Ugransky Air Force Base
Smolensk Oblast, R.F.
“The Spetsnaz unit we sent over the border failed,” Zuyev said, putting down the phone. “The ellipton has been retrieved by persons unknown. They evacuated the scene in a helicopter.”
Stepanenkov thought that Zuyev would kill him right then and there. Even if he didn’t –
“We can make the Estonians cooperate,” Zuyev said. “We’ve had losses, but we still have our troops all over their little country, and we can crush them if they don’t give us the help we ask for in the search. And they know it.”
A third person walked through the door of the office.
Colonel General Kirill Biriuzov.
Both men snapped to attention.
“Comrade Colonel Zuyev?” Biriuzov said.
“Yes, Comrade General?”
“You can accomplish nothing more here.”
Zuyev hesitated, perhaps reluctant, perhaps simply nervous in the presence of a very senior member of his organization. “Yes Comrade General. Of course,” he managed afterward, then departed to board his helicopter and go back where he’d come from – empty-handed.
“Thus ends his adventure,” Biriuzov said.
“Will they . . . give up so easily?” Stepanenkov asked.
“No,” Biriuzov told him. “They will make efforts to pursue the device abroad, but its retrieval will be far more difficult with the thing outside the country. After all, it is such a compact, easily concealed object, and any party desperate enough and resourceful enough to steal it from us in this manner is likely to take considerable measures to retain it.” He sighed. “Anyway, it was all a hoax, most likely.”
“Colonel Zuyev certainly didn’t seem to think so,” Stepanenkov replied.
“No, he did not, but then the members of his particular organization tend to judge their task more important than it really is –a common enough danger for men in their position. The secrecy, the whiff of the exotic, makes them self-important.
“Zuyev is overzealous, even by the Directorate’s standards. If it wasn’t for that, he would never have pulled a stunt like this, and it will cost him. Perhaps he will even lose command of his precious unit.”
Yes, Stepanenkov thought, but what damage might he have done before then? For more than half a day Zuyev had been master of this base, holding his life in the palm of his hand. If he’d shot him dead, as he had seemed entirely capable of doing, there was nothing Biriuzov or anyone else could have done to fix it afterward.
“In any case, my understanding – one to which Zuyev may not be privy, but which I’ve gotten from men whose judgment I trust – is that this ellipton was only one of many tricks we used to conceal our weakness in the early part of the Cold War, with more or less success.
“The imperialists were always happy to cover for us in public, so as to scare their populations into going along with their aggressive designs. But the Americans opted not to make too much of this particular stratagem, perhaps thinking the ‘alien technology gap’ story would not go over well with their people, who’d wonder what else was being kept secret from them. And who they think would panic if they were to find out for sure that such things as extraterrestrials exist.
“Either way, I wouldn’t worry overmuch about the consequences of this failure. Even if the people who took it decide they were tricked, they may still imagine that we have a real, working ellipton safely locked away. Even without it, our deterrent should prove durable enough.”
Of course, little of that had to do with what Stepanenkov really cared about – whether they would punish one particular man who’d got involved in the transfer of the device.
“We have judged you to have simply got in over your head in this deal,” Biriuzov explained finally, apparently speaking for the rest of his operation’s patrons. “The reins will be a bit tighter in the future, but given your past usefulness, you will be permitted to retain your place.”
“Thank you, Comrade General,” he said.
General Biriuzov smiled wryly at that. “You’ll have plenty of chances to show your gratitude in more substantive ways, but your words are noted. Now, as you were.”
It was Biriuzov’s turn to take his leave now, leaving Stepanenkov alone.
The wind knocked out of him, Stepanenkov dropped down into his seat. Just minutes ago he’d been ready to give up everything to escape with his skin intact. Now, he was secure in his position again.
Biriuzov talked about tightened reins, but Stepanenkov didn’t think that would amount to all that much practical difference. He would still be able to work, still be able to build a fortune. The life he wanted for himself could still be his. He got up from that chair, walked back to his desk and sat in the chair behind it, intent on returning to his business as if nothing had ever happened.