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"How would you like to get back into an air-force flight suit for a few weeks?"
Sloan Hamilton, code name Dodge, smiled wryly as he steered his rented Jeep 4x4 toward the front gate of Francis E. Warren Air Force Base, on the outskirts of Cheyenne, Wyoming. He had the windows open to the cool September air, shimmering with a crystalline clarity. Dodge's thoughts weren't on the purity of his native Wyoming atmosphere, however. Instead, he replayed conversation that had taken place in a windowless control center back in Washington, D.C., just four days ago.
That's all it had taken. One casual suggestion from Lightning and Dodge had jumped at the chance to get back in the cockpit again. Not that he didn't have plenty of opportunity to fly in his civilian job. The other civilian job. The one that didn't involve crashing headfirst through eighth-story windows or being inserted into a damned near impenetrable jungle in pursuit of some sleazoid drug runners. Conducting aerial surveys in his steady, sturdy Cessna wasn't anywhere near as much fun as piloting an air-force UH-1N, though. The helo was Vietnam-era vintage, but after several generations of modifications it was still the best and most reliable chopper in the air.
As it turned out, Dodge should have asked for a little more detail before accepting this assignment. Instead of driving a Huey, he was about to undertake what looked to be one of his tamest missions for OMEGAriding herd on a three-person Russian team that would arrive in Cheyenne tomorrow to inspect U.S. Minuteman III missiles in accordance with the new START treaty.
True, the president had just signed the treaty after more than a decade of fierce negotiations between Russia and the U.S. Also true, recent tensions between the U.S. and Russia had made this first inspection under the new protocols a matter of intense interest at the highest national security levels. Still, Dodge would have much preferred a task that involved flying his old bird to babysitting a Russian major and her two teammates.
Even a Russian major who looked like this one.
He glanced at the file on the passenger seat. Clipped to its outside was a brief bio that included a head-and-shoulders shot of Larissa Katerina Pe-trovna. The fact that the photo was in black and white and a little grainy in no way detracted from the major's ice-maiden beauty. Her hair looked as pale as fine champagne. Her wide-spaced eyes stared back at Dodge from above a straight, aristocratic nose. Her mouth was full and ripe and downright sensual.
He knew from the detailed briefing he'd received at OMEGA headquarters, before departing for Cheyenne, that those eyes were electric-blue. He also knew the puckered skin on the left side of Petrovna's neck and jaw were the result of horrific burns she'd suffered in the apartment fire that had killed her husband and almost claimed her baby girl.
Dodge felt a flicker of sympathy, quickly doused. A female didn't make it to the rank of major in any air force, Russia's included, by being soft or welcoming expressions of sympathy. And judging by the jobs Larissa Petrovna held on her way up the ranks, the woman was tough as nails. More to the point, she was here to do a specific task.
So was Dodge, although he had to admit, being back in Wyoming was almost as much of a plus as being back in uniform. His gaze shifted to the snow-and-pine-covered mountains on the horizon. They looked close enough to reach out and touch, but he knew how deceptive the expanse of rolling plain between here and those jagged peaks could be. He should. He'd ridden fence lines on these wind- and snow-swept plains often enough.
He'd grown up just a little over an hour north of here. He and his cousin Sam. Closer than brothers, they'd tickled trout in mountain streams and brought cattle down from the high country each fall. They'd also eaten their share of dirt after being bucked off angry bulls and mean-tempered broncs while competing in rodeos in and around Cheyenne. Sam was the one who'd hung Dodge's nickname on him, commenting laconically that his cuz was a whole lot better at dodging bulls' horns than staying on their backs.
Grimacing over the memory of how close one particular set of horns had come to gelding him, Dodge wheeled through Francis E. Warren's gate one. Just inside the gate stood three gleaming white missiles, mute testimony to the base's current mission.
A legacy of President Lincoln's plan to establish a transcontinental railroad, the original outpost had been established in the 1870s to protect Union-Pacific workers from hostile Indians. Gradually, it had grown into the largest cavalry post in the nation. Troopers assigned to the fort had endured the bone-biting winter winds that howled across the plains, participated in the Great Sioux Indian Wars and over the years watched their role transform from cavalry to field artillery to airplanes to sleek, intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Now, the 90th Missile Wing headquartered at Warren controlled a lethal arsenal of Minuteman III missiles spread across twelve thousand square miles of Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska. The Mighty Ninety, as it was known in air-force parlance, took its nuclear mission very, very seriously. There was zero tolerance for mistakes in judgment when you controlled the launch codes for ICBMs.
Making a left turn onto Old Glory Road, Dodge followed the traffic flow down a sloping hill to the marshy lowlands of Crow Creek, then back up to the newer part of the base. A few more turns took him to the tan-colored, corrugated-tin building that housed the 37th Helicopter Flight. He found a parking space and clamped a hand on his flight cap to anchor it during the short walk to the door.
Luckily, he'd retained his status in the reserves. When the Russians checked him out, as he knew they would, his cover was that he'd been recalled to active duty because of critical manpower shortages due to the 37th's support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. To give substance to that cover, Dodge had arrived at the base two days ago and gone through refresher training on the Huey. Although his escort duties didn't require him to fly, even the most cursory check of flight records would show that Major Sloan "Dodge" Hamilton was current in all phases of the UH-1N.
Dumping his gear in the large, open room that served as the pilots' office, he snatched a cup of coffee and headed down the hall to check the operations center status board. With luck, he might snag another few hours in the cockpit before he went into babysitting mode.
"Hey, Major." The duty officer manning the ops desk gave him a message instead of another flight. "The CO wants to see you."
Nodding, Dodge retraced his steps through the corridors to the flight commander's office. He'd known Lt. Colonel Sean McGee for years, had flown with him back when they were both gung ho lieutenants doing combat rescue. Dodge greeted his friend back with the irreverent graveyard humor that had earned McGee his nickname.
"Morning, Digger. You want to see me?"
"Not me. Colonel Yarboro." Dodge's brows lifted. "The Mighty Ninety commander? Why?"
"His exec didn't offer any specifics. Just said Yarboro wants you to report to his office." Propping a boot on an open desk drawer, McGee tilted back in his chair. "Might have something to do with my suggestion, though."
"The one that involves my permanent transition back from civilian status?" Dodge asked with a smile.
"That's the one."
"Wish I could oblige."
McGee knew Dodge now ran his own aerial-survey company. He didn't, however, know about his work for OMEGA. The agency was so secret that few people outside of a trusted handful were even aware of its existence.
"Think about it," McGee urged. "You haven't lost your touch. My guys tell me you aced both checkrides."
"Yeah, well," Dodge drawled in the Wyoming twang he'd never quite shed. "Flyin' a Huey's like makin' love to a beautiful woman. Once you get her out of the chocks, everything else comes naturally."
McGee grinned. "You've sure as hell gotten more than your share out of the chocks. And escaped their clutches afterward. You and I both know your handle doesn't come just from dodging bulls."
Dodge kept his smile in place and let the comment slide. He'd loved once, or thought he had. The memory could still slice into him when he let it.
"I'd better go see what the colonel wants."
He reported in to the commander of the 90th Missile Wing fifteen moments later. Seated behind a desk roughly the size of Kansas, Colonel Yarboro returned his salute and waved him to a seat.
"You ready for the Russian team?"
The colonel's eyes raked him from head to toe. Good thing Dodge had had his shaggy brown hair trimmed and boots buffed. OMEGA undercover operatives tended more toward comfort than spit and polish when in the field. Rejoining the air force, even temporarily, had called for some spiffing up.
Yarboro was only one of three people who'd been read in on the real reason for Dodge's sudden appearance at F. E. Warren. Everyone else had been fed the cover story. The colonel wasn't happy about having an outsider foisted on him, though. Even one with Major Sloan Hamilton's military and civilian credentials.
"Before you make contact with Major Petrovna," he said brusquely, "I want to make sure you understand who you're up against."
Yarboro lifted a typed sheet and skimmed down the page. A career missileer who'd worked his way up from launch officer to commander of the world's most sophisticated ICBM force, he targeted the salient items with pinpoint accuracy.
"Born, Bryansk. Age 33. Widowed. One child. Attended the Gagarin Air Force Academy. Holds advanced degrees in both math and astrophysics."
That would strike a cord with the colonel, Dodge guessed. Yarboro had earned a doctorate from MIT in astrophysics himself.
"She pulled a tour as a relatively junior officer at strike-force headquarters in Moscow, then commanded a SS-18 squadron."
Those accomplishments didn't exactly endear her to either Dodge or the colonel. The missile officers assigned to the 90th spent twenty-four hours at a stretch some eighty feet below the ground, locked behind eight-ton blast doors while they played a deadly game of chicken with their Russian counterparts. The cold war might have ended for the rest of the world. It hadn't cooled more than a few degrees for the men and women charged with the nerve-twisting task of nuclear deterrence.
"Petrovna spent the past four years at various staff jobs," Yarboro continued, "including two with the research-and-development directorate. Word is that Colonel Zacharov, head of Russian military intelligence, handpicked her to head this special team because of her expertise."
Dodge kept silent. He knew Petrovna's background as well as the colonel did. There was a reason Yarboro was reiterating her credentials. Probably had to do with the fact that Washington had sent Dodge in to bird-dog her instead of using one of the locals.
"When you meet Petrovna and her team at the airport this afternoon, you'll bring her by here for a courtesy call," Yarboro instructed. "Tom Jordan, our treaty compliance officer, will conduct the orientation briefing at oh-eight-hundred tomorrow morning. He's lined up additional escorts to take care of the other two team members."
Yarboro leaned forward, his eyes intent. "This is the first inspection under the new START treaty. I don't need to tell you how important it is."
The new START.
The acronym didn't quite fit, Dodge thought cynically, since the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty just signed by the presidents of the U.S. and the Russian Federation was the third treaty by that name.