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Liquid Affairs (Mokryye Dela)

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"Tell me again, Ryan, why we're heading into the ass-end of nowhere in the middle of the worst winter on record?"

"Change of scenery?" Ryan glanced over at his traveling companion, Bartolomeo Mancuso, and graced him with a quick grin. He didn't have time for much more, since the roads were truly dreadful and had become even worse after the sun had set. Jack had spent quite a bit of time at his grandfather's home in Maine and had experience with its inhospitable winters, but this storm was one for the record books.

Mancuso merely grunted in response and slid further down the Range Rover's passenger seat in apparent relaxed indifference.

Ryan didn't have a lot of time to research the Dallas's skipper before being shoved on that flying death trap called a helicopter and dumping himself into the Atlantic, but after their shared experiences retrieving the Red October, he knew enough to recognize the slight tightening around the man's mouth as a sign of tension. Bart Mancuso was a man who didn't mind encountering dangerous situations, as long as he was in the proverbial driver's seat when he encountered them.

"We'll have you back in Groton long before the Dallas has finished her refit, so don't worry, Captain."

Mancuso gave him a sharp look. "What are they teaching you young bucks at Annapolis these days? It's 'commander' while my boat is currently tied to a dock without me on it, so don't give me a rank I haven't earned yet." He frowned. "Besides, once they promote me to the actual rank of captain, my only options will be commanding a boomer, a skimmer or a desk, none of which holds a great deal of appeal."

Ryan raised an eyebrow in mild surprise. He'd spent just long enough on a submarine to recognize the submariners' derogatory term for a surface vessel -- the phrase, 'I'd rather have a sister in a whorehouse than a brother on a skimmer,' seemed to be popular among the Dallas' crew -- but he was confused regarding Mancuso's reluctance to command a missile submarine.

He had to put his curiosity on hold, however, as they'd reached a section of the mountain road where the cliffs were no longer partially blocking the wind. Ryan was forced to slow the Rover significantly so he could creep through some truly impressive snowdrifts. Once they were clear, he said, "I thought missile boats were larger and more comfortable than a fast attack. I mean, the Dallas is an amazing vessel, but it's a little on the . . . cramped side."

Mancuso snorted. "Boomers have two complete crews, Ryan, and only of them can occupy the sub at a time. If I'd wanted to be a Goddamn part-time sailor, I'd have joined the Reserves."

That certainly made sense. Ryan had been impressed by Mancuso's performance, and his entire crew for that matter, and he could see why this man would prefer to spend his entire time at sea rather than 'share' his boat with another skipper. He did seem rather possessive of his grey lady.

"Now, are you gonna tell me where the hell we're going, Ryan?"

And not a man to mince words either.

Ryan decided to give in. They were nearing their destination, so it was a moot point. "I got a call from Admiral Kauderer a few days ago."

There was a slight pause. "I see," Mancuso said. "And what did COMSUBLANT want with the CIA's star analyst?"

Ryan sighed. "Actually, I'm not an analyst -- I just write books for the CIA."

Mancuso snorted. "You used to write books for them. Now that you've pulled a clean sweep and showed the brass you can read minds, at least Soviet minds, you're an analyst, Ryan, whether you want to be or not."

Ryan shook his head ruefully, since Mancuso had hit the nail on the head. He hadn't worked up the nerve to make it official yet, but then, it's not like he needed the extra money the position would bring.

Before he could come up with a plausible denial, Mancuso added, "I have no idea what Admiral Kauderer wanted from you, but since I know absolutely fuck-all about the Soviet government or the innards of a Soviet boomer, I assume it’s the Red October's skipper we're paying a visit?"

Well, the Navy didn't let idiots command its nuclear submarines, so he shouldn't be surprised. Ryan nodded. "The CIA and the Navy have done their own debriefs of Ramius while he was at Langley, of course, but Admiral Kauderer wanted a fellow submariner to do a debrief, considering Marko trained most of their submarine captains."

"Makes sense, but why me?"

Ryan risked another quick glance at his companion. "Why not? With the Dallas temporarily laid up, you were available. You're more familiar with Ramius than any Navy officer, active duty or retired, and given the outcome of the mission, the admiral assumed you'd developed at least some rapport with the man."

Mancuso snorted again. "Ramius called me a 'cowboy,' so if that makes him an Indian by default, then rapport isn't precisely the term I'd use."

Ryan said, "And would you blithely hand over command of your vessel to someone you didn't respect or trust in a combat situation?"

"Point." Mancuso paused, then said, "What does Ramius think about this plan?"

"He doesn't know."

"What do you mean, 'he doesn't know'?" Mancuso asked sharply.

"For the last two weeks, I've been at the NSA at Admiral Greer's request to research recent developments in the Soviet leadership, so I haven't spoken to Marko recently. He officially moved to his permanent residence in Maine a week ago, but this nor'easter dumped enough snow that it's caused widespread electricity and phone service blackouts." Ryan shrugged the best he could while attempting to drive in a blizzard. "The agency hasn't been able to contact him in the last two days."

"Lovely," Mancuso said. "Let's hope that when we show up on his doorstep unannounced, the man doesn't shoot first and ask questions later."

Ryan grinned. "So, you're afraid Marko's a cowboy, too?"

"Ryan, the man pulled off a stunt that makes the 'gunfight at the OK corral' look like a child's tea party. Of course, he's a Goddamn cowboy."

Laughing, Ryan said, "I'll be sure to tell him that. He'll find it amusing."

"Hmph. You think you know him well enough to know, Ryan? The only way Ramius made it as far as he did in that regime was by playing his cards close to the chest."

Ryan debated how much to say, since he'd become fonder of the enigmatic Lithuanian than was good for him, but it was a legitimate question. "We've spent the last three months or so in each other's pockets, actually. Admiral Greer thought I'd be the best person to ease Marko's way through the debrief process since I'd done the man's bio." He shrugged again. "He's a fascinating man, so I certainly didn't mind. Well, other than not seeing my baby girl for an extended period of time, that is."

"You'd never make a submariner, Ryan. Extended absences from family are the norm, not the exception."

"You got that right, but then, I wasn't particularly fond of getting shot at either."

As Ryan slowed the Rover for an upcoming curve, he heard a sudden loud 'pop,' and the vehicle lurched violently to one side. He instinctively hit the brakes, but in the deep snow the Rover lost traction and started to slide toward the tree line. He overcompensated while trying to correct the slide, and the Rover spun wildly in a circle.

With no hope of recovering now, Ryan tried to brace himself as the vehicle flipped and then slid directly toward the guardrail. He had a brief moment to hope they wouldn't go through the damn thing and into the ravine before they impacted and he blacked out completely.

*****************************************

Bart Mancuso shook his head slightly in an attempt to clear the ringing in his ears and then took a moment to take stock. He was hanging upside down from the seatbelt, but at least his limbs were intact. The windshield had shattered and he'd apparently suffered some minor cuts on his face and upper arms, but he appeared to have suffered no major injuries.

At least not yet.

Call him paranoid, but he had his suspicions that it hadn't been a blown-out tire that had sent them careening into a guardrail. At least not by itself. The ground sloped sharply upward on the side opposite the ravine they'd been following. It had been difficult to tell with all the blowing snow, but he'd been looking at Ryan and could have sworn he'd seen something right before the young man lost control of the car.

Mancuso may be career Navy, a service that preferred torpedoes and/or missiles to shoot things, but his father had been card-carrying NRA and had indoctrinated his son early on with his love of handguns. Mancuso therefore knew it was relatively easy to silence a gun, but much harder to mask the muzzle flash if someone happened to be looking straight at it.

Which Mancuso had.

Of course, he had absolutely no idea why someone would be shooting random people with a high-powered rifle in this weather, so this likely meant it hadn't been random.

He didn't intend to stick around and find out.

After a bit of a struggle, he managed to get himself free of his seatbelt prison and landed rather inelegantly on the roof of the overturned vehicle. The engine had cut off, but the dashboard lights were still on, and the illumination was just enough to tell that Ryan hadn't been quite as lucky as he'd been. The Rover had apparently landed first on the driver's side as it rolled over, so it -- and Ryan -- had taken the brunt of the impact.

Ryan was bleeding heavily from the side of his head, and while Mancuso knew scalp wounds always bled freely, this one looked bad. Mancuso couldn't tell if the young man had any other injuries due to the heavy winter clothing, but given the condition of the vehicle, he'd be surprised if the head injury was the only issue.

And he didn't dare take any more time than necessary to assess Ryan's condition, or wait for him to regain consciousness. If he was correct and it had been a gunshot, they needed to move before the perpetrator could get down from his vantage point on the hill.

Mancuso worked himself underneath the still dangling Ryan, and then he released the man's seatbelt catch. He caught Ryan as he fell, shielding him front the worst of the fall, but Ryan's left foot appeared to be trapped. Mancuso certainly couldn't reach it from his current position, so he had no choice but to rouse Ryan anyway.

Still holding the man's upper body in his lap, Mancuso slapped Ryan's face and whispered a fierce, "Ryan, you gotta wake up. Now." There wasn't an immediate response, and Mancuso tried to peer out through the partially shattered windshield, hoping he wouldn't see anything but flying snow.

Unfortunately, between the pebbled safety glass of the windshield and the weather, he couldn't make out anything beyond the hood of the Rover, so he tried again to awaken his traveling companion.

"Ryan!" he said in his best command voice, which he knew conveyed urgency without the need for additional volume. "Rise and shine, mister!"

He was rewarded with a faint moan, and Ryan began to stir. Once Ryan realized he was trapped, however, his eyelids flew open and he let out a strangled yell. Even with the dim light, Mancuso could tell his pupils were blown and mismatched, so at the very least he'd suffered a concussion, but Mancuso didn't have time to make any more observations.

Ryan began struggling fiercely, almost pushing Mancuso to the far side of the cab. "Gotta get out, gotta get out," he muttered, frantically wrenching his body around in the effort.

"Ryan!" Mancuso said, trying to catch flailing hands before Ryan injured himself further. "Calm down! I'll get you loose, just calm down!"

"No, no!" Ryan practically shouted. "We're on fire, gotta get out!"

On fire? Mancuso glanced around quickly, wondering if Ryan had spotted something from his position that he had not, but other than the faint ticking of the cooling engine, there was no indication of anything untoward, and in particular, no sign of a fire whatsoever.

"Shit!" Ryan cried, "the pilot's already dead." He winced, then looked at absolutely nothing in particular as he continued his flailing, and Mancuso realized he must be having a flashback of some sort.

Ah, of course. During the search for Red October, Mancuso had been reluctantly impressed by Ryan's daredevil dive into the freezing Atlantic off the wildly careening Seahawk, but even more so after learning that he'd barely survived a horrific helicopter crash while in the Marines.

The damn kid had more guts and determination than seasoned servicemen twice his age.

But they didn't have time for Mancuso to be gentle. He snagged Ryan's face with one hand then slapped him hard with the other, hoping to bring him out of it.

Ryan's head snapped back in apparent shock and surprise, but he finally seemed to recognize Mancuso. He pulled in a deep breath and then looked around with slightly more focus.

"Ryan," Mancuso said, waiting until Ryan had fastened his attention on him. "You're not in a chopper. There was a car wreck, but we need to get out of here before someone comes along and knocks us over the side, okay?"

So, it wasn't exactly the truth, but it was close enough. He didn't want to take the time to explain his suspicions to a clearly concussed Ryan. "You with me, kid?"

Ryan glanced around, apparently confirming this statement, and then he squinted at Mancuso. "You're upside down," he complained faintly.

Despite himself, Mancuso bit off a sharp laugh. "You got that a little backwards, Ryan, but that's all right." He maneuvered himself closer to Ryan's still dangling torso. "Your left foot is trapped on something. Do you think you can work it free?"

"Don't know," Ryan mumbled. "Gonna try?"

Mancuso braced Ryan's upper body, hoping to give him a little leverage, and with a grunt of effort, Ryan violently wrenched his ankle free.

He dropped like a stone onto Mancuso, but at least he'd been prepared and was able to soften the impact. It didn't seem to make a difference though, because when Ryan landed on his back, partially on Mancuso and partially on the roof of the Rover, he shouted in clear agony, his eyes flying wide open.

Damn it. If Ryan had injured his back, the situation had gone significantly beyond FUBAR.

"Ryan," Mancuso said. "I'm sorry, but we can't hang around. Can you move your limbs?"

Ryan gasped for air like he was drowning, but he inclined his head sharply. At least the blood from his head wound seemed to be slowing, likely from the change of position. Thank the Maker for small miracles.

"Okay, I'll do most of the work, but you've got to help as much as you can, okay?"

Again, the briefest of nods.

Mancuso looked around the cab. "Hold on a minute, Ryan." He tried the door handle on the passenger side. It would have been easier to pull Ryan out from the driver's side, of course, but that side of the vehicle was facing the trees, and Mancuso had no attention of broaching. He wasn't going to make it easier for a potential sniper to nail them.

The door handle moved freely, but of course the door itself refused to budge. Mancuso had to brace himself against the dash and then kick the door with all his strength. It gave way with a disturbingly loud grinding noise, but at least they had their way out.

Ryan shivered with the blast of icy air that streamed into the cab, but it seemed to have sharpened his senses somewhat, because his voice was stronger when he said, "What happened?"

"Later, Ryan," Mancuso said tersely. "C'mon. It's time to move." He grabbed Ryan's upper torso. "This is probably going to hurt."

"No shit," Ryan said, then he gasped aloud as Mancuso worked his way backwards. Ryan's eyes closed tightly, and he had his teeth firmly clenched, but he was contributing, using his right leg to help move his weight along.

There was barely a body length between the car and the guardrail, but it was just enough room for Mancuso to tug Ryan free and onto the ground.

Ryan grunted again, gasping, but he was coherent enough to probe his forehead with one hand, frowning when his fingertips came away wet.

Now that they were out of the car, Mancuso reached inside his jacket and pulled his pistol from its holster. The state of Maine didn't require a concealed carry permit, but regardless, Mancuso rarely went anywhere without his Colt. He'd owned this pistol long before he'd earned his dolphins, and he was more than grateful for its presence now.

Mancuso strained his ears, attempting to pick up any extraneous sounds. He may not be a sonar tech, but his hearing tested exceptionally well. Unfortunately, all he heard at the moment was the sound of the wind moaning through the nearby pines and Ryan, who was still making shallow, pained gasps.

He felt Ryan stir beside him, apparently making an attempt to sit up, but Mancuso put a restraining hand on his shoulder. He needn't have bothered, because Ryan froze when he noticed the gun in Mancuso's other hand.

"So, not an accident then?"

He had to hand it to the kid -- he didn't immediately fly apart in a crisis, even battered and concussed.

Mancuso peered around the cab of the Rover. "Don't know yet. I thought I saw . . ."

He broke off when their one remaining headlight captured movement in the trees. It was entirely the wrong shape to be any sort of animal, unless those ridiculous legends about Bigfoot turned out to be true. His other hand moved from Ryan's shoulder to the pistol, steadying his grip, but he knew better than to fire blindly into the trees. He had absolutely no intention of losing the element of surprise now.

Mancuso knew their assailant had a gun, but their assailant had no way of knowing that he did. Even if the sniper knew exactly who the occupants of the Rover were, Mancuso had never advertised the fact that he habitually carried his weapon while ashore.

He could wait. He was exceptionally good at waiting. Half the battle in an underwater engagement was waiting for your opponent to move, to make a mistake, and he had the tactical advantage here. While unlikely in this weather, it was still possible another vehicle would come along and their assailant would then lose his chance at finishing them off.

Mancuso shook his head. If that had even been their goal in the first place. This whole affair made absolutely no sense whatsoever. Not surprising, with any operation that involved spooks and their infernal spy games.

He was focussed so intently on where he'd last seen movement that he neglected to check on what was happening behind him. Fortunately for both of them, Ryan made a strangled sound and then latched onto his calf hard.

Whirling around, Mancuso barely took the time to confirm the barrel of the gun aimed at his head before he fired a quick double tap into the man's chest.

At least his aim hadn't gone the way of his abysmal situational awareness, because the man immediately dropped to the ground. Mancuso quickly stepped over the prone Ryan, keeping his gun aimed at their assailant while kicking the fallen rifle away and into the ravine with his foot.

The man didn't move. Not surprising, since the rapidly spreading stain on the arctic camouflage vest indicated Mancuso has hit him dead center in the heart.

Ryan started to say something, but Mancuso silenced him with a sharp downward movement of his free hand. He'd already made one mistake tonight, and he didn't intend to make another. At least not so soon.

He waited to see if there had been more than one gunman, but as he slowly stuck his head around the aft end of the Rover, there was no further movement . . . and no more tell-tale muzzle flashes. After a few minutes, he lowered his gun, checked the pulse on the downed man for safety's sake, then holstered his gun and bent to check on Ryan.

The kid was staring at the body on the ground, and whether out of obedience to Mancuso's signal or due to injury, he'd remained lying where he'd first come out of the car.

He had to be going into shock by now, and lying on the icy ground wasn't going to help with that.

Mancuso said, "How far to Ramius' house?"

Ryan took a moment to refocus his gaze from the body to Mancuso, then said, "I'm not exactly sure, since I've never been there. A couple of miles maybe?"

"Lovely." Mancuso stood and looked around, but he could see no sign of another vehicle. If the sniper had driven himself here, he'd hidden his vehicle well enough that Mancuso couldn't immediately spot it. Without a flashlight and amidst the blinding snow, they couldn't afford to take the time to search for something that possibly wasn't even there.

He reached into the back of the Rover and grabbed his kit and Ryan's overnight bag. He used strips from one of his shirts to wrap around the kid's scalp injury, then carefully placed a wool cap over his head. Ryan was already shivering hard, and they weren't likely to find a warm haven anytime soon.

He caught Ryan's bleary attention and said, "Do you think you can walk?"

Ryan closed his eyes. "You have no idea how often I heard those words after Annapolis." Before Mancuso could respond, he said, "I don't really know, but my only other choice is to stay here and freeze to death, isn't it?"

Mancuso quirked his lips into a brittle smile. "Well, I'm certainly not carrying your sorry ass, mister."

Ryan shook his head wryly, but then held out a shaking hand. "Give me a boost, will you? It's the first few steps that are the absolute bitch. If I don't fall flat on my face, then I should be ready to run the New York marathon."

"That's good, considering we're at least 400 miles from the starting point." Mancuso bent down on one knee, gripped Ryan's arm with one hand and then wrapped the other around the man's upper back.

Ryan gave him a grateful half-smile then lurched upward.

With a significant amount of assistance, Ryan did manage to get to his feet, but he was swaying alarmingly in Mancuso's arms when he'd finally gotten vertical.

Concerned that he'd fall and injure himself further, Mancuso pulled him against his chest and held him for a while, waiting for Ryan's small, pained gasps to subside.

When Mancuso pulled back slightly, Ryan had his lower lip in his teeth and had apparently bit down hard enough that it was bleeding. He'd also turned a truly impressive shade of corpse grey, but when Mancuso tentatively stepped to Ryan's side, still keeping a supporting arm around him, he managed to stay on his feet.

Ryan took a tentative half-step forward, limping badly on his left foot, and then another. "See, piece of cake," he gasped, clearly in significant pain.

Mancuso shook his head and bent down to grab the bags without letting go of Ryan.

Two steps down, only 3998 more to go.

God. How he hated not being at sea.

*****************************************

Marko Ramius stoked the fire in the hearth before returning to his chair. With the electricity still out, he was using the fire mostly for its light, since the cold had never bothered him. His native Lithuania was famous for its cold winters, and the temperatures had not improved when he and Natalia had lived in Moscow.

And the sea. . .

Well, Vasily had been correct. The sea was cold. The sea was always cold. The missile boat fleet operated mostly from bases in the North Sea. While deployed, they'd spent a disproportionate amount of time in the North Atlantic and Arctic, where they had at least some hope of avoiding detection from the Americans' SOSUS net.

What is more, the Soviet Union saw no purpose in keeping its boats comfortable for its crews. The computers, electronics -- and more importantly, the reactor -- had preferred the cold, so cold it would be.

But for now, Marko saw no harm in indulging in warmth. It would be cold enough where he was headed.

He had initially set out to prevent a war, but sometimes war was not averted by one action, but many. Regardless, he would give all that he had to give.

Marko sighed deeply. He wished he could say he had no regrets, but surprisingly, this was no longer true. It had once been true, at least when he and Vasily had planned the original operation, but then Marko had recently lost what he'd thought was his one and only true love.

But as the old proverb says, "There is no law written for fools." He had been foolish to follow his heart once, but he could not afford to do so again. There was simply too much at stake.

It would be tomorrow. The Rodina was fond of her significant dates in history.

Yes, it would be tomorrow.

Marko briefly considered fetching the vodka to ease the transition but decided against it. A surgeon had killed his Natalia while under the influence of that spirit, and he'd likely never indulge in that particular vice again.

He was therefore still distressingly sober when someone knocked on his door.

Marko looked at his watch and felt his eyebrow rising. The guests he was expecting would never bother to knock, and his nearest neighbor was many miles away, not that anyone would risk driving this isolated road in a blizzard.

No matter. He would either invite them in, or send them on their way. Some decisions were easy and didn't require the burden of thought. Marko rose from his chair, straightened his jacket, and then made his way to the front door.

By the time he arrived, the knocking had changed to pounding, and it was therefore with a slight degree of irritation that he opened the door.

Two men stood on his doorstep, both so completely encrusted in snow that he had no hope of making out their features. More correctly, one man stood at his door and was practically carrying the second one.

"Permission to come aboard, sir," the first man said wearily.

Marko recognized that voice, of course, and he took a step back to allow the men inside. The American commander stumbled with his burden as he crossed the threshold, and the man he was holding began to fall. Marko instinctively caught him, and as he consolidated his hold, he heard a faint, "Spasibo," before the man passed out completely in his arms.

"Ryan!" he said, as deeply shocked as he had ever been in his long life.

He heard Mancuso close the door behind him and then remove his snow-encrusted outerwear, but it was the sound of Mancuso clearing his throat that pulled him out of his daze. He considered his options. He could not carry this one in his arms as he had carried his Natalia, at least not as far as the sitting room, although he dearly wished he could. Neither did he dare throw Ryan over his shoulder in a fireman's carry until he knew the extent of his injuries.

He looked over at the American commander, who was swaying slightly himself, and said, "We must get him to the sitting room. It is warmer there."

Mancuso nodded, slung the two bags he'd brought with him over his shoulder, and between the two of them, they were able to haul the unconscious man to a large rug in front of the hearth.

Marko took possession of Ryan again and said, "Help me get him out of his coat, please."

Again, Mancuso merely nodded, as if he were too exhausted to speak, and that was entirely possible. Nevertheless, he stripped Ryan efficiently of his outerwear, but it soon became woefully apparent that Ryan's clothing was completely soaked through. Marko looked over at Mancuso and raised an eyebrow in question.

"He'd fallen several times. Not that it mattered -- the wind is so fierce that it seems to blow right through you."

They did not need to discuss matters further. Together, they got Ryan out of his waterlogged clothing. They were both submariners and therefore had much less concern for body modesty than civilians, and Ryan was still unconscious.

Ryan's skin felt like the polar ice, but he was not shivering. Marko knew this to be a bad sign, and judging by the look of concern on Mancuso's face, he was just as alarmed. Marko moved Ryan as close to the fire as he dared, rubbing as much of the naked skin as he could reach, hoping to return circulation to the surface capillaries as quickly as possible.

Mancuso looked around, spotted the quilt on the nearby divan and brought it over to Marko without a word.

Marko thanked him, then wrapped the quilt around Ryan several times. This finished, he slowly sank to the floor with his precious burden still in his arms.

Ryan was not supposed to be here.

When he glanced up, Mancuso was standing in an odd form of parade rest, and he was staring at Marko as if ready to give a report.

Sighing, Marko indicated his bedroom with a jerk of his chin. "There are dry clothes in that room that you may borrow. I am quite certain nothing in your seabag will be fit to wear until it has had time to dry."

Mancuso's eyes narrowed and he started to protest, but Marko shook his head. "We have a great deal to discuss, Commander, and one of you must be in a condition to do so." He unconsciously tightened his arms around Ryan and added, "This one most assuredly is not. If you must have another purpose to salve your conscience, you may retrieve the first aid kit from the lavatory."

"Aye, aye, sir," Mancuso said with no small degree of irony, but he followed the instructions, grabbing a lantern from the sideboard and disappearing into the other room.

When Mancuso returned wearing one of Marko's old sweaters and a pair of slacks, he appeared much improved. He was drying his hair with one hand using a small towel, and Marko raised an eyebrow at the shoulder holster that was poorly hidden by the ill-fitting sweater.

Buckaroo, indeed.

He had more pressing worries, however. Ryan had still not awakened. Marko reluctantly unwound the unconscious man from the quilt to assess his injuries.

Mancuso knelt beside him, opening the first aid kit and setting it down along with several towels. "The car flipped over and crashed into the guardrail. Ryan bore the brunt of it."

As Marko carefully unwound the cloth around Ryan's head, Mancuso handed him the antiseptic and a towel. "Besides the gash on his head and a likely concussion, his left ankle was also injured."

Marko nodded his comprehension of the report. He gently cleaned the deep gash in his scalp, but even unconscious, Ryan made a soft sound of protest at the treatment and attempted to turn his head away. Marko murmured soft encouragement but held him firmly in place, regretting the additional discomfort he was causing.

He nodded his thanks when Mancuso took over cleansing the wound, so Marko could continue his pitiful attempts at reassuring the distressed young man.

After applying a bandage, Mancuso sat back on his heels and sighed. "I'm fairly certain he may have injured his back, or more likely reinjured it, but the damage wasn't bad enough to cause paralysis, at least not that I could detect."

Knowing the extent of Ryan's initial injury, Marko said, "Just a significant degree of pain."

Mancuso nodded. "Yeah, something like that. The kid's got gumption to spare -- never once complained." He moved down to examine Ryan's ankle, but it was already significantly swollen. He shook his head, then reached for an elastic bandage. "Without an x-ray, there's no telling if it's broken or not."

Marko was still stroking Ryan's cheek and found that he did not really wish to stop. "The treatment would be the same, at least without a trained medic to examine it. Go ahead and wrap it. At least the ankle will have some support, and it will help control the swelling."

Mancuso nodded, wrapping the ankle firmly but with obvious care. Marko inwardly smiled. Apparently, he was not the only one who bore some degree of affection for the young man.

When he had finished, they rewrapped Ryan in the quilt, and Marko pulled the young man partially into his lap for the added warmth.

"He's still not shivering," Mancuso said with some concern.

"Not a good sign, by any means." Marko looked up to meet the commander's eyes. "I hate to force you back into the weather, but there is a generator in the shed next to the house. It provides enough electricity for the entire house, at least until the petrol runs out." He looked down at the grey-white skin of Ryan's face. "We need all the heat we have available."

Mancuso nodded in agreement, rising to his feet. "Good idea. I'll get right on it."

He was halfway to the door when Marko said, "Commander. Be careful. There have been sightings of . . . bears in the area."

Mancuso lifted his chin but did not seem overly surprised at Marko's oblique warning. Obviously, there had been more to the 'accident' than had been apparent at first glance.

"I understand, sir," Mancuso said. He removed his pistol from its holster before continuing out the door.

For the first time, Marko found himself rather grateful for the presence of the buckaroo . . . and his weapon.

*****************************************

When the lights flickered on, Marko knew that Mancuso had been successful in his mission. He started to get concerned, however, when he did not immediately return.

Just when he was about to shift Ryan and check on him, he heard the front door open and close. Mancuso entered the room, still shaking snow from his clothes. He sat down across from them and asked, "Any change?"

"Not as yet." He looked up at Mancuso. "Did you run into some difficulty, Commander?"

"No, but your SUV did. All four tires have been slashed and the plugs are missing." He shrugged. "If we plan on going anywhere, it'll be on foot." When Marko didn't reply, he added, "You don't seem too surprised, Captain."

Marko shook his head. "We can discuss this later. For now, we have to raise Ryan's core temperature, before he falls into a coma and does not come out of it."

Mancuso nodded, apparently following his logic about their next step. "You have a gas water heater, then?"

"Yes. Help me get him to the lavatory."

Perhaps it was the distressing amount of practice, but it was getting easier for them to move the unconscious weight of Ryan around. He hoped they could stop getting this practice, very soon.

"How do you wanna work this?" Mancuso asked, as they stopped in front of the shower.

"I will take him in," Marko said, making sure that Mancuso had a good grip on Ryan before he released him. "I have not been on a recent enforced march through a blizzard."

And for some reason, he did not want to allow anyone else to perform this task, even this man whom he had trusted with his ship . . . and his life.

Marko started the water, stripped quickly and efficiently, and when he had a solid grip on Ryan, he nodded to Mancuso and then lifted Ryan the short distance into the shower stall.

He wrapped one hand around the shorter man's chest, and when Ryan's head lolled back onto his shoulder, he used his other hand to shield his face from the almost uncomfortably hot water.

Then Marko simply stood there, held this man who had become infinitely precious to him, and he prayed. When, after ten long minutes, Ryan moaned and moved slightly within the cradle of his arms, Marko's face broke into a grin. He expected his expression must have transmitted emotions he did not intend to display, but at this point, he couldn't bring himself to care.

*****************************************

"So, does Ryan know you're in love with him?"

Marko carefully set down his tea and looked up at the American. Marko easily recognized the challenging expression on the man's face.

He saw no point in denying it. Mancuso was an observant man -- it was a characteristic that was not only desired, but necessary in the silent service. "No, he does not." He lifted his chin and said in an equally challenging tone of voice, "Nor shall he ever know."

Mancuso grimaced at the implied threat, but he pulled out a chair and sat down across from him. He made a questioning gesture toward the teapot, and Marko inclined his head in tacit permission. There was silence for a few minutes while they both drank their tea, and then Mancuso said, "Why not? You know he's no longer married to the mother of his child?"

Marko inclined his head again. "Yes."

"And I assume you know he's also infatuated with you."

"Yes."

Sitting back in his chair, Mancuso said, "I suppose I'll never understand Russians, or perhaps it's idiots I'll never understand. It's hard to tell the difference sometimes."

Marko laughed. He had come to appreciate the American's candor. It was a refreshing trait not prevalent in his own country. "Let us say that I have my reasons. Very good reasons."

"Uh-huh." Mancuso was looking at him contemplatively. "Does that reason have anything to do with the . . . trouble we encountered getting here?"

Marko narrowed his eyes. "It was not merely an automobile accident then?"

Mancuso snorted. "Not unless you think that sniper accidentally shot out our tire. If so, then he evidently decided to finish the job so he wouldn't have to take the hit on his insurance."

"I see." Marko looked down into his tea, then locked eyes with the American commander again. "The phone and cell service are still down, but I have intermittent internet access via satellite. I have contacted the CIA and asked them to send assistance." He glared at Mancuso. "Ryan was not supposed to be here."

"I thought as much." Mancuso paused. "You're the one responsible for sending the kid to cool his heels at Bolling."

Nodding, Marko said, "The admiral and I had an arrangement. My only request was that he keep Ryan away while I fulfilled my part of the bargain."

Mancuso considered that for a few seconds, then shook his head. "Don't blame Jim Greer. It was my boss who sent him here. Apparently, there are some drawbacks to the CIA policy of 'need to know.'" He paused. "And what exactly did we need to know? In other words, who the fucking hell was taking pot shots at us?"

"Mokryye Dela."

Both men turned and saw Ryan standing in the doorway, leaning heavily on the fireplace poker he was using as a cane.

Mancuso looked between both men, then said, "What?"

Ryan was staring at Marko fiercely, but he turned to Mancuso and said, "'Liquid Affairs'. It's the term the KGB uses for state-sanctioned kidnapping and assassination."

Mancuso raised an eyebrow and turned to face Marko. "The Russians discovered you were still alive . . . and where you were hiding."

It wasn't a question, but then, the man was correct in only one of his assumptions.

But Ryan answered for him. "No. If I had to hazard a guess, I'd bet Marko told them where he was." He glared at him. "Am I right?"

Marko sighed, then rose from the chair and cautiously approached Ryan. The young man was very angry, but that was probably the only thing keeping him on his feet. His whole body was shaking, and it wasn't merely from heightened emotions.

"I know you are upset with me, Ryan, but please allow me to help you back to the divan?" He held out a tentative hand. "You should not be walking."

Ryan seemed to debate the decision for some time, but his pain and weakness likely forced him to give in. He looked away briefly, then nodded.

Marko breathed a sigh of relief, then wrapped an arm around Ryan's back. He waited to make certain Ryan would not shake him off and request Mancuso's assistance instead, but his stiff shoulders relaxed into Marko's hold. After another nod from Ryan, they slowly made their way across the room, and Marko gently lowered him to the divan.

When he had settled, Ryan said, "Well?" somewhat belligerently.

Marko didn't respond immediately. He rolled a blanket and placed Ryan's injured ankle on it to keep it elevated. After he was sure the young man was as comfortable as he could make him, he pulled up a chair so he could be on a level with him. "Yes, my Jonas, you are correct."

"Why?"

Marko was momentarily taken aback. Instead of anger, Ryan's voice now resonated with a combination of hurt and confusion, like an injured child.

Mancuso said, "That's an excellent question, Captain. I thought you wanted to defect. What changed your mind?"

"I did not change my mind, Commander. I never change my mind." For some reason, it was easier to address this difficult question with Mancuso rather than the young man who still stared at him with a wounded expression. "I knew the Red October would be located by our Navy, if not immediately, then surely within a few days of its arrival in the Penobscot River."

Mancuso cocked his head. "You mind explaining to the class how you knew this?"

Marko shook his head. They did not have time for a detailed explanation, as they would have to begin preparations very shortly. Dawn was approaching rapidly. However, he knew he must brief them at least to some extent. "The Red October has a draught of nearly 13 meters. There are very few rivers on the American East Coast that could accommodate her, at least far enough from the estuary to remain reasonably hidden."

Ryan interrupted him. "The Soviets had no satellite coverage in that part of the States. We checked."

Marko nodded. "They did not require a satellite. Once they realized that Tupolev's boat was missing, and that the crew of the Red October had reported only one explosion large enough to result from the destruction of a submarine, they started searching for Red October's trail."

"That's impossible." Mancuso shook his head. "The SOSUS net . . . "

". . . had been overwhelmed by the sheer number of ships, both surface and submerged, that had converged in the area," Marko finished for him.

Mancuso crossed his arms across his chest. "It's still impossible. Your sonar isn't nearly as sensitive as ours, and frankly, Jonesy is one in a million, even for our sonar techs. Your attack boats would never have found her."

Sighing deeply, Marko sat back in his chair and said, "Tell me, Commander, what do you know about SOKS?"

"Soviet tech. Stands for 'Wake object detection system,'" Mancuso said promptly. "It's a myth."

"Oh, it most assuredly is not."

"C'mon, Captain. It's a sea story if I ever heard one. Even if you had equipment that could detect a wake and could identify the type of sub making it, you'd still have to be right in their baffles to do it."

"That's because SOKS includes many instruments, not just one." He smiled at the continued disbelief on the commander's face. The Americans were so accustomed to their superior technology that it blinded them to the possibility of different technology. "SOKS detects trace elements including zinc and nickel flakes from the pipes used to cool the reactor, as well as the hydrogen by-products from oxygen generators, not to mention identifying the increased heat signature from the water used to cool the reactor. These are all detectable several hours after the sub has passed and are unique for each submarine."

Mancuso's eyes widened in surprise.

"Yes, you begin to see. Every Alfa in the fleet would have been given the Red October's specific signature once I'd announced my intentions to defect." He paused. "In the enclosed waters of a river estuary, it would have been detectable for a significantly longer period of time."

Mancuso sat down heavily in a chair. "If you knew you couldn't get away with defecting, why'd you do it?"

"Oh, but I did 'get away with it', in a manner of speaking. I needed to restore the balance of power. The caterpillar drive was the only major modification to a typical Akula class. During the debrief, I made certain your engineers were aware of this and knew to examine it first." He raised an eyebrow. "In the event my countrymen decided to destroy the boat once it had been located, of course."

"Jesus F. Christ," Mancuso said. "We might have been able to remove the missiles with enough heavy-duty cranes and a shitload of manpower, but there's no way we'd be able to remove the reactor without access to a drydock. Even then, it would take months. If the sub were destroyed before the core could be removed, then . . . "

Marko nodded. "Even so."

"I see," Ryan said bitterly. "Since you couldn't sacrifice the boat, you decided to sacrifice yourself instead."

Sighing, Marko stood and knelt beside Ryan on the floor. He reached out a hand, and when Ryan didn't immediately flinch, he brushed a lock of hair from the young man's forehead. "Ryan. You of all people should comprehend the Soviet psyche. The Politburo would have to make some kind of gesture as a deterrent against future actions like mine. If not against me, then against the sub itself, and that," he said wearily, "could easily start the very war I was attempting to deter."

"So, that's your plan then," Mancuso said sharply. "Just say, 'here I am, come and get me,' and you expect that to be the end of it?"

"Yes," Marko said with a faint smile. "That is my plan." He stood. "Although neither you nor Ryan were supposed to be here at the time."

Mancuso said, "How's that? They told you exactly when they were coming for you?"

"No, but it will be . . ." Marko looked down at his watch. "Today, actually. February 23."

"Soviet Army and Navy Day," Ryan said, glancing over at Mancuso. "The date would hold a distinct significance for the military types in the Politburo."

"Yes," Marko agreed, smiling down at him. "We love our irony and tend to be annoyingly predictable in that respect."

Mancuso shook his head. "Well, it's past time to stop being predictable. Ryan and I are both stuck here. While I'm prepared to give my life for my country, I'm not sticking my own head in the noose. I'm sure as hell gonna make the other guy work for it."

"It might not be necessary for anyone to sacrifice themselves." Ryan wasn't looking at either one of them. He was staring off into the distance while his rather prodigious intellect contemplated variables. Marko knew he would never tire of watching this mesmerizing process.

Others, however, did not share Marko's fascination, or his patience.

Mancuso said sharply, "Speak now or forever rest in peace, Ryan."

Ryan looked around and then finally focussed on them. "While I was at NSA, there was a lot of scuttlebutt about a shake-up in the Soviet government. It was obvious that Chernenko was very ill. In fact, the Politburo actually announced it officially yesterday, which means the man must be literally at death's door."

Marko nodded. "Yes, this I can confirm. Heart failure and emphysema, among many other issues."

"I'm sure this is fascinating for a history professor, but what has this got to do with a KGB assassination squad? I doubt the KGB will postpone its operations just so it can mourn one of its leaders," Mancuso said.

"Well, it won't change anything immediately," Ryan admitted, "but if we can survive this, it's rather significant for the long term."

"Go on, Ryan," Marko said softly. He didn't think the young man could tell him anything that would alter his plans, but he had come to recognize Ryan's genius for detecting trends and predicting behaviors. He would hear what he had to say.

"Once Chernenko dies, it'll be Mikhail Gorbachev who becomes General Secretary."

Marko shook his head. "That is unlikely, Ryan. He is considered too young and inexperienced."

"I disagree," Ryan said. "He was actually Andropov's choice, made on his deathbed, but he was passed over by the Politburo for Chernenko. Since then, Gorbachev has built up his political connections and has recently taken over events that Chernenko should have been attending. He will be the next General Secretary."

"Again, Ryan, why is this relevant?" Mancuso asked.

"Because Gorbachev is a reformist. He's half Ukrainian, the son of a poor peasant family, so he's familiar with the abysmal condition of the Soviet economy. He's considered a moderate and believes the Soviet economy is turning them into a second-rate power." Ryan paused. "He doesn't dare make drastic changes, or the Politburo will roust him from office. No, he's got to make economic reforms and then get this new economy to work."

Mancuso snorted. "And you learned advanced economics in CIA spy school?"

"No," Ryan responded, "I learned them on Wall Street. I was a stockbroker for years. Look, if Gorbachev wants his reforms to work, he'll need the West, and in particular the Americans, to invest in the country with venture capital." He looked at Mancuso's blank face and said, "He'll need the Americans' cooperation -- their enthusiastic cooperation -- and he won't get that if he blithely orders the assassination of a man who merely intended to prevent a war between our two countries."

Mancuso was shaking his head. "I think you're building a huge house of cards here, Ryan, and at least a few of those cards are already missing."

Ryan shifted his gaze to Marko with a pleading expression. Ryan was trying to get Marko to change his mind, to give him a reason to change his mind, and this demonstrable concern for him was heart-warming, to say the least.

"I will consider this, Ryan. However, it will not be one operative we encounter, but many -- the 'boyevaya gruppa' or 'combat group'. We will be severely outnumbered and outgunned. If outside assistance does not arrive in time, I will not endanger your lives." He held up a hand as Ryan started to protest. "No, Ryan. I will go with them willingly and take the chance the Poltiburo wishes to put on a semi-public trial as an example for the military."

"And then they'll shoot you," Mancuso said tersely.

"Yes," agreed Marko, raising an eyebrow. "That is very likely."

*****************************************

Before dawn, Marko changed into his full-dress uniform, ensured that his medals and ribbons were in place, then joined the others in the sitting room. Ryan still lay on the divan with his leg elevated on a pillow, and Mancuso sat next to Ryan's feet on the same divan.

Marko had briefly considered hiding the Americans out of sight somewhere in the house, but the boyevaya gruppa knew they were here, and they wouldn't hesitate to eliminate any threat they thought might be lurking in ambush. Yuri had assured him there would be no unnecessary American casualties when they had discussed his surrender, but the KGB did as the KGB saw fit. And Marko had already warned the two Americans that the agents would speak fluent English.

If Ryan and Mancuso were in plain sight and not actively posing a threat, the odds were greater that they would not be killed outright.

This was Marko's hope anyway.

The day broke clear, as the storm had finally passed, and Marko brewed a pot of tea then carried the carafe into the sitting room. Ryan was sleeping, although his features remained tense, and he was clutching a remote in one hand, although the television had long since been turned off.

Mancuso was staring out the window at the snow-covered landscape, so he saw them first. He stiffened, then said, "We've got company." He reached over to wake Ryan by tapping him on his good ankle.

As Ryan awoke with a start, Marko put down his teacup and stood up. He smoothed any wrinkles out of his uniform coat, then said, "At last. I shall invite them in then, before they break down the door." He smiled down at Ryan in an attempt at reassurance. "It would cause a nasty draft."

Marko walked quickly down the hallway and opened to door to find three heavily armed figures in arctic camouflage gear. He stood back and invited them inside with a careful gesture. Without waiting to see if they had acknowledged him, he led the way into the sitting room.

From here, it was in either the Lord's or the Devil's hands. It remained to be seen which faction would prevail.

*****************************************

Mancuso slowly raised his hands as Marko and the KGB squad entered the room.

Ryan hadn't followed suit, but it was clear to anyone with eyes that he was in no condition for active conflict. The man's face was still white and pinched with pain, and they'd removed the bandage from his massively swollen ankle to make it clear he was essentially immobile.

Two of the squad took positions behind and in front of the divan, where they could arrange a cross-fire without accidentally hitting their compatriot. Mancuso had hoped they wouldn't be quite so diligent about standard procedures, but you had to work with the cards you were dealt.

Marko stood in front of the divan, straightened to his full height, and said, "I am Captain 1st Rank Marko Aleksandrovich Ramius." He inclined his head toward the divan and added, "These Americans are acquaintances of mine, stranded here during the storm, and they have no bearing on our current . . . transaction."

The apparent leader of the KGB squad said nothing, but he did remove his heavy wool cap so that his features were visible.

Ryan was watching one of the other two men and didn't see it, but Mancuso happened to be looking at Ramius and saw him stiffen slightly, although he very quickly relaxed again. Ramius was a cool customer, but something about this particular agent obviously bothered him.

The leader looked Ramius directly in the eye, but he didn't bother to return the courtesy of providing his name.

Ramius sat down in front of the coffee table and said politely, "It is cold today. Would you or your men like some tea?"

The KGB agent ignored Ramius' question and said, "You are hereby remanded into the custody of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics for crimes against the state."

Ramius raised an eyebrow at him, then said, "I believe we've already covered that, have we not? Regardless, it is customary for fellow military to share a drink on this glorious day that honors our armed forces. Are you certain you wouldn't like some tea, or perhaps vodka?"

The leader sneered at Ramius, and with a voice practically dripping with disdain, he added, "You will come quietly, traitor. Now." He pointed his pistol at Marko's chest. "Or perhaps you would prefer if I shot the Americans first?"

Marko stood, staring at the gun in the man's hand. He rolled his eyes at this display of uncivilized behavior, then he pursed his lips and quoted, "Flash'd all their sabres bare, flash'd as they turned in air, sabring the gunners there, charging an army. . . while the world wonders."

Beside him, Mancuso saw Ryan abruptly stiffen and nudge his leg in warning while at the same time firmly pressing a button on the remote he held.

When the first chords of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" blared at full, eardrum-shattering volume from the far side of the room, Ryan rolled onto to the floor.

Mancuso, however, was already moving. As the three KGB agents reflexively turned toward the overwhelming noise, Mancuso snagged his gun from under Ryan's pillow and shot the man directly in front of him, then spun around to nail the other guard before he'd even verified that the first man was down.

He simply didn't have time for it.

Regardless, he had to pray that Ramius had somehow distracted the KGB leader, or they were all dead, since Mancuso had their only weapon. He launched himself over the divan to get himself out of any immediate line of fire, and then heard a sharp bellow of pain. Coming out of his roll on the other side, he immediately rose on one knee and aimed his gun over the back of the divan.

Ramius had apparently thrown the pot of hot tea at the leader, and Ryan -- damn the man, he was supposed to keep his ass down -- was awkwardly swinging the fireplace poker at the man's legs.

Apparently, Ryan managed to land the blow, because Mancuso heard the sickening crunch of bone. The KGB agent went down with another roar of pain, and Mancuso lost his line of sight . . . and therefore his shot. Growling in frustration, Mancuso rose to his feet and raced around the back of the divan.

Although the KGB leader was down on the floor, he still held his weapon, which was now aimed directly at a wide-eyed Ryan, also lying on the floor.

Ramius cried, "No!" and threw his own body on top of Ryan, just as Mancuso managed to get around the divan and obtain a clear targeting solution.

He had only one spare clip, but he shot the asshole twice, just to be sure.

It wasn't until Ryan had shakily turned off the stereo that Mancuso realized the cavalry had apparently arrived. Gunshots erupted from outside, but none of them were aimed toward the house. Breathing a sigh of relief, Mancuso took the time to insure all their assailants were indeed dead.

Then he intended to raid that stock of vodka Ramius had mentioned.

*****************************************

After the proverbial smoke had cleared and a field medic had retreated Ryan's wounds, the three of them were once again in Ramius' sitting room, this time waiting for a helicopter to take them to D.C., with a brief stop in Groton, Connecticut.

Mancuso held up his glass and looked at Ramius through its clear contents, and said, "I thought you never changed your mind, Captain?"

Ramius was sitting next to Ryan with a possessive arm thrown around his shoulders, but the analyst certainly wasn't protesting. At all. In fact, he looked quite content to stay in the shelter of the older man's arms.

Raising an eyebrow, Ramius said, "I did not change my mind. The parameters of the situation changed, and I revised my strategy accordingly."

"Uh-huh," Mancuso said, smiling. "I hear you. But something about that guy spooked you."

Ramius graced him with a brief frown. "Indeed. I recognized him -- the leader -- from a picture on my former student's mantel. He was Viktor Tupolev's brother." He glanced down when Ryan started in surprise, then continued, "When I looked into his eyes, I knew I would be dead long before we reached Moscow, but that was not the deciding factor. I had been told that he shared his brother's vindictive streak. I therefore could not be certain he wouldn't kill both of you as well."

"I see," Mancuso said, swirling the vodka in his glass. "We were lucky as hell with the outcome, but the original plan was not to resist as long as the bad guys didn't rush in shooting. Nothing you said had apparently alarmed Tupolev, so how did Ryan know to push the proverbial panic button?"

Ryan looked up at Ramius, but the older man merely inclined his head and smiled. "I believe it is your story to tell, Ryan, since you are the one who referred to that idiot Halsey as the 'Fighting Sailor.'"

Ryan had warned them that 'the good drugs' tended to lower his inhibitions, and for a moment, Mancuso thought Ryan would actually stick his tongue out at the older man, but then he shook his head and said, "Marko was quoting Tennyson, but the last line had been paraphrased by a cryptologist sending a coded message from Admiral Nimitz to Admiral Halsey during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Halsey had sent his main force after a decoy squadron of Japanese ships and left a small escort group to get pummelled by the Japanese main carrier fleet. Nimitz heard the escort group's desperate call for help, and he sent a message to Halsey asking where he was."

Ryan paused, and Ramius said, "Oh, do go on, Ryan. It is such a riveting tale."

Flushing a faint pink, Ryan said, "To keep the enemy from breaking our code, nonsense phrases were added to the beginning and ending of each message. Unfortunately, the receiving technician on Halsey's ship didn't delete the end phrase, since he thought it was pertinent to the message. It wasn't. So, the message Halsey received was, 'Where is, repeat, where is Task Force Thirty Four? The world wonders.'"

He looked up at Ramius sheepishly. "Halsey interpreted 'the world wonders' as both sarcasm and criticism from Nimitz. He was so furious that he refused to come to the escort group's aid for a full hour while they were being decimated . . . so, not exactly his finest hour."

"As I said before, Ryan, Halsey acted stupidly."

Mancuso had to agree with Ramius on that one. "I vaguely remember that story, now that you mention it." He considered this and added, "So, you heard that phrase and knew Ramius meant, "Get your ass in gear and move now. Huh. I guess we're lucky the captain had actually read your book, eh Ryan?"

Ryan waived a hand negligently. "We share the same interest in Naval history. He would have known I'd recognize it, regardless of the book."

"What we do not share, Ryan, is a similar taste in music. What was that horrendous noise you subjected us to?"

Ryan appeared faintly outraged. "It's Led Zeppelin, it's a classic, and you gotta play it loud to appreciate it properly."

Ramius hmphed. "Apparently, I require larger speakers. I've heard more melodious sounds coming from disintegrating diesel engines."

Mancuso tuned out their affectionate bickering and leaned back in his chair with a sigh.

He couldn't wait to return to the Dallas -- even if this fiasco was classified above top secret and he'd have to tell sea stories of his own to explain his injuries.

That would be perfectly fine. He could always ask Ryan for pointers, assuming he wasn't occupied with other . . . affairs, that is.

END