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The Cassandra Compact



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It was the thought of police that got Smith moving. Because of the holidays, all the shops along the canal were closed. There were no people around. But the telltale sound of the police launch Klaxon was growing louder. The authorities couldn't have helped but connect the massacre at St. Mark's with the explosion in the canal. Witnesses would tell them that the assassins had run in that direction.

Where they'll find me… The same witnesses will connect me to Danko.

The police would want to know about Smith's relationship to the dead man, why they had met, and what they had talked about. They would seize on the fact that Smith belonged to the American military and the interrogation would become even more intense. Yet, in the end, Smith could tell them nothing that would explain the massacre.

Smith steadied himself, wiped his face as best he could, and brushed off his suit. He took a few tentative steps, then walked as quickly as he could to the end of the sidewalk. There, he crossed a bridge and slipped into the shadows of a boarded-up sequero, a gondola construction yard. Half a block up, he entered a small church, drifted among the shadows, and emerged through another set of doors. Several minutes later, he was on the promenade next to the Grand Canal, lost among the throngs that moved ceaselessly along the waterfront.

St. Mark's Square was cordoned off by the time Smith reached it. Grim-faced carabinieri, submachine guns held at port arms, created a human barrier between the granite lions. Europeans, particularly Italians, were well versed in what to do in the aftermath of what was clearly a terrorist attack: they looked straight ahead and kept on moving past the scene. So did Smith.

He crossed the Bridge of Sighs, passed through the revolving doors of the Danieli Hotel, and made straight for the men's washroom. He splashed cold water on his face, then little by little slowed his breathing. He looked in the mirror above the sinks but saw only Danko's body, jerking as the bullets struck it. He heard the screams of passersby, the shouts of the killers as they spotted him racing toward them. Then the terrible explosion that had vaporized them…

All this in a city that was one of the safest in Europe. What in God's name had Danko brought with him that would merit destruction?

Smith took a few more moments, then left the washroom. The lounge was empty except for Peter Howell, tucked away at a table behind a tall marble pillar. Without a word, Smith picked up the brandy balloon and drained its contents. Howell seemed to understand.

“I was beginning to wonder what happened to you. You took off after those bastards, didn't you?”

“The killers had a gondola waiting,” Smith replied. “I think that their plan was to fade into the landscape. Nobody looks twice at a gondola.”


“Except whoever hired them to kill Danko didn't trust them to keep their mouths shut. The gondola was rigged with C-twelve attached to a timer.”

"Made for quite the bang. I could hear it all the way back in the square.

Smith leaned forward. “Danko?”

“They made no mistake about him,” Howell replied. “I'm sorry, Jon. I got there as fast as I could, but―”

“You did what I brought you over to do ― to cover me while I got Danko out. There's nothing more you could have done. Danko told me he was clean and I believed him. He was edgy, but not because he thought he was being followed. It was something else. Did you find anything?”

Howell handed over the single piece of paper that looked like it had been torn out of a cheap notebook. He looked at Smith steadily.

“What?” Smith asked.

“I didn't mean to peek,” Howell said. “And my Russian is a bit rusty. All the same one word leaped out at me.” He paused. “You had no idea what Danko might bring out with him?”

Smith scanned the handwritten text. He picked out that one word as quickly as Peter Howell had: Bioaparat. Russia's center for bioweapons research, design, and manufacture. Danko had often spoken of it, but as far as Smith knew, his work had never taken him there. Or had it? Could he have been rotated through Bioaparat? Had he discovered something so terrible that the only way to get it out was to carry it out himself?

Howell was studying Smith's reaction. “Scares the bloody hell out of me too. Anything you'd care to share with me, Jon?”

Smith looked across at the taciturn Englishman. Peter Howell had spent a lifetime of service in the British military and intelligence worlds, first with the Special Air Service, then with MI6. A lethal chameleon whose exploits always went unheralded, he had “retired” from his profession but had never left it altogether. The need for men with Howell's expertise was always there, and those who required it ― governments or individuals ― knew how to find him. Howell could afford to pick and choose his assignments but he had one ironclad rule: the needs of his friends came first. He had been instrumental in helping Smith run down the instigators of the Hades Project. He hadn't hesitated to leave his retreat in the High Sierra in California when Smith had asked him to cover his back in Venice.

Sometimes Smith bridled under the constraints Klein had put on him as a mobile cipher. For example, he couldn't tell Howell anything about Covert-One ― that it existed or that he was a part of it. He had no doubt that Peter had his suspicions. But being the professional he was he kept them to himself.

“This could be something very big, Peter,” Smith said quietly. “I have to get back to the States but I also need to know about those two killers ― who they were and, as important, who they were working for.”

Howell regarded Smith thoughtfully. “Like I said. Even the remotest reference to Bioaparat is enough to keep me awake at nights. I have a few friends in Venice. Let me see what I can find out.” He paused. “Your friend, Danko ― did he have family?”

Smith recalled the photo of a pretty, dark-haired woman and a child that Danko had once shown him.

“Yes, he did.”

“Then go do what you must. I know how to get hold of you if need be. And just in case ― here's the address outside of Washington I use occasionally. It has all the bells and whistles. Never know when you might need the privacy.”


The new NASA training facility on the outskirts of Houston consisted of, among other things, four giant hangars, each the size of a football field. Air force police patrolled the outermost perimeter; inside the Cyclone fence, motion sensors and cameras augmented surveillance.

The building designated G-3 housed a full mock-up of the latest generation of the space shuttle. Built along the lines of a commercial flight simulator used to train pilots, it provided the shuttle crew with the hands-on experience that they would carry with them into space.

Megan Olson was in the long tunnel that led from the shuttle's mid-deck to the back of the payload bay. Dressed in baggy blue pants and a loose cotton shirt, she floated in the partial-gravity environment as gently as a falling feather.

A voice crackled in her headset: “You look like you're having way too much fun in there.”

Megan gripped one of the rubber handles embedded in the tunnel wall and twisted around to face the camera that was tracking her progress. Her red hair, pulled back in a ponytail, floated in front of her and she brushed it aside.

“This is my favorite part of the whole experience,” she laughed. “It's like scuba diving ― without the fish.”

Megan floated to a monitor where she saw the face of Dr. Dylan Reed, head of NASA's biomedical research program.

“The lab doors will open in ten seconds,” Reed cautioned her.

“On my way.”

Megan worked her way down at a forty-five-degree angle to the circular hatch door. Just as she touched the handle, she heard the hiss of compressed air releasing the cylinder bolts. She pushed on the door and it swung away smoothly.

“I'm in.”

She settled herself on the specially lined floor and felt the soles of her booties grip the Velcro-type material. Now she was stable. She closed the door, then punched in a code on the alphanumeric pad. The door bolts shot home.

She turned and faced the space lab's work area, divided into a dozen modules. Each was the size of a broom closet; each was designed for a different function or experiment. Carefully, she walked down the center aisle, barely wide enough to accommodate her shoulders, past the Critical Point Facility and the SPE (Space Physiology Experiment), and up to her station, the Biorack.

Like the other stations, the Biorack was encased in titanium housing that resembled a large air-conditioning duct, four feet wide, seven feet high, with the top two feet tilted toward the user at a thirty-degree angle. This design was necessary since the entire lab was encased in a large cylinder.

“Today, we have a Chinese menu,” Reed said cheerfully. “Choose one from column A, and one from column B.”

Megan stationed herself in front of the Biorack and flipped the power switch. The uppermost module, the freezer, was the first to hum to life. Then, working down, the cooler, incubator A, the Glovebox, and incubator B, all came on. She checked the access and control panel, then finally, at knee-level, the power plant. The Biorack, or Bernie, as the unit had been nicknamed, was functioning flawlessly.

Megan checked the LCD readouts of the experiments to be performed. As Reed had joked, it was a Chinese menu of options.

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