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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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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.