T minus Fourteen
Paolos hands didnt shake, although his breathing was a bit staccato. Jesus, it hurt him to damage people like that! Even when they were faceless strangers. Even when they deserved it.
Paolo stepped away from his desk. He ran his fingers over the luxurious leather of his executive chair, and left the room. How many people had he just sabotaged? How many had he driven into bankruptcy and abject poverty? He would never know.
He needed some air. A chance to walk around, collect his thoughts. He would risk a trip into Sofias garden, a lush land of fragrant delight and hidden danger.
He could see a swatch of the garden from the two-story-high window through which sunshine coursed into the stairwell. As with all things within Sofias purview, the original garden plot adjoining the house had been transformed. Repeatedly.
When they arrived, the garden had held some simple flower beds. The parcel had been reclaimed from the jungle, tamed and domesticated.
Sofia had transformed the area back into a jungle, a place where dense green vines wrapped and twisted around the seemingly random clusters of bushes and aromatic flowers. A Spaniard arriving centuries before would have felt right at home on first glancejust another chunk of the Yucatan to hack through.
But upon closer inspection, he would have been puzzled. Perhaps he would have dropped to his knees to ask God about Satans dark purpose. For the plants now bursting from the garden did not normally grow in the Yucatan. Here, these nonnative plants demanded unrelenting, intensive care to thrive in their carefully crafted, chaotically overgrown state.
Paolo stepped down from the staircase, around the corner through the kitchen, and out onto the short path that led into the garden. A tall bower laced with antique roses invited him to enter, at his own risk. He hesitated but a moment before plunging ahead.
The sound of burbling water drew him deeper into the hidden mysteries of Sofias special place. Scores of vines and branches reached with delicate fingers into the path. Paolo winced as an errant rose branch reached out to strike, its thorns raking his arm just above the elbow. Tiny beads of crimson welled up along the scratch, a bright string of rubies glittering in the sunshine. Paolo cursed softly.
A sweet and innocent voice, surely the voice of Eve or one of her descendants (although it could have easily been the snake), floated to him from a distance. "Is that you, darling?" Sofia asked with dulcet charm.
"Sweetest Sofia," he responded with a voice of delicate happiness, while considering how best to saturation-bomb this place with napalm, "you have made this land of quiet splendor not only as beautiful as a jungle, but as dangerous as one, too."
Through the ivy vines of the central walkway, Paolo caught a peek of beautiful female curves gliding around a Banyan tree. A few seconds later, behind him he heard a voice gasp. "Youre hurt," Sofia said. She leapt catlike across the treacherous flowering almond bushes separating them. "Let me fix that for you." She cocked her head, studied the scratch, and delicately kissed it.
Paolo grunted his thanks.
Sofia looked up into his eyes, and as her gentle smile curved into a wicked grin, she bent her head and licked the blood from his arm with long, graceful movements of her tongue.
Paolo shuddered at the touch. "Ooof," he said, with the characteristic power of the male wit. He took a step back, thus nearly impaling himself on the rose bush once again. He was trapped like Adam, he realized, in a garden, between an alluring woman and a deadly danger. He also understood full well that the alluring woman was actually the more dangerous one. Nonetheless, like Adam, he stepped back toward the woman, on the verge of accepting the greater dangers presented by the female of the species. Then he remembered why he had come into the garden in the first place.
Sofia recognized the change in his expression with practiced ease. "Uh oh," she said teasingly, "I can see youre in no mood for teasing." She put her hands on her hips. "What terrible thing has happened?" She raised an eyebrow as her analysis of his somber mood yielded subtler nuances, leading her to correct herself, "Or rather, what terrible thing did you have to do?"
Paolo laughed with a touch of bitterness. "Ah, Sofia, I could never hide my thoughts from you." Well, sometimes he could hide them, mostly by accident. Periodically Sofia was so alert for his feelings and thoughts that she jumped at shadows, certain he was melancholy or irritated when he was perfectly fine. But today she was right on target. He took a deep breath; the perfume of Sofias jungle garden undercut his depression. "I just shook down the tailriders," he explained.
Sofia looked at him in puzzlement.
"I created a set of trackable identities, to lure the scam artists to follow me, so I could sucker them on a bad forecast. The bad forecastand it was a beauty, I must sayhung a hundred or so people out to dry."
Sofia closed one eye and wrinkled her nose. "You did this once before, didnt you, darling?"
Paolo nodded. "About six years ago. I never expected to do it again, but after Reggie left, I realized his article would spawn a whole new generation of gamers trying to get a free ride." He threw his hands in the air, slapped them down on his thighs. "I hate knocking people down like that, even if they ask for it."
She stepped up and wrapped her arms around him, laying her head on his chest. She had been covered with dirt from the plants; now he was too. "If it bothers you that much, why not just let them go ahead? We have enough money, let them be."
Paolo ran his hand through her hair. "If it was just the money, youd be right, Id just let them be. But tailriders have a more terrible effect than that. They distort the odds on the castpoint. Remember the mess I told you about for the Gate location?" He rocked Sofia gently in his arms. "If any tailriders were able to get a handle on my brand during the assault, theyd back my forecasts with more money, more strength, than the forecasts warranted." He shook his head. "In the normal course of events, those people would eventually lose their shirts. But there are too many life or death decisions in the next two weeks to let time and statistics teach the tailriders a lesson. Right now, the castpoints have to reflect mankinds best judgment."
Sofia squirmed restlessly in his arms. "Ah, yes, darling, I seem to recall this part of the conversation from the last time." She stood on tiptoes and breathed in his ear. "Let me see if I can get this straight. These tailriders, the scam artists that you just scammed, could lead Earth Defense to make the wrong decisions, so the Angels would get killed, Shiva would get to Earth, and cities would get vaporized. Is that correct?"
"Pretty much." It always surprised Paolo when Sofia revealed how well she understood the Web and its machinery. Her grasp of the features of electronic commerce seemed incongruous and inappropriate.
"Well, then, congratulations, darling, on having saved ten billion or so lives this morning. What are you going to do this afternoon?"
"Hmph." He knew she was right, but he still wasnt happy with it.
Sofias eyes gleamed; once again, Paolo knew he was in trouble. "Come here," she commanded, taking his hand and leading him around a corner. They crossed an intersection, bore left at a fork, and found a bench under the shade of a pair of Golden Chain trees. Paolo looked around wonderingly; he was completely lost. "This garden is only fifteen meters square, isnt it?" If necessary, he could just pick a direction, force his way through the plush growth, and come out into the open. He looked at the rose bushes and the bougainvillea, and realized that the plan was untenable. Only Sofia could lead him out of here. He was completely at her mercy. No doubt she had designed it that way.
"Paolo, you see the garden from the air every day. Does it look any larger than fifteen meters? Of course not."
Paolo shook his head. "This maze is more complicated than the corridors in Shiva," he muttered.
"See how fortunate you are that Im on your side?" she answered his unspoken thoughts. On tiptoe again, she rubbed her nose along the line of his chin. "Theres a price to be paid, though, for safe passage. Quid pro quo." She purred.
Paolo laughed, lifted Sofia from her feet, and flung her gently but masterfully upon the bench.
Sofia yelled, "Wooohooo!" as she put her arms around him in response.
G G G
The aroma of lasagna wafted from the kitchen. It filled the house, reaching even Lous little office hanging off the side of the rec room, an outcast from the family dwelling. Lou Scharanski inhaled the rich Italian aromas deeply. It was good to be alive. He could still enjoy many things, even if those pleasures were fewer now than they had once been, when he had been a spry eighty-year-old.
"Pops, get out here," his granddaughter yelled from somewhere deep in the house.
Lou heard his sons reproving voice from the rec room. "Quiet," he said in a loud whisper. "Let him sleep."
Lou flipped off his touchscreen and shouted back, "Ill be right there." He stepped out of his office into the rec room and swept his great-great-granddaughter into his arms. "Ugh," he said, "you know I wont be able to pick you up like this much longer."
Lanie hugged him. "Will you still be able to pick me up when Im twelve?" she asked. Her twelfth birthday was just a few weeks away.
"I dont know," he said doubtfully. "Do you want me to?"
She squeezed him. "You bet, Pops."
He put her down, and they held hands as they entered the kitchen.
A ragged chorus of people shouted as he arrived, "Surprise!"
Lou winced, held up his arm to protect his eyes from the flash, then laughed, all in quick sequence. "You people really got me this time," he said. "I never would have guessed." They had done this for his birthday for over forty yearsa hamster could have forecast this event. But he had to keep up the pretense for Lanies sake.
His great-grandson lifted his finger in an orchestral motion, and an awful round of "Happy Birthday" filled the air. Lous children had many gifts, but they did not have the gift of singing. Unfortunately, they did have the gift of strong lungs.
Lou sank into a chair. Lanie brought out the cake.
Lou looked at it in surprise. "Only one candle?"
"Sure," she said. "Mom said you get to start over after a hundred."
Lou pondered that for a moment, nodded to his great-granddaughter-in-law, and said, "Makes perfect sense." He inhaled mightily, till his eyes bulged out for the youngest members of the audience. Finally he blew out the candle. Lanie enjoyed the show tremendously.
His son hobbled over on his cane with a present in his hand. "Happy birthday," he said.
One by one, each generation of Sharanskis gave him a present. Then Lanie brought in another present. "Its from Viktor," she said breathlessly. "It came all the way around the world." She shook it, and Lou almost leaped from his chair in horror. She continued. "It makes a funny sound."
Carefully, very carefully to conceal his terror, he held out his hands. "Here, child," he said with a big smile.
The package was rather smaller than the typical Viktor gift, which only meant hed used the newest technology. Viktor had wrapped this one lovingly in maroon velvet, with a bright silver bow. Lou himself would have had trouble not running his hands caressingly over the warm surface.
With a silly grin on his face, he held the package gently to his ear. Yes, it was ticking, all right. Good old Viktor.
Lou turned his smile on his granddaughter, who was old enough to understand what he was about to say but young enough to act swiftly. "Sara, while I go into my office to thank Viktor, why dont you fly everyone up to the park? I think the flag iris may be just starting to bloom."
Sara looked at him, and he looked back at her, hard. Light dawned in her eyes, and as he had hoped, she started moving with swift efficiency. "Okay, everybody, lets go. I think everyone can fit in Bens van, cant they?"
The roomful of people looked disoriented, but the outcome had become inevitable. Lou retired to his office and sat staring at the ticking package until he heard the door slam closed. Car fans whined to life, then changed pitch as the vehicle rose in the air. Lou waited till the sound faded before taking action. Viktor had surely not designed the package to blast a hole bigger than the house itself, but there was no sense taking chances.
Lous old skills came back as sharp as ever. His hands were not so steady as they had once been, though. He hoped that, just this once, Viktor had sent him a dummy, not a live one. Fat chance.
The wrapping was not wired. He removed it easily. Penetrating the cardboard box was a bit trickier, but this too yielded to his careful vivisection. Eventually, he had the entire structure laid out, exposed. Sure enough, Viktor had sent a live bomb, and had used the newest technology. The charge was a small chunk of duodec, in the shape of a Hersheys kiss. Viktors sense of humor remained as sharp as ever. And Lou appreciated the thoughtfulness shown in the size the charge; even with duodec, the charge was only enough to blow up his office. His family would have been perfectly safe in the kitchen. It told him that Viktor cared about his family. It also told him that even Viktor was just a little concerned that this time, just maybe, Lou wouldnt be quite up to the challenge.
Lou spent half an hour working his way around the traps and dummies. Finally he made the ticking stop. No explosion accompanied the sudden silence. Lou sighed.
The bomb had been attached to a small touchscreen, which now lit up of its own accord. "Lou!" the broad Russian face smiled at him from the screen, "Pozdravlyayu s dnyem rozhdyeniya! And many more. Though youd better practice more for my presents, comrade. Otherwise, next year will be your last!"
G G G
Jessicas confidence that she had done a good deed by inviting her grandmother to come down from Montana for a couple of days was ebbing fast. "Granma, I just cant believe it! You cant even walk through a simple supermarket without ranting about the government." Jessica reached into the freezer and brought out a package. "I for one want a T-bone steak tonight."
Granma rapped her cane against the tiled floor several times, then swept the steaks out of her granddaughters cart, and threw them back into the meat case. She stooped over it, tossing packages this way and that with a speed and forcefulness that belied her rumpled appearance. Her search proceeded relentlessly, as she dug down deeper into the stacks of meat, until a crowd started to gather.
Jessica whispered, "Granma, youre making a scene!"
A whoop of triumph echoed from the depths of the freezer. A wrinkled hand triumphantly held up a package of T-bone steak very much like the one Granma had originally thrown back in disgust. Granma stood up saying forcefully, "Now this is a label you can trust."
Jessica sighed as Granma tossed the steaks into the cart. Only the most miniscule difference separated Jessicas original steaks from her grandmothers: Jessicas steaks had been certified by the FDA, whereas Granmas had been certified by Underwriters Laboratory.
Jessica pushed her cart through the gathering of people, trying to escape the scene of the crime, but Granma wasnt quite done yet. Granma looked each of the half-dozen people in the eye and said, "Never trust the FDA! Theyll kill ya." With that, Granma strode with dignified haste down the aisle to catch up with her granddaughter, who was thoughtfully eyeing the different brands of dishwashing detergent, trying to become invisible.
As usual, Granma had an opinion. "Get the detergent from P&E, girl. Consumer Reports says it really does cut the grease better, and leaves fewer stains."
"Really?" Jessica asked with some amusement.
"Really." Granma whipped her palmtop out of her purse and performed a quick Web search. She held the computer out so Jessica could view the screen. "See?"
Jessica looked at the Consumer Reports analysis, just three months old. Sure enough, it said that the P&E brand of detergent was worth the extra cost. "Well, you sure saved me that time," Jessica said as she picked up a box of the expensive detergent.
"No, I saved you when I got you the good T-bones," Granma sniffed. "You know the FDA killed your great-grandfather."
Jessica checked off the dishwasher detergent from her shopping list, and saw she was done. She pointed her cart toward the exit. "I know, Granma, I know." Granmas father had died of sudden heart failure during the time when the Food and Drug Administration was still refusing to allow beta-blockers on the market. Tens of thousands of people had died. "But Granma, that was back in the 1970s, for Gods sake. The FDA isnt even a part of the government any more. Theyre a respectable company, just like Consumer Reports or Underwriters."
"Ha! I suppose youd say that about the Post Office, too." Granma was still unconvinced.
As they reached the exit, all the packages in the cart talked to the store computer, which then beeped Jessicas palmtop. Hardly slowing down, she glanced at the tallied-up cost of her purchases and authorized payment.
Granma was peering over her shoulder. "Federal dollars?!" she wailed. "Youre keeping your money in Federal dollars?"
Jessica groaned. Now she would get a lecture about government-backed financial instruments, and the merits of using Masterbucks instead. "I keep some of my money in Swiss francs, too," she said helpfully, just for the perverse joy of watching her Granma splutter in rage.
G G G
The Dealer stared once again at the disaster upon his screen. An American, he believed, would have screamed in pain looking at the shattered results of his careful planning. But he was tougher than Americans. He really couldnt understand how those whiners succeeded so often, with all the crying and moaning they did.
Still, his loss hurt. The plan had seemed surefire. Somehow, though, hed gotten himself taken to the cleaners on the castpoint, again. He forced himself to sit back in his chair and close his eyes, to review what hed done, find the mistake.
That pattern of anonymous identities he had followed, he was sure it was the Predictor. Hed followed them on half a dozen forecasts, all winners. The Dealers confidence in his scam had grown as he proceeded, encouraging him to plunk down bigger chunks of cashhe was reinvesting all his profits from the forecasts and then some. But then the Predictors anonymous little cluster of buyers had forecast that the new generation of solar mirrors would be able to do some damage to Shiva, vaporizing at least one hundred tons of Shiva armor, before Shiva destroyed them. The odds, at five to one against, were terrific. With this cast, the Dealer would make a profit to party on!
But the mirror arrays had barely gotten focused on Shiva before the blasted planet-wrecker had started spinning, and whatever that alabaster white armor was, it could throw off a lot of energy before yielding. The Dealer had glanced at the post-attack analysis, and now they thought the damn stuff might be laced with capillary tubes pumped with liquid sodium, a huge cooling system. True or not, Shiva counterfired on the mirror control stations with a series of particle beam strikes. A salvo of those incredible high-speed Selk missiles followed the particle beams, and that was that.
And once again the Dealer was left holding the wrong cast.
Well, if things went well on the skytruck proposal, hed recoup his losses. The sims had shown, pretty clearly, that his design would work. Hed have to tinker with the end result a bit, he was surethe sims werent perfectbut his underlying concepts were sound. He went out to the Silicon Intercepts RFP and clicked across the links till he found the webform to submit his proposal. He was immediately faced with the most difficult decision he had to make on this effort: which brand should he use?
The Dealer held two longstanding brands on the Web. One was his "reputable criminal" brand, the one hed used when negotiating with the kid whod nabbed the motherboards. That was the brand he used most often. But he had another pretty well-known signature, the one he used to market his services as an antique automobile restorer. That one was scrupulously clean.
The Dealers preference on the bid would have been to use an anonymous identity. Then, if he won the bid, he could stash the cash and get on with his life, leaving the poor sucker whod given him the job well-stiffed. That would have been a Deal. But the RFP clearly stated that only a brand with an extensive, positive reputation would win. An anonymous identity was out.
And after staring at his screen for a while, the Dealer had to confess that his reputable criminal brand wasnt any good for this task either. All the contracts that hed ever undertaken with that brand contained vague, slippery wording that law enforcers couldnt use against him in court. Anyone with a brain would quickly recognize such a brand, maintained specifically for shady, if not necessarily illegal, deals. The Dealer shook his head. If he used that identity, and if the customer understood what it meant, hed lose right there. He couldnt accept such a big risk of losing based on the brand, when he had such a good shot at winning otherwise.
It was really a shame. The Dealer had lined up some low-ball pricing vendors for several of the components. He could have just about doubled his profit if hed been able to use the criminal brand and cut some corners (after all, how much would his fencing customers care about how hed stiffed a non-criminal firm? Not in the least). No, he was stuck. If he was going to win, hed have to use his best signature, and that meant hed have to use the right components. He told himself it was still all right. After all, even with top-quality materials, hed still make a handsome profit, considering that his design innovation allowed him to build a substantially less expensive machine anyway. He could, and would, skim a substantial part of that cost savings as his take. Not quite a Deal, but certainly a big win.
Choosing his car-mechanic brand, the Dealer filled out the form, submitted his truck plans, and included the sims hed run: the sims werent required, but he was pretty sure theyd clinch the deal if anything did.
"You are a devil, Viktor Gudonov," Lou told his old friend on the screen.
"So you liked my present," Viktor replied, beaming in delight.
"You have to stop sending things like that. Someone is going to get hurt. Probably me."
Viktor waved the objection aside. "I havent sent you a proper birthday present in four years, and now you complain. Old man, you are getting to be an old man."
"And you are getting to be an actuarial nightmare. Last I heard, Russians were supposed to die in their seventies." Viktor was ninety-eight. Lou continued, "I hope your insurance company appreciates the dividends theyre making on your carcass."
"I pity your children, having to pay for your carcass." Viktor laughed. "Did you like the explosive?"
"The duodec? Cool stuff, no doubt about it. I have this feeling we still havent really tapped its potential, though. Despite the money weve won." Viktor and Lou had designed a duodec pattern that could bring down a chunk of ceiling in that Shiva, which had been quite valuable for Angel One. The prize had been a handsome reward.
"My feelings exactly. I think we ought to get together and work with it more seriously, to see if theres some fun weve been missing."
Lou stared at him in astonishment. "Get together? Like physically get in the same room together?"
"Not a room, an open field. A large open field. No sense knocking down a building if we can help it."
Lou looked out the window. Spring had come to most of America, but here in Rochester, New York there was still the odd spot of snow on the ground. "Viktor, even the fields just around here are too cold for me right now, and I know what the temperatures are like around your house. I wouldnt survive it. My teeth would freeze together."
Viktor clucked his tongue. "Tsk, Lou, maybe you really are getting too old. Ill have to find a younger partner." He looked wistfully into the distance. "A young woman, perhaps, no older than seventy, with a"
"With a background in explosives. Sure, Viktor. Im sure there are some around, but lets face it, the art of explosives isnt what it used to be. The Cold War has been over for a very long time. Todays terrorists just arent up to snuff. Thank God."
"Too true, too true. I suppose I shall be cursed with you as my partner for the rest of my days." Viktors broad face took on a mournful look.
Lou snapped his fingers. "I know where we could go. Lets buzz on over to Vegas."
Lou had the satisfaction of seeing his comrades face twist in surprise. Lou didnt get to surprise Viktor as nearly as often as Viktor surprised him.
Viktor said, "Lou, when I said there might be some fun were missing, I didnt mean gambling, games, and dames. Or are you thinking we could check out practice charges on the Luxor Hotel? I confess the idea intrigues me. Certainly, if we could bring down a beautifully stable structure like that pyramid, wed have something."
"Viktor, no!" Lou chided him. "I agree it would be a great test, but wed have terrible trouble getting the building cleared first. Forget that. Well meet at the Vegas drop port. And then . . ." Lou enjoyed watching Viktor lean forward just a smidgen, in eager anticipation. The old KGB agent still didnt know what hed planned. Score one for the CIA. "Well tool on over to Fort Powell. Trust me, there are plenty of open fields around the base where we can blast to our hearts content. Shucks, there are whole mountains in the neighborhood that have no purpose except to serve as testbeds. Plus, theres an added bonus."
Viktors eyes brightened with excitement. "Of course, the Angels!"
Lou shook his head doubtfully. "Yeah, thats where the Angels train all right, though thats not exactly what I was driving at. Not only are the Angels there, but so is all their equipment. In particular, theres a complete set of gear available for inspection by specialists such as ourselves."
"So we can see exactly what equipment well have to work with," Viktor said, finally up to speed.
"I like it, old friend. In fact, it is such a good idea, why didnt you suggest it for Shiva IV?"
Lou glared at him. "Dont you ever stop complaining, Viktor? I come up with a great idea, and now youre giving me a hard time because I didnt think of it five years ago?"
"Someone has to keep you on your toes," came the huffy response.
Lou heard the muffled whine of his grandsons van coming down in the back. "My great-great-granddaughter, Lanie, does that for me. I dont need you."
Viktor raised his hands to his forehead. "Of course! Lanie! Youre right, you dont need me. Well, you dont need me for that, anyway. Please tell me, how is the delightful bride-to-be?"
"She grows more wonderful by the day," Lou said, and mist filled his eyes. "I wouldnt hold my breath on her marrying Illya, though. Indeed, I think shes forgotten the crush she had on him when she was five." Six years earlier, Lou had journeyed to Murmansk to visit his ex-nemesis, now his closest friend. Viktors family, Lou had known, wasnt quite sure how to respond to a man Viktor claimed as a great friend, but of whom Viktor told many tales, most of which involved death by violence for Viktors associates. To help break the ice (so to speak), Lou had taken Lanie with him. Ice-breaking was one of Lanies talents. She was effervescent and had no trouble bringing smiles even to the face of Viktors dour brother. And Lou had figured that the experience would be interesting for Lanie as well. Lanie had quite fallen for the fair-haired Illya, who was twelve at the time. And Illya hadnt minded having Lanie tagging around after him.
Viktor shook his head sadly. "She has forgotten my Illya! Astounding! Incomprehensible! And also, a great loss for the CIA-KGB détente. She could have been Juliet for my Illyas Romeo. Maybe theyd even beat the classic ending and live happily every aftera couple of smart kids like that."
Lou shook his head. CIA-KGB détente?! The CIA and KGB were both long dead, but still they lived on in Viktors romantic heart.
Viktor eyes widened, and he leaned toward the camera. "Well, perhaps theyll have another chance," he said in a secretive hush. "Illya is coming to America next month."
Lou blinked. "Really? To do what?"
"Hes going to Colorado Springs, of course. To the Space Force Academy."
Lou gave Viktor a big smile. "Thats wonderful, Viktor. Space Force. So hes going to follow the family tradition of defending the rodina, hmmm?" Viktors son had been in the Russian Navy, and his granddaughter had married a missile commander in the Earth Defense Space Force.
"Illya most certainly is going to follow our proud tradition. If he cannot take down Shiva, no one can!" Viktors nostrils flared, and his fist came down on the table, out of sight of the camera, but with a bang that Lou could not mistake.
Back in Lous own office, an eleven-year-old tornado charged through even as Lou heard an irritated mother cry out, "Lanie! Let Pops talk to his friend in peace!"
Lanie wrapped her arms around Lou, and Lou smiled lopsidedly into the camera.
Viktor gave him a wink and a small wave of his massive hand. "See you in Vegas," he said.
"Check," Lou replied, and the screen went dark. Lou lifted his youngest descendant up and hauled her into the rec room.
The Earth Defense Ship South Hampton fired its engines one last time. It stopped dead adjacent to the supply ship. Missile Commander Vinogrado stood patiently at the docking bay, watching his younger comrades pace impatiently while eagerly awaiting the next load of goodies.
Vinogrado couldnt believe his fortune. The EDS South Hampton was one of the newest ships in the fleet. With its boron-hydride fusion engines it could maintain a continuous half-gee acceleration, leaving the old ion drive ships far behind in its alpha-particle wake. The new engines were the only reason the ship was here, reloading its missile bays the ion drive ships couldnt keep up with Shiva, and so the few survivors that had participated in the missile attack for the Angel One Assault had been left behind. The missile attack that would now presage the Angel Two Assault had to be conducted solely by the ion-drive ships of Moon Fleet, plus the handful of boron-hydride ships that had survived the first assault.
And he, Anatoly Vinogrado, was back in action again.
Actually, Vinogrado knew that luck had played little part in his getting this choice assignment. After all, he was one of only a dozen people who had ever gotten a missile past Shivas defenses. Whether he had been lucky on that or not made little difference. Any skipper wouldve given an arm and a leg up to the knee to have such a powerful totem aboard his ship. Maybe lightning didnt strike twice, but perhaps a missile commander could.
The hatches whirred open, and the cargo started to pour through. As Vinogrado helped with the loading process, he couldnt help examining the sleek jet-black missiles with a critical eye. There was something different about these missiles from his last batch of HellBender Mark VIIs. Something wrong.
Finally a missile came through with its labeling facing up. A huge smile swept Vinogrados face. These werent Mark VIIs, these were Mark VIIIs! What had they changed in the enhancement package? He couldnt wait to get back to his station to hook in and read about the new weapon. He had no idea at all what might have caused the bosses at home to rush a model change through during the Month of Shiva, but he was pretty sure it had to be something devious.
He licked his lips in anticipation.