Camille had either been the world’s most powerful hurricane or the largest tornado in history. Certainly it had done the job to this oil rig, Kelly thought, donning his tanks for his last dive into the Gulf. The superstructure was wrecked, and all four of the massive legs weakened—twisted like the ruined toy of a gigantic child. Everything that could safely be removed had already been torched off and lowered by crane onto the barge they were using as their dive base. What remained was a skeletal platform which would soon make a fine home for local game fish, he thought, entering the launch that would take him alongside. Two other divers would be working with him, but Kelly was in charge. They went over procedures on the way over while a safety boat circled nervously to keep the local fishermen away. It was foolish of them to be here—the fishing wouldn’t be very good for the next few hours—but events like this attracted the curious. And it would be quite a show. Kelly thought with a grin as he rolled backwards off the dive boat.
It was eerie underneath. It always was, but comfortable, too. The sunlight wavered under the rippled surface, making variable curtains of light that trained across the legs of the platform. It also made for good visibility. The C4 charges were already in place, each one a block about six inches square and three inches deep, wired tight against the steel and fused to blow inward. Kelly took his time, checking each one, starting with the first rank ten feet above the bottom. He did it quickly because he didn’t want to be down here that long, and neither did the others. The men behind him ran the prima-cord, wrapping it tight around the blocks. Both were local, experienced UDT men, trained almost as well as Kelly. He checked their work, and they checked his, for caution and thoroughness was the mark of such men. They finished the lower level in twenty minutes, and came up slowly to the upper rank, just ten feet below the surface, where the process was repeated, slowly and carefully. When you dealt with explosives, you didn’t rush and you didn’t take chances.
Colonel Robin Zacharias concentrated on the task at hand. There was an SA-2 site just over the next ridge. Already it had volleyed off three missiles, searching for the fighter-bombers he was here to protect. In the back seat of his F-105G Thunderchief was Jack Tait, his “bear,” a lieutenant colonel and an expert in the field of defense-suppression. The two men had helped invent the doctrine which they were now implementing. He drove the Wild Weasel fighter, showing himself, trying to draw a shot, then ducking under it, closing in on the rocket site. It was a deadly, vicious game, not of hunter and prey, but of hunter and hunter—one small, swift, and delicate, and the other massive, fixed, and fortified. This site had given fits to the men of his wing. The commander was just too good with his radar, knowing when to switch it on and when to switch it off. Whoever the little bastard was, he’d killed two Weasels under Robin’s command in the previous week, and so the colonel had drawn the mission for himself as soon as the frag order had gone up to hit this area again. It was his specialty: diagnosing, penetrating, and destroying air defenses—a vast, rapid, three-dimensional game in which the prize of winning was survival.
He was roaring low, never higher than five hundred feet, his fingers controlling the stick semiautomatically while Zacharias’s eyes watched the karsk hilltops and his ears listened to the talk from the back seat.
“He’s at our nine, Robin,” Jack told him. “Still sweeping, but he doesn’t have us. Spiraling in nicely.”
We’re not going to give him a Shrike, Zacharias thought. They tried that the last time and he spoofed it somehow. That error had cost him a major, a captain, and an aircraft…a fellow native of Salt Lake City, Al Wallace…friends for years….damn it! He shook the thought off, not even reproving himself for the lower-case profanity.
“Giving him another taste,” Zacharias said, pulling back on the stick. The Thud leaped upwards into the radar coverage of the site, hovering there, waiting. This site commander was probably Russian-trained. They weren’t sure how many aircraft the man had killed—only that it had been more than enough—but he had to be a proud one because of it, and pride was deadly in this business.
“Launch…two, two valid launches, Robin,” Tait warned from the back.
“Only two?” the pilot asked.
“Maybe he has to pay for them,” Tait suggested coolly. “I have them at nine. Time to do some pilot magic, Rob.”
“Like this?” Zacharias rolled left to keep them in view, pulling into them, and split-S-ing back down. He’d planned it well, ducking behind a ridge. He pulled out at a dangerous low altitude, but the SA-2 Guideline missiles went wild and dumb four thousand feet over his head.
“I think it’s time,” Tait said.
“I think you’re right.” Zacharias turned hard left, arming his cluster munitions. The F-105 skimmed over the ridge, dropping back down again while his eyes checked the next ridge, six miles and fifty seconds away.
“His radar is still up,” Tait reported. “He knows we’re coming.”
“But he’s only got one left.” Unless his reload crews are really hot today. Well, you can’t allow for everything.
“Some light flak at ten o’clock.” It was too far to be a matter of concern, though it did tell him which way out not to take. “There’s the plateau.”
Maybe they could see him, maybe not. Possibly he was just one moving blip amid a screen full of clutter that some radar operator was striving to understand. The Thud moved faster at low level than anything ever made, and the camouflage motif on the upper surfaces was effective. They were probably looking up. There was a wall of jamming there now, part of the plan he’d laid out for the other Weasel bird, and normal American tactics were for a medium-altitude approach and steep dive. But they’d done that twice and failed, and so Zacharias decided to change the technique. Low level, he’d Rockeye the place, then the other Weasel would finish things off. His job was killing the command van and the commander within. He jinked the Thud left and right, up and down, to deny a good shooting track to anybody on the ground. You still had to worry about guns, too.
“Got the star!” Robin said. The SA-6 manual, written in Russian, called for six launchers around a central control point. With all the connective paths, the typical Guideline site looked just like a Star of David, which seemed rather blasphemous to the Colonel, but the thought only hovered at the edge of his mind as he centered the command van on his bombsight pipper.
“Selecting Rockeye,” he said aloud, confirming the action to himself. For the last ten seconds, he held the aircraft rock steady. “Looking good…release…now!”
Four of the decidedly un-aerodynamic canisters fell free of the fighter’s ejector racks, splitting open in midair, scattering thousands of submunitions over the area. He was well beyond the site before the bomblets landed. He didn’t see people running for slit trenches, but he stayed low, reefing the Thud into a tight left turn, looking up to make sure he’d gotten the place once and for all. From three miles out his eyes caught an immense cloud of smoke in the center of the Star.
That’s for Al, he allowed himself to think. No victory roll, just a thought, as he leveled out and picked a likely spot to egress the area. The strike force could come in now, and that SAM battery was out of business. Okay. He selected a notch in the ridge, racing for it just under Mach-1, straight and level now that the threat was behind him. Home for Christmas.
The red tracers that erupted from the small pass startled him. That wasn’t supposed to be there. No deflection on them, just coming right in. He jinked up, as the gunner had thought he would, and the body of the aircraft passed right through the stream of fire. It shook violently and in the passage of a second good changed to evil.
“Robin!” a voice gasped over the intercom, but the main noise was from wailing alarms, and Zacharias knew in a fatal instant that his aircraft was doomed. It got worse almost before he could react. The engine died in flames, and then the Thud started a roll-yaw that told him the controls were gone. His reaction was automatic, a shout for ejection, but another gasp from the back made him turn just as he yanked the handles even though he knew the gesture was useless. His last sight of Jack Tait was blood that hung below the seat like a vapor trail, but by then his own back was wrenched with more pain than he’d ever known.
“Okay,” Kelly said and fired off a flare. Another boat started tossing small explosive charges into the water to drive the fish away from the area. He watched and waited for five minutes, then looked at the safety man.
“Fire in the hole,” Kelly said, repeating the mantra three times more. Then he twisted the handle on the detonator. The results were gratifying. The water around the legs turned to foam as the rig’s legs were chopped off bottom and top. The fall was surprisingly slow. The entire structure slid off in one direction. There was an immense splash as the platform hit, and for one incongruous moment it appeared as though steel might float. But it couldn’t. The see-through collection of light I-beams sank below sight, to rest right on the bottom, and another job was done.
Kelly disconnected the wires from the generator and tossed them over the side.
“Two weeks early. I guess you really wanted that bonus,” the executive said. A former Navy fighter pilot, he admired a job well and quickly done. The oil wasn’t going anywhere, after all. “Dutch was right about you.”
“The Admiral is a good guy. He’s done a lot for Tish and me.”
“Well, we flew together for two years. Bad-ass fighter jock. Good to know those nice things he said were true.” The executive liked working with people who’d had experiences like his own. He’d forgotten the terror of combat somehow. “What’s with that? I’ve been meaning to ask.” He pointed to the tattoo on Kelly’s arm, a red seal, sitting up on his hind flippers and grinning impudently.
“Something we all did in my unit,” Kelly explained as offhandedly as he could.
“What unit was that?”
“Can’t say.” Kelly added a grin to mute the refusal.
“I bet it’s something to do with how Sonny got out—but okay.” A former naval officer had to respect the rules. “Well, the check’ll be in your account by the end of the business day, Mr. Kelly. I’ll radio in so your wife can pick you up.”
Tish Kelly was glowing her me-too look at the women in The Stork Shop. Not even three months yet, she could wear anything she wanted—well, almost. Too soon to shop for anything special, but she had the free time and wanted to see what the options were. She thanked the clerk, deciding that she’d bring John here in the evening and help him pick something out for her because he liked doing that. Now it was time to pick him up. The Plymouth wagon they’d driven down from Maryland was parked right outside, and she’d learned to navigate the streets of the coastal town. It was a nice break from the cold autumn rain of their home, to be here on the Gulf Coast where the summer was never really gone for more than a few days. She brought the wagon onto the street, heading south for the oil company’shuge support yard. Even the traffic lights were in her favor. One changed to green in such a timely fashion that her foot didn’t even have to touch the brakes.
The truck driver frowned as the light changed to amber. He was late, and running a little too fast, but the end of his six-hundred-mile run from Oklahoma was in sight. He stepped on the clutch and brake pedals with a sigh that abruptly changed to a gasp of surprise as both pedals went all the way to the floor at the same speed. The road ahead was clear, and he kept going straight, downshifting to cut speed, and frantically blowing his diesel horn. Oh God, oh God, please don’t—
She never saw it coming. Her head rever turned. The station wagon just jumped right through the intersection, and the driver’s lingering memory would be of the young woman’s profile disappearing under the hood of his diesel tractor, and then the awful lurch and shuddering surge upwards as the truck crushed the wagon under his front wheels.
The worst part of all was not feeling. Helen was her friend. Helen was dying, and Pam knew she should feel something, but she couldn’t. The body was gagged, but that didn’t stop all the sounds as Billy and Rick did what they were doing. Breath found its way out, and though her mouth couldn’t move, the sounds were those of a woman soon to leave her life behind, but the trip had a price which had to be paid first, and Rick and Billy and Burt and Henry were doing the collecting. She tried to tell herself that she was really in another place, but the awful choking sounds kept bringing her eyes and her consciousness back to what reality had become. Helen was bad. Helen had tried to run away, and they couldn’t have that. It had been explained to them all more than once, and was now being explained again in a way, Henry said, that they would be sure to remember. Pam felt where her ribs had once been broken, remembering her lesson. She knew there was nothing she could do as Helen’s eyes fixed on her face. She tried to convey sympathy with her eyes. She didn’t dare do morethan that, and presently Helen stopped making noise, and it was over, for now. Now she could close her eyes and wonder when it would be her turn.
The crew thought it was pretty funny. They had the American pilot tied up right outside their sandbagged emplacement so he could see the guns that had shot him down. Less funny was what their prisoner had done, and they’d expressed their displeasure for it with fists and boots. They had the other body, too, and they set it right next to him, enjoying the look of sorrow and despair on his face as he looked at his fellow bandit. The intelligence officer from Hanoi was here now, checking the man’s name against a list he’d brought along, bending down again to read off the name. It must have been something special, the gunners all thought, from the way he reacted to it, and the urgent phone call he’d made. After the prisoner passed out from his pain, the intelligence officer had swabbed some blood from the dead body and covered the live one’s face with it. Then he’d snapped a few photos. That puzzled the gun crew. It was almost as though he wanted the live one to look as dead as the body next to him. How very odd.
It wasn’t the first body he’d had to identify, but Kelly had thought that aspect of his life was a thing left far behind. Other people were there to support him, but not falling down wasn’t the same thing as surviving, and there was no consolation at a moment such as this. He walked out of the emergency room, people’s eyes on him, doctors and nurses. A priest had been called to perform his last duty, and had said a few things that he knew were unheard. A police officer explained that it hadn’t been the driver’s fault. The brakes had failed. Mechanical defect. Nobody’s fault, really. Just one of those things. All the things he’d said before, on other such occasions, trying to explain to some innocent person why the main part of his world had just ended, as though it mattered. This Mr. Kelly was a tough one, the officer saw, and all the more vulnerable because of it. His wife and unborn child, whom he might have protected against any hazard, were dead byan accident. Nobody to blame. The trucker, a family man himself, was in the hospital, under sedation after having gone under his rig in the hope of finding her alive. People Kelly had been working with sat with him, and would help him make arrangements. There was nothing else to be done for a man who would have accepted hell rather than this; because he’d seen hell. But there was more than one hell, and he hadn’t seen them all quite yet.