One Last Time

 

 

“I’m out of the spy business, remember?” Captain Lee Crane told the men in front of him. “Sirs,” he added, his protocol sense overcoming his irritation. He had had to wait for a considerable time while the room was checked and double-checked for listening devices. Distorting gadgets were set up, effectively nullifying any missed bugs. Whatever they wanted him for, it was very big. He stood in front of the three men, feeling like a rate at a court martial.

“No, Commander, you are out of ONI. This is not ONI and you are not being asked to go into the People’s Republic.” It was the Marine general, one who fit the total stereotype of a Marine drill instructor. The jaw worked as though he was chewing on a cigar causing the muscles in his jaw and neck to bunch like knotted cords. Even though the hair was gray, Lee had no doubt the man beneath the uniform was still solid and formidable as a rock. The general leaned forward and fixed Crane with a steely gaze. “But you are an American and you’re being called to use your considerable talents in the service of your country.” That pronouncement made, he leaned back, all the while never taking his eyes off Crane’s.

Lee bristled at the implication of the general’s last statement, but didn’t say anything for a moment. Finally he gave in, curious about the nature of this mission. “Why me, sirs? I’m getting a bit too old for this kind of run, jump and shoot stuff. I have a day job already.”

The Marine, General Joseph Wilkinson, Lee remembered, snorted. “Too old? The hell you are, just been on that tin can too long. Need some fresh air.”

If that was an attempt at humor, it failed miserably. Lee made no comment. He simply stood with his gaze, first on the general and then on the far wall where a photo showed a formation of jets zooming across a crystal clear backdrop of sky. He stood stiffly, even though the general had given him the ‘at ease’ when he came in. Finally when nothing else was said for several heartbeats, he repeated, “Why me?”

“Several reasons, Captain Crane,” the Navy admiral, Jonathan Corbin, took up. “You are as well versed in the spy business as a full time espionage agent. You have a knack for getting the job done. Despite what happened in the People’s Republic last year, you aren’t as well known among enemy spy agencies as you might think. Besides, most of our enemies seem to have the same reaction you just had. They think you are totally out of espionage.  Last, but not least, His Highness, King Ang would trust you. There are several other minor things, but they only serve to quantify our choice of you to go into Marjistan to get the king out.”

Crane was startled. “I knew a neighboring country had invaded Marjistan a year ago, but I thought Ang had been given authority to rule as a tributary leader. Things seem peaceful.”

Admiral Corbin answered, “Yes, but it appears Trilea feels Ang is fomenting rebellion.”

“Not that Ang doesn’t have the right to, but he’s still a minor. How could he be doing something like that?” Lee remembered the ten-year-old on Seaview back when. How long had it been? Five, almost six years? Well, regardless…. “But how in the world can I get in and get him out again? He’s got to be well guarded. The palace is probably bugged to the hilt.”

“Reasonably simple, actually. Look over this file. There has been a man on the inside preparing for the eventuality of the king’s escape.”

“And why doesn’t he simply get Ang out?” Crane asked, knowing he would get a very quick response. He wasn’t disappointed.

“Because our man isn’t a pilot and because he’s going to cover the king’s escape. …If he’s still alive. We haven’t heard from him for several days.”

Crane nodded, understanding what it would mean for the man left behind. His admiration for the agent rose considerably.

“Captain,” General Wilkinson said, leaning forward. “We need you to do this. The man inside and those of us here believe you are the only one capable of pulling this off.” He paused, leaned back and pulled a cigar out of his pocket. Crane mentally cringed. Cigar smoke could be particularly noxious, especially in a small room like this one. “It goes beyond what you, Admiral Nelson and Seaview did six years ago. We know we can’t do anything about the occupation of Ang’s country. At least not now.”

“But King Ang is a symbol,” Corbin continued. “And his man inside has fervently requested our help in getting the king out for several months now. Apparently Ang has also agreed the only way he can obtain his country’s freedom is to work on the outside.”

“We would prefer it be our country to be his benefactor,” Wilkinson added.

“There’s someone else?” Crane asked, wondering who the man on the inside was. Colonel Meger?

“Yes, Commander. The People’s Republic has been contacted.” Wilkinson lit up a cigar and drew on it. “When we didn’t respond fast enough.” He face grimaced in disgust.

“Does this have the sanction of the White House?” Lee asked.

Corbin nodded. “After consideration of all factors, yes.”

And considering the president was nearing the end of his presidency, Lee thought, he was still being very careful about all his decisions. The man hadn’t become so respected for being rash, though. Lee nodded. “All right. Do you have the ‘playbook’?”

Wilkinson picked up his briefcase and worked a combination in its lock. Then he opened it up and pulled out a surprisingly thin portfolio, handing it over to Lee. Before he let Crane touch it, though, he asked, “You officially taking this?”

“Yes, sir, but for the record, General….”  He paused, then took a breath and continued. “My sense of patriotic duty shouldn’t even have been referred to.  I would hope everyone understands where my loyalties lie by now.”

Wilkinson pulled his cigar out of his mouth and glared at him, then his features softened and he grinned. “Duly noted, Commander. And you’re right. You’ve been in this business of service and duty too long to have to be reminded of your loyalties.”

“Thank you, sir,” Crane said with a nod. The general handed him the portfolio and he began reading, knowing he wouldn’t be leaving the room with this information. Most likely, the contents of the portfolio would be destroyed when he was done. This was not something anyone in the state department would want public. He read it and re-read it, incredulous so much was still left to chance, luck or something like that, despite the planning. It was simple only in its speed. In one day and out that night. Finally he looked up. “Are you sure that thing is flyable?”

“The Canberra’s were really good aircraft once they got the bugs out of them,” Wilkinson said, taking another draw on his cigar. The blue-gray smoke rose lazily to the ceiling.

“They were marginal for Vietnam,” Crane pointed out, “If I remember correctly.”

Corbin answered. “This one has been worked on secretly for the past several months. It was kept in pretty good shape anyway, but more for show. Good morale booster, a real plane on display near the local airport. Picked up after the fall of Saigon actually, but that’s a different story.”

Crane sighed softly. “And you can vouch for this aircraft mechanic?”

Wilkinson nodded. “As much as we can vouch for anybody, really.” There was a slight pause. “Actually he worked on aircraft during WWII, then later worked on jets. We are assured he knows old and new aircraft inside out. Since the country’s takeover he’s been outwardly working for the new regime, but is very much a loyalist.”

Crane looked over the details one more time, understanding the simplicity and speed of the plan. He realized, though, a lot was going to depend on Ang. 

“And if that doesn’t work out, there are a couple of alternatives,” Wilkinson said, blowing smoke toward the ceiling.

One being death, Crane thought, but didn’t say aloud.

 

        ===============================

 

King Ang Raisl Ata’ Mirzeban paced in the confines of his room, scowling. He knew he was being watched, listened to, manipulated. His father had told him life as a king would be that way. The true test of a king was just how much he would allow of that sort of behavior and what he would ignore on his quest to make right judgments and actions. Right now, he didn’t feel like a king, because those who were watching, listening and manipulating were not over-anxious courtiers and flunkies, but were his enemies, the real rulers of Marjistan—those working for the dictator of Trilea.  Ang was merely a puppet; kept in power to keep the people from revolting. For the past year it had been thus and for the past year he had backed away from General Meger’s plea to either lead a revolt or, more preferably, go into exile until forces could be organized to overthrow the Trilean overseers.

He wondered if it had been right to ignore Meger’s advice. It had been difficult after his father’s murder almost years ago. It still was. If it hadn’t been for General Meger . . . and the memories of those days with Old John….  Ang gazed down at the flute in his hand. No matter how he tried, he couldn’t get John’s tunes down as well as the castaway had played them, but he was getting better. Now Meger was gone, shot in the middle of the night two weeks ago for treason. He and the general had been so careful, so very careful, but in the end the Trilean spies, long may they rot in hell, had found something. Or maybe they just suspected something. Did they really need an excuse?

The king sighed and shook his head. What could he do now? He didn’t know who to trust, who to talk to. Now Ang put the flute to his lips and played a sad melody. As he played, he pondered the past few weeks and Ang knew he hadn’t said or done anything to betray Meger.

“Your Majesty, you are troubled?”

With a jerk, Ang pulled the flute from his lips and turned to the newcomer.  It was Nalaja-hrigal, the ancient mage who had spent much time in the mountains since Trilea’s takeover of the country. He had only come down during the terrible winter of last year. The mage had been roughed up by the secret police almost immediately. The general had been able to save him then; but only because the old man had come out of the interrogations addled. Now Nalaja-hrigal was only a source of platitudes and history. Still, Ang thought, the old man was his only link to the past—his father, mother, the kingdom. Not this façade formed by Trilea. And there was something about him reminding him of Old John. A little, he thought.

“Patience is the prince of virtues, Highness.”

“Only the patience of a stone could last in these times,” Ang retorted and then relented. “I’m sorry, High One. I didn’t mean any disrespect.”

The old man chuckled. “It is understandable, young king. However anger and fear will not change your situation.”

“What will?” Ang asked carefully, remembering the walls had ears and eyes.

“Temperance. Humility. Calm.” The mage gazed up at Ang from his stooped position. The eyes were calm, but seemed bright, too. “The true king rules from within.”

That sounded like something Old John would have said and Ang calmed down. He tucked the flute into his waistband and walked to the chest containing some of his father’s accoutrements.

Nalaja-hrigal shuffled up behind him and laid a thin hand on his arm. “Watch, Highness. Watch, ponder and listen to the inner part of yourself that comes from your father.”

Ang said nothing as he heard the door to his chambers open. That was the other thing—the new regime didn’t believe in any kind of decorum. No one knocked. Not that they were much better in the old days. Still…. He turned and froze for a quick minute. The servant, one of the slow-witted waste people from the Trilean desert, came and bowed before him. However, it wasn’t the same servant. Oh, he looked enough like one of the Trileans, but Ang knew just who was kow-towing in front of him. Although more than five years had passed, the young king knew that before him was none other than the captain of the submarine, Seaview.

“Highness,” Captain Crane said huskily and hesitantly in the Marjistan language. “Dress for breakfast?”

Ang studied him for another moment and then nodded. He turned to the old man. “Will you have breakfast with me, Holiness?”

“After my meditations, Highness,” Nalaja-hrigal murmured. He turned and shuffled from the room.

Ang turned to Crane who was still bent forward, head down. If he hadn’t remembered the time on board the submarine so clearly, he might not have recognized the man in front of him. The hair showing from under the worker’s turban had been colored with gray, there was a mustache and beard in the manner of the desert people, also salt and pepper. The captain appeared older with that change. Ang couldn’t see the eyes, but the line of the jaw, the carriage of the man’s body, despite his subservient stance, told the young king what he needed to know. And he knew where to find out just what the American’s plans were. “Come,” he ordered.

Crane bowed a little lower and followed. They went into his bedroom where Ang motioned Crane to wait while he checked his large closet. General Meger had managed to find out where most of the bugs were in this wing of the palace. He hadn’t disabled them, because the Trileans would simply have come in and installed new ones or worse—arrested them. As it was, Meger had still been arrested and then shot, leaving Ang on his own. That had been unnerving the past two weeks since the general’s death. He hadn’t been sure what to do, even though Meger, when he could feasibly do so, had given him instructions. For some reason, Ang figured that was exactly what the general’s death had been calculated to do—unnerve him.

Pushing those thoughts aside, he walked in, began looking through his outfits and hung one up in front of the tiny spy camera installed by the door. Instead of waiting for Ang to make his own selection, Crane followed him, his hands busy, looking through the numerous outfits. He muttered and touched the clothing, one piece at a time, pulling some one way and then another as though trying to select the right piece. Even though it was not his custom to let the foreign servants touch his personal things, Ang said nothing, only watched, assuming the American was doing a check of his own.

Finally Crane pulled a slightly less formal shirt and jacket and motioned for him to pull off the sleeping shirt he had been wearing. Ang did so after a moment of careful consideration of the clothing the American had in his hands. “Not my favorite, but still a good choice,” he commented in his own language.  He certainly couldn’t speak in English. He only hoped the captain was familiar with Marjistani.

“Good choice,” Crane repeated, running his hands up and down the fabric.

The birds on the palace grounds were loud this morning, Ang noticed as he pulled off his shirt and reached for the new one. Crane hesitated a moment and ran his hand across the pocket, then he undid the buttons and handed Ang the shirt. With an unobtrusive touch of the same pocket, Ang put the silken shirt on, buttoned it and waited for Crane to hand him the lightweight jacket. While it was the beginning of the winter season and the nights tended to be cool and damp, this day was supposed to be unseasonably warm, so anything heavier would have him sweating like one of the workers down in the marketplace.

He looked in the mirror and then walked out of the closet, the American right on his heels. “Tonight, Highness. Tonight will be cooler.”

At first Ang thought Crane might have been reading his mind, but then realized it was part of a message. The other part had to be in his pocket. They passed through an open-air passageway leading to the dining and reception halls. It overlooked the well-manicured gardens where most of the birds had collected this morning.

“Ah, they know a very good place. The birds,” Crane said from behind him in his hesitant, much less than commanding voice. “It is especially pleasant at night. Cool, quiet. Anytime, one can think.”

Another hint, in case he hadn’t picked up on the first one. Ang only nodded, paused to look over the gardens and then continued on. “Yes, to think,” he murmured. The American said nothing more, but followed until they came to the large doors leading to the other wing of the palace. There he bowed and returned to the private quarters, presumably to do the work his personal servants were supposed to do during the day. 

After breakfast, at which the old mage didn’t appear, Ang walked through the gardens, meandering among the rose bushes his mother had chosen and the fruit trees his father had preferred. At the edge of the pond in which large koi and carp swam, he stopped and pondered. He pulled out the small bag of fish food from one pocket and tossed the pellets to the hungry creatures. Then he felt his other pocket and pulled out the paper Crane had left there.

The instructions were sparse and in the old language—the one only royalty had been allowed to write and speak for generations. Ang read them carefully. He was to return to this place tonight. He was to come in his nightclothes as though he was restless. Bring nothing to cause suspicion and be ready for anything. It was as he had suspected. General Meger had been able to get the word to the United States that the king was seeking asylum and needed help getting out of the country. They had sent Captain Crane.

With deliberate ease, Ang tore up the paper into tiny pieces and threw it out to the voracious fish. They gobbled it up. Some spit the pieces back out, but others went ahead and ate them up.

“They prefer the more delectable fish food,” the creaky voice of Nalaja-hrigal said from behind him.

Ang couldn’t help it; the old man startled him. He jumped and almost slipped at the edge of the pond. The bony fingers caught his sleeve as he steadied himself—and composed himself. It wouldn’t do to show his anxiety. With a shrug he said, “I was thinking of my father and mother….” That wasn’t a total lie. “It was something I had composed.”

“You should have kept it, Highness. All remembrances are precious, even if the words on paper do not match the thoughts in your heart.”

Ang nodded. “Perhaps.” But he wouldn’t say any more on the subject. “I guess it’s time for my lessons.” He wrinkled his nose in distaste. Even now, there was school. Now most of it was pure propaganda, stuff he wished he could treat just as the fish had treated the torn up pieces of the note.

The old mage said nothing, too, and they sat and watched the fish alternately suck in and spit out the papers. Ang thought about all the Nalaja-hrigal had been through and wished he could escape with him. Could he? But no, the American wouldn’t be prepared for that. However, even as he studied during the day, Ang examined the possibility in his mind. If Crane was prepared to smuggle him out, why not a wizened old man, too?

 

                          *******************

 

The night was soft velvet with only the sound of the guards’ footfalls around the palace and through the halls telling him of his non-free status. Even the fish weren’t breaking the surface of the water. A few insects chirped, a frog near the pond tried a half-hearted mating call.

“It is as I said, Highness. Very nice tonight.”

It was Crane. Ang turned and saw the American crouched near his feet.  “Yes. I couldn’t sleep and came here to clear my head.”

“Alone?”

“Yes, but I need to talk to you about….”

“No time,” Crane hissed.

“The old holy man. He should come. He is important…”

“Not as important as you. But he can’t,” Crane interrupted. “No room.”

“But he’s been tortured,” Ang pleaded. “They will kill him if I leave him behind!”

“Do you trust him? Do you know for sure he’s not part of the regime?”

“I would trust him with my life!” Ang protested, his voice harsh with indignation. “And he’s not part of the dictator’s government.”

“If I could take anyone else, it would prefer it to be Meger or our contact,” Crane snapped, his voice barely above a whisper.

“The general is dead.”

There was silence for a moment. “As I suspected,” Crane replied. “Regardless….”

“Ah, Highness, even though the grounds are secure, you should really not be walking out this late at night,” the voice of the old mage seemed to float from over the water. The Nalaja-hrigal was only a few paces away from him, though, moving closer in his silent way.

Crane started, but didn’t say anything. Ang thought he could almost hear a low growl.

“Ah, Holy One,” the king said, more to identify the old man to Crane than for any other reason. “It was hard to sleep and I was walking to clear my head.” Ang watched the American for his reaction, but there was none. It was evident Crane was hoping the old man would leave soon. “If it was possible, would you wish to leave here, Holy One?”

There was a slight movement from Crane, but still the American didn’t say anything.

“Ah, a rhetorical question, Highness?”

“Maybe, there’s a chance it could happen.”

“Highness….” Crane tried to say.

“I have a way out, Holy One,” Ang plunged ahead. He couldn’t, in good conscience, leave the old mage behind. “It will be difficult, but it can be done.”

“A way from here?” the old man whispered, his voice tight with anxiety. “How?”

“Don’t ask,” Crane hissed and stood up from his crouch. “But if you love your king, you’ll follow and not say a word.”

Ang could hear the tightly controlled anger in the American’s voice, but he couldn’t help it.

“I will gladly follow. My life would not be worth anything here if the king left,”

The young king felt a glow at the old man’s words and the emotion he heard behind them. He knew he had been right.

“Your Highness,” Crane whispered, almost in the young man’s ear. “We are going to the Royal Park. Where the jet is. I will take the lead. I have scouted out a secure route. I want you to follow the old man. Make sure . . . make sure he keeps up. We don’t have much time.” Ang nodded. The Nalaja-hrigal fell in step behind Crane, leaving Ang to take up the rear.

The sounds of chirping crickets and frogs grew louder as they approached the park. They walked through the forest skirting a large lake. Crane didn’t have more than a tiny penlight he shone on the trail sporadically, but they made good time. Branches slapped at their faces and brush rubbed against their legs. The air was chilly and damp and a thin fog formed along their path. Ang shivered, but he couldn’t let the cold bother him. He was sure the American was under some kind of time restraint. Crane slapped at the bugs floating around his head, but didn’t slow down. The midges were incredibly thick considering how cool it was. They were near the marshy area of the park.

They were almost through the forest when the captain slowed, then stopped. He shook his head and they continued. It wasn’t long, though, before Crane stopped again and leaned against a tree. Ang was about to go to him when the American dropped to his knees in the bushes and was thoroughly sick.  Alarm shot through the young king and he crouched by Crane.

“Can’t believe this!” Crane muttered. He slowly got to his feet and looked down the path leading around the lake. “So close and to get some blasted virus. I’ll get you to the rendezvous and then we can deal with the situation.”

He had spoken in English and Ang responded in kind. “What can I do to help?”

“Just keep an eye on your friend and pray he’s one of the good guys.”

“He is. I know he is.”

“Please, is there something I can do?” the mage asked from behind them.

Crane shook his head, but seemed to regret it immediately. He gulped in a lungful of air before continuing on the path. It soon became apparent he wouldn’t be able to get past the lake. There were several more stops. “Your Highness,” he whispered.

Ang drew near. “Let me help you walk.”

“No. I want you to continue to the jet. Don’t let anyone see you until you get there. You’ll see a man waiting under the fuselage. Ask him if he’s Marley and then he’ll give you a countersign.” Crane gave him more instructions and then grabbed him by the arm. “There is an alternate rendezvous. You’ll make it, Your Highness. You’re tough.”

“But what about you?” Ang asked.

“I’ll come if I start feeling better, but you need to go now.”

“Are you sure?” Ang asked, indecisive.

“Yes, I’m sure. It’s imperative you leave the country now,” Crane replied.

“He is right, Your Highness,” the old man said. “You need to do what he says.”

“I will stay hidden until you are well away,” Crane added. “Go on.”

Ang shook his head. “They will kill you!” he whispered.

“I didn’t come here just to see you toss this chance away. You owe this to your people. Go!”

“I’m sorry, C . . .  I’m sorry.”

“I am, too, Your Highness,” Crane said softly.

Reluctantly, Ang turned away.

 

            ******************

 

Lee watched the king and old man disappear into the thickening fog and hoped Ang’s instincts were right. If not…. He dragged himself further off the path and felt his stomach reach a fever pitch of rebellion. He heaved but there was nothing left. “Except my toenails,” he muttered. His head felt like the inside of one of the local temple bells.

He heard a slight sound of footfalls. It was from he left, opposite of where Ang and the mage had gone. He reached into his belt for the knife he had kept for himself. It was a small one, but still effective.  However, his hand was pinioned in the newcomer’s grasp with almost ridiculous ease. The knife was pulled from his grasp.

“Ah, Captain, it wouldn’t do to try to stab the one succoring ye, would it?” a voice said.

It was at once familiar and totally unexpected. He hadn’t heard an Irish brogue like that since Ang had been a refugee on board Seaview that nearly six years ago. “John?” he asked, incredulous.

“Aye, aye, Skipper and at your service.”

“What the hell are you doing here?”

There was a very soft chuckle. “What do you think I’d be doing here?” John asked. “I’m here to help you and the boy get out of the predicament you’re in.”

They were in a predicament, all right. “Yeah, I picked a helluva time to get the flu.”

There was a soft rumbling deep in John’s throat. “You’re not sick, friend.”

Crane had tried to shove the nausea as far into the recesses of his mind as he could. His shock at the older man’s words almost caused him to lose what little control he had. “Wh . . . what?”

“Well, tis quite apparent to me you’ve been poisoned, Captain.”

But who? How? He was by himself all day, never ate anything except what little he had brought himself. No contact until tonight…. The old man! “The mage!” he hissed.

“Aye, he’s a clever one, he is. ‘E played his part well.”

“Damn!”

“Cursin’ won’t save the boy now, Captain,” John whispered, his voice deadly serious.

“Right now, I’m not any use to anyone. Can you save Ang?”

“That I can, but only by helping you.”

“You’ve got an antidote?” Lee asked, hopeful.

John shook his head. “No, friend. No antidote. Getting you and the boy out of here safely is the best thing I can do,” John replied.

Crane groaned and reached for Old John’s shoulder. “You have to go help Ang. Get him away from….” John helped him to his feet where Lee wavered, feeling his head and stomach conspiring against him again. “How long before whatever it is . . . kills me?”

“Well, you have a while yet. Don’t think the leaders here wanted ya to be dyin’ on them right away. Let’s go, so you can get the king out safely.”

“How? I can’t fly. Not like this.”

“Ah well, I’ll help you to the plane. You can do that much, eh, Skipper?”

Lee nodded and instantly regretted the action. “Oh, my head,” Lee groaned again. He looked over at the man keeping him on his feet and glared. “And how do you propose I fly a semi-obsolete aircraft to a sea borne destination and land it without killing us all?” he demanded.

“Captain, you can do it,” John whispered fervently. “You can do it because you have to.”

Crane still felt the nausea, his pounding head warring with his strength and will to get the young king out of the country. He was grateful for John’s assistance, even as he wondered where the old man had come from. Not going to worry about that now. “So the so-called holy man is a government plant,” he breathed out.

“Friend, all men have a bit of holy within them,” John whispered. “But even goodness can be driven out if it’s beaten badly enough.”

“I don’t believe that,” Lee growled as he concentrated on putting one foot ahead of the other.

“We all have our moments when the world seems too hard to deal with.” Even as they continued slogging along the edge of the marsh, John whispered his homilies to the American.  “Some men reach a point where they feel they can only give in to the less difficult path. Have you ever felt so?”

“Yeah.” Crane fell to his knees and heaved. The only result was the painful tightening of the muscles in his chest and gut.

John helped him back to his feet and laid his hands on the American’s shoulders. Blue-gray eyes gazed into dark hazel ones. “You have to do this,” the older man repeated. “I’ll help. But the boy needs us.”

“I know,” Crane groaned. “I know.” He wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve and sucked in as deep a breath as his aching body would allow. The thumping in his head eased off a bit. “Let’s get to the park.”

“That would be the rendezvous place,” John said.

“Yes, and if I wasn’t able to get there on time, the contact would give them alternate escape information.” They continued walking. Lee willed strength into his legs. The boy king’s life wouldn’t be worth crap if Nalajaha—what’s his name, weren’t exposed. Not to mention the contacts at the alternate rendezvous.

They continued walking, Lee feeling slightly better. They had to get there quickly. John held on to him, but wasn’t supporting him. Perhaps the poison was wearing off. Several soft lights ahead of them. The outline of a jet in the glow. They were almost there. Were they in time? Where was Ang? There were figures moving in the mist—two, no three. The contact? Anxiety gnawed at him and the little hammer in his head suddenly turned into a five-pound mallet. Lee motioned to John to keep to the shadows as they approached the aircraft display. The older man was as silent as a cat. Again, Crane wondered how the old man had managed to get into the country. ONI would love this guy.

He turned to John and whispered in the Irishman’s ear. “Cover me if something goes wrong.” John nodded. His stomach gave a lurch of protest as he pulled away from John, but that was all. Crane crouched lower and crept closer. The old mage was talking to another man. The newcomer didn’t have the look of a government man or soldier. He was dressed in threadbare peasant style clothing, sandals on his feet, trousers tied with a thin strip of leather. The shirt was open, despite the chill in the air. He was bowed toward the mage and saying something, but Lee wasn’t close enough to hear. King Ang was near the so-called holy man, attentive but not saying anything. He seemed comfortable with the peasant, but then he had been comfortable with the mage, too.

Lee couldn’t see anything else he could do except a put on a bold front. He stood up and slipped out of the shadows. Ang saw him first, looked shocked, then relieved. The mage looked shocked; definitely not relieved. The other man appeared wary.

Lee approached them. “You Marley?” he asked the peasant.

“Srooge?” the man whispered, battering the pre-chosen contact name.

“Yes,” Lee said, still watching the old man out of the corner of his eye. The mage had a hand inside his robes. He began to pull it out. Now or never, Crane thought. He let fly a punch that decked the so-called holy man. With his hands gesturing the boy-king and the mechanic to hold off, Lee grabbed the mage and jerked him to his feet. A small air gun was clutched in the mage’s hand. The man had surprising strength and almost got off a dart before Lee jerked it away.

“Our holy man is a government plant,” Lee said as the others gathered closer. He handed the pistol to Ang. “Be careful. The pellets are loaded with some kind of poison. I didn’t have the flu back there.”

“Wha….?” Ang began and then his features hardened. “I trusted you,” he hissed at the small man, now smaller in the discovery of his subterfuge.

The Nalaja-hrigal said nothing for a moment. Then tears came into his eyes. “I could not take the beatings anymore. So much pain….” He collapsed to the ground with a moan, but said nothing else.

“Watch him,” Lee growled to the contact, Marley. He turned to Ang. A little too quickly, Crane found out as the ground wavered in front of him and he stumbled.

“Are you all right?” Ang asked in alarm.

Crane was impressed with the young man’s show of restraint. The boy had not used his name or rank at all, even when he had thought the old man a loyalist. “No, but better. Keep the gun. When we get to safety, the pellets can be analyzed.

While still watching the cowering old man, Marley asked in a whisper. “You still have the poison.”

“Yes.”

“Can you fly?” Marley asked.

As if on cue, his stomach lurched. A wave of dizziness swept through him and he reached toward the old Canberra to steady himself. His head was pounding again. How the devil was he going to fly the plane in his condition?  “I . . . I have to try.”

“Aye, he can fly,” came John’s voice beside him.

“John!” the king cried out in a hoarse whisper. He started for the Irishman.

John put a finger to his lips. His other hand steadied the ailing American. “Captain, I was not sure if you would need this or not….” He pulled a flask from inside his shirt. When he had Crane’s undivided attention, he continued, “It’s no curative, but it will help calm your stomach and ease your sore head until you reach your safe port.”

“What is it?” Crane asked.

“Ah, leave an old man some secrets,” John said with a smile. He screwed off the top and handed the flask to the American. “Just a few small swallows at a time. You have to be careful to make it last.”

Lee took the proscribed swallows. It tasted like some kind of soda with a bit extra in it. “No booze, I gather,” he queried as he slipped the bottle into his shirt pocket.

“Well now, would I do a thing like that? You havin’ to fly and all?” John asked, his voice sounding slightly affronted, but his mouth curved in a smile.

Crane didn’t say a word, only continued to study the Irishman.

“No booze,” John said.

Lee’s stomach settled to something a bit more respectful and while his head still hurt, it was tolerable. “Thanks, John. It’s helping.”

“Ah, good. I thought it would. Now I will take care of this poor old man, while you get the boy to safety.”

“What about you?” Lee asked.

“I come and go at my pleasure. I’m sure you two have figured that out by now.”

“Hmm,” Lee murmured. The mysterious man had always had the king’s best interests at heart, so whatever miraculous means he had of helping, Lee wasn’t going to analyze the way he did it. As the admiral had said a time or two, some things weren’t meant to be questioned. 

“John, please, don’t leave again,” the king pleaded. “I need you now more than ever.”

“Come here, my friend, and let’s talk moment,” John said, motioning to the king. The young man appeared ready to cry, more like the boy of six years ago rather than an almost grown monarch. “Now didn’t I say I would be here for you whenever you needed me? I kept my promise, didn’t I?”

While they talked, Lee turned to the Marjistani man. Marley had been keeping a close eye on the old mage, who was still crouched on the ground, moaning and crying. “You’re small enough to come with us,” he told Marley. “It will be crowded, but we can easily do it. We only have a payload of fuel. No weapons, right?”

“You would take me?”

“Yes, it won’t take them long to figure out what’s happened here, especially with ‘holy one’ to tell them.

“We could kill him.”

“No, I won’t kill an old man, no matter what he’s done,” Lee told him. The old mage paused in his moaning chant and glanced at him before resuming his litany. 

Marley rubbed a hand across watery eyes. “Thank you.”

“You may have to help me, too.”

The Marjistanee’s eyes grew large in fright. “I only know how to fix these. I cannot fly.”

“Look, I’m not asking you to fly, but you know this craft better than I do and you can help me if I need some advice on the systems.” Some of that had to be in English, which Lee figured the other man didn’t know, but the gist of what he said seemed to be understood. Marley nodded, looking grateful. “Can you dim the lights, at least until we’re ready to take off? Too much movement may get noticed.” The king and John returned. Ang still looked unhappy, but seemed to have recovered his composure.

“Yes,” Marley replied.  “And when we get ready to take off, you go to the road, there.” Marley pointed into the darkness.

Crane peered in the direction the mechanic had shown him. It would be tricky in the dark, but it was the only way. He instructed John and Ang to watch the Nalaja-hrigal. “Walk it with me,” he said to Marley. As they were walking, he asked, “What is your real name?”

“Rinjin Kamilassa Tani’il Min o’Kalee,” the Marjistanee answered.

“Okay to call you Rinjin?” Lee asked with a wry smile.

“Yes,” Rinjin replied. “I worked on planes like these during the last war and then on all kinds of planes since. I even built a hook to help stop us. It is made to come down when we get ready to land. I will show you the release when we get into the jet. There is also a light to help you see the road. I took it from a car.” In the dark, Crane could see the gleam of the man’s teeth as he grinned wolfishly. “With curfew, there is no need for headlights.”

Lee chuckled softly. They walked the distance Lee figured it would take to get off the ground. The road wasn’t too bad, although there were some ruts and potholes. “You probably have it running better than the original Canberras,” Lee murmured. “Let’s get back and get out of here. I suspect the king will be missed soon if he hasn’t been already.” 

When they got back to the jet, the mage was still crouched on the ground, moaning and muttering. There was something different, though and Crane’s inner alarm began sounding. The mage wasn’t just moaning and crying. Lee jerked the old man from the ground and was appalled to see a small device drop into the dust. He bent to retrieve it and felt the mallet in his skull again. Ignoring it, he examined the device.  It was a standard locater device. The old man had activated it. But how long ago? Lee smashed it under his heel.

“We’ve got to get out of here,” Crane said tersely. “Rinjin, get us ready to roll. Your Highness, you’ll be in the second seat with Rinjin.” He turned to John and held out his hand. “Again, I owe you more than I can ever repay.”

“Just get the boy out of here safely, my friend. That is payment enough,” John told him. He took Crane’s hand and shook it. “Take care of yerself and don’t use up the remedy too soon.”

“I won’t. And when we do get off the ground, you get out of here, too,” Lee told him.

“Don’t you be worrying about me, friend. As I told the king, I’ll be all right.” He touched a finger to his forehead. “I have my ways.”

Lee smiled and turned to the aircraft. He clambered up the tiny steps and popped the hatch. In the distance he heard sirens. “Rinjin, don’t worry about the lights, just get on board,” he called out. There was an old helmet on the seat and Lee pulled it on. He turned on the cockpit lights and quickly studied the instrumentation. It was easy to see where Rinjin had made modifications. The man was every bit as much a genius as any top notch scientist. To do all this in secret…. It was an astounding bit of work.

Crane heard the other two climb on board and settle in the rear seat. “All buckled in?”

“Yes, we are, Captain,” Ang replied.

Reaching up, Lee pulled the cockpit shut. Before he did so, he heard the sirens wailing closer. John waved from the shadows and he gave the Irishman a thumb’s up.

“Did you locate the switches I added?” Rinjin asked through the helmet communicator.

“Yes. You did a great job. Now hang on.” Crane worked the starter switch and felt and heard the explosion of ignition. He couldn’t see the black cloud of smoke below and behind them but he knew it was there. That was the B-57 trademark. Everything was in order and Lee began taxiing out to the road. He increased the thrust and set his jaw against the jolts they would experience on the road. There just wasn’t time to try to avoid the worst of the potholes.

When he reached the road, Lee turned on Rinjin’s headlights. He saw other lights approaching a mile or so ahead of them. It was time. “Get ready,” he told his passengers and then he thrust up the engines even higher. Despite the less than optimal condition of the road, the jet ran smoothly. Lee saw the lights growing larger and he increased the rpm’s. They were almost at take off speed. Suddenly there was a vehicle beside them, bumping along the side of the road. Little flashes winked on and off and Lee realized they were shooting at him. It was confirmed when he heard pinging against the side of the cockpit. He had to get off the ground now.

 Lee accelerated more and felt the added thrust. Suddenly he felt a sting in his left thigh. He worked the flaps and eased the nose up.  The jet rose with little effort and Lee increased the thrust even more. They flew almost straight up for several hundred meters before he began leveling out. He flew across Taronga Bay and out over the ocean.

He saw no other aircraft. This was so insane, so audacious; that the Guard had no idea what they were doing until it was too late. No wonder the planners wanted this to be an in and out operation. Of course, because of the mage, it had almost been too late.

“Are you two all right?” Lee asked.

“Yes, we are,” Rinjin answered.

“Good.”

“Do you think John is all right, Captain?” Ang asked in a small voice.

“I’m sure he is,” Lee said. Now that the rush was over, he felt the intense pounding in his skull and the roiling of his stomach. His muscles ached, pain messages shot up and down his leg. With his free hand he reached down and felt wet stickiness. It was what he had feared. He had been shot.

“Does this thing have autopilot?” Lee inquired into the headset communicator.

“No,” Rinjin answered. “I did not think the flight would be a long flight.”

“Do either of you have something like a scarf or some kind of material I can tie around my leg? One of those bullets winged me. I don’t think it’s bad, but I don’t want to bleed to death before we reach our destination.” Lee heard them scrambling around behind him, and then something was thrust over his shoulder.

Now was the tricky part; getting it tied. With one hand still on the controls, Crane drew the cloth around his leg and made an awkward knot, drawing it as tight as he could. It would have to do. He felt so infernally tired, so blasted sick. He undid John’s little container and took several more swallows of the Irishman’s mixture. In a few minutes, he felt somewhat better.

“Captain?” Ang’s voice came through softly in the headset.

“Yes.”

“Why does John always go away?”

“I don’t know. I guess the important thing is that he comes when he’s needed,” Crane answered.

“He told me he always would, but why doesn’t he stay?”

“I don’t know, Your Highness. He . . . seems different than other men.” Crane felt he was understating. He had wondered about John after their first encounter. He wondered and then had to dismiss his thoughts. It seemed so ludicrous at the time.

“Yes, he is. I wish he could have come with us, though.” Then Ang paused as though realizing the implications of his meandering thoughts.

If John had come, Rinjin couldn’t have. “I think John had some other means of getting away,” Lee said, not the least doubting his words. “And this way, Rinjin would be safe.”

“Yes.” There was a pause, then, “Captain. I’m sorry. If I hadn’t asked the Holy One….”

Lee had wanted to berate the boy for his poor judgment, but thought of the young king’s situation. Father dead when he was ten, having to grow up so fast. Then his country taken over when he was fifteen and his only friend killed just a couple of weeks ago. Ang had to have been desperately lonely. He couldn’t blame him for latching on to someone who seemed sympathetic. “Don’t worry about it, Your Highness. He did a very good job of fooling us. And we got out despite him,” Crane reassured the boy.

“I am so grateful to all of you,” Rinjin interjected in Marjistani. “I wished these past months, I could leave with my friend here.”

Lee could almost hear the man patting the plane he had worked so hard on and at such peril to his own life. “Rinjin, do you have a family back there?”

“No. I mean I have a brother. Some cousins, but my wife is dead. My son left after the old king was killed.”

“Do you know where he is?” Lee asked.

“He went to the United States first, California, I think. Then he went to the east. Atlanta. But he said that was only for a while. Something about going to school. I never heard anything else from him after Trilea invaded us,” Rinjin answered, his voice sad. “I think he is married by now.”

“It shouldn’t be too hard to look him up when we get to the states,” Crane suggested. “I bet the state department would help you.  If they don’t, the Institute certainly will.”

“State department? Institute? They are part of your government?”

Lee explained. He was glad Rinjin and Ang wanted to talk. It helped him to stay awake.

“Who do you think John is, Captain?” the king asked. 

Lee wondered when the boy was going to ask that question. “Your Highness, I really can’t say. So many things don’t add up.” He checked the instrumentation while he collected his thoughts. “All I know is that he’s someone special . . . maybe even . . . miraculous.”

They continued talking as the plane flew eastward toward their destination. At one point, Ang played a tune on a flute. Somehow Lee wasn’t surprised the boy had brought it with him.

Crane knew there was an aircraft carrier on maneuvers in the Pacific, but the ship wasn’t supposed to have received information on the king’s escape until sometime around sunset of last night. All he had been given was general coordinates. The ship would be able to pick them up and Lee would give the call sign. The jet droned on and Ang finally dozed off, his lack of sleep and the excitement finally catching up with him.

Rinjin talked to him until both of them ran out of things to say. The plane continued over the dark waters of the ocean. When the sun rose in burnished glory, Lee shoved on a pair of sunglasses and continued guiding the jet eastward….

Crane heard the radio crackle and he jolted to complete attention. His head felt ready to explode. Still, he hoped the radio meant they were nearing the end of the journey. A glance at the fuel gauge told him they’d better be.  The voice used a call sign and he sighed in relief. “Rendezvous,” he told the two behind him. “And none too soon,” he added in a mutter. “Seahawk 112,” Crane replied. “Low on fuel.” He paused and added reluctantly. “Medical emergency on board.”

“Seahawk, we’ll get a doctor up here. State the nature of the emergency.”

Lee gave them the information as succinctly as he could and heard a stifled curse in the background.

Another voice came on. “Can you land that bucket of bolts? Or would it be better for us to retrieve you from the ocean?”

“Would be nothing to retrieve,” Crane told him, remembering everything the mechanic had told him. “Also a makeshift tail-hook. Can drop the air speed, but the car wreck may be ugly.”

“Is there anything else we need to know?” the controller asked sarcastically.

The conspiracy in his gut was building. “No,” he said meekly. “Help me in.”

“You have done carrier landings before, correct?”

“Yes."

The controller’s voice had lost its edge. It was nothing but business now. “All right. We had warning of your arrival, but that’s all. Who am I talking to?”

Lee told him without the embellishment of rank or affiliation.

“All right, Lee. I want you to concentrate on everything I tell you.” He asked for verification of the type of aircraft and Lee gave it to him. “Okay, you should be able to do this even if the tail hook isn’t optimal.”

“I can cut speed to one hundred and air brake when I hit the deck.”

There was silence on the other end.

“I don’t have a choice. No option to full power this bird. Not under the circumstances,” Lee told him. “There is only one chance.”

The controller began giving him the vector information. Lee saw the carrier in the distance. It grew in size much too soon. He slowed the air speed, felt the jolt of turbulence in his gut, but pushed it aside. The ocean seemed to be doing a slow dance. “Got the meatball,” he told the controller.

“You’re veering starboard, Lee.”

Lee brought his lineup back to center and cut his speed a bit more. He felt the engine protesting and powered it back up a notch. He dropped the landing gear, dropped altitude, thankful the plane was cooperating.

“Okay, Lee, you’re coming in fine. Be ready to drop to your angle of attack. Steady, steady. Off port a little now. Good. Slow. Drop! Bring her in, bring it in now!”

Lee felt the cockpit darken, despite the bright morning sun. No, no, no! Not now! He concentrated and increased the angle of descent. Dropped the thrust; felt the bump on the deck. Couldn’t have been more than a dozen feet from the lip. Air brake. Tailhook caught on the second cable. It caught and then partially snapped away. The jet slewed around, sliding toward the edge. Even as his head seemed to part from his body, Lee re-applied the air brakes. He was jerked forward and then back. He tried to cut the engines, but everything spun out of control and then went black….

 

                              ************************

 

Flight crews came scrambling. The jet engines were still running and the jet surged against the restraining cable. “Captain?” Ang cried out. “Captain?” His seat to one side of center allowed him a view of the front of the cockpit. Crane seemed to be unconscious.

Sailors scrambled to unlatch the cockpit. Ang wished he could help. With a whoosh, the canopy came free and several men reached in and grabbed him. Someone else was struggling with Crane’s restraints. Yet another person was jerking Rinjin out of the jet. After Captain Crane had been pulled out, another man almost went head first in the cockpit, presumably trying to shut down the engines. A bellowing shout from the deck brought the man out of the plane and away from it. Ang watched as several crewmen attended to Captain Crane. He turned back to the jet in time to see someone sever the cable. The old plane surged forward and slid off the side of the aircraft carrier. The splash was audible even over the loud noises of the carrier.

He walked over to where Crane lay unconscious on the deck. “Is he going to be all right?” he asked.

One of the men looked up at him. “What kind of poison?”

“I don’t know, but here is the dart gun that was used. We figured it still had one or two darts,” Ang replied, handing it to the doctor. The doctor handed it to one of the other men with orders to analyze it.

A man in a khaki uniform stepped up to Ang. “Your Highness? King Ang?”

The young man nodded. “You are aware that I and my companion are seeking political asylum in the United States?”

“Yes, Your Highness.” The man straightened and then bowed. “I am Captain Phillip O’Connell. Welcome aboard, sir. I will have my executive officer see to your and your comrade’s needs after the doctor is assured you are both well.”

“I’m fine, Captain,” Ang replied. “I . . . I’m worried about Captain Crane.”

“The pilot?”

Again, Ang nodded.

“He will be well taken care of. We have an excellent medical staff.”

And with that Ang had to be satisfied. But there was one thing he could do. “Captain, I wish to send a message to Admiral Harriman Nelson of the submarine Seaview. I wish to let him know we have arrived safely.” He brought himself up in the regal stance his father had taught him. “He would want to know his captain is out of my country. I want to also convey to him my thanks.”

O’Connell glanced at the man being placed on the gurney. “I would be happy to send a message to the admiral, Your Highness.”

 

                    *****************

 

Lee Crane woke feeling as though he had eaten cotton and slept inside a torpedo tube. His stomach was giving messages of hunger and his head was reminding him it was vaguely displeased.  That, in and of itself, felt like a full recovery. He was attached to an IV, but hopefully that would soon be remedied. Only minimal pain in his leg, no burns, therefore nothing serious. They had made a safe landing. He looked up to see a doctor watching him. A lieutenant commander by his insignia.

“Welcome back, Captain Crane,” the man said. “I’m Dr. Ken Mortensen.”

“Thanks, Doc,” Lee said hoarsely. “Are King Ang and Rinjin all right?”

“They are. They have enjoyed the past day and a half touring the ship,” Mortensen told him with a smile then his countenance grew more serious. “And King Ang told me at times he wasn’t sure your group was going to make it. He credited you with most of success of the escape. But he also mentioned someone named John. He said he stayed behind to cover your escape. The king almost made him sound like some kind of miracle worker.”

“Yes, he definitely covered our sixes.” The mention of the old Irishman brought a renewed sense of wonder. He hoped John had made it out okay. Somehow he thought so. “John is certainly unique,” Lee understated. “It was only because of his concoction I was able to keep going after I had been poisoned.”

“You mean this?” the doctor asked, holding up the little flask.

Lee nodded. “I don’t know what was in it, but it kept the poison under control.”

The doctor smiled and then laughed softly. “It kept the symptoms somewhat under control. The rest was a very good con job.”

Lee was confused. “Uh, what? What do you mean?”

“It was mainly Mountain Dew. There was a trace of bicarbonate of soda. It helped calm your rebellious stomach and the caffeine gave you the needed energy.”

Lee felt his cheeks warm from embarrassment. “I’ll be….  He did it again.”

“No need to feel embarrassed. Part of healing has to come from the mind. Any good doctor knows that,” Mortensen explained. “Wish I had someone like John on my staff.”

Crane saw the humor of the situation and chuckled.

“From what the king told me, John helped you all out before.”

“Yes, he did. And miracle worker might be an apt description.” Crane left it there. Anything more would demean what John had done in both instances. He lay back contented, and then an ugly thought occurred to him. “Doc?”

“Yes?”

“Do me a favor and don’t spread this around. About John’s remedy, that is. There are a few people on board Seaview who would get some great mileage out of it,” Crane explained.

The doctor grinned. “If you follow my instructions to the letter, it’s a deal.”

“Thanks,” Lee said and this time he really was contented. He closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep.

 

 

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