Aphelion Issue 294, Volume 28
May 2024
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There Once Was A Disposable Man...

by Dan L. Hollifield

A Tom Darby Story

"I was never good at much besides surviving, but I was always damn good at that... Tom Darby.

My fighter jet had lost one wing, was on fire, and I was about 90 seconds from becoming a dead man. Funny how they say your whole life flashes before your eyes just before you’re about to die. I was too busy trying to LIVE to notice that.

I wasted a lot of time in my young life before I managed to lie my way into the Army. From there, I got into the Air Corps and never looked back. Not even getting drafted by the spooks to fly camera missions behind the Iron Curtain was too bad a deal. Working for the spooks on the ground? That was bad, Sport. Real bad.

I rode the crash almost all the way to the ground before I tripped the ejector seat. Almost left it too late, but I had to make sure my plane wouldn’t nosedive into the Korean village below. It wasn't easy clearing the flaming wreck, but somehow, I managed it. Must have been all the training. What was my first impression of Korea? The ground is damned hard, that's what. Still, five to one odds—and I was the only survivor? They don't make MIG pilots like they used to. No one'll ever believe that I got all five of them before I got shot down. Well, they asked for it.

Awareness slowly swims back, as if from a long distance. Every muscle of my body hurts, but I don't feel the sting of broken bones. I feel cold, damp brickwork against my bare back. I'm standing, after a fashion. I can hear water dripping not too very far away. I smell dust, and mud, and filth like an outhouse on a Summer's day. I can't move. My arms and legs are restrained. My armpits hurt like hell. I'm guessing that I'm strapped to a wall or something and that I'd been hanging there like a piece of meat before I came to. Bright light in my eyes as I blink them over and over again, attempting to see my surroundings. Through dazzled eyes I can make out the barest glimmer of some person standing between me and the spotlight. My head is killing me, and I feel like I'm going to puke. Possible concussion, then.  I'd gladly kill whoever it is that pointed that damn light in my face. But if they offered me a glass of water, I might decide to let them live. Red... Whoever it is that's in front of me is wearing red. With curves… My torturer is a woman, wearing some sort of Chinese silk dress. Blinking to clear the film from my eyes I can finally see some few details. The spotlight behind her makes her long hair look blonde. Too tall to be Asian. Desecrated that dress to show off her wide hips and her ample cleavage. I'm guessing that dress was worth more than my Saber jet was—before she took a pair of scissors to the dress, I mean. Chinese silk, maybe 150 years old. Dress has patterns on it, but I can’t make them out for the glare. I can see her feet clearly 'cause of the angle of the light. Red toenail polish, not bound feet but normal. Tall girl, too tall to be Asian. Western traitor, then. Even squinting I can't see her face because of the spotlight in my eyes. I cough and try and stand up straighter against my restraints. I can feel the rough texture of the bricks against my butt. So they'd stripped me naked, then. Probably trying to humiliate me, demoralize me, make it easier for them to question me. Fat chance...

 "Hunh," I cough again. "Where am I THIS time?' I ask. My voice sounds like I haven't used it in a long time.

"A prisoner, due for summary execution," she says. "But if you answer our questions, you may yet live to see another dawn." 

Her accent, French but tutored in English by someone British. There's something about the letter R that French people just can't disguise no matter how many English lessons they take. Long way from home, Honey. What are you doing in Korea? Why are you interrogating me instead of enemy military? 

"Crank the lights down a hair, will you?" I asked. "My head is still splitting from the plane crash. Or I could just puke on your shoes, if you like." 

"Cretin!" she says. Yeah, French. A real Britt would have called me an arsehole, or something similar. Time to demonstrate that I'm not going to be easy to break. 

"Mamzelle," I said. "I'm not the one stuck half a world away from my home, workin' for the Commies. You wanna do us both a favor and get to the point before I die of old age?" 

Shocked silence. I guess my opening salvo hit pretty close to the mark. She ought to recover any minute now, though— 

"Silence!" she shouted. 

"How'd you expect me to answer questions if I stay silent, Honey?" I goaded her. But I spoiled the witticism by coughing again. My mouth was watering enough to fill a bucket in quick order. I knew I was gonna puke really soon. Sure enough, I lost all the advantages I'd gained so far by hurling whatever was left of my last meal all over the floor in front of my bare feet. Felt like I retched for hours, but it couldn't have been even a minute. Well, maybe two minutes. But the light dimmed a little. Enough so that I could see her now. Nice figure, blonde hair, superior smirk on her face. Too bad, she'd have been really attractive without that Nazi snarl. Yeah, wrong war, so what? I'm in Korea, not Germany. I know, so sue me. At least the smell of my own vomit was enough to kick my concussed brain into a higher gear. And just then they hit me with water from a fire hose. Low pressure, not like a real fire hose. At least it washed my stink away while it prompted me further awake. Time to seize the high ground, I think. 

"Lady, I have been tortured by experts. I know the drill. I know every question you've been ordered to ask me. Can we stop with the amateur hour and get with the program? I'm bored, I'm tired, I'm concussed, I'm naked and chained to a wall, and you have all the subtlety of the Orient Express running into a cow on the train tracks. I don't rate you very highly at all. I wake up from crashing my plane after shooting down half a dozen MIGs, and your owner thinks that the sight of your hips and tits is enough to make me babble all the secrets you think I know? Either cut me down and take me to your boss, or just shoot me, please. But put your ego aside and quit playing to whoever is watching you try and question me! Your skills are pitiful." 

She cussed me out, in French, for at least three minutes. As far as I could tell, she didn't repeat herself once. Theory about her origins confirmed. Not only was she French, but very High Class, so to speak. Old Money family— Aristocrats, probably Daddy lost all the family’s money backing the wrong army in WWII, I’d bet. The accent wasn't familiar, but then I stopped listening when she was saying how much she'd enjoy watching me— It was either me getting shot or me getting my balls cut off, I couldn't tell. My French was a little rusty. 

"I think your owners have more to say about it than you," I said once she ran out of steam. "So take me to them before I nod off from boredom. Amateur..." Yeah, I was trying to piss her off. So sue me. You get tied naked to a wall after crashing a fighter jet and see how good a mood you're in. I'm only human, after all. 

And that's about the point in this recurring nightmare where I usually wake up. Sometimes I'm screaming, sometimes I'm just sweating with fear. I don't know why this dream always comes back. Sure, the basic scene really happened. Part of my time in Korea that I don't want to remember. I don't know why the dream-me talks with my real, old-man voice, either. Back when I got myself captured—Hell, I was barely past seventeen. Thanks to a providential fire in the county courthouse when I was about ten, there weren't any records to prevent me from claiming I was old enough to enlist when the war started. I made it through boot camp without giving myself away. I managed to do well enough on some tests to get me into the Air Corps. I wound up flying a Saber jet, eventually. I never shot down six MIGs in one go, though. It was only two, and I didn't even get to shoot at the second one. Poor kid must have been as green as I was. We both turned the wrong way at the same time and he ripped through my left wing. I managed to ride the damn thing down far enough to miss a village we'd been over, then popped my ejector seat. I saw him fireball into a hillside as I came down. He never had a chance to eject. I must have been too close to the ground when I pulled the lever. I hit the ground pretty hard. Knocked myself out. I'd been captured while I was unconscious. Some Chi-com unit was close enough to find me before I had time to come to. Yeah, I was tied up and about to be interrogated when I did wake up. Wasn't any woman there, though. It was an officer, maybe North Korean, maybe Chinese--big and burly and mad as hell at me. He threatened me with a lot of stuff he never got around to doing. Most of the torture I did get was psychological, not physical. Sleep deprivation, water hoses, lack of food. Oh, he had a table loaded with improvised stuff he'd roll out to show me. C-clamps, knives, a branding iron, splinters of wood, even a whip made from a frayed electrical cord. Mostly he just had a couple of grunts slap me around a bit while he shouted questions. I passed out a lot. I couldn't give him much intell, though. Hell, I didn't know much anyway. In between beatings I'd make up a load of hogwash about whatever he seemed to be interested in. That went on for about two weeks before I got a lucky break. Well, it was lucky for me, anyway. The camp I was being held in got shelled. Killed the commies and busted the stone walls of the building they had me locked up in. I wasn't tied up right then, or I'd probably just starved to death before I could get out of the restraints. When the shelling stopped, I got out and took a quick look around. I managed to find a few scraps of food in what was left of their mess tent. I scavenged corpses for a couple of pistols and some ammo. Found a canteen full of water, too. By nightfall I'd hightailed it out of the area, headed back towards our side of the line. I got some help from a couple of farms along the way. Some more food, water, a blanket that didn't have too many fleas. None of the natives wanted to kill me for being American. That was weird, but I was thankful for it. Eventually, a week or so later, I made it as far as a MASH unit that was packing up to bug out. They checked me out and put me on one of their trucks. I kept fading in and out. I finally woke up still strapped to a stretcher, IV stuck in my arm, being unloaded at their new camp site. After a few days their CO managed to get a transport lined up for me. I got shipped out back to my airbase. Everybody kept telling me I was lucky to be alive. I didn't think they were going to let me fly again, though. I thought they were going to pin a medal on me and ship me back to West Virginia. Probably make me pay for the damn jet, too. Then the Spooks showed up. 

The company Shrink came in one day to tell me I was being released. He also told me I had some high-powered visitors that wanted me to double-time it over to the Commander's office. When I got there, they were all glad-handing me and congratulating me on walking out of that mess. Asked me if I wanted to keep serving my country, or did I want to turn tail and ship out for home. One of them kept acting like I'd turned traitor and gave the commies everything they wanted. The other two played nice-nice. I wasn't green enough to fall for either side, but I told them I wanted back in a plane. I had nothing to go home to except to try and turn a rocky hillside into a farm. That's what I ran away from in the first place, so I didn't really want to go back. After a while they made me an offer. Not combat, but photo recon. They wanted me to join the Spooks. So I did. Got me back into a jet, anyway. I got a promotion out of the deal, too. 

At first they had me flying over targets after combat, to photo the results. After a while, they sent me out to find new targets. One guy, my official handler, seemed to have a problem with his bosses. I called him Joe, even though that wasn't his real name. Seems Joe's superiors had a hard-on to get hold of a working MIG. From what he said, and I figured out more from what he didn’t say, his bosses were constantly bustin’ his chops about findin’, and stealin’, the newest model MIG the spooks could locate. I'd been flying recon for Joe for about a year by then. Joe and I went out to the Officer's Club one evening—that didn’t happen often—and he laid it on the line for me. One of my recent missions had me passing over a little airstrip our boys had pushed pretty close to. There was a single MIG working out of that strip. A fairly new one, Joe said. All the latest bells and whistles, with just a bare minimum ground crew and a couple of pilots based there. The little airstrip’s security looked to be mostly a platoon of locals and a pair of Ruskies as a ground crew for the jet. Joe wanted to put together a ground team to pull off a strike on that strip and capture that MIG. But he needed a pilot to fly it back so our Spooks could take it apart and see what made it tick. The timing was really tight. The commies would pull the fighter out of there if our forces got too close, and we were just about too close already. He could give me a day and a half to sit in the cockpit of a crashed MIG that the Spooks had recovered from somewhere. Did I think I could puzzle out enough from a wrecked piece of junk to get a working MIG into the air and bring it home? We talked half the night about it. He was buying the beer. Wasn't good beer, but it was cold, so I kept listening. Sometimes I'd even ask an intelligent question. I woke up the next morning with a headache, and reported for duty. Joe got a jeep and we went to see the remains of the MIG the Spooks had. I could smell the smoke before I got within ten feet of it. Wasn't much to look at, but it was a cockpit and a few feet of the thing's nose. There was blood on the instrument panel, and soot, and some other stuff I didn't want to know what was. I took a bucket and some rags and cleaned it up enough to read the labels on the instruments. Joe had a couple of pages of Russian translations of what the labels were supposed to mean. Some of the switches and dials were in odd positions, but within a couple of hours I could tell what was supposed to be what. A jet is a jet, and I figured that if I could get the engines started, I could take off and land without too much trouble. After a couple of days practice with the wreckage, Joe and I joined up late one afternoon with about thirty guys he'd rounded up to tiptoe up to that airstrip and give me a chance to fire that mother up. 

Over half of them were hard cases. Discipline problems—insubordination, striking an officer, drunk on duty, fights in the bar, and worse. Over the past year, all of those had been pulled out of stockades all over the place, then sent here and promised their charges would be dropped if they came back alive. The rest were borderline crazy. Some of them had lost close friends in combat and wanted revenge. Some of them just plain enjoyed combat. The unit CO that Joe hand-picked to ride herd over this bunch of gallows-fruit was probably the only man in the whole Army who was tougher than they were. Captain Robert Teacher, Joe called him Bad Bob, the men called him Teach. I called him Sir when officers were around—and in front of his unit. He told me to call him Teach when we were in the bar, or bein’ informal-like. It only took one fight for the unit to learn Teach wasn't anyone they wanted to cross. I hear the guy only spent a few weeks in the med unit after Teach beat the crap out of him for swinging on him. I had a week to get to know them better and train alongside them before the mission was given a “go.” I heard from Teach that the Base Commander called the unit the Untouchables. I got the impression that the Commander would have gladly stood the entire unit up before a firing squad if it weren't for whatever rank Joe held. The CO was the CO, but sometimes Joe told him what to do. Neither of them liked each other very much. You figure out the power struggle that implied. I didn't have time. I had a commie fighter jet to steal. 

So—we got trucked out to the badlands in the middle of the night. We left the vehicles behind and crept up on the airstrip about two days later. We watched the MIG come back from a mission just before dark on the second day. I climbed a tree and watched through my binoculars as the jet was refueled and reloaded with a couple of missiles and a crate of machine gun rounds. Joe was there with Teach and Teach’s unit. We finalized the plan, and waited until full dark. There couldn't have been more than a dozen commies manning the airstrip. Joe wanted Teach to capture the two pilots, if possible. Other than that, the kid gloves were off. The unit would storm the strip, kill everyone except for the pilots, and give me time to steal the bird. If possible, that is. Like I said, we waited and watched their ground crew and pilots refuel the jet. Then we waited some more. 

Once it was full dark, we moved out into our final positions. The airstrip had a couple of wooden shacks thrown together off under the trees at the far end. One was a barracks, the other was a bar. There was also a tent that was obviously the mechanics’ little kingdom. The strip ended in a drop-off where the MIG would leap into the air. Must have been a hundred feet or more from the end of the strip to the valley below. If I didn't have the speed up high enough when I hit the end of the strip, I'd make a nice campfire at the bottom of the cliff. 

Teach had the men move closer, slowly, carefully. Joe stayed by my side the whole time. He was careful to keep me back from the fighting. Don't know if he thought I'd chicken out and run away, or if he was willing to die to keep me safe to steal the jet. Maybe I'll never know. Maybe I never want to know. Right about then Teach blew a whistle, and Hell came to Korea. 

The first volley of rifle fire took out the mechanics in their tent. Splinters flew off of the barracks and bar sheds as the guys pelted up close. There were a few rounds torched off from the bar, but that stopped when the guys turned the place into a free-fire zone. Wasn't much like a war. It was more like murder. Joe told me later that one of the pilots was captured, wounded but alive. None of the rest of those poor bastards made it out alive. We only lost seven men from the unit as the commies returned fire. They had machine guns. They hosed our guys down like so many mad dogs. It was only the darkness that saved the rest of us. Once the hellfire ended, Joe slapped me on the shoulder and told me to go do my job. I looked him in the eyes as best I could in the dark. I told him to get the guys home or die trying. They earned it, and he'd better keep his promises. He told me to shut the hell up and get that bird in the air. I ran towards the MIG and managed to not get shot by my own team. 

Once I found the ladder and climbed into the cockpit, I realized that there wasn't anyone to unhook the ladder so I could close the canopy. I solved that problem by a lift and shove that sent the ladder to the dirt. I buttoned up the cockpit and started flipping switches by feel. I heard the compressor catch and felt the turbine start to spin. Once I knew I had everything running fast enough, I fed the torch some gas. The engine coughed twice before it lit. I found the light switches and flipped them with one hand while I shoved the throttle to the firewall with the other. After about two of the longest seconds of my life, the MIG climbed over the wheel chocks that I'd forgotten to remove. I held the brakes as long as I could stand while the engine roared up to speed. Once I let them go, the stupid thing seemed to crawl towards the end of the runway. I kept pushing the throttle, even though it was already full up, all the way down the strip. I figured out how to angle the flaps just before I ran out of runway. The beast was falling towards the base of the cliff when I pulled back on the stick and forced her to climb into the sky. I switched off all the lights except for the instruments as I clawed my way up into the night. The stupid jet was bucking and twisting like a wild horse being broken to the saddle for the first time. Clearly, I wasn't anywhere near as skilled as I'd been bragging that I was. Somehow, I managed to wrestle the junk heap into the sky and set a course for our side of the line. I found the switch to retract the landing gear, and the flight got a little less bumpy. The MIG smoothed out a bit further once I had more of the speed, I needed to get the hell out of Dodge. Once I was at speed and on course, I smiled to myself. 

“This ain't so bad,” I said. “Unless this piece of shit is harder to land than it was to lift, I'm in the clear. What can go wrong?” 

Tracer bullets streaked past me in the darkness. 

“When am I ever going to learn to keep my mouth shut?” I shouted as I worked the stick back and forth trying to confuse whoever it was shooting at me. If they got a missile lock with a heat seeker, I was going to be a dead man really quickly. Even a lucky burst with their machine guns would make this a really short escape. I dived, jinking the beast back and forth the whole way. I saw what looked like a river below me. I knew that if I got down that low I'd become an easy target. The trees on the river banks would keep me from dodging effectively. I reached for the switch that released chaff to confuse my attacker's radar lock. Once the chaff was away, I popped a flair to confuse their heat seekers and pulled the stick back all the way. Within moments I was as high as the bird would go without stalling. The ground lit up beneath me as the enemy's missiles detonated where I was a few minutes ago. If they were any good, and I just knew they had to be, they'd figure out what I did and be climbing up my ass within seconds. So I popped another flair and some more chaff and dived towards the river. I thought the wings were going to rip off the beast before I could level out. I was scared out of my mind and cussing a blue streak when suddenly I remembered something. I remembered West Virginia. Steep hills and narrow, twisting roads. I remembered being five years old and riding shotgun with Grandpa Loomis on a 'shine run to Knoxville. The cops were close behind, lights and sirens blasting out. Sometimes the road would be straight enough for a cop to get a shot off at the old Packard Grandpa and Uncle Johnny had rebuilt from junk. I remembered Grandpa cussing when his wing mirror shattered from a lucky shot from the cop car closest behind us. I remembered what Grandpa did when he saw a dirt road up ahead. I jerked the stick to the left and banked the beast into the tightest turn I could make it manage. I leveled it out and just barely cleared the tree tops at the edge of the river, then I shoved the stick right and got back on course for the base. I could just barely make out the trees below me. I kept twisting the stick from side to side, left, right, left, pull back and hop a ridge, then back down and to the left again, then right to follow another ridge towards home. I was burning way too much gas. Even with a full tank I was going to be lucky if I managed to have enough left to land. Assuming that I made it all the way to the base before running the tanks dry. Two more explosions from missiles, wide of the mark, one to my left and one to my right. Whoever was chasing me was good, but I could hear Grandpa Loomis in the back of my mind. He was singing Amazing Grace and driving like a madman. We shot past three paved roads that led off the dirt road before he slung the big black Packard into a tight turn onto a logging trail that I just barely had time to see. His thin, reedy voice never missed a word of the hymn. I chanced a look at the speedometer as we hurtled through the narrow track between the pines. We were doing 95 on a road that no one should have been able to navigate at 25. I remembered Grandpa telling me “I think we lost that bluenose, for now. If I remember right, there's a bridge up ahead. If we make it over that, we're just a hop, skip, and a jump from the road that'll get us into Knoxville. You all right, Tommy Boy?” 

“I'm scared, Paw Paw, but I trust you,” I remember saying to him.

“Good boy,” he said. “Scared ain't nothin' but a feelin' an' feelin's can't kill you. Just trust in the Lord and do whatever it takes to get the job done...” 

I drew strength from that memory of my Paw Paw, and jerked that jet all over the sky. Somewhere over the Korean hills, I saw the brightest flash of light yet. My enemy had failed to counter my random turns and rammed his plane into the ground. I chanced a quick loop to see if there was anyone else on my back trail. Nothing, not a sign, so I leveled back out and took a straight path back to base. That stupid Russian jet was still bucking and shaking like I'd done it a damage. My teeth were rattling. But I could see the lights of the airstrip I wanted, just up ahead. Now all I had to do was make the delivery. Land this beast and turn it over to Joe and his Spooks. 

“Knoxville,” I whispered. “Here I come... Thank you, Paw Paw.” About fifteen minutes later, the runway of my target base was right there beneath me. I pulled the throttles back, set the flaps, and put that piece of junk on the ground. Spooks met me in the airstrip I’d landed on, then hustled me away for what seemed like months of debriefing. Longest week of my life, I’ll tell you. 

After that, I was allowed to go back to photo recon duty. But word must have gotten around, somehow. I wound up getting better jets for my missions, for one thing. For another, I noticed that the higher ranks treated me with a little more respect. Eventually, the war ended. Then the spooks wanted me full-time. Cold War, they called it. Whatever. As long as I could keep flyin’, I wasn’t bothered much by changin’ assignments. I ran into Joe from time to time. Seems he got promoted, too. Then the Russians managed to shoot down a U-2 while it was actually on a photo recon mission. Everything changed. I got reassigned again. Mostly ground-side, for a long while. That wasn’t as much fun as you’d think. Then I got to fly again, for the spooks, when they replaced the U-2 with something way better. The spooks called it the A-12. I called it the Beast. I flew a dozen missions in the Beast, then it got retired in favor of the latest model, the SR-71 Blackbird. I got retired to ground-side at the same time. I never got to fly an SR-71. I lost out on that. But I did get to fly an SMT-42 Nightbird once, but I’m getting’ ahead of myself…

To Be Continued…

2019 Dan L Hollifield

Bio: Dan L. Hollifield has been the Senior Editor and Publisher of Aphelion Webzine since its inception in 1997. His short story collection "Tales From The Mare Inebrium" was nominated for the J.W. Campbell Award upon its release in 2014. His early online work has appeared in several, now defunct, websites such as Dragon's Lair, Steel Caves, Titanzine, and The Writer's Workshop. One of his steampunk short stories, "Her Magesty's Gift" appears in the POD collection "Flash Of Aphelion," and "The Dark Side of Diablo Canyon" appears in Horrified Press' collection "Steam-Powered Dream Engines." He regularly attends the Chattanooga TN convention LibertyCon and recently became the Literary Track Director for the Atlanta GA convention AnachroCon. He is currently 61 years old, married to his beloved Lindsey Burt-Hollifield, and lives in the howling wastelands of Northeast Georgia, USA, outside of Athens GA. They have seven children between their serial marriages and more grandchildren and great-grandchildren than modern mathematics is able to enumerate. They also are owned by a multitude of cats, and one very spoiled dog...

E-mail: Dan L. Hollifield

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