He winced when the truck went over bumps and around curves, he pulled the blanket up to his chin when rain started dripping through rips in the canvas covering, and as sleep was impossible he tried to peek under the canvas and look at the passing countryside. They drove north, he thought, for about an hour, then they passed an air base and he saw troops removing EU and NATO signage, and as they slowed to turn into an newly erected prison compound he saw men lined up along a wall, a firing squad taking aim – then a burst of fire and falling bodies. He looked away, saw the tails of several Antonov 124s poking up above hangers a few hundred yards away, and two charred F-16s being bulldozed out of the way, presumably to make room for more transports.
The truck stopped outside a quonset hut and men came, pulled his stretcher from the back of the truck and carried him inside the building. The first thing he noticed was the smell inside. Disinfectant, and lots of it, overwhelmed his senses, and he saw several men on beds, bags of IVs dripping into arms as he was carried to a bed. Nurses helped transfer him to a bed, and the troops left, leaving him with even more unanswered questions.
A women, dressed in khakis and with insignia on her collars, came over to his bed and picked up the clipboard the soldiers had left laying on his belly, and she read through the pages, making notes from time to time, then she leaned close and spoke.
“Your name is Acheson?” she said, her accent southern. Georgia, maybe, or the Carolinas.
“They got you in Lajes?”
She chuckled. “Let me guess. Texas?”
“Borned and raised.”
“Jenny Cullwell, late of the Savannah Cullwells,” she said, curtsying. “And a reluctant Navy doc.”
She shook her head. “We were en route from Italy, being evacuated. Seems we waited too long. What about you?”
“Flying an American 777 from Paris to DFW when we got the order to land.”
“Wait…you’re not military?”
“Major, Air Force reserves.”
“Do you know what’s happening out there?”
“Yes, I do. You sure you want to hear about it?”
He nodded his head.
“The main attack on the US was preceded by large scale cyber attacks, came right after all that bullshit, after Air Force One went down, like it had been coordinated. Nukes hit San Diego and Puget sound, Norfolk and sub bases in Maine and New London. Missile fields too, and major air force and naval bases right after, sub-launched ICBMs, we heard. From what I’ve heard, major Russian cities took a pounding, city-buster hydrogen warheads, maybe a hundred and fifty million dead in Russia and Eastern Europe. We knocked out most of their second wave of ICBMs, targeted on cities, knocked ‘em right out of the sky, so loss of life at home was less, until their bombers hit. Cities in the south, Dallas and Atlanta, weren’t hit, but cities on both coasts are gone now, and up north.”
“What about fallout?”
“It’s bad. Getting worse. There’s a lot of rain, too. Something about dust thrown up into the upper atmosphere.”
“Sure, I guess that sounds right. Now, what about you?”
“They said my knee needs surgery, I think they operated on my head, but I have no idea why.”
“Penetrating blunt force trauma,” she said, pointing at his chart. “At least that’s what the doc wrote, assuming I can read this scribbling. An Air Force doc at Lajes did the surgery, so relax, you might live. If one of Ivan’s docs did it you’d be a drooling cauliflower right about now.” She turned his head, examined the wound behind his right ear, then shined a light on it. “Think we’ll start some antibiotics, margins are looking a little iffy.”
“You have antibiotics?”
“Yup, but that’s about it. No x-ray, no imaging equipment at all, and no orthos, so we’ll cut off that cast and check it out, then recast you. So, you’re a pilot?”
“Really? Well, ain’t that interesting.”
“There are two of ‘em here. MATS birds, from Charleston.”
“Shot. Not sure why, but you might keep that in mind.”
“Thanks. What about my leg? Just cast it, let it heal?”
“Probably, unless it’s a tibial plateau fracture. If that’s the case you’ll have to have surgery, or you could lose that leg if you walk on it.”
“Look, I’ll just give it to you straight. You might want to skip the antibiotics, all the heroics, and just try to check out. A Russian doc told me their estimate is three months before fallout levels become totally lethal.”
“What about the southern hemisphere? Like South Africa, or the Falklands?”
“The song remains the same, Paco. You might eke out a few months more.”
“So that’s it? Do not go gently into that good night? End of the line?”
“Yup. This is actually a damn good spot, which is why Ivan moved in here so fast. They’re digging caves in the mountains, trying to get a few hundred thousand into them, some kind of Strangelove thing, but a lot of fallout coming from the Americas falls into the Atlantic so levels right here aren’t that bad – until it rains, anyway. Then we get a spike.”
“Any TV? Any news coming from home?”
She shook her head. “Not a thing. I’m guessing it’s like medieval there now.”
“I wonder what went wrong, with our air defenses, I mean.”
The guy in the bed next to his looked up and laughed. “You’re kidding, right?”
“No, not really. You a pilot?”
“Yeah, F-22s. Look, it’s simple. Our defense contractors sold us a bill of goods. Couple of hundred million bucks for an F-22 or F-35, and they were built on a simple premise. One of our fighters had to be good enough to take out ten of there’s. Right? Got that? So anyway, Ivan decides the way to take care of that is to built twenty aircraft for every one of ours. Overwhelm by sheer numbers. And it worked. Lajes and Iceland are like giant aircraft carriers, they make it possible to resupply NATO with an air bridge from the states, so Ivan knew if he took them, that was the end of any resupply effort. So he made a maximum effort, sent about 800 aircraft from here alone, and the Stennis and Teddy Roosevelt could keep about 30 in the air at any one time. They didn’t last an hour.”
Acheson looked at the man. One leg gone, his hands wrapped in gauze. Very bitter.
“It was a good plan…for fighting maybe Saddam’s air force. But stupid for a Cold War style engagement, especially when the Russians started building really good aircraft, and cheap, too. Never learned to make good subs, though. That’s what got ‘em.”
“Our missiles in Montana never got off. Every silo hit in the first wave, taken right out of action. The boomers launched, of course, and that’s like 3000 warheads right on target. War was over by then, but nobody bothered to tell Ivan. He just kept on comin’ – their bombers came in and met with zero opposition. Dropped their bombs and flew to Cuba, I guess.”
“What did you do?”
“Me? I was escorting B-2s. From Italy to Germany and Poland, dropping tactical nukes on positions northeast of Berlin.”
Acheson shook his head and Cullwell put the back of her hand on his forehead. “So, what’s it gonna be? Antibiotics, or morphine?”
He laughed. “Fuck you, ma’am. I’m getting’ better and goin’ home, and if you want to join me, you better get this leg working. And pronto, if you know what I mean.”
And she laughed too. “Right, Paco. I’ll get right on it.”
“You do that.”
And she looked at him again. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”
“Goddamn right I am. Me and Stumpy over there,” he said, pointing at the F-22 pilot with his thumb, “are going to go out and hijack us a C-17. Fly it right down Main Street, USA on our way to Alpine, Texas. Ain’t that right, Stumpy?”
“You bet, Tex. You steer that trash-hauler and I’ll work the radios. We’ll be pole dancin’ in Big Springs with the best of ‘em.”
The last time I saw Acheson, on the ramp at Lajes, he looked like a broken man. His aircraft was, for all intents and purposes, dead, and that Rutherford woman a broken vessel. She walked off into the night, leaving me and Persephone sitting there with Liz while she passed.
And what had it been?
Maybe three weeks since we’d left Puget Sound on the boat? Just a few days from San Francisco?
I looked at my best friend, Tate, lying there under the nose of the airplane, and was trying to get up and go to him when the bombs started hitting, and that’s when I saw Acheson. Flying through the air. Persephone pulled me to a ditch, and we crawled into a culvert as waves of bombs hit all around us. We crawled out an hour later and the first thing I saw was that airplane. It looked like two or three bombs had hit it dead center – the wings were askew, the cockpit pointing straight up at the moon, and I thought it looked like a moon launch, gone bad. I saw firemen loading Acheson’s body in an ambulance, and then he was gone.
And it hit me then, and hard.
How fast things can change.
How quickly things can come undone. All the things you take for granted – and bam, gone, in an instant. No time to think about it, just blink your eyes and your old life is gone. Here one minute, gone the next. Get on a plane in Paris, and presto! Five hours later we were supposed to be in Dallas. But five hours later that life was gone.
I heard that Rutherford woman say something about unintended consequences, and when I heard that I wondered what she meant. Personally, I mean. If she’d been making plans for something like this, then she’d been anticipating something like this could happen, and that got me to wondering. What kind of person does that? What kind of person sets out to destroy a world, a way of life, without thinking through the consequences for the people around them.
I’d been sitting on the plane, thinking about all that. About ideologies, and how they warp perspectives. I was talking to Liz at the time, about all those Republicans trying to kill health insurance for the poor. They knew their legislative actions would lead to tens of thousands of lives being lost, yet there they were, screaming about the rights of unborn fetuses. Or all the gays on the left, getting so ‘in your face’ about gay marriage and public displays of affection, and Trannies in bathrooms, for God’s sake. Did they really think their actions weren’t going to cause a reaction, even a violent reaction? Was that what they really wanted? ‘Cause that’s sure what they got.
And that Rutherford dame? I mean, seriously? The patriarchy had to go, a new order had to take it’s place. To me, sitting up there in that airplane, I thought she was insane, like she was trying to put a picture puzzle together – with half the pieces missing. It’s like our founding fathers got lucky once, all the right circumstances came together to make a clean break from the past, and then all these people come along – wanting to tear it all down. People on the right wanted to tear it down and build a theocracy, people on the left wanted to build a socialist utopia, and in the end it seems nobody understood just how precious and rare the United States was. It just wasn’t what They wanted, so it had to be torn down. No room for a plurality of vision, no room for compromise, just ‘Me-Me-Me.’ No room left for reason and forethought, so light that match, baby, and let’s watch it burn while we sing around the bonfire of our vanities.
The bomb’s stopped falling after dark, and Sephie and I started walking up into the hills as fast as we could. The roads weren’t bad, not steep, anyway, but they were narrow and lined with shrubs – and that was a good thing. We saw paratroopers coming down through the clouds and ducked into the undergrowth as hundreds of men landed around us, and after they’d gathered their equipment and started down the hill, running for the air base, we started walking away as quickly as we could. A few hours later we came to a town on the coast, I think on the south side of the island, and the streets were deserted, fires burning out of control everywhere we looked.
But we made it down to the harbor – and what did we see?
A marina. Full of sailboats.
Need I say more?
Acheson was laying in bed, watching a bag of vancomycin disappearing into his arm when a guard came in the hut. Cullwell was summoned, told that a high ranking member of the military was coming by for an inspection and to get the place cleaned up, ready for inspection. She nodded her head and turned back to changing the bandages on a badly burned Russian airman, and Acheson smiled at her grim determination, her stoicism.
A few minutes later there was a commotion at the door, then several Russian officers came in – and Rutherford was in their midst, hanging back from the main group. They walked through the makeshift ward to the office in the back, and she ignored Ben as she passed.
He heard shouting in the office, some asshole berating Cullwell for a perceived slight, and a few minutes later the group walked by, Rutherford still in the rear, but just before she got to the door she begged off, asked to remain for a few minutes, “to talk with a few of my countrymen,” she added.
The Russians left, and she started walking among the patients, trying to cheer the men up – but she passed Acheson’s bed once again, then walked back to Cullwell’s office and talked for a while. Acheson, however, never took his eyes off her, and he wondered what her game was now.
She came out a few minutes later, and walked straight to his bedside.
“How are you doing, Ben?”
“Fine, I think. I see you landed on your feet.”
“I may only have a couple lives left.”
“Oh, I doubt that.”
She took his hand, held it tightly. “Don’t hate me,” she whispered. “Not quite yet, anyway.”
“I don’t,” he said. “Not quite yet, anyway.”
She smiled. “Do you need anything? A new leg, perhaps?”
“That’s what the doc thinks. I guess that will have to wait until they can see me at the Mayo Clinic.”
“Oh. Well, anything else?”
“How about the code to unlock the FMC on one of those C-17s. Think you can dig that up for me?”
“Oh? Gonna make a break for it?”
“Something like that.”
“Now that sounds like an adventure.”
“Yeah, might be.”
She leaned close, her lips brushing his ear. “I want you so much it hurts,” she breathed, then, “God, how I love you.”
She pushed away from him and almost ran from the tiny building.
“What the hell was that about?” Cullwell said, standing by the foot of his bed.
Acheson shrugged his shoulders. “Not sure. Something to do with chocolate malts and cheeseburgers.”
“Is she a friend of yours?”
“I have no idea, doc. None at all.”
She looked at Acheson for a long time, wondering who the hell she was, let alone who he was, then she walked back to her office. She had a lot to do to get him ready.
Men came in at three the next morning, loaded Acheson in another truck, but he was barely aware of the world around him by that point. He was heavily sedated, finishing his last bag of vancomycin as they loaded his stretcher into a Antonov 32, and three hours later he was riding in an ambulance through Geneva to an orthopedics clinic. An hour later he was on an operating table, the surgeons regarding him fearfully. He stayed in an isolated ward post-operatively, Russian troops stationed outside his door, and a week later he returned to the Russian air base in Portugal – in the exact same An-32 – and he learned that the crew, as well as the guards, had been on detached duty all the while, free to roam Geneva while he convalesced, so they had been more than disappointed to learn he wasn’t staying a month.
His knee was stiff, but he had started light physical therapy in Geneva, and had graduated to walking with crutches by the time he flew back, and now he walked all over the air base, gaining strength every day. A Russian captain, Leo Piskov, his hands burned, and with his left leg in a cast, started walking with him, and as Piskov’s English was passable they found they enjoyed each others company. Then, after two weeks, their conversations took on an interesting new tone.
“My wife outside Vladivostok,” he mentioned that day. “Work in Navy hospital. You have married woman?”
“Not married, but yes, in Texas. I have no idea if she’s alive or not.”
“So? Call her.”
Acheson laughed. “I might, if I had a phone.”
“That is problem. So, I hear you fly 777, and C-17.”
“I was flying for American Airlines when the trouble started.”
“You go Lajes?”
“Bad luck. We makes big effort get Lajes.”
“Believe me, I know.”
“Sorry. Bad night for many people. You still fly C-17?”
“Every now and then. About once a month.”
“Ah, you reserves?”
“Ever fly Afghanistan?”
“My father killed Afghanistan.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Was he a pilot?”
Leo nodded. “Helicopter. Mi-24, you call HIND.”
“Ah, the gunship. Powerful aircraft.”
“Not enough. Mujahideen took him with shoulder fire weapon. Maybe Stinger is name? I don’t know, too young remember.”
They walked towards the ramp, towards one of the C-17s, and as they got close men began watching them from the control tower.
There was a keypad by the lower door, and it was locked and armed, Acheson saw. Two attempts to unlock it had been made; one more and a large explosive charge would go off in the cockpit, effectively destroying the aircraft.
“You know code?” Leo asked, and now Acheson knew why these walks had been allowed, and why he had been allowed so close to the flight line.
“No, every aircraft has a unique code, and the code is changed every month.”
“Any way get code?”
“Sure, at the operations office in Charleston. The duty officer will have it.”
“Can you call? Get code?”
“Why? So you can use the aircraft?”
“We have no need. No, I was thinking, maybe you get all Americans here, from hospital, we load and you fly them to this Charleston. Maybe you go Texas, find girl.”
Acheson turned to the Russian, looked him in the eye. Then he saw the men in the tower, looking at them with binoculars.
“We have an audience.”
“Da. Big problem. Base commander wants to kill all Americans. I think another solution. Get you home. War over. No need kill now.”
“No, Ben. You do not see. Big struggle over prisoners. Many want to kill, even yesterday. If I bring you phone, can you get code? You can call Texas. If you can get code, and if I can get people to airplane, can you fly to America?”
“I can try.”
“What about woman?”
“Woman who love you. Rutherford?”
“What about her?”
“She need leave this place before GRU kill her. She dangerous.”
“How many people?”
“How many people need to leave on C-17?”
“Twenty five on stretcher. Fifteen in seat.”
“I would need to refuel. At Lajes. Is possible?”
“Difficult, but possible.”
“Are there any other pilots here? For C-17?”
“C-17 engineer, loadmaster. No C-17 pilot, but two other pilots. F-22, F/A18.”
“What about you? You want to go too?”
He looked away, then very quietly said “Da. Maybe get to wife from Alaska. No way from here now.”
“I hope you do. I may need your help.”
“You can get me a phone? A satellite phone?”
“I think, yes.”
“And when do you want to leave?”
“I think I want to walk back now.”
“Okay. You think possible?”
“Yes. It is possible, but must find engineer and ground power. Airplane has been sitting too long.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Alright. Listen Leo, I feel like shit. You understand shit? I need to lie down, now.”
Leo turned to the tower and waved his hands, and men started running when Acheson fell to the ground.
Cullwell was starting an IV when he came to, and he felt feverish, but something else bothered him about the way he felt. A little nauseated, maybe?
“Any way to figure out how much radiation we’re soaking up?” he croaked.
“I feel like shit.”
“No hard feelings, Ben, but you look like shit. No, make that diarrhea.”
“Gee, thanks. I think. You really know how to make a guy…”
“I know. I feel it too, so I’m assuming we’ve passed 200 rem now. Well past lethal dose.”
“So, in pilot-speak, we’re past the point of no return?”
“Look, there were troops in here, while you were gone, and some of them looked sicker than shit. We’re a month and a little bit out from radiation release, so people close to the blasts are already gone. I’d say that we, as a whole, were not real close but close enough. We have a month, at most. People well away from detonations, say in South Africa, or at bases in Antarctica, will be reaching 100 rem now, so they may have lifetimes expressed in months, but that’s it.”
“What’s your point?”
“You want to die at home, now’s the time to go. Some air force type came with the troops, told me to get my patients ready to go on a long flight. I’m assuming that had something to do with you and your walk with that Russian?”
“Will they let us leave?”
“I doubt it. The question is, even if they do, am I well enough to make an eight hour flight?”
“I doubt it, but once we’re airborne I can keep fluids running through the line…”
“What about a catheter. I don’t feel strong enough to get up every half hour to take a leak.”
“Yeah. I can do that.” She turned away, shook her head. “Ben, I’m sorry about all this. Not having the stuff on hand to take care of people better than I have…”
“What the devil are you talking about, Jennifer? You’ve been like an angel sent directly from God…everyone in this room would be dead if not for all you’ve done.”
“It wasn’t enough.”
“And that’s not any fault of yours.”
“I just feel so…”
“Nope. Don’t go there, doc. Let’s get on with the business of living, okay? The rest can wait for another day.”
She nodded her head, tried to brighten up. “Yeah. Got it.”
Piskov walked in, an Iridium Sat-Phone in hand, and he came to Acheson’s bed and sat, beads of perspiration glistening on his forehead. “I think I feel as bad as you now,” he said as he handed over the phone. “The phone is about half charged, I think, but we have no charger for it, so talk quickly.” He turned to Cullwell, grinned. “Do you still have Coca-Cola here?”
She smiled. “For medicinal purposes only, but yes, we do. Ben, you want one too?”
“Sounds good. Don’t suppose you have any crushed ice?”
She laughed again, then walked back to her office. Piskov looked at Ben expectantly, then frowned. “You want privacy, I think?”
“I think, yes.”
“I go sit with doctor.”
Ben watched him walk away, then powered up the unit and dialed the duty officer’s desk at the 628th Air Wing, and someone answered on the second ring. “Duty Officer, Captain Nichols.”
“Major Acheson, calling from a Russian POW camp in Portugal.”
“I’m calling from a Russian POW camp in Portugal. I’ve been told they’re going to allow us to take a C-17 and try to get a planeload of injured back to the states tomorrow morning.”
“Name, rank and full DOD service number, please.”
Acheson recited the information.
“Stand-by one, Major.”
He looked up, saw several men on the ward staring at him.
“How do you expect to fly across?”
“Refuel at Lajes, direct to Charleston after that.”
“You won’t have the range, Major.”
“What about Bermuda?”
“No refueling assets?”
“I’m not sure. Doubtful.”
“Captain, it looks like I’m going to be able to get about 50 people out of here and home. Is there anything you guys can do to help?”
“Look, buddy, things aren’t running real smooth right now. Let me see what I can do, alright?”
“Yeah, understood. This phone has about a half charge, call it an hour or so of talk time.”
“Got it, and I have your number. I’ll call you in 12 hours.”
He looked at the phone, then called his grandfather’s house in Alpine, Texas. No one picked up, and he left a brief message, about where he was and how he was trying to make it home, and maybe being there in a couple of days, then he signed off and powered down the phone.
“What’s the C-17s range?” the pilot in the bed next to his asked.
“Call it 2400.”
“It’s 3000 to from Lajes to the mid-Atlantic coast, but what about Maine? Or St Johns?”
“Around 2000, assuming there are facilities up there. A nuke hit mid-coast Maine, so…”
“Well, that would get us home.”
“Yeah. Guess so.”
“What about navigation? Without GPS, I mean?”
“Some older aircraft have inertial. I think that one out on the ramp does. Or did.”
“And if it doesn’t?”
“I hear paper and pencil still works…” Acheson said, grinning.
Cullwell came out with a coke in a red plastic cup, and when she handed it to him he saw three ice cubes floating in the cup and he grinned. “Thanks, Ma’am.”
She nodded, smiled. “My secret stash.”
And he saw Piskov walk up behind Cullwell, and the Russian was smiling. “You are to leave at 0500, for Lajes. We will start moving out to the aircraft an hour before. I assume you have the code?”
Acheson smiled. “I’ll be ready.”
“I see. Well, I hope so.”
He sat up in bed when the phone chirped, a little before three, and he listened to the duty officer in South Carolina. He listened to what he had to say, how the Russians had already tried to send Medevac aircraft to Kentucky, where the latest interim government was located, but those efforts had been intercepted, the aircraft shot down. They wouldn’t be allowed into US airspace, and the man warned him to look out for anything suspicious being loaded on the aircraft, then he was gone. He shook his head, then dressed carefully, taking care not to disturb the IV shunt dangling from his arm, and then he went went outside. Piskov was out there, still grinning, waiting for him in some sort of Russian jeep; two soldiers saluted when he came out, and he saluted them as he climbed in the front seat.
“You feeling okay?” the Russian asked. “You looking kind of green.”
“I feel green.”
“That means my eyes still working.”
“You have the code?”
“Good. Shall we go?”
Piskov drove across to the ramp, and Acheson saw Russian ground crews huddled under the C-17’s wings – and three American airmen, hand-cuffed, under armed-guard, by the aft cargo door. There was also a large metal box sitting on the ramp by the door, with two men standing beside it.
‘So, that’s the bomb?’ Acheson said to himself as he looked at the C-17. ‘And this is the Trojan Horse.’
And then he saw Rutherford standing by a car in the shadows, watching him as they approached.
‘And I’m supposed to lead the horse inside the gate?’
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