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WolfSinger Publications

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The Long Way Home
- Rob Jackson

​After  a war and a plague, eight pilots escape from a Russian prison camp.  They need to try to return to what remains of the United States. While  most of the world is trying to rebuild from the rubble, they have been  warned of a plan by some still fighting the last war to finish what the  war had started.

They must make their way across a ruined land largely controlled by  groups of shifting alliances to thwart the plot, and the head of the  team carrying out Operation A is the former commandant of the prison  camp. He's made it personal.


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Chapter 1

Reynaud  walked across the tarmac with Bill Taylor. It felt good being in his  flight suit again, even if he had an angry mob of butterflies in his  stomach and still felt a little weak from his bout with the plague.

Of  eighteen pilots in the squadron, only he and Bill remained alive and  duty-ready. Half had been lost in combat and the rest had either died of  the plague or were still recovering. Reynaud’s memories suffered some  fuzzy spots and he couldn’t remember the exact day in early May when the  war broke out. He was already bed-ridden with the plague at the time.  After the out­break of the plague, the war sputtered along like a damp  fuse. Both sides had launched some missiles, almost on a one-for-one  trade-off, and within the first four days both sides had destroyed most  of the oil refinery capacity of their enemies and almost everyone else.  Most major military bases had been hit, with vary­ing degrees of  accuracy and damage, and some major cities had been devastated.

It  was a measure of the Air Force’s desperation that he and Bill had an  escort mission for a lone B-1B to wipe out a major staging area. The  bomber was still sometimes derisively called “the Groundhog” or “the  Hangar Queen,” although they’d finally worked out most of the kinks in  the system.

Bill  grinned at him. “Break a leg, Lieutenant Dechaine,” and walked to his  boarding ladder. Reynaud smiled at Bill’s quirky way of wishing his  wingman luck. He continued to his own machine, an F-22 Raptor, a deadly,  shapely bird that looked as predatory as its namesake.

Most  of the groundcrew had also been killed or incapacitat­ed by the plague  and as Reynaud climbed the ladder to his “office” he saw the remains of  the old Russian Frogfoot that attacked the base and destroyed several  hangars and aircraft before it had been shot down.

Reynaud still felt more than a trace of admiration for the gutsy Russian pilot. Too bad he’d augered in with his plane.

Bill  and Reynaud had chosen the best of the surviving air­craft. Bill, as  the senior officer, had first choice of aircraft, and he was to lead the  mission. He settled himself, pulled on his flight helmet, and ran  through the pre-flight checks before closing the canopy.

Bill  led the way to the strip and into the air, then to the rendezvous point  with the bomber. They stayed low and formed up with the bomber at an  altitude of less than two hundred feet and sped eastward, keeping to one  of the alleys cleared through the SAM screen. They crossed the safer  German airspace and flew over the Polish border within less than a  quarter of an hour. After they’d cleared most of the population centers,  they opened their formation. The bomber stayed on the deck, seeming  almost to touch its own shadow while the fighters climbed above and half  a mile away in the two and ten o’clock slots.

He  was never sure of what happened next, although he guessed Bill’s  electronic countermeasures system had suffered an attack of gremlins  and, instead of being invisible to Russian radar, drew it like a magnet.

The  first warning was a flash of motion then Bill’s plane blew up. Almost  simultaneously, a pair of MiG29s flashed past in a shallow dive. No time  for thought, only reaction. With no time to turn before the MiGs would  be out of range, he dropped his external tanks and kicked the rudder,  throwing his Raptor into a spin. The missiles his ship carried were the  new Rocs, which supposedly needed no lock-on time but were armed when  launched and locked onto the target within half a second. As his plane  lurched around in a wickedly fast spin, Reynaud saw a flash and  launched.

The  missiles leapt out from under his fuselage then Reynaud had to give all  his attention to snapping out of the spin. He was losing altitude  rapidly, the ground rushing up to meet him while he tried to stave off  an attack of vertigo that would leave him helpless. On one of the sweeps  around he saw the red and black petals of an explosion blossom then he  fought the fighter out of the spin.

As  soon as the fighter was again under control, he scanned the air and  ground below him. He noticed a broad river he took to be the Vistula  and, just east of it, he discerned a black arrowhead that had to be the  bomber and, behind it and closing rapidly, the other MiG.

“Big  Friend, bandit at six o’clock,” Reynaud chanted then opened the  throttle and put his plane’s nose down. He’d begun to close the distance  when two missiles streaked away from the Russian fighter. One of them  hit a ridge the bomber had just cleared, putting up a cloud of rock  fragments while the other went off almost inside the port engine  nacelle. The MiG sprang upward to avoid the airborne debris and almost  centered itself in Reynaud’s sight.

Reynaud  guessed either the Russian’s warning system had also failed or he was  so fixed on killing the bomber he was ignor­ing it. The Cajun couldn’t  launch another missile—the bomber was too close to the MiG for him to  count on the electronic brain of a numbskull missile. Reynaud continued  to close. Still appar­ently totally absorbed in stalking his prey, the  Russian never saw Reynaud slip into the kill-slot.

He  checked his own tail. Clear. He chopped the throttle to avoid  overshooting, centered the exhaust of the MiG in his sights and, as soon  as he could see the national markings on the upper sides of the wings,  touched off a burst with his cannon. The gun growled for an instant and  the Russian fighter simply came apart in the air. Pieces of plastic and  metal flew along the slipstream then the jet exploded.

Reynaud  had reflexively closed his eyes as wreckage streamed back toward his  own bird, but he heard and felt the hammering of metal against his own  plane. Something gashed the canopy above his left shoulder and he knew  the vacuum cleaner of his engines were sucking in everything from a  fifty-foot radius, and the sweeper was rushing forward at almost the  speed of sound. He hit the speed brakes and the plane yawed sharply.  Some of the hydraulics had been damaged and only one of the brakes had  opened. He tried to close the open brake but the machine continued to  yaw, while warning lights flickered like lights on a Christmas tree and  the engines began to emit a grinding sound as they started to come  apart. He tried to chop the throttle again but the grinding sound became  louder and the engine began to howl like a banshee warning of death.

The engine was building up to an explosion. Reynaud jetti­soned the canopy then jerked the ejector ring.

It  felt like being flung, face-first, into a brick wall while being shot  out of a cannon. Black seeped around the edges of his vision as the  shell exploded and he was hurled into winds of over four hundred miles  an hour. Somehow, he remained conscious and as he reached the top of the  arc he kicked free of the ejection seat. He started to fall, then the  opening shock slammed him against his parachute harness with bruising  force as the chute bil­lowed out above him.

Hanging  from his chute lines, he looked around and saw three black smudges  still staining the sky and saw his own plane spin into the ground.  Immediately it exploded and a geyser of flame shot upward. More smudges  in the east, where the damaged bomber, one of its engines leaving a  black trail, was already nearly out of sight. Four planes and three men  gone, another plane dam­aged, all in fifteen seconds or less.

He  was captured within hours by local militia, and was glad to see regular  troops, convinced the locals were ready to lynch him—or worse. After he  was sent to the prison camp, he decided he’d merely traded an ugly  death that might last for hours for a death just as ugly, but lasting  for months.

~ * ~

Reynaud  shivered, partly from the cold, partly from sup­pressed horror, rage,  and shame. The POW uniforms provided him and the airmen around him were  too thin for the early winter in these mountains on the  Russian-Polish-Czech border. More chilling than the cold was the reason  the airmen had been assem­bled on the parade ground.

Reynaud’s  eyes scanned the compound, taking in the chain-link fence and the guard  towers with their machine gun posts. Inside the fence stood the  prisoners’ huts and just outside it the ugly, blocky administration  building and the guards’ barracks. To the north, beyond the patch of  cleared ground, a pair of guards led out a prisoner who moved as though  drugged.

Another  guard held up a sheet of paper and, in Russian, bel­lowed, “This  prisoner is being executed for insufficient diligence in carrying out  his assigned duties.” This meant the supposed rea­son for his execution  would be “malingering.” The actual reason was always the same; Colonel  Chernikov and Lieutenant Oshevsky were vicious sons of bitches who liked  to feel a prisoner’s bones break or tissues tear under their hands. He  wondered which of them would carry out this murder.

Both  the colonel and the lieutenant strode out to the guards and the  prisoner. Halting, the colonel stripped off his bearskin coat. As usual,  when he carried out an execution, he wore battle­dress rather than his  dress uniform, though even his battledress was always immaculate and  neatly pressed, with creases like razors. Chernikov was known almost as  much for his fastidiousness as much as for his cruelty, and he’d beaten  one prisoner to death for a couple of drops of wine spilled on the  colonel’s tablecloth.

The colonel neatly folded his coat and handed it to the lieu­tenant then drew on a pair of white cloth gloves.

Guards  prowled among the ranks of prisoners. Closing one’s eyes or looking  away would be punished by the guards beat­ing the offending prisoner to a  pulp, with the colonel or the lieu­tenant finishing the job on the  following day.

The  prisoner, although he could hardly stand, brought his arms up like a  boxer as the colonel advanced toward him. He tried a feint with his  right and a jab with his left but he was too slow. Chernikov was as fast  as a cat. He blocked the jab with his left arm then his right hand shot  up as he pivoted beside the prisoner, then behind him.

They  all heard the crack of bone and the scream of the pris­oner, who  doubled over, his left arm bending the wrong way, then he fell to his  knees.

“Get up,” Chernikov commanded in his perfect English.

Somehow,  the prisoner managed to struggle to his feet and face the Russian, his  left arm dangling, useless, his right fist close to his body to protect  or, if he got the chance, lash out.

Chernikov  swung a leg in a sweep that took the prisoner’s legs out from under him  and, as the man fell, the colonel kicked him in the face.

The  man spat blood and broken teeth into the dirt then he surprised  everyone. He came up from the ground in a tigerish leap and, after  driving home a short jab into the colonel’s body just under the ribs, he  tried to grapple. Before he was thrown off, he was able to spit a  mouthful of blood into the colonel’s face and onto the front of his  tunic.

“You  filthy spine,” the colonel howled. “You’ll pay for that.” He caught the  man’s right wrist in his left hand and slammed the man in the armpit  with his right elbow. Still holding the prisoner’s wrist, he ducked  under the man’s arm so he was behind the prisoner with the man’s arm  bent upward behind his back. He wrenched upward and the POW screamed  again as liga­ments and tendons were ripped apart.

Chernikov  flung the crippled man face-down onto the fro­zen ground then stepped  around him and, with a kick, shattered the man’s lower jaw. He sprang  onto the man, his knee pressed against the lower spine. His white-gloved  hand caught the man’s upper jaw and pulled the man’s head up and back,  even as he was driving his knee into the small of the man’s back.

The  noise made by the dying man was more a wail than a scream, and they all  heard bones snapping. The colonel got to his feet and kicked the  shuddering body several times then stalked to his quarters, almost  certainly to put on a fresh uniform.

Reynaud  imagined himself firing belt after belt of machine gun fire into the  Russian, thought of a thousand ways to butcher the monster with a dull  knife, visualized the colonel’s thick neck being cut with a garroting  wire. The lieutenant turned to the cor­poral of the guard and, in  Russian, told him to select two prison­ers to haul the body to the shed.  The corporal pointed at Reynaud and the man at the head of the next  column of prisoners.

Reynaud  and the other prisoner approached the body with a certain trepidation.  Diseases were rare for plague survivors but, if contracted, were more  debilitating. Reynaud immediately felt ashamed of himself. This man had  been possibly sick and proba­bly drugged but he’d tried to fight. He  hadn’t simply given himself over to his murderer and, as a fighter, he  deserved respect.

“You  take his legs,” Reynaud said, then he reached under the man’s body and  wrapped his arms around the man’s chest. Together they lifted the body  and carried it to the shed just inside the western fence of the prison  compound and laid it atop the stack of corpses. In these mountains, in  early December, the tem­perature never rose above freezing. Reynaud  saluted the body and, after a moment, so did the other prisoner.

He  strode past the guard, back to the compound and his own barracks shack.  Even outside the hut he could hear the “band” had warmed up. The  harmonica wailed and even the homemade flute sounded mournful. He’d  grown to hate harmoni­ca and flute music, although he knew the other  prisoners used the sounds to cover conversations from the bugs planted  in the build­ing.

He  never joined the conversations. As conditions at the camp deteriorated  he’d become silent and reclusive. A few prison­ers were certainly spying  for the FSB, the replacement for the KGB, and almost none of the  prisoners were totally sane. Most of them had developed some quirk into a  retreat from the hideous reality.

As  he entered the hut, Paulson gestured at him. He suspect­ed Paulson  might be a spy. He seemed to cooperate with the Russians, helping do  clerical work and maintaining the camp’s computer, which helped him  avoid the worst of the menial labor the other prisoners shared. He’d  also noticed, though, that Paulson seemed to share any extra food with  the other prisoners in the hut. At least he was no bully like Madison,  who’d taken a man’s tin plate, so the prisoner had been forced to hold  out his bare hands for the scalding slop the guards served for meals. It  was that or starve.

And it was Paulson who’d organized the group that had engineered the “accident” that left Madison with a broken back.

Reluctantly,  Reynaud approached Paulson, making his way through knots of men  involved in loud, pointless arguments. As soon as he was near enough to  hear, Paulson murmured, “Con­gratulations. You won the lottery.”

Not  sure what sort of joke Paulson was making, Reynaud managed a crooked  grin. “What did I win? A new Cadillac and a weekend in Paris?”

“Better than that; you won a chance to get out of here.”

Despite  himself, Reynaud’s heart leaped, then he dampened the hope. Just  another prisoner headed around the bend, talking nonsense.

“The committee chose one prisoner from each barracks. You’re the lucky man in this crowd.”

Reynaud stared at Paulson. “I hate to seem ungrateful but, why me?”

“You’re as healthy as anybody, considering the deprivation, and we know you’re not a rat or a plant.”

“Who else is going?”

“You’ll  see them tomorrow. Now, shut up. I don’t have much time to talk. You’ll  be ordered out as part of a wood-cutting detail in the morning.  Everybody on the detail is set for the escape, just like you. Do what  you can, do what you must, but get away. After you’re gone we’re going  to kill as many of the bastards guarding us as we can.”

Reynaud  tried to guess whether Paulson was really sane. If it were a trap—well,  he’d die here before too long anyway. “Do you want us to come back and  try to help you?”

“Hell  no! Don’t think we’re so stupid we think we can sur­vive a revolt.  You’ll be sent to get wood for the pyres. They figure to kill everyone  in the camp, load as many bodies as they can into the shed, and set it  afire. The rest of the bodies will be heaped in one of the huts. The  extra wood you’re being sent to gather is to make sure the fire lasts  until all the bodies are burned.”

Reynaud felt like ants with cold feet were marching up his spine. “How do you know all this?”

“You  think I work in the office because I like playing ‘Captain Video?’ on  computers? That’s the only way to learn any­thing, and I make out the  rosters for the prisoners’ jobs.” He handed Reynaud what looked like a  handkerchief and a spoon. “Be careful with that spoon. The handle’s been  sharpened. Sorry, but that’s the best weapon we could come up with. The  map’s pretty rough, and all we could get on it were some  generalizations. We don’t know the lay of the land, roads, nothing, but  we can fig­ure Krakow is northwest of here.”

“What good will getting there do? It’ll still be a damned long walk back to the states.”

“Remember,  Poland was in NATO before the shake-up, and I gather Russians aren’t  very popular there. From the messag­es I’ve seen and been able to  decipher, there are independence movements in Ukraine, in Georgia, even  in Russia itself. As for Poland, it’s not your last shot, it’s probably  your only shot.”

Reynaud  ran his fingers through his beard. In the six months he’d been  imprisoned, he and the others had come to look like wild men. “But what  about Chernikov? I hate to think of getting away and leaving that rotten  son of a bitch still breathing the same air as human beings.”

“I’ve  got a feeling you’ll get him sooner or later—or he’ll get you. He’s  been reassigned. His superiors want him to go to the U. S of A. I’m not  sure what sort of project he’s being sent to take care of, but I’m  willing to bet it’s something rotten. The codename for the project is  Operation Alpha or Operation A.

“I’m  not sure where he’s going in the states but from the hints being  dropped, it might be Texas or the Southwest. Now, stay quiet until  dinner and try to get a good night’s sleep. You’ll be getting plenty of  exercise tomorrow.

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