Nightwatch:  Alconost


by Martin Delgado-Scott


Nightwatch created by Jeff Williams

Developed by Jeff Williams and Robert Moriyama



The Metro car was at maximum capacity, all the seats taken and the overflow passengers holding on to straps dangling from the ceiling.  While the Washington, DC metro area subway was often the most expedient way to travel, it wasn't high on Dr. Simon Litchfield's list of favored modes of transportation.  In fact, had it not been for his colleague's insistence, he would have braved the 5PM traffic. Stephanie Keel, however, was having none of it, particularly since their meeting in Arlington had to take place no later than 6:30PM.


"I'm sorry if he has a plane to catch," Simon remembered saying at the time, a memory that came to him even as he tried to ignore the substantial rear end hovering too close to his face for comfort, "but I've spent too many hours in too many cramped spaces to want to do so without at least being paid for it."  Stephanie had merely turned on a local radio station, and reports of massive slowdowns on both 295 and 395 had simply reinforced her point.


"Van Dorn Extension," a voice announced over the PA as the subway train slowed rapidly.  Even before the cars had stopped, Dr. Litchfield, dressed in a set of exquisitely tailored khaki clothes, had jumped from his seat.  Stephanie caught sight of the harried look on his face then turned away long enough to allow a few chuckles to escape before quickly suppressing the rest. 


When the doors opened, Stephanie didn't walk as much as she surfed the human wave that poured through, and then she was settled gently onto the platform.  Simon emerged a few seconds later, and then he dove into the crowd to retrieve his hat, which was mounted on the point of a folded umbrella.                                     


"This really isn't your element, is it?" she asked with a grin as Simon finished fluffing out the creases in his brim.                           


"Contrary to what you're thinking," he said, "I've got nothing but the deepest admiration for the Metro.  I mean, I understand better than you the difficulties involved in building tunnels under a river.  But," he waved in various directions towards the crowd and towards the subway train, which was rapidly receding into the tunnel, "5PM is when everyone in this city releases his inner Viking!  There's a song by the Police that perfectly sums up my feelings.  What was it called again?" 


"Come on," Stephanie said, taking the Nightwatch civil engineer’s arm and leading him towards the escalator to the surface.  "Tom's waiting, and time's wasting away."  With one last look at the crowded station, Simon stepped onto the moving steps and ascended to the surface.





The L'Enfant Building stood on a corner near the Metro station.  While the faux marble exterior and the fancy name--taken from the architect who designed Washington, DC--were designed to evoke a certain sense of majesty and grace, the dingy appearance of the three-story structure confirmed that it was not occupied by one of the higher-end clients of Arlington.  While psychological counseling was certainly a noble and needed service, Arlington Counseling Group would never be mistaken for a high-profit venture, and the landlord didn't waste more money than was needed to keep the facility within the bounds of local code.   


Indeed, when Simon and Stephanie entered the building, they were greeted by a pale green carpet that was at least four years passed its reasonable life.  Ignoring the decor, they walked towards the elevators and entered the first one that arrived.   As the car rose past the second floor, it was temporarily filled with the sound of screaming.


"Some of Dr. Janov's disciples," Simon said with a wink.  Stephanie returned the wink and then shook her head.   


"You're lucky you're not married," she said.  "That wink would have had your butt in a sling."


"Occupational hazard," Litchfield said just as the doors opened to the third floor.  "It's why I'm not currently seeking employment in that field."  They emerged onto a floor that was, if not opulent, at least pleasant.  Sky blue walls and dark blue carpeting greeted them, and all of this was complimented by soft lighting and polished wooden furniture, and framed prints of Monet's dreamy landscapes and Van Guilder's famed four-color studies adorned the walls.  At least the counselor’s fixed this floor, Simon thought.


Almost as soon as the elevator doors closed, a large figure emerged from one of the offices.  Even in strong lighting, he would have been imposing, possessing both the height and the girth of one well familiar with weight-rooms.  In the reduced lighting of the floor, however, he was indescribably menacing.  Simon's face, however, lit up into a smile.


"Tom," he said joyfully,  "it's good to see you again, my friend!"  The two of them shook hands heartily, and as Tom stepped into the light; his light blue eyes betrayed the man's friendliness.  "You do realize that you're one of the few who could coax me onto the Metro this time of day."   


"With the help of a kick in the rear from Stephanie, I suppose," he said, nudging Simon in the ribs and then walking past to embrace Stephanie in what quite literally looked like a bear hug.


"What's it been," she said, "three month's since Patagonia?"  Tom nodded his head.  


"About that long," he said warmly.  "I'm sorry," he said, looking at both of them.  "I keep meaning to invite both of you for a drink some evening.  But, between the practice and…and other things, I just haven't had much time."  Simon held up his hands and shook his head.


"There's nothing to apologize about," he said.  "I really haven't been home much.  Business is booming for me these days, too, I'm sorry to say.  I actually just got back from..." 


"Look, Simon," Tom interrupted.  "I really want to catch up with the both of you,” his gaze went from Simon to Stephanie and back again, “but I asked you here on business.” 


"That's what Stephanie said," Simon muttered.  He was annoyed, but puzzled.  Tom wasn’t given to cutting other people off.  "She couldn't give me any details."  


"Only that you thought this might be something, um, Nightwatch might be interested in," Stephanie added.  Tom nodded.


"Come on to my office," he said.  "I've got something to tell both of you.  Something, well…a little hard to swallow."  He led the way into a small wood-paneled office.  Inside was a desk and computer along with a gold and green colored desk lamp and a small selection of books.   A smaller wooden table sat next to the desk, and on it was an older-model push-button intercom.  Tom sat down in a somewhat worn leather rolling chair and motioned for the others to sit down on two smaller chairs.  "Simon," he said, " have you ever heard of Sergei Illeyvich?"  


Simon shook his head.  "No, the name's not familiar.  Should it be?" 


Tom sighed and leaned back in his chair, which creaked under the strain.  “What are they teaching them in school these days?” he asked with a wry grin.  “I think it should be familiar," he said, "but then not everyone enjoys poetry.  Even poetry by Nobel laureates."         


"I've heard of him," Stephanie said.  "One of my instructors in college had us calibrate our voice synthesizers with 'Basilica Dream.'  I actually bought a copy of Under the Weight of Arctic Snow though I never actually read it."    


"Just as well," Tom said as he leaned forward to straighten out his nameplate on his desk.  'Tom Weldon, Senior Counselor' gleamed in the yellow light of the desk lamp.  "Arctic Snow's good, but it'll never top Gibson's All-Night Deli.  I'm not afraid to tell you I've started more than one hopefully romantic evening reciting a few lines from 'Her Majesty Dreams of Evening Song.'"


"So," Litchfield said, "I take it he's very good, and very Russian from the sound of his name."


"Actually," Tom continued, "he's claimed by both Russia and the United States since he's spent significant time here as well.  There's nothing like a Nobel Prize to make you feel wanted."


"Where exactly is this leading?" Simon said politely but with enough overtones of slight irritation to get the conversation moving.  Tom looked down at his desk and lightly tapped the wood with his right hand.  Stephanie suddenly stood up.  


"Listen," she said, "before you get too involved, I need to make a couple of phone calls.  I just remembered I forgot to tell Stetson to finish his project before the 8PM reboot."             


"There's a phone just down the hall to the left," Tom said. "Dial 6 to get the outside line."


"Thanks," she said as she left.  "Back in a couple of minutes."      


"Okay."  Tom glanced at Simon.  “Do you want to wait for her?”    


“No,” Simon said, not quite discourteously.           


“Alright.  Here's why I asked you to come.  A few weeks ago, I saw a small blurb in the Post that Sergei Illeyvich had been hospitalized in St. Petersburg."            


"Hospitalized?" Simon asked.  "What was it?  Heart attack?  Stroke?"  Tom shook his head.


"Nervous breakdown," he said.  "He's in the psych ward of Exhibition Hospital.  I didn't think much of it other than feeling it was sad that yet another creative type had succumbed to depression.  After awhile, though, I got kind of curious.  I have some professional contacts in Russia, so I decided to see what they could tell me."   


"I take it you found something noteworthy?" Simon said.   Tom nodded and again leaned back in his chair. 


"Sergei Illeyvich was hospitalized after suffering a psychotic episode," Tom said.  "He stood in a public square and proclaimed that a beast was loose in the countryside, a creature that could tear the fabric of every human life apart.  He eventually drew a knife and threatened to kill himself unless he was taken seriously."    


"Alright," Litchfield said as he shrugged his shoulders.  "A poet goes off the deep end in public.  Nothing seems all that unusual.  How much vodka and water had he had before he started howling at the moon?"  Tom raised his hand.


"Just hear me out," he said.  "It gets more interesting.  In the days before the incident in the square, he'd been trying desperately to arrange a meeting with officials from the Internal Security Policy Council in Moscow.  When that didn't work, he tried visiting local police and government officials."   


"Warning them about the beast," Simon added.        


"Yes," Tom said, "but, I don't think Sergei's crazy, or at least I don't think this breakdown wasn't precipitated by something extraordinary.  According to my sources, Sergei Illeyvich's father had worked for the Soviets, specifically in nonconventional weapons."  Simon, who to the discerning eye had seemed on the verge of drifting off, suddenly perked up. 


"Nonconventional weapons," he said, leaning forward in his chair.  "This sounds disturbingly familiar."    


"Sergei," Tom said, "was trying to warn the authorities about something related to his father's work."  Simon took off his hat and ran a hand through his silver-gray hair.     


"Do your sources know what this weapon was?" he asked.  "Bio-warfare agents?  Neutron radiation?" 


"Apathy," Tom said in a deep, serious voice.  "According Sergei, the weapon is unchecked apathy."  Simon's expression fell.



"Tom," he said after an uncomfortably long pause, "you've called me here to tell me about a half-crazed poet trying to warn the world that apathy is coming?"     


"I know what it sounds like," Tom said, leaning forward so that his eyes shown in the lamplight.  "If I'd never seen the things I've seen with you, in Patagonia; if there'd been no father with a connection to weapon's development, I wouldn't have given it a second thought.  But, my heart, my intuition, my soul tell me that there is more here than meet's the eye."  


Simon sighed and shook his head. "I don't buy it," he said. "It's ludicrous." He leaned forward and rested his elbows on the desk. "I mean, even granting - which I don't - that you could somehow induce apathy in people, how is that different from what we have in the world now? Did you see the statistics for voter turnout in the last election?"

Tom shook his head. "You're not really thinking this through," he said. "I did some research. Stephanie is setting it up for me. Call her in here, would you?"

Simon sighed and shook his head sadly.  "I should have smelled a set-up.  Stetson's a royal pain in the ass.  I couldn't figure out why she'd be doing him any favors."  Tom pointed to the intercom on a small table.                                                                                                          

Simon pressed a button. The call buzzer rang for several long seconds, then Stephanie's voice came through the speaker, tinny and unreal.


"Stephanie, it's Simon. Could you go ahead and bring the presentation you're doing for him?"

There was a pause. "The presentation?"

"Yes. He said you were setting it up for him."

"Oh, right. That one. Well, I didn't quite get around to finishing it."

"How long will it be?" Tom asked.

"Well, I didn't quite get around to starting it," Stephanie's voice said. "It didn't seem that important, really."

Simon grinned wryly at Tom. "Nice," he said. "I get it. Thank you Stephanie."

"Right," Stephanie said crisply.

Simon broke the connection. "Very cute," he said.

Tom shook his head. "You still aren't seeing it," he said. "Not really. You see this as one big joke, as some crazy man crying out for attention in his old age, but imagine if everyone here felt like that. Imagine if the maintenance crew at the hanger really didn't care if their job got done at all, much less if it got done well or not. Imagine if the doctor in the emergency room simply didn't care whether her patients lived or died." Tom leaned forward. Simon was startled by the passion in his voice. "Imagine if you didn't care what happened to anyone anywhere in the world. What would this world be like if everything that Nightwatch has ever done remained undone just because we simply couldn't be bothered? Don't you get it, Simon? What could one dedicated serial killer do if no one in law enforcement cared whether the crimes were solved or not? What could a terrorist organization do to us if our people didn't care whether they were stopped or not? If we don't accept that this is a real threat and act on it, we're screwed."       


Simon shook his head and stared intently at Tom.  "So what do you want me to do?"       


"From what I know of Nightwatch," Tom said, "they don't have a hotline for this sort of thing."  Simon grinned and stared at yellowing stain on the ceiling.     


"You want me to use the...the more unorthodox channels to report this."  Simon stood up, lifting a small metal medallion from the desk.  "I'm leaving in three days for Myanmar to lay the groundwork for a long overdue sewage system, and you want me to tell them this."               


Tom stood up and stared down into Simon's eyes.  "Please," he said, "as a personal favor to me.  If I'm wrong, then I'm wrong. From what you've said this Callow person isn't going to treat you any differently than he already does."  Before Simon could react, Tom grabbed the medallion, polished it on his shirt, and then placed it back onto the desk.           


Simon shook his head and laughed.  "Okay," he said.  "I'll go back tonight.  He should be there; bats are always more active at night."  Tom reached over the desk and shook Simon's hand.


"Thanks," Tom said heartily.  "I really appreciate this."  He turned around and picked up a suitcase.  "Listen, I hate to beg and run, but..."                      


"Yeah," Simon said, "Stephanie mentioned that you had a flight to catch at National.  Vacation?  Conference?"   


"Business," Tom said.  An uncomfortable pause hung in the air while Simon waited for clarification that never came.  "I'll be back in less than forty-eight hours, though," Tom finally said.  "I want to know what happened."        


"I'll probably be looking at crop circles in Minnesota," Simon said cheerlessly, and the two of them left the office.



Two days later, Simon found himself staring at a retouched picture of Britney Spears on the cover of Entertainment Weekly.  While he had as much of an interest in entertainment as anyone else, the sheer volume of printed treacle in the Popular Culture section of the Nightwatch Institute’s library was oppressive.  Despite himself, he reached out and picked up a bound volume of the previous year’s Rolling Stones and began flipping through the music ratings.


“Difficult to keep up when you can literally be anywhere at any time,” Callow said as he strolled into the area and placed a number of items on a table.   “How many classic movies have you missed?”       


“As many as you,” Litchfield said without missing a beat.  “Anyway, that’s what DigiRent’s for.” Litchfield replaced the volume on the shelf and strode confidently to the table, or at least as confidently as he could given his low expectations for the meeting.  While Simon would never be truly intimidated by Callow, the man still had an uncomfortable measure of control over his life.


“Have a seat,” Callow said, pushing the closest chair out with his foot.  Simon sat and placed his left hand on the table’s surface.  Callow’s laptop computer made various low beeps and whirs as it warmed up.  


“So, Dr. Litchfield,” Callow said without ever taking his eyes from the screen, “how well do you know Mr. Weldon?”  Here it goes, Simon thought, the martinet gets to screw a subordinate.  Visions of various icy or desert wastes ran through his head.  What’ll it be?  North Dakota?  A lightship off Cape Horn?  Grand Marshall at the reopening of Devil’s Island?


“We’ve worked together on occasion,” Simon said confidently.  “He’s been extremely helpful during previous,” he looked around for anyone else, “during previous operations.  As you know.”


“Ah yes, I’d forgotten,” Callow said disingenuously.  “Nightwatch spent a great deal of time covering Mr. Weldon’s considerable tracks in Patagonia.  Do you know how close we came to being discovered, to losing our ability to even work overtly in Chile?”  Simon’s face flushed, and his right hand balled into a fist.


“We wouldn’t have had as much trouble if you’d bothered to tell us about the Phantom!” Simon hissed.  “If Tom hadn’t been there, I’m damn sure we wouldn’t be talking now!”  Callow smiled, and Simon kicked himself inwardly for falling into the Lower Echelon’s functionary’s trap.  Callow had been trying to get a rise out of him and had succeeded marvelously.  


“Still,” Callow said, “how much do you know about him?  About his motivations?  About any agendas he might have.”    


“Enough,” Litchfield muttered.  “Besides,” he added, gesturing at the computer, “don’t tell me you don’t have our whole history together there.  If we could get on with this…”  


“Certainly,” Callow said as he chuckled lightly to himself.  “We checked Mr. Weldon’s preposterous story.  Checked our contacts in Russia.  Consulted with our own psychologist.  And…”  Simon braced himself for an assignment to some place completely unappealing.  “And some of it checks out.”  Simon, despite himself, opened his eyes widely.   


“How much?”         


“Enough, at least, for us to need more information.”     


“Really,” Simon stammered.  Callow nodded, and he slid a legal envelope over to Dr. Litchfield.  “And what are these?” he asked as he started opening it.          


“Press credentials for you and whoever you deem necessary,” Callow said.  “You’re now a reporter for Ars Poetica magazine, coming to write an article on the great Sergei Illeyvich.  According to the psychiatric ward’s staff, he’s actually in fairly good spirits for the most part, as long as you avoid certain subjects.”


“Subjects which I’m going to bring up,” Simon added.  “That could be difficult, especially if he becomes agitated.”     


“He knows you’re coming,” Callow added.  “He thinks you’re CIA undercover, which suits him perfectly well.  Nikita Egorov, who works for us as a translator, popped in this morning to talk with him and to secure permission for the interview. Fortunately, he normally works in the Moscow office, so his face isn’t known in St. Petersburg.”     


“How efficient,” Simon said.  “You moved quickly on this one.  A little too quickly.”  Callow sat back in his chair.    


“Have you ever heard of a village named Taralma?”     


“It doesn’t ring a bell,” Litchfield said.  “Sounds Eastern European.”    


Kazakhstan,” Callow said, “and I’m not surprised.  It’s really in the middle of nowhere.  There’s no old or current military or government scientific work there, no prominent citizens in overt or covert fields.  Really, from what I can tell, you could spend an eternity in Kazakhstan and never have to go there.”         


“Sounds like a perfect place if you have something to hide,” Litchfield added.  Callow nodded.


“So perfect, that something happened there, something remarkable, and yet it’s barely been reported at all.  Several weeks ago, a small fire broke out at a stockyard.  There’s nothing unusual about that.  Nothing unusual except that no one did anything about it.  No one at all.  It burned, it spread.  Business to business, house to house.  A couple, in fact, were spotted in their living room doing nothing while their house burned down around them.  When the first response came, it was over an hour after the blaze started, and over 70% of the village had been destroyed.”    


Simon ran his hands through his hair.  “Nothing at all.  Sounds like a very apathetic response.  Kazakhstan…that borders China doesn’t it?”         


“It does,” Callow said.        


“And the Baikonur’s there as well,” Simon added.   Callow nodded.        


“Between Illeyvich’s claims and this little piece of news, well, it seems prudent to check this out.”  Simon looked again in the envelope.                        


“I’d better put a team together then,” he said.  “Is Nightbird One an option?” 


“To St. Petersburg, at least,” Callow said.  “We’ve had some trouble with one of our subcontractors in Chechnya.  Their main office is in St. Petersburg, and they need a good reaming out.  You’re our guy.” 


“Lucky me,” he said.  “And this man, Egorov?”  


“At your disposal,” Callow said.  “At least in St. Petersburg.  And he is briefed.”  Callow slid a CD-Rom to Simon.  “Old copies of Ars Poetica along with the seven complete collections of Sergei Illeyvich’s poems.  And,” Callow reached into his pocket and pulled out a silver card, “a translation matrix.  It isn’t the best in the world, but you’ll need something if Egorov isn’t available.  I’m afraid it’s voice only.”  Simon placed his hat back on his head and stood up. 


“I’d better get everything together,” he said, “and probably stop by Mel’s office for some ‘just in case’ items.  You’ll notify Manassas?”    


“The flight plan’s being filed now,” Callow said as he stood up.  “Talk to Illeyvich.  Get as much of the story as you can, and then take whatever actions you deem necessary, using the normal precautions of course.  And, as always, remember that if you or any of your team are caught or killed…”      


“Very funny,” Simon said as he was walking away.  Suddenly, he stopped and looked back.  “That was actually funny.  You must be practicing in front of the mirror during those long, lonely nights.” 


“Have a nice day, Dr. Litchfield,” Callow said cheerlessly.  He looked down again at his computer, tracing his finger over the Taralma report.




Melvin Squibb, Nightwatch's Senior Inventory Control Manager, examined the flat, plasma screen monitor.  Exactly as programmed, Nightwatch's inventory control system was compiling a quarterly report on equipment, hardware, software, and sensitive documentation within the main buildings of the institute's campus.  His brown eyes lit up as every computer reported in, as every RFID tag reported its current disposition, as, in short, everything that was supposed to be there (officially at least) presented itself on Squibb's spreadsheet.  Without taking more than a small amount of attention from the screen, he slid over in his plush rolling chair to another computer so that he could answer a requisition from a field unit.  Several times he brushed back his paisley tie.            


"Got to buy another clip," he said to himself.  His perfectly manicured fingers finished typing in the appropriate codes, and a warehouse in Bonn set about dispatching a replacement part for a front-loader in Kosovo.   


"You're too impressed with all this, you know," Simon muttered from the door, and Melvin jumped slightly.


"Give me a break, Dr. Litchfield," he said as he smiled despite himself.  "Molinski won't stop sending you jackasses out, and Dr. MacMillian wanted these damn reports yesterday evening.  Multitasking...yeppers...multitasking's the only way to go."


"I'm sorry that those of us in the field are such a burden," Dr. Litchfield said jokingly.  "Speaking of burdens...I need to talk to you about a Form 71X request."  Squibb, who had been absently running his hand through his thick bob of gray-brown hair, suddenly experienced a complete change in demeanor.


"Form 71X," he said as he stood up, "yes indeedy.  Well," he said as he walked across the room to close his office door, "let's just preserve the confidentiality of that client government, shall we?"  Melvin had spoken just loudly enough for his voice to drift into the hall.


"St. Petersburg," Simon said.  "I'm leaving in the next twenty-four hours."


"On the Nightbird?" Squibb asked.  Simon nodded.  "Well, at least those goodies are covered.  You have a translator?"


"For verbal communications, yes."  Simon sat down in one of the plush faux-leather chairs in front of Melvin's desk.  "If we have to interface with any electronics, no.  We're going to be somewhat handicapped anyway since Ms. Keel is stuck here helping with your great inventory scavenger hunt." 


Squibb nodded.  “That’s your fault, of course.”


Simon’s eyebrows lifted.  “I beg your pardon?”


“If you could manage to do your tasks without actually using up any inventory, then we wouldn’t have to keep track of it all, would we?”


Simon laughed.  Melvin’s innocent-innocent voice had been perfect.


From beneath his desk, Squibb pulled up what appeared to be a standard leather briefcase.  However, as he opened it, a compact wireless computer mounted within came to life.


"Let's see what we've got in the ole cupboard," Melvin said as his fingers slid over the keys.  "'kay, we've got a translation matrix card in and...aah, yes...a wireless software patch system too."


"For the cell phone?" Simon asked, and Melvin nodded.  "That matrix handle Russian?" Litchfield said.  "I'd hate pulling information from a Russian computer using Maltese."  Squibb tapped a few keys.


“Let’s just have a looksee…Russian, most of the regional Slavic languages, Romanian, Armenian…this’ll get you a cup of coffee pretty much anywhere in Eastern Europe.” 


"I'll take that," Simon murmured.  "If that TASER's in, I wouldn't mind having it as well.  Also, I'm supposed to be working for Ars Poetica magazine." 


Melvin tapped the keys.  "Let's see, two PDAs with as much official looking information as possible about Ars Poetica magazine.  Callow have that info in the usual place?"


"Should," Simon affirmed. 


"Anything else I can do for you?" Melvin queried.  Simon laughed.


"Good question," he said.  "I really don't know what I'm heading for.  This could even turn into the mother of all wild-goose chases."


"Alrighty then," Melvin said with a smile.  "If that's the case, would ya mind if I sent along a little care package?"


"Depends on what the package is," Simon uttered with great suspicion.


"It's a bio-signature masking system," Melvin said as he pulled the information up on the computer.  "'This state-of-the-art personal protection system adds additional levels of personal security to field operatives.  The system works through the application of...’"


"Edited highlights, please," Simon said as he held up both hands.  "I don't need the damn sales brochure."


"Well, in the trials at least, this little American dream successfully blocked 90% of the user's biological and infrared signatures, plus, video cameras look at you but only see a blank space" Melvin said.  "But, you know the way things are with prototypes.  Everything needs to be tested under field conditions.  If you don't mind taking it along..."


"Okay, Mr. Squibb," Simon said with some amusement.  "Just for you, I'll take the little bugger along and give you a full report when we get back."  The doctor stood up.  “As far as you know, Nightbird One has all of the standard packages?”


“Yessiree,” Melvin said cheerfully.  He patted the plasma screen.  “Boys in Manassas reported everything present and accounted for.  I’ll have the rest loaded up within twelve hours.”  Simon nodded.


“Good.  Right. Excellent.  Well, wish me luck.”  As he walked for the door, he turned around with a mischievous smile on his face.  “I take it you don’t actually want 71X filled out and submitted in triplicate?”


“Not on your damn ass!” Melvin said as he packed away the suitcase and returned his attention to the inventory.  “I got enough flotsam and jetsam floatin’ through here as it is.  Besides, this isn’t a paper trail I want to keep, if you catch my meaning.”


“Right,” the doctor said as he opened the door.  “I’ll get that fax to Addis Ababba by the morning.  Thanks for your help.”  Melvin waived his hand and then quickly moved to answer another far-flung request.


Once in the hall, Simon reached for his cell phone, turned on a device to secure the signal, and then speed-dialed a number.  After a brief pause, during which he performed a quick mental inventory on an attractive brunette as she walked by, he finally spoke.


“Tom!  You are home!  Good.  I can’t say much right now, but start packing, and pack lightly.”  Simon nodded.  “Yeah…yeah…usual precautions, just like last time.  I’ll pick you up when it’s time to leave.”




Nightbird One, Nightwatch’s modified Canadair Regional Jet, descended into Pulkovo II International Airport during a rainstorm and then immediately taxied to the part of the facility normally reserved for diplomatic traffic.  Arrangements worked out in advance with the Russian government allowed Nightwatch staff to transit through the airport with little in the way of the usual customs issues.  In truth, the discounts provided by Nightwatch for economic consulting with the Russian Federation as well as the cache the institute was able to lend when Russia dealt with its former and often unstable republics were worth the blind eye cast by customs.  Once Simon and Tom cleared the terminal, they were immediately met by a new model, deep blue Lada driven by Nikita Egorov, a translator for the Moscow offices of Nightwatch.


"Aren't we going a little low-tech?" Simon asked as he got into the car.  He waited while Tom tried his best to squeeze into the back.


"AvtoVAZ is much better than it used to be," Egorov replied in a voice that was only lightly accented.  The Russian was a lanky man of medium height and was beginning to bald though his sandy blond hair, after being strategically combed forward, hid this to the casual observer.  "Nightwatch had enough faith in the Lada to buy three of them for the Moscow office.”


"Quid pro quo, and you know it," Litchfield said.  "Chechnya needed our help more than we needed more reliable cars in Moscow."  Egorov smiled though some genuine hurt seemed to reside in his green eyes.


"But AvtoVAZ is much better than it used to be," Egorov said after a pause.  "Renault is better, but there you go."  Simon pulled out a pen and small notebook.


"So," Litchfield said, "you're the one who made the arrangements.  Who does Sergei Illeyvich think we are?"


"CIA, as planned," Egorov said.  "I was told to tell him you're a couple of spooks.  That seemed to make him feel a little better, like someone was taking him seriously."  Simon nodded.


"And our names?"


"Mike Green and Terry Wilcox," Egorov said.  "If you don't like them, don't blame me.  That was what I was told to say.  Can I speak candidly?"  Simon smiled as he wrote down the names.  "I've never met Callow.  I've never even heard his voice.  But he sounds like a total prick."


"That's one way of putting it," Simon said with a grim laugh.  "Imagine sitting face to face with him."  Simon put the notebook back into his pocket.


"Mr. Egorov," Tom said from the backseat as he arranged himself to move closer.


"Nick," Egorov said.  "Egorov's too formal.  And Nikita always sounds like a James Bond villain when spoken by Westerners."


"Nick, then," Tom said with a professional smile.  "You've met Mr. Illeyvich.  What can you tell me about him?"  Egorov suddenly moved from one lane of traffic to another, passing a UPS delivery van.


"Sad man, very sad man," Egorov said.  "Pleasant enough, but you can see the hollowness in his eyes.  You ever met someone who came back from a war zone?"  Tom nodded sadly, and Simon scrolled through the options on a PDA he pulled from another pocket.


"Too many times," Tom said.  "Too many times."


"When I was young," Egorov continued, "a friend of mine went to Afghanistan.  He survived, he came home, he prospered."  He turned to face Simon.  "Works for AvtoVAZ as a matter of fact.  He has an Olympic speed-skater for a wife, two children in a good school, I mean the kind where you have to pay large bribes to get on the waiting list.  Rubles, rubles, and more rubles."  Egorov threaded his way past an Audi and a Volvo.  "I met him for lunch not two weeks ago.  He had those same eyes, those same hollow eyes, like he's given up hope, like he's going only on momentum."


"Tell me," Tom continued, "personal impression.  Did Illeyvich seem psychotic too you?"


"There's a poem I read once, an English poem," Egorov said.  "'The world is too much with me, late and soon,' something like that."  Simon pulled up the information on Ars Poetica one more time.  "If anything, he's too aware, the world’s too much with him.  Or at least that's how it seemed to me, but what hell do I know, eh?"  With that, the car pulled onto the road leading to Exhibition Hospital.






Upon reaching the hospital, the three of them gathered their materials and entered the building.  They found the entrance to the psychiatric ward with very little difficulty--it was the one sitting immediately in front of a strong, metal-screened door.   Nick spoke to the nurse, who appeared to Simon to be quite disdainful of the three of them.


"She says that Sergei is a gentle soul," Nick spoke.  "He's a very sick man, and she doesn't want us to upset him."  The nurse, a woman of stern demeanor and even sterner black-colored eyes, crossed her arms and let loose a stream of additional words.  "If she had been on duty yesterday," Nick continued, "she would never have let us even speak with the doctor." 


Simon moved and stood between Nick and the nurse.  "I promise you," he said, "we will treat Mr. Illeyvich with only the utmost care and respect.  He is one of the finest living poets, and Ars Poetica would be remiss if it didn't help support Mr. Illeyvich in his time of need."  The nurse's expression remained the same as Nick translated.  "Let us talk to him in his hour of need, remind him through our interview that he is still revered by thousands of individuals, people who wish him only the best.  Billy Collins just yesterday urged us to pass on his deepest wishes for a speedy recovery, and Louise Glűck was practically in tears when she told us to convey on her best wishes."  The nurse tightened her arms.  "Surely a woman of your obvious intelligence and understanding, not to mention beauty, can see we mean him no harm."  Simon generated his most charming smile.


Nick repeated the words in Russian.  The nurse looked to the floor and shook her head.  She turned to the guard at the ward's entrance and spoke to him, and he pressed a button on an intercom.  Then, she spoke to Litchfield.


"You men think you can charm anyone with your silly words," Nick repeated.  "If it wasn't for the permission forms from Dr. Yakolev, I wouldn't let you use the lavatory on the way out.  Anyway...anyway..."  Nick paused, but before he could continue, the guard motioned for them to go through the now open door.  As the three of them entered, they were met by another guard on the other side of a steel antechamber.  He opened an identical door, let them through, and then began escorting them to Sergei.


"Anyway, what?" Simon questioned.  Nick laughed, and the laughter was repeated in a more sinister form by an unseen patient.


"I was only trying to figure out the right English words.  The most accurate translation would be, 'Anyway, you're not man enough to handle me.'"


Simon arched his eyebrow.  "Really."  He broke into a wide smile.  "How intriguing!"  The guard took them past several locked metal doors before knocking on a wooden door.  As it opened, a nurse looked first at the guard and then at the three newcomers.  The guard spoke and the nurse nodded her head.  She walked out of view, but her voice could be heard speaking to someone.  A moment later she returned and motioned for everyone to enter.


It was immediately apparent that Sergei Illeyvich was not an ordinary patient.  While his room was somewhat bare, it seemed substantially larger than a normal hospital room, and the bed, while still made with the usual hospital corners, seemed fluffier and more comfortable than standard fare thanks in part to extra blankets and to a green-checked quilt.  Tom was somewhat alarmed until he noticed a complete absence of overhanging areas from which to lower a homemade noose.  On a table nearby were several get-well cards in multiple languages, and a plate of pirogues sat waiting to be eaten.  Sergei, dressed in pale blue dressing gown, was staring out the window at the rainy courtyard, and then he turned to see who had entered.


It was something of a shock for Tom to compare the reality to the pictures on the books on his shelves.  Without the help of a professional photographer, Sergei Illeyvich looked withered and worn.  His eyes were sunken deeply into his skull though they burned with a fierce light.  His skin was pale and papery looking.  When he saw the trio enter his room, he looked up and smiled very slightly.


Simon turned to Nick.  "Can you ask them," he said pointing to the nurse and guard while reaching for the digital recorder with his other hand, "if we can have a little time alone with Mr. Illeyvich?  I know we're not in an informal setting, but it'd be great if we could do this in the most relaxed manner possible." 


Egorov turned and spoke with them.  They, in turn, talked with each other, and finally the nurse spoke to Sergei, who nodded his head.


"Call us if..." the nurse started to say to Simon before she found herself at a loss for English words.  Simon smiled reassuringly and nodded his head. 


"Da!" Simon said reassuringly as he smiled.  "Yes!  No problem."  The nurse returned the smile, and then she and the guard left the room.  Finally, Egorov turned to address Sergei directly.


Dobriy den,” Nick said, smiling politely.


“Good afternoon,” Sergei said as he sat down.  His voice was very quiet and somehow smoother than Simon had expected.  His English was excellent, flavored with a slight accent.


“We are…” Simon began, but Sergei interrupted him.


“The gentlemen from Ars Poetica?”


There was a slight pause before the name of the magazine, and Sergei’s smile had a slightly mocking quality to it that made Simon shake his head ruefully.


“Please, sit down.”


There were two chairs in the room other than the one that Sergei was using.  Simon and Nick took those while Tom perched on the bed.


“You will,” Sergei continued, “understand that I have spent much of my life dealing with the security apparatus in one form or another.  I have learned to recognize its variations and faces in its many guises.  You are not from Ars Poetica.”


It was a flat and unassailable statement of fact.


Simon shook his head again.  “Can we speak freely here?”


“Of course.”  Sergei’s smile seemed genuine, but sadness underlay his every gesture.  “I am a harmless old lunatic.  No one bothers to keep an eye on me except to see that I do not kill myself because of the coming terror.”  The faint note of mocking was back in his voice, but it had a gentleness to it that was oddly comforting.


“Sergei,” Tom said.  The old man looked at him.   “My name is…Terry.  It’s an honor to meet you.”


“A fan?” Sergei asked.


“For many years,” Tom said with a smile.


Sergei sighed.  “Those were different days.”  There was a pause.  “I am pleased that you have enjoyed my writing.  I wish…”  He shook his head.  “Those were different days.”


“Are you working on anything now?”


Sergei blinked at him.  “You are not from Ars Poetica,” he said again.


“No,” Tom agreed.  “We aren’t.  But I’m still a fan.  I’ve read everything you’ve ever published.”


“You will forgive me,” Sergei said, “if I say that you do not look like someone who would read poetry.”


Tom laughed.  “I get that a lot,” he said, flexing his shoulders.  “But poetry is about what is below the surface at least as much as what is on the surface, isn’t it?”


“Touché,” Sergei said with a touch a genuine humor, though it still didn’t touch his eyes.


“Are you working on anything now?”


Sergei sighed.  “No,” he said.  “Not now.  Not again.”  He looked at Tom.  “It takes a certain…fire to goad me into writing.  That fire is gone.  The life is gone.  Not even a spark remains.  I can’t write anymore.”  He smiled sadly.  “It doesn’t happen to us all, but it has happened to me.”  He sighed.  “But I do not think that you have come all this way to ask about my poetry.  You came to ask me about the beast.”


“Yes.  What can you tell us?”


“That it will rip the fabric of existence to shreds.  That it will drag its claws through every human life and suck the marrow out of us all.  That it will leaves us all as dry and withered as I am now.”


Sergei’s voice was rising slightly, and Tom stirred uneasily on his perch.  His eyes were fixed on the old man’s face, and something that he was seeing was worrying him.


“I don’t expect you to believe me,” Sergei said.


“We’re here,” Tom interjected quietly.


Sergei blinked at him.  “So you are,” he said.


“But we need something more than hyperbole,” Simon said.  “We need some concrete information.”


“Concrete?” Sergei said.  “Concrete?!  What about Taralma?  You know about Taralma?  You know what happened there?”


“Yes,” Simon said.


“People sat in their homes, heedlessly, while they burned to death because they couldn’t be bothered to do anything about it?  Have you thought about that with your concrete?  Have you considered the thought of parents who couldn’t be bothered to walk into the back room and save their own infant son from the most hideous death imaginable?  Is that concrete enough for you?”


“Sergei,” Tom said quietly.


“Oh, he wants concrete!”  The old man rose to his feet and moved toward Simon.  “What will it take for you, then?  Will you need the surgeon to stand idly by while his patient hemorrhages?  Perhaps you’ll need to find yourself not caring whether you live or die when the simplest of efforts would save your own life!”  Sergei’s voice had risen steadily, and now he was starting to shout.  “Is that what you need with your concrete?  Would that convince you?”


The old man threw his arms into the air, whirled around once, started at Nick and then began to pour forth a volatile torrent of Russian.  Nick stared at him, wide eyes.  Simon braced himself against his chair.  Sergei was clearly out of control, the words gushing out of him in an acid stream.  His face was turning crimson and his arms were waving wildly around.


Tom rose quickly and approached the old man.


“Sergei,” he said, gently but insistently.  Seryozha.”


“Tom,” Simon said.            


“Lock the door, Simon,” Tom said, not taking his eyes off of Sergei.  “If they find him like this, they’ll probably kick us out.”


“All right.”


“Sergei,” Tom said, and then he began to speak easily in Russian.


Simon, on his way to the door, froze and looked back.  Then he looked at Nick, who was listening, open-mouthed.  Simon shook himself awake and then moved toward the door.


Tom kept up a steady stream of Russian as Sergei moved agitatedly around the room, waving his arms.  He wasn’t shouting anymore although he was still talking rapidly and loudly.


Simon, after locking the door, moved toward Nick.


“He is speaking Russian?” he asked.


“Perfectly,” Nick said.  “Did you know he could do that?”


“Not a clue,” Simon said.  “What’s he saying?”


“He’s talking to him calmly, trying to distract him from what is agitating him.  He has been saying some soothing things, but now he is talking about poetry.  He is discussing meter and rhythm.  Who is Tchelinko?”


Simon shook his head.  “I don’t know.”


“Neither do I.  He…no…she is apparently a poetry critic?”


Gradually, as Tom talked, Sergei began to grow calmer.  Suddenly, a moment came when Sergei froze and stared at Tom.


“What’s he saying now?” Simon asked.


“He is reciting part of a poem,” Nick said.  “It is called 'Black Pearls.'”  He cocked his head to one side, and then he began to recite:


"I am a poor man on a ship of fools

a ship in mud sailing a greasy circle.

But even on this doomed little tramp,

I have hope.  Yes, I have hope,

for I have seen the march of time,

seen little steps and little faces covered

in licorice and lime, smiling at the sun.

Even black pearls were once grains of sand,

so shall our children change us

to black jewels of the land."


Sergei hung on Tom's words, the poet’s own words, and as Tom neared the end of the piece, the psychologist switched from Russian to English.


Sergei spoke dreamily.  "You know me well.  That one has never been published."


"Blogs," Tom said gently.  "You spoke in Copenhagen last year, and someone coaxed that out of you."  Sergei, almost as if his energy flew into the air, fell onto the corner of his bed.


"'Black Pearls,'" he said. "A good germ.  I always meant to come back to it, to make it a proper thing.  But now..."


"Now," Tom said, "you can do something, something to help us understand the beast.  Maybe then you'll feel that fire again pushing you to write."  Sergei looked up, tears welling in the corners of his eyes.


"If only I could believe again," he said softly.  "You are CIA?  You will believe me?"  Simon, finally recovered from the outburst and from Tom's sudden display of linguistic skill, moved closer.


"Tell us," he said.  "Help us understand what we're fighting.  Without you, we'll never understand what happened in Taralma."  Sergei lifted a bony finger and wiped the tears away.


"It all started seven years ago," he said quietly and slowly, "when word came that my father, Piotr, was being eaten away by cancer."  Tom and Simon quickly took their seats and moved closer.  Simon switched on the digital recorder.  "Piotr was in terrible pain, more terrible than I could understand.  In dying, you see, you enter a journey that allows few companions.  It is a lonely time."


"Piotr used to work for the Soviets," Simon added, "helping design weapons.  He told you something, didn't he?”  Sergei looked at Simon.


"Yes," Sergei said.  "What you say is true.  He was a stern man, a rigid brute for much of his life."  Sergei's hands began moving more and more as he spoke.  "One had to be in those days.  The bureaus were very unforgiving of failure.  One of my father's friends went to work one day only to never be seen again, to never even be acknowledged.  I thought for years he'd defected, or had been killed for failure on the job."  Sergei looked at Tom.  "I was wrong, young man, so very wrong."  Sergei stood up and walked with difficulty towards an old porcelain sink in the back of the room.


"Go on, Sergei," Tom said.  "What did Piotr tell you?"  Sergei splashed his face with cold water, and then he stood over the basin as droplets fell from his face.  His lower lip was quivering.


"The man's name, my father's friend," Sergei continued, "was Kovalenko.  He was the first."  Sergei's eyes widened, and as he turned his head, strays drops of water flew off.  "He was the first victim of the beast...of the monster...the monster my papa helped create."


The poet sat again on the bed and folded his arms on his lap.  Simon sat and moved as close as he could while Tom stood, his back against the wall, in front of Sergei.  Nick sat in the other chair but stayed back some distance.


"Piotr Illeyvich worked, so I thought, with Tupolev Design Bureau, doing something or other with bombers.  I remember that he was always fascinated by the contra-rotating propellers on the big one, the one you call the Bear I think.  When I was a teenager, however, I heard him speaking in the living room of our apartment.  Comrade Kovalenko was there."  His scratched his throat.  "I wonder if I could have a glass of water."  Nick jumped up and moved to the sink.


"What were they talking about?"  Simon asked.


"It took me a few minutes, a few minutes bought by the obliviousness grown men sometimes show towards children, to understand they weren't talking about aeroplanes."  Nick handed him the glass of water.  "Weapons.  They spoke of weapons.  Fiercesome devices of fire and..."  Sergei drank nearly all of the water in one long gulp.  "They spoke of yields, of flashpoints, all of the nasty things war brings.  Papa and Kovalenko were taking a great risk talking about these things.  Even then I knew our phones were under surveillance, that our apartment was sometimes watched."


"Was the apartment ever bugged?" Tom asked.


"Not to my knowledge, and not to my father's.  We spoke of this late in his life, after the USSR fell and the Russian Federation rose in its place.  He said that, in his case, the state at least left him a small measure of privacy.  But, who was to know that back then, deep in the heart of it all?"


"They spoke of weapons," Simon continued.  "I know that would have been interesting enough, but they must have spoken of something else too, something that caused you to remember the conversation."  Sergei closed his eyes and shook his head.


"It was something they didn't say that stuck with me, that came flashing back into my mind when Papa spoke from his deathbed."   Sergei continued, "Comrade Kovalenko said one word, and my papa, who was never fazed by anything, suddenly turned white as a ghost and begged--practically begged--for him to speak no more."


"And the word was?" prompted Tom.


Sergei opened his mouth, but the sounds seemed to take a long time to organize themselves before they finally came out in a voice little more than a whisper.  "Alconost," he breathed.


"The myth-bird?" Nick asked almost in spite of himself.  "The Siren of Sorrow?"


"Sorrow," Sergei said, "or joy, a patron of the sciences...too many things in Russian mythology to catalog.  But I don't think that was what Papa was talking about.  According to legend, those who hear Alconost's song forget everything, leave everything, follow the sound of her voice and of her religious recitations.  Forget everything.  You see?  No more cares...nothing concrete...descent into ephemeral abstraction..."  Sergei's eyes were starting to flutter.  "Alconost!"


"Seryozha," Tom said quietly, "stay with us.  You said you talked with your father before he died.  Is that what he told you about?  Alconost?"  Sergei closed his eyes and breathed deeply.  He opened his eyes again and stared at Tom.  Sergei began speaking again, but his words were in Russian.


"Translate, Nick," Tom said as he kneeled in front of Sergei.  "I think he's using me to maintain concentration."  Nick moved forward, and tried to catch up.


"My son," Nick said, "you must go to the Patriarch.  Beg him, beg him, if you ever loved your father, to let me in.  To put in a good word, to tell Him I'm so sorry for the evil I've done."  Nick licked his lips while Sergei paused.  "Simon, I think these are his father's words."


"That's what I was thinking, too," Simon repeated. He looked to see that his recorder was still running, and then Sergei started speaking again.


"Papa, I know what you were doing," Nick said.  "You worked in service of your homeland.  God does not brand such people with the mark of Cain."  Nick sat on his knees.  "Sergei, you don't understand.  Kovalenko.  I'm responsible...I unhooked the leash, I let it loose upon him.  Let what loose, Papa? The beast, Apathy, Alconost!  Papa, that word, I remember..."  Sergei stood up, and Tom stood up with him, moving closer and touching the old man's shoulders.  Sergei's breathing was slow and rhythmic.  Tom spoke in Russian.


"I remember Alconost, Papa," Nick said, translating Tom.  "Comrade Kovalenko spoke it that time in the apartment."  Sergei's lips started to move, but it was a second before his voice caught wind. 


"Poor Kovalenko," Sergei was saying as Nick repeated the words, "I told him to run, but he didn't care.  He couldn't care!  The beast had him in its claws!  I tried to rein it in, I pulled hard to put it back in the cage, but there was nothing left of Kovalenko, nothing to send home.  I damned his wife and children to Gorky!  I watched it devour his will!"  Sergei moved his hand as if to wipe away tears, but none were on his face.


"But Papa," Tom said, this time in English, "what happened to Alconost?  To Apathy?"


"We put it back in its cage, my son, slammed shut the gate," Sergei said in English as well.  "May it be damned!  But I fear it lives, Sergei.  My god, I fear it still lives!"  Sergei slowly slipped to the bed, and Tom laid him down, covering him with one of the quilts.


"We'll let him rest for a minute," Tom said firmly, "and then we'll have to leave.  He wasn't just mimicking, Piotr.  He was Piotr.  That memory is starting to subsume him, and it will if he doesn't rest."


"Do you have enough to go by?" Nick asked Simon.  Simon stopped the recorder.


"I don't know," he said.  He looked up at Tom.  "How medicated do you think Piotr was?"


"Probably quite a bit," Tom said as he stared down at Sergei.  "Enough that he may not have been able to speak clearly.  At least I hope so.  Otherwise, the Soviets were literally engineering some sort of apathy beast."  Simon stood up.


"Whatever it was, Kovalenko got in the way and paid the price for it," Simon said.  "Tom?"


"Don't even think it," he said, anticipating Simon's question.  "I'm going to wake him in a second, but I'll be damned if I'll let you ask any more questions.  He can't handle it."  Simon nodded.  Pressing a button on the recorder, he ejected the digital cassette, placed it in one of his coat pockets, and replaced the cassette with another one.  Lifting the recorder, he pressed 'play.'


"My first garret, if you will," Sergei's voice said, "was near the Sunshine Motel on the Bowery.  The place was littered with the refuse of the world, but in those wandering souls were so many kernels of golden truth."  Simon stopped the cassette.


"On the flight over," Simon spoke, "I made a tape from several of Sergei's older interviews.  Just in case anyone wanted to hear a sample.  Okay Tom, wake him up."  Tom nodded.


"Sergei," he said quietly.  "Seryozha, it's To...Terry.  We have to go.  The interview went well.  Remember, the interview went well."


"Only if Ars Poetica has gone into intelligence gathering," he said in a weak but mocking voice.  Suddenly, he bolted upright, and Tom reached down to settle him.  "Mr. Green," he said to Simon.  "My apartment.  There is a loose floorboard, and a shoebox.  A small notebook from Sharper Image.  A small you understand?"


"We understand," Tom said soothingly.  "Go ahead.  Go back to sleep.  Lord knows you deserve the rest."  With that, Sergei Illeyvich fell back onto the pillow and was asleep before Tom switched off the light, and the three of them walked into the hallway and called for the guard.




There was a long moment of silence in the car, broken only by the sound of Nick starting the engine and putting it in gear.  He and Simon kept glancing sidelong at each other.  Finally, Nick cleared his throat.


“So.  Tom.”  He glanced into the back seat.  “Rather than approach the topic with the delicacy and tact for which I am so well known, I will ask why the hell you didn’t say you could speak Russian.”


Tom raised one eyebrow and smiled slightly.  “It didn’t seem to matter,” he said.  “We weren’t planning on relying on my language skills.  We had you.”


“Who is now superfluous,” Nick said.


“No,” Tom said.  “Not at all.  It’s true I know the language, but I don’t have your breadth of knowledge of the people, the culture.  We still need you, Nick.”  Tom glanced at Simon.  “Look, Simon, it didn’t seem that important.  When I was in college, I encountered Sergei’s poetry.  The ones written in English were…moving.  The ones translated from Russian were unsatisfactory.  I wanted to be able to read them, so I started studying the language and ended up with a minor in Russian before I was done.”  He shrugged.  “Each of us is a mass of hidden talents and traps.  It’s human nature to be that way.”  He grinned.  “You, for example, have never told me how you managed to get that Arabian dancer to--”


“Yes,” Simon interrupted quickly.  “Speaking of hidden talents…”  He cleared his throat.  “Well,” he glanced at Nick.  “What say you drive us to Sergei’s apartment to see what we can find.”





What they found was exactly what Sergei had described.  Simon stared at it in disgust.  “What is this?” he asked.


“Um…poetry,” Tom said, thumbing through the pages of the notebook.  “Some in English, some in Russian, some in…”


“Finnish,” Nick said, glancing over Tom’s massive shoulder.


“Finnish?”  Tom asked.


“Everybody’s full of secrets,” Simon said dryly.  Tom glanced at him, but Simon’s smile robbed the words of any offense.


“What’s that?” Nick asked suddenly.


Tom glanced at the page.  “Ah…” he said quietly.


“What is it?” Simon asked, moving in for a closer look.


“It’s a name and address,” Tom told him, “and above it:  ‘the song that steals the heart.’”


“That’s good enough for me,” Simon said.  “Let’s go see the…” he glanced at the name, “Man?”


“Yes,” Nick replied after looking at the name.


“Let’s go.”




“Yes, my name is Vyacheslov Yevtushenko.”  The old man nodded his head slowly and then invited the three strangers into his home.  It was small, but the furnishings were of good quality, though simple.  “Would you care for some tea?”


“Yes, thank you,” Simon said, smiling.


The old man was gone for a few minutes, but he came back with a tray.  Tom got up to take it from him, and Yevtushenko said, “Did me getting the tea give you enough time to think up the reason that you are going to tell to explain your presence here?”


Simon and Tom looked at each other.  Simon frowned, but Tom grinned and set down the tray.  There was something inexpressibly sad about Yevtushenko, something about his eyes and the tone of his voice, but there was a spark of gentle humor that had not quite been extinguished.  Something about this business, Tom thought, must do this to these people.


“What do you mean?” Simon asked.


Yevtushenko looked at him and spoke gently.  “Your friend,” he gestured at Nick, “is clearly Russian.  You two are, just as clearly, not.  You yourself are American, but I would say that you grew up in Britain.” 


Simon blinked.  “Until I was ten,” he said quietly.


The old man glanced at Tom.  “You are also American.”  He smiled.  “If you would like, I could tell you from what part.”


“That’s not necessary,” Tom said with a grin.  “That’s a remarkable gift.”


“It is both a gift and a talent.”


“What’s the difference?” Simon asked.


“A talent is acquired through work and effort, a gift is merely possessed.  We are using your language, young man.  You should learn its nuances better.”  Yevtushenko’s voice was tart, but there was still that veneer of sadness covering every other aspect of him.


Tom’s grin grew wider.  “I like this man,” he said.


Simon cleared his throat.  “Yes,” he said.


As he spoke, Yevtushenko had been pouring the tea.  “So,” he said.  “Why have two Americans and a Russian…their translator, yes?…come to see me.”  He looked up, waiting.


Tom looked at Simon, who nodded slightly, then he turned his gaze back to the old man.  “Well,” he said.   “This is about something that took place many years ago.  We--”


“Ah…”  It was more of an exhalation than a word.  “Finally.  You have not come too early.”


Tom frowned.  “What do you…”


“What can you tell us about the beast?” Simon interrupted.


The old man nodded heavily.  “The beast,” he said. He looked Simon in the eye.  “I know the voice of the beast.  I know what will happen if the beast is ever allowed to run loose.  The world will wither and die.”  His eyes were rheumy and gray.  “Wither and die,” he said again.


“How do you know the voice of the beast?”  Simon asked.  “Have you heard it?  Have you seen the beast?”


Yevtushenko sat quietly for a long moment, not speaking.  The sound of his breathing was the sound of dried leaves rustling in the winter wind.  “I have not heard the beast,” he said.  “Not all six trumpets.  But I have heard part of its voice.”  He nodded heavily.  “And I know its face.”  The water eyes looked at Simon again.  “I see it in my dreams.  Every night.”


“Can you describe it to me?”


“No.”  The word was flat, emotionless, and final.  “That is what I cannot do.  Had you come earlier, I could not even have told you so much.”


“Why not?  If you’ve seen it…”




Simon opened his mouth to speak, but Tom leaned forward.  “Vyacheslov,” he said gently.


“Yes?”  There was real misery in his eyes now.


“There are things that you can tell us and things that you cannot.”  Tom’s voice somehow made Simon think of a cradle.


“That is true.”


“You would tell us these things if you could.”


“Yes.”  The old man nodded.  “They need to be told to someone who will do something  about it.  That is you?”


“It is.  But you’re unable to tell us.”


“I am unable to tell you.”  He smiled wistfully and his fingers brushed the thin, wispy hair on top of his scalp.


Simon saw something in Tom’s face tighten imperceptibly, then it passed and was gone.  “What were you trained in?” he asked with infinite gentleness.


“I worked as an engineer.”


Tom nodded.  “If you could have gone to school for whatever you wanted, what would it have been?”


The old man smiled, and this time it touched his eyes.  “Well done,” he said.  “I would have trained in…to work for a recording company.”


“Doing the actual recording?”




“As a musician?”




Something shifted in Tom’s face.  Simon couldn’t follow it.


“Designing the studios?”


Yevtushenko smiled again but didn’t answer.


Tom glanced at Simon, excitement in his face.  Simon returned the glance blankly.


“You were…an acoustical engineer?” Tom asked.


“That is an excellent guess,” Yevtushenko said.  “That is what it says in my file.”


“I haven’t seen your file,” Tom said.


“But you know about those files?”


Tom nodded.  “I know about them.”


Simon almost frowned.  There was something swirling in the air around him, but he didn’t know what it was.  It was almost as if there were two conversations going on - one that he could hear and one that he couldn’t.


“The cochlea is fascinating,” Yevtushenko said suddenly.


“Ah…” Tom said quietly.   It was almost an exact copy of Yevtushenko’s earlier exhalation.


“Yes.”  The old man’s eyes widened, as if he were surprised at himself.  “It is indeed.”


“And is it there that the beast bites?”


The old man stared at Tom.  He seemed friendly, but he said nothing.


Tom nodded.  “Thank you,” he said.


“You can hear me, then?”


“I can.”


“Then go.  Do something.”


Tom touched Simon on the shoulder and then rose to his feet.  Simon waited until they were in the hallway before asking, “What the hell was that all about?”


“I was wondering the same thing,” Nick said.  “Never was a translator so useless!”


Tom shook his head.  “Bastards,” he said tightly.


“What is it?” Simon asked.  Tom was walking very rapidly, every line of his body tight.  He looked like what he dearly wanted at the moment was to break something.  Or someone.


“Bastards,” he said again.


“Tom!” Simon said.  “What is going on?”


Tom stopped suddenly and whirled on Simon, who recoiled from the anger in his friend’s face.  Tom was usually so easygoing that it was utterly astonishing to see such naked fury radiating from him.


“That man in there…” he pointed back toward the room they had just left, his hand shaking with rage.  “That man has been operated on.”  He touched his scalp where Yevtushenko had touched his.  “It was a technique attempted during the Cold War era and earlier.  They’ve tried to alter the inhibition centers in brain through a combination of surgery and noninvasive…”  He broke off to laugh sharply.  “Noninvasive!  My God!”


“Tom…” Simon said softly.


“Sorry.  Through a combination of surgery and noninvasive techniques, you can, if you know what you’re doing, prevent someone from accessing or revealing certain information.  He was telling me that it had been done to him.  After so much time, some of the control is slipping, but not enough that he could come right out and tell us what he wanted to.  The man doesn’t even have control over his own will!  Can you imagine!”


Tom’s hands were clenched so hard that his sleeves were in some danger of ripping as the muscles in his arms flexed.  Simon could easily imagine what would happen to the people responsible for Yevtushenko’s condition if Tom could get hold of them at that moment.


“Tom,” he said softly.


Tom relaxed slightly and attempted a smile.  “His last reference was to the cochlea - the organ of hearing.  The man was an acoustical engineer.”


Simon froze, motionless for a long instant, and this he suddenly took in a deep breath.  “Acoustics,” he said.  “Damn.  It’s an acoustical weapon.”  He looked at Tom.  “Is that possible?”


“Certainly,” Tom said.  “Why not?  What better way to get directly into the brain of a lot of people all at once.”


“All six trumpets?” Simon asked suddenly.  “What was that?”


“I’m not sure,” Tom said.  “It might have been a biblical reference.  There are…let’s see…seven trumpets in the book of Revelations.  The sounding of the last one signals the coming of the Kingdom, but the first six signal coming destruction.”


“So when he said that he hadn’t heard all six trumpets, he meant that he didn’t hear the complete sound, only part of it!” Simon said quickly. 


“But where does that lead us?”  Tom asked.


Simon shook his head.  “I don’t know,” he said.  “It gives us information, but we need more.  I think we need to have a chat with Stephanie.”






When the trio arrived at the airport, they hurried through the terminal and onto the tarmac to Nightbird One.  A fresh wave of rain had come through, making the journey an extremely wet one.


As they climbed onto the plane and exchanged greetings with the pilot, Nick visibly and audibly yawned.  Tom took him to one of the cots in the back of the plane while Simon set about activating Nightbird One's sophisticated communications system.  First, he turned a handle on the right side of the cabin, pulling open a section of the wall.  Lifting it above his head, the good doctor then sat and lowered a shelf-like console. 


The system sprang to life.  A series of touch-screen operated menus lit up in blues and greens, and a set of display screens flickered, showing the connections the suite was making with various points of contact.  Simon selected one of the options and then looked at his watch and made a quick time-zone conversion.


"Hope she came in early," he said to himself as he waited.  After a minute, a green CONTACT sign lit up.


"I haven't even had my bagel yet," Stephanie tiredly said over the connection.  A second later, a video image of her appeared on one of the displays.  Simon resisted the urge to comment on how she looked beautiful as always even though, as always, her beauty was an empirical truth.


"My dear Ms. Keel," Simon said pleasantly, "sorry about breakfast.  Have you at least gone on the clock?"


"First thing when I came in," she replied, and her expression softened considerably.  "Funny," she said as a smile began to spread,  "the last few years, no one has complained when I've clocked in early."


"How ever could that be?" Simon asked innocently.  "Listen.  I have something I need for you to find."  Stephanie could be seen setting herself up for the computer search.  "I can really only give you a few bits of information.  Are you ready?"


"Shoot away," she said.  Simon told her what they knew--the few names of the project participants they'd found, the information from Yevtushenko, the word Alconost, the likely time frame in which the work occurred.  "Okay," she said as she finished typing in the terms.  "I'm not sure how long this'll take.  Can you wait?"


"Nothing but time," Simon said, and Stephanie's image faded from the screen.  To himself, however, he kept thinking quickly, quickly, quickly.  He stood up and walked to Nightbird One's galley and fixed something to drink, passing Tom coming in.  He motioned for Tom to come out to the main cabin.


Ten minutes elapsed as Simon sat at the communications station.  Right after getting up to refill his cup, a chime rang as information began to arrive.  Quickly, he returned to his seat and stared at the data on the screen.  Damn, he thought, how does she find these things?  He sipped his black coffee and read the scant information available for Project Alconost.


"Well well," he said, "six participants confirmed, Tom, out of an estimated thirty-four."  Tom, who was sitting in one of the plane's plush chairs, stood up and walked behind Litchfield.  "Illeyvich, Piotr.  Kovalenko, Zahkary.  Nikolaevich, Andrei.  Ivanovna, Tatyana.  Yevtushenko, Vyacheslov.  Fedorov, Rufina."        


"Well, we can account for Piotr, Zahkary, and Vyacheslov,"  Tom said.  Simon shook his head and pointed to the words on the screen.                                           


"Only two," he said firmly.  "We only have Piotr's account of what happened to Kovalenko to go by.  Stephanie hasn't been able to find anything confirming his death.  Of course, we don't have anything on Nikolaevich, Ivanovna, or Fedorov either." 


"Not to mention the other twenty-eight people," Tom added.       


"Twenty-eight little dust motes dancing around who knows where," Litchfield said.  "I think we're looking for the proverbial diamonds in the fertilizer pile."  A bit of additional information popped up in a separate window.  "Well, that'll help a little.  The Alconost project was discontinued in 1989.  She can't find an explanation, or even a description of what Alconost is, but at least we could start there."                                                                                      

"Anything on the disposition of the equipment?" Tom asked.  Simon shook his head, and Tom headed back for the seat, dropping three cubes of sugar into his mug of Earl Grey tea.

"Simon," Stephanie said over the audio channel, "I think I've found as much as I can for now.  It looks like the Russians spent a lot of time covering their tracks.  I'll keep looking, but you boys might have better luck if you headed to Moscow."  Simon sighed and flicked off the display screens.


"Keep trying," Litchfield said.  "Stand by.  I've got some thinking to do.  Thanks for your help so far, though!"


"Por nada, Doc," Stephanie said brightly, and the channel went silent.  Simon stared at the blank panel and tapped his fingers on the control board.  He turned and smiled sadly at Tom.         


"Stab the werewolf with the silver dagger," Litchfield muttered, "or don't stab the werewolf.  Shoot the man with the control box, or don't shoot the man.  These kinds of decisions are easy."  Tom laughed, and he reached for his super-sweet cup of Earl Grey.  "You know we have two possible choices of where to go, and both of them could lead to a dead end.”     


"Let me guess," Tom said between sips of the hot liquid, "Moscow or Taralma."       


"Moscow or Taralma," Simon repeated.  “Two different directions, with no way to easily overlap both.” 


"Moscow does have the former KGB headquarters," Tom said, "and I’m guessing most of the military information we need is probably there somewhere."           


"Probably there," Simon emphasized.  "The Soviets had bases all over the country.  Once the project ended, all of the information and equipment could have been transferred to any damn place in the whole nation.  Remember, in 1989, the Soviet Union was still together."                


"Okay," Tom said, "in Taralma's favor, we’re nearly certain that an Alconost was tested there.  We could check with the locals and find out as much as we can, providing they aren’t either too traumatized or too whacked out by whatever it was to talk."


"If we can get there," Litchfield said as he tapped the arm of his chair.  "I don't know that Nightwatch would have any plausible reason for being in the area."  Simon pushed a button on the control panel, and the audio channel flickered to life again.  "Stephanie, does Nightwatch have anything going on in eastern Kazakhstan, particularly around the village of Taralma?" 


"Let me see," she said over the channel, followed by a brief pause.  "No.  Doesn't look like it."


"Thanks.  Stand by."  Simon pushed the button.  "KGB's in Moscow.  A good chunk of the military archives are in Moscow.  Hell, the Kremlin's in Moscow."  Simon took a long sip from his coffee-cup.  "The whole damn city's loaded with places to plug in a computer.  We could probably even do a lot of the searching from right here at this station." 


"In other words," Tom said with a grin, "we check with Egorov to see if he knows any way to sneak us into Kazakhstan."


"Them’s the facts," Simon said as he stood up, a mischievous gleam in his eyes.  "I'll need to dream up a cover story for us staying in St. Petersburg so the Russians don’t start sneaking around in the plane.  And pack a few things we might need.”  Simon took off his hat.  “This could be the biggest blunder I've ever made you know.  Are you sure you want to come along?"


"Positive," Tom said as he walked towards the cargo bay and the cot where Egorov was sleeping.  "I can't say I wasn't wishing it was Moscow, though."  Simon shrugged his shoulders, and then he pressed the comm button and leaned down.  "Stephanie," he said, "we're going to be out of touch for awhile."    


"I was right!" Stephanie said with a laugh.  "I just finished writing Taralma on a Post-It."       


"Tell Callow to be patient, for all the good that'll do.  On second thought, don’t tell him anything.  Let him stay in the dark for awhile.  That could be fun!”  Stephanie laughed.  “We'll be back as soon as we can get our little butts out of Kazakhstan.  And keep looking for information.  I may need to cross-reference whatever we find."      


"Okay Simon," she said.  "Will do."                       


"Nightbird out," Simon said, and he turned off the communications suite and closed up the system.  "Nothing like the smell of sheep crap in the morning," he said as he walked back to talk with Egorov.


"But I was just dreaming," Egorov said as he started to sit up on the cot.  "I had just fallen deep enough to dream.  It's a long trip from Moscow to St. Petersburg.  And did Nightwatch pay for a hotel here?"


"I'm sorry, Nick," Tom said sympathetically.  "For what it's worth, I think you're about to inherit Nightbird for a little while." 


Nick rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands and then looked at Tom.  "Really?" he asked.  "Where are you going?"


"That depends on you," Simon muttered.  "We need to get to Kazakhstan, and I really don't want to involve commercial aviation.  We have a few things to carry that I don't want to pass through customs."  As he spoke, he opened a cargo container and pulled out both a pen and pad and the thin black box containing Mel's untested bio-signature masking device.


"Can you think of anything...unorthodox?" Tom asked.  Nick smiled and laughed.


"Actually," he said, "I know of a way there.  I'm not really sure you'd want to take it though.  I know of a pilot, Aleksandr Mikhailov.  Not sure if that's his real name."  Simon nodded, but Tom looked confused.


"What exactly does he do?" Tom asked.          


"Cargo," Nick replied.  "Occasional ferrying of passengers.  I think his main line of work is, well," Nick paused and shot Tom an 'I-told-you-you-might-not-want-to-take-it' look,  "the trafficking of narcotics."  Tom's expression fell.    


"He's a drug runner!" Tom explained.  "Well, that's just terrific!  Why do you know him, then?"  Nick grinned.      


"There are two economies in Russia, Mr. Weldon," Nick said, "the one where you are gouged for every kopeck, and the one  that is much more reasonably priced, and better stocked, too."     


"The black market," Simon added.  "Well, neither Tom nor myself have any right to talk, considering..."  He cast his eyes around him at Nightbird One, and Nick nodded.               


"He's brought many items to some people I know in Moscow," Nick continued.  "I know his pager number, but there's every reason to expect he's nowhere near St. Petersburg."  Simon shrugged his shoulders. 


"Let me have the number, then," Simon added as he handed the pen and pad to Nick. 


"I hope you have some dollars stashed in here," Nick added as he scribbled the number.  "Aleksandr's not fond of rubles."                                                                                                     

"I wonder why," Simon said knowingly as he stood up and headed for the front of the plane.  "I wonder why."






The Be-103 flew uncomfortably close to the Kazakh steppes, occasionally passing close enough to startled sheep to allow the passengers a look into the creatures' frightened eyes.  At times, the air to ground clearance seemed to be less than 10 feet.


"You do this all the time?" Simon yelled over the roar of the engine noise, a roar increased two fold because the noise of the plane was also being reflected up from the ground.  The pilot, seeing Simon's lips move, motioned to him to pick up a headset, and the pilot did the same.  Simon repeated the question.


"Da!" he said enthusiastically.  "Take out the, uh, the, uh, weather radar from the raydome.  Put in terrain following one instead."  Aleksandr pointed to the computer and the radar display on the dash.  "Old Soviet Air Force map software is cheaper than good Thai porn!  The hardware is even less.  Run it to the autopilot, and, boom, plane flies itself."  To prove the point, Aleksandr took his hands from the controls and made a terrified screaming sound.  The plane continued on.


"How very resourceful," Simon said with a mixture of respect and disgust.  The difference between the toys Mel gives me, he thought, and the stuff on the market shrinks every day.  "How long have you had this plane?"


"Two years," the pilot said.  "I had An-2 before, but customs started to wonder why crop duster kept crossing the border."  The plane made an abrupt turn, catching Simon completely by surprise.  Looking into the back, he saw Tom just as he reached for the bucket that the pilot had said the psychologist might need.  The noise was loud enough that even Aleksandr noticed.


"Back seat good for making chunks," he said.  "At this altitude, you need front view to adjust.  He spills that, and the price doubles!"  Aleksandr raised his right hand and made a gun-cocking motion with his fingers.  He smiled a wide, toothy, white smile.






The plane passed overhead, trailing a thick cloud of dust from the dirt road Aleksandr had used for a runway.  Tom watched it as the rear-mounted engines vanished over the horizon.  As both he and Simon walked towards Taralma, Tom was struck by the desolation of the steppes, the miles and miles of green-brown, windswept meadow.


"Deserts, you know, make some kind of sense to me," Tom said.  "But these places.  So alive and so dead."


"I've seen places that would confuse God," Simon stated.  "I'm still trying to figure out where California came from."  Up ahead, less than a mile away, was the village, a cluster of structures and shrubs punctuated by the occasional tree.  A herd of sheep crossed in view, their yellow-white fleece shining in the dusty sun like small lights.


"You see it?" Tom asked, pointing towards Taralma.  Simon nodded.


"I see it," he said.  "The charred building on the left."  As they walked the dirt road, other signs of the destruction became clearer:  trees and shrubs blackened and warped by the heat, structures either partially or completely burned, piles of ashes and burnt wood.  "Hearing that 70% of a place burned is one thing.  But seeing it."  They passed what appeared to be the town's limit, a trail worn smooth by the livestock that once resided in the now destroyed stockyard.


As they approached, a small man, who had been shoveling ashes into a pile, suddenly looked up.  He held his hand up to shield his eyes from the sun.  Simon and Tom walked towards him, and he squinted his eyes, continually looking over the strangers as if he scarcely believed they were there.


"Good afternoon," Tom said in Russian though he choked on the final syllable as a moment of doubt hit him.  Do they speak Russian or something else here, he thought.


The man stared silently, his eyes looking over both of them, his mouth slowly opening.  Tom cleared his throat uncomfortably.


"My name is Tom," he said, pointing at his chest.  "My friend, here, is Simon.  Whom do we have the pleasure of addressing?"  The man cleared his throat, lowering his hand and slowly extending it towards the strangers.


"Victor," he said in a thin wisp of a voice.  "Victor Lomantsov.  You''ve come?"  Tom shook Victor's hand, and then Simon moved in to do the same.                       


"Yes," Tom said as confidently as he could, "we've come to talk."  A lonely, distant smile began to grow on Victor's face as tears welled up in his eyes.  He shook Tom's hand again, this time more vigorously.    


"You will listen?" Victor asked.  "You will hear?"  A combination of sobbing and laughter erupted from him, and before Tom knew what had happened, he found himself embracing Lomantsov as the man sobbed into his chest.  Simon walked over and touched the man's shoulder.          


"Listen," he said in English with a smile.  "Listen, da!"  The three of them stood there and seemed to vanish as the wind swirled ashes and dust around them.




Daniyal Marchenko, one of the villagers Victor introduced to Tom and Simon, stood over the grave stones, two hastily erected quartz-granite slabs with names and dates of birth and death carved into them.  The first said simply "Tamara" followed by dates that equaled less than a year.  Next to that stone, a similar one said "Irina Marchenko," who had lived twenty-seven years.                    


"Wife and daughter," the man said, his gray-red beard waving slightly in the breeze.   


"I'm so sorry, " Tom said, but his words struck him as hollow and completely inadequate.  Daniyal simply stared at the stones, his bloodshot eyes the only thing betraying any emotion.        


"I was outside," Daniyal said.  "The truck...the belt needed to be mended.  And then, it called...called and bellowed.  I looked to the sky, afraid that the day of reckoning had come, and then..."  He looked at Tom and Simon, his face still expressionless save for the haunted eyes.  "It was not the Savior.  I thought, 'Well, whatever it is is not important.'  And then I thought, 'why should I even move?'  Moving wasn't important.  And breathing, if I'd had to do anything to keep breathing, I would have stopped."  He looked back down at the stones as four other men approached the gravesite.  "When the fire came..." 


"The priest forgave us," one of the approaching men said.  Far from being expressionless, thin streams of tears were rolling along his cheeks.  "God forgives...the Christ is the good news."  He held his hands and looked to the sky.  "The priest said God knew that those who died...were not responsible.  They carried no stain of mortal sin.  They, too, were forgiven."  Daniyal sank to his knees.    


"I," he said, as his own tears began to flow, "cannot forgive myself...CANNOT."  One of the other men stood over Daniyal and tried to comfort him.  However, as Simon noted to himself, no one there was really in a position to console anyone.  They were wounded souls in the truest sense of the word.




Victor, who came and retrieved them from the cemetery, took Simon and Tom through the village.  All along the dirt streets were burned out homes and shops along with piles of burnt or nearly burnt wood.  Ashes were scattered everywhere, blown away from the piles that seemed to be stacked everywhere.  Sheep and goats wandered the streets as they were nominally if unenthusiastically herded by several teens.


"How long do you think it's been?" Tom asked Simon.  Simon looked around in dismal wonder, and he saw a woman staring back at him from the burned out hole on the side of her home.  She looked down and, half-heartedly, began sweeping the debris.


"Callow's report," Simon spoke, "said two months.  Two months?"  Simon shook his head.  "And this is the most they've done."


"Depression," Tom said, and then he said a few words in Russian to Victor, who simply nodded.  "And survivor's guilt.  I just asked if any of them wish they could take the place of those who'd died.  Victor said that all of them do."  Simon nodded.  “Think of the burden you have to carry to unload your worries on a couple of strangers.  They’ve told us everything, Simon.  Everything.  We’ve hardly had to ask any questions.”


"The apathy itself must withdraw fairly quickly," he said to himself as much as anyone else, "but the trauma lingers.  It's effective if you think about it."


"You call this effective?" Tom asked incredulously.  "This is a crime against humanity!  This is the stuff war-crimes commissions are built to investigate!"  Simon nodded and motioned for Tom to keep his voice down.


"I'm not saying I admire it," Simon said.  "The apathy lasts long enough to subdue the area, but a completely apathetic populace couldn't be effectively controlled.  Most of them would simply starve to death because they had no motivation to eat."  Simon took off his hat.  "No, the apathy has to recede, but depression.  With enough effort, you could motivate people to do what you need to, but they'd be in no condition to fight back."  Tom's breathing became shallower, and the veins on his forehead started to bulge.


"Nuclear weapons aren't enough," he said angrily.  "Bombs aren't enough!  Germ warfare's not enough!  Let's just crawl inside someone's head and rob him of his dignity!"  The three of them came to the stockyard as a woman walked by.  She was carrying a crying child and held the baby so tightly that it looked as if she was trying to fuse him to her body.


"This where it began," Victor said quietly, and Tom relayed the information to Simon.  Victor pointed weakly at the remains of a shack on the edge of the yard.  "I saw the smoke rising, and then the flames, but the ground, it was such an inviting bed."  Victor absently rubbed the side of his face.


"Do you know how it started?" Tom asked.  Victor shook his head.  Tom looked into the air and tried to calm his emotions.  Tears were starting to appear in his eyes as well.


"Blind alley," he said with some difficulty to Simon.  "It's the same story.  We've talked to ten people, and we keep hearing the same damn story!"


"We don't know that yet," Simon said though he wasn't feeling particularly confident.


Victor looked hard at Tom.  "You will tell others?" he asked, almost pleadingly.  "We sent word about what happened, but no one but a fourth-rate agricultural official came.  This," Victor said, more forcefully this time, "is our shame."  Victor grabbed Tom by the shoulders.  “Tell them,” he said, this time in quiet, heavily-accented English.


"We'll tell others, Victor," Tom said, "I promise."  Simon put his hat back on and looked towards the thin stratus clouds.  Suddenly, his eyes lit up.


"Tom," Simon said, "ask Victor if there were any strangers around before the fire."  Tom looked at Simon.


"You actually think they would have shown themselves?" he asked.


"You'd think they'd want to scout out the lay of the land," Simon replied.  Tom turned to Victor and spoke.  Victor, who was staring at the remains of the stockyard, did not immediately answer, and Tom asked the question again.  Finally, Victor looked at Tom.


"Da," he said.


"Do you know who they were?" Tom asked, his face suddenly brightening.


"Just an oil company," Victor said weakly.  "Some company or another comes every year.  No one accepts the Soviets long ago sucked out the supply from this area."  Tom looked at Simon and gave a thumbs up sign.  Simon moved closer.


"Do you remember the company's name?" Tom asked.  Victor again stared at the stockyard.  "Victor!  This is important, very important.  Do you remember the company's name?"


"I don't know," Victor said in a tired voice.  "They come.  They look.  They go."  He grabbed the sides of his head.  "Kazakh," he said, "Kazakh...  Kazakh Reserve...Oil & Gas."  Victor dropped his hands and nodded.  "Kazakh Reserve Oil & Gas."   He looked at Tom.  "Six of them, maybe.  I only saw two most of the time.  And then they left.  They always leave."


"Kazakh Reserve Oil & Gas ring a bell?" Tom asked Simon.  He shook his head but then started scratching his chin.


"Not with me," Litchfield said.  "But I know someone who might be able to help."


"You will tell others?"  Victor asked pleadingly as he took Tom's hand.  "You must.  You must!  You must!"






Tom and Simon walked into a field near the stockyard.  The psychologist, who was carrying the majority of the supplies and equipment, gently placed the items onto the meadow grass.  Simon fished into his pockets and pulled out a couple of items.


"Kazakh Reserve Oil & Gas," Simon repeated to himself as he inserted a small disk into his cell phone.


"Let's hope they left some sort of paper trail," Tom said as he looked towards the rapidly setting sun.  A chilly breeze began to blow over the Kazakh plains.  "Let's hope we can find it quickly.  I've heard there're wolves out in these parts."


"Oh yes," Litchfield said as he held the phone towards the sky, "large wolves with long memories, back to when they were the head honchos around here.  Sharp, nasty teeth, ravenous appetite..."


"Just shut up and dial," Tom said in an agitated voice.  Simon depressed a small black button on the side of the phone.


"I'll be happy to just as soon as I can find the signal."  He held the phone higher into the air.  "It usually doesn't take this long."


"How are you transmitting?"  Tom walked next to Simon and stared at the small display screen on the phone.


"Long story," Simon said, "illegal story.  If Nightbird One was even in the air near us, I'd just run the transmission through it using my PDA.  Right now, I just need the damn satellite to shake hands with this thing.  I know there's coverage here."   Simon shook the phone and then let his hand fall dejectedly by his side.  "I should've asked Melvin for a SatSynch.  Maybe they've just taken the thing offline for maintenance."


"So," Tom said, "what you're saying is that we're flying blind.  We're stuck in Taralma, Kazakhstan without any way to even call for a ride."  Simon nodded his head and then laughed.


"If we can't get one of those nice people in the village to lend us a room," he said with a cheerful voice, "dibs on second shift for wolf watch.  Don't worry, I'll gather plenty of wood for the fire before I go to sleep."


"From where?" Tom asked.  "I don't see many trees anywhere near here.  I suppose we could raid some of the rubble, but a lot of it's already been burned."  Simon smiled a resigned smile and then crouched.


"This could be a problem," he said in a suddenly serious voice.  "Every second we waste out here is a second closer whatever the hell they're going to do.  They could be building a singing hydra for all we know."


"Okay," Tom said, "think hard.  I know you've been in worse situations than this.  Aren't there any other means of communication you could use?"


"A landline if we had to," Simon murmured.  "I'm not sure that I could secure it, though, and then there's the matter of all those villagers orbiting around, listening in."  Simon's eyes suddenly grew wide, and he jumped up.  "Here's one I owe to Mr. Illeyvich."


"What is it?" Tom asked.  "I'm not following."


"'Even black pearls were once grains of sand,'" he said as he began making adjustments on the phone.  "Iridium!"  He started pressing a series of numbers onto the keypad, which responded with soft, welcoming tones.


"The element?" Tom asked.  "Isn't that why they think a comet killed the dinosaurs?"


"The Iridium network," Simon replied cheerfully.  "It was a satellite communications system.  They launched a whole cluster of satellites and then tried getting customers to buy bulky handsets while charging very high rates.  Went over like an iron butterfly."


"How's that going to help?" Tom said, a confused and slightly alarmed look crossing his face.  "Is the jet lag starting to get to you?"  Simon held the phone to his ear.


"Those were the grains of sand," Simon spoke.  "It took the U.S. government to turn Iridium into pearls.   They bought the service for communications in far-flung locales, like, for instance, Kazakhstan."  Simon pumped his fist in the air.  "We're in!  Fortunately, the whole thing's still pretty robust.  Substandard, but robust."


"I'm assuming Nightwatch doesn't have an agreement with them."  Simon grinned.  "You're stealing bandwidth."


"Stealing is such a harsh word," Simon said as he hit the encryption button.  "I'm a taxpayer, I help pay for the service.  I'd prefer to think of this as a time-share...YES!  Ms. Keel, we need your help.  I'm glad you were answering."


"I'm just glad to hear your voice," she said happily.  "What do you need?  Or are you just calling to chat?"


"Kazakh Reserve Oil & Gas," he said.  "I need it cross-referenced with what we already know."


"Gotcha," Stephanie said, "hold on for a minute and I'll see what I can find."


"Thanks a bunch!" Simon said enthusiastically.


"What do you we do," Tom asked, "if it turns out the company never existed?"  Simon shook his head. 


"What if someone from Taralma decided to check?" Simon replied.  "What if someone accidentally reached a person of importance?  If you were hatching a diabolical plan, would you want to risk losing everything because someone didn't believe your oil outfit was for real?"


"Point taken," Tom said as he nodded.  Simon checked the display on the phone.


"Don't lose the handshake," he muttered to himself.


"I think you're going to be happy," Stephanie finally spoke.  "Kazakh Reserve Oil & Gas has a familiar name on its board.  Zahkary Kovalenko."


"Kovalenko?" Simon sputtered.  "Either the rumors of his demise were greatly exaggerated, or someone thought it funny to list the name of dead man on the board."


"It has happened before," Stephanie said.  "You should hear some of the things the economics consultants say some of their clients have done."


"True.  There’d be some morbid humor in using Kovalenko’s name,” Simon replied.  "You said I'd be happy.  What else do you have?" 


"Well," Stephanie said, "Kazakh Reserve is a subsidiary of KrystalCorp Holdings.  No one listed with them matches the Alconost list, but I can't imagine it not being connected."


"Something to go on," Simon replied.  He lowered the phone and looked back towards Taralma and then around at the bleakness of the terrain and then at Taralma again, his face showing a quizzical look.  "Stephanie," he said as he raised the phone, "hold on a sec."  Simon turned to Tom.  "Why Taralma?  Why would they pick Taralma of all places?"


"Obvious enough," Tom said.  "It's isolated, it's strategically unimportant.  Anything that happens here is going to be ignored for the most part."


"But," Simon said, "I can think of any number of places around the world, hell, around Russia that would work just as well.  Siberia, for instance.  Or some of the Arctic Circle villages.  What about Uzbekistan, or Tajikistan?  Why here?"


"I don't know," Tom replied.  "But it’s a good question.  Why choose Taralma?"  Simon looked around again and then up at a passing cloud.  He stared at the sky for several seconds, a smile slowly growing on his face.


"Stephanie," he said in hopeful tone of voice, "does KrystalCorp have any dealings with Baikonur Cosmodrome?"


"Sure does," Stephanie replied after a short pause.  "Headquarters are in Moscow, but the company has a secondary office listed at Baikonur.  I can't find a specific record of what they're doing, but I can guess."  Simon smiled and gave a thumbs up sign to Tom.


"Here's the kicker," Simon said, "does Nightwatch have any reason to go to Baikonur?"


"Let me check," Stephanie said.  "You're in luck.  We're fractional owners of the TransCom 3 satellite.  It's currently at Baikonur being prepared for launch on a DeepSpace Firebird."


"Good!" Simon replied cheerfully.  "Listen carefully.  I need you to secure the clearance for us to go there.  Once you've done that, patch me in to Nightbird One.  I've got a couple of things to discuss with the pilot."


"Okay, Doc," Stephanie replied, "standby.  I'm going to put you on hold."  Tom looked at Simon's face and smiled.


"Bingo?" he asked cheerfully.


"Bingo indeed!" Simon replied.  "Once I’m through here, I think we need to see if we can find a place to stay in the village.  I absolutely refuse, though, to sleep anywhere other than the floor.  They've been imposed upon enough."


"Agreed," Tom replied, and Simon again held up the phone.  “Man, I hope there’s an old runway around here.”






Nightbird One pilot Ed Wendell looked at the GPS indicator on one of the LCD screens in Nightbird One.  A red circle was getting close, relatively speaking.  He looked over at his co-pilot, Allison Corwyn, and nodded, and she nodded back and pressed a button.  A second later, a warning alarm began to sound.


“Astana, Nightbird 1-3-7-7,” Wendell spoke.


“Nightbird 1-3-7-7, go,” a woman replied over the radio.


“Astana, Nightbird 1-3-7-7, I’m declaring an emergency,” the pilot said calmly.  “I have three fault warnings on cabin pressurization, hydraulics, and oil pressure.”


“Roger, Nightbird 1-3-7-7, cabin pressure, hydraulics, and oil pressure.  Descend and maintain 9,000 feet at your discretion.”


“Roger, Astana,” Wendell said, and he quickly descended to the lower altitude.  The pilot put on his oxygen mask and plugged its comm system into Nightbird’s.  “Nightbird 1-3-7-7, requesting landing at first available.”  He cut off the mike and removed the mask.  “I hope whoever Nightwatch sends to ‘repair’ the plane doesn’t really screw the thing up.  You sure you can make it look like the sensors failed on their own?”


Allison grinned evilly.  “Those boys used to fuck up their F-15s when I was a crew chief, doing things they weren’t supposed to do.”


“Nightbird 1-3-7-7,” the woman said on the radio, “cleared to land at the following co-ordinates.”


“It’s amazing,” Allison said, “how much money a frightened pilot will pay his mechanic to make it look like an accident.”







Baikonur Cosmodrome was a giant testing and launch facility spanning dozens of miles deep in the Kazakh plain.  Nearly every Russian launch program had operations there, and many small and large towns dotted the facility.  While the land was in Kazakhstan, a special leasing arrangement placed all of Baikonur in Russian administration.


After a day and a half, Nightbird One was certified safe to fly, and the crew finally made it to Baikonur.  A worker from Russian Booster Systems DeepSpace greeted them at Krainly Airport.  He ferried them to the Hotel Sputnik, helped them check into the hotel, and then left them both the car and directions to DeepSpace’s launch facility.


Once they had freshened up and had a drink in the remarkably cozy and well-stocked hotel bar, they drove the considerable distance on the long road from the former cities of Leninsk and Tyuratum to DeepSpace’s complex.  There, Dr. Kirill Vichinsky and his assistant, Stepan Gogol, met them.  The two of them then led Simon and Tom to the cleanroom facility where TransCom 3 was being prepared.


The communications satellite sat on its test stand as technicians quickly but methodically checked all of the systems.  As with nearly all satellites on the ground, it looked singularly unimpressive, more of a reflective box than a graceful bird that would soar high above the Earth.


"TransCom 3," Dr. Vichinsky said in perfect English, "is in the final stages of checkout.  Within the next fortnight, we'll begin mating the satellite with a Firebird 3 Upper Stage in preparation for transit to a DeepSpace pad."  Vichinsky looked proudly upon the satellite.  "If all goes well, she goes up in one month."


"Unless, of course," Vichinsky's assistant, Gogol, said, "our downrange neighbors decide to up their fees again."


"Our guest isn't interested in geopolitics," Vichinsky snapped.  Suddenly, however, he started to laugh.  "I'm sorry, Dr. Litchfield.  I forgot I was dealing with a representative from Nightwatch!"  Simon made a reassuring gesture, all the while wishing he could get out of the constrictive cleanroom suit.  In particular, the facemask seemed particularly keen on boring into his skin.


"It's easy to get caught up in your job," Simon said with some degree of difficulty.  "Again, I truly thank you for giving us this tour on such short notice.  You must have a million different things to think about without having to worry about guests."


"Why did Nightwatch send you?" Vichinsky asked in a friendly yet pointed tone.  "None of the other TransCom shareholders have sent anyone besides an occasional launch consultant."


"Well, that's simple," Simon said breezily.  "Surely, you deal with bureaucrats.  Well, Nightwatch has some of the worst on the face of the Earth.  Money's been spent, and, damnit, they want to make sure everything's going well!"  Simon laughed easily.


"Damn bureaucrats," Dr. Vichinsky hissed.  He dismissively waved his hand towards the ceiling.   "I'm only fortunate that my superiors stay away most of the time.  Well, have you seen enough to satisfy them?"  Litchfield turned to look at his equally uncomfortable colleague.


"Do you have any questions or concerns, Mr. Wharton?" Simon asked Tom.  Tom looked around.


“How,” he said, “do you move the satellites to their rockets?”


“Boosters,” Vichinsky corrected.  “This wall behind you, in addition to providing passage from this cleanroom to the next for personnel, can be opened considerably to allow for easy transport of the satellites.”


"Is there anything scheduled ahead of our flight?" Tom asked through the facemask.  "If, for instance, there was a delay with that launch, would ours be pushed back?"


"We are mating three satellites with a Firebird 4 Upper Stage at this moment," Gogol said briskly.  "We have two pads for Firebird launches.  Unless the preceding flight blows up on the pad, very little could prevent the timely launch of TransCom.  And, may I remind you," he said with a small degree of irritation, "Firebirds have a perfect launch record.  We are, I think you'll agree, justly proud of..."


"Thank you," Dr. Vichinsky interrupted as he placed a hand on his assistant's arm.  "Forgive Gogol.  We are very proud of Firebird, and occasionally some are carried away with that enthusiasm."  Tom nodded.


"Oh, I wasn't offended at all," Tom said pleasantly.  "Three satellites on one rocket, huh?  That's got to be pushing the envelope a little.  What kind of satellites are they, anyway?"


"Communications," Vichinsky said.  "I'm precluded, of course, from telling you who the customer is.  Naturally, though, if you check the trade publications, you should be able to deduce it."  Tom nodded and then carefully looked around one more time.  "Plus, if you like, we can go up to the viewing gallery and look in on the work.  I'd offer to take you in, of course, but we have Class 10,000 conditions in there.  No chances that close to launch, eh, my friend?"


"Well, Dr. Litchfield," Tom said as he scratched his hip, "I can't think of anything else.  Why don't we take a look at the proceedings?" Simon nodded.


"Very good," Vichinsky said, motioning towards an airlock.  "If you'll head back this way, we'll get you out of these lovely suits and back into fresh air."  Simon began walking towards the exit.


"Couldn't they have issued better suits for you?" Litchfield said as he resisted the urge to tear off the hood.  "These are just about the most uncomfortable things I've worn in a very long time."


Vichinsky laughed.  "The Firebird was expensive to develop," he said, "and it takes many launches to recoup costs.  The hope was that the USA would need a heavier booster than it could build for the kinetic weapons program, but that seems to have gone nowhere.  Or at least nowhere any of us knows about.”  He rubbed his glove-covered fingers together.  “Rubles have to be saved somewhere, eh."  With that, the four of them left the cleanroom and headed for the changing area.






The gallery was small but provided an excellent vista over the assembly room.  In clear view was the Firebird 4 Upper Stage, its sleeping engines covered in orange dust caps.  On its otherwise plain, white, painted surface was a deep red insignia in the shape of the legendary firebird.  Below it was the much more utilitarian logo of  Russian Booster Systems DeepSpace, the Russian version of the company’s initials .  The three communications satellites were mounted in their cradles near the top of the upper stage, and technicians worked to secure the various connections to the booster and its control systems.


"Beginning tomorrow," Vichinsky said between pointing at various parts of the assembly process, "we shift to round-the-clock operations.  The satellites will be completely secured, and then the fairings and nose cone added.  Finally," he said as he pointed to the concrete and steel tracks on the floor underneath the flight stage, "we'll roll it out, mate it with the rest of the booster, and send it to the pad for final checks."


"Impressive," Litchfield said as he looked down, childhood visions of model rockets dancing through his head.  "Those tracks must cause a big headache in such clean conditions."


"No end of trouble," Gogol said.  "We're lobbying for this end of the spur to be replaced with tracks made of plastic or ceramic.  The rails now must be completely scrubbed and polished before we seal the chamber and begin processing the next payload."


"We raised similar question," a heavily accented female voice said from behind them.  Vichinsky turned around and smiled.


"Dr. Filatov," he said. "Good to see you!  I must admit I wasn't expecting you here until the pace picks up tomorrow."  Filatov, an older yet striking woman, moved forward and looked down upon the assembly process, her gold and burgundy dress and jacket swaying slightly.  Of slight build and height, no more than five foot five, the woman moved past Simon and stood before the window, her gray-brown hair glinting in the bright light pouring in from the assembly room.


"Excitement," she said as her hazel eyes lit up.  Her hand reached up and touched the nametag clipped to her jacket.  "Enthusism.  Excuse me.  Enthusiasm.  Waited long time for launch."  Litchfield wasted no time in positioning himself near Dr. Filatov, and he gave her his most beguiling smile.


"Madam," he said, "allow me to introduce myself.  Dr. Simon Litchfield of the Nightwatch Institute."  He pulled her hand to his lips and kissed it gently.  Filatov's expression was one of extreme embarrassment, irritation, and genuine pleasure, and she lowered her hand to her belly.


"Well," she said quietly, "a charmer.  Nightwatch...Nightwatch...  USA?"  Simon nodded pleasantly, and made enough of a show of looking the woman over to be seen by her while at the same time seemingly trying to hide his glances.


"This tour," he said as he looked at Filatov and then down into the cleanroom, "grows more and more interesting by the minute.  So, Dr. Filatov, you work with the company that owns those satellites?"


"Managing partners," she said, suddenly stiffening.  "Not owners.  Dr. Vichinsky, we come here tomorrow at third shift, eh?"  Vichinsky nodded, and then the two of them exchanged a few words in Russian before she left the room.  Finally, he turned back to Tom and Simon.


"Gentlemen," he said, "I'm afraid the time has come for me to show you out.  We have, as you can imagine, a great deal to finish, and I have meetings with potential launch customers to attend to.  If you'd like, I can probably find someone to show you where we assemble the other stages of the Firebird."


"Thank you for the offer," Simon said.  "I'd love to, but we should get back to the city and phone in what we've found.  If you need to get in touch with us, Mr. Wharton and I are staying at the Hotel Sputnik.  I'll contact my people back in Washington and let them know that everything looks fine to me."  Simon sighed.  "Providing those pencil pushers take me at my word, I shouldn't be bothering you again."


"No bother at all," Gogol said in a faux-friendly voice that indicated that it was, indeed, a terrific bother.  With that, the four of them started to leave the gallery.  "Be sure to leave your name tags at the front desk."






Tom was laughing to himself as the two of them climbed into the car.


"What's so funny?" Litchfield asked as he turned the car on and pulled onto the main road.  Tom made a tsk tsk sound and shook his head.


"You are," he said.  "We're in the middle of something horrible, and you still find time to come on to the locals!"  He looked out the window at the passing landscape, a combination of bleak meadow and industrial complex.  In the distance, from one of the pads on the far side of the sprawling cosmodrome, a booster quickly lifted into the air, leaving behind a silver-orange fire trail followed a few seconds later by a dull roar.  "I mean, the women at the hotel bar aren't good enough; no, you find some scientist looking at a rocket assembly."  Tom laughed out loud.  "No wonder your ex-wives divorced you!"


"Well," Simon said with a grin, "Dr. Filatov's a beautiful woman.  Why shouldn't a suave gentleman like me do her the service of noticing?"  Simon reached forward and adjusted the air.  "Besides, I needed a cover for looking closely at her name tag."  Tom looked over.


"Name tag, huh," he said.  "So, what did you find?"  Simon laughed and took off his hat.


"Not much," Litchfield said.  The car stopped at a T-intersection, and Simon turned right and paralleled the railroad tracks.  "No company information.  Just her name.  I know just enough Russian to translate names fairly well."


"Dr. Filatov," Tom said. 


"Dr. Raisa Filatov," Simon added.  The plume from the distant launch caught the sun, causing a myriad of colors to shine through the smoke trail.


"It's a pretty name," Tom mentioned.  "So, are you going to strike up a correspondence with her?"  Simon scratched his chin and smiled a knowing smile.


"Think about it, Tom," Simon said in a more serious tone.  "Raisa Filatov."  He placed special emphasis on the first letter of each name.  Tom shook his head and shrugged his shoulders.


"I don't..." he started to say.  However, he stopped mid-breath, eyes wide, and banged his hand into the roof of the car.  "RF.  It couldn't be.  Rufina Fedorov?"


"No need to stray too far from home," Litchfield said, "if you really aren't expecting someone to be looking for you."  He looked at Tom.  "She's the right age, she's fascinated by a rack of communications satellites.  It has to be her."  Tom smiled.


"So what are we going to do?" Tom asked


"I'm still trying to figure out how we're going to breach the cleanrooms," Simon replied.  "Unless Dr. Vichinsky was lying, we know there’s at least one connector between the two rooms.  At least we'll only have to disable one lock."  Simon stared out onto the Baikonur steppes.  "After that is still fuzzy.  This is going to take some thinking."


"I wonder how easily the devices on the satellites can be accessed," Tom said.  "If we can figure a way in, I can't imagine us having that much time."


"Keep in mind Fedorov, too," Simon added. "I'm sure she's not alone out here.  They must be renting office space or one of the customer bungalows near the launch facility.  We need to handle them as well."  The psychologist looked towards the rocket plume.  The rocket that made it was no longer visible.


"We're gonna need a bigger boat," Tom said quietly.


"Excuse me?" Simon asked, but Tom just shook his head.


"Nothing important," he said.  "I was wondering if that was a Zenit launch."  Simon made another turn, placing the car in the direction of both the hotel and Krainly Airport. 





“The important thing,” Simon told Nick, “is to delay the launch in case Tom and I don’t manage to take care of the problem.”


Nick nodded.  “I know,” he said.  “You are trying to tell me that it is more important than my own life.”


The two men looked at each other, and then Simon nodded.  “You know what to do?”


Nick grinned.  “I have ten bags of corn starch with squibs in them.  I get them into the cleanrooms where the components are and detonate them.”  He grinned. “I would hate the see the faces of the technicians in the morning.”  His grin faded.  “How certain are you that the scientists and their device are in the building that you have chosen to enter?”


Simon shrugged.  “That’s where Filatov is.  That’s good enough for me.  Try not to get yourself killed or captured, okay?”


“I am very fond of myself,” Nick said as he picked up one of Nightbird’s special packages.  “You do the same.”


They watched Nick leave, and then Simon picked up a flat black box and started to strap it on.  “Well, I hope this toy Melvin gave me works out.  He wanted a field test, and he’s going to get one.”


“I just wish we weren’t the guinea pigs,” Tom said.


“Think of it as doing your bit to advance the cause of science,” Simon said, clapping him on the shoulder.  Simon turned on the system, and a few seconds later both Simon and Tom found themselves clutching their heads.


“I never did like lab work,” Tom said.


“Report Point One,” Simon said as he shook off the pain and headed down the stairs, “device causes considerable headache when first activated.”






The warehouse was primarily dark though a few weak lights were scattered here and there in corners throughout.  And while there was a significant amount of space within the facility, its very emptiness produced a startling sense of oppression, so Tom quickly checked to see if the masking device was still on.  In truth, the headache the flat black box caused for both of them should have told the story.


Simon pulled the pistol from his pocket.


"You'd think someone would be here," Simon whispered, "since they start assembling round-the-clock tomorrow."  Tom nodded and looked up towards the dark spaces where the ceiling lay.


"Maybe they are here," Tom spoke.  "Maybe this thing really is doing its job."  He tightened the strap, making sure there was no possibility that it would fall, and Simon tried to catch his breath through the extra constriction.  "Simon," he said quietly, "did you ever decide what we're going to do when we find them?"


Simon pushed his hat back.  "I'm guessing something'll come to me."


"Guessing?" Tom said incredulously.


"Has so far when I've needed it," Simon replied with a grin.  A door opened on the far side of the warehouse, and, quickly, the two of them pushed up against the wall, something which was a considerable effort for Tom.  In the distance, a man entered the room.  He wore a white shirt and a brown vest, which was unbuttoned.  Brown pants seemingly a size too big flapped beneath him as he walked.  In his hand was a mug, and steam rose from the liquid within.  His balding head was covered with wisps of silver hair.


"Another dust mote?" Tom asked quietly.


"Right age," Simon said.  "What are the odds that all of the ones involved in the old program are here?"


"Slim," Tom said.  "Some of them must have died.  Some of them must be like Yevtushenko."  The old man stopped at a desk and pulled out a chair.  Sitting down, he slowly slumped over some paperwork.  "Why am I having so much trouble envisioning it?"


"Envisioning what?" Simon asked.  "Oh...envisioning elderly people being capable of something so damn despicable?  In my line of work, you learn things."  Simon looked around the room again, looking for any sign that they'd been detected.  "Evil is ageless," he said.  "It can be the oldest fart in the world, or it can be a snot-nosed brat."


"Very poetic," Tom whispered.


"I try," Simon replied.  At that moment, another person entered the room, this time a slightly younger woman dressed in pajamas and covered with a light green bathrobe.  Her silver waist-length hair dangled in a braided rope.  "Well well.  Either we have another winner, or she's that man's wife."


"Or both," Tom added.


"Yeah," Simon said.  "Or both."  He took a deep breath.  "Well, we either wait here, or we try something more proactive."  Simon released the safety on the pistol.  "I vote for proactive."


"You're the boss," Tom said somewhat sarcastically.


"Well," Simon retorted, "you're the reason we're here in the first place.  Next time you read about a crazy poet, keep it to yourself.”  Tom chuckled quietly.


"Ready?" Tom asked.  Simon nodded, and still staying close to the wall, the two of them began inching their way towards the two figures by the desk.  Each was mindful to move carefully enough to avoid either banging the wall or making a telltale squeak on the floor with their shoes.


The older couple spoke to each other in rapid bursts of Russian, and the woman settled into a stooped position to better view the documents on the desk.  As Simon and Tom moved closer, a couple of large objects covered in blue tarpaulin came into clearer view.  Simon stopped and then motioned for the two of them to take refuge as soon as possible behind the objects.  As they started moving, however, the warehouse was suddenly flooded with light.


Simon and Tom froze as, first, their eyes tried to make the change from darkness to light, and, second, they tried to understand what went wrong.


The older couple jumped up and began calling out in Russian, the man aiming his comments into the warehouse, and the woman yelling towards the door.


"Well," Simon said gravely, "shit."  Four others came into the room, two older people including Dr. Filatov, and two younger individuals carrying large pistols.  One of the younger men was wearing only a loose-fitting pair of boxer shorts.  Litchfield and Weldon started to bolt for cover behind one of the tarp-covered objects, but they were stopped by a shot that struck the floor and ricocheted around them.  Quickly, they ran back for the wall and the small cover offered by beige filing cabinet.


The man in boxer shorts called out in Russian, but Filatov raised her hand and said, with some difficulty, "English...English."  She spoke again in Russian, but the word Litchfield was easy to understand.


"Dr. Litchfield," the young man called.  "I advise you to bring yourselves into the open."

"All the better to shoot us, my dear," Litchfield called back.


"This, I do not understand," the man called back.  "Some American saying?"


"'Little Red Riding Hood,'" Litchfield replied.  "I think we'll stay here where it's nice and warm."  The young man laughed.  He turned to his fully clothed colleague and spoke.  The man nodded and then left the room.


"If he's going for drinks," Tom said, "I could really use a Coke right now."


"No drinks," the man replied, "just a trip to the catwalks." He pointed with his free hand towards the roof, and a series of criss-crossing catwalks could be plainly seen.  Filatov and her colleagues moved behind one of the covered objects.  "He has to find the key, first.  That could take time, or it could take only a second or two.  Think of it.  A clear view of everything in the room.  I urge you to reconsider."


"We'll think about it," Simon yelled.  He turned to Tom.  "I'm done thinking.  No way.  Now, we just need Plan B."


"Let me guess," Tom replied, "Plan B hasn't come to you yet."  Simon shrugged his shoulders and then looked around.  Dangling from the ceiling and pointing towards the central to mid-central area of the warehouse was a set of motion detectors.  "Damn.  It figures." He showed the sensors to Tom.  "I bet not a single camera in this place can see us.  But there's no hiding motion."  Simon clutched at his temples.  "I'm thinking this box wasn't worth the headache."


"I'll cut it off," Tom said as he started for the switch.


"Don't," Simon replied.  "Don’t.  If we can get out of here, it might just buy us enough time to get away from the warehouse."  A click echoed from the vicinity of the roof.


"I think our friend has arrived," Tom said, and both began scanning for any signs of the gunman.  Reaching into one of his pockets, Simon pulled out the TASER and handed it to Tom.


“I’m afraid I didn’t read the manual,” Simon spoke.  “I don’t know its range.  Close-up, it packs a mighty wallop.”


“I’ll keep that in mind,” Tom replied just as the first bullet whizzed past their heads.  Quickly, Simon returned fire and then positioned the cabinet to provide a small degree of cover from both angles.


“The good news,” he said, “is that cabinet’s pretty heavy.  If it’s loaded, it might stop some of the bullets.”  As if to prove the point, the cabinet suddenly rang as a bullet penetrated it.


“That would be the bad news,” Tom said.


“Come out,” the man in boxer shorts called.  “We don’t really wish to have to clean up a tremendous mess.”


Simon replied with a suggestion that would have been, at best, anatomically improbable.


Two more bullets rang off of the filing cabinet.


“This isn’t good,” Tom said quietly.


“You have a profound grasp of the situation,” Simon told him.


Suddenly, a female voice called out in Russian.


“Filatov,” Simon muttered.  “What’s she doing?”


“She’s calling the man down from the roof.”


More Russian followed rapidly.


“I don’t think I like that,” Simon said.


“Don’t worry,” Tom told him grimly.  “In a moment you won’t care.”




“In a moment, you won’t care about anything.”


There was a moment of silence while the two men looked at each other.


“I don’t particularly want to die here, Simon,” Tom said quietly.


“Neither do I, but you can’t think that surrendering will help us any.”


Tom sighed.  “No.”


They could hear the echoing sounds of the man climbing down from the catwalk.


“We could do a Butch and Sundance,” Simon said.


“A what?”


“We could charge out of here, guns blazing…well, gun blazing, before they…”


Something hit them.  They couldn’t see it; they could barely hear something at the distant edge of sound, but they felt a jolt, deep in their chests.  Each felt the vibrations tearing through them, and Simon fully expected to lose all sense of himself.  They looked at each other.


“Are you okay?” Tom asked.


Simon nodded.  “They turned it on, didn’t they?  I can feel it.”


“I think so.”


“Then why…”  He trailed off, and both men looked down at the masking device, then they grinned at each other.  “Maybe this thing was worth a damn after all.  We go now,” Simon said.  Without another word, they raced from around the filing cabinet.  The gunman was still halfway across the building.  The tarpaulin had been pulled back, revealing a complex device with a dish, which had been pointed toward the filing cabinet behind which the two men had taken refuge.  Filatov, the older couple, and the man in boxer shorts were behind the device, with thick, padded headphones covering their ears.  They looked wide-eyed at the two men who were charging them.  The man in boxer shorts reached for his gun, and Tom fired the TASER.  The man twitched spastically and fell to the ground, dropping his gun.  Before he had a chance to recover, Tom had reached him and scooped up the weapon.  The older couple froze, but Filatov had darted off into the darkness at the sound of the shot. 


The distant gunman, drawing rapidly nearer, loosed off a shot which Simon returned, causing the man to duck for cover.


Simon glanced at Tom.  “Go,” Tom said, gesturing after Filatov.  “I’ll hold the fort.” 


Tom looked at the older couple, then he ducked as the distant gunman fired again.  “Drop your gun,” he called in Russian, “or I will turn the machine on you.  You have five seconds.”  As Tom spoke, he glanced quickly at the controls.  He noted with some joy that the machine had been set to it’s lowest setting.


While Tom’s attention was on the distant gunman, the man in boxer shorts climbed to his feet and launched himself at Tom’s back.  He hit Tom with a vicious double kidney punch.  Tom grunted and swung backhanded, catching the man directly in the face and knocking him off his feet.  The distant man had frozen, but Tom stretched his back and then called, “Your time is up.”  He made a pretence of reaching for the machine to swing it around, but the man dropped his pistol and held up his hands, speaking quickly.


“Get over here,” Tom called to him.  Then he looked at the older couple  “Turn it off,” he said, gesturing at the device.


The man took one look at his fallen comrade, whose face was masked in blood and whose nose was not so much broken as obliterated, and he hurried to comply.


The second man drew near, and Tom gestured at him to join the older couple.


“He needs help,” the man said, gesturing at his fallen colleague.


“Help him, then,” Tom said indifferently, “But don’t try anything stupid.  You people have just about used up my patience.”


Some distance away, Simon was running as quietly as he could.  In the darkened building, he was following Filatov by the sound of her running feet, but he had lost her.  He found her again quite suddenly, as he rounded a corner and she drove her fist into the side of his neck.  He grunted and staggered backward, dropping the gun.  She dove for it, and he lashed out with his foot, catching her in the gut.  She fell short of the weapon, and they both dived for it.  The fight that followed was short, but extraordinarily violent.  She was stronger than she looked and well trained in the sort of fighting that the Marquis of Queensbury had tried so hard to eradicate, but so was Simon, and he knew more tricks than she did.


The fight ended with both of them in pain and both bleeding.  Three of the fingers on Simon’s left hand were broken, but so were two of Filatov’s ribs, and Simon was pretty sure that her right shoulder was dislocated.  She was lying on the ground, breathing heavily and looking up at him.  He had the gun and was just out of her reach.  “That’s enough,” he told her.


She didn’t say anything.  She simply breathed and looked at him.  He stared back at her for a long moment and then said, “Get up, Madame Federov.”


“My…shoulder…” she began and then stopped, and her eyes widened.  “What?”


“You heard me.”


“I am Filatov,” she said hastily.  “My…”


Simon shook his head.  “Don’t waste your breath,” he told her.  “I know all about you.”  It was a blatant lie, but, Simon figured once you’ve got your enemy demoralized, press your advantage.  “Why do you think I’m here?”


Something inside her tightened and then relaxed utterly.  Still lying on the floor, her body somehow sagged.  It was as if she had lost something.  “How did you find out?” she asked.


Simon shook his head again.  “You don’t really think you would have gotten away with it, do you?”


Her body tightened up again, and something flickered in her eyes.  “Almost, I did,” she said proudly.


Simon noted the I.  “Almost counts for nothing,” he told her.  “You’re a weak subordinate.”


“I am not a sub-” she began, and the stopped, a stricken look on her face. 


Simon smiled at her.  “You are not a subordinate,” he said.  “You are in charge.”


Whatever reserves she had left visibly drained out of her.  “That is true.  The days of…of…glory gone.”


“Empire building by force,” he said.


Her brow wrinkled.  “What?” she asked.  “I do not…”


“Never mind.  Get up.”


“My…shoulder…” she said again.


“You’ll have to do it yourself,” he told her.  He gingerly lifted his left hand, showing the three broken fingers.  “I’m not getting close enough to you for you to do any more damage.  I have a sneaking suspicion you were a commissioned officer in the Red Army.”


She nodded once, closed her eyes, and then wrenched her body upright with a tight hiss of pain.  Then she climbed unsteadily to her feet.  Simon gestured with the gun, and she began to walk.  Slowly, they made their way back to the group by the Alconost device.  Both Simon and Filatov stopped and stared.  The older couple was sitting on the floor, back to back.  One man, the one in boxer shorts, was lying on the ground, his face bathed in blood.  The second man was kneeling over him, trying to staunch the flow of blood.  Simon raised an eyebrow at Tom, who shrugged.  Simon nodded and gestured Filatov over to join the group.


“What now?” Tom asked.  “Is there anyone else?”


Simon looked at Filatov, and then he said, “I don’t think so.  I think she’s it.  There were six in Taralma, but I think one of them may be have been hired with the oil exploration equipment.”


“So, what do we do with them?”


Simon glanced down at the gun in his hand, and then he said, “What we have to.”


There was a moment before Tom got it, then he said, “You can’t.”


Simon looked at him.  “This cannot be allowed to go any farther.  You know that.”  He gestured at the device.  “That thing is far too dangerous.”


“We could…we could turn the device on them,” Tom said helplessly.


“We don’t know how long the effect lasts,” Simon pointed out.  “What if, a year from now, she’s fine?”


Tom stared at Simon.


“We can’t just lock them up,” Simon said.  “First of all, we don’t have the facilities, and, second of all, what would stop her from communicating the information with someone, anyone, and us having to do this all over again?”


Tom sighed.  He looked at the prisoners.  He looked down at the gun in his own hand.  Then a slow and evil smile began to spread across his face.  Something about the look set the prisoners chattering among themselves.


“What is it?” Simon asked.


Tom said, “Do you suppose there’s a truck…or, better yet, an ambulance anywhere around here that we could commandeer?”


Simon shrugged.  “I suppose so.  Why?”


“I have an idea,” he said.


Simon looked at him for a long moment, and then he said, “Well, you got us into this, I suppose you can get us out.”  He looked around.  “Let’s tie them up and this place cleaned up.”


The cleanup was a relatively simple matter.  With a combination of ropes, cable and chains – whatever was around – the prisoners were trussed like turkeys.  The two men then found themselves starting at the Alconost device.


“We can’t let anyone have this,” Simon said.


“I know,” Tom said.  “We have to dismantle it totally.  Destroy it.  I can do that.”  He flexed his shoulders.


Tom watched the muscles ripple beneath his friend’s shirt and said, “Yeah, I imagine you can.  Let’s do it.”


Tom set to work with a glee that Simon found disturbing.  He also found the demonstration of brute strength unsettling.  It was obvious to anyone that Tom was strong, but, with that strength motivated by the pleasure he was taking in destroying the device and his determination to make certain that it was never used again, he seemed almost inhuman.


“Wait,” Simon said suddenly.  “What is that?”


Tom looked at the component he held in his hands.  “I don’t know,” he said.


“It’s an electromagnet,” Simon said.  “Let me have it.”


Tom shrugged, passed the magnet over and picked up something else to break.


Simon looked down at the electromagnet and said, “Let me have that battery over there.  I’m going to tend to the computers.  No, don’t toss it to me, are you insane?  Thank you.”


“Where are you going?” Tom asked.


“To visit every computer in the building,” Simon said.  He looked at the pile of debris.  “Carry on.”


Simon stopped at a computer, pulled out his phone and translation matrix, and then started scanning the files.  Quickly, he realized that each scan was going to take and interminable amount of time.  “Screw it,” he said, “I’ll just zap them all.”  He ran the magnet several times over the sensitive areas of the computer, insuring that the data would be wiped, and repeated the process with every other computer he found.


Tom carried on with such a will that, by the time Simon returned, no component of the device remained intact.  He glanced at the prisoners.  They were staring at Tom, wide-eyed and white faced.  Simon dropped the magnet on the floor and then said, “All right.  I’ll go find us some transportation.  Do you think you can do to the building what you did to the device?”


Tom looked at Simon, puzzled.  “No,” he said.


“Well, burn it down, then.”


Tom looked around.  “I can’t do that.  Maybe I can even see why it’s a good idea, but, I don’t want anyone else around here to get hurt…”


Simon shook his head.  “First of all, eliminating every trace of that device and those people is more important than the risk of someone else getting hurt.  Second, this building is fairly isolated, so the odds of the fire spreading are pretty poor.  Third, this place has its own fire fighters onsite.”


Tom shrugged.  “All right,” he said.  I’ll take care of it.”


Combustibles were not in short supply, and for good measure several gas lines within the building were relatively easy to reach, so Tom had everything ready to go by the time Simon returned.  Together, they loaded their prisoners into the back of a covered truck.  Tom grunted in surprise to see Nick sitting in the back.


Simon heard the sound and looked over.  “I picked up a hitch-hiker,” he said.  He glanced at the building.  “Do you want to do the honors?”


“Not really, no,” Tom told him.


Simon nodded, lit match and dropped it into a puddle of fuel on the floor just inside the door.  It caught instantly, and he and Tom climbed into the truck and drove off.


“Well,” Simon spoke, “with any luck, that device in the warehouse and whatever they had mounted on the satellites have been completely destroyed.”  Simon scratched his leg.  “So, what is your plan for dealing with our guests?” Simon asked.  Tom looked over and rubbed the top of his head.


“I’m reasonably sure someone can repeat the procedure that was done to Yevtushenko,” Tom said coldly.  “Most of them will be dead before the effects start to break down.  As for the guards, I doubt they’re anything but hired help.  Even when they remember, it won’t do them any good.”  Simon nodded, smiled grimly, and patted Tom on the shoulder as the truck headed further into the darkness.




It was a cold day.  A bitter wind was blowing, and the sun, what little there was, was weak and watery.  Tom stood, the wind whipping his hair and coat, but he seemed oblivious to the cold.  He was standing next to a car, watching a door.  His face was calm and patient.  There was no way to tell how long he had been standing there.


After a long moment, the door opened, and three people came out.  A man and woman, both in white, stood at the sides of an old man.  The old man stood straight and looked around him.  He breathed deeply, feeling the wind bite at his lungs, and then he smiled.  The smile transformed his face.  The lines spread and smoothed out, and the years dropped away from him.


With a bright grin of his own, Tom walked toward the group.  “Sergei,” he said.  “Welcome back to the world.”


Sergei grinned at Tom, and then he laughed.  He grinned at the doctor and the nurse who stood at his side.  “Perhaps I should not smile so much, or you might think me in need of further time in the hospital, eh?”


“No, Sergei,” the doctor told him.  “Smile all that you want.”


Sergei stepped forward and grasped Tom’s hand.  “Thank you for coming to meet me,” he said.


“It’s my privilege,” Tom told him.  Laying a hand across Sergei’s shoulders, Tom escorted him to the car and ushered him into the passenger seat.  Then he walked around the car and climbed into the driver’s seat.  Sergei was holding out a notebook.


“What is this?” Tom asked.


“Take it,” Sergei told him.  “Read it.”  He grinned.  “You can be my first new critic.”


Tom took the book and opened it.  He flipped through it quickly.  The first twenty pages had been filled with a liquid flow of words.  Tom flipped back to the first page and began to read.  “This is beautiful,” he said after a moment.


“Life is beautiful,” Sergei said.  He laughed.  “But I do not wish to spend what is left of mine in this hospital parking lot, my friend.”


Tom grinned and handed him back the notebook.  “Where to?” he asked, starting the engine.


“I believe,” Sergei said happily, “That I am ready to go home.”



The End



Ó 2004 by Martin Delgado-Scott.  Martin Delgado-Scott is Aphelion’s former Serials Editor (Issues 16-22).  A resident of Ireland, Martin is the author of the definitive biographies (now sadly out of print) of Thomas Crapper and John Nance Gardner.  This is his first story for Aphelion.