Authors: Marc Stiegler
Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #General
A team of superior U.S. hackers seeks to develop computer-controlled smart weapons for use against a hostile power, but the team members find they need a greater understanding of the problem itself as they search for a way to end a war between two superpowers without destroying the planet itself.
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 1988 by Marc Stiegler
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form. .
A Baen Books Original
Baen Publishing Enterprises
260 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY. 10001
First Baen printing, January 1988
Cover art by David Mattingly
Printed in the United States of America
SIMON & SCHUSTER
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY. 10020
Electronic Version by Baen Books
To those who never stop
seeking the third alternatives.
All side effects are effects.
We can never do merely one thing.
—First Law Of Ecology
Glare. Howling wind. A rope sliding upward in the snow. Sharp-cut steps in the mountainside. His leg straining to take that next step. Hilan Forstil knew nothing beyond that next step. He balanced on the dull edge of unconsciousness, yet he took that next step. And the next.
He remembered this feeling from long ago. The feeling was one of exhaustion—an exhaustion so deep that even the thought of death did not bother him. The memory came from a time over two decades in his past—from his time in Nigeria, working among starving children.
Such exhaustion made one sloppy, he knew. And such sloppiness was dangerous in struggles like this. The danger to himself didn't bother him—after all, he didn't care if he died—but it disturbed him that an error here could kill his rope partner.
On the other hand, it was her fault that they were here at all. An image flashed in his mind of Jan's face at their last rest stop. The flush of her cheeks, the brillJant of her blue eyes . . . her energy seemed too intense to be healthy. Dimly, he remembered having had such energy himself, standing at the base of the mountain. But the mountain and its vertical miles of glacial white had consumed him. It had not consumed her.
He wanted to curse her.
And he wanted to thank her. With every step he completed, he touched an inner power he had forgotten. He had worked so hard the last two decades to forge the tools of external power; such tools seemed fragile now.
The rope slackened. Hilan breathed a sigh of relief and slowed to match the speed of the rope.
Keep the rope just barely dragging the ground between us
, Jan had explained the day before,
except during a
—the rope yanked taut, causing Hilan to stumble—
He peered up. Sure enough, the chiseled footprints went on to his left for a short time, then veered back sharply to the right. Jan was directly above, climbing to the right with a cougar's enthusiasm. He couldn't go all the way around the switchback even if he had the energy: but if he continued to the left, the taut rope would drag Jan back as well. He took one more pressure-breath and shakily climbed straight up the mountain, shortcutting through e switc .
Noticing the jerking motions of the rope, Jan stopped to look back. Her mouth dropped open. "Hilan," she called loudly, "you can't—"
Hilan looked up at her, just as the snow yielded beneath his foot. He plunged through the snow bridge into the crevasse beneath.
The rope snapped taut, bouncing him wildly on the end. The plunge halted only a moment before he plummeted again and the rope slid farther ever the edge. He looked down into the shadowy cavern below, interested but not afraid. The all-crushing fatigue numbed his mind; he just didn't care. He contemplated his own emptiness, knowing that his lack of fear should be the greatest cause for fear.
His descent slowed, then stopped. He swung lazily in the endless, rocky fracture, listening to the sudden quiet. A wheezing cough echoed down from above. Hilan pictured Jan on the edge of the precipice, leaning into her ice axe with all her-strength to stop the fall. Both their lives depended on her endgranqe.
The realization of her danger finally impelled him to action. Miraculously, his ice axe yet dangled from his right wrist. He pressed his lips together for an explosive series of breaths—the whistling sound seemed almost natural now—and wriggled his ice axe into his backpack straps. He grasped the rope. The fatigue yielded to a last buildup of adrenalin.
He climbed over halfway up the rope before the adrenalin failed.
He clung to the rope, thinking about the danger to Jan. If he could not complete this climb, he had to save her. He still had his knife. He could cut the rope, freeing her from his own fate. He would save enough strength to complete that last act, if necessary. But he was not that lost yet, not quite yet.
Shadows. Deadly quiet. A rope anchored in the snow. His left arm stretching to grasp the next handheld. He balanced on the dull edge of unconsciousness, yet he took that next handheld. And the next.
The rope ended. Hilan reached over the lip of ice, heaving himself out of the crevasse into the glare and the howling wind.
The two-man celebration began with champagne. "A toast to the Soviet Union!" Jim Mayfield exclaimed, raising his glass.
Earl Semmens raised his as well; the glasses tinkled in midair. "A toast to peace," be offered.
"And above all, a least to tomorrow's Gallup poll results." Mayfield sipped the champagne. His eyes slid across the floor, lingering on the emblem woven with rich blues and golds into the carpet. It was his, at least for now. The emblem was the ofiicial seal of the President of the United States. He sat back down; the Secretary of State followed his lead.
Earl sat on the edge of his chair, staring out the window. He spoke in rehearsal of his planned statement to the press. "Yes, this treaty is another potent lever against the arms race. Now that we've curtailed the space-based Ballistic Missile Defense work, all incentives for building new missiles will disappear." He turned back to Mayfield, and for a moment his pudgy features held lines of worry. He tapped a nervous finger on the president's desk. "I wish they hadn't instigated that . . . little incident in Honduras just before the signing. God, they know how to goad us!" He shivered, then resumed his nervous tapping. "Well, we couldn't have done anything about that anyway, regardless of treaties. And the treaty's more impartant." He nodded his head, and his voice again sounded press-ready. "Yes, the whole world can sleep more securely now that the arms race in space has stopped."
Sometimes the elegant power of the Oval Office gave Jim a sense of grandeur. Seated behind a desk of massive proportions, a desk to dwarf even giants, he felt the ramifications of his decisions pulsing through the world. "Not quite everybody will sleep more securely, Earl. Those goddam contractors working on space weapons will have to find an honest way to make a living." He rubbed his hands. "We may balance the budget yet, Earl." He breathed a sigh of exultation. "Wouldn't
make a hit on the polls."
The door from the Rose Garden swept open with smooth, decisive authority. Even without looking, Mayfield knew who it had to be—though he could not prevent himself from shooting a frown toward the door.
Only one person other than himself entered this room as if she owned it: Mayfield's Vice President, Nell Carson. Mayfield smiled blandly, confident that his irritation remained hidden. Watching her look back at him, Jim saw that Nell had no intention of concealing her irritation. It poisoned the joy of his celebration.
Sometimes the elegant power of the Oval Office gave Jim a sense of claustrophobic choking. As Nell looked at him, he felt a brief desire to plead that it wasn't his fault, whatever had happened. His eyes returned involuntarily to the emblem in the carpet; it reassured him.
Nell stepped to the center of the room to address both men. She spoke with tight control that did not reveal her gentle South Carolina accent. "Congratulations, Jim. You have the record for the most treaties with the Soviet Union in the history of American presidents. I have one question."
Jim looked up into her face, searching for the Nell he had known during the campaign—the Nell with the patient smile who had charmed the crowds with her enthusiasm and warmth. She had been a terrific asset during the cmnpaign. When she spoke, the voters believed.
Unfortunately, the charming Nell had faded under the weight of office. Now he could only see the Nell who had devastated opponents with her incisive criticisms. Jim's throat felt dry as he filled the silence. "Yes? What one question do you have?"
"Now that you have set the presidential record, I was wondering: Can you stop now?"
Mayfield's smile turned gray, and his heart missed a beat—something it did more often now than before, something he should check . . . He excised the thought from his mind, removing it with surgical perfection, and reluctantly met her gaze, contemplating her question, looking beyond it to her problem.
Nell Carson was the problem, he decided. She never took a moment to look at the bright side. Perhaps that explained the drawn lines in her face. During the campaign, the only objection the media had raised about Nell was that she was too young. She had
too young. No one said that any longer. Mayfield sighed. "Why do you always complain about our successes? You know we needed that treaty. We had to get that treaty. Our position with the public was slipping." He shrugged. "We have to depend on treaties, not weapons, if we're going to have a chance of dealing with our domestic problems."
Nell looked into his eyes. It seemed Jim could hear his words echoing back to him, amplified and clarified by Nell's implicit interpretation. She asked, "Who are you trying to convince?"
Mayfield stared at her in amazement. "I'm convincing the public, of course." Her hawkish glare made him shiver. "If I didn't know better, I'd swear you were a Republican!"
A tight smile crossed her face. "Perhaps I should be." She leaned over Jim's desk. "Don't you see the problem with what you've done? Six months ago, you made the agreement on Global Consequences of Nuclear War. There you agreed that, above a certain level of nuclear war, the radiation and climate of a war would destroy the attacker, even if the defender didn't shoot back. Now you put a limit on Ballistic Missile Defense. Either one of these treaties, all by itself, is okay. But when combined, they form a terrible danger. Don't you see how these separate agreements interact?"
She paused in her speech. A stiff creak announced Earl's attempt to shift his chair away from her.
She did not relent. "
Winning an all out war now sounds believable
. Without any missile defenses, but with an agreed threshold for nuclear suicide, the first side to launch its missiles is protected from retaliation—because the first strike will deliver as many megatons of destruction as the Earth can absorb. If the victim shoots back, he's destroying whatever survivors remain
in his own country
Mayfield waved the objection aside. "Don't be boring; we've discussed this a million times. The Russians don't think that way. That would be the attitude of a madman!"
"That would be the attitude of a terrorist," came Nell's curt reply. "With strategies based on terror, only terrorists have a chance of winning." Her eyes swept over both men. Jim shivered.
Neil's mouth softened into a sad smile. "And I don't see a single terrorist in this room. I don't even see anyone willing to speak out about clear violations of national boundaries—like the fiasco outside Yuscaran."
Jim looked speechlessly at Earl. He felt like cement cracking under the weight of a speeding truck. "How did you find out about that?"
Nell laughed joylessly. "You sent me to Texas to give Kurt McKenna his medal, remember? I have the clearances, Jim, and under the circumstances, I had suflicient need to know." She lifted her briefcase and thumped it against the polished mahogany surface, making Jim wince. With forceful snaps, she released the latches and removed a television with a tiny video player. "I think you should see this for yourself, Jim."
He had no time to object before the tape rolled into action.
They were traveiing down a twisting trail, cloaked in juggle growth. It looked like a sticky, humid day, which made Mayfield appreciate the cool comfort of the Oval Office. He could hear tracks clanking in the background, though the sound was muted. Ahead of them on the trail was an armored vehicle. Mayfield wasn't sure, but he thought it was probably a Bradley armored personnel carrier. He vaguely remembered authorizing a few for the Hondurans.
Nell acted as commentator. "We're watching through the gun cameras of a personnel carrier," she explaiped.
A dull explosion sounded, and the screen washed out in a searing white flame. A scream came from very close by. With a chill, Mayfield realized that there had been people inside the machine now turning into an inferno.
Nell spoke with dry, scientific precision. "They hit the Bradley with a shaped charge. The penetrating explosion hit the ammunition magazine. The brightness of the explosion severely damaged our gun camera; the rest of this tape has been computer enhanced."
The whiteout of the screen faded; a ghostly soft image replaced it. Men scurried into the jungle as the second Bradley disgorged its troops. The computer enhancement kept the soldiers visible to Mayfield's untrained eye, though he suspected that without the computer's intervention, they would have disappeared in the heavy foliage. They all looked like Honduran troops.
One Caucasian stood out by virtue of his uniform and his pale blue eyes. He took off with astonishing speed, loping over the fallen trees, hurrying away from the others. The camera lurched as another explosion sounded, muted, but somehow closer. A sound he had not noticed before stopped—the sound of an engine thrumming. He could not see it, but Mayfield realized that the Bradley from which they watched the scene had been hit, though the camera continued to roll.
The focus shifted to another ragged cluster of men with machine guns, beyond the burning Bradiey. Their seemingly random pattern proved quite methodical. They engaged the scattered Honduran troops one handful at a time, overwhelming them piecemeal.
Something seemed wrong with this battle. Mayfield asked, "Where's our air cover?"
"Our helicopters are old and tired, Jim. They're too dangerous to use in battle."
"What about artillery support?"
"We were using our newest radios for communication. They're very delicate, it turns out—oh, the boxes are mil-spec and indestructible, but their frequencies wobble and they get out of tune all the time. So nobody heard about the ambush until it was over." She paused, then ended. "I asked Kurt about it at the reception. He didn't exactly answer me; I suspect he couldn't say what he wanted to in civilized company. Instead he very politely told me that he was getting out of the army—that he intended to get as far away from it as he could go."