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Authors: Clinton Smith

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BOOK: Exit Alpha
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He saw Rehana’s desecrated body, the man dying on his small-intestine quilt, the screaming mouth-hole of the Afghani.

He closed his eyes but couldn’t escape.

Had EXIT transformed the child he’d been into an over-civilised adult — for this?

BIRD FARM
PERSIAN GULF

T
he Hawkeye pilot, a first tour junior, was tense. He was 25 miles out and close to Bingo. He’d asked for an ASAP recover, but the CATCC controllers weren’t buying.

A section of Hornets were inbound after practice plugs. So was the tanker. The standard sequence was Hornets first, tanker next, hummer last. And although the unscheduled divert had drained their fuel, mother didn’t care. ‘Six zero three — climb and maintain angels eleven.’

His copilot said, ‘Boat’s out to kill us again.’ Then his NFO aircraft commander selected the front end to talk options. The back-seat driving only increased the pucker-factor.

Strike finally acknowledged that they’d soon be flying on fumes. They dirtied up and trolled in. Gear and hook down, 6 degrees, airspeed, distance . . . You had to come in just above stall and from three-quarters of a mile out, fly the ball. He watched his cross-hairs, concentrated on glide slope, centreline. Wind over deck: 30 knots slightly axial. If they boltered or had to wave off, they’d be below joker. He called up the mole hole. ‘Someone tell our guests to hang on.’

As always, the flight deck of the carrier looked like a postage stamp on approach, then got bigger very fast. Landing was the killer. The LSO gave points for each one. Would he score an okay three-wire? Cop a major deviation — turd brown? The hazardous thoughts were back. I have to land this pass. Better to die than look bad. He concentrated on getting in. Cockpit light amber: on speed. You couldn’t use instruments even at night. Too much lag, happened too fast.

‘Hawkeye, ball.’

Anticipate the burble. Pitch spot-on — tail-down for the hook because the arresting wires were two inches off the deck. Over the ramp — hit power and . . .

The plane trapped an uneventful two-wire, was snatched to a stop and his body, as usual, tried to fly through the windshield. He hauled back on the throttles, enormously relieved. As the wire started to drag them aft he raised the hook, braked and wondered how the freight had fared. On a COD they’d be belted into backward-facing seats. But cinched on the floor would represent a definite ouch!

Cain had discovered why naval aircraft design began with the undercarriage and airframe. He’d been slammed so hard on the landing that he was ready for a chiropractor.

‘Told you,’ Zuiden shouted. ‘Hear that? Elaborate wingfold on these. Double-acting hydraulic cylinders, skewed-axis hinges . . .’

Surgeons learned and loved all that crud. He didn’t share Zuiden’s lust for technical detail.

They moved on an unstable surface and finally were released onto acres of slowly pitching deck. Cain breathed in the smell of aviation fuel and diesel — blinked in the sudden glare of sun. Despite his earplugs, the noise was painful. He’d never been on a carrier.

He stared at the matt-blue chocked and chained fighters stacked with folded wings. Green-jacketed maintenance men stood on wing stubs, dwarfed by the forest of angled metal fins. He’d expected elegant plumage for the billions the planes must have been worth but even the cloudy-white Hawkeye looked smarter. He edged around its flat tail section which was labelled DO NOT PAINT.

He followed Zuiden past yellowshirts sorting out a tiedown. One yelled, ‘Like where are you going, dudes?’ and pointed them toward the island. A sign on it read: BEWARE OF JET BLAST, PROPELLERS AND ROTORS. Cain stared up to sailors watching from the superstructure’s catwalks, then at the wingless bridges with their sloping windows. Above it all, antennas and SATCOM domes seemed to scrape the ragged bottoms of the clouds.

He skirted plane-handling equipment, heading for one of the secured-back doors. As he stepped over the sill he lurched against the metal frame and realised how much the huge vessel moved. Inside stood a smart marine corporal who seemed to be some kind of honour guard but they were greeted by a thin lieutenant commander in crisp whites. ‘Afternoon, gentlemen. Scott Spencer, NSWC. I’m your nursemaid. And sorry about the transfer. One COD’s hauling freight. The other’s a hangar-queen.’ Creased eyes and a smile. ‘Follow me, please.’

The inside of the carrier was a maze of pipes, bulkheads and blasting air vents. The flight deck clamour cross-faded to the racket of air-con fans and the far-off whine of engine turbines. Cain pocketed his earplugs, his body slowly thawing.

They moved along narrow corridors that had the same synthetic nonslip surface as the deck. No portholes, just an architecture of functional steel. Seven levels down and along another corridor they reached a grille guarded by marine sergeants who produced elbow-snapping salutes.

On the floor inside the grille was a red demarcation line that the sergeant who let them in was careful not to step across. They entered a space featuring two stump-like metal columns and a desk with a VDU, stood facing security cameras as scanners in the columns probed their pockets and aromas.

The woman behind the desk, thirtyish, plain, wore the black cylinder-necked Department S uniform. EXIT? Here? How in hell could they compromise a participating nation’s warship? It was as incriminating as displaying a murder weapon as a souvenir.

They handed the woman their Blue Cards. As she glanced up to take his, Cain spotted a flicker of interest. Evoked, he wondered, by his appearance or reputation? The latter, he hoped. It disturbed him to find apparently intelligent women swayed by his looks.

She swiped the cards and waited for her screen to give clearance.

Spencer tapped his foot on the vibrating deck. ‘Your security’s a piece of work. Be awkward if we hit a mine.’

The woman spun a central locking wheel on the end door, pulled it open. On the other side were the shafts of six retracted dogs and heavy seals.

They stepped over the sill into another corridor. Here no blast from air-con vents. The walls and floor were lined with stainless steel. On each side of the floor were the same padeyes that studded the flight deck but the fittings had been adapted to drainholes. Of the pipes lining the ceiling, two were atypical. One had jets. The other, dispersion nozzles.

Zuiden pointed to a jet. ‘Uncle Sam off his nut?’

Spencer nodded. ‘This setup’s stirred coals on the flag bridge. The rear admiral says he’s been suckered.’

Cain couldn’t believe it either. This was a permanent installation, a typical EXIT choke point. An incursion force moving through here would end up like beetles in amber. Except that the amber would be a space-filling sticky foam that hardened in five seconds and was far more unpleasant than the product developed by SNL in Albuquerque. When the dissolvent was oversprayed by the second pipe, the foam turned to acid. In half an hour, the only thing left would be pitted weapons and blobs of bone.

As they reached the end hatch the dogs slid back as it was opened from the far side by a uniformed EXIT cadet.

The next space was a vivid contrast — a pastel-coloured vestibule with comfortable casual chairs and a feature carpet with shaped panels in a pleasing design. On the low far wall was emblazoned the main EXIT credo:

WORLD MAINTENANCE IS MORALITY.

The others followed beneath in smaller type — the fourteen edicts expounded to them from near childhood:

2. PREDATORS AND PARTISANS ARE PERNICIOUS.

3. EQUILIBRIUM COUNTERS CONFLICT.

4. THE END DOESN’T JUSTIFY THE MEANS, BUT SURGERY AND DENTISTRY ARE PRACTICAL.

5. LOYALTY TO THE CAUSE IS POWER.

6. LOYALTY TO PEOPLE IS WEAKNESS.

7. TRUE SELF-SATISFACTION COMES FROM SERVICE.

8. OCCUPATIONAL RELATIONSHIPS ARE NO LESS FULFILLING.

9. EMOTION IS A FORCE, NOT AN ARGUMENT.

10. CONSISTENCY IS THE HIGHEST ACHIEVEMENT.

11. TRAINING LEADS TO COURAGE.

12. PERSPECTIVE IS STRENGTH.

13. AUTHORITY TO KILL IS A PRIVILEGE, NOT A RIGHT.

14. DEATH IS AN ASPECT OF LIFE.

Rhonda and Vanqua were there to welcome them. They made an incongruous pair. A large, thick-waisted woman wearing scuffed flatties and a pantsuit flecked with cigarette ash. Beside her, an elegantly dressed man with a sombre face and a gymnast’s body.

Rhonda grasped Cain’s hand warmly. She was dowdy as always. Despite her large frame and thick figure, she could scrub up well when she bothered. But she mostly didn’t, preferring comfortable disarray. The too-sensual lower lip, the extra chin, the close-cut greying curls, the impish eyes . . . He felt a rush of affection for her, hugged her hard.

Her upper-class British drawl, ‘Welcome home, Grade Four.’

‘I was Three when I left.’

‘So your return is more auspicious than your departure.’

He appreciated the upgrade but they both knew it was nonsense. Salary and prestige were irrelevant now. She squeezed his hands again, delighted to see him. ‘You’re still absurdly good looking. Barely a sign of decay.’

Zuiden had also greeted his department superior. Vanqua assessed them both with sad, intelligent eyes. He still looked super-fit. His only erotic outlet was rumoured to be the gymnasium. He said in his Danish accent, ‘Well, you must be tired. You’ll need sleep.’

Zuiden yawned. ‘Anything to eat?’

Vanqua’s sad smile. ‘Of course.’ His positive words, as always, clashed with his melancholic nature and produced the impression of deceit. He turned to Spencer. ‘A basic type, Jan. It’s steak and kidney pie today and you’re welcome to join us, Commander.’

‘You’re on.’

Vanqua glanced at Cain but, observing protocol, didn’t invite him. He was Rhonda’s alone to command.

She asked him. ‘Food?’

‘Just want to crash.’

‘Not till we talk. There’s something you need to know.’

SUBVERSION

H
er den, half sorting room, half command centre, stank of Turkish cigarettes. There were security cabinets, a file-covered desk and casual chairs each side of a small coffee table which supported an overfull ashtray and a dirty whisky glass. One wall of the big stateroom was fitted with a communications console. A vertical AC plasma display showed a map of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Marked on it were the combined-arms Soviet bases at Farah and Shindand — and the border, longer than NATO’s central European front, guarded by eighteen Pakistani divisions outnumbered by Indian forces three to one.

Rhonda lifted rubber-band-secured files off chairs and dumped them on the floor, where they slid as the carpet tilted. She sat heavily, legs apart, not demure about her crotch. ‘Take the weight off your feet.’

He sat opposite her, very tired now. ‘So, you know the worst.’ At Cairo, he’d sent an interim report as a burst transmission to COMOPS tagged ‘CO Department D’. ‘How’s Zia?’

‘Delighted he wasn’t killed in the crash. Allah’s will, no doubt.’

‘So why in hell are we on this tub?’

‘Come away jolly sailors . . .’ she trilled in her rich contralto, then gestured at the walls. ‘Vanqua’s obsession. Theta base. I call it his Theta of the Absurd.’

‘But we can’t have a base on a participating nation’s warship. Didn’t you tell him to sod off?’

‘Not easy. Our Spartan foe — how can I delicately put it without betraying my deep resentments — has the ear.’

‘But you’ve run EXIT since Wolf topped himself.’

‘In a temporary/auxiliary capacity. I’m in charge of D. There it officially ends.’

‘What are you now? Fifty? He’s . . . what?’

‘Forty-one.’

‘So he’s nine intakes behind you. He’s only been surgeon CO three years. And surgeons are the junior department.’

‘Tell that to the Oberkommando Wehrmacht.’

‘Christ, Ronnie. You’re everything here. I mean . . . Shit. Tigon gave you East Germany, Wolf chose you as his successor. And now you take orders from that anal Calvinist?’

‘Danes are Lutherans.’ She stared around the room. ‘Where are my blasted ciggies? Actually I see him more as a Mongolian trotting duck.’

He grinned.

‘That’s better. PERSPECTIVE IS STRENGTH. I admit I resent being a little lower than his angel.’

‘Surgeons can’t be senior to dentists. Be the tail wagging the dog.’

‘You’ll be glad to hear that our Führers haven’t entirely suspended common sense. I still run the senior department. But he has final say on strategy. For now.’

‘Shit.’ He banged the chair, intensely sorry for her.

‘Dear heart, if you were funding EXIT, who’d you rather back? A sanitary, humourless, gloom-ridden, virtuous threepenny-bus young man? Or an ultra-poetical, super-aesthetical, sluttish, satirical dyke?’ She guffawed. In her youth, she’d been an acclaimed Gilbert and Sullivan actress. He could see her as Buttercup or Lady Jane. ‘Name your poison. Hooch or hemlock?’

‘I’m trying to give them up.’

‘Stuffed if I am.’ She got up, found a bottle of Glenfiddich, searched her desk for a second glass, gurgling with monstrous primness, ‘And I refuse to drink alone.’

BOOK: Exit Alpha
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