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|Chapter 25: Satan's Own Thunder|
As the lunch ended with a palpable tension still in the air, Eric followed Jon back to his suite.
Plopping down in a chair, Eric said, “I don’t want Brandon and Chase to find out, but last night, I had some tequila. I didn't do it intentionally, and I promised them I'd stay off the stuff. I thought it was whiskey until I drank it.”
Settling into a chair across from his brother, Jon remembered Jansen and Keith handing Eric a shot glass. Suspecting the answer, he asked, “How did that happen? Who gave it to you?”
Eric shrugged and explained. Jon listened impassively before saying, “I figured it had to be them.”
Beginning to suspect what was really eating Jon, Eric asked, “You don’t like them much, do you?”
Jon waited a few moments, and decided to be blunt. “No I don’t. They’re taking you for a ride, man. This club they want you to cough up the money for… I think they’re just taking advantage. How long had they known you before they hit you up for that?”
Eric leaned forward as he tried to explain, “Actually it was the other way around. The club’s my idea. I proposed it to them. The place I rented for rehearsals? They opened it up for two nights. They did a great job and I like their business ideas. Keith’s majoring in business, and he’s good – real good.”
Jon considered that for a moment. The fact that Eric had originated the idea took away some of his arguments, but he pressed on, “So he’s just a student and you’re going to cough up big bucks for this scheme. I still think they’re playing you, bro.”
“Helen’s on board. You think she’d go for it if there wasn’t anything to it? Jon, this thing was my idea and I’m kinda proud of it. Okay, whatever, this isn’t getting us anywhere. We both know that’s not your main issue. So, level with me, what’s up?” Eric asked, feeling that Jon was holding a lot back. He was right.
“We’re brothers, man. That’s supposed to mean something, ya know? It used to be just the three of us, then Brandon came along and he and Chase got together. Now they’re joined at the hip, always off doing their own thing. That left you and me. Now all I hear from you, the few times I see you anymore, is Jansen and Keith this, or Jansen and Keith that. You don’t talk to me anymore. Think about it, when was the last time you and I hung out?” Jon let out a sigh, glad to have gotten that off his chest.
Eric nodded, finally discerning the piece of the puzzle that he’s been missing. He knew, now that it had been said, that he had been ignoring Jon. It was obvious that Jon was feeling lonely and left out, but Eric was also aware that there were other issues involved. “Okay, I get that and I’m sorry, but there’s a reason I’ve been reluctant to talk to you lately… and I think we both know what it is. Try telling me the biggest reason you don’t like Jansen and Keith, because that’s why.”
A long, awkward silence descended while Jon thought that through. Finally he said, “It’s… damn it, just tell me, why the hell did you decide to…. I’ve seen how you look at those guys, how you talk about ‘em… I know, okay? What the fuck is it with you? Chase, I get. He only likes guys. That’s how he’s wired. But you, it ain’t the same. I know you’re into girls. There’s no way in hell you can convince me you’re not. You’re into guys too, I get that, but that gives you a fucking choice, man, so why the hell did you decide to turn gay, and why with those guys? What did they do, get you wasted and mess you around, what?”
Jon’s diatribe hit Eric hard, at several levels. He sat for a moment, trying to think of how to explain, as the implication of Jon’s words crept in. A smile creeping onto his lips, Eric said, “You think I’m screwing around with ‘em, don’t you? Both of ‘em?”
“It’s not exactly a secret that you like three-ways, and they’re a couple…,” Jon said, a little crossly.
Shaking his head, his smile gone, Eric replied, “Whoa, back the truck up. First off, they’re brothers and they aren’t into incest. They just pretend to be a couple so they don’t get hit on or pressured into stuff, doing what they do. If I even suggested a three-way, they’d probably kill me.”
Seeing the adamant look in his brother’s eyes, Jon decided that he believed Eric. That left him with another question. “Okay, whatever. So you’re not doing three-ways. You doing ‘em both separately, or just one?”
Eric’s temper began to stir. He was getting sick of Jon’s tone and attitude, and raised his voice a notch and said, “Try neither of ‘em. So far, we’re just friends. Believe me or not, I don’t care, but that’s the truth.”
Lowering his head a little, Jon waited for a moment before saying, “Okay, okay, sorry. I guess I just jumped to conclusions. There’s three of you, you like three-ways, so I figured…”
His temper calming, Eric shrugged, “Yeah, that’s a leap. That’d be like me assuming that every time I see you with two girls, you’re after a three-way….” Eric let his voice trail off before adding, “In your case, I’d be right. And mine too in the past. Okay point taken, but no, nothing’s going on at all.”
“You said ‘So far,’ when you first said that. Tell me I’m wrong here, but you like at least one of ‘em, and I don’t mean as just a friend. I saw how you looked at them at the party. I’ve never seen you look at a girl like that, not ever.”
Eric chewed on his lip for a moment before replying, “I can’t answer that. It’s not that I won’t, I just can’t, because I don’t know yet. That choice you mentioned… Yeah, I get it. I’ve seen what Brandon and Chase have to face. Do I want that? Hell no. But do I want to let what society thinks control my life? Hell no to that, too. Look, I’ve never had sex with a guy. I don’t even know if I’d like it. What I do know is that lately the girls just don’t do it for me as much as they used to. I click better with guys, so maybe that’s what I need. Hell if I know, but I do know that I don’t want to shut any doors. I knew you had issues with that, and that’s why I’ve been kind of distant.”
“Yeah, I do have problems with that. You’re my brother and I want you to be happy. I just don’t get why you’d want to change sides, but that’s up to you. If you think that’s what it takes to make you happy, just be sure, that’s all I’m sayin’. I’m not real thrilled about being the only straight guy in Instinct, but I’m a lot more bummed that my brother isn’t around much anymore,” Jon said, looking up to meet Eric’s eyes.
“I’m here, anytime. I’ll be around more, too. As for Jansen and Keith, why don’t you come hang out with us? I think you’ll like them. You want to know what really happened last night? They took care of me after I had the tequila. We splashed around the pool for a while then went back to their place and played quarters for whiskey. I ended up passing out. The thing is, they didn’t stress out on me and I had fun.”
Jon let out a short laugh. “If they can put up with you on tequila, they must be saints. Okay, I’d like to get to know them.”
Smiling, Eric said, “How about now? We can all go sit around the pool and watch the volcano or something. Lots of girls by the pool, too.”
Grinning at the mention of girls, Jon stood up. “Lead the way.”
Eric stood facing his brother and asked, “So, are we cool?”
Giving it a moment’s honest thought, Jon slowly nodded before answering honestly, “Yeah. I can’t say I fully get what you’re doing, but I never understood that freaky talent you have for reading people, either. It just is, and this’ll be the same, whatever happens.” Jon thought for a moment, and then smirked as he asked, “So, which one of ‘em is it, that’s got you considering this big change of lanes?”
Laughing, knowing that the recent wall between himself and Jon was beginning to crumble, Eric turned towards the door, giving Jon the dancer’s name in a conspiratorial whisper.
Blinking in mild surprise, Jon followed Eric from the suite.
After a couple of hours by the pool, shooting the breeze with Eric, Jansen, and Keith, Jon felt more at ease regarding the two dancers. He still had qualms regarding Eric’s possible openness to a relationship with one of them, but he’d decided that it was Eric’s life. The looming bulk of Cumbre Vieja and its occasional ventings of ash served as a pressing reminder that life could be short. Jon had to admit, as he watched Eric and the two dancers, that Eric seemed content. Nodding once to himself, Jon’s thoughts turned to his own desires, and he returned the admiring glance of a girl sitting in the sun a few yards away. He’d heard her order a drink, and her lilting Australian accent had caught his attention.
Jon ambled over to introduce himself, and Eric watched as his brother pulled up a chair beside the tan girl and ordered them each a drink. Smirking, Eric nodded in Jon’s direction and said to Jansen and Keith, “Looks like Jon’s found his date for the night.”
Eric was relieved that Jon had hit it off with Jansen and Keith. That solved Eric’s most pressing problem, and his mind turned to another. “Hey, you guys feel up to a trip to the airport?”
“It’s closed. There’s all kinds of ash and stuff there,” Jansen replied, wondering what Eric was up to.
“I need to talk to the pilots. A friend of mine is missing. I’m worried he might be in trouble. Two of the pilots know where he is, and those pilots might be the ones with our planes. I can phone to make sure they’re there, but I need to go in person because I don’t think they’d tell me over the phone.”
Keith was curious, but couldn’t resist a dig. “That means you’re driving. If your driving is anywhere near as bad as your dancing, we’re all doomed.”
Eric laughed. “Shut up. No, I asked one of the hotel staff. We’d hire him to take us in his car.” Flipping open his cell phone, Eric selected the number the air-charter service had given him on his first flight to La Palma, and dialed. A minute later, a crestfallen Eric reported, “No luck. I tried a few numbers but I can’t get a call to go through anywhere. The phones must still be messed up. I’ll try again in the morning, and if that doesn’t work, we can try our luck and just go.”
Watching the sun sink towards the horizon, Keith asked, “You guys mind fending for yourselves for a while? I want to go check the disco out again.”
“Sure Keither, you go, and leave me the hellish job of teaching this klutz to dance,” Jansen said.
Keith gritted his teeth. He didn’t like the idea of leaving Eric and Jansen alone to practice an act – he knew all too well how much physical contact that entailed. Glancing into his brother’s eyes and seeing a sly twinkle, he realized that Jansen was thinking exactly the same thing regarding the dancing. Figuring that he couldn’t plausibly change his mind now, Keith decided to make his trip to the disco a brief one.
An hour later, Keith, having run out or reasons to delay, headed for the disco.
“So, ready to try to learn how to dance,” Jansen asked with a grin.
“Lead the way. If you’re going to teach me to strip, I’ll need to swing by my suite and grab some clothes,” Eric said, hopping up out of his lounger and flicking a thumb at his boardies, the only thing he was wearing.
Shaking his head as he turned to walk towards his suite, Jansen said, “No need. You’ve got a lot to learn before we get that far. We’ll start by teaching you how to walk without falling on your ass.”
“I think I can manage walking, thank you very much,” Eric said with a laugh.
Once they’d entered the suite, Jansen made a beeline for the stereo and started a CD. Turning to grin at Eric, he said, “Your latest album. I figured it might help if you were at least passingly familiar with the music.”
Laughing, Eric replied, “Are you going to teach me to dance, or just insult me?”
“What can I say, I like mixing business with pleasure,” Jansen replied with a wicked grin as he moved the coffee table out of the way. Returning to the cleared space, he said, “Get over here and dance.”
Eric gave it a game try. He stood facing the stereo, and began clicking his fingers and swinging his hips in approximate time to the music.
Jansen grinned and shook his head. “Okay, now I know where to start. First, we’ve got to teach you to move.” Jansen stood by Eric’s side, and as Eric watched intently, began to move to the music. Keeping it simple, Jansen stepped from side to side, swaying his shoulders but keeping them parallel to the ground. “This is a really basic move, called a step-and-pop, very popular among boyband types. Give it a try.”
It took fifteen minutes of trying, combined with a lot of laughing, but Eric mastered the step enough to keep pace with Jansen. When Jansen called a halt, Eric said, “I can’t do any boyband type stuff on stage. That would kill Instinct’s image, and Helen would kill me.”
Nodding, Jansen said, “I know, I’m just teaching you a few steps, mainly so you get used to moving in time with the music. Watch how I move. The idea is to draw your audience’s eye.”
Eric had to concentrate to avoid lapsing into his old finger-snapping mode, but he kept moving as he watched Jansen.
Jansen took a step to the side and swiveled on his heel, turning to face Eric. Nodding gently in time with the music, his blond hair falling across his forehead, Jansen began to dance, keeping his torso oriented on Eric. Jansen touched the fingertips of his right hand to his left hip, and as he continued to dance, slowly tracing his fingers up and to the right across his bare stomach.
Fascinated by the sight, Eric mumbled a little as he said, “That looks complicated, almost like rubbing your head while patting your stomach.”
“I think you meant that the other way around,” Jansen said with a laugh as he raised his right hand to begin patting his head while his left hand began tracing slow circles on his stomach.
“I should have known you’d be able to do that,” Eric said, as he gave it a try himself, and failed.
“Keith and I spend a lot of time training, just like you do for bass playing,” Jansen replied with a grin. Coming to a halt, he asked, “This strip act you’ve got in mind. What do you want to do? And do you want to do it solo, or with one of us?”
With a shrug, Eric replied, “I was thinking solo, just something really basic. I’d go on stage to make an announcement or introduction, wearing Levis and a tear-away t-shirt, and then when the music queued up, I’d dance for a two or three seconds then rip the shirt off, and have a bow tie underneath. Basically just something to go with the opening night events but not enough to put Helen on the warpath.”
“Okay, so you’ll be keeping your pants on this time,” Jansen said with a chuckle, “That’s probably a good idea. Pants or shorts take a lot more skill than a shirt does. Stay put, I’ve got an idea,” Jansen said, as he darted away towards his room.
Jansen returned a moment later, with two black t-shirts in hand. Tossing Eric one, he tugged the other on and then smoothed his hair. “See what you think of this,” he said, as he waited for the downbeat of the music and danced sideways for three steps. On the fourth step, he leaned to his right, hooked the fingers of his left hand under the right hem of his shirt, and in one fluid move leaned to his left as he snatched the shirt up and off, sending it sailing into the ceiling. Jansen followed through on the motion, leaping into a spin, and upon landing took an arms-out bow.
“I like it. Think you can teach me that?” Eric asked.
Jansen nodded, “Yeah that should be easy. Try it.” Their eyes met, holding contact for a long moment, until Jansen broke the spell by moving aside.
Eric pulled on the shirt, and then tried his best to mimic Jansen’s moves. Trotting sideways, Eric failed to synchronize his moves with the music. On the fourth step, he leaned to his right, hooked the hem of his shirt, and pulled.
The sight of Eric stumbling around with the shirt tangled around his head was just too much, and Jansen doubled over laughing. “I think we need to work on that a little,” he said, as Eric finally disentangled himself from the shirt. “Put it back on and I’ll break it down and walk you through it.”
Standing face-to-face with Eric, Jansen ran him through the three sideways steps a few times. Deciding that he had that down well enough, Jansen said, “Okay, let’s work on getting that shirt off.” Jansen didn’t know it, but he was chewing his lip, his breath becoming a little uneven. There was so much that he wanted to say, but he couldn’t find the words. Instead, he lowered his eyes as he ducked aside and walked past Eric.
Standing a few inches behind Eric, Jansen reached his arms around him and said, “I’ll guide you. We’ll do it slowly then work up some speed. Okay, move with me.” Jansen guided Eric, easing him into the left lean, and then placed his left hand over Eric's as Eric hooked the shirt’s hem. “Pinch it a little or you’ll lose your grip on it. That’s what happened last time.”
Guiding Eric’s hand, Jansen eased Eric into a reverse lean as the shirt lifted. “When it’s clear of your head, keep your shoulders level and extend your arm by straightening your elbow.
motion slowly, Eric tugged off the shirt.
Chuckling, he leaned back into Jansen’s arms,
liking the sensation. “Okay, let’s try that
again. I think I can do this,” he said with a
Three hours after takeoff, Smith reported over Flight One’s encrypted radio, “General, I’ve lost number three engine. Chamber temperature started to climb and I had to shut it down. I’ve feathered the prop and adjusted trim, but my airspeed has been reduced by twenty knots and now engine two is running a little hot.”
Sitting in the pilot’s seat of Flight Three, hundreds of miles away, the General replied, “You’ll be over your bail-out point inside of an hour. Set the prop synchronization switch to null in case number two goes, and double-check that the bird is trimmed for level flight before you engage the autopilot and jump.”
Turning to his co-pilot, the General said, “I’m throttling back. Losing an engine will delay Flight One’s arrival over its target and we’re time-critical on that.” The General cursed the fact that one of the corners they’d had to cut, due to the need for haste and an inability to conduct operational tests, was any means of remotely monitoring Flight One’s engine status. All he could do was hope the old wreck held together long enough to complete its final mission. General Bradson turned over command to the co-pilot, and concentrated on his laptop, making certain that he was fully familiar with the custom-written program’s controls. Once he was done, he flicked on his satellite phone and dialed Bill’s number in the U.S., to let him know that Pandora was underway.
One hour later, Smith and General Bradson completed their final check of the laptop computers, verifying once again that the General could control Flight One from his computer in Flight Three. General Bradson let out a sigh of relief; Bill had written and tested the flight control software he’d installed in the laptops, but there had been no chance to test it in flight or with the customized autopilot that had been installed on Flight One for the purpose. The General could only hope that the laptops would not fail. If the necessity arose, he would likely have time to reboot the one in his hands, but for the one on the soon to be unmanned Flight One, the infamous ‘blue screen of death’ could have a very literal meaning.
Nearing his drop point, Smith lowered the cargo bay door and walked to the gaping edge, giving his parachute rig one final check. Glancing at a handheld GPS, he waited thirty seconds until the coordinates he’d been given had been reached, and jumped into the gulf sky.
Ten minutes later, Smith was safely aboard a chartered fishing boat near the northern end of the Persian Gulf, his part in the mission over. Flight One, unmanned and with its cargo ramp down and open, turned west by northwest. Its autopilot responded smoothly to commands from General Bradson, relayed from his computer to the one in its cockpit via the satellite phone. Both laptops had onboard GPS, so the General was able to know exactly where, and at what speed and altitude, the decrepit old C-130 was flying, and adjust its course accordingly, following the filed flight plan up the Persian Gulf for Basra, Iraq.
At the northwest end of the Persian Gulf, a narrow strip of territory – Iraq’s sole access to the sea – just ten miles wide, centered on the Faw Peninsula, and bounded on the north by the Shat Al Arab, separates Kuwait from Iran. Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, lies sixty miles to the northwest on the southern banks of the Shat Al Arab, which forms the border between Iraq and Iran in that region. On the north bank of the waterway, thirty miles from the Persian Gulf, is the Iranian city of Abadan.
As Flight One crossed over the coast, thirty miles southwest of Abadan, General Bradson sent a command to change the transponder code that the aircraft was squawking. Flight One had three transponders in its cockpit, each preset and hooked into the aircraft’s electrical system via a single three-position power relay. The relay was controlled by the laptop computers via a cable to the one in Flight One’s cockpit, giving the General the ability to select which transponder was powered up and operational. With the press of a button on his laptop, he commanded the relay on Flight One to cut power to the transponder that was set for standard Visual Flight Rules operations and turn on the one was set to squawk 7600, the code for communications failure, most commonly used due to a failed transmitter.
Four miles southwest of Abadan, still in Iraqi airspace, Flight One banked to the right, changing course by thirty degrees, descending through ten thousand feet. As it crossed the border, General Bradson initiated a series of erratic course changes, just a few degrees, mimicking an aircraft with control difficulties.
Just two miles from its primary target, Flight One began a gradual, descending left-hand turn, rolling out on a course of due west. Noticing a drop in airspeed, the General, concentrating on his laptop screen, ordered Flight One’s autopilot to advance the throttles. “I think engine two is failing, I’m getting a little yaw and a drop in airspeed,” he said to Felecia as their own aircraft wound through the canyons of Iran’s Zagros Mountains, thirty miles inland from the Straits of Hormuz, heading generally north. The co-pilot of Flight Three, wearing night vision goggles, began to sweat as he maneuvered the plane, using the rough terrain to shield them from radar.
“Will we abort if your bombing run fails?” Felecia asked. They’d discussed abort conditions before, but Felecia wanted to be sure that the General hadn’t changed his mind.
“Yes, we’d have no choice. Without the stand-down order, we’re likely to be blown out of the sky if we approach our target. We’d also have zero chance of entering the base. If the bombing run fails, our only option is to abort the mission and head back the way we came.”
Approaching Abadan, one mile from its target and descending through six thousand feet, Flight One rolled out on a course of due west. The General triggered what he euphemistically referred to as ‘the sprinkler system’. It was simple in concept; flares mounted under the left wing ignited, while just ahead of them, fed by a spare fuel pump, two aft-pointing fire hose nozzles gushed to life, spraying a thousand gallons of fuel a minute into the slipstream, directly at the flares.
The fuel ignited, leaving a fiery trail through the night sky as Flight One approached the designated initial point of its bombing run.
The General swore under his breath as he fought the yaw, realizing its cause – he’d forgotten that the fuel and flame-front would roil the airflow under the wing, costing some lift on that side. He hoped that he could hold the plane on course for just a few more seconds. Struggling, furiously tapping keys, General Bradson urged his jury-rigged wreck the remaining mile towards its target; a simple set of coordinates, gleaned with precision from a satellite photo and adjusted for time lags and ballistic trajectories.
The brilliant column of blazing fuel trailed under the wing, lighting up the night sky over Abadan. Seeing the fiery trail, most observers thought it to be some kind of missile, which had been the General’s intent.
Aboard Flight One, the wind ripped through the open aft cargo door as the General, on Flight Three, noted that the initial coordinate set had been reached and pushed a button on his laptop, sending the signal to activate the motors of the garage door openers.
The three-quarter horsepower motors – running off inverters that were hooked into the C-130’s electrical system to provide the needed 110-volt AC current – whined softly: turning winch spools instead of their chain-drives. The cables attached to the spools pulled taut, and then tighter still. The cables ran to the ends of the drop rails, through a pulley, and back to the wooden pallets. The pallets began to move on the cargo rails, sliding towards the open cargo bay door.
One by one, the pallets fell into the slipstream, falling away aft. They were not yet free; attached to each was a hundred feet of thin steel cable, the far end anchored in the C-130’s cargo bay. As the line snatched taught it ripped the pallets apart, scattering their cargo of mayonnaise jars across the sky. The last pallet, containing strips of tinfoil cut to varying lengths and widths – chaff to clutter radar returns – disgorged its contents into the air.
For the mayonnaise jars, gravity took over and they arced towards the ground. Several jars, impacted by debris from the pallets or collisions with other jars, broke apart. That released the spring-loaded spoons of the grenades they had held, allowing them to fip open, igniting their internal fuses. One by one, over a span of three seconds, eleven grenades detonated in the night skies over Abadan. Their sound and flashes were taken by several observers as anti-aircraft fire, adding to the impression that an air raid was underway.
The remaining jars, still nearly three thousand in number and blessed with a target over half a mile across, fell through the sky. Over half of the jars fell within their target’s bounds, each shattering upon impact with the ground, or metal pipes, or storage tanks. Many of the grenades were mangled and rendered inert by the impact, but most survived, their released spoons triggering their fuses. Amidst the tinkling glass, three seconds of silence descended. It was not to last.
The result of the General’s improvised bombing run was that the massive oil refinery at Abadan now had, scattered amidst its vast, fragile, and highly flammable acres, nine hundred and thirty live, active fragmentation grenades. With the first separated from the last by a mere two seconds, the grenades detonated, sending out blasts of fire and shrapnel, the latter of which served to shred countless pipes, catalytic cracking towers, propane and gasoline storage tanks, releasing a devil’s brew of highly flammable liquids into the growing maelstrom. Like Satan’s own thunder, a series of secondary explosions that made the grenade blasts look miniscule in comparison rocked the facility, releasing hundreds of thousands of gallons of gasoline from the main storage tanks and into the growing inferno.
With his computer registering that Flight One was nearing its final target, General Bradson pressed the down arrow, and held it. The old C-130 nosed over, increasing speed, its nose pointing at the ground a little further north than the General had planned, but close enough.
Smashing into the earth at a thirty-degree angle just two hundred feet from the threshold of runway 14R of Abadan International Airport, the flaming C-130 burst like an over-ripe watermelon, disgorging fuel and the remaining contents of its cargo bay. The fuel, finding ample ignition sources, created a massive fireball, consuming the shattered remains of the old cargo plane, as thousands of lemons – its sole remaining cargo, save for the cadavers – bounced across the ground, many hundreds emerging, smoldering but intact, from the fire.
The exploding oil refinery and the resulting destruction of such a vital installation raised havoc in the Iranian Air Defense command structure. War warnings went out, citing the reported missile over Abadan, and the burning pyre of what had once been Iran’s largest oil refinery offering apparent confirmation that an attack was underway.
Alerts went out all across Iran, and war warnings sounded at its military instillations. This, General Bradson had intended. He’d chosen his target with care: Iran, though sitting atop a veritable sea of oil, was a net gasoline importer due to having insufficient refining capacity. Its few oil refineries were thus considered a strategic Achilles Heel, and an attack on one, especially the largest one, was a possibility that the Iranian High Command found all too plausible. They recalled all too clearly that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had attacked the same refinery to devastating effect during the Iran-Iraq war. Now it appeared that someone had done so again.
One common factor during an unexpected attack: false alarms and bad information. On this common denominator, General Bradson had based his battle plan. As the air-attack alert went out, reports of imagined contacts, both on the ground and in the air began to trickle into the Tehran command center, in very much the same way all manner of outlandish reports had come into American command centers on 9-11. During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, some of the most widely broadcast films of Baghdad’s anti-aircraft defenses filling the sky with fire had been taken while no attacking aircraft were present – the barrages had been triggered by nervous, edgy troops, one commencing to fire and the rest taking it as a signal of an attack and opening up as well. Such is the nature of war.
The chaos was joined by confirmed reports from two area radar stations: radar interference over Abadan, beginning moments before the explosions on the ground. It was surmised, for the moment, that this was evidence of an ongoing air attack. A smattering of reports regarding anti-aircraft fire over the doomed refinery added to the impression.
Two miles from Abadan, an event that General Bradson had hoped for, though he felt that his plan would work without it, occurred: an anti-aircraft battery, which had seen the apparent missile over the refinery and had heard the reports from the radar stations regarding several targets still over the refinery – the chaff – spotted an incoming aircraft. What they did not know was that it was an Ilyushin Il-76 cargo plane, on a routine military transport flight inbound for the airport. Without waiting for confirmation, they opened fire at their unwitting target, filling the sky with tracers and anti-aircraft shells. Seeing the tracers arcing into the sky, other anti-aircraft sites opened fire, adding their own fury to the skies. The military transport, taken by surprise, began to maneuver, attempting to evade the incoming tracer fire. It made no difference; one of the weapons seeking them was a radar-guided mobile anti-aircraft SAM battery, which launched two missiles of a type known in the West as the SA-6 Gainful. The radar-guided missiles, streaking in at over Mach 3, found the Ilyushin an easy target. One after the other, the two missiles raced in, half a second apart, detonating their one-hundred-twenty-three pound fragmentation warheads directly under the Ilyushin’s center fuel tank. The plane, already shattered, immolated its remains in its own burning fuel, and the sight of the descending fireball caused the anti-aircraft crews to let out a ragged cheer and redouble their efforts.
Aboard Flight Three, General Bradson set his laptop aside, donned night-vision goggles, and said, “Pilot’s aircraft,” as he took over the task of guiding the C-130 through the dark canyons, heading north. The monotonous roar of the engines, combined with the faint smell of jet fuel and oil, pervaded the cockpit. Everything was in the green so far, but the silence of Felecia and the flight crew indicated some frayed nerves. The General decided to give them a bit of a verbal boost. With a satisfied smile, he said, “To quote Patton, ‘Nobody ever defended anything successfully; there is only attack and attack and attack some more.’ That raid we just staged should keep the bastards busy and keep ‘em looking the wrong way, giving us the opening for our main attack. This is going to be a night they’ll never forget.”
With a laugh and a nod, Felecia replied from behind the General’s seat, “Old Blood and Guts sure had a way with words. One of my favorites is, ‘The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his.’” Felecia paused for a moment, taking slight solace in the bravado of words, before adding, “We’ve got a long and risky mission laid on, but we’ll get what we came for.”
General Bradson nodded in agreement. Sobering slightly as he remembered that he was not amongst friends, he resisted the urge to touch his pocket. There, he’d secreted his hastily handwritten notes, which he thought of as his insurance policy.
At Abadan International Airport, the flames that had engulfed the shattered remains of Flight One had already consumed the little remaining fuel and were flickering out. A squad of troops that served as airport guards were the first responders on the scene of the downed C-130, and the first thing they noticed was thousands of lemons.
Twenty minutes after the refinery’s destruction, the duty commander – a Colonel, due to the late hour – in the Iranian Air Force Command center at Doshan Tapeh Air Base, near Tehran, had two very different preliminary reports in his hands. Turning to his chief of staff, he growled in Farsi, “Lemons. It was a fucking cargo plane, Sudanese registry and a flight plan filed for Basra, hauling lemons, apparently trying to make an emergency landing at Abadan. Their transponder was set to emergency. The refinery must have been hit by debris from the plane. It also appears that our defense forces managed to shoot down one of our own transports and damaged another.” Weighing the evidence in his hands, which reported on a situation carefully crafted to lead him to only one conclusion, the Colonel also had to consider the fact that if he did not stand down, and this was an accident, his superiors would use him as a scapegoat for whatever happened. If on the other hand he issued a stand-down, it would have to be confirmed by higher authority, thus absolving him of blame. Colonel made his decision: it had to be stopped. “This is no attack. Cancel the alert and issue a full stand-down order.” He had several additional good reasons to stand down at once; a sudden alert, coupled by aircraft swarming towards the boarder, could trigger a war, and Iran didn’t need one, especially not with nearly half its refining capacity turned to flaming ruin and drastic fuel shortages thus inevitable. The ongoing anti-aircraft fire had already downed one Iranian plane and damaged another. Within minutes, the General Headquarters of Armed Forces, Iran’s highest military authority, confirmed his stand-down order.
The Colonel in Tehran reacted by the book, as General Bradson had hoped; he sent out a new wave of orders, declaring the attack alert a false alarm and ordering a stand-down, which included a blanket cease-fire order to all Iranian anti-aircraft units. The blanket order was a necessity dictated by their command-and-control structure; the fastest way to get the word out, bypassing the delays of contacting individual units and area commanders, was a blanket order. This method was standard procedure in many of the world’s militaries. Units could and would be returned to alert status as the slower chain of command system allowed, but for now, Iran was standing down in order to avoid igniting an accidental conflict, and also to avoid further friendly-fire incidents. General Bradson’s battle plan was working, for the moment.
Further reports of enemy contact would, by rote, initially be dismissed out of hand as simple panic or over-active imaginations. The situation would not last long, but it didn’t need to; it only had to last long enough.
© 2009 C James
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Many thanks to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions.
Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me.
Special thanks to Graeme, for beta-reading and advice.
A big "thank you" to to Bondwriter for final Zeta-reading and advice , and to Captain Rick for his advice.
Any remaining errors are mine alone.