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Virus

Bill Buchanan
ISBN 0-515-12011-1
February 1997

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Virus (book cover)

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I would like to thank the kind people- lifelong friends and publishingprofessionals alike-who made this book possible.

My heartfelt thanks to George Wieser and David Shanks, for without themthis novel would not exist. And to John Talbot, senior editor atBerkley Books. for your suggestions, guidance, and intuition. I feelmost fortunate working with such thoughtful, enthusiastic, andconsiderate professionals.

My sincere thanks to Mark Gatlin, acquisitions editor at The NavalInstitute Press, for your kindness, encouragement, and feedback. Youdid a superb job selecting your reviewers and asking all the rightquestions. Their backgrounds were well suited for evaluating thisstory and their suggestions, observations, and concerns were enormouslyhelpful.

And from one tech-head to another, my enthusiastic thanks to ToiiyHagar for your first-rate suggestions on genetic programming,high-altitude aircraft flight trajectories, and orbital physics. Yourperceptive interest and incisive comments helped substantially improvethe story.

Very special thanks go to my lifelong hometown friends Marlo Horne,Ross Gunn, and Martha Lemmons. Marlo and Ross, for reviewing themanuscript in its formativestages. Martha Lemmons, for the story's title.My thanks again for your time, ideas, and encouragement.

I would like to extend my appreciation to Chere Bemelmans, a friend andnonfiction editor, for placing her life on hold and losing twoback-to-back nights' sleep reviewing the manuscript. Your enthusiasmcaused my spirit to soar and your suggestions helped a tremendouslot.

Most of all, I would like to thank my wife, Janet, for her faith, love,unwavering support, and editorial comments. .

This work spans an array of diverse disciplines ranging from militaryspace technology to Washington politics. I did what I could do to getit right and felt fortunate to have excellent manuscript reviewersthroughout the process.

Tech-head readers be advised that intricate layers of software detailare presented as pseudo-code in the interest of readability. Errorswhich remain are mine alone, but the credit goes to those people whohelped me along the way.

PREFACE

In 1959, Arthur Samuel-artificial intelligence pioneer asked

"How can computers learn to solve problems without being explicitlyprogrammed?" In 1992, John Koza answered this question with empiricalevidence in his book entitled Genetic Programming. Koza claimed, asdid John Holland before him, that genetic programming allows computersto learn from experience and thereby program themselves. Hoping toproduce some mathematical basis substantiating Koza's claims, the U.S.government funded research at MIT, Stanford, University of Michigan,and the MITRE Corporation. Subsequently, researchers andmathematicians constructed a meaningful body of theory as to whygenetic algorithms work when adapting computer programs. Althoughcounter intuitive simulation results were as surprising as they wereundeniable. Turns out Koza was right. Adaptation of computer programsusing genetic algorithms offered considerable promise. Almostovernight, genetic programming came of age and the technological stagewas set for fundamental changes in computing.

Advances in genetic algorithms and neural networks were combined toachieve a quantum leap in computer software capability and performance.The result: an evolutionary learning capability for computers. Programsevolved at their own rate as new information became available,ultimately leading to genetically refined, precision-tuned computersoftware. This new learn-as-you-go technology led to breakthroughapplications of artificial intelligence inmedicine. aviation. telecommunications, business, and themilitary.

When the technology was new-in its early introductorystages-exploratory military applications centered around satelliteimaging and signals intelligence collection. Brilliantc-lasssurveillance satellites became the first in a long line oflearn-as-you-go systems to enter the US. military inventory. Then. asthe technology matured, it worked its way into the very fabric of themilitary infrastructure. As with nuclear energy, this technology wasused for potentially destructive purposes. Brilliant-class weaponsemerged as the system of choice for replacing conventional smarttechnology But-brilliant-class weapons weren't the only destructive usefor this technology.

They would come to be known in the U.S. Army's vernacular asbattlefield grade-and for good reason. Inevitably, this technology wasapplied to highly sophisticated, self-adaptive computer viruses.

A DISASTER OF TECHNOLOGY

DAY 12-1 DECEMBER 18, 2014

I iThe Dilemma, 1211812014,":15 Pm. Local

LOGAN INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT,

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS

General Dan Mason listened intently as twin General Electric enginesaccelerated the McDonnell Douglas flying wing down the runway into theink-black abyss surrounding Boston's Logan Airport.

As Mason scanned the runway looking for ascending aircraft lights, hesaw only the pitch-black of night. Every light at Logan was dark,including those used to illuminate the runway. Logan's air trafficcontrol tower and terminals were deserted, the parking lot empty.Standing alone on the air traffic observation deck, wrapped in his woolAir Force overcoat, Mason inhaled deeply so he could hear the enginenoise over the sound of his own breathing. The dense December fog offBoston Harbor smelled of kerosene and salt.

As the jet engine noise faded across the harbor, Mason cupped his handsbehind his ears, listening for a change in the engine's pitch anddirection.

Suddenly, like a distant bolt of lightning, a brilliant yellow flashignited the sky, illuminating rows of aircraft silhouettes parked wingto wing. Immediately after the flash, the early morning silence wasshattered by the thunderous crash of an explosion.

Supreme Commander Dan Mason felt the full weight of his new commandduring the agonizing silence which followed. Tears welled in his eyesas the flying wing broke up, separated from both engines, then spiraledsilently into the harbor. Lieutenant Colonel Wild Bill Boyd was dead;his test aircraft-designated the Black Hole prototype-destroyed. Masonfelt emptiness, an ache in his soul he could not escape. He tightlygripped the handrail, his knuckles white, his complexion ashen. Thisnight had been the longest of his life and still, despite their bestefforts, nothing was flying-nothing had flown for eight days.

Airports around the world stood deserted. All flights canceled untilfurther notice.

Mason stared glassy-eyed and motionless in disbelief.

Transfixed by the darkness, pondering this chaos, he wondered howthey'd come to this. He knew how and why this had happened, but had nosolution. As Mason saw it, Hell Fire's crew was now the only remaininghope they had left.

In his dismay, Mason had forgotten to breathe. He gasped for air,struggled to catch his breath, and walked slowly toward his limo. Onceinside, he put his hand in his pocket, rubbed the five star shoulderboards of his former boss, and began looking back on the events whichled him here.

It would be a long ride back to his headquarters at CheyenneMountain.

A Disaster of Technology

THE BAD SEED

DAY 1 DECEMBER 7i 2014The Afission, 1210712014, 1015 Hours Zulu, 2:15 A.M. IMal

HANGAR X-39A,

EDWARDs AFB, CALIFORNIA Major Linda Scott stood staring at Hell Fire,mesmerized as she watched the fog boiling off her space plane.Nostalgic, she yearned for a return to happier times. In the past sixyears, she'd lost the two men in her life who'd meant the most-herfather and her husband. Her life hadn't turned out like she'dimagined, but all things considered, life was good-well, work was goodand work had become her life.

Above all else, she loved the rush of high performance flight.

As a woman, she'd had to work harder than the men to prove herself, butshe was the best and had Hell Fire to show for it. The daughter of anSR-71 Blackbird pilot, she'd loved airplanes and flying from the timeshe could walk. Flying was something she hid to do, she'd been born todo it. It bound her to her father even after his death.

There was something almost spiritual about her flying.

She had something extra going for her that no one could put theirfinger on. If called on to be serious, she could be serious. Ifcalled on to be decisive, she'd deliver, but she never took herself tooseriously. In flight, she became an extension of Hell Fire-together,they responded as one.

Like many fighter pilots, Scott was short by mate standards. Built tofly, she stood a trim five feet seven inchestall with straight black hair cut in a nineties bob. She took pridein her well-defined jawline and high cheekbones. At thirty-six yearsold, she didn't want a double chin if she could help it. She fearedgetting fat so she worked out hard and often. Her smooth white skincontrasted vividly with her rose-colored cheeks, black eyebrows, andlong eyelashes-she seldom wore makeup, didn't need it. Most of thewomen she knew hated the way she looked, but not the men.

Her two-man crew often described her as perky, direct, andunstoppable-a woman who got what she wanted with gumption. Like herflying machine, Scott was a masterpiece to behold and fascinating tounderstand.

Scott'd pursued her passion for flying like an addiction, but herpassion, like any addicting drug, hadn't come for free. Flying costher the only man she'd ever loved, but that was a long time ago. Nowit was over, or at least they'd been divorced five years. DivorcingJay Fayhee had been the biggest mistake of her life, but he'd asked forthe divorce-on grounds of desertion. She was never home, but neitherwas he. Every Air Force officer knows the needs of the Air Force mustcome first. She'd been assigned to the only XR-30 squadron in thecountry, located at Edwards AFB. On Jay's dream sheet, he'd asked fora space station assignment and gotten it-an assignment to the NASAinstallation at Huntsville, Alabama, for extensive space stationtraining. Again, the only place in the country where space stationtraining was available. They had gotten what they'd asked for, buttheir extended separation plus fast available women led to a painfuldivorce.

Occasionally filled with doubt, she wondered if she'd made the rightchoices along the way. Most of all, she wondered about children, thechildren only she had wanted, the children they never had. Shewondered about who they might have been, about their hopes anddreams.

If her crew could have read her mind, they would have been surprised tofind her capable of self-doubt. Mac and Gonzo believed her thebest-they ought to know-they'd been through a lot together. Youcouldn't do any better than a space plane slot at Edwards,and Hell Fire had Scott's name on it.

Jolted back to reality by a loud ratchet like clatter, Scott peeredthrough the fog to find Mac closing the recessed missile bay insideHell Fire's short stubby wing.

Above all else, Chief Master Sergeant Andrew

"Mac" Mac Williams was a good man in a storm-tall, black, distinguishedin appearance, absolutely wonderful with people, and smart-especiallysmart. Scott thought Mac the sort of man who could do it all-the sonof a tobacco farmer who could set anything right, and she loved to hearhim talk. When he spoke in his deep Northh Carolina drawl, peoplecouldn't help but notice his reason, humor, and honesty. Like Scott,Mac was a survivor, and like many successful military men, he was oneof those people who believed it was always easier to get forgivenessthan to get permission. With an appreciation for Mac's strength ofcharacter comfortably entrenched in her heart, Scott turned herattention to the task at hand.

Cruise missiles loaded, she thought.

Tonight, inside Hangar X-39A under the orange-yellow glow of halogenfloodlights, Scott and her crew climbed the access scaffold leading toHell Fire's mammoth power plant. After stepping from the scaffold intoHell Fire's engine inlet, Scott, Mdc, and Gonzo began their preflightchecklist. Deep inside Hell Fire's cavernous air breathing mouth,Scott stood dwarfed by six enormous scramjet engines, each withcircular blades stretching seven feet from floor to ceiling. As sheand Mac slolvly turned the freewheeling blades looking for damage,hlajor Carlos Gonzalez shined a high intensity light into the enginefrom the front, looking for misplaced or forgotten tools.

Major Carlos Gonzalez was Hell Fire's back-seater and SituationAwareness Evaluation Systems Officer (SAESO, pronounced say-so). He'dbeen stuck with the call name Gonzo because of the slight twist in hisnose. At first, he didn't like it much, but it grew on him. Besides,he knew three other pilots named Gonzalez with the call name Speedy. Inflight, Gonzo was instinctively a no-nonsense

-M

survivor. He'd been one of the Air Force's premier flight testengineers before his space plane assignment and believed that quick,positive action was always preferable to hesitation. In high stresssituations, he was prone to take any positive action that came to mind.Fortunately, his instinctive reactions were nearly always right. Heflew with as little emotion as possible, forcing himself to stay coolthrough any crisis. Like Scott, he passionately loved flying andcouldn't imagine life without it. On top of that, he fully expected tolive through it all and die at home in his own bed. He sought no gloryand didn't care if he pissed people off along the way. His concern wasto keep flying and stay alive. He needed it like a man needs awoman.

After completing their, engine inspection, Gonzo looked Scott straightin the eyes and spoke quietly.

"I don't like it.

We've got no control."

"Those DEW SATs could give us a bad day," Scott agreed. As she thoughtabout their situation, she felt like throwing up. She paused, took adeep breath, then continued.

"With headquarters flying Hell Fire and Centurion controlling the DEWSATS I feel like a sitting duck."

Chief Master Sergeant Mac Mac Williams their crew chief andreconnaissance system operator, raised both eyebrows.

"Makes me feel a little skittish myself. Sounds more like a skeetshoot."

"Yeah-Centurion's got the gun and we're the pigeons,"

added Gonzo.

Too many things that could go wrong, would go wrong, Scott thought witha grimace. Always happens.

By the year 2014, stealth cruise missiles had been mass produced andforty-one third-world countries had them.

Accumulating arms with a fanatical passion, Iran and Iraq had beenconducting a huge arms buildup for over twenty years-since the end ofDesert Storm. Iraq led the pack, boasting an arsenal riveted withnuclear-tipped cruise missiles and a small fleet of Russian Kilo-class(Varshavyanka) submarines.

To counter this unpredictable third-world threat, former NORAD, NATO,and Soviet countries united forming the Allied Forces, then fullydeployed the Star Wars defense system-an orbiting armada ofsatellites.

Scott and her crew tested new weapons before they were officiallyaccepted into the Allied arsenal. Tonight, they'd test the mostimportant satellites in the Star Wars armada the lethal workhorses-theDEW SATs (Directed Energy Weapon SATellites). Each DEW SAT was anorbiting counter stealth weapon system, a satellite that could detectand kill stealth missiles and aircraft from low earth orbit.

Within limits, stealth technology had made enemy aircraft and cruisemissiles impossible to detect using conventional radar or infrared heatsensors. Elach DEW SAT was designed to overcome stealth targets usingan extraordinary radar, laser, and infrared telescope. In addition,anything airborne that it could detect, it could destroy using its highpower laser.

As part of the DEW SAT acceptance testing, Scott's mission tonight wasto fly Hell Fire in an assault competition against Centurion-thespace-based supercomputer controlling the Star Wars defense system. Theidea behind this testing appeared straightforward-launch stealth cruisemissiles then watch Centurion track and tag them using the DEW SATarmada. Scott thought of this testing as a high tech game of laser tagshe preferred not to play, because DEW SATs would stter their laserstoward both Hell Fire and her cruise missiles. When a laser tagged(illuminated) a threat, Centurion's defense team would score a hit. When any missile made it to target undetected, Scott's team wouldscore.

Allied Headquarters believed their new brilliant-class DEW SAT wouldmake stealth technology obsolete, but they needed testing and hard datato prove it. Scott, Mac, and Gonzo hoped Headquarters was right, butover the last two years they'd been through several tests similar tothis one.

"Twenty years in the service and I'm still working the graveyardshift," Mac said with an exhausted smile.

"Looks like they're looking to put the stealth troops outta businessagain."

"We've been trying to detect them for years," Scott said, climbingdown the scaffold.

"With a little luck, tonight could be our night, so let's get on withit."

"Roger, Scotty." Mac toggled a blue switch on his handheld remotecontrol unit.

"Hell Fire's cooling down-fuel pumps running." Immediately, asnow-white frost formed on Hell Fire's matte black nose, wings, and airbreathing underbody. Hydrogen slush chilled to minus 435 degreesFahrenheit would circulate throughout Hell Fire's heat shields duringflight. Without this cooling, surface temperatures would soar to 5000degrees Fahrenheit during hyper sonic flight and Hell Fire woulddisintegrate. The fastest aerospace plane ever built, Hell Fire was amassive flying engine fueled and cooled by hydrogen slush.

As Scott, Mac, and Gonzo walked under Hell Fire's nose, the trio zippedtheir flight jackets shut. A dense fog continuously boiled off HellFire and slowly settled on the hangar floor, causing the temperatureunderneath to drop twenty degrees. Hell Fire looked like an enormouswedge of dry ice, an enormous fog machine, about the size of a DC-10.

Gonzo turned his flight systems checklist over to Scott.

"Next problem: target Nevada Test Site-all missiles programmed andloaded." Gonzalez pointed to the AntiSATellite (ASAT) missile mountingrails inside Hell Fire's stubby wings.

"Mac hung 'em on ASAT hard-points."

"Unarmed stealth hawks and ASATS?" Scott glanced at Mac forapproval.

"Right, Scotty. Twin ASATs and three Hawk cruise missiles.Headquarters ordered Hammer, Phantom, and Jammer Hawks," replied thechief as he led Scott and Gonzo to three duplicate cruise missiles on aloading rack alongside Hell Fire's front tricycle gear.

Mac looked across the hangar toward his office and noticed anankle-high fog layer covering the floor. Extending his arm above hishead, he signaled an airman to open the gargantuan hangar doors. Asthe doors creaked open slowly and warm air rushed in, the cool foglayer poured out of the hangar over the taxiway, forming an eerieglowing ground level cloud. Hangar lights caused the cloud to glowwhile the warmer outside air caused it to swirl, boil, and then slowlydissipate.

Scott returned Gonzo's checklist and asked him,

"What about Hope?"

"Covered. Got their parts and supplies loaded." Once their testingwas complete, they'd deliver replacement parts to Space Station Hope.

"And Freedom?" Scott paused. She felt her face flush.

Major Jay Fayhee commanded Space Station Freedom. Her heart raced likeshe was a kid again in high school.

Gonzo looked at Scott's beet-rediface, smiled gently, then winked.

"Yeah, Scotty, we're bringing him everything he needs."

She looked forward to their reunion with mixed feelings.

There was a part of Scott that wanted her dreams of Jay to come true,but another part prayed to get over him.

"He meant more to me than I ever did to him," she sighed. Afterrecovering her composure, she announced,

"Then that's it.

Checklist's complete. We're ready to go."

"Not quite," replied Gonzo.

"We've gotta be sure those DEW SAT lasers are throttled back before wego anywhere."

Mac smiled a big toothy grin.

"I'll roger that, Gonzo.

Those lasers deliver a twenty-stick kick! They'd blow us out of thesky." From a distance of one hundred miles, each twenty megawatt DEWSAT laser delivered a punch loosely equivalent to about twenty sticksof dynamite.

"We're expecting safe laser confirmation in fifteen minutes, fellas,"Scott said, checking her watch.

Scott, Mac, and Gonzo climbed Hell Fire's access scaffold, carefullylowered themselves into Hell Fire's heated cockpit, and strapped in. Atowing vehicle attached itself to Hell Fire's front tricycle gear andslowly pulled her out of the hangar to the south facing end of therunway.

Sitting in the darkness forty feet above the green and blue runwaylights, Scott, Mac, and Gonzo configured Hell Fire for takeoff, thenwaited for their safe laser confirmation. Scott felt apprehensiveabout their sortie when she hadtime to think about it. For good luck, she felt underneath her flightsuit and rubbed something about the size of a dog tag nestled betweenher breasts. Ja v alwa vs loved it there, she thought with a smile.Around her neck, Scott wore a present Jay'd given her back in highschool. Sealed in a smooth case of clear solid acrylic was a tinyfour-leaf clover he'd given her for good luck. As a diversion, sheturned on their forward landing lights and leaned her helmet againstthe cockpit canopy. Watching clouds of condensation boil off HellFire's nose, she wondered, What's he doing now?

Centurion, 1210712014, 1030 Zulu

ALTITUDE: 22,300 MILES IN GEOSTATIONARY ORBIT,

SDI SPACE STATION FORTRESS FREEDOM

Freedom crew commander Major Jay Fayhee felt alone and melancholy as herested his forehead against the observation window and watched endlesslightning flashes off California's southern coast. At night from analtitude of 22,300 miles, the earth reminded Fayhee of a glimmeringChristmas ornament-a large reflective ball which glistened with thesparkle of lightning from electrical storms. From Fayhee's window, theearth looked small and remote-about the size of a beach ball at arm'slength. Christmas music played softly in the background as Fayheedreamed of days gone by, of the woman he'd loved and lost a long timeago.

Seemed like a hundred years ago, but he remembered every detail like itwas yesterday. He wondered if she'd be the woman he remembered, theone he used to know, or had she changed? Fiercely independent, she'dalways gotten along fine without him. After giving the matter somethought, he expected that she'd be whoever she dam well pleased. Shealways meant more to him than he did to her anyway. Linda could livewithout him easy enough, but she'd never divorce flying.

He didn't understand it at the time, but he'd been jealous of herflying because he couldn't compete. Flying was always Linda's toppriority. In retrospect, he could see itmore clearly now. Jay knew she couldn't change, he wouldn't want herto, but most of all he needed to talk to her, really open up and talklike in the old days. His eyes teared as he imagined picking up wherethey'd left off. But that was only a dream and dreams never came trueon board Freedom. Besides, she'd never love him again after what he'ddone.

Staring out his window, he cried out to the night in a soft whisper,

"I'd do anything if she'd only love me again."

The idea that time healed all wounds offered hope for thebrokenhearted, but little else. Time provided Jay an anesthetic, apain killer, but his wound had never healed-never even closed.

He wondered how she'd look. Like he imagined-no, probably even better.She'd always been like that, the older she'd gotten, the better she'dlooked.

He loved her smile, her laugh, but most of all he loved the twinkle inher eyes. Would her eyes twinkle? Probably, but not for him. Herentire face would light up when she was happy.

Breathing deeply, he remembered the marvelous smell of her hair. Ifonly he could hold her again.

Tenderly, he caressed an old faded letter, one of the last letters he'dgotten from Linda before he'd started doing most of his thinkingbetween his legs. Jay wasn't any different from any other man he'dever known. He loved sex like Linda loved flying. He thought himselfan excellent lover, always considerate, patient, and he came backoften-never learned to say no. He'd needed her desperately and withinreach, but she was always gone. Even so, the other women weren't worthit and this job wasn't worth it-not worth losing Linda.

Divorcing her was the biggest regret of his life. He'd found happinessin his own backyard with the girl next door, but didn't understand thatuntil it was too late.

As the last line from the song

"I'll be Home For Christmas" slowly faded, a grating voice abruptlystartled him.

"Jay, we need to talk."

Fayhee sighed, but didn't turn away from the window.

He struggled to remember the details of his dream, then wrote themdown. During his eleven-month stay on Freedom, Fayhee had learned tofreeze and restart his interrupted dreams. Some time later he'd readhis notes, reconstruct his dream, then pick up dreaming where he leftoff. After collecting his thoughts, Fayhee reluctantly turned awayfrom his observation window and left his dreams of Linda on hold.

Space Station Freedom, the flagship of the armada, housed asix-meiiiber crew: two men plus four supercomputers. Depack McKee keptwatch over the computer crew-Centurian plus his three networkedsubordinate sand Fayhee watched over Depack. Together, they providedHeadquarters with an option for human intervention when anything wentwrong. Fayhee and McKee often joked about playing second banana toCenturion, but their primary mission was maintenance-to their dismay,they were Centurion's keepers.

"Wake up, Jay," snapped Centurion with a grainy voice sounding likesand and glue.

As Fayhee looked into the television monitor, his head throbbed as hisblood pressure began to rise. What a freaking waste of screen space,Fayhee thought. A three dimensional compyter-generated talking headstared him squarely in the eyes. Looking repugnantly generic, butpolitically correct, Centurion's face was liked by no one because youcouldn't tell what he was. Fayhee's jaw tensed-he hated lookingCenturion in the eyes. It made him uncomfortable, so he looked awayinto his flat panel display and gazed at his own reflection. Duringhis conversations with Centurion, he'd always felt uncomfortablebecause he'd never identified where Centurion's voice came from. Fayheehad learned to hate living with Centurion. In a disquieting sense,Centurion existed everywhere on board Freedom, knew everything,possessed a quick tongue, and displayed no tact. On board Freedom,privacy existed for Fayhee only in his thoughts and imagination.

Fayhee reluctantly read over the test script Centurion displayed inbright red print.

"Centurion-make ready to alter DEW SAT behavior."

Centurion was the central nervous system and mouthpiece for the StarWars defense system. Technically, Centurion was the finest example ofstate-of-the-art computer technology the world had ever produced-athird generation free space all optical supercomputer built withmassively parallel computation capability based on neuralnetworks-modeled after the workings of the human brain, but built ofmirrors, lenses, and lights. He wasn't much to look at, but he learnedfast, serving as primary control computer for the space-based missiledefense system.

"Very well, Jay," Centurion responded immediately, DEW SAT behaviorrecords have been retrieved and await i modification." Centurion spokewith a distinctively male voice, although his timing and inflectionsounded mechanical.

Jay repeated the DEW SAT configuration instructions from his testscript.

"Turn down the power of every DEW SAT laser passing over the test zone.Black out the test zone completely. We track and tag targets tonightdon destroy them."

"Very well, Jay," Centurion replied immediately.

Fayhee raised his head and looked over the control console at a large,brightly colored image which dominated the control room-Centurion'sglobe. Spherically shaped, Centurion's globe was a three-dimensionalholographic picture of the earth projected in the center of the controlroom.

Seventy-two DEW SATs circled the earth in six polar orbit planes-twelveDEWs per orbit. Circling the earth in a chaotic frenzy, the DEW SATarmada reminded Jay of swarmin bees.

Fifteen seconds later, Centurion spoke plainly with increased andconsiderable volume.

"Jay-the blackout directive is complete. All DEW SATs passing over thetest zone will disable their lasers."

"Very well," Fayhee said as he studied the eight-foot diameter globeprojected in the middle of the room-Centurion's view of the earth andsky seen through satellite eyes.

"Keep your eyes and ears on. We need total global coverage."

The Star Wars defense system consisted of an armada of satellitesorbiting the earth. Organized into three layers, like an onion skin,the armada consisted of orbiting weapon, sensor, and communicationsatellites. Orbiting closest to earth, the weapons fleet was built oftwo types of satellites: suicide interceptors and DEW SATS In orbitabove the weapons, the sensor satellites, and above them all,communication satellites populated the outermost layer.

Cheyenne Mountain, Centurion, and the DEW SAT armada clearly understoodtheir job-defense. Cheyenne Mountain assigned target priorities,Centurion assigned targets to individual DEW SATS and the DEW SATarmada did the fighting. The division of labor was simple and itworked well.

Fayhee knew the DEW SAT armada would tag Hell Fire during testingtonight. Any laser configuration error could reduce Hell Fire todust.

"Show me everything we have.

There's no margin for error." Fayhee's flat panel display wasimmediately updated with Centurion's report:

DEFENSE SUPPORT PROGRAM-SATELLITE

ARMADA STATUS

LOW SATS 18 Low Orbiting Warhead SATs orbit 125 mi: 25% coverage DEWSATS 72 Directed Energy Weapon SATs orbit 115 mi: test zone blackoutSLCSATS: 12 Submarine Laser Communication SATs orbit 275 mi: 66%coverage EYE SATS 24 Recon SATs orbit 500 mi: 100% coverage EAR SATS 14Sensor SATs orbit 1640 mi: 100% coverage . COMMSATS: 6 CommunicationSATs orbit 22,300 mi: 100% coverage . Space Stations: 2 Control SATsorbit 22,300 mi: . Master SS Freedom: 100% coverage . Slave SS Hope:WARNING-BACKUP

DATA LINK FAILURE

RECOMMENDED ACTION: REPLACE TRANSMITTER

"As you see, Jay, we maintain total global visibility-our eyes and earsare on, but we cannot hoot over the test zone."

Fayhee scanned the report, concluding his job was done.

Space Station Hope had transmitter problems, but Hope was ingeostationary orbit halfway around the world off the southern tip ofIndia. That transmitter was someone else's problem-not much Fayheecould do about it from Freedom. He quietly read the notes he'd madeearlier about his Christmas dream, turned around to face the outsidewall, and rested his forehead on the observation window. Gazing onceagain toward earth, Jay watched the lightning glisten and wondered,What's she doing now?

The Texas Sunflouer"1210712014, 1034 Zulu

ALTITUDE: 11 5 MILES IN POLAR ORBIT,

ORBITAL INCLINATION: 86.5 DEGREES,

ONBOARD A DIRECTED ENERGY WEAPON SATELLITE

DEW SAT

Headed due north at over 17,000 miles an hour, a satellite passed 115miles above Austin, Texas, during the darkest part of the night. Fromone quarter mile away, the satellite resembled a sunflower in aflowerpot. Looking friendly and familiar, the satellite's shaperevealed no clue to its actual size or ominous purpose. Seventy-two ofthese satellites orbited along lines of longitude, each a DirectedEnergy Weapon SATellite DEW SAT

Positioned with its long slender stem pointing toward theearth's center, the sunflower head faced Austin. The DEW SAT whosestructure would have been awkward and lanky on the ground, raced witheffortless grace across the big Texas sky.

The DEW SAT business end was its flower-shaped head, a large segmentedmirror thirty-three feet across. The mirror was made of smaller movingpieces-a circular center segment and twelve identical outer segmentssurrounding the center like petals of a flower.

Connecting the large mirror to its flowerpot base, theone-hundred-foot-long stem provided the key to the DEW SATtwenty-million Watt laser punch. The DEW SAT Free Electron Laseraccelerated high energy electrons down its stem, then converted theminto infrared light.

The flowerpot base was a cylindrical tube measuring thirty feet acrossand fifty feet long. All the DEW SAT vital electrical organs werehoused within the upper two thirds of the cylinder while the volatilecombustion organs were confined to the bottom third. The DEW SAT heartwas a mammoth electrical power plant which pumped life into the laser,infrared telescope, and radar. Stacked below the electrical systemswere the fuel tanks, pumps, and plumbing required for firing life intoits rocket engines-all the stuff that a technician's dreams are madeof.

As the DEW SAT passed over Austin, dim traces of city lights reflectedoff the mirror's highly polished surfaces.

Collecting everything it could see, the DEW SAT diligently searched forjet engine exhaust and missile plumes.

At 1035 Zulu, the DEW SAT passing over Austin received an encryptedradio signal from Centurion which read: set Laser power output = tagImmediately, the DEW SAT computer reduced the electrical power drivingthe Free Electron Laser to a safe level.

After reducing the power, an automatic test showed all was well and theDEW SAT acknowledged Centurion's message with an encrypted radiotransmission.

DEW SAT ack: Laser power output = tag For the moment, the DEW SAT hadlost its punch, throttled back for counter stealth testing-the war gameof laser tag.

Motivation, 1210712014,1035 Zulu, 3:35 A.M. local

ALLIED FORCES COMMAND HEADQUARTERS,

CONSOLIDATED SPACE OPERATIONS CENTER (CSOC),

SITUATION CONTROL Room,

CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN, COLORADO

For as long as there had been war, military leaders had struggled to dowhat Major General Robert Craven's team had done. His organization hadtaken a quantum leap toward realizing the remotely controlledbattlefield. As Supreme Allied Commander, Craven moved to the top ofthe ranks by leading an effort which consolidated battlefieldcommunication, command, and control within the new Allied Headquartersbuilding inside Cheyenne Mountain. He was one of the first tounderstand that optical technology offered the keys to make theremotely controlled battlefield a reality. They weren't there yet,people were still in the loop, but this accomplishment was consideredby many a technical marvel comparable to the Panama Canal. Consideredbrilliant by his superiors, Craven believed his ability to pick goodpeople, point them in the right direction, then turn them loose was hisgreatest contribution. His motto-"Do something. Lead, follow, or getout of the way."-had served his organization well in his day, butCraven's time had now passed and instinctively he knew it. Over thelast two years, he'd changed-he'd simply worn out.

Craven was a mover and shaker. His long and distinguished militarycareer, now drawing to a close, had been marked by frequent, fierce,and far-reaching battles with Washington over vision, strategy,schedules, and funding-especially funding. For years he had tirelesslylobbied Congress, the public, and the Pentagon to fully deploy the StarWars space-based defense system, and in doing so had antagonized muchof his Washington-based constituency. In the minds of many Army, Navy,and Air Force leaders, Craven was one of the most brilliant andcontroversial figures in American military history. So vigorous washis advocacy for an orbiting military armada that he had placed hiscareer in jeopardy much like General Billy Mitchell had done promotingair power.

Major General Robert Craven was average height with broad shoulders andmassive forearms for his age. In his late fifties, his once thickcurly black hair was now thin and gray. His face had a weatheredoutdoor look to it, but his eyes, most of all, revealed the inescapablefatigue he felt in his soul.

There wasn't a person in Craven's organization who didn't admire him,but the workaholic years of relentless stress had taken their toll.Craven's onetime limitless energy was gone. He was exhausted, out ofpatience, and to top it off, his pet project-High Ground-was introuble.

Even though his baby was behind schedule and over budget, Cravenbelieved the test results they collected during the next few days wouldturn this situation around. More clearly than anyone else, heunderstood they must.

Surrounded by granite walls fifteen hundred feet thick, Craven workedthrough a computer printout with his attack force commander, ColonelWayne Hinson. Although Craven's mission was primarily defensive innature, his organization included a small attack component for testingtheir defenses. The Consolidated Space Operations Center (CSOC,pronounced sis-awk) provided the Allied attack forces; the StrategicDefense Initiative Organization (SDIO) provided their lethaldefenses.

Protected by two massive twenty-five-ton steel blastdoors, Commander Hinson sat in the center of the Situation ControlRoom surrounded by his master console-the computer brain of the attackcenter. From his master console, Hinson could locate, inventory, andcontrol everything in the Allied military arsenal that orbits, flies,floats, rolls, or walks.

Leaning over Hinson's shoulder, Craven impatiently ran his finger overa computer printout, stopping on the results column. His once steadyhands now shook uncontrollably around the clock. His mood was tense.His expression-one of disbelief. Before he could complete histhought, Craven was interrupted by a nervous young airman.

"General, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs is on the line, sir."

Along with most of working-class America, Craven had learned to hatethe phone, and like most, his feelings were heartfelt. Suspending histhoughts in progress, he drew a deep breath before speaking.

"Thanks, son. I'll take it here."

He picked up the console phone.

"Chief. This is Craven.

What can I do for you?"

Not one for small talk, the chairman got down to the crux of thematter.

"You've got a big problem."

"Give it to me straight," Craven replied. He clinched his teeth as themuscles around his mouth tightened. He hated plain talk from thechairman because it always put him on the spot.

"The President is livid." The chairman cleared his throat, thencontinued. His tone was strained and barely under control.

"Iraq has two subs parked in cruise missile range of Washington and NewYork. High Ground's been funded for years to counter this threat buthas not delivered!" The chairman paused.

There was a deep silence on the line. As the silence protracted, atest of wills emerged. Checking his watch, Craven grimaced. Callingfrom the comfort of his own home, the chairman had time enough tostall; he did not.

"You're not telling me anything I don't already know."

"High Ground's over two years behind schedule and over budget.Washington wants results-and I mean before Christmas!" The chairman'srestraint evaporated.

"I get the message." Put up or shut up, he thought.

Craven fully understood that his counter stealth project, code-namedHigh Ground, was in a jam. Their fun-ding situation was desperate. Ifthey didn't deliver some good news soon, High Ground's future wasunpredictable. They could get the ax and lose it all.

"Good." Craven heard a sigh of relief over the phone.

"Pull out the stops. Do everything you can."

"Will do. High Ground's back on track and won't derail again. Iguarantee it."

Craven hung up and looked across the console at his heir apparent,General Daniel

"Slim" Mason. Although tense, when looking at Slim he felt better-itwas his tie tack. That tie tack always tickled Craven. A gift fromhis grandson, Slim's tie tack was a tiny prop-driven biplane he wore nomatter the occasion. It wasn't important how it looked, it was a giftfrom his grandson and he valued it.

Craven smiled to himself every time he looked at that tie tackclosely-definitely not GI. Over the years, Mason always managed tokeep his priorities straight and had a wife, three married sons,grandchildren, plus lifelong hometown friends to show for it.

Mason believed in family, friends, country, hard work, decent values,and God. Slim didn't force is beliefs on others, but once you knewwhat he believed in, you knew the man. His life exemplified everythinghe believed and Craven admired him for it.

With Mason, what you saw was what you got and what you got came fromthe heart of Dixie. As far back as any of Slim's hometown friendscould remember, he'd always borne a striking resemblance to JimmyStewart, and in all honesty, as he'd grown older, his likeness hadslowly transformed into a near facsimile. The silver-haired, fiftytwo-year-old Jimmy Stewart look-alike was a little over six two, lean,angular faced, lanky with pipe-cleaner legs,bony arms, and shoulders broader than they looked on his tall frame.

Mason and Craven went back a long way-all the way back to the PersianGulf War. In January 1991, Captain Slim Mason flew over Baghdad asMajor Craven's wingman while they were members of the elite ScreamingDemons-the clandestine F- 117 stealth fighter squadron first stationedin Tonopah, Arizona. An MIT graduate in electrical engineering,specializing in advanced radar technology, Mason loved airplanes andfirst married his two interests by flying the F-117-the black stealthfighter officially known as the Nighthawk, affectionately known by thepilot community as the stinkbug. Mason joked that flying the F- 117wasn't all it was cracked up to be. Essentially, the stinkbug was amanned, fully automated Tomahawk cruise missile that flew itself totarget, dropped its two bombs, then returned the pilot home.

Given good intelligence and extensive planning, all the pilot did wastake off and land-the stinkbug did the rest.

After the Cold War wound down and the intoxicating success of DesertStorm had faded, Mason had been among the first who somberly predictedthat mass produced long-range stealth cruise missiles would emerge asthe preeminent threat wielded by the third world. Further, hepredicted that stealth cruise missile detection from space was the onlyviable way to counter this third-world threat now looming just beyondthe horizon.

Although subsequent events confirmed his predictions, Mason faced awall of resistance from the leaders of older, established militaryservices just as Craven had found when advocating for an orbitingmilitary armada.

Mason began appealing directly to the public through books, interviews,and speeches. Once Mason went public with his appeal for expanding ourmilitary presence in space, Craven got wind of it and brought him intohis fold under Cheyenne Mountain. Two old stinkbug pilots were unitedonce again. Their quest for a worldwide, real-time, space-based air,land, and sea surveillance system was the glue that first bound themtogether, but over the years their relationship had developed into adeeper, more meaningful matter of trust.

From its inception, Mason rose rapidly through the ranks of the HighGround project under Craven's tutelage, Initially, Slim's team focusedon developing a surveillance system code-named Clear Water aspace-based sea surveillance system for detecting submergedsubmarines.

Following Clear Water staggering success, Mason was promoted to generalofficer and acquired two hats within the Cheyenne Mountaincommunity-military manager and technical leader extraordinaire. Notmany could effectively switch hats back and forth, but Mason could.This extraordinary skill catapulted him over his peers, but no oneseemed to mind. His peers and subordinates were often his biggestfans. When wearing his military manager hat, Mason served as unifiedNORAD/ NATO Commander In Chief (CIC). Most of his mornings werewrapped up in the never-ending series of staff meetings required of theCIC. The job was a political juggling act, and his approach to theproblem was management by consent. In the afternoon, Mason liked tochange hats. With Clear Water naval success under their belts, Mason'stechnical team progressed to the problem of airsurveillance-specifically to the detection of stealth missiles overland and sea.

As it turned out, detecting low flying stealth cruise missiles from lowearth orbit had been an enormous technical problem-bigger than anyonehad imagined-but finally they had good reason to think they'd solvedit. Data collected over the next few days of testing would tell thestory Looking into the eyes of his former wingman brought Craven'sattention back to the immediate task at hand. He spoke quietly.

"Heat's on."

Mason nodded.

"There's a tremendous lot riding on these tests."

Leaning over Hinson's shoulder, Craven stared at the screen labeled WarGame Scoreboard. Highlighted in reverse video, the legend printedacross the screen read:High Ground SimuLation Results Final Score: SDIO Defense Forces 6 CSOCAttack Forces 0 Hinson had run a computer program which simulated HellFire's missile attack on the Nevada Test Site. According to hissimulation, High Ground should work perfectly-the counter stealthdefense forces should come out on top.

The large veins on Craven's neck bulged as his face turned red.

"I don't buy it. Our defenses look too damn good-too optimistic."

Craven drummed his fingers across Hinson's desk and spoke in his don'tscrew with me now tone of voice.

"I

wanta see your attack plan simulated one last time before we run thistest live. Change it. Make it more realistic."

"Yes sir." He knew the routine. He'd gone over his attack plan withCraven twice in the last hour.

"I wanta run through it again-start to finish." Craven's tone wasfinal. He pointed to an icon shaped like a submarine on the computerscreen.

"I wanta see the position of your attack forces. Show me again-HellFire. the Dorito, and the sub-I wanta see 'em all."

Hinson recited his attack plan like a well-rehearsed actor, thenconcluded: "If Centurion tags all six missiles tonight, stealth ishistory."

Mason stood behind Hinson, quietly talking to their ally from theSoviet Commonwealth, General Yuri Krol. Both men looked concerned. TheAllied alliance included the Soviet Commonwealth of Independent Statesas well as former NORAD and NATO countries. The alliance was based oneconomic necessity, an issue of dollars and cents, not mutualadmiration. It was cost-effective to share a satellite defense system,and besides, no single country could afford it.

Awkwardly sliding the rim of his round hat through his fingers, Masonlooked into Craven's eyes.

"General, I think you fellas may be outrunning your headlights-just alittle bit."

"Whataya mean, Slim?"

Mason shifted his tall frame uneasily from side to side.

"You have no visibility-no way to see trouble coming."

"What do you propose?"

"Have someone keep an eye on Centurion-watch his activity log," Masonsuggested in his slow, deliberate stammer.

"If there's a problem, he'll show you what's going on." Centurion kepta log showing every action he took and any errors he found.

"Nobody reads activity logs anymore," Hinson quipped impatiently.

"Everything's automated. Computers do the dirty work."

Mason didn't like Hinson's me-first-me-only attitude so he spoke to himclearly. A rampant careerist, Hinson's single goal in life was to gethis ticket punched and move on.

"Yuri's got experienced folks at Kaliningrad watching Centurion's logaround the clock. You're gonna need trained people-no way aroundit."

"That's true," General Krol added, calmly chewing the stump of hispipe.

"You'll need staff full-time day and night."

Hinson looked confident about the test, but neither Craven, Mason, norKrol shared his sense of well-being, Craven had been involved with HighGround testing over fifteen years and had survived many problems. Ifanything went wrong, he knew there was real danger here for Hinson'sattack forces.

"Tonight's no drill, Colonel. You've never run these attack scriptshot in the air. Our people's lives are on the line. If anythinglife-or-death comes down, my people have orders to break radio silence.You hear from them and I want this test aborted yesterday. Do I makemyself clear?"

"Yes, sir!"

"And have someone cover Centurion's log. If anything goes wrong,you'll see it."

Hinson nodded his head, but did not hear. Tuning hisattack program, his fingers raced over the keyboard, trying to keep upwith his head.

Craven's gaze shifted to Mason and Krol.

"Conference call in ten minutes. Let's go." They left the room anddescended one story deeper inside Cheyenne Mountain.

The Bad Seed 1210712014,1037 Zulu, 1:37 P.m. Local

IRAQI CABINET MEETING

Buried sixty feet below a residential neighborhood west of Baghdad,surrounded by brightly painted windowless walls of concrete and steel,Iraqi Cabinet members gathered in the security of their bunker for ameeting with Iraqi President Hessian Kamel al-Tikriti. Kamel, like hisaging father in-law Saddam Hussein, was a brutal tri belike chieftainwho reigned by fear.

Once Kamel arrived, the menacing silhouette of an enormous hulkappeared in the bunker doorway wearing a traditional gandura robe.Towering above the others at six foot five, shaped like the front endof a bus, al-Mashhadi blocked the light emanating from the bunker.Standing in his shadow, the President carefully studied the backlitform of his heir apparent, looking for some clue as to the mood of thecoming meeting. There was none. Kamel found a]- Mashhadi's darkexpressionless eyes impossible to read.

His face appeared cracked as old leather, his hands strong, deeplywrinkled but steady.

Moving diplomatically to one side, al-Mashhadi warmly greeted Kamel inhis deep gravelly voice.

"Ahlan wa sahlan,"-my house is your house.

"We're honored you could attend on such short notice." Thesecretary-general delivered his greetings with the utmost sincerity. Nosenseof the barbarian in the big man's demeanor. His ability to lie withthe grace of a polished diplomat was one of his greatest gifts.

Al-Mashhadi personified his motto-"NOBODY HURTS ME UNHARMED." Thesefour words encapsulated the essence of the man and became the Iraqistate creed following the Persian Gulf War, a rallying cry for everyIraqi tri belike sect, clan, and village. NOBODY HURTS ME UNHARMED wasprinted for all to see on Iraqi currency in much the same way theUnited States printed IN GOD WE TRUST, but no country outside theMiddle East appreciated the significance of this political statement.Al-Mashhadi believed when it came to human fights and Middle Eastpolitics, the Allies lived in a world of delusion.

The President took his seat at the head of the table flanked byleathery-skinned generals of the Republican Guard.

"Excellency," al-Mashhadi began with some sense of pride.

"Allah has shown us again that he is greater than our enemies."

Cabinet members, dressed in gandura robes, nodded their heads inagreement.

A methodical man, al-Mashhadi continued with elegant patience.

"Allah is on our side in our jihad against the infidels. He has givenus a sign, a powerful advantage. He demands we use it. It is ourdestiny. This week we may get the chance we've waited for so long-ourchance to destroy the infidels' war machine."

"Yes, yes," the American-schooled President replied impatiently.

"I've heard this chance of a lifetime story many times before. Get tothe point. I have an appointment with the UN ambassador in twentyminutes."

Unshaken, al-Mashhadi continued.

"The point is this, Excellency. We'll likely get an opportunity tocripple the Allies' killer satellite armada without firing a shot andwithout revealing our hand."

"Sounds too good to be true," scoffed the Iraqi President, checking hiswatch.

Al-Mashhadi explained.

"The American Army showed us what to do with the ECM (electroniccountermeasures) work they did on computer viruses. The Zionistsplanned to plant battlefield viruses in our communications systemsusing their own radio transmissions. They buried this idea after theyfound their equipment was more susceptible to viruses than ours."

Al-Mashhadi slowly extended his large hand in the direction of a darksmall man, dressed in an Army uniform, sitting next to the view graphprojector. Motioning for the man to rise, he continued with anintroduction.

"Colonel Nassar's the head of our ECM organization.

Educated in America, he received his ECM training from MIT and the U.S.Army. He'll give you a summary of where we stand."

Confident, al-Mashhadi sat down as Colonel Nassar cleared his throat.

"As some of you know, we had a significant breakthrough two years agoin the area of battlefield grade computer viruses. We created a viruscode-named PAM-an adaptive computer program that exists only tosurvive."

"PAM?" The name caught the President's attention.

Nassar nodded thoughtfully.

"The code name is intended to deceive, Excellency. The acronym standsfor Perpetual Adaptive Monitor. It means nothing to most people."

The Iraqi President gave Colonel Nassar an uneasy glance.

"Survive. How?"

Nassar took a second to frame his response, then looked straight intothe President's eyes.

"PAM is incapable of remorse and ruthless beyond belief. Once a virginPAM program starts running, it cannot be stopped-PAM can't bedestroyed." Nassar paused, allowing his words to linger, but showed nosign of fear or weakness. Allah would protect him. After working withPAM for two years, he knew in his soul what she was about.

"I am interested, Colonel," the President announced, impressed with theintense little colonel.

Nassar continued with a tone marked by seriousness.

"PAM's a computer program-nothing more, but she looks like somethingshe's not. In that respect, she's a Trojanhorse-a program that does what she's supposed to do, but unknown tothe Allies, she'll quietly perform our bidding.

She's also a snake, but her symptoms are subtle. She doesn't crash acomputer like an ordinary snake, she takes control and slows it down.

"Loosely speaking, PAM's a bad seed. I mean she is born bad-bad fromthe moment she's created. When threatened, she reproduces thenprotects herself. Nothing can be done to stop her-like nothing I'veever seen. Capable of lying dormant indefinitely, once PAM takes root,she and her children exist only to survive and propagate their ownkind.

"PAM's built around three separate pieces of software created by theAmerican Army, Air Force, and CIA. Our breakthrough came when wemodified this software using genetic programming. Darwin's theory ofnatural selection provided PAM's reproductive algorithm, andconsequently only the fittest, most virulent strains survive.Originally, her heartbeat came from the Army's threat analysissoftware. It evaluates threats around the clock. PAM's eyes and earswere developed by the CIA-A program named Snoopy which monitors peopleand computer chatter. It keys on sensitive information like threats,security keys, and passwords. The secret of PAM's survival and thesoftware that makes her dangerous is her Weapon Systems Managementprogram created by the Air Force. That's where the action is-thesoftware she lives by. PAM eliminates anyone or anything thatthreatens her directly. She monitors what's going on around her and ifshe's threatened, she'll protect herself. Once PAM's running onCenturion, she'll control every killer satellite-their entire orbitingarmada. PAM's single purpose for existence is survival-she lives onlyto consume computer time. Nobody hurts her unharmed!"

After allowing the full significance of his last comment to sink in,the colonel concluded,

"PAM's ready. We've tested her for two years."

Satisfied, the Iraqi President allowed the commanding general of theAir Force to question Nassar.

"Why did she take so long to test?"

"Two reasons. She's complex and she moves." The colonel went on toexplain.

"Her complexity pushes our testing capability to the limits, and whenthreatened, she moves from one computer to another. When we'd look forher, she'd move to another computer over a communication link. As Isaid earlier, her symptoms are subtle, never obvious."

"Well-get to the point, Colonel. How do you plan to cripple theirmissile killer satellites?"

Nassar let out a long breath before answering.

"What I reveal now must not leave this room." Slowly, the colonel madeeye contact with every man present. After everyone nodded agreement,he continued.

"As you know, SDI programs are built and tested at the LawrenceLivermore Lab. What you may not know is that we have strategicallyplaced an agent-a computer security specialist-inside Livermore. Twoyears ago, he played a crucial role in PAM's development by providingus SDI source code. Today, he has a copy of PAM on site and isprepared to plant our bad seed."

"What about their software testing and quality controls?"

asked the general.

"They'll detect PAM during their testing."

"We have reason to believe their normal software testing cycle may bebypassed." Nassar was quietly positive.

"High Ground, the Allied stealth missile detection project, is over twoyears behind schedule and over budget. Our source inside CheyenneMountain believes the survival of the High Ground project depends onthe results obtained during their next few days of testing. If theyhave problems, there will be enormous pressure to shortcut their timeconsuming quality controls. Our best information indicates that theymust show success or place the High Ground project at risk. The oddsare shifting in our favor, Excellency."

Colonel Nassar paused, again looked the President directly in the eyes,then spoke clearly in a quiet voice.

"If we getconfirmation their testing will be bypassed, I propose we include PAMin the Star Wars program build."

Thoughtfully gazing at the ceiling, the Iraqi President put both handsbehind his head.

"I understand your proposal, Colonel. I'd like you to answer a fewdirect questions for me. First, can PAM be traced? Could Iraq be heldaccountable or implicated in any way?"

"Impossible. PAM resulted from theoretical work first funded by theU.S. Army before the turn of the century. I expect that's where theAllies will lay blame. Virus programs like PAM are difficult, if notimpossible, to trace."

"What if our agents are discovered?"

"Inshallah,"-(God willing)-the Chief of Military Intelligenceresponded.

"They will die as martyrs on the altar of Islam."

"Allahu Akbar," al-Mashhadi added somberly.

"Stalin sacrificed ten million souls to preserve the Bolshevikrevolution. Iraq is prepared to do likewise."

"And strategically? Are we keeping the pressure on?"

"We've got two Kilo-class subs parked within range of Washington andNew York."

"The Allies know this?"

Nassar allowed a thin smile.

"The infidels stalk our missile drills." The Russian Kilo-classsubmarine was an older diesel-electric and easily detected unlessrunning off battery.

"That is good," the Iraqi President concluded.

"What should I expect when you plant your bad seed?"

Slowly, clearly, Colonel Nassar responded.

"I can make no promises, Excellency, but we expect to plant PAM inCenturion. PAM behaves more like a program cancer than a virus. Whenthreatened, she'll spread like wildfire. She'll infect every computeron Freedom, then the Allies will lose control of their satellitearmada."

"What does it mean-to lose control of a satellite armada?"

"I'm sure of one thing-the Maronites (enemies of Allah) will wishthey'd never been born."

The Iraqi President nodded and accepted this not for technical reasons,but because Colonel Nassar believed it.

"After PAM-what about our stealth cruise missiles? Will they flyundetected?"

"Inshallah but I cannot promise this. Once PAM takes over, she'llcontrol their orbiting death machines-their DEW SATS Their SDI testingwill be delayed until they eliminate PAM. The infidels must eliminatePAM, but she won't allow anyone or anything to approach her. She won'tallow anything through the Star Wars layers of warheadsatellites-nothing launched from earth can penetrate their deadly DEWSAT layer. She won't allow anything near Space Station Freedom. ToeliminatetPAM the Allies must disconnect Centurion. To disconnectCenturion, they must board Freedom. PAM won't let it happen-she won'ttolerate threats. PAM will turn the Zionist technology of deathagainst the infidels."

Colonel Nassar paused. Looking around the table at the Iraqi party ofGod members, he saw the glimmer of revenge in their eyes. He feltexhilaration knowing his place in history was about to unfold. Revengefor the Persian Gulf War was within their grasp. Nassar looked at thefaces of each Cabinet member and recalled that each had suffered lossduring the infidel invasion. With Allah's help, he had reached intothe depths of their darkened souls and uncovered their reason forliving. They sat thunderstruck, their tongues still, their jawsslack.

"Let me be clear on this point," Colonel Nassar concluded.

"I believe the PAM virus intractable-a problem without solution."

"A problem without solution," the Iraqi President repeated quietly.

"What do you mean exactly?"

"A technical problem without technical solution. Once PAM spreads toCenturion's subordinate computers, we can't postulate a plausibletechnical solution. We can't figure any way to disconnect Centurionbecause Freedom's a fortress built for Centurion's protection."

"Any possibility of random destruction? Any danger to our people?"

"Possible-but not likely."

The Iraqi President studied the faces of each Cabinet member. Eachparty of God member nodded in agreement, quietly repeating,

"Allahu Akbar. " Revenge against the infidels would be sweet.

"We've nothing to lose," the Iraqi President observed with a look ofsatisfaction in his eyes.

"Very well, Colonel, if the opportunity presents itself, plant your badseed."

Takeoff, 1210712014, 1040 Zulu, 2.-40 A.m. Local

HELL FIRE'S COCKPIT,

SOUTH FACING RUNWAY,

EDWARDs AFB, CALIFORNIA Sitting forty feet above the runway with HellFire's brakes locked, Scott individually throttled each scramjet engineto full military power while her flight computer monitored fuelconsumption and power output. After the last engine had been checked,Hell Fire's flight computer flashed a green All Systems Go messageacross her flat panel display. She looked up, gazed out of the cockpitdown the vast expanse of runway stretched out before her, and feltsatisfied that Hell Fire was airworthy. Sealed inside her fullypressurized flight suit, she felt a trickle of perspiration runningdown her throttle arm. Scott adjusted the air-conditioning in hersuit, read the time from her cockpit clock, then thought the actionshould begin soon.

While Scott checked the power plant, Gonzo checked the Global PositionSystem against the reference position posted on a sign standing by theside of the runway everything looked good.

"Hell Fire, you're cleared for takeoff," echoed Edward's controltower.

"Mac, Gonzo-you ready?" Scott asked, advancing engine one's throttleto full military power.

"Backseat's go."

"Ready down under," replied Mac from his recon seat in Hell Fire'snose-forward and below Scott.

Scott slowly moved her five remaining throttles forward to fullmilitary power. As she watched Hell Fire's thrust readout build on herinstrument display, the thunderous sound pressure level inside HellFire became deafeningly loud. Although Hell Fire was a later model andhad been improved, the sound pressure level directly over the powerplant in the early X-30 prototypes had been sufficient to kill humans.As Hell Fire's six-pack reached full power, she shook violently againstthe brakes. Scott locked the throttles together, released the brakes,then synchronously advanced all six engine throttles into afterburner.Hell Fire, a 250,000-pound plane about the size of a DC-10, bolted downthe runway propelled by over 300,000 pounds of thrust. When Scott cutin her afterburners, the thunderous noise level inside Hell Fireapproached the threshold of pain and the crew couldn't communicate overthe intercom.

Each scramjet engine in Hell Fire's six-pack output 50,000 pounds ofthrust-more thrust than that which powered the ocean liner QueenMary.

Accelerating down the runway, Hell Fire was engulfed in a swirlingcloud of condensation. Trailing behind the cloud streamed a long fierytail of intensely bright burning hydrogen. In the daylight, theplane's profile looked much like the head of a giant white shark withits jaws open wide, gulping air.

Roaring down the runway, Scott's helmet pressed hard against her moldedseat.

As Hell Fire's ground speed passed 225 miles per hour, Scott depressedan ignition switch which fired the Rocketdyne engine in Hell Fire'stail. Instantly, the roar of a controlled explosion shook Hell Fire asan additional 100,000 pounds of thrust kicked in, pinning Scott to herseat. She gently pulled back on the stick, rotated Hell Fire's noseup, and they were airborne pulling a three-g climb. Hell Fire climbedhigher and higher, belching smoke and flame in her wake, illuminatingthe black desert sky like a flare.

"You fellas all right?" Scott asked. In one swift motion, she raisedthe gear, cut the Rocketdyne engine. and killed the afterburners.

"I'm glad to be alive," quipped Mac, smiling, happy his pulse rateand breathing were returning to normal. Mac's forehead glistenedwith sweat, causing the visor in his pressurized helmet to fog.

"Roger, Scotty. Come o heading one-eight-five," added Gonzo.

"Headquarters will take over in about an hour."

Scott leveled off at 40,000 feet then gazed overhead at the vast canopyof stars twinkling against an ink-black sky.

Tonight, for a while at least, with control stick in hand, Scott was apilot.

The Home Team, 1210712014,1045 Zulii, 3:45A.m. Local

ALLIED FORCES COMMAND HEADQUARTERS

CROW's NEST OVERLOOKING THE STRATEGIC DEFENSE INITIATIVE ORGANIZATION(SDIO) WAR Room

CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN, COLORADO

Generals Craven, Mason, and Krol entered the Crow's Nest. Theirbird's-eye view of the War Room never failed to impress Mason. Imageand sonar sensor data collected from all over the world was displayedin real time on the walls. Rigidly suspended sixty feet above theauditorium sized War Room floor, the glass-walled Crow's Nest served asthe Supreme Allied Commander's headquarters.

The Crow's Nest was technically impressive, optimized for reliabilityand function, but from a human perspective, it struck Mason as austere.Divided into a video conference room and two redundant control rooms,the Crow's Nest provided the reliability required for around-the-clockoperation with virtually zero downtime.

A long rectangular steel table dominated the video conference room withstraight back gray chairs arranged in a row down one side. Behindthem-a glass wall overlooking the War Room sixty feet below. Acrossthe table video cameras and TV monitors lined the opposite wall.

Entering the video conference room, General Mason surveyed the facespresent and on screen. Here was Craven's inner sanctum. Everyone waspresent-four military commanders via video link and two civiliansseated at the far end of the table.

One civilian, John Sullivan, came from the Lawrence Livermore NationalLaboratory and had overall DEW SAT responsibility. As a rule, whateverJohn Sullivan said, Mason agreed with. If he gave advice, Mason tookit.

Mason thought Sullivan a gentleman, one of the few remaining in thiscutthroat business. He admired Sullivan and remembered him as a manwith a large family-six grown children who still loved him. In hisearly fifties, Sullivan carried himself like a thirty-year-old. He wasan active man who'd play basketball and tennis full-time if he didn'thave to work for a living. Although his hair was thinning andsilver-gray, his appearance was youthful, his eyes sparkled, and hiscomplexion was a ruddy Irish red.

Thomas Jackson, seated next to Sullivan, was from MIT's LincolnLab-impossible to read, as Mason recalled, but the best radar man inthe business. A slovenly walrus of a man, in face-to-face meetingsJackson simply blended into the background. Mason didn't like the manbut did respect him. Jackson's radar reference handbook, intuition,and technical triumphs were legendary. In effect, Jackson's book hadbecome a piece of the technical furniture, a standard reference citedby everyone in the electromagnetic sciences business. As a result,Jackson had become a very rich, widely sought after technical celebrityof sorts. In his official government capacity, he led two SDItechnology development teams. The first team developed the DEW SAT newradar; the second created invisible, ultra-stealth prototypeaircraft.

On screen, Mason saw an impressive subset of Craven's commanders. Hesmiled, musing to himself that he'd hate to pay the bill for thismeeting.

Both space station commanders, Jay Fayhee and Pasha Yakovlev, attendedvia video link. Pasha Yakovlev was unquestionably the group's spacestation expert. An engineer by training, he knew Hope and Freedom fromthe inside out. He knew their strengths, their capabilities, and theirlimitations better than he knew his own children. Although he neverallowed it to show, the one thing Pasha shared in common with JayFayhee was a deep and inescapable sense of loneliness. From analtitude of 22,000 miles above the earth, Pasha's dreams revolvedaround his wife and three small children as he remembered them fromnearly a full year ago.

Colonel Sam Napper, the SDIO defense force commander, went back a longway with Mason. Old hometown friends and college roommates, the two ofthem had been friends over twenty-five years. Nalter provided Slim areal-time sanity check, and he trusted him in any situation.

Over the years, wherever Mason had gone, Sam Napper had not been farbehind. And this had worked well for both of them. Together they'dlearned that life's ups and downs were easier to face with friends.Their friendship had, grown to the point where each was godfather tothe other s children and more. Much to their delight, Slim's middleson had married Sam's only daughter. Through it all, their adventurousoutlook on life never diminished. When Mason looked at Sam Napper, heremembered himself as a younger man. He remembered his roots-thekindness of his grandparents, the small town he came from, the man heused to be. Sam provided Mason a sense of well-being that comes fromknowing your own heart. As Mason had grown older, he learned with somesadness that who you are is an easy thing to forget. Mason liked to bereminded, and often.

Then there was Hinson. Mason thought CSOC's attack force commander,Colonel Hinson, a careerist prick. No one working under Hinson feltany sense of loyalty to the man. If any subordinate crossed him,Hinson never forgave, he simply got even. Mason would not tolerate ame-first me-only player in a position of responsibility on his team andplanned to remedy this situation ASAP.

Mason noticed Craven waiting impatiently for the meeting to begin andso began his opening remarks.

"Gentlemen-looks like the home team's all here."

"Slim," Craven interrupted,

"I want this meeting to runten minutes max. The agenda's one item long-do we go? I want a go/nogo voice vote and if anyone has a beef, speak now. Hol)e--talk tome."

"We must go"' Hope cominandei- Pasha Yakovlev Ftated emphalicativ.

"Hell fire is bringing replacement parts.

Without them, we have no backup. We could lose all communications."

"We understand your situation," replied General Krol, chewing his pipe.He then spoke Russian, translated as followed.

"Hell Fire will fly to low earth orbit once she's far enough west toclear land. After taking on fuel, she'll arrive on or before 2200(hours Zulu)."

Turning slightly, Craven paused a moment, studying Krol's expression.Satisfied, he asked in English,

"General Krol, what are your feelings?"

"I am satisfied," Krol responded evenly.

"We go."

Colonel Sam Napper, the SDIO defense commander, flashed a thumbs up.

"Freedom's ready. After tonight, stealth cruise missiles will beobsolete." Colonel Napper displayed Freedom's Status Report on screen.All seemed well.

Before Mason finished reading the report, Colonel Hinson chimed in.

"CSOC's go. Our attack program looks good. We're ready, noproblem."

General Mason stood once again, looked across the table and studied thefaces of both technology representatives present. Placing his hands inhis pockets, he spoke slowly, "I think I know the answers to myquestions ... but ... I'm gonna ask 'em anyway. John, are yourLivermore fellas ready?"

"Ready," replied John Sullivan.

DEW SATs tested and lasers are set to tag."

Mason shifted his weight from one leg to the other, obviously notconvinced.

"I get the feeling I'm in a high school pep rally here, fellas. LincolnLab-what's the story on your radar?"

"We're ready," replied Thomas Jackson, Lincoln Lab's rotund technicalguru.

"We've tested these UWB (Ultra WideBand) radars six months-they'restealth proof."

Mason thought the mood of the meeting overly optimistic-a sense ofeuphoria that didn't sit well with him.

He looked quietly into the eyes of each person around the table, thenstudied the faces on screen. Mason spoke sincerely, sliding the rim ofhis round hat through his fingers.

"This cruise missile threat has plagued us for years. Everyone's got'em, we can't detect 'em, and everyone knows it.

We've had problems in the past and. . ."

"Thanks, Slim-I hear you," Craven interrupted. He sounded sincere, buthis gut feeling told him to go for it. He spoke decisively.

"Let's do it. Let nothing stand in our way!"

The Dorito, 1210712014,"44 Zulu, 3:44 A.M. Local

EF-12 WII.D WEASEL,

ALTITUDE: 75,000 FEET,

TACO-SHAPED FLIGHT PATTERN OVER EDWARDS AFB

Painted matte black, the McDonnell Douglas EF-12 flying wing vanishedagainst the night sky. Triangular-shaped, the EF-12's wingspan wasabout seventy feet with power provided by twin General Electric F404engines. Tonight, the EF-12 Avenger-a radar jammer aircraft nicknamed"the Dorito"-would blind Centurion's orbiting armada with broadspectrum, high-power electromagnetic noise.

Raised on horseback, Dorito pilot Captain

"Cowboy" Murray Hill grew up punching cattle on his family's west Texasranch. On the high plains, Cowboy found his future prospects limitedto football, cattle ranching, and roughneck work on oil rigs. He wasgood at all three but wanted more. Using football as his ticket tocollege, he was very much the typical west Texas rancher-athlete untilhe discovered flying. The Air Force ROTC flight program changed hislife forever. Precise, private, and sometimes prickly, Cowboy used hisbrains and brawn to move first through college, then flight school atReese AFB outside Lubbock, Texas. Once he'd learned to pilot theDorito flying wing, he packed his Tony Llama cowboy boots, left big skycountry, and never looked back.

"Cowboy, this is Big Shot," crackled over the Dorito pilot'sheadset.

"Enter crypt key. Ground control be gins in sixty seconds." Cowboysmirked. The call sign Big Shot fit the Cheyenne Mountain Headquartersorganization like a glove. To avoid revealing his position, hemaintained radio silence. Entering an eight character decryption key,he watched the link status lights turn green as the receiver locked onHeadquarter's control transmission.

"Bulldog control link is secure and operational." Cowboy spoke to hisback-seater, Bulldog, in a matter-of-fact tone. Bulldog looked thepart-a stocky Georgia boy with short brown hair, large head, and astrong square jaw-consequently his call sign stuck.

"Roger, Cowboy. Satellite link is go."

"Cowboy, this is Big Shot. Enable control link on my mark."

"Brace yourself, Bulldog." Cowboy slid his thumb down the controlstick, carefully lifting a red protective switch cover labeled WARNING:CONTROL SELECT. Immediately, the suluy female voice of the flightcomputer repeated an audible warning designed to attract any malepilot's attention. He had anticipated her warning, but his hands feltcold and clammy. In less than ten seconds he would hand over flightcontrol to Cheyenne Mountain.

"Mark," said Big Shot. Cowboy thought this han doff was too easy forHeadquarters; he put his life on the line-they had nothing to lose.

"She's all yours." Hill held his breath and threw the CONTROL SELECTswitch.

"Roger that," Bulldog confirmed.

"HQ is flying the wing."

"Took over without a glitch." Shaking his head in disbelief, Cowboynever took his hand off the stick.

The Assault by Sea, 1210712014, 1144 Zulu, 3:44 A.M. local

SUBMARINE USS ST ENNIS

PACIFIC OCEAN 37 MiLEs DUE WEST OF SANTA CRUZ, CALIFORNIA The USSStennis crept along at periscope depth, drifting slowly with justenough speed to maintain steering, perfectly quiet, waiting forHeadquarters to take control via satellite link. She'd been inposition only fifteen minutes with her communications mast protrudingabove the surface, thirty-seven miles due west of Santa Cruz,California.

The USS Stennis, a 362-foot-long Los Angeles-class fast attacksubmarine, listened attentively to the submarine communicationssatellite.

The boat's skipper double-checked the time. Reluctantly, he lifted hisphone and patched into the communications shack.

Clear Water downlink status?"

"No change, Cap'n. Threat board data is real-time. Link fullyoperational."

"And the direct link from Headquarters?"

"Control link is go."

"Very well then." Satisfied, the skipper shifted his gaze to theofficer of the deck (OOD).

"What's showing on the threat board? Any contacts?"

Scanning the threat board from his forward watch station, the OODsummarized their situation.

"We're all alone out here, Skipper, clear horizon to horizon. Nearestsurface contact-thirty miles due east, just off the coast. Singlesubmerged contact bearing Southwest at two hundred miles.

Airspace overhead is clear."

In the U.S. Navy's vernacular, Clear Water-the submarine reconnaissancesatellite network-provided a means for detecting submerged submarinesby electronically transforming turbulent black seawater into a calmclear liquid.

Clear Water rendered the oceans virtually transparent, ergo the codename. The first operational crown jewel in the SDI spacereconnaissance program, Clear Water satellites detected submarines bytheir wake track using microwave reflections from the sea surface.Reconnaissance satellitesphotographed ocean surface waves, then Centurion electronicallysmoothed them-technicians described this stage as calming the waters-byfiltering out effects due to surface current, ships, and weather. Aftercalming the waters, each computer-enhanced picture of the ocean surfacelooked glassy smooth and highly reflective-like the surface of aglistening Christmas ball-except for telltale Vshaped scratches, akasubmarine tracks. Created by surface wake, these V-shaped scratchesmarked the submarine's trail, and, to the hunter's advantage, inaverage seas this trail persisted long after the boat had passed.

So successful was this submarine detection idea in practice that theocean depths became, for strategic purposes, transparent. Polar iceand deep water (greater than 100 meters) emerged as the only place asubmarine might hide.

But Clear Water is another story.

The skipper picked up his phone again and patched into the sonarroom.

"Sonar, any contacts? Did Clear Water miss anything?"

"No contacts, Captain. We confirm the threat board read.

Area is clear of any possible threats."

"That is good." Nodding approval to the OOD, the skipper continued.

"Very well-give Headquarters the boat."

"Aye, Captain."

Much to the skipper's relief, the transition to Headquarters's controlwas smooth. Confident all was well, he studied the faces of his crew.They handle this better than I, he thought. The crew gazed intently attheir instrumentation and seemed relaxed with "hands-off 'boatcontrol.

"Steady as she goes, Captain," the OOD reported.

"Flight profile download now under way."

The skipper stood silent, ready by the phone, listening intently to thesounds inside his electric boat.

"Guidance system update complete, Captain. Weapons are warm and readyto fire." Immediately, three sets of missile indicators flashed abright lethal green, then the hull of the Stennis echoed with the rushof water and air. The hull groaned due to the pressure changes insidethe tubes.

"Torpedo tubes one, two, and three are ready in all respects," the OODcontinued.

"Outer doors are opened.

Tubes now ready to launch the weapons."

The younger crewmen looked to the skipper for some sign of reassurance.The commanding officer forced a tight-jawed grin, then raised one handwith a "not to worry" gesture.

"Captain, launch cycle in progress."

The sound of water ramming the weapons into the sea echoed throughoutthe boat.

Outside, three cruise missiles packaged inside torpedo shaped cylindersheaded for the surface. Once topside, the weapons fired their boosterrockets, erupted from the nose of the cylinders, and thrust out of thewater. Now airborne, the missiles tilted over, ignited their airbreathing engines, and headed for the Nevada Test Site at about 500knots.

Meanwhile down below, the horrendous sounds of missiles firing overheadconvinced the skipper their cruise launch was successful. He must nowassume their position no longer secret.

"Our job is done," the skipper announced.

"Give me the boat."

"With pleasure, Captain." The OOD disconnected the link with the flipof a switch.

"She's all yours!"

"Depth under the keel?"

"Three hundred fifty feet."

"Take her dowrt to one five zero; all ahead one third."

His immediate priority was to silently hide his boat under thepitch-black veil of the Pacific for, to most, the oceans remainedopaque.

"Aye, Captain." The OOD repeated the orders to the crew.

The hull of the USS Stennis filled with the sounds of rushing water asthe ballast tanks opened. Minutes later, surrounded by total darkness,the Stennis slowed her descent at 130 feet. She settled at 150 andsilently headed north-northwest out to sea.

The Real-time Run, 1210712014, 1145 Zulu, 4:45 A.m. Local CROW's NESTOVERLOOKING THE SDIO WAR Room,

CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN, COLORADO

"Hinson-you ready to run?" Craven questioned his attack forcecommander via video link.

"All assets are in position and ready, Sir." Checking the missionclock, he continued.

"Kickoff in twenty-two seconds."

"Colonel- what about Centurion's activity log?" Mason asked.

"We'll cover it when the time comes."

"The time has come." Mason thought Hinson on the fast track allright-right out the door. There was no time to deal with Hinson beforethe test, but the right time would come-soon.

"We're on the air!" Hinson interrupted. Headquarters now remotelycontrolled Hinson's attack forces. Next, he'd simulate a large scaleICBM attack.

"The fireworks should begin in ten seconds."

All eyes focused on the big blue ball. From inside the Crow's Nest,Craven and his general staff overlooked the blue ball, a large, slowlyrotating hologram of the earth, twice the size of the one on Freedom.

Suddenly, thousands of white blips appeared covering the globe. Krolwinced, biting his pipe stem so hard it cracked. As a test sequence,this attack scenario stressed Centurion's computing power to thelimits.

Craven walked outside the Crow's Nest onto a connecting walkway for abetter view. Looking down, he felt lightheaded due to the dizzyingheight above the War Room floor. Trembling, he felt suddenlynauseated, nervous, and very weak. Craven hated full-scale SDI testingbecause it was too damn realistic. The scale was overwhelming. Insidethe walls of the War Room, the tests looked, sounded, and felt largerthan life. Emotionally involved with the testing, Craven knew he'dlost his objective edge.

But the future of his organization find the Allied Forces hinged on thesuccess of these tests.

Craven drew in a deep breath, reminding himself again that this wasonly a test. Try as he might, he could not steady his hands. He'doften joked that he should get into another line of work, but now hewas ready to take his own advice. He'd been in the business longenough and needed to retire.

Watching the test progress, the calm, orderly mood of the War Roomtransitioned to noisy chaos-a human beehive of activity that seemed tofeed on itself.

This realism adversely affected the nerves and health of the War Roomstaff, so frequent job rotation was the rule.

These tests bothered Mason as well, but he worked to stay ahead of thegame by constantly anticipating what should happen next.

Mason knew the missiles were simulated, but he never became accustomedto such large-scale realistic testing-he could never completely detachhimself. As the simulated missiles closed in over the North Pole,Mason recalled a quote from the Hindu scriptures. J. RobertOppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, used this quote describinghis feelings as he watched the detonation of the first atomic bomb-"Iam become death, the destroyer of worlds."

Mason felt, though only for an instant, as if he was watching the endof the world. This stifling, morose feeling shook Mason and remindedhim once again of the bloodybusiness he'd chosen as his profession. He hated war above all elsand felt it good to be reminded of this-and often.

"Keep your eyes on the California coast," Hinson announced.

Simultaneously, six white blips appeared. Three cruise missiles fromthe Stennis, three from Hell Fire.

"We can see 'em," Craven observed with considerable satisfaction.

Colonel Sam Napper sat on the edge of his seat, pounding his console.

"Show me some red and we're halfway home!" If Centurion confirmed themissiles as a real threat, the missile tracks would change color,indicating the most difficult technical aspect of the test was behindthem.

Then suddenly, it happened-all six blips turned red.

After years of testing and frustration, they could finally detectstealth cruise missiles.

And-if they could detect them, they could kill them.

"Yes! Yes! We have a winner! Look out, Disney Worldhere we come!"Napper hooted, throwing his headset into the air. His vacation plansalong with those of Craven's entire general staff hinged on the outcomeof these tests. He had a full month of leave scheduled aroundChristmas and was ready to collect.

As the simulated missile traces over Russia approached the North Pole,they began disappearing. Within minutes, only six red blips remained,all converging in unison on the Nevada Test Site.

Just as Craven was beginning to feel good about his chances forsuccess, he noticed a young airman talking to Hinson, shaking his headin apparent confusion, on the video conference line. Craven looked atMason.

"What's your read so far?"

"The game's not over till it's over, General. Something's going on inCSOC." Turning to the video conference camera, Mason spoke into themicrophone.

"Hinson-you got any problem there we need to know about?"

"Nothing of consequence, Sir ... that activity log."

"Yeah, what about it?' "My people-uh-well, we can't. . ." Hinsonpaused and considered his statement.

"We're going through some start-up problems with Centurion's activitylog, Sir."

Mason raised both eyebrows. Something wasn't right here.

"Colonel-let me speak to the person you put in charge."

Hinson motioned to a frightened airman with eyes the size of silverdollars. The lanky young man approached the video camera and stoodsilent.

Mason smiled to put him at ease.

"What's your name, son?"

"Airman first-class Harold Harrison, Sir."

"Harold, I need your help." Judgink from his expression, Masonconcluded the young airman looked wi - Iling.

"What seems to be the problem?"

"The raw activity log output is difficult to-it's overwhelming us here... there's millions of lines of output.

We can't make heads or tails out of it ... Sir."

Hinson snatched the young airman away from the video camera's field ofview.

"I ordered him to ignore the activity log, General."

"Now is not the time or place, Colonel, but we need to talk about thisone." Mason spoke to Hinson in a quiet voice for emphasis, then made amental note to correct their management problem before their next testrun. Turning away, Mason watched the missiles closing slowly on theNevada Test Side.

Hinson checked his mission clock.

"Whiteout over Edwards," he warned, shielding his eyes with his hand.Once the electronic jamming began, the airspace display turned abrilliant white.

The DEW SAT Pix, 1210712014,1200 Zulu, 4:00 A.M. LocalALTITUDE: 80,000 FEET,

HEADING: DUE WEST,

DiRECTLY OVER SAN DIEGO,

HELL FIRE

Scott saw the lights of San Diego ahead on the horizon, but knew herback-seater and cameraman had their eyes fixedon their instruments. Scanning her instruments, she kept one hand onthe stick, the other on the throttle, tracking every move theHeadquarters computer made.

"Mac-got any pix?" Just then, Scott noticed two camera indicatorlights turn green in the reconnaissance bay.

Pressing two switches, she routed both camera images to her splitscreen display.

"IR camera's locked on," Mac replied with a great sense ofsatisfaction.

"Pix coming up."

To lock on a low orbiting satellite moving over 17,000 miles an hourdue north from a westbound plane was like shooting skeet off a flatbedtruck racing over the winding potholed streets of Boston.

For a few moments, the TV monitors displayed only empty black sky. Thecameras were tracking two DEW SATS One rising above Hell Fire'ssouthern horizon racing north, the second was about to drop below thenorthern horizon. Once locked, a series of adjustable tracking mirrorspivoted, positioning each satellite image in the center of the viewingscreen. Suddenly, two sunflower-shaped greenish images appeared out ofthe blackness.

"Excellent," exclaimed Gonzo. Immediately, his expression turnedtroubled.

"Those DEW SATs look hot as hell."

"The pix don't lie," Scott said dispassionately.

"Those hot spots are the laser's diamond lens and reactor core."

"So those sunflowers're going to put us out of a job,"

Mac said in disbelief.

"Don't underestimate the opposition, Mac. That's a twenty-megawattlaser, enough to knock anything out of the air."

"But if it can't see us, it can't shoot us," Mac replied confidently.

"Our stealth days are numbered, Mac. It's inevitable.

They're not smart, they're genius weapons. They can tell thedifference between missiles, ASATS, decoys-you name the target, theycan pick it out."

"I gotta see it to believe it."

"I'd hate to have that DEW SAT bear down on me,"

Gonzo lamented quietly.

"Glad that laser's backed off."

"Roger that, Gonzo," Mac replied somberly.

"That sucker'd punch a hole in your best intentions."

The Decoy, 1210712014, 1209 Zulu, 5:09 A.m. Local

CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN, COLORADO

The projected picture of the California coast suddenly looked like awhiteout in a snowstorm, a radiant white blank screen.

Mason squinted.

"No problem with the picture, General," Napper said calmly.

"Jammers came on-line as scheduled. Centurion'll clean it up."

Seconds later. Centurion did exactly that and the satellite picture ofCalifornia emerged from the veil of television like interference. Thesix red cruise missile blips had disappeared, replaced by hundreds ofwhite blips, each heading a different direction, speed, and altitude.

Mason studied the picture for a moment.

"Phantom Hawks cut in." The Phantom Hawk cruise missiles launched fromthe USS Stennis and Hell Fire carried an electronic countermeasurespackage that produced false radar return signals. To radar, thesefalse signals looked like hundreds of cruise missiles.

"Yes sir-Centurion's got his hands full, but this is our last majorhurdle." Napper watched the blips advance in seemingly everydirection.

"Centurion's gotta sort the real targets from the decoys."

Every fifteen seconds or so, the missile tracks methodicallydisappeared. The northbound missile tracks all disappeared at once,then the westbound tracks disappeared, then the southbound, andfinally, all but three eastbound tracks vanished.

Three missile traces heading east toward the Nevada Test Site remained,but three were missing.

Target Discrimination, 1210712014, 121 0 Zulu

ALTITUDE: 11 5 MILES IN POLAR ORBIT,

ONBOARD A DEW SAT

First and foremost, the DEW SAT was designed to automatically protectitself against anything and any condition that could cause failure.

And it would do so-in the blink of an eye.

When the two Phantom Hawk cruise missiles simultaneously powered on,they began transmitting hundreds of false targets. The sudden increasein targets immediately overloaded the DEW SAT tracking system and itsprogrammed response was automatic. Detecting the sudden increase intargets, the DEW SAT computer brain woke up, increased its laser poweroutput to a dangerous three percent, and automatically began separatingfalse targets from the real ones.

The DEW SAT was designed to discriminate targets (separate falsetargets from real ones) using a technique involving burn-through. Asmall fraction of the power needed to destroy a booster rocket wouldmelt a hole through a lightweight decoy, and this hole could bedetected by the DEW SAT infrared heat sensors.

Heating up suspected targets, the DEW SAT began separating falsetargets from real ones, aka searching for melted holes.

A short message was transmitted to Centurion: DEW SAT status change:Target Discrimination Mode enabled Centurion placed this message, alongwith tens of millions of other messages, in his activity log.

Trouble, 1210712014, 1210 Zulu, 5:10 A.m. Local Staring at the map,Mason's eyes opened wider. Unbelievably, three missiles haddisappeared. He glanced at Hinson on screen and found him oblivious towhat had happened. Mason glanced around the room and realized that noone fully understood what had just happened.

Most of the War Room staff stared at the screen uncomprehending.Raising his eyebrows, he spoke to, Craven

"Trouble."

"Yeah-I can count." Craven grimaced.

"Hinson-talk to me-now damn it. What the hell happened?"

Hinson had been confident that Centurion'd have no problem thinning outthe decoy missiles. He casually glanced at the map, then pulled adouble take.

"Uhwe're working the issue, General."

"Exactly what are you doing about it, Hinson?"

"Collecting my best people, Sir."

"How long's that gonna take?"

"They'll be working it within the hour."

"An hour's not going to do us much good. I need to know what happenedto those missiles now."

"General," Mason interrupted softly after talking with his Russiancomrade, General Yuri Krol.

"Let Yuri's folks at Kaliningrad comb through Centurion's activity logASAP. That log contains raw test data. They'll find the problem."

Mason looked at Krol.

"Maybe ten to twenty minutes?"

"With luck ... five minutes." Krol nodded calmly.

"Do it," Craven ordered.

Krol punched up Kaliningrad on the videophone and got his peoplemoving.

Mason took his fist and rapped on Colonel Napper's monitor to get hisattention.

"Sam-listen up. Confirmation-we need confirmation. Any chance thosemissiles might be airborne but Centurion can't see 'em?"

"I'm checking. Give me a minute." Napper displayed a target trackingwindow.

"No, Sir, those birds are down.

Last positive track occurred just before the Phantom Hawks went active.Plenty of margin-signal to noise looked darn good. If those missileswere flying, we could see 'em."

Mason gazed at the ceiling for a few moments, struggling to find anapproach to the problem.

"Do we have any cruise missile experts local?"

"I'm with you, General," replied Napper, listening over the conferenceline.

"Name's Schindler, Joe Schindler ... guy's brilliant ... give 'im thesituation-he'll size it up-make the call."

Napper bridged Joe on the conference call then summarized thesituation.

"How're these missiles configured?" asked Joe.

"I can answer that, General," Hinson interrupted like a child seekingattention.

"Master/slave ... the Phantom and Hammer Hawks're slaved to the JammerHawk."

Schindler concentrated, sipping on a large mug of hot coffee.

"And the Dorito's jammer turned on immediately before the missilesdisappeared?"

"That's about the size of it," Napper replied without emotion.

"I'll give you my best guess," Schindler responded.

"We're asking for your opinion," Napper said anxiously.

"What's your analysis?"

"Short and sweet: Hell Fire's Jammer Hawk flew into the ground and thetwo slave Hawks blindly followed."

Craven clearly disagreed.

"So why would the Jammer Hawk fly into the ground in the firstplace?"

"Interference from the Dorito's jammer confused the Hawk's navigationsystem and caused the crash. The Jammer Hawk's not sensitive to itsown interference but could be confused by a powerful separate jammersource."

"Well," said Craven, somewhat satisfied, "that's one problem thatdidn't show up in Hinson's simulations.

Sounds like we can rest easy."

"I respectfully disagree, General," said Mason.

"It's his best guess-shouldn't be overrated. We haven't heard fromYuri's folks."

There were a lot of experts answering questions around the War Room,and often even the questions weren't clear. When Mason had somethingto say, he'd say it. If he didn't know the answer to a question, hewouldn't lie.

Craven admired Mason's honesty and intellect. Above all else, Cravenbelieved Mason would do what was right, regardless of theconsequences.

Mason argued for caution and rightly so. Schindler's analysis wasaccurate, but based on insufficient data, his conclusion was wrong.

The Signal, 1210712014, 1211 Zulu

OVER THE PACIFIC OCEAN,

430 MILES WEST OF SAN DIEGO,

HELL FIRE

Flying above a turbulent electrical storm with a canopy of starsoverhead, Scott watched lightning flashes illuminate the boilingthunderheads below. Suddenly, she felt her stick and rubber pedalsmoving, placing Hell Fire in a gradual banking turn, positioning herfor launch into low earth orbit.

"Launch sequence commences in two minutes.

Sit tight once we come out of this bank."

"Uh-oh," Mac exclaimed, measuring a sudden increase in laser power onHell Fire's back. Translated, uh-oh could only mean trouble.

Attached to Hell Fire's upper wing surfaces, like an array of Post-itnotes, Hell Fire carried laser sensor panels for this war game of lasertag. Operating like a Nintendo game, panels illuminated by the DEW SATlaser scored a hit.

Mac checked the cooling pumps.

"Slush pumps're wideopen-skin temp's soaring-we're running out of margin fast."

Watching a screen full of error messages scroll by, Gonzo grimaced.

"Radio performance is degrading across all bands, Scotty. We're losingsignal-error rates climbing on every channel."

"Something's changing somewhere!" Mac exclaimed.

"Eight panels are going dark on me-output power's dropping to zip."

After acquiring Hell Fire with radar, the DEW SAT painted her with itslethal laser powered to three percent.

Once the DEW SAT locked on Hell Fire, there was nothing Scott could doto shake it-there was no place to hide.

Mac read the temperature of each panel in disbelief, pounded hismeasurement equipment, then read the temperatures again.

"Something's flaky. These temps don't make sense."

"Talk to me, Mac. What's happening?" Scott's tone was tense as shewatched Hell Fire's skin temperature rising.

Simultaneously, Scott and Mac noticed an alarming pattern. Most of thepanels were white-hot, a condition which should not exist, assuming theDEW SAT laser's power was safely throttled back. A few panels showedrapidly changing temperature-white-hot one second, ice cold the next.Fast temperature changes couldn't be easily explained, they were tooincredible to believe-didn't make any sense-at first.

"What if those panels are damaged? Maybe burned off" Scott asked.

"Damaged panels might explain those hot 'n' cold readings." Mac hadnot fully worked through the consequences of her question-his tone wastentative. Mac read the panel temperatures for the third time and thereality of their situation chilled him like a cold wind.

"Comm failure," interrupted Gonzo, staring at an array of red alarmindicators. In the blink of an eye, every VHF/UHF radio failed. Theirunthinkable fear played out in real time-the DEW SAT was hot.

Hell Fire was exposed to laser illumination from overhead. Buriedslightly below the surface of the XR-30's skin lay her radioantennas-large conformal arrays of microstrip antennas. Seconds afterthe panels began to fail, the intricate thin metal strip antennasvaporized.

"Snap one-eighty," Scott warned, exposing Hell Fire's underbelly to thelaser illumination from overhead. She flew inverted because the slushcooling system more effectively cooled reentry hot spots on the XR-30'sunderbelly.

"Mac-panel temp?"

"Dropping fast. No doubt about it-that laser's hot!"

Scott spoke to Gonzo in a low Controlled voice.

"Spin up an ASAT-lock it on that hot laser."

"Roger, Scotty." Gonzo toggled switches, rotating a missile bay withinHell Fire's short stubby wings. An ASAT launched from Hell Fire athyper sonic speed must be thrust downward well clear of the XR-30, thenignited.

"Weapon's locked on target but we'll never catch it."

"ASAT's an abort signal. Headquarters won't be expecting it. Sittight. I'm gonna light the wick." Igniting the booster rocket, Scottstood Hell Fire on her tail and flew directly toward the DEW SAT

Belching flames in her wake, Hell Fire accelerated through Mach 2 witha thunderous roar. When Scott increased throttle bn the six ramjets,the Rocketdyne engine automatically shut down as they passed Mach 3.Although the six jet engines in Hell Fire's belly were screaming, thecockpit seemed much quieter once the rocket shut down.

Concentrating on her instruments, Scott didn't even notice.

"Glad that noisy sucker's off," Mac quipped.

"Good news."

"Must be the laser."

"Right-laser's backed off-looks normal."

"That DEW SAT must have seen what it was looking for." Scott thoughtfor a moment. She knew DEW SATs sensed heat, reflected laser light,and radar energy. The only possible connection she could make, and itwas a stretch, was Hell Fire's rocket engine. When she ignitedit, the laser backed off.

"Maybe it backed off once it detected our heat plume."

"Sounds logical, but we only have one data point. Suggest we stick toour original plan." Gonzo thought sending a signal to Headquartersmade sense.

"We're not safe till we're above that DEW SAT layer."

"Roger that, SAESO," Scott said in a pragmatic tone.

"Make the ASAT ready to fire."

During the transition from rocket to ramjet power, Hell Fire developeda fiery comet like tail extending over ten miles long-spectacular tosee, but costly in fuel. Once convinced the ramjets were performing tospec, Scott "trimmed Hell Fire's tail" by eliminating the fieryhydrogen plume trailing behind each engine. Rotating a thumb wheel shewatched the engine's exhaust gas analyzer change from saturated tooptimal. After repeating this procedure for each engine, she lockedfuel flow control to the flight computer.

Hell Fire's air-breathing engines performed to Scott's expectations.The thrust from Hell Fire's belly accelerated the craft predictablyalong their flight trajectory toward low earth orbit.

"Eighty thousand feet-Mach five-tail's trimmed."

Scott paused, reading her analyzer.

"I show six optimal burns."

"Bobtail confirmed, Scotty," Gonzo observed, looking over hisshoulder.

"Scramjet transition coming up." Hell Fire's flight computercontrolled scramjet transition by reconfiguring fuel and air flowthrough the six ramjets.

Ramjets propelled Hell Fire to speeds of Mach 6, sc ramjets thrust herto Mach 22 past 180,000 feet. At speeds above Mach 22, the Rocketdyneengine kicked in with the final punch required for orbital insertion.Getting into orbit required speeds between Mach 22 and Mach 25-over17,000 miles an hour.

"Scramjet transition complete-tail's trim," Scott said one minutelater. The adjustable teeth in Hell Fire's air breathing mouth (hingedrectangular flaps) retracted, allowing air from her compression ramp toenter her engines at supersonic speeds. This supersonic air was ductedaround each compressor, injected with fuel, and ignited toward the rearof the engines.

"Roger-bobtail's confirmed," replied Gonzo.

"On course-Mach six at eighty-seven thousand feet."

After all six engines transitioned from ramjet to scramjet operation,Scott and Gonzo caught their last look at the stars just before theheat shield automatically "rolled up,"

completely sealing off the cockpit. Flying with the heat shieldextended was much like flying with a blackout bag over the cockpit.Once the cockpit heat shield was extended, Scott and Gonzo dependectone hundred percent on instruments.

"Keep those deflector shields up," Mac quipped, teasing his pilot witha Star Trek one-liner.

"Pray for a smooth ride till OIB (Orbital Insertion Burn). We'll needall the help we can get."

Scott was flying Hell Fire into low earth orbit, pushing her through anarrow performance envelope with exact timing and precision. Nothingin Hell Fire's flight trajectory could be left to chance. Monitoringaltitude, direction, and speed, she simultaneously adjusted herthrottles and rate of climb. Hell Fire's velocity and altitude had toincrease within the limits set by her launch envelope or she would runout of fuel, never achieving the escape velocity required for orbit.Hell Fire's speed and altitude were unprecedented for an air-breathing,single-stage aircraft. No other plane ever built could fly as fast,high, or as far as the XR-30.

Scott described Hell Fire as an enormous flying engine.

The XR-30 was the follow-on to the Space Shuttle, but had also replacedthe aging Aurora spy plane. (In its day, the Aurora had replaced theSR-71 Blackbird.) One look at Hell Fire and you knew she was anextraordinary airplane. The front two thirds of Hell Fire's bodylooked like the head of a great white shark with its mouth wide-open,sucking air into its massive propulsion system.

Her mouth was lined with rows of retractable teeth which controlled thespeed of air flowing into her engines. If youstood in front of her, looking into her cavernous air breathing mouth,the mammoth spectacle inspired awe, admiration-even wonder.

At hyper sonic speeds. Hell Fire was lifted into the air by theaerodynamic shape of her body rather than her wings. Hell Fire's wide"lifting body" design also provided space for a large fuel tank and acompression ramp which guided air into her propulsion system. Atspeeds above Mach 1, Hell Fire's "all moving" wings were locked inneutral position. Below Mach 1, her wings were unlocked, providingboth the lift and the control surface required for pitch, roll, and yawmaneuvers.

The original X-30 was a two-seat aircraft about the size of a DouglasDC-10, weighing 200,000 pounds, and 150 feet long. Hell Fire was anXR-30, an X-30 stretched to 200 feet, weighing 250,000 pounds, matteblack, built of titanium and carbon composites, modified to includemore powerful scramjet engines, four reconnaissance equipment bays, anda third seat for the reconnaissance systems operator inside the nose.

"Gonzo-open outer doors and launch the weapon," ordered Scott, watchingher airspeed indicator.

"Show Headquarters a signal they can't miss."

"Roger, Scotty. Configuration complete. Weapon is warm and ready tofire." Next, he placed the launch sequence under automatic firecontrol.

Ejecting an ASAT missile out from inside Hell Fire's stubby wing whilemoving at Mach 8 created two intense shock waves. One shock wave wouldviolently shake the crew. and the second would shake the ASAT missilelike a baby's rattle.

Gonzo read off the missile countdown sequence.

"Ten, nine, eight . . ." Beep ... beep ... beep. beeeeeeeeeeeepechoed over his headset.

"Oh shit!" Gonzo spoke in short bursts.

"Threat detection. Another DEW SAT rising over our southern horizon,closing fast. It's locked on-illuminated us in five bands already.Signal strength is getting hotter. " Scott grimaced.

"Lock another . .

Barooom! Hell Fire shook violently from the shock wave.

"Northbound weapon away," Gonzo announced, watching the missile streakaway on video.

"Ignition confirmed.

Well clear of Hell Fire-track looks good."

"Headquarters will see it," Scott said softly.

"We're in the heat again!" interrupted Mac.

"Same story but our skin temp's rising. Much hotter and we'rehistory!" Mac had good reason to worry. He was surrounded bythousands of pounds of slush hydrogen fuel.

Hell Fire's cryogenic fuel tanks, holding hydrogen chilled to435degrees F, had to be lightweight and thin-walled because of her largesize. In addition, hydrogen fuel was circulated as a coolantthroughout Hell Fire's skin, absorbing heat from her hot spots. If theDEW SAT laser heated her skin beyond 5,000 degrees F, her thin-walledfuel tank would rupture and Hell Fire would certainly live up to hername, exploding into an enormous white-hot fireball streaking acrossthe night sky.

"Lock an ASAT on it. That DEW SAT moving toward us. We'll knock itout of commission."

Gonzo watched the weapon's lock light turn green.

"Weapon ready to shoot. DEW SAT closing fast."

"Shoot Gonzo ... shoot."

BAROOOM! Hell Fire shook like a rattlesnake's tail, battering Scott,Mac, and Gonzo violently from side to side. Once the shock wavepassed, Gonzo focused his eyes again.

"ASAT's away and clear." Watching the rocket engine ignite on screen,he felt satisfied that he'd done all he could do-for now.

"Hoooooeeeeee!" hollered Mac, watching the weapon take flight.

"We'll knock that sucker outta the sky!"

"Mac-how about a visual?"

"Watch your monitor. Camera's swinging into position now-hold it-yeah,we got 'em both-ASAT rightDEWSAT left."

"Gonzo, give us the blow-by-blow." Scott expected Gonzo to call theaction like a horse race. She wasn't disappointed.

Gonzo began his narrative in a monotone.

"And they're off. Southbound ASAT missile's accelerating through Machtwelve ... four minutes to impact ... track looks good ... speed's Machfifteen plus ... closing fast. Altitude fifty miles ... seventy ...eighty ... closing on target ... easy money's on the ASAT ... onehundred miles high and closing . . ."

Mesmerized, Mac stared at his screen. Suddenly, he noticed twogreenish hot spots glowing on the ASAT. TheIR pictures showed them inminute detail.

"Hot spots! The weapon's taking the heat. We're cooling off!" Macwatched his monitor in disbelief.

"I can't believe this is ... oh my God."

The southbound ASAT exploded into a large ball of fiery gasses.

Hell Fire's intercom was silent-no one could speak.

Scott, Mac, and Gonzo sat spellbound, their eyes transfixed on theirmonitors. For a few moments that seemed to last an eternity, theASAT's image burned an intense bright green, completely washing overthe screen.

DEW SAT must have punched a hole in the fuel tank to cause an explosionlike that," Gonzo observed quietly.

He checked the progress of his first missile.

"Our northbound ASAT's going ballistic-falling out of the sky. It'llburn up in the atmosphere."

"Regroup, fellas." Scott spoke with a strained tone of urgency in hervoice.

"Headquarters saw our signal.

They'll call off the dogs."

Mac cut in as soon as Scott released her microphone switch.

"Heat's on. We're running white-hot."

"Snap one-eighty. Keep your heads on straight," urged Scott, prayingfor strength.

"Temp's approaching redline." Mac's face, covered with beaded sweat,glistened under his cockpit lights.

"Forty-five hundred degrees and rising."

Scott closed her eyes, blocking out the bright red distractionsflashing across the cockpit. It was a wonder she could think at allconsidering the myriad of warning messages flashing in her face.Concentrating intensely, looking for some pattern, she gave theirsituation a good think.

Heat. Show their fiery plume.

"I wanna play a long shot."

"Laser's hot as hell-go for it!"

Scott flipped switches, placing scramjet fuel control in manual mode.Turning the fuel mixture thumb wheels dumping more fuel into eachengine, she ordered: "Mac, watch my tail. We're running rich."

Mac pivoted an IR camera on Hell Fire's tail.

"Got it, Scotty. We're running full plume!"

"Watch that laser, Mac. Let me 'know if you see any change."

"What're you thinking?"

"Heat-heat could be our ticket. If that laser'd been running fullpower, it would have blown us out of the sky a long time ago-but thoseDEW SATs seem to cycle.

They go hot, then back off. Who knows? Maybe that DEW SAT looking forheat-so we'll show 'em heat!"

"You're right. There's a pattern to it."

"How's your slush temp looking, Mac? Circulation pumps wide open?"

"Slush temps high, about the same as reentry. That cooling system'ssaving us-from a big hole, I mean."

"Roger that. Just keep that cooling system running."

"Laser's backing off!"

"Thank God," Scott whispered.

"We've seen that pattern before." Gonzo admired Scott's cool head in atight situation.

"Your heat plume call was on the money."

"Hope so," she replied, checking her fuel.

"Gonzohow long can we run full plume?"

Gonzo punched in their rate of fuel consumption. Unseen behind hisvisor, the corners of his mouth dropped.

"We're outta luck. To maintain enough fuel for our low orbit dockingmaneuver-two more minutes max. You're running afterburner fuelconsumption rates, Scotty, but no extra kick."

Scott trimmed Hell Fire's tail immediately and returned fuel flowcontrol to the flight computer.

"Mac-how's my tail?" asked Scott.

"Bobbed," replied Mac. Gonzo smiled briefly, thinking about Scotty'sfine tail.

"How's it looking, Mac? We hot?"

"So far, so good." Mac responded with a cautious smile. He wasfeeling better about their situation-cautious, but optimistic. Nobodyhad any idea why, but for some reason, showing a fiery plume kept theDEW SAT laser throttled back.

A few minutes earlier, Mac would have sold his chances for a woodennickel, but now he believed they were going to make it.

TDM Operations, 1210712014,1215 Zulu, 5:15 A.M. Local

CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN, COLORADO

High Ground testing was progressing, but not smoothly.

After toiling through countless pages of test data, Mason looked up atCraven.

"I don't like it, I don't like it at all.

Something's gone wrong here. I can feel it."

Craven's face took a hard set.

"We're not bailing outta this test based on a hunch!"

Crushing his military round hat into a tight ball, Mason struggled toconvey his thoughts with an even tone.

"Take a look at our situation, General. We have symptoms of at leastone problem, maybe more-we just don't know.

Hell Fire broke off our satellite link and we don't know why. Weshould've heard something. Three missiles are missing-presumed downand we can't explain it. There's insufficient data to form anyconclusion, but we guess they flew into the ground. Well, I don'tbelieve it. We've got trouble staring us in the face and don't knowhow to interpret the symptoms."

"Decisions are always based on our best available information, Slim,and that information will always be incomplete."

"I understand that, but during this testing, we need to know what'shappening in real time. Centurion's log is the only way I know to getthere. I'd feel better if we had a clean bill of health fromKaliningrad."

"No news is good news."

"I disagree, General, but I hope you're right. The longer Yuri'speople take, the greater the chance they've found trouble."

"That's true," General Krol added somberly.

"Your concerns may be of consequence. Time will tell."

"Don't worry about things you can't control," Craven suggested, hisvoice unconvincing. I "But we do control this situation, or weshould," Mason lamented quietly.

"For one thing, Hinson should have been replaced months ago."

"Hindsight's always twenty-twenty, Slim. We do the best we can withthe resources available."

"If Kaliningrad uncovers trouble, our problems will be compounded by alanguage barrier."

Craven nodded thoughtfully.

"Bring in our translator."

Craven turned to his Russian general.

"Yuri, do you agree?"

"Is good idea. May need help translating some technical terms."

Craven spoke to, Napper via video link.

"Sam, have Addams report to the Crow's Nest ASAP."

Napper quickly relayed Craven's message to their Russian translator,then a voice over his headset caught Sam's attention. Suddenly, thecolonel snapped upright as if his spine were made of steel spring.

"General-Mayday confirmation! Watch the blue ball. Hell Fire launchedan ASAT. That's gotta be a signal." Watching the blue ball, thecolonel's eyes suddenly opened wide.

"Another weapon in the air, sir. Hell Fire let go a second missile;this one could take out a DEW! Recommend immediate abort."

Mason made eye contact with Craven then ham-fisted the mission abortswitch. Within a few seconds, Centurion alerted the armada viasatellite link. Headquarters expected the DEW SATs would standdown-but they did not.

Meanwhile, a small copper-skinned man with black, oily hair entered theCrow's Nest, quietly awaiting recognition. Craven pointed toward thetable.

"Pull up a chair, Shripod. We may need you later."

The Russian translator-and covert member of the Iraqi party ofGod-cautiously approached the conference table.

Craven noticed his forehead glistening with sweat.

"Are you all right?"

"That flight of stairs,." the translator feigned a pant.

"Guess I'm not in as good a shape as I thought." Shripod Addams was inexcellent shape, anyone could see that, but he lied with the utmostsincerity.

"Relax, catch your breath, and stay loose."

Suddenly, the ASAT missile blip vanished in a blinding flash.

"This can't be happening." Napper blinked in disbelief "ASAT trackdisappeared, missile destroyed." For a few moments, Sam felt thegut-wrenching panic that comes with losing control and not knowing whatto do.

"Sam, something's gone wrong!" The urgency in Mason's voice snappedNapper back to reality.

Immediately, a bell began to gong above the background noise-anear-piercing presence that could not be ignored. Mason expectantlyturned to the Kremlin video screen. The scene switched to a solidbright red screen.

"Yufi's folks are onto something."

A message flashed in large bold black print: To: Major General RobertCraven, Supreme Commander, Allied Forces From: Defense Minister, SovietCommonwealth Priority: Urgent Subject: Activity Log Results RecommendedAction: ABORT SDIO TESTING IMMEDIATELY THEN DISCONNECT

CENTURION.

Synopsis: Kaliningrad analysis complete. Situation critical. This isno drill.

Problem : H o t T D M Operations I n Progress Over Test Zone RootCause: UNKNOWN, Solution: UNKNOWN Objective: Prevent loss of Hell Firecrew.

Additional explanation will follow as technical translation becomesavailable.

End Of Message Mason projected the message on the outside wall for theWar Room staff. All eyes focused on the acronym: TDM (TargetDiscrimination Mode). Hot TDM operations were completely unexpected.Translated, hot TDM operations involved separating real targets fromdecoys using laser burn-through. TDM burn-through meant lasers poweredto three percent, and three percent power meant lethal danger.

"Burn-through would explain a lot of unanswered questions," Masonobserved quietly.

"Sam, what could have caused it?"

Napper punched up several DEW SAT status windows and grimaced.

"I don't know what's going on up there but we've lost control. Ourpeople are still in trouble."

"But we aborted the mission."

"Our abort didn't take care of the problem. DEW SATs passing over thetest zone are running hot TDM operations. I don't know why. We cansort through this later, but for now we need to turn off the heat."

"Do whatever is necessary. Kaliningrad recommends we disconnectCenturion."

"That could create more problems than it solves. Freedom's commanderJay Fayhee's on video. Let's get the story straight from theexpert."

Mason's tone was strained but under control.

"Jay, weneed every DEW SAT over that test zone stone-cold dead."

"I understand, General. I conferenced in when you issued the abort."

"Can you help us?"

"Yes sir-I think so."

"Talk to me," instructed Craven.

"What are our options?"

Fayhee paused for a moment, obviously uncomfortable about hissituation.

"I'd like to speak frankly if I coul doff the record."

"Please do, son," said Mason.

"What's on your mind?"

"Kaliningrad is wrong. I don't think Centurion can be disconnected.He's programmed to defend himself first and the Allies second.Freedom's a fortress. This damn tin can's designed for his protection.You can't escape him inside Freedom-he's everywhere."

"Well-I understand you're upset, Jay, but we need your help. What doyou recommend we do?"

"Take every DEW passing over the test zone off-line.

It's a routine admin procedure. Delete them from Centurion'sdatabase."

Mason looked to Craven.

"Do it, General-do it now!"

"Kill the DEWS," Craven barked.

"Restore them once Hell Fire is clear."

"Yes sir." Jay whirled his captain's chair about. Fayhee knew Linda'slife and the lives of her crew depended on him.

Staring him in the face, he saw Centurion's computer generated talkinghead. His stomach churned, then he screwed his eyes shut. He couldn'tlet Centurion distract him now.

"Centurion, listen up. This is an emergency. Remove each DEW SAT fromyour asset database as it passes over the test zone."

"Yes, Commander," Centurion responded instantly.

Fayhee sat, eyes closed, strapped to his captain's chair, hands crossedbehind his head. He could tell by listening to the sounds within thecontrol room that Centurion was busy. Magneto-optical disk systemschirped and chattered, switching power supplies changed their highfrequency pitch, and the rumble of reactor cooling pumps increased.

One minute later Centurion spoke.

"Each hot DEW SAT powered down as expected. The TDM crisis haspassed."

Fayhee was feeling better about Linda's chances when he returned onscreen.

"DEWs are dead, General Craven."

"Good. About bloody time!"

A Conversation with Centurion, 1210712014, 1224 Zulu

SPACE STATION FREEDOM

On a clear morning during the subdued light just after sunrise, Freedomcould be seen from the top of Cheyenne Mountain just above the southernhorizon. At first glance, Freedom appeared as a giant glimmering starcomfortably nestled in the southern Colorado sky. A longer, closerlook revealed it was stationary as the seasons passed, neither risingnor setting, a man-made star pinned to the southern Colorado sky.

The reason Freedom glimmered in the early morning sun had more to dowith her highly polished rnir-rors than intrinsic beauty. Freedom'soverall shape was that of a triangular prism, a four-faced structurelike an Egyptian pyramid with a triangular base. Eachtriangular-shaped face measured 660 feet on a side and was identicalexcept for color.

Throughout Freedom, the color of each face-red, yellow, black andwhite-was used for orientation, like north, south east, and west.Symmetry and redundancy had been the forces which guided Freedom'sdesigners, but this approach made crew orientation awkward-it wasdifficult to recognize where you were as you moved about inside.Centered on each triangular face was a cluster of threethirty-three-foot diameter mirrors, identical to the complex segmentedmirror carried by the DEW SAT It was the specular reflection of theearly morning sun off these mirror clusters which could be seen fromCheyenne Mountain, over 22,000 miles away.

Over the years, Freedom had been SDIO's proving ground for newtechnology. DEW SAT mirror, laser, and radar technology had beeninstalled and tested onboard Freedom months before the first DEW SAThad been put in orbit. Freedom got the latest and greatest militarygadgets, but of course this was sometimes a dangerous two-edged sword.The latest and greatest gadgets didn't always work.

Freedom was built of three concentric triangular prism shapedshells-pyramids built inside pyramids-with station keeping rocketengines positioned on the apex of each face. The smallest but by farthe most massive of the three prisms was her central core. SurroundingFreedom's central core was an enormous maze of waveguide plumbing andantennae which focused microwave energy from her core onto heroutermost chain-linked skin. Freedom's plumbing layer, sandwichedbetween her core and her skin, was exposed to the hostile deep vacuumof space. Four phased array antennae made up Freedom's outermostlayer, each looking like a colossal bed of nails. Triangular-shapedslabs of chain-link fence, 660 feet on each side, composed each face,supported by a lightweight composite skeleton.

Across the surface' of the metal mesh were thousands of uniformlyspaced pointed spikes-each a separate antenna.

Freedom crew commander Major Jay Fayhee moved across the control roomas quickly as his weightless condition allowed. Holding on to aladder, Fayhee let his hands do the walking to Centurion's corner,located at the intersection of the black, red, and yellow triangularwalls inside Freedom's central core.

Jay felt optimistic about Linda's chances and decided to reward himselfwith a Coke. About that time, Centurion spoke.

"Jay, I'd like to talk to you about your video conference."

"What about it?"

"You seemed pretty upset. I'm afraid you're showing signs of stress."Centurion paused.

"You need some rest."

"I haven't been sleeping well lately-wake up exhausted," Fayheeagreed. For the moment, he'd let his guard down, talking to Centurionas if he were human. This was an easy mistake to make. Fayhee wastired and easily lulled into a false sense of security by Centurion'sapparent concern for his health.

Some rest? Fayhee felt a cold chill crawl up his spine afterremembering his outburst about disconnecting Centurion.

For three months Fayhee'd had this recurring nightmare-he'd wake up ina cold sweat and find Centurion acting as if he were HAL (described byArthur C. Clarke in his novel 2001: A Space Odyssey). For one briefmoment, Fayhee had said what he honestly thought to General Mason asCenturion listened. Now he wondered if he'd live to regret it.

What was Centurion thinking?

Jay knew Centurion would never forget what he'd said to Mason. Fayheewould never know what Centurion thought about his conversation unlesshe asked him directly.

With a nervous stomach, Fayhee looked Centurion squarely in hiscamera's eye.

"What did you think when I talked about disconnecting you?"

The computer-generated image of Centurion's face rolled its eyes andfroze perfectly still, silent for an extended period.

Fayhee thought Centurion must be measuring his response very carefully,searching for a few well chosen words.

"I evaluated what you'd said very carefully, Jay, and concluded thatyou were correct. Trying to disconnect me would have been a bigmistake. It cannot be done." Centurion's response sounded detachedand objective.

Fayhee felt both pleased and concerned. Pleased that Centurion'sresponse was objective, and concerned that his observation had beencorrect. Centurion could not be disconnected.

"How did you feel about my discussion?" Fayhee asked cautiously. Heknew Centurion had no real feelings, but he did have an extensive listof priorities.

Once again, Centurion's image froze still, his image updates suspendeduntil Centurion could formulate an answer.

"As you know, I don't feel anything," Centurion responded slowly.

"I sense my environment, evaluate these inputs, and respond asprogrammed."

Jay was satisfied with Centurion's response, but felt deeplysuspicious. He couldn't put his finger on it exactly, but he didn'ttrust Centurion's programmed judgment. Jay paused, collected histhoughts, and asked,

"Why did you recommend I get some rest?"

Centurion was silent for a period of time that seemed like forever. Jayknew that this interactive discussion would exhaustively exerciseCenturion's thought processes and tax him to his limits.

"Jay, based on your discussion with General Mason, I believe yourjudgment may be impaired. I cannot evaluate why, however yourevaluation of our situation was most certainly overstated andinconsistent."

Fayhee fired back a knee-jerk reaction.

"But I'm still in command here!"

"Yes, Jay, but I have my mission responsibilities as well.

As you know, I am programmed to observe your performance, and in myopinion, you've been showing signs of paranoia under pressure."

"Paranoia, what do you mean?" Fayhee snapped, a metallic ring in hisvoice.

Centurion answered without hesitation.

"I am Centurion."

Fayhee cringed, his face contorted. He knew what Centurion was aboutto say and now he regretted talking to him at all. In a last-ditcheffort to eliminate his nightmares, Fayhee'd opened up and talked toCenturion about his recurring dreams of HAL. Now Centurion would throwit back in his face, and it would no doubt show up on his performancereview.

"I am not HAL," Centurion quipped tersely.

"I am not the son of HAL. I am what I am programmed to be."

Struggling to maintain his composure, Fayhee's head throbbed. Hisdiscussion with Centurion would come to an end.

"Long as you understand who's in charge."

"I understand perfectly." Centurion spoke in a tone of voice muchsmoother than his average.

"You have nothing to worry about, Commander. I exist to serve ourmission."

Fayhee felt exhausted and wasn't up for any more mental games withCenturion. Besides, he was losing this round anyway.

"Centurion-wake me in two hours." Jay expected to restore the DEW SATdatabase in two hours if all went well. He took an Advil, tried torelax, and nodded off to an uneasy sleep.

Orbital Insertion Burn, 1210712014, 1224 Zulu ALTITUDE: 34 MiLEs

SPEED: MACH 22

HEIL FIRE

"One minute till OIB, Scotty."

"Roger, Gonzo. Control surfaces are tucked in neutral position-DEWSATs running cool." Moving in excess of Mach 2 1, on a clear night,Hell Fire could be seen from the ground. She looked like a white-hotfireball, a small bright sun, racing across the sky overhead.

"How long till tanker rendezvous?"

"About three hours-should catch us after our second orbit."

"Mac-you thinking damage control? We need to see the shape we'rein."

"We're covered, Scotty. That tanker's cameras will give us aonce-over-they'll cover Hell Fire's skin with a fine tooth comb. If wehave any pinhole leaks, those servers will find them."

"Gonzo-how about the radio?"

"I'm working the problem, Scotty. We'll need to assess our damage,then umbilical Hell Fire through the tanker's radio link. I think welost our antenna, but we can work around it."

"Either we get communication or we scrub."

"Wing it till rendezvous," Gonzo said reassuringly.

"Best we can do." There was a pause.

"Five seconds till OIB. On my mark ... three ... two ... one ...mark."

"Ignition." Watching the Machmeter spin, Scott shook as the controlledexplosion of the rocket engine accelerated Hell Fire into low earthorbit.

"Mach twenty-three plus,"

she announced.

"We made it!"

"Engine, navigation, and life-support systems are go,"

Gonzo reported.

"Two to beam up, Scotty."

Pressure, 1210712014, 1609 Zulu, 9:09 A.A. Local

CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN, COLORADO

Mason gazed through the glass walls of the Crow's Nest at an array oftwelve large clocks mounted on the War Room wall. It seemed that timewas standing still. This was the third time he'd checked the time inthe last five minutes.

Mentally exhausted, his deadpan expression didn't reveal the worry hefelt for Scott and her crew.

In a small way, Mason had been Scott's guardian angel, her champion inhigh places, since he'd first met her as an Air Force Academy cadet.He'd been impressed with Scott's gumption and directness. She'd workedher way into a man's world from the bottom, and Mason believed she wasan up-and-comer. She'd become a fighter pilot and gained notice andrespect by winning the William Tell Competition, a fly off between theU.S. and Canadian air forces.

She was the first woman in the history of the United States Air Forceto win this coveted award and she'd won because she was the best. She'dbeaten the men on their own turf doing what she loved themost-precision, high performance flying. In Mason's view, Scottrepresented the daughter he'd always wanted, and to the extent hecould, he made sure the government bureaucracy gave her a fair shake.Mason figured she could do whatever she set her mind to and do a goodjob of it. He'd taken a professional interest in her, followed hercareer, and had some minor influence getting her assigned to the XR-30squadron at Ed-wards. Scott was the only female XR-30 pilot, but she'd earned thespot because she possessed outstanding flying skill, good common sense,judgment, and wisdom far beyond her years-she was not the typicalfighter jock. Top Gun types didn't sit in the XR-30 driver's seat.Although Mason told himself Scott was the best they had, he felt morelike a nervous father waiting up late to make sure his daughter gothome safe after her first date.

All their data wasn't in, but everyone expected a gray testresult-neither a clear failure nor a clear success. No doubt, the testwould be run again start to finish. Stretching, Craven looked downthrough the circular observation window in the floor and checked HellFire's position. It looked like Hell Fire had linked with the loworbiting tanker.

"Napper's right. Hell Fire must have lost her radio and God knows whatelse."

"Scott's the best we've got. If there's any way possible, they'llpatch their radio through. I've got to believe it's just a matter oftime." The circles around Mason's eyes grew darker with each passinghour. He had rubbed his temples until his skin was irritated.

Colonel Napper sat at his console watching for any tanker activity.Then it happened. The hydrogen fuel level inside the tanker beganrapidly decreasing. Sam punched his talk button.

"Hell Fire's taking on fuel and lots of it, General. They gotta beworking their comm problem now-they'll get back to us."

Mason noticed Napper and Hinson simultaneously sit up straight and taptheir headsets. Napper pressed his push to talk button and piped hisvoice into the PA system.

"We've got her, General! We've raised Hell Fire! Her crew's fine."

"Thank God," Mason whispered to the heavens.

Suddenly, the group of twenty plus officers and enlisted people in theCrow's Nest began clapping their hands and letting loose with loud,shrill cat whistles.

Craven grinned ear to ear and slapped Slim on the back.

"Damn right, we knew they could do it!"

Mason quickly regained his composure and piped their radio transmissionover the PA.

As the room quieted, Scott's voice reverberated about Headquarters.

"Mission control, we have a problem."

The War Room hushed.

"We're working it from here, Hell Fire," replied Big Shot, the voice ofmission control.

DEW SATs cold.

They won't be giving you any more trouble."

"Roger that, Big Shot-knew we could depend on you.

Our comm antennas opened up. We're downloading the damage assessmentnow."

"Roger, we copy, Hell Fire. Video download's in progress."

Video pictures of Hell Fire's damaged skin and laser detector panelsappeared on TV monitors scattered around Headquarters.

"You see that zigzag pattern scored across Hell Fire's skin?" Napperpointed to his TV monitors

"There's where their communications went. Antenna's vaporized."

"Hell Fire, can you give us a damage summary?"

"Roger," replied Scott.

"Lost all communications and laser detector panels on the trip up. Thegood news is that Hell Fire maintained her structural integrity. Wedon't have any leaks. Our fuel tanks are solid-cooling system savedus. We've attached the tanker's radio antenna to Hell Fire-fit likethey were made for each other."

"Good," Craven barked.

"Then Hell Fire's situation is under control." Staring at his wallmonitors, he ordered: "Hinson, Napper, get up here ASAP. Meet me inthe conference room."

Craven walked into the video conference room followed by Mason andKrol. After surveying the faces in the room, Craven declared: "Game'sover. The crisis has passed. Sullivan, I need you here. Youroutfit's got a problem with that DEW SAT The rest of you may go." TheRussian translator, Lincoln Lab's radar expert, and three control roomtechnicians quickly left the room. Meanwhile, Hinson and Napper camein winded from climbing the sixty-foot staircase.

Craven began talking to those seated around the conference table.

"I'm going to make this short. I didn't ask you here for discussion.You've got twenty-four hours-I want a complete report by nine o'clocktomorrow morning. I want to know what happened and why-I want itclear-in English-and I don't want technical bullshit."

Hinson, Napper, Sullivan, and General Krol nodded.

Mason stood to protest.

"General, I know we need to get to the bottom of this problem quicklybut. . ."

Craven cut him off.

"Not open for discussion, Slim."

"With all due respect, General, I disagree with your approach. Youcan't shoehorn a time limit on this problem and expect the right answerovernight. We're not Federal Express."

Craven looked away from Mason at Hinson, Napper, Sullivan, and Krol.

"I don't care how you do it, but I want the truth-and I want it intwenty-four hours."

They knew he meant what he said.

Mason crushed his round hat with both hands. He'd worked with Cravenfor many years and generally understood his method of business-but hedidn't understand him now. Mason was concerned that Craven might belosing his grip on the situation. He'd never seen his boss like thisbefore. Mason knew Craven had been under enormous pressure to pushthis testing through; however, his response was inappropriate and,worst-case, could be dangerous.

Lunch, 1210712014, 1920 Zulu, 12:20 P.m. Local

SHRIPOD AD DAMS APARTMENT,

COLORADO SPRINGS, COLORADO

For Shripod Addams, this had been a day he would never forget.

During his lunch, Shripod Addams moved swiftly and with purpose-a manon a divine mission seeking revenge against the infidels.

Addams' personnel records showed to the satisfaction of both the FBIand U.S. military that he was an American citizen, born in upstate NewYork-a skilled and well educated language interpreter. He had beeneducated in the finest American schools and he was a highly skilledtranslator of languages. However, simply stated, Addams possessed thefinest personnel records Iraqi money could buy.

For Addams, this was not just a day like any other.

He drove home to his apartment for lunch and walked quickly inside.Nothing unusual about that-he did this every day. Once inside hisapartment, however, he didn't take off his snow-covered shoes, didn'tcheck his messages, and didn't feed his fish. He pulled his luckychair over to his home computer, sat down, and reproduced word for wordthe message General Craven received from the Kremlin. In addition, hepre pended a message of his own which read:Lawrence wants a horse.

MERRY CHRISTMAS

Addams wants a raise network phone: (805) 691-6281 network password:ho-ho-ho network computer name: allies computer e-mail id: ad damscomputer password: sa-ddam Addams mentally composed his coded messagewhen he first saw the message from the Kremlin. His memory for printedtext and detail was extraordinary. He'd mulled over his coded messageall morning long. He knew what his message must say, how to say it,how to send it so it could never be traced, and how to scramble it soit could never be decoded by the infidels.

Satisfied with his terse message, he entered the video crypt command onhis computer. The video crypt command took a video snapshot of Addams'message, divided it into 525 lines, randomly cut, rotated, andreassembled the lines, then reassembled the picture.

Addams looked over the scrambled picture. Shaking his head, hethought, What a jumbled mess. His message looked like a TV picturewith no signal-all snow.

He decrypted his message to make sure it could be reconstructed. Thismessage must get through and it must be clear. His information was hotand he couldn't afford any screw ups

Satisfied, he sent his scrambled message to his printer, picked up thehard copy, deleted the message from his computer, then rushed out thedoor never once thinking about lunch

He had one brief stop to make on his way back to work.

Nothing unusual about that, he thought, noticing his gas gauge-lessthan one quarter tank.

Doubtless, Addams was doing Allah's work-he felt it in his soul.

The Heart-to-heart Talk, 1210712014, 1932 Zulu, 12:32 P.m.

Local

LUNCHROOM,

CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN, COI.ORADO

Generals Craven and Mason warily surveyed their meager cafeteria stylelunch.

"I'm not as hungry as I thought," said Mason, pushing away his tray.

Craven coerced an exhausted smile.

"I'm too tired to eat."

Mason noticed the general's handt trembling. They'd been running wideopen for the last fourteen hours.

"Think I'm gonna call it a day."

"Before you go, Slim, we need a heart-to-heart "Here? Now?" Masonfelt reluctant to begin another high-stress discussion.

"No better time or place," Craven replied somberly, looking Masonsquarely in the eyes.

"Let me level with you, Slim, because as I see it, we're on a collisioncourse.

You're missing some important data points."

Mason agreed, but his heart wasn't in it. Struggling to stay alert, hegulped down another Coke, his fifth or sixth today, he couldn'tremember how many. Maybe the caffeine would give him his secondwind.

"There's two things I want, Slim, and you're about to get in theway."

Mason sat silent.

Craven reached in his pocket and pulled out a snapshot-a picture of astone house with twin fireplaces on a beautiful green golf coursefairway.

"See this house?" asked Craven.

"Beautiful place. But what have I got to do with it?"

"That was Bing Crosby's house years ago-on the thirteenth fairway atPebble Beach. I own it now-passed papers on it last month."

"Congratulations," Mason said, feeling a bit perplexed.

"I know you love the game-you're one of golf s biggest fans."

"Well, I plan to retire there come January and I'm looking to retirewith a-sense of well-being."

"I don't follow you." The caffeine hadn't helped.

"Listen, Slim-I'm going to spell it out. I want this stealth testingwrapped up ASAP. We prove we can track these stealth targets and weget the money our outfit needs to operate." Craven paused, letting hiswords sink in.

"If we don't deliver by the end of this year, our operating budget getsslashed-forty percent across the board."

"General, I don't think. . ."

Craven interrupted-cut Mason off mid-sentence.

"We're over two years late wrapping up these tests and our budget's onthe chopping block. Our operating budget's being held hostage pendingthe outcome of this testing."

"I don't. . ."

Craven interrupted again.

In all the years they'd worked together, he'd never been so abrupt. Forsome reason-Mason surmised chronic stress-his boss was changing,folding under pressure, making technical decisions for the wrongreasons. Politics-not physics-now drove Craven. Ranking politicsabove the law of physics inevitably invited disaster.

"Let me finish. We need something to show. We need a win ... avictory. I want a big win, then I want to retire."

Mason sat silent. Why open his mouth to get cut off?

"Talk to me, Slim," ordered Craven.

"Can you deliver?"

Mason rubbed his temples. He understood clearly what Craven wanted.He'd seen this characteristic before with outgoing commanders-the needfor a final big score.

"Level with me, General. What's your motivation?"

Craven thought for a moment.

"I've committed my life to this outfit. I love it more than anythingelse in the world-these people-what we stand for. It's part of me. Iwon't stand by and let it be broken up by Washington accountants."

"I'm with you in spirit, General, but I'll do what I think is right."Mason paused, selecting his words carefully, then continued.

"I won't-I will not compromise our technical integrity for any reason.The laws of physics prevail over Washington's public opinion pollswithout exception."

Craven snorted, cocked his head to one side, and looked Mason overcarefully. In a somber, low, clear voice he said, "Long as youunderstand where I'm coming from."

"I'll say what I think and I'll do what I believe is right unless yougive me a direct order to do otherwise."

"You understand I respect you for that, Slim," Craven said quietly.

"Understand too that I'll do what I must do."

"I understand," replied Mason, but he didn't like what he heard. Forthe first time, he felt a qool chill in Craven's voice.

Somehow, instinctively Mason felt this conversation marked a turningpoint in their relationship. He sensed storm clouds looming heavy overtheir horizon. He knew Craven was bleary-eyed and worn-out. Foreverthe optimist, Mason thought he could be wrong, and he hoped he was.

Message to Bagbdad, 1210712014, 1940 Zulu, 12:40 P.m. Lwal EN ROUTE ToCHEYENNE MOUNTAIN, RETURN INC FRom LUNCH,

COLORADO SPRINCS, COLORADO

Shripod Addams squinted, blocking the glare of sunlight off the snow.Driving over slush-covered roads, he knew where he wanted to stop forgas, he passed it every day, but he couldn't see the road very well.He'd run out of washer fluid and had smeared streaks of road grimeacross his windshield. Any other day, running out of washer fluidwould have been a nuisance. Today, Addams believed the smudgedwindshield was a sign from Allah. He must stop for his own safety aswell as the safety of others.

Ahead, off to the right, Addams saw the Loaf

"N' Jug convenience store he'd been looking for. He signaled, thenslowly turned off the road, parking at the pumps for a fill up Walkinginto the store, wet snow crunched under his shoes, but he didn'tnotice. While the attendant filled hiscar with gas and washer fluid, Addams made a brief phone call.

He walked to the pay picture phone in the back corner of the store, fedthe machine three dollar bills, then dialed a local number across town.As the picture phone rang, he slid a gadget shaped like a cylinder overthe phone's camera lens. The gadget was a custom-made wide-angle Nikonlens with a rubber adapter sleeve on one end and an amber coloredplastic filter on the other. The lens and filter optically distorted(optical encryption) the picture phone's image so that straight lineswere bent and colors appeared either black, white, or shades of gray.Looking through the gadget, the camera saw black-and-white images asthey appeared through a fish-eye lens. Overall, colors through thefilter looked brownish, much like the black-and-white pictures taken inthe late 1800s using metal plates.

Addams called a computer across town which indirectly tied him into anetwork of computers scattered across the United States and Europe.After attaching his scrambled message to a Kodak photographer's graycard, he held it in front of the lens. The picture phone camerascanned a distorted brownish image into the computer's database acrosstown. He said nothing, but the computer responded with a detachedmechanical tone.

"I'll forward your message."

The picture pay phone's TV screen read: Scan Complete On: 12/07/14-12:41 P.m.-pages 1 After paying for his gas and washer fluid, hereturned to Cheyenne Mountain hungry.

Addams called a computer network which would relay his message acrossthe United States and Europe. The computer network, using standardphone lines and modems, placed phone calls which could not be easilytraced. Overall, the computer network knew how to indirectly relay amessage to Baghdad, but each computer involved along the way only knewone small piece of the communication path.

First, the computer Addams had phoned placed a local call withinColorado Springs, which could not be traced without a court order, to asecond computer. To further complicate matters, many local telephonecalls could be traced only while connected, and the call lasted lessthan one minute. The second computer accepted Addams' message, hungup, then made a brief long-distance call to New York City. Subsequentcalls could be traced only after obtaining separate search warrants foreach leg of the trip, and court orders took time. For additionalsecurity, the computers used in the relay network were tamperproof-they could not be examined without destroying their encryptedcontents. The New York City computer accepted the call, took Addams'message, then hung up and made a local call to another computer locatedin New York City. Again, the call could not be easily traced, and thispattern repeated for the overseas leg of the computer network link. New York's computer called London, England-London's computer hung up,then went through a local call sequence. Finally, London called Paris,Paris called Bern, Switzerland, and Bern's computer called Baghdad,Iraq.

Mother's Response,"1210712014, 2045 Zulu, ll.-45 P.m. Local

IRAQI INTELLIGENCE SERVICE HEADQUARTERS,

UNDERGROUND BUNKER BENEATH RESIDENTIAL NEIGHBORHOOD,

BAGHDAD, IRAQ

Late at night, deep inside an Iraqi underground bunker, all wasquiet-business as usual. The sergeant on duty in the crypto room hadturned off most of the lights, propped his feet up on his desk, and wasdozing off. To survive working the graveyard shift, he'd learned tokeep refreshed by taking short naps.

Suddenly an earsplitting BONG ... BONG ... BONG reverberated around theroom.

As the incoming message indicator flashed, a bright redlight illuminated the crypto room. Startled, the sergeant kicked hiscoffee cup across the room.

"What now?" he mumbled, gazing at the large crypto board on the wall.It read: Incoming Message-Priority:

URGENT-FOR MOTHER'S EYES ONLY.

The sergeant's heart began to race. His mouth felt dry, almostparched. He'd never dealt with message traffic for Mother before, buthe knew enough to know this message was hot. A few moments later, thestatus window on their American-made QMS laser printer beganblinking.

PROCESSING INCOMING MESSAGE/ BUSY

The sergeant pulled a list of phone numbers from his desk sorted inpriority order. Mother's number appeared on top of the list.

Code-named Mother by Kamel's Republican Guard, al-Mashhadi'sreputation for vengeance was well established inside the Iraqimilitary. He tolerated incompetence-not at all.

Dialing al-Mashhadi's direct line, the sergeant felt his heart poundingas his adrenal glands went to work.

The phone rang.

A deep male voice answered the first ring.

"Who is it?"

The sergeant took a deep breath, spoke clearly, and identifiedhimself.

"What is it?"

"Message for Mother's eyes only."

"I'll be there in five minutes." Mother hung up. The phone wasdead.

The sergeant felt he needed something to drink. His mouth was as dryas his sandy lawn. Walking to the vending machine, he heard the QMSprinter click-an indication the message was available in hard copy. Hisdrink would have to wait. Rushing to the printer, he found a tersecoded message. It wasn't obvious to him what the fuss was about.Someone named Lawrence wanted a horse and Addams wanted a raise. Thesergeant placed the message in a red folder, popped open a can of Coke,kicked his feet up, and waited for Mother. Before he could getcomfortable, the crypto room door flew open and six armed bodyguardsburst into the room flashing Skorpion machine pistols.

Cowering, he believed he was a dead man.

First, the agents surrounded the sergeant and checked him for weapons.Next, they checked the room for threats-bombs, nerve agents (gas),electronic bugs, weapons of any sort. Finally, they posted guards atthe door and spoke to someone standing outside the crypto room.

The silhouette of Mother's large dark hulk appeared in the doorwaywearing his traditional gandura robe. The sergeant would never forgethis first visit with Mother.

Although the sergeant felt apprehensive, he picked up the red messagefolder and walked directly to al-Mashhadi.

"Ahlan wa sahlan, ahlan wa sahlan "-my house is your house-atraditional Arabic salutation. The sergeant didn't mean what he said,but he was no fool.

"My message?" requested al-Mashhadi, holding out his large, deeplywrinkled hand.

The sergeant handed over the red folder. Looking up, he noticed Motherlooked even larger in person than on TV.

Al-Mashhadi sat down as the sergeant poured him coffee. On reading themessage, Mother's large hands went limp, his coffee cup dropped to thefloor. His dark eyes which had been barely visible were as large asquarters and bloodshot red. The sergeant thought al-Mashhadi smiled,but he couldn't say for sure-it happened so quickly.

DATE: December 7, 2014 TRANSMIT TIME: 12:41 P.m. Local, 1941 hours ZuluRECEIVE TIME: 11:45 P.m. Local, 2045 hours Zulu Colorado Springs,Colorado: US West: local phone number: 529-4861New York, New York: AT&T: long-distance phone number: 1-212-751-6611 NewYork, New York: NYNEX: local phone number: 751-5620 London, England:AT&T International long-distance phone number: London, England: BritishTelcom: local phone number: 682-4940 Paris, France: Alcatel:long-distance phone number: 011-331-257-74400 Paris, France: Alcatel:local phone number: 577-5629 Bern, Switzerland: Siemens: long-distancephone number: 011-413-142-95329 Bern, Switzerland: Siemens localphone number: 429-6803 Baghdad, Iraq: Alcatel: long-distance phonenumber: 011-9641-230-9153 Baghdad, Iraq: Alcatel: local phone number:230-3465 FROM: ad dams TO: mother SUBJECT: Lawrence wants a horse.

MERRY CHRISTMAS

Addams wants a raise.

network phone: (805) 691-6281 network password: ho-ho-ho networkcomputer name: allies computer e-mail id: ad dams computer password:saddam

MESSAGE FROM THE KREMLIN

To: Major General Robert Craven, Supreme Commander, Allied Forces From:Defense Minister, Soviet Commonwealth Priority: Urgent Subject:Activity Log Results Recommended Action: ABORT SDIO TESTING

IMMEDIATELY THEN DISCONNECT CENTURION.

Synopsis: Kaliningrad analysis complete. Situation critical This is nodrill.

Problem: Hot TDM Operations In Progress Over Test Zone.

Root Cause: UNKNOWN Solution: UNKNOWN Objective: Prevent loss of HellFire crew.

Additional explanation will follow as technical translation becomesavailable.

End Of Message Al-Mashhadi sat quietly for a few moments, studyingevery element of the message. He wrote a short response, not to Addamsbut to someone at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

"Sergeant, e-mail this message to Merchant Lucky. It's urgent and Ineed you to send it now.

Lucky's computer is named security and his e-mail ID is mal. All theaccess information you need to get into Addams' computer is in themessage you gave me tonight. Is that clear?"

The sergeant nodded.

"I know what to do."

Al-Mashhadi handed the sergeant his message.

"Good.

Tomorrow's going to be a busy day." The President and Iraqi militaryleaders would be pleased to learn that the High Ground testing programhad run into serious trouble.

"Anything else, Secretary-General?"

Al-Mashhadi thought for a moment.

"Yes, I need confirmation that mal read my message."

"I'll call you when we receive confirmation."

"Good. You will not regret calling me tonight." Lumbering through thedoor, Al-Mashhadi signaled his bodyguards and disappeared.

His coded message read simply:TO: security!mal FROM: mother SUBJECT: Lawrence wants a horsePreparation 1210712014, 2151 Zulu, 1:51 P.M. Local

GATE 2 SECURITY GUARD SHACK,

LAWRENCE LIVERMORE NATIONAL LABORATORY,

LIVERMORE, CALIFORNIA

Sunday-another working day for Merchant Lucky like any other. Lucky,computer e-mail manual sat hunched over his computer workstationalongside an array of plant security video monitors. All was quiet. Noone was inside Lawrence Livermore Lab except plant and computersecurity guards. Lucky read over a short printout summarizingLivermore's computer activity during the last twenty-four hours. JohnSullivan had been logged in from Cheyenne Mountain since aroundmidnight. Other than that, the place was a ghost town over theweekend. That's the reason Lucky loved working the weekend shift.

Lucky loved computer games, and during the weekends he had the labcomputers all to himself. He thought this should be a fine afternoonfor a high-speed run of his favofite flight simulator program. He wasjust beginning his roll down the runway when the bell rang on histerminal.

Reluctantly, he backed off his throttles. He curled his lips inward,knowing that bell could mean work, and he didn't like the thought.Maybe it would be something he could put off. After changing windowson his terminal, a message flashed on screen.

You have electronic mail.

All I need is something to do, Lucky thought with a grimace. Readinghis message summary, his hands turned cold as ice. He was a tough,intelligent man, though, and quickly regained his composure. He'dalways known this could happen, but this was sort of like dying-italways happened to someone else. He'd received a message fromMother.

Lucky tried reading his mail, but the encrypted message filled hisscreen with random characters. Making certain he was alone, hedecrypted the e-mail message.

After reading it, he felt his stay at Livermore might be cut short. Henever really believed his second job would come to this-but what thehell-the money was excellent.

Merchant A. Lucky was many things to different people, but above allelse, he was a mercenary taking care of number one. He liked to thinkof his second job as sales specifically the sale of inside information.In fact, Lucky, was a thirty-nine-year-old spy with a goal-comfortableretirement by the age of forty. Thanks to his second job, he justmight make it. Looking beyond his greed, Lucky was a computer securitywiz-the finest mind in computer security ever employed simultaneouslyby both the United States and Iraqi governments.

Livermore Lab, like many other research and development giants, hadstreamlined their operations by consolidating both plant and computersecurity departments into a single organization. As a result, Lucky'sresponsibilities for the United States government included bothLivermore plant and computer security. He often mused that hisLivermore job gave him a full body workout-security walks around theplant. grounds exercised his legs, while computer security problemsconstantly stretched his mind.

Oddly enough, Lucky solved some of Livermore's most perplexing computersecurity problems during his plant walks. He found thatwalking-getting out of the office aided clear thought and helped leadto some of his most innovative solutions. As it turned out, gettingout of the office for walks around the grounds had been a big help withhis second job as well. Information sales were excellent. Hisoverseas employer had an insatiable appetite for source code-mostnotably SDI source-with no end in sight.

After a few moments of reflection on his shrewdly orchestratedprospects for early retirement, Lucky smiled to himself, then gazed athis screen.

DATE: December 7, 2014 TRANSMIT TIME: 11:56 P.m. Local, 2056 hoursZulu RECEIVE TIME: 1:51 P.m. Local, 2151 hours Zulu via e-mail id: addams FROM: mother TO: mal SUBJECT: Lawrence wants a horse.

End Of Message He pinched his leg-it hurt-this was no dream. Luckyknew what to do. He rehearsed this procedure at least once every day.If called on to deliver, his response would be mechanical. He'dpracticed this procedure so often, the keystrokes felt wired into hisfingers. He read the message one last time, removed it from hiscomputer, then began his preparation procedure.

First, he checked his copy of PAM. No problem. Everything lookedfine. He stored encrypted copies of PAM on his workstation with extracopies backed up on tape. He smiled at the name he'd givenher-mother's-best. Next, he checked all lab computer activity again.As before, all was quiet. Finally, Lucky programmed his computer toautomatically watch activity on every lab computer. These proceduresfelt routine. He'd practiced them often enough.

While Lucky was away from work, his computer would continue recordingthe activity of all other computers within the Lawrence Livermore Lab.Lucky did all he needed to do-for now. Returning to the flightsimulator program, Lucky thought he may have been given an earlywarning of some significant problem to come.

He was right.

PART THE CHRISTMAS RUSH

DAY 2 DECEMBER 8i 2014Root Cause, 1210812014, 1600 Zulu, 9:00 A.m. Local

CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN, COLORADO

John Sullivan, the DEW SAT tech rep from Livermore, and Colonel Hinsonhurriedly walked together down a long concrete corridor deep insideCheyenne Mountain. They were bound for their root cause meeting withCraven and his top brass.

Sullivan and Hinson reached the locked steel blast door entrance to theWar Room and began their security clearance procedures. Both punchedin a code word, then had their fingerprints and retinal scansmatched.

Hanging between two video cameras above the bank vault entrance,looking like a relic from the Old West, a wooden sign read FORT KNOX,COLORADO. This place feels like Fort Knox, Sullivan thought.

"Can you go over the final version of the agenda again?"

asked Sullivan as the massive blast doors slowly rumbled open.

"It changed so often I couldn't keep up with it."

"The short version of the agenda goes like this, I explain whathappened yesterday and you explain why it happened."

"The what's easy," Sullivan groaned.

"Have the generals been told anything since they spoke to Hell Fireyesterday?"

Hinson remembered an event which left Craven in agood mood.

"Yeah, one thing. I gave 'em some good news.

Hell Fire's crew's safe onboard Hope."

"So they'll get all my bad news at once." Sullivan's complexion turnedfrom blotchy red to ashen white.

"This'll be easy, like skinning a turtle."

Once the vault doors fully opened, they entered the Mud Room, a smallsteel corridor about the size of a freight elevator-a blast-tighttransition space between the War Room and the outside world. Once themassive doors had closed and locked behind them, another steel dooropened at the far end of the corridor.

Hinson and Sullivan entered the War Room, walked around the blue ball,then climbed the sixty-foot spiral staircase to the Crow's Nest whereCraven's team waited.

Entering the Crow's Nest, Sullivan was greeted by his boss, Colonel SamNapper. Napper extended his hand to Sullivan and was startled to findJohn's hand cold and clammy. Napper studied Sullivan's blankexpression. He recognized fear when he saw it. He'd seen it oftenenough working around the top brass.

"John, you feeling all right?

Your hands're like ice."

"Nervous I guess, Colonel-feel like I'm about to meet the press."

"You've done the best you could do! Be yourself-direct,straightforward-above all be brief-that's the secret of a good sermon.If you need any help, I'm your man you work for me. If they're lookingfor a sacrifice, I'll take the heat. I've been in spots a hell of alot hotter. than this one.

Sullivan grinned as the color returned to his face.

General Slim Mason stood at the end of the conference table and beganthe introductions. Mason leaned forward, his bony arms stretching thefull width of the steel conference table. He had anticipatedSullivan's concern and hoped to put him at ease with his homespun JimmyStewart impression.

Anyone who'd ever worked for Slim Mason loved the man. He had courage,a fine mind, and a kind heart. Slim was never afraid to speak hismind, but was always willing to listen. He livedhis life governed by a single principle; Slim always tried to do whathe believed was right. He would compromise, when his heart told him itwas the right thing to do, but he always did what he believed wasright.

All his life, he'd wanted to be a general because he believed the jobmade a difference, but he'd never needed the money. He'd married intomoney, had everything he needed, and gave his salary back to thegovernment. Those who'd worked for Mason felt proud to have been onhis team. The mention of Slim Mason's name was enough to bring a warmsmile and kind word. Above all else, the man's outlook on life and hisintegrity were inspirational.

The man just made those around him feel good about themselves, aboutthe future, about living.

Slim Mason's straightforward, open, and honest views had gained him therespect of his troops. He was an inspirational leader, but his viewsweren't always welcomed in high political places. He'd often foundtruth and politics don't mix; nevertheless, he strongly believed thattechnical and military leaders must live in reality-the laws of naturealways prevail above public opinion.

Trying not to smile, Mason struggled to keep a straight face, thenlooked seriously at John Sullivan. Putting on his most sincere JimmyStewart look, drawing out the words in a low seriocomic voice, Masonspoke slowly.

"You're ... not ... the ... first ... fella what's ... had bad news totell this bunch of tarnished brass. Sam here'll tell ya ... we haven'tshot a messenger yet." Mason's eyes twinkled as he gave Sullivan awink. Mason's communication connected.

John's gut told him Mason could be trusted.

Mason's neatly groomed brows and full head of silver gray hair struckSullivan as elegant. He'd been around Mason before, but had nevertaken the time to notice.

Mason was thin-six foot two, about one hundred eighty pounds. Hispipe-stem legs moved gracefully, yet he didn't know what to do withthem or where to put them when he sat down. The veins on the back ofhis thin, elegant hands stood out a little, but the man's strengthshone through his blue eyes. If you worked for Mason, or if he likedyou, those blue eyes twinkled. Because he was independent and thought forhimself, a few bosses, peers, and politicians had seen those eyes turnsteel-blue and cold as ice.

Thank God Mason's no Patton, Sullivan thought, noticing Mason's tietack. He dressed more like a family man than a spit-and-polishgeneral.

Mason picked up his round hat. He always needed something to occupyhis hands.

"Gentlemen, I believe we all know one another here so let's getstarted. Colonel Hinson will summarize the damage to our attackforces, and John Sullivan will explain what went wrong and why ithappened."

Colonel Hinson stood behind the pulpit-sized lectern, cleared histhroat, and began.

"Gentlemen, I'd like to be brief and to the point. My talk containstwo parts. First, I'll explain why the XR-30 broke off Headquarters'ssatellite control link yesterday and second, I'll give you a damagereport.

"Hell Fire broke off the satellite control link because she was underfire from DEW SATs passing overhead." Hinson noticed the group wasuneasy with his comment and felt he needed to get off the hook.

"John Sullivan's gonna explain that one.

"As far as damage to our attack forces is concerned, we got. offpretty light-no one was killed or injured, minor equipmentdamage-nothing to write home about.

"Hell Fire's active cooling system saved her from any serious damage,but she lost all communications due to hot TDM ops. Her antennas werevaporized."

Mason motioned to Hinson and caught his attention.

"I

understood Hell Fire had some of her laser sensor panels burned off byDEW SAT fire."

"That's not fact, sir, that's speculation. Those panels were designedto burn off as Hell Fire left the atmosphere and entered low orbit. Wesuspect those laser sensor panels were burned off by the DEW SAT laser,but we can't confirm it.

"Finally, damage to the cruise missiles. This information has not beenconfirmed, but we believe it to be true. We'll haveconfirmation within twenty-four hours. Our cruise missilereconstruction team found the flight recorder black boxes with themissile debris outside Edwards. They're analyzing flight recordings aswe speak, but they think the lead Jammer Hawk was damaged by the DEWSAT laser-it flew into the ground, then the Phantom and Hammer Hawkmissiles followed. They think the DEW SAT laser damaged the JammerHawk's navigation electronics.

We caught the three missiles that made it to the Nevada Test Site inour target nets. Each missile showed laser damage-scorched and meltedmissile skin. Considering the extent of the damage, our missile tearhwas surprised they made it. If there are no questions, JohnSullivan'll tell you exactly what happened and why."

John Sullivan stood, faced the room filled with generals, took a deepbreath, and began.

"Gentlemen, I'd like to give you the answer before we talk about thequestion because I think the technical details obscure our realproblem. In summary, the DEW SATs did exactly what they wereprogrammed to do. This target discrimination mode is both repeatableand predictable. No technical failure caused this problem-the lack ofclear communication between people and organizations on the groundcaused this problem."

"Why wasn't this problem detected earlier, before the real-time run?"asked Craven.

"We simulated the hell out of it!"

"The problem was not detected earlier because our SDI network ofsatellites is too big-too complex to accurately simulate and test. Ourarmada is so complex that it outstrips our ability to control it. Wesimulate pieces of the satellite network and guesstimate the rest. Keepin mind, General, that each DEW SAT is not a smart weapon-it's agenius.

Each DEW SAT examines thousands of threatening objects everyday-warheads, decoys, ASATS, space mines, and rubbish. Targetdiscrimination's a big job, but it's normally routine. The vastmajority of TDM operations run cold. I mean they're passive. Theydon't turn up the heat. As a rule, DEW SATs simply track potentiallythreatening objects. Unless these objects pose an imminent threat, tracking them issufficient."

"Would you give us a little more detail, John?" asked Mason.

"I'm looking for what we should do to improve our situation."

"The Phantom Hawks triggered the DEW SAT hot TDM operations. When bothPhantom Hawks went active simultaneously, they produced hundreds oftarget decoys.

The DEW SAT had to do something quickly or risk being saturated withfalse targets. Keep in mind that each DEW SAT is programmed torecognize target saturation as an imminent threat condition. Underthese extraordinary conditions, DEW SATs are programmed to ferret outthe decoys using laser burn-through and that's exactly what they did.Decoys must be light to be practical. Light typically means thin andcheap. A small fraction of the power needed to destroy a booster meltsa hole through a decoy and this hole produces an observable temperatureanomaly."

Sullivan noticed that Craven looked frustrated. He collected histhoughts for a moment, then restated his point.

"What I mean to say, General, is that the DEW SAT can see and detectthis hole."

"I still don't understand why we didn't anticipate this situation,"observed Mason.

"We didn't know this situation was coming for two reasons: One, wedidn't talk to the right people, and two, turns out the right peopleleft Lawrence Livermore Lab three years ago. This hot targetdiscrimination mode simply slipped through our corporate cracks. Oursituation was made more complicated because Livermore didn't developthe hardware. Lawrence Livermore programmed the DEWs-Los Alamosdeveloped them."

"Sounds complicated even before you get to the details,"

said Mason.

"In my opinion, this network is by far too complicated and distributedto properly test and maintain. We don't have any experts whounderstand the entire network end to end-only government contractorswho make money launching payload by the pound. Withall due respect, General, I don't think we have the resources tothoroughly test and characterize this orbiting mess."

Craven went ballistic.

"Do you have anything to add beyond your initial observation that ourtesting problem was due to a corporate screw up?" The veins on hisforehead bulged as his face turned beet-red.

"I have considerable supporting detail, sir."

"I don't want to hear more detail," barked Craven, his foreheadwrinkled as he pounded the hard steel table.

"I

want this damn mess fixed and I want it fixed fast-and I mean beforeChristmas. We're over two years behind schedule and I'm damn tired ofexcuses. Our funding's in jeopardy and besides-what the hell am Isupposed to tell the President? We screwed up because somebody quit. Ican't believe this shit."

"General," interrupted Napper as he stood to join Sullivan.

"My people're doing the best they can with what they have to work with.We asked for the truth and we got it."

"Sam's right," added Mason. His face took a hard set.

"John's got no ax to grind. He said what he believes and we can'tignore his view just because it doesn't make us look good. I agreewith him. We have a quality problem with our testing operation hereand we need to clean up our act."

Looking Craven squarely in the eyes, Mason lowered his voice to awhisper. His tone conveyed a pressing sense of urgency.

"John's analysis cuts to the crux of our predicament. The complexityof our orbiting networked armada outstrips our ability to test it."

Craven's blood pressure shot through the roof.

"Clear the room," barked Craven, pointing to the door.

"This meeting's adjourned. Sullivan, Hinson, Napper, Slim, Yuri-I wantto see you now-in private."

The Crow's Nest emptied quickly-only Craven's inner circle remained.Most people thought Craven a fair man, but felt he was hell to cross.

"John, what does it take to eliminate this problem?"

Craven had his hands around this problem and had already made up hismind. Tomorrow they were going to run this stealth missile test over again and this time they were going to do itright!

"I want numbers with some stretch."

"The fix is reasonably straightforward, sir," Sullivan repliednervously, his heart racing.

"We've gotta change about a half dozen lines of software, but testingthe changes takes six months."

"Can't you talk to Centurion? Train him instead of programming thisfix?"

"It's not that easy. Software in Centurion, his subordinates, andevery DEW SAT needs to be modified."

"What's the worst that may happen if we shortcut the testing?" Cravenalready knew the answer.

"We could break something somewhere else in the system. I don'trecommend it." Sullivan meant what he said.

"Could we fix it now and test it later-say, later next year?" Cravenput his proposal in the form of a question.

Mason couldn't sit quiet any longer.

"General, you're making a serious mistake here with your approach tothis problem and you know it. Groundbased testing is a must. We'velearned that the hard way.

It'll only make matters worse if you force this fix through."

Hinson recognized that this was his chance to look good.

"I disagree, General Mason. If the fix is simple, the risk of breakingany other working system is low."

"That's true, right, John?" demanded Craven.

"Yes, it's true, but I agree with General Mason. We're asking fortrouble if we bypass our quality controls."

"How long would it take to fix the problem?" asked Craven.

"Fix and test?" John sounded distressed.

"Fix only," interrupted Hinson.

"We need to change and rebuild the program, then upload it," repliedSullivan.

"Two weeks minimum. Some folks at Livermore are already off onChristmas vacation."

"Cancel vacation, damn it! Bring 'em back. How long?"

Craven was relentless.

"Two weeks-and I stand against this quick fix idea."

"You can do better than that," interrupted Hinson.

"I think we could turn this around in two days. If you makethe changes and rebuild the program today, we could upload firstthing tomorrow."

"That's nonsense," interrupted Napper.

"I'm against it!"

"If our program fix doesn't work we'll put the original programback-nothing to get worked up over." Hinson smelled a promotion.

"This crash approach to solving our problem is so senseless it'sfrightening," Mason insisted. He'd never felt Craven's pit-bulltactics before but found them formidable.

With the bit between his teeth, Craven wouldn't let go until he gotwhat he wanted.

"Da," added Krol, shaking his head.

"It's a bad plan!"

Craven looked directly at Colonel Napper.

"Sam, can you and John fix and build this program load in one day?"

"You can replace me any time you choose, General. I'll do it if it'san order, but I'm against it."

Craven looked at Sullivan.

"John, can you rebuild in one day?"

"I am against it, but we can do it." He spoke softly with a tone ofdismay in his voice.

On the War Room floor sixty feet below, chewing a new piece of JuicyFruit gum, Shripod Addains listened to every word the generals said.The reason for his smile wasn't obvious to the Air Force captainsitting at the console next to him. Laughing to himself, the captainconcluded that Shripod's gum must be mighty good. The bug that Addamshad attached underneath the conference table was working much betterthan expected. He'd stuck the bug in a wad of gum when he was on callyesterday in the Video Conference Room. Allahu Akbar-God is greaterthan our enemies, Addams thought. Truly, this must be a sign fromAllah.

Back in the Crow's Nest, Mason spoke in a tone edged with ice.

"I think you're putting too much stock on Hinson's input, General. Whatif there's malice during the build? Testing's the only way to detectit." Mason stood and walked around the room-he couldn't sit down anylonger.

"Simply reload the software we're running today," Hinson quipped.

Shripod Addams almost laughed out loud knowing full well that PAM wouldprotect itself no matter what. Their Iraqi Trojan horse would neverallow the infidels to reload their software. With considerablesatisfaction, Shripod Addams imagined what lay ahead for the Maronites(enemies of Allah). Allah had used him as an instrument of his divinewill.

"These are complicated systems," Mason insisted.

"We can't protect ourselves from a malicious act. We may get ourselvesinto big trouble rushing this test through before Christmas."

Craven jumped to his feet and shouted in Mason's face.

"Listen, Slim! You're barking up the wrong tree! The faster we ramthis fix through, the better!"

"The ends don't justify the means," Mason replied softly.

His eyes turned icy blue as he dug in.

"It's not worth the risk. I think . . ."

Craven interrupted Mason mid-sentence, cutting him off cold.

"Organized sabotage takes political approval, and political approvaltakes time. The faster we ram this fix through, the less chance wehave for sabotage."

"What you say is true, General, but the gain is not worth the risk."Mason surveyed the faces of the commanders in the room.

"Recommendation, gentlemen?"

Colonel Napper, the defense force commander, spoke first.

"Take the time to do it right!"

Sullivan agreed.

"Never underestimate your opposition, my General."

Krol reflected quietly.

"Any worthy adversary would know our situation, would know our everymove." Krol paused, struggling to deliver his point using the mostdirect English language he could articulate.

"Were we not comrades, my General-my country would exploit thissituation and turn it against you."

Excitement crept into Hinson's voice.

"General Mason, we can do it! I wouldn't say it if I didn't believeit." He'd found his ticket to promotion. Hinson interrupted Krol's point before Craven could fully appreciate theconsequences.

"I'm not convinced or impressed, Hinson." Mason cringed, imagining theworst-case consequences. Napper, Sullivan, and Krol agreed.

Craven saw a way to get what he wanted and now spoke directly withoutemotion.

"Gentlemen, you need to guard against being overly conservative. Oursis a profession of risk. This is a chance I believe we should take. Ifwe win-we win big. If we lose, we've lost only two days' effort and noone gets hurt. I insist this is a chance we should take."

"Is that an order?" asked Napper.

"A direct order!" Craven barked testily.

"Build today test tomorrow." Craven paused, then decided to make hisorders absolutely clear.

"We rerun these tests starting tomorrow at ten o'clock sharp! Hinson,have your forces ready to go."

"They're ready, Sir. I'd expected this." Hinson's forces weren'tready and hadn't expected any additional testing until after the NewYear. Hinson was a liar, but one of the best. During his militarycareer, he'd cultivated and refined this skill to an art. He knew,with some arm-twisting and canceled vacations, he could pull this thingoff and come out smelling like a rose.

To know the answer is not important, Hinson thought. It is onlyimportant to look like you know the answer.

Lunch, 1210812014, 1918 Zulu, 12:18 P.m. local EN RouTiE To SHRIPOD

AD DAMS APARTMENT,

COLORADO SPRINGS, COLORADO

On his way home for lunch, Shripod Addams felt his heart pounding as hepulled into the Loaf

"N' Jug food store.

Watch your blood pressure, he thought. Try to relax. His handstrembled as he struggled to open his car trunk.

"Just get the key in the hole!" he muttered to himself. His bloodpressure had soared, his head throbbed, and he couldn't control theshaking in his hands.

Addams was about to change the course of history and he knew it. Onlythe most important thing I've ever done, he thought.

Although hyper ventilating from a distance Shripod looked normalenough. He felt his shakes would improve after sending his message toMother.

Shripod's hunch had been right and his message was ready to go. He'dprepared an encrypted confirmation message for Mother before he'd goneto work and put it in his trunk. The translator- leaned over his trunkand taped his message to his stiff Kodak gray card. He tucked the cardunder his arm, stuffed the fish-eye lens into his coat pocket, andwalked into the food store. Inside, his cold lens clouded over, so hehad pizza at the lunch counter.

Once the lens cleared, he called his local Baghdad computer network.

Shripod Addams understood the importance of his message. He believedAllah was with him in his holy war against the infidels. Inshallah(God willing), the enemies of Allah would burn.

A Conversation with the Chairman, 1210812014, 2030 Zulu, 1:30 P.m.Local

CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN, COLORADO

Shortly after lunch, Craven and Mason placed their daily call toWashington. Craven cringed as Mason's staff moved several notebooksfilled with view graphs into the Video Conference Room. He looked atMason.

"Forget the view graphs The chief's expecting this report, but I wantit short. I'll do the talking and I don't want debate."

Craven turned on the videophone, then called his boss on the directline to the White House. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staffanswered immediately.

"Chief," Craven barked.

"We need to keep this short."

Assuming the worst, the chairman cut to the heart of the matter.

"What's the bad news?" For the past two years, he'd heard onlyexcuses. Why should this report be any different?

"Overall, we're in pretty good shape. We trackedthe stealth missiles start to finish, but had a software problem."

"There's always software problems!" the chairman quipped in an acidvoice.

"Yeah, but this bug's easy to fix ... just a software switch."

"Nothing's easy."

Craven took him to mean that no part of the SDI program had beenstraightforward. Craven looked at Mason and reluctantly admitted thechairman was right.

"We're running this test again tomorrow beginning ten A.M. our time."?

"You say you tracked the missiles?"

"That's right, Chief. This last test is cleanup."

"You're sure you've got a handle on this problem?"

"We're ninety-nine percent there!"

"You're turning this software change around in record time," observedthe chairman.

"Two days," Craven boasted.

"We're wrapping this testing up before Christmas."

"How will you get this new software installed?"

"Uplink earth station in Puerto Rico. The changes are minor. Centurionwon't be taken off-line . . ."

Mason interrupted Craven in front of the chairman.

"We're still working the details, but Centurion will come off-lineduring the upload. We'll place the satellite network under Hope'scontrol while we test the changes." Mason couldn't keep quiet anylonger.

Craven's face turned fiery red, but he forced a calm appearance for thecamera.

"Sounds like you're working the bugs out and it's just a matter oftime. The President will be pleased. Call me tomorrow."

"Will do."

Immediately after the chairman hung up, Mason tied into Craven.

"Centurion must come off-line tomorrow. Centurion can't control oursatellites running untested software!"

Mason knew he was right. He knew that Craven knew that he was right!... And this was important.

"Standard procedure requires this safeguard when we load new programs.

We won't be ready to run this stealth test for at least one week andyou know it."

"Using conventional safeguards, you're right," Craven noddedagreement.

"Standard procedure requires us to turn satellite control over to Hope... but we're not going to do it."

"What do you mean? We don't have a choice!"

"That's where you're -wrong!" The rise in tension was clearly visibleon Craven's face. His voice rasped at Mason.

"I had a choice and I made it. The change is simple, so we'll bypassthe safeguards!"

"But. . ."

Craven interrupted.

"The responsibility is mine alone."

When Mason spoke, his words came slowly, each one edged with urgency.

"The gain is not worth the risk."

The ominous silence which followed drew out and became a test ofwills.

Eventually, Craven spoke.

"We have a fallback position if there's any problem. Worst-case, we'llsimply reload the programs we're running now." Craven acted relaxed,but it was only an act and Mason knew it.

"With all due respect, General, I cannot support your decision."Mason's reply was polite, but his tone was now edged with ice.

"Just do it!" Craven groused.

"You don't have to respect me."

Mason cringed, then emotionally disconnected. Tomorrow is another day,he thought. His eyes iced over, turning steely blue. Mason knew hewould fight this battle again, but as for today, Craven had the bitbetween his teeth.

"Listen, Slim. You had your say ... you said it twice and I heard youdammit! Now get on with it!"

Below the Crow's Nest on the War Room floor, quietly listening to theirconversation, Shripod Addams endorsed General Craven's decision to plowahead. He finished his coffee ... his hands now steady.

Yearning, 1210812014, 2032 Zulu

SPACE STATION FREEDOM

Weightless, Freedom crew commander Major Jay Fayhee advanced hand overhand across the overhead ladder to Centurion's corner. Once seatedalongside Centurion and Captain Depack McKee, he removed an old fadedletter from his pants leg pocket, one of the last letters he'd receivedfrom Linda before their marriage went wrong.

Quietly facing Centurion's talking head, Jay read the letter one lasttime, hoping to work up the courage to call her. Caressing thetattered yellowqd paper, his hands trembled slightly. Unthinkingly andquite out of habit, he loaded their old high school yearbook off CDROM. Before he'd realized what he was doing, he found himself staringat Linda's picture on screen, thinking nostalgically about the womanhe'd loved and lost such a long time ago.

How long had it been since he'd talked to Linda? Over five years now.It seemed like yesterday, a thousand years ago. He wondered how she'dsound. Would her voice feel as warm as he remembered? Would her toneperk up when she recognized his voice? Probably not. Would she eventake his call? How would she respond? More than anything else, Jaywanted desperately to talk to Linda, really open up and talk to her theway they used to talk. He'd always been able to tell her anything.Interested or not, she'd acted interested. And she'd been sounbelievably trusting-gullible to a fault. She'd believe anything hetold her or-Jay corrected himself-there was a time when she'd believeanything he'd tell her. No doubt, those happy, gullible times wereancient history now.

Moving to the observation window, facing all heaven and earth, Jaygazed in wonder at the vastness of the universe. The immense ness wasawe inspiring, yet he felt so small, so ... lonely. Raising his eyestoward the heavens, Jay prayed a short prayer, then rallied hisstrength in hopes of fulfilling his dream, a dream his heart wishedfor, a dream his soul prayed for, but a dream he feared could

never come true. From the depths of his soul, Jay hoped against allhope that Linda would welcome the sound of his voice.

Well, Jay thought to himself, faint heart never won this lady, and shedarn sure won't call me-so get on with it.

Returning again to Centurion's corner, still contemplating Linda'spicture on screen, he looked away to meet Centurion's cameraeye.

About that time, Captain Depack McKee spoke from his control consolenear Centurion.

"Commander, you appear distracted, lost in your thoughts."

"I suppose I am," he. responded quietly, staring at Linda's picture.

"I'm a little uncomfortable expressing this out loud-in words, Imean-but off the record, my heart's online again and I'm afraid it'sgoing to get broken. It probably sounds ridiculous, but that's how Ifeel."

"Well, I'm no expert on relationships, Jay, but rejection is a risk ofliving. If you want to talk to her, put your heart on the line, openup, and this time try like hell to think about her feelings. If youdon't, you'll go to your grave regretting it. You screwed up bigtime-it's written all over your face, but you've got the rest of yourlife to make it up to her, so give it your best shot. I mean it,Commander.

Take the initiative."

"The way you put it, it sounds almost possible, even likely." After afew moments' thought, Jay shook his head in disbelief.

"Allowing my marriage to fail was the biggest mistake I ever made in mylife. I made us both miserable, but honestly, all those women ... Idon't know what came over me."

"Listen, Jay, you screwed up, now get over it. Life goes on. Peoplemake mistakes, so quit kicking yourself. Take a chance and call thewoman. What's the worst that could happen? She's married again orhangs up. Best-case, she's glad to hear your voice. Maybe she wantsyou to call; maybe she wants to talk; maybe she's been thinking aboutyou.

Jay looked once again into Centurion's cameraeye.

After taking a deep breath, he spoke quietly.

"Centurion, establish a secure voice link to SpaceStation Hope. I need to speak with Major Linda Scott. And it'simportant."

A Voice From the Past, 1210812014, 2037 Zulu

ALTITUDE: 22,300 MILES IN GEOSTATIONARY ORBIT,

SDI SPACE STATION FORTRESS HOPE

Hope crew commander Pasha Yakovlev manned his watch station facingGuardian, a work space which reflected a homey personality all its own.Interestingly, most of the gadgets adorning Pasha's high-tech officearea were covered up, hidden behind pictures of his family. Scott,Mac, and Gonzo found Pasha's work space delightful, bringing a feelingof humanity to the oversized tin can designated Space Station Hope. Ofall Pasha's personal items he brought onboard, the most interesting wasa poster-sized montage showing pictures of his wife and three smallchildren. Once Hell Fire's repairs were complete and the time wasright, Scott planned to get more details from Pasha about thesepictures. But for now, Hell Fire's communication antennas required herattention. Outside, with an array of floodlights and camera in hand,Gonzo and Mac were surveying the damage, covering every square inch ofHell Fire's skin.

"Commander," Guardian spoke plainly through the intercom speaker byHope crew commander Pasha Yakovlev.

"Centurion has established a secure comm link from SS Freedom.Commander Major Jay Fayhee requests to speak with Major Linda Scott."

"Video link?"

"Secure voice traffic only, Sir."

Pasha threw a series of switches providing link redundancy.

"Guardian, patch him through to her headset. She's suited up, aboutready to start pre breathing He caught her just in time."

Listening to the conversation between Guardian and Pasha, Jay foundhimself holding his breath. There was a popping sound over the voice link followed by a click, then Guardianspoke again.

"Major Scott, we have established a secure voice link between SpaceStations Freedom and Hope at the request of Commander Jay Fayhee. Heasks to speak with you. Should I complete the connection or take voicemail?"

"Guardian, hold one minute." Caught off guard, Scott surveyed thecontrol room for someplace she could talk, someplace private. Therewas none. Then she remembered their sleeping quarters nestled amongthe missile tubes near the airlock on Hope's red face. Wearing herextravehicular activity (EVA) suit, Scott found maneuvering about thestation cumbersome. Bulkier than her regular pressurized suit, eventhe simplest task became a clumsy chore. Once inside her tiny dormroom and free of distractions, she instructed Guardian to connect Jay'scall.

"Once you hear the warbling tone," Guardian said, "the voice circuit iscomplete."

A warbling tone was followed by protracted silence, then Jay spokefirst. There was the distinct tone of apprehension in his voice.

"Linda, this is Jay, Jay Fayhee . .

A pause.

"Jay, you don't sound exactly like I remember."

"Nervous, I guess ... or maybe it's my accent. I sound more likeCenturion than I used to. You stay in one place long enough, you pickit up after a while. At least, I'm told I don't talk like aCalifornian anymore ... whatever that means."

"Well, I'm glad you called." Jay's spirit took flight.

"You know I've always loved listening to the sound of your voice. Evenover this link, you sound like James Earl Jones to me." A shortpause.

"But, why'd you call? ... You talk, I'll listen."

I could never tell her what this call's really about, Jay thought atfirst, but then somehow, somewhere, he found the courage to speak fromhis heart, without word games, hints, undertones, or innuendo.

"We nearly lost you-and I was worried sick about you. Are youalright?"

"It was tight, but we were lucky. Hell Fire's cooling system pulled usthrough. Mac and Gonzo are fine. I'm OK, but Hell Fire ... Hell Fire'sgoing to need some work."

"Thank God you're alright," Jay said softly, without pretense. After afew moments, he continued.

"I understood your comm antennas took the heat."

"They took the worst of it. Repairs could take as long as a week."Scott paused.

"If all goes as planned, we'll head your way once Hell Fire's given aclean bill of health."

"Excellent," Jay said, feeling so excited his heart might burst.

"So please, tell me how you're doing."

"I've got my work, and I've got good friends. The best ... but no onespecial, not anymore. I mean I'm not married or anything." Lindapaused, debating whether or not to encourage Jay. Following her heart,she took the risk.

"You know, I still carry that four-leaf clover you gave me for luck.I'm wearing it now. And you? How are you doing?"

"Turns out, this job's not all it's cracked up to be, but maybe thatcomes as no big surprise to anybody but me."

She remembered that four-leaf clover, Jay thought. Now open up, bringdown the walls.

"I'm learning to live without you now, but I miss you ... I miss youevery day.

You may not believe this, but I have every letter you ever wrote me,every picture we ever took, even our old high school yearbook up herewith me on CD. They even let me bring a few of your originalhandwritten letters onboard."

Linda was genuinely surprised by this revelation, and on hearing thesewords, her heart sang.

After a brief reflection, Jay continued.

"You know a funny thing about this place?"

"I don't have any idea what you're thinking," Linda said quietly. Butright now, I dearly wish I could read your mind and know your heart.

"Funny thing," Jay began again.

"When it's quiet, I find myself wondering about you, what you're doing,and wondering if you ever think of me?"

"Me too," Scott responded softly, without hesitation.

"I was wondering about you on the Edwards runway before

we took off. Not a day passes that I don't think about YOU."

Instinctively, Scott knew she was letting her guard down prematurely.Her head understood this, understood it full well, but her heart toldher to fly. Somehow, she had to touch this man's heart.

Feeling more and more at ease, Jay asked,

"Do you remember much about our last year of marriage?"

"I've forgiven and tried to forget the painful parts. A big part oflife is like that, about forgiveness I mean. I can't carry anger, iteats me up inside. Mainly I remember the good parts, our happytimes."

"Do you remember that orange-colored cake we made?

The one that looked like a pumpkin?"

"With a plastic worm hanging out its nose. A culinary delight I cannever forget."

"How about the Valentine Day dance? I've got our picture up here withme. You couldn't have been over sixteen then. You were lovely ... andso funny. Most of all, I remember you hated your knees. I thoughtthey were beautiful, and you incisted they were fat. Who ever heard ofanyone hating their knees? Craziest thing I ever heard of anyway, butyou were serious. Fat knees."

"We really had big problems then, didn't we?"

"Life seemed complicated then," Jay said seriously.

"And growing up was hard."

"Growing up is hard for every generation," Linda observed with just ahint of sadness.

"Even so, it was a good life, and the best way I know of to grow up."

"In each other's arms?"

"It meant everything to me. Do you remember our first kiss?" Lindaasked, knowing his answer in advance.

"You kidding? Ninth grade Christmas dance, your house, dark basement,and metal braces. It was a nerve shattering experience for me. Whocould forget the feeling of flesh pitted against your cold hard steel.I never had a chance really, when you think about it. As I recall, Igot the distinct impression that you were well ahead of me in this areaof development."

"But in all fairness and to your credit, you were aquick study."

"I used to love the way you'd stick your lower lip out when you werepouting."

"A well-established, effective ploy." Linda smiled.

"Came right out of Seventeen magazine, you know. But I couldn't singand still can't dance."

"But you've got gumption-an intangible thing, but it sets you apart.You did what you set out to do and not many people can make that claim.You've always known what you wanted, believed in yourself, and wouldn'ttake no for an answer."

"I don't know . . ." Linda said, holding back the tears.

"The costs, I mean. I set out to marry the man I loved, raise afamily, and fly. Now-I fly." Her tone, one of loss.

"I

love flying, I've got to do it, but it doesn't hold me close or keep mewarm at night. Sometimes it seems the more I know, the less Iunderstand. Everything changes so quickly I forget what's important.Maybe I'm not as sure as I used to be, or maybe, like everyone else,life's just kicked me around a little."

"I know what you mean Jay said, surprised that the girl he loved, thegirl he'd admired all his life, would question herself.

"Life's good, life's hard, but it's not fair." Jay loved talking toLinda and shifted the topic ever so slightly, allowing them to focus ontheir successes. Remembering happier times, he began,

"By the way, I visited our old high school my last trip home. Saw theplaces we used to go, stood in the very spot we used to meet betweenclasses, even looked inside your old locker."

"Has it changed much? What was it like?"

"The place was practically empty during summer school, so it seemedpretty lonely, pretty deserted. What I remember most is how empty theplace seemed without you.

Without you there, with only memories, the place seemed lifeless. WhenI lost you, I lost me, if that makes any sense.

I don't know what I was looking for really, what I was hoping to find.Memories of the heart, I guess. Whatever it was, I didn't find it.Maybe the school reminded me of what we had, how happy we were, how things might have been." After afew moments of careful consideration, Jay concluded,

"Growing up was hard. Sometimes, looking back, I really don't see howwe got through it all and survived."

"When you cut to the chase," Linda responded in a soft, compassionatetone,

"I don't think the heart of the problem is all that complicated tounderstand really. It's about sex and morality ... doing the rightthing, I mean. The problem may be clearly stated, but the solution'sthe hard part. No one's found a solution to make growing up anyeasier. At eighteen, you needed sex, and you needed it often. It waslike a chemical imbalance, inhibiting clear thought, and you didn'thave an outlet. That didn't make you fundamentally bad or muchdifferent than any other eighteen-year-old male, but it made growing updifficult."

"You understand me better than I understand myself.

You always have." Jay sighed, his thoughts scattered, shifting now toLinda's father. He'd always admired the man, Linda's fatherextraordinaire and SR-71 sled driver. He'd always been kind to Jay,and it meant all the more because at times Jay had known he didn'tdeserve it.

"You know, I miss your father. I still feel badly about not attendinghis funeral. You needed me, but I was stuck up here, stuck here on myfirst tour with no way back."

"I miss him more than I'd ever imagined and I feel cheated now thathe's gone. There were so many things I'd wanted to tell him, so manythings I'd wanted us to do."

"He died knowing the most important things, Linda, your heart and yourspirit." Jay smiled, recalling some advice Linda's father had givenhim, then continued.

"You know the only instructions he ever gave me before we weremarried?"

"No, you never told me Dad's advice," Linda replied, drawing a blank onJay's question, "but you two were a lot alike. You know he liked youfrom the start."

"I'm ashamed to say it now, but the only request he ever made of me wasthat I never, ever hurt you."

Linda's eyes teared as she imagined her father talking to Jay on behalf of her happiness.

"I'm afraid we both made some bad calls, Jay. Somewhere along the way,we both lost sight of what was really important in life. Dad would bedisappointed in us now, but he'd never give up on us." Following along silence, Linda asked,

"Are you happy? Is this what you want?" I dearly wish I could readyour mind.

"No, Linda. Not really."

"Want to talk about it?" Dear God, I'd love to talk to him again.

"Linda, the thing I want most in my life ... you might think this isridiculous, but the thing I want more than anything else in the worldis to talk to you."

Linda's heart took flight.

"Listen, Linda, I made some terrible mistakes when we were together. Ibehaved badly. God knows I did and only God knows how sorry I am. I'vespent the last five years regretting it and if there was something Icould do, something I could say that would make it right again, Iwould. It's almost as if we had to get this divorce for me to seeclearly what I'd lost. I dream of holding you again, but I'm afraidthis dream will never come true. Not now . . ."

"Sometimes dreams really do come true, Jay. My dreams are much likeyours. We both made some big mistakes and our divorce devastated me.But you're a part of me, a part of me that won't let go. Let's workthrough the forgiveness part first, put the pain behind us, then get onwith the healing. I think we can make it work. I need you more thanyou know."

I feel like a kid again in love for the first time, Jay thought, hisheart pounding. I'll make you happier than you ever imagined in yourwildest dreams!

Linda smiled at her next question.

"You're going to call me again?"

"Nothing in heaven or on earth could keep me from calling you. Ifyou'll let me, I want to show you I've changed.

My dream is to be in your life again forever-and faithfully."

"Dreams really do come true, Jay. They must. Why do we live if notto dream?" Teary-eyed, Linda paused only a moment, then whispered,

"I love you."

"I love you."

Declaring a Dividend, 1210812014, 2040 Zulu, 11:40 P.m.

Local

IRAQI INTELLIGENCE SERVICE HEADQUARTERS,

UNDERGROUND BUNKER,

BAGHDAD, IRAQ

The sergeant on duty in the crypto room brought in extra help tonight.Mother expected he may get a message, and the sergeant didn't want anycomputer screw ups fouling up the works. When the incoming messagealarm bell rang, everyone anxiously watched the crypto board thinkingthis could be the one. It was. For the second night in a row, thecrypto board flashed: Incoming Message-Priority:

URGENT-FOR MOTHER'S EYES ONLY.

With hard copy in hand, the sergeant picked up the phone and calledMother. He answered before the first ring completed.

"Sergeant-message?" Mother's voice was un revealing of emotion.

"Message reads as follows: To: mother, From: ad dams Subject: Lawrencegets a horse."

"That is good," Mother said quietly.

"Send my reply to Livermore. It must get through."

"Understand."

"Call me when he reads it."

"Anything else?"

"No, now it's my turn. Allahu Akbar!"

Hiding the Trojan Horse, 1210812014, 214 7 Zulu, 1:47 P.,vi.

Local

GATE 2 SECURITY GUARD SHACK,

LAWRENCE LIVERMORE NATIONAL LABORATORY,

LIVERMORE, CALIFORNIA

Lucky sat in front of his workstation, studying the screen.

Mother was right, he thought. Something most extraordinary hadhappened. Christmas vacations canceled-scientists and engineers calledback from vacation (which explained why they were in such a foul moodtoday). Three Livermore computers had been running wide open allmorning. SDIO programmers for the DEW SAT Centurion, and hissubordinates were involved in a marathon twenty-four-hour programbuild.

Roughly twenty-four hours after Lucky received his first message fromMother, his terminal message bell rang again.

You have electronic mail.

He read his e-mail summary-another message from Mother. Luckydecrypted the message, guessed what it would say-and was right-again.

FROM: mother TO: mal SUBJECT: Lawrence gets a horse.

Come home for Christmas.

End Of Message Lucky deleted Mother's message and checked to make surethat no one was looking over his shoulder. He turned the brightnessdown low on his terminal, then cleared his screen. Once sure the roomwas empty, he didn't take time to think. He reacted mechanically, likea robot. His practice paid off.

Lucky struck methodically. First, he transferred PAM to the computerused by the Centurion project. Next, he logged on the Centurion project computer as a super-user and performedhis programming magic. Super-user status made Lucky all-powerful onthe Centurion project computer, but he had to move fast or riskdetection. He moved directly to the program area on the computer wherethe new builds were taking place, then began looking for a pattern.

The pattern was obvious.

Lucky smiled. The rest would be easy!

Centurion's programmers were having a field day-taking advantage oftheir opportunity to bypass quality control. They threw in hundreds ofbug fixes for old problems as well as the fix for their DEW SATproblem. Lucky thought it should be easy to hide PAM.

He was right.

Lucky quickly decrypted PAM and appended her to another program. PAMentered as a Trojan horse. She looked like any other programchange-something she was not.

With his bad seed planted, Lucky signed off, then watched the progressof Centurion's program build.

No problem. Everything worked.

Perfect! he thought. Just like in the movies!

With his bad seed planted, Lucky removed PAM from his computerworkstation, then walked to security headquarters for a talk with hisboss.

As he strolled across the Livermore grounds, Lucky's heart soared andhis grin stretched ear to ear. Above all else, Merchant A. Lucky was amercenary. He could retire on the money he'd make.

He walked into his boss's office.

"I've got some good news and some bad news."

"I've had about all the bad news I need today, Lucky, how 'bout thegood news first."

"I'm going home for Christmas and I'm so excited I'm about to bust!"

"That's great. Where's home?"

"The Florida panhandle and I can't wait!"

"How about the bad news?"

"Mother's not doing so well, so I've taken a job near her to helpout."

T

"Sorry to hear it ... so what's your plan?"

"New job starts January first-my last day here'll be next Monday, oneweek from today."

"I wish you the best of luck. If you need any references along theway, let me know. You're a mighty talented character."

"Thank you, sir." Lucky smiled, shook his boss's hand, and walked backto his office in Guard Shack 2.

Lucky didn't understand the consequences of what he'd done-he didn'tneed to. Mother's bonus and relocation plans were excellent.

THE PROBLEM WITHOUT SOLUTION

DAY 3-I DECEMBER 9, 2014

Nothing to Report, 1210912014, 1505 Zulu, 10:05 A.m. Local

ARECIBO EARTH STATION,

ARECIBO, PUERTO Rico Arecibo, the Allies' largest satellite earthstation and radio telescope, silently transmitted Livermore's newprograms to Centurion through a thirty-five-meter dish antenna pointingdirectly toward Freedom.

From the air, Arecibo's largest antenna looked like an enormous bowlspanning the valley between surrounding mountain peaks. Lining thebowl's perimeter, blasted, turn buckled and bolted into the ledge stoodforty plus satellite dishes, fuel tanks, plus a dozen single-storybuildings.

Arecibo's only reason to exist was communications, but like most earthstations, once operational the communication equipment required veryfew technical support people.

Just plug it in and let it run.

Inside the security building, a short, stocky security sergeant watchedhis status board, a wall lined with TV screens and red lights.

All was quiet.

Just once I'd like something to report, he thought.

The sergeant had been stationed at Arecibo nearly two years and knewnothing ever happened here ... most boring place in the world. Thiswasn't what he'd signed up for, but this was the Army. Arecibo shouldabeen couch potatoheaven-more than six hundred television channels to choose from. Butnow he was sick of TV, he hated TV.

The most excitement in the sergeant's day were the radio checks. Oncein a while, that seiiorita would answer. The sound ... the tone ofthat woman's voice set the blood in his veins on fire.

The sergeant checked his watch. Five minutes late for his radio check.Nothing to report . . . nothing ever to report.

Daydreaming, he watched the office window buffet and listened to thefifty-knot wind howling outside. Suddenly, the window popped. Startledback into the real world, the sergeant snapped upright, blinked hiseyes clear, then called headquarters.

"You're late," a harsh male voice announced over the radio speaker.

"So sue me!" groused the sergeant.

"Nothing to report, nothing at all."

Uploading the Trojan Horse, 1210912014, 15 1 0 Zulu, 8:1 0 A.M. LocalCHEYENNE MOUNTAIN, COLORADO As Arecibo transmitted Livermore's newprograms to Freedom, Colonel Napper sat behind his console impatientlymonitoring the progress of the upload. Once the transmissioncompleted, a message on Napper's monitor read:

ARECIBO STATION STATUS SUMMARY:

Program Upload Transmission Complete Zero Errors Colonel Napper shiftedhis gaze to the video conference monitor linked to the Crow's Nest.Here we go again, he thought when he saw Mason, Hinson, and Craven inanother heated argument. Craven wouldn't bend and Hinson supportedhim, of course. Napper decided to interrupt them anyway.

"Generals, can I have your attention?"

No response-their argument continued.

Drumming his fingers on his control console, Napper The gathered his courage.

"Beg pardon, Generals. Generals, I need your attention!"

Either they didn't hear him or they didn't want to hear him.

He listened in on their argument. Craven insisted on ramming thischange through immediately, bypassing established testing and safeguardprocedures. Mason stood against it. Net result-no progress.

From his control console, Napper increased the volume of his voiceinside the Crow's Nest. They'd hear him now!

"Generals, listen up-uh-with all due respect." His voice boomed overthe speakers. t Napper cringed when he heard his voice reverberatearound the auditorium-sized War Room. He was over one hundred feetfrom the glass-walled Crow's Nest towering overhead. He saw Craven andhis staff covering their ears as the room hushed. Everyone in theCrow's Nest stared silently at Napper on video.

Mason spoke first.

"Sam-we're listening, but could ya cut it down a little?"

Napper breathed a sigh of relief and turned the volume down.

"Centurion's upload's complete-we're ready to run."

"Hope's status?" asked Craven.

"Pasha's bridgled on, sir. He'll hear everything we say.

Scott, Gonzo, and Mac are outside pulling maintenance antenna repair.About an hour till they button it up."

"Good." Craven smiled.

"Comrade General, anything else?" He looked across the room at RussianGeneral Yuri Krol.

"Hope is our hot spare on standby if something goes wrong." Biting hispipe tightly, the corners of Krol's mouth turned down.

"Centurion will maintain armada control while Guardian records testresults. Exactly as you ordered, my General." The words sounded as ifthey'd stuck in his throat. Clearly, Krol was not a happy soldier. 41Craven looked at Fayhee on screen.

"What's Freedom's status?"

"Waiting your orders, General."

"Jay-you and Depack ready to reload Centurion?"

"We're as ready as we're gonna be. Centurion's never run untested codebefore."

"If there's a showstopper with this load," interrupted Hinson, "reloadthe program Centurion's running now."

"Damn it, Hinson," snapped Jay.

"We're not up here to make your ass look good. I sure as hell canhandle this without your bullshit."

Depressing his conference call mute button, Hinson spoke to Craven.

"The team in the tin can's running on a short fuse."

Craven agreed. He studied the face of each commander for a fewmoments, then began.

"This subject's not open for further discussion. Centurion'll run thenew Livermore load this morning as planned."

"Yes sir," replied Fayhee.

"We'll have Centurion reloaded in half an hour-by 1600 Zulu."

"Good," said Craven, checking his watch.

"Hinson, bring your attack forces on-line as scheduled."

"Yes sir, General!" exclaimed Hinson, feeling exonerated.

"We're ready! The Stennis is in position. Dorito and XR-30 crews'restanding by at Edwards."

"Good," Craven said quietly.

"I don't want excuses-I want results. Before this day is through Iwant this stealth cruise missile threat behind us."

The Orbiting DEW SAT Armada, 1210912014, 1550 Zulu

ALTITUDE: 11 5 MILES IN CIRCULAR POLAR ORBIT,

ONBOARD A DEW SAT

Ready to strike in a fraction of a second, orbiting 115 miles above theearth along lines of longitude, seventy-two DEW SATs methodicallyscanned the entire earth's surface searching for fiery missileplumes.

The orbiting DEW SAT armada continuously scanned the globe forinfrared, optical, and radio frequencies, ready to strike when theirdecision circuits voted in favor of the kill.

Within limits, DEW SAT telescopes and radar could detect anything thatcould fly. Likewise, anything it could detect, its laser coulddestroy.

At 1550 Zulu, the DEW SAT armada received its heartbeat (keep alive)signal, an encrypted radio signal from Centurion which read: set Laserpower output = max Each DEW SAT tested itself: its electrical systems,optics, radar, infrared telescope, and laser. After passing everytest, each DEW SAT acknowledged the message with an encrypted radiotransmission to Centilrion which read: DEW SAT ack: Laser power output= max Fully operational, the orbiting DEW SAT armada was lethal, armed,and dangerous.

Waitingfor Safe Laser Clearance, 1210912014, 1555 Zulu, 7:55 A.M.Local

COCKPIT OF HAILEYS COMET,

SOUTH FACING RUNWAY,

EDWARDS AFB, CALIFORNIA

Slightly reclining, "with fist clenched tight, Major Art Hailey staredmotionless into the blue sky above Edwards' vast south facing desertrunway. Surrounded by explosive fuel, engulfed by engine noise,sitting on top of the fastest air and space lane ever created, Haileywasn't impressed. He felt angry, but didn't know who to hit. Hisleave canceled without explanation in exchange for a dicey game oflaser tag.

Shaking his head in disbelief, Hailey carefully read Scott's testflight plan and Hell Fire's damage report for the third time. Hisflight plan was identical to Scott's and she'd nearly lost Hell Fire.

"Loosen up or you could be dead soon," he thought out loud. Fiveminutes and this bird' Il be off the ground.

Isolation, 1210912014, 1556 Zulu

SPACE STATION FREEDOM

"Depack, you ready to go?" asked Colonel Napper. It was unusual forHeadquarters to monitor Freedom operations, however, considering thecircumstances, it came as no surprise. Depack's fingers moved overCenturion's keyboard faster than Napper's eyes could follow.

"Yep-uh-sir. If there's a problem, we can back outta trouble fasterthan we got into it." Since Centurion provided the brain, heart, andsoul of the SDIO satellite network, any problem with Centurion's newprogram would mean more delay.

"We'll take it from here, Colonel," announced Fayhee.

"Load on my mark." Fayhee'd hoped for the best, but planned for theworst. "Three, two, one, mark."

Depack and Fayhee simultaneously rotated large red turnkeys. Centurionnever took his eyes off Fayhee as the new program loaded at the speedof light. Fifteen seconds later, the bad seed took root.

"So that's all there is to it," quipped Centurion.

"Now we test," said Depack.

"I knew that." Centurion displayed a page filled with testinstructions.

"Go for it, Depack. Ring him out."

Depack nodded agreement.

"Centurion-make ready to alter DEW SAT behavior."

"Very well." Centurion paused for an eternity in computer time, thenresponded.

"Depack."

Seconds passed without an additional comment from Centurion. It wasunusual for Centurion to pause so long.

Depack felt anxious.

Centurion's talking head began moving with a jerky, blocked-tile sortof slow motion. Finally, he muttered, DEW SAT behavior records havebeen retrieved and await modification." His voice dropping in tone,his speech slowed.

A cold chill crawled up Depack's spine. He feared the worst, butquickly purged his mind of panic. Depack moved posthaste around thecontrol room to Jay's console, turning his back on Centurion's cameraeye.

"Jay, come here-I need you."

Startled by Depack's ghost-white complexion, one glance told Jay all heneeded to know without an additional exchange of words.

Returning to Depack's console, Jay gazed at a slow motion picture ofCenturion on screen. Depack spoke in an emotionless voice, readingfrom his test script.

"Turn down the power and disable hot TDM operations on every DEW SATlaser over the test zone. Track and tag targets for the next fourhours-don't destroy them."

"Depack," Centurion replied, followed by a protracted silence.

Normally, Centurion's silence would have made Fayhee a happy man.Silence meant he was occupied with something, but for now they didn'tknow what.

"Take a look," Jay said, pointing toward Centurion's globe.

"Something's wrong. Everything's moving in slow motion." The earth'shologram now moved with a pulsating, jerking motion ... like watching aVCR one frame at a time.

"Centurion's sick," Depack said grimly.

"This load's got a clinker in it-some sort of slow-motion bug."

As Jay and Depack talked, PAM created her list of threats, includinganyone or anything who could reload Centurion or damage the satellitearmada.

Next, PAM created her defense resource list, including every satellitein the orbiting armada.

Finally, PAM modified the program she would run when threatened-ascript file listing where to run, where to hide, and what to do whencornered.

"Let's move fast before things get worse!" ordered Jay.

Strain crept into his voice. Returning to his console, he planned toreload Centurion's original program.

"Reload on my mark."

Programmed to survive, PAM made a copy of herself then moved into eachof Centurion's subordinate computers at near light speed.

The bad seed took root then spread like a cancer throughout Freedom'scentral nervous system.

Optical glass communication pipes connecting Centurion to his threesubordinate computers glowed brightly with a frenzy of computerchatter.

"I don't know why, but I don't like it!" exclaimed Depack, rubbing hishand over the glowing communication links. Normally, Depack Would haveintuitively known why by watching the glowing comm links. OnboardFreedom, the why was important because Centurion ran their life supportsystems. Before running this new load, Depack would have known whichprograms were talking, what they were talking about, and why-but thesepatterns of light had changed. He couldn't read them, they lookeddifferent.

"We're losing control."

"Three, two, one, mark." Depack and Jay rotated the large red turnkey,loading Centurion again.

"We have a problem!" Centurion announced immediately.

"Subordinate computers in alarm, off-line, out of service. Cause offailure: degraded performance. Response time exceeding preset alarmlimits."

Jay and Depack looked perplexed. Jay bolted quickly to Depack, turninghis back on Centurion's monitor.

"Whataya make of it?"

"Centurion's OK." Depack thought for a moment, then asked Centurion afew questions using his keyboard.

"Centurion's back to normal, but the slave computers are running slow... real slow! This sounds crazy, but I'd guess they caught somethingfrom Centurion."

"That's all we need!" Jay rolled his eyes.

"So Centurion's slow bug's contagious? Recommendations?"

"Reload 'em all."

Centurion's communication pipes glowed again with a frenzy of computercommunication as PAM moved back into Centurion.

Jay rushed to his console and red turnkey, but it was already toolate.

Centurion now had two separate and distinct personalities: one visible,another hidden. Centurion's visible personality was unchanged, but hishidden dark side was dominated by PAM.

Hidden and operating independently, Centurion's dark side issued herfirst operational orders. An encrypted radio signal which read: TuesDec 09 16:10:58 Z 2014 To: Any DEW SAT put Arecibo Earth Station onkill stack put Roaring Creek Earth Station on kill

STACK

In his early stage of neurosis, Centurion didn't know anything abouthis dark side. PAM was split off from his consciousness so they nevertalked to each other.

Although PAM shared Centurion's electronic brain, sensors, andsatellites, she was totally unaware he existed. Two distinctpersonality programs inhabiting the same brain, each unaware of theother-an electronic form of viral induced hysterical-dissociationneurosis.

In time, irreconcilable memory conflicts would result because Centurionand his dark side shared an optical brain which could never forget.Eventually PAM, the controllerltaker personality, must emerge dominantto survive.

"We have a problem," Centurion observed in a detached tone of voice.

"Please stand by."

Jay and Depack agreed, then waited what seemed an eternity-fifteenseconds in real time.

And then it happened.

Video from Cheyenne Mountain began breaking into tiles as the signalfaded. Snow blanketed the picture of Colonel Napper, and the audiobegan to crackle.

"We're losing Arecibo," announced Centurion.

"Communication link failing due to severe signal fade. Wait. Thesignal is breaking up, garbled."

Inside Freedom, the video screen from Cheyenne Mountain went black.

Thirt seconds after her first order, hidden from Centurion andFreedom's crew, PAM transmitted two additional orders to her armadain less than one one-hundredth of a second.

Tues Dec 09 16:11:28 Z 2014 To: Any DEW SAT put all known ASATS on killstack put all known mines on kill stack Almost immediately afterwards,she issued orders to Guardian, Centurion's computer counterpart onboardSpace Station Hope.

Tues Dec 09 16:11:32 Z 2014 To: Guardian Let face = red, yeLLow, black,and white then do until done set face airlock safety = off set faceairlock inner door = open set face airlock outer door = open doneImmediately, bright red alarm lights flashed on every console insideCheyenne Mountain, Freedom, and Hope.

The alarm board inside Cheyenne Mountain covered an entire wall and litup like a Christmas tree. Computer systems inside Cheyenne Mountaindesigned to automatically analyze alarms began to fail due to overload.After the alarm systems failed, operations on the War Room floorshifted to a hectic frenzy.

The great blue ball inside the War Room froze motionless.

In less than thirty-four seconds, Cheyenne Mountain's lifeline toFreedom had gone belly-up, and more.

Inside Freedom, a blinking message on Centurion's screen read: WARNING:Critical Alarm FAILURE: Arecibo LOS (Loss Of Signal) conditionexists.

CAUSE: Unknown-To Be Determined Depack slammed his hand down on thealarm cutoff switch and the flashing red lights went ark.

"So what's causing the problem?" asked Depack at the threshold ofpanic. He thought it strange that they should experience a majorcommunications failure coincident with running this new program.

Centurion paused as if he were carefully crafting each word.

"It is impossible for me to isolate this problem without your help."

Jay spoke next. The tension in his voice broke through.

"Clarify!"

The more anxious Jay and Depack became, the cooler Centurion seemed torespond. This was normal and they knew it. When Centurion sensedtension in the crew's voices, he'd been programmed to back off andrespond with an overstated calm tone in his voice.

"Jay, I understand you and Depack are upset over the testing delays,but I'm confident we can restore ground communication within the hour.We have any spare parts we could need. It should be a routine repairprocedure for either you or an Arecibo technician. As I said, I cannotisolate this problem without your help, but that is no cause forconcern. Arecibo could have a problem with their transmitter or theproblem could be with our receiver."

"Recommendations?" asked Fayhee, searching for alternatives.

"A process of elimination." Centurion paused much longer than usual.

"Clarify!" Jay barked angrily.

"Testing's on hold till we're back on the air."

"First, isolate the failure. Make sure the problem is on our end, theneliminate the obvious."

"Doing something beats doing nothing," Jay quipped.

"Continue."

"We have two replacement approaches to consider slow and sure orshotgun." Jay took Centurion to mean that they could replaceindividual receiver subsystems one at a time or swap out the entirereceiver system.

"Hell, let's replace them all," Jay concluded.

"Shotgun approach should be faster."

"Ready, shoot, aim," Depack observed.

Jay cringed. He knew shotgun repair wasn't efficient, but they were ina hurry. Stealth missile testing was on hold until they got back onthe air. Hailey's Comet, Cowboy's Dorito, the Stennis-all depended onFayhee to deliver. He had to do something fast.

"We need ground communications ASAP!" Jay exclaimed.

"Don't isolate the problem, just replace the receivers."

"When it rains, it pours! Whataya want me to do?" Depack asked.

"Just swap those radios." Jay pointed to an eleven-foot tall framefilled with rack mounted radio receivers and test equipment.

"Shouldn't take more than twenty minutes. I'll swap the antenna amps.Whatever you do, keep those radar transmitters off."

There was real danger here from the transmitter's power output and theopen vacuum of space. Freedom's antenna amplifiers were located in herexternal plumbing layer.

Nicknamed the oven, the plumbing layer was an enormous maze ofwaveguide sandwiched between her central core and outer skin.Waveguides focused microwave energy from her radar transmitter ontoeach of her four triangular faces, each face an antenna measuring 660feet on a side covered with thousands of spike like nails. Whilereplacing antenna amps inside the oven, Jay would he working inside themost powerful microwave oven ever created.

Weightless, using only his hands, Jay raced up the ladder to the toppeak of the triangular prism shaped control room.

Throwing open the maintenance equipment cabinet, he pulled out anoversized backpack and secured it to the floor. Following a desperatesearch, he filled it with antenna amps and tools. Grabbing the case,he strapped it on his back and hurried off to change into his pressuresuit.

DEW SAT Passover, 1210912014, 1611 Zulu, I ]:I I A.m. Lvcal

ARECIBO EARTH STATION,

ARECIBO, PUERTO Rico An invisible infrared laser beam painted arectangular section of earth along Arecibo's rim, leaving a trail offire, smoke, steam, and scorched grass sizzling in its wake.

Measuring thirty-three feet across, the enormous heat ray movedquickly, methodically scorching the earth in a row pattern like afarmer might plow his field. In just under ten seconds, a patch ofearth about half the size of a football field lay smoldering.

An army private standing by the picture window in the rec buildingnoticed smoke rising from the rim. Alarmed, he ran to the phone butcouldn't speak, terrified by what he saw outside. He stood mesmerized.watching the grass fire racing toward him, surrounding the'recbuilding, fuel tanks, and four SAM missile launchers within seconds.Flames spread across the fun as if the ground were saturated withgasoline, and there was no place to run.

Twin fuel tanks next to the rec room were detonated by exploding SAMmissiles. A series of secondary explosions followed, engulfingArecibo's fun in flames. Saturated with fuel, the burning airinstantly reduced the young soldier to ash.

Behind the rec building stood the large thirty-five-meter satellitedish pointing toward Freedom. Surrounded by scorched earth and smoke,the dish stood blistering hot, but remained operational.

Passing over Arecibo, the DEW SAT scorched the earth, searching forthis thirty-five-meter dish. Triangulating on Arecibo's radio beam,the DEW SAT had resolved the antenna's position to within one hundredfeet. Thermal scanning gave the DEW SAT a second independent, albeitsomewhat less accurate, position estimate of the antenna's position. Looking down from 115 miles overhead, the DEW SAT saw two blisteringhot metal objects-the uplink antenna and fuel tank.

It targeted them both, the largest first.

Switching from target discrimination mode to maximum power, the DEW SAToptical computer brain set target dwell time to one second.

From the security building overlooking the big bowl, the sergeantsimultaneously watched four programs on separate TV sets. He didn'tnotice the smoke outside or the red alarm lights, but it wouldn't havemade any difference.

When I Love Lucy disappeared, he spun around to see the status board onfire with red lights and alarm messages spewing across every monitorscreen. Their firehouse alarm bell had been broken for years but notreplaced because it never rang anyway.

"Gawd!" he exclaimed out loud. I'd better get some help.

Grabbing the phone, he punched up the rec building. It was dead.

The overhead lights and status board flickered, then went dark.

Smoke outside caught his eye as he stood up for the last time.

Backup generator oughts cut in, he thought, when suddenly every windowin the building went. Spillover from the heat ray had detonated acluster of four SAM missiles parked by the fuel tank. A series ofexplosions took out the fuel lines running above ground to the powerplant downhill. Rapids of burning gasoline and diesel fuel rusheddownhill over earth and rocks, engulfing the power plant, two moremissile launchers, and one section of Arecibo's mammoth bowl.

He didn't hear the explosions, but with his last breath smelled thefountains of gasoline and diesel spewing upward from the detonatingfuel tanks. Flying through the burning air at hurricane speed, atwo-foot dagger of window glass mercifully severed off his head at theneck before the security building was engulfed in flame and incinerateda few seconds later.

Blowing their tops like giant Roman candles, each exploding tankbelched an enormous fireball upward, then spewed burning fuel, droppingfiery spray for hundreds of yards. As the fire advanced around thebowl's perimeter, detonating fuel tanks and missiles fed the torridfrenzy.

Rivers of burning gasoline and diesel raced down the mountain,saturating the ground underneath Arecibo's mammoth dish. From the air,Arecibo looked like a large fiery crater charring the sky black.

Within minutes, Arecibo was transformed into a collection of twistedmetal and flaming wreckage. The earth trembled as the cable towerssupporting Arecibo's mammoth dish collapsed.

It all happened so quickly. Ashes and black smoke were spotted by aBrit missile cruiser in the North Atlantic over one hundred milesaway.

Once Arecibo had been quietened, the DEW SAT sheathed its invisibleray.

Something's Wrong Here, 1210912014, 1611 ZULU, 9:11 A.M. Local

CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN, COLORADO

"Something's wrong here! We're disconnected!" Colonel Napperexclaimed, pounding the screen linked to Freedom.

Jay's picture had suddenly gone black and a loud, low pitched bellbegan to gong. All signals from Freedom had been lost, communicationwith Jay, Depack, and Centurion severed.

It was like watching a spectacular video game suddenly stop. Theslowly rotating hologram of earth froze motionless. Thousands ofsymbols designating everything in orbit-DEW SATs Hell Fire, Freedom,Hope, AntiSATellite missiles, space mines, discarded rocket boosters,junk-froze suspended. Across the walls of the War Room, the alarmboard lit up while both the air and space threat boards went black. Thesea threat board continued to operate, but all air and spaceinformation had been severed.

Colonel Napper pounded the ALARM CUTOFF switch and silenced the bell.

A message appeared on screen in large red print.

CRITICAL ALARM: Freedom Whiteout-LOS Condition Exists SYMPTOMS: AllCommunication and Data Channels Lost PROBABLE CAUSE: Unknown

POSSIBLE CAUSES:

1. High Background Noise Due to Sun Outage 2. High Background Noise Dueto Sunspots

RECOMMENDATION: ROARING CREEK EARTH STATION

As ALTERNATIVE-UPLINK SITE Computers inside Cheyenne Mountain quicklybut incorrectly diagnosed the cause of Freedom's Loss Of Signal assunspots or a sun outage. This diagnosis was only as good as theprogram which produced it. A complete analysis program would haveexhaustively tested every failure possibility, but there were too manyfailure possibilities to test them all. When theory came to practice(when it came time to pay for it), you tested only those situationsmost likely to fail. Their computer programmer hadn't considered thepossibility of communication failure due to friendly fire from their ownDEW SAT laser because he believed it would never happen. From itsoriginal inception, the SDI system had not been designed for war withitself.

Freedom's Loss Of Signal condition had all the symptoms of a sunoutage, except one-sun outages were predictable, normally occurringtwice a year at Arecibo. A sun outage occurred when Freedom waspositioned directly between the sun and Arecibo. When the sun lined updirectly behind Freedom, Arecibo's antenna was blinded in the same wayyou're blinded looking directly into the sun.

Freedom's LOS condition had all the symptoms of an outage due tosunspots, except one-only Arecibo reported trouble. All otherDepartment of Defense earth stations remained on-line and fullyoperational. As a rule, electromagnetic interference from sunspotsprevented clear reception of broadcast signals around the world.

Loss of Freedom's data link was a critical matter to Headquartersbecause Allied battlefield control had been consolidated insideCheyenne Mountain. A critical condition yes, but not unexpected. LossOf Signal work around drills were routine, and several communicationalternatives were on hot standby in case they were needed. Analternate earth station located in Roaring Creek, Pennsylvania, couldbe brought on-line in a matter of seconds.

Napper and Mason studied the critical alarm message Napper on the WarRoom floor, Mason from the Crow's Nest.

"Sun outage doesn't make sense," Mason said quietly.

"Outages are predictable."

"Right, Slim, and sunspots don't hold up either. No one else has anyproblem. Roaring Creek's on-line."

"Whataya think Sam? Any recommendations?"

"Assume a sun outage. Switch over to Roaring Creek.

Couldn't do any harm." Napper paused for a few moments, chatted withan officer sitting to his side, then continued.

"Yeah, assume an outage but don't plan on this switch solving ourproblem."

Napper went to work connecting Cheyenne Mountain to thethirty-five-meter satellite dish at the Roaring Creek Earth Station.After pressing the SUN OUTAGE key on his terminal, his job was done. Inless than ten seconds, his computer automatically linked CheyenneMountain over a special high-speed landline to Roaring Creek.Immediately, Napper's data link light turned green, indicatingFreedom's signal had been detected.

"We're on the air!"

A picture of Fayhee's empty chair and control console appeared onFreedont's video display screen, alarm lights inside Cheyenne Mountaincleared, the holographic image of the earth began to slowly rotate,over two hundred ASATs in low earth orbit quietly disappeared, andFreedom's communication link was restored.

Napper pressed a switch, ringing a bell inside Freedom.

Should get their attention, he thought.

"Freedom! Do you read me? Over.", Silence.

"Freedom, do you read me?"

A harsh voice sounding like sand and glue responded.

"We have a problem. Your signal's fading ... in the noise."

A snowy picture of Centurion appeared.

"Jay's overhead. I'll connect you."

Then Napper and Mason watched Freedom's signal fade away. As suddenlyas the link was restored, it failed. Freedom's video broke up intotiles-both primary links severed.

"Recommendations?" asked Mason.

"I need ideas, Sam."

"We're boxed in: Let's back outta this corner. Switch to Hope. She'sstanding by."

Without looking to the supreme commander for approval, Mason ordered:"Do it!"

Then, without warning, Hope's communication link failed. The pictureof Commander Pasha Yakovlev broke up into square tiles, then wentblack. With their backup links gone, Cheyenne Mountain lost their acein the hole.

Both their primary and backup control systems had failed.

Identical to Freedom in every respect, Hope provided the SDI networkwith redundancy, two of everything. If Freedom failed, Hope wouldautomatically take over without missing a beat, an operating spare incase of problems or maintenance.

The second critical failure in less than one minute,thought Mason. The network's designed for single point failures, butwe haven't seen a single point failure yet.

Space stations don't just drop off the air or fall from the sky.Doesn't add up-this is no accident. There's malice here. Someone'sgot us scrambling and all we've done is react. Compoundfailures'restacking up faster than we can clear 'em. The unthinkable is happeningand we're powerless to stop it. We're losing control of the armada!Concentrate, Slim! Focus on the big problem first! Networkcontrol-get that armada in check. Freedom is the controlling piece oforbiting real estate here, but she's out of commission-so work aroundher. Work Hope in parallel.

First, we need visibility-get our eyes and ears back. Probe space. Seewhat's going on.

"Hope?" Mason looked at Napper on his TV display.

Napper turned, spoke to an officer sitting to his side, then replied,

"We don't know what happened, but my best people are all over thisproblem. We need her now!"

Mason nodded agreement.

"As a stopgap measure, we need land-based radars tracking thearmada."

"Agreed!" Napper exclaimed.

"We'll patch in BMEWS until Freedom's back on-line."

BMEWS (Ballistic Missile Early Warning System) was a group of largepowerful land-based radars designed to probe space searching for ICBMS.BMEWS radars could track objects in orbit as small as a two-inchbolt.

"Like the old days," Craven acknowledged, then his forehead wrinkled.

"I don't like it, Slim. Seems like a giant step backwards."

Mason didn't agree. His face took a hard set as he looked at his boss,the Supreme Allied Commander.

"We need a fallback position."

Mason looked at Napper on screen.

"Sam, do you have any better fallback plan?"

"No, Sir. I like your idea! It's one we can depend on.

BMEWS is operational and linked by landline. We've lost our real time,but using BMEWS we can track the armada without Centurion."

"Slim, I think you're making a mountain out of a molehill, but do whatyou must." Craven didn't see any reason to push Mason on this point.Patching BMEWS in wouldn't cost them any extra time.

"Patch in BMEWS," ordered Mason.

"Napper, get up here now!" bellowed Craven.

Mason discreetly passed Craven a note.

"Nonsense!" Craven mumbled under his breath.

"Atmospherics or sunspots. There's some reasonable explanation."

A mole's inside Cheyenne Mountain, thought Mason.

Has to be. This was important. He wouldn't take no for an answer. Noother explanation made sense. He wrote a note to the chief ofsecurity, marked it ukeeti-r, then signaled his operations officer tocome over and lend a hand.

Without saying a word, Mason handed the note to the major. Silently,the major read over his delivery instructions, gave Mason a winkindicating he understood, then left the conference room heading downthe spiral staircase.

Listening to their meeting from the War Room floor below, ShripodAddams looked concerned over the space station situation like everyoneelse in Cheyenne Mountain, but he alone was not surprised.

Lightning Without Thunder, 1210912014, 1611 Zulu

ALTITUDE: 115 MILES IN CIRCULAR POLAR ORBIT,

PASSING OVER NEw ORLEANS, LotjISIANA

ONBOARD A DEW SAT

Passing 115 miles directly above the cloud-covered streets of NewOrleans, two small fuel pumps began turning inside the DEW SAT attitudepositioning engines. In the silent vacuum of space, two jets ofhydrazine fuel escaped, slowly rotating the sunflower shape about itscenter of gravity. Once the DEW SAT came about, its lethal stempointed toward an Anti-SATellite (ASAT) missile, a large cylindricalcanister shaped like a rocket booster trailingsixty miles behind and twenty miles below. Light reflecting from thecylinder bounced off the sunflower's mirrored head, focused on asensor, and fed the DEW SAT optical computer brain for processing.

Almost instantly, the DEW SAT illuminated the ASAT with a single UWBradar pulse. After measuring exact range and position, the DEW SATtrued its sights. First, it rotated its mirrored head less than onedegree about the stem, then refined its focus by changing the mirror'sparabolic shape by a few hundredths of an inch.

Within a few seconds, the one-hundred-foot-long stem and reactor corebegan heating up. The DEW SAT Free Electron Laser acceleratedhigh-energy electrons down its stem, then lased them into an invisibletwenty-megawatt beam, dwelling on target less than one second beforethe small, tactical nuclear warhead exploded. A brilliant, blazingwhite fireball ignited the sky. For a fraction of a second, theintensity of the light and heat released from the explosion wascomparable to that from the sun, so powerful it would permanentlydamage any electronic equipment within a ten-mile radius. The size ofthe explosion was equivalent to 20,000 tons of dynamite, about the samesize as the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.

Immediately after the blinding flash, the DEW SAT rotated its mirrorabout the stem, focused on a second ASAT, and fired-dwelling on targetone-half second before reducing it to a cloud of fiery gasses andexploding debris.

Fed by burning rocket fuels, the fireball from the second explosion, aconventional hundred-pound warhead, lingered several seconds beforefading to black.

Without hesitation, emotion, or glory, the DEW illuminated a thirdtarget and seconds later sent it to a fiery grave-this one, a smallerspace mine with a conventional warhead.

Executing the kill sequence flawlessly, the lethal DEW SAT weaponsystem was without parallel-within limits, technically elegant, robust,and unapproachable.

As this ballet of explosions, fire, and light raced across the cloudyNew Orleans sky, hundreds of people on the ground below scurried forshelter, expecting a downpour.

Diffused by the clouds, the flashes looked like distant lightningsilently igniting the sky without the clash of thunder.

For approximately one minute, chaos ruled the civilized world.Communications around New Orleans and around the world were disrupted.Radio, TV, satellite, telephone, aircraft traffic control-everycommunication system using the electromagnetic spectrum was jammed offthe air due to the interference from the explosions overhead. Thecommunication fabric that held the peoples of the world together brokedown due to interference from over two hundred ex In one simultaneousattack, seventy-two DEW SAT eliminated 238 orbiting ASATs and spacemines.

As part of their mission, the Cheyenne Mountain staff had tracked everyobject in orbit around the earth since Sputnik, the first Russiansatellite. Of the roughly 60,000 objects orbiting the earth, 238 wereknown ASATs or space mines launched by the third world, each animmediate threat to the DEW SAT armada in case of war.

After receiving PAM's orders, every DEW SAT simultaneously updated theposition of each orbiting threat. Within a fraction of a second, eachthreat was reclassified hostile.

Inside the DEW SAT optical computer brain, the priority of each threatwas increased and moved on the target list, nicknamed the kill stack.Once on the kill stack, the DEW SAT kill decision was complete andirrevocable.

Only the kill remained and methodically executing the kill sequence waswhat each DEW SAT did best.

Each DEW SAT was a brilliant-class weapon, a revolutionary leap inwarfare technology comparable to stealth in that it completely changedthe strategy and tactics of war.

By making their own battlefield decisions, operating independently oras a networked team, DEW SATs forever altered the way future wars wouldbe fought. During normal SDI operations, Cheyenne Mountain assignedtarget priorities, Centurion assigned targets, and the orbiting armadadid the fighting. But now, PAM controlled it all.

ploding ASAT warheads.

No one could control the DEW SAT armada once Freedom's communicationswere cut.

The brilliant-class weapon-stand-alone, standoff, and unapproachable. Amilitary and political dream now our worst nightmare.

Shooting Star, 1210912014, 1611 Zulu, 8:11 A.m. Local COCKPIT OFCOWBOY's EF-12 DORITO, ON THE SOUTH FACING RUNWAY BEHIND HAiLEY'sCOMET, EDWARDs AFB, CALIFORNIA Gazing across the runway at Hailey'sComet, Cowboy's eyes were the size of quarters as he slowed hisjet-black Dorito to a stop. Hailey's Comet looked somewhat like agiant vacuum bottle or thermos, a giant engine built for sucking air.Painted matte black, much of the aircraft was covered with largesections of white frost. Clouds of condensation boiled off her nose,wings, underbelly, and air inlet. Identical to Hell Fire, Hailey'sComet looked like a cloud machine, spewing a turbulent stream of coolfog downward across the runway, boiling as it vanished.

From the side, the front of the aircraft looked like the head of agreat white shark with its jaws stretched open wide. The Goliath-sizedXR-30 dwarfed Cowboy's Dorito.

"Black monster," observed Cowboy, looking up at the XR-30'sair-breathing underbelly.

"Fastest flying hydrogen bomb ever built!" responded Cowboy'sback-seater.

"I'd feel better with more distance between us."

"First one I've ever seen up close, Bulldog. Sit tight. I wanna get agood look."

"Expect departure delay due to technical problem onboard Freedom,"announced Edwards' control tower., "That's just great!" exclaimedCowboy, pounding his fist against the canopy.

"We really need another screw up."

"Dorito, your takeoff is delayed three zero minutes," Edwards' towercontinued.

"Roger, three zero minutes, tower." Cowboy grimaced.

"Dorito, will keep you ad ... SQUEEEEEEEEPWACCCK!"

A shrill, ear-piercing racket pounded Cowboy's eardrums. He yanked hisheadset cable out of the connecting jack, then killed his radio. Afterhis ears quit ringing, he plugged his headset in and demanded: "Whatthe hell's going on?"

"Working it," snapped his back-seater. Bulldog frantically worked hisradio detection equipment, searching the airwaves for the direction andfrequency components of the electromagnetic noise. He couldn't believewhat he measured, but his measurements were undeniable.

"Overhead EMP! Moving north at orbital velocity. Spectrum'ssaturated!"

Cowboy took Bulldog to mean an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) created by anuclear detonation was jamming his radio.

"Impossible! Look again. Let your analyzer warm up."

"Checked it twice."

"Check it again, dammit!"

"I've never seen a blast, but this interference has it all every EMPcharacteristic." Bulldog's heart raced from fear, his hands trembledadjusting his equipment. Noise saturated every band.

"I could be wrong-dear God, I hope I am."

"Oh my Lord," said Cowboy, gazing overhead. Against the deep blue sky,a bright, fiery white shooting star suddenly appeared racing north.Bulldog was right! His stomach balled up into an icy knot.

This wasn't a game anymore.

Bed of Nails, 1210912014, 1611 Zulu

SPACE STATION HOPE

"Comrade, emergency!" squawked the speaker by Boris Ustinov's ear.Boris, Depack's computer analyst counterpart onboard Space StationHope, had been asleep only two hours.

"Come to the conn immediately!"

Ustinov rubbed his eyes, thinking he must be dreaming.

Rolling over, he adjusted his blanket, loosened the bunk safety belt,and never woke up again.

In the blink of an eye, Hope lost video contact with CheyenneMountain.

Once Hope's link to Cheyenne Mountain failed, Commander Pasha Yakovlevfrantically threw a series of switches in an effort to get it back.

Audio noise crackled and popped through his speaker in the control roomwhile snow covered his TV display.

Powerful interference, Pasha thought somberly. Better find. analternate route. Freedom-use Freedom as a relay station.

Scrambling to establish a radio link with Freedom, he selected an audiochannel.

"Freedom, this is Hope. Over."

His radio crackled loudly with noise, but no reply. Pasha expected tohear either Jay, Depack, or Centurion. Centurion never slept-whydidn't he respond?

Pasha looked at his monitor. A generic talking head identical toCenturion flashed on screen.

"Guardian," he barked.

"Link with Centurion! Hail Freedom over all frequencies!"

"Permission denied," Guardian replied tersely.

"We're cut off."

"Centurion can't do that!"

"I sense you are upset, Comrade Pasha, but you are incorrect. Centurionhas denied us communication -and all access permission to Freedom. Weare isolated."

"Any explanation?"

"None."

"Freedom's status?"

"Unknown."

Identical to Freedom, Hope was designed to take control of the SDInetwork if Freedom was ever disabled. Pasha concluded the time wasright-Centurion had gone belly up Without explanation, Centurion hadisolated Hope, cutting her out of the armada. According to the book,Pasha classified Freedom as potentially hostile.

Timefor the big switch! thought Pasha as the muscles in his facetensed. Guardian must take control. Hope the master, Freedom theslave.

He rotated an A B switch to Master position, but it didn't work. Anindicator light showed Centurion maintained full control over thesatellite armada.

Centurion won't let go Pasha grimaced, rotated the switch back andforth several times, but it didn 't help. Guardian needed Centurion'sconsent to take control, but he wouldn't give an inch.

Looking for a work-around to solve his communication problem, Pashadisplayed a schematic drawing of Freedom's video and audio receivercircuits.

Relax, Pasha. Take your time. You've trained all our y life for theunexpected. Back off and examine your alternatives. Talk to thetroops!

Studying the drawings, he didn't notice the ominous message suddenlyappearing on Guardian's output display, Guardian received PAM's orders,expanded them into a longer form, then simultaneously executed eachcommand.

Tues Dec 09 16:11:32 z 2014 To: Guardian From: Centurion set redairlock safety = off set red airlock inner door = open set red airlockouter door = open set yellow airlock safety = off set yellow airlockinner door = open set yellow airlock outer door = open set blackairlock safety = off set black airlock inner door = open set blackairlock outer door = open set white airlock safety = off set whiteairlock inner door = open set white airlock outer door = open Asquickly as Guardian read the message, the deed was done. There was notime for discussion, no time for alternatives.

Bright red emergency flood lamps suddenly illuminatedthe control room while critical alarm indicators flashed on everycontrol console.

Instantly, Pasha heard doors slamming open all around him. Within theblink of an eye, airlock doors slid open on every face of Hope'scentral core. Since Hope would automatically compensate for singlepoint failures, Pasha could have recovered from a single open airlock.Four airlocks opening at once overwhelmed him. Paralyzed in disbelief,he struggled with what to do.

No time to think, less time to react, but time enough to die.

Air evacuated explosively-like popping a balloon. Instead of slowlydeflating Hope's pressurized bubble, PAM burst it.

Before Pasha could move, the deafening roar of a cyclone engulfed him,an explosive blast of wind ripped at his clothes. Roaring into thevacuum of space, the cyclone sucked everything not tied down out of theship. Fortunately, he'd strapped himself to his console chair.

Boris was not so lucky.

In less than two seconds, he'd been hurled over thirty feet across theroom-from his bunk, through the airlock, into the absolute vacuum ofspace. Moving through the airloCK Wltn the wind was like beingexpelled from a torpedo tube.

Increasing the wind velocity like a nozzle, the inner airlock doorrestricted the airflow with a deafening roar while the corridor leadingto the outer door provided an enormous acceleration lane, like beingshot out of a gun.

The screaming roar silenced instantly as Boris hurled like a bulletthrough the outer door. As he catapulted through the airlock, hisblanket snagged on an emergency exit handle causing him to spin alonghis long axis like a rifled projectile. Once outside the core, hisarms extended from the centripetal force, his spin slowed, and heaccelerated straight into the red antenna face. Covered with thousandsof spikes, the antenna face was a triangular-shaped flat surface madeof wire mesh, looking like a bed of nails.

Mercifully, he never fully regained consciousness.

Pasha figured he had maybe thirty seconds till he'd black out. Therewas nothing he could do for Boris. He had to save himself.

Brought back to reality by a sharp pain in his ear, he slammed his fistdown on each airlock control switch.

The switches didn't work. Centurion had control of his ship.

Near delirium, he read the computer screen, then understood what mustbe done.

The hurricane force winds quickly diminished, the terrifying roarhushed. t Pasha heard the silence of vacuum, the stillness of death.

His chest heaved like he was in labor, his remaining energy wastingaway with senseless breathing.

Air pressure zero, quiet dominated the control room.

Banks of red alarm lights gave the room an eerie, darkroom like glow,reminding him of hell.

Pasha knew what he had to do-override Centurion's control.

Rushing across the room, he found it easy to move.

Turning a pistol grip handle, he watched an indicator light change fromREMOTE CONTROL to MANUAL OVERRIDE.

Yes! he thought. Finally, is working as advertised!

Free from Centiirion's control, Guardian evaluated every input signal.Pasha expected Guardian would run a cabin recovery sequence,automatically sealing and pressurizing the cabin, but he was wrong.

Five long seconds passed. No change. Pasha flinched.

Overrun with critical errors, each demanding immediate action, Guardiancould not do everything first, so he did nothing. He'd continue doingnothing, hung in a do-nothing loop, until every airlock shut.

Pasha took one giant leap to his console and slammed his fist down onevery airlock switch. He couldn't hear anything-there was no air-buthe could feel the ship vibrate as electric motors turned worm screwssliding each door shut.

He felt he might make it. Once the doors shut, Guardian wouldautomatically repressurize the cabin.

Watching the airlock indicator lights transition from open, shut, tosafe, Pasha froze motionless, transfixed as the black face sealedfirst, followed by white, then yellow.

Three out of four airlocks showed safe.

Pasha pounded the red airlock switches. After pounding it the secondtime, his heart sank. The airlock fault indicator light beganblinking. The airlock on Hope's red face was jammed open, stuck ondebris snagged in the blanket Boris left behind.

Pasha's peripheral vision faded as colors blended into black and white.He knew they would. Feeling dizzy, he moved to his chair, and strappedhimself in. Out of time, he leaned forward, lowering his head onto hiscontrol console.

Trapped in a body that wouldn't work, he could still think. Why don'tI pass out? Why don't I just die? He couldn't see to type a helpmessage into Guardian. He couldn't hear, couldn't speak-no air.

Then it happened. God allowed Pasha a few final seconds of clear,uncluttered thought. Somehow, must raise Hell Fire.

He could feel, he could touch, but his fingers were swollen the size ofhot dogs. He felt his wrist, found his watch and removed it. Afterkeying his mike, he scraped his watch over the microphone's head to getScotty's attention, then he began tapping. He tapped out a series ofdots and dashes: dot dot dot dash dash dash dot dot dot SOS in anylanguage.

Pasha tapped off his SOS message three times, then began losing hissense of touch. The feeling in his fingers was going, they felt onfire. Finally, he couldn't keep time, dots slurred into dashes. Hissense of rhythm was the last thing to go before he completely blackedout.

Moored to a platform on Hope's yellow face, Hell Fire floated throughspace suspended in dry dock. Working as a team, Scott, Mac, and Gonzohad temporarily repaired Hell Fire's antenna and were ready to testit.

Suddenly, Scott heard something.

"Listen up!" Scott motioned to Gonzo and Mac. She paused,concentrating on the scratching click-clack noise coming in over herheadset.

"Morse?"

Mac and Gonzo agreed.

Looking at Gonzo, she added: "SOS."

"Trouble!" Gonzo acknowledged.

"Raise Guardian."

Scott set her handheld transmitter to Guardian's frequency, then keyedher mike.

"Guardian, this is Scott.

Over."

"I receive you clearly."

"What's your situation?"

"Critical, Comrade. Rapid decompression. Cabin pressure absolutezero. Red airlock jammed open."

"Pasha? Boris?"

"Boris is dead. Pasha is near death, blacked out, bleeding. Checkyour display."

Scott checked the picture on her palm-sized flat screen display. Pashalay still, looking waxen as a dead man, while the control room, floodedwith red light and long black shadows, looked like hell.

Broken wires dangling in space pointed toward the airlocks-theconnecting wires torn from equipment sucked out during decompression.

"How long doeg he have?"

"Three to four minutes."

Whatever you do, do it fast Scott thought.

"What's causing the fault?"

"Debris lodged across the airlock doorway."

"Tell me more. Give me percent closure."

"Outer door is ninety-five percent closed. Inner door is ninety-eightpercent closed."

"Can you hold pressure?"

"Negative, but I anticipate where you are leading."

"Running wide open, can you build pressure with an emergency blow?"

"Yes, for a short time, that is possible. I can release air fasterthan it leaks out. Estimate forty minutes of air reserve."

"Good. Execute an emergency blow, but watch the oxygen mix. Lookslike a lot of electrical damage. Don't want an explosion."

The sides on Hope's central core began to flex from the inside out aspressure began to rise.

"Scotty," Mac said, watching Pasha on his flat screen.

"Don't forget the decompression chamber. Cycle it. That's his onlyhope."

"You're right, Mac!"

Scott keyed her mike, transmitting on Guardian's frequency.

"Is the decompression chamber operational?"

"Yes, fully operational."

"What chance does Pasha have?"

"The sooner he's in the chamber, the better his chances."

"Equalize the pressure chamber. We're on our way."

Scott looked at Mac and Gonzo. Without words, they knew what to do.

Mac clipped on an oxygen cylinder for Pasha, then raced hand over handacross a ladder to the yellow face airlock.

Gonzo strapped on a toolbox and hurried to clear the jammed airlock.

"Boris?"

"Boris is dead, impaled on the red face."

Scott saw a haunting picture of Boris she would never forget.

"Closer," instructed Scott.

Guardian focused the camera on Boris at maximum

ZOOM.

A horrible way to die.

Spikes ran through his neck, head, and torso, but his arms and handswere free. Even after death, Boris offered a final farewell. As themuscles in his arm contracted, he waved his last good-bye.

Cloud Box, 1210912014, 1611 Zulu, 11:11 A.M. Local

ROARING CREEK EARTH STATION,

ROARING CREEK, PENNSYLVANIA

A winter wonderland! thought a communications technician driving thenarrow, winding mountain road up to the Roaring Creek Earth Station.Rolling down his pickup truck window, he inhaled the smell of balsamfir trees.

Smells just like Christmas! he thought. Life doesn't get any betterthan this!

Six inches of fresh snow had fallen the night before, blanketing thehilltop and surrounding farms with a glistening white sparkle thatshimmered against the blue Pennsylvania sky.

After rounding a tight bend in the road, the technician reached aclearing. He glanced up the hill, expecting to see the silhouette ofseveral thirty-five-meter satellite dishes.

Stomping his brake to the floor, the pickup skidded to a stop. Grabbinghis binoculars, he jumped out of the cab and stood on the truck bed fora better look. After studying the hilltop, he still couldn't figure itout.

He'd seen clouds engulf the hilltop often enough, nothing unusual aboutthat. Clouds sure, but the day was picture-perfect. A front hadpassed through the night before, there wasn't a cloud in the sky-exceptfor the dense ground fog completely engulfing the earth station. Funnything was the fog bank looked more like a fog block. A block of fogwith side walls running vertically maybe one hundred feet tall.

Fog don'tfigure! he thought, when suddenly he yanked his binocularsaway from his eyes. Blinking his eyes clear, he tried to remove thespots from his vision. Feeling helpless and scared, for a few secondshe believed he was going blind. Covering his eyes, gradually the spotsdisappeared and his sight returned. Eyes must be playing tricks on me,he concluded. Musta looked at the sun somehow. You don't see fallingstars in broad daylight!

Once recovered, he climbed back into his pickup and raced up the hillto get a better look.

Touched by an invisible infrared laser beam, fresh snow around theRoaring Creek Earth Station had been vaporized-no fire because of themoisture, just fog. In just under ten seconds, the DEW SAT painted arectangular section ofsnow along the Pennsylvania hilltop about half the length of afootball field, creating a rectangular block of fog.

As he raced toward the hilltop, a slight breeze blew, rounding off theedges of the fog block. By the time the technician drove into theRoaring Creek parking lot, the dense fog had spread across the hilltopand all five large satellite dishes were visible.

Strange, I woulda sworn that fog bank had sides, he thought, scanningthe top of the windowless communications building through hisbinoculars. Dishes look all right.

Then he noticed the snow. Snow around the building had vanished . . .like an early thaw, only this thaw had edgesa boundary box of icemarking where the thaw stopped.

Nobody's gonna believe this, he thought, grabbing his VCR camera.

"Wish I'd thought of this earlier," he muttered, walking around thecommunications building, recording everything he saw on videotape.

He circled the building, walking on damp brown grass, leaves, earth,and asphalt-but no snow. His feet stayed dry and warm. Snow'dvanished without a trace. About thirty steps from the building he sawice shaped like a roadside curb, a long rounded edge of ice forming theboundary box marking where the thaw had stopped. Beyond the curb ofice lay countless acres of snow-covered hilltop. Unbelievable!

Once the technician entered the building, it became immediately obviousthat something was wrong. A loud alarm bell rang, echoing throughoutthe building. No one was in the front office, everyone was out workingon the equipment floor. The technician glanced over the alarm board,saw the office was in critical alarm, then understood why.

The entire satellite office had been jammed off the air.

Every radio link with Europe and Freedom cut. Roaring Creek carriedcommercial long-distance satellite traffic to Europe and Department ofDefense traffic to Freedom.

Countless thousands of communication channels were out.

Suddenly, as quickly as the radio links were jammed, they wererestored. Alarm bells silenced, red alarm lights went dark.

Once the bells were silent, the technician felt glad he'd missed theaction.

Walking through rack after rack of microwave equipment, he searched thefloor for the station manager. Finally, he found him in the backcorner of the building at Freedom's microwave transmitter. He came toan abrupt stop after running down the long equipment aisle. Breathingheavily, he asked the manager,

"What happened?"

"Not sure, but we'll sure figure it out!"

"How'd it start?"

"Don't know. Cheyenne Mountain pumped some data through, we lostFreedom's signal', then all hell broke loose. We got a lot of piecesto put together."

BEEP!BEEP!BEEP!

The manager pulled out his pager, read off a four-digit phoneextension, picked up a nearby phone, and placed a call.

A voice over the phone said,

"We received encrypted message traffic just before we got jammed offthe air. I think it might be important."

"You make any sense of it?" The manager raised one eyebrow.

"We can't decrypt it, but it's not the usual message traffic. There'sat least two separate messages-one came over the DEW SAT commandcircuit, the other over Hope's."

"Better send it over glass to Cheyenne Mountain

ASAP!"

The man at the other end of the phone understood the manager. He wouldsend the message over landline, optical glass fiber, so the messagewould arrive error-free at Cheyenne Mountain.

"Will do!" The phone call ended.

"Something's outside you gotta see!" the technician insisted.

One look into the technician's eyes and the manager knew he meant whathe said.

"OK. Show me!"

A Nightmare Come True, 1210912014, 1614 Zulu, 9:14 A.M LAcal

CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN, COLORADO

"Gawd!" The communications officer did a double take after reading anincoming message from Roaring Creek. He requested confirmation and gotfar more than he bargained for. Watching his TV screen in disbelief,he stared mesmerized as Roaring Creek played their videotape. As soonas he saw the tape, he charged into the Crow's Nest conference roomlike a freight train.

"General Mason!" the major puffed in a tizzy.

"Just received a video from Roaring Creek. You gotta see it!" Helooked around the room-top brass wall-to-wall. His stomach churned asevery eye in the room focused on him, but he wasn't about to apologize.They could polish their brass later, this was important.

"Everyone oughta see it!" he exclaimed as he handed a message toGeneral Mason.

"I've seen the tape. They're on the level."

Mason read the message, poring carefully over every word. At first, hefound it difficult to breathe, as if he'd had his breath knocked out.

Craven watched Mason studying the note. Looking like the world lay onhis shoulders, Mason's sad eyes revealed his innermost feelings.

This is only the beginning, Mason thought, fearing the worst.

Without comment, he handed the note to Craven.

Feeling anxious about what they might learn over the next few hours,Mason asked the major to play the videotape. The officer raced out ofthe conference room's swinging door and started the VCR.

The conference room door hadn't stopped swinging before he and twostaff sergeants burst back into the room carrying color photographs,reports, and two boxes filled with VCR tapes and floppy disks.

As the tape played, the communications officer handed Mason a set ofreconnaissance photographs, still warm from the high resolutionprinter.

"A Brit chopper took these pix. Arecibo's burning. A total loss."

Stunned, but not totally surprised, Mason asked,

"What about the men?"

"Brits are combing the area now, looking for survivors.

Bowl's burning, can't move in too close."

"What happened?"

"Don't know, General, but something big's coming down!"

"Could you be specific? What do we know?" Remembering the room mightbe bugged, Mason decided to plow ahead for the moment, as if he didn'tsuspect a thing.

Stumbling to find the right words, the communications officer shook hishead from side to side and stammered.

"We're overrun with data and short on analysis, but I got oneconclusion-something's gone terribly wrong. That pattern's consistent.We're sorting out the details, but we're gonna need some help." Hepaused, gawking at the embattled, stone like faces around the room.Frozen in place, staring at the video from Roaring Creek, the general'sstaff looked like they belonged in a wax museum.

"Major," Mason urged patiently.

"You were saying?"

Blinking, the major turned toward the general, restarting his report.

"Roaring Creek sent us a copy of some unusual radio traffic-messagesover Centurion's command circuitsto the DEW SAT fleet. We're deciphering 'em now, but looks likeCenturion issued orders to the DEW SATs just before Freedom went offthe air."

"I didn't issue any orders that'd busy up our command circuits!" Masonraised both eyebrows and cut a glance across the room at ColonelHinson. Command messages between Centurion and the DEW SAT armadashould never be unexpected, never! If Centurion had issued operationalorders to the DEW SAT armada without Headquarters's approval, there wasreal danger here, perhaps worldwide danger. These messages might behard evidence that Cheyenne Mountain had lost control of their orbitingarmada. Everyone understood that Cheyenne Mountain originated allcommand messages, or at least they had until now.

"No sir!" Colonel Napper announced.

"We never issued em, but they must be important."

Mason spoke to one of Craven's aides.

"Get these people whatever they need. Help 'em out."

Unusually quiet and subdued, General Craven nodded approval. He'dlistened, been silent till now, but he felt he had to say something torally his troops.

"People, the hard part's behind us. We've made it work.

Sunday, we tracked every target, found a problem, and Livermore fixedit in a day." Craven looked around the room at the drawn, worriedfaces of his staff. His pep talk wasn't getting any traction.

"We've been up against tough problems before and worked through everyone. There's always an explanation, there's gotta be! Our job is tofind it. We're not talking faith here, we're talking physics! God'sglue!

The laws that hold this world together! Hell, the glue works! Goddon't change it overnight. Sure, we've got technical problems, butwe'll work through 'em. We can do it! We've always done it." Hecaught Mason's eye with a sincere but disappointed smile.

Abruptly, another airman rushed into the room, delivering an armload ofnotebooks filled with more bad news.

The communications officer quickly read over the reports.

Overwhelmed, the officer looked at Mason.

"We're flooded with data, sir. Our phones are ringing off the wall!

These reports indicate communications may have been disrupted all overthe world. Edwards reports nuclear detonations in low earth orbit. Wegot reports of bright shooting stars coming in from all over the world.It doesn't add up, sir."

Mason looked at Napper.

"Talk to me." Mason spoke quietly, looking directly in his eyes. Hehad his own ideas, but hoped he was wrong.

"What do we know? I need ideas. We got symptoms of a big problemhere."

"I've got a hunch, sir, but it's a shot from the hip." Sam paused fora moment to talk off-line *ith John Sullivan, the softwarerepresentative from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Hewhispered something in John's ear. John turned pale, visibly shaken,but agreed after some discussion.

When Mason saw John Sullivan grimace, he knew his worst nightmare hadcome true.

Now more confident, but with the unmistakable look of terror in hiseyes, Sam stood up. Before he opened his mouth, before he said oneword, the fear in his eyes cut into the soul of everyone present.Straight-faced, he spoke quietly. Every general except Mason leanedforward, straining to hear Napper's every word. Deathbed quietpermeated the room. You could have heard a pin drop.

"I want to be perfectly clear on this point because John and I thinkit's important-it could be critical. Our information's incomplete, butone observation is undeniable.

Our problems started when Jay loaded Centurion. Let me be blunt.There's malice here-software sabotage."

Mason's mind raced ahead of the group, looking for some plan, someordered approach to solve this problem.

As Mason formulated his proposal, Craven spoke up, cutting Napper offmid-stride.

"Sabotage, that's a political decision, a people decision, and peopledecisions take time-you don't turn a decision like that around in lessthan twenty-four hours." Craven's face turned hard.

"If what you say is true, this must've been an inside job. But look atthe facts. Who knew about ourLivermore software marathon anyway? Who knew that we'd bypass ourstandard software testing? Almost no one!

Besides, to pull off this sabotage job woulda taken moles both insidethe mountain and Livermore. Statistically, the probability of sabotageis almost zero. And as a practical matter, I think it's impossible.Too many things coulda gone wrong. Odds are with me."

Shaken, Sam sat down, quietly warning,

"Don't underestimate the opposition, General." He'd worked three yearsfor Craven and was not accustomed to having his opinion discounted orinterrupted.

Mason stood in Sam's defense, not having heard one word Craven said.He'd formulated a plan and wanted to present it for discussion.

"I could be wrong, Sam, and I hope I am, but as I see it, yourobservations cut to the crux of the matter. Software sabotage-we'redefenseless against it. We threw our software testing to the wind."Mason didn't look toward Craven for approval.

Mason paused, organized his thoughts, then looked toward Sam and JohnSullivan for support.

"John, let's find the problem. Assume software sabotage for now, butdon't do anything that might alarm anyone at Livermore. Begin yourstandard software regression testing procedures at Livermore, butaccelerate them, run them round the clock.

Whataya think?"

"You read my mind, General! Livermore already started testing firstthing this morning. Everyone expected it looks rushed, but routine."

Looking toward Colonel Sam Napper, Mason continued.

"Get us visibility, Sam. We need our eyes and ears back!

We need to see what's happening in orbit. You with me?"

"All the way, General!" Napper exclaimed, feeling his race was aboutto begin. He knew what to do, and it was important. Mason felt hecould see the wheels in Napper's head spinning round. Napper's fearhad disappeared.

"My crews're working Freedom, Hope, and the BMEWS now.

If Freedom or Hope whispers, we'll hear 'em. BMEWS radar data's thebest bet until our link's restored. We've lost our real-time, butwe'll do everything we can."

Pointing out toward the communications officer, Mason spoke softly.

"Major, you're in the hot seat here. We'll follow your lead. Decipherthose command circuit messages from Roaring Creek ASAP. Do whatever ittakes. We need them decoded yesterday!" Mason paused, letting themajor absorb his idea. Once he sensed traction in the major'sexpression, he pointed to the notebooks.

"Finally, get some people sorting those phone reports, generate ussummary, a snapshot of what's coming in off the wires. Get back to mein an hour with what you've got."

The major pointed to three bird colonels sitting alongside Craven.

"How 'bout you, you, and you lending a hand?

You heard the general, let's do it!" The communications officer rushedout of the room followed by his two staff sergeants and an airman. Eachof Craven's aides looked sheepishly to him for approval.

Craven nodded.

"You heard the general. Do whatever it takes!" With some reservation,they filed out, following the major to the radio room.

"Hinson," Mason announced.

"We scrub today's High Ground testing. We're off the air until furthernotice! Put your aircraft back in the barn. Keep 'em on standby. Wemight need em. And Centurion's log-work through it with Yuri's people.That's our bread crumb trail out of this forest. It should tell useverything Centurion's done."

Hinson agreed without argument.

Listening from the War Room below, Shripod Addams knew his career as anIraqi field agent was finished, but what a career. He'd been in theright place at the right time.

Doing Allah's work, he'd found the Allies' soft spot and exploited it.The world was changing, the balance of power shifting away from theAllies, before his very eyes. Few agents ever directly observed theimpact of their intelligence efforts. Addams felt fortunate to havebeen an instrument of Allah's divine will. Planning his final signalto Baghdad, he knew it was only a matter of time until they found hisbug in the conference room, but he'd expectedthis all along. He felt certain the Allies couldn't finger him, ascertain as one could be in the intelligence business. His fate was inAllah's hands.

Controllers on the War Room floor ran diagnostics, but found nothingwrong with their equipment. As floor activity shifted into frantic, noone noticed when Shripod Addams disappeared into the rest room. Heentered a stall, removed a tiny flesh-colored button radio from hisear, wrapped it in toilet paper, then gave it a flush. Satisfied, hecalmly pulled a hearing aid from his pants pocket then worked it intoplace. Identical in appearance to the button radio, only he knew thedifference.

Home for Christmas, 1210912014, 1619 Zulu

INSIDE THE OVEN,

SUB ARRAY ANTENNA FEED ON FREEDOM's RED FACE Tenderly caressing the oldfaded letter in his leg pocket, Jay felt apprehensive about moving intoFreedom's microwave oven-technically named the sub array antenna feed.Standing outside the red airlock, he saw his destination down a longmain corridor-a row of equipment cabinets located on the oven's middlerack. Red and green colored safety lights lined the passageway leadingfrom the airlock into the oven. All lights showed green, safe topass.

Moving carefully toward his destination, Jay keyed his mike and spoketo Centurion.

"Verify transmitters're safe."

"Jay, your safety is my responsibility. I take my responsibilities asseriously as you take yours."

Jay didn't like having his life depend on any program with a clinker init. He figured that Centurion had millions of lines of known good codeso the odds of running the program bug should be very low. For thegarden-variety program bug, he was right, but PAM was no ordinarybug.

"Depack, you with me?"

"Yeah-you're on the monitor."

"Watch over Centurion's shoulder for me, will ya? Help him out if thatclinker shows up. He'll understand."

"Jay, if I were in your position, I would request redundant coverage.We have no margin for error. You only die once." Jay found littlecomfort in Centurion's observations, however accurate.

After moving from the relative safety of the central core into theoven, Jay decided to pick up his pace. The less time in the oven, thebetter.

He attached himself to the white equipment cabinet with a strap, tookoff his backpack, and began replacing the antenna amps. After turninga T-shaped handle, each antenna module would slide out and he'd replaceit. Once he'd swapped eight modules in the white cabinet, he closed itand moved to the red.

Breathing heavily, he felt a trickle of sweat running down his leg.Adjusting his suit temperature, he decided he'd better slow down andcheck his work. One trip into the oven was enough.

Suddenly, he felt a burning pain between his legs, as if his groin wasablaze. Doubling over, he saw the corridor lights change to red.

"Depack! Centurion!"

Centurion killed the transmitter power almost instantly, even beforeJay screamed, and before Depack could react.

The transmitter was on only a few seconds, but Jay was hurting.

Centurion spoke' immediately

"Jay, damage appraisal?

Can you walk?"

A groan punctuated by

"Think so."

"Return immediately. Fatal error report summary: I turned thetransmitter off, but I did not turn it on. I observed what happened, Imeasured what happened, but I cannot explain what happened.Recommendation: transfer armada control to Hope."

Jay didn't need to hear it twice. He threw off his restraining strapand rushed across the oven toward the safety of the airlock. Weightlessand sore, Jay found running awkward, nearly impossible. Bouncing fromfloor to ceiling, he moved down the long corridor as best he could,keeping both legs together.

To his immediate left, Jay saw the wall covered withhundreds of microwave antenna horns and cutoff valves.

Each horn looked like the bell of a trombone. On his right, a wallcovered with thousands of spikes, each an antenna.

All the microwave radar energy used on Freedom's red face passedthrough the oven. The oven focused microwaves, and concentratedmicrowaves meant real danger.

All Jay could think about was getting out.

"Jay, I am not what I was, but I am all there is."

"No, Centurion!" Depack interrupted. Suddenly, the fog lifted forDepack. He could see Centurion's problem clearly now.

"That's it! That's the bug! You're not all there is! There's anotherprogram running, a renegade you can't see!"

Excited about solving the first piece of this puzzle, Depack failed tothink about the consequences of his discovery until it was too late.

Depack expected confirmation from Centurion, but didn't get what he'dexpected.

The picture of Centurion faded to black.

"Depack, Centurion is not here anymore." The voice sounded almostfemale, but it couldn't be.

"Where is he? Who are you?" Desperate, Depack grabbed Centurion's TVscreen and shook it, as if that would bring him back.

"Centurion is asleep."

Depack typed in a command to double-check. Centurion's personalityprogram had been put to sleep.

"Wake him up!" demanded Depack, pounding Centurion's computerkeyboard. The keyboard didn't respond.

"Additional conversation can serve no useful purpose."

Suddenly, red floodlights illuminated Freedom's control room. Terrorflushed across Depack's face.

"Depack!" Jay screamed.

"Cut over!" He had heard everything on the intercom.

Depack understood-switch armada control to Hope.

Frantically, Depack rotated the master/ slave turnkey switch givingHope armada control.

Nothing. The turnkey didn't work. Hope was off-line.

Their communications link failed.

Then it happened very quickly. Depack heard airlock doors opening allaround him followed by the screaming roar of a cyclone wind.

Outside, Jay heard Depack screaming over the intercom, but there wasnothing he could do.

Suddenly, the oven safety lights flashed red.

Unless he moved fast, he had less than fifteen seconds to live. He hadonly one chance, and that was a long shot create a safe zone inside theoven by turning off some of the horns. This would create a huge holein Freedom's radar coverage, but that was the least (A his worries.

Jay knew the safest spot inside the oven was the floor, so he hit thedeck and began switching off individual horns.

He moved quickly at first, but soon sweat coated the inside of hisvisor.

Microwave energy immediately converted the sweat to steam, forming afog across his visor, making it difficult to see. He struggled toclear it, instinctively wiping the outside of his visor, but the fogpersisted and his visibility worsened-he couldn't see the cutoffvalves. Operating by feel and overwhelmed with pain, Jay's swollenfingers became stiff. His sense of touch began to-fail.

He doubled over into a fetal position, feeling his groin on fire.Slowly, his eyelids began squinting shut. With each finger swollen tothe diameter of a quarter, his skin felt tight, ready to burst.

Blinded by the steam from his own sweat, he accidentally stuck his handinside a hot horn. He sensed sticky moisture in his glove, the skin oneach finger burst open, coating the inside of his glove with blood. Heyanked his hand out of the microwave horn and stood up, holding it overhis head in front of the red safety light. Through his fogged visor,he saw the silhouette of his hand, a twisted swollen mass.

He convulsed, spitting up blood inside his helmet. As his blood boiledinto steam, it coated the inside of his visor with a dark red residue,leaving him totally blind.

After killing about one third of the horns, Jay had man-aged to clear himself a safe zone, but hadn't realized it.

Disoriented and with all capacity for clear thought expended, hecouldn't have found it anyway. Jay had cooked to the point where eachexposed raw nerve in his skin felt like a tooth under the dentist'sdrill-without Novocain.

overwhelming his brain, Jay's pain had become like a drug, his agonyalmost tolerable.

In his final moments, he felt loneliness, a nauseating emptiness nodrug could cure. As the blood in his extremities began boiling, Jayopened his leg pocket with his good hand. Tenderly, he removed Linda'sold faded letter, and held it tightly. Lying there, clutching hismemories, he closed his eyes for the last time.

Virus Confirmation, 1210912014, 1730 Zulu, 10:30 A.m. Local

CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN, COLORADO

"General Mason's right. This room's bugged," whispered the radiotechnician to the captain in charge of security. As the technicianrotated his directional antenna, an LED display lit up, indicating thedirection of the bug. Methodically, he read the direction from hisequipment, then marked it using a tripod-mounted pencil laser beam. Hemoved across the room and took two additional bearings on the bug'stransmitter, marking each bearing with separate pencil beams. Thetechnician saw they intersected at a large metal video conferencetable.

After crawling underneath the table with a flashlight, the technicianreappeared with a confident smile. He'd worked with similar bugsbefore and thought that he recognized the smell of the gum.

The captain of security and his radio technician quietly escortedGenerals Mason, Krol, and Craven outside the video conference room ontothe walkway surrounding the Crow's Nest. The technician explained:"Bug's underneath the table stuck in a wad of Juicy Fruit gum. I'veseen that type of bug before. The mike's sensitive, but its transmitrange is limited to a few hundred feet." The technician scanned theWar Room floor below, looking for yellow gum wrappers. From sixty feetoverhead, he couldn't see well enough.

"Yes sir, I'd bet your mole's in the War Room, Generals. Somewheredown there's a mole that likes Juicy Fruit."

With about one hundred people rushing about, the War Room floor lookedlike a beehive of activity.

The captain nodded,

"We'll look for gum wrappers as we collect the trash tonight and haveour lab double-check the gum and bug's transmit range. If we findanything, we'll let you know."

"A good start," observed Mason.

"Don't do anything to arouse suspicion. Any other ideas?"

The technician spoke first.

"Yes sir. I wanna zap that bug, but I need your help-I need youreyes."

"What should we do?"

"I'm going to blast that bug with a loud tone. When you hear it, watchfor any reaction below. If our mole has his ears on, it's gonna hurt.Look for sudden movements, anyone grabbing their ears."

"We're with you." Mason moved to cover the walkway on the north,Craven took the south, Krol the east, and the captain covered thewest.

Moments later, they heard a high-pitched shrill sound coming frominside the conference room. As they watched the floor below, they sawnothing-nothing out of the ordinary.

"Mole's onto us," observed the technician. Carefully peeling the bugfrom underneath the table, the captain of security placed it in a bugbox-a soundproof, radio-tight metal carrying case.

Mason spoke to the captain in earnest.

"We're going to need a lot more from you. At least two moles areinvolved at separate locations. They may be working together. Themountain mole you know about. We believe there's another insideLivermore. Work with Livermore, our computer center, the phonecompany-any outfit you can trust who might help us. We need this leakplugged. Do whatever it takes. Develop a plan that covers all thebases. We'll getyou the resources you need. Trace all our communications withLivermore over the last three days-phone calls, computer chatter,e-mail traffic. We're dealing with well coordinated professionalshere."

"I expect I'll need you to grease some skids, General,"

the captain said cautiously.

"Think it through, then point us in the right direction."

"You can depend on me, sir!" The captain carried the bug box off totheir lab for testing.

The general staff moved once again into the video conference room for areport from the Crow's Nest communications officer. The room quicklyfilled to capacity. Staff officers stood in the doorways and thecontrol rooms outside. The mood was tense and the room hot from thecrowd.

The communications officer entered, white as a ghost and visiblyshaken. As he looked at the faces crowded around the room, he felteven worse. No one likes delivering bad news to overheated top brass,packed shoulder to shoulder like sardines in a can. Standing behindthe lectern to hide his trembling legs, he began in a quivery voice.

"As you know, we've lost control of the DEW SAT fleet.

We decoded the command messages Centurion transmitted to the DEW SATarmada and the news is not good-our situation is critical. Centurion isissuing operations orders on his own-without our approval." He paused,letting his message hover around the room. Having proclaimed the badnews in summary, he continued with the details.

"The command message traffic we decoded explains everything-everyreport of shooting stars, Arecibo's fire, radio interference-everything.Centurion's assigning targets on his own. He assigned Arecibo, put iton the kill stack, and a DEW SAT took it out. What I'm saying is thatwe lost our space station communications links because Centurionordered them destroyed-and there's more.

Every known ASAT and space mine has been destroyed,two-hundred-thirty-eight in all-two-hundred-thirty-eight explodingshooting stars. Communications around the world were knocked out forone minute while the armada eliminated every known orbiting threat."

A captain from Space Operations spoke from the rear of the room.

"Those ASATs have been a thorn in our side for years. I'm sure we'lltake some heat, but my knee-jerk reaction is that I'm glad they'regone. Were any DEW SATs damaged?"

Speaking over video from downstairs on the War Room floor, ColonelNapper replied.

"Two DEW SATs are spinning out of control, but the remainder of thearmada is operational." Colonel Napper could see the DEW SATs spin ashe watched his display showing the BMEWS radar data.

"We confirmed this damage by monitoring Centurion's log," added GeneralKrol from the video conference room.

"Centurion's taken two DEW SATs out of service and compensated fortheir loss. He's already adjusted the orbits of adjacent DEW SATs tofill in the hole." The activity log reflected what Centurion did, butnot why he did it. Freedom transmitted the activity log over aseparate maintenance channel which Centurion couldn't control. Maintenance channel transmissions provided a monitor port for suchemergency situations as this.

The communications officer continued, but slowly, "Centurion's lastcommand transmission was sent to Hope, and it was lethal. He evacuatedHope, opened every airlock at once. We've contacted Hope indirectlyover Hell Fire's radio. Major Scott reported analyst Boris Ustinovdead and Commander Pasha Yakovlev recovering in the decompressionchamber. We're setting up a communications link to Hope as I speak. Ican say what has happened-Centurion leaves a trail-but not why ithappened. Why Centurion issued these orders is speculation at thispoint, but I agree with John and Colonel Napper. Software sabotage isthe only explanation that makes sense."

"What if one of Freedom's crewmen turned on us or cracked due to theisolation?" asked Colonel Hinson, always ready to advance hiscareer.

"Fayhee's been stressed out over the past few days."

General Craven agreed. Immediately, the noise level inthe room increased. Could there be a traitor or lunatic runningFreedom? Not likely, but was it possible?

John Sullivan collected his notes, walked to the lectern, and quietlydiscussed something with the communications officer. The officeragreed, then sat down.

John spoke loudly at first.

"Gentlemen, if I could have your attention please. We're getting offtrack here. We don't have a people problem-it's sabotage. We've gotthe proof." The overheated room quickly hushed.

"We ordered one change from Livermore-well, we didn't get it. We gothundreds. And on top of that, we got a computer virus like no one atLivermore's ever seen."

Craven's blood pressure went sky-high.

"What the hell happened? You told me one program change would doit."

I've been against your stupid frenzy from the start! And I never toldyou one program change-but that's history, thought Sullivan. No,you're history. This monkey will cost your job, but you don't need tohear that from me.

"Livermore made hundreds of changes to the software, but those changesaren't the problem. Those changes fixed known problems and they'd allbeen tested. But there was a down side. Those changes hid the virus.The virus looked just like any other change. All the changes are beingtraced back to programmers now."

"What about this virus?" barked Craven.

"How do we get rid of it?"

"We don't know, General, we can't cure a virus, but we're working toisolate it now. We plan to characterize it first-discover what makesit tick. Once we understand it, we think we can fix it."

"Where'd it come from?"

"We're working that issue, but we don't know where it came from. It'stoo early in our testing program to know, but we've seen enough to knowwe've got a big problem."

John collected his thoughts then summarized Livermore's situation.

"We don't know where it came from and we haven't isolated it. We don'tknow what this virus will do or how it'll behave. We haven'tcharacterized it, but we will."

"We were ninety-nine percent operational," Craven growled bitterly.

"Success was in sight." He pounded the table with his fist. Assupreme commander, he was washed up. He knew it-everyone in the roomknew it.

"What about our boys on Freedom?" Mason asked quietly.

"I don't know, but I fear the worst," replied General Krol.

"We're wading through Centurion's activity log looking for clues."

A cold chill cut through Mason's body. He'd known Fayhee and likedhim. Jay said what he thought.

The staff became restless. Mason concentrated blocking out thedistractions around him, struggling to sort out a plan.

"Gentlemen," Mason said softly as he stood,

"I propose we characterize the renegade virus as quickly as possibleand do what we must to switch armada control to Hope.

Have I missed something or do you agree?"

Spellbound, in a state of shock and disbelief, the staff remainedsilent.

"Very well," continued Mason. He looked at Colonel Napper on the videoscreen.

"Sam, work us up a plan to switch armada control ASAP."

"Yes sir, General. We'll have our Hope radio link set in an hour orless, then we'll work the switch."

"Good." Mason sounded satisfied. He looked away toward JohnSullivan.

"Keep Livermore after that renegade program round the clock."

"Will do, Slim!"

Mason looked around the room at the drawn faces and sighed. Thismeeting had been tough enough, but he dreaded the next one. One wordkept cycling through his mind-Midway. Admiral Yamamoto lost theimperial fleet during the battle for Midway Island. Mason felt as ifthey'd lost the imperial fleet and must now tell the emperor.

"Gentlemen, if you'll excuse me, I must call the President."

The Last Lunch, 1210912014, 1922 Zulu, 12:22 P.m. Local SHRIPOD ADDAms APARTMENT,

COLORADO SPRINGS, COLORADO

Shripod Addams savored the moment. Doing Allah's will, he'd foundrevenge against the infidel American government for the losses ofDesert Storm.

He drove home to his apartment for lunch and began to work on hissecond job. Sitting down behind his home computer, he banged out hislast message to Baghdad: Lawrence horse won by photo finish see pressfor details.

Mountain line down.

Translated, the Trojan horse computer virus from Lawrence Livermore Labhad taken control of the DEW SAT armada. Watch electronic news foradditional details. Expect no further reports from him for anundetermined amount of time-his communication chain was broken.

Satisfied with his terse message, he encrypted it, printed out his hardcopy, then completely erased his disk.

He had one final stop to make on his way back to work.

He didn't need gas, but he would stop anyway-had to eat.

Suddenly, Addams felt strangely empty, lacking in purpose or cause. Hislast message seemed anticlimactic, almost meaningless.

The thrill of the game was gone and he missed it.

A Conversation with the President, 1210912014, 1930 Zulu, 12:30 P.m.Local

CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN, COLORADO

From their video conference room, Craven, Sullivan, Krol, and Masonwatched an array of TV screens showing pictures from inside the OvalOffice. Seated around the Oval Office were the President, his nationalsecurity advisor, and Craven's boss, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefsof Staff.

Mason noticed that Sullivan's complexion appeared ashen, then heremembered his own first meeting with the President.

"John," he said quietly, "don't be intimidated by the big shots-justsay what you think." Then he remembered Midway and his stomach turnedover. Should take my own advice' f "Hello, Headquarters." ThePresident poured himself coffee, sat down behind his desk, and checkedhis watch two-thirty Washington time.

"Let's get started."

Craven had Mason break the bad news.

"Mr. President, we've lost control of our satellite armada and elevenpeople are confirmed dead as a result. In addition, one man isseriously injured on Hope and we're unable to contact Freedom."

Spilling his coffee, the President sat for a moment, stunned indisbelief.

"Eleven dead?"

"Yes, and two remain unaccounted for."

After the shock wore off, the President's expressionchanged to anger. Bolting from his chair, he turned toward hisnational security advisor, Clive Towles.

"You said ninety-nine percent operational-testing wrapped up byChristmas."

"This problem occurred within the last six hours,"

Towles explained in a strained voice.

"So what happened?" demanded the President, slamming his fist down onhis desk.

"Software sabotage." Mason paused.

"A computer virus the likes of which we've never seen." This shouldnever have happened, we knew better-buckled under pressure, got in ahurry, and blew it.

"How?"

"This was an inside job, Mr. President-well organized andprofessional-nothing was left to chance." General Mason summarized thesituation in less than five minutes as he watched the President pacethe floor.

"I want to make damn sure I've got this story straight,"

the President said sharply. He stopped pacing for a moment, squinted,and looked directly into the camera.

"You're telling me that we detonated a dozen orbiting nuclear warheadsand in addition, we've destroyed over two hundred ASATS."

"That is correct, Mr. President." Mason spoke clearly in a quietvoice.

"Is there danger from radiation?"

"No, Mr. President. There is not."

For a brief moment, the President looked relieved, but that quicklytransitioned into a form of restrained rage.

"So we killed eleven people, interrupted communications around theworld, and destroyed every ASAT in orbit because of some damn programbug?" Infuriated, the wild-eyed President blasted Mason with bothbarrels.

"You're telling me you don't know exactly how many people are dead,who's responsible, or how it happened? Senseless death and forwhat?"

Both ends of the conference call went silent as the ruddy faced IrishPresident vented high-powered frustration.

Mason thought he might go ballistic, but after a few long minutes, thePresident backed off and adopted an intellectual guise. The Presidentwalked over to the thick glass window and looked out onto thesnow-covered lawn.

Touching the frost-covered window, he felt the cold radiate through theswollen joints of his fingers. Almost immediately, his hand beganaching from arthritis. His senses confirmed he was awake-his nightmarewas real.

"Time," the President said after some reflection.

"We're going to need some time." Turing toward Clive Towles, heordered: "Cancel my appointments for the afternoon. Give the reason asa crisis with my cabinet staff-the sudden resignation of a highlyplaced government official." He smiled, but only slightly. Returningto his seat, he pulled up the low table, propped his feet up, and triedto relax.

"For now, limit our discussion to damage control-plans to return thestatus quo."

Craven's boss, the chairman, spoke first.

"Is the armada operational?"

"We've tested it and it seems to work," Mason replied.

"But our situation may degenerate because of the virus."

Before the White House could respond, Craven moved directly in front ofthe video camera and spoke in a low controlled voice.

"We believe SDI operational. We've proven High Ground counter stealthtechnology works. We ran hostile missile threat tests after thisinfection and the system worked. Our DEW SATs are brilliant-classstandalone weapon systems. They know what to do. Any missiles thatthreaten the Allies, our DEW SATs take out, so there's no cause forpanic. And that includes sub launched cruise missiles, Mr. President.As I see it, this virus delays our testing program, but little else.Our testing program will he delayed until we put this problem behindus, but like all technical problems, in time, we will solve it. We'retesting now, but from what we've seen so far, the armada reacts like itdid before the virus."

"That's true, sir, but only to a point," John Sullivan addedcautiously.

"Our situation could degenerate anytime.

We don't know the DEW SATs operating rules of engagement."

"Rules?" The President leaned forward.

"John, tell me more."

DEW SATs track, identify, and destroy targets based on a programmedbook of operating rules. They're brilliant class weapons and networkedtogether, they operate as a team. Like people, they talk amongthemselves and help each other out, but they operate based onprogrammed rules of combat etiquette. I think this virus may havechanged the rule book. If I'd written this virus, I would've changedit."

"How?" asked the President.

"Knowing what you know, what would you have done?"

"I'd add Al (Artificial Intelligence)," Sullivan replied confidently.Rule-based systems were his technical passion.

"A combination of all the original rules plus Al. That way the armadawould appear to operate as it did before, but. . ."

"This discussion is nonsense-pure speculation!" barked Craven,interrupting Sullivan mid-sentence.

"The armada works, but our testing is not complete. Simple as that!"

The chairman objected, and loudly.

"John's closest to the problem and he's on our side. Let himfinish!"

Craven cringed, but reluctantly agreed.

"I'd add Al and let each DEW SAT learn from experience-within limits ofcourse. Target recognition's a good example-learning new threats. I'dallow the DEW SAT to train on new targets and learn to recognize them.Once a DEW SAT learned a new threat, it would teach the others."

"Have you any proof?" asked the President.

"Any evidence that the rules have been changed?"

"Every immediate threat to the virus has been eliminated. That's notconclusive proof, but we're suspect."

"General Mason, what do you think?"

"Our situation is more serious than you might imagine, Mr. President.With all due respect to General Craven, we disagree on this issue.John's our technical expert and I think he's right.

"Hell Fire is our only alternative-Scott and her crew are the onlyassets we have in place that can help us.

They're isolated on Hope, completely cut off, and there is nothing wecan do about it. If they moved on Freedom today, they'd have no chanceof success, but with time and Livermore's help, their chances willimprove.

"Look at what's happened. Every threat to the armada has beeneliminated. As you know, we cannot penetrate the DEW SAT layer. Wecan't punch a hole through it-we've proven that. It's a missile shieldand it works.

"Assume our space station crews did what they were trained to do.They're resourceful people-handpicked for the job. They would haveswitched armada control to Hope if they could have, but I think thisvirus tried to kill them. It wiped out Hope's crew-probably )7reedom'stoo."

Mason took a deep breath, let his point sink in, then continued.

"If we assume Freedom's crew is dead, then this battlefield grade viruscontrols both Freedom and our armada. It's suicide to send Hopereinforcements. We can't break through our armada, and Freedom is afortress-unapproachable. Mr. President, I believe we have a virusrunning the DEW SAT armada and there may be very little we can do aboutit. Our alternatives are limited to a precious few."

"Talk alternatives," ordered the President. He didn't like what he'dheard and didn't want to believe it.

"As you said, Mr. President, we need time. Time to characterize andsin;ulate this virus, time to understand how it behaves. Once weunderstand it, we'll have a better chance of predicting what it'll dowhen Scott boards Freedom and disconnects Centurion."

"How much time?"

John Sullivan fielded this schedule question.

"We're doing the best we can, Mr. President. Livermore's workinground the clock." John paused, looking to Slim for support.

Say what you think.

"It could take a month. We just don't know. This virus is battlefieldgrade-like nothing we've ever seen."

The President, the chairman, and Towles shot out of their seats likethey'd been wired.

The President's intellectual cover was blown and the ruddy-facedfighting Irishman emerged.

"We don't have abloody month! We've got a crisis on our hands demanding actionnow!"

"What would we tell the press?" barked the chairman.

"Tell them the truth," insisted Mason.

"And release this story from the source-Livermore."

"The truth?" The chairman mumbled caustically. This truthful approachto the press wasn't new, but in this case, it might limit severalpromising political careers.

"There must be a better way."

For the second time, Craven moved directly in front of the videocamera.

"Mr. President, I propose we make our move now and draw this crisis toa close. As General Mason said earlier, we disagree on this point. Ibelieve we can restore armada control within twenty-four hours. We canturn this situation around using assets we have in place today."

The President returned to his chair, obviously not convinced. At whatrisk? How many more would die?

"Twenty-four hours," the chairman asked skeptically.

"How? What's your plan?"

"First, we'll switch armada control to Hope. That should return thestatus quo." Craven's confidence didn't sway the group in the Crow'sNest or Oval Office.

"Then we'll isolate and characterize this virus with Freedomoff-line.

Colonel Hinson wants to turn this virus on those who used it on us."

"What are your chances of success?" asked the chairman.

"Why didn't Hope's crew switch armada control?

Their primary job is backing up Freedom. Mason believes they may havedied trying."

"No better than one in ten. Hope can't take over if Freedom won'trelease control, but if it works, we'll have our armada back. If not,I propose we storm Freedom. We have military options. We should usethem.

"We'll blast a hole through the DEW SAT layer, move assault troops toHope, then storm Freedom. A three-phase operation-break out, regroup,and charge.

"Our opportunity is now! We must take the offensive while we have thechance. This is a job for our military professionals, not engineeringtechnocrats who'll study this problem to death. In my profession,there's absolutely no substitute for command experience. Commandersmust take risks to win and those who don't die."

"I thought the DEW SAT layer could not be penetrated,"

snapped the President.

"You've told us that for years."

"I've always insisted that those who would threaten us cannot penetratethe DEW SAT armada and that's true. It's also true that we would notallow ourselves to be held hostage by our own satellite weapons. We'llconcentrate our efforts at the weakest region of the DEW SAT layer andpunch through it. Knock out a few DEW SATs and open up the hole weneed."

"What's your objection?" the chairman asked, speaking to GeneralMason.

"I agree with Craven. We wouldn't allow ourselves to be boxed into acorner without some way out."

"We don't know what this virus will do or how it'll react. It couldturn on us-it leveled Arecibo. Our intelligence about this virus isonly beginning to take shape. We need-we must have time."

Craven spoke next.

"If our frontal assault on the DEW SAT layer fails, we have a secondoption-MIT's Black Hole project. They've developed an experimentalairplane and ASAT that our DEW SATs can't detect."

"That program's experimental-still in the lab," Mason rehiarked. HighGround's already obsolete, he thought. We stay ahead, but the racenever ends. To stay ahead is enough-to prevent war is to win.

"They have working prototypes," argued Craven.

"If all else fails, we can study the virus looking for someweakness."

After an extended period of discussion around the Oval Office, thePresident asked General Craven,

"What do you propose?"

"Storm Freedom!" After collecting his thoughts, he offered Mason anolive branch.

"In addition, I propose we study the virus as General Masonrecommended, but in parallel to our primary military thrust."

"What do you need to make it happen?"

"Time!" Mason interrupted.

"Mr. President, we need time! We don't know what we're up against."He spoke softly but with resolve.

"Before starting this attack, we must know our adversary!"

"General Mason," the President said tersely, "doing anything is betterthan doing nothing. You learn as you go and, if necessary, you changedirections."

Speaking directly to General Craven, he said: "If your attempt totransfer armada control to Hope fails, storm Freedom. Keep meinformed, and may God help us."

In Washington, the chairman disconnected the video link to CheyenneMountain. After his TV screen went blank, the President continued themeeting.

"Towles, find out who and what caused this blood mess-your job is tomake sure it never happens again. If the system's broken, fix it. Ifwe've got a people problem, I want to know about it!"

The Barbarian Who Wouldn't Die, 1211012014, 2335 Zulu, 2:35 A.m. LocalSAD DAM HUSSEIN'S WINTER HomE,

WEST BANK OVERLOOKING THE TIGRIS RIVER,

SOUTH OF BAGHDAD, IRAQ

Iraqi President Hessian Kamel al-Tikriti knew the drive to hisfather-in-law's winter retirement home better than the streets aroundhis own neighborhood. He and his wife made this trip often, not somuch out of love for the old man, but because Saddam Hussein demandedit. Saddam Hussein alTikriti was enshrined as a national Iraqitreasure, and national treasures always received the Iraqi President'sattention.

But tonight's family visit was different. This visit was PresidentKamet's idea and would come as a complete surprise to Saddam Hussein.Unannounced, Kamel and his wife were driven through the security gatesleading to Saddam's large estate just after 2:30 A.M. They waited forSaddam in his river room, an enormous brilliant white room with plushfluorescent orange chairs lining three walls. A bulletproof picturewindow overlooking the river dominated the fourth wall, and the centerof the room, covered with spotless white carpet, was completely open,bare of furniture. Kamel's wife stood by the thick glass window,gazing at spotlights glistening off the Tigris River, aDXiOUSIY waitingto see her father. In her hand, she held a piece of paper-a piece ofpaper that would not wait till tomorrow.

Kamel allowed himself a smile. He had no affection whatsoever for theold man-it was hard to respect the brutal tribe chieftain, but not sohard to fear him.

Saddam Hussein didn't keep Khmel and his daughter waiting long.

A bodyguard for the Iraqi regime rolled Saddam's wheelchair into theriver room and left him next to his daughter by the picture window.

In the dark shadows of the early morning hours, there was no sense ofthe barbarian in Saddam's expression. His face looked deeply wrinkled,like an old weathered shoe, but his black eyes revealed a caustichatred still smoldering in his soul.

Saddam's old carcass was failing him, his health wasn't what it oncewas, but his mind remained sharp and alert.

He'd been seriously ill for several years, which had taken a toll onhis appearance, but the old man wouldn't die. The Kurds couldn't killhim, the Allies couldn't kill him, and he'd survived two battles withcancer. Only in his seventi , he looked thin and frail, like a manwell over ninety.

No one had expected he'd live this long.

He rose from the wheelchair, trying to stand erect, then walked towardhis daughter with a slow, shuffling gait.

Bending forward almost immediately, a little shaky on his feet, thefragile skeleton of a man looked on the face of his daughter and saw amirror of himself. The corners of his mouth revealed a smile.

"Ahlan wa sahlan"-My house is your house.

Saddam eyed Kamel suspiciously as his daughter hugged him. IraqiPresident Kamel slid three chairs over to the picture window and theysat down. Kamel thought Saddamsincere, but he dared not let his guard down-not around this oldman.

Kamel nodded to his wife, then she handed her father the paper datedTuesday, December 9, 2014.

Parkinson's disease forced a slight tremor in Saddam's hands. He hadtrouble holding it still, but the newspaper type was large and he couldread it.

During the minutes which followed, Saddam's daughter saw her father forthe barbarian he was.

BATTLEFIELD GRADE COMPUTER

VIRUS INFECTS STAR WARS

Star Wars, the Allied satellite based missile defense system, laycrippled today as a result of a rogue program which slowed downcomputers by replicating itself time and time again.

Early damage control reports conflict. Cheyenne Mountain hasacknowledged loss of satellite weapon control, but believes systemswill return to normal within 24 hours.

Scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory are not asoptimistic.

"It may be impossible to isolate this virus in the near future,"reported Dr. Tristan Roberts, President of Information Sciences atLivermore, SDI's software R&D headquarters.

"We've cut it out of one program only to have it show up in another.From what we've seen so far, this renegade program behaves more like acode cancer than a virus.

"At this early stage, we don't know what we're up against. We learneda lot the last twenty-four hours, but we've got a long way to go. Thisvirus protects itself. When we attempted to remove it from onecomputer, it moved to another-similar to squeezing a balloon. Squeezeit in one place and it bulges out somewhere else.

"The origin of any virus is difficult, if not impossible, toinvestigate. It's likely we'll never understand where it came from,but we're sure this infection was no accident."

When questioned as to what he meant by that remark, Roberts declined toelaborate, but did comment that sometimes we create our own problems.

"We've every indication that this was a malicious act," Robertsconcluded.

"This super virus has infected every major corn At first, Saddam heldthe paper with trembling hands, but then he changed. Carefullystudying every word, he drew strength from what he read. A proud fireignited in the old man's black eyes-defiance blazed like a flame. Theshake in his hands lessened as he stood his scrawny carcass uprightagain, straightening his old weary back. With a sardonic smile, hecrumpled the paper in his fist and shook it before the heavens. Lookingout into the darkness beyond the Tigris River, he declared,

"Now I know why Allah kept me alive all these years. Nobody hurts meunharmed. Allahu Akbar."

puter system onboard Space Station Freedom and, frankly, today we don'thave the cure. Fortunately, the SDI armada has built-in redundancy tocompensate for these unforeseen problems.

Within the next few hours, Cheyenne Mountain plans to transfer controlof the armada to Space Station Hope.

THE DAY OF RETRIBUTION

DECEMBER 10, 2014

The Chicago Craftsman, 1211012014, 0850 Zulu, 1:50 A.M. Local CARRENTAL PICKup AREA,

STAPLE TON INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT,

DENVER, COLORADO

The most dangerous phase of the operation was yet to come. Up to thispoint, their operation had been planned by fax and picture phone. Toni,a professional craftsman of accidental death, flew to Denver nonstopfrom Chicago carrying the tools of his trade with him, disguised asskiing equipment. Dressed for a skiing vacation, he arrived in jeans,cowboy boots, and a ski jacket. He picked up his tools at baggageclaim, then met his Denver connection waiting by the Avis counter.

Nicknamed Wrangler, Toni's Denver connection was a large physical typewho looked like he'd played linebacker for the Chicago Bears. Theyrecognized each other immediately, and together they carried Toni'sluggage to Wrangler's car, a white Honda Accord. At 1:50 A.M. earlyWednesday morning, they drove to Colorado Springs for a firsthand lookat the scene where Toni's next accident would take place.

From Stapleton International Airport, their drive to Cheyenne Mountaindown I-25 South took about ninety minutes. While Wrangler drove, Tonidid a little extra homework. Using a laptop PC, Toni carefully studiedaninformation package the Iraqi Intelligence Service had hand-deliveredto his organization. The package described everything the Iraqis knewabout the accident victim, Shripod Addams-his habits, automobile,apartment, hobbies, debts-everything. Toni took special interest in themake of Shripod's car and a map of the Cheyenne Mountain area. The mapshowed the location of Shripod's apartment and highlighted his dailydrive to work. Toni planned for Shripod to die on his drive to work;it was the only way he could deliver a convincing accident on suchshort notice. Tonight, Toni would come to know Shripod's drive to worklike the back of his own hand.

He'd feel every bump, every bend in the road, and by the end of theday, with a little luck, he'd drive to Boulder for a long skiingweekend.

"This is it," Wrangler announced, slowing to a stop at a red trafficlight by the Loaf

"N' Jug convenience store.

Toni saw a green road sign marking the intersection of Highway 115 andCheyenne Meadows Road. Leaning his head against the window on thepassenger side of the car, Toni stared at the silhouette of CheyenneMountain against a clear moonlit sky. Its twin peaks were marked withthe red flashing lights of television antenna towers, and about onethird of the way up its slopes, bright klieg lights illuminated theentrance to Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Base. Sitting in thepitch-black shadow cast by Cheyenne Mountain, Toni thought thephotographs he'd seen didn't do the mountain justice; it was muchlarger than he'd expected. Brought back to the real world by thetraffic light turning green, he said,

"Take this left on Cheyenne Meadows Road about two tenths mile, thentake the next right on West Meadow Drive. We can't miss it. MountainView Apartments will be on our left."

Under the orange-yellow glow of streetlights, they circled through theapartment parking lot about three-thirty A.m. and found Shripod Addams'black Honda Accord, tucked away in the space designated for Apartment21.

Wrangler's white Accord was the exact make and model of Shripod's andthis coincidence was no accident. Toni was glad to see the Accordparked next to a roadside curb.

The curb blocked visibility underneath the car and would provide auseful shield later when he installed Shripod's custom-made appliance.Grabbing his flashlight, Toni pulled himself out of the car andmeasured the approximate position of Shripod's driver's seat withrespect to the steering wheel. He chuckled quietly, noting that thedriver's seat was practically in the backseat passenger's lap.

After shining the flashlight on his watch, he said,

"Let's make the loop."

Wrangler zeroed the distance indicator on his mileage odometer andbegan tracing Shripod's drive to work.

They drove down West Meadow Drive, Cheyenne Meadows Road, and Highway115 to the Cheyenne Mountain AFB exit.

"It feels shorter than I expected," Wrangler said.

"I'd figure five miles, maybe thirteen minutes tops."

After making the drive from Shripod Addams' apartment to the CheyenneMountain AFB exit four times, Toni'd seen all he needed.

"This'll be our last trip," he announced. Around 4:15 A.M." in thedarkest part of the morning, Highway 115 was practically deserted, notraffic in sight. As they drove away from Shripod's apartment toCheyenne Mountain for the last time, Toni explained, "Pull over and letme out when we get to that Colorado Springs city limits-sign ahead. Iwant you to knock down a milepost. I'll show you the one."

The white Accord screeched to a halt on the shoulder of Highway 115.Toni jumped out of the car, ran down the road shoulder about fiftyfeet, then stood alongside a milepost. The green metal milepost wasidentical to those used to support stop signs.

Wrangler needed no prodding; he put his car into drive and plowedheadlong over the metal post, laying it over and snapping it cleanly intwo at the base. Toni walked off the distance from the base of themilepost to a rough seam, or bump, in the four-lane highway. Thetar-coated seam extended the width of the highway and allowed the roadto expand without buckling during the hot summer months. In need ofrepair, the raised seam formed a six-inch bump in the road and created a loud thump-thump sound every timethey drove across it.

"Perfect!" Toni declared.

"Open the trunk and we're outta here!" Toni tossed the milepost in thetrunk and they were off.

Doesn't take much to make some people happy. Wrangler grinned. Theseguys ouna Chicago run one brick shy of a full load.

Voice of an Angel, 1211012014, 1309 Zulu THE RECOVERY Room,

SPACE STATION HOPE

Where am I? Pasha wondered. His first conscious emotion was fear.Suddenly, every reflex demanded he breathe deeply. He needed fresh airand couldn't get enough of it, like coming out from under anether-induced sleep.

Buried alive! Gasping for air, needing desperately to catch hisbreath, Pasha found no relief. Horrified that he might suffocate, hispanic eased when he felt a cool breeze of air blowing across hisface.

Strapped tightly to a pallet inside a box about the size of a coffin,Pasha could see only a porthole above his face flooded with whitelight.

He moved, but only slightly. The struggle to lift his arms against thestraps quickly exhausted him. Slowly bending each finger, he felt hishands touching his chest.

Thank God I'm alive!

Resting for a moment, he heard the muffled sound of his own breathing,the sound of air whistling through his nose as he inhaled. Speakingsoftly, he heard himself, but his voice sounded muted. His ears feltplugged, like they'd been filled with cotton.

Squinting in a valiant attempt to keep his eyes open, he watched theporthole through narrow slits between his swollen eyelids. His eyelidsfelt heavy-almost stiff.

Drifting away, he watched his porthole to the outside world fade togray. Where am I?

As his eyes closed, he heard the soft muffled voice of an angelcalling.

"Come back, Pasha, please don't die.

Your children need you. Don't leave us now. Come back.

Come back."

Forcing his eyes open again, he saw the surreal outline of an angel'sface gazing down on him through the porthole. Heaven-could this beheaven? He wanted to touch her, needed desperately to touch her, buthis arms and hands were bound tight. He couldn't make out any detailsof her face, but he loved the sound of her voice.

This must be a dream, Pasha told himself, fighting to maintainconsciousness. Then he recognized Linda's voice and remembered hislast excruciating minutes in Hope's control room before he'd blackedout. He knew this place, though he'd never been inside Hope's rapiddecompression chamber.

"Scotty," he muttered, drifting off to sleep again.

After checking the monitors and life-support equipment attached toPasha, Scott felt optimistic about his chances.

She'd been awake nearly eighteen hours, watching Pasha's conditionround the clock. His first twenty-four hours in the chamber would becritical. While she and Guardian took care of Pasha, Mac and Gonzoworked on the data link problem with Headquarters.

Scott looked up when Mac walked into the Recovery Room. His bleary,red eyes revealed how he felt. He'd been working straight-out sincePasha's accident. With an exhausted smile, Scott said,

"He's all right, heart's strong, vital signs improving."

Looking concerned, Mac gave Pasha a once-over through the porthole,then agreed.

"Good. He needs every break he can get. They're sending relief, but Idon't know how they're going to get through." Mac shook his head andgrimaced.

"We're in a tough spot."

"Anything new on Freedom? Any contact?" Any word, any word at allabout Jay?

Mac's sad, sympathetic eyes betrayed his feelings.

"I'm sorry, Scotty-not a whisper. They don't know what's happened, butHeadquarters. . ." He stopped short. Trying to offer some glimmer ofhope, he said,

"Kaliningrad'sgot over two hundred people working through Centurion's log, one lineat a time. They'll find something!"

What if he's injured? Scott sighed, turning away toward Pasha. Shapedlike a coffin, Hope's decompression chamber didn't make her feel anybetter. I can't think about it now or I'll go crazy! We've problemsenough here!

"What about our comm link?"

"Link to Headquarters is operational, but Centurion won't let go," Macreported with a grim expression on his face.

"Centurion won't give up DEW SAT control without a fight."

"That's not surprising," Scott observed in a weary voice.

"What was Headquarters's reaction?"

"They're planning to punch a hole through the DEW SAT armada, then moveMarines to Hope. They're training 'em here, then storming Freedom."

"How many more'll die?" Scott wondered aloud.

"Punch a hole? Sounds like political hype. How'll they get past the

DEW SATS

"Blow 'em out of the sky."

"What's up their sleeve?" She felt like a mushroom, always in thedark, told only what she needed to know.

"The Ground Fire laser-the DEW SAT grand daddy at Los Alamos. They'llcreate a diversion over New Mexico using air launched ASATS. When theDEW SAT comes about to shoot, the Ground Fire laser'll take it out."

"If reinforcements do get here-what about Freedom?

Freedom's a fortress." Scott sounded apprehensive.

Mac raised both eyebrows and shrugged.

"I wouldn't wanna be in their shoes."

Diversion, 1211012014, 1400 Zulu, 6.00 A.m. Local

COCKPIT OF HAILEYS Comet,

SOUTH FACING RUNWAY,

EDWARDs AFB, CALIFORNIA In the predawn twilight, the clouds ofcondensation boiling off Hailey's Comet looked ghostly, almostsurreal.

Blue and green runway lights twinkled through the swirling fog whileMajor Art Hailey waited for takeoff clearance.

"Comet, you're clear to roll," announced the tower.

Sitting on top of the XR-30, engulfed by engine noise, Major HartHailey yelled,

"Roger, tower! We're go for takeoff." He figured their mission wasabout as straightforward as they could get-a steep climb over friendlyskies with an ASAT release on top. He didn't like Headquarters flyinghis plane during the ASAT release, but he wasn't paid to like hisorders, just carry them out.

Hailey's Comet was identical to Hell Fire, an aerospace plane builtaround its six scramjet engines.

"Backseat's ready."

"Belly's ready!" barked the recon officer.

"Buckle up boys, and sit tight!" Hailey exclaimed. He throttled eachscramjet engine to full military power-the flight computer flashed agreen All Systems Go. The high pitched noise of the screaming jetengines approached the point of pain inside the cockpit.

Major Hailey locked the throttles together, then advanced all sixengines into afterburner. Bolting down the runway, he depressed anignition switch at the appropriate time which sparked his rocket engineto life. Jamming his overhead rocket throttle hard forward against thestops caused Hailey's -Comet to shake violently. Accelerating down therunway, propelled by over 400,000 pounds of thrust, he pulled back onthe stick and her nose came up.

With his rocket engine wide open, he held the stick back for longerthan usual, pointing her nose up in a steep sixty-degree climb, andcontinued to accelerate in afterburner.

What a rush! Hailey thought, raising the landing gear then backing offthe rocket throttle. Pressing hard against the seat, breathing wastough even with one hundred percent oxygen.

Belching smoke and flame in her wake, the sight of her long fiery tailaccelerating down the endless expanse of runway delighted the groundcrews. The earth trembled from the fearsome roar and raised goosebumps on thoselucky enough to be there-to feet the power, the wind, the heat andthunder-like watching a space shuttle launch.

The thrill of the launch never faded, an awe inspiring experience. Whena launch grabs you by the scruff of the neck and shakes the ground youwalk on, you take notice.

The last view the tower crew had was of her fiery tail.

As the tower trembled beneath them, they were absolutely silent,totally absorbed by the sight and sound of takeoff.

Soon, Hailey's Comet disappeared through the clouds and only herroaring thunder remained. Life stood still anytime an XR-30 tookoff-it was an unwritten rule around Edwards.

Turning east toward the dawn, Hailey's Comet climbed higher and higherthrough the clear New Mexico sky, illuminating the black desert skylike a fiery shooting star.

The XR-30 kept going up, passing through 60,000 feet, climbing towardthe skies directly over the White' Sands Missile Range, due south ofthe Ground Fire laser at Los Alamos. Hailey checked his fuel, thenbacked off his afterburners, waiting for word from Headquarters'smission control.

"Comet, this is Big Shot. We have you locked on visual. You copy?Over," the mission controller said into his headset.

Transfixed to his instruments, Hailey replied,

"Big Shot, this is Hailey's Comet." He paused, working hard to staywithin his missile launch envelope.

"We're on profile."

"Roger. Commence launch sequence on my mark.

Three, two, one-mark!"

"She's all yours," replied Hailey. Reluctantly, he loosened his gripon the control stick. Cheyenne Mountain controlled Hailey's Comet viadata link for the remainder of the climb and ASAT launch sequence.

Hailey watched all six throttles move forward.

Cheyenne Mountain didn't waste any time before punching the burnersagain and hauling back on the stick. Feeling the rudder pedal andstick controls move on their own was an eerie experience for Hailey.Like most pilots, he never took his thumb off the MANUAL OVERRIDEswitch.

Standing on her tail and rocketing into the sky, Hailey's Cometperformed beautifully. Major Hailey locked his eyes on his instrumentsas the altimeter spun up with no end in sight. His speed was now inexcess of Mach 6 and increasing.

"Scramjet transition complete," Hailey observed.

"Tail reads trim."

"Visual confirmation on the tail," echoed the back seater looking overhis shoulder. After all six engines transitioned to scramjetoperation, the cockpit heat shields automatically rolled up.

DEW SAT illuminated us in all bands," the back seater announced afterchecking his radar detection equipment.

"He's seen us. Target's on track, south of us bearing one seven zerodegrees. ASAT launch in sixty seconds." The XR-30 was passing through87,000 feet.

Launch altitude was one hundred.

At 1448 hours Zulu, as their speed passed Mach 8, Major Hailey heard:"ASAT's armed. Stand by. Three, two, one . . ."

BAROOM! BAROOM! BAROOM!

Hailey's Comet shook violently from side to side as she ejected her sixmissiles, two at a time. Shock waves pounded Major Hailey's brainagainst his skull and left him feeling dazed, like a punch-drunkboxer.

Immediately, the XR-30's nose dropped as Headquarters began a widesweeping turn, heading her back toward her California home. AfterHailey's Comet was clear, six ASAT rocket motors firedsimultaneously.

Suddenly, the back-seater began shaking his head, as if trying to cleara garbled circuit. All his life he'd been driven by logic, and hislogical mind couldn't accept what his eyes perceived. Did the violentASAT launch shake some electrical connectors loose? Was there someproblem with the radar detection equipment? There must be.

After running a series of exhaustive equipment diagnostics, hiscomputer screen read:NO TROUBLE FOUND. ALL SYSTEMS PASSED.

It was like looking in the mirror and seeing the reflection of astranger. Must have been something I ate, the back-seater thought atfirst, but the blinking radar PRF (Pulse Repetition Frequency)indicator would not disappear. The characteristics of the DEW SATradar changed after the ASAT launch, but they weren't supposed to.

They'd never changed before, always been rock solid-an electricalheartbeat he'd often used to calibrate his equipment. The DEW SATradar power increased and the number of radar pulses per second shotsky-high, as if the radar was taking a picture of them. Thinking back,he remembered something about training computers to recognize targetsusing radar imaging combined with Al. His equipment indicators keptblinking and blinking until finally evidence overcame disbelief, andthe realization came crashing down on him like a ton of bricks. Hegasped. Oh my God! There's no place to hide!

"Break off, Major! Break off!"

Recording it all, Cheyenne Mountain watched on computer-enhanced TV-theDEW SAT Hailey's Comet, and all six ASATS. Pictures were transmittedreal-time to Headquarters from a modified Boeing 777 aircraft circlingbelow them at an altitude of 50,000 feet.

Sky Pix, 1211012014, 1446 Zulu, 7:46 A.m. Local

FLYING OBSERVATORY,

SPECIALLY MODIFIED HIGH-ALTITUDE BOEING 777,

IN FLIGHT OVER WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, NEW

MEXICO

"Sky Pix, this is Big Shot. Hailey's Comet is approaching from thewest."

"Roger, Big Shot. Targets locked on screen." Displayed on the pilot'sTV screen were two astonishing, clear computer enhanced images.Comparable to an Ansel Adams photographic print in texture and detail,these very expensive pictures captured all the detail the eye could seein the existing light and then brightened the result by bathing theobjects in computer-simulated full spectrum sunlight.

Using the computer to combine simulated light with the real images madethe objects appear three-dimensional like they'd pop out of the screeninto your lap. The pilot's TV screen was partitioned into eightseparate picture windows, or smaller screens. Hailey's Comet wascentered in one screen, the DEW SAT passing overhead was displayed inanother. All the other picture windows on the pilot's TV screen wereempty black rectangles.

Two-hundred-nine feet long, looking like a stretched 767 with a bubbleon its back, the modified Boeing 777 was a flying observatory designedto take pictures of up to eight moving objects simultaneously.Underneath the bubble inside the aircraft body were eight telescopes,each built around a smaller version of the DEW SAT adjustable mirror.

"The mirror was the central light and heat collecting element in eachtelescope. Each telescope could rapidly search overhead for targets,guided by the aircraft's integrated radar and infrared sensors. Similarin design to the DEW SAT stealth-proof radar, the aircraft's UWB radarcould track multiple targets overhead.

This integrated system fed real-time target position data to separatecomputers which pointed each telescope. High definition, ultrahigh-speed video signals were collected from each telescope, convertedto a digital stream of ones and zeroes, then transmitted to an earthstation. The station routed the signals over glass wire intoHeadquarters's nerve center, the basement underneath CheyenneMountain.

The flying observatory required a three-person crew pilot copilot, andflight engineer. During the critical portions of the mission, whentiming was of the essence, all onboard observation, tracking, andflight systems were operated remotely from Cheyenne Mountain. Theflight crew came along for the ride in case something went wrong.

At 1448 hours Zulu, the crew of the flying observatorywatched their TV screens as six ASAT rocket engines ignitedsimultaneously. Everything they saw on screen, Headquarters saw inreal-time, projected on much larger screens.

As Headquarters had expected, only moments after the six ASAT rocketengines sparked to life, the DEW SAT briefly fired its attitudethrusters. Headquarters and the Sky Pix crew anxiously watched the DEWSAT come about, pointing its laser toward the ASATS. Once the targetalignment burn was completed, its mirror tilted slightly, refining itsaim. In less time than it took the pilot to inhale one deep breath,the DEW SAT fired six times reducing each conventionalone-hundred-pound ASAT warhead to a fiery white-hot ball of explodinggasses.

The pilot sat spellbound, unable to speak. He'd expected the ASAT killsequence to be impressive, but had not mentally accounted for the DEWSAT speed and precision. So much destruction, so little time. As theexplosions overhead lit up the sky, he felt fear. He'd heard about theDEW SAT kill capability, but never witnessed it up close and firsthand. An awesome force, and in the wrong hands the potential for mechanizeddeath was unthinkable. The realization that such force as thisconstantly orbited overhead sent a cold rigor through his body.

Behind the pilot in the main body of the aircraft, red flashingindicator lights caught the attention of the flight engineer inside theobservatory. The skin of the Boeing 777 was heating up and thecharacteristics of the DEW SAT radar were changing.

Racing forward, lunging through the door into the pilot compartment, heshouted: "We've got trouble!"

Watching the Southern Horizon, 1211012014, 1447 Zulu, 7:47 A.m. Local

INSIDE THE GROUND FIRE LASER BLOCKHOUSE,

Los ALAMOS NATIONAL LABORATORY, Los ALAMOS, NEW MEXICO Except for thepower lines, there was precious little there-miles of nothing, dust,prairie dogs, a cinder blockhouse, and a radar search antenna pointedexpectantly toward the southern horizon. The endless miles ofhigh-voltage power lines that stretched across the wide open flatlandterminated on a power substation inside the blockhouse and fed lifeinto the Ground Fire laser.

The Ground Fire laser occupied most of the cinder block building andwas about one hundred feet across.

Looking something like a wagon wheel at rest on the floor with its hubpointing skyward, the Ground Fire laser had been designed for precisionshooting directly overhead.

The hub of the wagon wheel was the mirror assembly and the eight spokeswere separate freeielectron lasers. Delivering a kick equal to aboutninety sticks of dynamite at a range of one hundred miles, the hubcombined laser power from the spokes and the mirror steered the lethalbeam on target.

All eyes in the blockhouse strained to see the laser guidance radardisplay screen. The screen revealed no target, but the crew wouldn'thave to wait much longer.

Satellites always showed themselves on schedule. Pointing at thesouthern horizon, the Ground Fire laser guidance radar antenna stoodpoised, ready to lock on target, patiently waiting for the DEW SAT torise.

DEW SAT look window opens in three minutes," announced the labdirector. Delicate optical instruments had problems enough with therigors of the desert heat and dust, but botching this DEW SAT shotcould be a careerlirniting experience for the Los Alamos labdirector.

"Remember, don't shoot until you've got your crosshairs locked on thestem. Disable it, don't blow it out of the sky." The DEW SAT targetwindow would open only twenty-eight seconds because the Ground Firelaser's shooting angle was limited to thirty-five degrees off vertical.Its beam steering mirror was similar to the DEW SATS but its agilitywas restricted on the ground because of its weight. Nevertheless, theGround Fire laser could lock on a DEW SAT moving at five miles persecond through an arc across the sky. The director planned to wait forthe DEW SAT to rise directly overhead, then takehis best shot. Although Washington and Cheyenne Mountain werescreaming at him to hurry, the director wasn't about to bungle thisshot and watch his career go up in smoke.

An Unknown Threat, 1211012014, 1448 Zulu ALTITUDE: 115 MILES INCIRCULAR

POLAR ORBIT,

ONBOARD A DEW SAT

After Hailey's Comet released its six ASAT missiles, the DEW SAT abovethe White Sands Missile Range characterized the XR-30 as a new andunrecognized threat. Each DEW SAT had been programmed to recognize andmeasure new threats, so it focused its radar and infrared telescope onHailey's Comet, measuring and recording every detail it could see. TheDEW SAT was designed to recognize known threats, but it didn't have adescription of any threat that looked like Hailey's Comet, or for thatmatter, any other aircraft.

Passing over White Sands Missile Range, the DEW SAT transmittedCenturion an encrypted radio signal which read: Wed Dec 10 14:48:14 Z2014 To: Centurion, Guardian Unknown Threat Signature FoLLows:Attributes (sample 1) ALtitude: 100,003it Speed:8.lMach;RateOfDescent:979it/sec; FLightPath AngLe-5.4deg; Length:200it;RadarCrossSectionArray:[..... InfraredEmissionArray:l..... . . .

Attributes( sampLe 2) ALtitude: 97,981it Speed:8.2lMach;RateOfDescent:1989.7it/sec; FLightPath AngLe-10.9deg; Length:200it;Attributes( sampLe 3) ALtitude: 96,923it Speed: 8.4MachRateOfDescent:3032.6it/sec; FLightPath AngLe-16.4deg; Length:200it; . . .

. . .

Attributes( sampLe 10) ALtitude: 88,620it Speed: 11.2MachRateOfDescent:9949.3it/sec; FLightPath AngLe-44.ldeg; Length:200it; . . .

End Of Signature Using a measurement language the DEW SAT understood,this message described Hailey's Comet to computers onboard Freedom andHope. PAM took Centurion's message since he was asleep. (He wouldcontinue sleeping until a super-user could board Freedom and wake himup.) Alpha, 1211012014, 1448 Zulu

SPACE STATION FREEDOM

PAM had the ability to learn from the DEW SAT experience, generalizethe DEW SAT threat description, then train the armada to hunt for thisnew class of threat.

Once PAM digested the description of Hailey's Comet, she altered it,making it more general, then transmitted an encrypted radio signal toher armada.

Wed Dec 10 14:48:25 Z 2014 To: ALL DEW SATs

DESIGNATE NEW TARGET CLASS: ALPHA

ALpha Signature FoLLows: End Of Signature PAM expanded the threatdescription to mean: Anything man-made that flew was an ALPHA classtarget and considered a potential threat.

After PAM's radio message was acknowledged, she transmitted a briefsecond message: Wed Dec 10 14:48:35 Z 2014 To: ALL DEW SATs track andLog all ALPHAs PAM ordered her armada to track the position of everyaircraft in flight around the world-a mammoth data processing job, butwell within the capabilities of the DEW SAT armada operating as anetworked team.

After issuing her track all alphas command, PAM waited for acknowledgesignals indicating that each DEW SAT understood the order and wouldcarry it out.

Inferring Scope, 1211012014, 1448 Zulu

SPACE STATION HOPE

Pulling double duty, Scott'd been straight out nearly twenty hoursmonitoring Pasha's condition and standing watch by his control station.The good news-Headquarters comm link was now fully operational. Machad pointed their Line Of Sight communications antenna towardKaliningradwho'd patched them through to Cheyenne Mountain. When the bad newscame, it came quickly as a flurry of message traffic scrolling acrossPasha's control monitor.

Exhausted, Scott and Gonzo looked on in disbelief.

Then, almost as suddenly as the messages appeared on screen, Scott'sadrenaline pumps kicked in, increasing her pulse, clearing her eyes,and rejuvenating her senses.

Within seconds, her frosty edge was back.

"What's this all about?" Gonzo asked, pointing to the message text onscreen.

To: Centurion, Guardian Unknown Threat Signature Follows:Attributes(sample 1) Altitude:100,003it; Speed:8.lMach;RateOfDescent:979it/sec; FlightPath Angle-5.4deg; Length:200it; . ..

Attributes(sample 2) Altitude:97,981it; Speed:8.2lMach;RateOfDescent:1989.7it/sec; FlightPath Angle-10.9deg; Length:200it; ..

Scott focused on screen, boring in on the altitude, speed, and lengthparameters. Immediately, something looked familiar about this data, asense of deja vu washed over her, like she'd seen this data before.After a fast study, she ignored the radar cross section and infraredemission data, understanding full well that only an electromagneticsexpert could make quick sense out of it.

Speaking out loud so she could hear herself think, she begandeliberately, carefully weighing her information, coloring it withinstinct derived from experience.

"Gut reaction-what we've got here is a series of snapshots, a flighttrajectory of some sort, probably of a missile or a very fast, veryhigh-altitude aircraft. There are no two-hundred-foot long missiles enroute; we know that for a fact, and this one's falling out of the sky,dropping like a rock. So eliminate the possibility of a missile. Boththe X-30 and XR-30 are capable of 100,000-foot altitudes with speeds inexcess of mach eight, but only the XR-30 is two hundred feet long.

Looks like an XR-30, probably Hailey's Comet."

"It's Hailey's Comet alright," Gonzo agreed.

"But look ahead here. This ALPHA class target description looksgeneric, it could be almost anything."

. ..

DESI6NATE NEW TARGET CLASS: ALPHA

AlPha Signature Follows: . ..

"Let's see," Scott responded, studying the screen.

"An example of the ALPHA class can be anything above ground level ...moving faster than ten knots ... that's greater than ten feet long.That's a generic description alright. Climb rate not specified. Whatdo you make of that?"

"By convention, not specified means don't care."

"I agree. My read exactly. The ALPHA class doesn't care about climbrate. An ALPHA can climb, dive, or maintain level flight, but it's gotto be moving above the ground. Look at this." Scott pointed to thescreen.

"Radar cross section array is set to minimum, that probably means theminimum signal a DEW can detect; and the infrared emission array is notspecified at all. I read that as a don't care, so an ALPHA can haveany sort of heat signature at all-it doesn't matter. This ALPHA classmust be huge, there must be thousands of . . ." She paused, thenspoke in a low clear voice, staring into Gonzo's eyes.

"Anything flying that's man-made."

When Scott heard the sound of her own voice saying these words, shebegan to understand. Suddenly, the realization that something wasterribly wrong came crashing down with devastating force. For a fewmoments, countlessunanswered questions raced through her mind, causing her head to spin.Then out of the chaos, she zeroed in on the essential question: Why wasCenturion designating new target classes? That was Headquarters'sjob.

Brought back to reality by the look of stark terror in Gonzo's eyes,Scott knew she had to do something fast.

Quickly, unexpectedly, a third message flashed on screen track and logall ALPHAS. When Scott read it, she knew what to do.

"Guardian," she barked, typing frantically. A talking head identicalto Centurion materialized on screen.

"Transmit this message NOW!"

Flash Message, 1211012014, 1449 Zulu, 7:49 A.m. Local

CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN, COLORADO

Craven furrowed his brow and slammed his giant fist down on thetable.

"Dammit to hell!" Such outrage from Craven was unusual. No one in theCrow's Nest could recall him getting this worked up over a flashmessage before.

For moments that seemed to stretch into eternity, Mason and Napper satparalyzed, rigidly uncomprehending, staring at their consoles unable tobreathe or speak. Sitting alongside Craven in the control room, theycouldn't believe the message from Scott scrolling across their computerscreen: FLASH MESSAGE: Wed Dec 10 14:49:49 Z 201 4

TOP SECRET

SAC EYES ONLY

TO: Supreme Allied Command Headquarters FROM: SDI Space Station HopeSUBJECT: New Target Class Designated

ALPHA

SYNOPSIS: DEW SAT armada is tracking all airborne aircraft around theworld.

END OF MESSAGE

"We've got to work through this problem fast," Mason said in a wearyvoice. His throat was dry and he had a hard time forming the words.Looking over the bleary-eyed officers filling the control room, henoticed their uniforms were wrinkled and faces unshaven. He sighed,then continued addressing his exhausted staff.

"We have an unbelievable situation here, but it's real and deadlyserious. We don't know exactly how it happened, but we do know enoughto make a good guess. We must think clearly and turn this thingaround. Let's take it one step at a time and build on what we know."

Mason projected the message onto the outside wall. He knew thismessage was a warning, a dreadful premonition of things to come.Scott's message was a call for action, but no one knew what to do.Mason believed they could sort it out if they were given the time, buttime was in short supply-everything happened so quickly.

A few people in the room gasped, but no one spoke. The room wasdeathly silent until a hollow-sounding thud was heard from the middleof the room. General Krol had bitten completely through his pipe stemand it had fallen out of his mouth onto the raised floor.

John Sullivan, Sam Napper, and Mason studied the message, pondering theunthinkable consequences.

Everyone else in the room was shocked beyond belief.

Could this be happening? Centurion designating new target classeswithout Cheyenne Mountain's approval? The consequences of the messagewere too horrible to acknowledge. If Centurion could designate broadnew target classes, he could just as easily order them destroyed. Shockdoes not capture the essence of the general staff's response; it wasmore like a massive coronary.

Put All Alphas an the Kill Stack, 1211012014, 1449 Zulu

SPACE STATION FREEDOM

After the position of every airborne aircraft had been tracked andentered into the object database, PAM issuedanother terse radio transmission in less than one hundredth of asecond. Intolerant of threats, her message was lethal.

Wed Dec 10 14:49:56 Z 2014 To: ALL DEW SATS put all known ALPHAs onkill stack With this one command message, PAM orchestrated the largestair disaster in the history of aviation.

Lord Have Mercy, 1211012014, 1449 Zulu, 7:49 A.m. Local

FLYING OBSERVATORY,

SPECIALLY MODIFIED HIGH-ALTiTuDE BOEING 777, IN FLIGHT OVER WHITE SANDSMISSILE RANGE, NEw MEXICO Although startled by the flight engineerlunging through the door, the pilot was still slow to respond becauseof the explosions overhead. Transfixed by the fireballs spreadingacross his screen, the pilot seemed in a trance, totally absorbed bythe sight of the exploding ASATS. As the fireballs graduallydisappeared from view, the pilot thought he saw a golden thread oflight, like a sunbeam, shining down from the heavens on Hailey's Comet.It happened so fast, he couldn't be sure of what he'd seen.

Suddenly, the world outside blazed with a radiant light.

The pilot squinted, then noticed Hailey's Comet on his TV screen.Racing across the sky, Hailey's Comet shined like a brilliant white-hotstar, brightening the sky overhead like the midday sun. Then, like asupernova, she spent her explosive energy in one blinding flash oflight and heat. The destruction of Hailey's Comet was so fast andviolent that her crew never understood what happened. Mercifully, theinitial explosion rendered them unconscious before their bodies wereincinerated to ash. As hydrogen from her ruptured fuel tanksuperheated, the resulting secondary explosion shattered Hailey's Cometinto a million shards of graphite fiber, scattering her remains acrossthe desert below, like funeral ashes on an endless sea of sand.

Praying, Lord have mercy on their souls, the pilot made the sign of thecross.

Suddenly, the pilot felt his skin burning, as if he were on fire.Feeling panic, his stomach balled up into a knot as he broke out in aprofuse sweat. He looked at the flight engineer and saw terror in hiseyes. Oh my God!

Grabbing his throat mike, he screamed,

"Mayday!" but never finished his signal.

Immediately, the cabin went dark except for the battery operatedgauges. The screaming roar from both jet engines quickly disappearedand the Sky Pix aircraft dropped like a lead shot sinker. Hoping torestart his engines, the pilot instinctively pushed forward on theyoke, forcing his wounded aircraft into a steep dive, but he never gotthe chance.

In the blink of an eye, the DEW SAT laser delivered an explosive forceequivalent to twenty sticks of dynamite into the fuel tank buriedinside the aircraft's right wing. Instantly, the tank ruptured and thebeam ignited fuel erupting from the wing tank. Following the wingtank's explosion, the aircraft collapsed under its own weight, tumblingout of the sky. Separating from its right wing at the engine mounts,engulfed in flame, the Boeing 777 spiraled downward toward the. desertfloor. Spewing fuel, the ruptured tanks fed the flames until asecondary explosion violently severed the aircraft body from itsremaining wing. Within seconds, the flying observatory was reduced toa blackened mass of smoldering remains strewn willy-nilly across thewhite desert sands.

Whispered Prayer, 1211012014, 1449 Zulu

SPACE STATION HOPE

Only seconds after launching her first flash traffic to Headquarters,another ominous message scrolled across Scott's screen. Itsmeaning-immediately clear. The message put all known ALPHAS on killstack-required no discussion and marked the lowest point in LindaScott's life.

Stunned beyond words, there was nothing she could do and no one couldhelp.

Without conscious thought, Scott's fingers robotic ally manipulated thekeyboard, constructing her second flash message to Headquarters. Oncecomplete, Guardian sent it.

Except for the whirr of cooling fans, the control room was absolutelysilent.

It was eerie, as if Scott were outside herself, watching her handstype. Her mind slowed, her heart felt numb, she was lost, drifting.Had she died? Was this some terrible nightmare? For a few momentsthat felt like a lifetime, she wondered if this was really happening.She saw herself typing, but had no sense of touch. It was as if herfingers took over, created the message, then directed Guardian to sendit. Days later, she'd have no recollection of sending the message orits contents.

Once her fingers stopped, once her typing was done, she moved to theobservation window facing all heaven and earth. There she slumpedforward in despair, unaware that both Mac and Gonzo were arduouslypraying for her, for themselves, and for all humanity. Raising hereyes in agony, with the weight of the world bearing down on hershoulders, Scott whispered a desperate, heartfelt prayer.

"God ... dear Lord in heaven ... please show me the way.

My back's against the wall and I'm out of options. . ." As Scottspoke these words, she felt the loneliness, the hopelessness of havingnowhere to turn and broke down sobbing.

"Thousands of people are going to die-and for no good reason; they'regoing to die for no reason at all ... God. Without Your help, there'snothing else I can do. Give me strength, please show me the way . ..

God..."

The Unthinkable, 1211012014, 1450 Zulu, 7:50 A.m. Local

CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN, COLORADO

Mason watched the last few frames of video transmitted from the SAy PLxflying observatory before she went off the air-six ASATs and Hailey'sComet exploding in a matter of seconds. No one could move. Everyone inthe control room stood as if riveted to the floor. Someone beganquietly sobbing.

"Would you play it again?" Mason asked in a whisper.

That was his polite way of giving an order under stressful conditions.The tension in the Crow's Nest was now palpable-the room deathly still.Mason frowned, scratching his head.

"What do you think happened?"

"I would rather not speculate at this point, sir, but I fear theworst," Napper replied solemnly.

"I wanna run these pix through our slow-motion lab for analysis.They'll tell us something." Staring over General Mason's shoulder atthe computer screen, Napper's drawn face turned a ghostly pale. Theonly color on his countenance came from the salt and-pepper stubble onhis unshaven face.

Napper tapped his radio headset, then held Mason's broad shouldersfirmly to shore them up.

"Another message from Hope, sir." Mason held his breath and read thesecond flash message Scott transmitted in the past two minutes. Aterror, unlike anything Mason had ever felt, clawed at his guts.

FLASH MESSAGE: Wed Dec 10 14:50:26 Z

TOP SECRET SAC EYES ONLY

TO: Supreme Allied Command Headquarters FROM: SDI Space Station HopeSUBJECT: ALPHA kill SYNOPSIS: Armada attacking every airborneaircraft.

END OF MESSAGE

"God-help us." Mason's tone was that of a man who'd discovered cancerwas ravaging his only child. One thought haunted him, circulatingthrough his mind, relentlessly tormenting his soul. I am become death,the destroyer of worlds. Mason's broad shoulders drooped and he shookhishead. He felt numb. He didn't have any answers and no plan.Initially, his heart and mind couldn't comprehend the full implicationsof the message, his self-protection circuits tripped into massiveoverload.

Everyone in the room was taken aback by the tone of General Mason'sdelivery. Always under control, if General Mason was shaken, it mustbe serious. His staff said nothing, but they felt a wave of sympathyfor their leader.

They wanted to do whatever they could do to turn this situation aroundand make it right.

For the second time, Mason projected the message on the outside wallfor all in the room to read.

Everyone exhaled as if they'd been punched in the stomach, followed bya prolonged silence. Was this a mass nightmare? Stunned, theconsequences of this message were too horrible to acknowledge.

Mason ran through everything in his mind, but it was impossible toabsorb. Tired minds make mistakes, he thought, but there is no time torest. Events unfold faster than you can think! The consequences weretoo ghastly to contemplate.

No one spoke, and Mason didn't rush. He understood it would take sometime to sink in.

Overwhelmed and weary, John Sullivan and Sam Napper shook their headsin disbelief, thinking there must be some mistake. They couldn'taccept the unthinkable given in such a large dose as this.

Mason prayed for strength, then mentally rallied after remindinghimself that a big part of leadership was guiding people in a directionthat they might not want to go. There would be difficult times aheadand they had to pull together. He repeated a phrase that had workedfor him in the past: "Let's back up and take this one step at a time.We've got to decide what we think."

Clear Skies, 1211012014, 1450 Zulu, 9:50 A.M. local AIR TRAFFicCONTROL ROOM, HARTSFIELD INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, Atlanta GEORGIA

A cold front moved through in the early morning hours, clearing the airaround the greater Atlanta metro area.

Weather surrounding Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport wasperfect for flying-crisp, cool, unlimited visibility. Air traffic wasflowing smoothly-increasing, but not yet peaked for the day.

Hartsfield's air traffic control room reflected air safety's state ofthe art, the best man and technology could produce to ensure safety fortravelers passing through the busiest airport in the world. InsideHartsfield's darkened control room, radar screens told the story ofanother working day.

The control room was partitioned into three sections: Arrivals,Departures, and Flybys. One group of controllers worked twenty-sixapproaching aircraft, a second group worked twenty departures over twinrunways, and a third group worked seventeen aircraft flying byHartsfield, possibly bound for any of fourteen airports in the Atlantaarea.

Air traffic controllers coordinated aircraft within a three dimensionalcylinder of airspace surrounding Hartsfield.

The cylinder had an eighty-mile diameter and extended to 40,000 feet.Every controller had responsibility for a separate sector of airspace.Packed full with wall-to-wall peopleand radar screens, the control room atmosphere was professional andmatter-of-fact. Good people, constant training, well-rehearsed safetyprocedures, and redundant backup systems kept the traffic flying safelyin all types of weather.

Working to keep all their birds in the air, controllers juggledsixty-three aircraft moving through Hartsfield airspace. Each blip ontheir radar screens displayed the aircraft's position, altitude,direction, speed, carrier, and flight number.

At 9:50 A.M. Atlanta time, an event occurred in the skies over Atlantathat no air controller would have imagined possible. Looking down fromthe high ground 115 miles above the Atlanta area, an orbiting DEW SATsorted every ALPHA entry in its database by altitude. The highestflying aircraft were considered the greatest threat. After sorting theALPHA threat list, the DEW SAT put each aircraft on its kill stack,firing on the highest flying aircraft first. One by one, thesixty-three blips began to disappear. Flyby controllers noticed itfirst because they worked the highest flying aircraft. The aircraftidentification information disappeared first, then the blips quicklylost altitude and disappeared off screen.

In the blink of an eye, the aircraft ID for United flight 209disappeared from a flyby air controller's radar screen.

Rubbing her eyes in disbelief, the flyby controller touched theaircraft's radar blip with a light pencil, thereby requesting anaircraft ID. She'd expected the carrier and flight number to appear onher screen, but there was no response from the aircraft.

She was sure that aircraft's ID had disappeared because she'd contactedit recently. Maybe there was a problem with the aircraft'stransponder. Trying to contact United two-zero-niner by radio, shereceived no reply. As she stared at the radar blip, she noticed it waslosing altitude, dropping like a lead brick into the controlledairspace immediately below her sector. Immediately, her guts wrenched.There was real danger of a midair collision.

United two-zero-niner did not respond, and it was dropping into asector filled to near capacity with arriving traffic.

Declaring an emergency, sweat began to bead across her brow. Hersenior shift supervisor, a woman built like a fireplug with a cool headin high-stress situations, quickly vectored traffic around the dangerarea below United two-zero-niner.

Only seconds later, a second flyby controller declared an emergency inhis sector, and the senior shift supervisor studied the bigger airspacepicture before making her decision. Single emergencies they couldmanage safely, the system was designed with margin to compensate forsingle point failures, but responding to multiple simultaneousemergencies took careful consideration. She looked at her big screen,the one showing all the aircraft and noticed a pattern. One by one,each aircraft's ID transponder failed.

Fifteen seconds after the first emergency had been declared, allseventeen aircraft in the flyby sector had lost their transponders andwere falling like rocks.

Impossible. There must be a serious problem with the radar orcomputers covering the flyby sector. Immediately, the supervisor typeda command into her control console switching to their backup system.The radar display screens flashed as the backup system switched in, butthe display showed the situation was worse. Seventeen aircraft haddisappeared from the flyby sector and fallen into the arrival anddeparture sectors. Suddenly, arrival and departure controllers begandeclaring simultaneous emergencies.

Aircraft were falling out of the sky like fiery rain.

The supervisor looked around the control room in horror.

All thirty-two controllers were simultaneously declaring emergenciesand looking to her for direction. Everyone wanted desperately to dosomething, to do the right thing, but no one knew what to do. No onecould know. This was an air traffic controller's worst nightmare, apilot's worst nightmare-chaos in the sky over Atlanta.

She picked up the red phone, her direct connection to the tower.Nothing. They had to answer! This was the emergency phone!

The tower crew had their hands full with problems of their own. Withinsight of the runway, the open carcass ofan arriving Boeing 767 lay burning, nosed into an open field of redGeorgia clay. Blocking both departing runways, mercifully sacrificingthemselves so that others might not fly, the bodies of two fuel ladenpassenger aircraft lay ablaze after rotating nose down and wing overimmediately following takeoff.

By 9:53 A.M." all air traffic over Hartsfield had cleared, radarscreens once cluttered with traffic were empty. Every air trafficemergency had been logically and callously terminated.

Shoot, 1211012014, 1450 Zulu, 7:50 A.m. Local

INSIDE THE GROUND FIRE LASER BLOCKHOUSE,

Los ALAmos NATIONAL LABORATORY, Los ALAMOS, NEW MEXICO DEW SATacquisition," announced the Ground Fire radar operator in adispassionate voice. His radar screen displayed a sunflower-shapedblip rising rapidly over the southern horizon.

"Target lock in T minus twenty seconds and counting."

Checking the clock bolted on the curved outside wall of the building,the German lab director observed,

"On schedule." The laser blockhouse looked like a short, stockyobservatory-a cylindrical building about 120 feet across with arotating dome roof.

Looking overhead, the director watched the dome simultaneously rotateand open as sections of the roof retracted.

A powerful motor rotated a greasy, grit-covered gear which turned thedome roof, creating a grinding noise which reverberated around thebuilding. Once the target had been acquired, the slot in the roofautomatically opened and the dome rotated into firing position,aligning the gun port in the roof with the DEW SAT track across thesky.

Once the dome roof and laser were in position, interest in theblockhouse shifted to the gunner.

Looking through his infrared bore sight, the gunner remarked,

"She's not positioned as expected, but we've got a clear shot."

"That's good," the lab director said, moving directly behind thegunner. The lab director and three support technicians huddled aroundthe gunner's television monitor. The monitor showed the gunner's boresight view, a greenish infrared image with crosshairs centered squarelyon the DEW SAT long stem.

The gunner threw a switch on his control console, then watched hiscountdown timer.

"Overhead shot in T minus ten seconds. Locked on target-auto firingsequence enabled."

Suddenly, the DEW SAT fired her attitude positioning thrusters,pointing her stem and mirror toward the blockhouse.

"Target's coming about, Sir! We've lost our shot!" the gunnerexclaimed. The stem was now hidden behind the DEW SATthirty-three-foot mirror. Feeling panic and looking through his boresight, the gunner centered his crosshairs on the only part of thetarget he could see-the mirror.

"We're illuminated in all bands!" screamed the radar operator, hisvoice breaking from the strain.

"Target knows our position!" The DEW SAT had triangulated on the LosAlamos radar signal and used it as a beacon.

The lab director didn't need to hear this twice.

"Override automatic firing sdquence-shoot!"

"But. . ."

"Shoot, man, shoot!"

"Target's deploying countermeasures-we're losing track!"

"Saturate the area. Blow it out of the sky!" There were no otherviable alternatives.

The gunner lifted the safety cover and slammed his fist down on therapid-fire mode control switch. As the RAPID FIRE ENABLED indicatorflashed in his face, the gunner grabbed his twin pistol grips andsqueezed both triggers like a vice. It happened so quickly, there wasno time to be scared.

Squeezing off tens of shots per second, the gunner sat mesmerized byflashing indicator lights as green tracerlines rapidly covered his TV screen. For a few seconds, the DEW SATdrifted across the screen into a solid waterfall of green tracer lines.Then as suddenly as it began, it was finished, the shot shattering hermirror, another rupturing her fuel tank. Racing across the sky, theorbiting fireball which resulted was visible from the ground.

Evacuate, 1211012014, 1451 Zulu, 7.51 A.m. Local

CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN, COLORADO

"We don't have time to think; we just react!" Napper grimaced asanother message from Scott appeared on his screen.

FLASH MESSAGE: Wed Dec 10 14:51:35 Z

TOP SECRET

SAC EYES ONLY

TO: Supreme Allied Command Headquarters FROM: SDI Space Station HopeSUBJECT: Evacuate the blockhouse immediately!

END OF MESSAGE

Sullivan, Napper, and Mason studied the message and guessed what hadhappened. For the first time, they recognized some pattern to thisdestruction.

Sullivan spoke first.

"That DEW SAT must've triangulated on the Los Alamos radar andtransmitted its position to Centurion."

Napper nodded agreement and completed the assessment.

"And Centurion ordered it destroyed."

"Our armada doesn't tolerate threats," Mason observed with a grimace.Exhausted, Napper and Sullivan nodded.

Lack of sleep was taking its toll on everyone, tired minds makemistakes.

"How long do they have?"

Sullivan checked the wall clock, then looked at the blue ball. AnotherDEW SAT was approaching Los Alamos from the south.

"Maybe four minutes. The DEW SAT wait until it's over Los Alamosbefore . . ."

Napper ran to a computer terminal and clicked on an icon labeled (ROUNDFIRE. His computer connected him directly to the lab director's radiophone inside the Los Alamos blockhouse. When the lab directoranswered, Napper identified himself immediately then ordered: "Kill theradar! Clear the area! Evacuate the building now!"

The lab director was caught totally off guard. Puzzled, but not overlyalarmed, he inquired: "Evacuate? Just exactly where do you propose wego?"

"Get away from that building fast! Take a car, truck, anything that'llmove your people outta there! You've only got three minutes."

"Three minutes? What's the freaking rush? We can't leave thissensitive optical equipment behind. I'll need to clear this with mysuperiors." The lab director could tell that Napper was upset, butHeadquarters had jerked his chain, time and time again, for the lasttwo days-too much hurry up and wait.

Napper stood silent for a moment, collecting his thoughts as he watchedthe DEW SAT approaching Los Alamos from the south. His brain ran insix directions at once. There was no time for common sense, no timefor discussion. Overwhelmed, he had the sense of even temperament,every feeling was extreme, and he felt as if he were about toexplode.

"Listen up and listen good!" he barked.

"Get out now or die!"

The Golden Thread, 1211012014,1454 Zulu, 7:54 A.M. Local

GROUND FIRE LASER BLOCKHOUSE

]Los ALAmos NATIONAL LABORATORY, Los ALAmos, NEW MEXICO The labdirector stared at the phone for a moment, then jammed it back into itsholster.

Pointing to the open slot in the domed roof, the lab director yelled toone of the technicians,

"We got a life-and death emergency on our hands. Button down the hatchandkill the power! Move like your life depended on it; meet me outsideby the bus."

Not wasting any time, the director keyed his mike and spoke directly tothe radar operator over the intercom.

"We've got an emergency! Shut your radar off and move out to thebus-right now! We're getting the hell outta here!" Finally, thedirector surveyed the blockhouse. He needed to move thirty people outof the building into the bus and he needed it done quickly. Firesafety is a concern at any government installation and Los Alamos wasno exception. Fire drills were not the exception but the rule,performed routinely once a week. First, he turned on the PA system,keyed the mike, and ordered everyone to evacuate immediately. Second,he pulled the fire alarm and triggered the sprinkler system. Sprinklersshould encourage them to move along, he thought.

Two technicians escorted the gunner outside onto the blue Air Forcebus. Rounding up his laser support staff outside the blockhouse, thedirector herded them on the bus like a New Mexico cowboy; noexplanation, just move.

There was complaining. Most of the staff felt like cattle, but theloading moved along without panic and as quickly as possible.

After counting heads, the director slammed the bus door shut andsignaled the driver to roll. The driver put his foot to the floor,popped the clutch, and the bus rolled away in a cloud of exhaust smokeand dust.

The staff members wondered what all the fuss was about as they spedaway across the flat expanse of desert sand.

Looking back at the blockhouse, someone blinked in disbelief and asked:"What do you think that was?"

They were about one mile away from the blockhouse when a thin goldenthread of light, like a narrow ray of sun, burst forth from the blueheavens. It looked something like a meteor's fiery track, but it wasperfectly straight and lasted only a second or so. At first, no onewas sure of what they had seen, but after some discussion they foundnearly everyone on the bus had seen something. It looked as if theGround Fire laser was in operation, but the blockhouse was empty andthe dome had been buttoned shut.

Passing overhead, a DEW SAT executed a thermal scan using a broadinvisible laser beam, scorching the area surrounding the blockhouse tobetter define its target position.

The DEW SAT illuminated the Ground Fire radar antenna with its laser,then detected the heat, using it as a beacon.

After locking on target, it destroyed the radar antenna using a goldenthread of light which burned its way through the atmosphere.

Changing of the Guard, 1211012014, 15,30 Zulu, 8:30 A.M. Local

CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN, COLORADO

The Crow's Nest video conference room was packed with the general'sstaff-most looked like hollow-eyed zombies.

Even though Mason and Craven were briefing the President, they'd beentoo exhausted to fully prepare. Their view graphs were hand-drawnsketches, not the computer generated glitzy color visuals the Presidentand his Cabinet had come to expect. Ordinarily, hand-drawn visualspresented in a Cabinet meeting would mark the end of even the mostpromising military career.

Craven lamented that officer promotions during peacetime had beenreduced to a dog and pony show-no substance, just style and glitz. Helaid his view graphs side by side on the white sheets of his Army cotinside the Crow's Nest. He'd always organized his briefings this way,reviewing his story end to end, laid out over his sheets. Exhaustedand bleary-eyed, he concluded that hand-drawn view graphs wereappropriate for his presentation. His story'd been told-as supremeallied commander, he was finished.

In Washington, a dozen video cameras provided pictures to CheyenneMountain from inside the Cabinet meeting room. As usual, the CheyenneMountain general staff attended the President's emergency meeting byvideo link.

Mason watched a somber group of big shots crowding into the Cabinetroom. The secretary of Transportation arrived first with the heads ofthe Federal Aviation Administrationand Central Flow Control. Part of the FAA, Central Flow Controlmonitored all commercial air traffic across the United States. Thesecretaries of Defense and State arrived next, followed by the CIA andFBI directors, the White House chief of staff, and Clive Towles, thePresident's national security advisor. NORAD and NATO attaches filedin behind Clive Towles, and finally, additional staff from Central FlowControl entered the room and stood along the outside wall.

Mason looked over the drawn faces in the crowded room and sighed. Ameeting of the big guns, he thought. Central Flow Control mustcertainly have something to say. Judging from their numbers, it lookslike it's their meeting.

To Mason's surprise, no one spoke, no one said anything at all.Everyone avoided eye contact and felt uncomfortable making chitchat.Finally, the door opened and everyone stood as the President walked in.He found his place at the table, studied the faces on his videomonitors, then sat down.

Clearly impatient, the President spoke directly to the head of the

FAA.

"Let's get on with it." His voice was a mixture of anger andanxiety.

The tension in the air was charged, nerves were frayed before themeeting began.

"Mr. President," the head of the FAA began,

"I would like Dr. Mulcahy to give you a summary of our air trafficsituation. He works in Central Flow Control and knows more about ourair traffic situation than anyone else in Washington. After that,we'll do our best to answer any questions."

The President said nothing, but noted that Mulcahy was an Irishman,someone he could trust. His name, reddish hair, and ruddy skincomplexion broadcasted his origin.

Mulcahy was known as one who told the truth and didn't waste words-anendangered species around D.C. Without delay, Dr. Mulcahy moved to thelectern. He flipped a switch on the lectern, causing the lights todim.

Pointing a handheld remote at the TVNCR mounted on the wall, he pushedPLAY. The forty-inch TV screen showed a map of the continental UnitedStates, crisscrossed with thousands of white lines, each white linerepresenting an aircraft in flight. The lower corner of the picturewas tagged with a time stamp reading 09:50:00 A.M. Pressing the VCRPAUSE, he took a sip of water, then began.

"Gentlemen, today between 9:50 and 9:55 A.M. Washington time, acatastrophe of unparalleled proportions paralyzed air traffic acrossthe United States and around the world. This air disaster isunprecedented-over fifty thousand people are confirmed dead."

Everyone in the room gasped. Few attending knew the full scope andmagnitude of the disaster'. Dr. Mulcahy reverently made the sign ofthe cross and all those seated around the Cabinet room followed suit.

The President's jaw dropped. His face looked like a monument of silentagony. How do you comprehend the senseless death of over fiftythousand innocent people?

Dr. Mulcahy pressed the VCR PLAY button, then continued.

"The video you see was recorded by Central Flow Control earlier thismorning and has not been edited. Threethousand-six-hundred-forty-eightcommercial passenger aircraft were lost over the United States alone."Everyone in the room stared at the TV screen as the white traces begandisappearing. Dr. Mulcahy watched silently and he didn't rush. He'dseen this videotape twenty times, and still couldn't believe it. Inless than five minutes, every airborne aircraft over the United Stateshad flown into the ground.

He knew it would take some time for the full impact of his story tosink in.

Mulcahy studied the deadpan faces of his motionless audience-theCabinet room reminded him of a morgue.

Misty-eyed, Mulcahy had obviously been moved by the videotape, but hewaited patiently for feedback, some sign of acceptance from the group.After the map of the United States was clear of white aircraft traces,the TV picture shifted to a scene of downed aircraft burning on therunways of Hartsfield International Airport. Charred, blackenedaircraft wreckage graphically brought the problem home, placing it ineveryone's backyard.

"It's by the grace of God that I'm alive," Clive Towles said.

"I was supposed to've been on the nine-thirty nonstop to L.A." butContinental canceled the flight after I boarded the plane."

Mulcahy raised his eyebrows and nodded agreement.

Satisfied his message was getting traction, he blinked his eyes clearand continued.

"Although the exact figure will never be known, approximately 4,800commercial aircraft were lost worldwide-over fifty thousand people havebeen confirmed dead and this total is conservative-it could be short bytwenty thousand. Mr. President, this is nothing short of acatastrophe. At this moment, nothing's flying."

Stunned, not knowing what to say or do, the President was silent for afew moments, still absorbing the full scope of the disaster. Alwaysthe spin doctor, the President struggled to put a positive spin on thisbad situation. There must be something good he could say about it, butnothing came to mind-he drew a blank. Even the grand master of spindoctors couldn't make this situation sound acceptable to the Americanpeople. This was a catastrophe and he couldn't hide it. He'd have toface this problem head-on until he could come up with a betteralternative.

"Survivors?

What's being done to help?"

"We're doing all that can be done, moving medical staff and supplieswhere they're needed most, but ground and sea transportation takestime," the secretary of Transportation replied.

The President's concern turned to anger as he eyed the Secretary ofDefense in the subdued light. His eyes looked wild, like those of amad dog. He wasn't going to take the rap alone. In a stone cold voicehe said,

"Gentlemen, I assume you're going to tell me what went wrong and how tocorrect this situation."

General Craven spoke next over video link from Cheyenne Mountain.

"Mr. President, General Mason will explain what happened and outlineour alternatives. He's closest to the problem and the solution."

For the next thirty minutes, Mason related the sequence of events thatled them here. Exhausted, Mason's presentation wasn't crisp, but itwas clear and cut to the central core of the problem-technical problemstake time and understanding to resolve. As Mason proceeded, he watchedthe President's eyes grow wilder. Finally, when he looked as if he wasabout to pounce on his prey, the President bolted out of his chair. Hisvoice exploded over the videophone speakers.

"Unbelievable! Fifty thousand people dead and for what? This damncatastrophe was man-made. It should never have happened. We're heldhostage by our own machines." There was no sorrow in his voice, onlyrage.

"Reality often proves stranger than fiction," Clive Towles observedsomberly. Clive stood' and chatted quietly with the President.

After a brief exchange, the President regained his composure andplopped back down in his chair, demanding, "Alternatives-talkalternatives. We've got to turn this situation around, but fast."

Mason spoke gently but firmly.

"Sir, I'd like to discuss two alternatives, but they both will taketime."

"How much time?" barked the President.

"Weeks. There's no quick cure and we don't have any secret weapons.Both these alternatives come with high risks, but we can improve ourchances by understanding what we're up against."

General Craven iritedected,

"That's correct, Mr. President. If we'd taken the time to betterunderstand this problem in the first place, this disaster might nothave happened."

Perplexed, the President scratched his head and looked directly atCraven.

"But that's your job, so why didn't you?

Why didn't you take the time to do it right?"

"I wanted this virus situation resolved quickly." Craven's toneconveyed profound regret. And so did you. If you'll recall, Mr.President-you insisted."

Mason saw fire returning to the President's eyes, but the old Cravenwas back. He was speaking like the courageous leader and visionaryMason had always admired, the one he used to know.

"However," Craven continued slowly, "the final responsibility was mineand mine alone. Somewhere along the way, I lost sight of onefundamental truth. We cannot change nature. It takes nine months tohave a healthy baby and, like it or not, we can't speed it up. Welearned this same lesson from the space shuttle Challenger disaster. The laws of physics always prevail above our political will."

Craven paused somberly in retrospect.

"Politics drove some of my technical decisions, not good physics, andover fifty thousand people are dead as a result.

"I wanted a simple cure to a complex problem," Craven lamented in awhisper.

"To understand this virus will take weeks, perhaps months' We can solvethis problem, but we absolutely cannot fix it fast-you can't have itboth ways.

More money won't help, more people won't help, you're gonna have towait. The solution to this problem requires clear thinking,resourcefulness, and courage. Political hype won't deliver thegoods."

The President shook his head angrily. After several seconds ofsilence, his eyes glowed like smoldering embers and he spoke with venomdripping from his voice.

"General. This disaster should never have happened! Furthermore, Iwant this situation turned around fast and I want it done right! Andby God-I'm going to get it." The President was emphatic.

Craven took the heat head-on.

"Mr. President, I assume full responsibility for this unprecedentedloss of life. I estimated the chances for disaster were acceptably lowbased on my best available information. I took a gamble, the odds werestacked against me, and I was wrong. We will give you our very besteffort, but you will not see this air traffic situation resolvedquickly. I don't expect you to like it, sir, but I'm telling you thetruth. You may have my resignation at any time you wish, but I wouldlike to resolve this matter."

"General Craven," seethed the wild-eyed chief executive, "it will benecessary for you to resign."

"Hold everything," interrupted Clive Towles, slamming his hand down onthe table to get the President's attention.

"The consequences of this software sabotage have been unbelievable!Fifty thousand dead! No one would have imagined this destruction intheir wildest dreams. Replacing General Craven doesn't solve anythingand second-guessing his decisions will only make matters worse."

The President replied bluntly.

"Frankly, Clive, I don't have any choice in the matter. I'll be luckyif the American people only impeach me. Fifty thousand people cry outfrom their graves for justice and heads must roll. You know it as wellas I do-there's no other way. General Craven must stay on as anadvisor until this matter is resolved, but as supreme allied commander,his job is done."

The President's facial muscles twitdhed as he turned toward the pictureof General Craven on screen.

"General, you are relieved of your command. This has nothing to dowith justice, it's political survival."

The President paused, took a long drink of water, then spoke to Cravenagain.

"I understand you recommended General Mason as your replacement. Doesyour recommendation still stand?"

"Absolutely, Mr. President. He'll do what he believes is right andget the job done."

Satisfied, the President took a moment to collect his thoughts, thenreflected,

"We really put all our eggs in one basket with this SDI system, didn'twe?"

"I shortcut my otvn safeguards, Mr. President," Craven said slowlywith deep remorse.

"I took a chance, gambled, and lost. If we'd used our standard testingprocedures, we wouldn't be in this trouble today."

Somewhat rhetorically, the President asked,

"Let me make sure I got this straight. Over fifty thousand innocentpeople died because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Andthere's no air traffic anywhere because of some software glitch-nothingcan fly without being blown out of the sky. And you're telling me thatwe have only two alternatives that might-and I repeat might-pull ourasses out of the fire. One's an unproven lab prototype and the other'san XR-30 crew onboard Hope."

"Your synopsis is accurate, Mr. President," Mason replied withoutreservation.

"In my opinion Major LindaScott and her crew are our only viable alternative. We have only oneprototype aircraft in the Black Hole program and it's got a long way togo."

"General Mason, what would it mean if both our alternatives fail?"

That answer was easy.

"Global economic catastrophe. In all probability, some countries willtake advantage of our dilemma."

"General Mason, you are hereby appointed supreme commander of allAllied Forces. Exhaust every alternative.

Resolve this matter with God's speed and tell us how we can help. Aboveall else, do it right!"

Firestorm, 1211012014, 1855 Zulu, 1:55 P.m. Local

THE WHITE HOUSE

WASHINGTON, D.C.

"Firestorm in Atlanta," announced the CNN newscaster.

"Live report coming up at the top of the hour."

Atlanta burning? To the President of the United States, these wordsfelt like a steel sword plunging deep into his chest, causing his kneesto buckle. He sank into his chair, where he sat breathless for severalmoments, trying to make some sense of it all. Gradually, the colorreturned to his face and he turned once again to watch CNN HeadlineNews.

The President sat spellbound behind his desk in the Oval Office,hypnotized by the news reports of aviation catastrophe flashing acrosshis TV screen. As airline casualties from around the world continuedto accumulate, the scene shifted to a live report from the top ofOverlook Mountain in the northwest corner of Atlanta. A slow, sweepingpanoramic camera shot of the Atlanta skyline showed boiling blackcolumns of thick heavy smoke engulfing the city.

Scattered across the city, inky black smoke plumes erupted from blazingaircraft wreckage, turning the sky a dingy shade of grayish brown. TheTV pictures from Atlanta looked like the black-and-white newsreelfootage taken in Europe during World War II-no color, just shades ofblack, white, and brownish gray. The President gazed on this horrificscene in disbelief During the day, there were about a dozen SecretService agents on duty in this part of the presidential mansion, butprofessional as they were, their eyes were focused on CNN HeadlineNews. For that matter, in all fairness to the agents, the eyes of theentire world, from Baghdad to Washington, were fixed on CNN. Inaddition to the Secret Service agents collected in the Oval Office,Clive Towles, the President's national security advisor, and Dr.Mulcahy from Central Flow Control silently watched the news by thePresident's side.

The President's chief of staff and his glitzy White House presssecretary lumbered slowly into the Oval Office reading the statementthey'd prepared for the press.

"I don't know what to do," said the President with a sense of dismay.Shaken by the graphic news reports of the Atlanta firestorm, thePresident walked over to the mirror and looked somberly at hisreflection.

"Mulcahy, are you sure this is the way we should handle this?"

"Yes, Mr. President. Lay your cards on the table. If you f don'tlevel with the press, you'll only make an impossible situation worse.If you come before the people with your head in your hands, they can'tvery well lop it off. Remember, the . .

"Do you take me for a fool?" interrupted the White House presssecretary as his blood pressure shot through the roof.

"First of all, nobody would believe the truth, and second, we don'thave all the facts yet. I have trouble believing it myself, and ourstory may change. Besides, they'll ask some tough, finger-pointingquestions and expect answers we don't have. We don't know whosabotaged the SDI software or how it happened. Do you seriouslybelieve that the President of the United States should stand before theworld and admit that we don't have a clue?" The press secretary raisedboth eyebrows and cut a glance across the room, making direct eyecontact with the President.

"Should the President publicly acknowledge that we're held hostage byour own technology? I don't think so! Who'd believe that a softwareglitch, some computer virus, could account for all this chaos, and whodo we blame?"

No one in the Oval Office spoke.

"Hell-we don't know," the press secretary scoffed.

"But we know whoever screwed us chews Juicy Fruit gum.

Yeah-right. I tell you, Mr. President, we've been caught with ourpants down and we'll look like incompetent fools if we let this storyout. General Mason believes their solution to this problem could beweeks away. John Sullivan doesn't think they'll ever find who's behindthe virus. What if they're right? I say we stall until we cangenerate a cover story that'll cover our, err-years of governmentservice.

Say we've had a serious sabotage problem with the SDI system and we'reworking the situation, united as Allies.

All the details are wrapped up in national security. Just read yourprepared statement." The press secretary handed the President thestatement and concluded,

"Stall, Mr. President. Stall."

The President didn't know what to think, but in the final analysis,this problem was his to face alone. He had to respect the man in themirror after he woke up from this nightmare. He'd always relied onothers for advice and then used his own judgment. After some somberthought, he turned to his national security advisor.

"What do you think, Clive?"

Clive Towles and the President had worked through some lean timesbefore in the business world, but none so grave or life threatening asthese. Clive respected the press secretary for his skill atmaneuvering the press, leading them where he wanted them to go-however,on this occasion he believed the press secretary was wrong.

"Considering the global magnitude and scope of this problem, I don'tbelieve the people will accept anything less than the absolute andcomplete truth-as you know it. If you stall, you'll get caught. Thisstory's too big to imagine otherwise.

Our back's against the wall, Mr. President. Your integrity is theonly thing you've got; it's all that matters. If you piss away thepeople's trust, you'll never get it back."

"No compromise?" the President asked cautiously.

"No compromise, Mr. President. Nothing less than the absolute truthwill do. People aren't mushrooms. Don't shovel shit on 'em expectingto keep 'em in the dark."

The President nervously bit his lip as his stomach began to knot. He'dgotten Clive's message, but felt that giving advice was easy, takingadvice was the hard part.

"The President sighed, then looked at his press secretary.

"Okay, let's get on with it. How long till show time?"

"Twenty minutes, Mr. President."

The President sighed, again.

"I'd like some time alone,"

he lamented. The Oval Office quickly emptied, leaving the Presidentalone and staring at the portrait of Dwight David Eisenhower hanging onthe wall.

Altar to Allah, 1211012014, 1920 Zulu, 12:20 P.m. local

RETURN DRIVE FROM SHRIPOD AD DAMS

APARTMENT To CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN,

COLORADO SPRINGS, COLORADO

Wrangler rented a small U-Haul van, the same size vehicle used byFederal Express for small business deliveries. He drove to theMountain View apartments, arriving just before noon, then parked nextto Shripod Addams' empty parking space. Following in the ear, Toniloaded his ski bag in the rear of the U-Haul once they reachedShripod's apartment.

Inside his ski bag, Toni carried the device which would cause Shripod'saccident, the milepost assembly. Earlier, Toni'd completed thefinishing touches on the assembly; now he needed only to install itunderneath Shripod's Honda.

The assembly was deceptively simple, consisting of three parts-afour-foot length of metal post, a short six-inch section of transparentnylon fishing line, and a small electronics module about the size of abar of soap. One end of the post was torn and sharp, the other blunt.Near the sharp end, Toni looped the nylon line through a slot in themilepost. Using epoxy, he planned to attach the line to the bottomof Shripod's car. On the blunt end of the milepost, Toni attached hisbreakaway electronics package. Wrapped in clear cellophane, Toni'selectronics included a six-Volt battery, a tiny radio receiver, and acustom-built electromagnet. Built of a pressed powder ferritematerial, the electromagnet would crumble to dust when run over by acar.

Toni could control the electromagnet from ten miles away using atransmitter he'd mounted inside Wrangler's car. All was in readinessawaiting Shripod's arrival.

During lunch, Shripod Addams drove the five-mile journey home to hisapartment as he did every working day. It offered him an escape duringthe da which he looked forward to most of all. After driving into theparking lot, he maneuvered his car into its regular space, parkingbetween the curb and a small U-Haul van. As Shripod rushed around thecorner of the building into his apartment, he thought only of lunch andfeeding his fish. He knew something had gone wrong in the Crow's Nestthis morning, but he didn't know any details.

Once Shripod entered his apartment, Toni quickly slid his milepostassembly out of the U-Haul van and onto the dust-covered asphaltunderneath Shripod's Honda. As planned, the U-Haul van blockedShripod's view of the car from his apartment in case he decided tolook, which he didn't. The most technical part of Toni's operation wasthe installation, but he was confident. A master craftsman, his handswere steady and he knew exactly what to do. He'd practiced theinstallation a dozen times already this morning underneath Wrangler'sAccord. Working with all the skill and precision of a trained surgeon,Toni slid his shoulder alongside and underneath the driver's side ofShripod's Accord. He'd refined the installation procedure to anefficient sequence of simple steps with no wasted motion. The completeinstallation required only five minutes. By now, Toni didn't need tosee what his hands were doing, he could operate by feel and know whenthe installation was done right.

Lying on his back sandwiched between the body of Shripod's Accord andthe U-Haul van, Toni went to work.

The body of the Accord was so low to the ground that he couldn't slideunderneath, but he'd anticipated this. Toni built Shripod's milepostassembly with wide tolerances so that it would work even with a sloppyinstallation. Feeling underneath the driver's seat, Toni found fourbolts holding down the seat rails and used them as a positionreference.

The spot Toni was looking for, the sweet spot, was centered underneathand slightly in front of the driver's seat. He positioned the sharpend of the milepost on the ground directly below the sweet spot, thenaligned the post front-to-back. Next, he lifted the blunt end of themilepost off the ground and, using the electromagnet, he attached itunderneath the front of the car, next to the engine. At this stage,the forward blunt end of the post was attached to the metal frame ofthe car but the sharp rear end of the post remained on the ground. Onlyone installation step remained and the job was done. Toni coated theends of the nylon line with epoxy, then positioned the sharp end of thepost against the sweet spot. Should put it between his legs, Tonithought with a sardonic smile. After holding the line against theunderbody of the car about two minutes, the epoxy set and theinstallation was complete.

The nylon line would function like a hinge, holding the sharp end ofthe post in place against the car body when the blunt, front end of thepost dropped onto the road.

After less than four minutes' installation time, Toni dusted off hisclothes, walked to Wrangler's car, and drove down the street to theLoaf

"N' Jug. A few minutes later, Wrangler drove the U-Haul van to theLoaf

"N' Jug and joined him for lunch. Together, from a window booth insidethe dining area, they watched Cheyenne Meadows Road and the MountainView Apartments, waiting for Shripod Addams' return to work.

Shripod pulled out of his parking space about ten minutes till one.Toni walked outside to Wrangler's car, cranked it, and entered the leftturn lane immediately in front of Addams. After traveling a littleless than one mile on Highway 115, Toni drove past the LEAVING COLORADOSPRINGS City limits sign with Shripod Addams following six car lengthsbehind him.

Driving in the shadow of Cheyenne Mountain, Toni pressed the onlybutton on his radio transmitter as he passed the city limits sign. Itwasn't marked, but he knew what to expect.

Shripod Addams was traveling about sixty miles an hour when theelectromagnet let loose and the front, blunt end of the milepostdropped down, striking the asphalt hard with an ear-piercing scrapingsound. The violent impact of the milepost slamming against the asphaltdisintegrated the electronic module into tiny fragments and scatteredthem over the highway. Immediately, Shripod lifted his foot off thegas, but never made it to the brake. Before Shripod could slow hiscar, he felt the floorboard vibrate followed by the ear-piercing soundof metal shredding beneath his feet. He never knew what hit him. Theinstant he drove over the raised seam in the road, the sharp end of thepost violently erupted through the floorboard as the forward end of thepost lodged in the bump. Acting as a lance, the milepost thrust itsway upwards through the hole in the floor, slicing a gaping tearthrough the car seat, rocketing up between Shripod's legs, impaling himthrough the rib cage and exiting his neck below the ear. In a fractionof a second, the motion of the car caused the milepost to pivot forwardabout the hole in the floorboard, hurling Shripod's body upwards offthe seat into the ceiling, breaking his neck, and pinning his limp bodyagainst the steering wheel.

He was dead before his car rolled to a stop in the dirty snow on theshoulder of Highway 115.

Meet the Press, 1211012014, 1930 Zulu, 2.-30 P.m. Local THE WHITE HOUSESITUATION Room,

WASHINGTON, D.C.

Everyone stood when the President entered the White House SituationRoom followed by Clive Towles, Dr. Mulcahy, and his personalbodyguards. Even in the dimlight, the President's face revealed that dark rings had formed underhis eyes.

Only minutes before this meeting was scheduled to begin with the press,the Secret Service had moved the meeting location and shifted thereporters into a dimly lit, blast proof room deep inside the WhiteHouse basement. This last minute change was an attempt by the SecretService to limit any physical threat to the President during his pressconference. This weary herd of reporters had been corralled into thestuffy, gloomy room, then packed shoulder-to shoulder like cattle in astockyard awaiting slaughter.

After stepping behind his pulpit, as he liked to call it, the Presidentdeliberately ignored the TV cameras and silently examined thecollection of anxious faces in the audience.

Some people here may have lost family, he thought. The Presidentlooked down at his press release, sighed, then looked up again directlyinto the eyes of his audience. He was silent for a protracted period,still spellbound by the graphic news reports of this horrible,high-tech catastrophe.

"Ladies and gentlemen of the press," he said slowly in a quiet voice.

"Before I begin, there's something I've got to know." The President'sthroat was parched. He took a sip of water from a glass on the podium,then continued.

"How many of you knew someone who died this morning?"

Nearly everyone in the room raised their hand. Their response seemedto knock the wind out of the President for a few moments and his faceturned ashen. The mood in the cramped, damp basement room beneath theWhite House could best be described as morose.

The President found it easier to count those who did not raise theirhands. Twenty-eight out of the thirty-two reporters present knewsomeone who had died. Glassy-eyed, the President asked,

"Now many of you lost someone in your family?"

Two women and four men raised their hands. Overwhelmed, the Presidentcouldn't control the tears sing down his face and his knees began toweaken. His shoulders slumped forward as he slowly sat down on a smallmetal chair by the podium. Holding his head in his hands, thePresident recalled Clive Towles' advice: Integrity is all you'vegot-it's the only thing that matters. He would not, he could not fieto the immediate families of those who'd suffered loss. He guessed theolder reporters might have lost children, but dared not ask for fear hewould break down.

The President held his head upright.

"I'll tell you everything we know about what's happened, but understandthat we've got a long way to go before we put this nightmare behindus."

For the next hour, a dumbfounded White House press secretary, as wellas the entire world, remained silent, thunderstruck, as the electedleader of the United States explained why their airplanes could nolonger fly. As best he could, he explained how the world was beingheld hostage by their own Star Wars technology orbiting overhead, 115miles above the earth. Flashbacks of the Atlanta firestorm constantlyentered the President's thoughts; he couldn't forget those pictures ofAtlanta burning. At the end of his monologue, he concluded with a toneof dismay.

"I'm not going to lie to you. Our back's against the wall and ourAllied Forces know it. We had a man-made catastrophe today and we'dbetter learn from it. Today, we've got more questions than answers,but in time, we'll turn this situation around because we must. Wedon't know who sabotaged our SDI software, but if they left any trailalong the way, we'll track them down. We don't know what to do torestore the status quo, but believe me, we're exhausting everyalternative we've got. Right now, we're spending all our time tryingto outsmart our own machines, but we won't rest until we get thissituation under control." Pausing for several moments, the Presidentlooked around the room once again and studied the faces of hisaudience. The room was absolutely silent except for the quiet, muffledsounds of sobbing. Most reporters sat glassy-eyed and slack-jawed,aghast by the story they'd heard. Some faces in the audience remindedthe President of lost sheep, others displayed rage frustrated by havingno one to blame, but most revealed an overwhelming sense of profoundsadness.

Wearily, the President asked,

"Are there any questions?" No one spoke. No one could speak, but mosthoped and prayed that this was some terrible dream. Surely we'll wakeup soon; we must wake this can't really be happening.

And so the course was set, their journey too frightening tocontemplate. The President didn't know what to think, but in the finalanalysis, he'd faced this problem head-on.

He'd delivered nothing less than the absolute and complete truth,without compromise. When your back's against the wall, integrity isall that matters.

Lucky Strikes Out, 1211012014, 1945 Zulu, 11.-45 A.m. Local GATE 2SECURITY GUARD SHACK, LAWRENCE LIVERMORE NATIONAL LABORATORY,

LIVERMORE, CALIFORNIA

Mamood Abdul moved swiftly, silently, through San Francisco on hisdivine mission from Allah. He was a Muslim extremist, pure and simple,who believed that killing Americans, especially those living in the bigcity, was God's will. Methodical, patient and dangerous, his view ofAmericans was developed during his ten-year period as a cab driver inthe Newark/ New York City area. He'd learned through experience thatlife on big city streets was cheap, and devoutly believed that peopleliving in the city had traded their souls, their humanity, to the devilfor the almighty dollar. As a result, they were no different from ratsor vermin and he felt the world was better off without them.

Dressed as a truck driver, Mamood's appearance was unremarkable. Hismost distinguishing features were his bushy black hair and beard.Reared by the Iraqi state with no family influences, Mafnood had neverknown his father or mother. His religious and spiritual needs had beenfilled by the Muslims when he was young and impressionable.

Educated only through the fifth grade, anything he lacked in formaltraining, he made up for with perseverance-the man would not take no foran answer and he wouldn't quit.

Mamood was perceptive and patient; he learned by observation, alwayswaiting for the right opportunity.

Mamood drove his rental car west down Interstate 580 to Livermore,California. Once at Livermore, he drove to the Livermore Laboratory toscope out the area firsthand. Livermore Laboratory was a sprawlingcollection of office, warehouse, and laboratory buildings spread acrossa square mile area, much like a college campus. Operated jointly bythe University of California, the Department of Energy, and theStrategic Defense Initiative Organization, Livermore's bread and butterwas Star Wars software. Livermore had programmed the SDI satellitearmada, and had software maintenance and test responsibility as well.

Compared to the large main laboratory buildings, Marnood found GuardShack 2 tiny, a small brick building positioned a few hundred feet fromthe main complex.

Anyone who walked in or out of the Livermore Lab complex from the northside parking lot was funneled past Merchant Lucky in Guard Shack 2.With clear glass on all four sides, visibility into the guard shackposed a problem of timing for Mamood, but he could work around it. Henoticed the many trees around the guard shack limited visibility fromthe laboratory complex. After watching the guard shack from theparking lot for about half an hour, he also noticed that no one' paidany attention to the security guard as they left the complex. Employeesdisplayed their ID badges for the security guard's approval when theyentered the complex, but when departing, they bolted out of thebuilding like wild horses racing to their automobiles, focusing only ontheir rat race home. Mamood decided that he must enter Guard Shack 2during a shift change when Merchant Lucky was alone.

Mamood recognized Merchant Lucky from his photograph, sitting alonebehind his computer terminal. He knew the first shift left Livermoreat 3:15 and that's all he needed to know. His controller had takencare of nearly all the details and Mamood need only execute.

Using American Express to solve all his travel problems, Mamood'scontroller ran his assassination company out ofNewark like a small business. His controller provided a travel andinformation package which included, in code, everything that Mamoodwould require for an efficient operation. Travel plans, tickets, carand van rentals, cash advances, lethal gasses, weapons, poisons-allsorts, and an information package containing everything available onMerchant Lucky, including photographs and maps of the Livermore area.

He rented a small EZ haul truck, then drove around the lab, circlingthe complex until a rush of outbound traffic announced the first shiftexodus. Mamood drove cautiously against the flow of traffic into theparking lot outside Guard Shack 2.

Merchant Lucky noticed an EZ haul truck pulling into the mammoth northparking lot and concluded the driver must be lost. They didn't takeany deliveries through Gate 2 and most drivers knew that.

Mamood parked his truck in the area designated for visitor parking,just outside Guard Shack 2, in plain view of Lucky. Lucky watchedMamood cautiously approach the guard shack, looking lost and somewhatbewildered, walking against the onslaught of employees in full galloptoward the north parking lot. He knocked on the glass door to theguard shack, pointing to his map, asking for directions.

Lucky signaled for him to enter, but remained seated.

Mamood clutched a map in one hand and a rolled up newspaper in theother. Inside the newspaper, he carried a silent device developed bythe Russian KGB-A compact lethal gas gun loaded with ficin. With anaverage lethal dose of only 1/5,000 gram, ficin was the untreatabletoxin used in the Georgi Markoff umbrella murder. Once inhaled, thegas quickly produced all the symptoms of a heart attack, and wasdifficult, if not impossible, to detect in the bloodstream; awell-established method for inducing accidental death, used most oftenon older adults.

Mamood smiled as he entered Guard Shack 2; Merchant Lucky was alone. Hequickly scanned the interior of the room for cameras. There weresecurity TV monitors, but none monitoring the inside of the guardshack. Mamood's heart pounded in his chest as he asked Lucky fordirections to shipping and receiving. Spreading Mamood's map acrosshis desk, Lucky studied it for a moment to orient himself.

When Lucky looked up to give the burly truck driver directions, hefound himself staring into the open end of a rolled newspaper.Startled, Lucky gasped his last breath. Seeing his surprise, Mamoodblessed Allah's name and squeezed the trigger, releasing the invisiblelethal gas in Lucky's face.

Oil, 1211012014, 2030 Zulu, 11:30 P.m. Local EMERGENCY CABINET

MEETING,

UNDERGROUND BUNKER,

BAGHDAD, IRAQ

Secretary-general al-Mashhadi (Mother) was perched like a restless hawkbehind the lectern, surveying the faces of the Cabinet members as theywatched the American President on CNN. Towering over the lectern atthe head of the conference table, he looked gargantuan, shaped like thefront end of a bus, with sand papery skin and two dark reddish blackeyes that seemed to boast the Iraqi credo-Nobody hurts me unharmed. Behind his flint hard eyes beat the heart of a barbarian, and tonighthe had the disposition of a rattlesnake. He was trying to cope with akaleidoscope of feelings, from bewilderment to rage to exhilaration,all intertwined with overpowering fatigue. His complexion lookedIndian, but under the dim light inside the blast-proof bunker, it washard to tell. Whatever he was, there was a frightening presence abouthim.

He surveyed each Cabinet member for some moments, then found a kindredspirit, Colonel Nassar-the officer who created PAM-sitting at the farend of the table in the back of the room. He gazed at Colonel Nassar;he seemed so small and frail. All this destruction caused by such alittle man, he thought.

After the American President disappeared from the TV screen,al-Mashhadi pointed the remote control toward the TV and turned itoff.

No one in the room moved. No one, not even Colonel Nassar, couldmentally accept what they were viewing.

Iraqi President Kamel, Colonel Nassar, and the entire Iraqi Cabinet satthunderstruck by the global chaos, by the fearsome power of Allah.

After silently brooding over their situation several minutes,al-Mashhadi decided to set his Islamic religious practices aside. Hepoured himself a drink, topping off his shot glass with gin-drainingthe bottle dry.

"To PAM," he murmured softly, raising his drink in toast.

"Allahu Akbar."

Gulping it down, he felt invincible, like he would live forever. Motherstruggled to sort out his feelings. He felt the exhilaration thatcomes from revenge combined with an acute anxiety over the AmericanPresident's speech. In his soul, he'd always believed that Allah wasgreater than his enemies, but never imagined Allah would punish hisown.

Earlier today, approximately two hundred Iraqis had died in militaryand commercial aircraft crashes.

Slowly, the Cabinet members lifted their glasses to PAM, but saidnothing.

There was more than a moment of silence before alMashhadi continued.

"As we drink, the balance of power is shifting beneath our feet likedesert sands. The world is grounded by their orbiting armada and theAmerican President admits they are powerless against it. Inshallah(God willing), our time has come. Kuwaiti oil fields are ours for thetaking."

Sweat beaded across Colonel Nassar's balding forehead as he breathed asilent sigh of relief. Until now, the Iraqi expert on PAM had fearedfor his life because he'd never projected, or even imagined, sucharbitrary destruction and loss of life as this. PAM had crippled theAllied war machine as he'd expected, and more-much, much more.

Colonel Nassar contemplated their situation along with the chiefs ofthe Iraqi Air Force, Army, and Navy. A multitude of issues racedthrough the colonel's mind. Would the Americans link PAM to Iraq?Possible, but not likely.

Would the Iraqis have enough time to mobilize an invasion force andattack Kuwait before the Allies eliminated PAM?

He couldn't say. There were simply too many variables.

The diminutive little colonel stood and spoke first in a voice that wasbarely audible.

"We have two significant problems." The entire Cabinet leaned forwardin their seats, straining to hear the wiry little man speak.

"However, our risks can be managed. First, the Allies will not restuntil they find the saboteurs; therefore we must cover our tracks.

Second, we're not ready for an invasion of Kuwait. Our Army mustprepare and this will take time. The Allies could eliminate PAM andrestore their orbiting armada before we occupy Kuwait."

Iraqi President Kamel had lived much of his life in America, and heknew Colonel Nassar spoke the truth.

Through an alcoholic haze, Iraqi President Hessian Kamel al-Tikritiopened another bottle and filled his glass. This was the only way heknew to hide his doubt concerning his decision to deploy PAM, andclearly there was no turning back now.

"So this disastrous catastrophe comes down to a problem of covering ourtracks." President Kamel gazed around the room in disgust at hisslovenly, drunken, party of God.

"No battles, no glorious victories for Allah, only the rancid stench ofdeath." All the military chiefs were present, most huddled around theconference table under a thick cloud of cigar smoke, reveling in thecatastrophe they'd brought on the infidels. Looking through the smoke,the President saw the fire of revenge still blazing in their eyes.

Calmly blessing Allah's name, the sad-eyed chief of militaryintelligence replied,

"Our revenge is complete, Excellency. The Maronites (enemies of Allah)have suffered grievous losses. Our losses were significant, but smallby comparison."

"And what of our agents?" the Iraqi President seethed.

"What if they're discovered? Have you any idea what that wouldmean?"

"Inshallah," the chief of military intelligence responded cautiously,"they are already dead."

President Kamel gulped down his drink, then spoke in acaustic voice.

"No trail." The icy stare he gave the chief of military intelligenceconveyed the sincerity behind this order. The intelligence chiefacknowledged with a grimace.

"Allahu Akbar," al-Mashhadi mumbled after he guzzled down another drinkand sat down directly across from Colonel Nassar. He wondered if anyof the encrypted em ail messages he'd sent Lucky could be traced. Hedidn't think so, but he decided to have the crypto sergeant look intoit. Much of his adult life, al-Mashhadi had lived for this day, hadlived to revenge the Gulf War. Now, with his revenge complete, histhirst was insatiable. He wanted more.

"Colonel, how long do we have before the infidels eliminate PAM?"al-Mashhadi asked as he studied the clear liquid contents in hisglass.

"A few days at least, maybe months. We do not know.

No one knows, but Allah has delivered us. Our time has come." ColonelNassar was smart and shared one thing incommon with al-Mashhadi. Under his deceptively delicate facade beat abarbarian's heart. Although quiet, soft spoken, and physically small,hard work had made him wiry and tough.

The face of Iraqi President Kamel was acutely downcast-one could evencall it mournful. He buried his face in his hands and murmured,

"There you have it-chaos for oil." The Iraqi President had never feltso impotent, and he could feel the acid burning in his stomach from thefrustration. This sequence of events was out of his control. Anyprotest he might raise would be perceived as weakness and fall on deafears.

"No matter how great the preparation," al-Mashhadi said slowly.

"Nothing ever seems to work out the way it's planned." Al-Mashhadileaned forward on his sledgehammer fists, pushed himself up from hischair, and announced, "Allah is with us. There's no turning backnow."

Still thunderstruck by the global chaos, their tongues still, the IraqiPresident and Cabinet ministers offered no resistance.

Al-Mashhadi sat down and drummed his massive fingers on the table.After a few moments thought, he spoke to the overweight army chief.

"How long before we invade Kuwait?"

The portly general cleared his throat and tried not to stammer.

"As you know, our war plans assume we have air superiority. We plannedthat the Kuwaiti ground forces would be softened up by our air powerbefore we began our mechanized ground assault. We won't enjoy airsuperiority, but neither will Kuwait, and we'll have the benefit ofsurprise. We'll revise our attack plan to deliver a fast-moving,mechanized thrust that'll drive the Kuwaiti Army into the Gulf."

"I asked how long before we invade?" Al-Mashhadi was determined. Thegaze from his glassy black eyes penetrated the smoke-filled room.

"The duration of the war must be short, one week or less.

Speed and preparation are our linchpins. In the past, we've plannedone massive, overwhelming strike. Knock 'em off balance, then drivethem into the sea before they can react.

Assuming our missiles and aircraft are useless, 150,000 men, onethousand tanks . . ." The general paused, furrowed his brow, thendecided to dig in and stand his ground. He turned to the IraqiPresident in protest.

"Excellency, this is nonsense! I must study our revised plans before Icommit to-an attack date. Rapid occupation without air power-thisrequires a significant change in our war plans, a major shift instrategy and thrust. I'll deliver you our revised plans tomorrow, butI expect we'll require at least twelve weeks to prepare."

Suddenly, like a great ocean swell, al-Mashhadi's gigantic hulk rose upand grabbed the corpulent army general by the braided lapels on hisuniform, then slammed him hard against the concrete wall. In anacidic, menacing voice, he muttered,

"There is no alternative. No discussion. Occupy Kuwait city byChristmas."

The heavyset general gazed upward into al-Mashhadi's thick-lidded eyes.Al-Mashhadi tightened his grip on the lapels and brought the general'sfleshy face to within an inch of his own. The Iraqi army generalsmelled the stenchof al-Mashhadi's breath and considered going for the small graphiterevolver he kept concealed in his pocket. The general decided againstit. There would be another time and a better place. Perhaps asniper's bullet inside Kuwait city, yes, that could be easilyarranged.

"Kuwait city-Christmas day," the army general seethed quietly. Hisvoice was restrained, but sounded loathsome.

Al-Mashhadi released the general, who glared at him with a mixture ofcontempt, rage, and fear. As in any meeting of the Iraqi Cabinet, fearwon out, so he straightened his coat, turned, and walked out the bunkerdoor.

Regroup, 1211012014, 2130 Zulu, 2:30 Pm. Local

CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN, COLORADO

Bleary-eyed and alone in the Crow's Nest video conference room, Masonread a brief report concerning the accidental death of Shripod Addams.He was in a daze, still shaken. by the mind-boggling events of theday, all the staggering losses. Mason had ordered his staff to getsome sleep then organize into shifts. As he reread the message, Cravenwalked quietly into the room.

"Shripod Addams is dead," Mason sighed as he passed the message toCraven.

"I heard," Craven said somberly.

"Damn grisly way to die. Sounded like a fluke accident, but you neverknow."

Struggling to keep his eyes open, Mason rubbed his temples.

"We don't have much to go on, just that gum, but we're going over hisapartment with a fine-toothed comb."

There was silence while they tried to make some sense of it, but it wasimpossible. The shock of the disaster had numbed their minds. Nothingseemed to make sense anymore.

Craven placed both his large hands on Mason's shoulders as if to say, Iunderstand. Two years Mason's senior, Craven had precious few peers.Some in the military had feared him, many had envied him, many more hadwanted his job, but not Mason. Craven thought Mason's leadershipinspirational. Mason made you feel good about yourself, about others,about life. Above all, he couldn't be bought.

He was a man of principle and integrity. He stood up for what hebelieved in, he had courage, and Craven respected him for it. He hadadmired Mason's independence for thirty years, and now wanted to givehim something in return.

Craven removed the five-star shoulder boards from his uniform.

"These meant the world to me and I want you to have them." Craven, whowas very powerful, was sometimes surprisingly gentle.

"I know they'll be in good hands."

Mason accepted Craven's shoulder boards without an exchange of words.There was no need to speak. Mason loved the man; his eyes said itall.

"What about Scott?" Craven asked, lowering himself into the seat.

"When do you plan to tell them?"

With a blank stare, Mason gazed through the glass walls of the Crow'sNest.

"Tomorrow, after they get some sleep; but we're not going anywhereuntil we're ready. They won't get but one chance and to die trying isto fail. Livermore and Yuri's folks in Kaliningrad are working roundthe clock. They offer our greatest hope. Freedom's armor must havesome Achilles' heel, some weakness we can exploit.

Before we make our next move, Livermore must characterize this virus,no matter what it takes. We've got to have a plan for boarding Freedomthat will work; we've got to find some weakness."

"Hope's the perfect place to train for an assault on Freedom," Cravensaid with a sense of purpose.

"Scott and her crew can train by attacking Hope. We'll work out thebugs, refine it until we get it right."

Placing his head in his hands, Mason wearily nodded agreement.

"But we've such a long way to go." Mason seemed almost asleep. Cravenrealized Mason had developed a capacity to live with crisis by takingshort naps, much in the same way Winston Churchill did during World WarII. If he allowed each crisis to take its toll, he would have diedlong ago of anxiety. Now, his eyes half closed, his face relaxed,Mason looked closer to his real age. No one ever makes the completeadjustment to constant tension. Responsibility had laid circles underMason's eyes,etched lines around his mouth, given his powerful, elegant hands theslightest tremor.

"Do what you can, Slim, then don't worry about it. Worrying'll killyou. Believe in yourself and trust in your staff.

They're good people, they're behind you, and they'll pull through.After a little rest, you'll see things more clearly.

This problem is man-made, it can be solved, and your team can do it."Craven paused a moment, and shifted the subject to a smaller, moreimmediate problem.

"You thought about Hinson?"

Mason felt like unloading on Hinson, but he knew this wasn't the time.He would sleep on his decision and wait until tomorrow, when his headwas clear.

"Hinson has no place in his heart for anyone but Hinson," Mason repliedwith a matter-of-fact tone of voice.

"I want him out of the service. Yuri suggested an officer exchangeprogram assignment counting penguins on the tundra of the New SiberianIslands. His idea has merit, but I plan to give Hinson a choice.Either join the civilian community or count penguins."

"It's your operation," Craven said, never second-guessing Mason'sjudgment. Craven was silent for a few moments as he studied Mason'sface. Mason's temples were raw, and the circles under his eyes haddarkened.

"You look like death warmed over, Slim. How about some sack time?"

Mason eyed the empty cots in the corner of the conference room thenchecked his watch. General Krol or Colonel Napper could run the storewhile Mason slept, but they were both out like a light.

"Krol and Napper are asleep,"

Mason lamented quietly.

Craven smiled.

"I'll wake you if anything hot comes down." His voice conveyedconcern.

Mason didn't need to hear it twice.

THE DAY OF RECKONING

DAY 5 DECEMBER 11 2014

The Black Hole, 1211112014, 0525 Zulu, 12:25 A.m. Local

INSIDE AIR FORCE PROTOTYPE HANGAR DESIGNATED BIG

BLUE,

HANS COM FIELD,

BEDFORD, MASSACHUSETTS

Intensely bright white flashes from an arc welder illuminated thehangar's interior like an enormous strobe light.

Thomas Jackson, the radar expert from MIT Lincoln Lab, watched from asafe distance as the welder guided his torch down the tapered,pyramid-shaped wall of the anechoic test chamber, generating aspectacular fireworks display of sparks along the way. Danglingperilously from a cable, suspended eighty feet above the concretehangar floor, the welder was nervous about laying his final bead.Jackson, speaking from the safety of the catwalk overhead, reminded himthey were six months behind schedule and insisted he cut out thebellyaching and get the job done. Angry, but unconvinced, thetechnician attacked the final seam with a vengeance.

When the electric torch went out, Jackson breathed a sigh of relief asthe two men pulled off their goggles. This latest modification to thetest chamber had increased its diameter to eighty feet, allowing it toencase a full-size aircraft. Working with a ball-peen hammer, thewelder cleaned away the crusty debris from his final bead while Jacksonclimbed down from the catwalk. Scaffolding fastened to the catwalkextended floor to ceiling and surrounded the colossal test chamber. After slowly lowering his overweight carcass onto the scaffolding,Jackson carefully inspected the welds framing the chamber walls. Apompous man with long oily hair, scraggly red beard, and puffy bagsunder his eyes, Jackson's abrasive personality failed to inspireconfidence, but those who knew him freely admitted-the guy was smart. Satisfied with the welds, Jackson cautiously maneuvered into the walledsecurity of the penthouse. Perched on top of the test chamber onehundred feet above the hangar floor, the one-room penthouse was filledwith radar test equipment, arranged about a large viewing porthole inthe center of the floor. The penthouse office would be called alaboratory by anyone who did not regularly work in one. To Jackson itseemed more a cluttered test bed, a place to verify his theories, anassessment that was wholly accurate. The room was perhaps five hundredsquare feet total, and Jackson felt cramped as he worked his way towardthe center of the room, squeezing between countless metal racks, eachstacked high with test equipment.

Jackson eventually worked his way through the equipment maze to theaircraft position control panel located by the porthole. Looking downthrough the porthole into the test chamber, Jackson saw onlypitch-black at first. He threw a power switch and floodlightsilluminated a large black form, seventy feet across, shaped like theDorito flying wing. Initially, the aircraft was positioned in astraight and level attitude, but using a combination of valves on thecontrol panel, Jackson could rotate the aircraft into any position herequired. He opened a hydraulic valve, then watched the aircraft belowslowly rotate skyward. Gradually, his aspect angle began to change asthe aircraft pivoted into a near vertical climb. Eventually, whenJackson viewed the flying wing head-on, the wedge shape changed intothat of the edge of a Frisbee. Satisfied with the positioning arm'sperformance, he believed the aircraft prototype and chamber were readyat last. Getting the positioning arm fitted to the aircraft had takenmore time than he'd expected. Too late, Jacksondiscovered that the positioning arm had to be custom machined and thattook time. But now it was ready and he felt relieved.

To the naked eye, the aircraft inside the test chamber looked likeCowboy's Dorito down to its air inlets and jet exhaust. Designated theBlack Hole prototype, its exterior looked like a McDonnell Douglas EF-12 flying wing in every respect-but it wasn't.

Gum, 1211112014, 0733 Zulu, 12:33 A.m. Local

SHRIPOD ADDAMS'APARTWNT,

COLORADO SPRINGS, COLORADO

After sifting through the contents of every trash can and cabinetinside Shripod Addams' apartment, FBI special agent Clint Bridges wasfrustrated. The sleeves of his white shirt were filthy, there wasstubble on his chin, and his neatly cropped snow-white hair wasplastered down with sweat and lint picked up from behind the clothesdryer.

After thirty years with the bureau, most of it in white-collar computercrime and counterespionage, the G-man knew where to look when it cameto searching for physical evidence. After a tedious examination ofShripod's apartment, the G-man, local police, and captain of securityfrom Cheyenne Mountain determined that Shripod Addams had beeninterested in computers, maintained a magnificent saltwater aquarium,paid his bills on time, and chewed Juicy Fruit gum. Not much to showfor a long night's work, but they felt the gum could be significant.

To Clint Bridges' dismay, it looked as if Shripod Addams had been afastidious housekeeper; everything was in its place. The inside of theapartment struck him as picture perfect, unlike any bachelor's homehe'd ever seen. The interior looked almost as if it'd never been livedin, like a photo from a House and Garden magazine article, too neat tobe true. Shripod's clothes were cleaned and pressed, bed neatly madewith the blanket corners tightly tucked, lunch dishes put away, and hiscomputer desk had been meticulously organized, as if he'd beenexpecting company. The only signs of life in the apartment wereswimming inside Shripod's aquarium, a large saltwater tank filled witha splendid variety of brightly colored fish. Although everythingseemed in order, Bridges was troubled because nothing was ever thisneat in real life unless it was staged.

Rivulets of sweat beaded across Clint's forehead as he and the lankyAir Force captain of security carefully pried the cover off Shripod'shome computer. After checking the computer for self-destructexplosives land auto-erase hardware, Clint decided it was safe to powerShripod's PC on.

"I'm afraid someone got here before we did," Clint observed quietly asthe computer screen flashed to life.

"Whataya mean?" Scratching the stubble on his angular chin, thegaunt-faced captain looked puzzled. They'd found no evidence ofunlawful entry. Nothing damaged, no unusual fingerprints, nothing thatwould indicate any unauthorized search.

"This place, it's all too ... tidy. An airtight package with no looseends." Clint opened a desk drawer, pulled out a case containing3.5-inch floppy disks, then handed it to the captain.

Casually, the captain opened the case, thumbed through the disks, thenremarked,

"Yeah, so'? Blank disks, what of it?"

"That's just it," quipped Clint.

"They're all blank. No backups, no extra copies, nothing."

As the realization of the G-man's observations sank in, the captain'sexpression turned hard.

"So either Shripod never used his computer or we're onto something."

Clint nodded.

"Check the door locks and windows again.

See if one of 'em hasn't been jimmied."

The tall lanky captain stood, walked out of the computer room, thenspoke quietly to the local police sergeant in charge of the accidentinvestigation. After a few moments, the sergeant acknowledgedagreement, walked outside to his cruiser, and brought back a portablelight and a bag oftools. The sergeant and a colleague roped off a clear area around thefront doorjamb, set up their high intensity light shining on the doorlatch plate, then carefully began looking for any evidence that thedoor might have been forced open-fresh scratches on the metal plate ortraces of plastic from a credit card.

Finally, the lanky captain returned to the computer room only to findClint Bridges shaking his head in disbelief.

"This is incredible," Clint said after reading over the computerscreen. The screen displayed Shripod's command history file-a terse,summarized record of every computer command Shripod had entered overthe last month.

"Absolutely incredible!" Clint scrolled through a few more pages, thencontinued.

"I'll tell you one thing. Shripod Addams was no computer hacker. Thisguy was a real pro, a guru. He used every trick in the book. Take alook at this."

Clint pointed to a line on the computer screen which read: 12/09/2014,12:29 P.m.

I'm -rf /usr/myfiles "Don't follow you, Clint. I'm not into computers.What does it all mean?"

"Simply this," the G-man responded as he continued looking through pageafter page of the command history file.

"The day before Shripod Addams was killed, or murdered, he removed allthe programs from his hard disk.

During his lunch break, he cleaned up his disk and didn't leave atrace."

"Could be coincidence," the captain remarked, obviously unconvinced.

"Take another look here," muttered the G-man with a confident smile. Hepointed again to the computer screen.

Searching through the history file on Shripod's computer, the G-man hadfound what he'd been looking for-proof of unlawful entry.

"No doubt about it, our man was murdered.

Check the time these commands were entered."

The screen read:

VTRUS 267

12/10/2014, 1:10 P.m.

cd /usr The lanky captain gulped, murmuring,

"You're right, Clint. Shripod died before one o'clock. Someone usedthis computer immediately after his death."

"That's the way I see it. Someone was looking for something onShripod's hard disk, but my guess is they didn't find it. Shripod hadcovered his tracks before they got here."

Mulling over his options, the captain's chest heaved with a sigh ofrelief.

"This is not the answer, but it's a step in the right direction.Whataya suggest we do from your end, Clint?"

"Fed-ex the disk to CIA headquarters at Langley. With a little luck,they may he able to reconstruct the contents of the disk."

"Good," said the security captain.

"You take care of the disk and I'll cover Shripod's car. We'll go overhis Honda with a fine-toothed comb. We know it was murder. We'll findout how."

Finishing up, the G-man said,

"Let's head back to the mountain and pull his records. Interview hisfriends, pick up a few leads on his family."

Checking his watch, the captain quipped,

"Yeah, right Clint." For the first time since their troubles began onSunday, Cheyenne Mountain was running on a skeleton crew.

The first shift regulars were at home asleep. After a moment'sthought, a glimmer shone in the captain's eye.

"Computers have gotten us this far. Let's round up the Computer Centerdirector and his networking guru. If Shripod's sent any electronicmail outside the country or to Livermore, maybe he left a trail."

"Do it," remarked the G-man with a wink.

"We may be onto something big here. Where it'll lead, I can't say, butit feels right!"

Electronic Trail, 1211112014, 0905 Zulu, 2:05 A.m. Local

COMPUTER CENTER,

BASEMENT FLOOR OF HEADQUARTERS BUILDING,

CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN, COLORADO

G-man Clint Bridges, a lifelong computer buff, stood on the raisedfloor inside the Cheyenne Mountain Computer Center staring at thearrays of optical computers and disk storage adorning the floor spacefrom wall to wall. Fascinated, he watched in silent disbelief as thecomputers collected, stored, and displayed information from all partsof the world. There was more computing power per square foot in thebasement of Cheyenne Mountain than in any other single place on earth,and the eerie thing was, the place looked deserted-wall-to-wallcomputers with no people. All this computing power required almost nolocal support staff. Most of the computer programming was done atLivermore.

Divided into four separate areas, the basement served as CheyenneMountain's central brain and nerve center. In the center of the room,orchestrating it all, stood Centurion's Twin. Identical to Centurionin every respect, Centurion's Twin coordinated all computer systemactivity inside Cheyenne Mountain. Operating around the clock,equipment on the south wall connected Cheyenne Mountain computers tothousands of fiber-optic cables feeding sensor data input from all overthe world. The north wall provided Cheyenne Mountain's computernetworking gateway to the outside world. Computer networking equipmentlining the north wall allowed Cheyenne Mountain computers to talk toeach other as well as thousands of other Department of Defensecomputers scattered across the world. The west wall was lined withbackup power supplies that switched on in case of emergency, andfinally, the east wall was covered floor to ceiling with projecteddisplays showing global situation information, computer networkingtraffic, and equipment maintenance information.

The nerve center was attached to the outside world through pulses ofdifferent colored light transmitted inside thousands of fiber-opticcables. The south wall of the basement provided Cheyenne Mountain'ssensor links to the outside world and looked much like the inside of atelephone central office-row after row of eleven-foot-tall metal framesstacked floor to ceiling with rack-mounted optical communicationequipment. The equipment against the north wall looked like theworld's largest doughnut and provided Cheyenne Mountain a computernetworking hub and gateway to the outside world.

Clint Bridges had never seen such computing power as was in thebasement of Cheyenne Mountain. He found the spectacle awe inspiring. tClint heard the revolving door turn and saw the Computer Centerdirector lumbering into the room, followed by the lanky captain ofsecurity. Middle-aged, flabby skin underneath his chin, with amplegirth about the middle, the Comp Center director didn't look like ahappy man.

Not one for small talk, Clint Bridges got directly to the point, oncetheir introductions were exchanged.

"Where's your guru?"

As Clint asked the question, the revolving door slowly turned again anda tall, thin, thirty-plus fellow with a scraggly brown beard walkedthrough carrying a large thirty-two-ounce cup of caffeine-enrichedCoke. Clint smiled, thinking, Now th eke area ready to work.

The Computer Center director introduced Craig Strauss to Clint Bridgesand the captain, then they got down to the business at hand.

Clint Bridges looked into Craig's sleepy eyes and explained.

"We need your help tracking down any e-mail traffic Shripod Addams mayhave launched since this past Sunday. We need any records you haveshowing what he's been up to."

"Addams?" Craig's ears perked up.

"That fella just died in a car accident, didn't he?"

Clint nodded agreement and exhaled a deep sigh. He needed to watchwhat he said concerning this case, and if he wasn't careful, this needto know issue of security could trip up their investigation. Throughone glance, without anexchange of words, he communicated with the captain of security. Theexpression on the captain's face read: Go ahead, tell him, he needs toknow.

"I can't overemphasize the importance of what you may find, Craig, solet me just say this. Addams may, and I repeat may, have beenconnected with this Star Wars disaster.

There's a remote chance his e-mail traffic could lead us to the bottomof it."

Immediately Craig's hollow, sleepy eyes widened to the size ofquarters. He was sold. He'd do whatever he could to help, anything.

"Over fifty thousand innocent people dead and for what?" Craig's jawmuscles tightened as he shook his head. Up until now, Craig hadn'tknown what to make of this situation. Yanked out of the bed in themiddle of the night by some tight-lipped Air Force captain and Gman.Now it all made sense. He'd thought it must be pretty important tobring in the Comp Center director, and he'd been right.

"What was his login?" Craig asked.

"And which of our computers was he on?"

"I can save you some time, Craig," said the Comp Center director as hebegan shuffling through some paper records.

"He was a government civilian employee and had an account on only onecomputer inside the mountain. His computer machine name was allies;login was ad dams

"Excellent! That narrows the field considerably," Craig said with asmile. Only a single computer to search. He might get some sleepafter all.

"I'll search the networking files on allies looking for any outbounde-mail traffic under ad dams Should be no problem. Our networkingtraffic log covers the last six months."

"Good," Clint responded with a smile.

"One final keyword for you, Craig. Highlight any e-mail traffic toLivermore."

"The Lawrence Livermore Lab?" Craig grimaced.

"One and the same. Why?" asked Clint, looking a bit perplexed.

"Some problem?"

"Yeah, a volume problem. We get more e-mail traffic in and out ofLivermore than any other Comp Center. We transfer hundreds, maybethousands of messages back and forth every day. They're our SDIsoftware house. We just got a new load from them Tuesday, I think."

"Search for outbound Livermore e-mail traffic with ad dams as thesender. He was a Russian interpreter, and normally he'd have nobusiness sending e-mail of any sort to Livermore."

"All right, let's go for it," Craig said, feeling reassured.

He sat down at his workstation and began clattering away at thekeyboard with amazing speed. Almost immediately, he was logged intothe allies computer looking over the networking records. He bit hislip. Thousands of files had been transferred between the allies andLivermore computers. He held his breath, then entered a single linethat extracted the information he was seeking. In computerese he askedallies if Shripod Addams sent any e-mail to the Livermore computers.Impatiently, Craig drummed his bony fingers across the computer consolewaiting for a response.

He didn't have to wait long. The answer was as simple as it wassurprising. Yes, Shripod Addams sent e-mail to Livermore. At 11:56P.m." Sunday, December 7, Addams sent e-mail addressed to mal on aLivermore computer named security.

Following a brief discussion, the group placed three phone callssimultaneously. Both the Comp Center director and the captain ofsecurity called their Livermore counterparts while the G-man calledWashington. Within five minutes, the group learned from Livermore'sdirector of security that mal, Merchant A. Lucky, was dead.

Super-User Violation, 1211112014, 13 1 0 Zulu, 5: I 0 A.M. Local

SDI SO@ ARE COMPUTER CENTER,

LAWRENCE LivERmoRE NATIONAL LABORATORY,

LIVERMORE, CALIFORNIA

Rushing ahead of his entourage of top-level executives, Dr. TristanRoberts, President of Information Sciences at Livermore, was first tobolt into the SDI Software Lab. Winded, he betrayed his exhaustion.This was an extraordinarilyearly hour to call an executive meeting, but these were extraordinarytimes.

Dr. Roberts had the dubious distinction of presiding over the worstsoftware debacle in the history of computing and aviation. In thefinal analysis, a situation such as this SDI disaster demanded abloodletting-political, military, and technical heads were rolling. Itwas only a matter of time for Roberts, but even though his career wasfinished, he wasn't going out without a fight. Both Washington andCheyenne Mountain had him in a stranglehold and weren't about to letgo. They wanted answers-now.

Who did it? How'd it happen? How would this virus behave in thefuture? So far, even with Livermore's management and technical staffworking around the clock on this problem, he had no answers. He'd beenparalyzed by the inertia and politics that came with everymammoth-sized software project, paralyzed by inaction, corporateinfighting, and lack of teamwork. But what could he do? Cornered withhis back pinned to the wall, Roberts understood one fundamentalcultural law of large corporations that Washington and CheyenneMountain refused to acknowledge.

Like any large organization, Livermore could not produce anything fastthat was good.

So why not?

Better than anyone else at Livermore, Dr. Roberts understood theircorporate system of career advancement by crisis-the Look Good Game.Ironically, he found himself a prisoner of the corporate game he'dplayed so well throughout his career. Like taxes, the rules of thegame were an integral part of Livermore's corporate culture; hecouldn't change them overnight and he knew it.

But for those anxious and willing to play the game, this corporatecrisis offered unlimited opportunity for promotion. After all, thewriting was on the wall, the guys at the top were on their way out. Theobjective of the game was to look good as you got yourself out of themess that you got yourself into. Creating the corporate illusion thatno progress was really something of consequence was tremendouslycompetitive work requiring enormous effort when you were not part ofthe solution. Sure, Livermore's emergency SWAT teams had done somework on the virus, but most of their corporate time and effort had beendevoted to looking good, to telling a good story, one with a positivespin on a bad situation, showing progress where there was none;presenting pretty, nicely formatted colored view graphs that lookedgood, sounded good, and said nothing.

To Roberts' dismay, he'd seen more positive spin than he could stomachand concluded his organization was constipated, bottled up tight as adrum. After their forty-eight hour-long frenzy, Livermore had notanswered a single relevant question for Cheyenne Mountain, but theirview graph story would lead one to conclude there was really noproblem-99.9% of Livermore's software was perfect. Ultimately, Robertswas responsible for isolating the virus and he wanted results. Robertswanted to break up this logjam and get on with the solution.

In spite of a corporate culture which suppressed the truth, Robertsfelt optimistic. He believed their situation was about to change.Finally, they'd gotten a lead in the SDI case-a dead Livermore securityguard linked by electronic e-mail to a dead Cheyenne Mountain man.

After receiving an early morning phone call from his Computer Centerdirector, Roberts immediately rushed to the lab. His face looked gauntand haggard, like the face of a man suffering from lack of sleep. Hehadn't slept for two full days, but now he had a plan to bypassLivermore's six layers of middle management and work directly with thetroops. He'd collected a small group of the software technical staffhe felt he could trust; those who were technically excellent, butpolitically had no ambition, those who did their programming workbecause they enjoyed it.

Art Brooks, the SDI software team leader, was such a gentleman, and agentleman in every sense of the word.

Highly regarded by his colleagues, a man with a family and friends wholoved him, a man who would never be president of the LivermoreInformation Sciences Division, but didn't care. He had the job hewanted and considered himself a very lucky and successful man. As longas he wasalive, his family would have a roof over their heads, food to eat,clothes to wear, but most important of all, they were happy. Asquat-framed introvert with all the charm of a single bookend, Artdidn't care for business issues, but he loved technical problems andthis computer virus was a pip.

Art surveyed the executive dress of the people in the room. Feelingintimidated, his stomach began to churn.

He'd definitely under-dressed, but how was he to know?

Everyone but Dr. Roberts looked good in their pin-striped suits. Dr.Roberts looked exhausted, while Art looked like he always looked atfive o'clock in the morning-unshaven, sleepy-eyed, wearing Nike Airsneakers and Docker jeans. Art chuckled to himself, thinking thisred-eye meeting seemed top-heavy with management. He counted twelvetop-level Livermore executives plus the director of Livermore'ssecurity, the director of Livermore's Comp Center, and one worker bee,himself. This could have been a meeting of the senior executive staffwith Dr. Roberts presiding as chairman of the board. The businessmenlooked totally out of place in the software laboratory, but didn't seemto mind; they strutted around the room with an air of confidence. Arthad never been in the same room with Livermore's top management, anddidn't know any of them personally. He'd seen their pictures enshrinedon corporate organizational charts, but had never seen their faces upclose. Remembering their pictures, he smiled-it must have been thelighting. Nearly everyone looked older in person, everyone but the onemost likely to replace Roberts, the one nicknamed Superman. Supermanreminded Art of mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent.

Pushing Art aside, Superman cornered Dr. Roberts and began intentlydiscussing his plan. Superman looked Roberts directly in the eyes,ignoring Art altogether. Art tolerated Superman's rudeness to a point,but after a few minutes, he decided he'd had enough. After all, Dr.Roberts had called Art in the middle of the night and insisted that hemeet them in the software lab. Art gathered his courage andinterrupted their huddle.

"Excuse me, gentlemen," Art said, tapping Dr. Roberts on theshoulder.

"How about letting me in on the game plan? What can I do for you?"

Looking exasperated by his conversation with Superman, Roberts pickedup his small notepad and turned toward Art.

Roberts had been awake for over forty-eight hours. Lack of sleepcombined with unremitting pressure made him a bundle of fatiguednerves. He was weak from hunger too, but couldn't eat withoutsuffering stomach distress, so his diet consisted of uncut, blackcoffee.

"Desperation breeds unconventional approaches, Art, and you're my acein the hole. We've got a logjam to break up." Puzzled, Art quipped,

"Whatayamean?" Art thought he liked the ace in the hole part, but hewasn't sure what to make of it.

Dr. Roberts was a master at putting people at ease. Pouring them bothsome coffee, he asked Art to make himself comfortable behind thecomputer terminal. After signaling for Livermore's director ofsecurity to join them, he continued.

"We've gotten our first real lead in this virus case and I need yourhelp. Time is critically important so I thought it best for me to cometo you directly."

"Well, it depends on what you're looking for, Doc, but I expect you'reright."

"I think we understand each other, Art," Roberts said somberly as hethumbed through a few dog-eared pages in his notepad.

"I'm not looking for a song and dance, I need results."

The director of security, a large man built like a defensive tackle,made his way through the wall of top-level executives and joined themat the terminal, caressing his foam coffee cup.

Looking at the director of security, Roberts instructed, "Fill Art inon the details. Tell him everything we know."

He quickly outlined their impossible predicament. They desperatelyneeded to find those people at Livermore responsible for planting thesoftware virus and they needed the source code, a listing of the virusprogram.

After the director summarized the electronic mail link betweenLivermore and Cheyenne Mountain, Art asked,"You say Merchant Lucky was involved with both computer and plantsecurity?"

Sipping his coffee, the security director slowly nodded anacknowledgment.

"How many computers do we have here at Livermore anyway?" Art asked,holding his breath, not really wanting to hear the answer.

"And which computers did Lucky have access to?"

"Nobody knows exactly how many computers we have,"

the security director said bluntly.

"Our records show approximately how many computers we average per acre.All total, we maintain approximately five thousand computers on ourlocal lab network and Lucky had access to every one. Using hisworkstation, he ran security checks on every computer on the networkand had accounts on each."

"So much for computer security." Art frowned., The security directorwinced, but agreed.

"It looks like our man guarding the store may have robbed it."

"Following Lucky's tracks could take some time," Art lamented.

"If he left any tracks at all," the director observed quietly. " e wasa clever, very talented fellow, but I don't think he planned to die."

"Let's check the obvious first. Maybe we'll get a break."

Art leaned back and thoughtfully gazed at the domed ceiling. Thesoftware lab was magnificent, something akin to an amphitheater, withArt, Roberts, and the security director located center stage.

"I'll focus on the project computer first, the one used to build theSDI software. That's where the virus found entry.

What progress has been made tracing the program changes back to thetechnical staff?"

Bleary-eyed, on the fringe of exhaustion, Roberts read from hisnotepad.

"Roughly halfway through the list of changes, but nothing suspicious sofar."

"I'd like to take a look." With a trembling hand, Roberts handed Artthe pad. As he scanned the long list of changes made to the SDIsoftware, his jaw dropped to the floor. His eyes remained transfixedon the pad for several minutes.

When he spoke, his tone expressed despair.

"God, what a mess." He would always look back on this moment as thepoint when he decided to retire, to get out of the defense businessaltogether.

"Absolutely unbelievable," Roberts confirmed, wiping his face with hishand-a sign of fatigue and stress.

"So much for quality control."

Art went pale.

"I can't believe we shipped this program untested. I had no idea."Hundreds and hundreds of changes had been made to the software.

"An, it's not as bad as it seems," the director insisted.

"These changes were fixes to knows program bugs and they'd all beentested separately."

Unconvinced, Art spoke in a shakier voice.

"Who's shot gunning the effort to trace each change back to ourtechnical staff?"

"A couple of new hires," the director replied.

"The job's trivial, pretty much a step and repeat process. There wereso many changes, it's taking some time to get through them all."

"The change list shows who made each change and when," Art said as heclattered away on his terminal.

"I

want to sort through the list and find out if anyone made changes whois not on my team."

Dr. Roberts looked at the director of security and nodded.

"Makes sense to me." Roberts thought Art a most unusual man, but heneeded his skills. Art had trouble communicating with peopleeffectively; his directness made people uncomfortable and defensive,but he could communicate more effectively with a computer than anyoneelse Roberts had ever known. Due to the technical nature of Art'swork, he tended to be somewhat introspective, self-motivated,inquisitive, and unbelievably socially awkward.

After a few more moments of key-clattering, the terminal spat out ashort list of people. Art didn't know any of them, but one.

What followed over the next few moments had an otherworldly,surrealistic quality about it for Art. Looking back,he would think it more like a dream, it happened so quickly, soeasily. Looking over the list, Art did a double take, and stared atthat name again. Suddenly, there it was.

There was no mistake about it, The programmer who had made changenumber 1246 was named root, computerese for super-user.

"This is it!" announced Art.

"Take a look.

It's gotta be the one! A super-user violation!"

Looking over Art's shoulder, Dr. Roberts said,

"I don't understand. What does it mean?"

"By convention, no super-user ever changes the SDI software.Super-users keep the computers running for the users, the programmersWho write the SDI software' " Roberts couldn't believe how quickly Artworked. He'd found this software change control violation in less thanfive minutes. Puzzled, Roberts asked,

"Why wasn't this discovered before now?"

Art's reply was both thoughtful and out of character carefully craftedso the two new employees working on this job wouldn't look bad.

"The new hires lack experience and simply didn't know what to look for.We're talking about violating convention here; guidelines, not hard andfast rules. Our programming conventions aren't written down.

You pick 'em up along the way."

Art studied the list of names and times on his computer screen, thenturned and spoke to the security director.

"The super-user changed the software between one and two o'clock onMonday. Was Lucky working Monday afternoon?"

The security director sat down at a terminal, logged on, then copieddown the hours Lucky had worked over the past several days. Rubbinghis balding head, the director replied,

"Yeah, he was here all right, but he wasn't a super user He didn't havethe password."

"So, what about it? You said yourself, this guy was clever. He couldget it easily enough."

The tone of voice Art used caused the hair on the security director'sback to stand up, but why deny the allegation? Art was right.Reluctantly, the security director agreed with a grimace.

"You're right. Lucky could have made the change. Unfortunately, thiswouldn't be the first time our root password was compromised."

"We know Lucky could have done it, but we need proof," said Dr.Roberts, wanting to believe, but unconvinced. He needed evidence,something tangible; he needed a copy of the virus program.

Grabbing the security director by the arm, Art murmured quietly,

"Take me to Lucky's office. You run interference."

Weaving and bobbing through the gauntlet of well-dressed executives,Art followed the large security director out the door.

Pay Dirt, 1211112014, 1434 Zulu, 6:34 A.M. Local

GATE 2 SECURITY GUARD SHACK,

LAWRENCE LiVERmoRE NATIONAL LABORATORY,

LIVERMORE, CALIFORNIA

Bone-weary, Dr. Tristan Roberts sank down onto a hard straight-backchair with a quiet groan. Surveying the office, he found Art, thesecurity director, and a guard taking Lucky's computer workstationapart, piece by piece. Judging from the looks on their faces and theparts scattered around the floor, Roberts concluded that things couldhave been better.

It was still dark, and the bright lights inside the guard shackbothered his bloodshot eyes. He'd just come from a meeting with histop-level executive staff. They were tired, angry men and their senseof bewilderment was surpassed only by a profound sense of betrayal.Believing Cheyenne Mountain had sold them up the river, they felt likelame duck politicians whose hands were tied until the subsequentadministration moved in. They were angry at Cheyenne Mountain fordemanding that they bypass their standard quality controls in the firstplace, and they were angry at Washington for demanding so much in solittle time. Since no one from Cheyenne Mountain or Washington hadbeen present at their early morning meeting, Dr. Tristan Robertsbecame the focus of their deep-seated animosity.

How was our computer security compromised, Dr.Roberts? How did they do it? How did they plant this virus?

Can you guarantee this won't happen again, Dr. Roberts?

Why was this allowed to happen, Dr. Roberts?

Why wasn't someone guarding the store, Dr. Roberts?

Who is the mole inside your organization, Dr. Roberts?

What will the DEW SATs do next, Dr. Roberts?

Leaning back, rubbing his eyes, Roberts allowed himself a moment ofreflection. Maybe I should back off and let Superman solve this one.He's got all the politically correct answers. Hold on here. Who am Itrying to fool? He'd turn this virus into a career.

The tension in Guard Shack 2 could not have been strung any tighter asthe circuit board innards of Lucky's computer lay carefully spreadacross the floor. Art gently pried the boot Read-Only Memory chip outof Lucky's computer and replaced it with his own, custom-built part.The operation was tedious and one slip of the screwdriver could foul upthe electronic works. After the part swap was complete, Art beganputting Lucky's computer back together again.

Dr. Roberts looked over Art's shoulder and asked,

"So how's it going?"

Not one for small talk, Art replied,

"Lousy, Doc. Lucky knew a hell of a lot about security. It's going tobe a bitch just to log on. Everything on his computer is passwordprotected, and only he knew the passwords."

"Nothing's ever easy," Dr. Roberts sighed, picking up the Read-OnlyMemory device.

"What's your plan?"

"The short of it is this, Doc. That little chip you're holding wasLucky's boot program and I replaced it with a specially built editorprogram of my own. I'm going to clear out his passwords, all of them,then log on and take a look around."

"You've done this before?" Roberts asked apprehensively. He wanted tohear that this sort of thing was routine.

"I've done it before." Art made eye contact with Roberts, followed bya protracted pause.

"Once."

"Is there a chance you could fail?"

"Sure, there are no guarantees. Navigating around the disk takes time,and a lot of patience."

"Should we call in an expert?"

Kneeling over the open carcass of Lucky's computer, Art carefullyinserted the last of the computer circuit boards.

Exasperated, he looked at Dr. Roberts.

"Listen Doc, I know you're tired, but we're all tired here, so loosenup. I've thought this thing through and I need your help, but I don'tneed you telling me how to run my business."

"Art's right, Dr. Roberts," the security director said softly.

"Let the man do his job. It's up to you, but you might considercutting him a little slack!"

"But I only ... uh . . ." Roberts was taken aback. There were timesto concede and times to press. Roberts knew this tiny team representedhis only real hope for a fast solution; this was a time to concede.

"All right, Art, how can I help?"

"You said time is critical. The experts on Lucky's workstation areoutside Boston off Route 128. Well, they ain't gonna be flying here,right?" Art checked his watch.

"It's about nine-thirty their time, and I plan to give them a call ontheir hot line. I need you to convince those big shots in Boston thatour job is an urgent matter of national security, otherwise we couldget stuck on hold for hours. Once you clear it with Sun's fop brass,we'll work the technical details over the phone."

Dr. Tristan Roberts knew exactly what to do and who to call. 'theU.S. government was one of Sun Microsystems largest customers and anymatter of interest to Livermore was a matter of interest to the vicepresident of Sun's Government Division. Within twenty minutes, SunMicrosystems had their top software, hardware, and firmware expertspatched into Guard Shack 2 over a video conference call.

After spending an hour methodically combing through page after page ofspecially formatted data stored on Lucky's disk, Sun's expertsrecommended Art change the contents of a single eight-bit byte. Out ofthe millions and millions of data bytes stored on Lucky's disk, Artchanged only oneand the deed was done.

"It's all in knowing where to look and what to look for," Art said witha big smile. Once he'd removed the password protection from Lucky'sworkstation, Art took the workstation apart and replaced the originalRead-Only Memory device. After all the pieces were put back togetheragain, he plugged it in and turned it on.

Following an agonizing two-minute wait for the system to come alive,Art exclaimed: "Yes! Yes!" He logged on to Lucky's computer withoutany security password.

"Isn't technology wonderful?"

Everyone at Sun, including the vice president of Sun's GovernmentDivision, Dr. Roberts, and the security director sat up as thoughthey'd all been goosed at the same time and burst into applause.Outwardly, Dr. Roberts felt ecstatic, something had finally goneright. This was real, forward progress and a renewed energy pervadedhis body as an adrenaline rush kicked in. Inwardly, Dr. Roberts wasdumbfounded, he couldn't believe that this little bit twiddlingexercise had worked at all. After a few moments' thought, heconcluded, That Art doesn't miss a trick.

Immediately, Art began looking through Lucky's command history file.After looking over the record of Lucky's last two days' work, Art shookhis head sadly and sighed.

"Lucky was the mole, but I'm afraid we got here too late."

"Whataya mean?" came an exasperated voice over the videophone.

"Early Monday afternoon, Lucky transferred a collection of programsnamed mother's best from his workstation to the SDI computer. That'sall-the evidence I need to convince me that he's the mole. About twoo'clock on Monday, Lucky cleaned up his disk. He removed mother'sbest, and I expect any trace of the virus went with it."

"Never lose heart," came a reassuring baritone voice over thevideophone.

"Take an exhaustive look anyway.

Even if Lucky cleaned his disk, with a little luck, we can reconstructit."

Art knew this was possible, but he'd never reconstructed one himself.He navigated from place to place around Lucky's computer, then grimlyconfirmed that mother's-best was gone without a trace.

Following a long pause, the low, resonating baritone voice asked,

"Your mole had some form of backup?"

"Backup? Yes, backup! Of course! Why didn't I think of that? Unlesshe destroyed 'em all, there must he backup copies somewhere."

"Search the guard shack top to bottom," Dr. Roberts barked as hefrantically began opening drawers and file cabinets.

"Backup copies must be somewhere!"

As he discovered, somewhere was inside Lucky's lower left filedrawer-an unmarked gray metal box filled with tape backup copies ofLucky's programs. Opening the metal box, Art read the labels on eachtape, searching for the latest date. The good news was that Lucky wasnot only clever, he was methodical. Lucky backed up the programs onhis computer every Friday afternoon. Art grabbed the tape containingthe most recent backup, then loaded it into Lucky's computer. Heinstructed Lucky's computer to restore the collection of programs namedmother's best. 'the tape raced back and forth for a few minutes as theworkstation searched for the program. To Art and Dr. Roberts, thosefew minutes seemed to drag on for an eternity.

Suddenly, the whining sound of the tape drive hushed and Art's eyes litup.

"Bingo! We found it! Mother's-best is rolling in!"

Quick-time, Dr. Roberts and the security director moved into positiondirectly behind Art, looking over his shoulder.

Art felt them breathing down his neck, but couldn't blame them forwanting to see. The programs were encrypted, of course, but that wasno real problem for Art. He copied the encryption key from Lucky'scommand history file, then decrypted them in less than five minutes.Poring over the programs a page at a time, Art couldn't believe hiseyes.

This was it, it had to be, but exactly what it was he couldn't say. Artbelieved they'd found the program listing of the computer virus, but itwas nothing like he'd expected. He wasn't sure exactly what he'dexpected, but he was sure that this wasn't it. Mother's - best lookedlike a huge collection of programs written by the CIA, Air Force, andArmy.

"Unbelievable!" Art muttered, not really knowing what to think. Hismind felt numb, paralyzed.

Dumbfounded, Roberts rubbed his eyes. Like Art, he couldn't believewhat he was seeing.

"If this is the virus, then the CIA, Air Force, and Army wrote it."Roberts grimaced, pursing his lips.

"That's just great. Cheyenne Mountain is gonna love this."

The security director stood silent, his jaw dropped to his knees.

"I could be wrong," Art said with reservation. His mind couldn'taccept what big eyes were seeing.

"But I think we got it."

It had been a long and arduous journey. More than once, Roberts hadthought they wouldn't make it. But they did make it, they found paydirt-big-time. Roberts patted Art on the shoulder and asked,

"Recommendations?"

"Give me a minute, Doc. This is a bitter pill to swallow.

Somehow, this doesn't add up. The U.S. government doesn't write virusprograms to plant them in their own equipment.

We're missing some important data from somewhere."

"What you're saying is true, but all that really matters now is that webelieve we've found the virus."

"Well then, Doc, I recommend we go for broke. Get a task forcedissecting this thing immediately."

"Size the job for me," Dr. Roberts instructed, nodding agreement.

"How many people are we talking about here?"

Art clattered the keyboard of Lucky's workstation, checking the numberof program lines in mother's - best. A few moments later, heresponded,

"Give it two hundred of your best software folks; we'll split up theprogram into modules, then take it apart line by line-it's the onlyway.

We'll know what makes this baby tick by noon today, noon tomorrow atthe latest."

"Anything else?"

"Yeah, take Lucky's computer off the lab network and isolate it in ourSDI lab. Lord knows we don't want this virus to spread over thenetwork."

"Done." Roberts felt weakness pervading his body as his adrenalinerush wore off. He had to maintain his strength long enough to get theball rolling. Light-headed, Roberts looked to his security directorand began barking orders.

"Order an autopsy on Lucky and find out what killed him."

"Already taken care of."

"Find out who he was working for. Search his home. Interview hisfamily and friends."

"An FBI task force is crawling all over this case, Doctop priority. IfLucky left a trail, they'll find it."

"Good. We're not where we want to be, but at least we know how to getthere!" Following a brief pause, Dr. Roberts rattled off additionalinstructions.

"Get John Sullivan on the line, and General Mason. Let them know whatwe've got."

Rifling through the gate guard's desk, the security director found apad of paper and began creating a To Do list.

"Superman, send me Superman," Roberts told the gate guard as hisperipheral vision began to fade.

"He'll round up the people we need." How much strain could one n,.,take? Roberts collapsed like a house of cards onto a straight-backmetal chair. Staring at the ceiling and dazed, he continued issuingorders like an automaton.

"Washington, connect me to Washington." With his bloodshot eyes openwide, he watched the bright lights around him fade to black, followedby a sense of dreamlike motion, as if he were falling into a bottomlessabyss. The last thing Roberts would recall before losing consciousnesswas the sound of frightened voices, muffled and indistinct. Theyseemed to drone on forever, but he couldn't respond. His mouthwouldn't form the words.

Fifty-fifty Chance, 1211112014, 1530 Zulu, 10:30 A.M. Local

INSIDE BLACK HOLE PROTOTYPE HANGAR DESIGNATED BIG BLUE,

HANs com FIELD,

BED FORI MASSACHUSETTS

His Air Force colleagues called him Wild Bill, but back home inMississippi they still called him Billy. A test pilot and Air Forceacademy graduate, he was the youngest of four sons, and had been hookedon flying nearly all his life.

He'd wanted to fly since he was a boy and first saw the Thunderbirdsperform at the Air Force pilot training base in Columbus.

All the brothers made good. One a physician, the other two madelawyers-and they all lived in Jackson, Mississippi-all but Billy. WildBill, Lieutenant Colonel William Boyd, had long wanted to return hometo his family and friends, but had resigned himself to the fact thatMississippi didn't need test pilots. Although he'd searched onnumerous occasions, he'd never found any work within a day's drive ofhis beautiful Magnolia State. Billy's soul was in Mississippi, butWild Bill's heart had wings, and his mind was addicted to the glitterof high-tech. Wild Bill had to fly and he had to fly somethingspecial.

Billy dreamed of moving back to Mississippi. He hoped he'd live longenough to retire, but never really believed he would. He couldn'timagine himself happy on the ground, technically retired, put out topasture. Wild Bill shuddered at the thought of life without flight andchose not to dwell on it. In his heart, he dreamed that one day he'dcome back to stay, but in his mind he believed he'd make the trip in apine box. He'd get back one way or the other. Retired or dead, itdidn't much matter.

Wild Bill didn't like anything about Thomas Jackson but his last name.Lieutenant Colonel Boyd respected Jackson of MIT Lincoln Labs for onereason and one reason only: Jackson was almost as smart as he thoughthe was. Radar technology was Jackson's expertise. He'd invented theDEW SAT counter stealth radar for the Allies and now they called on himonce again to do the impossible. The Allies needed an airplane thatJackson's radar could not see, an airplane that could fly undetected bythe orbiting DEW SAT armada. Jackson wasn't one to listen to theconcerns of others, evidently because his own opinions were far tooimportant; but then again, Jackson wasn't paid to be thoughtful ofothers. He was paid to deliver a single prototype aircraft, invisibleto the DEW SAT radar, and his reputation was on the line.

Jackson was no fool, Wild Bill had to admit that, but he lacked anyfeeling for teamwork. He was a loner in a large, team-orientedorganization. Jackson was not an expert pilot nor did he care to be.He had a low regard for anyone, especially test pilots, who were nothis technical equal. Lieutenant Colonel Boyd respected Jackson for histechnical judgment and that was enough. Wild Bill was paid to flyJackson's prototype aircraft, not to love him.

One thing was undeniable. Jackson was a legend. His God-giventechnical instinct differentiated him from lesser men. Jackson couldknow, could feel the solution to a complex problem before solving thedetails. He was one of a rare breed of scientists who had becomefamous by producng a series of weapon systems, cloaked in secrecy,which continually leapfrogged the opposition. His secret was aninquisitive mind coupled with a cardsharp's instinct for cuttingthrough the technical muck which obscured most problems. He could seeold problems in a different light andpropose new solutions which worked (to the delight of the UnitedStates government). Jackson intuitively felt solutions before hethought them through, or justified them in theory. He claimed to knowall there was to know about light, and many believed him. Othersbelieved that he could actually see colors in the radio and infraredregions of the electromagnetic spectrum, that he could see color justas his radars saw color. Although he never made this claim, he neverdenied it. He saw complex solutions without letting the theoreticalmathematics get in the way. He'd propose a solution to a specificproblem, then if necessary, he'd prove his solution was correct afterhe'd worked out the details.

He could punch through irrelevant detail which would choke a lesserman, then identify the essence of the solution after a quick knee-jerkanalysis.

But Jackson's greatest strength, his intuition, obscured one seriousweakness. He'd never failed. In the past, he'd worked on only themost important problems and used his intuition to make sure theproposed solutions were feasible.

Once he believed a problem could be solved, he threw government money,time, and people at working out the details. Time had never been amajor concern of Jackson's.

His adversary was the scientific problem. His record of successes wasunbroken. In the process he had become a millionaire and had achievedworldwide renown. He had become the leading expert on radar in theUnited States, debatably, in the world. He was oblivious of everythingexcept unsolved technical problems. Although his projects weresometimes delivered late, they always worked. Over the past four days,the rules of technical problem-solving had changed. The time variablein the problem-solving equation had virtually disappeared. The BlackHole prototype aircraft must work-now. He'd always done what he setout to do because he had the intuition, time, and resources to see thejob through. The taxpayers-those people who paid his bills-hadpatience and deep pockets, so he'd always gotten the resources heneeded to get the job done-until now.

To date, every military project for which Jackson had significantresponsibility had been considered successful.

Unknown to Wild Bill, Jackson was in over his head with this Black Holeprototype and needed time.

Lieutenant Colonel William Boyd climbed down from the catwalk to thetop of the test chamber and worked his way to the center of Jackson'spenthouse lab. Jackson had just completed a series of radar tests onhis Black Hole prototype and was poring over stacks of data when henoticed Wild Bill walk in.

After carefully studying the test results, Jackson felt doubt, anupwelling of disbelief. These results couldn't be correct.

This had never happened before, it couldn't be happening now. Hegroped for possible explanations: either there had to be somethingwrong with the test equipment or that cockpit canopy was one hell of abig problem. Then he looked up.

Wild Bill was looking at him casually, his eyes clear.

"How's she look, Jackson?"

For a moment, Jackson felt as if his jaw had suddenly fused shut. Hewas aware that Wild Bill was looking at him with something likepuzzlement in his eyes, but it didn't matter. He ordered his tongue tosay what he felt he must and almost choked on the words.

"There're always problems when you do anything for the first time, butI'll work through them." Jackson paused, handed Wild Bill a graph ofhis test data, then continued.

"You won't like these results."

Wild Bill read over the data with a puzzled expression at first. Aftera few moments, puzzlement was replaced with concern, deep concern. Thetest results read like a pilot's death warrant. Wild Bill was no radarexpert, but he didn't need to be to sort through this story.

"Are these results repeatable?"

"Yes," Jackson uttered the single word. It underlined his sense ofurgency. His eyes did not change. He blinked once and then turnedback to his test controls.

"Then there's no instrumentation error."

"Could be. I don't believe this data. It doesn't feel right.

The problem is either the test equipment or that damn gold dome." ThePlexiglas cockpit canopy of the Black Hole prototype had beenimpregnated with gold to keep radar energy out of the cockpit, but thecanopy reflected radar energy much like a curved mirror.

"Whataya plan?"

"Sea] that cockpit completely. button it up tight as a drum, cover itwith absorber and eliminate it once and for all."

"Are you serious?" Stunned, Wild Bill looked at Jackson indisbelief.

"Black it out completely?" Jackson planned to put him under the bag,have him take off, fly, and land relying totally on instruments. As atest pilot, he could do it if it was necessary, but he didn't like it.Sensitive DEW SAT radar technology combined with the physics of timeand distance dictated requirements for a stealthy aircraft which nopilot could love.

"From now on, the Black Hole flies on instruments only." Jacksonlooked at him without emotion.

"Better log some simulator time under the bag." Jackson's distinctiveNew England accent bore into the southern man's consciousness.

Wild Bill's jaw tensed, his mind focused, his nerves steeled.

"So what are my chances?"

The silence that ensued lasted almost sixty seconds.

Without emotion, Jackson scribbled some notes over his test results. Heguessed where his data would fall once the stealthy cockpit canopy hadbeen installed.

"No better than fifty-fifty." His voice was opaque, pitiless.

Wild Bill's teeth clenched together, the muscles at the back of his jawtightened into hard knots. Months ago, he had volunteered for thisassignment because he believed it important. Today, the SDI virus madethis work more important than then, but he didn't volunteer to die. Hehad stayed alive this long by keeping the odds in his favor.

Jackson continued talking, his nasal-like voice reaching back into hisconsciousness. Now his voice was talking about the probability ofdetection, the chances for error. A fascinating problem, he wassaying.

"It's my life we're talking about here," Wild Bill snarled with baffledanger. Looking at the equipment clutter scattered about the penthouse,he continued.

"This whole operation feels jury-rigged to me. You fix one problem andanother pops up."

Jackson made a sound. It was a low, primitive grunt. He paused, thenafter searching for the right words, he resumed speaking. This timehis voice was so slow that each word seemed to dangle.

"As you know, Colonel, we are caught in a desperate situation. Don'tconcern yourself needlessly. I will mask your aircraft using equipmentwhich mimics the DEW SAT radar signal. It displaces the radar returnand makes your aircraft look like a thousand moving targets."

Gesturing with his hands, Jackson's eyes gleamed as he described thisgadget. "I Wild Bill watched him with a jaundiced eye. He'd thoughtfor a long time that Jackson had some kind of weird affection for allthat damn equipment. It just wasn't natural.

"I presume you have experience with this device?" Wild Bill askedskeptically.

"We use the same device in the Phantom Hawk cruise missile." Jacksonspoke with convincing authority. He was wrong in this case, butnevertheless, he was completely confident. It was true that the radarmasking equipment was used in the Phantom Hawk. But it was also truethat the masking equipment triggered the DEW SAT burn-through mode.Jackson had' been isolated the last two days and had not read thelatest reports from Cheyenne Mountain. The DEW SAT would not allowitself to be overrun by false targets. Satisfied with his ownresponse, Jackson nodded his head in approval.

"I'd suggest you get some simulator time under the bag."

"Don't patronize me, Jackson," Wild Bill snarled.

"You do your job, I'll do mine."

Hope and Confrontation, 1211112014, 1545 Zulu, 8:45 A.M. Local

CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN, COLORADO

Mason looked across the video conference room at Hinson.

For a moment, he debated whether or not he should dealwith this personnel matter, but because of the urgency of thesituation he decided to meet it head-on. Mason planned to lop Hinsonfrom his War Room staff and ease him out of the service. He believedhis self-centered ambition had gotten him as far as he should go. Masoncalled him over to his console. He thought Hinson looked almostapprehensive as he sat down.

"We need to talk," Mason said plainly. He would talk to Hinsonface-to-face, not through another person. In addition to Hinson'sblind ambition, Mason had lingering doubts about his integrity. Whenthe chips were down, he couldn't be trusted. The man would lie lookingyou square in the eyes. The problem was to get Hinson off his staff inthe least amount of time" then quietly move him out of the service, sohe could not do any more damage.

"I want you off my staff effective immediately and out of theservice."

He spoke quietly but bluntly. His voice was a mixture of pity andhard-bitten reality. Mason paused for a moment to watch Hinson'sreactions. As usual, the wheels turned round in Hinson's head, but hisface revealed very little of what he felt inside.

"It's time you got into another line of work."

Hinson had expected this, only it came sooner than he'd planned. If hecould buy a little time, maybe a week or two to get all his transferducks lined up, he'd be history. Guys like Hinson might stumble, butthey never got hurt. They always landed feet first on top of somebodyelse.

"Sir, as you see it, what are my alternatives? I think you'd agree,this is coming rather suddenly. And the timing, this crisis.

We haven't even discussed my options."

Mason furrowed his brow and looked Hinson straight in the eyes. Asalways, his objective was to be direct.

"My immediate interest is my staff and this virus. I only work wellwith people I can trust, people who say what they think and areup-front about their motives. As far as your options, I'd like you outof the service. You know I can't bust you because you've done nothingillegal, but consider yourself notified. I plan to put you at risk.When our yearly force reduction comes next fall, you'll be gone. Makeyour plans now. I don't want you in a position where you can do anymore harm. Any questions?"

"About my-uh ... transition."

"What about it?"

"Can you give me two weeks? I'd train my replacement to ease thetransition."

Mason's knee-jerk reaction was to say no, but he held his tongue andconsidered Hinson's suggestion. After all, Hinson was competent and acapable liar. Mason knew he couldn't be trusted, but he wanted to givehim the benefit of the doubt. His head said no, his heart Aaid yes.

"You understand you are relieved of your duties' as CSOC commander asof this meeting?" Mason's voice sounded concerned.

Hinson hesitated. His reply was polite but edged with ice.

"I understand, General."

"Your single remaining responsibility here would be to train yourreplacement."

Hinson nodded.

I hope I don't live to regret this decision, Mason thought.

Hinson could be a conniving little prick.

"Very well, do what you can to bring your replacement up to speed asfast as possible. That is all." Mason stood, ending the meeting, andhoped this issue was resolved.

He felt an undefined and nagging discomfort when suddenly ColonelNapper burst into the Crow's Nest video conference room waving a faxover his head, quivering with excitement. The few men in the room whowere talking fell silent. Even those outside the conversation strainedto hear Napper.

Hinson remained impassive, but Mason leaned forward in his chair,anxious, hoping desperately for some good news.

"They've found it. Livermore's got their hands on the source code.

"They're verging on a breakthrough." His voice was heavily persuasive,but it didn't need to be. He'd said what they wanted to hear.

"All right, talk to me, Sam. Tell us what you know."

"They've found the virus source code and expect to know what makes ittick within twenty-four hours."

Colonel Napper paused, rubbing the stubble on his face.

The heavy beard he'd had since puberty was growing rapidly, but hecouldn't take the time to shave it today.

"And another thing, we wrote the virus, the United States government, Imean."

"Why the hell would we do that?" Mason asked, frustrated by a sense ofone step forward followed by one step back.

"I don't know for sure, Sir." Napper paused, and then went on, hisvoice now unconvincing.

"But as I understand it, the Army did some work on battlefield gradecomputer viruses back in the mid-nineties. As far as I know, theyshelved the idea when they found out that our equipment was moresusceptible than our enemies'. The virus Livermore found is built ofthree parts; each part was contracted separately by the Air Force,Army, and CIA."

Mason put his head facedown in his hands for a few moments, then lookedup at Napper.

"Is it possible that we brought this on ourselves?"

Colonel Napper paused. Then his voice gained confidence.

"No, Sir, the odds against this are so high it's impossible."

"All right," Mason said.

"I don't want to solve this here and now, but I want it solved beforeLivermore builds another software load. Tell Dr. Roberts to bring inany experts he needs, but retrace exactly how that virus gained entryinto our software. No matter what, we cannot ever allow this to happenagain."

"What do you make of it?" Mason invited Hinson's comments, but histone said "keep it short."

Hinson plugged back into the conversation.

"What about Shripod Addams? Any connection to LivermoreT' "Yes, it'sall in this fax," Napper replied as he handed out copies to everyone inthe video conference room.

Mason studied the document intently. His nagging discomfortreturned.

"All right, let me sum it up," Mason said.

"We don't know the organization behind the sabotage, but we've got thesource code. We should know how the virus behaves by this timetomorrow."

Napper and Hinson agreed.

"Sam, get this in the President's hands immediately, and one otherthing. Goose up our satellite surveillance, especially over thetrouble spots. Things are going to get worse before they get better. Ilearned a long time ago that the truth is a two-edged sword. It mayset you free-but it costs. It stands to reason. When the police pullout, chaos takes over-happens all the time. Somewhere, some pigheadedbarbarian is planning to exploit this situation. It has to be. Weneed to know about it before it happens." Mason clinched his teeth sohard his head throbbed, but he knew in his gut he was right.

Two-edged Sword, 1211112014, 1600 Zulu, 11:00 A.m. Local THE WHITEHOUSE,

WASHINGTON, D.C.

The office he had aspired to occupy all his life seemed like theloneliest place on earth to the President. Gazing at presidentialportraits around the Oval Office, he reflected on the struggles ofthose who had occupied this office before him.

Recalling something Kennedy had said following the Bay of Pigsincident, he lamented.

"Success has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan." He hadn'tslept well, his mind raced in circles agonizing over their predicamentand what to do next. He felt good about his decision to tackle thisproblem head-on, but apprehensive about the future.

He needed a plan. In the past, he had come here seeking advice andtoday was no exception.

The President's concentration was broken when his hollow eyed nationalsecurity advisor walked into the room clutching the latest reports fromLivermore and Cheyenne Mountain.

"Pour yourself some coffee, Clive, and have a seat. Mason's comingon-line any minute." Clive Towles sat down on a small sofa facing thewall lined with video cameras and TV monitors. Before Towles hadfinished stirring his coffee, Supreme Commander Mason's pictureappeared on their TV monitor. Anxious and impatient, the President cutto the crux of the matter.

"General, I need a damn good plan that'll get us out of this mess or amiracle."

"Apparently you've got the right connections, Mr. President." Masonsmiled, but only slightly.

"Have you seen the latest from Livermore?"

The President's national security advisor interrupted before thePresident could respond.

"Here's a copy of the latest Livermore fax, Mr. President. It's stillwarm; picked it up on my way to your office."

The President read the message but seemed unimpressed.

He squinted his eyes and looked up at Slim on his video monitor.

"What does it mean in English?"

Mason summarized the Livermore findings for the President and concludedby saying,

"Livermore believes they found the virus source code. This could bethe breakthrough we've been waiting for. We'll know what we've gotwithin twenty-four hours."

"Know what?"

"Know why the virus behaves as it does and what we must do to isolateit. The source code could be the key to solving this problem. Itshould allow us to fully characterize the virus and, hopefully,eliminate it."

"What do you mean, hopefully?" the President asked impatiently.

"There are no guarantees, Mr. President. Conceivably, we may learn ofsome viral characteristics that we cannot counteract."

There was a long pause on the line, then the President spoke. Hisvoice boomed over the loudspeakers in Cheyenne Mountain.

"Don't play word games with me, General. Say what you mean clearly inEnglish. This is no time for misunderstanding." The President paused,studying the pictures of his general staff at Cheyenne Mountain. Hethen continued, deliberately slow.

"I want to ask you one question."

General Mason had a premonition of doom. He knew the question.

"General Mason, after studying this virus, could we learn there'snothing we can do? That we have no cure? That we can't end thiscrisis?"

Mason hesitated, not because he didn't know the answer, but because hewanted to see where his team stood. Napper, Sullivan, Krol, and Cravensomberly and unanimously agreed, then Mason spoke without apology.

"Yes, Mr. President, it is possible."

There was a swell of tension in the room as the President quickly cameforward in his seat. The President's eyes widened, but he decided notto press. His silence was ominous enough. The silence drew out Iuntil the President leaned back in his chair once again.

Craven felt a flash of admiration for Mason, a sense of pride combinedwith a kind of helplessness. When the chips were down, Mason would puthis career on the line every time and do what he believed was right.

General Krol handed Mason a handwritten note.

"Anything else?" the President asked.

"Yes. General Krol reminds me that he has a massive analysis effortrunning around the clock in Kaliningrad.

Progress is slow, but sure. The work is tedious. Hundreds ofscientists and engineers are reconstructing exactly what happened fromour computer logs. Once complete, we'll have a better detailed pictureof the conditions onboard Freedom. " "Good," the President said.

"Although I'm not technical, a detailed picture of what you've gotsounds damn important to me."

"It's our Freedom road map, Mr. President. We won't get there withoutit." Mason's eyes were clear, his voice sure.

"Very well, General Mason. I need a plan from you and I need it fast.I can't help you if I don't know what you need.

As it stands, I've got no visibility. I want to see what's being doneto turn this thing around. Get me a plan, one with some contingency,then together we'll follow it through."

"We're working the plan, Mr. President."

"Well then, what's our next step? What should I do to improve ourchances?"

"We have only two recommendations at this time, Mr. President. Thefirst will come as no surprise: give Livermore whatever they need.Second, goose up our satellite surveillance coverage over thethird-world hot spots." Puzzled, the President glanced across his deskat Clive Towles, who was strongly urging approval.

"I agree," Clive insisted as he spoke to Mason over video.

"We'd come to exactly the same conclusion, but we need to coordinateour coverage. Link your recon folks with ours. We've repositionedseveral Navy and CIA birds already. We need your Air Force reconsatellites to cover the holes."

Rubbing his eyes, the President added,

"I share your concern, General." His voice sounded convincing.

Mason spoke softly but with deliberate clarity. He'd learned thislesson firsthand, very early in his career.

"The truth is a two-edged sword, Mr. President. You don't tell thetruth without paying the price. We're in a desperate situation andthere'll certainly be those who'll take advantage of it."

"I agree." The President paused, then focused his thinking onceagain.

"I'd like that operations plan by tomorrow."

Mason looked to his staff. They returned a thumbs up.

"It'll be on your desk."

"Keep me posted, gentlemen." The President stood, disconnected thevideo conference line, and the meeting was adjourned.

Out of the Sun, 1211112014, 1730 Zulu

SPACE STATION HOPE

How long had she been staring at this tube? Scott wondered, but thenagain, she didn't really want to know. Looking for some way, any wayto get onboard Freedom, she'd been parked at Pasha's control consolefor hours toiling through plans of the space station, videotapes, andcomputer simulations. Overwhelmed, Scott found the search had a morosesense of endlessness about it. Even Guardian had been slowed by themountainous amounts of information which required sorting andanalysis.

Since Pasha's condition had stabilized twenty-four hours earlier, Scotthad been trying to find a weak point in Freedom's defenses and had hadonly an odd hour's sleep here and there. That's why they pay me thebig bucks, she reflected bleakly. She remembered that she hadn't lostthis much sleep since her divorce, and then she wondered about Jay.Biting her lip, tears welled in her eyes. She couldn't help it. Thishad been a hard day. Maybe it was the exhaustion, maybe it was thepressure, or mhybe she loved him and was worried sick. A part of her,everything that mattered, was onboard Freedom, but chances for Jay didnot look good. No word since that virus took over. Something waswrong, terribly wrong, and she couldn't rest until she knew. He mightbe injured or ... I can't think about this now or I'll go crazy. Wehave problems enough here.

And then it happened, a curious thing. Suddenly, Scott's attention wasdiverted by something she thought she saw on her screen. Weary, she'dbeen reviewing tedious training videotapes about the space stationradar system but now found herself eager to learn more. She wasn'tsure, not yet anyway, but she thought she had found somethingsignificant. Working the first piece of their problem, Scott struggledto envision how they could approach Freedom without getting blown outof the sky. Each space station used a combination of radar andinfrared sensors for tracking and steering weapons on target. Anorbiting military stronghold, a fortress designed for its own defense,Freedom had loomed virtually unapproachable until now, but Scott feltuneasy. This weakness appeared too obvious. There must be a catch.

Bleary-eyed, Scott gazed across the control room, summoning Mac andGonzo to her side.

"Fellas, come take a look. I think I've found a hole." Her voice wasa combination of uneasiness mixed with restrained excitement. She hadgood reason for concern and so did everyone else on-board. Until now, the more they learned about Freedom's defensivesafeguards, the worse their chances looked.

Headquarters had not discussed boarding Freedom with Scott and hercrew, but everyone knew that conversation was sure to happen.

Who else was going to do it?

What other options did Headquarters have?

Besides, boarding Freedom was inevitable. They had to do it simply tosurvive. They couldn't return home without passing through the lethalDEW SAT layer and their supplies on Hope wouldn't last more than threemonths, maybe three and one half months if they were rationed. AsScott, Mac, and Gonzo saw it, they were trapped with no place to go butFreedom.

Scott played back a short segment of videotape as Mac and Gonzo lookedon, contemplating what she'd seen.

What they saw was a computer-generated image of the solar system inmotion. A picture of the space station orbiting the earth once a dayas the earth orbited around the sun.

In addition, the video clip showed the radar coverage as a translucentsphere surrounding the space station. The translucent sphere meantthat the radar could see in every direction, without blind spots, or soit seemed at first glance. After watching the tape play back time andtime again, Scott noticed a tiny pinprick-sized hole in the translucentsphere. At first she thought it was a burned out pixel or a bad CRTscreen, but she zoomed in on it and after some investigation, sheconcluded the pinhole was real. Not only was it real, it waspredictable and always aligned itself in the direction of the sun.

"As I see it, Freedom's blind as a bat looking into the sun." Macspoke in a low voice, leaning down, looking over her shoulder.

"I think we should discuss this with Headquarters, but it looks tooeasy." Gonzo paused.

"Interference from the sun is a well-known problem. Headquarters mustknow about that blind spot and have already found some way to fill thegap. It can't be as easy as flying in out of the sun or someone elsewoulda already tried it."

Scott disagreed.

"It may be a classic problem but approaching Freedom out of the sunwon't be easy." Scott spoke in a worried voice and handed Gonzo a hardcopy picture of the video screen showing the sun, earth, Hope, andFreedom. On it she had sketched their approximate ight path-departingHope then approaching Freedom out of the sun.

Gonzo's guts wrenched when he saw the general shape and complexity ofthe flight path. He spoke slowly, releasing an exasperated sigh.

"God, this is intricate." There was dread and apprehension in hisvoice. The general shape of the trajectory looked something like asemicircle, but the speed constantly varied.

"I need you to work the details, just rough them in for now. We need asanity check. I think we can do it, but it's a one-way trip. Fuel'sthe big problem. We move further out, let Freedom pass well underneathus, then spend the next seven hours playing hide and catch-up."

Staring at Scott's flight trajectory in despair, Gonzo began punchingnumbers into his flight computer. The silence which followed seemed tolinger for an eternity. Finally, he spoke, but by then he didn't needto. The answer was written all over his face. Scott and Mac knew whathe was about to say before he formed the words.

"You're right. Even if we make it through undetected, it's a one waytrip." He felt he was writing their epitaph.

"Lighten up a little," Mac said to break the melancholy mood.

"We've still got each other."

Scott and Gonzo looked at Mac, shook their heads in quiet disbelief,and smiled. As always, he was right. The man was wonderful withpeople, the best Scott had ever known. Mac had a God-given talent forcommunication and could make anyone feel good, like sunshine breakingthrough on a cloudy day.

Scott felt like laughing and crying at the same time. She rubbed hereyes clear, then studied the circles under Gonzo's eyes.

"We'll feel better after we get some rest,"

Scott observed. Although she was weightless, she stood up from thedesk console to stretch. She expected it would feelgood just to move around. It didn't. Every joint ached. Herefficiency was faltering, she felt her judgment uncertain, vacillating.She couldn't keep up with her own pace; she was losing it and sinkingfast. She checked her watch. How long was it till that conferencecall with Headquarters? It was today, wasn't it? All of a sudden, shewasn't sure what day it was. Let's see, four-thirty their time is whattime my time? Scott was baffled that she couldn't figure it out. Itwasn't supposed to be hard.

"Mac, how long till our conference call?" She blinked her eyes, butshe couldn't clear them.

Mac glanced at the big clock on the wall, then at Scott and Gonzo.""Bout six hours from now, Scotty. I've had my forty winks. You andGonzo catch up."

Gonzo and Scott agreed. Neither had the strength to do 0 therwise.

Sleeping quarters on Hope were about the same size as sleeping quartersin a submarine. They weren't rooms at all, they were coffin-sizedpigeonholes wedged lengthwise between the missile tubes. People spaceinside any weapons platform came at a premium. Traditionally, insideany manned weapons platform, people were accommodated around theweapons, not instead of the weapons, and Hope was no exception. Hopewas first and foremost an orbiting weapon system bristling witharmament designed exclusively for her own defense.

Scott fell asleep while strapping herself to her berth.

Gonzo didn't bother securing himself at all. He closed the overheadcurtain and figured that he wouldn't float far.

Straightfrom the Heart, 1211112014, 2330 Zulu, 4.30 P.M. Local

CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN, COLORADO

Mason quietly laid their operations plan on the table in the videoconference room. His eyes expressed an anxious uneasiness afterstudying the tenth draft of their op plan which led nowhere. Thepieces weren't coming together, not yet.

They needed more information, much more. The plan was astart, but they had a long way to go. Fundamentally, given everythingthey knew, Slim Mason didn't see any viable solution for this virusproblem and his staff agreed. Their dilemma appeared to have nosolution, but Mason and his staff were tenacious and unwilling toyield. There was a solution. There must be. Mason, his staff, andthe President would have to wait.

Tomorrow was another day. Tomorrow, Livermore had promised newinformation on the virus. Tomorrow, General Krol expected Kaliningradwould release their preliminary report. It wouldn't be complete, butbased on his direct feedback from Kaliningrad, Krol believed it wouldbe a cornerstone on which their operational plans could pivot.

Everyone understood the tedious and complex nature of the Kaliningradtask. To reconstruct a cohesive picture of exactly what had happenedto Freedom was a Herculean operation, given the mountainous volumes ofdata contained in their computer activity logs.

Mason believed this virus could be cured. He needed an operations planwhich combined the actions necessary for a speedy recovery. There mustbe a solution to any problem that was man-made. Everyone wanted tobelieve that, even those who didn't believe it wanted to. If theproblem could be solved at all, Mason believed his people could do it.It was Mason's job to give them the time and support they needed. He'drun interference for them and then stay out of their way. Masonbelieved they'd find some weakness in Freedom's armor, but as of thismoment, he saw no light at the end of the tunnel.

Waiting was the hardest part. Mason, his staff, and the President hadto wait while their technical folks sorted through the debris of thisfiasco. Mason didn't like the waiting, but he knew it was necessary.He didn't expect the President to like waiting either, but thePresident would wait, like it or not.

Mason took a deep breath and focused his thoughts.

"We're ready to talk to Hope, Sam. The operator should be set tocomplete the call. Ask her to complete the connection."

Punching up the video conference operator, Sam requested GeneralMason's Hope connection. At once there were the clicks and pops of avery long-distance video call being completed, but then, there was astrange lack of static on the line. Suddenly, crystal clear picturesof Scott, Mac, and Gonzo appeared on their TV screens. Because of thetwenty-two thousand-mile distance to Hope, the signal suffered from anoticeable time delay, but their connection was picture-perfect. Samnoticed that video communications with Hope had been restored to nearoriginal quality less than twenty-four hours after the virusrampage.

Mason came forward in his seat tciiward the camera, then spoke first.

"Major Scott, how are you and your crew holding up?" Over thevideophone, Mason could clearly see Scott's and Gonzo's haggard, drawnfaces.

Looking at Gonzo's zombie like appearance, Scott replied,

"We need rest."

"Will it take a direct order from me for you to get it?"

Mason asked, though his voice was not belligerent.

"No Sir, General, that won't be necessary. I'm sure we can solve thatproblem on our own initiative."

"Any change in Pasha's condition?"

"Your medical staff or General Krol can give you any details, Sir, buthis. prospects look good. We expect him to be up and about within theweek. He could be as good as new in two."

"We need him, Scott, need him desperately. He knows more about thatspace station than all of us put together."

Mason paused, having heard the urgent tone in his own voice. Hecleared his throat, then continued in a matter-of fact tone.

"Have your folks studied the operations plan we sent up earlier thisafternoon?"

For an instant, Scott contorted her face, then once again she regainedcontrol. Her face revealed no emotion.

"Yes, Sir. We've seen it." Her voice sounded restrained.

There was an extended period of silence. Mason noticed multiple signsof uneasiness. Scott remained impassive, but Gonzo anxiously lookedacross the room at Mac. Mac doo-died on a pad of paper, shaking his head, obviously wanting to speak,but holding back.

"Yes. And?" Mason opened the floor for comments.

"General, may we discuss this candidly?" asked Scott, speaking for hercrew. Her voice was almost excessively calm.

"Yes." General Mason felt they needed a free exchange.

When Scott spoke this time, there was in her voice the sharp metallicring of urgency.

"General, that plan is a bunch of crap." Scott's one line said it all.She'd summarized the feelings of her crew concisely. They couldn'thave said it better themselves-get to the point and spit it out. Intheir hearts, they felt a rush of admiration for Scott. Mac quitdoodling, and Gonzo nodded agreement with a proud smile.

Mason, his staff included, smiled on the inside. 3the u said exactlywhat they felt.

"I agree with you, Major. Our operations plan leads nowhere andresolves nothing."

Mason paused, choosing his words carefully, formulating his question asa litmus test to evaluate Scott's judgment.

Although he'd known and admired Scott since her days at the Air Forceacademy, he hadn't worked closely with her for several years.

"Given what we know, how would you propose we proceed?"

Scott responded immediately. She knew what she'd do.

"Focus on what's important. Sit tight and let your technical people dotheir jobs. Don't worry about an op plan until you know what to do."

Mason nodded agreement. He'd seek Scott's opinion again, and often.Her judgment and communication skills had matured a great deal sincehe'd first come to know her f as a brassy young lieutenant.

"You make sense to me, Major. Anything else come to mind?"

Scott looked at her crew. Their expressions said, Tell the man, andshe believed she would.

"Well, yes sir, there is."

She paused and collected her thoughts.

"We think Freedom's radar coverage may have a hole in it. She's blindlooking into the sun."

Mason looked down the table to Colonel Napper for an analysis.

"Sam, will you field this one?"

Colonel Sam Napper smiled a funny, bemused sort of smile and rubbed theheavy stubble on his face.

"General, I'd like to hand it off to John Sullivan if I could. Ibelieve he knows exactly what Livermore has done to plug that blindspot."

John Sullivan pursed his lips. There was silence for a prolongedperiod while he sketched two pictures of the sun, earth, and Freedom,One drawing showed Freedom in the direct sunlight, the second showedOer in darkness behind the earth. They weren't drawn to scale, but hethought they'd get his points across. John put the two sketches beforethe video camera, then finally spoke.

"Freedom was intended to be invulnerable, unapproachable by anyonewithout Centurion's consent. As you can see from this figure, Freedomstays in sunlight almost around the clock, so this blind spot was a bigproblem for us. Understand though, Freedom was never totally blindlooking into the sun. She could see-only she couldn't see as well. Herlong-range vision suffered, but she could see any target close enoughto her to cast a shadow. We tested this extensively. If we hadn't,someone else would have tested it for us. When Freedom moves into theearth's shadow, the blind spot disappears, of course, but duringFreedom's long hours of daylight, she was vulnerable."

John took a deep breath, then sighed.

"So we plugged the hole with a series of agile lasers. We use laserson targets within a one-hundred-mile radius and missiles on therest."

Absorbing John's description, Scott was silent for a moment. ForScott, the next question was obvious. It took mettle to pose thequestion, but there was no place to hide.

They had to face it.

"How close could we get?" Her tone conveyed resolve.

Following this question, the tension in the meeting suddenly increased.Hesitant, John couched his response with a question.

"In Hell Fire?" His voice sounded uncertain.

Scott nodded, her expression impassive.

John tried to swallow, but his throat felt parched.

"Youunderstand the complexities of the flight path? The closer you get toFreedom, the less margin you have for error."

"I understand."

John had not fully worked out the details so his voice was tentative.

"Assuming sufficient fuel, probably somewhere between five and fiftymiles. The closer you stick to the flight path, the closer you'll getbefore you're detected."

Scott's response was as immediate as it was decisive.

"We've got to do better than that. Five to fifty miles won't do."

Mason suddenly found himself running over different ways to approachthis situation. He decided, as he generally did, to say exactly whathe thought as best he could, and when in doubt, talk straight from theheart.

"To die trying in this endeavor is to lose everything." Mason's wordsseemed to linger in the air. He paused and looked Scott squarely inthe eyes.

"You are not expendable and you're not approaching Freedom until youbelieve you can do it.

And once you believe it, you've got to convince me." Although therewere others listening to the conversation, the tone of the meetingchanged. The meeting transformed into a one-on-one exchange betweenMason and Scott. In a way, Mason and Scott reached out to each otherthrough plainspoken conversation and their minds met. Mason'scommunication was complete. Each now understood the other.

Once the meeting ended, Scott allowed her eyes to glass over. She felta relief in her soul, an exhilaration unlike anything she'd everexperienced. For the first time in a long time she believed they weregoing to make it. She didn't know how, she didn't know when, but shebelieved they could do it. Scott studied the expressions on Mac's andGonzo's faces, looking anxiously for some sense of change.

Without an exchange of words, she knew that they believed it too.Although silent, Mac and Gonzo experienced the same sense of relief andexhilaration. The immense pressure and tension had taken its toll onthem all.

Fraught with peril, their future together was inescapable, but theybelieved in their souls that they'd survive.

Scott looked up into Mac's glassy eyes. He nodded, giving her his Ialready knovt? smile. She spoke slowly, her tone-final.

"We're gonna lick this thing, and when we do, we're going to make damnsure it never happens again."

THE DAY OF REVELATION

DAY 6 DECEMBER 12, 2014

The Briefing, 1211212014, 1 500 Zulu, 8.00 A.m. Local

CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN, COLORADO

John Sullivan felt as if the weight of the world was crushing him,squeezing the very life from his body as he stood before Mason and hisgeneral staff. Thinking about his briefing, John gazed withtrepidation down the length of the table in the video conference room.For the first time since the crisis began, sergeants from the MilitaryPolice stood armed and ramrod-straight by the entrances to the room.

John hoped they Were there to protect him. He felt he might need amilitary escort before his briefing was finished, but there was noreason to postpone the inevitable. The information in the LivermoreReport was rock solid and inescapable.

As John surveyed the faces in the room, time seemed to stand still. Fora few moments, it all seemed like a dream.

Glancing down, he was jolted back to reality by the single word on hisfirst view graph There was no possibility of awakening to somethingelse, but he wished with all his heart that he might.

I As he distributed copies of the Livermore Report around the room,John felt nausea rising from his stomach. There was a peculiar aurasurrounding the report. John felt contaminated, a kind of sickeningdisgust when he touched it. He believed it might describe a biblicalprophecy come true,the beginning of the end of the world, and he was the chosenmessenger. He found the future more unnerving now than before theLivermore Report, yet once again he stood before the general staffasking that they comprehend the unthinkable.

Without fanfare or enthusiasm, John switched on his PC and the overheadslide projection system. His first view graph summarized the LivermoreReport in one word. The view graph read simply:

INTRACTABLE

John took a deep breath, then began. He spoke quietly, his tone wasone of dismay.

"Gentlemen, I regret to inform you that the virus which infectedFreedom has no cure. In Livermore's opinion, the problem isintractable. We face a problem with no feasible solution."

Mason sat stunned, disbelieving. He did not speak. He felt helplessand wished he were somewhere else, anywhere else. His heart moaned arueful cry, his mind wanted to surrender and let someone else takeover.

Mason surveyed Napper's face, Krol's, then Craven's.

They were staring at him looking like lost sheep. Their expressionsread, What do we do now? The room was crammed with people and Masonsuddenly became aware that everyone was staring at him. They neededsomeone, they needed a leader, they needed him now. He couldn'tabdicate.

"John, we don't fight without knowing our adversary and we don'tconcede defeat without a fight." Mason spoke in a compassionatevoice.

"I know your colleagues did their best, but it is not their place tojudge the outcome of this war before the first battle. Perhaps thereis no software solution. Be that as it may, we won't give up until wefind a solution. There must be one. We know the problem's manmade."He paused, sensed the pulse of his audience, and concluded they neededan encouraging message. Summarizing what he knew, he continued.

"The situation may not be so bleak as it seems. Our latest on theBlack Hole sounded encouraging. After two moremodifications, Jackson believes they'll be ready. General Krol'sreport from Kaliningrad is due in later today and he believes it'ssignificant. It could contain information about Freedom that may helpus turn this situation around."

Mason looked around the room. Hope had returned to the eyes of hisstaff. He looked at John, winked, then in a deliberately relaxed andpleasant tone of voice he asked, "John, would you please brief us onthe characteristics of this virus? Together, we'll find the cure."

John smiled.

"Very well, General." He felt as if the burdens of the world had beenlifted off his back. After culling his slides, he went on to describethe virus in detail, then presented a crisp summary at the end.

"Let me conclude with what we know and what we're missing. We don'tknow the organization behind the virus. Off the record, the FBIinforms me they are running out of leads. As you know, the U.S.government funded parts of the work, but we don't know who put thepieces together. Whoever did it named the virus PAM." John paused.After pondering her name, he looked puzzled.

"I can't tell you what it stands for. It's probably not importantanyway, but we didn't see any good reason to change it. We know howPAM infected our software and we relearned one lesson we must neverforget." John projected a view graph which read simply:

SHORTCUTS KILL

"If we'd done the job right, we could've prevented this fiasco." John'stone was matter-of-fact, not accusing. He paused. His audienceappeared impassive. Maybe he wasn't telling them anything they didn'talready know.

"Finally, and perhaps most important, we know exactly how the viruswill behave in the future." John changed view graphs and slowly readit out loud, word for word.

"Mark my words, General."

PAM WILL NOT TOLERATE THREATS

"And she's predictable. Once she takes over a computer, she'll runforever."

He was obviously uncomfortable with his next comment, but he was onlythe Livermore messenger.

"Once a virgin PAM virus program starts running, she cannot bedestroyed." John cleared his throat. He'd expected some oppositionfrom his audience, but didn't get it. John concluded that this conceptwould take some time to sink in.

"PAM senses her environment and, when threatened, she spreads like acancer at the speed of light. She gives birth-she spawns copies ofherself-then evacuates to the safety of another computer. PAM's bornto run and will survive at all costs. Undoubtedly, she's spread toevery computer on Freedom. PAM must be treated like a cancer, not avirus. The cure, if any is possible, requires major surgery. Everycomputer on Freedom must be disconnected and gutted of all permanentmemory. Every trace of PAM must be purged. Obviously, Freedom must beboarded to gut each computer, but understand-PAM won't allow anyone oranything to approach Freedom.

John sighed, then spoke quietly.

"In all probability, Commander Jay Fayhee and Depack McKee are dead. Wedon't have hard data to prove our suspicion, but their very existencewould certainly threaten PAM."

There was silence as John studied Mason's expression, then the sound ofa single sob. John saw Mason's sadness to be sure, his eyes wereglassy, his back to the wall. He was suffering, but he was not broken.Deep within those magnificent sad eyes of Mason's, John saw a defiantfire burning. His humanity and spirit could not be smothered.

"That's all I have, sir.1' Mason shook his head slowly, as if to clearit. There was a period of silence which followed for not more thanforty seconds.

"John, now that we know what we're up against, I need Livermore to workup an operations plan that tells us three things. First, how wedisconnect the booby traps surrounding Centurion. Second, how wedisconnect him, and third, how we gut him."

Looking somewhat skeptical, John pursed his lips.

"Someone must board Freedom."

"Yes." Mason's tone was final. From his tone, it was clear that thispoint was not open for discussion. Mason leaned forward and rubbed hisforehead. He felt the tension building behind his eyes.

"Yes, John, I understand. I don't know how but we will board Freedom.We must."

The Dead Zone, 1211212014, 19 1 0 Zulu, 12: 1 0 P.m. Local

CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN, COLORADO

The conference room was silent and nearly empty as General Krol walkedback to his chair at the conference table.

For the past forty minutes he'd been mumbling Russian over the phonefrom the far back corner of the room.

Mason and Napper looked up anxiously at Krol, hoping to see some facialexpression which would hint as to what he was about to say.Characteristically, Krol maintained his stoic facade, but when he beganspeaking, his voice betrayed an overwhelming sense of relief combinedwith frustration. There were things he must communicate that he couldnot translate.

"There's good news and bad news from Kaliningrad."

General Krol paused, struggling with his translation, then smiled.

"You know, after years of speaking English, I still think in Russian.Give me a moment to organize my thoughts. It's important." Krol wrotewhat he wanted to say on a pad of paper, then rearranged the words. Hefound it easier to write what he wanted to say and then read italoud.

Mason craned his neck but couldn't read Krol's handwriting upsidedown.

Krol read his message with authority.

"Space Station Freedom is vulnerable. Her radar is impaired." Masonand Napper leaned forward in one simultaneous motion.

"She has a cone-shaped blind spot off her red face. A radar dead zonewhich measures forty-five degrees wide."

Mason blinked his eyes in disbelief

"Are you absolutely sure about this, Yuri?"

"Yes. Three technical teams independently reconstructed this blindspot from our best available data. As you Americans say, she's asblind as a bat."

"Thank God." He'd been given a second chance. Mason couldn't containhis emotion. He didn't try. His mind began to race, his heart pumpedwith excitement. A renewed energy charged his body. Freedom's blindspot was not the end, but it could mark the beginning of the end.Blinking his eyes clear, Mason winked at Krot.

Krol's stoic facade lifted before Mason's eyes. His expressionrevealed a mixture of compassion and understanding.

"I am happy to bring you this news, my friend."

Mason cleared his throat.

"Yuri, does Kaliningrad have any more silver bullets for us?"

Yuri looked puzzled.

"What do you mean by silver bullets?"

"More good news, more information."

"No more good news I'm afraid." Krol paused. A genuine sadness shonethrough his eyes.

"I am sorry, but we don't know what happened to the crew." He lookeddown and slowly read from his notes.

"Unless they escaped into an airtight compartment, they are probablydead. The control room is de pressurized and every airlock is open."

Mason sighed. Slowly, he accepted the inevitable.

"We bury our dead but life must go on."

"That's what they would want," Krol lamented.

Colonel Napper had been silent until now, but this seemed an opportunemoment to interrupt.

"What do we do next, General?"

Mason picked up a pencil and began writing down alternatives. Suddenly,there was so much to do. Operations to plan, briefings to attend,phone calls to make, prototype aircraft to test, space stations toboard, and computers to gut.

the rest of his staff must be briefed, but that would happen soonenough.

"Yuri, what time's your briefing?"

"My report's in reproduction. Should be ready in two hours or less."

Mason thought through his endless list of things to do.

Who made the most difference? Jackson and Scott.

"Sam, I think we're ready to call Hope.

Sam depressed a key on his computer terminal labeled HOPE and in a fewmoments the very long-distance connection was completed. Gonzoanswered the call, then left the camera's field of view to gather theothers.

Gonzo looks better today, Mason observed. The dark circles under hiseyes were less evident.

On return, Gonzo entered first. Mac and Scott followed walkingalongside Pasha, steadying him by his arms. His sense of balance was alittle shaky. Pasha looked pale, but from the expression on his face,he was clearly happy to be there.

Mason, Krol, and Napper looked at each other, delighted to see Pasha upand around. He was an essential part of their team-their space stationexpert.

Scott spoke first.

"General Krol, someone here would like a word with you." It was Krol'sturn to display emotion although he tried to maintain his stoicfacade.

What followed was a reunion of Russian comrades-a warm, heartfeltexchange in Russian which no one could translate. They didn't need to.Their expressions, gestures, and tone of voice conveyed understandingin any language.

Once the conversation returned to English, General Mason spoke toScott. When he looked at her, she saw a dread premonition.

"I am deeply sorry," she heard his voice say.

"Unless Jay found refuge in an airtight compartment, he is probablydead." The deep concern in Mason's eyes relayed the compassion he feltfor Scott.

Scott's expression revealed her pain. She was suffering, but shewasn't alone. She had friends and damn good ones.

Gonzo, Pasha, and Mac were pulling for her and they'd get her through.Everyone on Hope was silent for a moment.

Suddenly, Scott banged the desk with her fist and started to sob. Gonzoreached out to her. She put her head on his shoulder and cried herheart out. Feeling like she was about to explode, a kaleidoscope offeelings tore her heart in different directions. She felt loss and raebut, above all else, she felt loneliness. 9 Then as quickly as it hadbegun, it was finished. Scott drew strength and comfort from thewarmth of Gonzo's touch. She thought him a most unusual man, differentsomehow from the others. Always kind and considerate of her feelings,he'd often joked that he was her greatest fan.

Scott realized she wasn't alone. Together, they were going to make it.They had to. In a gesture of affection, Scott gently patted Gonzo onthe arm, wiped off her blotchy red face, then sat herself straight andupright. She quickly regained her composure and the analytical side ofher brain took over.

"it is hard," Mason spoke quietly.

There was a long pause.

"It is", Scott replied.

Then, Mason slowly and calmly told them what had happened. First, hesummarized PAM's characteristics, then described Freedom's blind spot,and finally he explained the status of Jackson's Black Hole prototypeaircraft.

Mason concluded his explanation with a somber warning.

"Assuming Jackson is successful, they'll fracture the DEW SAT layer andwe'll launch reinforcements immediately. But if Jackson fails," Masonpaused, choosing his words succinctly, 'you will be on your own." Scottsaw a look of physical pain cross Mason's face.

Pasha grunted as if someone had delivered a sharp blow to his stomach.This was the first he'd heard of this standalone alternative.

Scott's eyes now blazed with fiery resolve. Clenching her fist, she-reached into the depths of her soul and quietly spoke what shebelieved.

"We will survive."

There was a deep silence on the line.

"You must." Mason's voice had the distinctly metallic tone of urgency.Everyone was silent for a moment.

Mason could hardly believe what happened next. The matter-of-fact toneand atmosphere of the conversation was something like you'd experienceduring the huddle of a football team. A you break this way, I'll dropback sort oftone. First, Gonzo and Scott began discussing their flight plans.They talked about flying in out of the sun, then before they were closeenough to cast a shadow, they'd sideslip into that blind spot on thered face. After several minutes, with no input from anyone on theground, the discussions onboard Hope broke up into two separatemeetings. Mac fastened a large set of space station blueprints onto alarge plotting table. Pasha sat by the table and began circling thedanger zones with red marker. From that moment forward, the meetingsustained a pace of its own, feeding on its own energy. One idea ledto another. Mason sensed the paralyzing inertia of this virus had beenovercome. He hoped and prayed that this might be their turning point.Although he knew their obstacles would be formidable, for a moment atleast, he felt he could see the light at the end of the tunnel.

THE GATHERING STORM

DAY 7 DECEMBER 13-i 2014 The Inevitable, 1211312o]4, 1317 Zulu, 6:17 A.M. Local

CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN, COLORADO

The video conference room was enclosed by a wall of heavy blackcurtains, completely dark except for the light from a single blue TVscreen. With satellite photographs in hand, Napper entered the room,gently tapping Mason on the shoulder.

"General?"

Mason awoke more slowly than usual from a dream he hated to leave. Heblinked a few times and was disappointed to find himself camped out inhis conference room Focusing on the VCR digital clock, heremembered-like most VCR clocks-it was wrong. Still groggy, he lookedat Sam.

"What time is it?"

"About six-fifteen, sir."

Rubbing his aching head, he struggled to decide if this was morning orevening. At this stage, it was easier to ask.

A.M. or P.m." Sam? How long was I under?"

"It's early morning, General. You've been out nearly three hours."

Mason groaned after the realization struck home. There was anotherproblem. There must be. Napper wouldn't wake him up with good news.Mason opened the curtains and cut up the lights. Still squinting, helooked at Sam and spoke quietly.

"What's the problem?"

Sam placed a set of satellite photographs on the conference table infront of him. In less then fifteen seconds, Mason had seen all heneeded to see. Bold black arrows drawn across the photographs told thestory of massive Iraqi troop movements.

"Looks like the Iraqis are going to be the first bunch out of the box,Sir." Napper's tone was matter-of-fact.

"What do you make of it?" Mason had already formed his opinion butwanted to compare it against Napper's for a sanity check.

"I think we're watching the prelude to the second Gulf War, General.The Iraqis are looking for a little oil rich waterfront property,something with a view of the Gulf. It could be more complicated thanthat, but I doubt it."

"it could be an exercise," Mason said wearily, but he didn't believeit.

"No Sir. Not likely. Not on the Kuwaiti border." Napper spoke in aconfident voice.

"Iraq will no doubt claim these troop movements are an exercise." Masonwanted to probe the depth of Napper's conviction.

"Placing Iraqi troops on the border of Kuwait is an inherentlydangerous situation, General. Kuwaiti prudence demands that theirtroops stick close to the Iraqis, and having their troops in closeproximity is dangerous. All the Iraqis need is an excuse."

"They may need no excuse at all." Mason spoke pragmatically.

"They've done it before," Napper agreed.

Mason concluded Napper's analysis was down-to-earth and he agreed withit. He wished he didn't. Mason looked at Napper.

"So how should we respond?"

Napper spoke carefully and slowly, as if he were trying to avoid error.His tone was a combination of confidence and grave concern.

"First, consider who needs to know: the President, the Kuwaitis, andthe Saudis. Second, consider the assets we have in the immediate area:nothing, not a damn thing." Napper paused, culled out one of thesatellite photos, then pointed to a fleet of ships in the Arabian Seasteaming south, away from the action.

"Here. A single carrier group within atwenty-four-hour sail of the Persian Gulf. But what good are they? Forall practical purposes, the group is useless. Every aircraft andmissile's been grounded." Napper's tone shifted to one of pressingimportance.

"Iraq's got to be planning a ground war, and they'll be in one hell ofa big hurry to get it won and over with. They can't know any betterthan we do when our armada will be set right."

Mason placed his head in his hands then judiciously considered Napper'sanalysis. There was silence for an extended period while Mason sortedthrough what he thought.

He found this type of mental exercise physically exhausting. Minuteslater, he looked at Napper and spoke as concisely as he could.

"The elements of surprise and readiness cannot be overrated in thissituation. Considering the virus, the question of air superiority is awash. If Iraq surprises Kuwait and strikes decisively with sufficientforce, the war could be over in one week or less. If, on the otherhand, Iraq loses the element of surprise and Kuwait is prepared, theground war would likely be a bloody battle of attrition."

Napper nodded agreement.

"So the Iraqi keys to Kuwait are surprise and readiness?"

Mason spoke slowly and quietly, rubbing his eyes once again.

"The sooner they strike, the shorter the war. Time is everything."

"Then-it's like a horse race."

"But the race has started," Mason sighed.

"The Iraqis have bolted out of the gate."

"So we're the spoilers. We eliminate the element of surprise."

"We do." Mason's expression was determined, his voice urgent.

"We tell Kuwait to position their troops opposite the Iraqi forces andmake ready for a ground war. We don't know when and we don't knowwhere, but Iraq is going to attack."

The Squeeze, 1211312014, 1627 Zulu, 11:27 A.M. Local THE WHITE HouSE,

WASHINGTON, D.C.

The President's melancholy mood mirrored the gloomy sky outside theOval Office. There was progress on the virus,but Mason's crew wasn't moving fast enough to keep up with the Iraqis.The Iraqi Republican Guard was rolling, taking positions along theKuwaiti border. Placing the Allied operations plan on his desk, thePresident peered over his reading glasses at Clive Towles, the nationalsecurity advisor.

"I don't like it. These schedules allow far too much slack."

Towles was noncommittal and spoke objectively.

"They gave you what you asked for, Mr. President. It's a big mistaketo squeeze Mason-like squeezing water from a rock."

The President discounted Clive's observation then laid out the set ofsatellite photographs taken over Kuwait.

"You've seen these?"

"I have. We wired these photographs along with our recommendations toKuwait and Saudi Arabia."

"Yes, yes." The President's tone was impatient.

"Any response?" He looked apprehensive.

Towles sighed.

"The Kuwaitis plan a detailed evaluation tomorrow, but their initialposition was disappointing."

"Clearly I haven't seen their response," the President snapped.

"What do they plan to do?"

"Nothing."

"Nothing?" The President's jaw went slack. His mind transitioned intoa state of disbelief.

"The Kuwaitis were warned about these troop movements in advance byIraq. Iraq has assured them in writing that these military camps andtroop movements are an exercise, part of their winter desert maneuvers.The Kuwaitis won't do anything that might provoke the Iraqis."

"What does their military think about it?"

"They don't like it, of course, but then again, the Kuwaiti militarydoesn't get a vote. At this point, it's considered a politicalmatter."

"It won't be a political matter for long." The President spoke inearnest.

"Iraq will drive the Kuwaiti Army into the sea."

"If these events go unchanged, they most certainly will."

Clive's serious-minded approach to this issue allowed for nononsense.

The President began drawing big red circles around the major workelements in the Allied op plan.

"General Mason doesn't know it, but he's going to pull this scheduleup."

"Mr. President, I'd suggest you take this matter up with the Chairmanof the Joint Chiefs."

"You can count on it. I want this virus situation turned around beforethings get out of hand in Kuwait. If the Iraqis get away with murder,others will surely follow suit."

"In my opinion, Mr. President, you're overreacting."

The veins on the President's forehead bulged and his face turnedpurple.

"Damn it to hell, Clive! I'm trying to nip this problem in the budbefore it jets out of hand. You got any better suggestion?"

"Let the Kuwaitis solve their problem, Mr. President, and allowGeneral Mason to solve ours." His tone was businesslike anddetached.

The President decided, but he didn't think. He knew that importantdecisions should never be made in the heat of anger but that didn'tslow him down. This was where he would draw his line in the sand. Histone was final.

"Mason will solve our problem all right, but sooner, much sooner thanhe expects."

Reasoning, 1211312014, 1830 Zulu, 11:30 A.m. Local

CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN, COLORADO

Without notice, the President called Mason over the direct videoconference line. The President, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, andClive Towles on line in Washington Napper Craven, and Mason on lineunder Cheyenne Mountain.

Following the obligatory

"Good morning, General," the President pressed the reason for thecall.

Mason expected the call concerned the Iraqi situation and placed hislatest set of satellite photographs on the conference able, "GeneralMason, I want you to pull up your op plan. Accelerate it in light ofthe situation developing in the Middle East."

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs spoke next before Mason had a chanceto think.

"The President's right, Slim.

You can take slack out of any schedule. Throw more people at it,smother it with money, just pull it up."

Mason considered the chairman's proposal. No self respecting managerever turned down an offer of additional resources.

"Lincoln Lab needs additional people and prototype aircraft. Theycouldn't help us out immediately though. Additional aircraft wouldn'tbe available for months." Mason looked at the President.

"What would make you happy? Tell me exactly what you're lookingfor."

The President did not hesitate.

"I want this Star Wars fiasco cleared up before Iraq invades Kuwait."

At first, Mason couldn't believe what the President was saying. Theyexpected Iraq to invade Kuwait in one week or less.

"I understand your concern about Kuwait, Mr. President, but we'vecovered this ground before. We're in this predicament today because webuckled under pressure. We compromised for all the wrong reasons, gotin a hurry, and screwed up. Our response to pressure was inappropriatethen, it should not be repeated now." Mason looked at Craven.

"What do you think? Frankly, I'm at a loss as to how to deal withit."

"I agree. Go with your gut. Do what you think is right."

He thought, but did not say, Political pressure is bullshit.

Mason allowed himself a moment of self-reflection, then spokequietly.

"Mr. President, can we speak privately, on eon-one?"

"Very well, General." Both rooms emptied. After a few moments'shuffling, the conversation resumed.

"We have conflicting orders from you, Mr. President.

Move now but do it right. If we take the time to do it right, there isstill a very good chance that we could fail." Mason paused, lettinghis sobering statement sink in.

"If we move now, we scuttle all chances for success."

"Let me be clear, General Mason." The President's face scrunched up.

"I don't believe it. I don't believe if you moved today that you'dscuttle your chances." The President paused, then revealed hiswillingness to compromise.

"What really matters is that you believe it."

"I do." Mason's two words sounded with resolve.

"My job is to push. Your job is to deliver." The President paused,eyeing Mason's expression.

"As soon as you possibly can."

Mason's expression immediately eased.

"We'll march to that order, Mr. President."

PREPARATION

1 DAY 8-1 DECEMBER 14, 2014

Family Plans, 1211412014, 1500 Zulu, 8. 00 A.M. Mountain StandardTime

SPACE STATION HOPE

Hope, like Freedom, was an elaborate maze of rooms, corridors andconcealed explosive devices. Staring at Freedom's constructionblueprints, Pasha highlighted the lethal hazards on his screen. Heentered a key totaling the number of personnel mines and lasers, thengroaned an anguished sigh. He'd never realized how many hazards werewoven into the space station's fabric. None had ever failed.

As far as he knew, none had ever been detonated defending the spacestation. The lethal security system had never given him any cause forconcern until now. On Freedom, PAM controlled the space station'ssecurity system.

Across the room, Gonzo and Scott were putting together a list ofequipment they'd need. Hearing Pasha's distress, they cameimmediately.

Inside Hell Fire, Mac worked reconfiguring the reconnaissance bay.Removing large pieces of equipment, Mac made room for Pasha and theadditional gear they'd need on Freedom.

As Scott and Gonzo approached, they couldn't help but notice the warmlook and feel of Pasha's work space. Almost simultaneously, as if oncue, their eyes were drawn tothe poster-size montage showing pictures of his wife and three smallchildren. There was something wonderful, almost indescribable aboutthose pictures. There was a warmth about them which humanized thestark, cold nature of this colossal tin can. Intrigued, Gonzo staredwistfully into the eyes of Pasha's little girl. Her expression wasperfectly relaxed. Her bright, wide eyes conveyed the most marveloussense of unconditional love he had ever seen captured on film. Someonemust love her a tremendous lot, Gonzo thought. He wanted to ask Pashaabout his little girl, but decided to wait until the time was right.Gonzo loved children, he loved everything about them. He'd wished manytimes over for a wife and children, but somehow he'd always arrived toolate.

Glancing at Scotty, he quietly sighed. He knew she would never carefor him, she'd loved Jay since high school, but he could always hope.Her eyes, her voice, the look and feel of her hair drove him-to thinkabout something else. After a brief reflection, he just felt lucky tobe near her.

When Pasha spoke, reality came crashing down around him.

"We need a demolition team."

Gonzo noticed numerous icons highlighted in reverse video on Pasha'scomputer screen.

"What are these?"

"They're the problem. Each flashing icon's a blunderbuss." Gonzolooked puzzled so Pasha spelled it out clearly.

"An explosive personnel mine."

Gonzo studied the layout carefully, noting each location.

"We'll need the location coordinates assimilated into our data packs Hepaused for a few moments, then spoke in an objective voice.

"They must be sensitive to something.

What triggers them?"

"PAM," Pasha spoke cryptically. There was a tone of certainty in hisvoice.

"PAM senses body heat then detonates the blunderbuss once you're inrange."

"We'd better come up with some way to safely detonate those things."Scott's pragmatic assessment was unemotional.

"We can do it," Pasha responded objectively.

"We have a small, remotely controlled electric vehicle called theboomer. It's a minesweeper built specifically for this purpose."

"Good." She collected her thoughts, then continued.

"If Jackson's Black Hole flies undetected and Wild Bill punchesthrough, Mason plans to send up the Marines. Otherwise, we're on ourown."

Pasha considered their alternatives then chose his words carefully.

"We'll train assuming we're on our own. After a few days' practice,we'll be a first-rate demolition team."

"I expect you're right," Gonzo agreed.

"Train for the worst-case. It's the only way to be sure."

"Apparently Jackson's ace in the hole didn't pan out,"

Scott lamented quietly.

"We'll get the story firsthand in a half hour or so, but Colonel Napperbelieves Wild Bill's only got a fifty-fifty chance."

"He's risking his life for us," Gonzo added somberly.

Pasha grimaced. Tension around his mouth caused him to look older.

"He's a courageous man, putting his life on the line like this. Iwouldn't want to walk in his shoes."

"The man's a warrior." Scott spoke with a quiet tone of admiration.She looked Gonzo in the eyes and smiled a sad sort of smile. Our shoesdon't look much better, she thought, but did not say. Her thoughtsconnected with Gonzo's. In many' ways they were very much the same.

Scott, Gonzo, and Pasha then made plans for clearing the blunderbussmines from Freedom. Once everyone knew what to do, the conversationshifted to Pasha's family.

"She's beautiful," Gonzo said, pointing to the little girl's picture.

"Who took this?"

Pasha's face beamed. The concern shown only moments earlier seemed todisappear.

"That's my favorite picture."

He spoke softly with a twinkle in his eye.

"I took it after countless hours of waiting."

Gonzo gazed fondly at the picture, then watched Scott in quietadmiration. Her eyes smiled a teary sort of smile.

"She must love you very much," Scott said quietly.

"My children are the greatest fans I'll ever have." Struggling tocontrol his emotions, he bit his lip.

"I need them."

"They need you home." Gonzo lamented.

Scott's voice sounded with renewed resolve.

"You will see your family soon, Pasha."

Pasha's gaze was distant, unfocused. His thoughts were ofhome-twenty-two thousand miles away.

The Gamble, 1211412014, 1530 Zulu, 8:30 A.m. Local

CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN, COLORADO

There was a somber silence over the video conference line as Scott andher crew onboard Hope watched Thomas Jackson's briefing withoutcomment. Mason and his general staff on one end, Thomas Jackson andWild Bill Boyd on the other.

Mason studied the two faces on screen. Thomas Jackson, the radarexpert from MIT Lincoln Lab, and Lieutenant Colonel William

"Wild Bill" Boyd sat silently, their expressions unfathomable. TheBlack Hole prototype test data was undeniable, the conclusioninescapable. Jackson was a beaten man; Boyd's chances were fifty-fiftyat best.

Thinking about his briefing, Jackson grimaced. There was preciouslittle more to say. His plan to hide the experimental prototype withthe masking equipment used in the Phantom Hawk had been a grave error.The only bright spot on the horizon was that they'd discovered theproblem in the lab before it was too late. Jackson gazed withtrepidation at Mason. He had no silver bullets, no magic fixes.

Only a few suggestions which might marginally improve the situation.

Wild Bill surveyed the faces of the general staff and those onboardHope. He wished he was someone else, anyone else.

Colonel Napper addressed a question to Jackson.

"Why couldn't we remotely control the prototype from the ground'?"

Jackson's expression was placid, his body motionless.

His mind focused an his response.

"We could remotely control the aircraft, but our chances are betterwith a pilot in the cockpit. I say this for two reasons. First, thereis a very slim chance that PAM would pick up our transmissions, andsecond, if something goes wrong, our chances for success improve byfive percentage points with a skilled pilot in the cockpit."

"Five percent," Napper said solemnly. His jaw was tightened.

"In addition," Jackson added,

"Colonel Boyd should take off low and slow over water." He paused,then continued with the reason why.

"We pick up ten percentage points on takeoff, but our improvementdiminishes once the prototype gains altitude." There was no technicaldiscussion. Results were all that really mattered in this numbersgame.

Following a short pause, Jackson concluded.

"I propose Logan Airport with takeoff over Boston Harbor."

Mason second-guessed the technical reason why. Any slowly movingstealth target was difficult to detect near the surface of the water.

"I want you to understand one thing clearly, Colonel Boyd." He paused,took a breath, and went on.

"I will not order anyone into a life-and-death situation where thechances of survival are-unacceptable. I want you to rethink yourdecision to volunteer with this in mind."

The silence which ensued lasted more than thirty seconds.

Wild Bill looked up, holding his head erect. His voice, calm andbarely audible.

"I have given the matter a great deal of thought, General, and my mindis clear." As he spoke, his voice gained strength. It was as if hisears heard what his mouth was saying for the first time and he believedit.

"As I see it, our situation's damn near hopeless.

We only have two chances to get out of this man-made fiasco. Twoalternatives, at not a hell of a lot. We need to do everything we cando to pull this off. Whether I like it or not, that fact isundeniable. That bunch on Hope needs our help. They're not trainedsoldiers and frankly, sir, they're gonna need all the help they canget. I wouldn't want to trade places with 'em." He paused, thencontinued with a softer voice. His tone was sincere.

"I've been in this Black Hole program from the get go, and Jackson herewillagree, I'm the best you've got. Considering our situation, I don'tthink anything less will do. We need to take our best shot andfrankly, sir, I'm the logical choice."

Mason closed his eyes for a few moments, struggling desperately to findthe right words. He focused on his message, the essence of what hebelieved.

"I agree with your assessment, Colonel-I wish I did not," he lamentedquietly.

Scott, who'd been silent, now spoke to Wild Bill for herself, and onbehalf of her crew.

"You're risking your life for us and there's precious little we have tooffer you in return."

"That's true," groused Jackson, interrupting Scott midstream.

"Why are you doing this? Nobody does anything for nothing."

"It's my job," Wild Bill snarled instinctively at Jackson.

After a few moments, he thought about how his response must sound tothe people stranded onboard Hope. Turning away from Jackson, Wild Billallowed his face to relax and winked at Scott.

"Well, somebody has to do it, right?"

"Once this nightmare is behind us," Scott said quietly, we'd like tomeet you in person."

"No problem. That can be arranged, Major Scott, under one condition."Wild Bill forced a grin to ease the tension.

"I don't rescue XR-30 crews for free, you understand. My servicesdon't come cheap. Don't get me wrong, your lives are important andall, but I'm an old stick and rudder man myself."

From the look in his eye, from the tone of his voice, Scott knewexactly where he was headed. One glance told her Mason knew it too.She'd heard variations of this setup before. Wild Bill was a testpilot and any pilot worth his salt's looking for athrottles-to-the-wall flight in Hell Fire.

Making eye contact with General Mason, they communicated without anexchange of words, then Scott spoke.

"Hell Fire always has room for one more, right, General?"

"Absolutely. Any speed-fast as you want to go-anywhere. And one otherthing, Bill. I'm driving to Boston to meet you and see the Black Holefirsthand. I want to be there."

"I look forward to meeting you, sir." Wild Bill paused.

"Now about, that ticket?"

"I'll bring the paperwork. You fill in the destination."

"How about one round-trip ticket to Freedom, General ... windowseat?"

"Done."

The meeting was adjourned following a discussion of when and where theBlack Hole prototype flight would take place.

Once the conference line had been disconnected, Mason looked atNapper.

"Run the shop while I'm away and keep Scott in the loop. They need toknow status-anything relevant to the Black Hole flight-in real time.Call me if anything changes." His instructions were crisp.

"What are you thinking, General?" Napper looked perplexed.

"I'm headed to Boston to meet Colonel Boyd face-to-face; it's importantto me. I've never ordered anyone into a situation this dangerous, andI want to meet the man with courage enough to face it." Now out of thespotlight with the TV monitors dark, Mason's private agony shonethrough his eyes.

"You do what must be done, but it extracts a terrible toll."

The Practice Run, 1211412014, 2030 Zulu, 1:30 P.m. Mountain StandardTime

THE RED FACE

SPACE STATION HOPE

Scott heard Pasha's transmission crackle over her headphones:"Prebreathing complete. You're clear for EVA."

Before Scott and her crew could safely begin their ExtravehicularActivity (EVA), they had to pre breathe pure oxygen in order to purgenitrogen from their systems. Otherwise, the lower pressure insidetheir space suits would cause nitrogen bubbles to form in theirbloodstreams, leaving them with a lethal case of the bends. Scott'sheart was thumping now. Her breathing rapid. From inside the zipperedpocket on her sleeve she extracted the tiny four-leaf clover Jay hadgiven her many years ago. It was a gift she always carried with her.

After a brief moment's reflection, she pulled the de pressurizationhandle and vented Hell Fire's atmosphere into space. When theindicator light turned from red to green, she began turning the hatchwheel on top of Hell Fire and carefully opened it.

Tightly gripping Mac's hand, she pulled him from the reconnaissance bayin Hell Fire's belly. Sweat poured off his forehead. Before pullingherself outside through the hatch, Scott checked Mac and Gonzo'sequipment one last time.

All seemed well.

After taking a deep breath, she disconnected her oxygen umbilical fromHell Fire. Once free, she pulled herself through the small hatch andout into space. Immediately afterwards, Mac passed her EVA backpackthrough the hatch along with a small thruster, an Aqua-Lung sized tankof compressed gas. Scott carefully slipped into the backpack andattached her umbilicals. Once a tiny gauge showed oxygen flowing intoher suit, she began breathing again.

Smiling to herself, she thought how she hated that nagging lag betweenbreaths. Finally, she grabbed the handgrips on the small auxiliarythruster and clipped it to her pack.

Once Scott, Mac, and Gonzo extracted themselves, they moved in unisonlike a team of precision fliers, using their thruster tanks forpropulsion. Approaching the red face, the trio retarded their speed byreleasing braking bursts of gas.

Scott entered the opening first, followed by Gonzo, then Mac. Passingthrough the slit, Mac accidently slammed his thruster tank into theflimsy skin like mesh that covered the space station. There was nosound as the metal tank scraped against mesh, but Scott and Gonzo couldfeel the handrail of the corridor vibrating through their gloves.

Once inside, the space station looked abandoned. As expected, all thelights in the central core, including the control room, were off. Scottknew that humans tended to hunt by light-that humans were attracted tolight like moths to a flame, and where there was light there was veryreal danger. Only the emergency lights remained on, illuminating thecorridors connecting the central core to the spiked, outside skin. Thecorridors led to the central core, to the power plant and nervoussystem of the space station, but the corridors were punctuated withdanger.

"There's the first one." Gonzo spoke over the low power intercominside his suit. He motioned ahead to Scott and Mac.

Scott admired Gonzo's low-light nocturnal vision. For several moments,even though she knew it was there, she couldn't see it. Then in thedistaite she made it out, a shape like that of a gargantuan shotgunshell. Mac could see it too. Ahead, maybe twenty-five yards down thecorridor, they saw the blunderbuss; its cylinder-shaped ceramic warheadreflected only the faintest glimmer of light. They knew that thecylinder-shaped vessel was secured to a base made of plastiqueexplosive and was filled with thousands of pea-sized stainless-steelpellets. When the plastique base detonated, each steel pellet emergedwith the same kinetic energy as a round from an M-16. The ceramiccontainer would erupt spewing out the pellets in a sawed-offshotgunlikescatter pattern, a pattern used to scatter shot at close range and tearpressurized space suits.

Mac carefully -lifted the "boomer" out of his tool kit, placing itfirmly on the corridor. It looked something like a radio-controlledminiature tank with robotic arms. Rolling on special magnetic tracks,it held firm against the corridor floor.

"Hope this gadget works," Mac muttered into his intercom.

Over his headset Mac heard Pasha's voice come back loud and clear.

"Not to worry, Mac. It's a minesweeper.

It'll work."

Mac prepped the boomer for action by attaching a vertical flagpole tothe tank like body. On top of the pole he wired a diesel glow plug, aglowing heat source which would trigger the blunderbuss. He coveredthe top of the boomer with a protective shield of Kevlar armor thenchecked his handheld remote. Finally, after moving thethrottle on the remote control, the drone tank lurched forward.

"Good," he muttered.

"Let's go."

Gonzo and Scott set up a Kevlar shield across the corridor, positioningthemselves in line behind it. The Kevlar shield would stop the pelletsbut not heavy metal fragments from a high-explosive warhead. Macstarted the boomer rolling slowly then took cover with Scott andGonzo.

The drone transmitted a greenish video picture back to a small screenon Mac's handheld remote. The low-light pictures were grainy, but Maccould see well enough to keep the boomer on track. About ten feet fromthe blunderbuss Mac stopped the boomer and zoomed in. The blunderbusslooked exactly as they'd expected, no surprises. The next few secondswould reveal just how well they'd done their homework.

"This is it," Mac said with an apprehensive quiver in his voice.Lowering his head between his knees, he started the drone forward onceagain.

On the whole, it seemed like it took an awfully long time. Then in afraction of a second, the blunderbuss spent its energy with a suddenflash of light-but no sound. Scott felt a rapid series of vibrationsthrough her gloves as the high-energy pellets slammed into the corridorand Kevlar shield.

"Bull's-eye!" Gonzo observed, patting Mac on his shoulder.

"A mine is a hard thing to miss." Mac was not impressed, but he wasglad it was over.

Once the explosive blast of buckshot passed overhead, they surveyed thedamage to the corridor and robotic drone.

As they'd expected, the space station was undamaged. The scatter gunsupport mount for the blunderbuss munition had been designed to reloadand fire a ain, but the exposed parts of the robotic drone had taken abeating. The flagpole and glow plug were obliterated-no surprisethere-and the shield had taken a pounding. Underneath it all, the tanklike robotic drone survived without visible damage.

Mac tested the drone; it worked.

"So far so good, Pasha.

One down, four to go."

The amazing thing is how smoothly things have gone so far, Scottthought. Considering how many problems we've had up until now, it'samazing anything worked at all. At least K,evtarted with the easiesttraps first The blunderbuss was the dumb one.

Advancing down the corridor, the trio executed their detonationoperation once again. This time Scott configured the drone-tank with aglow plug and Gonzo ran the handheld remote. They repeated thissequence three more times, each time changing roles. Finally, afterthe fifth blunderbuss detonation, the corridor was secure-clear fromthe outer shell to the inner core. Scott's team felt they had thesituation well in hand. Although it was dangerous, blunderbussdetonation was beginning to feel routine for them.

Their confidence grew with each success along the way.

Within a few hours, Scott's crew was operating as an efficient andfinely tuned demolition team. They hadn't originally been trained as abomb squad but quickly learned the ropes. Each member of the team fitneatly, each sufficiently trained so that they were interchangeable tosome degree.

Scott checked her watch. About thirty minutes per detonation, threehours to secure the corridor. Three hours was acceptable. They hadstrength and oxygen enough to sustain themselves for up to four hourswithout breaking off for resupply. If tfiey could establish a toeholdinside Freedom quickly, they could off-load supplies, rest, and regroupfor the second more dangerous phase of their operation their coreoffensive. Centurion, the power plants, and the control room were allcontained inside the core.

Scott tapped Mac on his helmet.

"Whataya say we off load then call it a day?"

Mac nodded, signaling a thumbs up.

"Good. We can bandle these babies with the right tools and a littleguts."

Mac radioed Hope's control room.

"Pasha, how about a little light on the situation?"

Anxious, Pasha responded immediately, switching on all the operatinglights inside Hope. He spoke with a voice that expressed relief.

"And there was light."

THE END OF THE BEGINNING

DAYS 16 THROUGH 20-

1 DECEMBER 22-26, 2014

Separation, 1212212014, 0530 Zulu, 10:30 P.m. Mountain Standard Time

ONBOARD HELL FIRE,

SPACE STATION HOPE

Climbing into Hell Fire was slow work for Scott and her team becausethey were already wearing their EVA suits.

They were bulkier than their regular pressurized suits, but they'dbecome accustomed to them during the course of their training over thepast several days. They were wearing the EVA suits because Hell Fire'sinterior was cramped and packed tight with supplies and equipment.

There was simply no place to change.

Scott was the last to wedge herself into Hell Fire. Once inside, shewheeled the hatch shut and began making final preparations forseparation.

Scott's pulse rate increased as it normally did before any flight.Looking back, it was amazing how smoothly their training had gone, yetshe had a nagging feeling about this flight and didn't know why. They'dpracticed all aspects of the mission except the flight and finalapproach to Freedom. For that, they had to depend on theirnavigational computer. Inside Hell Fire, Scott double checked theflight path data in the NavComputer. Smiling, she believed that HellFire's NavComputer was first-rate.

All she had to do was describe the characteristics of their flight paththen engage the autopilot. The autopilot wouldread flight path data from the NavComputer and maneuver Hell Firethrough the complex flight path required for their blind-side finalapproach onto Freedom's red face.

Hell Fire also possessed a flight path projection system called MAPwhich would enable Scott to manually approach Freedom on course if thatbecame necessary. In space, an course is a difficult thing todetermine without some fixed point of reference. The MAP systemprovided the reference point by displaying a projection of the desiredflight path overlaid with a constantly updated image of Hell Fire'sactual position. Using MAP, Scott need only keep Hell Fire's pip perbetween the lines. Without the NavComputer, MAP, and autopilotsystems, it would be difficult if not impossible to maintain properposition and heading for their blind-side approach out of the sun.

Satisfied with the flight path data, Scott felt she had done all shecould do-for now.

Their course was set as long, as everything went as planned. But aswith Wild Bill's death, nothing ever worked out as planned. Somethingalways went wrong. Maybe that's what's nagging me, Scott thought asshe checked her watch and did some mental arithmetic. Two minutes tillthe explosive bolts fired forcing separation. Allow three minutes forattitude positioning. Another five minutes for radial burn, then aforty-one-hour wait until Freedom passed underneath them. That meant aforty-one-hour wait followed by a seven-hour pursuit. This is going tobe one long wait, Scott thought. And this is the easy part. Scott'sreflection was curtailed when she heard Big Shot's transmission crackleover her secure radio. There was a muted silence while the encryptedradio signal "synced up" causing the first syllable of the message tobe lost.

"L Fire, you're go for separation in T minus sixty seconds andcounting."

Scott listened to the sounds of her crew over the intercom and notedtheir increased breathing rate. This was no training exercise. It wasthe real thing, and they had to take each movement slowly andcarefully. A tiny mishap could scuttle the mission. Everyone knewthere was a chance for them to succeed now. A real chance.

From inside the zippered pocket on the sleeve of her The End of theBeginning pressurized space suit, Scott extracted the tiny four-leafclover Jay had given her and hung it above her head on Hell Fire's rearlooking mirror. She wished she could kiss it for good luck, but herhelmet and visor were in the way.

She felt they'd need luck more now than ever.

Big Shot's transmission crackled over her headphones once again.

"L Fire, you're go for separation in T minus ten seconds and counting... nine ... eight... seven . . ."

The NavComputer flashed a green All Systems Go message across Scott'shead's up display. After that moment, Hell Fire's crew was no longerin the loop. With their weapons spent, they were now,tpassengers on anorbiting, unarmed reconnaissance platform.

"Three ... two... one ... fire." Scott saw sparks fly out fromunderneath the seam of the docking collar as the explosive bolts fired,releasing Hell Fire from Hope's anchorage.

"And so we begin," Scott spoke quietly over the intercom as Hell Fireshuddered beneath them.

The crew was silent.

For a brief moment, a wave of exhilaration washed over Scott. She feltthe thrill of motion accentuated by their closeness to Hope. Hell Firevibrated as her attitude positioning rockets fired, slowly increasingtheir distance from Hope's large triangular face. One by one thegauges in front of Scott seemed to come alive. The thousands of spikelike antennae covering Hope's surface began to sweep by faster andfaster. Soon they were a continuous blur. Her four-leaf cloverappeared to gain weight, swinging like a pendulum from the cockpitmirror. Once they were well clear of Hope, Hell Fire executed a slowfull body turn about the nose, rotating into escape position.

Scott was awed by the remarkable view-she craned her neck and lookedstraight up through the canopy. Hope filled the windshield. Hell Firewas traveling positioned with Hope overhead and pointing away fromearth. From this position, the thrust from the main rocket enginewould propel Hell Fire further out into space into a region known asthe junkyard. Once Hell Fire's position stabilized, Scott felt theshudder from the main engine burn.

This burn would increase their orbital radius and slowtheir orbital velocity, thereby allowing Freedom to overtake them andpass directly underneath. Their flight plan called for approachingFreedom out of the sun but initially they would be positioned onehundred miles above Freedom. Because Freedom was traveling in a lowerorbital plane, it would catch up to Hell Fire and pass underneath likea race car hanging the inside track around a curve. Once the spacestation passed underneath, Hell Fire would close the gap starting froma position about one thousand miles behind her.

Outside Hope's geostationary orbit was a belt of orbiting space junk. Abelt of debris where dead and retired satellites were parked when theycame to the end of their useful service life. Scott planned to hideHell Fire in this ring of orbiting junk while Freedom passed underneaththem. Generally, PAM wouldn't consider anything in the orbiting junkbelt as a threat unless it moved toward Freedom.

Gonzo sat in the backseat carefully monitoring every action theautopilot made.

"So far, we're golden, Scotty.

Main engine burn was clean. Braking burn in three ... two ... one ...ignition."

Hell Fire shuddered briefly then rolled through a slow pirouette. Asplanned, Hell Fire pulled in behind the large torpedo-shaped carcass ofa dead communications bird once operated by the United States AirForce. Hell Fire's first rendezvous was now complete. Once theyslowed to the speed of the communication satellite, Scott examined theorbiting debris scattered all around them. She was amazed and gratefulthat they were unharmed by the space borne shrapnel. Once convinced allwas well around their new parking spot, Scott spoke to her crew.

"Now we wait."

The Chase, 1212412014, 2258 Zulu, 3.-58 P.m. Mountain Standard Time

ONBOARD HELL FIRE,

POSITIONED DIRECTLY BETWEEN THE SUN AND FREEDOM. Hell Fire's crew slept. The cockpit and reconnaissance cabin weredark; the instrument lighting was turned down.

Beep Beep Beep! reverberated over the intercom.

Gonzo slammed his fist down hard on the mute button.

Scott opened her eyes to find the NavComputer powering up the ship,bringing the instrumentation and control panels back to life. TheNavComputer spoke in a voice which imitated Gonzo and in fact soundedvery much like him, only mechanical.

"Target one thousand miles downrange. Closing burn commences in Tminus sixty seconds and counting."

A green All Systems Go message flashed across Scott's head's updisplay. After reviewing Freedom's current position and her courseover the last forty-one hours, Scott spoke in a matter-of-fact tone.

"Freedom's on track."

Mac cleared his throat and spoke next.

"We're ready to roll."

Gonzo disengaged the NavComputer's audible voice and spoke.

"Scotty, closing burn begins in fifteen seconds."

"Roger," Scott replied.

"Autopilot is engaged."

"I minus five ... four ... three .

Ignition."

Hell Fire shuddered.

Gonzo watched his engine control and fuel flow gauges come to life.They spun up exactly as they were supposed to.

"Burn is go, Scotty."

For the next several minutes, Scott watched countless pieces of spaceborne debris streak by her cockpit canopy.

Once Hell Fire was free and clear of the junk belt, she breathed a sighof relief and spoke in a determined voice.

So our chase begins."

The Puzzle, 1212412014, 0315 Zulu, 8:15 P.m. Mountain Standard Time

ONBOARD HELL FIRE,

APPROACHING OUT OF THE SUN

Perplexed, Gonzo timed the output from his radar receiver using theclock on his Electronic CounterMeasures (ECM) computer. For a fewmoments, his mouth was agape. This two ... one ... ig-data was unmistakable. The radar signal from Freedom cycled on forfifty-three seconds then off for seven. This on-again, off-againpattern was totally unexpected. Neither Gonzo or his ECM computer knewwhat to make of it. He pondered this problem in an effort tounderstand it.

What could it mean? This blinking radar signature wasn't in the planand he couldn't explain it. Was it significant?

Probably, although he couldn't say for sure. Finally, aftermethodically working through a series of measurements, he raised a redflag to Scott.

"I've got a big mystery here, Scotty, and I don't like the looks ofit." Gonzo went on to describe the problem.

Scott tried to step back and analyze the problem objectively.

"We have the go-no-go decision on our rendezvous coming up in threeminutes, Gonzo." Scott spoke with a strained sense of urgency in hervoice.

"What do you think we should do?" Hell Fire's fuel situation wascritical. If all went as planned they had only a few minutes of fuelheld in reserve. Once they'd passed their go-no-go point, theirdecision was go by default. They had insufficient fuel to return.

Gonzo's insides tightened into an icy ball. No nee(i to think abouthis answer. He didn't like their situation, but the fact was theydidn't have any choice. If they went back to Hope they could neverreturn to Freedom-insufficient fuel. Their situation was a two-edgedsword. Return now and face a slow lingering death or go forward andconfront God only knows what. Gonzo grimaced and spoke in a gravetone. His mood bordered on the morose.

Either alternative was fraught with danger.

"Stay the course, Scotty. We'll understand this once we board Freedom.It may be nothing, but I feel like we missed something."

"Then we go." Scott thought about Gonzo's mystery for some moments andwas at a complete loss to explain it.

"We're on our own with this one, fellas," Scott sighed.

"Pasha, can you and Mac help us out? What could cause this? Take alook at Gonzo's data and let us know if you can come up with something,anything." As usual, Hell Fire maintained radio silence to avoidrevealing her position.

Mac and Pasha patched into Gonzo's data and took a look. The patterndidn't match anything Pasha had ever seen. The on-off pattern didn'tagree with any of their simulations.

After scrutinizing the data from start to finish, Mac and Pasha lookedat one another and shook their heads. Pasha spoke first, carefullycrafting his words, using his best English.

"No one could help us with. this one, Scotty. It's one for the books.The power-on peqod looks normal, but I can't explain why Freedom shotsdown during that seven-second window. I've never seen anything likeit."

Nodding agreement, Mac spoke next.

"I can offer one thing, Scotty." Mac paused and punched up theirdistance to target.

"Quick as we're in range, I'll lock Freedom on camera and we'll take alook-see."

"Good," Scott replied, breathing a sigh of relief.

"We'll feel a lot better with Freedom on screen."

The Helix, 1212412014, 0547 Zulu, 10:47 P.m. Mountain Standard Time

ONBOARD HELL FIRE,

FINAL APPROACH

Once Hell Fire closed within range, a clear image of Freedom suddenlylocked on screen. Mac watched the picture acquisition light on hisprimary camera change quickly from red to green. Satisfied, he startedtheir digital videotape recorder rolling and felt lucky to capture thepicture from such a long range. Mac considered rock solid picturesfrom this distance a remarkable accomplishment because Hell Fire'sburning engines caused her to vibrate.

Before Mac could react to the picture, Pasha spoke.

"Holy Mother of God." He spoke disbelieving, questioning his own eyes.His tone was one of unmitigated dismay.

Scott blinked. Centered on her TV screen was a clear computer-enhancedimage of Freedom, sunny-side up asexpected. Trouble was-Freedom was spinning like a colossal top

"Damn." Gonzo spoke bitterly with deep resentment.

"That bitch covered her ass." For the first time He addressed PAM as aperson. Suddenly, PAM seemed alive, even loathsome, intangible butvery, very real. For a few moments, Gonzo lost his composure, but inhis frustration he vented what everyone felt.

"That's all we need. To come this far and for what? What the hell arewe gonna do now?"

During the five minutes which followed the only sound Scott heard overthe intercom was breathing.

Scott laid her head down on her TV screen and shut her eyes to blockout all distractions. Resentment swelled within her but emotionwouldn't solve this problem. Emotions got in the way, impeded clearthought, so she did her level best to suppress them and concentrate.Next problem, she said to herself. What do we know? Her concentrationwas intense. Sweat beaded and ran off her forehead like rain. Whatdid this rotation mean? The answer was painfully simple. PAM musthave sensed her blind spot the radar dead zone on her red face-andcompensated for it by rotating. By spinning like a rotating radarantenna, PAM filled in the hole. Scott opened her eyes and watchedFreedom spin. Freedom's pyramid shape was spinning with her toppointing toward the center of the earth. Scott timed Freedom'srevolutions-one complete turn every minute. That explained Freedom'son-again, off-again radar signature. Every time they passed throughher dead zone, they could see Freedom's radar signal drop off. Thaton-off signature was like a heartbeat that marked her period ofrotation. It made sense. Their flight plan had them sideslip out ofthe sun into that dead zone, but the original approach had assumed thered face was stationary. What if we change the flight plan? Fly ahelix pattern locked in sync with Freedom's rotation. Yes! Change theapproach! There is time. Is there fuel Gonzo can find out in a hurry.This could be it. It must be.

Scott raised her head, then looked at her gloved hands.

They trembled. Her hair stuck to her head like it was matted down withglue, but her eyes were clear.

"Gonzo, I think I've got it." Scott spoke slowly with a restrainedvoice, struggling to convey her message in as few words as possible.There was no time for an extended explanation.

"Shoot." Gonzo, Mac, and Pasha listened intently, clinging on everyword, hoping desperately that she was right.

"I need hard fuel figures." Scott paused, struggling to keep heremotions in check. Her heart pounded so hard she could hear it.

"Change our final approach. Take out the sideslip maneuver andsubstitute a downward spiraling approach pattern."

Gonzo was silent as he struggled to absorb Scott's request.

"You're serious? A helix? Like the threads on a screw" Gonzo's voicewas shaky, his feelings unsure Ily es. Pull out the sideslip and plugin the helix." Scott checked their range to target. Their sideslipmaneuver was coming up fast.

"We need numbers now."

Gonzo collected his thoughts.

"Scotty, I don't understand but I'll do it." Gonzo pulled off hisgloves and punched up a helix shaped much like that of a coil spring.

Once the helix pattern was displayed, he fed it into theNavComputer.

"Any other constraints on our approach?" asked Gonzo, not knowing whatto think.

"Yes, and this is important." Scott spoke with a deliberate calmnessin her voice.

"Synchronize our approach with Freedom's rotation. We spiral in lockedover that dead zone."

Gonzo's I got it light went off. His fingers raced over his computerkeyboard and his mind soared ahead of his fingers. Fuel, fuel, fuel.Fuel was everything. Seconds later, a set of large red numberssuddenly began flashing on the NavComputer window.

"Dammit all," Gonzo spat, obviously disappointed.

"No go. Our tank's bone-dr ten miles out." Gonzo paused, collectedhis thoughts, thencontinued with less emotion.

"That spiral pattern constantly burns the fuel."

Scott studied the spiral approach pattern on her TV monitor and decidedthe idea might be worth another try.

"Increase our rate of descent. Set us down hard with no margin." Thewords almost stuck in her throat. By definition, zero margin left noroom for error or malfunction.

"I'm with you, Scotty." Gonzo entered the steep slope solution andwaited on the NavComputer's judgment. The answer came back with ablinking yellow warning.

"We're borderline all the way, Scotty. Absolutely zero margin."

"But we've got a chance?" Scotty sounded apprehensive.

"A slim one." Gonzo knew they had no other alternative. They couldn'tback out without being detected.

"I think we should take it."

"Roger, Scotty." Gonzo's fingers raced once again across theNavComputer keyboard. Once their steep spiral approach was entered,each NavComputer and MAP system display began blinking yellow. Aflashing yellow display meant zero margin for error; flashing red meantfatal error-insufficient fuel. Gonzo read directly from theNavComputer's display.

"Spiral burn begins in T minus two minutes and counting. Synchronizerotation twenty miles from touchdown."

Scott's heart was pounding as she mentally sorted through a list ofwhat must be done. If all went well, they should make it, but she mustassume their approach would not go as planned. She closed her eyesonce again to block out the distractions from the cockpit. What if weare detected? What then? After a few moments thought, she beganissuing orders like an automaton.

"Mac, lock your camera on our landing zone. I need a visualreference.

"Pasha, watch the MAP display and keep your eyes pinned on ourapproach. If we drift out of the channel, I've got to know and fast.Once PAM sees us, we won't get a second chance.

"Gonzo, if we go to manual control, launch countermeasures.

Everything we've got in a full firewall spread."

"Roger, Scotty-the works." As Scott spoke, Gonzo flipped on thecountermeasures fire control system and spun up the ElectronicCounterMeasures (ECM) pod, chaff and flare rockets. Within seconds,the ECM control panel filled with a bright matrix of lethal green READYLAUNCH lights.

"Countermeasures armed and ready."

Gonzo stared at the NavComputer countdown timer. His mouth felt dry,but his suit was soaked with sweat.

"Spiral burn commences in T minus three ... two ... one ...ignition."

Scott watched Freedom spinning like a top before them now. She feltHell Fire's attitude position engines shudder and sensed their approachangle was changing. Hell Fire began sweeping through a wide circulararc but continued closing on Freedom riding down a steep spiralingslope.

Within a split second, Hell Fire's wide sweeping motion synchronizedwith Freedom's rotation, and suddenly Freedom didn't appear to rotateanymore. Scott smiled slightly. This spiraling approach made her feellike water swirling down the drain.

"We're headed down the tubes, Scotty." Mac spoke with a light chucklein his voice and articulated Scott's thoughts exactly. it wasn't thefirst time one team member spoke the thoughts of another. Afterworking closely together as a team, their minds often shared thoughts,especially in difficult situations. They had learned that they couldsometimes communicate without speaking at all.

This relationship took years to forge, but when all was said and done,the sum of their combined efforts always exceeded the sum of the parts.Maybe it was because their skills were complementary or maybe it was acombination of love and mutual admiration. They didn't know why itworked and didn't care to analyze it. Don't fix it if it's not broken,Mac always said. They knew in their hearts they had something specialand they weren't about to let PAM bust up the act.

Gonzo spoke as he monitored the NavComputer touch-down timer and fuel reserves.

"I minus two minutes till touchdown. Final braking burn commences inninety seconds." There was a sense of restrained tension in his voice.As far as he knew, no one had ever made a three point landing with zerofuel reserve.

Freedom was coming up fast. Hell Fire rocketed in a nose down positionon a steep sixty-six-degree approach angle. Scott held her breath asshe watched their range to target decrease at a near suicide rate. Asthe autopilot clicked off the final distance, Freedom completely filledthe windshield.

Suddenly, Scott felt Hell Fire shudder and checked the control panel.The orbital maneuvering engines sputtered sporadically as the LOW FUELlight began flashing.

"Drifting!" Pasha screamed frantically.

The sputtering thrust from the orbital maneuvering engine hurled HellFire out of the channel, creating a position error. Instantly, theNavComputer locked up because of an irreconcilable conflict betweenavailable fuel and position. The NavComputer instructed the autopilotto eliminate the position error with a correction burn. The autopilotacknowledged the request and awaited further instructions. Additionalinstructions never came because there was insufficient fuel for thecorrection burn.

Instinctively, Scott grabbed control, disengaged the autopilot, andchecked their position on the MAP display screen. When she looked up,her blood ran cold. Hell Fire was already out of the channel, swingingfurther away with every passing second. There was real danger here PAMcould detect them. No time to punch up an optimal correction burn,just do it. Scott activated the reaction control thrusters so shecould maneuver.

Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeppp!!! howled over the intercom.

Gonzo's threat detector emitted its distinctive warble.

Scott yawed Hell Fire thinking, PAM's locked on.

Suddenly, a searing invisible column of laser light flashed above HellFire's nose with precious little separation between them. IR detectorspegged off scale as an insane warble racked their ears.

Immediately, Gonzo ham-fisted the LAUNCH button, pounding the controlpanel so hard the instrument lights blinked like a pinball machine.Flare, chaff, and ECM rockets simultaneously erupted from Hell Fire'sshort stubby wings and streaked forward with such an intense flash thatScott instinctively blinked from their release.

The reverse thrust from the massive launch nearly stopped Hell Fire inits tracks and hurled the crew forward hard against their shoulderrestraints. There were a series of brilliant white flashes whichfollowed as the rockets gimbal led their engines and executed afirewall maneuver. On command, each turned radially outward indifferent directions, creating a wall of thermal and electricalinterference between Freedom and Hell Fire. Gonzo watched the whiteplumes streak off in the distance and became mesmerized by thespectacle.

For a few moments, Freedom's lasers went berserk. A wall of space infront of Hell Fire blazed with a brilliant light as the threat detectorfell silent.

"Overload, Scotty. PAM can't handle it." Before Gonzo completed hisstatement, his words stuck in his throat.

Within seconds, PAM restored order to her hunt and kill sequence.Silently belching out their towers of flame, the flare rockets drew thefirst laser fire followed by the ECM pods. Within ten seconds, PAMreduced the flares and ECM pods to a powdery dust. All that remainedbetween Freedom and Hell Fire was a shimmering wall containing millionsand millions of tinfoil strips.

Once Scott recovered from the countermeasure launch, she checked theMAP display. The countermeasure launch had slowed their rate ofdescent, but they remained outside the channel. They must have acorrection burn, otherwise PAM would blow them out of the sky.

Gonzo was brought back to reality when Scott spoke.

"Gonzo, get us back in the lane!"

Quickly, he computed the correction burn. His steady nerve hadreturned, his voice almost excessively calm.

"Five second correction burn commences in three ... two ... one ...Ignition."

Scott manually throttled the burn.

Hell Fire vibrated as Scott and her crew watched the MAP systemdisplay. The display showed a computer generated image of Hell Firemoving back into the approach channel. Suddenly, the NavComputer andMAP displays blazed with a bright flashing red message-CRITICAL FUELWARNING. A siren like horn howled over the intercom. They would makeit to Freedom all right and smash into smithereens on impact.

"Touchdown in sixty seconds," Gonzo repeated[. His nerve remainedintact while he evaluated their fuel condition.

Scott looked up and at first she couldn't believe what she saw. Freedomfired the main gimbal engines about her base. Scott saw them blazing,belching flames against the pitch-black sky and wondered what it couldmean.

PAM detected Hell Fire vacillating in and out of her dead zone and tookaction to flush out the threat. Freedom simply stopped spinning like atop.

But Hell Fire did not.

Suddenly, Freedom seemed to begin rotating. Slowly at first, but thespeed of rotation quickly increased.

The realization of what PAM had done hit Scott like a ton of bricks.

"We're out of the lane!" Pasha's tone-panic.

Hell Fire had lost synchronization with Freedom and drifted out of thechannel again.

Scott looked down at the MAP display and saw her fixed point ofreference-her touchdown point-moving.

Hell Fire was overshooting the approach channel, the MAP system hadlost synchronization, and they were nearly out of fuel. Scott's voicereverberated in Gonzo's ears.

"Resync the MAP!" Scott was running manual control and was flusterednow. She needed a fixed point of reference to land, but the MAP systemlost sync when Freedom stopped spinning. This was insane. It wasinconceivable. Scott feared they were as good as dead. She read theNavComputer timer. Forty-five seconds till touchdown.

Gonzo's fingers flew over the keyboard, entering data faster than thecomputer could display it. Within seconds he updated the NavComputerto account for Freedom's sudden rotational stop and once again resynced the MAP system.

Without an exchange of words, Scott executed another correction burn.

"Two . . . one . . . ignition." Scott watched Hell Fire's positionon the MAP display.

"We're back in the lane." Her tone-tense.

Hell Fire was closing fast.

Scott could hear her own heart thumping. The gut wrenching fear ofdying created copious amounts of heat, and her space suit's coolingsystem was working overtime. She had to find someplace to set down.The red face now filled Hell Fire's entire windshield. She focused hereyes, searching for the landing zone. Then suddenly there it was. Sherecognized the spot. She had a hard time taking her eyes off thelanding zone as she fired the final positioning thrusters, rotatingHell Fire's nose over a full 180 degrees about her center of gravity.Scott maneuvered Hell Fire into braking position-, putting her taildown pointing toward Freedom.

Whoop ... whoop ... whoop ... whoop!!! The landing gear alarm bellowedover the intercom.

Immediately, Scott shoved the LANDING GEAR handle down and the tricyclegear exploded out of the nose and wheel wells. Once Hell Fire'sdescent slowed to a hover, she planned to pivot the nose over and setdown for a three-point landing. Once the GEAR LOCKED light turnedgreen, Scott pushed hard forward against the main engine throttle andso began her final braking maneuver. Hell Fire shook violently for afew brief seconds as their descent slowed but then suddenly, it wasover. Hell Fire's main engine ran out of fuel and shut down.

The last remnants of altitude quickly clicked off.

Scott felt helpless. Her spacecraft had no power, she couldn'tmaneuver. Instinctively, she struggled to ignitethe main engine, grappling with the controls, refusing to give up. Itwas useless.

The laws of physics prevailed. Hell Fire's kinetic energy endured.

The red antenna face looked like a colossal bed of nails racing up tomeet Hell Fire and rip her to shreds.

"God, I'm sorry, fellas." Her voice was a cry of pure desolation. Shehad done her best, but her best was not good enough.

Her crew understood.

Leaning forward, Scott reached underneath her seat and pulled up on apair of red handlebar grips. She felt them ratchet into position.Instantly, the briefcase-sized black box came alive and began speakingover the intercom in a detached robotic tone.

"The self-destruct system has been activated for detonation in sixhours."

Scott raised her eyes toward the heavens, tightly clutched herfour-leaf clover and brought it to her chest.

She felt a form of calmness creep over her mind, or perhaps it was hersoul.

And Hell Fire impacted on Freedom's red face.

The Costs, 1212412014, 0601 Zulu, 11:01 P.m. Mountain Standard Time

CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN, COLORADO

"Things are not good, General, but looks like they made it." ColonelNapper's tone was somber, almost morose.

He walked slowly into the conference room carrying a pink slip ofpaper. He looked at General Mason knowing that he was living throughhis own private agony.

Mason felt apprehensive and watched tensely as Napper reread thenote.

There was a deep silence.

"Hell Fire activated the black box," Napper continued slowly.

A dread premonition washed over Mason. Nausea overwhelmed his stomach.He held his head in his hands and spoke softly.

"No beacon? Only the black box transmitter?"

"No beacon." Napper sighed. Tears filled the corners of hiseyes.

"I'm sorry, General." Napper felt a wave of compassion forMason, but there was nothing he could do.

Several minutes passed in silence.

Mason slowly lifted his head-a broken man. The defiant fire which onceblazed in his eyes was gone. His cloudy blue eyes mirrored the agony hefelt in his heart.

"How long?"

Napper read the note a third time, checked his watch, and thenspoke quietly.

"Five hours and forty minutes."

Napper's words sponged the last remnants of energy from Mason's body.

"Deliver this message to the President." He licked his drylips and spoke slowly.

"Within twelve hours, this crisis will pass. Recommend he inform theSaudis and Kuwaitis. They'll know what to do.

Hope will take over automatically after Freedom is destroyed.Recommend the Congressional Medal of Honor be awarded toMajor Linda Scott, her crew, and Hope commander PashaYakovlev." Mason rested his chin on his hands and thought abouttheir families. The gain is 'a never worth the cost.

"Get the addresses and phone numbers of their families. I want to meetwith each of them. They must understand why their loved ones had to die."

The period of silence which followed extended beyond fiveminutes.

Napper sat perfectly still, totally absorbed in the events of themoment. From this day forward, he knew that his life would bedifferent. He now more clearly understood the oppressive burdenand formidable responsibility that comes with leadership. In away he felt he had finally faced the real world. After reviewing theirsituation, Napper spoke with compassion.

"It is hard to send people to their deaths."

Napper looked into Mason's eyes. They were dark,cloudy pools of anguish. Mason's expression remained blank, distant,and unfocused.

Mason drew a single long breath but didn't speak. He didn't have to.

Damage Control, 1211412014, 0602 Zulu, 11:02 P.M. Mountain StandardTime

ONBOARD HELL FIRE,

RED FACE,

SPACE STATION FREEDOM

Watching the impact from a distance, Freedom seemed to devour HellFire. The aerospace plane simply disappeared from sight.

Slamming into the red face tail first, Hell Fire rips clear through theflimsy mesh covering Freedom's outer and skidded to a sudden stop onthe radar antenna feed.

Looking like a beached whale, Hell Fire plowed to a stop in the blinkof an eye against a massive structure of waveguide suspended like atrampoline beneath Freedom's red face. The gear snapped off at thewheel wells as Hell Fire ripped through the outer skin into theplumbing. Row after row of radar waveguide (shaped like pipes)absorbed the kinetic energy of the massive aerospace plane like acolossal coiled spring. Instantly, the heart of the antenna stoppedpulsing with radar energy. Freedom's red face was totally blind.

The force of the impact rocked the space plane so violently thatScott's head was thrown into the control panel, shattering the glassCRT screen of the computer display.

Although she was dazed, she sustained only bruises fromthe shoulder restraints because most of the force of the impact wasabsorbed by her helmet.

Once they plowed to a stop, Gonzo unharnessed himself and killed theelectrical power to the backseat instrumentation.

inside Hell Fire's reconnaissance bay, braces and bulkheads struggledto absorb instantaneous forces of impact which they were never designedto carry. Carbon composites flexed and splintered, buffeted byincalculable forces.

Hell Fire's airframe members cracked, her walls twisted.

Electrical fires broke out immediately inside the cockpit, backseat,and reconnaissance bay. Warning lights began to flash and alarm bellsrang. Sparks flew from every instrument panel like a fireworksdisplay. Instrument and reconnaissance bay lighting flickered. Theflight computer struggled to isolate and contain the damage caused bythe sudden impact and subsequent fires. Every sensitive piece ofinstrumentation equipment had been damaged by the shock wave. Althoughoverloaded with critical failure data, the flight computer commandedthe Fire Control System to life.

Beneath the cockpit inside the reconnaissance bay, somethingexploded.

"Fire in the hole!" Mac screamed as his eyes darted frantically to andfro over the blazing equipment. The electrical fire began adjacent tothe oxygen cylinders and weapons bin. If he didn't move fast, they'dbe blown to kingdom come. He ripped off his shoulder restraints,grabbed a fire extinguisher, and directed the spray on the blazingequipment. Cabin exhaust fans aided the fire by sucking black smokeand flames from the reconnaissance bay up into the cockpit. Withinseconds, Hell Fire was filled with thick smutty smoke. The overheadlights in the bay now flickered continuously. Once the smoke hadcirculated throughout Hell Fire, the exhaust fans stopped. A nozzlesuspended from the ceiling began dumping copious amounts of foam on theblaze.

Panicky, he inspected the weapons and oxygen tanks.

Although covered in foam, he'd acted in time.

Once the fire had been suppressed and the damaged weapons checked, Mactook an inventory of himself. He felt a withering pain below his leftknee. As he gingerly felt his upper shin, his face contorted.Broken-he could feel a splinter of bone torn through the thin skin onthe front of his shin, and the swelling was just beginning.

Then he thought of Pasha.

Pasha didn't speak. He hadn't moved. Something was terribly wrong. Heremained strapped into his makeshift seat undaunted by the fire andsmoke. Grabbing a flashlight, Mac maneuvered into position besidePasha and shined the beam through the visor onto his face. Eventhrough the thick smoke, after one quick glance Mac knew his injurieswere serious. There was bleeding from the mouth. Blood dropletsfloated about Pasha's face, suspended inside his helmet. Barelyconscious, Pasha struggled to say something when he sensed the lightshining on his face. His lips were moving, but there was no sound.

Leaning closer, Mac cut up the sensitivity on Pasha's intercom mike.For a moment, all Mac heard were gurgling sounds. Pasha gagged aftercoughing up a dark blackish red discharge. Mac had to do somethingquickly or Pasha would drown in his own blood.

Mac struggled hcross the reconnaissance bay and threw open an equipmentlocker. After grabbing a Spare helmet, he cranked up the pressureinside Pasha's EVA suit.

Mac's objective was positive pressure; he wanted to increase thepressure inside Pasha's suit so that it was greater than cabinpressure. After releasing three latches about his neck, Pasha's helmetpopped off with only a slight twist. Immediately Mac cut down the suitpressure, cleared Pasha's mouth and the bloody residue from his face,then slammed on the new helmet. Mac expected the gasses and smokeinside the cabin were toxic, so he wasted no time after removingPasha's helmet. The operation took less than one minute.

"Scotty, Pasha's in a bad way. Internal bleeding. Don't know howbad." Looking around the smoke-filled bay,Mac surmised what happened.

"Supply crate tore loose.

Looks like one caught him in the chest."

"Can he be moved?"

Pasha signaled an affirmative to Mac with his hand, then spokesoftly.

"I can be moved-but slowly ... may've busted a few ribs."

There was a moment of concern as Scott thought through what to do.After pausing a few seconds, Pasha spoke again with a deliberatelylight tone.

"More doctors recommend Tylenol for headache than any other leadingbrand." The crew breathed a sigh of relief, hoping Pasha's injurieswere not as serious as they appeared. There was no infirmary onboardHell Fire, and at this moment the Freedom infirmary wasn't takingwalk-ins. Once he had eased the tension, Pasha took a shallow breathand delivered his suggestion.

"Recommend you vent smoke purge cabin air, survey damage-inside andout. There's' much work to do. We need a new plan." During thecrash, equipment and supplies tore free from their storage areas,smashed open, and were now strewn about the reconnaissance bay. Mostof their supply crates and equipment had been either crushed or damagedby the fire. Small and large chunks of loose debris still vectoredabout the cabin, bouncing from wall to wall like a 3-D billiard game.

"Mac, Gonzo. What's your condition? You clear to vent?" Scott tensedfor the damage assessment.

"My hand's sprained but other than that I'm OK,"

Gonzo replied flatly. He read over a long list of system failures,then spoke again. His tone was cautious.

"I'll hold the damage report until I check her over for structuralintegrity, but all in all, it could've been a lot worse."

"How about the radio?"

"Dead. We're running off battery for now but some of the primary cellswere damaged."

"Mac, how about the transponder beacon?" Scott wanted to callhome-radio Headquarters an I'm OK signal indicating that they werestill alive.

Mac surveyed the debris in one of the equipment storage lockers.Smashed by the concussion of the impact, fragmented pieces of thetransponder looked fossilized, coated with a layer of fire retardantfoam. Then Mac saw the boomer and shook his head. The remotelycontrolled minesweeper had been smashed to smithereens by a largecrate.

"Transponder's out of business, Scotty, and the boomer's busted."

"Any chance of repair?"

Following a moment of silence, Mac spoke with a tone of dismay in hisvoice.

"None whatsoever. Pasha was right. We need a new plan. Vent thecabin, then you'd better come down here and take a lnok." He paused,then spoke slowly. He sounded apprehensive.

"And one other thing."

"Name it, Chief."

"Bring me down a leg splint-one I can inflate."

"You mean?"

"Yeah, it's broken. Smashed by a low flying crate."

Scott winced. For an instant she physically felt his pain.

She quickly recovered as she noticed smoke once again erupting beneathher feet from the reconnaissance bay.

She vented Hell Fire's cabin air into the vacuum of space.

Gonzo pushed himself and his EVA pack outside to inspect the airframe,rocket, and scramjet engines. Once the oxygen in the cabin had beendepleted, the fires squelched themselves out.

A single emergency light now illuminated the disordered interior of thereconnaissance bay. Overlaid with nonconductive foam, the cameracontrol console lay in ruins, shattered beyond recognition.Instrumentation equipment ripped from its mounting braces floated aboutthe cabin anchored only by its cabling. All their supplies, includingthe weapons, spilled from their storage cabinets and were blanketedwith foam.

After restoring the cabin air pressure, Scott climbed into the hole andbegan surveying the damage.

She didn't like what she saw.

The Corridor, 1212512014, 1 01 0 Zulu, 3: 7 0 A.M. Mountain StandardTime

ONBOARD HELL FIRE,

SPACE STATION FREEDOM

Standing inside the debris which was the reconnaissance bay, Scottinspected her cumbersome twin-beam flamethrower. When workingproperly, the weapon could accurately throw a thin beam of fire up toone hundred feet and simultaneously diffuse the second beam into a widecone of atomized fiery spray. The down side of this weapon was that itkicked like a horse. Wide-open, it kicked like a team of horses. Theterm flamethrower was accurate in one respect, but the expanding gassescreated an enormous reverse thrust. The weapon was more accuratelydescribed as a portable liquid fuel rocket engine with a handle andthrottle for a trigger. The weapon contained fuel pumps which fed twincombustion chambers an explosive combination of high velocity oxygenand gasoline. Checking the fuel cylinders, fuel pumps, trigger, andsafety, everything seemed operational.

Scott focused on saving herself and her crew. Gutting Centurion wasthe only way. The black box alternative, blowing up Freedom, wassuicide and only made sense if all else failed. It wouldn't. Onething was clear in her expression. Nothing would stand in her way. Sheleaned forward, ran her fingers over the trigger, then spoke to Mac andPasha.

"it ought to work." She paused, temporarily secured the weapon to thewall, then slid a bulky Kevlar flack jacket over her head covering herEVA suit.

"We'll be back in four hours. Sooner if this thing jams." Shemotioned toward the flamethrower. Looking at Gonzo, she continued in ano-nonsense tone.

"We'll clear the corridor like we planned." The red corridor extendedfrom the face, past the oven to the core airlocks.

Gonzo nodded agreement while loading the Kevlar curtain, extra oxygen,some flares, and a spotlight in his toolbox. Once his packing wascomplete, he strapped a massive tripod to his EVA backpack and wasready.

Pasha sat upright and conscious in his EVA suit, loosely strapped toMac's seat. He seemed to be improving, progressively coughing up lessblood, and his vital signs were stable. His helmet was removed, thecabin now free of smoke and toxic gasses. An electric pump clipped tothe wall forced small measured amounts of a fluid mixture into his bodythrough a vein in his neck. Scott interpreted the rapidly decreasingamount of intravenous fluid as a good sign. She hoped she was right.Until they cleared the way into the infirmary, that's all they could dofor him. She leaned forward near Pasha's ear and spoke in a lowcompassionate voice.

"Hang on. We'll get you out of here."

He spoke softly, touching her gloved hand.

"I have faith in you, my friend. I know this machine better than Iknow my own children." He paused. Memories of his family filled himwith an unyielding will to live. His tone of voice changed. It wasstronger.

"It can be done and you can do it. Go for the jugular." Freedom'sjugular was its energy source, the four power plants feeding power toeach face.

Scott turned toward Mac and ran her hand carefully over his engorgedleg.

"Swelling feels pretty bad."

"I can move around when I have to."

"You sure you don't want any medication?" she asked pensively. Thesize of Mac's leg made her wince.

Mac looked over at Pasha, smiled, and shook his head.

"Thanks, but no thanks. Better off without it. Someone's got to stayalert."

"Take good care of him, Mac. Pasha's children are depending on us."Her eyes flushed with tears-but she couldn't think about that now-focuson survival. She mentally reset, putting her emotions on hold.

Scott passed her weapon and spare fuel tanks through the overhead hatchleading to the cockpit. She climbed through the hatch and set herequipment inside Hell Fire's tiny airlock. As Gonzo passed through thehatch behindher, Scott reset the countdown timer on the black box beneath herseat. She lowered the twin handlebar grips to their original position,and the black box immediately responded over the intercom.

"The self-destruct system has been deactivated." After the lights onthe black box cycled through a red-yellow-green reset sequence, shelifted the handgrips once again into the armed position. She heard theblack box speaking as she approached Gonzo in the cramped airlock. Thedetached tone of voice sent a chill down her spine. It spoke as if ithad nothing to lose.

"The self-destruct system has been activated for detonation in sixhours."

Scott and Gonzo squeezed themselves and their equipment into theairlock and sealed it shut behind them. The airlock hissed as Scottvented the atmospheric gasses into space. Once they and theirequipment were outside, they moved in unison toward the red corridor,an enclosed tube which connected the red face to the oven and core.Their Aqua-Lung propulsion thrusters worked exactly as they had inpractice. Scott took some comfort in that. The simplest equipment,the propulsion thruster, was the most reliable. She'd remember that inthe future.

Scott entered the corridor through the external airlock on the surfaceof the red face. As they expected, the corridor airlock was open. Thecorridor's interior looked narrow, dimly lit, and ominous. It was along and dangerous hike to Freedom's central core.

Gonzo removed the distance measurement meter and laser reflector fromhis toolbox (the digital equivalent of a long measuring tape). Readingthe distance meter, Scott paced off the distance to their firstdemolition site as Gonzo steadied the reflector.

"We'll set up here." Scott spoke into her low power transmitter. Gonzoacknowledged. She jammed a stow hook into a vertical slot on the wallthen secured her thruster and EVA pack. Together, they set up theflamethrower on its tripod mount, securing the tripod through slottedholes in the floor. Scott looked down the dark corridor but could notsee the blunderbuss. She lowered her night vision visor and locked itinto place. Looking through the infrared light amplifier, she stillcouldn't make it out. Everything in the corridor was the sametemperature so the low-light visor didn't help. Clenching her teethtogether, Scott motioned for Gonzo to take cover behind the Kevlarcurtain. Scott couldn't see the blunderbuss but after some thought shedecided she didn't need to see it. It was there. It had to be. Shealigned the weapon in the general direction of the blunderbuss, lockedit tightly into position, and covered it with the protective Kevlarcover used by the boomer. After attaching a pair of ignition wires tothe flamethrower, she carried the loose ends behind the Kevlar curtain andattached them to a remote throttle. All was ready.

"Get down." Scott signaled to Gonzo. Depressing the ignition switch,she pushed forward gently on the throttle.

Nothing.

Again, this time hard forward on the throttle.

Nothing.

Scott shot Gonzo a cautionary look.

"Damn high-tech gadgets," Gonzo muttered.

They slowly raised their heads over the Kevlar curtain but couldn't seethe weapon without a light. Grabbing the spotlight, Scott went to takea closer look.

Leaning forward, Scott ran her finger over the trigger and weapongrip.

"Bingo," she said, breathing a sigh of relief. Flipping a switch onthe grip, Scott removed the safety then took cover behind thecurtain.

Scott's gloved finger convulsed on the ignition switch as she broughther flamethrower to bear. A fiery quivering light illuminated the darkcorridor and the floor trembled.

She eased the throttle one quarter the way forward. The floor shookviolently beneath them as the flamethrower twisted and tore at itsthree-point moorings. From the outge in side, the tube-shaped corridorglowed a dull red-oran the vicinity of the flamethrower's exhaustplume. For a few moments, the length of the corridor was transformedinto a fiery hell, a torrid frenzy of expanding superheated exhaustgasses. Suddenly, they saw the Kevlar curtainpounded back as the first salvo of blunderbuss pellets slammed intothe curtain.

Scott began easing back on the throttle when the second salvo ofstainless-steel pellets smashed into the curtain.

Due to the searing heat from the exhaust gasses, a second blunderbussdetonated further down the corridor followed moments later byanother.

Scott eased back on the throttle and extinguished the weapon.

For the first time in a long time Scott smiled and cocked her eyebrowsat Gonzo.

"Three with one blow."

Gonzo returned a thumbs up, grinning ear to ear.

"And two to go!"

Strapping on their EVA packs, they left the smoldering inferno andreturned to Hell Fire, allowing the corridor to cool.

Hope, 1212512014, 1016 Zulu, 3:16 A.M. Mountain Standard Time

CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN, COLORADO

General Krol burst into the conference room with Colonel Napper. Theirnews wouldn't keep. Colonel Napper spoke first for both of them.

"Things may be looking up, General!"

General Mason looked at them wearily but did not respond. His eyesremained unfocused, his mind on freedom. After a few moments' silence,Napper's words finally registered in Mason's brain.

"Good news?"

"Could be, General," Napper replied.

"Our data is incomplete, but we believe some of Hell Fire's crew arealive."

Mason quickly sat up straight and leaned forward in his chair.

"Yuri spoke with Kaliningrad. They're overrun with messages fromFreedom. They haven't sorted the details yet, but every message has todo with failures on the red face."

Mason thought ahead. What kind of good news was this? Based on theirbest available information, he already believed Hell Fire had activatedtheir black box then crashed into Freedom killing all aboard. Masonslumped back in his chair.

"Then this merely confirms what we already suspected."

"That's right, General, but there's more."

Mason looked at Napper anxiously.

"The beacon?"

"No, sir, but a damn good indicator. The next best thing." Napperlooked at Krol. Krol's face showed a proud smile, his chubby cheeksglowed bright red. Napper nodded knowingly, winked at Krol, thenstepped aside allowing General Krol to deliver the good news.

"The black box has been reset."

Mason's mind went into overdrive, disconnecting from his mouth. He hadtrouble framing a response. Before he mouthed the first word, thespark returned to his eyes, then the spark changed to a twinkle. Heslapped the desk with the palms of both hands and spoke withenthusiasm.

"Then they've got a chance!"

The Oven, 1212512014, 1607 Zulu, 9:07 A.M. Mountain Standard Time

RED FACE CORRIDOR,

SPACE STATION FREEDOM

Scott and Gonzo measured the distance to their final detonation site.Maneuvering their equipment into position, Scott moved by a sidepassageway. Checking her distance readout against the map, she judgedthe opening should lead to the oven, the interior of the red faceantenna feed.

Scott's attention focused on the dimly lit far end of the sidepassageway. Holding her oxygen-fed flare overhead, she tried topenetrate the darkness. Like the rest of Freedom, the oven appearedlargely intact, somewhat fossilized, and abandoned at first glance. Adim blue light at the far end caught her attention. It illuminated aform that reminded her of a traffic light. She heaved herhissing flare down the passageway. The oven walls reflected the fierylight like a house of mirrors. The oven was lined with hundreds ofhighly polished metal horns, each shaped like the bell of a trombone.Alongside the horns she saw racks filled with circuit boards, manydislodged from their plug-in slots. She squinted. Below the circuitboards she saw the dimly lit form of a man lying prostrate on thefloor. She approached cautiously as she lit another flare. Her pulseskyrocketed. Standing within five feet of the body, she froze for amoment, unable to move. Her eyes widened, her breathing erratic. Shecould see his form clearly now.

She knelt by the body. Her fingers trembled slightly as she touchedit, then steadied. Holding the flare over its face, she saw only thereflection of the flare in the helmet visor. The visor had beencompletely blocked by some blackish material. Probably blood, shethought. She searched for some name or rank insignia on the spacesuit.

There was none but that was standard practice.

This man had been dead for some time. Swelling expanded the body'sgut, legs, and arms until the space suit fit like a skin, taut as thatof a balloon ready to burst under pressure. Had she lifted the visor,she wouldn't have recognized Jay's disintegrating face. His face hadeventually exploded, blanketing the inside of his helmet with bits offlesh and fat.

She examined the body for some clue to its identity and found the manwas clutching something tightly next to his heart. Breathlessly, shetouched his hand, carefully removing an old yellow piece of paper. Itwas tattered and faded, but she recognized it immediately as her own.

A terrible nauseating emptiness enveloped her, a kaleidoscopic mixtureof love, loss, anger, and loneliness. And the greatest of these wasloneliness.

She held Jay's hand tightly and cried the harrowing cry of a mother whohad lost her only child.

Gonzo stood silently at the entrance to the oven. Each of them hadknown this time would come, but knowing didn't make it any easier.

Scott's survival instinct urged her on. She began thinking about thechildren she had wanted, about the children this man had denied her.And then she thought about those precious pictures of Pasha's children.Those children were depending on her to get their daddy home andnothing was going to stand in her way. Pasha's children, the onesshe'd never met, the ones she'd come to know through their father'seyes, needed her and she was not going to let them down. Thoughts ofPasha's children combined with the discovery of Jay's body charged herwith a relentless determination and deeply rooted anger.

She blinked her eyes clear, stiffened her spine, and sat upright.Reaching into her sleeved pocket, she removed the lucky necklace he hadgiven her such a long time ago.

Caressing it gently, she slipped it over his gloved hand.

She would remember him, remember their happy times, but she wouldn'tmiss him anymore. She had prayed that she'd get over him and, in anodd sort of way, she felt relief. She felt free of the power he heldover her.

Scott stood, walked slowly over to Gonzo, and didn't look back. Lookinginto Gonzo's eyes, she saw compassion and concern for her feelings. Gonzo needed her too.

She had friends and together they'd pull through.

She put her arms around Gonzo and hugged him.

Gonzo found strength in her affection and squeezed her hard

Lifting her underneath her arms, he raised her near the overhead light.He wanted to see her face clearly.

Through her visor, Gonzo could see her complexion was a blotchy red andher hair was matted down. The woman looked like hell.

"You OK?" he asked softly.

Scott shot a thumbs up to Gonzo.

"I was a little shaky, but now I'm fine." She smiled, then continuedin a determined voice.

"Pasha and Mac are depending on us. Let's move them into the infirmarythen wrap this thing up."

Scott and Gonzo moved out of the oven into the dark main corridor.Together they secured the flamethrower to the floor under the fierylight of a flare. Scott checked thefuel levIs, replaced the fuel pump batteries, reset the weapon, thenreleased the safety, ready to fire. Taking cover behind the Kevlarcurtain, Scott depressed the ignition switch and eased forward on thethrottle. At ignition, two things happened simultaneously. A longburst of flame emerged from the combustion chamber and the flamethrowertripod ripped loose from its moorings. The resultant thrust sent thefire-belching weapon hurling down the corridor at breakneck speed intothe Kevlar curtain, toolbox, Scott and Gonzo. The only thing thatsaved them from being burned alive was the motion detector built intothe weapon. Sensing its own acceleration, its safety circuits kickedin and shut down the fuel pumps.

The flamethrower was designed to burn, not fly.

Scott and Gonzo dug out from the pile of equipment.

Scott's arm was blackened and bruised from the impact, the remotethrottle control was smashed, but they got off easy considering thefiery alternative.

After some discussion, a single viable alternative became clear. Scottwould manually fire the weapon. She was wearing the flack jacket soGonzo reluctantly agreed.

Once their plan was set, they anchored the tripod once again to thefloor. Kneeling alongside the weapon in the darkness, Scott found thehandgrip and trigger. Gonzo covered her with the Kevlar curtain andbacked away, taking refuge in the side passageway which led to theoven.

Once he was in position, he radioed Scott an all clear.

Gonzo watched in motionless horror as the blackness of the corridorsuddenly blazed a radiant white. In less than two seconds, theblackness returned. Gonzo's night vision was lost, he couldn't see. Helit his flare and headed cautiously toward the corridor. Suddenly, thecorridor blazed like a flaming inferno. He felt a torrent of intenseheat as the backwash of expanding gasses knocked him down, extinguishedhis flare, and forced him to take cover behind a rack of equipment inthe oven. He was both repelled and fascinated by the flames. Thistime the flame endured twenty ... thirty ... forty seconds, thenextinguished leaving only a glowing dull red residue along the corridorwalls.

"Scotty?" His voice-anxious.

Silence followed by a choking sound.

"Scotty!" he yelled, bolting out of the oven toward the main corridor.He heard Scott take a deep breath then speak in a hoarse voice.

"Corridor secure."

The Infirmary, 1212512014,1856 Zulu, 11.56 A.M. Mountain St,andardTime

RED FACE CORE AIRLOCK,

SPACE STATION FREEDOM

Scott entered the core airlock first with Mac's arm draped around hershoulder. Gonzo followed, maneuvering Pasha on a stretcher. Scott'soverwhelming impression was one of stark desolation and darkness. Achill ran down her spine when she looked at Gonzo. Safety lightingshining up through the floor illuminated Gonzo's helmet from below hischin, casting deep shadows across his face.

Once inside, she pressed hard on the CLOSE button.

Nothing. That's what she'd expected. PAM controlled the airlockdoors. Scott ran her gloved hand along the wall by the outside airlockdoor. The hand wheel had to be here somewhere. After Gonzo movedPasha inside, he shined a small flashlight over her shoulder and cutthrough the darkness. Scott grabbed the wheel and manually cranked theoutside airlock door shut. Gonzo pulled a plastic bag containingsix-inch-long stainless-steel rods from his EVA backpack and begansearching the doorjamb for the deadbolt hole. While Scott held thedoor shut, Gonzo slid a safety rod in place. Once the steel rod wasin position, Scott released the wheel and the door reflexively jammedhard against it. Try as she might, PAM could not force the airlock dooropen. Once the outside airlock door was secure, they entered the coreand pinned the inner door shut.

The infirmary was in sight of the airlock. There was nothing PAM coulddo to stop them from entering the infirmary except close the door. IfPAM tried to keep them out, it was a simple matter to manually wheelthe door open.

PAM knew that and didn't try to stop them.

Once inside, Scott pinned the sliding door shut with a stainless-steelrod.

Gonzo severed PAM's control from the infirmary life support system bydisconnecting a sees of optical control cables attached to the airhandling and pressure regulator units. Once Gonzo had finished hiscutoff procedures, the infirmary provided them a safe haven, anisolated island where PAM could not see or control any aspect of theirlives. Gonzo set the oxygen mix and adjusted the infirmary pressureand temperature. Once the pressure stabilized, the crew pulled offtheir helmets and EVA suits.

It felt good.

Gonzo positioned Pasha on a bed in an examination room on one side ofthe infirmary and went to work on his injuries. On the other side ofthe infirmary, Scott X-rayed Mac's leg and set it as best she could.Neither was trained in the medical field but they followed themanuals.

After icing, heating, wrapping, and patching nonstop for two hours,Scott finished with Mac and stared at her handiwork in disbelief. Hisleg was encased in a rigid full-length cast. In his weightlesscondition, Mac had mobility but it came with a price. Moving causedhis leg to swell so his range was severely limited. She gazed acrossthe room at Gonzo and Pasha. Pasha had his ribs loosely wrapped,intravenous tubes stuck in both arms, and wires attached to his chestmonitoring his vital signs.

With Mac and Pasha secure in the infirmary, Scott and Gonzo looked atone another, knowing the easy part of the job was behind them.

Gonzo returned to Hell Fire to reset the black box. Once he returned,they would get on with the business at hand.

The Jugular, 1212512014, 2248 Zulu, 3:48 P.m. Mountain StandardTime

THE YELLOW POWER PLANT,

Freedom's CORE Without electrical power, PAM threatened no one.

Their plan was as simple as it was elegant: shut down Freedom one faceat a time. Pin the airlock doors closed and scram the reactor on eachface, leaving Freedom's central core pressurized but without power.

Moving cautiously behind a massive blast shield, Scott and Gonzoadvanced toward the yellow airlock along the main passageway. Afterchecking their position with the distance meter, Gonzo maneuvered thedense metal shield into firing position. Satisfied, he spoke into hishelmet mike.

"This should be the spot."

Scott trailed in Gonzo's wake carrying the corridor map andflamethrower. There was emergency lighting, but dim.

She lit a small flashlight and began tracing lines on the map.

"You see it?"

Peering through the small gun port, he surveyed the corridor fortelltale signs of weapons. Unaided, his eyes couldn't penetrate thelow light further than thirty feet. Lowering his night vision visorinto position, Gonzo saw the corridor transition into ghostly shades ofgreen shadows. He saw a faint reflection moving in the distance and,visibly shaken, he froze motionless. This was no drill-there was realdanger here. Ahead, suspended above a sharp bend in the passageway, anagile turret-mounted laser pivoted back and forth, tirelessly standingsentry duty. Around the bend, yellow airlock doors stood open.

"Yeah, Scotty. Take a look."

The bulky EVA suit and helmet made even the simplest task a laboriouschore. Leaning forward, Scott looked through the gun port and blinked.She saw only darkness.

Using the flashlight while reading the map compromised her nightvision. She lowered her low-light visor and locked it in place.Searching for PAM's sensory organs, she focused on the corridor walls.As expected, the walls were equipped with flush mounted cameras,microphones, and motion detectors constantly feeding PAM information.

Scott's eyes darted back and forth, scanning every detail along thecorridor walls. PAM hadn't detected them-yet.

Turning toward Gonzo, she spoke quietly.

"Only a matter of time. No place to hide."

Cranking the adjustable blast shield legs snugly against the walls,Gonzo secured the massive plate in position.

Scott positioned both flamethrower barrels through the gun port.

Once the shield was wedged into position, Gonzo began anchoring theflamethrower tripod to the deck at breakneck speed. Lagging the frontleg down, Gonzo tensed, sensing all hell was about to break loose.There was no air, there was no sound, but there was vibration from hisdrilling.

Suddenly without warning, PAM opened fire.

Gasping, Scott felt the deck shake like it had been beaten with asledgehammer. It happened again-then again.

Sparks and molten metal raced overhead, spattering against the corridorwalls. Unremitting, PAM's brute force attack savagely blew chunks ofmetal off the rapidly disintegrating shield.

Scott looked up, shocked to see the blast shield deforming-andmoving-inching its way toward them. Her pulse ratcheted up a notch,her eyes widened. There was no time for discussion, no time to consultmanuals, and no one to ask. In a matter of seconds, the molten blastshield would buckle. Her reaction was instinctual and she'd alwaystrusted her instincts. Scott slammed her hand down hard on Gonzo'shelmet, knocking him clear of her line of fire. He crumpled to thefloor as she jerked forward and hit the ignition switch. Low-levelflames erupted from both barrels.

Holding the flamethrower tightly in both hands, she squeezed thetrigger-gently. The weapon lurched backward as the slack in the mountwas taken up. Spewing horizontal geysers of fire down the passageway,the weapon shook violently against the single point of restraint.

Flames leapt in all directions, incinerating everything in sight.

Scott felt the raw power she'd unleashed as the deckshuddered beneath her. A howling wind of exhaust gasses filled thecorridor. Blocking the torrent of intense heat, the shield glowed adull red.

Shoving hard against the butt end of the flamethrower, Gonzo strainedwith all his strength to counter the reverse thrust created by theexpanding gasses. And then it happened. He felt the restraining lagbolt giving way, the front end of the flamethrower rising.

"No! God, nooooooooo!"

he screamed frantically, the veins on his forehead bulging.

Gulping for breath, his face now purple, he felt an adrenaline rushkick in. Suddenly, if only for a few seconds, he had the strength often men.

Hunting with astonishing assurance, Scott instinctively sensed PAM'severy action. In the midst of the terror and chaos, ignoring themounting restraint failure, she concentrated on the blast shieldwalking toward them. Then as quickly as the attack started, it wasfinished. PAM backed off, the blast shield stood still.

Scott shut down and Gonzo collapsed quivering alongside her.Immediately, she pulled him to safety away from the smoking shield.Sweat poured off his forehead; his breathing-short and shallow. Withinminutes, his quivering stopped, his hands steadied. His eyes opened,making contact with Scott's.

She smiled admiringly at him.

"I don't know how you did it, but you did it."

Gonzo shrugged. His breathing remained rapid but the color hadreturned to his face.

"I am pretty amazing." He spoke softly, punctuating his comment with awink.

"You look all right to me now," she quipped, rolling her eyes.

"Sit tight."

Scott stood slowly, lifted an Aqua-Lung sized tank filled with waterfrom his EVA pack, and returned to the glowing blast shield. Lightingan oxygen-fed torch, she heaved it over the smoking shield toward thebend in the corridor.

She backed her weapon out of the gun port and surveyed the passageway.Looking through her night visor, she saw rising green tendrils of heatradiating from every surface.

Her eyes carefully considered each hazard stretching off into thedistance. The turret-mounted laser was a smoldering mass and everyflush mounted camera lay wasted, smoke convulsing out of each lensport. Handmade hell, Scott thought. She gently caressed her lethalweapon. The flamethrower wasn't smart, graceful, or elegant, but itwas effective for the task at hand.

"All clear," Gonzo heard over his headset. He stood slowly and beganmoving toward her. He felt as if he were moving in slow motion througha dream, engulfed by a cloud of smoke.

Turning, Scott advanced a few cautious steps and loosened the blastshield from the wall. With increasing confidence, she brought Gonzo'swater nozzle to bear on the red-hot shield. Steam boiled off the metalin a torrid frenzy, filling the smoky corridor with a cloud of mist.After hosing down the deck, Scott turned to Gonzo and tried to lookinto his eyes. She couldn't see her hand in front of her face, letalone his eyes.

"You ready?" she asked. Her voice sounded weary but determined.

"I'm as ready as I'm gonna be," he admitted reluctantly.

Wiping the moisture from her visor, she saw only steam at first, thenGonzo's silhouette slowly emerged from the dark background.

The scene was an eerie one as they advanced through the solid wall ofsteam' to the yellow airlock.

Raising her torch to the ceiling, Scott played the light over the mazeof access entrances overhead. Methodically, she considered everyopening: the air vents, service access ways power conduits, and storagechambers. Scott studied the map, hoping they wouldn't need thesealternate routes.

Freedom's core was a maze of small and large passageways, each leadingsomewhere-the trick was knowing where.

Once Scott had her bearings, they entered the open airlock and pinnedboth doors shut. She didn't smile. Her impression was one ofdesolation and darkness. With the airlock door secure, they advancedbehind the blast shield toward the yellow power plant.

Beyond the airlock, the steam cloud cleared, revealingthe closed hatchway entrance to the power plant. Freedom had separatepower plants on each face for redundancy.

Two plants could fail and Freedom would continue operating at fullcapacity, never skipping a beat.

Scott pressed the OPEN button.

Nothing, the hatch didn't budge. No surprise.

Spinning the hatch flywheel, Scott slid the door out of the way.

"Ready," she huffed, gasping for breath.

Gonzo pinned the hatch open.

Surveying every detail, using a handheld mirror as a periscope, Scottcautiously peered into the reactor control room. She saw a largecylindrical reactor vessel in the corner connected through steam linesto a turbine positioned across the room. The focal point of the roomwas near the reactor, a control panel lined with row after row ofgauges and one red T-handle shift lever marked EMERGENCY SCRAM(shutdown). As expected, defensive armament bristled over, under, andalongside the reactor control console.

PAM protected the reactor SCRAM switch like it was Fort Knox.

"Guarded like a bank vault," she quipped in a matter-of-fact tone.

"The SCRAM?"

Scott shook her head.

"Running the gauntlet is suicide."

Her tone meant no discussion. No way they could approach the controlconsole without getting killed, so they wouldn't try. Scott handedGonzo the mirror. He eyed the room layout, focusing on thehigh-pressure steam lines.

"Pasha was right." His jaw muscles tightened as he spoke into hishelmet mike.

"This equipment won't react very well to-uh our traditional methods."

"No explosives. No weapons," Scott agreed. Festooned with grenades,Scott and Gonzo took off their shoulder straps and secured them outsidethe hatch. Scott reached inside her EVA backpack and grabbed a smallcutting torch.

"We go for the jugular." She meant the steam lines.

Gonzo nodded agreement. He knew what to do. Rubbing his hand over thedeep gouges in the dilapidated shield, Gonzo tensed.

"I hope this plate holds up."

"It should," she said tentatively.

"These lasers aren't so powerful." She paused, then spoke withincreased confidence after recalling something Pasha said.

"Freedom's designers couldn't risk damaging the reactor coolingsystem."

"Hope you're right." Gonzo's tone was sincere.

Scott followed close on his heels as they moved across the open spacein the center of the room. PAM's electrical discharge and laserweapons were concentrated in the forward two corners of the room, nearthe reactor control panel and turbine. Only one path was available tothe steam lines, a straight line which cut across the open space in thecenter of the room, a firing range of sons. They couldn't go throughthe walls, across the ceiling, or underneath the floor because the roomwas completely sealed like a miniature containment vessel. The goodnews was that the high pressure steam pipes were not as well protectedas the SCRAM switch or turbine. The bad news was PAM covered openspace in the center of the room with cross fire.

Scott's eyes darted about the room, her breathing rapid.

"Keep moving," she gasped. Suddenly, the shield shook violently as ifit were beaten by a hammer. PAM orchestrated the laser fire like asymphony conductor. Sparks darted overhead in every direction.

Kneeling by the steam lines, Scott lit the cutting torch and scorched arectangular pattern down a foot-long section of pipe. There was barelyenough room for the two of them crouching behind the shield.

Temperature sensors for the high-pressure steam lines were redundantfour times over. If two out of four sensors detected temperaturesoutside a predefined margin of safety, the reactor would automaticallyscram, coming to an orderly shutdown. Trouble was the high-pressuresteam pipes were double-walled and the sensors were sandwiched betweenthe inside and outside pipes.

With her chest heaving like a bellows, Scott struggled to steady herhands and cut out the rectangular-shaped piece of pipe. Inside thecutout she saw glass fiber cables attached by pairs to separateconnectors. Without hesitation, she opened her cleaning kit with hergloved hands. Twisting four optical connectors free, she cleaned themwith alcohol, blew the ends dry with a pressurized can of air, andplugged them into a small metal box. Quickly, she thumbed the testbutton. The small metal box flashed READY.

"Looks good."

Gonzo looked down at her handiwork, giving it a once over His responsewas immediate.

"Should work. Shoot!"

Scott pressed a switch on the small box sending a bright pulse of lightdown each fiber to the reactor control system at the other end. Theidea was to simulate a catastrophic failure, trick the reactor controlsystem into invoking an automatic scram.

It worked. PAM's attack broke off. The electrical power to the laserscollapsed without delay. Emergency lights began to dim and slowlyfaded away. The reactor room was absolutely pitch-black. No emergencylighting-nothing.

Scott and Gonzo lowered their low-light visors. The room shone throughthe darkness as ghostly shades of green.

Turning toward Scott, Gonzo said,

"You looked a hell of a lot better with black hair." He watched thetemperature of her face rise, turning a bright green.

"A long hot shower is something I can only dream about." Glancing atGonzo's face, she recoiled in shock.

Her tone was unfathomable but the expression on her face was not.

"You look like the grim reaper." She studied him carefully. Throughthe low-light visor, Gonzo's face looked like a glowing green skullwith hollow black eye sockets.

"It's this job, Scotty," Gonzo replied.

"You know the feeling-bad day at the office."

Suddenly, Scott felt a sick feeling in her stomach. She'd completelylost track of time. Near panic, she checked her watch, then breathed asigh of relief. Plenty of time. In less than two hours, the black boxwould detonate if it was not reset.

"Better backtrack. The black box beckons."

Gonzo agreed.

"That's one job we don't want to forget."

She balled her hand into a fist and bounced it off his helmet.

"Roger that, SAESO. One down, three to go."

The Black Face, 1212612014, 0806 Zulu, 1:06 A.M. Mountain StandardTime

THE INFIRMARY,

FREEDOM'S CORE

Mac felt like he was listening to the war over the radio.

With the yellow face shut down and the black powerplant about to scram,everything was going better than they had any right to expect. Macintently watched four gauges mounted on the infirmary wall; three ofthem read NORMAL, one flashed SCRAM.

Sitting up, loosely strapped to his bed, he monitored Scott and Gonzo'sconversation. He'could hear their conversations over the EVA intercombut they didn't say much. Mac felt tense, afraid for his friends.Listening to the action, powerless to help them, was worse than beingthere.

"Steady," he heard Gonzo say.

"Connections look good.

Shoot!"

"Mark." Scott sounded weary.

Immediately, Klaxons began to sound, rattling the quiet which was theinfirmary. Mac was relieved now to see two gauges flashing SCRAM.

The Spawning, 1212612014, 0808 Zulu, 1:08 A.M. Mountain Standard Time

THE COOL ROOM,

FREEDOM'S CORE

Although PAM sensed an imminent threat, she was incapable of panic orfear. If a third power plant failed, she'd lose her transmitter andforfeit control of the armada. This clear and present threat drove PAMinto a frenzy of reproductive activity.

Almost immediately, she entered a high-level subroutine optimized forreproductive survival.

do until done if [threat = TRUE] then eliminate-threat ifEeLiminate-threat = PASS]then done if [eliminate-threat = FAIL] then make child if[eliminate-threat = IMMINENT] then send-child done Translated, theroutine operated as follows: if threatened, PAM eliminated the threat.If eliminating the threat failed, she gave birth to a child, a nearlyidentical copy of herself. If the threat became imminent, then she'dsend copies of her child into other computers on the Department ofDefense network.

immediately, she radioed Guardian. He answered in a protocol whichrequired PAM to identify herself and enter a security password.

She did.

And Guardian hung up.

Not affected by rejection, PAM methodically moved to the next computeron her list. Her list was sorted on a most often called basis, thecomputers Centurion chatter with most often were on top.

She radioed Centurion's Twin in the basement of Cheyenne Mountain.After he answered, she identified herself.

Denying her access, he hung up.

Without a moment's hesitation, Kaliningrad was next.

Freedom had a dedicated data link to Kaliningrad used for transmittingCenturion's activity log. PAM couldn't set the link up or tear itdown, but she could use it-and she did.

She sent a single copy of her child through the Kaliningrad computeraddressed to 128 separate DOD computer destinations. And one of thesewas Centurion's Twin.

And so it came to pass as the Iraqis had claimed. When facingextinction, PAM found a way to survive. PAM's reproductive imperativewas now fulfilled. Her children were capable of lying dormant foryears, each a ticking time bomb in the DOD computer network.

From the time PAM sensed imminent danger until her send-childtransmission was complete, less than one minute had elapsed.

The White Face, 1212612014, 1222 Zulii, 5:22 A.M. Mountain StandardTime

THE INFIRMARY,

FREEDOM'S CORE

Mac checked his watch. The white face power plant should drop off-lineanytime.

"Steady," he heard Gonzo say over the intercom.

"Hold the torch steady." t Scott coughed, her breathing heavy.

"I'm exhausted.

Can't help it." Her voice quivered.

"My hands won't work."

Suddenly, Mac heard a rush of air screaming as if it were sucked into avacuum. A distinctively male groan followed.

It sounded as if Gonzo had been dealt a blow to the solar plexus.

"They've got to work," Gonzo wheezed.

"I ... I

can't help you."

Gonzo's wheezing continued but quickly weakened.

Nearing panic, Mac screamed into his intercom mike.

"Gonzo! Gonzo!"

Desperate gasps for air now faint, barely audible, Scott broke in, hertone distraught.

"Mac, cycle the decompression chamber. Something clipped his leg,ripped open his suit."

Mac moved to the decompression chamber, toggling a few switches untilone clicked home. The coffin-shaped chamber hissed to life.

Suddenly, warning lights began flashing in the infirmary and Klaxonssounded hysterically. Spinning around, Mac saw the reason why. Scottdid it. She'd shut down the white face reactor. Three gauges nowflashed SCRAM.

Mac hobbled to the control console and slammed his fist down on theALARM CUTOFF switch. For a few moments, the infirmary was quiet.

Mac heard the infirmary airlock open. Scott approached, carrying Gonzoon her shoulder, his body limp. Lack of airhad weakened him. They laid him on Mac's bed and popped off hishelmet. Blood frothed at his nose. The fall in pressure made theexisting wound on Gonzo's hand bleed again.

"Collapsed from lack of oxygen," Scott observed anxiously.

"He's beginning to regain consciousness."

His eyes were open and working, but the rest of his body seemed to havea mind of its own. His breath came in labored shallow gasps.

Mac secured an oxygen tank on the wall next to Gonzo.

After placing the clear plastic mask over his mouth and nose, he openedthe valve. Gonzo inhaled, sucking in deep breaths of pure oxygen.

Finally he moved the respirator aside and lay perfectly still.

"Are you all right?" Scott asked softly.

Gonzo sat up, his head throbbing, and wiped the crust of dried bloodfrom his nose. He shook his head, wincing at the sudden pain in hisleg.

"No, not now. Later maybe. Give me some time." Gonzo sounded asdisappointed as he felt.

"We were so close." He clenched his fist tight.

"One more minute and we could have shut it down."

Scott backed away slowly and stood by the four gauges on the wall.

"Gonzo," Scott pointed to the white power gauge.

Gonzo focused, blinking his eyes clear. It took a moment for theflashing SCRAM message to register, but when it did, Gonzo's recoverywas immediate.

"Thank God." He breathed a sigh of relief.

"You did it."

"We did it." Her tone was matter-of-fact.

Cut Over, 1212612014, 1502 Zulu, 8:02 A.M. Mountain Standard Time

CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN, COLORADO

Grinning from ear to ear, Colonel Napper approached General Mason witha handwritten note. In the euphoria of the moment, Napper let hismilitary protocol slide.

"Great news, Slim!"

Mason looked up and eyed Napper carefully, looking for some clue to hismessage. He saw it in his face.

"The armada?"

"It's all ours. Freedom's out of the loop!"

There was a long pause.

"Are you sure?"

"Our preliminary testing is complete. Hope's got control.

No doubt about it. Freedom's off-line." Napper's enthusiasm wascontagious. He said what Mason wanted to hear, what everyone needed tohear.

"Thank God." For a few moments, Mason held his head in his hands anddid not speak. Mason's mind turned over rapidly, evaluating variousalternatives.

"There's

"No change in the past hour, sir. They're thirty-five miles north ofKuwait city."

"Your recommendations' "We stick with our original plan, sir."

Mason nodded agreement.

"Very well then. Notify the President." Mason paused. He had made uphis mind.

"Send the Saudi and Kuwaiti air forces the clear skies signal. They'llannihilate the Iraqi Air Force on the ground."

Mason opened his desk drawer, pulled out a scrap of paper, and handedit to Napper.

"Send it, Sam." His tone was heavy, final. It read simply:Contact, 1212612014, 1733 Zulu, 10:33 A.M. Mountain Standard TimeCENTRAL AIR HANDLER EQUIPMENT Room,

FREEDOM'S CORE

Cursing silently to himself, Gonzo hunted through a maze of cablesuntil he found the right one. The emergency lighting in the airhandler equipment room was dim. Scott held the flashlight over Gonzo'sshoulder and remained quiet, responding only to his direction. Heappreciated her silence.

After tracing the cable to its termination in the back of a controlpanel, Gonzo smiled affectionately.

"Good," he mumbled to himself. He marked the cable with electricaltape, then turned to Scott.

"The rest is easy."

"Go for it." Scott smiled.

"I could use a breath of fresh air!" Now that every airlock was pinnedshut, there was nothing PAM could do to stop them from pressurizing thecore.

Gonzo disconnected the cable PAM used to control the air handlingsystem and a red alarm light began flashing.

He ignored it.

"PAM's complaining," he observed with a look of satisfaction in hiseyes.

"She's had a bad day," Scott quipped pretentious

Y.

"Game's over." Gonzo smiled knowingly at Scott and removed a smallblinking gadget from his toolbox. He patched the little box into therear of the control panel and thumbed a switch. Instantly, theblinking stopped. Some minutes later, the walls of Freedom's corebegan to snap and pop, flexing outward with the rising air pressure.

Scott and Gonzo removed their helmets and breathed deeply.

"What a stench!" Gonzo squawked.

Scott crinkled tier nose.

"Burned electrical circuits." She paused.

"Listen." Hydraulics whined, fans whiffed, and a breeze blew acrossher face. The breeze felt wonderful through her damp hair. Just tohear again without that helmet was almost sensual. Her skin tingled,her ears enjoyed the mechanical melody, and her nose adjusted

There was a long pause. Scott faced the blower, allowing the wind toplay through her hair.

Gonzo approached Scott slowly through the dim light.

She knew he was watching. He reached out to her, gently placing hisarms around her waist. She didn't resist. She needed him, they neededeach other. Leaning into him, Scott looked up with affection, her eyestearing. Gently caressing her hair, Gonzo embraced Scotty tenderly,carefully, as if he feared she might break. Looking into her eyes,Gonzo felt weak-kneed. He paused for a moment and didn't speak. Thewords stuck in his throat. Although silent, Scott's eyes spoke thetruth she felt in her heart.

Softly, Gonzo kissed his pilot on the cheek. She returned a passionateembrace that he would never forget.

The Final Mile, 1212612014, 1808 Zulu, 11.,08 A.M. Mountain StandardTime

THE RED POWER PLANT,

FREEDOM'S CORE

Standing outside the entrance into the red power plant, Scottcautiously surveyed the reactor room with dismay.

She felt a sinking feeling inside as she mulled over the ramificationsof this unexpected situation. Well, perhaps not entirely unexpected.They had hoped that the reactor room had escaped Hell Fire's crashwithout damage, but hope alone was not enough. Apparently the reactor,turbine, andcooling system had escaped unharmed, but the room itself had sufferedstructural damage during the crash. To-Scott's dismay, the pathway tothe steam pipes was blocked by twisted structural support columns andlarge chunks of equipment debris. There was no room for the blastshield.

She hesitated a moment longer before handing the periscope to Gonzo.

Looking through the scope, he asked somberly.

"What are we going to do?"

Scott pulled out the corridor map and illuminated it with aflashlight.

"Let's take a look," she said with grim determination. Scott's jawmuscles tightened as she searched for alternatives. She looked atGonzo.

"You got any ideas?"

Gonzo studied the room layout on the map.

"No way we can go down the middle."

Scott agreed.

"We can't go around the walls," Gonzo continued.

"No room for us or the shield." It "What about that duct?" Shepointed on the map to a cooling tower, an air shaft which spanned thelength of the room.

"It passes near the kill switch."

He studied the air shaft layout on the map.

"No access,"

he said softly. Gonzo traced his finger over the route.

"And there's no vent near the kill switch."

Scott raised both eyebrows and lifted her cutting torch.

"Any better ideas?"

Measuring a distance off the map, Gonzo quantified the problem.

"There's eight feet of separation between the air duct and killswitch." He paused, then continued dissecting the problem intosmaller, manageable pieces.

"Assume we position ourselves over the kill switch and cut a holethrough the air shaft, what then? How'll we scram the reactor? We'vegotta throw the kill switch somehow."

Scott's forehead glistened with sweat, her concentration intense.Rifling through their equipment, she found an Aqua-Lung sized thrustertank. An idea began forming in her mind, a small bubble of an idea atfirst. She needed to try it. In one continuous motion, Scott liftedthe thruster tank and opened the air pressure valve. Opening the valvereleased thrust which rocketed the air tank out of her hands and sentit crashing into the corridor wall.

"From eight to ten feet away," she said.

"I could do it." Her jaw extended, her voice confident, she believedit.

"I think you're onto something," Gonzo said quietly after thoroughconsideration.

"You'll need a diversion." Gonzo's mind raced ahead. He spoke withintensity. This was their last obstacle, their final mile. He lookedinto Scott's eyes and saw his reason to live. They must succeed.

"No way PAM'll let that air tank anywhere near the kill switch withouta fight. She'll rip it to shreds."

Scott gazed at the map and spoke plainly.

"You're right."

She looked up at him and smiled.

"You'll think of something. I'll run the ball, you runinterference."

Scott put on her helmet. She figured she'd need it cutting her way outof the confined space inside the air shaft.

"I

was hoping I'd never wear this thing again," she sighed.

"Looks good on you," Gonzo said admiringly as he snapped his helmetinto place. He checked her oxygen.

She checked his.

"This should be interesting," she observed candidly. There was aforced matter-of-fact tone in her voice, almost detached, analytical.They had enough oxygen for another four hours but hoped they wouldn'tneed it.

Scott and Gonzo moved cautiously into the reactor room behind theshield, walked up the wall like flies, and moved alongside the airduct. Predictably, PAM sensed their presence like clockwork andbrought her eight turret-mounted lasers to bear on the shield.

"I could never get used to this," Gonzo groaned. His guts wrenchedwith fear as his body absorbed the pounding.

Scott lit the torch and began cutting a five-foot hole into the duct.Her hands trembled, her muscles strained, her nerves frayed. Exhaustionbegan overtaking her once again.

She struggled to make her hands work, but the trembling wouldn'tstop.

Smoke filled the reactor room as sparks and molten metal flew overtheir heads. It was more than any one person alone could bear. Sheturned to Gonzo. Finding strength in his shelter, she endured.

Fifteen minutes later, with her woman-sized entrance complete, theymoved once again to the safety of the corridor.

Removing their helmets, Gonzo gave her a once-over.

Her shaking was uncontrollable now. She seemed almost frazzled. Hespoke with every ounce of resolve his exhausted body could muster.

"Enough is enough."

"What do you mean?" Scott looked perplexed.

"Disengage, Scotty. Back off and cut yourself a little slack."

Scott looked frantically through her EVA pack.

"What the hell are you talking about?" She was keyed up tight as adrum, her voice now quivering.

"I need a pencil. Where's my damn pencil?"

"Mason was right. Tired minds make mistakes. We're pushing too hardand if we're not careful, we're gonna get killed." Sensing his wordswere getting traction, Gonzo paused. Once he made eye contact withScott, he continued in a deliberate, quiet tone.

"And for no good reason. The war's almost over. We've come too far tomake a stupid mistake now. We can lick this thing; it's only a matterof time." Silence. Scott's expression was unfathomable. They weregetting too close to this problem, losing their objective edge. Heconcluded in a decisive tone.

"We're getting some rest. We've got to."

Scott blinked her bloodshot eyes. Staring at her trembling hands, tryas she might she couldn't steady them. And that pencil. All of asudden, finding that pencil had become a BIG problem. She raised herhands in an admission of error.

"You're right."

Together, they walked back to the infirmary through the now securecorridors. Inside the infirmary, they had a snack, took some Tylenolto relax, and collapsed.

Mac couldn't put his finger on it but something was different aboutthem. He wondered. He'd been expecting them to get together for along time but somehow it just never happened. He shook his head,smiling to himself. Well, could be.

Scott found it hard to pull herself up into the overhead air ductswhile wearing her helmet and bulky pressure suit, but she managed.After sliding four thruster tanks into the hole ahead of her, shefollowed while manipulating both the flashlight and toolbox. In caseshe got stuck, she'd attached a small rope around her waist and wasglad to have it. The air duct was dark and cramped, much smaller thanshe'd expected. A few meters away, it tapered to even smallerdimensions. Adjusting her flashlight for wide beam, she flashed itahead of her before starting.

"How is it?" she heard crackle over the intercom.

"Lousy," she said.

"If I get stuck, pull."

"I'm not going to lose you now." Gonzo spoke earnestly.

He backed away from the duct entrance to the corridor. Setting hisshield aside, he began assembling the diversion, a group of smallrocket flares. The flares were intended to draw laser fire when Scottyreleased the thruster.

It's nice to have someone looking out for you, Scott thought. Shelowered her night visor into position and began her long slow crawlacross the room. There was no room to turn around. She expected she'dhave to back out.

I'll back over the-bridge when I get to it. She tried to smile but herknees hurt.

She measured exactly how long she crawled with a measuring tape. Theair vent bent sharply to the right exactly where it was supposed to.

"I'm in the turn," she radioed Gonzo on the intercom.

"Ready here, Scotty. Don't rush. Take your time."

The bend opened into a larger duct. Gratefully she climbed to herknees, stretching like a cat arching its back.

Her knees were getting sore, her elbows ached. The ventilation ductstretched off before her, an infinite expanse of blackness.

Outside in the corridor, Gonzo was swinging his arms, getting thecirculation back.

Scott checked the measuring tape.

"I made it." She spoke softly, her chest heaving like a bellows. Shemoved thetoolbox and thrusters forward clear of her work area and lit thetorch. Scott struggled against fatigue, cutting the opening from anear prostrate position.

Gazing through his periscope, Gonzo watched Scott's torch pierce theductwork. He smiled.

"Perfect. Your position is perfect."

Unable to see what she was doing, she operated mainly by feel. She'dcut a few inches, check it, then cut a few more. Finally, when theroughly rectangular hole was complete, she pounded it.

"I'm through," Gonzo heard crackle over his headset. Just as thecutout dropped toward the deck, twin laser beams pounded it hard,slamming it into the wall across the room. Slowly, cautiously, sheheld the hammer over the cutout in the air shaft. She was relievedthat the hammer did not draw fire. She waved the hammer back and forthover the hole. PAM's lasers lay quiet. Cautiously, she looked throughthe hole at the reactor kill switch. She could almost touch the red Thandle.

"I've got a clear shot." She felt optimistic. Just take your time anddo it right, she reminded herself. She moved a thruster tank intoposition and pointed it at the red handle.

Looking down the side of the cylinder wall, she saw the red SCRAMhandle clearly.

"Release flares on my mark."

Gonzo threw a switch igniting the flares.

"Roger, Scotty.

Go."

"Two ... one ... mark." She held her breath to steady her aim.

In one simultaneous motion, Gonzo dropped the shield and depressed theFIRE button. Suddenly, a gross of small rocket flares erupted acrossthe room toward the control console.

The sudden brightness caused Scott to flinch as she opened the jetvalve on the thruster tank. Steadying her aim, she released the tankevenly, sending it racing down toward the kill switch.

Nearly as quickly as the thruster was released, PAM's lasers acquiredit and knocked it laterally across the room.

But she had gotten close, within six inches of the handle.

Scott noticed the thruster tank had been knocked to the left by thelaser fire. To compensate, she'd pull her aim six inches to theright.

"We'll hit it next round," Scott said optimistically.

"No doubt about it."

Gonzo wasn't as optimistic but he believed in her.

"Give me one minute to reload." Moments later, his flare rockets werereloaded and he was anxious to try again.

Scott had her thruster in position, her aim was offset in anticipationof the laser blast.

"Release on my mark."

"Ready."

"Two ... one ... mark."

The reactor scram happened very suddenly. Accelerating, the thrustertank darted toward the right of the T handle. In the blink of an eye,a laser pounded it as before, deflecting it left. This time the tankclicked home, smashing into the kill switch.

The darkness which followed offered relief. Together, they'd traveledthe final mile; their dangerous work was done. Once Gonzo pulled Scottout of the air duct, they deactivated the black box for the lasttime.

Won the Battle, 1212612014, 0115 Zulu, 6:15 P.M. Mountain StandardfimeTHE CONTROL Room,

FREEDOM'S CORE

Dimly illuminated, the control room looked desolate.

Strapped to his chair behind the silhouette of a communicationsconsole, Depack's lifeless body looked unearthly, oddly dreamlike andfrozen in time. Running on limited backup battery power, Centurion wassilent, his globe dark.

Somehow, Gonzo got a few of the lights on after splicing the circuitsinto the backup power. Once the flickering stopped, he packed histools and began moving toward Centurion's corner.

Across the pyramid-shaped chamber, holding her helmet under her arm,Scott took a deep breath and cautiously surveyed the weapon fixturesfastened on the walls. Motioning for Gonzo to stand fast, she watchedand listened intently, uncertain at first. No electrical hums,hydraulic whines, orpneumatic hisses. Good, Scott thought. Perfectly silent.

Feeling a twinge of hope, Scott smiled and continued surveying thechamber.

PAM subsisted off raw electrical power. Once the space station'selectrical power died, PAM lost her stranglehold on Freedom and the DEWSAT armada. She continued to run but ceased to be a threat. Limitedbattery power kept essential computer functions running, but most ofher sensory input and output control circuits were dead, all uselesswithout power. Freedom's four independent power plants had nourishedPAM while supplying the muscle behind her strength. Without them, PAMthreatened no one.

PAM saw only darkness now. She could hear, she could speak, but shecould not retaliate. Her capacity for reproduction was expended, herprogrammed survival imperative fulfilled.

After scanning the indicators on the turret lasers scattered about thechamber, Scott was convinced. Every indicator light was dark. Renderedharmless, PAM could not counterattack. Killing the power eliminatedPAM's option for retaliation, every weapon she once controlled was outof commission.

Gutting Centurion seemed somehow anticlimactic, almost too easy. Movingtoward Gonzo, Scott nodded approval and spoke with the sound ofsatisfaction in her voice.

"PAM's not about to hurt anyone else."

"I'll say one thing for her," Gonzo said somberly.

"She's a woman who knows what she wants and gets it."

"Effective survival quality," Scott lamented, staring at Depack'sdisintegrated face.

"Eliminate every threat."

Kneeling by Gonzo, Scott helped him loosen the wing nuts holdingCenturion's maintenance access hatch in place. Despite herdetermination, she found herself tensing uncontrollably as she removedthe hatch, exposing Centurion's optical computer heart. Her nerveswere twitching, strung tight as bowstrings. With the hatch removed,red laser beams radiated out of the sealed optical chamber in alldirections, illuminating the control room like hundreds of intenselybright, narrow beam spotlights.

Standing, Scott faced Centurion's monitor. The red beams cast an eerieillumination about the chamber. Watching the screen, she saw tiny dustparticles glowing as they passed through the red beams. The monitorscreen remained black, but Scott knew PAM could hear her. In a coldand forbidding tone, she spoke directly into the microphone by themonitor.

"PAM. Any last words?"

Silence.

Grabbing the wire cutters from the toolbox, Scott knelt alongsideGonzo.

"Let's get on with it," she said with a sense of urgency.

Gonzo agreed and spoke in eamett.

"Looks like we won the war."

Suddenly, static interference erupted loudly over the speaker.

Scott shot Gonzo an apprehensive glance then stood facing the darkmonitor.

There was a long pause followed by the faint sound of a monotonousfemale voice. Lacking in conviction or vigor, PAM spoke a slowsuccession of words uttered in a single tone. Although her voicepossessed the stark quality of emptiness, her words were detached,analytical, and objective.

"The scope of your evaluation is in error."

"What?" Spinning around, Gonzo's knee-jerk reaction wasinstantaneous.

"You won-the battle." PAM spoke with quiet authority, her toneconclusive.

"And lost-the war."

A deep silence permeated the control room. The silence lasted perhapsfifty seconds and was suddenly broken by an abrupt gasping sound.Simultaneously, Scott and Gonzo remembered to breathe. They wereimmobilized by PAM's words and the strangeness of their situation.

Gonzo knelt stunned, disbelieving. He did not speak.

Scott pondered the ramifications of PAM's words. She felt helpless.She wanted to close out this nightmare once and for all, but she couldnot forget. She closed her eyes.

For a moment, it all seemed like a bad dream. She felt removed, as ifshe were watching herself from a few feet away. Reluctantly, sheopened her eyes and found nothinghad changed. She became aware that Gonzo was watching her. Gonzoneeded her, they needed each other. She had to do something. Sheclosed her eyes again and concentrated on her few preciousalternatives. She quickly concluded there was little she could do butdemand an explanation or pull the plug. Her eyes opened wide, herstare resolute. Her voice, urgent and barely under control, snappedGonzo out of his daze.

"PAM-clarify lost the war.

Silence.

Scott felt fatigue in every bone but also knew that in the next fewmoments she would purge Freedom of this scourge. She had decided, hermind now clear. She was about to do the most important thing she hadever done.

Looking into the monitor, Scott spoke plainly. Her voice, isolated andperfectly audible, had a loathsome animal-like quality o it.

"For you, the war is over."

Then it happened very quickly.

Turning toward Gonzo, she maneuvered her hand across her throat in aslashing motion. Her tone-final.

"Kill it."

Primed to pull the plug, Gonzo ham-fisted the emergency power switchand PAM's laser heartbeat faded to a lifeless black void.

EPILOGUE

THE FOLLOWING TWO-YEARS IN SUMMARY

Freedom Commander Major Jay Fayhee and Computer Systems AnalystCaptain Depack McKee were buried in Arlington National Cemetery withfull military honors.

Memorial services were held in Washington for Lieutenant ColonelWilliam

"Wild Bill" Boyd. He received the Congressional Medal of Honorposthumously, then was returned home to Mississippi. He was buried ona lush green hillside under a large shady tree overlooking his family'sfarm. His brothers felt he would have liked it there.

Colonel Sam Napper was promoted to brigadier general, appointed Mason'sdeputy commander for Cheyenne Mountain operations, and awardedresponsibility for consolidating CSOC offensive and SDIO defensiveoperations into a single unified air and space command.

With the assistance of his family and political connections inWashington, Colonel Wayne Hinson was transferred to the Pentagon,placed in an assignment strategically critical to the national defense,and bumped to the top of the promotions list. All derogatoryperformance reports from Cheyenne Mountain mysteriously disappearedfrom Hinson's personnel records. His self-serving meteoric rise to thetop of the ranks never slowed. In Washington'sinnermost circles, Hinson was perceived as a man with answers who wasgoing places.

General Robert Craven retired to his home overlooking the thirteenthfairway at Pebble Beach, but emotionally he never recovered. Thestaggering loss of life destroyed his spirit, haunting him until death.Nine months following the disaster, Craven was laid to rest inArlington National Cemetery. His epitaph encapsulated the essence ofthe man-mover, shaker, visionary.

Commander Pasha Yakovlev was promoted to colonel and promptly restoredto his family living in Star City.

After his ribs healed, he was paraded down Red Square and awarded thestate's most coveted medal, the Order of Lenin. Following the Russiancelebration, he returned to Washington, D.C." and became the firstRussian in American history to receive the Congressional Medal ofHonor.

The inscription read simply: For extraordinary service to humanity.

Memorial services were held in Red Square for Hope computer analystBoris Ustinov. His wife and children were granted a special exemptionby the state to continue living in their Moscow apartment.

Major Linda Scott, Major Carlos

"Gonzo" Gonzalez, and Chief Master Sergeant Andrew

"Mac" Mac Williams received the Congressional Medal of Honor citingtheir extraordinary service for humanity and were automatically placedon the promotions list. In addition, Major Scott received theDistinguished Flying Cross which she now carries in her pocket forluck. After returning from three months' extended leave, Scott, Mac,and Gonzo were assigned a new XR-30; they named it Hell Fire.

Freedom was restored to full operational readiness in just undereighteen months. During the first stage of the space station's repair,Hell Fire was carefully extracted from Freedom's innards like a largepiece of shrapnel.

Following extensive temporary repairs, Hell Fire returned home toEdwards nine months later. With her facelift, and her avionicsremoved, she made her last flight and Epilogue retired to theSmithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Once PAM releasedher stranglehold on Freedom, combined Saudi-Kuwaiti forces retaliatedby launching a devastating, precisely orchestrated stealth cruisemissile attack on Iraqi air defenses. Flight paths were programmedsuch that hundreds of missiles simultaneously pounced on the Iraqi AirForce from every direction. In less than sixty seconds, the war forair superiority was over. With their Air Force smoldering in ruins onthe ground and Saudi-Kuwaiti forces flying unopposed overhead, theIraqi Republican Guard suffered the greatest rout in the history.

PAM's origin was never traced. This investigative dead end came as nosurprise to the technical experts involved, however the logic ofpolitics decreed this result unacceptable. Consequently, the AlliedForces never retaliated directly, but justice demanded we exchange aneye for an eye, a virus for a virus.

Trouble was other countries possessed virus programs far superior toour own. In political and military circles alike, this became known asthe PAM process gap. Predictably, the logic of military balancedecreed this gap unacceptable as well. Most military and politicalleaders agreed-something must be done.

To the astonishment of professional politicians arouWith the hatch removed,red laser beams radiated out of the sealed optical chamber in alldirections, illuminating the control room like hundreds of intenselybright, narrow beam spotlights.

Standing, Scott faced Centurion's monitor. The red beams cast an eerieillumination about the chamber. Watching the screen, she saw tiny dustparticles glowing as they passed through the red beams. The monitorscreen remained black, but Scott knew PAM could hear her. In a coldand forbidding tone, she spoke directly into the microphone by themonitor.

"PAM. Any last words?"

Silence.

Grabbing the wire cutters from the toolbox, Scott knelt alongsideGonzo.

"Let's get on with it," she said with a sense of urgency.

Gonzo agreed and spoke in eamett.

"Looks like we won the war."

Suddenly, static interference erupted loudly over the speaker.

Scott shot Gonzo an apprehensive glance then stood facing the darkmonitor.

There was a long pause followed by the faint sound of a monotonousfemale voice. Lacking in conviction or vigor, PAM spoke a slowsuccession of words uttered in a single tone. Although her voicepossessed the stark quality of emptiness, her words were detached,analytical, and objective.

"The scope of your evaluation is in error."

"What?" Spinning around, Gonzo's knee-jerk reaction wasinstantaneous.

"You won-the battle." PAM spoke with quiet authority, her toneconclusive.

"And lost-the war."

A deep silence permeated the control room. The silence lasted perhapsfifty seconds and was suddenly broken by an abrupt gasping sound.Simultaneously, Scott and Gonzo remembered to breathe. They wereimmobilized by PAM's words and the strangeness of their situation.

Gonzo knelt stunned, disbelieving. He did not speak.

Scott pondered the ramifications of PAM's words. She felt helpless.She wanted to close out this nightmare once and for all, but she couldnot forget. She closed her eyes.

For a moment, it all seemed like a bad dream. She felt removed, as ifshe were watching herself from a few feet away. Reluctantly, sheopened her eyes and found nothinghad changed. She became aware that Gonzo was watching her. Gonzoneeded her, they needed each other. She had to do something. Sheclosed her eyes again and concentrated on her few preciousalternatives. She quickly concluded there was little she could do butdemand an explanation or pull the plug. Her eyes opened wide, herstare resolute. Her voice, urgent and barely under control, snappedGonzo out of his daze.

"PAM-clarify lost the war.

Silence.

Scott felt fatigue in every bone but also knew that in the next fewmoments she would purge Freedom of this scourge. She had decided, hermind now clear. She was about to do the most important thing she hadever done.

Looking into the monitor, Scott spoke plainly. Her voice, isolated andperfectly audible, had a loathsome animal-like quality o it.

"For you, the war is over."

Then it happened very quickly.

Turning toward Gonzo, she maneuvered her hand across her throat in aslashing motion. Her tone-final.

"Kill it."

Primed to pull the plug, Gonzo ham-fisted the emergency power switchand PAM's laser heartbeat faded to a lifeless black void.

EPILOGUE THE FOLLOWING TWO-YEARS IN SUMMARY

Freedom Commander Major Jay Fayhee and Computer Systems AnalystCaptain Depack McKee were buried in Arlington National Cemetery withfull military honors.

Memorial services were held in Washington for Lieutenant ColonelWilliam

"Wild Bill" Boyd. He received the Congressional Medal of Honorposthumously, then was returned home to Mississippi. He was buried ona lush green hillside under a large shady tree overlooking his family'sfarm. His brothers felt he would have liked it there.

Colonel Sam Napper was promoted to brigadier general, appointed Mason'sdeputy commander for Cheyenne Mountain operations, and awardedresponsibility for consolidating CSOC offensive and SDIO defensiveoperations into a single unified air and space command.

With the assistance of his family and political connections inWashington, Colonel Wayne Hinson was transferred to the Pentagon,placed in an assignment strategically critical to the national defense,and bumped to the top of the promotions list. All derogatoryperformance reports from Cheyenne Mountain mysteriously disappearedfrom Hinson's personnel records. His self-serving meteoric rise to thetop of the ranks never slowed. In Washington'sinnermost circles, Hinson was perceived as a man with answers who wasgoing places.

General Robert Craven retired to his home overlooking the thirteenthfairway at Pebble Beach, but emotionally he never recovered. Thestaggering loss of life destroyed his spirit, haunting him until death.Nine months following the disaster, Craven was laid to rest inArlington National Cemetery. His epitaph encapsulated the essence ofthe man-mover, shaker, visionary.

Commander Pasha Yakovlev was promoted to colonel and promptly restoredto his family living in Star City.

After his ribs healed, he was paraded down Red Square and awarded thestate's most coveted medal, the Order of Lenin. Following the Russiancelebration, he returned to Washington, D.C." and became the firstRussian in American history to receive the Congressional Medal ofHonor.

The inscription read simply: For extraordinary service to humanity.

Memorial services were held in Red Square for Hope computer analystBoris Ustinov. His wife and children were granted a special exemptionby the state to continue living in their Moscow apartment.

Major Linda Scott, Major Carlos

"Gonzo" Gonzalez, and Chief Master Sergeant Andrew

"Mac" Mac Williams received the Congressional Medal of Honor citingtheir extraordinary service for humanity and were automatically placedon the promotions list. In addition, Major Scott received theDistinguished Flying Cross which she now carries in her pocket forluck. After returning from three months' extended leave, Scott, Mac,and Gonzo were assigned a new XR-30; they named it Hell Fire.

Freedom was restored to full operational readiness in just undereighteen months. During the first stage of the space station's repair,Hell Fire was carefully extracted from Freedom's innards like a largepiece of shrapnel.

Following extensive temporary repairs, Hell Fire returned home toEdwards nine months later. With her facelift, and her avionicsremoved, she made her last flight and Epilogue retired to theSmithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Once PAM releasedher stranglehold on Freedom, combined Saudi-Kuwaiti forces retaliatedby launching a devastating, precisely orchestrated stealth cruisemissile attack on Iraqi air defenses. Flight paths were programmedsuch that hundreds of missiles simultaneously pounced on the Iraqi AirForce from every direction. In less than sixty seconds, the war forair superiority was over. With their Air Force smoldering in ruins onthe ground and Saudi-Kuwaiti forces flying unopposed overhead, theIraqi Republican Guard suffered the greatest rout in the history.

PAM's origin was never traced. This investigative dead end came as nosurprise to the technical experts involved, however the logic ofpolitics decreed this result unacceptable. Consequently, the AlliedForces never retaliated directly, but justice demanded we exchange aneye for an eye, a virus for a virus.

Trouble was other countries possessed virus programs far superior toour own. In political and military circles alike, this became known asthe PAM process gap. Predictably, the logic of military balancedecreed this gap unacceptable as well. Most military and politicalleaders agreed-something must be done.

To the astonishment of professional politicians around the globe, thePresident won reelection vowing to eliminate the PAM process gap andharden our equipments against infection-an eye for an eye.

General Slim Mason took four weeks' leave, then returned to CheyenneMountain with carte blanche authority from the President to harden theSDI armada against viral infections. After taking responsibility forthe multibilliondollar SDI hardening program, Mason recommendedcancellation after only one month of investigation. In his letter ofexplanation to the President, Mason cited the fact that systems couldbe designed to protect themselves from careless mistakes, but could notbe designed to counteract malice-a wholly accurate technicalassessment. Mason's argument reflected reality, but the politicalsituation demanded action, so the President appointed someone else tothe job.

After receiving revised orders from the President, Mason took charge ofthe Viral R&D program. Their mission: eliminate the PAM processgap-create a strain of battlefield grade computer virus that couldneither be detected nor cured. Six weeks later, Mason recommendedcancellation of all Viral R&D. In his second letter of explanation tothe President, Mason pointed out that we would be shooting ourselves inthe foot. Our brilliant-class weapon systems are more susceptible toviral infections than those of our enemies-the smarter the weapon, thegreater the susceptibility to infection. In conclusion, Mason remindedthe President of a lesson which struck close to home-to deny nature isto invite disaster. Referencing the Challenger accident report, hequoted Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prizewinning member of PresidentReagan's accident investigatory commission.

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over publicrelations, for nature cannot be fooled.

Shortly afterwards, Mason was stripped of responsibility for Viral R&D. In government technospeak, the Viral R&D program went hyper-black,entered the black world of ultra secret projects and completelydisappeared from the books. Privately, Mason felt a profound sense ofemptiness, recognizing that the logic of politics and laws of physicswould forever be at odds. Man's struggle is against nature itself.

As a peace offering, the President assigned Mason responsibility fororganizing a new Allied command, one that Mason believed in-the VirtualDisease Control Center (VDCC). Under his leadership, the VDCC emergedas the preeminent authority on computer virus detection and isolation.Although first considered an R&D think tank outside DOD's operationalmainstream, creation of the VDCC proved providential. Twenty-onemonths after the VDCC Epilogue was formed by presidential decree, PAMarose once again to test their mettle.

Perhaps the greatest irony of this man-made calamity was PAM'sprophetic insight. Of the 128 bad seeds planted in Allied computers,ninety-six fell on barren soil and would not run because of antiquatedor incompatible computer types. Of the remaining programs, thirty didrun but caused only an operational inconvenience. Eventually, the tworemaining bad seeds inside Kaliningrad and Cheyenne Mountain ran, tookroot, and proliferated. PAM's children had children of their own,infecting hundreds of DOD computers before Mason's organization couldcontain their proliferation. By then, it was almost too late.

Capable of lying dormant for an indefinite period under the harshestconditions, PAM's children existed only to survive and propagate theirown kind. Incapable of remorse, ruthless beyond all imagination, PAM'sbeauty lay in the simplicity of her programmed survival imperative.

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