Here’s the final chapter of the second post-Driftwood trilogy. Don’t read it unless or until you’ve finished all three chapters of By Lifting Winds Forgot.
FYI: the complete and revised Passegiatta will post here Monday, 11 April 2016.
The Ceremony of Innocence: The Second Part of the “Journey from Driftwood”
Part III: ‘When we’re together, on the other side, you’ll do the same for me…’
“Gulfstream 43 Golf, Ben Gurion approach, clear for a straight-in approach, land runway one-two, winds northeast at ten, altimeter two-niner niner-five. You’ll have company at your four o’clock through the ADIZ to the TDZ.”
“43 Golf.” The pilot switched off the autopilot; her co-pilot added ten degrees flaps, then dropped the landing gear.
“43 Golf, clear to land, and clear the active at Echo 2 Right.”
“Golf clear at Echo 2 Right.”
Carol and Dr Jeanie Curry buckled their seat-belts, looked out the large oval windows at the sleeping city just ahead – and as the sprawling beachfront seemed to reach out for them, Carol felt another surge of apprehension. The Gulfstream was lined up, yet still out over the Mediterranean, for it’s final approach, and to her she felt this was the last approach to whatever life lay ahead. She leaned forward a little and looked out the window, was shocked to see two jets tucked in close to the jet’s right wingtip, and two more just a few hundred yards away. Military? Fighters?
Their sudden appearance only served to drive home the enormity of her departure from the United States. The stakes had been raised, and she turned back to look at him, and the medic tending him.
Had President Smithfield been responsible for the attack? The Israeli colonel sitting forward had seemed to imply as much, but then he had also explicitly stated that at least two of the men had been positively identified as Bulgarians, and known agents of the Russian FSB. What exactly did that mean? That a former American President had collaborated with the current Russian government to take out a bunch of cops to get at Ted?
They idea was preposterous, and she knew it…so…why the escort? Why all the suspicion? What was happening? Why were all these Israeli warriors so on-edge? What did they know – that she didn’t?
And what was at stake?
She looked out the window again, looked down as a jagged edge of beachfront high-rises streak-by just below the wing, then a sea of city neighborhoods not so very different from those she had seen in Los Angeles – at least from the air – at least, she thought, in the middle of the night.
So many varieties of us, yet we’re all the same. Where did we come from?
Aren’t we all the same?
This last flight was was beginning to feel more that a little surreal, too. Smooth, incredibly quiet compared to an airliner, but then there were those fighter-jets hanging off their wingtip. What was the threat, because somebody must think we’re were still in danger? But from whom? And why?
The ground was reaching up now, flashing strobes and glowing blue taxiways – and an El Al 767 holding short of the runway, it’s lights blinding her as they passed. Seconds later she felt the Gulfstream flare and land, and she looked out the window as the fighters peeled away and disappeared into the night, then as spoilers sprouted from the top of the wing. The engines dropped into reverse-thrust and roared into the night, and the seatbelt grew tight across her waist. Then ssudden silence and gentle deceleration, a very smooth turn at the end of the runway – and then the jet slowed to a gentle stop beside a darkened hangar. She saw Land Rovers out there, and troops. Lots of troops – and all of them carrying machine guns, and looking nervously out into the night.
Curry was up the moment the jet stopped, checking Sherman’s vital signs, adjusting the drip on his IV and the flow of oxygen to his nasal cannula. She reached into a pocket, shined a penlight into his eyes.
“Shit,” she said, shaking her head as she reached for a syringe.
“What’s wrong?” The medic asked, and Carol looked on wide-eyed.
“His O2 sats are all wrong, his BP is too high. I must have missed a fragment, or the resection is failing.”
“Or pressurization rebound,” the Israeli medic added. “Not uncommon after a long flight like this, with someone in his condition, but I agree, we should go straight to the ER.”
“Is it close?”
The medic nodded his head, went forward and spoke to the pilot, and a moment later the air-stairs opened, flooding the cabin with very warm, very dry air. Escort vehicles and a military ambulance pulled up to the jet, and soldiers came thundering aboard; they rolled Sherman’s gurney to the door – and straight across into the waiting ambulance, that had somehow elevated and positioned itself by the open stairs. Curry and the medic hopped across and into the beast – then it drove off quietly into the night, leaving Carol and her Israeli escort alone in the cabin.
“We must leave, while it is still dark,” the man said, and she followed him down the stairs and into something that looked a little like an old-style Land Rover – except this thing was almost brand new and painted flat tan. Two – what, paratroopers? – sat in front, and three other vehicles, each identical to this one, formed up ahead and behind as they made ready to leave. The little convoy slipped through a heavily guarded gate and onto a narrow roadway, and she saw mountains ahead, their jutting profile highlighted by the pinkish-amber glow of the sun – still just below the horizon.
“Do you need air conditioning?” one of the paratroopers asked.
“I’m fine,” she said, but she felt anything but right now. She felt disoriented, alone and unsure of herself as she looked out yet another window – passing through farmland one moment, through a small settlement the next, and then she saw blacked out buildings that looked oddly military in function – before rolling through more farmland.
‘I’m in a war zone,’ she said to herself. ‘In a war zone, a spectator looking at the world pass by through a parade of windows…’
Farm-village-farm-factory…this oddly variegated landscape was as disorienting as her mood, and nothing she saw made much sense to her American eyes – yet closing them didn’t help. After a half hour of this, her little convoy turned off the main road – and she saw a small sign indicating they had just entered the Tarum archeological settlement – ‘whatever the Hell that is’ – she said to herself. They followed the lead Rover as it pulled onto a arcing, narrow street, then into a driveway. There was a house: dark, austere, immensely plain looking and very small, and the colonel with her looked at his watch, then got out of the truck and opened her door, looking up at the last stars fading from the night.
Hills, low and rocky-tan, their flanks covered with wind-burned trees, and just up the nearest trail – a tank. Low and menacing, it’s barrel camouflaged with brush, She saw troops everywhere, under trees. Waiting. Watching her, and waiting, and she wondered why they were under trees when the sun was barely up…
“This way, please,” her escort said, and she followed him up to the house and waited while he fumbled with keys in the near darkness. He finally unlocked the door and walked inside, turning on lights as he entered, holding the door open for her then quickly, too quickly, shutting it behind her.
The interior looked like something quickly thrown together, a scrambled mess straight out of an Ikea catalogue – all bright primary colors and spare Danish lines – and even the air smelled like freshly molded plastic; the overall effect was simply devastating in it’s soul-crushing ability to render her speechless.
“This will be your new home,” the colonel said, beaming, his arms held expansively wide.
She looked at him, suddenly feeling an intense desire to drop dead on the spot, but she nodded her head. “Okay. Where’s the bedroom, and how do I find out where Ted is?”
“Bedroom, right this way,” he said, leading her into a ten foot by ten foot room decorated by someone who had obviously spent way too much time in an underground missile silo, and then she looked in the closet, saw clothes hanging on the rack that were – “Oh, what a surprise…” – just her size. Shoes too, nice, sensible flats and running shoes, also her size. Ted’s selection was beside her’s, right down to the same style of white Adidas tennis shoes he kept in his own closet back home. The sight filled her with dread, and a certainly encroaching nausea. She felt a line of sweat bead on her forehead, and a profound anomie settled over her, like a snowflake in August.
He pointed and she walked in. All their usual toiletries, laid out in neat, orderly rows – ‘Ready for inspection, Sergeant!’
“This is a fucking nightmare,” she whispered.
“You’ve found everything in order?”
“Yes. Fine. What about Ted?”
“One of us will be out front at all times, and as soon as we know anything I’ll call you,” he said, pointing at a telephone on her bedside table. “We’ll bring Dr Curry out here as soon as we can.”
“Dr Curry? Why isn’t she returning to…?”
The man smiled, looking at her as if she was an extraordinarily slow child: “I doubt she will be returning anytime soon. It could be very dangerous for her.” He turned and left the house, and she turned and looked at the bed, at the barren concrete walls that suddenly more somewhat like a prison cell than a home. She walked over and looked out the front window, saw four men gathered beside their vehicles, smoking cigarettes – obviously talking about things inconsequential, each armed with heavy machine guns, and bulky night vision goggles on their khaki helmets.
‘I wonder…are they here to protect me?’ she whispered to herself. “Or to keep me here?” She looked around the surreal living room once again, the slick Scandinavian designs at odds with the painted cinder-block walls, and right then she decided sleep was the easiest course of action.
“As long as I don’t dream…” she said as she crawled off the find the nearest rock.
Jeanie Curry was beyond livid.
She had a full schedule of procedures on the books for the morning, and where was she? In Tel Aviv? Israel? What the hell is going on?!
Kingman had asked her to get Sherman out of the ICU and into a waiting ambulance, then asked her to come along – “To make sure he makes it to the airport” – the cop had said, and now what? A twelve hour flight to Oslo, where they stayed on the ground just long enough to refuel, then another six hours crammed inside that hideous metal tube watching the cop’s condition deteriorate?
And then, on asking that someone tell her what was happening to her, she was – what? Escorted to a military convoy and was now being driven “up into the mountains”? Mountains? These people called these little anthills ‘mountains’? Looking out the truck’s windows, she saw curiously arthropodal looking helicopters ranging ahead of their convoy – criss-crossing across the roadway like they were protecting her, or trying to draw fire.
“Why all the helicopters?” she asked one of the soldiers, and he shrugged, then pointed at the skies overhead.
“F-15s up there too. I have no idea why.” He turned away from her, resumed scanning the road ahead.
She noticed the machine gun in his lap – and turned away, then she craned her head, looked out the window and up into the midday sky, shielded her eyes from the blistering sun. Yes, she saw little pinpoints circling high overhead…but, what could that mean?
Those cops up on Benedict Canyon? Someone had tried to kill Sherman.
An enemy of the State of Israel had tried to kill Sherman.
So Sherman was somehow of vital interest to the State of Israel. Or to someone who was.
Smithfield. Why was he at the hospital?
And she had been sucked into this goddamned subterfuge. Unwittingly, stupidly, carelessly.
“When can I leave?” she asked the soldier, but he just shook his head. “Couldn’t you just take me to the airport? Let me get on a plane?”
The shrug again, but this time he spoke on his radio.
“Look, am I a prisoner? Why can’t you tell me what’s going on?”
“We’re almost there.”
“There? What are you talking about? Where are we?”
He turned, and this time he looked right at her. “Home,” he said with a smile as he pointed at this tiny wisp of a village.
They were driving through what looked like a small settlement now, all the houses looked ten, maybe twenty years old, yet they all looked alike – like hybrids, a union of house and bomb shelter, and each and every one of them was tiny. “You’ve got to be kidding me…” she whispered.
They pulled up to a house on a circle – ‘or is it a dead-end road?’ – and she saw troops everywhere – yet they appeared to be hiding, under trees, under awnings – always out of sight. And she’d seen at least three tanks hidden in the low, stunted trees around the settlement…
“Sorry,” the soldier said, looking at his watch. “Satellite overhead now.”
“A satellite? What’s…?”
“Russians. They take photograph now.”
“Five more minutes, we get out. Need air conditioning?”
“Uh-huh. I sure do.” She was steaming now, and tried to hit a few pressure points on her wrist when she felt the first wave of a blinding migraine coming on.
The soldier got out a few minutes later and opened her door, led her up the gravel walk to a little house, and she saw Carol inside looking out a window at her, then heading for the front door.
The door opened, revealing another older soldier standing just inside. The soldier escorting her handed this man a piece of paper and she was ‘allowed’ in – and once inside she stopped in her tracks and burst out laughing…
“This just gets better and better!” she bellowed – then she saw Carol – and right then she knew whatever else this might be, it was no joke.
Grover Smithfield sat at his desk, turned and looked over the Pacific spread out below, then he looked at the phone on his desk. He was worried now, and even though the wilting sorrow he still felt about his son’s death was never far away, his thoughts kept drifting back to Ted Sherman. ‘We should’ve kept tighter surveillance on him, never let this happen.’ Now things were getting complicated, and he wasn’t sure if she knew about these developments. Still, he had to trust her.
The encrypted phone on his desk beeped once, and he inserted his key – then, when the prompt came, he inserted his flash drive. When the light flashed green twice, he picked up the handset.
“Eagle,” he said.
The line went dead and the shock hit him. He and Linda either had been or were about to be exposed, again, but this time there’d be no hurried resignation, no helicopter waiting on the White House lawn to take him home.
No, this time there’d be a state funeral at Arlington, and he’d be the guest of honor. A silent, dead, guest of honor. And probably Linda, too. No wonder she’d been acting so strange lately.
‘I wonder how much she knows?’
He opened his laptop and opened an encrypted partition, then looked over the details of Roost Two and shook his head. He read through them again, committing each detail to memory, then he activated the worm, and bit by bit the entire contents of the Mac’s drives were obliterated.
He picked up the encrypted phone and put it in a nylon bag and went upstairs to talk with Linda, wondering all the way who was coming, and who’d get to them first.
Curry sat in the little living room on a bright red, yellow and blue sofa, her face in her hands now as the full force of her migraine hit. Carol looked on sympathetically, but she couldn’t relate: she’d never, ever had a headache, not even in med school. Still, when Curry got up and ran into the bathroom, she just looked at the colonel and shrugged.
“Can I fix you lunch?” the man asked, but Carol just shook her head.
“What are we waiting for?” she asked.
He pointed up at the sky. “Satellites.”
“Oh, that explains a lot,” she said, shaking her head again as her fingers fidgeted away restlessly.
“Russian reconnaissance birds, maybe American, too. We don’t exactly want them to know where you are. Yet.”
“Uh-huh. We’re just moving a few pieces on the board right now. Shaking things up a little bit.”
“You mean they can see us?”
“If I held a golf ball out with the number facing up, ten minutes later some troll in Moscow would look at it, be able to clearly make out that number…”
“Sweet. Sorry I asked.” She shook her head, tried to remember everything Ted had told her, but this was nuts. “You’ll pardon my asking, but you don’t exactly sound like you grew up around here…”
The colonel laughed. “Beverly Hills High, class of ‘87. USC, too, then the bug hit.”
“I’m a Jew. This is my homeland.”
“You don’t miss it? California?”
He grinned, a handsome, becoming smile, just as Jeanie came back into the room. “I’d kill for a Tommy burger right now,” he said.
“The one on Beverly?” Curry said.
“That’s the only one there is, Ma’am, if you know what I mean.”
“A guy took me there once,” Jeanie said. “I puked for a week.”
“Not an LA girl, are you?” the colonel grinned.
“You got a name,” Jeanie asked, “or is that classified, too?”
“Ben. Ben Katz, but it used to be Kaye.”
“So, you went to SC?” Jeanie asked.
“Yeah, film school, if you can believe it.”
Curry shrugged. “Why not? Good place for that, good as any, I suppose. I did my undergrad there, but went to med school in San Francisco.”
“I know,” Katz said. “USF. My sister was two years behind you. Mimi Kaye. Remember her?”
“No kidding! Man, small world, isn’t it?”
He smiled again. “And you worked two summers at Disneyland, during your undergrad years, at It’s A Small World.”
Curry stared at him, not quite sure how mad she was yet, but she knew she was getting madder by the second. “So, who’ve I slept with the past year? Got that information handy?”
“As far as we could tell, no one.”
“You goddamn mother fuckers!” Curry screamed. “Tell me what the fuck’s going on, and I mean right now, or get me down to the fucking airport! Now!”
Katz laughed, then looked at his watch. “Okay.”
“I said Okay. Let’s go take a peek behind the curtain, Dorothy. Maybe you’ll find an answer that agrees with you.” He stood and led both of them to the door, then out to one of the ur-Land Rovers.
‘Funny,’ Curry thought, ‘how everyone keeps looking at the sky…’
They drove a few minutes from the house, then turned up a narrow dirt trail, past a sign declaring the area a restricted archeological site, then the truck turned into thick brush, into what looked like a cave. Twenty meters in they came to a reinforced concrete and steel gate and stopped. A soldier came out of the shadows and looked at the colonel’s ID, then waved them on. Another fifty meters down a steep ramp they came to a parking area, and Katz got out and opened Carol’s door, then walked around to get Jeanie’s, and then led them to a simple steel access door across from the Rover.
He punched in a code and the door opened – revealing a long corridor beyond. A couple of turns – to confuse an intruder? – and he stopped outside just another door – and knocked.
The door hummed and unlocked, and Carol looked at cameras in the ceiling – and waved – then followed Katz and Jeanie inside.
Jeanie Curry’s first impression was that she’d somehow stumbled into an concrete aviary, and that there was a very big owl sitting behind the desk across the room. The woman was enigmatically ageless – yet somehow ancient, and she looked emaciated, almost terminally ill. And her eyeglasses. They seemed at least half an inch thick, making her eyes appear simply gigantic – yet eerily intelligent. There was a laptop on the owl’s desktop, and a large display on the wall behind her – that was now showing an image of earth – apparently from orbit.
“Hope?” Carol said as she peered at the owl. “Is that you?”
An owl named Hope, Curry said to herself. ‘This isn’t Oz…I’m Alice, we’ve just gone down the rabbit hole, and now I’ve found the Red Queen.’
“Carol? How are you?” the owl spoke, in a clear, precise voice.
Curry pointed at the screen on the wall. “What’s this?”
The owl’s head pivoted and looked at the screen, the turned again; she looked down at the laptop and sighed, entered a command and the image zoomed to an image somewhere in a desert, and to what looked like a smooth tan crater in the middle of a graded plain. “The Negev,” the owl said, “south of here.” More commands, a deeper zoom. Curry thought she was looking at a radio telescope – only more massive, and made of concrete – then the owl entered more commands and the image flickered once, changed to show a white space station – apparently in orbit.
“This isn’t the ISS, is it?” Jeanie observed.
“No,” the owl said. “This is Hyperion.”
“Are those shuttles? I thought they were…?”
“Those? No. The Boeing X-37C. They are used to build Hyperion.”
“Is that what this is all about?” Curry said. “You’re building a secret satellite?”
The owl studied her for a moment. “How is my brother?”
“Your brother? Who…?”
“Ted Sherman, my brother, How is he?”
Carol moved to sit down; she’d heard the barest outline of the project before, but had never seen any images. She found the reality somewhat frightening, yet now Ted’s name was floating in the air apparent, and she grew cold and still inside – while she waited for the answer to take shape…
“He’s, uh, I missed a bone fragment. He had a bleed on the flight, a bad one. We’ve made a repair, but we’re in a kind of ‘wait and see’ period right now. Bigger issue now will be if he throws a clot.”
“I see. Well, Dr Curry, what you’re looking at isn’t a satellite, not in the usual sense. It was originally conceived as a power station. It’s a fusion reactor, but there have been unanticipated consequences to it’s operation.”
“Fusion? You mean…?”
“It’s an Israeli design, and it was deemed more appropriate to place the reactor in a geosynchronous, low-earth orbit, over the Negev. When operational, it was thought an intensely concentrated plasma beam would power the Negev reactor, a conventional steam-turbine generator, and eventually dozens of reactors would be orbited above the earth, beaming limitless, clean power to harvesting stations like this one in the desert. We powered up the first reactor more than two years ago, then the plasma was released. This is what happened…”
She opened a file on the laptop, and moments later a new image appeared on the large screen, showing a Hyperion reactor in orbit, then – for a millisecond Curry could see a beam of intense power leave the satellite, arcing down like a fat laser into the desert. Then the entire facility simply disappeared, leaving a trail of plasma on the screen.
“What happened? An explosion?”
The owl laughed. “I wish.” She rubbed the bridge of her nose, her eyes narrowed. “No, Dr Curry, it seems we opened Pandora’s Box with our first Hyperion.”
“A lesson first. Jupiter, the planet Jupiter, orbits the sun not quite a half billion out, say an average 450 million miles away from the sun. Saturn’s orbit is not quite a billion miles, around 900 million miles, give or take. Uranus, by comparison, is a mere 1.7 billion miles away, while Neptune is a cool 2.7 billion miles away. Mars, by way of another comparison, is approximately 140 million miles away, the moon, a couple hundred thousand. Are we clear so far?”
“The speed of light is, approximately, 671 million miles per hour, so it takes light from the sun not quite an hour to reach Jupiter, a little over an hour to reach Saturn, and so on. When Hyperion went operational the reactor was designed to SCRAM, or to shutdown, automatically if our ground based signal was somehow lost. This system worked, the reactor shut down automatically, and the plasma beam shut down almost instantaneously, within 3.7 seconds. Are you following me so far?”
“It took a while to locate Hyperion, and to reestablish a radio link again, but when we did we discovered something a little unusual.” She turned to the laptop and opened another image, a slide depicting the solar system ‘from above’ the plane of the ecliptic. “Hyperion came to a rest beyond Neptune’s orbit, and it traveled that distance in less than thirty seconds. Of some importance, despite the huge magnitude of both acceleration and deceleration, Hyperion was intact. Completely intact.”
“Was anyone onboard?”
The owl looked away, pinched her nose again. “Yes. Five astronauts. Two American, two Israeli, one from France.”
“Not right away. They had consumables, enough to last 180 days.”
“This was not God’s doing, Dr Curry. It was mine.”
“Jerry? Mrs Smithfield and I are going down to Santa Monica, to Abe’s house. I think we’ll have an early dinner with Abe and Morty, then maybe play some bridge.”
“You going to drive,” the head of the former President’s Secret Service detail asked, “or would you like one of us to take you down?”
“No, Jerry, why don’t you drive us? We’ll be down there a few hours, and I know you don’t want to miss the game, so come on back up here. I’ll call, have one of the guys come get us when we’re through.”
“Yes, Mr President.”
The Smithfields seemed a little overdressed for cards, but his head of detail dropped them off at his friend’s house just before five that afternoon, and the agent swept the massive house’s living room with his eyes, then he walked over to the broad windows looking down on the Riviera Country Club, saw a card table set-up just off the kitchen, outside on the poolside patio. He walked the perimeter of the house, satisfied the place was still secure, then got in his Suburban and drove back up Mulholland.
A gray sedan with Nevada plates drove by ten minutes later, and the two men inside smiled.
Carol looked at Hope, now thinking about Ted and the ambush. “Smithfield came to the hospital,” she said, “and downtown too, to the ceremony. Ellie thinks he had something to do with the shooting. What do you think? Is that possible?”
“Did she, now? Interesting. Funny, but interesting.”
“Funny? How so?”
The owl shrugged.
“Wait a minute,” Curry said. “The first Hyperion. You said the first…there’ve been more?”
The owl turned to her laptop and the exterior of the current satellite loomed on the screen once again, two X-37Cs docked to a toroidal platform attached to the main assembly. “This is the fourth, our most ambitious Hyperion yet. Larger, more advanced life support capabilities, better shielding. It will have a crew of twelve, in addition to it’s cargo.”
“Let me guess. Fertilized eggs. Like in Interstellar.”
“Really? Oh, I missed that one. But yes, eggs, for humans, livestock, even seed-stocks. The idea first appeared, incidentally, in 1960s science fiction.”
“You said this was the fourth…?”
“Yes. The second was a proof of concept flight. To Titan, and then, a return.”
“No. A crew of three. All Americans on that one.”
“From the flight, yes, but we were not fully prepared for the effects of cosmic radiation at these velocities.” She shook her head. “We do not expect to hear from the third flight, not until their return. Two astronauts, a husband wife team. This voyage is primarily to test shielding concepts and reproductive impacts.”
“Where’d they go? How far?”
“Oh, a candidate exoplanet approximately 26.5 light years away. The ship departed a little over a year ago.”
Carol looked up then. “And you removed yourself a year ago. Why?”
She laughed again. “The Russians think Hyperion is was a weapon,” she looked out the window carved out of the hillside, down to the vineyards across the valley. “In a way, they’re correct. If Hyperion succeeds, humanity moves beyond earth and out to the stars, but in one view only those people or races deemed acceptable to colonization will make the journey. A minor war broke out in our Congress as a result, in a senatorial committee anyway. Smithfield was responsible for securing funding for Hyperion, compartmentalizing knowledge within NASA and the ESA to prevent awareness of Hyperion’s real purpose from becoming known. He wanted to convene a panel of ethicists and geneticists to develop criteria for selecting potential colonists; the committee threatened impeachment proceedings. He’d kept so much US involvement hidden in black budgets, he knew they had grounds. But that’s not really why. He’s a good man, Carol. A good man trapped by dark forces operating within governments in both America and the EU. He’s also in danger. Whoever tried to take out Ted was trying to get to me, to get back at me. We don’t know who is involved yet, but I would assume it’s either Russia, or a faction within the US government.”
“So, that faction was trying to get at you a year ago?”
“They tried to kill me, yes. Elements within the CIA. That much is known, the confirmation came from Smithfield, before his resignation.”
“It’s so weird, he worked that accident a few weeks ago, with Smithfield’s son…?”
“What?” the owl said, sitting bolt upright in her chair. “What accident?”
The team had gathered on the fairway below the house; a small drone had just flown by the living room, imagery confirmed Smithfield’s presence on the patio. The man’s security detail was derelict, but that was no matter now, and speaking in his native Bulgarian he told his team to begin moving slowly up the hillside.
Ten minutes later they crawled into the back yard, slipped beside the swimming pool – then spreading out as they closed on the group playing cards on the patio. When they were ten or so meters away he signaled, and his team lifted their guns…
…and died. The Israeli team took them out in an instant, perhaps ten minutes after Smithfield’s Gulfstream lifted off from Burbank, it’s flight plan showing a destination of Hamburg, Germany. An hour before entering EU airspace the Gulfstream diverted to Paris.
Knight Takes Queen – Queen Takes King
Jeanie Curry sat on the back porch with Carol; Katz was inside cooking, doing his best to take care of these two physicians – but he knew he was failing – miserably. After they left Hyperion – that’s what everyone called Miss Sherman these days – he took them down to one of the vineyards and let them roam through the vines for a half hour, taste a few of the better reds, then he took them to a nearby food market…now he was poaching salmon and roasting eggplant and drizzling olive oil and lemon on his cooling couscous. He fixed plates, carried them to the little dining room then went out to the porch.
“Dinner’s ready,” he said. “Come on in before the bugs have you for dinner.”
The women went inside; they sat and ate in silence, he remained in the kitchen, eating alone, until one of them, the Curry woman perhaps, called for him…
“You’re not joining us?” Jeanie asked.
“I didn’t want to presume…”
“Geesh, Ben, grab your plate and sit your skinny ass down.”
He laughed, came back a moment later and joined them. “I just got word that Smithfield got out just in time.”
Carol nodded. “Any word from the hospital?”
“Stable. Critical, but stable.”
Curry nodded her head. “Thought I had ‘em all. That last fragment was like a sliver from a fingernail clipping, and the bleed just didn’t show on anything.”
“Pressurization in the aircraft; that’d be my guess.” Katz said. “Bad luck.”
“Bad surgeon,” Curry said, getting down on herself.
“Great eggplant,” Carol said, wishing someone, anyone would talk about anything else.
“Ah, you know what?” Katz said. “We had a housekeeper, an old Italian woman. She cooked for us, five nights a week, and every Sunday night she made this eggplant. First thing she taught me to make, too.”
“It’s tender, yet so crisp. How’d she do it?”
“Slice it first, thin, then steam it with white wine and lemon juice. Only use fresh bread crumbs for your dredge, too.”
“So, she was your first love?”
“In a way, yes. She was the most incredible woman, though very old. Catholic, of course, and actually she was quite wealthy. She just loved taking care of kids, and cooking. I don’t know how my parents found her, but she took care of me until she passed. I was a junior in high school by then,” he said as he looked over the memory. “There’s not a day goes by I don’t miss that woman.”
“You cook like this for your family?” Jeanie asked.
“No family. I stay with my sister and her kids sometimes, but I’m usually, well, like this – on a deployment of some sort.” He sighed, looked away for a moment. “Her husband was killed in the Gaza a few years ago, but I like helping with the kids when I can.”
“I know I asked, but do you miss America?” Carol asked.
“Sometimes, but after the Rams left LA? Who cared after that?”
“Yup, you’re an American,” Jeanie said. “Get rid of the NFL and NASCAR, and what would we have left?”
“Oh, that’s the thing with TV these days. We have the NFL channel over here, but football, er, soccer is more popular. Most of the guys I work with don’t know anything about it…all you see, they say, are the uniforms. Very dull. They are, of course, all morons.”
Carol looked up then. “The fourth trip. Who’s going?”
He looked away, shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“And, that’s a lie,” she said. “Don’t do that to me again, Ben.”
“The list was decided long ago.”
“But Ted was on it, wasn’t he?”
Ben shook his head. “Too old. His piloting skills were considered, but no.”
“Zygotes,” Jeanie said. “Fertilized ovum. Can you imagine what those might go for?”
“What do you mean?” Carol asked.
“Hell, think about it? Want to raise money? Sell space on one of these Arks; you’re offering a shot not only at immortality, but immortality on another world. Or worlds. If the human biological imperative is simply reduced to procreation, about spreading your genes, spreading your seed throughout the stars has got to be the ultimate power trip.”
“Interesting,” Ben said, “but what if you ended up with planets loaded to the max with a bunch of hyper-competitive egoists. You’d be seeding a doomed series of societies, wouldn’t you?”
“Sounds like Smithfield was thinking along those same lines, maybe the owl was too.”
“The owl?” Ben shrugged. “What owl?”
“That woman in there, what’d you call her? Hopie? She looks like an owl.”
Carol and Ben laughed at that one.
“You know?” Carol said, “Maybe she kind of does right now, but ten days ago? No. She was just about dead.”
“Really?” Jeanie said, and Carol told her the tale she knew most about, about the trip from the mental facility to Vancouver.
“You mean, you were on that boat?” Ben asked. “You helped her get to Canada?”
“And you’d met Ted just a few days before…”
“He was the instructor in my dive class, we first met like three weeks earlier, but yeah, really just a few days together.”
“Interesting. Hit you hard, I take it.”
“Oh, you fell for him pretty fast,” Curry observed. “So, I guess, then all this happened.”
“Yeah,” Carol said, looking around the little house, “this…happened…”
Ben cleared his throat and started clearing dishes, then he cleaned the kitchen when the physicians went back out on the patio. They saw more jets roaring north just then, several of them…
“It’s hot out here,” Carol said. “The sun’s down, and it’s still hot.”
“So, did you like sailing?”
“Yeah, ever since I was a kid. Parents took me out, all the time; summers anyway.”
“I always wanted to learn. Sounds fun to me.”
“About the zygotes and ovums, and selling places on an Ark…were you serious?”
Curry shrugged. “Just seems like human nature to me. Everyone has an angle. Everyone’s in it for a buck.”
“But don’t you think that’s what got us where we are now?”
“I’m not a philosopher. Wow, look at all the jets up there…”
“I think Hopie’s a philosopher. I know Ted is. I wonder what they’d think of all that? Selling places, I mean.”
“Looking at that owl? I’d say she already has thought of that.”
Carol laughed. “An owl. I like that.”
“Something about that woman’s eyes. Almost inhumanly smart.”
“That’s what Ted told me once. She views the world like a chessboard. She was…”
Something instinctive hit, and both women ducked – just as three fighters roared by – just overhead, not a hundred feet above the treetops. “Fuck!” Curry screamed, watching as they disappeared, their afterburners searing the night, the concussive shock-wave almost knocking them out of their chairs.
Ben ran out onto the porch, listened, then he dove for their chairs, pulled them to the ground and covered their bodies with his own…
The night sky lit up, then the ground lurched. Carol felt it then, a wave – like her skin was on fire, and then she had a hard time breathing. “It’s so hot…!” she screamed…
Ben sat up, his back was smoking, the hair on the top of his head had been singed away, then he looked at the hill above the village and ran from the patio.
Curry sat up, shook her head, and Carol saw blood coming out of her left ear. Jeanie said something, but Carol didn’t hear a thing and shook her head. Carol rolled over and tried to stand up, but her legs weren’t working, and she consciously tried to think why.
“Shock,” she said, and she heard her own voice inside her head, but it was muffled, and now there was a warbling, high-pitched tone drilling a hole between her ears. She took a deep breath and pulled herself up, then helped Jeanie stand, and she turned for the house – but all she saw was fire.
“The house is on fire,” she heard her own voice say, and she pulled Curry away, away from the house and out into the little yard. Ben came running around the side of the house and he grabbed them, led them to one of the Rovers and stuffed them in the back seat. He started the Rover and raced away from the village.
The air smelled like kerosene, and everywhere Carol looked trees and houses were on fire; when she looked into the night sky she saw a steady stream of fighters racing north and east, lines of blue-white flame further tearing the night apart. She held on as he took a corner too fast, then they were in a tunnel…no, a shelter of some sort…and she saw dozens of women and children had already gathered together. Some people were badly burned…
Yet she saw no men.
Ben helped them out of the Rover then backed out slowly, leaving them to wonder just what the hell had happened.
“Whatever that was, it hit the hill above the village,” Jeanie said.
Carol struggled to understand, to think what that meant. “The owl. Hopie. She was under there, inside that mountain.”
A nurse was beside them a moment later, cleaning their skin and putting burn dressings on their scalps and shoulders, then Carol was aware she was laying on a cot, someone was putting a blanket over her as a wave of chills shuddered through her body, and she recalled thinking how good it would be to sleep in peace – while the world outside burned.
The Owl…Hyperion…a very tired, very weak woman sat in the Bell 212 – looking down at Tarum and her hill, all of it on fire. The fuel-air bomb in the Russian Kh-55SM had been detected over Syrian airspace, and had initially been thought to be targeted on IS positions near Palmyra. Three IL-76 Mainstays had suddenly appeared over the Mediterranean and flooded all radar bands with powerful jamming, but a German-crewed NATO EC-135 AWACs bird burned through the jamming and spotted the Russian cruise missile as it crossed into Lebanese airspace. Warnings went out, fighters scrambled, then the Russians called the Israeli PM, declaring one of their missiles, targeting IS positions in Syria, had malfunctioned and was headed for the Golan. They were trying to abort the missile ‘even now’, they reported – right up until it detonated.
“Thank God,” a Russian foreign ministry spokesman would say later that morning on CNN, “it appears to have detonated near an unpopulated area.”
The Owl looked at the Israeli PM sitting by her side, looked at the expression of pure anger in his eyes, and she put her hand on his. “Patience,” she said. “Two more days. Three at the most.”
He nodded his head as the helicopter turned and skimmed low, just over rocks and trees on it’s way south, deep into the Negev.
The Israeli brigadier general looked over the Flash Traffic, read through it again to be sure he understood the directive, then walked back to President Smithfield and handed him the paper. He watched the old man rub his eyes, then read through the message.
“She’s okay?” he asked.
“Of course. She anticipated when they tried for you they’d go for her as well. Once they re-tasked that second recon bird yesterday, once her brother disappeared, she knew they’d make this kind of move.”
“What about the facility in the Negev?”
“Untouched. Two cruise missiles downed more than a hundred miles short.”
“An ASAT satellite is altering orbit for intercept. The Japanese will launch an interceptor within the hour to take that one out, we’ll follow through with an ASAT of our own in ninety minutes.”
“So, we’re at war. With Russia.”
The general shrugged. “Who’s at war with whom? No one knows what’s playing out up there. There will be no change in status.”
“I wonder what she’s going to do?”
Again, the general shrugged. “We’ll be in Paris within the hour. Le Bourget, I believe.”
“Very well. When will we make Tel Aviv?”
“It’s just a few hours more. We’ll top off our tanks and leave as soon as he’s on board. Mrs Smithfield? Do you need anything?”
The woman shook her head, looked out the window.
Attractive woman, the general thought. Too bad. But she was a spy, the insider who’d betrayed the president’s son, and ultimately, the president himself – and the project. She would be dead before the day was done, and he looked at her silk clad legs and ample cleavage – and he sighed once again.
“Such a waste,” he said as he turned and went back to the cockpit.
She felt an alcohol swab on her arm and she tried to open her eyes, but all she felt was a wall of impenetrable darkness, then a pinch and sudden flowing warmth.
“Dr Curry? Can you hear me?”
“Ben? Colonel Katz? Is that you?”
She felt his hand take hers. “Yes. Listen, you’ve got a few glass fragments, in your eyes. From the patio door, I think. We’re almost to the hospital, and we’ve got the best ophthalmic surgeon in the whole world standing by.”
“Mimi, my sister. She’s really very good, by the way.”
“I bet she is. Would you stay with me, Ben?”
“Yes, of course, if you’d like me to.”
“I was going to ask you to stay with me. Last night, I mean.”
“Really? I was hoping you might.”
“Well, hope no more…” She squeezed his hand, and she felt his kiss, first on her hand, then on her lips. “It’s so strange, this being blind. I think I don’t much care for the sensation.”
“You’ll be fine, Jeanie. I know you will be.”
“What happened? Do you know what happened?”
“Someone tried to kill an owl.”
“No,” he whispered, “this owl is too smart, and her enemies too predictable.”
“What about Carol? Is she…”
“Mainly burns, not so bad as mine, however. We will all be in the hospital for a few days, I think.”
“The town? What about the people in that little town…?”
“I don’t know,” he lied, the memory too much to hold up to the light in that sundered moment. “We are almost there. The injection was, well, pre-anesthesia I think, but I don’t know those things. You will fall asleep soon. But I will be with you on the other side. Okay?”
“Okay. On the other side…” He felt her drifting away, then her hand squeezed his one last time – and he leaned over and kissed her again. Her skin felt cool and dry now, almost lifeless, and he turned and looked at the city, and all the impossible hate that surrounded it, wondering when it would all just simply stop.
The Gulfstream touched down, spoilers flared and reverse thrust roared, then the jet taxied between a row of hangers and executed a tight 180 degree turn. Two black sedans approached and the jet’s air-stairs deployed, and the general walked down the steps as the first car, a black BMW 5 series stopped by his side. The driver’s door opened and a woman got out from behind the wheel, and she walked over to the general.
“Corrine Duruflé, DGSE,” the woman said.
“Is that him?”
“Oui. Are you certain she is involved? That we must do this?”
“Fingerprints are confirmed, and we’ve now traced her first steps into the United States almost thirty years ago. We need to know more, who her controllers are, and where this will lead us,” he said with a shrug, “Who knew about this, that stuff. And we are running out of time.”
“So, she was a Soviet plant?”
“It would appear so. Her so-called parents ran her. A young lieutenant in the KGB was their controller. A bright youngster named Putin, by the by, as things would have it.”
“Yes, and so the worm turns.” He turned and looked at the man still sitting in the sedan. “Does he know why he’s here?”
“I’ve told him nothing. The past few weeks…well, they’ve been very uncomfortable for him. I’m not sure about his state of mind.”
“Well, Smithfield insisted we make contact with him. Bring him up, then we’ll be on our way.”
Corrine went back to the BMW and got behind the wheel. “Sumner, President Smithfield is onboard. He needs you now. There have been attacks.”
“I can’t leave now!” Collins said. “Leave Charley, alone? With Phoebe and Liz? You’ve got to be kidding me…”
“It’s very important, I think, or he wouldn’t ask.”
“He signed my goddamn retirement papers!”
“Sumner, please.” She looked at him, took his hand. “I’ll take care of Charley, if you’d like.”
He looked at her again. “There’s no way out, is there? There never was. This is the way it’ll always be.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. And she meant it, because she almost felt sorry for him. Almost…
He looked over at the Gulfstream, the Swiss registration number on the engine, watched the men from the refueling truck topping off the wing tanks, then he looked back at her. “You can’t run away from the past,” he said as he looked into her eyes, “because there ain’t no place that far away.” He sighed, he turned and smiled at her, and then began laughing. “You know who said that?” he asked as he wiped his eyes.
“No, Sumner. Who?”
“Uncle Remus. Look him up someday, would you? And remember him when you think of me.” He opened the door and slammed it shut, then sprinted over to the waiting Gulfstream and bounded up the stairs. As soon as he was aboard the air-stairs retracted and the engines spooled up.
“Goodbye, my friend,” Corrine said as she pulled away from the jet, and she watched as it taxied back to the runway – then roared back into the morning sky.
The Bell 212 hovered over the landing pad and touched down gently; the rear doors slid open, filling the cabin with air that was almost too hot to breathe. Men carried a wheelchair to the right side, instinctively ducking their heads while the main rotor spooled down. They helped the frail looking woman down into the chair and she rolled off towards a weathered and windblown shack a few meters away from the pad. Two man ran after her, helped her inside, then the helicopter powered up and lifted off, circling the site once before turning and heading north.
Once inside and out of the scorching heat, she waited for the elevator door to open, then rolled inside with her escort. After the doors hissed and closed, she held her nose and cleared her ears as the car began it’s quarter-mile descent into the earth. The facility had originally been constructed as a command and control bunker, and indeed parts of it still functioned in that capacity. Israel’s 120 ICBMs lay buried in the desert, controlled from this facility, but now it was home to the most ambitious manned spaceflight program ever conceived.
She rolled into the Command Room, a kind of Mission Control suite, and she looked at the huge screens on the wall.
“Have you observed displacement yet?”
“Yes, as expected, but the effect is much larger than anticipated.”
An overhead, down-polar view of the earth popped up on-screen, the earth’s Van Allen radiation belts clearly displayed, but instead of the expected equal distribution she expected to see there was an unusual pucker in the formation, and it was large. Larger than any before…
“We’re going to have a visitor,” she said gleefully, and the men and women in the room looked at her for a long time. They had never once seen a smile on her face.
Collins stood in the galley, just aft of the cockpit, and read the dossier. He looked up, looked at the general, then back at Smithfield. “This reads like an old Cold War spy novel,” he said as he looked at the woman. “Fuck…great legs, too.”
The general leaned forward and whispered in his ear.
“Yeah?” Collins said, grinning. “Well, that may not be possible when I’m done. You have a bag?”
“Yes, here it is.”
Collins opened it, inventoried the techniques these implements would allow, the turned and read through the dossier one more time. “Well, let’s see how long she holds out.”
He walked down the aisle to President Smithfield and sat across from him. “Good to see you, sir,” Collins said, and the old man turned to face him, looked almost startled when he recognized who it was…
“Dear God, son, you didn’t have time to change?” Smithfield looked at Collins in his khaki cargo shorts and oil-splattered t-shirt, and then at his ratty boat shoes – and the old man almost shook his head with disgust.
“Sorry sir. It was warm out, and I was just getting to work on a bad fan belt when Corrine dropped by.”
“You still on that goddamn boat?”
“Yessir. Mr President, I’d like to have some time alone with your wife, if I may.”
The old man looked at her and shook his head, the sadness in his eyes plain to see. “Of course,” he said as he stood and went forward. Collins saw the old man’s hands were shaking now, and seeing this looming mortality filled him with dread. Smithfield had been a good president simply because he was a decent human being, but events always overtook decent men – and crushed them.
He turned and sat across from the old man’s ‘wife’ – if that’s really what she was, and he stared at her for several minutes, doing his best to unnerve her. “Mrs Smithfield? Linda? May I call you Linda?”
“Yes, if you wish.” Her eyes were evasive, like a corned animal looking for an easy escape.
“Linda,” he began, holding up a file folder, “I’m looking over your history and I have a few questions.”
“I’m sure Grover can take care of those, young man.”
“Actually, Linda, I think I’m about fifteen years your senior.”
The woman turned and looked at him. “So you are,” she sneered.
“Let’s see, Linda Belinski, father Leonard, mother Laura, born Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania December 25, 1979. Oh, Merry Christmas, by the way.”
The woman stared at him. “I’m sure this is going somewhere?” the woman said. “But I’m tiring of this game, whatever it is you’re playing.”
“I don’t suppose the name Amalia Karlovna means anything to you?”
“No, of course not.” He saw her left eyelid twitch, then the left corner of her lips.
“Josef, and perhaps Lara Karlovna? Ring any bells?”
She turned and faced him, looked him in the eye. “No.”
He pulled a syringe out of the bag, then a packet of alcohol swabs, and looked her in the eye. “The choice is yours, of course, but it will hurt much less this way.” He turned, saw the general standing in the aisle behind him, and he saw that she saw him too.
Without a word she held out her arm, and Collins found a vein and injected a small amount of amobarbital, then sat back and waited. Her eyes fluttered a moment later, then he hooked electrodes to her forehead and ankles and took a little metal box from the bag and hooked it to the leads. He turned it on and sent a small pulse of current to the leads; the effect was instantaneous, and horrifying. The woman’s body went rigid as a board, then her bowels and bladder emptied. He cut off the current and her body relaxed, then the woman turned her head and looked at him.
“Josef and Lara Karlovna. Tell me about them,” Collins said, only now he was speaking Russian.
“I don’t know such names,” the woman said, now also speaking in Russian.
He reached for the dial and the woman looked away; flying out the window would be such an easy escape, she thought, then the general lay her seat back, and extended the leg rest. Collins sent current to the leads and the woman’s back arched, and as he let off the current she screamed – filling the cabin with total despair.
When she came around she looked at him again. “Please do not do this to me,” she said in English.
He replied in Russian: “I’ll stop as soon as you answer my questions truthfully.” He moved and stood over her now, and with his mastery complete he spoke with pure malice as he looked down into her eyes. He held up a a piece of glass, in form and shape it looked exactly like a pencil, and he held this up to her eyes. “Do you see this?”
“I am going to place this up your urethra. Do you know what that is?”
“It’s where urine leaves the body. I am going to place this up your urethra, then turn on the current. Do you know what will happen then?”
Her eyes were saucers now, the terror he saw manifest in the writhing conflict she was experiencing…fight or flight…withhold or tell all I know…
He moved lower, took out a penknife and began cutting away her pantyhose.
“Alright…I will talk now. Please, no more…”
The woman talked all the way to Tel Aviv, and by that time he was through with her she had nothing left to say. The President looked at the poor, wasted wretch he had once promised to love and cherish and obey one last time, then he left the Gulfstream, stopping only once to speak to Collins and the general at the bottom of the air-stairs. He shook Collins’ hand one last time, then whispered into the general’s ears, then the old man left, driving away in a convoy of Land Rovers.
“So,” the general said, “you want to eat some Russian tonight?”
“No thanks, sir, I’m trying to quit.”
Colonel Katz – Ben – stood beside Carol in her room, the morphine finally tapering off now, but the pain still obvious on her face, and he reached out and felt the skin on her forehead. Cold and clammy, and her BP was still very high.
She felt someone touching her face and opened her eyes, looked up and saw the Israeli colonel – and it all came back in a rush. The explosion, the wild ride to the shelter, the searing pain finally reaching her in the darkness, then the nurse by her side, an injection, and now here she was.
“You’re awake!” she heard him say.
“You’re very perceptive.”
“You’re also in Tel Aviv, at the Sourasky Medical Center. You have a few burns, and your left humerus is broken.”
She looked down, saw her plastered arm was taped to her torso. “Damn, and I use my left hand to pick my nose.”
“So, what else is going on? World War Three, perhaps?”
He grinned. “No. Not yet.”
“In the OR, glass fragments in both eyes. Burns, a few small fractures.”
“Hyperion…what about Hope – Sherman?”
“Two floors below, still in ICU.”
“What about radiation?”
“Wasn’t that an atomic weapon of some sort?”
He shook his head. “Fuel air bomb. Like napalm, on steroids.”
“So, no radiation. What about the people in that town.”
“The town’s gone; I don’t know about casualties.”
“Was it the Russians?”
He shrugged. “Not my department.”
“I don’t know what’s happening to me,” she said – still in a daze. “I mean, really… What are we doing here? Why am I here?”
“I’m going to go check on Jeanie, and Ted. I’ll be back soon.”
“Jeanie, huh?” Carol said, grinning, but he was gone. When the door opened she saw troops stationed outside her door, and then she remembered why she was here, and why she’d never be able to go home again.
He walked down to the ICU, found a high level security team in the corridor outside Sherman’s suite and groaned. “What now?” he said as he approached the room. A woman from the security detail stopped him; he presented his Hyperion ID and she let him pass.
Smithfield was in the room, yet Katz saw the man was alone and wondered where his wife was; Sherman was still out, his eyes still taped and a respirator was still breathing for him, and he walked over to the physician and nurse tending to him.
“How’s he doing?”
The physician looked at him, at the rank on his collar, then shrugged. “He’s thrown two clots, we’re treating with tPA.”
“Is he going to make it?”
The physician shrugged. “I doubt it, but you never know.”
Katz left the room and walked up to the OR floor and checked the status board; Jeanie was in recovery and he went to the information desk and asked to speak to Dr Kaye, then went and stood by a window, looked out over the city, and the beach beyond.
He saw her reflection in the window a few minutes later and turned.
“Little sister,” he said. “How did it go?”
“Good. No damage to the retinas, so she’ll be okay. Might need glasses, however, but too soon to tell.”
He bunched his lips, tried to hide his relief. “Okay,” he said.
She looked at him again, longer this time, looking at the fear in his eyes. “So, she means something to you, this one?”
He smiled, looked away, then back at her. “I could never hide things from you, could I?”
“Well, mother always wanted you to marry a doctor…but a gentile? She’ll be spinning in her grave.” She stood by his side and they looked out the window, and he put his arm around her. “Oh, little brother, when she’s better we’ll have you two over for supper.”
“I’d like that. When can I speak to her?”
“An hour, better if you wait two.”
“Okay. I’ve got to go…see you in a bit.”
He went back to the ICU, hoping to find Smithfield again, and he saw the old man talking to Sherman’s physician outside the suite. He walked up and looked at the old man, and then at the Mossad colonel by his side.
Smithfield looked at him as he walked up, looked at the expression in his eyes. “And you are?” the former president said.
“Sherman’s girlfriend is here, upstairs in the burn unit. I thought you’d want to know.”
“The burn unit?” he said, exasperated. “Was she…?”
“Yessir. Would you like to come with me?”
“I’ll be back in a moment,” Smithfield said to the physician, then he turned and followed Katz to the burn unit.
Carol turned to them when they walked in the room, and she seemed shocked to see the former president, almost as sad as he seemed to be when he saw her. “Hello,” she said when he got to her bedside.
“I’ve been up to see Officer Sherman,” he began…
“Ted, sir. I’m sure he’d want you to call him Ted.”
He nodded. “Yes. He’s still not out of the woods, I’m afraid.”
She nodded, looked away.
“I feel responsible,” the old man said. “On his report, the report on my son’s accident…” Smithfield stopped, pinched the bridge of his nose. “He found the electronics had been tampered with, the so-called ‘drive by wire’ system. Uncontrolled throttle response, he called it in the report, but he dug through all that wreckage and found the module. How many cops do you know would have done something like that?”
Carol looked at him, looked at the tears in his eyes and wondered where this was coming from.
“He found her fingerprints, you know,” the old man said, his voice cracking now as he choked back memories of Linda.
“Sir?” Carol said, now clearly concerned.
“My wife. She was Russian, a spy, as it turns out, trying to get to Hyperion, through me. When my wife died, she moved so fast… But she’d worked for me, for so many years. It felt so natural, her joining me.” He sighed, then took a deep breath and looked out the window at the sea, and the setting sun. “I wonder how many of us they’ve compromised like this, how deep their penetrations really go?”
“Mr President,” Katz began, “what are you thinking?”
“Hmm? Well…think of the implications, Colonel,” the old man said. “How many agents like her have been planted over the years? These operations go back to the Brezhnev era, perhaps even earlier, but almost all of the senior operations directorate of the old KGB is now in the Kremlin. Do you know, Lenin once said that when the revolution of the proletariat stalled, and by the way, he predicted it would, the party would need to appear to implode, and that would foster a false sense of security within the world’s remaining capitalist oligarchies? His words, by the way, not mine; his mind was pure Russian paranoia unleashed. Anyway, without the kind of political competition that communism provided, he told his pals that capitalist countries would then expand uncontrollably, and then be consumed when an even greater revolution of the proletariat occurred. That’s just pure Marx, Das Kapital, German rationalism given a healthy transplant of Russian fatalism. Yet, even so you can see it happening today. Hell, you can breathe it in the air, from Boston to Barcelona.”
“The end of history, indeed,” Katz said.
“Fukuyama? Decent analysis for his time, but no one beats History. She often has designs of her own, I’m afraid. Young lady, sorry, but a lot’s happened the last few hours, and I’m afraid things are only going to get more interesting tonight.” He took her hand, looked in her eyes. “I hope Officer…I hope Ted…pulls through.” He turned to Katz then: “Colonel? I need a secure COMMs facility. I need to talk to Hyperion actual.”
“Yessir. If you’ll follow me.”
Carol watched them leave, then turned to look out the window at the setting sun, far beyond the edge of this world, then she wondered how many were out there – on the far side of the sky.
The X-37C launched from the Negev atop an Atlas Centaur rocket; fourteen hours later it autonomously mated to Hyperion’s docking platform, and twelve people disembarked. Sherman led them into the small base’s toroidal living quarters; the new crew held on while it spun up to .7g. An Autonomous Transfer Vehicle launched from the X-37s cargo bay and matched spin, then docked with the toroidal base while Sherman monitored magnetic fields around the earth – and the moon.
“They’re here,” she said. “Far side of the moon, stationary.”
“You don’t have the range for that kind of transfer.”
“Something tells me I won’t need it,” Sherman said as she looked at the hi-band radar.
“What is it? What do you see?”
“Hyperion 3, if I’m reading the returns correctly, but the magnetic fields are changing again.” She smiled as she looked at the screen. “I love it when I’m right,” she whispered…
“Hyperion Platform, this is Hyperion Base.”
Sherman looked at the rest of the crew. “Transfer now,” she said.
“But we’re not scheduled…”
“Transfer now, while we have time, before they have time to react. Prepare to launch as soon as you’re on board.”
She smiled at the mission commander, a decent woman with an iron Will. She’ll need it, she said to herself, then she turned to the radio. “Actual to Base,” she said, “go ahead.”
“NORAD reports two ASAT launch vehicles leaving earth atmosphere, both from Baikonur II. You should have two hours fifty minutes before the first is in intercept range. KH-11 and KH-14s have preliminary indication multiple ICBMs are being readied for launch. The American have ordered their Ohios to MFD, and the Chinese have just filed a protest, noting American missiles are being fueled in their silos, the Malmstrom wing is mentioned.”
So predictable, she sighed. So childishly predictable.
“Notify me when they launch,” she said, smiling, then she switched to another frequency, and began transmitting in the blind – while at the same time she began the remote fueling sequence in the ATV.
Her eyes were bandaged, the nurse told her, and would be for a few days.
She asked about the retinas, and any vascular involvement, and the nurse told her to relax, the operation had gone well and no complications were foreseen.
“You have a visitor, not family. Would you like to see him?”
She cocked her head, listened to this new, unseen world, she was even conscious of sniffing the air and her mind’s ability to compensate became a sudden wonder…and she felt the change rush through her body.
‘Yes,’ she thought, ‘it’s him. He’s come to see me…’
‘See me…what else do I see now? Something…someone…’
“Ben, I can’t see you…where are you?”
She heard his laugh, knew where he was now, and could even see the smile on his face, but there was something else, and someone else too.
“This is amazing,” he whispered, “this watching you watching me with your other senses. What do you see? Inside?”
She reached out, touched his face – ‘he’s so close! But so are they…’ – feeling small changes in air density as his words washed across her face. “I saw your lips, forming a smile out of nothingness, feelings leaping across space and time, like seeking like in the cold and the dark, life seeking life across the stars…”
“I see life now. Out there…life…in the stars. But, it’s here now.”
“Who do you see, Jeanie? What is it…?”
“They’re here, Ben. They’re here, and they understand.”
“Understand? Jeanie? What are you talking about?”
“The owl…the owl knows, Ben. She’s talking to me now. To us, and for us. All of us. She’s talking to them now…”
Smithfield was beside her now, too, looking down at this woman, this blind woman. “How does she know?” he asked. “How did Sherman know you would tell us what’s happening – up there, and what’s going to happen – here?”
“They see. They understand. She wants me to tell you not to worry. It’s all a part of her plan.”
“Her plan?” Ben asked, looking at Smithfield, both men lost now.
“The first missiles have launched…
“…targeted here, in the desert, and at America…”
Ben started to leave the room – but Smithfield held him back…
“Wait,” the old man said. “Just wait…it’s too late to do anything now.”
“There’s nothing to worry about,” Jeanie said. “Nothing’s going to happen.”
“The ASATs have located the base…200 kilometers and closing now…impact in 17 seconds…”
“My God, Sherman is still up there,” the old man said, looking at Ben.
“Call the Prime Minister!”
“What could he…”
“Impact. Hyperion platform is destroyed.”
“What about all the missiles? Where are they?”
“Dr Curry?” Smithfield cried. “Can you hear me?”
“Jeanie…? Oh, Jeanie, where are you…?”
“Jeanie, can you hear me?
“Yes, of course. Did you go away? I heard you, but then you were gone. Where are you?”
“Here…I’m right here.”
“Who’s with you…I sense someone’s with you now…?”
“A friend, Jeanie. Just a friend…”
“I was dreaming…having a dream. I could see so many things, so clearly…”
Smithfield walked over to the little window and looked out into the night sky. He looked up, expecting to see – any moment now – the arcing tracery of incoming ICBMs, then fierce glowing suns lighting up the night. He looked higher into the night sky, thought about Hope Sherman up there, dying alone in the womb of the infinite, in the cradle of all her dreams.
He wondered what it would be like to live in a world without Hope.
What would happen to our dreams now? Would we ever really be able to walk among the stars – without Hope?
What did she say when he talked to her, before she broke off the link?
“The stars are waiting, Grover. They’re waiting for us, but they won’t wait forever.”
Six Months Later
[Log entry SailingVessel Gemini: 17 June, 0700 hrs GMT, Friday morning.
COG: at anchor;
SOG: 0.0 kts;
Winds: light and variable, viz unlimited +10nmi;
Barometer 29.95 steady since 2300 hrs last night;
GPS: N43.12.02 W05.30.02.
Still anchored in the Calanque d’ en Veau. I took the tanks around to a dive shop in Cassis yesterday, planning to make a few more dives later this afternoon. Weather holding, no rain in the forecast. Expecting to hear from Phoebe and Dr Mann today, if they’re going to come down for a visit. Kind of hope he does. There’s someone I want him to meet.]
Collins took Charley aft and she thought he was about to let her piddle on her astroturf pad, but he left it draped over the stern-rail – and she looked up at him like he had lost his mind. But then he looked at the sandy beach a hundred yards away and her heart leapt; then he ran – and dove off the stern, sliding noiselessly into the crystal clear water.
He surfaced and shook the water from his ears, wiped the stinging salt from his eyes then looked up at Charley. She was in a rigid point – her rear legs spread wide, her right front paw tucked up close to her breast, her nose aimed at him like a laser beam. He cupped his hands together and squeezed, launched a jet of water at her – and she lowered a bit more, the hair on the back of her neck rising too…and he turned around in the water…
And there she was, waiting for him.
“Lovely to see you again, my friend,” he said as he looked at the little scars under her eye.
She came over and leaned towards him, and he leaned forward too, resting his face on the side of her’s, the familiarity of her skin like a kiss now. He rubbed his hands against her face, then he turned back to Charley.
“Come on, girl. You can do it.”
Charley looked at him, then circled furiously, standing up once – the conflict clear in her eyes.
He lowered the tone of his voice then, and she felt the way she never liked to feel, because she could never resist. “Charley. Come.”
This was imperative command, not a request…and she understood that at once and launched herself off the aft deck – splashing down a few feet from him. He started swimming for the beach and she thrashed at the water, then settled down and swam along just behind him.
She sensed the other one just beneath the water, then she saw the blowhole surface in front of her own face, and when her feet and hands found new footing she relaxed. As she scooted past him, riding the most wonderfully surreal surfboard in existence, she turned and grinned at him – and felt like singing…
He caught up with them in the shallows and played with them both along the water’s edge, then he pulled a ball out of his pocket and threw it far up the hill. Charley dashed up a steep, narrow path until she found the ball, then she turned and looked at him. He was staring now, far out to sea, then up, looking up to the sky, and she looked up too.
What is it? What does he see? What does he know?
She heard the other’s noises then, and turned to her. She was on her side, looking up into the sky as well, then she slipped under the surface and was gone. Charley watched, wondered what it all meant…and wished she could understand the others…
“Come here, Charley girl,” she heard him say, and she grabbed the ball and took off down the trail, ran up to him and sat. He gently took the ball from her mouth and tossed it back into the water, and they played for the longest time…until he heard Liz up on deck, calling her name.
They swam out together, he doing a slow side-stroke, keeping his eye on her as she paddled along, then he lifted her up and put her on the aft platform. Once on deck he dried her off, and she turned on her back and let him rub her belly – the best thing of all – then she hopped into the cockpit.
“I see your friend was back this morning,” Liz said.
“And I think you’ve been baking? Cherry?”
She shook her head. “Blackberry. That farmer’s market in Cassis is incredible. I don’t ever want to leave this place.”
“Nothing says we have to.”
“Are they up yet?” she whispered, nodding her head to the boat next door.
“I don’t think so. Haven’t seen anyone moving about yet.”
“I’ve never heard anything like that in my life. All night long; in-out-in-out – my God, it sounded like the shower scene in Psycho. Please, tell me I don’t scream like that.”
“I frankly had no idea a woman could come so many times in one night. Hell, I lost count at fifteen.”
“Well hell,” she said, “he popped off at least three times.”
“I know. I was getting envious.”
She threw a hand towel at him. “You’re the same age! There’s no reason you can’t…”
The companionway hatch on the boat anchored next to their’s slip open, and the woman came up and shook her hair in the morning sun, then saw them and waved.
Liz waved back. “What’s her name again? I just can’t get it down…”
“Seems nice, but why do I keep getting the impression they’re keeping secrets…?”
Collins shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe because they are.”
“Well, I’ve got some fruit cut up. Want some?”
“Coffee, scones – and fruit? Wow. Breakfast of Champions! Sure, why not?”
“Sumner? What’s Hyperion?”
“What?” His mood turned serious, dark eyes glanced to her, and he looked her in the eye. “What do you mean?”
“Hyperion? The name of their boat?”
“Oh. Some poem, I think. I really don’t remember.”
“Don’t you think it’s funny they just showed up here, and you used to fly with him and all?”
“It’s a small world, darlin’. Keeps getting smaller and smaller.”
She leaned close, then whispered. “Did you get any Viagra?”
He leaned back and smiled. “I’ll never tell.”
“Maybe after breakfast?”
“Now, there’s a thought.”
“I’ll go fix breakkie. Wanna eat up here?”
“Sounds good, darlin’.”
He watched her go below, then stood and stretched. He heard movement on Hyperion and saw him come up and stand in the light, that pink raspberry wound still livid on his left shoulder. They looked at one another for a moment, then Collins pointed at the shore, and Sherman nodded, walked aft and dove in; Collins shrugged and dove in, then Charley ran to the rail and watched them swim ashore, wondering if she should follow.
“How you feeling, Spud?”
“Man, I don’t know about this shoulder. Hurts like the devil when I move it just so.”
“Well then, don’t move it like that!”
“Shit, Sumner. You shoulda been a doctor.”
“Liz wants to know. Did you pop off two times last night, or three?”
“Shit, you could hear us?”
“Spud? I’m pretty sure people in Spain heard everything you two did last night. Now, what I want to know is this? What the fuck are you doing to her? I’ve never heard anything like it in my life!”
Sherman told him, omitting nothing.
“That’s it? That’s all you do?”
“Works every time. It’s never failed me once.”
“Well, I’ll be. Whodathunkit. Oh, got the tanks refilled. Think Carol’ll want to come down with us?”
“Maybe. I’m expecting company in a few hours.”
“A mutual friend.”
“Fuck. You don’t mean…?”
“The old man.”
“No shit? What’s he doing here?”
Sherman shook his head. “Dunno. Called yesterday. Said he had something to give me, then hung up.”
“Oh. Well…how do you like the boat?”
Sherman turned and looked at it. “It’s nice. Bigger than I would’ve chosen, but it’s very comfortable when the wind kicks up. How long are you going to stay here?”
“I don’t know. A week, a month, maybe the rest of my life. What about you?”
“I don’t know,” Ted said as he looked skyward. “For some reason, Greece sounds right.”
“Lot of refugees. Be careful.”
“You ever think about maybe some place like Tahiti?”
“That’s what Liz wants to do.”
“Yeah? Carol too.”
“It’s a long way, Spud.”
“Good point. Well said.”
They laughed. “Long way from the Navy, ain’t it? Do you miss it all?”
Collins looked back through time, at all the thing he’d done – and at all the things he wished he’d never done. “No, not really. Only thing I’m interested in now is tomorrow. All those yesterdays, Spud, they seem so far away, so long ago.”
“Yeah. That’s the one hole in my life…the one that will never let me go, I guess.”
“Where’d you meet the girl?” Sherman asked, pointing at Gemini. “Sorry, can’t quite wrap my head around her name yet?”
“Liz? A friend of a friend; it just kind of happened.”
“Carol…just kind of happened, too. Life’s like that, I guess. When you think the shit can’t get any deeper, along comes a wind to lift you away from it all.”
“Sometimes it just pushes you deeper, Spud.” He looked up at the sky again, shook his head. “I was sorry to hear about your sister, by the way. Wish we knew what happened up there.”
“It’s probably better that we don’t.”
Collins looked at his old friend, nodded. “Maybe so, but I’m going to miss her.”
“She loved you two. I think she cried for a week when she learned about Jenny.”
“Yeah. I did too.” He looked at Charley, standing now on the aft rail, looking at him. He could feel the need in those brown eyes…the need to connect, to love…to trust enough to love. He brought his fingers to his mouth and let slip a whistle, a real atomic bomb of a whistle, and Charley leapt back into the water. He saw sunlight explode like flying diamonds when she hit the water – and then she was gone.
Collins looked at the water where she’d gone in…it was smooth now… and he saw no trace of her. He pushed off – began swimming furiously towards the boat – and he could hear Sherman by his side, both of them now swimming out as fast as they could…
Then she was beside them. On the dolphin’s back again, grinning, her stumpy little tail beating the air so fast he could hardly see it…
They both stopped swimming then, and Sumner looked at Charley as she circled around them, standing on the water. Sherman was treading water now, looking at a dog riding on the back of a dolphin, his face scrunched-up like a wadded newspaper.
“Uh, is it just me, or did I just see your dog, uh…”
“What? Your dog doesn’t do that?”
“Uh, yeah. Well, I don’t have a dog…”
“Well, Spud…that was your second mistake…”
In the middle of the afternoon Sherman heard a helicopter flying beyond the entry to the cove, and he stood on the aft deck of the Hyperion, looking past the narrow entry to the sea…and there, the sleek gray lines of a ship appeared.
“56,” he said as he looked at the numbers on her bow. “The old San Jacinto…I’ll be damned.” He watched as it’s helicopter swung over the cove, and he could see the men inside looking down at his boat, and Collins’ – before it dove and raced back out to sea. Further out to sea he could just make out the faint gray contours of several more ships, and at least one aircraft carrier, as they slipped eastward…
…then two gray rigid-hulled inflatables roared into the cove, and the helicopter reappeared, now hovering just beyond the steep white limestone walls of the entry. Helmeted men, manning large caliber machine guns, stood on the bows of the inflatables, their guns trained on Hyperion…
He turned, looked at Collins standing in Gemini’s cockpit – apparently talking on a SatPhone – then he went below…
He turned again, looked at the boats racing in, then he saw Smithfield and walked over to the boarding gate and waited. When it pulled alongside the old man waved. “Hop on,” the President called out over the engine noise, and when he was aboard the launch idled over to Gemini and Collins jumped aboard too, then the boat made it’s way to shallow water and beached it’s bow.
“Come on, you two.”
Smithfield was helped ashore by two Navy ratings, and as soon as both Collins and Sherman were ashore the boats withdrew back to the entry, blocking access – for the time being.
“How’re you doing, Ted? That arm any better?”
“Yes, Mr President. Thank you for asking.”
The old man nodded his head, then looked at Collins. “You look well.”
“I am, sir,” but he saw visions of the man’s wife pass between them and wondered if their relationship would ever be the same.
The old man looked around, saw a large rock and walked over to it; he sat and waited for them. “Goddamn hip’s going out. Some jack-ass surgeon wants to put a new one in. What would you do, Sumner?”
“Me? Hell, Mr President, that sounds about as fun as fucking a porcupine up the ass. I’d pass, tell him to take hike.”
“That’s what I told him.”
“Good for you, sir. Has it cut into your golf game?”
“Not yet. Guess when it does I’ll have to go see him again.”
“Sherman? I wanted to have a word with you, and I thought it best to do this one on one, but then I know you two have never kept stuff from one another. And, well…” He stopped, unzipped his windbreaker and pulled out a small iPad. He started it, then opened a file and handed it to him. “You two go find someplace in the shade and watch that, then bring it back to me.”
“Yessir,” Sherman said, and they walked over to the shade of a stunted tree and sat in the coolness.
“You ready for this?” Collins asked.
“You know what it is?”
“Nope. Do you play much chess?”
“Never got into it.”
Collins shrugged. “Too bad.”
Sherman looked at the black screen, then pushed the playback button.
Hopie. Sitting in a tight cabin, surrounded by lights and switches.
“Grover, assuming little brother survives those Israeli doctors, I want you to get this to him, but wait a few months, maybe next summer. I want you both to know the full extent of what’s happening up here…”
Sherman paused playback and he looked at Sumner – who was looking at Smithfield. The old man was on a SatPhone, talking to God only knew who, but the man was dialed into the world, and always would be. Then Collins turned and looked at his friend.
“Better let me hold that,” he said, taking the screen from Ted. He resumed play…
“Hyperion 1, our first launch, didn’t stop out here past Neptune. Those folks didn’t die out here, stranded. We deliberately launched for KIC 8462852. I’ll let that sink in for a moment, let you think about the implications of that. As you may recall, there was some controversy a few years ago about that system, about it’s irregular dimming, some discussion about Dyson Spheres and a massive array around the system’s primary. Anyway, Hubble imaged the system more than a decade ago, and Project Hyperion was born a few months after that.
“So, let’s cut to the chase. Hyperion 1 made first contact. Two and Three advanced our timeline, and their first emissary returned on Three. She, for want of a better word, returned to KIC a few weeks later, but we’ve been in discussions with them ever since. Once it became apparent both the Russians and the Chinese were growing suspicious of our activities, we discussed the possibility of an alliance. That’s when the shit hit the fan, little brother.
“So much has happened, so much I never expected.” She looked at something and flipped a few switches, her eyes darting about like an owl’s, then she turned back to the camera.
“The Russians just launched two ASATs, two Anti-Satellite weapons, so we know a full scale attack is likely, and, well, we’ve convinced our friends to intervene; I hate to say that was the plan all along, but it was an act of faith on their part too. Simple as that, really. They took sides. Maybe they learned that from me, but I’m not going to be taking credit any time soon.
“So, Hyperion was never about fusion reactors and clean power. Hyperion was originally about exploration, and it inadvertently became about first contact. Now Hyperion is about colonization. We’re going there, and they’re coming here. They’re adept at terraforming, and they’re going to establish a colony on Mars, a research facility. We’ve been given a system under their control, and they’ll engineer three planets to suit our needs. It seems they want to study us, and they want us to study them. Frankly, I think it’s a little one-sided, maybe like when we traded beads and trinkets for Manhattan Island. I know, I know. Look how well that turned out for the local population…
“I suppose you think this is a gamble, that we’re gambling with the future of the human race, but when you understand the issues better I think you’ll agree with our present course of action.
“Those Russian ASATs will impact the platform in about ten minutes, so little bother, I’ve got to go. Looking at my current state of health, I probably won’t be coming back, but I’d like to see you again. I can’t say it any plainer than that.
“And, Sumner, I’m assuming your there. The one with two scars? Be nice to her. She’s been my friend for more than twenty years now, and she’s still very fragile. Maybe one day she’ll tell you about what happened.
“Ted? I like Carol. I’d hang on to her if I were you.
“Bye for now. I love you all.”
The screen went dark, and Collins blinked his eyes rapidly for several seconds – then handed the iPad to Sherman.
“Did you ever meet Dr Curry?” Sherman asked, looking at Collins. “The doc who operated on me after that stuff in LA?”
Collins shook his head, now feeling light-headed – and very small.
“She called Hopie an owl.”
Collins tried to laugh, but found he was crying. “Kind of appropriate, don’t you think?” He looked out at the cove, wondered where she was…
And Collins saw one of the boats beaching, the old man walking to it as two men hopped out and held the boat fast to the shore. “We’d better go,” he said, and they started walking back to the beach…
The old man held his hands out, and a young girl, a toddler by the looks of her, reached out and slipped into his arms. He put the girl down on the sand and she turned and looked at Collins, then she ran to him, and Collins staggered to a stop and fell to his knees when he saw her.
She stopped a few yards away from him, and even kneeling down she was not quite half his height – but what he saw was Jennifer. His Jennifer, only different now. Not a child, and not fully human. He looked at her as the shock of realization came to him, as he felt this world spinning out of control, and the last thing he saw before the light consumed him was her right eye, and two small scars he saw in the shadows…
©2016 AdrianLeverkuhn | abw | this concludes the second post-Driftwood tale. “Time, Like a River” will conclude the trilogy.
Thanks for reading along.