Aphelion Issue 245, Volume 23
November 2019
 
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Performance Anxiety

by Dan L. Hollifield

A Tom Darby Story


"Why do I always get missions that tend to blow up in my face?" Tom Darby.


Jamaica was supposed to be a cakewalk.

My head snapped back as the other guy got in a punch I never saw coming. He came out of nowhere, as I was walking to a pick-up point to retrieve some papers from a dead-drop. One minute I’m wondering where I should go for lunch after I delivered the papers—the next minute some Russian agent was trying to cave in my skull.

I rolled with the punch and let my training take over. A quick kick to his solar plexus with my pointy, steel-toed cowboy boots as I leaned back from the smack in my face, and he slowed just enough for me to pop the knife in my sleeve spring into my left hand. He wheezed and leaned forward for the barest instant. I planted every inch of my Fairbairn–Sykes through his right eyeball--seven inches deep into his head. Not exactly Marquess of Queensberry rules, but I wanted to live another day and anyone who attacks me out of the blue is only asking for me to take the gloves off and fight dirty. I’m a spy, so I figure anyone who tries to kill me on a street is also a spy, but for the bad guys. Anyway, it happened right at the mouth of an alley, so I half-pushed and half-drug his still quivering corpse ahead of me into its shadows. While his sphincters were relaxing to allow him to piss and shit himself one very final time, I searched his pockets. Left-handed shoulder holster on his right pectoral yielded a little Makarov pea-shooter. A wallet in his left inside suit coat pocket gifted me with a couple of hundred US bucks worth of Jamaican paper money. No hotel room key on him. Some kind of good luck charm on a chain around his neck. I rolled him over to search his back pockets. Nothing in his pants pockets, but an ankle holster on his right leg held a scrimshawed-ivory handled straight razor. The decoration was of a stag with huge antlers. He’s finally died by that point, so I pulled my knife out of his head and used his tie to wipe his blood off of it once I’d rolled him back over to take a good look at his face. Rechecking his belt revealed an ammo pouch with two extra magazines for the Makarov. I took everything except for the holsters, stashed it all in a pouch on the back of my belt, under my suit coat, and left the alley by the far end from where I’d entered. I sauntered on towards the café where I was suppose to pick up the papers, had a cup of very strong coffee and pretended to read the front page of the newspaper the other papers were supposed to be inside, then left as soon as some casual observation revealed no other obvious tails—taking the newspaper and, I hoped, the other papers, with me. When I reached the dead-drop where I was supposed to leave the target paperwork, I saw my contact headed my way. I passed him my newspaper, he passed me his, and we separated. For the rest of the day I played tourist, but I kept an eye out for tails. Once it started getting dark, I went to a bar where I was supposed to meet another contact and make my report. I spotted her at the bar, sat on a stool next to her, and pretended to chat her up. We moved to a booth after getting our second drinks.

 

“You’ve been in a fight,” she said as we eased into the booth. “There is a bruise on your jaw.”

“I got intercepted,” I replied. “Nothing but a little Russian pocket pistol for a clue, but obviously, I’ve been made. Someone knows why I’m here—or suspects why, but they know I’m an agent. You’re going to have to watch your ass when you go back to the safe house. I’ll hang around in plain sight for a couple of days and see if anything develops. In the meantime, nobody on the crew better make contact with me or they’ll be in danger too. I delivered the papers, right on schedule, though. Now, finish your drink and slap me. Right on the bruise, if you don’t mind.”

“I understand,” she said. Then she threw the rest of her drink in my face and smacked me harder than any woman ever had before. She stood up, all dignified and insulted, and stormed out into the gathering darkness. She was cussing me out in Portuguese, if I were to make a guess, as she stomped out of the bar. Smart girl, I thought as I watched her dramatic exit. Workin’ that hip-swing, too. If I live through this, I might oughta look her up once we’re both back home. Could be a fun time. IF I live through this. Hell, if we BOTH live through this.

I order another drink and cleaned myself up with a towel the waiter brought. Then I left and slipped into the shadows—looking for anyone who might be following me the whole time. When I finally got back to my hotel, I set up some trip-wire alarms and sat up half the night, my Colt in my right hand and the captured Makarov in my left. When dawn came, I packed my bag and checked out. I went across town and checked into another hotel I’d picked at random. Best I could tell, I wasn’t being followed. I left and dropped a message at the back-up dead-drop point so the crew could find me if necessary. I also warned them that I’d been attacked, so they should treat me as if I had the plague and stay away. Then I went back to the routine I’d established as my cover—an American businessman, import/export in trade goods and sundries. I met my business contacts, signed a few contracts, then went out for a few drinks with my clients. After that, I went back to my new hotel and got some sleep.

I followed that routine for three days. No tails that I could see, no interest in me at all as far as I could detect. I set my alarms on my room every night. Nothing ever happened.

On what I thought was the fourth day I woke up from a drugged stupor, handcuffed, in a hard, wooden chair in a warehouse office somewhere really quiet. My mouth tasted like a dirty bath towel had been stuffed into it. I was dehydrated, dizzy, hungover, with my head pounding and my dried sweat smelling like I’d been three days in blistering heat without a bath. OK, I thought. This is either progress or a really bad thing.

I could feel my shoulder holster was empty, and the knife’s sleeve spring wasn’t strapped to my arm any more. The handcuffs were tight, I was starving hungry, and I could tell from the state of my trousers that I’d been dragged through some filthy place while I slept. Rubbing my chin against my shirt, I could feel at least two days of beard stubble on my chin. My suit coat was missing. So were my boots. My shirt sleeve was ripped open so whoever it was could remove the sleeve spring rig from my left arm. I couldn’t feel any weight from my belt pouch at the small of my back, so I guessed that it was gone as well. I don’t know where that little Russian pop-gun went—I couldn’t feel its miniscule weight in any of my pockets. The chair creaked from age as I wiggled about, taking inventory of what I no longer had.

I’m gonna miss those boots, I thought. That just pisses me off. Those things cost me $80! OK, Take stock… What can I work with here? How am I going to get out of this? And what the holy hell is THIS, really? Right, two-year-old calendar on the wall, dust on the floor, dust everywhere, really. This chair sounds like it’s 30 years old—I can feel it give a bit when I move and it sounds like Aunt Tilly’s porch rocker with all the creaks and groans. I’m NOT tied to the chair, but I am wearing handcuffs to keep my arms behind my back. The desk in front of me looks like no one has used it for at least a year. Oh! Letter opener next to the blotter! No edge, but it has a point. Big glass paperweight next to the letter opener. OK, three weapons visible. The chair I’m in, the letter opener, and the paperweight. Now, possible impediments? Right. Whoever was bright enough to gas me in my hotel room without setting off any of the tripwires I used inside the room is not going to be stupid. They’re not going to come here alone, so I’ll probably have more than one assailant. I know from my training that it’ll take me at least 58 seconds to get out of this chair and contort my body enough to get my hands and the handcuffs in front of me instead of behind my back. I don’t have a handcuff key. I’ve been their captive for at least two days, maybe three, from the stink of my sweat and how much my beard has grown. Everyone else on the mission should have evacuated yesterday, if not earlier when I went missing—so, no back-up. Thanks to compartmentalization I don’t know squat about why we were here or what the mission objectives were. When my interrogation starts, my choices are to play dumb—which will be easy since I don’t know anything about the mission except for my little part of it. Or, I can make shit up and string the bastards along for as long as I can manage, hoping they make a fatal mistake…

Chances of survival, slim to none. I either act like a frightened rabbit or a swaggering asshole. Or could I actually pull off acting like a swaggering asshole who IS a frightened rabbit? That might give me a couple of minutes at the right time. If they think I’m an idiot, I might have a few seconds to try and escape. OK, they captured me, and kept me unconscious for a couple of days. So, if they have an ego, they’ll think I’m an idiot.

So how would a Russian think if they were in my shoes right now? Or, lack of shoes, actually… A Russian would expect physical torture, not psychological torture—or their idea of psychological torture would be way different from mine. Now, what would an ego-driven Russian think was subtle psychological torture? Oh yeah. They’ll send in a hooker with a plate of food and some booze. If they know that I’m American, and why else would they trap me if they weren’t sure I’m an American, they’ll expect me to be starved for sex, food, and booze. God help us if they ever actually figure out our culture…

I heard a door open behind me, followed by very light footsteps accentuated by the clack-clack-clack of a woman wearing high heels. A moment later, a pretty, dark-haired girl of about 20, wearing a short, tight dress, fishnet stockings, and possessing a spectacular figure appeared—carrying a tray of food in both hands, with a six-pack of PBR in one hand, under the tray. Her dress was dark blue, short, and had a reasonably plunging neckline. By the time she had placed the tray and the beer on the desk, she’d made it obvious that there was nothing under her dress except for her lightly-tanned skin. She made a show of cleaning the dust away from the desk. I could smell steak cooked medium rare, a baked potato, and mushrooms in a brown gravy as well as her apricot perfume. I could see a small slab of butter, as well as one of those tiny loaves of French bread on the tray, too.

I heard a guard, or someone, close the door as she dusted off the desk to make it clean enough to serve as a table. She’s not alone, then, I thought. As I expected, she has watchers.

“I have been instructed to see that you eat, and to make you—comfortable,” she said. The pause was enough to tell me just exactly what level of “comfort” she was being made to supply. Her English sounded as if her language tutor had been French. Nice voice, though, not too low-pitched, just perfect for a woman five foot six or so—as she was. Not a pretend voice.

Spasibo, no ya, kazhetsya, neskol'ko s ogranichennymi vozmozhnostyami.” I’ve never been all that good at Russian, but I thought it best to appear to be polite. I shrugged as I rattled my handcuffs a little bit. Saying thank you, but indicating that the handcuffs were a bit of a handicap to eating a meal—or any other activity, seemed to be just good manners on my part.

“I can unlock your restraints,” she said. “But if you attempt to escape, we will both face—consequences.”

“Thank you,” I replied, mostly abandoning my pitiable attempts to speak Russian. “On my honor as an Officer and a Gentleman, I will do nothing to place you at risk. I find myself both thirsty and hungry. But the tray you brought holds only enough for one hungry man. Am I expected to be so nekulturny as to dine while you partake of nothing? I refuse to be forced to be—uncultured. Is it permissible for my captors to allow you to join me at dinner? I would far prefer such a beautiful woman as yourself to be my dinner companion, rather than to see you relegated to the role of a servant.” I gave her, and whoever was watching whatever cameras were undoubtedly spying on me, my best Southern Charm smile.

She paled, her flawless skin turning white as if in shock. Obviously, I had gone off-script. Good. The more they thought I was just trying to play the gentleman in pursuit of a later seduction, the more they would underestimate me later on.

“I am not sure if that will be permitted—” she began, only to be interrupted by a knock at the door and the entry of a burly guard in a uniform I didn’t recognize, carrying a second tray of food, as well as a bottle of wine and two wine glasses. Check, I thought. I was anticipated. They’re good. That’ll make my escape even harder.

The erstwhile “waiter” sat the second tray and the wine bottle and glasses on the desk next to the tray and beer meant for me, then exited as wordlessly as he had entered.”Ty moya blagodarnost,'” I said to his retreating back. The clack of the door’s lock being refastened echoed through the room.

Dolzhny li my poobedat', Moya Ledi?” I asked my companion. Without another word, she moved to stand behind me and unfasten my handcuffs.

“Your Russian is—somewhat unusual,” she said. I stood and flexed my cramped muscles, smiled, then moved to take my indicated seat at the desk.

“As if I learned it from a book, instead of hearing someone actually say the words?” I asked. “For that is true. I did learn from books, but many words I have never heard spoken before. I beg your forgiveness for my ignorance. To put the shoe on the other foot, as we say in the US, you sound as if your tutor for English was French. Nothing wrong with that. Your accent makes you sound very—intriguing.”

“Thank you,” she said. “Shall we dine?”

“Would that we had a proper table,” I said as she sat in the desk chair and I sat opposite in the creaky chair I’d woken up in.

“People in our business often have to improvise when the need arises,” she replied. “Wine or beer?”

“I think perhaps beer for now,” I said. “I need the water. I’m quite parched from your knockout gas.”

“You have our apologies,” she said as she handed me a can of beer and some silverware wrapped in a cloth napkin. “We were in somewhat of a rush to extricate you from your hotel before any harm befell you. Might I compliment you on the excellence of your defensive measures? You set us a pretty puzzle as to how we could overcome them.”

“I do my best with what I have to work with,” I said as I put butter on my potato and began to cut my steak. “If you don’t mind me asking,” I said as I took a bite of the steak. “Oh, excellent,” I added as soon as I had swallowed, “I’d like to know why I am here, and not in some torture cell.”

“You would have been,” she said. “If not for our intervention. Your enemies were somewhat difficult to dissuade when we intercepted them at your hotel room door. You might be relieved to know that they are in custody—those who survived our arrival. The Courts in Geneva will most likely trade them for others of our own captured agents, if at all possible. The—casualties—were removed quietly, afterward.”

“Sorry I missed the action,” I said. “Or perhaps I shouldn’t be.” I ate some more of the excellent meal and opened a second beer. “But you make it sound as if,” I added between bites. “As if you rescued me rather than being my captors. I am not sure that I understand your part in this little ballet. You aren’t part of the Russian team who tried to kill me earlier?”

“You may find this difficult to believe,” she said as she took another bite of the Chicken Parmesan on her own plate. After a small sip of her wine, she continued. “I hold no love for the East Germans, or their Russian masters. I was born in a quiet part of Poland, but I live and work in Switzerland now. The War was, difficult, for my family. I lost many to the fighting—both directly and through our resistance. I was only a child, then. Afterwards, I found myself recruited by an organization loosely affiliated with the United Nations.” She tore off a bit of the French bread and slathered butter on it. I have to admit; it was good bread. I followed her example and took a bite from my own loaf. Cutting another bite of steak, I patiently waited for more of her story. I savored every morsel of my meal. Patience came easy in such a situation. Escape was going to be hard enough. Though much harder if I remained hungry and dehydrated.

"You don't look old enough for that," I said. "I took you for twenty-five or so."

"Thank you," she replied. "I am thirty-two. I was five when the war began."

"I was four, myself. We're nearly the same age," I said. "So, tell me more about this UN agency you work for."

“You Americans,” she said. “You are good, and tough, and fine allies, but there are secrets being kept from you. The English are particularly adept at keeping secrets from you. Tell me honestly, has anyone ever told you anything at all about a tall blue box?”

“Not a word,” I answered. “Though I’m not much more than a glorified airplane pilot, so I wouldn’t expect to be in the inner circle for any secrets. I’m only groundside because I have a few useful skills the spooks needed down here.”

“I thought as much. What I am about to tell you is highly classified,” she said.

I took the last bite of my steak, followed swiftly by the last of the mushrooms and baked potato, then buttered the final bit of my bread, sat it down, and opened a third beer while I waited for her to continue. “I’m all ears,” I said as I savored the last of my bread loaf.

“Would it surprise you,” she said. “To be told that our world is facing threats which make this ‘Cold War’ look as if it were a mere kindergarten sandbox squabble?”

“Lady,” answered. “After Korea, everything looks like a schoolyard dust-up to me. Please go on. You interest me, strangely.”

“Please call me Anna,” she said. “Anna Woźniak. The organization I work for has been chartered to protect us, you and I and everyone—even the Russians—from a larger threat. From many larger threats, in fact.” She sipped the last of her wine and sat her empty plate aside, as I did myself a few moments earlier. I finished the rest of my can of beer as she gathered her thoughts to continue. “Some years ago,” she finally said. “A stranger appeared in London, England. He ‘assisted’ the British Army with some—rather strange matter involving their Underground railways. By the time the affair had concluded, higher ups had discerned the need for a permanent team, or rather, several teams, of rather Special Forces. I was recruited due to my childhood experiences as part of the Polish Resistance to the Nazis during the last World War. As I said, I am based in Switzerland now—as part of one of those teams of Special Forces. We rescued you here and now, in the hope of recruiting you into our organization as well. This would not, should not, ever cause a conflict with your duties as an American soldier—”

“Airman,” I gently corrected her. “And part-time spy.”

“Just so,” she replied. “You would be a consultant. Not assigned to any particular group, serving alongside fellow Americans, and British, and whosoever else your Team Leader feels would be of use in any given situation. If you accept, we will return you to your ‘spooks’ as you call them, but with the understanding that they would release you if and when duty to our group requires. This would entail a slight bonus to your normal pay packet, with other bonuses if we need you, and otherwise, a bit of special training to bring you up to speed with our units. If you refuse this offer, we will return you to your employers unharmed. This, I give you my word, either way, you will be free to go home, unmolested.”

“How long do I have to decide?” I asked.

“Until the dawn,” Anna replied. “Likely, we will never meet again, in any case. However, dawn is many hours away. I am of a mind to make the most of the time we have together.”

She stood and reached behind her back. I could hear the zipper of her dress sliding down.

“Are you sure about this, Anna?” I asked. “I’m just a farm boy from the Southern US. I’m probably not as sophisticated as guys in your class, like you’re used to.”

The zipper sound stopped, and she shrugged her shoulders out of the straps of her dress. “After surviving the Nazis as a child and the Russians ever since, and more that you wouldn’t yet believe—I decided long ago that if I wanted someone, I would not forego the chance. Our lives could end in an instant—poof! Gone to ashes and dust. And we might never know that our time was over before the bombs fell. Are you unwilling? Am I too forward and aggressive for you?”

“That desk looks mighty uncomfortable for what you’ve got in mind,” I said.

“You’d be surprised,” Anna replied. “But there is a chaise longue just over there—away from the lamp. Would that suit you?”

“Lead the way,” I said as I began to unbutton my shirt. “But I warn you, I really need a shower first.”

“Nonsense,” she said as her dress hit the floor and she stepped out of it. “I will pretend you are French.”

I learned a lot that night. But I kept an eye on the door all the same. Some training you never forget.

******

The next morning, the scent of strong coffee tickled my nose as I awoke. I was still “entangled” with Anna as we shared the long sofa, covered only by a thin silk sheet. I looked over at the desk and saw not only a coffeepot, but two plates loaded with what, from here, looked to be omelets, link sausages, and hash browns, and GRITS ON ONE PLATE! Toast and marmalade and butter between the plates on a small serving tray. I heard the room’s door quietly thump shut and the clack of the lock being turned. Must have missed our waiter by mere seconds.

“Where the hell do you get grits in Jamaica?” I asked out loud. Sitting up carefully, I tried not to disturb Anna, but ultimately failed.

“Is this what all American boys are like?” she said as she awoke. “Does the arrival of breakfast distract them from any possible appetizers?”

“Southern boys are a breed apart,” I answered her. “However, a dessert after breakfast is not against our upbringing.”

“I shall hold you to that,” she replied. “Oh, omelets! Yes, those should never be allowed to become cold! No brioche? Oh well, we aren’t in France.” She got up off of the couch as I was groping on the floor for my pants. They weren’t where I’d dropped them. “Come, eat,” she added as she walked to the impromptu table the desk had become—unashamed of her nakedness. “We will eat and then I will show you where the shower is—and then, perhaps that dessert you spoke of?”

Having breakfast naked, with a beautiful woman who was also naked, was a novel experience for me. However, I thereby resolved to make it another learning experience. Breakfast was wonderful, the shower was heavenly, and “dessert” was well worth waiting for. Afterwards, I found that our clothes from the day before had been freshly laundered, pressed, and were ready to be worn. Not only that, but under my clothes were all the weapons and ammo I had before I was liberated, and beside the sofa were my boots!

“Be honest with me,” I said as I fastened my belt and leaned down to get the pouch with my captured weapons inside. “How much of last night was ‘recruiting’ and how much was spontaneous?”

“None of it was recruiting,” Anna replied. “I’ve seen enough horrors in my time to convince me that whatever pleasures come our way should never be ignored. Postponed, perhaps, but not passed by if there is time.”

“What about the rest of my team?” I asked.

“Completed their mission and gone home,” she replied. “While you were asleep under the influence of our tranquilizers. Your superiors have been informed of our actions—the group’s actions, not ours personally. They await your decision, as do my own.”

“I’m in,” I replied. “Will I ever see you again?”

“Most likely not,” she answered. “Hence my abandon last night. Unless circumstances bring us together again, and that is unlikely, last night was all the time we will ever have.”

“OK, that’s life,” I said. “But I won’t soon forget you.”

“Or I you. Welcome to UNIT,” she said as she kissed me one last time.

72 hours later, I was back on the ground in California. After the gentlest debriefing I had ever had in my life, I found myself assigned some additional training under a British officer.

 

******

******

“Major Jones?” The soft-spoken voice of a junior officer intruded upon the aforesaid Major’s morning paperwork. The accent was decidedly Southern England, proclaiming the Lieutenant was from the Portsmouth, Gosport, Southsea region.

“Yes, Alderson? Something new?” The Major’s accent was Welsh, with a hint of wider influences during his lifetime.

“We have received a Moondust Alert report from the American Southwest,” said the Lieutenant. “Sorry to bother you, Sir. It isn’t marked ‘Urgent,’ yet we have been instructed to put together a team to investigate—since we are the closest detachment to the scene.”

“Considering that our ‘detachment’ consists of yourself, myself, and a squad of soldiers,” the Major replied. “I believe we would need to liaise with our hosts for additional support. Where is the site?”

“Sixty miles West of Socorro, New Mexico,” the Lieutenant replied. “The report,” he added as he handed Major Jones the paperwork. “The site is roughly two miles East of a town named Datil, and roughly twenty miles further South of there. Not much to be seen except for desert, cacti, tumbleweeds, and the occasional cattle ranch. The US Army has the site isolated and is keeping the local ranchers away. They’ve requested our participation as consultants.”

“So,” replied the Major as he flipped rapidly through the few pages of the report. “Something came down, and they want us to help them prevent another ‘Roswell’ incident?”

“From what I could discern from the report, that would be my best guess as well, Sir.” The Lieutenant smiled slightly. “My guess is that it is a burned-out satellite, possibly Soviet but also possibly Chinese. Both have a minority of orbiting experiments that could possibly have fallen. If it were a US project, we wouldn’t have been allowed to know about this. If it were British, it damn well wouldn’t have fallen at all. That we were called in indicates that the US can’t identify the debris and wants us to advise.”

“And if it is none of the above, Lieutenant?”

“Well then, the agreement between the US and the UN would place us in charge of any investigation. You, as the Senior Officer on-site would be obliged to commandeer any US resource available, up to and including a nuclear air-strike, if you deem it necessary.”

“Just so,” replied Major Jones. “Very well, put together a full investigative team. Requisition whatever experts can be rounded up, air transport able to reach the site, a platoon of US squaddies, and place our own boys in command of each of the US squads. Give our squad Acting ranks high enough the Americans can’t gripe about having to take orders from us. Sargent Majors, perhaps. You know the paperwork involved much better than I.”

“What about our new, local boy, Sir?”

“The pilot? Yes, good idea, Alderson. Tell him it is part of his training. Assign him as my Aide,” said Major Jones. “You’ll remain here to advise Geneva as to what we find, if anything. But be ready to mobilize a full response if this goes tits up.”

“You believe this might be a BBB incident, sir?” The Lieutenant’s question hung in the air like a bomb just released from its bomb bay.

“I believe in not leaving things to chance,” replied Major Jones. “IF, and only if, this turns out to more than it looks like from this preliminary report—I will want every option available at a moment’s notice. Probably, it is just junk that fell. If it is something more? Well, being prepared is part of our mission.”

“Understood, Sir.” Lieutenant Alderson said, snapped off a salute, and left Major Jones alone with his thoughts. Jones stood, looked around his tiny, borrowed office at Edwards Air Force Base, then looked out the windows, lost in thought. Finally, he picked up the telephone on his desk and put through a call to his batman.

“Arthur,” Jones said to his Personal Aide. “Pack my kit for a Moondust incident—yours as well. We have an assignment. Special equipment? The usual bagatelle, seal it in a crate marked ‘Emergency Equipment’ and stand ready. I’ll send you the details when I know them. Oh, desert gear, for us, primarily. You know what the Yanks have to offer us, so use your own judgement as to what extras we might need ourselves. Yes, be ready for a ‘drop everything and go’ situation. Alderson is off making arrangements with the Base Commander’s staff. My best guess for any of the boffins the Yanks can round up for us is 8 to 24 hours before we can leave. I leave our personal preparations in your capable hands, Sargent Major. Pull rank if and as needed. Prod buttocks as you see fit. I’ll call you again with a more accurate estimate as to when the flag goes up, just as soon as I know. This is probably nothing exciting, but one can never tell in our line of work. No, no one has heard a peep out of the bugger in years, to the best of my knowledge. But I’m on a ‘need to know’ footing, here. There might have been other incidents I wasn’t briefed upon.”

“Now, we wait,” said Jones as he hung up the phone. Moodily, he stared out his office window at the American airbase.

******

A Corporal came by my quarters and told me to report to the Base Commander’s office. So I cleaned up as fast as possible, got in uniform, and caught a jeep over to Headquarters.

“Captain Darby, reporting for duty, Sir.” I said as I snapped off a salute once I was in the General’s office.

“As you were, sit down, Captain. I have an assignment for you.”

“Yes Sir,” I replied as I sat in the proffered chair.

“You recently have accepted additional duties with a UN organization,” began the General. “This is one of their missions. You have been assigned as an Aide to their local Major, Jones is his name, on the base here. You are to consider this as advanced training. Here is all I know. At 21:35 hours yesterday, debris from a fallen orbital device impacted approximately 20 miles East Southeast of Datil, New Mexico. Major Jones and his team have received orders to meet up with the US forces who have cordoned off the impact area, attempt to discover the origin of the debris, assess any threat, and collect whatever evidence is salvageable at the site. They have requested three cargo helicopters and crew, a platoon of troops, and whatever scientific advisors we can round up on short notice. The soldiers will be placed under the command of Major Jones’ own squad of specialists. The scientists we can get are all enroute from various locations, as we speak. Your duties are to assist Major Jones, observe, train for future incidents of this kind, and deliver a discrete report to me, personally, upon your return. Is this clear?”

“Yessir,” I replied. “Major Jones and Sargent Major Heath have been training me already, as has been Lieutenant Alderson. I have also been on a few training exercises with Sargent Devon and his squad as well, mostly long hikes to learn some advanced wilderness survival skills, a bit of geology, and skills useful to being assigned to archeology digs.”

“I am not sure this UN task force is altogether useful to the US, but orders are orders,” said the General. “Still, from what I have been briefed, they could prove to be a valuable asset. Very well, do you accept the assignment?”

“Sir, yessir!” I replied. Anything to break the monotony of being groundside when I want to be flying, I thought to myself. “How much time do I have before H-Hour and is there any special gear I need to requisition?”

“The scientific experts should arrive within 10 hours. If you have an hour past that estimate, I would be astounded. This is a top security mission, Captain. You will perform your duties to this UN group to the best of your ability, return, and report personally to me—and me alone. Is that understood?”

“Yessir,” I replied. Anna, I thought, what have I gotten myself into because you thought I was good enough to join your unit? “Train, observe, and report back to you. You can count on me, Sir. One question—do you want a written report, or just face to face?”

“That would be situational, Captain Darby,” the General replied. “This UN Intelligence Taskforce seems, on the surface, to be a collection of crackpots and weirdos. But if they aren’t, and they have intell that the US needs for our own security, we will need a full, formal report to file with the Pentagon. If this is just some Russian sputnik falling out of the sky, then a verbal report will do.”

“Understood, Sir,” I said. “If it’s just normal junk that fell from orbit, then only you need to know. But if it turns out to be any of that ‘flying saucer’ bullshit, I’ll write up a full, detailed, formal report for you.”

“I didn’t say anything about any damn flying saucers, Captain.” The General’s face went red. “There isn’t going to be another damn Roswell bullshit incident on MY watch—is that clear?”

“Sir! Yes, Sir!” I replied.

“Dismissed,” said the General. “Grab your gear and whatever you think you’ll need for a week in the New Mexico desert. Report to Major Jones as soon as you’re ready to go. That is all, Captain.”

I saluted as I got up out of the chair, turned, and left the General’s office without another word.

******

Half an hour later I was standing in Major Jones’ office, reporting for duty. My bug-out bag was at my feet. Most of the time it took me to get ready was swapping US gear for UN-spec gear. Except for my Colt, strapped to my hip as it normally was. I decided I would only leave that behind if I were given specific orders from Major Jones.

“Tom Darby, reporting for duty, Sir.” I said as I saluted Major Jones. “You requested me, Sir?”

Jones returned my salute and gestured that I should stand at ease. Only a Brit can do that so effortlessly.

“Yes, your training with us has gone splendidly so far. But now we have a live exercise of what we have been training you for, so think of this as an advanced course. As of 21:35 hours last night, something impacted the ground near a village called ‘Datil’ in your state of New Mexico. It may be nothing. It may be a Russian Satellite, or even a Chinese satellite we were previously unaware of having been launched that has fallen to ground. It may be a worthless chunk of rock. Or it may be a threat our forces will need to deal with. We won’t know until we reach the site and give the scientific experts your government is rounding up time to assess the situation. If worst comes to worst, the object will be either a known, or as yet unknown, threat. Barring that unlikely possibility, our purview is to secure the site, let the scientists examine the debris and file reports as to whatever they find--as well as our own impressions. I expect this to be something innocuous. However, my assignment is to be prepared in case it is not. Do you understand, Captain?”

“Yes sir,” I replied. “It’s probably nothing. It might be something the Commies put in orbit. Or it might be something dangerous. I’m ready, sir. I packed everything I could think of that might be useful in case 'dangerous' is the final determination. As well as extra C-Rations and water, desert survival gear, some gadgets my Spook friends gave me, and anything I could think of that my dad and grandfather recommended to take if I were headed into an unknown situation.”

“Oh?” said the Major. “Forgive my curiosity, but just what would that be?”

“A Gurkha knife my Dad was given by a Nepalese soldier during his time in the Philippines. It was a gift between battlefield survivors. Dad said it was better than any machete ever issued by the US Army. 100 yards of quarter-inch rope—Granddaddy always said a kit without rope was an unfinished kit. A pocket magnifying glass to start fires without matches during the daytime. A ball of twine and half a dozen brass bells—to use as a tripwire alarm around a campsite. A Swiss Army pocketknife to use as a multi-functional tool, a small single-edge hatchet with a hammer back-face and an assortment of nails and whatnot to use in setting up a campsite. A clay sculptor’s cutting wire tool with handgrips on both ends—Daddy killed a Nazi guard with it during the D-Day liberation of France. I swapped out my M1 rifle for a short-barrel, folding stock Barretta M59 chambered for .308 NATO—and packed 300 rounds for it. Three 20-round magazines and 12 stripper clips to save space. An ammo belt with 120 rounds for my Colt, pre-loaded in magazines. With another 200 rounds in the box, stored in a belt pouch. A pair of wire-cutters. A dozen flash-bangs courtesy of the CIA, as well as a few smoke grenades. C-Rations for four weeks. Three canteens of water—good for 36 hours of starvation rationing for one man, in a pinch. And some basic campground cooking gear that the US Army issues to troops. A pup tent, tent stakes, and rope for that, too.”

“You could teach survival classes to our troops,” said Major Jones, obviously impressed.

“There was a lot of stuff that would have come in handy in a forest or near a river that I took out of my kit, sir,” I replied. “New Mexico is fresh out of forests and there are damn few lakes or rivers. I thought it prudent to customize my kit to the situation at hand, as best I knew it. I was raised in the Appalachians, the mountain range near the US East coast. My family survived anything that got thrown at them since the US became a country. If my family had a motto, it’d be ‘improvise, adapt, and prepare.’ We tend to do well in survival courses. My original training Sargent and I were both docked 5 points for gaining three pounds each on my wilderness survival test. I unraveled one of my spare socks and used a bent safety pin as a fish hook and grubs from a fallen log as bait. We were eating fresh bream and the occasional rabbit while my fellow platoon members were eating the grubs and worms like I was using for fish-bait. We snared rabbits using the cheese from our C-Rations as bait and a snare made from our boot laces and a bent tree branch as a trap. But Sarge and I still got the highest score for the exercise.…”

“I am impressed,” said the Major. “I have asked that you be assigned to me as my Aide during this mission. Of course, you will still be subordinate to Sargent Major Beckett, of my personal staff. Lieutenant Alderson will remain on base to mind the store, so to speak. We will leave as soon as the scientists all arrive. Something under 12 hours from now. Sorry I can’t be more specific, But I have to depend on your superiors to round up the necessary boffins and herd them to the base.”

“I fully understand, Sir,” I replied. “I will be in my quarters. Give me five minutes notice to hijack a jeep and I’ll be on the airfield when we are ready to leave. You have my telephone extension.”

“Yes, dismissed, Captain.” said Major Jones.

****** 

48 hours later, the three US helicopters landed 30 miles South Southeast of Datil, New Mexico. The site was a debris field, roughly a quarter mile wide and three times that in length. Major Jones and his men exited the aircraft and took their first good look around. Issuing orders to the US troops already present, the Major started the collection of evidence from the far edges of the crash. Everyone bagged up whatever their searches revealed. Metallic trash lightly littered the ground close to the helicopter landing site, becoming more concentrated as one approached the site’s eastern border. It wasn’t until the unit group neared the last 50 yards of the crash site that any debris larger than an automobile license plate was visible.

“That’s not right,” said Major Jones.  He pointed towards a piece of metal about the size of the door of a kitchen oven. “The lettering is Cyrillic, as Russian ought to be, but they misspelled Sputnik—there is an extra letter. And that says that it is part of ‘sputnick 21.’ Sputnik doesn’t have a C in it—in Russian or English, and the Russians renamed their satellites long before a ‘21’ in the Sputnik series would have been launched. Someone is trying to fake being Russian. And there is something off with the grammar. This reads like it was written by a Chinese person pretending to be Russian. Or by someone pretending to be Chinese, pretending to be Russian. And they didn’t do their research very well.”

“You mean it’s a fake Russian satellite?” I asked.

“Considering that we have no reports of China as even close to being able to launch anything more than short-range misiles,” the Major replied. “I’d say someone is playing silly buggers, yes.”

“And they’ve lost some of the pieces,” said the Major’s personal aide.

“Sargent Major?” I asked. “What--“

“It was a joke, son,” Sargent Major Beckett replied.

“Major? I don’t see anything other than this piece that is larger than a paperback book,” Tom said. “Not in all this debris. And none of that stuff seems to be as heavily-built as this bit with the lettering. Is it possible that this was meant to survive the crash—to give us a false clue?”

“Bit of a red herring, eh?” the Major replied. “Good point, lad. Arthur, my compliments to Sargent Major Heath and inform him to spread Devon and our men out with the US detachment and the scientists. Let’s finish collecting all this scrap and get it back to base where it can be studied properly. I want each one of our lads to take photos of every concentration of debris they find before anyone picks anything up. We don’t have time to do any proper ‘archeology’ today. But I want a photographic record, nonetheless.”

“Very good Sir, however, I anticipated your orders and have already instructed our boys to do exactly that. I'll just go and see that no one is slacking.” Beckett replied. “Lad,” he said to me. “You stick with the Major and ask him all the questions you can think of—you Yanks excel at that.”

“Thank you, sir—I think.” I said.

“Now, why do you suppose someone would want us to think that they were Russians,” asked the Major when we were alone. “Or for that matter, Chinese pretending to be Russian?”

“Protective coloration?” I replied. “Someone is trying to blend in and hide. The question on my mind is are we supposed to believe that they’re Russian, or believe that they’re Chinese pretending to be Russian, or is this someone expecting us to see through that and start worrying about who else could pull off an undetected satellite launch—and what the hell else have they got planned?”

“That is some genius-level paranoia you have there,” said the Major as he laughed. “You have been working with those CIA lads for quite a while. Methinks their mind-set is beginning to rub off on you.”

“I never minded it back when I was just flying and taking pictures for them,” I said. “But working with them on the ground? That’ll drive you crazy.”

“Understood. And I agree with you,” said the Major. “To an extent. However, there is a far deeper level of secrets than even they are privy to—and that’s where we come in. You don’t have the clearance for me to tell you about that. Not just yet. I can’t even begin to tell you just how deep this particular rabbit hole goes—not today. You’re a smart lad. I can see why you were assigned to us. But if and when you do get the necessary clearance? Well, I could tell you stories that would make your hair curl.”

“Curiouser and curiouser,” I replied.

“Just so,” said Major Jones.

“Oh dear,” I said. “If we’re supposed to see that this is a third party pretending to be someone else—what are they playing at? What’re their goals? What do they hope to trick us into thinking?”

“Welcome to a larger world, my boy,” replied the Major. “Welcome to a larger world. If you really want the answers to those questions, I can expedite your clearance levels being raised. But that would entail you being permanently seconded to our little UN group. Normally, you would carry out your duties as a US Armed Forces member, but if we needed you, for something like this little jaunt—or something more serious, your superiors would send you wherever we needed you, for however long we needed you, and you would be under the command of one or more of our officers for the duration of that mission. And I can promise you, our missions are either a little cakewalk like this, or deadly danger. There isn’t usually an in-between. Life expectancy on our more serious missions is measured in minutes, or hours—or decades. Not much middle ground to be had there.”

“I was a combat pilot in Korea before I was old enough to buy a beer here in the US, Sir. The threat of sudden death isn’t something I’m unacquainted with,” I replied. “I will consider everything carefully, Sir. But for now, I’m in. It’s not like working for the spooks has a guaranteed happy ending and retirement plan.”

“No rush,” said the Major. “I will file the paperwork if you agree, but not until you do so. Are we clear on that?”

“Yes, Sir!” I replied. “I will think it over very carefully.” But I already knew what my answer would be. If there was a bigger picture to be seen—over and above what I already knew—I couldn’t let that opportunity pass. Curiosity killed the cat, they say. But cats have nine lives. So satisfaction brings them back. Little did I know… Looking back on it now, I probably would have been safer with the spooks. At least a spy can only die once.

 



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 five 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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