Staunton, Virginia. 11:08 P.M.
Jack Gallagher was in bed, thumbing through the current edition of The Patriot, when the phone rang. Ann glanced up from the CNN newscast, which was detailing movements of the space planes to Atlanta for refitting.
His teenage son was away at school, so late-night calls were down to almost nothing. "Hello?"
"Jack." Steve's voice. "Can you get over here?"
Jack was a cook at his brother's restaurant. It was a job he detested. No particular reason. Steve treated him well enough, it paid all right, and the hours weren't bad. But it was a dead end, and he knew that thirty years from now he'd still be a cook. That was what he liked about the Legion: He was a major. People saluted him. Took him seriously. "What's going on?" he asked. (He tried to avoid using Steve's rank when Ann was in the room. She never said anything, never showed any disapproval. But it sounded ridiculous in her presence.)
"Just come down, okay? We've got ducks on the pond."
The remark meant to come armed. It meant that the Legion was threatened. Or that it was going to take the offensive. But what the hell was it all about? Despite his inclination to join in on the general criticism of the government, Jack Gallagher never thought it would come to shots actually being fired. It was all just talk.
"I'll be waiting." Steve paused. "No uniform."
Ann looked at him. "It's late, Jack."
"Legion business, hon," he said. "I'll be back in an hour or so."
She was used to late-night exercises and she didn't complain. "Try to get home at a decent hour," she said.
Ten minutes later, Jack backed out of the driveway that circled his mobile home, slipped onto Banner Street, and headed west on Route 250. Steve's home was located a couple miles outside town on the Middle River. It was a ranch really, a nice place, spread out over eight acres.
Jack saw Tad Wickett's Chevy pickup parked in the driveway. He pulled in beside it, and the front door opened. The colonel stood silhouetted against the light. "Hello, Jack," he said. "This looks like our night."
He was wearing a pair of dark, neatly pressed slacks and a pullover shirt with the manufacturer's logo stenciled across the breast pocket.
Tad was seated in the living room, fondling a cold can of Coke, his eyes expressionless. (He was a beer drinker. But Steve never allowed his people to combine alcohol with duty. They were clearly in an operational status.) His glance touched Jack and moved on to one of the colonel's bowling trophies. Tad didn't entirely approve of Jack Gallagher.
Tad had spent five years with the Corps. He'd been cited for valor when the Marines went ashore to rescue Western hostages at Benghazi. He'd made sergeant first class, and been busted for fighting and insubordination, and court-martialed for assaulting a lieutenant. But he'd matured since then. He was an ideal officer now. Steve had been so impressed, he'd commissioned Tad after only three years.
In civilian life Tad worked in a lumberyard. He was a solid, churchgoing man with a proclaimed passion for the United States, and a streak of cruelty wide enough to accommodate a tractor-trailer. He didn't know where his family was. His wife had abandoned her duties and left him two years before, taking both their sons. Like so many others, he'd been watching with dismay the disintegration of civil society, the erosion of rights, the continuing encroachments by the federal government and its agents around the country, the gradual sellout to the United Nations and the inferior races. Getting worse all the time, he'd once told Jack. Today a free man can get away from oppression if he has to. He can go to Argentina, Sri Lanka, wherever. Soon, though, there'll be a world government and there'll be no escape anywhere.
"You've seen the reports?" the colonel asked, offering Jack a chair. "About the SSTOs?"
He sat down and accepted a glass of apple juice. "Yes, Steve. I've seen them."
"What do you think?"
"That's a big rock coming down. I hope they can stop it."
Steve relaxed on the sofa and crossed one leg over the other. "Jack, you know they lost one of the planes earlier this evening."
"They've found a substitute somewhere. They're saying they've still got enough to push the rock aside."
"I don't think I understand where this is headed," Jack said. He wished Tad were not there. The ex-Marine was somehow a defining presence. Tad was still young, barely thirty, trim, muscular, vaguely hostile. His eyes were hard and lines of cruelty had already formed at the corners of his mouth.
Tad smiled, as if that was exactly what he'd expected Jack to say, as if Jack were reading from a script. Tad was emotionless, save when he was enjoying himself, as he seemed to be doing now. It seemed to Jack that he had no real connection to life outside the militia.
Steve leaned forward, his gaze narrowing. "Think it through. What happens if the Possum hits?"
"A lot of people die," Jack said. "And the media are saying the country wouldn't survive."
Tad raised his glass in silent approval. "The government wouldn't survive," he said. "The institutions would go under; that's what they're really saying. And the question we have to decide is, is that a bad thing?"
"It's a bad thing if it takes out the whole Midwest, and maybe the rest of us as well, which is what they're saying it'll do."
"Hell, Jack," said the colonel. "Tad's right. It's the media who're talking. When did you start believing them? They're part of the establishment, too. You don't think they want to save their asses?" He drew a window curtain aside and looked out. A distant streetlight illuminated the egress road. "Isn't this what we've been looking for all along?"
Jack's stomach began to tighten. He'd been loyal to the Legion. Loyal to Steve. And he'd played his end of the game. Us against the government. One day we'll show them. But the weapons had never been loaded. Never would be loaded. Not really. That was part of the unspoken understanding. "What do you intend to do?" he asked.
"It's simple. We're going to Atlanta. You and Tad and I are going to take out one of the SSTOs. That's all we have to do: take out one. If we do that, it's over. The Possum hits, and the government will be gone within weeks. Maybe days."
"My God," said Jack. "How many people would we kill?"
Steve nodded sadly. "Too many," he said. "But the price of freedom is always high. Fortunately, it's a price free men have been willing to pay." He refilled his glass. His eyes gleamed in the light. "Jack, don't you think I'd use another way if I could? But this is all we have. This is it. It's a God-sent opportunity, and it'd be criminal not to take advantage of it just because we have weak stomachs."
"Weak stomachs? Steve-" The words wouldn't come. Jack had always looked up to his brother, had never known him to be wrong about anything. Steve Gallagher was the soul of courage and integrity. That he'd lied about his Ranger status was of no significance because he'd needed that extra bit of prestige to ensure control over the Legion. Jack understood completely. But this was horribly wrong. It occurred to Jack that his brother had read too many manuals, had begun to believe all the things he said, all the things that gave him power.
The colonel's eyes slid shut. "I know," he said soothingly. "I know everything you're going to say. And I've thought about it. But won't we be better off in the long run if we populate this country with a few thousand free men rather than three hundred million slaves? That's what we've got now, Jack. You know that as well as I do."
Tad was watching Jack carefully.
Steve leaned forward. "So what's your answer, Jack?"
"No." Jack's voice shook because he never said no to Steve. "I don't want any part of it."
"Okay." The colonel nodded. "I understand your feeling on this. And I respect it."
Thank God. "Then we'll look for another way?"
"We've looked for another way. We've been looking years for another way. Jack: Tad and I are going to complete the mission." He looked over at Tad, and Tad's eyes were amused. "But I understand you have a moral reservation that will not allow you to participate."
Tad's jacket had been thrown carelessly across a coffee table. Now he picked it up and his right hand went into a pocket. The colonel signaled no and the hand came out. "I'm disappointed, Jack," he said. "I thought you'd want to be with us on this."
"No. I don't know how you could say that. I've never wanted to kill anybody."
"Then I have to ask what you've been doing all these years in a military unit. What was this? Some kind of joke to you?"
"This isn't a military action, Steve. It'll be mass murder. Is that what you want?"
Steve's eyes slid shut. "Okay. I'm sorry you see it that way, Jack." He looked at Tad. "You were right. We should have left him out of it."
Tad nodded almost imperceptibly.
"I can't turn you loose," he said to Jack with a mixture of regret and irritation. "You're going to have to come with us."
"With your permission, Colonel," said Tad, "he'll be in the way. We'll have to watch him constantly."
"I understand the problem," Steve said. "But I don't have a lot of choices here. And I won't have my brother's blood on my hands." He stared at Jack, who was having trouble comprehending what was happening to him. "But fortunately, I'm not entirely unprepared." He produced a pair of handcuffs.