Out Of The Dark – Snippet 16
It was unfortunate that international restrictions on the treatment of POWs didn’t also apply to what could be done to someone’s own personnel, Stephen Buchevsky reflected as he failed — again — to find a comfortable way to sit in the mil-spec “seat” in the big C-17 Globemaster’s spartan belly. The hell with waterboarding! If he’d been a jihadist, he’d have spilled his guts within an hour if they strapped him into one of these!
Actually, he supposed a lot of the problem stemmed from his six feet and four inches of height and the fact that he was built more like an offensive lineman than a basketball player. Nothing short of a first-class commercial seat was really going to fit someone his size, and expecting the U.S. military to fly an E-8 commercial first-class would have been about as realistic as his expecting to be drafted as a presidential nominee. Or perhaps even a bit less realistic. And if he wanted to be honest (which he didn’t), he should also admit that what he disliked even more was the absence of windows. There was something about spending hours sealed in an alloy tube while it vibrated its noisy way through the sky that made him feel not just enclosed, but trapped.
Well, Stevie, he told himself, if you’re that unhappy, you could always ask the pilot to let you off to swim the rest of the way!
The thought made him chuckle, and he checked his watch. Kandahar to Aviano, Italy, was roughly three thousand miles, which exceeded the C-17’s normal range by a couple of hundred miles. Fortunately — although that might not be exactly the right word for it — he’d caught a rare flight returning to the States almost empty. The Air Force needed the big bird badly somewhere, so they wanted it home in the shortest possible time, and with additional fuel and a payload of only thirty or forty people, it could make the entire Kandahar-to-Aviano leg without refueling. Which meant he could look forward to a six-hour flight, assuming they didn’t hit any unfavorable winds.
He would have preferred to make the trip with the rest of his people, but he’d ended up dealing with the final paperwork for the return of the Company’s equipment. Just another of those happy little chores that fell the way of its senior noncom. On the other hand, and despite the less than luxurious accommodations aboard his aerial chariot, his total transit time would be considerably shorter thanks to this flight’s fortuitous availability. And one thing he’d learned to do during his years of service was to sleep anywhere, anytime.
Even here, he thought, squirming into what he could convince himself
was a marginally more comfortable position and closing his eyes. Even here.
“Daddy!” Four-year-old Shania held out her arms, smiling hugely, as she flung herself from five steps up the staircase into her father’s arms with the absolutely fearless confidence that Daddy would catch her. “You’re home — you’re home!”
“Of course I am, Punkin!”
Buchevsky’s voice sounded odd to his own ears, somehow, but he laughed as he scooped the small, hurtling body out of the air. He hugged the sturdy yet delicate little girl to his chest, tucking one arm under her bottom for her to sit on while the other arm went around her back so he could tickle her. She squealed in delight, ducking her head, trying to squeeze her arms against her sides and capture his tickling fingers. Her small hands caught his single big one, one fist clenching around his thumb, another around his index finger, and her feet drummed against his rib cage.
“Stop that!” she laughed. “Stop that, Daddy!”
“Oh, sure, that’s what you say!” he chuckled, pressing his lips against the nape of her neck and blowing hard. She squealed again at the fluttering sound, and he straightened enough to press a kiss to the top of her head, instead.
“Me, too, Daddy!” another voice demanded indignantly. “Me, too!”
He looked down, and when he saw a four-year-old Yvonne, he realized why his own voice had sounded a little odd. Shania was three years older than Yvonne, so the only way they could both be four — which he knew had been his favorite age for both of them — was in a dream. He was hearing his own voice, as if it had been recorded and played back to him, and everyone knew that always sounded just a little “off.”
His sleeping mind recognized the dream, and some small corner of him realized he was probably dreaming it because of the divorce. Because he knew he was going to see even less of his girls, no matter how hard Trish and he both tried. Because he loved them so much that no matter where he was, his arms still ached for those slender, agile, wigglesome little bodies and the feel of those small, loving arms around his own neck.
And because he knew those things, because he longed for them with such aching intensity, his mind turned away from the awareness that he was dreaming. Turned away from the noise and vibration of the transport plane and burrowed deep, deep into that loving memory of a moment in time which could not ever really have occurred.
“Of course you, too, Honey Bug!” the dream Stephen Buchevsky laughed, bending and sweeping one arm around Yvonne, lifting her up into his embrace.
He held both of his little girls — one in the crook of his right arm, one in the crook of his left — and smothered them with daddy kisses.
The sudden, violent turn to starboard yanked Buchevsky up out of the dream, and he started to shove himself upright in his uncomfortable seat as the turn turned even steeper. The redoubled, rumbling whine from the big transport’s engines told him the pilot had increased power radically, as well, and every one of his instincts told him he wouldn’t have liked the reason for all of that if he’d known what it was.
Which didn’t keep him from wanting to know anyway. In fact —
“Listen up, everybody!” a harsh, strain-flattened voice rasped over the aircraft’s intercom. “We’ve got a little problem, and we’re diverting from Aviano, ’cause Aviano isn’t there anymore.”
Buchevsky’s eyes widened. Surely whoever it was on the other end of the intercom had to be joking, his mind tried to insist. But he knew better. There was too much stark shock — and fear — in that voice.
“I don’t know what the fuck is going on,” the pi lot continued. “We’ve lost our long-ranged comms, but we’re getting reports on the civilian bands about low-yield nukes going off all over the goddamned place. From what we’re picking up, someone’s kicking the shit out of Italy, Austria, Spain, and every NATO base in the entire Med, and –”
The voice broke off for a moment, and Buchevsky heard the harsh sound of an explosively cleared throat. Then —
“And we’ve got an unconfirmed report that Washington is gone, people. Just fucking gone.”
Someone kicked Buchevsky in the belly and his hand automatically sought the hard-edged shape under his shirt. Not Washington. Washington couldn’t be gone. Not with Trish and —
“I don’t have a goddamned clue who’s doing this, or why,” the pilot said, “but we need someplace to set down, fast. We’re about eighty miles north-northwest of Podgorica in Montenegro, so I’m diverting inland. Let’s hope to hell I can find someplace to put this bird down in one piece . . . and that nobody on the ground thinks we had anything to do with this shit!”