Moscow, Russian Republic.
The room smelled of desperate and unexpected victory, stinking with sweat and bad breath and the sharp tang of vodka. In respect for the rules, Cherepovitch had allowed only one shot for each soldier. Alcohol was strictly forbidden in GRU headquarters.
"It's the size of the d.a.m.n gla.s.ses that gets me," Major Paxton said to Kalashnikov, one of Cherepovitch's cigars clenched in his still trembling fingers. "You think they're such tiny little things, and the next thing you know you're singing and being dragged along the street by your friends because you can't walk anymore."
Kalashnikov laughed, but not loudly. He was still shaky from reaction. They were sitting in the upper control room, a booth where cable news played around the clock. Hours, it had been, and nothing had leaked. The biggest story was the American tour of the Polish rock band Night, now singing to sellout crowds and being likened to the Beatles, during the British invasion.
"Every new band gets compared to the Beatles," Paxton said. "When I was a kid the Bay City Rollers were compared to the Beatles, for G.o.dsake."
"Who?" asked Kalashnikov.
"So tell me, Major," Cherepovitch said casually. "Why do you think the weapon malfunctioned?"
"Could be the guidance systems were corroded somehow," Paxton mused. "Or faulty to begin with. I'm sure our entire fleet of nuclear missiles-what's left of them-are going to be overhauled starting immediately. I'm sure you'll do the same."
"You wouldn't, perhaps, have shot it down, would you?" Cherepovitch asked, taking a puff on his cigar and squinting his eyes as though he were telling a joke.
Paxton threw his head back and laughed.
"You don't get off that easy," he said. "Our missile defenses were never installed, remember? We made up Star Wars to end the arms race, not to actually build the d.a.m.n thing." Paxton put his cigar in his teeth and put an arm around Cherepovitch and his other arm around Kalashnikov. He gave them both an unexpected and very Russian bear hug.
"We were d.a.m.n lucky, that's all," he said.
Memorial Hospital, Colorado Springs.
Eileen was slouched in a chair in the waiting room, trying to read a magazine. Stillwell, who was grimacing and sipping at some very old coffee, looked up.
"Did you get the Pickle home safe?" Lucy asked. Stillwell had dropped her at the hotel before returning Gwen's car to the airport.
"Safe and sound," Stillwell said, grinning. Eileen snorted.
"I can't believe you got that thing to go over twenty."
"Gwen was amazed too," Stillwell said.
"Where's Joe?" Lucy asked.
"At home," Eileen said. "I took him home. He needed the sleep. And he didn't want to talk to Lowell."
"I can understand why," Lucy said. "And Blaine?"
"Safe in custody at Peterson," Stillwell said with satisfaction. "Now all we h
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