks out,' Isaacs continued, 'apparently a punctured fuel tank and a spark.'

Martinelli squinted in concentration. 'I'd say the fire was incidental, granted one of them may have sparked the fire, but the punctures themselves are the odd bit.'

'I agree and so, it seems, do our Soviet counterparts. Drilled is the word the translators came up with. A hole, a half a centimetre to a centimetre in diameter,' right through the ship. No evidence in the first couple of decks because of fire damage, but from there on down, a clean little hole, right through every deck and out the bottom of the hull.'

'That's the son-of-a-bitch, all right. Did you catch the reference to the sonar?'

'Ah, right, it's here on page -' Isaacs leafed through the report, 'page fifty-seven. Sonar operator picked up a sudden strange signal just as the fire klaxon sounded and all hell broke loose.

'So,' Isaacs continued thoughtfully, 'you are Yuri Blodnik reading this report. What do you conclude?'

'Noise above,' summarized Martinelli, 'a hole drilled vertically through the decks, and a sonar trace below. I'd say I'd been shot.' Martinelli dramatically clasped his hands to his heart and then thrust a pointed finger at the ceiling. 'And the varmint what did it was up there!'

'All right, Tex ,' Isaacs smiled, 'and just what were you shot with?'

Martinelli grew serious. 'Not a conventional projectile. You'd need a hell of an explosive punch to penetrate all that steel, and then you'd rip things up, not drill any dainty little hole. If it's not an explosive, then it'd have to be a slug with tremendous velocity.'

Martinelli could see the idea flare in Isaacs's eyes and spread across his face as his brow unfurrowed and his dun came up. Isaacs pointed a finger at him.

'A meteorite.'

Martinelli stared at him and then slowly nodded in comprehension.

'The damned carrier was hit by a meteorite!' Isaacs exclaimed. 'We've worried about them mistaking a large meteor for a nuclear explosion and launching a retaliatory strike. Now they get hit by a small one, a chance in a million, and they think it's a beam weapon.'

'Damn, that smells right.'

'We've got to convince the Soviets of that, particularly whoever decided a beam weapon was involved.'

Isaacs reached for a pad and began to make notes. 'We need to know who that person was, or what group, and how they think. Bureaucratic types? Someone in intelligence? Scientists? And, if so, government flakes or independent thinkers? We need evidence. What would a meteorite do? Can it do this? I'll set my team on that. We'll need a projectile specialist. Maybe there's some work in the labs, Los Alamos or Livermore. Too bad there's not more specific information here,' he tapped the report, 'on the nature of the punctures, stress on the surrounding metal, flaring at the rim. There should be contamination by meteoritic material, but that would require a specific metallurgical examination of a sample from around the holes. We've got to get them to do that.

'You get with Boswank and find out about the decision structure here. We'll do a report outlining the effects of meteorite impact, feed that to them through channels, and see if we can get them to look at those punctures in detail. If they can convince themselves, that'll be best. Great! We can move on this.'

'Won't hurt to be quick,' advised Martinelli. 'I just got word about Drefke's meeting with the National Security Council yesterday. It went just the way you called it.'

'The space shuttle?'

'Yep, the Joint Chiefs came out pushing hard for sending the shuttle after Cosmos 2112. Their arguments were almost a parody of what you predicted for Drefke day before yesterday. Can't let the Russkis get away with this, or they'll start picking off all our birds like sitting ducks. Got to hang tough. And, of course, they're drooling' to get their hands on the laser itself, do a little satellite vivisection.'

'Damnation!' exclaimed Isaacs, pounding his fist on the desk. 'Can't they see the danger of escalating this flung? The last thing the human race needs is a whole new way to make war! Good Lord! We have no idea where it will lead.'

'Hey!' protested Martinelli. 'You're talking to the wrong guy.'

'Sorry,' Isaacs slumped back in his chair, 'but what a tragedy, especially if it's all an overreaction to a freak of nature. Oh, damn!'

He thought quietly for a moment. 'Just what do they suggest? All we need is for the Cosmos to blast the shuttle as it approaches. No way we could keep that from the public. The President couldn't resist the war cries.'

'Well, of course, they've been planning for just such a contingency all along. Apparently, as well as working on laser systems, the Livermore people have been working on defences as well. They've designed a highly reflective, collapsible mirror specifically for the shuttle. It's been rocked in a warehouse for some time. The shuttle swings this thing overboard with the manipulating boom and positions it to reflect any laser blast as they close in. Just how they immobilize the satellite to get it in the cargo bay and bring it home isn't clear to me.'

'Isn't it too big?' Isaacs wanted to know.

'In a sense, but the Soviets know how big the shuttle bay is. The satellite is basically the upper end of one of their big booster rockets.'

Isaacs nodded.

'Apparently, they added some external gew-gaws specifically designed to make the whole thing too large to fit in the cargo bay. The idea is that the crew should take a torch to it with a space walk, cut it up into manageable-size pieces. In principle it'll fit.'

'Great,' exclaimed Isaacs with irony. 'And when do they advise trying to attempt this insanity?'

'The next shuttle launch is in the middle of April, two weeks from now. That's what they're pushing for. The idea being, of course, to strike while the iron is lukewarm. They'd like to launch yesterday, but the shuttle isn't so flexible.'

'Madness! And they think the Soviets won't then blow away one of our communication link satellites, Comsat or some such thing?'

'The argument is that Cosmos 2112 is the only laser they have flying.'

'But we didn't know that until two days ago!'

'Tell that to mah buddy, the President.'

'How's he leaning?'

'I didn't get any feeling for that, third hand, but the brass is pushing hard. They've pumped a lot of dollars sideways into NASA for the shuttle. They want to play with their toy.'

'But they must have war-gamed this kind of thing.'

'I suppose it can be contained in some scenarios.'

'Yeah, in one per cent of them. Voice, we've got to convince our side about this meteorite, too. That seems to be the only sure way to show that the Soviets had some justification and that we don't need to retaliate.'

'You'll have to start in-house. Drefke will relay any report you write, but you know how his antennae are tuned to the White House. He's apt to take his cues from the President. And McMasters clearly won't be much help.'

'That's a fact,' Isaacs agreed. That was quite a show he put on the other day.'

'It was clearly his only tack. He had to really push the Russians as bad guys to keep Drefke from thinking too deeply about why FireEye was shifted in the first place. Now he's painted himself into a corner. He'll have trouble turning around and saying, well, maybe they're not so nasty after all, a little hasty with their death ray, but really not bad chaps.

'The other factor is,' Martinelli continued, 'that this meteorite idea and follow-up has to come from your group and his negative instincts won't allow him to embrace it with a lot of enthusiasm.' The two men sat in silence for a moment, then Martinelli rose.

'I'll go see Art; we'll try to get some dope on the channels this report went through.' Martinelli waved the document as a farewell gesture and paused.

'There's a bright side to all this, you know. If this trick with the shuttle backfires badly enough, we won't have to worry about getting our taxes done on time.'

'Thanks a lot, Vince.' Isaacs grinned at the black humour. 'Silver linings like that I can do without.'

Isaacs watched his friend shut the door. He began an outline of the questions to be addressed concerning the possible impact of a meteorite on the Novorossiisk. He would turn it over to his technical staff to flesh it out.

The preliminary report was already late the next day, a rush job to which some thirty people had contributed in an intense surge of effort. It looked pretty good, plausible enough for a first pass. There were some troubling points. A meteorite would progressively disintegrate as it passed through metal walls. To go all the way through the carrier, a meteorite would have to drill larger holes than had been reported in the upper decks, and the holes should get smaller in the lower decks. It was not clear-from the stolen Soviet report that that pattern was reproduced.

Isaacs downplayed such doubts in working over the final draft. He wanted to make as much impact as possible to forestall a decision to go after Cosmos 2112 with the shuttle. He relied on the state of emergency to go out of channels and took the report directly to Drefke. The Director was clearly impressed with the idea. Isaacs knew he would then show it to McMasters, but by then the original impact would have had its maximum effect. He would get the most positive response possible when Drefke in turn reported to the National Security Council and the President.

Korolev stirred at his desk, reached up and punched off the button on the neck of the gooseneck lamp, leaving the room to share the deepening light of dusk. He rose and moved to the window. From this upper floor of the Academy of Sciences building he could see a stretch of lights now winking on over Moscow. For years, no, decades now, he had stood at this window watching those lights at odd hours of the night as he contemplated some problem. How many there had been. Practical earth-shattering problems imposed by the voracious military: explosions, implosions, shock waves, the bomb. Later, intense radiation, hyper velocities, directed energy weapons. What did the Americans call them? Buck Rogers stuff. Lovely, basic problems. Microscopic, the innards of particles, and the innards of those in turn, and then of those. Cosmological problems, the wondrous workings of Einstein's mind on vast scales.

Tonight, a small but troubling problem. Some American was quick and thoughtful. He could see the mental play behind the words. Yes, the suggestion of a meteorite was bold, for all its obviousness. It was one of the first which had occurred to him as well. The author of this report had pushed it for all its worth, but he also knew the limitations. Korolev could read between the lines and see where the American had suppressed his reservations. What the American did not know were the results of the follow-up report which had come directly to him. The punctures were all wrong for a meteorite with enough impact to penetrate the carrier decks. There was no downward flaring, the holes looked drilled, not punched. They had done a metallurgical test: there was no meteorite material. The Americans had not yet stolen that report. It was no meteorite.

Although there were features that did not fit, a lack of heat searing, for instance, Korolev had been compelled to state that a beam weapon seemed the most plausible explanation. His superiors had demanded some hypothesis and he could think of no other. He had not anticipated that they would mistrust their intelligence so badly as to suspect that the Americans had leap-frogged them and orbited such a weapon.

What troubled him, beyond the still unexplained nature of the Novorossiisk event, was the sincerity in this report. He was convinced that the author would eventually come o the conclusion that a meteorite could not be involved, but this report was not a sham. The author pushed the meteor idea too strongly because he wanted it to be true. The whole tone told Korolev that the report was based on the secure knowledge of the author that the Americans were not involved with the Novorossiisk. That was the trouble. His government knew he had already considered and rejected the meteor hypothesis. They would reject the suggestion by the Americans. Could he convince them of the Americans' uninvolvement with the Novorossiisk based not on the contents, but on his sense of the motivation of the report on his desk? There would be much resistance. They were convinced the Americans were involved, somehow, and now there was the irrevocable act of the destruction of the American spy satellite. Korolev continued to stare out over the streets until the dusk faded to deepest black.

The first half of April slipped away as Isaacs spent two hard weeks probing the meteor theory. He called in projectile experts from around the country, and his top people visited various test sites. The harder they worked, the less likely the idea seemed. Boswank had traced the Novorossiisk report to one of the most respected members of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, Academician Viktor Korolev. That seemed a positive note: his reputation as a profound and unprejudiced thinker was well-established. Then at the end of the first week came the curt Soviet reply to Isaacs's report. A meteor had been previously considered and rejected. With Korolev's reputation behind that statement, and the increasingly negative results of his own team's study, Isaacs knew he was losing any power to influence events. To make matters worse, the Soviet reply was defensive and belligerent. It yielded no hint that they conceded the innocence of the Americans in the Novorossiisk affair, certainly no confession that they might have mistakenly overreacted m the destruction of the FireEye. The only good news was that with the act of retribution the Yellow Alert had been cancelled. The Backfire aircraft were returned to normal routine; the missiles recapped snugly; the troops redeployed.

Isaacs walked slowly down the hall from Drefke's office and punched the elevator button. The Director had just returned from the meeting of the National Security Council. Isaacs had read the result on his face. The shuttle was going up tomorrow. The crew was to disable the Cosmos 2112 and bring it back in the cargo bay. Or fry trying.

He got off at his floor and continued his thoughtful pace. He opened the outer door to Kathleen's office and was surprised to see Pat Danielson sitting there with an expectant smile and a pile of computer output and charts on her lap. The smile faded when she saw the-heavy cloud on Isaacs's face.

'Is this a bad time?'

She detected Isaacs's quick visible effort to compose himself. His voice had a forced heartiness.

'Not at all.' He smiled ruefully. 'No worse than any other time. You have something important?'

She glanced down at the bundle of paper clutched possessively on her lap, and her voice carried an overtone of excitement.

'I think you're going to find your curiosity about this seismic signal justified.'

Isaacs had to think for a second to recall what she was fouling about. He was too preoccupied with the historical clash scheduled to take place over their heads tomorrow to give much attention to the task he had assigned her, but the little wheels had to be greased, just like the big ones. A little investment of his time would keep Danielson performing efficiently.

He crossed to the door to his office and held it open in welcome as she rose and hustled through. She deposited the material on his desk and took the chair across from him.

'It wasn't just a transient then?' he asked.

'On the contrary, the more we learn about it, the longer we can trace it back through the earlier data — several months' worth now.' She pointed to the stack of paper. 'Here's the latest output, hot off the printer.'

He gestured outward with both hands, palms up, encompassing the output and the young woman.

'Shoot,' he said, striving to concentrate on what she had to say.

'With a longer time base, more information becomes available. At first all one could tell was that the signal repeated itself. We had only a crude idea of the period and no notion of the location. We've worked very hard to obtain a better estimate of the period. The figure of an hour was an alias. The true period is somewhat less than ninety minutes. This update shows that we're beginning to get a handle on the location. Would you care to guess?'

Danielson did not usually play such little games, but came straight out with the facts. She thinks there's something special here, thought Isaacs. Aloud he said, 'Undoubtedly, it's coming directly from the situation room in the Kremlin.'

'Wrong, of course,' smiled the young woman. She turned serious. 'But you've hit on an important point. The first algorithms used in the signal analysis were based on the assumption of a static source, that the signal was coming from a single location. That assumption proved to be self-inconsistent and we abandoned it. When we allowed for the possibility that the source moved, things began to fall in place.

'I won't show you all the data, but look at these two clear stretches when the background noise was low.' Danielson unrolled a strip chart on Isaacs's desk. 'See here, the signal comes from the vicinity of Egypt. Here, this is a week later, it comes from the mid-Pacific basin. That proves it moves. A more careful analysis hints, but doesn't yet prove, that the period is not due to a change in power at the source, but is due to a source of roughly constant power moving from one side of the earth to the other.'

'A reflected wave of some kind,' put in Isaacs.

'Perhaps,' replied Danielson, 'but not like any the seismologists have ever seen before. Any strong earthquake will set up reverberations which travel diagonally through the earth, but those die out quickly. Something continues to drive this wave — that's the mystery.'

'So the actual energizing source might still be located in one place and the apparent movement is just due to the random bouncing of the subsequent wave.'

'Possible,' allowed Danielson, 'and more comfortable, but the data still seem to suggest that the source is moving.'

'How much energy is involved?' queried Isaacs.

'Well, of course, the power we detect depends on both the power at the source and the distance to our detectors. If we assume the source is, on the average, at the distance of one earth radius, about four thousand miles, then the seismic energy flux at the detector corresponds to a source power of about one thousand megawatts — big for a power station, but pretty small potatoes compared with all the seismic energy in the earth at a given time. Which is why the signal is hard to detect and analyse.

'Since we don't really know the nature of the source, it's difficult to associate an energy with it; that is, it could sit in one place and emit bursts of energy that reverberate, or it could represent a continuous supply of energy, as we believe. A ballpark estimate is the total energy liberated in one characteristic period, ninety minutes. In one period that would be about one per cent of the energy of a one kiloton nuclear event.'

'That's a maximum estimate, isn't it?' asked Isaacs.

'Yes, sir,' replied Danielson, 'within a factor of a few, given that the source is confined to the earth.'

'One hundredth of a kiloton,' mused Isaacs. 'That's too small to be a nuclear device, and if the source is closer, the energy estimate only goes down. Still, if that amount of energy is being liberated artificially on the surface, we should be able to see other signs of it in the optical or infrared — somewhere.

'The most reasonable assumption,' Isaacs continued, 'is that this is some natural seismic event which happens to have a period of about an hour and a half, regular fault slippage of some kind.'

Danielson raised a finger and opened her mouth to interject, but Isaacs interrupted her, 'Unless, of course, you can prove the source is actually moving about.

'Obviously, I'm unconvinced this signal is anything but some sort of natural phenomenon,' Isaacs said, 'but I am convinced we need to nail it down. Suppose you're right and it's not related to natural fault slippage somewhere, do you have any guess as to what it might be?'

'No. If the source is moving around in the earth as I think the data suggests, it's a total paradox. Fault slippage at different points on the earth shouldn't be correlated.'

Isaacs leaned back in his chair, toying with a pencil. 'A period of ninety minutes still sounds suspiciously like some artificial phenomenon — keyed to somebody's time clock. If your positions are right, Egypt and whatnot, it's not a local man-made thing, but I'd like to make sure that is ironclad.'

Isaacs sat up at the desk and gestured to Danielson with the pencil. 'You had better make this a matter of some priority until it's resolved. We need to know the period, if it really is one, more accurately. If the period is not precisely defined, that's good evidence of a natural phenomenon. If the period turns out to be exactly ninety minutes, it will be a man-made event despite present evidence to the contrary.

'We need to know the location, whether or not it is moving around. When you have a location, we can look for some other evidence of its existence and nature. If it's seismic in nature, there should be some correlation with fault location and activity. Any other suggestions?'

Danielson paused a moment in concentration before she spoke. 'No sense speculating without more data. It will probably be useful to get records from civilian seismic stations, universities here and abroad. We can look for correlations among events that would pass unnoticed in any single record. That should help with both the period and the location.'

'That's fine,' said Isaacs with a note of finality. 'Let me know how this develops.'

'Right,' said Danielson, rising to leave, collecting the bundle from his desk. 'We'll continue to monitor our own AFTAC data, and that may begin to pin things down. But it will take a month or so to acquire and analyse the civilian records.'

'Okay, keep in touch.'

'Yes, sir.'

Isaacs watched the door close behind her. He stared at it, unseeing, as her problem diffused from his mind and his consciousness flowed out along tangled diplomatic channels. From his office to Drefke's to the White House. To Moscow. Academician Korolev. Why did he rule out the meteorite? What had happened to the Novorossiisk? What would happen to the shuttle?

Chapter 1 | The Krone Experiment | Chapter 3