When all the world's a stage
The White House 01.30hrs
Mair had spent most of the last hour with his war cabinet, his presence injecting a sense of purpose where there had been a deepening gloom. The clichés of Armageddon and holocaust threatening to slip out of pursed lips were sanitised by the job speak of "wipe out". There was little talk of containment, reports were flooding in too fast for that. He suspected, it was a hope they desperately wanted to hold on to rather than expose to argument. After listening to their appraisals he'd asked for suggestions. Few were offered. Noting some, dismissing others with a shake of his head once he'd checked them against his mind's "presence list". Finally silence wrapped the room in a shroud of futility. He allowed it time to settle, eyeballing each in turn. But they were all waiting, expectant, without any position to play. He gave a brief nod before issuing his directives in a quiet but incisive voice.
It was well-rehearsed designer leadership, but they weren't to know that. Eric Christiani and the Attorney General, Alan Smith got the first taste. 'Eric, Alan, organise between you, for immediate enactment on my signature, a state of emergency and martial law. Don't let's assume God's going to bless America, and I don't want some mother hen of a governor or state attorney asking for a piece of paper before we do what's needed. Try to pull them, the senate and congress leaders, into the one meeting and show them the situation. If we haven't got the time and they want to argue or try delaying tactics, put the sons of bitches under house arrest and seal them off. Tell them if they think I'm guilty of overreacting or being unconstitutional, they're welcome to all the benefits of hindsight. Shifting his gaze from the world becoming hued in red, he said to Christiani, 'Eric you'll have to cover for Stannought until he returns. Alan, is there some standard form I can sign for you to fill in?'
'To be honest, Jim I don't know.'
Turning to the unmanned secretary's desk he opened drawers until he found what he was looking for and started signing blank sheets of paper. 'I want all of you to know and act on this. We do not let any constitutional, protocol or butt covering crap stop, delay, or bitch up any action we decide is necessary. Mistakes might be made, but that won't be as bad as shuffling round the john with our pants down screaming for paper. If the move you make is for the right reason, the responsibility is mine and that I'll back to the hilt.
'Now Alan, in fact General Doherty, you're in this as well. I want everybody we can muster with knowledge of nuclear reactors. Get somebody sorting them out into teams, ready to fly out to any reactor that isn't known to be under control. General, that includes service personnel, and allow for a support team of fighting men in areas where they could meet resistance.'
Furiously scribbling, Alan Smith left it for Doherty to make the comment he'd been hoping for. 'Mr President, have you any idea how many nuclear reactors there are?'
'No General. Have you?'
'No, but it’s more than we can handle. Add to that the different types and we might as well piss into a active volcano.'
Mair seemed to give a moment's consideration. 'General who's your second in command?'
If Doherty was puzzled it was only for a second but he couldn't think of an out. 'Admiral Harris Sir.'
'He's fully briefed?'
'Yes, he's heading StratCom while I'm here.'
'Then you're relieved of command General. Eric, inform Admiral Harris and ask him to stay on the link so he can act on my directives.'
Holding his palm up to stay Christiani, Doherty faced his commander. 'Mr President my comment merely outlined an obvious fact. Querying your order was not my intention.'
'Obvious or otherwise, General, if you didn't query the order you certainly queried its sense.'
'Not my intention Sir. I ask you to strike it from the record.'
'I'd be more impressed General if you let the records take a leak in your volcano. Not that we've time for this; but how many nukes can Star Screen handle?'
This was safer ground, calculated and theorised to the fourth dimension. The others heard the confidence underlying the words. 'US alone, our response capability is three thousand multi heads. Each one equivalent to China's dragon dancer and assuming no cross retaliation.'
Jim Mair nodded. 'And how many dragon dancers does China have?'
'Intelligence has confirmed a max of eight hundred and fifty. We've doubled that for our response.'
'Is that a fact?'
'No, General, it's a theory we have convinced ourselves into believing. Truth is if China threw eight hundred nukes at us we'd respond with everything we've got and still be cross legged and hoping for the chance to change our pants. The only fact in all that expensive theory would be the piss in our pants. We've backed the wrong theory and meanwhile we have to take steps to ensure we're not exchanging power plants for dragon dancers. No I don't know how many there are, or even if we’ll succeed. I don't expect you to know that either. All I know is we have to try and cover it; otherwise the result may not be all that different.
Doherty's nod conceded the point. About to open the line to StratCom, Christiani felt the General's hand close around his wrist. 'Sir, I request you cancel the order. There will be no more queries from me.'
'Good. Although queries, better still ideas, are welcome just as long as they're not negatives.' Fixing his eyes on each of them he then added in a less commanding tone, 'Garry, you got the brunt of that because you happened to be first. I meant what I said and from this moment it applies to all of us. We cannot afford doubt. By the time this thing is licked we're going to have to delegate sharp and allow whoever we instruct to use every ounce of initiative they have to win through. We simply do not know what we're up against. Brotongo thinks they're flesh eaters. Our Lubbock boffins say it's impossible. We have samples arriving any time now from Noder. Varbagin’s waiting for an answer from his people. We don't have logistics because locusts didn't appear in any scenario. So we cover nuclear, chemical and biological and try to prevent side issues from clouding the picture.
No doubt some of our people will come up with problems we haven't considered. Equally they could come up with solutions. Act the same way I'm doing with you. Cut the crap to yes or no.
'Right, back to the reactors. Alan, get Lyle to liase with the bureau and the C.I.A. Strike that, tell Lyle he's in charge of the operation. The C.I.A. is responsible for handling the international and F.B.I. can rope in the national. Get them roping in people with the know-how. Get on to Westinghouse and the other reactor constructors for all their people, even the retired and for operational details on the reactors they've built abroad. We will probably have to do a similar exercise with chemical, oil and other installations that could run riot if not checked. But I think for now the reactors have priority. Russia, China, Japan and Germany are all taking similar precautions. Gnauk should be talking about now to France and the U.K. However, since hope's not affordable we'll go for handling a lot more than we had the privilege of building. Garry, you get somebody trawling through the service people. As for transport, ground all civil flights, including domestic. They're your transport pool.'
Bill Croxton gave a 'harrumph.'
'You got a question Bill?'
'Yes, Americans vacationing in the Caribbean for instance. They going to be left to take their chances?'
Rubbing his hands over his face, Mair glanced at his watch. 'One of you get on the line to Pearson; tell him I want a television crew here within fifteen minutes? Not you, Brad. As Secretary of State for Defence, you're brief is solely to prevent anything hostile from crossing our borders.' Realising the banality of what he'd said made him snort with derision. 'Wipe that. Brad, we need all the defence contractors working flat out on getting all the hardware that's being serviced, modified or in mothballs, back into operation. And, am I right in thinking that while on red alert we're locked on to the nuclear subs?'
Brad McKay looked to Doherty for the answer. 'Yes, we have them targeted.'
'Right issue the location of ours to Beijing, Moscow, France and the U.K. give them the locations through open channels.'
Doherty underlined a full line of his notes. 'You're saying let everyone hear where they are?'
'You got it. Once everybody knows where they are, use the same open signal telling them to cover all the smaller countries that have any nuclear strike capability.'
'The next scenario we have to cover could be the most difficult. Our internal controls. We have to develop some form of siege strategy and assume the need for self-sufficiency. We need to locate, impound and account for every ounce of food that isn't already hoarded away in home freezers and impose some form of rationing. We need to harvest whatever can be harvested, freeze and get into storage anything that's best handled like that. I would like to see, by midnight tonight, all supermarkets, food halls, warehousing, storage and distribution set-ups closed, guarded and being inventoried. Get your army of accountants back to their roots and commandeer the commercial figure crunchers to join them.
Wall Street's closed for the duration. Put a moratorium on all commercial transactions from this date. The only value we have for now is edible commodities, and their price is priceless. We need to know what we have. What will and will not keep, and for how long. If we find we have a huge stock of vegetables liable to rot in three four days, then Americans become vegetarians.
One thing Bill and I'll admit to not knowing is how you'll manage it. Don't hammer the inner cities and the ghettos. Our suburbanites have all got stocked freezers, let them draw on them. Make the ones who live hand to mouth your priority. Apart from that, your bottom line is to get enough in store to let our nation survive for one year.'
Bill Croxton shifted his podgy butt and eased the glasses pinching his nose, giving himself a moment to tie up a couple of ends his brain had been racing with. 'One question, one request. Have you been in contact with Canada for us to put all our resources in the one basket? And once the agency people are finished roping in all the reactor people, I'd like them handed over to me until we have established control.'
'I'll take the easy one first. Alan, as and when any of the agents are available send them to Bill. I have talked to Prime Minister Blything and, without going into specifics I’ve agreed that any problems they have will be regarded as ours and vice-versa. I stopped short of specifics because; so far the threat is from the south. We don't want any arrangement we make with Canada to leak and be expected by the south. We have to be practical. Canada has surpluses, a small population and, for the moment, her position gives us the longest window to harvest those surpluses. Mexico, is a pure liability. Naturally we hope to hold the line at Panama, but if we can't, we cannot restrict our response.'
'How do you propose to stop them trying to cross?'
'We can't Bill and any who make it will be welcome. But they'll have gone through hell and back in a burning wheelbarrow. So far StratCom plan's to start holding the line along the tenth parallel. Falling back one degree at a time until we're at the fifteenth. Then we pull back to give ourselves some breathing space and throw everything we've got at them around the twenty fifth. That's it in a nutshell. Anything to add Garry?'
'You got it. Panama's our best bet provided they bunch to the land. If conditions are favourable we could decide to nuke them there. If the main, swarm I suppose you'd call it, come up island hopping, then we think it will be worth while trying to hold them island by island, especially on the larger ones.'
Alan Smith asked, 'That include Cuba?'
'Do we have an option? It's the largest.'
Glancing at Smith, Mair thought he caught the twitch of a grin and wondered why niggling thorns should be bothered with now. In fact all the preparations were made for the fifteenth parallel being breached. Then they would go nuclear, and, if desperation was absolute they'd go for saturation. Latest reports gave them around twenty-four hours before the decision would have to be made. After that it was down to fair winds, no rain and divine forgiveness.
Garry Doherty could understand his President's difficulty in looking his Mexican counterpart in the face. He'd the same problem with its military brass, organising mutual strategies, until the mutual could be dropped. What he didn't know was his President's mental cartoon of a naked Stannought crucified on a warhead, its guidance probe rammed into his prostrate. Seeing a shudder pass through Mair's frame he put it down to fatigue and waited for him to continue.
Jim Mair seemed to come back from a world of his own. 'I suppose the last thing we have to cover is the media. With all this going on we haven't a hope in hell of keeping the lid on it and probably would be fools to try. I'm going to record a message to the people before I leave and lay it on the line. Get it on national around seven Washington time and repeat it on the hour until we can update the position around eight tomorrow night. If I'm not back, accept my apologies Eric for leaving you such an unholy mess to deal with. Finally, let me stress the importance of us portraying a concerned but positive confidence to the people we work with and the media. We will make mistakes. We may well overreact. We could destroy our credibility and our careers. Tough, gentlemen it's time to earn our corn. Unless there's anything else, get the ball rolling. Bill if you could spare me a minute.'
It was Jim Mair who got up to perch beside Croxton while the others filed out. He waited till the airlock clicked shut. 'We're off the record Bill, Stannought's either been got at or is playing his own game.'
'I've already got that together. Bastard should've had more sense.'
'Maybe we should all have. Anyway, it was no use stable dooring. I don't believe he's anywhere near Seattle and I've put Stygian on to him. If they get him, well and good. They'll use the fishing story as cover; if he turns up they'll go on hold until we know exactly who he's with and what he's up to. He's got to think he's still in, or is completely out of it. Story is we suspect Nakao's dropped the shit on us.'
'Does Varbagin know, and if so, what's his reaction?'
'Say's we should never trust anybody who steals jokes then fluffs the punch line. That apart he's going to prime the rumour mill and provide the cover for us.'
'What's our reaction to Tokyo?'
'Officially it never happened. We're too busy dealing with the problem to think of retribution.'
'That include Stannought? Unlike the other bastards he's changed the rules on his own people.'
'All the more reason for us to come out on top and with the strength to impose our tactics on the end game. Which leads me to.' Delving into his pocket he slid an envelope in front of Croxton. 'That's an executive order. If I'm not back by eight and they're at the fifteenth parallel, give it to Doherty. He's expecting it and everything's prepared.'
'Jim, you know my wife's parents and her sisters live in Pachuta?'
Mair placed his hand on his friend's shoulder. 'Bill, do what you can, if you can, but be discreet. There will be post-mortems once this is over.'
He watched Croxton's face go ashen before the jaw set to its purpose and caused the cheek muscle to twitch. 'Better get on and get this moving. Hope to see you before eight so you can hand the order over yourself.'
'One final point, Bill. I take it you're still opening your own mail?'
'Old habits die hard.'
'You'll get a letter from me. Nothing official, not posted from here or any place that will earmark it. Sometimes the most secure method is the everyday obvious. You will have time to digest its contents and decide if and how you want to play it. I've made suggestions but in the end it'll be up to you.'
'This sounds a bit final, Jim. You expecting some trouble during your trip? If you are, the clever move may be to stay here. God knows there's enough needs done.'
'Nothing's expected, Bill. Just trying to ensure we get something of value from this mess. Fact is the game's about completed, which makes us all pretty well redundant. But the pressure we were put under to include India convinced Alexei and me that we needed to cover for a lot bigger anti.'
Raising his eyes to the crazy red world glowering at them he edged off the table. 'Hopefully the greed we're seeing now will present us with a better opportunity to wipe the slate clean. We know we're covert tyrants. If we pull this off and are left to orchestrate the applause some will see themselves as demi gods. Don't want that to happen, if it does it'll make shit of everything. Besides, while we've covered our tracks pretty well it's foolish to suppose there won't be some debris. Maybe it won't happen, but the sensible attitude is to say it will and prepare for it. The letter's my ideas on the next stage. The long-term objectives to be worked through the world forum. Christiani is well enough respected and completely clean of any of the covert actions. You Bill are the only one, other than Varbagin, who will know the detail. You've given no instructions. There's no record of our conversations other than you arguing your corner for the treasury. If there are recriminations, and Stannought does make it through, I would rather it was you making the accusations than Stannought polishing his brass neck.'
'Jim, Stannought won't make it. But if there is to be a fresh start it's only leadership that'll get it going. I'm not a leader, I'm a follower. Maybe I have a little sagacity in administration but my vision's hardly adequate for my driver's licence. Eric's a decent guy, but he's still a lightweight. Don't get me wrong I'll back him. But, push comes to shove, this is your play and if you're riddled by guilt then that's tough. Your sentence is the hard labour of righting it. If you try to sneak out of it I'll blow everything I know. If chance takes you out I'll be on the line with Eric. Remember the old adage, if the going gets tough. Well, too often nowadays, once something’s fucked up they get going on something else till that's fucked. Not this time.'
'Don't intend to Bill. Only trying to cover all the bases.'
'Yeh, well I've heard yours and I’ve underlined them with mine. Now if there's nothing else, I need to get moving.'
'Nothing Bill except thanks.'
'What for, survival?'
Watching the retreating back, Mair kept the airlock open and pressed the button for Sharon. He told her to send the camera crew down to the war room. He'd record his message to the people from here. It was canned in twenty minutes and in a single take.
'Fellow Americans, I want you to see this.' The camera panned round the room swallowing the images of the world glowing red till it stopped at the North American continent. 'The red you see covering the world like a bloody mantle is not the result of some maniacal global conflict. There has been no declaration of war and our monitors have not recorded one aggressive act. In fact, as you can see from the picture, the only continent to have suffered least so far from this phenomenon is ours. This could be assumed by other nations as indicating we were the perpetrators. Whatever the injustice of such an assumption, the effect of retaliation would have been catastrophic for all of us. We are due them, all of them, a debt of gratitude for their restraint.
We are not at war. Leastwise, not with the players we knew and the games we were prepared and practised in. Nor are we under attack from some intergalactic alien force after this chunk of real estate. Our adversary is a species that's been on this planet for millions of years longer than man. You might even have a few of their cousins chirping out in your back yards. We call them crickets; their cousins are locusts. This time, for reasons we don't yet understand, they have swarmed in unimaginable numbers and seem capable of directly affecting all life forms. My message to you this morning, is off the cuff. We do not know the strengths or weaknesses of this adversary. We cannot offer you some hypocritical comfort fed from statistics on so-called collateral casualties. We simply do not know.
What I do know is this. We have placed our nation on a war status. Since around eleven last night the war cabinet has been empowered and Star Screen is on red alert. We have the best team, the best equipment, the best people and are the best-prepared nation to fight for our right to life. Perhaps it is wrong to thank God when others are suffering. But we have been given time to see their fight and witness their efforts to hold and finally destroy this threat. Our service men and women abroad have played their part with the host nations and so far reports of casualties are no more than the accidents of chaos.
We must all hold together. Those who can fight must fight. Those who can supply or gather, gather all you can and supply all that's gathered. Those who can give aid, must give all the aid they can. We have a common enemy and it's not each other. I have told you the nation is on a war footing. This means martial law and various other steps usually abhorrent to a democracy. It also means the federal and state authorities have powers that, if abused, give crushing weight to law and can ignore justice. I mention this for the benefit of all those who administer these powers. Use your powers with caution and compassion and be aware of injustice. Any abuse will be severely dealt with.
There will be more detailed statements issued during today, but to get things moving I'll give you the outline. All service personnel. Your leave is cancelled; report back to your base. All reservist and National Guard are to report for mobilisation. You have till 20:00 hrs today to comply. All international flights are cancelled as from now. Domestic flights will cease as at 20:00 hrs today. Flight crews, maintenance personnel, traffic controllers off duty or not, report to your place of work. All government employees do the same.. All medical personnel, report to your hospital, clinic or surgery. All non-essential treatments or surgery must be cancelled and beds cleared.
Food, retail, wholesale, distribution and storage must close their doors, unless taking delivery and be secured by local law enforcement. Perhaps I should explain the necessity for this and ask for your understanding and co-operation. It is conceivable that the food we have to feed the nation for the next twelve months is that which is already in storage or processed. We will make arrangements for this to be inventoried and shared equally. Equally means just that; anybody who gets more is a thief. Farmers, harvest what you can of vegetables or livestock.
It will take a couple of days to get all this underway and some will consider me foolish for telling you in advance but I think as Americans you deserve it straight. So to the owners and managers of our supermarkets and stores. If anybody comes into your store, allow him or her enough food for one day. If they claim to have a family of six let them show proof. Police, back them up, but remember fear can make thieves of us all.
Finally we need to keep our transport networks as clear as possible so give a little consideration to this. If your work is to protect or supply the basic needs of life, you're needed at your place of work. Anything else, whether banker, broker or counter clerk, stay at home with your families. By the time you're watching this I'll be on my way to Iceland for a meeting with the other world leaders. While we can make our mark at home we need to counter this global threat with a global response. I'll report to you when I get back, hopefully this evening. While I'm gone, do all you can to look after my family, I'll be doing all I can to look after yours. God Bless.'
He gave a nod and a quizzical look to the silent camera crew. 'That's it.'
The crew had to shake themselves back from the isolation created by their equipment. The soundman answered for them. 'We got it, Sir. Maybe a bit of a shake a couple of times but I'm only flesh and credit. Steve you happy?'
The cameraman confirmed with a nod. Mick never saw it; his eyes never left the man in front of him. 'We gonna make it?'
'Do my best to see we do,' answered his President.
'That'll do for me.' Mick Lasky slid his loafers off the table edge where he'd used his raised knees as a prop for the sound boom.
'Damn, I meant to include something else. Hold it just a minute we can maybe do it another way. Picking up the direct phone Jim waited for StratCom to answer. 'Who's this?'
'Clive, earlier on I sent over a film we got from President Varbagin. Have a copy made and send it here to the film crew. They'll wait for it at security and I'll brief them on how I want it used.'
'Get straight on it.'
'Thanks Clive. Talk to you when I get back.'
Turning to the crew he asked, 'Which of you is the most photogenic?'
Mick looked at his camera buddy and grinned. 'Got to be me. Other end of the camera he casts no shadow.'
'All right, Mick, you're my stand in.'
Mick decided wit was shit.
'The film will show you what we're up against. It was taken over the Balkans; the river is the Danube and was transmitted to me direct by President Varbagin. Tag it on to the end of my message and do it as you're dressed now. Don’t dress it up. Just something I meant to do and forgot, tell them that.'
'Wouldn't take two minutes to set up and let you add the voice over.'
'Haven't got two, Mick. I'm already late for my flight out of Andrews.' He gave a wink to the cameraman as he pressed the door release and indicated to security he was on his way.
The camera crew were escorted to a separate exit, one of them repeatedly mumbling, 'Just something the President meant to do, but forgot; Balkans, Danube, President Varbagin, will show you what we could be up against.' His mouth, already dry became arid ninety minutes later when he watched the film. He'd another ninety before the film was shown nationwide. Less forty if he chanced the tickets and got moving before the morning rush set in. If there was one.
Mick Lasky wanted to go home, an urge that had been absent for a long time. Sitting with a coffee, watching Grace make breakfast while Arnie and Don suckered the morning into the usual havoc. He knew it wouldn't be like that. Grace would have caught the message and like him would have found the bills and mortgage arrears had faded to insignificance. Taking out his wallet he searched for a credit card with some credit still on it. It didn't take long, and wouldn't be enough. He concentrated on the practical. How long would it take him to get the freezers and cooker down to the cellar, and the goddamned fridge? How much did they have in them? Not much with the budgeting Grace had been doing.
Budgeting, every day a red-letter day. A life flattered by credit then flattened by debits. The devil may care, but he sure as hell doesn't show it. Shit, Grace is probably stashed up on vegiburgers. Might be an idea to keep these in reserve. Lasky's patented deterrent to the locust plague. Feed them with vegiburgers and watch them die tastelessly. Could claim back their cost as outlay on pest control in his tax returns? He spent some time trawling round the office borrowing cash. Eventually he managed to raise a K. Everybody knew Mick, he was a regular guy. Mick just wished an antidote to the plastic plague hadn’t been thrust on him.
The President was transferring to Air Force One when the message came through of the Brazilian government’s move to Sao Paulo. He'd already been advised of the Argentinean's move to the Maldives. The move south was puzzling; it seemed to show a slow movement north. If Stannought had only done half the job it could mean forty-eight to fifty-six hours before they reached Panama, enough time to take the edge of the panic. Son of a bitch had tasted the bait, screwed them, then turned the fucking screw by only doing half a job. He showed none of his rage during the transfer to the plane, managing to give an encouraging wave to the few faces peering through the ports of a plane held until his took off. They were taxing when he fired off the query to StratCom:
BRAZILIANS. SAO PAULO. WHY?
The reply was instant. RIO; BRASILIA UNDER ATTACK. SAO PAULO ALREADY DEVASTATED. THINK IT BETTER TO CONTROL FROM THERE.
He felt his fingers relax. KEEP ME POSTED WHEN CONTACT RE-ESTABLISHED. He didn't think it would be.
They watched the glowing disc rise, its fire dancing on the rim of the earth, only there was no earth for them to see. Deek had never seen anything like it. He'd seen a sunrise, but it had been a fragmented incidental thing. Just something that happened and of no great consequence to the day. A thing dominated by buildings or pylons and blanketed by human and mechanical exhausts. This seemed to slide from the sea, threatening because it made you face your own insignificance, equally awesome and inspirational. Deek felt something more; what it was he couldn't understand.
He'd been awed by his short experience of the sea and the routines forced on him. The strangeness of night where, without markings or lights you drove on, apprehensive, until the sea’s rhythm lulled you into the illusion that it was moving, not the boat. He discovered he had a mental clock with the ability to die in sleep at one, and wake at four to take his watch. To snuggle in the cockpit with a steaming mug warming his hands and look at a sky where the stars had purpose.
The people he was with had a different dimension. Bess, a dog, had a value he couldn't describe. It was all new to him, sensational, more, much more, than the wildest leaps of his imagining. This was fantastic; a first for nature v Derek Awkright, (a.k.a. Rigby)
'What do you think of that?'
Deek searched for the answer to Bob's question. He struggled for the right word. Fantastic wasn't enough, like brilliant or cool it was all right for goals, films, snooker pots or screws, but not for this. He was still searching when the nudge in his ribs made him turn towards his questioner and 'Gob smacked' tumbled out.
Bob smiled behind the hand holding his pipe. "Gob smacked." He supposed what it lacked in finesse was compensated by its honesty. Easing his sleeve up, he checked his watch. Ten to six, time for the shipping forecast. 'You fancy a brew. Help to warm up all the goose bumps the sun brought out on you?' Without waiting for an answer he swung his legs over the bridge deck.
Deek asked, 'You want me to make it?'
'No, you sit there and keep your eyes peeled in case that thing rolls over us.' Then seeing the eyes turn dubious, wished he'd shut up. 'No, you enjoy it. I remember the first time I saw it. It lets you know there are wonders in this world. Besides move and you'll disturb Bess.'
Deek sat stroking Bess, drinking it all in and yes, it was a wonder. He knew how he felt and found the word he was looking for. It told him he had a soul.
He'd remembered the name in the chopper. Colonel McGruer, and repeated it a few times then let it rest till he faced the man.
Klaus wasn't all that pleased. Not that Forsiya Gamadran was bad company or unpleasant to look at. He'd have to be blind or dead not to appreciate the legs sheering out of the short tailored skirt and the occasional lazy joggle behind the silk blouse. Her face he saw as regal, almost architectural that let its strengths and intelligence shine through. Behind the initial small talk he'd stripped her naked and watched her knowing it. His mind querying his psyche, why black women looked naked while white women were merely nude. Pity it was all nature.
Being stuck in a parked fuselage like some godforsaken package tourist didn't make him feel easy at all. The plane might be exclusive but it certainly wasn't state of the art. And, where the hell was Shafner? Perhaps he was the reason for the delay, a thought that for some reason calmed him. After all, Forsiya had been on her own for over an hour before he'd joined her. An hour, she'd told him, spent calmly writing up some notes. About to make his way to the phone on the cabin bulkhead he froze temper and body when the door opened and three air crew made their way towards them. Klaus noted the highest rank was major.
'Morning, Sir, Ma'am, I'm Major Wilcock, my co-pilot Lt. Wiemar and this is Master Sergeant Duman. He'll look after your cabin needs while we're airborne. Give us ten minutes for our flight check, then we’ll be following out Air Force One five after that.'
'Major I was expecting a Colonel McGruer.'
'The Colonel's apologies, Sir. He's been reassigned to take Air Force Two up to Seattle. I've been fully briefed and have your sealed instructions here.' He tapped the attaché case manacled to his wrist.
Klaus wasn't bothered, once he’d seen the attaché case was different from the one he’d left at home and other than finding out what was expected of him. 'If you give me them now, it'll help pass this interminable waiting.'
'Sorry, my instructions are to pass them over to you exactly two hours after we have followed the President out. Should make us around mid Atlantic. Must be worried in case you change your mind.'
If the last was meant as a joke, Klaus had difficulty appreciating it.
'Would either of you like a drink, or coffee while we're waiting?'
Klaus looked at the sergeant. What the hell was this thing with flight stewards?
'Yes, I'll have a large brandy to drink and a coffee to swallow.' Petulant and childish, yet quietly satisfying and probably wasted.
'Yessir, and Ma'am?'
'Mineral water please.'
Klaus raised his balloon in salute when Mair waved but didn't suppose he'd seen it. Maybe he should have raised the coffee.
Wilcock, known affectionately to his mess buddies, and more accurately by his three ex-wives as Doubtful, opened the throttles as soon as they got clearance. For the next five minutes they were too busy chattering with Andrews, checking controls and settling into flight routines, for cabin talk. They had five hours ahead of them and apart from rising and falling (even that could be catered for,) they were practically redundant. Three crew, two passengers and the one with the most to do, Duman, was paid the least. Wilcock settled in his seat. 'You check the gas, Wiemar?'
'Yeh, tanks and range cans all showing full. Why?'
Wilcock's shrug didn't delay his settling back or his closing eyes. 'Long time since I've flown one of these crates. She's lighter than I remembered. Anyway, she's all yours. Wake me when I've to give the parcel to Santa.'
Wiemar finished his double check before giving Wilcock a sideways glance. Santa! Christ, the man was pathetic.
Klaus was spinning the brandy round and knew he was going to have a few more. He wished he could share the time with Gamadran but that wouldn't be fair.
Mulk found out his cut of the scam from the Sikh, and cowed by authority, said nothing. He spent the morning making lists of his own. Never more than one from a group, never another from that group until at least another four lists had been processed. Malik's number was excluded. Tomorrow he'd see the moneylender. Prices had gone up for both school and uniform. The following day he would go to the school, where he would allow his gaze to go from her sari's hem to her eyes. Meeting their gaze with his new sense of worth. Status or position didn't enter into his ambitions yet. The truism of more never being enough hadn't happened to him. The workday was almost over before the doubts that followed his absorption with the lists and the future they afforded started to creep in. Perhaps they would always be with him, a penance there to remind him.
He pulled his belt a notch beyond comfort to secure the lists tucked under it and the station's sirens began to wail. He started opening the tally boards when something stung his cheek. He gave a reflex wave and ran his finger down to check it hadn't clung on and got the second board open, expecting nothing more than the mumbling of tired bodies forming at his back. He suffered two more stings when a shovel swung past his head and clanged against the steel stanchion. Ducking for cover behind the board he found Malik waiting for him and wished he'd been more generous.
'Quick, your hut. Open your hut!'
His eyes darted from Malik's heaving, sweat-mired body to the shovel poised to strike. He jerked his eyes round and found they were alone with no murmuring men to witness his death. Instead they were scattering from the coal yard like dust from a gob of spit. His eyes tried to hold Malik's while a volley of stings convulsed his arms into flailing action. Malik's shovel scything the air in frantic circles.
'Your hut man, open your hut.' The last was screamed but failed to penetrate the confusion and fear in Mulk's eyes. Hunching his back against the horde Malik brought the blade swinging down against the hasp and felt the strike nearly shatter his wrists and judder up his arms. He swung again, ignoring pain, and again till the hasp gave way and the blade followed through, imbedding itself into the dust floor. Only then did the real threat penetrate Mulk's brain, sharply enough to propel him in before Malik.
They lay in their corrugated shell. The constant ping of ricocheting bodies drowning the whine of the turbines. Stifling air was sucked into their lungs, desperate to fuel pumping hearts and shivering limbs. Two dusty glimmers of grey penetrated the black. One along the door's bottom, the other where Malik had shattered the hasp. Cambering to his knees Mulk used his shirt to seal the door. The carefully scripted lists where stuffed into the openings by the hasp. A thought intruded, he wished it hadn't. Turning, he swept blindly with his hands searching for Malik. 'What if some got in with us?'
Malik shuddered when something wet and sticky touched his shoulder, then sighed with relief when he realised it was Mulk's hand. 'Don't think so.' He tried bravado. 'As Long as they stay where they are and don't come where I am, I'm not bothered.' He wished he meant it, wished his body wouldn't twitch or cold sweat run from his armpits, or his nerves didn't shriek with tension when they felt the spring of a solitary hair. Mulk's voice seemed to bounce off the walls though he knew it was close to his ear.
'I've used my shirt to close the gaps. Rip yours and give me half.'
Malik's reply was shrieked. 'Fool, have you seen the size of them? You would need me in the shirt for it to do any good.' Wishing he'd the sense to take the shovel in with him he shrugged out of his shirt and ripped it as Mulk had asked, then felt a sense of unity when Mulk's bare back pressed against his. Mulk had used the cloth to attempt to shut the sound from his ears. He turned his head and with his lips pressed to Malik's ear asked, 'Do you think it's only here?’ '
Malik shrugged. Then, when he knew the question was about to be repeated put his lips to Mulk's ear. 'How would I know? The drag chain stopped and I was making my way over to tell you when the whole place went dark. I thought it was the wind blowing the coal dust.'
'It's not time for the winds.'
It had never been a time for coal eating flying rats either, thought Malik, but knowing the reason for Mulks concern didn't want to answer him. 'Be dark in less than an hour. We'll get home then.'
Mulk nodded. He wanted tomorrow to come so he could get on with normal everyday things, like negotiating with money lenders, dealing with sari hems, blessing their food and hawking up pitch. He wanted this demented sound of hell to stop. To whine down, then to rest, like the sounds that bombarded his home.
© Eoin Taylor
Chapter 9 is here