'How many jets could they possibly have?' Black asked.
'It's hard to say, Mr. President,' General Merton answered. (Riggs had been sacked after the Hopper fiasco.) 'Could be anywhere from 500 to 2,500.'
'Too many for a direct assault,' Black decided. The public would tolerate a lot at the moment, but not the sudden loss of dozens of pilots or more.
'Fuel is still their weakest spot,' Miller said. Since the election, the new president had encouraged Miller to speak his mind. 'We should send in another carrier group, and double the patrol sorties. Force them to fall back on their SAM sites, or keep more of their own birds in the air. If they do the former, I think we can whittle down that blockade radius. And if the latter, they burn their gas that much quicker.'
* * *
'Dr. Childress is here,' the intercom announced.
'Send him in, Rita,' Peckard said.
A small man with glasses entered.
'Dr. Childress, come in, come in,' Peckard said. 'Please sit down.'
'Thank you,' Childress said. 'Have you looked at my proposal? It will win the war.'
'Well let's just slow down a bit,' Peckard said. 'Yes, I read over your materials, and I was very interested in them. But naturally, I have to allow my own experts to evaluate your code. We wouldn't want to infect every computer on the planet, now would we?'
'That's why I developed the vaccine!' Childress said. 'We're wasting valuable time! The U.S. is sending another carrier as we speak!'
'I'm aware of the situation, Dr. Childress,' Peckard said. 'You've got to understand that there are all sorts of legal and technical problems to consider before we . . . unleash something like your little beastie. Incidentally, you haven't sent it anywhere yet . . . have you?'
'Of course not,' Childress sulked. 'We need to inoculate Minerva's systems first, and I can't very well explain the situation to our firms without tipping off the U.S. That's why I sent it to you!!'
'And I appreciate it very much,' Peckard said. 'I'll tell you what: Why don't you come work for the Trust, so you can oversee the development of this project. I'm sure my teams would love to have the author of the virus to answer their questions.'
'Oh . . . okay,' Childress said. He could not believe Peckard's blindness.
'Thank you, Dr. Childress. I'll have Rita give you more details on your way out. See you on Monday.'
Childress gave a slight jerk with his head and left the office.
What a nut, Peckard thought. This battle of wits with the United States was getting far too expensive for Peckard's liking. He was beyond ready to call it a draw; the last thing in the world he needed was a terrorist strike on American computers.
'Captain Quinn is here,' Rita announced a few moments later.
'Send him in,' Peckard said.
Quinn entered the room and shook Peckard's hand.
'Mr. Peckard, it's an honor. What you've managed to do . . . simply incredible.'
'The honor is likewise,' Peckard said. 'My claim to fame is capturing an army with 600 snipers. But you managed to capture a destroyer with only six men. Maybe you should be sitting behind this desk.'
'Well,' Quinn said, blushing, 'people are always surprised by what they can do when they have to.'
'Indeed,' Peckard said, sitting back down. 'So tell me, what's your legal status?'
'It looks like it'll be fine,' Quinn said, sitting down himself. 'The rest of my crew was exonerated immediately. There was an issue about a certain Navy sailor that I threw overboard, but since we picked him up my actions were ruled acceptable self-defense.'
'Excellent,' Peckard said. 'And what are your plans for the future?'
'I think it's gonna be more of the dog that bit me,' Quinn said. 'I lost my entire cargo, not to mention a brand new ship. I'll probably stay away from smuggling oil, though.'
'That's too bad,' Peckard said. 'Right now we need all we can get.'
Indeed, it was precisely this that was prompting Peckard's trip to China. If he could convince them to block the Security Council vote, and begin shipment of 'humanitarian' supplies, it would be a simple matter to smuggle in enough oil to see the Trust through. Unfortunately, the Chinese wanted a face-to-face meeting.
'Oil's very profitable right now,' Quinn admitted, 'but I've been burned once, so to speak.'
'I understand,' Peckard said and laughed. 'In any event, I want to thank you again. You may not realize it, but your heroics have not only boosted morale here at home, but you've also gotten 13 percent of the American public to change their mind.'
'Glad to do my part,' Quinn said.
'Maybe when things settle down a bit,' Peckard said, 'we can organize a parade.'
'I'm not too fond of parades,' Quinn said.
'Fair enough,' Peckard said, getting up. 'It was a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Quinn. Thank you again.'
'Thank you,' Quinn said, standing up as well.
That's one tough man, Peckard thought with amusement as Quinn left the office.