Aphelion Issue 294, Volume 28
May 2024
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On The Wings Of An Angel

by Dan L. Hollifield

A Tom Darby Story

"The unvarnished truth is usually highly edited, and therefore boring..." Tom Darby.

I only ever flew a U-2 once, and it wasn’t a photo-recon mission. I was assigned to be a delivery boy, instead. It seems that there was a vital mission that needed new, special cameras. I was enjoying a weekend leave in California at the time. On the Sunday afternoon, the spooks sent a couple of MPs to track me down and take me back to base. The Base Commander was waiting when I got hustled into his office—on a Sunday, no less.

“Thank you, gentlemen,” he said to the MPs as I stood at attention. “Dismissed…” he added, looking at them as if they were a pair of housecats that’d just delivered a skunk to his office. “Sit,” he ordered to me as the door closed behind the MPs. I sat.

“Darby,” he began. “Sorry to cut your leave short. But I have been ordered to get you—somewhere—before dawn tomorrow, for a special assignment.”

Yes sir,” replied. “But the MPs didn’t let me have time to pay my bill. I owe Rosie for an overnighter with her best pair of girls—”

“Your bill has been paid,” he said. “Your pay has been docked for the full amount. But as I understand, this mission has enough bonuses attached to keep you from going without a payday for the next month. Miss Rosie is not unknown to the staff here. There’s special paperwork to deal with, ahem, this kind of situation.” He looked just a hair embarrassed to admit that, but then he changed the subject. “There’s something your ‘handlers’ need you to do, something you’re evidently uniquely suited for doing, and I’ve been assigned to get to—wherever it is they need you.”

“Thank you, sir. Rosie is NOT someone I want mad at me! What’s the drill?”

“At 04:30 tomorrow, there will be a transport here to take you to your next assignment. I suggest you return to the BOQ and shower, then get as much sleep as you can before then. Quite frankly, you smell like a whorehouse on payday, even from here.”

“Sorry sir,” I said. “I’ll attend to that ASAP. Is there anything else?”

“Just out of curiosity,” he replied. “And strictly off the record. Which two girls?”

“Kitty and Doris,” I said, refusing to blush.

“Well,” he replied. “If nothing else, you have excellent taste. You ought to be able to sleep well enough after that. Um, you have a thing for older women?”

“Sir,” I said carefully. “Between the two of them they have over 80 years of experience in—what they do. A boy like me needs to learn from experts, sir. I haven’t much experience in ah, advanced education. If I live long enough to get married, I don’t want my wife to feel like I’m um, not good enough to wait for while I’m off on a mission.”

“Smart boy,” he replied. “But remember,” he added. “Once you have a wife to come home to, ‘further education” may be detrimental to domestic bliss.”

“SIR! Yes Sir! Daddy said the same thing to me,” I said.

“Sounds like a wise man,” he said. “Take it to heart and maybe you won’t be a disappointment to your future wife. Dismissed.”

“Thank you, Sir.”

So, I went to my quarters and got cleaned up. Then I went straight to bed. Set my alarm for 03:00 so I’d have a chance for another quick shower and a quicker run to the mess hall before I needed to get on my transport. Whatever it was the spooks wanted me to do, I’d already learned that Breakfast was really low on their list of priorities.

The next morning, I got a very quick, very hot shower to supplement the longer one I’d taken the afternoon before. I managed to make it to the mess hall and grab half a dozen biscuits, sausage patties, a huge pile of scrambled eggs, and some diced potatoes. Even managed a ladle of gravy for right then. I ate three of the biscuits and sausage, the gravy, and the potatoes—washing that down with three cups of strong black coffee before running to meet the jeep that was supposed to take me to my transport.

The passenger plane I met, and boarded, was a little jet. 12-seater, twin engine, with external fuel tanks strapped to each wing. As I climbed the boarding ladder, I noticed the jet’s windows were painted black. When you’re working for spooks, that ain’t a good sign. Wherever I was going, sightseeing along the route was not permitted. Someplace secret, then.

I was the only passenger. The pilot and co-pilot waited just long enough for me to take a seat and strap in. Nobody said a word about my paper lunch bag with my remaining three sausage and egg biscuits or my thermos of coffee. Then we navigated over to the runway we were cleared to use, and the little jet screamed its way into the still-dark sky.

I was too nervous to try and get more sleep. I drank coffee and ate two more of my biscuits before we got wherever we were flying to. When we landed, it was still morning, but it was already hot as hell. I got off the plane carrying my remaining biscuit and the dregs of my coffee in the thermos. I looked around. Dry, flat ground, as far as I could see. Mountains in the distance. A jeep was waiting for me. I got in and the driver wordlessly took off towards a set of low buildings in the distance. When we got to the buildings, there was a Staff Sargent waiting for me. I got out of the jeep and the driver took off like a bat outta hell.

“If you’ll follow me sir,” the Sargent said. “You have a briefing in seven minutes.”

I saw a tumbleweed bounce past us, about half a football field away, driven towards the sunrise by a wind from the West. I had a fairly good guess as to where I was. “Where am I?” I asked.

“That’s classified,” the Sargent said. “But welcome to Dreamland. Let’s get you to your briefing. Whatever questions you have clearance to have answered, are gonna be answered in there,” he added, pointing to the low, sand-colored building we were standing outside.

“Let’s go,” I replied. “I hope there’s more coffee…”

“Captain Darby, please take a seat,” I was told as the Sargent left me at the room where the briefing was supposed to happen. There were two guys in lab coats, an Air Force Major, and a Lieutenant that seemed to be some senior officer’s secretary already there when I arrived. “We’ve got a lot of ground to cover, and not a lot of time,” the Major said.

“Coffee?” I asked.

“The urn is over there,” the Lieutenant replied, pointing to the back, left corner of the room. “Drink too much though, and you’ll need to wear a catheter for the mission.”

Long flight to somewhere, I thought.

“Down to business?” The Major asked once I was back in a chair with a fresh cup of coffee.

“Yes, please,” I replied.

“Captain Darby,” said the Lieutenant. “We need you to deliver a U-2 for us. There is a qualified U-2 Pilot waiting at a base in the Middle East. He is assigned to fly this modified plane across—three enemy nations. Your job will be to get the plane to him in time for his recon to be on schedule. Think you’re up to the assignment?”

I took a sip of my coffee, sat the cup of sub-standard, hot, brown, adulterated-water on the table. “Who will be shooting at me and how far do I have to go?” I asked. “Obviously, this base is either in Nevada or New Mexico. In order to reach anywhere useful to us in the Middle East I will need at least one in-flight refueling. Maybe two, depending on the route you assign me. U-2s are unarmed. I will have to outfly anything that gets shot at me or sent up to intercept me. It’s just BARELY possible the commies have something that could reach the normal service altitude of a U-2. Dunno. You’re the experts. You tell me.”

“We don’t anticipate anyone being able to detect your flight or interfere with it in any way,” said the Major.

“With all due respect, Major,” I replied. “Your expectations are worth about as much to me as a sidewinder rocket packed with dog turds instead of explosives. I need a flight plan, a full report on any and every possible unfriendly along that route, I need to know the destination for delivery, and I need to know what sort of timetable I am expected to follow.”

“You are insubordinate--” began the Lieutenant. I cut him off right there.

“Keeps me alive and allows me to complete missions successfully,” I said. “It works. Don’t knock it. Y’all want me to do this thing, then I need the proper intel.”

A hidden door opened up in what I thought was a blank wall. A three-star General walked out. “We were told that you were the best,” he said.

“I am,” I replied. “But I can’t operate at my best if I don’t have the best intel.”

“You’ll do,” said the General. “Gentlemen, you are dismissed. Thank you. Please send in the mission specialists so the real briefing can begin. That will be all.”

“I’m General Whitgar,” he said when the room was empty of everyone but he and I. “The reports said that you had absolutely no respect for idiots, rank is meaningless to you, and despite those drawbacks, you’re the best there is at anything we ask you to do.”

“Fair enough,” I said. “And that’s true as far as it goes.”

“We’ve got a U-2 outfitted with special cameras that no one has ever had before. We—I, need you to deliver the plane to an airfield in Kuwait, for one of our more experienced U-2 pilots to fly over Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia, China, and Southeast Asia. Can you do it?”

“In-flight refueling? I asked.

“East coast—off of Savannah Georgia, then again over North Africa. Stay the fuck away from Cuba, even if it means you have to fly through a hurricane.”

“I can do that,” I said.

“Then you’re the man I need…” General Whitgar said.

“Then I leave at dawn?” I asked.

“You leave in 49 minutes. Finish your breakfast and go suit the fuck up,” he said. “Good luck, son,” he added. “Don’t screw this up, Hot Shot. There’s more riding on it than I’m allowed to tell you.”

“Sir! Yes sir!” I said, as I stood and saluted. “Thank you for your trust, Sir,” I added. The General left and another MP showed up a minute later to lead me to the ready room.

40 minutes later I was taking off and headed for Savanah…

The flight was uneventful. Inflight refueling was a cakewalk, both times. In order to avoid Cuba I flew North for a while, then turned east towards Tunisia. I refueled again just to be safe, then took a straight path to Kuwait. Landed in the desert miles and miles from Kuwait City. I turned Big Bird over to the US ground crew at that temporary base I never learned the name of, and got on a C-47 to go home. Never knew what the new cameras were supposed to look for, or what the other pilot was supposed to photograph. A few months later, Gary Powers got shot down over Russia.

I got transferred to the A-12 program after that mission. I flew the Beast at three times the speed of sound at an altitude that was stupid crazy over Russia, China, and Southeast Asia for twelve missions. I got surface to air missiles shot at me on five of those missions. Only once did a missile get within five miles of my position and altitude. I dodged and rammed the throttle home then, and found out what flying at damned close to four times the speed of sound felt like. Then the A-12 program ended and the SR-71 program took over. I never got to fly an SR-71.

After that, I was promoted again and transferred groundside. I didn’t get to fly much after that. The only time that was memorable was when I had to steal an F-104G from an airfield in West Germany because my ground mission for the spooks went totally into the shitcan. I lost my entire support team to the commies. Only reason I escaped was that I can fly anything—and they never expected me to try and steal a jet to get my ass back across the Berlin Wall. But that’s a story for another day…

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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