Twelve hours, he thought. In twelve hours he'd be home and away from these madmen.
Walt Phinney of the U.S. Department of Energy tightened his seatbelt as the Air Force C-141 Starlifter transport rumbled down the bumpy runway and took off, climbing into the frigid Russian air. Below were the drafty and cold buildings of a Russian air force installation, and when this was done, if he never went further east in his life than Cape May, New Jersey, he'd be a happy man indeed. He was sitting uncomfortably on a row of seating made from red webbing that ran for most of the fuselage's length. He sat alone, with a clump of Air Force personnel up forward, holding their own private court. No matter if they wanted to sit apart. Damn it, he'd gladly ride on top of the cockpit if it meant going home today.
Home. He unzipped his Air Force-issue parka and reached into the inside pocket, pulled out a creased photo of his wife Kelli and their two-year-old daughter, Sherri. He smiled and rubbed his thumb across the portrait. Little Sherri looked so much like her mother, from the blonde hair to that dimpled smile. Soon, loved ones, I'll be home soon, he thought. Three weeks on this miserable mission that shouldn't have taken more than three days, except for the damnable bureaucrats from the DoE, the Air Force, and the Russian government.
He looked to the rear of the jet, where a pallet was secured in the middle with tie-down straps and ropes. The pallet was a framework of wood and foam rubber, and centered in the middle of the pallet were twenty little bullet-shaped gifts, twenty green and yellow presents less than a yard tall that were coming home to America. Of course, these little gifts had been designed to visit American troops and American equipment much, much earlier, on the invasion battlefield of West Germany, in the Fulda Gap, where the Soviets and their Warsaw Pact allies planned to pour into the West. He put the photo in an outside pocket and folded his arms. Now, of course, the Fulda Gap still existed but there was one Germany, no more Warsaw Pact and one poor Russia that was gladly giving up these twenty 10-kiloton tactical nuclear warheads in exchange for grain and technology credits. Other C-141s in other parts of the old Soviet empire were doing their part as well this early spring, gladly disarming the pieces of that old terror in exchange for feeding civilians. Not a bad deal.
The jet bumped a bit and he stretched out his legs, the better to hold himself in the web seating. Seeing these babies home was Walt's job. He had come along with this Air Force unit to ensure all twenty warheads were ready for travel, that they were in fact what the Russians claimed they were -- further back was the pallet of his own detecting equipment which had proven just that -- and he was to be with these twenty warheads all the way to Ramstein Air Base in Germany, to a refueling stop in Gander, Newfoundland, and then all the way home to the Pantex facility near Amarillo, Texas, where he had been stationed these past four years. There, the warheads would be disassembled. And then, after a while home, it'd be time to put in his resignation and get the hell out of government service. He was tired of working so closely with such deadly materials, materials that sometimes gave him dreams so dark that he would wake up in the middle of a night with a shout. It was time to move back east, where the land wasn't so dry and where green things grew even in the absence of sprinkler systems. Time, maybe, to move into one of those gated communities, drop out and just work on raising a family and to hell with everybody else.
He folded his arms, tried to warm himself. Damn past three weeks, he hadn't been warm once. The heating system in the old Soviet Air Force barracks creaked and groaned but didn't produce much warmth. There were no showers, just baths, and every bath was missing a stopper. He had to steal a raw potato from the base commissary and use that as a plug, though the food was so awful, he probably should have just eaten it instead. And there had been other things he had noticed as well. The crumbling concrete, the exposed and rusting rebar in he buildings. The grass growing in cracks along the runway. The old MiG fighters, motionless in their concrete revetments, their tires flat. The shabby uniforms of the Russian technicians. This, this had been the enemy that his father and grandfather had been so concerned about? This had been the enemy that had been the focus of so much energy, so much hate, so many dollars in defense systems over the decades? It had seemed ridiculous.
Walt looked up forward, where the knot of Air Force personnel were still clustered. They sure didn't think it had been ridiculous. They had seemed to take a perverse joy in disarming such a stubborn and old enemy. The group had been led by a Captain Raynor and they mostly had been tolerant of his presence. That had been it. No late night drinks. No small talk. No glad handing. Just the logistics of their mission and nothing else. And not to be paranoid, but Walt always had the feeling that whenever he entered a meeting room or jet hangar, the small group of Air Force people stopped talking for a second and then quickly changed the subject. Nothing he could prove, but there had been something there. A presence, a scent, like something had been changed, and just for his benefit.
Madmen. He wasn't sure who was more mad. The old Russian military personnel down there, cheerfully giving up weapons of mass destruction for bread, or these American military personnel up here, still thinking they mattered. Walt wasn't sure what mattered nowadays. The current Washington scandal involved the President's bladder habits, for God's sake, and defense budgets were being cut left and right, as the powerful aging baby boomer generation demanded more and more Social Security and Medicare benefits. Once upon a time the economy had been so hot that the Air Force couldn't hold onto trained personnel, but such a hot economy was a fading memory in the third year of the current recession. He could see the difference, in the tired eyes of the pilots, the carefully-mended jump suits, and the old equipment that still bore stenciling from the first Persian Gulf War. They were still number one, but were fading and worse of all, they knew it. Walt wondered if the Russian military had been so damn friendly because they knew their old rival would soon join them in disarray and disrepair.
There was another jolt, sharper than before, and a loud snap that made him clench the webbing tight with his hands. Walt looked to the rear of the jet. Damn it all to hell, talk about disrepair and old equipment. The last jolt of turbulence had snapped a couple of the tie-down straps, and one of the warheads was leaning away from its protective berth. Not that it was much of a problem: the C-141 could suddenly plow into the steppes -- not a very pleasant thought of course -- and not a single warhead would detonate. The triggering devices would simply be crushed. But it wasn't good to have the damn thing hanging like that for the rest of the trip. Suppose there was more turbulence? Goddamn thing could fall out and roll around the metal flooring, crush a few toes in the process.
He looked forward. No one up there had noticed. Walt unbuckled his seatbelt and got up, a bit unsteady as the jet still climbed to its cruising altitude. Let's take a look and then get back up to Captain Raynor. Get a couple of the more muscular sergeants back here and put things right. He walked the dozen feet aft, holding onto wall straps and webbing to keep his balance. There. The little bastard was leaning out. Maybe we could push it back in place. He reached out and touched it and -- Something was wrong. He stepped back. Why? Why was something wrong? Walt wasn't sure, but there was a sour taste in his mouth. His gut was telling him something was wrong, and after five years at Pantex, assembling and disassembling nuclear warheads, he always listened to his gut. Always. What was it? It was a warhead, like any other, with serial numbers and Cyrillic lettering, and openings for probes and connections to mate it with an artillery shell or a rocket body. So what was wrong? Touch. He knew there was a problem when he touched it. Walt touched it again. The casing was smooth. He rubbed at it. Too smooth, idiot. True. He touched the other warheads, noticed the bumps and rough patches where the old Soviet technicians had done a good job, but not a great job, in putting it together. The joys of a command economy. You got the job done and that was that. He touched the leaning warhead again. It didn't match. It didn't belong. It was too well-polished. The sour taste grew stronger in his mouth. Somebody had just pulled a fast one. And he had caught it just in time.
Walt made his way quickly up forward, passing his seat and the mid-aft doorways on each side, and then to the seats that the Air Force guys were occupying. Again, that damn feeling he was being watched in a critical fashion. One of the tech sergeants, however, did smile up at him. Ramez, who was originally from Miami, just like Walt, and the only guy who treated him as more than just a government weasel. They had spent at least a few minutes during the past few weeks, discussing yet again another disappointing Florida Marlins season. Walt passed through and Captain Raynor glanced up from a military-issue lapbot that he had been typing on. He had a large nose and his skin was slightly pockmarked, and with his large brown eyes, he looked like a hawk, always on the hunt.
He leaned down, yelled above the engine noise in Captain Raynor's ear. "Captain, we've got a problem!" "What is it?" the captain asked, closing the gray lapbot cover. "A couple of tie-down straps on the pallet just let loose, and that's not all," Walt said, trying to choose his words carefully. "One of the warheads doesn't match. It looks like a fake." The captain's eyes seemed to bulge out. "What? A fake?" Walt nodded. "Yeah, a dummy warhead. All of the warheads checked out yesterday. I think someone scammed us, just before takeoff. Captain, we've got to turn around and go back. Once we're on the ground, I can prove it's a fake. Then we can take it from there"
The captain shook his head, almost in disgust, and said something to a lieutenant sitting near him. The lieutenant got up and went toward the cockpit. The captain stood up and said, "You better show me, Mister Phinney."
Walt turned and started back to the rear of the jet, and he stumbled again as the jet made another turn and he could feel it suddenly start to descend. Good. The pilot was heading back to the Russian air force base. Once on the ground and once he got his detecting equipment unpacked, he could prove that the warhead was a dummy. Nicely made, but a dummy nonetheless, and it'd be up to the guys upstairs to figure what to do next, how to untangle this crisis, and --
He gasped as something struck him from behind. Walt fell to the floor, jamming his fingers. He yelped in pain and gurgled as something hit him again, stunning him. He fell flat on his face, crushing his nose. The plane rolled and bucked. Light suddenly flared at him and there was the rush of wind. He moved his head, blinked at the fierce breeze blowing past him. One of the side doors was open. He was looking down at the brown surface of the earth, thousands of feet below. He started to slide. Sweet Mother of God, no! He moved over on his back, tried to grab something, anything. His stomach rolled in terror as he felt his feet go through the door. Something, something, we've got to grab something! He flailed out with his hands, felt a sharpness and then -- A flapping tie-down strap, firm in his right hand, the uninjured one. The jet tilted again and now his knees and lower thighs were hanging outside over the void. The wind tore at his feet, flattening them against the side of the fuselage. The strapping cut into his hand. He dimly realized his crotch was soaking wet, for he had just soiled himself.
He looked up, not able to say anything, only screaming in loud, repeating grunts. There! Coming forward was that Tech Sergeant, Ramez. He had a safety harness on, and a long belt, fastened to the nearest bulkhead. Ramez inched forward, closer and closer, his face knotted in concern and concentration. The wind seemed more fierce. Now his upper thighs were at the door's edge. Closer, damn it, get closer! He tried to form the words but he couldn't. All he could do was yell in terror. Kelli, Sherri, I swear I'll get off this jet once it lands and I'll never fly again. Ramez came closer, grabbed a free hand. He clenched it tight in joyous terror. Close, we're gonna make it, we're gonna make it. Ramez motioned with his head, to the other hand that was tangled up in the strapping. Of course. He couldn't be dragged in if that mess was still tangled around his hand. He moved quickly, as quickly as he could, and the strap came free and Ramez nodded, grabbed the other hand. There! Oh, sweet Jesus, we're gonna make it, we're gonna get back in -- And the last thing Walt Phinney saw was Ramez letting go.
Captain Raynor was in the cockpit, talking to the pilot, as the C-141 resumed its heading towards Germany. His hands were slightly sore from holding the fire extinguisher that he had slammed into that DOE clown just a few minutes ago. A hard thing to do, hitting him like that and opening the door, but it had to be done.
He put a hand on the shoulder of the pilot, leaned forward. "Will we lose much time to Germany?" The captain felt the shrug of the pilot. "Ten, fifteen minutes, not much. We'll probably make it up as we get along." "Good." "It's going to be hard to explain what happened back there to that Energy guy." "How long to Germany?" "Four hours." The captain said, "I'll think of something by then." The pilot turned his head, looked up with a smile on his face. "God bless." He smiled back. "God bless."
Captain Raynor went aft, looked at his carefully-chosen crew, who were sitting in their seating. He felt a flush of pride in what they had just done, in flying thousands of miles in and out of enemy territory, doing what had to be done to make things right. He grinned at them and gave them a thumbs up, and they all smiled back, especially Ramez, who had done a very tricky job indeed. Would have to write up a commendation -- carefully crafted, of course -- for the sergeant when he get home.
He sat down in his seat, pulled the seatbelt taut and picked up his lapbot. Before opening the cover, though, he saw something on the metal flooring. A little square of paper. He reached down and picked it up. It was a photo, of a woman and a child. Both with blonde hair. He turned it over and saw a woman's handwriting, and it was hard to make out the words. But the first two did say, "Dear Walt." Well, the captain thought. There you go. He crumpled up the photo and shoved the waste piece of paper in his parka, and then went back to work.