“I’m glad someone finds it funny!” Eustace grunted. “Who — ? Oh, Kate! Hello. Is Nick here too?”
“He wouldn’t come,” she said in the steadiest voice she could achieve.
“He stayed behind.”
“But — ! You mean nobody could find and tell him?”
“No. He… Oh, Ted!” She turned blindly and fell against the sheriff’s shoulder, her body racked with dreadful sobs.
Faint in the distance they could now hear the teeth-aching whine of electric lifters, the superpowerful type fitted to low-level short-range strike planes.
It grew louder.
THE LINE OF MOST RESISTANCE
To the President of the United States
URGENT AND MOST SECRET Sir: Copied to you herewith is a signal received at Lowndes Field at 0014 hours today, purporting to emanate from yourself as commander in chief and ordering a nuclear strike at coordinates that manifestly are within the continental United States.
In view of the fact that it was superficially convincing, being properly enciphered in a one-time cipher scheduled for use today, it came close to causing a disaster, specifically the death of approx. 3000 civilians in the town of Precipice CA. I regret to have to advise you that the mission was actually initiated, and only by a miracle was it aborted in time (on receipt of DoD signal #376 774 P, which warned all naval, military and air force bases that saboteurs might have gained access to the data net).
I have taken steps to discipline the officer who authorized inception of the mission, and upon my own responsibility have issued a signal summarizing the matter to all West Coast bases. I respectfully suggest that the some be done on a national basis, and at once.
I remain, Sir, (signed) Wilbur H. Neugebauer, General
AFTER TOUCH AND GO, GO They saw the plane as it swooped. They saw it clearly by the eerie blue glow around its repulsors, gulping vast quantities of air into electrical fields so fierce that were a man to put his arm incautiously within their shining ring he would withdraw a stump after mere seconds.
They heard it, too: a howl as of a banshee.
But as it crossed the town… it let fall nothing.
After an hour of waiting, teeth chattering, fists clenched, scarcely daring to raise their heads in case the threatened attack should after all take place, the inhabitants of Precipice rediscovered hope.
And through the dark they stumbled and staggered homeward to an orchestra of wailing children.
Somehow—Kate never knew quite how—she found that she was walking with Bagheera at her side again, while next to Ted and a couple of paces ahead was Natty Bumppo.
Bagheera was purring.
It was as though he felt flattered at being declared an honorary dog.
Cautiously Ted opened the door of the Hearing Aid headquarters, while Kate and Sweetwater craned to look past him. Behind, half a dozen other people—Suzy, Eustace, Josh and Lorna, Brad, those who had begun to guess the explanation for their salvation—waited in impatience.
There was Nick, hands on arms, slumped forward faulting over his board.
Kate thrust past Ted and ran to his side, calling his name.
He stirred, licking his lips, and sat upright, putting his right hand to his temple. He seemed giddy. But on seeing Kate he forced a smile, and continued it to the others who by now were flooding into the room.
“It worked,” he said in a thin, husky voice. “I never dared believe it would. I was so scared, so terrified… But I was just in time.” Ted halted before him, gazing around the room.
“What did you do?”
Nick gave a faint chuckle and pointed to his screen. On it a signal from someone called General Neugebauer to the president was cycling over and over in clear text, there being too much of it to display all at once.
“It was a close call,” he added. “Damned close. The duty officer at Lowndes must be used to doing as he’s told and no questions please… When I realized the plane was already on its way I nearly collapsed.” Sweetwater, pushing her way through the crowd, stared at the screen.
“Hey,” she said after a moment’s thought. “Was there a Department of Defense signal number whatever?”