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THE MASADA OPTION
Ian A. O’Connor
The present. Day one – Somewhere over Texas
Justin Scott woke with a start to an overpowering smell of cloves and a hand clamped on his forearm. Who in the hell eats cloves? he thought, jerking his arm free.
“Didn’t mean to startle you, Mr. Scott,” a voice murmured in a no-nonsense West Virginia accent. “My senior flight attendant pointed you out. Said you identified yourself as an FBI agent when you boarded in Atlanta.”
“Retired FBI,” Justin corrected, taking note of the four stripes on the man’s epaulettes, the gold wings over his left breast pocket, and a metal nametag over the right. “What can I do for you, Captain Curtis?”
“You mind showing me your ID, Mr. Scott? And, please, keep your voice low.”
“Trouble?” Justin murmured, digging out his credentials.
“Hope not,” Curtis said, studying the photo ID. “You armed?”
Justin nodded, suspecting Curtis was testing him. The senior attendant would have informed him there was an armed FBI agent on board during her pre-flight briefing, and, if not her, then the gate agent would have done the honors. He had informed both of his weapon-carrying status, after having filled out the requisite Homeland Security paperwork prior to check-in.
Curtis returned the leather case. “I’m going to ask you to follow me into the cockpit.” He flashed a frosty smile. “It seems the FAA has gone to considerable trouble convincing my chief pilot in Atlanta that it’s OK to allow you to come up front for a radio conference with someone important. Someone who would not communicate on your unsecured cell phone. But if the young Clint Eastwood-clone of a sky marshal you’ll see seated near the cockpit door wasn’t on board, I wouldn’t be talking with you now, no matter what instructions came from my company. Up here, Mister Scott, I’m the only law, period. You ready?”
Curtis heaved himself out of the business class seat and led the way up the left aisle of the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner, followed by stares from a score of anxious eyes.
Once inside the cockpit, Curtis lowered a metal bar into place, double-locked the steel door, and motioned Justin into the jump seat behind his chair. “Strap in, then put on the headset. The mike is voice-activated.”
Justin did as instructed and his earphones came alive.
“Delta One Five Zero Seven Heavy, this is Houston Center. Is Mister Scott on the flight deck yet?” the controller asked.
“Delta Zero Seven Heavy, affirmative Houston, stand by one,” Curtis replied in the hallmark monotone of an airline professional. He turned, cocked his thumb and forefinger towards Justin and mouthed, “You’re on.”
“Houston Center, this is Justin Scott.”
“I read you five by five, Mister Scott,” replied the air traffic controller, then said to the captain, “Zero Seven Heavy, please switch to this encrypted frequency,” and rattled off a set of numbers too fast for Justin to follow.
Curtis punched in the new frequency and several seconds later a different voice came online. “Hello, Justin, this is Iron Man. Please answer this question. Whatever happened to Trinity?”
Iron Man? Trinity? No preliminaries; no small talk. How typical of the man, Justin thought. It had to be what, three, possibly four years since he had heard that voice. What the hell was going on?
“Trinity is in mothballs,” Justin replied, his mind racing back to the day he had retired from the bureau, and how the director had instructed him to erase that particular word from his vocabulary. Like Trinity, he too, was now in mothballs, no longer in that need-to-know loop. However, he had heard whispers over the years that Trinity had been quietly shelved, but knew he could never forget either the name or its proposed mission.
His earphones went silent. Iron Man had severed the connection. Several long seconds passed.
“What the hell…” an exasperated Curtis began, but was cutoff mid-sentence by Iron Man.
A hint of a smile crossed Justin’s face. The blackout had been deliberate. Someone, somewhere, needed the time to analyze and authenticate his voiceprint, reinforcing his speculation that something big was afoot.
“Your answer is both right and wrong,” Iron Man was saying. “The CIA has solid information that the British have unilaterally powered up Trinity within the past couple of hours, yet admits no one know why. That information was confirmed by the NORAD commander at Peterson Field in Colorado. Justin, standby for a handoff to POTUS.”
Justin inhaled sharply. The President of the United States? He shook his head, knowing he must have misunderstood.
The transfer was seamless. “Mr. Scott, this is Creighton Avery.” There was no mistaking that Oklahoma twang. “May I call you Justin?”
“Of course, Mr. President.”
“Justin, I’ve got a problem on my hands, and some folks at the Pentagon and at State tell me you might be the man to help me solve it. I was listening to what you were just told about Trinity, and because of that information, I gave the command to the Air Force to put Looking Glass back into play, something I had hoped would never happen on my watch.”
Curtis stared out the windshield, hearing every word, but understanding little. However, Justin knew the full meaning of that announcement. A crisis of monumental international consequences had obviously erupted; a crisis involving nukes. Someone, somewhere, was preparing for a thermonuclear war. The unthinkable was about to become a reality.
“Did I hear you correctly, Mr. President? You did say Looking Glass?”
“You heard right, Justin. Looking Glass is fully operational and its new mission is very different from Mercury’s, which I’m told you are also familiar with. Correct?
“Yes, sir, I am.”
“Good. I’ll explain more in greater detail later. Meanwhile, I’m asking Captain Curtis to please divert into Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston where a Looking Glass aircraft is waiting to fly you back to Washington. You should be here in the Oval Office within three hours.”
“Will that be all, Mr. President?”
“That’s it.” There was a slight pause, then, “Captain Curtis, I’m sorry to have interrupted your flight. I know you’ve heard our entire conversation, but I’d appreciate it if you and the flight deck crew would handle this chat between Mr. Scott and me as having an ultra-top secret classification.”
“Understood, Mr. President.” Curtis then turned to face Justin and deadpanned into his mike, “In fact, I don’t believe Mr. Scott ever made it to the flight deck, sir.”
“Good man,” the President replied, and the line went dead.
Justin gazed over the captain’s shoulder past the windscreen to a cloudless, azure sky. His mind was a million miles away as one question crowded all others from his mind. Why me?
Ian A. O’Connor is a retired USAF Colonel with a background in countering nuclear, biological, and chemical threats to the nation. He is the author of two Justin Scott thrillers. The Masada Option will be the third. Ian lives in South Florida with his wife, Candice.
The Defection and Subsequent Resurrection
of Nikolai Pushkin
A Novel by Ken Pisani
On the day of Nikolai Pushkin’s scheduled flight to the United States, a van pulled up to the US embassy in Stockholm, Sweden, and four men with unsavory reputations and faces like pounded meat exited the vehicle. Another remained inside, maintaining his stranglehold on the steering wheel. Two of the four lumbered into the embassy while the other two stood watch; minutes later, the first pair exited flanking a nervous young man, his face shielded by dark glasses and a Buffalo Sabres baseball cap. They all piled into the van, which sank noticeably under their weight, and took off at a high rate of speed. Right behind them was a rented Saab driven by a large KGB agent stuffed into the driver’s seat.
It was just ten days earlier that twenty-year-old Nikolai Pushkin had led the Soviet team to the gold medal at the 1989 Ice Hockey World Championship, scoring eight goals with seven assists in the tournament. No contest, really, as the Soviets won all ten of their games, leaving the world’s best hockey players skittering like seals under the assault of a polar bear. It was the Soviets’ sixth consecutive World Championship and twenty-first overall, just three fewer than America’s New York Yankee baseball club. The team celebrated with a trip to a shopping mall in Stockholm, where a pair of KGB agents trailed Nikolai like a clumsy shadow.
Did they know? Had they guessed? Or was this just reasonable suspicion: one year earlier Nikolai had been drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in the 1988 NHL draft—a wasted gesture (albeit with the eighty-ninth pick in round five), a fruitless late-round gamble against the history that no Soviet had ever played in the National Hockey League. And it remained unlikely, even in the waning days of the Cold War, that any might be allowed to leave the Motherland to join that capitalist enterprise.
Nikolai lifted a blazer off the rack without a look, pastel colored and big shouldered and two sizes too small. As he headed into the dressing room the two agents pretended to riffle through the shirt rack; quickly entranced by the unfamiliar fashions, they soon stopped pretending.
“Magnum P.I.,” the shorter one said in Russian, holding a Hawaiian shirt against himself, and the taller one laughed.
But the tall man’s mind was elsewhere, in the dressing room with Nikolai—not as a function of his job as it should have been, but in imagining him naked. During the course of the championship, he’d seen, under the guise of surveillance, all these sturdy young men in varying degrees of nudity in their locker room. On more than one occasion, he’d had to conceal or physically restrain his erection.
Alone in the dressing room, Nikolai stared at his reflection. He’d known fear in his life: fear of failure, or being cut from the team, of his coach’s wrath and the state’s power over him. In his youth he feared hunger, cold, the disapproval of his mother and the fate of his father to be inconsequential. And he harbored a terrible fear of flying. But nothing like the terror of what he was about to do, fright etched on the face that looked back at him like a soundless shriek.
It took a moment for both agents to realize that Nikolai had exited the opposite end of the dressing room and was covering ground in increasingly quicker strides toward the mall’s exit. As they floundered to catch up Nikolai broke into a run, leaving the pair of them behind as he had so many defensemen on a breakaway. The revolving door slowed him like a full body check, and he emerged, stumbling, on the other side, startling the executive from the Buffalo Sabres waiting by the car, Don Woolf. Woolf waved and shouted, the cigarette dropping from his mouth, and both jumped into the vehicle and sped off as the two agents lurched from the same quadrant of the revolving door, the shorter one losing his shoe and watching it spin back inside the store. The taller one swore in Russian.
It wasn’t until he was several blocks away that Nikolai realized how, in addition to having just defected from the Soviet Union, he’d also stolen an ill-fitting blazer from the Gallerian.
Two weeks earlier Don Woolf, head of player development for the Sabres, had received a phone call from Nikolai, whom he’d met at the World Juniors in Anchorage, Alaska a year ago and presented with his business card of inscrutable letters to a teenager schooled in Cyrillic. Nikolai had called to tell him in fractured English that he wanted to “come over” to the Sabres of New York. It took a moment for Woolf to realize that he meant “defect.” Woolf couldn’t be sure the voice belonged to Nikolai and not a pretender for the Nordiques—a prank phone call would be just like them, the fucking Queebs. He asked “Nikolai” to tell him something only he could know about their meeting. After a moment’s hesitation, Nikolai replied something about Woolf’s hands—like hockey mitts, and that his own had disappeared in Woolf’s handshake.
Woolf had in fact remarked at the time about Nikolai’s hands, surprisingly delicate for a hockey player. But Nikolai’s power wasn’t in his fists; he was all about velocity and motion, a blur on skates with breakaway speed, Soviet discipline, and the indefatigable energy of youth. Woolf believed Nikolai was a shortcut to beating Edmonton, and he wanted him enough to risk an international incident.
The Sabres had been eliminated in the first round just a week earlier, losing to Boston for the fourth time in as many playoffs, and Woolf had little interest in watching the eight remaining teams chase the Stanley Cup. The next day he was on a plane to Sweden, and shortly thereafter in a car speeding away from the Gallerian, and now at the American embassy, where a career consular officer tried to talk them both out of their plan.
“I’m not sure he qualifies for political asylum,” she said. “This isn’t exactly Svetlana Alliluyeva we have here. He’s a hockey player.”
“America’s taken grandmasters of chess, ballerinas, conductors, playwrights, violinists, tenors, pianists…” Woolf noted. “This man is an artist with a hockey stick.”
“Are you really sure that you want to leave home?” the woman turned her attention to Nikolai, imagining that he might wish to be included in this discussion of his future. “You have a family there, and you’ll never see them again. Also, as a member of the Red Army this isn’t just a defection—you’ll be charged as a deserter.”
Nikolai’s fear was gone now, dispersed in the act of his defection. He explained his desire to win the Stanley Cup, see Cats, meet Koch.
“Koch?” Woolf wondered. “Yes! He’s Jewish!” Woolf declared of Nikolai, not knowing if it was true. “Fleeing the well-documented persecution of Soviet Jews.”
Nikolai understood about half of what they were saying, none of which made him Jewish.
“This is a big step,” the consular official pleaded with Nikolai to understand, sensing the worldview of a twenty-year-old Russian hockey player to be as small as the gap between the sutures in his brow. “Have you really thought this through?”
Nikolai repeated the phrases Stanley Cup, Cats, and Koch, and with that plans were put in motion to whisk him to Buffalo where none of those things had ever been present…but with Nikolai’s help, perhaps one of them might.
Ken Pisani is an Emmy-nominated producer, screenwriter, playwright, comic book creator and novelist. (Ken needs to learn how to focus.) His debut novel “AMP’D” was a Los Angeles Times bestseller and finalist for the 2017 Thurber Prize for American Humor. @kpsmartypants
STANDING IN WATER
By Kathleen Caprario
Smoke rises from smoldering rubble and into an otherwise clear sky. An aerial view shows both Ground Zero and the Brooklyn Bridge; an American flag flies atop one of the Bridge’s stone towers.
Papers drift on air currents and sail down a debris and dust-filled street. Workers, some in Hazmat suits, others not, begin the slow process of restoring order to a previously unimagined chaos.
It’s seven weeks since 9/11 and Halloween. I come home to find my husband had hanged himself.
“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”
— attributed to Dale Carnegie
I never had a lemonade stand. Who would pay a kid for a cup of sweetened water when the Gold Bar was half a block away and ready to relieve one of one’s weekly wages with its butt-molded, leatherette stools and refrigerated air? No one who lived on the seven hundred block of Jackson Avenue in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
The seven hundred block was second generation, European immigrant, very Roman Catholic and adhered to the three G’s—gossip, God and guilt—in that order. I didn’t need to stand on a corner in the hot sun with a hand-scrawled sign advertising sugary liquid for a nickel to know what was to be learned from all of that metaphorically-squeezed fruit. Lemons were as commonplace as the regret etched on my neighbor’s faces. Lemonade was survival juice.
I left the old neighborhood long before I moved out.
The road erratically speeds toward me through a smudged windshield. A sun-faded, sci-fi “Resistance Is Futile” air freshener dangles from the rearview mirror, its artificial pine-based scent long gone.
“Mother fucking, son of a bitch, fuck, fucking son of a bitch…” Screaming obscenities while driving fast calms me down. I feel nearly normal. If I’m stopped by a cop, I figure I’ll tell them I have Tourette’s Syndrome, motherfucker, and claim protection under the Americans With Disabilities Act. It’s worth a try.
Suddenly, there’s no sound. I grip the steering wheel. Tears stream down someone’s face. Mine. The exit comes too fast. The Borg Queen twirls and dances on her once scented cardboard stage. Did she just wink at me? She knows.
I’m high above the old Toyota Corolla wagon and watch myself, from a bird’s eye view, aggressively merge onto the highway, right in front of a semi-truck before shifting lanes several times. I know I don’t want to die, especially in some less-than-attractive road accident involving insurance companies. The paper work alone gives me a reason to live.
The other reason comes into focus in my mind’s eye, a backpack slung across one shoulder and sporting cargo shorts despite the cool temperature.
I could dye my hair purple, hop a Greyhound to some godforsaken corner of the Lower Forty Eight and hit the bottle. Sounds like a plan. Oh, right, I’m someone’s mother. Plus, I don’t drink.
At least I have a sense of humor.
I need to locate the final pieces of my healing puzzle. So, I check under the couch, not there. The rug, too, nothing. All that searching and aspirational grieving yields zilch. It isn’t until there’s nothing left to analyze, re-hash or ponder that the truth of my trauma looks me straight in the eye and, well, laughs. A big, cosmic guffaw that shakes the ground I stand upon. My legs a-wobble, I surrender to the singular absurdity of my experience and its remarkable, glorious ridiculousness.
I laugh back.
My friend’s voice comes through my flip phone with the requisite, what’s up.
“Just waiting at school.” I listen as my life-long “bestie” shares her day and offers me advice on mine. I look around the car and spy my bag as it occupies the passenger seat. Its contents are half spilled out, including a photo of me, my late husband and our teenage son. The artifact from the once happy family holds my gaze stronger than a zip-tie or duct tape. I’m mesmerized by the past as it presents itself to me in the moment. This moment that is the past.
“No, I’m still here, yeah, yes…” Listening to my friend’s voice, three time zones away, brings me back to the present, the dried bird shit on the windshield and the mummified version of a French fry I’m sitting on.
“You’re better than the three therapists I keep in monthly car payments. One drives a “Beemer.” You too… Bye.”
The phone clicks shut and I smile. Irrational, perhaps. A new plop of bird shit appears on the windshield and I do double-takes between it and my smiling self in the rearview mirror. I stop smiling, sink back down into myself and the familiarity of my discomfort. My eyes drift for a moment then land again on the family photo. My husband’s straightforward expression and the memory of that captured instant, a click in time, reaches out to me. We connect.
“You said it felt like you were drowning. Standing in rising water.” The spell cast, my words form mid-air and float upward. I grab at them, but they squirm between my fingers and wriggle free. Too late. The cat’s out of the bag. The magic words out of my mouth. Are they smiling at me?
The car begins to fill with water from the floorboards up. I react, with what? Surprise, shock? How should I feel as the water covers my feet and rises to my ankles?
A tapping on my window glass startles me. An overly cheerful fellow smiles too broadly and gives me a hearty thumbs up as he compulsively and without regard for others not as carefree, shares his good cheer with me.
“Got to love those driveway moments. In the parking lot!”
I look through the freshly bird-shat windshield as Happy Guy, never breaks his bouncy-stride and greets others on his merry way.
“Asshole.” My voice is steady and matter of fact. Resigned to his present bounciness.
The end-of-day buzzer buzzes. A press of uniformed teenagers fills the parking lot with their momentary hopes, insecurities and the potential of so many life times. I spot my son among his classmates. The water recedes.
A quiet boy. Reserved. He seems so easy with his friends as they exit the school. So comfortable in the space he occupies. Despite the far from normal series of events that have informed half of his young life, he’s so normal. My very normal son walks toward the car and with each step the weight of his journey precedes him.
We sit next to each other on the couch and wait. Two place settings sit empty on the cluttered coffee table in front of us. School books and mail, both opened and not, are piled in the table’s center, a haphazardly-arranged artifact of our here and now.
One well-worn paperback, Sir Ernest Shackleton’s memoir detailing his 1914-1917 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, South!, sits, in pride of place, set apart from the rest and within my reach. Its pulpy pages are slightly amber in color and dog-eared and on its glossy cover is a black and white photograph of an old-fashioned sailing ship, christened Endurance, placed cock-eyed on a bed of white-sheeted ice chunks. The image is starkly beautiful and simultaneously terrifying, a reminder of the remorselessness of the sublime.
Endurance. I guess that’s what it takes to get everyone out alive.
Kathleen Caprario-Ulrich is an award winning writer, visual artist and occasional stand up comic who traded the concrete canyons of the New York City for love…and the broad skies of the Pacific Northwest where she resides and creates. “Standing In Water” is her debut novel.