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In the Gulf War, a father and son fly from their respective aircraft carriers to attack Iraq. When the father's plane plunges into the sea, the son conducts an investigation and discovers a saboteur.
MARCH 14, 1990. 2137 ZULU. AMSTERDAM.
He was only a small man in a dark raincoat. He wore glasses, speckled now with raindrops. A minor bureaucrat, you would have said. Nobody. Completely forgettable.
He turned into a wet little pocket park and followed the lighted path for twenty meters and then turned away into the darkness on a set of log steps that climbed steeply behind rhododendrons. At the top was room enough for two or three people who could, if they wanted, look at the Amsterdam skyline, or, if they looked down, watch the heads of people on the path below—if there had been any people.
He watched the path. After three minutes, a woman appeared. She had entered from the other direction and was coming slowly along through the pools of light, moving with the rolling caution of pregnancy. He watched her, watched behind her, then slipped down through the wet bushes and was beside her.
The woman, startled, swayed back, then seemed to recognize him and to pull herself in, as if protecting herself or her child. He spoke rapidly, very low; he might have been selling her something useful but not interesting—insurance, perhaps. She chewed her upper lip, messing the too-red lipstick.
Traffic hummed beyond the park, but here in the rain there were only the two of them, and they might as well have been in the privacy of a locked room for all the attention they drew.
The man asks her something. He seems urgent.
She shakes her head.
He says two orthree words. His body is stiffer. What has he said: Are you sure? You won't? We can't?
She shakes her head more quickly and tries to pull away.
He took his right hand from his raincoat pocket and slashed her throat from side to side, and she fell back on the black asphalt, her red blood pumping out and spreading into a puddle of water like ink.
The man walked away.
Seven minutes later, he was in a taxi. He took a white card from his gray pocket, found a black pen and with it made a mark beside the first of four names on a list. A small minus sign.
2247 ZULU. MID-ATLANTIC.
"Huh? Yes, Rafe?"
"Remember we're in EMCON, and stay shut down for Christ's sake until I give the word, got it?"
Yeah, yeah, I know."
Alan Craik glanced aside at the SENSO, a senior chief so good at his craft that Alan felt like a kid with him. Alan always wanted to ask him a kid's questions—How do you know that? How do you do that? How, why, why, but—? He was a kid, he thought miserably, a beginner among men made mature by their skills.
"Goin' for a ride," Rafe said. The elaborate casualness, the cowboy into-nation, was what Alan didn't have, at once both real coolness and overdone, flyboy bravado.
Alan's innards dropped to his socks as the plane roared from the catapult. He should be getting used to it, he thought; why couldn't he be casual and cool? Was anybody else afraid he was going to be sick? Did anybody else think they were going into the black ocean instead of the night sky?
And would he ever be able to make a carrier takeoff and not think of his warrior father and what a burden it was to be the warrior's son?
MARCH 15. 0121 ZULU. NEAR HEATHROW.
Where the road makes a bend toward Iver, there is a stone bridge over a little river. At the Iver end of the bridge, if you look to the right, a sign is visible among the branches announcing the private grounds of a fishing club; there is a metal gate.
The unremarkable man in the raincoat and eyeglasses turned down toward this gate, hardly slowing although the path was dark and wet. He produced a key, unlocked the gate, and went through. As he had in Amsterdam, he went up the bank instead of along the path, this time examining the fence with a tiny flashlight and satisfying himself that the old breaks and holes were still there. The lock and the gate, it appeared, were mostly symbolic.
Again, he waited and watched. The sky was dull copper from London's light on the low clouds; out on the bridge, glowing spheres of mist formed around streetlamps. After six minutes, a silhouette moved slowly to the center of the stone bridge—an overweight man, black among the bare black branches; he leaned over, seemed to study the water but actually looked up and down the fishing length. Then he, too, let himself in at the gate; unlike the small man, he moved uncertainly, and he swore once and then put on a light that he carried cover in his fingers so that only bits of it seemed to fall at his feet. He came along the fisherman's path, breathing heavily.
The man in the raincoat spoke a name. Fred. Not quite a whisper, hoarse, betraying an accent: Fr-r-red. The other man turned. He was a little frightened. In the soft light from the bridge, he could be seen to have heavy lips and the kind of thick eyelids that look as if they have been weeping.
The man in the raincoat went down to him. He spoke with what seemed to be urgency, one hand extended, the other in his coat pocket. Again, there was a sense of selling something, of persuasion; his head cocked as Fred lowered his eyes; he might almost have been trying to get below Fred's face, to look up into it. A word was audible, as if it was so important it had been spoken louder, extended: money.
Fred rubbed his fat chin. Both men looked around. Fred looked up at the glowing sky, said something, laughed. Nervous laughter.
The smaller man leaned in again. He repeated the question. Well? Yes or no?
Whatever Fred said, it was barely muttered, certainly not emphatic; but it was enough, and the smaller man smiled, nodded, took Fred's upper arm and squeezed the muscle, then patted it. Good dog. Fred grinned.
They spoke for another two minutes. Mostly, the small man explained. Fred nodded or muttered understanding. Then, abruptly, the smaller man hit Fred on the arm again and walked off.
Eight minutes later, he was standing beside a telephone in the shadow of a closed pub. He lit his tiny flashlight. He took out the white card. He passed over the first name with its minus sign. His pen touched Fred's name. He made a small plus.
The pen passed down to the third name: Clanwaert.
He checked his watch. Then he dialed a number in Moscow and waited while the long, clumsy connection was made, all that antiquated technology, and a man's voice answered, and he said, "Tell them, `Get ready.'"
0136 ZULU. MID-ATLANTIC.
Six thousand feet above the water, buffeting at four hundred and thirty knots, alpha golf seven zero seven was flying search patterns. An aged S-3B hardly younger than her crew, she was getting tired. The men inside were getting bored.
Below, the black Atlantic roiled in a March squall, unseen, silent to the four men in the darkened old aircraft.
The S-3B was searching the mid-Atlantic for a homebound U.S. battle group. Running opposing-force exercises on the carrier you relieve is an old tradition in the fleet, and no outbound battle group CO wants to be found by the smart-assed flyers of the carrier he is replacing. So AG 707 was the forward scout, trying to find a battle group hidden somewhere between Gibraltar and Cape Hatteras.
"I think you got us way too far south, Spy," the pilot said now. "Where you think these fuckers are hiding, the South Pole?"
The squadron intelligence officer is often called "Spy"—if he isn't called worse. Alan Craik was a new Spy—a very junior grade lieutenant, his ensign's wetness hardly dried behind his ears. The pilot, Rafehausen, didn't much like him. But he called him "Spy" and not something worse because Craik was the only IO he'd ever known who was willing to crawl into a tired old beast like AG 707 and put in his hours with the grownups.
As the old line went, How is an intel officer like Mister Ed? He can talk but he can't fly.
But this kid did.
Seven hours in an ejection seat was still torment to him. But there were rewards for Alan Craik, not least the discovery that he was good at the "back end" craft—reading the screens, coaxing discoveries from radar and computer. And there was the reward, to be earned slowly, of being accepted by the flyers.
And by his father.
"Come on, Spy, give us a break."
Before he could answer, Senior Chief Craw broke in. "He's doin' just fine, sir; give him some slack. He's tryin' to find the ass on the gnat that lives on a gnat's ass."
Rafe groaned. The old aircraft shook itself like a dog and plowed on through the night.
0141 ZULU. MOSCOW.
Nikkie Geblev the go-getter punched his touch tone phone and cursed Gorbachev the president and Yeltsin the mayor and anybody else responsible for his not living in New York, or maybe LA, and tried for the third time to beat the phone into submission: Get through, you fucker! he wanted to shout at it. Make connections! Be a winner!
Nikkie Geblev was surrounded with electronic gadgets that had begun their existences in Japan and Taiwan and Italy and then had had the luck to be on a truck that had been hijacked in Finland. Nikkie was an entrepreneur. A New Soviet Man. A Eurocapitalist. A crook.
"At last," he said aloud. He was making money, relaying this call.
He heard it ring at the other end, then be picked up.
"What?" a man's voice said.
"I'm looking for Peter from Pravda."
Pause. Resignedly: "Peter went to Intertel."
Nikkie didn't want to know anything about who the man was or what was going to happen next, but he couldn't help the images that rose in his mind—a tough man, unshaven, cruel—ex-military, hungry, impatient—Nikkie had dodged the draft because of Afghanistan and he didn't like to think of the way ex-military would treat him if they knew. They had grenades—guns—
Nikkie cut off the images by saying, "Peter says `Get ready.'"
He broke the connection. He was sweating and his knees felt weak.
0439 ZULU. MID-ATLANTIC.
Everybody in the squadron called the plane Christine, after Stephen King's killer car. And Christine was a killer. Her nose had taken the head off a sailor during a cat shot; squadron myth said bits of him were still embedded in her radome. Long ago, in her first life as an S-3A, she had fired the rear ejection seats without human help, sending the back-end aircrew into ESCAPAC and smashing their legs on their keypads. Now, rekitted as an S-3B, she was like an aging queen with a face-lift—older than she looked, and nasty.
She expressed herself tonight in vibrations and the unpredictable. Odd vacillations in a gauge. False readings from a fuel tank. A nut that could be seen slowly unscrewing itself just beyond the copilot's window. Nothing serious, because Christine was not in one of her killer moods; only minor, constant, nerve-picking trivia. A mean old aircraft for a long, dull mission.
Boredom and discomfort. Old aircraft smells, engine noise, the abrasion of personality on personality. Four hours down; three to go, Alan thought. He yawned. Where was the battle group? Why did he care?
Christine shivered and gave him a temporary blip and made his heart lurch, and then he saw it was nothing.
What was in his lunch box? Should he drink some coffee?
How come Craw had stood up for him like that?
Would any of these guys ever begin to like him?
How many hours to go?
"Hey, Spy, what's the word? I'm not going all the way to fucking Ascension Island! What's the program, man?"
Bicker, bicker. Rafehausen would never like him, he supposed. What you might call a difference in culture.
Still. "I want to get where I can catch it in a wide sweep, Rafe."
"They won't go that far out of their way! These bastards have been one hundred and ninety days at sea. Which you haven't!" Rafe wanted to stay closer to the carrier. He wanted to show that he thought that this was Mickey-Mouse fun and games. He wanted to scream that this was bullshit.
The copilot, a nervous j.g. everybody called Narc, sucked up to Rafe. "Yeah, wait till you've been out for your one-ninety, Spy. Nobody wants to make it one ninety-one." Then, purely for Rafehausen's benefit, "Only the fuckin' Spy—" They laughed, the sounds tinny in his intercom.
Alan felt himself blush. He tried to see if Senior Chief Craw was grinning, but he could make out only helmet and mask in the green light of the screens. But it wouldn't have mattered if the man's head had been bobbing with laughter. He knew people thought he was funny. Because he was serious, he was funny. There was something peculiar in that. Well, it was true: nothing was Mickey Mouse to Alan. He took even games very seriously.
Alan tried to think of something to say, something that would be funny and cool and would make them like him, but by then Rafe and Narc had forgotten him and his grids and his plots; they were bickering about fuel and the readings Christine was giving them.
How many hours to go?
Nothing ever happens, he thought. Somewhere, things must be happening. Somewhere.
He thought of Kim. He resisted thinking of Kim, her inescapable eroticism a painful pleasure in these surroundings. Beautiful. Rich. Fun. Sex, my God. A woman who would—
Think of the radar screen instead. The pale green blank, with its hypnotic moving radius.
Kim in the bed in Orlando. Kim laughing, nude. Kim—
Think of the radar screen.
How many hours to go?
0459 ZULU. BRUSSELS.
He had circles under his eyes now as he came into the air terminal, but he was little different from the others. Businessmen getting a jump on the day—businesswomen, too. They carried sleek attachés and laptops and were dressed for success, but nobody looked very bright yet.
The rain had ended but the tarmac was still wet. He came out of the terminal, took a taxi to a hotel within the airport, and, when he had dismissed the car, walked away toward the terminal he had just come from. A half-mile brought him to an area of sheds, more like a factory than an airport. Without pausing, he went between two of the buildings to a loading dock where trucks would be backing in another hour. He checked his watch, then the sky. No sign of the sun yet.
He waited in the shadows. He did not lean against the wall, despite his fatigue. He was a man of will, not easily recognized as such because of his fussiness and his pedantic attention to detail—the flashlight, the list.
Clanwaert plodded toward him through a shallow puddle. Clanwaert was a plodder, the thing he prized about the man. Unsurprising, steady. Capable of change? Perhaps not. In the pocket of the raincoat, his hand tightened on a piece of steel wire.
He called to Clanwaert from the shadows. Clanwaert tried to see him, failed, perhaps caught the glint of his eyeglasses because he began to search for a way up on the loading dock. To his right was a dumpster, which might have offered handholds to a younger or more agile man. Instead, he walked fifty feet the other way and struggled up a steel ladder like an exhausted swimmer coming out of a pool. He plodded back toward the shadows.
The man in the raincoat spoke for a full minute. His tired voice had the same tone of urgency, a kind of metallic hopefulness. Would Clanwaert? This great opportunity. More money.
But Clanwaert resisted. His voice rose; even invisible in the darkness, he was a man taking a stand. Surprising, to anybody who had seen his heavy plodding, he was a man of passion—and, it seemed, of hatred for the man in the raincoat. The word traitor hissed out.
"That is all dead now," the man in the raincoat said.
Clanwaert raged at him. Perhaps the man had meant that a god was dead, for Clanwaert resisted, the way people resist a threat to their religion. At last, he ran down, gave a rumble or two, fell silent.
"I am sorry," the other man's voice came clearly from the shadow. "Look out there." One hand appeared in the light. Clanwaert turned to follow where it pointed.
The steel garrote fell over his face silently and tightened; heavy as he was, the smaller man was able to deal with him. Exercise of the will, passion of a different kind.
Grunting, he dragged Clanwaert to the edge of the loading dock and rolled him into the dumpster.
Twenty minutes later, he was in a terminal different from the one at which he had landed. He found a telephone in a bank of telephones, half of them occupied now by businesspeople making their arrangements for the day. He put his notecard in front of him as he cradled the telephone and began to punch the buttons: another call to Moscow. As the connection was being made, he put a minus sign next to Clanwaert's name.
"Yes?" the tight voice said in Moscow.
"Tell them, `Go.'"
He put the instrument back and looked at the last name on the list. Bonner. He touched it with his pen. He sighed. Bonner. He made a small question mark next to the name. For a few seconds, he hesitated there, apparently unsure of himself for the first time—made so by fatigue or by the thought of Bonner, and whatever difficulties that name represented.
0615 ZULU. MID-ATLANTIC.
"Spy? You shut down back there?"
The night was almost over. Alan's hand hovered over the switch that would shut the back end down. Once he threw it, the old computer ("the best technology of the 1970s") would die and the radar sweeps would end. Their search for the homebound battle group would be over.
But he didn't want to give up. "What if the BG went north of the Azores?" he said into the intercom. "Radar might have missed them if they hid between those islands.
"Come on—shut down! This mission is over!"
He hated to let go. One more sweep, one more experiment—he didn't believe there were problems that couldn't be solved.
His hand wavered over the switch but didn't touch it.
"We went way north of the Azores coming back in '86," Craw said in his Maine twang. Craw always sounded like a comedy act but was a deeply serious man who couldn't understand why people smiled when he spoke. "Admiral Cutter, there wa'nt anything he wouldn't do to keep from bein' found, no sir."
"Oh, great," Rafe moaned. "Jeez, Senior Chief, whose fucking side are you on? I want a slider and the rack! Spy, next time have your great idea before I'm almost in the stack, for Christ's sake."
Narc nosed in with, "Anyway, we're in EMCON." EMCON— Emission Control Condition.
But the senior chief's voice was as stubborn as a lobsterman's defending his right to put traps where his father and his grandfather had. "We're not inside fifty miles just yet. Look heah—" This to Alan. "Set up the sweep as we turn nawth. The stack's offset this way anyhow."
"Oh, Christ—!" he heard Rafe say.
Alan peered forward, just able to read the compass. He set up the sweep as the senior chief had instructed; let Rafe contradict them with a direct order if he cared so much. As the compass touched north he punched the keyboard, and the radar expanded to cover hundreds of miles of ocean. Craw watched from his own board as the circular picture of their world appeared, at the center their aircraft. To the east were the fourteen ships of their own battle group. Two blips showed visibly larger than the rest; their carrier, USS Thomas Jefferson, and, unusual for peacetime, a second carrier, the Franklin D. Roosevelt. To the north and west were the Azores, more than two hundred miles away and showing only as grainy blobs. Alan sorted out those shapes, the real islands' outlines stored somewhere in his brain along with a knowledge of the effects of this radar; his fingers coaxed more detail from the computer, put the name PICO in bright green capitals on the island to which it belonged.
Just south of the main island, two faint blips glowed. He tabbed each on the computer and updated it until he had a standard course and speed. Bingo! He was excited by the chase now, oblivious of Rafe.
"Two UNID surface contacts! Range two-ninety. Christ, Senior, we must have some duct."
"She's a beauty."
"Speed thirty to forty knots. One big banana and one little banana. I think—I think, guys—" His fingers worked the keyboard as he prepared to place the contacts in the datalink.
Rafe's voice sliced into his excitement. "This is the Mission Commander—just to remind you two. I just put us fifty miles out from the carrier and we're in EMCON. Do not rotate or radiate!" He was silent for a second or two to let it sink in. "Now shut down the back end!"
Alan debated the notion of rebellion. He was angry, but he knew part of the anger was fatigue. What the hell—Rafe was in command; let him take the flak if there was any. But still—Fuck it. He pushed the switch, and the radar image collapsed on its center and was gone. He began to clean up his side of the aircraft.
0619 ZULU. MOSCOW.
Number 1743 was a nondescript office building put up sometime after the Great Patriotic War, vaguely influenced by Western designs of the fifties, so probably from the seventies. It had a central entrance and a guard who was nothing more than a presence—an aging man in two sweaters who sometimes had this or that to sell. He would be no trouble.
There were four men. Despite differences, they looked alike because they were all of the same age and they had all led the same life—former Spetsnaz. Three of the four needed a shave; none of them wore a tie or a hat.
The guard waved them to stop.
The first man put a hand on the old man's chest and pushed him gently back while the others went past. Then the man told him to lie facedown, showing him a pistol. The old man lay down. The young man shot him in the back of the head.
They trotted up the two flights of stairs and turned right and trotted to a door that said VENUX in English characters. Inside were fluorescent lights and head-height partitions in cheap beige fabric, a sense of modernity and busyness rare in that building, in that city.
The four men went through the door, took out silenced Type 51 Kalashnikovs, and began firing through the partitions. They sprayed the room methodically, and when one ejected a clip he would drop it into a bag and slam home another and resume shooting. Men and women were screaming and trying to run away, and a man looked over a partition by jumping up and down until he was hit. Others were heroic and tried to shield the fallen, until they were hit, too.
Two of the men went from cubicle to cubicle, shooting each body in the head, alive or dead. The third man guarded the door, while the fourth took a device from his backpack, carried it to the center of the room, and, checking his watch, tripped a timer.
They trotted out one after another, covering each other, the first one firing at the horrified people in the corridor, and each one after him, firing as he ran, to the stairs, down the stairs, and they were gone.
The bomb blew and fire belched from the smashed windows.
0624 ZULU. MID-ATLANTIC.
Christine was seconds from the wire. She had two thousand pounds of fuel—plenty for one landing, dicey if she had to go around again and nobody up to give her more. To Rafehausen, Christine felt like a reluctant partner at the prom—she did what he wanted, just not exactly in time to his moves. Mushy, he thought.
Rafe wanted to see the boat. He didn't dare glance at the altimeter; instead, he was staring into the darkness, trying to find the lens—the cluster of lights at the port bow that would guide him down. Where was the fucking lens?
Then Christine broke out of the squall and there was too much light, too much brightness, as if the whole reflective surface of the deck had struck his dark-accustomed eyes at once. He winced. At the same time, he found the lens, and the voice inside his head that was really eight years of flying experience said Wrong! Wrong set of lights, it meant.
Wrong for landing.
Wrong for me. And this inner voice, which the good pilot hears like an angel's whisper, said much more: it said Power; it said Go; it said airspeed lift altitude move MOVE! All in an instant because the lights were not set for an S-3B, meaning that the tension on the wires was wrong and the instructions were wrong, and the boat was expecting somebody else.
Rafe wanted to look over his shoulder for the F-14 that might be landing right on top of him.
And the voice said Wrong: you're trying to land on the wrong fucking boat.
Blinding light all around him. The deck was there there there THERE! The tail slammed down; the plane lurched; Rafe went to high power—
—and they didn't stop. No blow to the ribs. No neglected junk flying past them in the false wind of deceleration. Only hurtling down the deck on the edge of airspeed, night vision shot to shit by the landing lights, sparks rooster-tailing from their hook, and a second later falling over the front end into the dark without a hope, yet hoping, praying.
All of them astonished and scared and seeing nothing but light as they flashed down the deck of the wrong carrier—not seeing the startled air officer in Pri-Fly, not seeing the deck crew flinch back from them, not seeing the man who was down on the catwalk, safe but still flattening himself against the far bulkhead as if he thought they would take his head off, their lights flashing on the name patch on his left breast: Bonner, S.