Warren Murphy: Disloyal Opposition

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PEACE, LOVE AND DESTRUCTION. JUST ANOTHER DAY IN SUNNY CALIFORNIA Barkley, California, has always been a counterculture kind of a place, but now, its local historical society has decided they've had enough of Washington's politically incorrect ways.  They are seceding from the union...and they've hire an ex-KGB general with a supersecret particle beam weapon to blow up anything that moves so they can live in harmony and nonviolence. The news of some weird - the term being relative - scene happening in Barkley gives Dr. Smith an excuse to dispatch Remo and Chiun, who have been hanging around CURE headquarters far too long.  Ironically, from across the former Iron Curtain, another secret specter is hunting the Russian mad dog as well - someone Remo believes to be dead. The first great war of the 21st century promises to be a wild scene for all, including Smith, who just received a special gift from an ex-president: an assistant director for CURE.

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A rag.

Millions of francs in damage caused by a dirty rag.

Because of this monstrously stupid mistake, the space program of Everyspace had been subjected to endless delays. Since Everyspace was the driving force behind the entire European Space Agency, research programs across the Continent had been disrupted. All because of a single filthy rag.

Of course, a scapegoat was needed. Unfortunately, that scapegoat had been none other than Edwige Soisson. Before the accident he shuttled back and forth between CNES headquarters in Paris and the main test and research center in Toulouse. After the accident he had been put on permanent assignment at the Guianan Space Center.

He had gone to South America for a few days, only to be stranded there for the better part of a decade.

But Edwige was determined to get back to his beloved France for more than just a few vacation weeks a year. To this end his life had become a testament to perfection. Immediately upon being stationed permanently in Guiana, he had begun to inspect personally each and every rocket before launch.

As he checked feed hoses and unclipped side panels to inspect ganglionic circuitry, the technicians regularly snickered at the skinny bureaucrat in his sweaty dress shirt. Despite the jeers, Edwige would not be dissuaded. After all, it was their fault that he was down here in the first place. They were the ones who had left the rag in the 44D, not him. He was determined not to be a victim of their incompetence again.

And as the decade bled into a new century, his tenacity seemed to be paying off. There had been no major accidents since his appointment to French Guiana. His superiors at the Centre National seemed pleased with the way things had gone in the years following the accident.

In fact, Edwige had noted a certain softening toward him of late. Nothing major, but if he continued to perform his duties well, he might finally be freed from exile to return to the City of Lights, the Paris he loved so dearly.

But that would happen only if every launch continued to go flawlessly.

Edwige watched nervously as the last men took the elevator down from the bare scaffolding of the launch tower. Standing more than fifty feet tall, the tower was only slightly higher than the slender rocket itself.

The umbilical lines to the second- and first-stage dimethyl, hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide tanks were detached. The third-stage liquid-oxygen-and liquid-hydrogen tanks had already been separated from above.

All was ready.

In the control bunker, the dark-faced launch supervisor approached Edwige.

"The platform is clear, Monsieur Soisson," he informed the CNES representative. "We have begun the countdown."

Edwige's ratlike face puckered unhappily. "Did they recheck for rags?" he asked. Sweat beaded on his pale forehead.

The supervisor didn't flinch at the question. He had been asked the exact same thing during every prelaunch sequence since coming to work at the Guianan Space Center five years before.

"Oui," the man replied politely.

Edwige nodded. "Proceed," he snapped.

He spun anxiously from the supervisor. Worried eyes looked out the angled, tinted window to the launch area.

At the bank of computer stations behind him, scientists in shirt-sleeves began the last tedious steps that would put the Every rocket into orbit.

They were launching a weather satellite today, a very expensive piece of hardware developed by the Japanese to study typhoon formation in the Pacific. Millions of yen, francs and dollars were tied into this project.

Edwige bit his ragged index fingernail nervously. There was barely anything left to it. He had chewed most of it away earlier that day. As he watched tiny puffs of propellant seep from the open hoses on the launch tower, he switched over to his thumbnail. Nearly everything here was handled by computer. Once the prelaunch sequence was begun, the machines took over. It gave Edwige some small comfort to know that he would not be relying on fallible human beings like the one who had left the rag in the Every 44D rocket years before.

"... trois... deux... un... "

He bit down harder on his nail when the rumbling ignition of the distant rocket sounded. So lost in thought was he that the countdown had hardly registered.

His eyes found focus once more, his fearful gaze directed out the blast-proof window.

As Edwige watched, the slender rocket shuddered on the launchpad, lit on its blunt end by a white-hot burst of flame. The collapsible scaffolding dropped away as the missile wobbled into the air as if pulled by some uncertain, invisible string.

The rocket cleared the launch area in seconds, screaming on its plume of belching flame into the clear sky.

Edwige watched it soar heavenward. With each passing second he allowed another short burst of suspended breath to slip from between his tensely pursed lips.

The missile passed the range where the Every 44D had exploded. As usual, Edwige had counted off the time in his head.

He was about to exhale completely to take in a celebratory gulp of air when the unthinkable happened.

Without any warning from the scientists behind him, Edwige saw a flash of fire somewhere in the second stage. As it soared skyward, the flames enveloped the pointed nose cone, cracking the metal shell of the rocket like a cheap German sausage.

It happened in a flash. In a single, shocking, terrible instant, the entire steel body was a roiling mass of smoke and flame.

Men began shouting behind him.

Alone at the window, Edwige's heart stopped as he watched the rocket-along with its expensive cargo, his career and his hopes of returning to Paris-spread in shattered pieces across the blue South American sky.

Fragments from the rocket began their long, smoking descent to the well-tended grounds of the space center far below.

Somewhere distant an emergency siren began a plaintive wail. To the little man from France, all noise had become hissing static. Edwige Soisson failed to hear anything over the sound of his own pitiful sobbing.

Chapter 4

In his Spartan administrator's office at Folcroft Sanitarium in Rye, New York, Dr. Harold W. Smith read the news digests concerning the explosion of the French Every rocket with bland disinterest.

Behind his immaculate rimless glasses, flint-gray eyes flicked across lines of scrolling text. Sitting in his cracked leather chair, his unflinching gaze directed at his computer monitor, Harold Smith affected a pose that was as fundamental to his being as the air he breathed.

Smith was nothing if not a creature of habit. Indeed, everything about him was testament to a man for whom custom was firmly rooted. For Harold W. Smith, change was an enemy that, while impossible to vanquish, was at the very least and as much as possible a thing to be kept at arm's length.

His clothing was always the same. A three-piece gray suit with a complementing striped school tie. When vests went out of fashion years ago, Smith continued to wear his. When fashion once more caught up with him, there was Harold W. Smith to greet it, sartorially unchanged.

He drove the same rusted station wagon to work seven days a week, although in deference to the Protestant ideals of his strict New England upbringing, he tried to keep his Sunday hours shorter than his regular work days.

The office in which he toiled had remained virtually unchanged for the past forty years. The only new addition was the gleaming black desk at which Smith worked. Buried in the depths of the somber onyx slab was a computer monitor on which Smith viewed the events of the world in which he lived, but rarely ventured out into.

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