by Robert Moriyama
Nightwatch created by Jeff Williams
Struggling to stay awake, Simon Litchfield, Ph.D. (Civil Engineering) studied the gleaming hand-rubbed teak surface of the massive table in the main conference room of the Nightwatch Institute for Strategic and Economic Studies. In spite of the efforts of the best housekeeping staff in Georgetown, the heavy wood was haunted by the ghosts of countless meetings past -- nicks, scratches, coffee-cup imprints, even traces of scribbled notes where too much pressure had made marks not only on paper but on the tabletop itself. Simon mused that some of those meetings, like this one, had probably seemed long enough to grow new trees to replace the ones used to make the table.
The main agenda items for this meeting of the Major Projects Committee had long since been covered, and Simon had copious notes in his PDA to ensure that he would not forget any of the tasks that had been assigned to him. Unfortunately, the meeting had refused to die gracefully. Now the committee members had lapsed into the usual excruciatingly long exchange of vague, high-toned declarations about the role of the Institute in preserving and promoting Civilization. Based on experience, Simon guessed that this would go on for at least another half hour.
Simon spread his hands on the tabletop, stifling a yawn and stretching his fingers as far apart as he could. Piano teachers had loved his hands -- in his younger days, more than one had said that it was a waste for someone with such long, supple, but powerful digits to play only for his own entertainment, and infrequently at that. But like the table, Simon’s hands had accumulated an impressive array of odd-looking scars.
Now Simon examined his hands, turning them, flexing them. The scars, lines and indentations and shiny areas, were like a shorthand summary of major incidents in his life. The jagged white line across the left palm was a souvenir from a knife fight in Mozambique while he was there troubleshooting a water treatment project. The pock marks on the back of the right hand (that extended to the elbow and had cousins on his torso and leg) came from a spray of shrapnel from an anti-personnel mine in Sri Lanka that had maimed two local workers during the reconstruction of a high-voltage transformer station. The pink, shiny patch at the base of the left thumb brought back memories of a near-miss molotov cocktail in Chechnya on a railway bridge project. The calluses on the knuckles were harder to read; they had been built on the jaws and noses of assorted thugs across five continents on a hundred different jobs. The list went on, and on, and on ...
Simon suspected that he had as many traces of his checkered, cross-hatched, and polka-dotted career on his hands and arms as he had hairs. He sighed as he noted that the aforementioned hairs were now as uniformly silvery-gray as those on his head. He was really getting too old for field work -- but anything was better than sitting through any more of these meetings than absolutely necessary.
The droning voice of Jared Molinski, the Chairman of the Major Projects Committee, finally signalled that the meeting was coming to an end.
“Gentlemen, as always, we have a great deal of work to do. Thank you all for attending -- now, let’s go save the world.”
Simon and his colleagues stood, returning PDA’s, microrecorders, and tablet computers to their respective holsters or cases. Molinski always tried to say something inspirational at the end of the meeting, and always inspired only relief that the ordeal was over. More than a few of the committee members looked like Simon felt: half asleep from the hours of forced inactivity, and anxious to get back to the urgent business of the day.
There was always urgent business for the Institute. The War on Terrorism had proved to be like a game of Whack-a-Mole played on an infinite field -- for every training camp or arms cache that was captured or destroyed, another one popped up somewhere else. In the process, vital infrastructure was damaged: generators destroyed, pipelines ruptured, water systems contaminated, roads and airports and rail lines bombed into uselessness. Somebody had to help to put the pieces together, and the engineering side of the Institute was often called upon to provide expertise. As a privately-funded organization, the Institute could go where government agencies could not; at the same time, the Institute staff had contacts in governments around the world, and could negotiate deals that money alone could not manage.
In addition to its efforts to “save the world”, as Molinski put it, the Institute provided expert analysis on strategic and economic issues to governments and to private industry (hence its name). Simon sometimes provided the analysts with information from the field; he often relied on their assessments of situations when planning projects. The methods the analysts used did not interest him at all, as long as the results were accurate.
Of course, the Institute also dealt with messes and mysteries that required Simon’s other skills ... speaking of which, he had another meeting to attend, thankfully one that was guaranteed to be both shorter and more interesting than the one just ended.
With “The Ride of The Valkyries” echoing in his head, Simon strolled through the corridors of the Institute, exchanging greetings with various staff members (mostly the females). He had a reputation as a ladies’ man, although his ex-wives had found that trait less charming when they learned that he flirted with other women regardless of his (or their) marital status.
Stephanie Keel, one of the Institute’s chief computer gurus, ran into him near the Library.
“Hey, Doc, nice outfit,” she said. “Kinda Great-White-Hunter meets Giorgio Armani.” Stephanie was dressed comfortably in her almost-uniform of khaki cargo pants with matching vest and contrasting sweater (a soft burgundy today); as a behind-the-scenes type, she rarely had to deal with what passed for “the public” in semi-official Washington / Georgetown / Arlington / Langley.
Simon sighed. “Some of us have to dress presentably for meetings with the brass,” he said. He pirouetted gracefully to give Stephanie a better look. “This ensemble was custom-tailored by a friend of mine at Tilley Endurables up in Canada,” he said. “It’s perfect for --”
“The desert, the jungle, or the boardroom,” Stephanie interrupted. “It looks good on you, Simon, don’t worry. Are we on for racquetball this weekend?”
Simon shrugged. “I’m afraid I’m not sure, my dear. Callow wanted to talk to me about something; who knows where I’ll be by then?”
“Ooh, another cloak-and-dagger job,” Stephanie said. “Guess you better not say any more, or you’ll have to kill me.” She was one of a handful of Institute staff who were sometimes called upon to provide support for the less-public activities ordered by the so-called Lower Echelon; however, enough rumors circulated among the rest that she felt comfortable making a joking reference where anyone might hear it. Still, Simon noted that she had taken a quick look around before she spoke. A light-hearted reference to a sub rosa mission might be acceptable with only Institute staff in earshot, but not if strangers were present.
Stephanie turned to leave, but looked back long enough to say, “Personally, I suspect you’re just ducking me because you don’t want to get slaughtered again.”
“I am not ducking you,” Simon protested. “If I’m not away on business, I’ll see you at the club.” But Stephanie had already disappeared into the office of the Information Technology Director.
It was true, she had beaten him several times over the last few months, her youth and agility more than compensating for his reach, strength and experience. But it was worth it to watch her play, regardless of the outcome; she looked damn fine in shorts and a tank top. Rock-climbing and kickboxing had given her a solid but decidedly feminine physique that was the subject of many locker-room conversations at the fitness club frequented by the Institute staff. Simon, of course, was too much a gentleman to participate in any such banter.
Anyway, he had noticed a few weaknesses in her game that he figured might put him back on the winning side ...
Callow was waiting at one of the smaller tables on the far side of the Library, surrounded by four-meter-tall shelves filled with part of the Institute’s Popular Culture section. Exactly why the Institute felt that it needed hundreds of volumes relating to such immortal works as the complete oeuvres of Daniel Steele, John Grisham, Madonna, Britney, and the like, Simon had never been able to guess, but there it was. It was deserted at this time of day, and probably empty most of the time, as most Institute staff would never admit to being interested in such things; that made it perfect for discussions that were, if not secret, better kept quiet.
Callow had his tablet computer set up with a larger fold-out screen attached, and a collection of other gadgets that Simon suspected were for whatever mission he wanted to propose. It was a good thing that Simon traveled on private Institute aircraft; most of the party favors that Callow handed out would never make it through security at any commercial airport. Callow got his often-illegal toys from Melvin Squibb; but how Squibb obtained items that were probably just behind the state of the art for NSA and CIA agents, Simon never wanted to know.
“Good afternoon, Dr. Litchfield,” Callow said. “Thank you for agreeing to meet me.”
“I needed an antidote for the monthly Major Projects meeting,” Simon said. “You have a job for me? I’d prefer one that comes without a body count, if you don’t mind.”
Callow gasped in mock horror. “Would I ask you to do anything dangerous? I am heartbroken that you would say that.”
“Your heart may be broken, but it’s usually my bones that get broken,” Simon said. He sat down beside the Lower Echelon functionary, peering at the map displayed on the fold-out display screen.
Recognizing a few place names, he said, “That’s Kabul province in Afghanistan, isn’t it?” He groaned and shook his head. “Wasn’t I just there a few months ago? I picked up a nice set of knives there -- after somebody threw them at me. I was sure I had those Taliban-wannabes convinced that harassing the crew on the irrigation project was a bad idea!”
Callow tapped the screen of his tablet computer and the map scrolled to show the area south of Kabul, then zoomed in to show a jumble of symbols clustered in a familiar configuration.
“That is the irrigation project,” Simon said. “What’s wrong now?”
“Nothing’s wrong -- exactly,” Callow said. “But something is strange.”
Simon sighed. “What is it this time? Did they find some lost proto-Persian underground city? Is Aladdin’s djinn stirring up labor unrest?”
Callow’s fingers danced across the surface of his tablet computer, bringing up a detailed map of the irrigation project Simon had worked on a few months ago. “They were using those baby backhoes we flew in last spring to do the excavation work for the pipeline to Hayat Khan Kaleh when they hit our ‘something strange’ here, about 20 klicks southwest of Chahar Qal’eh.”
“So what, exactly, is our ‘something strange’?” Simon asked.
Callow tapped his tablet screen again, and a photograph filled the fold-out display screen. The ‘something’ appeared to be almost as large as the machine beside it. The less-muddy parts appeared to be white and curved, almost like --
“If that’s an egg, I don’t want to meet the bird that laid it,” Simon said. “That’s the backhoe right next to it, isn’t it? I’m not misreading the scale?”
Callow shook his head. “Based on the curvature of the part they uncovered before the workers headed for the hills, if this thing is shaped like an egg, it’s at least two meters long and a meter wide.”
“The workers headed for the hills? I suppose they thought they’d found a roc’s egg,” Simon said. “Naturally, they didn’t want to meet the bird that laid it either!”
Callow snorted. “Simon, I’m surprised at you. I’d have thought you would have a better opinion of the Afghans than that, after living with them for months. The workers thought it was an unexploded bomb. Remember, most of them grew up with artillery shells and rockets falling out of the sky more often than raindrops.”
“It was a joke, Callow,” Simon said. “You do remember humor, don’t you? I’m sure you must have heard a joke sometime -- or perhaps downloaded one from the Internet.”
“If there was time, I’d sign you up for another sensitivity course before I let you go into the field again,” Callow said. “Obviously, the last one didn’t make much of an impression.”
“You should hear the jokes the Afghans tell about each other,” Simon said. “I’m rather fond of this one: a Tajik, a Pashtun, and a Hazara go into a temple, and the Tajik says --”
“It’s not an egg, and it’s not any kind of bomb or other military device we know of,” Callow interrupted. “We can’t even identify what it’s made of, let alone what it’s for.”
Simon frowned, peering closely at the screen. “The surface doesn’t look like metal -- unless it has about 10 coats of the world’s toughest paint covering it. Some kind of a composite plastic or ceramic, perhaps?”
“As I said, we couldn’t identify what it’s made of,” Callow said. “Once our people were sure that it wasn’t going to blow them up, they tried to take a sample of that white stuff for analysis. They went through a half-dozen diamond-tipped drill bits without making a mark; ten minutes with an acetylene torch barely raised the temperature of the thing by a degree or two.”
“Whatever it is, that shell material would make excellent armor,” Simon said. “And whatever’s inside is likely to be interesting, too.”
“Too interesting,” Callow said. “The Institute brass feel that it would be unwise to allow this thing to fall into the wrong hands.”
“Which is to say, any hands but ours?”
“Any nation -- including the U.S. -- able to study the object and eventually duplicate its properties would gain a tremendous advantage. A destabilizing advantage, that is. Unfortunately, that means that even our hands may be seen as ‘wrong hands’. The Institute is widely perceived as closely tied to the U.S. government, despite ample evidence that we don’t take orders from the government of any nation.”
Simon shook his head. “The find of the millennium -- and we can’t study it.”
“The U.S. is already the only military superpower,” Callow said. “If it were to be known that an agency even indirectly associated with it was developing materials that could make military hardware virtually indestructible, hostile forces would feel compelled to attack before the material could be widely used. Every terrorist and rogue power with the ability to do so would make a concentrated effort to do as much damage as possible as quickly as possible.”
“And it’s too late to keep the thing a secret,” Simon said. “Afghans do love to talk, and Kabul’s communications systems have been back online for years. I should know, I helped rebuild some of them ...”
“I can show you the simulations,” Callow said. “The damage and casualty estimates for projected terrorist acts within the first six months after the object’s potential becomes widely known are quite impressive. By comparison, the September 11 attacks would seem trivial.”
“Not if you lost somebody in them,” Simon said. “Numbers don’t matter much when your own family is involved.”
“I presume, then, that you appreciate the importance of this mission,” Callow said. “A great many families would be involved, as you put it, in the attacks on U.S. interests we have predicted.”
“As always, I’ll go where I’m needed,” Simon said. “I presume you have some kind of plan?”
“If we could, we’d destroy the object in a very visible way, so there would be no suspicion that anyone, and the U.S. in particular, had it available for study. Unfortunately, ...”
“We can’t even scratch it,” Simon said. “Which leaves us with what? If we simply snatch it, the U.S. will still be the most likely suspect for the deed. The Stars-and-Stripes decal on the Institute backhoe stands out beautifully, don’t you think?.”
“We have to make it inaccessible,” Callow said. “Our State Department contacts have been discussing the issue with representatives of the Russian and Chinese governments. The only acceptable alternative appears to be -- well, dropping the object into an active volcano, with observers for the major powers present to ensure that there is no attempt at deception.”
“I would guess that Mount St. Helens and Kilauea are out of the running,” Simon said. “It would have to be on what passes for neutral ground.”
“Indeed,” Callow said. “They are still trying to agree on a disposal site. In the meantime, however, you are to rendezvous with representatives of the other parties to prepare the object for transport.”
“And to watch each other to make sure nobody tries to abscond with the macguffin,” Simon said.
Callow sighed. “I would hardly compare an artifact of unknown origin and extraordinary properties to the Maltese Falcon.”
Simon grinned. “In that case, perhaps you should hold these meetings somewhere other than in the Popular Culture section of the Library.”
Callow pushed the collection of gadgets on the table over to Simon. “Our friend Squibb said these items may prove useful to you on this mission. I won’t insult you by describing them -- you’re an engineer, I’m sure you can figure them out.”
Simon picked up each object and glanced at it before stowing it in one of the many pockets of his jacket. “As long as none of them will kill me if I press the wrong button, I believe that I can manage.”
“On second thought, perhaps I should give you some instructions --”
Three hours later, Simon arrived at the Nightwatch Institute’s secure hangar at Manassas Airport about 30 kilometers southwest of D.C. He was surprised and displeased to find a representative from the State Department -- which he took to mean the CIA -- waiting in the Institute hangar to board the plane with him. He had to remind himself that the Institute was acting as a neutral entity in this situation, so the U.S. government needed its own man on the scene. Still, it wasn’t as if The Company couldn’t supply its own transportation.
“Jason McReady, State,” the man said, extending his hand.
“Simon Litchfield, Nightwatch Institute,” Simon said.
The handshake was brief, firm, and informative for both men. Simon noted a few interesting calluses and scars on McReady’s hand, and had no doubt that McReady had guessed the source of Simon’s souvenirs, as well: neither man was a stranger to the less genteel kind of conflict resolution.
From his appearance, Simon guessed that McReady normally worked out of an embassy as a “cultural attaché”. McReady’s clothing would have been appropriate for an informal party -- dark suit, blindingly white shirt, polished black shoes; presentable enough, but hardly appropriate for hiking around the Afghan countryside. Simon himself wore a variation on the Tilley Endurables suit he usually wore to the Nightwatch offices, cut to allow greater freedom of movement and with more pockets on the outside of the jacket. He had changed from his usual city shoes into hiking boots in anticipation of slogging around the pipeline dig site.
McReady was carrying a fair-sized duffle bag, which Simon hoped contained a change of clothes in addition to the inevitable complement of cloak-and-dagger toys. Squibb -- and Callow -- would probably have loved a chance to rummage through the no-doubt-innocuous-looking odds and ends in that bag ...
“Nice plane,” McReady said as they boarded. “Looks like one of those old Canadian regional jets -- aside from the paint job. Is that logo based on the Rembrandt painting?”
“It is,” Simon said. “Some ad agency made a lot of money adapting it. The plane itself is -- or was -- a CRJ-200, but the Institute has made a few changes.”
McReady whistled in admiration as he surveyed the main passenger cabin. “Looks like the Presidential cabin on Air Force One.”
“That’s the cosmetic side,” Simon said. “Nightbird One has three times the range it did when it belonged to an airline -- next-generation engines, plus a fuel tank that takes up a lot of the old baggage hold. We’ll be able to fly straight to Kabul without stopping. And the rear has room for cargo and specialized gear for any project the Institute takes on.”
The jet also had a number of hidden features that Simon had found useful on more than one occasion -- though he was damned if he was going to tell McReady about any of them. The kevlar and bioengineered spider silk armor protecting the cockpit, passenger cabin, fuel and avionics systems was particularly comforting when traveling to places where small arms fire was a frequent occurrence. Infrared and radar jamming systems provided protection from larger threats. Finally, the communications suite was just short of National Security Agency standards, allowing secure contact and data exchange between almost any point on the planet and the Institute.
“Gentlemen, if you’ll take your seats, we have clearance for takeoff,” the pilot’s voice said. Simon recognized the voice -- it was Bill Starsmore, the pilot the Institute generally assigned to more hazardous flights. Simon found himself wondering how much Callow had omitted from his little briefing session -- Kabul wasn’t the safest flight destination in the world, but he wouldn’t have thought they’d need an ex-Top Gun pilot for the trip.
“Been to Kabul before?” McReady asked as he settled into one of the lushly-upholstered seats. “Me, I’ve worked out of the consulate in Tehran, so I speak Farsi pretty well -- which, they tell me, should let me get by in Dari.”
“I spent three months working on the earlier stages of the irrigation project where they found the whatever-it-is,” Simon said. “I picked up a little Dari, some Tajik, some Hazara -- enough so the locals can have a good laugh when I order dinner, anyway.”
McReady laughed. “Between us, I guess we’ll get by. Speaking of -- whatever-it-is -- I’ve heard that the Nightwatch Institute has experts on just about everything. What do your people think this thing is?”
Simon shrugged. “They couldn’t even get a sample for analysis. The damn thing is pretty much impervious to anything short of a nuclear explosion, and nobody’s about to try that just to crack it open. So all we know is, it’s trouble.”
Nightbird One took to the air with a surge of acceleration that had McReady’s hands clutching the armrests of his seat.
“I see what you mean about new engines,” he said. “They can’t be military -- but they sure ain’t standard equipment. Does this thing have afterburners?”
Simon smiled, but said nothing.
After four hours in the air, McReady was either sleeping, or he had the best fake snore that Simon had ever heard. Simon glanced at McReady’s duffle bag, briefly considering a quick inspection of the contents, but decided against it. McReady might be feigning sleep, and even if he wasn’t, there was no point in confirming whatever suspicions he might have about Simon’s background.
Instead, Simon unlatched his seat belt and stood. He moved quietly but casually toward the rear of the passenger cabin, where a door led to the communications suite and the rear cargo area.
“Going somewhere?” McReady asked.
Simon suppressed the urge to find out just how good his traveling companion’s training had been. “I’m just going to check the equipment the Institute sent along,” he said. “There was supposed to be a dirt bike back there, in case we have to travel quickly. They may have sent two, if they knew you were coming along. But I’m mainly interested in seeing the scientific gear the Institute has sent with us. The University of Kabul is still rather behind the times in the instruments they have available, especially portable equipment; we’ll be taking one last shot at figuring out what the thing’s made of before we let your friends from Moscow and Beijing see it.”
McReady grunted. “I’ve ridden Harleys back in the States, but haven’t done much off-roading. If there is a bike for me back there, I hope it has a good suspension system. I guess you’ll be handling the scientific stuff -- I have trouble updating the appointment calendar in my PDA.”
Simon waited to see if McReady was going to follow him -- which would have interfered with his plans -- but the “State Department” agent slumped lower in his seat and closed his eyes again.
Once through the connecting door, Simon closed and locked it, then engaged a hidden switch. The white noise generator would render useless any listening gear McReady might have in his bag of tricks; metal mesh embedded in the bulkhead and door would block the signal from any bug planted on Simon’s clothing.
Reasonably certain that he was protected from McReady’s ill-concealed curiosity, Simon pulled a combination PDA / satellite phone from an inside pocket of his jacket. He inserted a memory card that Callow had included in the jumble of items he had provided during their meeting in the library, then called up the communications function.
The PDA loaded a one-time encryption scheme from the card and then linked to Nightbird One’s communications array.
After a few seconds, the display screen filled with a low-resolution video image of Stephanie Keel’s head and shoulders. “Hey, Simon. Enjoying your flight?”
Simon grinned. “I’d enjoy it more if you were with me instead of our friend from the -- ahem -- State Department.”
“I presume you want his background info?”
“Is the Pope Polish? No, wait, that was two pontiffs ago. Anyway, what can you tell me about our Mr. McReady?”
Stephanie’s image disappeared and the PDA screen filled with slowly-scrolling text. As Simon had expected, McReady was a CIA field operative. He had participated in a number of classified operations, the details of which Stephanie had extracted by means that neither the CIA nor the NSA would consider even slightly legal. But then, agencies that ran “wet” missions whose primary purpose was assassination were hardly in a position to quibble over morality.
“For someone who looks so young, our Mr. McReady has been a busy man,” Simon said.
“And not a particularly nice man, at that,” Stephanie said, as her face reappeared on the screen. “Kind of an interesting choice for a mission that is supposed to be a shining example of international cooperation in the cause of peace.”
“For that matter, so am I -- and so is our pilot,” Simon said. “Did you know that Bill Starsmore is flying Nightbird One tonight?”
“Yeah. He’d probably be happier if Nightbird had Sidewinders and Hellfires and such instead of just defensive gear.”
“Tsk, tsk,” Simon said. “We’re much too peace-loving for that sort of thing.”
“I’ll relay that message to the last couple of women you widowed,” Stephanie said.
Simon grimaced. For all that Stephanie was more than capable of putting a man in the hospital herself, she had never killed -- and was not happy to know that Simon had done so, more than once.
“Stephanie, you know I never set out to kill,” he said slowly. “But when it’s them or me -- or them or some other poor bugger who hasn’t done anything to deserve a bullet -- ”
“You do what you have to do,” Stephanie said. “I know that.”
Simon sighed. Doing ‘what he had to do’ had left him vulnerable to anyone who had the means to investigate the odd gaps in his official service records. Callow had Stephanie, and to Stephanie, missing or hidden data was an irresistible challenge. Stephanie, of course, would never use the information against him. Callow, on the other hand ...
“Have you checked out the other toys Callow gave you this afternoon?”
Grateful for the change of subject, Simon nodded. “I quite like the hand-held ultrasound imager. The taser disguised as a circuit tester is a bit silly -- I can imagine the reaction if you pulled it out in a dark alley. But I can’t imagine when or where I’d ever use some of the other knick-knacks.”
“R.T.F.M., Simon,” Stephanie said. “Read the freakin’ manuals. They usual provide A Few Useful Examples.”
Simon sniffed delicately. “My dear Ms. Keel, that would take all the fun out of it.”
Stephanie rolled her eyes. “Boys and their toys. Will you be checking in again before you land? If not, I’m going home. I’ve been here seventeen bloody hours, and I don’t get overtime on these jobs.”
“I’ll leave a message if there’s anything I need you to check into,” Simon said. “Have them mail any information they can find about the Russian and Chinese agents to the Nightbird comm station; I’ll download and decrypt it before we disembark.”
“Okay,” Stephanie said. “Be careful, Simon. It’s pretty obvious that both State, a.k.a. The Company, and Callow think that things are likely to get nasty.”
“I’ll try not to get killed,” Simon said. “For your sake, I’ll even try not to let anybody else get killed either.”
Stephanie shook her head in resignation, and then her image vanished from the screen.
Simon turned off the white noise generator, unlocked the door, and glanced out to see what McReady was doing. The CIA agent was apparently still asleep -- but Simon noticed that the file Callow had provided with all the photos and data regarding the object had been moved.
“Silly bugger,” Simon muttered. “Subtle as a .44 Magnum.”
Closing the door again, Simon walked to the rear cargo area. As he had guessed, Callow’s people had provided a matched pair of dirt bikes and helmets. For the scientific side of the mission, the Institute’s materials science specialists had sent a Mossbauer spectrometer (in a lead-shielded case), an alpha particle x-ray spectrometer, and a thermal emission spectrometer, all based on designs used in a couple of Mars robots. There were also various cutting tools, including a cutting laser with a high-density battery pack, stowed on shelves on either side of the chamber.
There was also a large crate at the very back, half-hidden by cargo netting that anchored an assortment of ropes, a motorized winch, and other gear.
The dimensions of the crate looked remarkably similar to those that Callow had mentioned for the ‘egg’, assuming that the thing actually was egg-shaped. If the crate was empty, presumably it was intended to hold the object for transport. If the crate was empty ...
Simon withdrew the ultrasound imager from one of the larger pockets on his jacket. He ran the probe over the exposed surface of the crate, then waited a few seconds while the imager translated the sonic data into graphic form.
The crate wasn’t empty. It contained a dense, egg-shaped object about two meters long and one meter in diameter.
“Well, isn’t that bloody interesting,” Simon said. “Callow, you bastard.” But then he noticed that the crate lacked the usual Nightwatch Institute brand. There was no reason to hide the Institute’s involvement in the disposal of the ‘egg’ -- although there was ample reason to hide a counterfeit version of it. Had the CIA placed this Maltese Chicken on board?
“What are the odds that either Mr. McReady or Mr. Callow will admit that one of them owns this counterfeit Pandora’s Box? Anorexic to none, I suspect.”
Simon looked at his watch. A little more than eight hours to go before they reached Kabul.
“All things considered, I think I’ll emulate Mr. McReady and at least pretend to get some sleep.”
By the time Nightbird One had made the steep descent into Kabul International Airport, McReady had changed into clothing that was better suited to a trip over rough terrain. The ‘State Department’ rep now wore a battered leather jacket (probably ‘distressed’ by the manufacturer ‘for that adventurous look’, Simon suspected) over a long-sleeved fleece T-shirt. Denim jeans and motorcycle boots completed the ensemble.
Simon himself had brought along a woollen pattu, the Afghan equivalent of a blanket, poncho, and makeshift tent in one length of cloth. It was a favorite souvenir of his earlier stay -- the throwing knives were useful, but heavy with memories of yet another attempt on his life. Arranged artfully over his jacket, the pattu provided the extra warmth that the mountain-chilled air demanded even in the warmer months, and also concealed some of the unsightly bulges that Callow’s gadgets made in his pockets.
“Going for the Spaghetti Western look?” McReady asked. “What is that, a serape?”
“You’ll see a lot of them here,” Simon said. “They call it a pattu.”
“Hey, no spitting on the plane,” McReady said.
Once again, Simon considered testing McReady’s combat skills. But from all indications, they were both likely to be thoroughly tested on this mission ...
On the tarmac outside the plane, Bill Starsmore and his co-pilot -- somebody Wilson, Simon seemed to recall -- were talking to someone that Simon recognized immediately.
“Massoud! It’s good to see you, old man,” Simon said. “But what have your people done to my lovely irrigation project?”
Massoud Khalili, the son of a mujaheddin fighter of considerable fame, grinned and drew Simon into a rib-straining embrace. “Simon, my friend! Billy said that you were here to see our little egg -- and then cook it.”
Simon groaned, wriggling free of Massoud’s grip. “I’m too old to wrestle you so soon after a long plane ride. Maybe later. This is Jason McReady, from the U.S. State Department. He’s here to witness the deed.”
Massoud looked at the younger American with amusement. “A fan of James Dean, I see. Or maybe the Fonz.”
McReady’s face reddened slightly, but he managed to say, “I’m honored to meet you, Mr. Khalili. I understand that your father was a great fighter in the war against the Russians.”
“The Russians,” Massoud said, then hawked and spat, considerately aiming downwind. “Yes, my father and his fellows showed the Cossack dogs that all their tanks and helicopters were no match for true Afghans. I wish we did not have to be civil to their ‘witness’, but it has taken half my lifetime to restore all that was destroyed by them, then the Taliban, then by you Americans and your allies. We are trying very hard to give no excuses to anyone to bomb us again ...”
Simon sighed. “Yes -- that’s pretty much our reason for ‘cooking’ the egg instead of keeping it to study, too. Anyone who tried to keep it would have a huge target painted on his back. Have our friends from Moscow and Beijing arrived?”
Massoud grinned again, showing an alarming number of teeth. “Yes. We have made them comfortable -- more or less -- while awaiting your arrival. You remember the old Nasruddin Hotel?”
Simon raised an eyebrow. “Surely they must have demolished it or rebuilt it? When I last saw it, it was dangerous just to stand too close to it.”
Massoud said nothing, but his smile grew even wider.
“I hope you won’t be quite so -- civil -- to me,” McReady said.
“Well -- not quite, but only because you are with Simon and Billy,” Massoud said. “We have transportation here for you and your gear -- an old Russian truck and a Humvee that Simon’s people brought in last year. Do you need to rest or eat before we set out?”
Simon shook his head. “You know what Nightbird One is like, Massoud. Would you like a nice hot shower on board before we go?”
“I’m a little confused,” McReady said. “Are we going to see the object without the Russian and Chinese representatives?”
“I told you we were going to take another shot at getting some information before we toss the thing into the fire,” Simon said. “What they don’t officially know can’t officially hurt us.”
“They’re not idiots,” Simon said. “They know that we must be making every attempt to learn what that thing is and what it’s made of before we let them near it. After all, they’d do the same. But if they actually see us doing it, they’ll have to make a fuss.”
“That seems rather -- silly,” McReady said. “Or maybe dangerous.”
“Are you sure you work for the State Department? I would have thought you’d be accustomed to thinking that way.”
They watched as a group of Afghan workers, directed by Massoud, loaded the dirt bikes, scientific equipment, and other gear into the truck. Simon noted that the crate was not among the items loaded -- which confirmed his suspicions that someone -- Callow or McReady -- was playing games. Evidently, his discovery of the crate had not been anticipated.
Finally, Massoud waved Simon and McReady aboard the Humvee, and the vehicles began the long trip through the streets of Kabul to reach the Kabul-Kandahar highway.
About 40 kilometers outside of Kabul, the highway crossed the river which was to supply water for the pipeline to Hayat Khan Kala. A dirt road had been scraped across the rocky soil parallel to the trench that was to contain the pipeline; the drivers of the Humvee and truck turned off the highway to follow it.
The ride got rough, even in the well-constructed and well-maintained Humvee. Simon hoped that the specialized scientific gear would survive the truly bone-jarring ride in the old Russian truck.
“Have they extracted the object from the trench?” McReady asked.
“Oh, yes, as soon as we were sure it was not a bomb, we dug it out,” Massoud said. “Scientists from the new University and from the Institute had learned little from testing it in place -- and they were not pleased at taking their toys down into the mud! It is in a tent now, a short distance from the place it was found.”
“Under guard?” McReady asked.
Massoud turned, his eyes narrowed. “We are neither fools nor thieves, Mr. McReady. While no Afghan would steal the thing, we posted guards to discourage any outsiders who might be tempted.”
“I -- of course that’s what I meant,” McReady said. “I would never suggest that you or any of your people would steal --”
“Of course, if it was a Russian egg, we would steal it as a matter of honor,” Massoud said. “It is not Russian, though. No Russian could make something so simple and strong. A shoe with a heel on both ends, yes. An egg that no blade can break, no.”
McReady blinked several times, then wisely closed his mouth and kept it closed.
“It’s not nice to torture a guest,” Simon said in fractured Pashto. Massoud grinned and shrugged.
Within minutes, a large white tent came into view. As Massoud had promised, several men appeared to block their way, pattu wrapped around their shoulders and AK-47’s and older rifles ready to fire. Massoud stood and shouted a greeting, and the men in the road visibly relaxed, smiling and waving the two vehicles through.
Simon, McReady and Massoud climbed out of the Humvee and started toward the tent. Before they could enter, a small, bespectacled man came out to greet them.
“Ah, Simon! You have returned!”
Simon sighed. “Professor Qadeer,” he said. “Splendid to see you again. But I wouldn’t have thought this sort of thing would interest you.”
Qadeer was the Curator of Antiquities at the New Afghan Cultural Museum. His insistence on examining even the smallest bit of debris that had been uncovered during the various excavations performed as part of the irrigation program had slowed things down considerably.
“The University asked me to perform some tests on the object,” Qadeer said. “I can not tell if I should be interested in the object in the professional sense, as our instruments have told us nothing about its age. But it is certainly intriguing.”
“Professor, this is Jason McReady, from the U.S. State Department,” Simon said. “He’s here to observe the -- disposal of the object.”
Qadeer shook his head. “A tragedy, to throw away something so wonderful and strange. I wish we were meeting under better circumstances, Mr. McReady.”
McReady nodded. “I agree -- from everything I’ve heard, we -- the world -- could learn a lot from it. But that’s the problem -- how much we might learn, and how the knowledge could be used.”
“Military value or financial value -- the world is ruled by those too greedy to allow any other to gain too much of either,” Qadeer said. “I understand, it has been explained to me at great length by my government.”
From the expression on the little academic’s face, Simon could tell that understanding and agreeing were entirely different things. He hoped that Qadeer wouldn’t make things any more complicated than they already were.
“May we see the object?” Simon asked. “I’ve brought along some specialized equipment that might allow us to glean a little more information about the object before it has to be put away.”
Qadeer sniffed as if holding back tears. “Of course, of course. No doubt your equipment is much more sophisticated than any we had available.”
At Massoud’s urging, a couple of the erstwhile guards carried the equipment cases into the tent. The Mossbauer spectrometer case, being lined with lead to contain any radiation leaks, required both men to carry it. Simon was sympathetic, as he had tried to lift the damn thing once while on another job and regretted it for days afterward.
They were surprised to see that the object was resting on a clean tarpaulin draped over what appeared to be two ordinary folding tables.
“Isn’t it kind of heavy for those tables?” McReady asked. “I mean, as tough as it is, it must weigh --”
“It weighs barely twenty kilos,” Qadeer said. “As you say, it is incredibly tough -- steel, even diamonds will not mark it; the heat of a cutting torch, even thermite will not burn or melt it. Acids -- ”
“You poured acid on it? And used a thermite charge?” Simon asked. “Weren’t you afraid that --”
“That I would damage it?” Qadeer laughed. “From the condition of the soil around it, the object has been buried for centuries. Polluted air, reacting with the rain -- and it does rain here sometimes -- would have bathed it in acid for weeks on end. I merely hoped that it would show some signs of a reaction, but even aqua regia failed to produce even a wisp of vapor.”
“Incredibly light, proof against impact, heat, acids --”
“I know what you’re thinking, McReady, and every military expert cleared to know about this thing has thought it, too,” Simon said. “And that’s precisely why the thing has to go into a live volcano, from which no one can retrieve it with current technology.”
“Actually, I was wondering what the hell could be so important that you would protect it like that,” McReady said. “I’m guessing it isn’t just the soiled diapers of the gods.”
Simon grinned. “Perhaps it’s somebody’s lunch. This may be the fabled Cosmic Lunchbox. Erich von Daniken would be thrilled.”
“Gentlemen, please do not make light of this,” Qadeer said. “This object -- whoever made it, whatever its purpose -- is of incalculable value to science. But we stand ready to destroy it, or at least put it out of our own reach for fear of what men might do with the knowledge it holds.”
Simon found himself placing a comforting hand on Qadeer’s shoulder. Like him or dislike him, the little man sincerely loved knowledge, and this situation was causing him pain.
“Qadeer, please excuse us pragmatic types,” he said. “Even ignorant sods like us understand what a waste this is. But in a case like this, you must laugh, or you must cry.”
“I wish I could laugh,” Qadeer said. He took a long, deep breath, shook his head, then walked to a small desk in the far corner of the tent.
“Copies of my notes are on this disk,” he said. “They include video and still photographs taken while the object was being extracted from the trench, analysis of core samples of the soils around the object, and my observations from other tests. We have no carbon- or other radio-dating results, of course, as we could not obtain a sample of the surface material.”
Simon nodded. “We will supply you with records of the tests we perform, of course, and you are more than welcome to observe while they are being done. I can’t promise that we’ll have any better luck than you at figuring out what this thing is made of, or what’s inside, but ...”
“Science does not promise,” Qadeer said. “It investigates, without expectations.”
Again, Simon felt twinges of regret for treating Qadeer with something less than respect in the past. If anybody could be trusted to study the thing for the sake of knowledge rather than power, it would be Qadeer or men like him. Of course, there would always be a McReady or a Callow or whoever pulled their strings standing by to snatch it away, and for them, power was everything.
“I guess I’d better get started,” Simon said. “Some of these instruments take hours to get a reading, and our friends back at the Hotel Nasruddin will be getting anxious.”
“The Hotel Nasruddin,” Qadeer said. “Surely that is not where the Russian and Chinese representatives are waiting? Massoud, surely -- ”
Massoud tilted his head slightly to one side, grinned so broadly that his wisdom teeth would have been visible if he had any, and shrugged.
Qadeer’s face turned so red that Simon thought the scientist’s head might explode. Then he laughed explosively, braying and whooping far louder than Simon could ever have imagined.
“Oh, Massoud,” Qadeer gasped, “When the government finds out, you will be in such trouble!”
“Who do you think made the arrangements?” Massoud said.
Qadeer howled. “And I thought them spineless! Oh, the president is a better man than I thought!”
Finally, Qadeer slumped against the desk, waved feebly in Simon’s direction, and wheezed, “Carry on, please. Mustn’t keep the Russian waiting.”
McReady looked at Simon and said, “The good professor got his wish -- he got to laugh.”
Opening the Mossbauer spectrometer case, Simon grunted, “Around here, any joke with a Russian as the victim is still a crowd-pleaser.”
It took about half an hour for Simon to set up the three instruments so that each had a clean surface to scan. A small diesel generator had been hooked up to provide power, although the battery packs included in the shipping cases would likely be sufficient for the job.
“The Mossbauer and the alpha particle x-ray spectrometer both take quite a while to get results,” Simon said. “Hours, actually. The thermal emission spectrometer should be quicker, but the problem is going to be raising the temperature of the thing enough to get a reading. Professor Qadeer, you said you barely managed to get a measurable change in temperature with a cutting torch?”
“It was like heating a superconducting material,” Qadeer said. “The energy was dissipated somehow, either distributed over the whole surface and radiated away as quickly as it was applied, or absorbed. But in the latter case, one would expect the overall temperature to increase eventually, and it did not.”
“Superconducting -- ” Simon mused.
“What? Oh, no. It is not superconductive, in the electrical sense, at least,” Qadeer said. “Electrical current will not flow through the material even across a gap so narrow that the energy would arc between the electrodes if they were any closer together. Mind you, we had no very high voltage sources to try -- perhaps something on the order of a 220 kilovolt line could push current through, but I suppose there will be no opportunity to test that proposition.”
Simon shook his head. “This thing gives me a headache. I’m a civil engineer by training, but I know a little basic materials science. Enough to know that this material breaks a lot of rules, anyway.”
Before he powered up the spectrometers, Simon paused and pulled the ultrasound imager from his jacket.
“Of all the toys the Institute provided for this job, this one is my favorite. This is a self-contained portable ultrasound scanner. You move this probe over the surface of an object; it generates ultrasonic pulses and picks up the reverberations. Then a quite clever computer interprets the data, including the position of the probe from moment to moment, and generates both an image and numerical data.”
Qadeer sighed. “I don’t suppose you could get one of those for the Museum,” he said. “It would be very useful for examining objects in a non-destructive way. Even x-rays sometimes accelerate decay of organics ...”
“I’ll see what I can do,” Simon said. “I suspect these things cost several arms and legs, but I’d say the world owes Afghanistan a few favors for cooperating in this situation. Now, let’s see what we can see -- or hear ...”
He activated the probe and ran it slowly along the upper curve of the egg. The image that appeared on the screen confirmed what he had deduced when Qadeer had mentioned the surprisingly low weight of the object -- the white surface was a thin shell over what seemed to be an empty space. There had to be something else in there -- why protect nothing with an indestructible shell? But the probe couldn’t resolve anything; sound, like heat, seemed to fall into an infinite void once it penetrated the shell. No echo, no image. He turned off the scanner after saving the images and data into the removable memory card.
“In Allah’s name, Simon, where did you go?” Massoud said.
“What? What do you mean?”
“You leaned toward the object, pushed a button on the box in your hand, and then -- you were gone!”
Simon shook his head, puzzled. “I didn’t go anywhere. I’ve been right here, walking around the object, taking readings, for the last few minutes.”
Now McReady interjected, “Simon, you turned that thing on not ten seconds ago.”
“Time,” Qadeer said. “The object affects time, somehow, in its immediate vicinity, at least. I think Simon was here all along -- for us a few seconds, for him a few minutes -- but moving through time at a different rate, so we could not perceive his presence.”
“I have to contact Washington,” McReady said. “When they hear this --”
“They’ll hear it later, McReady,” Simon said. “When this thing is sinking into a nice hot lava bath.”
McReady sighed. “You’re right. No point in making the thing too tempting to pass up -- there’d be a godawful mess if we tried to change the deal now.”
Simon handed the ultrasound imager to Qadeer. “Download the files from the memory card and make a few copies,” he said. “They’re interesting enough in themselves -- we don’t have to mention my disappearing act.”
McReady patted his pockets, raised his hands in apology, and said, “I really need a cigarette. Must have left them in my bag back in the Hummer. Hang on a second before you start any more tests -- I’ll be right back.”
Simon nodded, turning to make a few final adjustments to the Mossbauer spectrometer’s controls. Massoud moved aside to allow McReady to leave the tent.
As he checked the alignment of the gamma source, Simon frowned. He hadn’t seen -- or smelled -- any evidence that McReady was a smoker. If he did smoke, surely he would have lit one up as soon as they disembarked from Nightbird One; god knows most of the Afghans riding with them had been puffing away.
“Massoud, check on McReady,” he said. “I’m not sure I trust him out of my sight --”
The roar of a small engine interrupted Simon’s request.
“The bikes!” Simon snapped. “He’s making a run for it -- calling for backup!”
Simon emerged from the tent in time to see one of the Institute-supplied dirt bikes hurtling from the rear of the truck. The bike hit the ground, fishtailed in the loose, gravelly soil, then accelerated away.
Massoud’s men, startled, raised their guns.
“Don’t shoot!” Simon shouted in Dari. “I’ll get him.” He ran for the truck, fumbling in his pockets for the disguised taser.
The men looked to Massoud for confirmation, lowering their weapons when Massoud nodded and gestured toward the ground.
It took precious seconds for Simon to clamber into the truck and mount the second bike. There was no time for the helmet; all he could do was tighten the chin-strap of his Tilley hat and hope that the sailcloth would save at least some skin if he fell.
Then he was in the air, the bike screaming under him until its wheels slammed into the ground and caught hold.
McReady had a lead of perhaps fifteen seconds. If he really lacked off-road experience, it certainly wasn’t apparent in his handling of the bike so far; he was handling the rough, rock-strewn terrain like an expert.
Simon, however, was an expert. His skill on a dirt bike had saved his ass more than once when one faction or another had decided to visit one of the Institute’s work sites. Now it was allowing him to shave a few meters off McReady’s lead with every second that passed.
McReady must have heard Simon’s motor, because he turned his head to look for his pursuer. This turned out to be a serious error, as a sudden dip in the ground jerked the front of the bike to one side and threw him clear.
Simon was there in seconds, ditching his own bike and performing a jiu jitsu breakfall that brought him to his feet almost within arm’s reach of the CIA agent.
McReady had pulled something that looked like a cigarette case from his pocket and was trying to take aim when Simon pressed the hidden trigger on the circuit tester / taser and the electrodes launched themselves with a snap of compressed gas.
The 10,000 volt charge threw McReady off his feet and dropped him to the ground in a twitching heap. When McReady groaned and the cigarette case fell from his hand, Simon quickly snatched it up and aimed it at the battered CIA agent.
“You bastard,” McReady gasped. “You have to let me call this in.”
Simon glanced at the cigarette case. “What is this, a .10 caliber flechette gun? Neurotoxin loads to make up for the small slug, no doubt. I’d hate to see what you carry when you’re expecting a firefight.”
“You’re an American,” McReady said. “You owe it to your country --”
Simon shook his head. “I work for the Nightwatch Institute, not the U.S. government. And I owe it to my country to protect it from itself, sometimes, which is exactly what I’m trying to do here.”
“You’ll be executed as a traitor for this,” McReady said.
“I don’t think it’ll get that far,” Simon said. “I know where a lot of bodies are buried, literally and figuratively, and the Institute has influence in places that would scare even your bosses. But if my ass does wind up the main course at a federal barbecue, well, it won’t be like I never did anything to deserve it.”
“What are you talking about? You’re an engineer -- okay, you worked for The Company or one of our close relatives, I guess, since you seem to know our equipment -- but -- ”
Simon grinned. “Sonny, I’m surprised that your people don’t do better research. Hell, I can recite every black ops mission you’ve ever been on, complete with classified body counts. But apparently, you don’t know me very well.”
It wasn’t entirely a bluff. Simon wanted to scare the younger man -- after diving off the dirt bike, he wasn’t feeling up to a hand-to-hand fight -- so he was claiming a history even darker than the real thing. But as Stephanie -- and Callow, damn him -- knew, it was more than dark enough.
“Get up,” Simon said. “Unless you want me to test my theory about the lethality of your spook toy, here, we have some walking to do. Shame about the bikes -- the Institute will have to send The Company a bill.”
Massoud and one of the guards met them when they were half-way back to the tent. Simon was more than happy to let someone else hold a weapon on McReady; he could already feel the bruises he had sustained in his leap from the dirt bike stiffening up.
“Let’s pause for a moment and make sure that you have no more surprises hidden away,” Simon said. With McReady standing very still -- an AK-47 that has obviously seen a lot of use can be extremely persuasive -- Simon conducted a careful search of McReady’s clothes, including his boots. He was not terribly surprised to find an assortment of gadgets that Melvin Squibb would love to play with, some intended to kill, some merely to disable, distributed among McReady’s pockets and in less obvious places. McReady also had several thin, flat ceramic blades that felt nicely balanced for throwing strapped to various parts of his body.
In the present situation, however, Simon considered the last device he found to be the most dangerous: a satellite phone.
“No military satellites overhead right now, eh, Jason? Line of sight to anything closer to the horizon is terrible here, with these pesky mountains all over the place.”
“How can you do this?” McReady asked. “How can you throw away something that could give your country a bigger edge than anybody ever imagined?”
“The U.S. is already the only real superpower, in military and economic terms,” Simon said. “That’s enough to make us a target for everybody with a grievance, either because we’re involved in keeping them in misery, or because they think we should be involved in getting them out. Something like this -- technology light years ahead of our own -- would make things far worse.”
McReady tried to spit in Simon’s face, but neglected to account for the wind. The spittle traced a path through the dust covering McReady’s own leather jacket, prompting snickers from Massoud and his gun-wielding companion.
“You must learn to aim better, my friend, if you are to spit like an Afghan,” Massoud said. “But I would not practice too much in this company, as most would not be as forgiving as Simon.”
They arrived back at the tent after another ten minutes of trudging across the rolling, gravel-strewn terrain, and were thoroughly covered in wind-blown dust. Qadeer came out of the tent and insisted that they shake off the worst of the dust before they came near any of the scientific instruments.
“You, Simon, you are an engineer,” he said. “Dust is not good for delicate electronics. You should know this.”
Simon nodded. “You’re right as usual, Professor. I think I landed on my head out there and forgot everything I know about delicate instruments.”
They managed to shed at least some of the dirt from their clothes and hair on the downwind side of the tent, then moved inside before they could acquire a new layer.
“Will you behave yourself while I start the remaining tests, McReady?” Simon asked. “If not, Massoud can have someone tie you up and sit on you in the back of the truck ...”
“The least I can do for my country is observe and obtain as much information about this thing as I can,” McReady said.
“I’ll take that as a ‘yes’,” Simon said. After a few minutes of minor adjustments, he started the three spectrometers. In an attempt to give the thermal emission spectrometer a better chance of working, he set up the cutting laser to heat (or try to heat) the area where the T.E.S. was focused.
He stepped away from the object, looked at Qadeer, and said, “Well?”
“Did I disappear that time?”
Qadeer smiled. “No, no, you were fully visible at all times, even with all three instruments and the laser turned on.”
“Hmph. So ultrasound tickles whatever is in there, but gamma radiation and heat and kinetic energy -- the backhoe blade and whatever else that has bounced off without leaving a mark -- doesn’t.”
“That suggests an artificial mechanism rather than a natural phenomenon,” Qadeer said. “Inside the egg, I mean -- I think we would all agree that the shell is not something that formed spontaneously.”
“So what?” McReady said. “Whatever it is, you’re just gonna drop it into a volcano.”
“This man has no appreciation for science,” Qadeer said.
“If he can’t use it to spy on somebody or kill somebody, it’s irrelevant,” Simon said.
“That’s not true,” McReady said. “I want to know -- I want our country to know everything about that object. If it affects time somehow, who knows what it could do? It might be the basis for a real interstellar drive -- ”
Qadeer tilted his head to one side, peering at the CIA agent. “My apologies,” he said. “You are not entirely beyond hope.”
Simon made a quick check on each of the instruments, confirming that they were functioning properly. The Mossbauer and the alpha particle x-ray spectrometers would both require hours to accumulate enough data to provide meaningful readings; the thermal emission spectrometer was indicating that the surface of the object was still barely warmer than the surrounding air, in spite of the continuous heat input of the 300 watt cutting laser.
“It will be a while before we get anything,” he said. “Professor, if you would keep an eye on things, I think I’d better see what other toys Mr. McReady has in his bag.”
“Mr. McReady, please sit,” Massoud said, indicating a folding chair near Qadeer’s desk. “And please, do nothing foolish. It will be difficult enough to explain to the Russian and Chinese representatives the injuries you sustained when you fell from your motorbike. Bullet wounds would be too much, I think.”
As Simon had expected, McReady’s bag contained still more weapons, plus an assortment of what he guessed were surveillance and communications devices. He extracted all the ungimmicked clothing he could find, then used duct tape from his own bag to make it impossible for anyone to get at the potentially dangerous items quickly.
When he returned to the tent, he was disconcerted to find McReady unconscious.
“Did the silly git spit in your general direction, Massoud? Or did he do something even more foolish, and actually try to take Khan’s gun?”
Massoud laughed. “Worse. He insulted Qadeer’s museum.”
Qadeer smiled sheepishly. “He was really quite insufferable, Simon. He called the Afghan people barbaric goatherders, and said that the Museum must be a collection of farm implements.”
Simon blinked several times, then said, “I’ve been to the Museum. There are a lot of farm implements in there, recovered from the excavation sites for the irrigation canals and pipelines.”
“But that is not all we have,” Qadeer said. “Poetry, paintings, statuary, pottery, weapons, armor -- we have the combined cultural heritage of Tajiks and Hazara and Persians and -- ”
Simon raised his hands in surrender. “All right, my dear fellow, I concede the point. Please don’t hit me. Speaking of which, what did you hit him with, and is it going to leave a mark we can’t explain?”
Khan raised his hand, holding his AK-47 up for examination.
“Qadeer took Khan’s gun away?”
“I wasn’t expecting it,” Khan said in Dari. “And I didn’t want to fight him.”
“Lovely,” Simon said. “I’m sure this isn’t going to have a detrimental effect on U.S. - Afghanistan relations.”
“Ow, damn it, what happened?” McReady groaned and raised his head.
“You have learned a valuable lesson in diplomacy,” Simon said. “Never assume it’s safe to piss off the little guy.”
“This assignment just keeps getting better and better,” McReady said. “Indiana Jones’s dad gets the drop on me, then his dad clobbers me with a rifle butt.”
“I think we’ve both been insulted, Professor,” Simon said. “Grab Khan’s rifle again and -- ”
“My friends, we have a problem,” Massoud said. “Listen ...”
Faintly, Simon could hear a rhythmic thupthupthupthup sound, growing perceptibly louder as the seconds passed.
Massoud nodded. “On the positive side, I believe it is an Mi-17 -- a transport, not a gunship. But it is Russian.”
“Damn it, they must have gotten tired of waiting,” Simon said. “Massoud, Professor, can you stall them? I’ll try to stow this gear as quickly as I can.”
Massoud and Qadeer exited from the tent. Simon grabbed McReady’s arm and hauled him to his feet.
“Come on, Company Man, make yourself useful. We don’t want it to be too obvious that we’ve been studying the egg.”
The best the two could manage was to shut down and disconnect the instruments from the generator and move them into the corner. Simon threw a tarp over them and struck a casual pose, leaning on the corner of the Mossbauer main unit. He hoped that the gamma source chamber had closed properly, or that it was at least pointing away from him ...
“Simon Litchfield, it is good to see you!”
The Russian who strode into the tent was large, had the stereotypical bushy eyebrows over a face reddened by decades of vodka consumption, and was all too familiar.
“Alexei Yakonov, what are you doing here?” Simon said. “Aren’t you supposed to be negotiating with Chechen militants or something?”
“Finished! All finished!” the Russian roared. “The Chechens never listen, so talks broke off. You will probably have to go back and rebuild the things that get blown up this week.”
Almost unnoticed, a small woman in a People’s Liberation Army uniform had slipped in behind Yakonov. She tapped the Russian on the shoulder, and he turned, saw her and laughed.
“A poor excuse for a diplomat am I,” he said. “This is Major Bai Li Ying, of the People’s Liberation Army engineering corps. Major, this is Simon Litchfield, of the famous Nightwatch Institute.”
Simon shook hands with the woman, noting that she, like McReady, had some very interesting calluses. He suspected that she was an accomplished wu shu practitioner, likely able to kick him in the back of the head while balancing gracefully on one finger. She was also quite lovely, in an understated way, with deceptively delicate features under jet black hair.
Simon gestured to indicate McReady, who was trying to stand in the shadows to conceal his battered appearance. “This is Jason McReady, from the U.S. State Department.”
Yakonov peered into the darkness, and grinned. “A shy one. And a bit worse for wear. Have your hosts been treating you as badly as they have treated us?”
“I had a bit of an accident,” McReady said. “Fell off a dirt bike while touring the vicinity.”
“An accident,” Yakonov said. “Ha! Like the hotel with the ceiling falling in. There were no rats or insects, however. The vermin were too smart to stay there.”
The Major had moved unobtrusively from Yakonov’s side and was now running her hands over the surface of the egg. Simon blinked in surprise; she was disconcertingly good at being stealthy without seeming to make any special effort.
“It is -- beautiful,” she said, in flawless English. “A shame we must destroy it, or at least put it out of reach.”
“It should fit nicely in our helicopter,” Yakonov said. “A much smoother ride than that old truck you brought, I’m sure.”
“That old truck was one of yours,” McReady said.
“A gift to the people of Afghanistan from our brave advisers,” Yakonov said. “It is good to see that they have been able to use it.”
“We have a long journey ahead of us, first to Kabul airport, then to New Zealand,” the Major said. “I, for one, would like to leave as soon as possible, without returning to the hotel.”
Simon, knowing what the Hotel Nasruddin must have been like for its victims -- er, guests -- couldn’t argue. “Good idea. The sooner we finish this business, the sooner we can all go home.”
“We brought a crate,” Yakonov said. “It was designed based on the preliminary information we received, which was, I see, not quite correct. But it should still hold the object securely enough.”
Simon nodded. “If you’ll have someone bring it in, we can get things packed up and be on our way.”
The crate was similar to the one that had been half-hidden on Nightbird One, but not identical. As Yakonov had said, the interior had cross-members intended to cradle a truly egg-shaped object. They had to stuff pieces of cloth-wrapped scrap wood into the excess space to ensure that the artifact would not shift too much when the crate was moved.
“It is amazingly light for its size,” the Major said. “From its remarkable strength, one would expect it to be much more massive.”
“It must be empty, then,” Yakonov said. “The shell alone is valuable enough to make it worth a fight, though, which none of our nations want to happen. So, into the lava it must go.”
As they lifted the crate onto a dolly to load it onto Yakonov’s helicopter, Simon caught Qadeer’s eye and glanced at the hidden instruments. A gift for the Museum, he mouthed. Qadeer nodded, and managed a small smile; the loss of the egg was painful, and only slightly balanced by the acquisition of the state-of-the-art scientific gear. Simon suppressed a grin as he contemplated the fuss that the budget committee would make over his impromptu donation.
Simon, McReady, and Massoud joined Yakonov and Major Ying aboard the Mi-17, sitting on fold-down seats around the tied-down crate.
“We should be at the Kabul airport in about ten minutes,” Yakonov said. “Then we can transfer the crate to Simon’s plane for the trip to New Zealand.”
Simon was relieved to hear that Yakonov was not going to insist that they use a Russian plane (and, for that matter, that the Major did not demand that a Chinese aircraft be involved). Then again, there was still the matter of the fake egg on Nightbird One; it could be that subterfuge was more likely on board the Institute aircraft than on a Russian, Chinese, or American government plane.
They had been airborne for only a few minutes when Massoud looked out the window and said, “Another helicopter is approaching. And this one is a gunship.”
Simon looked at Yakonov. “Please tell me that this is an escort that you arranged.”
Grim-faced, the Russian said, “I wish it were so. But obtaining permission to bring an unarmed helicopter into Afghanistan was difficult enough.”
“It looks like a Havoc,” Massoud said. “There are no markings. Still, it is a Russian bird.”
“Dozens were sold on the black market when the Soviet Union collapsed,” Yakonov said. “Any fool with enough money could be flying that beast.”
There was nothing the pilot could do -- the Havoc was faster and far more maneuverable than the Mi-17, and had enough firepower to turn their ride into abstract sculpture before it hit the ground.
Yakonov held up his hand, listening to the pilot’s voice on his intercom headset. He spoke a few words in reply, then said, “We are making an unscheduled stop, my friends. It seems that someone wishes to relieve us of the burden of our cargo.”
“We should fight,” McReady said. “Simon, the stuff in my bag -- it can’t take down a gunship, but once we’re on the ground --”
“Your bag is back at the camp,” Simon said. “I brought your clothes along, but the rest I -- bequeathed to our hosts.”
“Yakonov -- what kind of weapons do you have on board?”
Yakonov shook his head. “Mr. McReady, what kind of diplomat do you think I am? This helicopter is unarmed, and so am I. Major?”
The Major spread her hands and shook her head.
Simon knew -- and no doubt McReady did as well -- that everyone on the helicopter was more than capable of putting up a good fight on the ground, with or without weapons. But if the occupants of the gunship were at all competent, martial arts and even small arms fire would be worse than useless.
“There must be another helicopter or a truck to take the crate,” he said. “There’s zero cargo space on a Havoc, barely enough room for the pilot and weapons officer. That means the gunship can stand off and cut us to pieces if we make a move against whoever comes to take the package.”
McReady cursed and slammed his fist into the bulkhead. “Crap. You’re right. You were so freaking adamant that the U.S. not get the egg -- congratulations! We’re not gonna get it. Some whacko terrorist or arms dealer is gonna get it instead!”
“Maybe, maybe not,” Simon said. “Open the crate, quickly, before we land.”
“What do you have in mind?” Yakonov asked as he pried the lid from the crate. “Something nasty, I hope.” The big Russian wrestled the lid around until he was able to stand it on end against the rear bulkhead of the cabin.
Simon rummaged through his pockets until he found two cell phone batteries from the assortment of items he had confiscated from McReady’s pockets a few hours before. He showed them to McReady, and asked, “Are these what I think they are?”
McReady nodded, his eyes suddenly bright. “If you’re thinking that they go boom, yes. Do you still have that fancy gold pen of mine, too?”
“The detonator? Of course.”
The Major frowned. “I don’t understand. What good are these things?”
“For a fight, none,” Simon said. “But if we plant them in the crate, and trigger them after it’s on the bad guys’ truck or helicopter --”
“The explosion won’t even scratch the egg,” Yakonov said. “It is practically indestructible, from the information we have received. But our friends will lose their transport -- and regrettably, whoever is on board will be killed.”
Simon grimaced. “Yeah. Too bad. I promised a friend I’d try not to let anybody die on this job.”
The Major nodded. “That is good, that the -- bad guys -- will not escape with the object. But their men on the gunship may not be pleased to see their comrades killed.”
Simon swallowed. “Heh. I completely forgot about that. Life would be simpler -- and probably longer -- if the Havoc could carry the egg itself. Then we could kill two birds with one bomb, so to speak.”
“There is another possibility,” the Major said. “They may kill us and take this helicopter.”
Seeing the expression on Simon’s face, Massoud thumped him on the shoulder and said, “So it was not a foolproof plan! It was better than the nothing the rest of us have proposed.”
“If there was somewhere to hide, we might survive,” the Major said. “But there is nothing – no trees, no large rocks. But of course there is nothing, or the helicopter could not land. Forgive my foolishness.”
Simon looked up, grabbed the Major’s face in his hands, and kissed her full on the lips. She was so startled that her reflexive palm strike glanced off his cheekbone instead of flattening his nose.
“There is somewhere to hide, or there might be …”
“Simon, whatever is in your head, do it quickly,” Massoud said. “We are landing!”
Simon pulled the ultrasound imager from his jacket, thanking Allah, Buddha, and any other gods who might be listening that he had taken it back from Qadeer after the Professor had copied the contents of the memory card. He adjusted the gain control to the highest volume the probe’s oscillator could produce, and pressed it against the exposed surface of the egg.
“The Havoc – it has stopped!” Massoud exclaimed. “The rotors are not even moving, but it does not fall!”
Simon laughed. “It’s working! Yakonov, tell the pilot to get us the hell out of here!”
Yakonov complied, but it was obvious that Simon would have a lot of explaining to do.
“What has happened?” the Major asked. “The Havoc seems to be caught like an insect in a web.”
“I get it!” McReady exclaimed. “You’re doing the time trick, but on a larger scale!”
Simon nodded. To Yakonov and the Major, he said, “We found out that the object responded to one thing only out of every test and probe we tried. When I used this ultrasound imaging device on it – it did something strange to time for a meter or two around it.”
“Simon disappeared, or seemed to,” McReady said. “He was still there, but he was moving faster through time than we were – out of phase, whatever – so several minutes passed for him, while only seconds went by for us.”
“But this effect is much larger,” Yakonov said. “The Havoc –”
“It is not the Havoc that is being affected,” Massoud said. “I understand now. You made the effect bigger, big enough to cover the whole helicopter. To the Havoc pilot, we have vanished in mid-air!”
“And to us, the Havoc has slowed down so much that it seems frozen,” Simon said. “I’m just hoping the time advantage is enough to get us to the Kabul airport, or at least out of sight.”
Yakonov drummed his fingers on the edge of the open crate. “You were not planning to tell us of this discovery,” he said.
“Didn’t want to make this thing any more tempting than it already was,” Simon said. “As long as we follow through on dropping this thing into the volcano, it doesn’t matter what it can do. And knowing that some doohickey can affect time like this sure as hell doesn’t mean that we’d be able to build something to do likewise.”
“Your actions were reasonable,” the Major said. “And you are correct – so long as the object is placed out of our reach, none of us will gain or lose anything from knowing or not knowing that it can affect time in this way.”
Simon smiled in gratitude. “Thank you. I’m glad someone on this bird is still thinking clearly.”
The Major raised her left eyebrow and said, “I would like to know why you kissed me, however.”
Turning on the charm, Simon said, “Why Major, I’m sure you must have a lot of men trying to kiss you.”
The Major was neither charmed nor amused.
Sighing, Simon said, “When you mentioned hiding as a way to survive, it gave me the idea to try this ‘time trick’ as McReady calls it. I was happy, grateful, and damn it, you are an attractive woman.”
This time, the Major almost smiled.
“We are landing,” Yakonov announced. “I told our pilot to set down as close to your plane as possible.”
Simon turned off the ultrasound imager, and the sounds of the world flooded in.
The distance from Kabul to Invercargill, New Zealand was over 7,000 nautical miles, beyond even Nightbird One’s capabilities. The U.S., Russian, and Chinese governments had agreed that Perth, Australia would be an acceptable refuelling stop, provided that personnel from all three nations were on hand to ensure that their cargo did not “go walkabout”.
After Simon reported the appearance of the unmarked helicopter gunship in Afghanistan, it was decided that the group should try to complete the mission as quickly as possible. A joint request from the three governments to the Australian government obtained permission for a refuelling-only stop in Perth, Australia, with no Customs or Immigration involvement.
“Welcome to beautiful Perth, Australia,” Starsmore said over the intercom. “If you look out the windows on the port side of the aircraft, you’ll see a number of gentlemen with automatic weapons. They’ve been sent by the Australian Army to make sure that we don’t have any unwanted visitors -- and to keep us riff-raff from wandering too far from the plane. We’ll be on the ground for about 30 minutes, while our hosts take care of the usual stuff -- black water out, fresh water, food, and fuel in.”
Starsmore and his co-pilot, Jim Wilson, opened the door and descended the airstairs to oversee the Aussies servicing the plane. Simon, Yakonov, and Major Ying soon followed, lured by the opportunity to stretch their legs and breathe unrecirculated air; even the luxurious cabin of Nightbird One felt too small after almost ten hours in the air.
“God. I just realized that I’ve spent more time on that plane than off it in the last two days,” Simon said. “I think my hindquarters are taking on the shape of the seat instead of the other way around.”
“The end is in sight, my friend,” Yakonov said, laughing. “Another few hours in the air to Invercargill, then a relatively short hop to overfly Mount Erebus and drop off our cargo.”
Simon nodded, groaning as he stretched and twisted to loosen muscles half-asleep from two long flights in quick succession. “One would hope that we won’t see anything like that gunship in Australian airspace. This place may not be as heavily populated as the States or western Europe, but it’s not as wild as Afghanistan.”
Both men were keeping one eye on the aircraft as ground crews went about their appointed tasks. With the Australian Army standing guard, anyone who tried to drive away with something large enough to be the egg would be in serious trouble. Of course, Simon had no objection at all to anyone pilfering the fake egg, as it would save him the trouble of explaining it to any of his traveling companions who happened to see it.
“It is a hell of a thing, this mission,” Yakonov said. “Not too many years ago, we would have been fighting each other to take the object for our respective nations. Now we work together to see that nobody gets it.”
“Progress, sort of,” Simon said. “Perhaps in another ten years, we’ll trust each other enough to really share something as potentially dangerous as this thing has turned out to be.”
“There will have to be some kind of surveillance on the drop zone,” Major Ying said. She had slipped in behind Simon without being noticed by either him or Yakonov. Simon barely managed to suppress his reflexive urge to reach for a weapon.
“Major, you really have to stop doing that,” Yakonov said. “I fear that you may give our American friend a heart attack.”
“I’m fine, really,” Simon said. “But perhaps the Major would consider wearing a bell around her neck? You are amazingly quiet for someone wearing actual army boots.”
Major Ying smiled demurely. “I am an officer and an engineer, not a cat, Mr. Simon. But I am sorry if I startled you.”
“Do you really think someone would try to retrieve the object from the lava lake?” Yakonov asked. “Our engineers tell me that none of our nations possess materials that could withstand the heat and corrosive gases long enough to find and extract the object.”
“A wise man once said that if many experts say that a thing can be done, they are probably right -- but if they say that a thing can not be done, they are probably wrong,” Major Ying said.
“Was that Arthur C. Clarke? Or am I thinking of something else?” Simon asked.
“In any case, it will only be a matter of time before suitable materials can be discovered or created,” Major Ying said. “Even before that time, desperate men may make the attempt.”
“In Antarctica, which is not easy to reach, and hellishly difficult to work in, for most of the year? Anytime conditions are tolerable, the scientific stations have cameras and probes running to study the volcano,” Simon said. “Anybody who tries to fish the egg out of that crater will have to be extremely rich as well as desperate.”
“Nonetheless ... perhaps our nations can jointly operate an observation post, linked to the existing vulcanology station.”
Simon shrugged. “Negotiating something like that would be more Mr. McReady’s territory. Like you, I’m mainly an engineer.”
“Ah -- I believe your pilot is signalling that we are ready to depart,” Yakonov said. “Perhaps they have loaded some nice Australian barbecued shrimp in the galley.”
“More likely cold mutton,” Simon said. “I think the Institute’s budget took a nasty hit with the stuff I had to leave in Afghanistan. The dirt bikes, probably half a million in scientific gear -- oops.”
“I didn’t hear that,” Yakonov said. “Major, did you hear anything after our friend Simon mentioned lost dirt bikes?”
“I was not listening,” Major Ying said.
Simon wiped mock sweat from his brow and nodded to acknowledge the favor that his companions were doing for him. As long as they did not officially know about the extra scientific tests, they would not have to protest. But then he frowned. “Major, did you happen to notice where Mr. McReady went?”
“I did not see him leave the plane,” she said. “And like both of you, I have been watching everyone approaching or leaving the vicinity.”
McReady was in his seat when they returned to the passenger cabin.
“I can’t believe you passed up the chance to get out and inhale some of that nice, fresh Aussie air,” Simon said.
“Seen one stretch of airport apron, seen ‘em all,” McReady said. “And if you really take a good whiff, you’ll notice that it isn’t Australia you smell out there -- it’s Jet B and diesel.”
Simon shrugged. “Your choice.” He turned toward Yakonov and Ying and said, “I’m going to check on our cargo. It’ll be a little tight back there, but in the interests of mutual trust, I think we should all go.”
“An excellent suggestion,” Yakonov said. “We were all watching carefully, but who knows what these tricky Australians might have accomplished!”
Simon was more concerned about what some tricky Americans might have accomplished, namely McReady, Starsmore, and Wilson. At least one of them had to know about the fake egg, and they had now had sufficient time to do something with it.
Everyone, including McReady, followed Simon toward the rear of the plane. He unlocked the door at the rear of the passenger cabin, noting that there were no signs of tampering, and led the group into the cargo bay.
“What is in that second crate, at the back?” Yakonov asked. “I noticed it before when we brought the object on board, but now I see that it is very similar to the one my government provided.”
Simon grinned while silently cursing the Russian’s alertness. “Good eye, Alexei. We built our own crate for the same purpose, but never got the chance to use it since you so kindly delivered yours to the excavation site.”
“It is empty, then,” Major Ying said. “Or should be.”
Simon nodded, watching McReady’s reaction. The CIA agent gave no indication that he knew what was or wasn’t in the crate, but that could simply be evidence of his skill as a field operative.
“The important thing is that the egg is safe and sound in your box,” Simon said. “McReady, will you do the honors?”
Again, McReady gave no sign that there was any problem. Grunting, he bent over and gripped the edge of the lid, then levered it open.
“It looks fine,” Major Ying said.
Indeed, the object looked exactly as it had when they last saw it. More importantly, it was clearly not the fake that Simon had scanned on the flight to Kabul.
“If we are all satisfied that everything is as it should be, I suggest we take our seats so Captain Starsmore can get us off the ground.”
Simon had suspected that whoever had brought the fake egg on board would have taken the opportunity to switch it with the real thing. Of course, the fake had been manufactured based on incomplete information, so its shape was significantly different from the actual object; maybe that had been enough to force a change in plans.
“It is fine, I agree,” Yakonov said. “Now, let us see if it is shrimp -- or mutton -- that awaits us in the galley.”
The flight to New Zealand proved to be mercifully uneventful, aside from minor disputes over what constituted a fair share of the seafood (including, as Yakonov had speculated, some “shrimp from the barbie”) loaded during their brief stop in Australia. Yakonov, being the largest of the passengers (as large as McReady or Simon plus the Major), asserted that shares should be calculated based on weight; Simon countered that age should be the deciding factor, as measured based on the amount of visible gray hair.
Bai Li Ying surprised and delighted Simon when she quietly suggested that she deserved the largest share as she had clearly been underfed as a child. “Otherwise, I would be at least as tall as Mr. McReady.”
Simon surrendered almost half of his share of the shrimp (initially divided equally among the passengers and crew) to her immediately.
The landing at Invercargill Airport signalled an end to the relative calm.
“This is where things might get interesting,” Simon said. “Here we have to transfer our cargo to a chartered aircraft with a rear cargo ramp, so we can drop the crate directly into the lava. The transfer, and the flight to Mount Erebus, will be the last opportunities for anyone who wants to grab the egg.”
A mixed security detail consisting of Nightwatch personnel, New Zealand army regulars, and guards from the Russian, Chinese, and U.S. consulates in Auckland, formed a cordon around the plane. Every man and woman in the detail had presumably been cleared by their respective agencies and governments, but Simon still found himself scrutinizing every face for signs of nervousness as he descended the airstairs to the pavement.
Yakonov, Major Ying, McReady, Starsmore, and Wilson followed, and they, too, were alert for anything out of place.
An unmarked van pulled up beside Nightbird One’s rear cargo hatch, and the party watched as the crate containing the egg was loaded into back. Two Nightwatch guards climbed in and closed the doors.
A Yiltis jeep-type vehicle had been provided for the passengers from Nightbird One; Starsmore and his copilot would be off duty now until the mission had been completed and Simon and McReady were ready to return to the U.S.
Once Simon, McReady, Yakonov and Major Ying had boarded the Yiltis, the van began to move slowly toward a turboprop plane that was standing by about a quarter-mile away, the Yiltis following closely behind. Simon spotted at least two armored personnel carriers parked a discreet distance away; passengers arriving on regular flights would likely never notice them, but they were close enough to move in if trouble occurred.
Within a few minutes, the party stood beside the cargo hatch of the aircraft that would carry them to Mount Erebus, watching as the crate was transferred from the van to the cargo hold and strapped down.
“Looks like we may have given the bad guys the slip,” Simon said. “I guess they’d have to have known where we were taking the egg to have arranged anything down here --”
The first bullet struck the fuselage of the cargo plane only inches from Simon’s head, nicking the brim of his Tilley hat. As Simon and his companions dove for cover, the single shot was followed by dozens more, some striking the plane, some the van and the Yiltis.
“Into the plane,” McReady shouted. “We have to get into the air and out of range!”
The sound of gunfire doubled in volume as the Nightwatch guards began to return fire toward their unseen attackers. The armored personnel carriers were now racing toward the source of the attack, tracer bullets streaming from their turret mounted guns.
With so many targets, the number of shots devoted to the area around the cargo plane had dropped. The Nightbird One passengers, all experienced in firefights, rose from the pavement and ran for the ramp-like cargo hatch.
With everyone on board, Simon slapped the button to close the hatch while bullets continued to punch through the thin metal of the fuselage. “God, I miss Nightbird’s armor,” he muttered.
“Get behind the crate!” the Major shouted. “No bullet can penetrate the egg.”
Simon hurried to follow the Major’s suggestion. Already, several bullets had made gaping holes in the wood of the crate, but not one had emerged from the other side.
The plane began to move, and the sound of gunfire diminished until it was lost in the roar of the engines and the rumble of the tires on the runway.
“I hope to God that nothing important got hit,” McReady said. “This plane’s going to be pretty uncomfortable over Antarctica with all this flow-through ventilation, but I can live with that as long as it can stay in the air.”
“Something important did get hit, I am afraid,” Yakonov said. “Important to me and my family, anyway.”
The Russian was bleeding heavily from a wound in his leg.
“Sometimes, size is a disadvantage,” he said. “I hid behind the indestructible egg, like any sensible person, but my legs were too long --”
“Crap,” Simon said. “I’ll get the first aid kit. From the way it’s bleeding, at least they didn’t hit an artery.” He went forward to the cockpit to get the kit and check with the pilot on the condition of the plane.
“Oh, yes, I am very lucky,” Yakonov said. “It is -- only a flesh wound, yes?”
Major Ying moved quickly and placed her hands on the Russian’s leg above the wound. She moved her hands slowly, measuring ...
“Major, please, my wife would not approve.”
The Chinese engineer’s fingers applied sudden pressure, drawing a grunt of pain from Yakonov.
“This will reduce the bleeding,” she said. “It may also help to prevent shock.”
“It makes me forget the wound, yes,” Yakonov said. “Mainly because it hurts more than the bullet.”
“Soft,” Major Ying muttered. “My comrades have always said you Russians were soft.”
“Move your hands higher, and that may change,” Yakonov said, leering.
McReady rolled his eyes. “Simon, get that first aid kit over here. I want to put a pressure bandage over Alexei’s mouth.”
Simon returned from the cockpit with the kit. He handed it to Major Ying, who expertly cut away part of Yakonov’s pant leg and began to clean the wound.
“I have good news and bad news,” Simon said. “The good news is, nothing important -- aside from you, Alexei -- got hit. The engines, fuel lines, and avionics are all okay.”
“What’s the bad news?” McReady asked.
“That flow-through ventilation you mentioned is making this thing fly like a pig,” Simon said. “If we are lucky, we will have enough fuel to make the drop and get back to Invercargill. If we’re not lucky ...”
“We go for a nice, refreshing swim on the way back?”
“Is good!” Yakonov said. “It will be just like a bath in a Moscow apartment!”
“I think Comrade Yakonov is dizzy from blood loss,” Major Ying said. “The sooner we finish this job, the better.”
With its speed reduced by the drag caused by the many perforations in its skin, the plane took almost twice as long as expected to reach Mount Erebus. They were able to tell when they were getting close because acrid fumes began to circulate in the cargo hold.
“Either Alexei has been eating borscht again, or we just crossed into the smoke plume from Erebus,” Simon said. “Better move him as far from the cargo hatch as possible.”
While McReady and Major Ying half-dragged the big Russian to the bulkhead separating the cargo hold from the cockpit, Simon unhooked the tie-down cables and slid the crate until one end rested on the joint between the floor and the cargo hatch. As an afterthought, he pried the lid off so they could all see the egg for one last time.
Yakonov, McReady, and Ying all stared at the milky white object with a mixture of awe and regret. They would never know who or what had made it, or how it ended up buried in the middle of an Afghan valley. They would never know what it contained, or how it could bend time.
The pilot’s voice crackled from the intercom. “We are beginning a pass over the lava bed. Stand by.”
Simon slapped the control button and the hatch opened, dropping until it sloped down and away from the crate.
“Are you sure about this?” McReady shouted, his voice almost lost in the roar of the engines and the howling of the air as the plane lumbered through the smoke-tinged sky.
“Of course not,” Simon said. “This thing saved our asses from that gunship near Kabul, and did it in style. I wish we could hang on to it.”
“Coming around for a second pass,” the pilot said. “Best bet for a bullseye will be to kick the package out just as we cross the crater wall inbound. Momentum should carry it in for a nice warm splashdown. Stand by – ready – steady – now!”
Simon gave the crate a solid kick that slid it past the edge of the cargo hold floor and down the sloping hatch. He watched as the open crate tumbled in a steep arc as wind resistance killed its forward momentum.
“Splashdown!” he shouted as the crate and its contents landed near the center of the lava bed. “The crate is burning – and the contents are sinking.”
He hit the control pad and the cargo hatch swung up and closed.
“That’s it then,” McReady said. “We have just heroically thrown away the most amazing piece of technology in the world. Our parents will be so proud.”
“My parents always proud of their Alexei!” Yakonov said. “Don’t know about yours, McReady.”
“Let us just go home, please,” Major Ying said. “I am afraid that my patience with Comrade Yakonov and Mr. McReady is nearing an end.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Simon said. He knocked on the cockpit door, opened it, and said, “Home, James. And forget about taking the scenic route – we’ve all had enough scenery for a while.”
Two days later, Simon was back in Georgetown. After spending most of the past several days flying, even a solid ten hours of sleep hadn’t quite restored his energy level. He had come in to Nightwatch headquarters for one purpose, and one purpose only: to speak to Callow.
With no meeting set, Simon had to track the Lower Echelon liaison to his lair in a small, plainly furnished office tucked away in one of the satellite buildings. A quick glance verified that Callow was at his desk, and alone.
Simon stepped through Callow’s door and closed it behind him.
“Simon! We weren’t expected you in the office for the rest of the week,” Callow said.
“Where is it?” Simon said.
Callow frowned. “I don’t understand. Where’s what?”
Simon leaned over the desk, glaring down at the smaller man. “Where’s the damn egg?”
Callow leaned back and rolled his chair away from the desk as far as the limited space would allow. “You should know – I heard that you dropped it into Mount Erebus yourself.”
Simon sneered, and dropped a splinter of shiny, milky white material on the desk. “I opened the crate just before I tossed it out of the plane,” he said. “Imagine my surprise when I found that a stray bullet had somehow chipped an indestructible object.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Callow said. “If that’s all you wanted to say, I’d appreciate it if you’d let me get back to work.”
“I saw the crate at the back of Nightbird One’s hold,” Simon said. “I was curious, so I tried the ultrasound imager on it. The crate had an egg in it. Not identical to the actual object, of course, since it must have been made before the whole thing had been uncovered.”
Callow said nothing, making a show of reading a memo from his in basket.
“Of course, you had better information when the second fake was being manufactured,” Simon continued. “When did they make the switch? It had to be done inside the van, with two Nightwatch Institute guards observing the deed. That means the Institute did it – not the CIA, not the Russians, not the Chinese, not terrorists or arms dealers.”
“Please go home, Simon,” Callow said. “You’re obviously still exhausted from your travels and the dangers of the mission. I’m sure when you’re better rested, you’ll see things that your suspicions are completely unjustified.”
“Something else just occurred to me,” Simon said. “With all that lead flying around at Invercargill, there was only one casualty -- Yakonov. And he wasn’t hit until he was out of sight inside the plane.”
“Would you have preferred a bloodbath?” Callow asked. “I thought you wanted things to be a bit less -- wet.”
Simon shook his head. “You’re a piece of work, Callow.” He turned to leave. The chip of glassy white material still glinted from its position near the center of Callow’s desktop.
“I’ll see you in a few days,” Callow said.
“Unfortunately, yes,” Simon said.
The waters of the Chesapeake and Ohio canal slapped against the stone walls with a sound like the rhythmic clapping of a child’s hands. Pattycake, pattycake, baker’s man …
Simon leaned against the iron railing at the canal’s edge and thought about the work that had gone into building the C&O, more than 150 years ago. Now there was a job for a civil engineer, surveying, planning, maybe even getting involved in the actual digging and the laying of stone and mortar. Working for the Nightwatch Institute, he seemed to spend almost as much time blowing things up as he did building them. All too often, lives were damaged or destroyed along the way, as well.
Callow and the rest of the Lower Echelon claimed to have the best interests of the world at heart, beyond the narrower interests of the United States alone. Most of the time, the missions Simon volunteered for (or was volunteered by Callow for) seemed to confirm that claim. But when they did something like this – stealing the artifact that they said was too dangerous for anyone to hold – it was difficult to have much faith in their bona fides.
There was no way out, though. The dirt that Callow had on his past would put him in prison for several lifetimes if the wrong people knew about it. If only Stephanie had thought about the consequences of handing over the data she had uncovered to Callow … but she hadn’t known either Callow or Simon then, and Simon’s secret past had made him seem far more dangerous than Callow could ever be.
Sometimes the things I do really are for the best, Simon told himself. And for now, ‘sometimes’ will have to be enough.
The technician set the timer on the oscillator and taped the output speaker to the surface of the egg. He stepped back several feet and released the brake on a ball-bearing-mounted carousel, then set the carousel spinning. As an afterthought, he pulled a set of safety goggles from the pocket of his lab coat and wrestled them on over his wire-framed glasses.
After a few seconds, the power indicator light on the oscillator came on, and a thin, high-pitched whine filled the air. This was just a side effect of the oscillator’s functioning, the casing and wires of the speaker vibrating at a fraction of the frequency of the ultrasonic tone now being directed into the egg. Still, it was annoying, like the buzz of an invisible mosquito.
The technician glanced down at his watch, noting the time, then quickly looked back at the carousel. If Simon’s report was accurate -- and the man was an engineer, so he tended to take measurements of any kind seriously -- something should be happening.
The egg, the oscillator, and the stand supporting both blurred, became transparent – were gone.
A moment later, the sound died, and everything reappeared. The technician brought the carousel to a stop and checked the timer readout against his wristwatch.
According to the electronic timer, almost five minutes had passed next to the egg, while only seconds had gone by a short distance away. A mechanical timer taped to the side of the oscillator confirmed this.
Calmly, the technician tapped out a code on his phone, and when he heard the familiar voice answering the call, he said simply, “I am pleased to report that we have confirmed Mr. Simon’s observations, sir. We’ll be able to produce predictable outputs from the device shortly.”
“Excellent work. Carry on.”
Callow hung up the phone, leaned back in his chair, and allowed himself the luxury of a genuine smile. With this technology, there might be no limits on what the Institute could accomplish …