Outside the Suhumi airbase operations center, Kemal Volkan took a deep breath, knowing that the last thing he could do now was lose his temper with the bearded, black-eyed Imam. Muqtadeh had become even more unstable these last weeks, since the Americans had been flown in from Bandar Abbas. The latest plan was the most insane yet and Kemal was sure it would precipitate action from the Americans before he was ready, before his plan was finished. Failure, as the Americans so often say, is not an option. I must stop this madness! He steadied himself to try again, and looked into those cold, black eyes once more.
“Holiness. I agree that it is Allah’s will, praise Him, to taunt the foolish Americans, to divert their attention from the Holy Father, peace be upon him. But this will not divert the air pirates from their assault on Tehran! All it will do is provoke a response not from the American carrier in the Gulf, but from either their air force at Sochi, or worse, from the Russians! Was it not the Holy Father’s instruction, praise and glory to Allah, that these American fliers be held safely here from the Americans until we could use them to return your son to the Holy Father’s side?”
Muqtadeh stroked his beard, staring off to the north. “I want them to come, Kemal. I want her to come. I want the leader of the air pirates to writhe in agony when he thinks that his men will suffer. I want him to see our power, and I want them to be angry. Allah wills it.” He smiled, looking critically at the big Turk. “Do you remember Abu Jihad, Kemal? Our Shoura took his life. Allah demands payment in her blood. Can you not see it?”
“Holiness, I do not understand…”
The Imam cut him off with a gesture. “You do understand, my treacherous Turkish friend. Do not lie to me. I know your heart. And I know why you Turks have forsaken us. You have convinced your countrymen to turn their backs on us.” He looked long and hard at the Turkish intelligence officer, who was growing increasingly uncomfortable under his scrutiny.
“It began when Abu Jihad fell, this cancer began to grow. Our Shoura is a devil. She is sent to test our faith. You failed the test of faith, when you helped her to escape me.” He nodded. “Oh, yes, I know, Kemal. I know. But I do not blame you. Do you think it a coincidence that the air pirates are her allies, and their leader is called ‘Bones’? He is another daemon. You have fallen under her spell, this Russian succubus, because your faith is weak. We must cut this cancer out before your soul is also consumed. Soon, we will bring them to us and you shall have a choice, and your choice shall be righteousness, or damnation. I will trust you to decide, Kemal. But first, I wish our enemies to know fear and uncertainty. So it shall be.”
Kemal swallowed. He knows, he’s known all along. But I live and I am not confined? Not killed? He wishes to save my soul! He is as mad as I feared. To him, it is more than jihad. It is obsession.
“Thanks for coming out to the funeral, Bones,” said Roni, Naz’s widow.
“Naz was one of my best friends, there was no way I was going to miss his funeral, war or no war,” I replied.
“I know, it’s just that…well, I know you are busy with the squadron and the war and the people you have already lost and had to come home for…” I could see that Roni was about to lose it.
“Hey, Roni, it’s OK. Everything will be fine. I wish that I could stick around, I really do. You don’t know how nice it is to be back in the US after being in the NAG for so long, but don’t worry it will be alright.” I took her in my arms and held her. I could feel her starting to tremble as she broke down into tears. “It’s alright, it’s alright,” I said, trying not to break down myself.
Roni hugged me back and said thanks again, and walked off with the rest of her family and friends to join the waiting motorcade. I was not going to be able to stay long at the memorial luncheon as I had a flight to catch to get back to the boat. I looked around for a moment and took the scene in: the crying relatives, the somber men in uniform, and the sound of—yes, “Taps.” It occurred to me for the first time here how many times I had heard this bugle call today alone. There were at least 5 funerals all going on today. Overhead, a section of A-10s flew overhead in missing-man formation, just as the Super Hornets had minutes before. People were dying in this war, many many people. It was best to not let them die in vain.
With a renewed sense of purpose, I got back into the car and headed off to the airport.
“Yes, that’s me,” answered the major as he walked around his KC-135, pre-flighting her. He looked up for a moment to see who was asking, and saw an Air Force captain standing there at attention with a salute. Major Anderson returned the salute and asked, “What can I do for you, Captain?”
“Sir, I’m under orders to inform you that you are to report to Colonel Hanley immediately.”
“What, now? I have a hop in a few minutes.”
“Yes, sir. Now. Please be advised that the colonel has put your flight status on suspension effective immediately. Now if you’ll come with me…”
“What does he want to speak with me about? Why was my flight status put on suspension?” asked an alarmed Anderson.
“You’re under investigation for an airborne incident a few weeks ago with the US Navy, sir.”
Anderson was taken by surprise. He had already put that out of his mind. The captain continued. “There has been some testimony and…”
“Testimony? Already? Who would be testifying against me? Everyone saw what happened and nothing was wrong.”
“I testified,” said a familiar voice from behind. Major Anderson looked with wide, surprised eyes to see his co-pilot standing there.
“It wasn’t right, Major, what you did. I’m sorry.”
Anderson gave Peterson a disgusted look and turned on his heel, saying to the liaison officer, “Let’s go.”