originally published in After the Flames, edited by Elizabeth Mitchell (Baen, 1985)
It was just ten a.m. when Daniel Yates drove his four-year old Honda into the Larchmont Executive Pavilion's parking lot, but he was already tired.
Yates' day had begun five hours earlier, with a "from our affiliate in Baltimore" appearance on the Today show to debate a utility spokesman on the question of the restart of Three Mile Island Unit 2. When that three-minute free-for-all was over, he drove seventy miles to the Choptank River under a sky that was dawning grey and gloomy. There he climbed into a Boston Whaler to inspect the heavy-metal sampling buoys in the channel downstream from the new Noble Electroplating plant at Cambridge.
By the time he returned to the office plaza in Glen Burnie, the dark sheet of clouds had begun to deliver on their threat, and the only open parking spaces were at the farthest corner from the six-story structure's entrance. As he dashed across the lot through the drizzle, dodging between cars and dancing around puddles, Yates wondered why he had rejected the perquisite of a reserved space for the director. I could have parked there, he thought as he left the blacktop for the sidewalk.
There was occupied at the moment by a blue sedan with U.S. Government plates and "Department of the Air Force" stenciled on the driver's door. The sight of the Air Force car brought a reflexive scowl to Yates' face. But since three other organizations shared the building with Yates' Life Studies Foundation, he expended no energy wondering why the sedan was there.
Then he entered the LSF suite and saw a uniformed man standing in the waiting area, and the presence of the car in what was always the first spot to be filled each morning set warning bells ringing. Yates was no student of military insignia, but he knew at a glance that the visitor was high-ranking. Jeanne, the LSF receptionist, waved Yates toward her desk.
"Who the hell is that?"
"Major General Rutledge. He's been here since eight, waiting to see you and Bernadette."
"What does an Air Force general want here?"
"He hasn't said."
"Bernie's not here?"
"She's waiting in your office. The General refused to talk to her without you there," she explained.
"I'll bet that sat well with her."
"She asked to see you for a minute before I show General Rutledge in."
Yates glanced over his shoulder at the visitor and frowned. "Give us five."
"You picked a great day to waltz in late," Bernadette Stowe complained, coming to her feet as Yates entered the office.
"I went out to Choptank to check on the water monitors. One of them went off-line during the night, and I wanted to check for tampering," Yates said defensively, dropping his six-foot frame into a chair.
Stowe swept her flowing black hair back off her shoulders with a flick of her hands, an idiosyncratic gesture that told Yates of her anxiety. "I know, I know. I just don't like keeping generals cooling their heels."
"He can stay out there a week as far as I'm concerned. What's this about? Did we tread on any hobnailed feet? Who is he?"
Stowe clucked. "Didn't Jeanne tell you? That's Jack Rutledge -- Major General Jacob Rutledge, number one in the Air Force's Logistics Command."
Yates lifted his hands. "Means nothing to me. Know anything else about him?"
"As it happens, I had some time to dig a little. Graduated the Academy in `67 and served two years with a C-130 wing in `Nam. Came back and taught at Sheppard AFB in Wichita Falls for six years. He applied to NASA as a Shuttle pilot candidate in `78 but was turned down, not enough hours in high-performance jets. Wing commander in the Central American campaign."
A cold look passed over Yates' face. "That's enough for me."
"He's been at Logistics five years next month. Rep is that he's smart and tough, not flashy, not overly ambitious, a good administrator."
"I didn't hear anything in that that would bring him to our doorstep."
Stowe shook her head. "Me either. But I bet he'll tell us if we give him the chance."
Maj. Gen. Jacob "Jack" Rutledge walked into the conference room with the feline grace and carefully measured movements Yates associated with military automata. There was no wasted motion, no nuance that spelled personality. Here's your dehuman syndrome, Montagu -- the military bureaucrat, the ultimate example.
"I must apologize again for the delay, General," Stowe said when all were seated.
You don't have to do any such damn thing, Yates thought. Not to him.
"Your office gave us no notice you were coming, and it's not uncommon for one or the both of us to be out at a field site," she went on.
Rutledge acknowledged and dismissed the apology with a bare nod. "I have a project for you," he said.
Yates whipped forward in his seat and rested his folded hands on the table. "Not interested."
Stowe placed a restraining hand on Yates' arm and dug her fingernails in for emphasis. "What Dr. Yates means is that in the past, we've found that the military's needs and our expertise had a very low correlation. We'll be happy to hear you out."
You'll be happy -- not me. What the hell are you thinking? Yates demanded with a sidewise glance. When Stowe ignored him, he shook his arm free but said nothing.
"The project is very simple to define but may be rather complex to execute," Rutledge said. "I want you to devise a way to assist the survivors of a nuclear war. I'll provide you with the attack model -- how many weapons, what yields, what targets, what coefficient of success. You figure out what conditions the survivors will be living under. You figure out what they'll need most to guarantee their survival and how to get it to them."
Yates twisted in his chair and dug in his pocket. "If you want to do something to guarantee survival, try this," he said in a hard-edged voice, and slid a green plastic card across the table. Politely, Rutledge picked up the card and glanced at it. Yates followed his eyes as he read:
Daniel R. Yates, Ph. D.
Atlantic States District Supervisor
People's Disarmanent Alliance
Rutledge slid the card back. "I'm aware of your leanings. I trust you are realist enough to treat seriously the possibility that disarmament will never take place."
"And that nuclear war will?" Yates said challengingly.
"Yes," Rutledge said quietly, meeting Yates' eyes. "That's what this project is about."
"What do you mean, you know my leanings?"
"Just that. I wouldn't have told you even as much as I have already without knowing a great deal about both of you, both the important and the insignificant." A hint of what might have been amusement appeared played briefly on Rutledge's lips. "For instance, though I have never been in either of your offices, I can tell you that Dr. Stowe has all four of her diplomas and most of her awards displayed on the walls, while Dr. Yates' equally impressive credentials are packed away somewhere -- I wouldn't be surprised if even he didn't know where they were."
"Is that sort of trivia supposed to impress us?" Yates asked.
"It's not trivia," Rutledge corrected. "As for impressing you, I don't care what you think of me. In point of fact, I have a fair idea of what Dr. Yates thinks of me. When I said I knew his leanings, I meant all of them."
"That doesn't matter," Rutledge continued. "What matters is that you're one of the very few organizations capable of pulling off this project under its very tight time constraints."
"Meaning you need to spend your budget surplus before the end of the fiscal year?" Yates sniped.
Rutledge studied the younger man for a long moment before answering. "When you work for us, you adopt our calendar and our timetable," he said finally, with a note of irritation in his voice.
"Meaning `yes,'" Yates said challengingly.
"These survivors --" Stowe interjected. "We'll have to know where they'll be at the time of attack."
Rutledge's gaze flicked from Yates' unfriendly face to Stowe's hopeful one. "You misunderstand me, Dr. Stowe. I'm not trying to assure that any particular person or group of people survives."
"Not even your own family?" Yates asked cuttingly.
Rutledge answered without emotion. "Since we live midway between Bolling and Andrews, it's unlikely my wife and I will survive a general nuclear war."
"Then you're talking about assisting the random survivors?" Stowe asked.
"That is a more interesting challenge."
"Dammit, Bernie, don't encourage him." Yates turned to Rutledge. "General, let me put this to you in words of one syllable. If you're serious about this, then I don't want to help you. If you're not, then I don't want to waste my time."
Rutledge raised an eyebrow questioningly.
"Let's say you are serious," Yates went on, "that for some unnatural reason you're really concerned about the fact that this nuclear war you've been building for and planning for thirty years would fry and poison a billion or so people and leave any survivors wishing they weren't. Let's say we're unspeakably clever and devise some way to do what you describe. I figure all we've done is make your kind a little more confident that nuclear war would be winnable and a little more willing to choose that option."
He leaned forward in his chair and slapped the table for emphasis. "On the other hand, if you're not serious, then all we're doing is wasting tax money and fattening a file somewhere in the Pentagon when we could be working on something that matters."
"I see," Rutledge said, and began to rise.
Stowe stood up abruptly. "General, you've heard Dr. Yates' opinion, but you haven't heard the firm's decision. If you could excuse us for a few minutes -- "
"Done. But I need your answer today. This whole project has to be finished within six months." He glanced from Stowe to Yates and back again. "If you can pull it off on time, we won't have any problems between us in any other area."
Stowe sat on the edge of Yates' desk and gestured at the bare wall. "So -- do you know where your diplomas are?"
"No," Yates said gruffly.
"Think it means anything?"
"Hell, I don't know. That's not what you whisked me out of there for."
"No." She hesitated. "Look, Daniel, I had a couple of hours this morning to think over the idea of working for the Pentagon, and I think we should take this project."
Yates shook his head vigorously. "I don't trust him. I don't really believe he's here for what he says."
"What would he want?"
"I don't know," Yates said angrily. "To compromise us somehow."
"We've done nothing to cross them." She looked down, rubbing the back of one hand with her fingertips. "If the money's real, he's real."
"I don't want their money."
Stowe sighed expressively. "That's all well and good as an ideal---if that's what it is."
"What do you mean?"
"She has nothing to do with this."
"I'll take you at your word. Even so---I know we set out to dedicate ourselves to the nuclear freeze, environmental issues, hazardous waste. But you know, there's a lot more money on the other side. I don't think what he's talking about would compromise us. In a way, it meshes with what we do."
"Oh, Dan---I know you've got no love for the military. But can't you see? War is the premise, not the point."
"I know that," Yates said, throwing up his hands in surrender.
"But there's still something wrong about his being here. Why come to us? They've got their own thinktanks, their own internal study teams. We're definitely off the beaten track."
"Maybe he is, too."
"What do you mean?"
"Well---I wonder how many generals go out to interview contractors and let contracts."
"You think he's freelancing? Wants to keep this quiet?"
Yates pursed his lips. "It's not like the Air Force to start thinking about consequences. Or to have a conscience," he agreed with venomous sarcasm.
"But one officer could. Even a major general."
"I doubt it," Yates said stiffly. "And taking Pentagon money is still wrong for us."
"I don't think so. Not when I have trouble meeting the payroll practically every other month."
"I'll bet his prying told him that, too." There was a long silence in which he avoided her eyes. "We've always found a way to pay the bills, or to deal with not paying them. That's the wrong reason for us to take this."
She pounced on that. "What's the right reason?"
Yates blew an exasperated sigh into one cupped hand. "Listen, Dan---I think he wants exactly what he says he wants. And it's something we should want, too. You know the state of Civil Defense in this country. We like to build the weapons but we don't like to think about the consequences of using them, at least not in human terms. This is a departure from form, and we ought to encourage it. Otherwise we're in the position of refusing to allow the leopard to change its spots."
"I don't want any part of it."
"You won't have, except to sit in on a few meetings for appearances. I'll handle the gruntwork."
Yates studied the earnestness in her expression. "You really want this?"
"Yes. Like you wanted the Consumers Power audit. Because I'd feel badly about turning him away and it not being done, or being done by someone for whom the money is the right reason."
Yates rested his chin on steepled fingers. "All right," he said finally. "You can have your project."
The contract arrived the next day by Air Force courier, who first obtained their signatures on a security warrant, then turned over a magshielded box and a check for $250,000.
"This isn't like them, to move this quickly," Yates said suspiciously when the courier left. "What happened to competitive bidding, supplier certification -- the bureaucratic manna?"
"Hiring a consultant isn't like buying B-2 bombers," Stowe rejoined.
The box contained a DOD Standard Data Format diskette and a brief note from Rutledge: Disk password=Damocles. Do it right.
Yates shrugged. "Let's take a look."
"Let me get a notepad."
They sat side by side at a single VDT and watched as Rutledge's war model unrolled:
RESTRICTED TO CLEARANCE LEVEL II AND ABOVE
DO NOT COPY
- SUMMARY OF SCENARIO -
ATTACK: U.S.S.R., counterdefense.
Targets: Vandenberg, KSC, Unified Space Command, Space Operations Center, High Frontier Command, High Frontier tiers 1 + 2.
Mode: Ground targets 1 ea. SS-N-6 Sawfly submarine launched ballistic missles, total yield approximately 3 megatons (MT), orbital targets non-nuclear ASMs.
Warning time: <6 minutes
Coefficient of success: 1.0 ground, 1.0 orbital.
"The man has a nasty imagination," Yates said with a shake of the head. "With the subs that close to the coast, that's practically a sneak attack."
"Which means we'll have to launch on warning," Stowe said. "They can't get Presidential authorization in 6 minutes."
Yates tapped a pencil rhythmically against the desk. "I'd bet we stand pat. Three SLBMs can't threaten the ICBM force. We won't know whether the Russians are just taking out the High Frontier defense or setting the stage for a real attack."
Targets: space launch centers at Baikonur, Volgograd, Northern Cosmodrome; submarines on station off East (4) and West Coast (2); Salyut 12.
Mode: Ground targets 1 ea Minuteman III ICBM 3 x 170 kiloton MIRV, submarines P-3C Orion/ASW, orbital target F-15 Eagle/ASM.
Time frame: within 45 minutes of confirmation of attack by IR satellite or equivalent intelligence. Coefficient of success: 0.85 land, 0.62 sea.
"Not on warning," Yates said with a touch of childish pride.
"No," Stowe said quietly through her folded hands. "They're allowing just enough time to get the antisubmarine forces in place."
"Still---the retaliation is less than I would have thought. We're still under 20 megatons. And there's no escalation. Each takes out the other's spaceflight capacity. What's the nuclear winter threshold?"
"A hundred megatons. I'll bet it doesn't stop there," Stowe said gloomily.
"Don't take it so damn seriously. It's just a study model."
RESPONSE 2: U.S.S.R, counterforce.
Targets: all SAC, ICBM, GLCM squadrons, airburst.
Mode: ~200 SS-N-6 Sawfly SLBM (1 MT), ~200 SS-18 ICBM (20 MT), ~200 SS-19 (66 x 570 KT).
Time frame: launch on confirmation of Minutemen III launch, impact 6-20 minutes. Coefficient of success: 0.8.
"Looks like they were ready to go the wall and we weren't," Yates observed.
"It's too late to get the cruise launchers. They'll be deployed at the first alert," Stowe murmered. "And they've got no chance for the Tridents. Not that it matters. We might as well leave ours in the silos. They've already screwed up the planetary heat balance. No point to poisoning everybody as well."
Targets: all cities >50,000 population.
Mode: 240 +- 40 Trident C4 (8 x 100 KT), 190 +- 60 Poseidon C3 (10 x 50 KT), 440 +- 100 Cruise Missles (GLCM, ALCM), all groundburst (target list follows).
Time frame: >90 minutes <6 hours. Coefficient of success: 0.95
--TARGET LIST FOLLOWS--
--CASUALTY ESTIMATES AND DISTRIBUTION FOLLOW--
--DAMAGE ESTIMATES AND DISTRIBUTION FOLLOW--
"A revenge attack, that's all that is. Good one, too---look at that coefficient. Empty the fuckin' silos, boys, it's the bottom of the ninth and we're down a run," Yates said with cold humor. "Isn't that just like them?"
"Why the delay, I wonder?"
Yates shrugged. "The 90 minute minimum could be retargeting time. The six hours -- maybe that's how long he figures it'll take us to work up to a useless gesture. Or be forced into it by our allies and our generals' definition of manhood."
"Or how long it'll take the Cabinet to get out of Washington," Stowe said, and they laughed hollowly together.
Yates pushed his chair back and stood up. "That's enough to satisfy my curiosity. I'm not interested in looking at all the details."
"I think maybe Keith and Barb would be the best ones to take this and draw out the survival parameters," she offered.
"If you want. Let's watch the hours, though. We've got other commitments to meet."
"I know. But he wants to see something next week, and he's already advanced us expenses."
"You can use a database search for the problem definition report."
Five copies of the two-inch thick, 500-plus page report NUCLEAR WAR SURVIVAL: Parameters and Options were stacked up by Rutledge's seat at the conference table. The general settled in the chair, picked up the top copy, and regarded it dubiously.
"We're prepared to summarize the key points of the study for you, and then of course you'll need some time to digest it," Stowe said helpfully.
Rutledge folded back the cover and thumbed past the first few pages. "Just sit there while I look it over. I don't need someone to tell me what I can read myself," he said curtly. For the next twenty minutes Rutledge paged through the report, skipping large sections, stopping occasionally to read a passage in its entirety.
While he did so, Yates sat watching him with hands folded in his lap, swiveling back and forth in his padded executive's chair. You getting the message yet? You reading between the lines? You can't save them. The only useful thing you can do is not fight the war.
At last Rutledge snapped the binder closed and dropped it back on top of the others. "What the hell is going on here?"
True to form, Yates thought smugly. I knew angry would be the first emotion we'd see from you.
"Pardon me?" Stowe asked, looking up in surprise from her notepad.
"I thought you people were supposed to be good. There's nothing new here. This is a rehash of the same crap I could have gotten from FEMA or Army Civil Preparedness. Highway tunnels in Pennsylvania. Railway tunnels in the Rockies. Abandoned salt mines. Bomb shelters under the patio, for Chrissake."
Stowe laid down his pen. "It's necessary that we get a sense of direction from you as to where you want us to take this --"
"Goddammit, I told you last week what I wanted. And I told you that we were short on time. So you wasted a week on this idiocy."
"General --" Stowe said tentatively. "I thought you understood that this would be an interim report, so you can steer us in the direction you want to go. These studies proceed cooperatively--"
"I don't have the time to handhold. You're supposed to be able to make judgements and decisions. That's what you're being paid for."
Yates took over. "Not without knowing what kind of financial and administrative commitment you're prepared to make. We want to keep this study in the real world, after all."
Rutledge looked unconvinced, but the tone of his words moderated. "I told you about that. too. I want more than a paper study. That's why I picked you people. You follow through. You get your hands dirty."
"And we'll follow through for you. But you've got to put some parameters on it," Yates said. "What's the ceiling? Who's going to implement this thing?"
"Dammit, why don't you listen? You're going to implement it. If something needs to be built or bought or someone needs to be hired, you'll see to it. So keep that in mind. This has to be doable," he said, and paused to gnaw at his lower lip. "As for the ceiling, there is none. Not if what you decide on makes sense to me."
"A million? Two million?" Yates asked carefully.
"Or five hundred million, or a billion -- if that's what it takes."
"And the only one we have to sell is you?" Yates asked.
"That's right. And so far I'm not buying. So tell me where you're going with this now, and when I can expect some real results."
Stowe looked at Yates for a cue but got none. "I've got one hangup about the model," she said slowly. "I thought High Frontier was supposed to protect us from an ICBM attack. Why can't it protect itself? You've got the coefficient of success at 1.00 for the first attack."
"High Frontier has to be operational to have any impact," Rutledge said.
"You mean you're modeling on the present --" Stowe stopped in mid-sentence and stared. "You're serious about this. Not five or ten years down the road. This model is for today."
"And the time constraint -- you're talking about between now and next March, when High Frontier is finished." Stowe's face was pale.
Rutledge shook his head. "Not exactly. The announced operational date is next March, true. The actual operational date is this November, when the Command and Control center is ready. If the Russians are going to do anything about not letting us complete it, they're going to do it in the next six months."
"How likely do you think that is?"
"If I thought it unlikely, I wouldn't be here. Let's just say if I were the editor of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, I'd move the hands up to about thirty seconds to midnight." Rutledge stood up and shoved the stack of reports across the table toward Yates. The one Rutledge had been reading toppled into Yates' lap. "You see, I don't want it soon because I'm impatient. I want it soon because we're running out of time."
When the door closed behind Rutledge, Yates chuckled under his breath, then gathered himself together and rose to leave the room.
"Do you have to go?" Stowe asked, catching him by the arm. "I'd like to have you for a few minutes to bounce around some ideas."
Yates cocked his head questioningly at her pensive expression. "He hasn't infected you with his paranoia, has he?"
"I thought the six-month deadline was because he wanted to spend the money before the end of the fiscal year," she said, walking around the table and gathering up the reports. "I didn't think it was anything like this."
"Anything like what? That scenario is ludicrous. The Russians will have first strike capability with or without the High Frontier. It's only going to be able to knock down fifty percent of the missiles at best. They don't have to start a war over it."
There was a series of hollow thuds as she unceremoniously dropped the binders into the waste container by the door. "How do they know it's only going to be fifty percent effective? Because critics in Congress said so? Because a few pretty-boy science popularizers said so? Because the build-down alliance said so? If I were the Russians, I wouldn't take that at face value."
"They're not dummies. They've got their own technical experts, and the basic technologies of the system are no secret. They can add up the numbers just like we can."
"Then why does Rutledge obviously think otherwise?"
Yates frowned. "Hell, because that's the way people like him are trained to think. What, you think he knows something?"
"There's only ten major commands, and they trust him enough to give him one of them. He travels in the right circles to know."
"And what he knows makes him think we need some survivor's insurance?" Yates' tone was skeptical.
"Maybe. Look, that's not what I wanted to talk about, anyway," Stowe said with a wave of her hand. "This thing breaks up nicely into two problems: how and what. How do we get a CARE package to the survivors, and what do we put in it. Since the what is entirely dependent on the how, I think I'd better go ahead and start working on that aspect."
Yates shrugged. "Your decision. For the taxpayers' sake alone, we'll have to give him some value for his money. I just don't want to see it interfere with the Lilly study."
"I'll meet my other deadlines," Stowe promised. "But can I ask you to do some thinking about what should go in the caches? Not that I'm trying to draw you into this, but I would like to get your input."
"Sure," Yates said offhandly as he headed for the door. "But not today, huh? I've got work to do."
The halls of the LSF suite were darkened and quiet by the time hunger drove Yates to clear off his desk and go home. He locked his desk and disk file, then, keys jangling in his hand, headed down the main corridor to the entrance. En route, he saw a line of light at the bottom of the door to Stowe's office, and pushed it open. The associate director was seated sideways on the couch, shoes off and legs up, a notepad on her lap and an open can of Pepsi on the floor beside her.
"Ready to pack it in? I could stand a beer."
Stowe looked up. "What time is it?"
Peeling back a cuff, Yates looked at his watch. "Almost seven."
"Think I'll stay on a bit," Stowe said, stifling a yawn.
Yates glanced at the top sheet in the portfolio open in front of her. He read the her neat block-printed column headings upside down:
A long list of notes in Stowe's symmetric handwriting filled the rest of the sheet.
Shrugging, Yates backed out of the room. "Suit yourself."
When he reached the parking lot, he looked back up at the second floor. The window of Stowe's office was the only one in the entire west face of the building bright with light. "Bernadette, my sweet, you still haven't learned not to always volunteer for the front lines," he said softly. "You've got to pick your fights, and that one's not ours."
Then, shaking his head as though faced with the incomprehensible, Yates climbed into his car and drove away.
Two mornings later, Yates arrived before eight a.m. to find a blue Air Force sedan was again parked in the walkway spot. On seeing it, Yates hurried inside and upstairs. He found Stowe and Rutledge just settling into chairs in the conference room.
"Daniel," Stowe said with a nod. "Glad you could make it."
"I thought you didn't need to see us until Friday," Yates said to Rutledge, taking a nearby seat.
"I asked the General to come in," Stowe said quietly. "I may have a recommendation for packaging a survival cache."
"May have?" Rutledge asked, a warning tone in his voice. "I didn't come here for more doubletalk and indecision."
Stowe tossed her head. "You won't get any. I think I have an excellent solution to the problem you posed. But there're certain requirements I'm not sure you'd be able to meet. I wanted to find out from you immediately, so that I didn't spend any more time on it if it wasn't."
Rutledge nodded to himself and waved a hand. "Go ahead."
"Whatever medium we use, the cache has to be both able to survive the war itself and able to be found easily afterwards. The problem is that those two factors cut against each other. There's a lot of places you could put something and know it was going to get thorugh all right: buried in the middle of Indiana cornfields, hidden in salt mines. But it'd be just the wildest luck if they were ever found."
"Hell, you just need some way to tell everyone where they are. You could even put some sort of transmitter on them," Yates suggested.
"Yes -- but then you'd have to assume that the survivors have working radios, and we're better off making as few optimistic assumptions as necessary. And if you think it through, I don't think you'll want to publicize the existance or location of the caches until they're needed."
Fine. See if I open my mouth again."So what, then?" Rutledge asked.
"I'm thinking along the lines of putting the caches in water. Some sort of neutral-buoyancy canister which you anchor below the surface like a mine. You could put them all along the continental shelf and in the major lakes and rivers. As soon as the first one's found word'd spread pretty fast."
Stowe's rebuff had made Yates contentious. "Aren't you writing off the Great Plains?"
"To some degree. Most of the population lives on the coasts or near a major river. With municipal water systems destroyed, the survivors will come to natural water supplies eventually."
"Yes," Rutledge said, interested.
"The problem is that the places you'd want to put the caches are also heavily used for recreation -- swimming, fishing, boating. They'd raise a lot of questions you might not want to answer, not to mention the possibility of vandalism."
Rutledge wagged a finger in the air. "I still like it. You could avoid some complications if you just deployed them at the last possible moment."
"But that leads to all sorts of logistic problems in storage, production, the manpower and organization needed to deploy them," she said.
Rutledge tapped his service insignia. "You forget who you're working for. How big would these be?"
"They could be any size, but I'd recommend restricting them to a size one person could recover. Say a metre in diameter, fifty or sixty kilograms."
"Then we could just drop them out of the back of C-119s. Make them float. Don't anchor them at all," Rutledge said, sitting back. "I presume you'd fill them with penicillin, high protein foods--"
"Medical supplies would probably be a low priority. If the nuclear winter hypothesis is correct, the greatest needs would be food for the present and seed stocks for the future. I do have one serious concern, though. I'd estimate a 40 percent wastage rate if the caches are floating free--"
"But they'd be simpler to make and more reliable," Yates interjected. "So we'll just deploy more of them."
She glared at him for interrupting. "I was going to say that if they're all the same, that's acceptable. But if you've got something of special importance, that method won't do at all."
Rutledge sat forward. "What do you mean, something of special importance?"
"Well -- why shouldn't some art objects survive? What's the most valuable thing the nation owns? The original Constitution? Maybe we want to send a medical database instead of a few syringes of broad-spectrum antibiotics. Dan's looking at stocking the caches. He might have other ideas."
Rutledge looked to Yates. "Well, Doctor? What about it? What would you send?"
Yeah, she asked me, but I haven't given it a thought since. Thanks for putting me on the spot, Bernie. "How are you going to package the `special' caches, Dr. Stowe?" he asked, ducking Rutledge's question.
"In satellites," she said. "Big dumb satellites launched into unstable polar ellipical orbits -- orbiting the earth the way a comet might orbit the sun. Very bright reflective coating, so that every time one reaches perigee it draws attention in the night sky. A nice low perigee so the atmosphere eventually drags it down. An ablative coating contaminated with nodules of copper and strontium chloride so the fireball is green and scarlet, and it's not mistaken for a meteor when it comes down. And just enough of a guidance system to see that it comes down on land."
I guess that overtime paid off, Yates thought with honest appreciation. Very nice.
Rutledge waggled a finger at Stowe. "This is why you called me. You need to know if I could arrange for such a thing to be launched."
She nodded. "We'd be extremely limited in our payload if we had to depend on Space Systems International or even Arianespace, so much so that I'm not sure it'd be worth doing. But one Shuttle can get us 40,000 pounds into polar orbit from Vandenberg. I think I could get two specials in for that."
"You'd program them to come back here, I presume. If we can't help everyone then we need to make certain we help our survivors, not theirs."
Stowe nodded agreeably. "We should be able to target the North American continent as easily as any. The east coast, I would think, though we'll want to look at targeting and the distribution of our floaters."
Steepling his fingers, Rutledge stared into the tabletop for a long moment. "Time," he said finally. "Do you have enough time to do both, the floaters and the specials? We're looking at thirty, maybe forty-five days."
Rutledge's comment furrowed Yates' brow. What happened to the six months? Yates wondered, suddenly attentive.
"The floaters will be ready. I've felt out two suppliers, and if I get them plans tomorrow they'll start turning them out by the first of next week. The floaters are really pretty simple -- a counterweight, a marker flag, a compartmented interior and a pictograph that shows you how to open it. If you're ready to authorize an overtime contract --"
"Done." Rutledge squinted at Yates. "Where are you, Doctor? You haven't said much. In fact, I get the impression you aren't really involved in this project."
Yates rocked back and folded his hands in his lap. "I suppose that's because I have trouble taking it seriously," he answered honestly.
"Any particular reason?"
"Lots of them. For one, I can't buy into your scenario. Everyone knows the High Frontier won't work. I don't believe for a minute the USSR would attack us because of it. That unravels the whole model, including what you want us to do."
Rutledge traced small circles on the tabletop with a fingertip. "I had a teammate like you once, Yates. All week he'd have terrible practices---dropping balls, missing his routes, cutting up. Game time came, and he played like a champion. He just couldn't take practice seriously. But when the pressure was on --" His gaze flicked up from the tabletop to Yates' eyes. "You've been jerkin' me around. We're running out of time, and you're jerkin' me around. Dr. Stowe there knows this is the game, not the practice, but you're looking the other way."
"Do you want me to believe that scenario's anything more than a paper exercise?"
"Yes." Flint-grey eyes burned into sky-blue ones. "You don't know anything about DOD security, or you'd realize that I have access to Class II materials but I can't show them around or grant anyone else Class II clearance. And I told you last time that the USSR is afraid of High Frontier. Maybe I'd better tell you why."
"Because they're paranoid, just like you," Yates said with a smirk and a shrug.
"No. Because some of the High Frontier satellites are carrying orbit-to-ground nuclear weapons. And the Russians know it."
The smirk slowly faded as Yates' eyes widened in shock. Then his lips curled in an expression of virulent hatred and he came up out of his seat. "You fuckin' idiots!" he screeched, shaking both clenched fists in front of him. "You goddamn snakebrain sons of bitches put nukes in orbit? Sweet Jesus--" His voice trailing off to a whimper, he squeezed his eyes closed as if in pain and melted back down into his chair.
Though equally shaken, Stowe allowed herself no such display. She folded trembling hands together and brought them slowly to her mouth, and then went her body went rigid.
"I won't defend the decision," Rutledge continued in a soft voice. "It wasn't mine to make, and I think it was the wrong one. But it was made at the very top."
"The Chiefs of Staff?" Stowe asked in an unsteady voice.
"No. At the very top."
"Why?" It was question, plaint and protest all in one.
"They believed they had to do something to counter the USSR's advantage---2-1 in launchers and 3-1 advantage in throwweight, 5-1 in most conventional weapons. That plays on you after a while. And Congress kept knocking down almost every new system and giving away all the secrets on the few they approved. So we hid the funds for Damocles in the High Frontier project."
"Damocles," she echoed.
"You shouldn't have told us," Yates croaked at last. "I can't keep quiet about this. I've got to get it out."
"No, you don't," Rutledge said, standing. "Unless you want to be the cause of the war. Negotiations are underway at the highest level. You and I have to pray they succeed. But this can't be fought out in public. Neither side would be able to be flexible. Once everyone knows the warheads are there, the President would lose the option of ordering them removed. He can't back down to the Russians publicly. So hold your tongue, Dr. Yates---and get to work."
When the door clicked shut, Yates and Stowe sat beside each other for an interminable minute, isolated by their inexpressible thoughts, frozen by an overwhelming helplessness. Then without warning Yates leaped to his feet, toppling his chair backwards onto the floor, and fled the room without a word.
"Daniel!" she called out after him.
But it was not enough to slow his flight, though she followed and repeated the call down the stairwell. He took the steps three and four at a time as though pursued by a demon, and when he drove away tires and engine cried out protests that might have been his own.
Yates sat on his heels before the white marble cross and fingered the carved grooves of the lettering on the crosspiece.
Around him, seventy thousand similar crosses stood in coldly precise lines and rows on the gently rolling land, acre after acre of mouldering bodies lying as regimented in death as in life.
Deanna R. Yates
Specialist 7th Airborne
May 13, 1990
Estanzueles, El Salvador
"Do you know how much I hate it here, Dee?" he said softly, withdrawing his hand. "Do you know what this place says to me? All the puffy-cheeked mothers and dutiful sons, the wet-eyed wives and fathers, all the lies they tell themselves and each other. Honorable death. Noble cause. I wouldn't have let them leave you here, little sister. If it had been up to me--"
I always talk to you as though you were still alive. Why is That, Dee? There's nothing here but the cloak your spirit wore. Why don't I go to the last place I saw you alive and try to catch a memory there? But I come here, where all I can see is them folding the flag and handing it to Mom.
"If there was to be any point in what happened to you, it would be if they learned enough from the small wars not to fight the big one." His voice broke and he bit at his lower lip, the corners of his eyes wet with incipient tears. "But it's beginning to look like there wasn't any point to any of it. Not to your dying, or my living, or any of what we've done."
With a forlorn wail, Yates pitched forward and pounded his clenched fists against the unyielding ground. He fought the tears but they came nonetheless, his tortured sobs marking the struggle and leaving him weak and aching. It was a long several minutes before he sat upright again.
"Oh, God. Don't they know?" he demanded of the dead in a voice thick with anguish and anger, spreading his arms wide to include the skeletal crosses from horizon to horizon. "Don't they realize what they stand to lose? Don't they understand how improbable we are?"
He held his own hands out before him and studied them as though seeing them for the first time, moving his thumb and each finger in turn. "A cosmic alchemer's triumph, gifted with eyes that see beauty and minds that create it," he said reverently. "Oh, Dee. It's more than the body dying. You could tell them how little that means. But they're going to kill the spirit of what we were -- Of what we wanted to be. God, we're never going to go to the stars--"
With a keening cry, he flung his arms around the cross, clutching it as he would have hugged Deanna, flattening his tear-slick cheek against its smooth cold surface. Great sobs tore through him, escaping as explosive gasps and whimpers.
A hand on his shoulder that was not his own, a soothing voice repeating his name, and at length Yates lifted his head. "Bernie," he said, with an unhappy laugh.
She crounched beside him. "Here," she said, opening her arms, and he gave up the grave marker's embrace for hers. They cried quietly together for a while, neither saying anything. Presently Yates pulled away.
"You followed me?"
"I knew where you'd go." She held his hands in hers. "It hasn't happened yet. It might not."
He flashed a maudlin smile. "You were always the realist in this partnership. Don't try to change your spots now."
Brushing his cheek with the back of one hand, she answered, "Even realists are allowed hope, Dan."
He cast his eyes downward, and in the moment of silence that followed both heard the sound of birds in a nearby tree and traffic on a distant road. "You know, I figured out why you hang your diplomas and I don't," he said, grinning crookedly. "Maybe it's some of the extra baggage that goes with being a damned good-looking woman -- it was always important to you that people knew you came in the front door, that you were there on merit."
"I'm just a gold-star girl at heart," she said with a tender smile. "And you hide yours away because you don't want to belong to any club that'd have you as a member. Come on, Dan. Let's go. This isn't helping you any."
He used the cross as a crutch to pull himself to his feet, then helped her up as well. "Or anyone else, h'm? Can you meet me back at the office?"
"Thanks. I'm going to need some help getting caught up before I'll be any use to you."
For two months they heard nothing from Gen. Rutledge except acknowlegements through his staff: 100 water caches received at Andrews for the Chesapeake, 300 received at Grissom for the lower Great Lakes.
Stowe located two Hughes 570 modular satellite chassis about to be shipped to AT&T and flew to California to buy them away from their owner. She stayed to supervise their conversion into her special caches.
Yates remained in Maryland, but called her daily, both to keep track of each her progress and for reinforcement they both needed. Of his own progress, there was little to report. Deciding what was to go in the specials was a burden rather than a privilege, and the enormity of the responsibility led him to procrastinate. It was values and ethics class all over again: what do you take to a desert island, what do you rescue from a burning house? And do your choices describe a person you're comfortable being --
Choosing not for himself but for Bernie and his parents and the women he was dating and even Gen. Rutledge (he would not allow himself to think in terms of choosing for Earth's five billion strangers), Yates assembled an imposing list of possibilities and proceeded to raise ambivalence to a high art. He comforted himself with the thought that Stowe's hardware was the pacing item; unless and until the satellites were ready, the question of their cargo remained academic.
Steady progress on the satellites did not make him any more decisive; the pacing item became the availability of a launcher. His calls on that subject found Rutledge "not available" and the general failed to return them. After a week of waiting, Yates pressed the issue in person.
Deep worry lines and dark circles under the eyes made Rutledge look older than when Yates had last seen him. "What are you here for?"
Taking a chair without being invited, Yates answered, "I could do with some good news."
Rutledge shook his head solemnly. "There is none."
"You said they were negotiating --"
"Talks are stalled. No, they're worse than stalled, they're frosty. And construction goes on."
"Why? The least we could do is hold the status quo."
"The official wisdom is that the Russians won't act," Rutledge said wearily. "The truth is that now that we've finally got the advantage, we're not willing to give it up."
"What are you telling me?"
He toyed with a pencil before answering. "That we've got two weeks, maybe three, before it all goes up. It's out of control. And there isn't anything that you or I or even the people'll that'll give the orders can do about it. The Joint Chiefs would rather use those warheads than give them up, and they've got the President convinced the Soviets are bluffing. Everyone will make what they think is the only right decision and it'll all add up to one very wrong decision. And if there's justice in this Universe they'll have at least a few hours to regret their part in it."
"We can get the specials launched. We can do that much."
"There's not enough time."
"Damn you, don't you quit on us! Do you think we took your six months as a promise? Bernie's been working 20-hour days---"
"And she's done a good job. We've got almost fifteen hundred water caches ready to deploy."
"The water caches are band-aids. The specials are what really matter. What have you done about manifesting them on a DOD Shuttle?"
Yates came to his feet and slammed his hands palm-down on the desk in front of Rutledge. "Why the hell not? You sang us a song about following through and now you don't."
Rutledge cocked his head and looked up at Yates. The intensity of the younger man's expression seemed to pain him. "You're still angry. I envy you that. I've gone past angry to something much less fulfilling," he said with uncharacteristic gentleness. "I did nothing because I had no reason to believe you could be ready. Now that I know differently, I'll make some calls. Go ask Mary to get us both some coffee, yes?"
Yates returned in five minutes to find Rutledge standing behind his newly cleared desk, pulling on an overcoat. "You've got Explorer for a flight on the 16th. That's eight days. Can you be ready?"
"We'll be ready. Tell them to mount two 570-series cradles--"
Rutledge pressed a card torn from a Rolodex into Yates' hand as he moved past toward the door. "Tell them yourself. I've told them to expect you. I have other responsibilities to deal with.
This is in your hands now."
"I've been wondering if I was ever going to see you," Stowe said, clutching Yates' arm as she joined him in the otherwise empty observation stands three miles from the Vandenberg Shuttle pad.
"Did you get the payloads integrated?"
"I wouldn't be here if I hadn't. But I had no chance to get inside them. What are we sending up?"
"Not enough," Yates said in a faraway voice. "Not enough." He glanced at the electronic clock. "Coming out of the hold."
"Oh, hell. You can tell me later. I don't want to think about Anything now except that we're going to make it. We're going to get them off," she said with a happy sigh. "I've worked harder on those birds than I've ever worked on anything ever in my life. And I've never wanted more for something I did to be totally unnecessary. Did you talk to Rutledge before you left? Where do we stand?"
"Rutledge dropped out of sight -- went somewhere with his family."
"That's not good."
"I don't know. He seemed -- I don't know." Yates squinted in the direction of the pad. "There goes the oxygen vent arm."
"Just a couple of minutes, then. I remember watching the first launches on TV as a kid," she said wistfully. "I knew the countdown sequence by heart."
They clung to each other in a fierce but asexual embrace as the last seconds ticked away.
"I've had a standing offer from Philip Cortieri for ten years to watch the grey whale migration off the Baja, but never took him up on it," Yates said as the clock reached 0:10. "When we're done here, how about going down there with me?"
She smiled wistfully. "Sure."
"If you can handle scuba gear, we can watch them from underwater. I'd like to get close."
"Maybe even hitch a ride?"
Steam like white cotton billowed from the south side of the pad as a flicker of yellow marked the ignition of the main engines. At 0:00, the Shuttle rose off the pad and hurtled southward atop a dense pillar-like cloud lit from within by a furious white fire.
"Fantastic. Go go go go go," Yates murmered, and then the tsunami of sound washed over them and drowned out his urgings.
The echoes of the Shuttle's departure were still rumbling when Stowe tugged at Yates' sleeve and pointed at an arcing contrail high in the western sky. "What's that?" she asked.
Yates shielded his eyes with a hand and studied the phenomenon with a sinking heart.
"There's another one," she said suddenly. "Daniel --"
They watched the incoming missles impassively, conscious of the futility of flight or protest. A halo of light more intense than a million Shuttle engines blinded them, and the radiation that accompanied it burned them where they stood, consciousness fleeing an endless instant after agony enveloped them.
But it was the death they would have chosen. For before long, the silo-studded plains were burning, and the cities which were home to pilots and sailors and soldiers were burning, and the Furnace-like columns of air the wildfires created thrust their burdens of smoke and ash into the highest regions of the atmosphere, where they merged into a spreading cloud that turned day to twilight and then to night.
And then winter came to the world.
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Created: 19 March 2005
Last Revised: 04 March 2014 07:41 AM