Genie Delaney left the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School campus, driving on Harry Hines towards downtown, then north on Oak Lawn to Maple before turning onto Turtle Creek. She drove along the creek, looking at the dry winter grass along the waterway, the bare oak and pecan trees, their bare limbs hanging over the street, and she decided to drive up Preston, to look at the big pecan tree – still strung with Christmas lights – and she saw they were on now, and smiled.
Her phone chimed as she stopped at the light, and she saw a new email from Ben in her in-box, but it was a huge file so she decided to wait until she got home to open it. The light turned and she passed mansions on her right, then the country club, and she turned there, on Mockingbird Lane, and drove down to the SMU campus and turned left on Hillcrest. A few minutes later she turned onto Milton and, a block later, into the driveway at Ben’s old bungalow.
She looked at the file and decided to open it on the desktop machine in his study, so gathered her book bags and lab coat and walked to the front door, fumbling with her keys as she walked across the crunchy grass. She went through the house to his bedroom, hung her lab coat in the closet, then went to the study, fired up his Mac Pro and sat, waiting for it to load and the WiFi connection to open. She went to Mail and opened her account, then opened the email.
It was a huge video file, and she double clicked it, then waited for it to open.
She saw a darkened hotel room, with Ben sitting in a chair – and she leaned forward, looking closely at the image – then she saw a woman walk out of the bathroom, dressed provocatively in garters and stockings and heels – and little else.
She paused the file, saw this was a fifteen minute long recording and could guess what was on the rest, so the closed the file and put it in the trash – then deleted it.
They’d been expecting this, at least she had – for months. They had to compromise him, as they thought they had The Duke, and despite both their misgivings she had counseled him to let them do it. It would be safer, she reasoned, if they knew they had something on him – especially something as innocuous as this was. She looked at the time – yes, guaranteed to make her call him late at night – over there – the better to get him off-balance, and keep him that way.
She picked up her phone and opened the Cryptor app, dialed Ben’s line and waited for him to pick up.
“It’s me. I got an interesting email, on your account.”
“Yup. Was she good, at least?”
“Not bad, but not good, either. Generic.”
She laughed. “God, how many women have you laid?”
“Laid? I don’t know. I’ve only loved a couple, though.”
“What about Rutherford? She’s dropped off the radar here, reports are she may be in Brussels.”
“That figures. The President spoke at NATO headquarters today, and he’s going to Iceland tomorrow. Something feels weird to me, Genie. Like there’s some kind of storm brewing. A big one. Different, too.”
“Like we haven’t been down this road before. Yeah. I’ve been picking up on that all day long.”
“Remember, it’s a game, a chess game, Genie. We have to try to guess their next three moves.”
“Then she’s going to try and get to you.”
“And she has to know we’re thinking that, too. So she’s already thinking of counter-moves.”
“Doesn’t matter, Ben. Just the fact she’s so compromised by her desire is enough. It’s her Achilles heel.”
“Ben? Just don’t let her be yours.”
“I hear you.”
“So, if things head south, you still want me to go…?”
“To Alpine, yes.”
“Okay. Be careful, Ben. I love you.”
“I love you, too. More than you’ll ever know.”
Acheson looked at the elapsed time on the FMC, then at their fuel state. They’d land at Lajes, in the Azores, with less than half their fuel gone, so they’d be close to the aircraft’s maximum allowable landing weight. He ran his rough mental computations through the computer once again and nodded his head, then looked at the F/A-18s off his wingtip. The pilots out there seemed focused, and he wondered what was going on “out there” – in the real world beyond this floating cocoon.
Then the closest pilot held up his hand and signaled – 1-2-1.5.
“Back-4 here. About 160 N-M-I. When do want to start your descent?”
“‘Bout now would be good. Keep it about .83 Mach down to flight level 1-8-0, then 270 knots to 12,000. Once we have the field in sight…”
“Diamondback Lead to 3-8 Heavy.”
“Lead, 3-8, go.”
“Lajes reporting almost Cat 2 ops at this time, in heavy thunderstorms, visibility down to a half mile, wind out of the east at forty knots. You got the freqs?”
“As long as they haven’t changed them in the past month.”
“Roger. Be advised we intercepted four CONDORs east of the islands, there are some Russians trying out for an Olympic swim team down there right now, but my guess is there will be more, and soon. We have AWACs coverage now, and they’re picking up FULLBACKs over the Portuguese coast at this time. Westbound at 900.”
“Okay, so call it an hour.”
“Yeah. The Stennis and Teddy Roosevelt are now on station with a CAP over the island, so two battle groups are now mid-Atlantic. They won’t take Lajes without going nuclear.”
Acheson sighed, considered their options, then decided. “Okay, if you can stay with us to the localizer, stick around in case Ivan shows up, we’d appreciate it.”
Acheson flipped the radar to maximum range, saw a line of thunderstorms ahead and to the east, then he set up the descent in the computer. “Localizer set to 109.9,” he said, then he called on the radio: “Lajes approach, American 3-8 Heavy, 150 out, request permission to land, I-L-S runway 15.”
“3-8 Heavy, clear runway 15, ceiling 800, visibility 1 mile, wind 1-4-0 degrees at 38, altimeter 28.90. Be advised we are under an air raid warning at this time. Seventy, repeat 7-0 Sukhoi 34 inbound, potentially 20, 2-0 heavy transports behind this wave.”
“3-8 Heavy, got it.”
“Localizer to 109.9,” Beach confirmed.
“Beacon to 341.”
“TAC-DME to 109X.”
“109X, got it.”
“Enter 12.5 DME and 3-5-hundred, 6.5 DME and 2000.”
“Okay, 12.5 DME to 3500, and 6.5 DME to 2000.”
“D-Back four, 3-8 Heavy, cutting power now,” he told the lead Hornet, and he eased off power, popped the speed brakes as he looked at the VOR/TAC needle and DME readout go active. “Okay, starting a gradual turn – now,” he told the Hornet as the needle started to center in the HSI. He cut power to 80 percent EGP and watched speed bleed as he increased spoilers. “Flaps 7, now,” he said as he cut power a little more.
He switched to NAV2 and watched the LOC flag pop in the Flight Director, then GS ARM popped in the window and he turned the Glide Slope button on the AP panel to ACTIVE and watched as the autopilot locked onto the airport’s ILS. He cut power again, dropped flaps to 15 degrees, then engaged auto-throttle. He looked up then, saw the wall of cloud ahead, then back down at the instruments.
“3-8 Heavy, if lead elements of Russian strike force break through, they’ll be here in 2-9 minutes. You are clear to land, and you’ll need to clear the runway as quickly as possible.”
“Any place in particular?”
“Air Force facilities are still at the northwest part of the field. You might want to keep as far away from there as you can.”
“Any other commercial aircraft at the terminal?”
“One KLM, one Air France. We have a BA Speedbird en route, about two hours out. There is no room at the ramp, but we’ll have stairs and buses meet you on shut down.”
“3-8 Heavy, out.”
He flew the beam, listened to the F/A 18s call out “Enemy in sight!”
“Okay. 3-8 Heavy at 12.5”
“3-8, gusts to 4-3 knots now.”
“Sorry, still about 1-4-0 degrees.”
“Okay.” He turned to Sandy. “Flaps 25, arm spoilers.”
“3-8 Heavy, 6.5 out.”
“3-8, clear to land.”
“Okay. D-Back four, thanks for sticking around.”
“Got it. Seeya.” The Hornet went to burners and disappeared into the cloud.
“Flaps 33, gears down.”
“Thirty three, three down and green.”
“Okay, I got the lights.” He saw the strobes leading to the threshold and put his hands on the wheel and throttles, his feet on the pedals. “Wipers to MAX.”
He followed the autopilot’s movements with his hands and feet, and as soon as the mains hit he switched off the AP, then went to reverse thrust and started to brake. He saw all the buildings were dark, the KLM A340 and Air France A330 on the ramp were as well.
“I don’t like this,” he whispered. He switched COMM 1 to 121.9, to ground control, and he called. “Ah, Lajes Ground, can you get fuel trucks and a cart out to me? I’m going to shut down over by the fire department buildings. I’d like to gas up and get the hell out of here, if you don’t mind.”
Beach and Rutherford looked at one another, then at Acheson.
“Where are you thinking of going?” Rutherford asked, her hands shaking nervously.
“Ah, 3-8 Heavy, negative, base commander advises you need to get your passengers to shelters. Buses should be there momentarily. There are two more waves of Russian strike fighters inbound, up to 120 new aircraft.”
“Yeah, tower, that’s why we want to get out of here!”
“Sorry, 3-8, commander advises we don’t have the fuel to spare right now, not for civilian OPS.”
Acheson shook his head, muttered under his breath: “Goddamn two hundred million dollar airplane is gonna get shredded, you dickwick…” then he turned to Beach. “Let’s shut her down, get everyone out of here and on the buses.”
He flipped on the intercom, switched to CABIN and spoke: “Ladies and gentlemen, Captain Acheson here. We’re going to get you off this airplane now, into buses, and these will take you to air raid shelters. There is a large Russian strike force headed this way, fighter aircraft and troop transports, and the facilities here are low on fuel. So are we, for that matter, so this is the end of the line – for now. Effective a few hours ago, civil aviation in the United States was grounded, and this aircraft was ordered by headquarters to divert to the nearest open facility and land – until hostilities are over or it’s safe to resume our flight. What we do know right now is that Russian forces are in the process of moving into Europe, but that’s all we know. Assuming this aircraft survives, and that fuel is allocated, we’ll try to get you on to your destination when that becomes possible. There are four buses pulling up on the left side of the aircraft right now, and you need to get in them as quickly as possible. Again, there are Russian attack aircraft inbound, so let’s move quickly and in an orderly manner, and we may just get out of this in one piece.”
“Shut-down checklist complete,” Sandy said.
“Okay, get the door, then head down there and help people moving to the buses.”
“I’m staying with you,” Rutherford said quietly, then she turned to her two guards. “You go, just blend in as best you can. If we survive the night, then you…” But Rutherford broke down then, her dreams at an end, and she sat in the jump-seat and waved them on. “Go now,” she whispered.
Her two ninja left, followed Sandy Beach out the cockpit door, and Woodward came in, with Tate and the two girls standing just outside the door, looking in.
“Ben?” the old cop said, his voice full of concern.
But I could see it in the kid’s eyes. He was lost now, full of concern for the aircraft, for his passengers, and even that Rutherford dame. She was stuck on him, hard, like white on rice. And the thing is, he was too. Kind of odd, too, now that I think about it.
He was a good looking kid. Kind of like Clark Kent, if you know what I mean. A real straight arrow. Think Jimmy Stewart and you’re on the right track. Tall, skinny, kind of a self-deprecating “Aw, shucks, Ma’am” kind of guy. Quiet, radiating strength sitting up there in the cockpit, a man fully the sum of his parts. Cop and pilot, you know what I mean?
Then there was this Rutherford dame. Maybe five feet tall, maybe forty five, fifty years old. Serious, a hard edge in her eyes, but a soft one, too. Like a falcon. Like a falconer had just pulled the hood off her head. Her eyes were blinking, her head swiveling, and when I looked at her the only word that ran through my mind was “machine.” A human machine, calculating, using her senses to figure out what was happening around her – and then she’d look at Acheson and melt. To my eyes, it was like she had just discovered the order of the universe – and it wasn’t what she thought it was.
And Ben? He was lost in thought, a different kind of machine..
“Ben?” I remember saying, and he looked up at me, and I saw “LOST” in his eyes.
“What’s our play, man?”
“There’s enough fuel to get us to Brazil, or west Africa somewhere, but not to the US.”
“Probably better to stay here,” Rutherford said.
“Nowhere else TO go, right now, anyway” he said, his voice almost a whisper.
“Not until this is over,” Rutherford added.
And there it was. In the blink of an eye, the world had gone from normal, what was, to upside-down-insane. What it always came down to, I guess. War.
When is war going to be at an end? But when is it ever really over? Isn’t that what we are, in the end?
I remember Ben shutting down the aircraft after that, turning off batteries and the cabin going dark. He used a flashlight to get us to the stairs, and then down to the last bus, and he was just standing there, looking up at the huge Boeing – his aircraft, I remember thinking to myself just then. He alone commanded that thing, and now he was surrendering her, walking away.
And I could tell it was eating him up.
We were standing down on the ground in heavy rain when the first missile streaked by, just over our heads, and before anyone could react it detonated a few hundred yards away, just over the runway.
Acheson heard the roar and pulled Rutherford down to the ground, then covered her body with his own. Woodward, pulled down by Liz and Persephone, watched Tate as he remained standing, looking after the missile’s passage. The bus stood between them and that first detonation, and first the concussive wave lifted it up into the air and spun it around like a children’s toy – and Tate flew through the air, skidded under the Boeing’s nose gear just as waves of shrapnel cut into the aircraft. Fuel began leaking from the wing tanks, and Acheson kneeled, surveyed the scene as two more incoming missiles hit the air force complex at the opposite end of the airfield.
“Three missiles,” he said. “Three got through…” he said as he turned and looked at the Boeing, then at fuel spilling from the wing tanks…
“We’ve got to get away from here,” he said, then he saw ‘Sandy Beach,’ her torso and legs under the bus and he ran to her, Rutherford by his side, looking at the girl.
“Is she dead?”
“Yes,” he said, feeling her carotid.
“Oh my God,” he heard Rutherford whisper, and he turned his attention to the people trying to get out of the bus.
He saw people with lacerations, burned flesh, people trying to move on broken legs, cradling broken arms, or a dying loved one, then he looked at Rutherford.
“The law of unintended consequences?” he said, his voice dripping with malicious sarcasm.
She nodded, saw pools of fire reflected in his eyes, then turned and walked away.
He ran over to Woodward, helped him sit up, saw shrapnel in the dark haired girls chest and legs, foaming blood oozing from her mouth and a gaping chest wound, and then Woodward was leaning over the girl, crying. “Liz?” the old cop sighed, “Liz, talk to me,” and Acheson watched as the girl sighed once, then slipped away.
Acheson turned, looked at the man on the ground by the nose gear and ran over, saw Woodward’s friend from Seattle, but he stopped as he got close. The lifeless body was scorched black, rippled with shrapnel, then he saw damage to the aircraft up-close: the shredded tires, engine cowlings punctured, oil and hydraulic fluid running onto the tarmac – and he knew the Boeing was mortally wounded, would never fly without serious reconstruction.
He turned and was walking back to Woodward and the other girl – when he flinched, then felt the super-sonic boom of aircraft passing through the clouds overhead, then bombs started falling like rain, slamming into the hillside on the far side of the airfield. He watched as more fell – landing closer – then he was aware of flying through the air – just before everything grew dark and quiet.
He woke up.
Tried to sit up, but couldn’t.
He tried to lift his hands to his face, but couldn’t.
He closed his eyes and felt himself drifting off.
He opened his eyes. Turned his head.
Gray. Nothing but gray. And steel? Steel walls?
A woman walked by. A nurse, and he tried to speak but everything he said was muffled, garbled, his words like hollow echoes coming from the middle of his skull. The nurse turned and spoke to him, and he saw her lips move, saw her eyes on him, but he couldn’t hear a thing she said.
“I can’t hear you,” he tried to say, but he felt the words more than heard them, and incompletely, at that – like every sound was coming from behind walls of hissing static, with an occasional high-pitched whine thrown in for good measure – then he saw her smile, then turn away.
He tried to think, imagine where he was, then he gave up and put his head down on the pillow. He felt himself drifting…then…
Someone lifted an eyelid, shined a light in his eye and he tried to turn away but strong hands held him fast. He blinked when whoever it was finished, then he felt a sting in his upper arm. He was rolling down a narrow corridor a moment later, then in a small room with bright lights overhead. A busy, worn out man leaned over and peered in his eyes, then he felt himself drifting away again.
He heard someone calling his name, pinching an earlobe and calling his name.
He opened his eyes, saw a woman eyes peering over a surgical mask. Brown eyes, warm and soothing…
“Captain Acheson? You can hear me?”
Not American, but not quite Russian, either.
“Good. You know where you is, are?”
“You know what day it is?”
“No, I don’t.”
“How about time? Know what time it are…uh, is?”
“No, no, nothing. Look, can you tell me where I am, what day it is? I’d kind of like to know, you know?”
She nodded her head, wrote on her clipboard. “You on NATO ship, hospital ship. Uh, you found three weeks ago, after attack on Lajes. Surgery one week ago, you out since.”
“Where are we, I mean…like at sea, or anchored somewhere?”
“Oh, yes, to Lisbon maybe, or Gibraltar.”
“War? Still war?”
“Oh, no, war over. Seven cities destroyed, then stop.”
“Cities? Which ones?”
She looked away, shook her head. “New York and Washington in America. Boston too, I think, someplace like that. Moscow and St Petersburg in Russia, some submarine base, too. Maybe Hamburg, in Germany, and a navy base in southern France. There are stories about Korea and China in the news, nobody knows much yet. So, you are pilot captain?”
“Yes. American Airlines, and a major in the US Air Force.”
“Oh? This I did not know. You feel pain now?”
“Yes, a little.”
“Where? Can you point where?”
He tried to move his right arm, but it felt stiff, weak, and he said “The side of my head, behind my right ear.”
“You have ringing in ears?”
“A little, yes.”
“No other pain?”
“My leg is, it feels strange. It hurts, then it goes away.”
“Break near knee. Bad fracture. Will need surgery. In cast now.”
“There were people with me. Last names Woodward, Rutherford. Any way to check on these people?”
“I try. You rest now,” she said, slipping a syringe into his IV. “We be in land tomorrow, then maybe you knows more.”
He felt himself moving and opened his eyes, saw men ahead and behind him, and he realized he was on a stretcher, moving through the corridors of a ship. He saw warnings – in Cyrillic –painted on the walls, then he looked at the uniforms the men wore, but he didn’t recognize them. They came to the main deck and he was in sunlight, being carried down a long, sloping ramp, and he looked up at the ship, saw a Russian ensign flying and he lay back, looked up at the sky and realized he’d told that nurse he was in the Air Force.
There were men at the bottom of the ramp, men in suits, and when his stretcher reached the men they looked at his chart, and one of them came over to him.
“Major Acheson?” the man said.
“Captain. American Airlines.”
“Yes, Major Benjamin Acheson, United States Air Force Reserves. C-17 pilot. We have your file now.”
“So. I’m a prisoner of war, I take it?”
“If there was a war, yes, you would be. But now you are just an enemy of the people, of the Soviet Union. You will be dealt with accordingly.”
“I see.” He heard a voice, a familiar voice, and he turned, saw Rutherford with a Russian colonel, laughing gayly now, her arm slipped inside his, and as he watched her disappear inside a black Mercedes sedan, he looked up at the sky – at a passing cloud. “The law of unanticipated consequences,” he said, laughing a little.
“What was that, Major?”
“Oh, nothing. I was just thinking. How funny life is, sometimes.”
“Da. Funny. My family lived in St Petersburg. I am sure you think that funny, too.”
And he did, in a way. He thought of Genie and The Duke, and of a butterfly sneezing somewhere on the far side of the world, and he smiled as they put his stretcher into the back of a dark green lorry.
And he smiled when he thought of all the butterflies out there, just waiting to sneeze.
© 2017 | Adrian Leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com | this is part 5 of 7, by the by.
A song by the Beatles comes to mind, something about Back, Back in the USSR.
There are times I think Vlad’s first name should be Ras.
I was thinking Gregory Peck.