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The recent hurricane had left Grand Cayman even flatter than usual. But by some miracle the Buccaneer Inn, near the center of Seven-Mile Beach, had been spared, and its bar was already back in business. So Ben Roark could sit in the sea breeze at one of the few authentic beachside bars left, and toast the dispensation of nature which had left him his favorite watering hole. It was as good a thing as any to toast.

He sat with his back to the hotel pool and the agreeably seedy buildings behind it, looking out Caribbean-ward at the setting sun behind the array of bottles. Behind him and to the left, the pinochle game was in full swing at the little table where, he was assured, it had been going on for at least two generations, since the 1970s. Roark didn't know about that, but he could testify that it had been in progress since he'd started frequenting the Buccaneer. The players changed, one Caymanian taking over another's hand as the other shuffled off to do whatever it was Caymanians did, but the game lived on. He wondered what would have happened if Hurricane Sergei had blown this place away. Would they have set the table back up, lonely on the beach, and resumed the game in splendid isolation with only the seabirds for spectators? Probably not. They would have found another hotel bar.

Roark shifted position on the stool, careful to keep his back in its practiced anti-interruption arch. It was how he always presented his back to the tourists—mostly tipsy on the foo-foo rum drinks with little paper parasols that provided the bar's profit margin—who shot curious glances at the white man who obviously wasn't one of them. He had no desire to be drawn into any conversation but the one he was already having with Marlowe, who occupied the stool to his left.

The Jamaican dropped into the Buccaneer whenever he was in the Caymans on his obscure business trips. (Drugs, of course, though Roark had never been boorish enough to ask him.) They'd been talking about Jamaica, and Roark was just through telling Marlowe what he wanted to hear: that Jamaica had an identity, it was a nation, not just an offshore U.S. beach like the Caymans.

"Dis mon speaks nothin' but de truth!" Marlowe announced to everyone in earshot, thumping the bar for emphasis. "Bring him another of what he drinkin'," he added imperiously, in the general direction of the bartender.

It was, Roark thought, good to know that some things never changed—like the way the Jamaicans had of lording it over the blacks from the other ex-British colonies in the West Indies. The bartender produced an Appleton's straight up with wordless dignity, darting Roark a look of disapproval for bullshitting Marlowe out of free drinks.

What the hell, Roark thought, it's only justice. This way, at least some of the money he's made selling drugs to Americans finds its way back home. He instantly regretted the thought. The fact was, he genuinely liked Marlowe—and most Jamaicans, come to that. It wasn't their fault that Americans were determined to destroy their brains. Given a demand like that, somebody was bound to supply it. Jamaican drug dealers—and Mexicans, and Colombians, and the up-and-coming Haitians—had never forced a single American to use their wares. Pointing out that fact was a one-way road to total unpopularity in the U.S., whose national symbol should have been the scapegoat rather than the eagle. Roark could attest to that.

Marlowe took a swig of his Red Stripe beer and gave Roark an appraising look. "So how you holdin' up, mon?"

"Can't complain." That was another thing he liked about Marlowe: the Jamaican had always reciprocated his own disinclination to ask detailed occupational questions. "I'm sort of semiretired, you know. A freelancer."

"Uh-huh." Marlowe nodded. "Been doin' much freelancin' lately?"

"Well, business is kind of slow. . . . "

"Uh-huh," Marlowe repeated, and gave his head a shake of commiseration. "It de times, mon. Terrible times all over. So many changes." He took another gulp of Red Stripe and looked around at the sea, the beach and the palm trees as though in search of something immutable. It was a mistake, for as his gaze swung around to the left he saw what had been in Roark's line of sight all along.

The Cayman Islands had maintained—indeed, cemented—their position as the Switzerland of the western hemisphere, and George Town had recently seen a building boom. The new edifices the banks had put up were visible from here, for they soared to a height their slender lines seemed incapable of supporting. Lokaron structural materials, Roark thought. He recalled long-ago briefings: metals of a perfect, molecularly aligned crystalline structure, produced in zero gravity. . . .

"Yeah," he agreed. "Awful goddamned times." He looked away from those hateful towers, then glanced to his right, where he heard someone settling onto the neighboring stool. His eyes met those of the new arrival . . . and froze.

Henry Havelock gave his patented lift of one gray eyebrow. "Why, Ben!" he exclaimed, smoothly counterfeiting surprise.

Well, I was searching for things that never change, Roark told himself. One such thing was the way Americans expected high-level government operatives to look. Havelock had that look in spades: a vigorously spare man in his well-preserved sixties, lean keen face tanned red-brown, gray mustache clipped to mathematically perfect neatness, unconscious military bearing even in the touristy getup he was now wearing. In every generation, that look seemed to carry a reassurance that the men of an earlier, more solid America were still quietly running things. Total bullshit, of course, Roark reflected. Especially in Havelock's case.

"You a friend of Ben's, mon?" Marlowe asked, extending a hand.

Roark performed curt introductions. Havelock gave the Jamaican a level blue regard (yes, he had blue eyes, too) and briefly took the proffered hand. "So I am," he said, sparing Roark the need to lie. "Ben and I go back a long way. In fact, I was hoping I'd run into him here. He and I need to talk a little business." He gave another eyebrow lift to place emphasis on the last sentence.

Marlowe looked at Roark quizzically. Roark briefly considered his options, then smiled at the Jamaican. "Yeah. Henry and I have some things to discuss. I'll catch you later."

"Sure, mon. Sure. Nice meetin' you, Mr. Havelock." Marlowe chugged the last of his beer, stood up, and ambled over to study the pinochle game.

"Interesting class of friends you've acquired down here," Havelock observed.

"It's called social climbing. Now what the hell are you doing here and what the hell do you want?"

"I have a little job that needs doing. I thought you might be interested."

"Go fuck yourself. I'm retired."

"No, you're not retired. You're unemployed . . . unless one counts as employment your full-time occupation of drinking yourself to death." Havelock raised a restraining hand as Roark started to angrily open his mouth. "Yes, I know: you'd saved some money before you left the Company in a snit. And the dump you're leasing can't be costing you much. But sooner or later you'll drink up the last of it, and then you'll just be another dying beach lush."

"Sweet of you to care."

"I suppose I shouldn't. It's a fairly typical way for burned-out ex-Company types to wind up. But in your case I hate to see it, because I hate waste. You were the best, and I feel I ought to—"

"I've never yet been so drunk I couldn't recognize the smell of bullshit. And I never will be so hard up that I'll work for you and the fucking Company again. I'll be damned and roasting in hell before I let myself be set up like . . . like . . . "

"Katy knew the risks," Havelock said quietly. "She understood—"

"No! She didn't understand squat! In particular, she didn't understand the kind of lying, backstabbing son of a bitch you are. You set her up! And now she's dead. And you can take your job, smear Vaseline on it, and—"

"Suit yourself." Havelock stood up, looking bored. "I just thought you might find this operation interesting because it targets the Lokaron. Directly."

It was a tribute to the product of Appleton Estate, Parish of St. Elizabeth, Jamaica, that Havelock's words took a full heartbeat to register on Roark's alcohol-misted mind. Then he shook his head several times, partly to clear it and partly as a gesture of incredulity. "But . . . but how?"

Havelock smiled the smile of a fisherman who'd felt a tug on his line, and settled back onto his bar stool. "Oh come now, Ben. You know the drill. I can't tell you any details until you've signed on, and accepted all the usual security restrictions and conditions. In fact, I shouldn't even have revealed as much as I have. For now, you'll just have to take my word that you'll be doing the Lokaron one in the eye."

"But that's impossible!"

Roark's bewildered exclamation merely stated what had been axiomatic since the day, a decade earlier, when Lokaron ships had appeared in Earth's skies, putting an end to the long debate about extraterrestrial life and presenting demands for trade concessions to the United States government. (The aliens hadn't concerned themselves with the pathetic, vestigial legal fiction that was the United Nations, and that was the last anyone had heard of it. Roark sometimes wondered if it still met, unnoticed, in New York, performing rituals as remote from contemporary concerns as those of the monks of Mount Athos.) The ruling Earth First Party, which had turned its back on the universe beyond low Earth orbit, had been called on to accept as a trade medium the kind of advanced technology its zero-growth ideology anathematized. It had ordered the destruction of the intruders. The U.S. Air Force's Orbital Command—including Roark's idolized older cousin Mike—had done its best. That best hadn't even scratched the Lokaron ships' paint. In fact—infuriatingly, humiliatingly—it hadn't even made them angry. With an almost audible yawn at having gotten a tedious bit of routine out of the way, they'd repeated their demands . . . not even jacking them up, as though what had occurred had been too inconsequential to require reparations. There had been no further nonsense about resisting those demands.

"It's impossible," Roark repeated mulishly. "No direct attack on the Lokaron can succeed. Everybody knows that. It's just pissing into the wind."

"Whatever you may think of me, you know I've never been given to jousting with windmills." Taking advantage of Roark's sudden thoughtful silence, Havelock pressed on. "Of course we're not talking about a full-dress military assault. It's your kind of covert operation. And I'm not the only one who thinks it can succeed. It has support at high levels. Very high levels."

"Oh, wow!" Roark sneered. "I'm so impressed! I'll bet you're going to reel off the important-sounding titles of all sorts of palace eunuchs who didn't even need the surgery."

Havelock ignored the boozy sarcasm. He leaned forward and murmured three words: "The Central Committee."

The remaining alcohol fumes seeped out of Roark's brain, leaving a chill.

Havelock spoke briskly. "I've said far more than I should have. Now, you have to make up your mind. Are you in or out?"

Roark took a gulp of his rum. It hit the pit of his stomach hard, as is often the case after an overly rapid sobering-up. "All right, count me in. I owe the Lokaron one."

"So you do. In fact, feeling the way you do about them, I'm surprised you never joined . . . " Instead of finishing his sentence, Havelock gave an airy wave to indicate the music wafting from the pool area. It had switched from reggae to the current North American top forty. The refrain that reached their ears held the unsubtle message that much popular music did these days:

"Soaring on high,
Bring down the sky,
Eagle against the stars. . . . "

Roark snorted. "Those jerk-offs? Oh, sure, all the bullshit about their daring exploits makes the teenagers cream in their jeans. But I outgrew pimples a long time ago."

Official disapproval had been powerless to prevent the Eaglemen from becoming underground pop-culture heroes. Drawing the core of its membership from among the junior officers of the humiliated U.S. military, the secret organization had two goals: expel the aliens, and restore the United States government to its old constitutional form, as they conceived it. So far, their most notable exploit had been the assassination of Secretary of State Wainwright, who had signed the treaty with the Lokaron. But for a society whose deeply buried discontents were openly voiced only at the risk of one's health, they were figures of romantic heroism: high-tech Robin Hoods, new-wave Zorros, Scarlet Pimpernels with caseless minimacs instead of rapiers. . . .

"Ever notice," Roark went on, "that for some odd reason they're vague about the details of just how they're going to kick the Lokaron off Earth? And as for going back to some idealized fantasy of the good old days when there were two parties—the Republicrats and the Democritans, or whatever they called themselves . . . Shit, the only change is that now the U.S. admits it's a one-party system!"

"My, aren't we cynical? But I remember you used to be interested in that sort of thing, back in the days when you had interests that didn't come bottled. Speaking of which, you might want to finish that drink before we leave. It's the last one you're going to be having for a while."

"What? You mean we're leaving now? And . . . what was that about drinks?"

"You heard me. You're on the wagon for the duration, my friend. Starting now."

"But . . . but look, I can handle it! I never drink too much at once—you get sloppy that way. No, it's just maintenance drinking. You know, just enough to keep my edge . . . keep me humming at exactly the right level."

The sun had set into the Caribbean, but even in the dusk Havelock's eyes could be seen to harden. "There was a time when you would have been the first to recognize the line of crap you're spouting for what it is. Not that recognizing it is any great accomplishment. Every drunk says the same thing, practically verbatim. Well, I'm not going to let you jeopardize the success of this operation. If you want in, you're off the stuff. That's the condition. If you can't live with it, say so now, and I'll waste no more of your time or mine."

"All right, all right." Roark finished the rum, storing the taste away in his memory. Then he stood up and looked around. Marlowe had already gone. "Gotta go to my place and—"

"Don't worry about it. Your lease will be taken care of. And you won't need any personal effects; everything will be provided. Now let's go. My plane is waiting."

Havelock's car had been supplied by a Company front in George Town. The driver and another equally uncommunicative character in the front seat said nothing as they drove toward the airfield—not the commercial one, but a little private strip Roark already knew about.

"Well," Roark ventured as they pulled up on the apron, close to a twin-engined tilt-rotor, "maybe you'll at least be able to give me some details while we're in the air."

"We won't be traveling together that long," Havelock said as they got out. "Just to Miami. Then we part company. I have business in Washington. You're going to Area 51."

Roark smiled. The ultrahigh-security installation in the Nevada desert dated back a couple of generations, to the height of the "flying saucer" craze. In those days it had figured in the UFO mythos as the place where the U.S. government carried on a secret study of extraterrestrials. Nowadays, ironically, that old wet-dream had become sober fact.

They proceeded toward the plane, with the two strong, silent types falling in at their flanks and looking watchful.

"Hey, mon!" came a familiar voice from off to the right, where a smaller, less prepossessing plane—the field's only other occupant—was being fueled. "You leavin' tonight too? Guess the freelancin' business lookin' up!" Marlowe stepped out of the darkness, his grin white against his dark face. Then he looked at Roark's three companions, and the grin faded. "Everything okay, mon?" he asked quietly.

"Yeah, fine," Roark assured. "Something's come up. My friends here are just—"

The little control shack exploded.

The light that flooded the scene gave them only a tiny fraction of a second's warning. But Roark was already on his way to the deck as the shock wave and the ear-bruising roar hit them, dragging Marlowe down with him. Old training took command of his reflexes, and he looked around. The two guards, also flat on the tarmac, already had handguns out and were firing at four approaching figures. Havelock was fumbling for something inside his jacket. The attackers returned fire, and a tracery of automatic fire ran over one of Havelock's men, whose body jerked convulsively and then sprawled motionless. His companion continued to fire at the approaching figures. Something hit the fuel truck beside Marlowe's plane; it, and the plane, went up in a roaring gout of flame. Against that bright background, Roark saw one of the attackers stagger from a hit. But staggering was all he did. Those guys were wearing battle dress, fashioned from one of Kevlar's successors. It could stop assault-rifle rounds at point-blank range, which was why the trend in infantry weapons was now away from the assault-rifle philosophy and back toward higher calibers and lower rates of fire. Unless he scored a lucky head hit, the guard might as well have been shooting a water pistol at them.

Then Havelock finally brought his right hand up into firing position. What that hand held didn't fully register on Roark at first. Then, with a crack! of air rushing in to fill a narrow tunnel of vacuum that had been burned through it, a line of glimmering ionized air instantaneously speared one of the attackers, who fell backwards and lay still.

Experimental weapon-grade lasers dated back to the 1980s: energy hogs that had filled a helicopter or an APC and proven less deadly than a light machine gun. The things had gotten better, of course. Big ones had been the mainstay of the late lamented U.S. Air Force Orbital Command. You could even build a man-portable one, if you didn't mind lugging around a backpack-sized battery-cum-capacitor and were willing to accept degraded performance in fog or smoke. Not that anyone did build them. It was precisely the kind of technology the Earth First Party had long suppressed.

But the Lokaron, unsurprisingly, could do better. Their little superconductor-loop energy cells could handle the rapid energy discharge a laser weapon required. And their lasers automatically shifted wavelengths up and down the spectrum to compensate for atmospheric conditions. With their technology, you could even engineer that old science-fiction staple, the laser pistol. . . .

Like the one Havelock now pointed at the three remaining attackers, one after another in rapid succession. Three flashing spears of light impaled them in as many seconds. And all was quiet, save the roaring flames of the shack and Marlowe's plane.

Roark got slowly to his feet. Beside him, Marlowe did the same—silently, eyes wide. Havelock turned to face them. Roark pointed a shaky finger at the thing in the older man's hand, started to ask a question. . . .

As abruptly as a striking rattlesnake, Havelock brought his hand up. The laser flashed.

Before Roark had time to react, or even to think, Marlowe was toppling over.

Roark whirled and stared. The Jamaican was lying on his back. Smoke was curling up from the neat hole just above the bridge of his nose. There was no blood. Those who die instantly do not bleed, to speak of.

Roark turned, and advanced slowly—or so it seemed in the state of protracted time he currently inhabited—toward Havelock. The hand holding the laser pistol rose very slightly. Roark stopped dead.

"You murdering bastard," he croaked. "Why—?"

"He saw this weapon, Ben," Havelock explained patiently. "More to the point, he saw me with it. As we all know, there are a certain number of illegal Lokaron weapons in circulation on Earth. But I can't be seen to have one—not by living witnesses. And he's certainly no loss."

Out of the corner of his eye, Roark saw that the surviving guard had gotten up and was covering him. Even if he could avoid Havelock's weapon, which struck at the speed of light, that second man would get him. He forced himself to relax, one muscle at a time. He even managed a smile. "Aren't you worried about leaving him, and the others, lying around here to be found?"

"Not really. A laser burn isn't like a bullet, you know. It can't possibly be traced to a particular weapon. These things are going to be a boon to the criminal element, when they become generally available."

"That's an odd thing to hear, coming from a man who works for a government committed to keeping stuff like that out of circulation." The Earth First Party had sought to minimize the impact of Lokaron technology by restricting to the government the purchase of all the weapons and other forbidden import items the treaties required Earth to accept. They were then destroyed—or so the taxpayers who underwrote the arrangement were assured. Now Roark wasn't so sure.

"Oh, we mean to keep it in the right hands," Havelock assured him. "But we have to be realistic. There are too many independent Lokaron merchants who're willing to make a sale anywhere they can. And there are too many independent states on Earth willing to buy. So far, the Lokaron authorities are willing to deal exclusively with the U.S. and abide by the treaties. But we've been getting indications that they have multiple . . . jurisdictions, or factions, or whatever, and they may not all follow that same policy forever. Even if they do, they can't permanently control all their entrepreneurs; and we can't permanently keep the rest of this planet bullied. That brings us to the operation you're going to be participating in."


"Think about it. You don't seriously imagine the Lokaron sell their state-of-the-art stuff to primitives like us, do you? We need their real technology—tightly controlled by the government, of course—if we're ever going to be respected by them enough to get a better deal than the humiliating treaties that were forced on us. And, just incidentally, we also need it if we expect to stay in the driver's seat here on Earth when the trade-goods-level stuff becomes widespread."

"You mean—?"

"Oh, I think you can figure it out for yourself. Someone else obviously did." Havelock indicated the scattered corpses of their attackers. "I'd love to know who. But of course they won't have anything on them that would identify their employer." With a decisive motion, Havelock put away the laser pistol. "And now, we need to get out of here before the local constabulary arrives. You'll be told all you need to know at Area 51."

Roark gave Marlowe a last look. Then he raised his eyes to the fires . . . but without really seeing them. Instead, his memory's eyes were focused on another night that had exploded into flame. What had been burning that night had been a depot for one of the Lokaron's human distributors. . . .

"Let's get the fuck out of here!" Mike Hodges had screamed into his ear, trying to make himself heard above the gunfire from the security guards. "The operation's blown! They were waiting for us. We can still get out if—"

"Not yet!" Roark had barked, just before a blast had made them both duck back around the corner of the building. As soon as the tinkle of grenade fragments had ceased, he'd swung back around, M-72A minimac leveled, and snapped off a burst down the alley. "Not without Katy."

Hodges had grabbed his shoulder. "Get real, Sir Galahad! They're coming from the direction she was headed toward. She's dead or captured—like we will be if we don't get the lead out!"

"She'd never let herself be captured." It was one of the things that had been drummed into all of them. There could be no prisoners to be interrogated by whatever unimaginable means the Lokaron used, lest the Company's link with this operation be compromised.

"Bingo! She's given her life for the glorious cause of plausible deniability." A lull in the firing had allowed Hodges to speak in a softer voice. "Look, Ben, I'm sorry. I know about you and her. But you can't change the facts. Now let's go, for God's sake!"

He'd allowed himself to be led to the manhole they'd used. Their pursuers could follow them into the sewer system, of course, but they'd known routes that weren't on the official maps. Hodges had gone down first, and Roark had started to lower himself. . . .

"Ben! Wait!"

He'd whirled around toward the unexpected voice from the equally unexpected direction, consciousness emptied of all save the reddish glint the light of the flames had awoken in Katy Doyle's hair even in the night.

"I circled around," she'd gasped in answer to his question before he could ask it. "I couldn't contact you, of course." Nothing but static had come from their earplug-phones since this cluster-fuck had commenced; the Lokaron must have been blanketing the area with some kind of ultrahigh-tech interference.

"Come on!" he'd snapped, not pausing for anything as suicidally stupid as an embrace. He'd started to lower himself the rest of the way so he could help her down.

A renewed burst of firing had shattered the night.

"Come on!" he'd repeated, reaching for her. Their hands had clasped. . . .

A burst of automatic fire had slashed across her, throwing her sideways, pulling their hands brutally apart, violating her obscenely with a row of holes from which blood had gouted, spattering his face. She'd fallen to the pavement just barely too far away for him to reach her and pull her in after him.

But he had been able to see her eyes. They'd met his, in what must have been her last moments of consciousness. Her lips had moved, but he hadn't been able to make out her words.

He'd tried, though, wiping the blood—her blood—out of his eyes. He'd tried so hard that he hadn't even noticed that part of him was dying with her.

A skirmish line of figures had approached through the flame-riven gloom. Among the humans had loomed the tall, slender, somehow wrong figure of a Lokar. The sight of that figure had stopped Roark from firing on Katy's killers. The rules of engagement had been inflexible: under no circumstances were any Lokaron to be killed, not even in direct self-defense, much less for vengeance. The possible consequences of such a thing were incalculable.

So he had let Hodges pull him down into the sewers.

They had eluded pursuit . . . almost. Hodges had died of sheer cockiness when they'd thought themselves home free. Only Roark had gotten away, carrying with him the knowledge that had haunted his every waking moment ever since: only Henry Havelock had known enough about the mission to betray it.

Havelock's testy voice brought Roark back to the here and now. "Come on, we haven't time for any more conversation. At any rate, I'll see you at Area 51 in a few weeks."

Roark turned an absolutely expressionless face toward him. "Yes. I'll be seeing you again. Oh, yes, I definitely will."

Their eyes met for a moment that lasted so long the guard grew fidgety. Then Havelock abruptly motioned them toward the plane. The little airstrip was left to the dead.

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Title: Eagle Against the Stars
Author: Steve White
ISBN: 0-671-57846-4
Copyright: © 2000 by Steve White
Publisher: Baen Books