The Doomsday Conspiracy

Chapter Six


The limousine was waiting at the River Entrance parking lot. "Are you ready, Commander?" Captain Dougherty asked. As ready as I'll ever be, Robert thought. "Yes." Captain Dougherty accompanied Robert to his apartment so he could pack. Robert had no idea how many days he would be gone. How long does an impossible assignment take? He packed enough clothes for a week and, at the last minute, put in a framed photograph of Susan. He stared at it for a long time and wondered if she was enjoying herself in Brazil. He thought, I hope not. I hope she's having a lousy time. And was immediately ashamed of himself.
When the limousine arrived at Andrews Air Force Base, the plane was waiting. It was a C20A, an Air Force jet.
Captain Dougherty held out his hand. "Good luck, Commander."
"Thanks." I'll need it. Robert walked up the steps to the cabin. The crew was inside, finishing the pre-flight check. There was a pilot, a co-pilot, a navigator and a steward, all in Air Force uniforms. Robert was familiar with the plane. It was loaded with electronic equipment. On the outside, near the tail, was a high-frequency antenna that looked like an enormous fishing pole. Inside the cabin were twelve red telephones on the walls and a white, unsecured, phone. Radio transmissions were in code, and the plane's radar was on a military frequency. The primary colour inside was Air Force blue, and the cabin was furnished with comfortable club chairs.
Robert found that he was the only passenger. The pilot greeted him. "Welcome aboard, Commander. If you'll put on your seat belt, we have clearance to take off."
Robert strapped himself in and leaned back in his seat as the plane taxied down the runway. A minute later, he felt the familiar pull of gravity as the jet screamed into the air. He had not piloted a plane since his crash, when he had been told he would never be able to fly again. Fly again, hell, Robert thought, they said I wouldn't live. It was a miracle ... No, it was Susan ...
Vietnam. He had been sent there with the rank of Lieutenant Commander, stationed on the aircraft carrier Ranger as a tactics officer, responsible for training fighter pilots and planning attack strategy. He had led a bomber squadron of A-6A Intruders, and there was very little time away from the pressures of battle. One of the few leaves he had was in Bangkok for a week of R and R, and during that time he never bothered to sleep. The city was a Disneyland designed for the pleasure of the male animal. He had met an exquisite Thai girl his first hour in town, and she had stayed at his side the whole time and taught him a few Thai phrases. He had found the language soft and mellifluous.
Good morning: Arun sawasdi
Where are you from?: Khun ma chak nai?
Where are you going now?: Khun kamrant chain pai?
She taught him other phrases too, but she would not tell him what they meant, and when he said them, she giggled.
When Robert returned to the Ranger, Bangkok seemed like a faraway dream. The war was the reality, and it was a horror. Someone showed him one of the leaflets the marines dropped over Vietnam. It read:
"The US Marines are fighting alongside the Government of Vietnam forces in Due Pho in order to give the Vietnamese people a chance to live a free, happy life, without fear of hunger and suffering. But many Vietnamese have paid with their lives, and their homes have been destroyed because they helped the Vietcong.~"
"The hamlets of Hai Mon, Hai Tan, Sa Binh, Ta Binh, and many others have been destroyed because of this. We will not hesitate to destroy every hamlet that helps the Vietcong, who are powerless to stop the combined might of GVN and its allies. The choice is yours. If you refuse to let the Vietcong use your villages and hamlets as their battlefield, your homes and your lives will be saved."
We're saving the poor bastards, all right, Robert thought grimly. And all we're destroying is their country.
The aircraft carrier Ranger was equipped with all the state-of-the-art technology that could be crammed into it. The ship was home base for sixteen aircraft, forty officers and three hundred and fifty enlisted men. Flight schedules were handed out three or four hours before the first launch of the day.
In the Mission Planning section of the ship's Intelligence Centre, the latest information and reconnaissance photos were given to the bombardiers, who then planned their flight patterns.
"Jesus, they gave us a beauty this morning," Edward Whittaker, Robert's bombardier, said.
Edward Whittaker looked like a younger version of his father, but he had a completely different personality. Where the Admiral was a formidable figure, dignified and austere, his son was down-to-earth, warm and friendly. He had earned his place as "just one of the boys". The other airmen forgave him for being the son of their commander. He was the best bombardier in the squadron, and he and Robert had become fast friends.
"Where are we heading?" Robert asked.
"For our sins, we've drawn Package Six."
It was the most dangerous mission of all. It meant flying north to Hanoi, Haiphong, and up the Red River delta, where the flak was heaviest. There was a catch-22: they were not permitted to bomb any strategic targets if there were civilians nearby, and the North Vietnamese, not being stupid, immediately placed civilians around all their military installations. There was a lot of grumbling in the allied military, but President Lyndon Johnson, safely back in Washington, was giving the orders.
The twelve years that United States troops fought in Vietnam was the longest period it has ever been at war. Robert Bellamy had come into it late in 1972, when the Navy were having major problems. Their F-4 squadrons were being destroyed. In spite of the fact that their planes were superior to the Russian MiGs, the American Navy were losing one F-4 for every two MiGs shot down. It was an unacceptable ratio.
Robert was summoned to the headquarters of Admiral Ralph Whittaker.
"You sent for me, Admiral?"
"You have the reputation of being a hotshot pilot, Commander. I need your help."
"Yes, sir?"
"We're getting murdered by the goddamned enemy. I have had a thorough analysis made. There's nothing wrong with our planes - it's the training of the men who are flying them. Do you understand?"
"Yes, sir."
"I want you to pick a group and retrain it in manoeuvres and weapons employment ..."
The new group was called Top Gun, and before they were through, the ratio changed from two to one to twelve to one. For every two F-4s lost, twenty-four MiGs were shot down. The assignment had taken eight weeks of intensive training, and Commander Bellamy had finally returned to his ship. Admiral Whittaker was there to greet him. "That was a damned fine job, Commander."
"Thank you, Admiral."
"Now, let's get back to work."
"I'm ready, sir."
Robert had flown thirty-four bombing missions from the Ranger without incident.
His thirty-fifth mission was Package Six.
They had passed Hanoi and were heading northwest toward Phu Tho and Yen Bay, and the flak was getting increasingly heavy. Edward Whittaker was seated on Robert's right, staring at the radar screen, listening to the ominous bass tones of enemy search radars sweeping the sky.
The sky directly ahead of them looked like the Fourth of July, streaked with white smoke from the light guns below, dark grey bursts from the fifty-five-millimetre shells, black clouds from the hundred-millimetre shells, and coloured tracer bullets from heavy machine-gun fire.
"We're approaching target," Edward said. His voice through the headphones sounded eerily faraway.
The A-6A Intruder was flying at 450 knots, and at that speed, even with the drag and weight of the bomb load, it handled remarkably well, moving too fast for enemies to track it.
Robert reached out and turned on the master armament switch. The dozen 500-pound bombs were now ready to be released. He was headed straight for the target.
A voice on his radio said, "Romeo ... you have a bogey at four o'clock high."
Robert turned to look. A MiG was hurtling toward him, coming out of the sun. Robert banked and sent the plane into a steep dive. The MiG was on his tail. It loosed a missile. Robert checked his instrument panel. The missile was closing in rapidly. A thousand feet away ... Six hundred ... Four hundred ...
"Holy shit!" Edward yelled. "What are we waiting for?"
Robert waited until the last second, then released a stream of metal chaff, and went into a steep climbing turn, leaving the missile to follow the chaff and crash harmlessly into the ground below.
"Thank you, God," Edward said. "And you, pal."
Robert continued the climb and swung behind the MiG. The pilot started to take evasive action, but it was too late. Robert loosed a Sidewinder missile and watched it crawl up the tail pipe of the MiG and explode. An instant later the sky was showered with pieces of metal.
A voice came over the intercom. "Nice work, Romeo."
The plane was over the target now. "Here we go," Edward said. He pressed the red button that released the bombs and watched them tumble down toward their target. Mission accomplished. Robert headed the plane back toward the carrier.
At that instant, they felt a heavy thud. The swift and graceful bomber suddenly became sluggish.
"We've been hit!" Edward called.
Both fire warning lights were flashing red. The plane was moving erratically, out of control.
A voice came over the radio. "Romeo, this is Tiger. Do you want us to cover you?"
Robert made a split-second decision. "No, go on to your targets. I'm going to try to make it back to base."
The plane had slowed down, and was becoming more difficult to handle.
"Faster," Edward said nervously, "or we're going to be late for lunch."
Robert looked at the altimeter. The needle was dropping rapidly. He activated his radio mike. "Romeo to home base. We've taken a hit."
"Home base to Romeo. How bad is it?"
"I'm not sure. I think I can bring it home."
"Hold on." A moment later the voice returned. "Your signal is 'Charlie on arrival'."
That meant they were cleared to land on the carrier immediately.
"Good luck."
The plane was starting to roll. Robert fought to correct it, trying to gain altitude. "Come on, baby, you can make it." Robert's face was tight. They were losing too much altitude. "What's our ETA?"
Edward looked at his chart. "Seven minutes."
"I'm going to get you that hot lunch." Robert was nursing the plane along with all the skill at his command, using the throttle and rudder to try to keep it on a straight course. The altitude was still dropping alarmingly. Finally, ahead of him, Robert saw the sparkling blue waters of the Tonkin Gulf.
"We're home free, buddy," Robert said. "Just a few more miles."
"Terrific. I never doubted ..."
And out of nowhere, two MiGs descended on the plane with a thunderous roar. Bullets began thudding against the fuselage.
"Eddie! Bail out!" He turned to look. Edward was slumped against his seat belt, his right side torn open, blood spattering the cockpit.
"No!" It was a scream.
A second later, Robert felt a sudden, agonizing blow to his chest. His flight suit was instantly soaked in blood. The plane started to spiral downward. He felt himself losing consciousness. With his last ounce of strength, he unfastened his seat belt. He turned to take a final look at Edward. "I'm sorry," he whispered. He blacked out and later had no recollection of how he ejected out of the plane and parachuted into the water below. A May Day call had been sent out, and a Sikorsky SH-3A Sea King helicopter from the USS Yorktown was circling, waiting to pick him up. In the distance, the crew could see Chinese junks rapidly closing in for the kill, but they were too late.
When they loaded Robert into the helicopter, a medical corpsman took one look at his torn body and said, "Jesus Christ, he'll never even make it to the hospital."
They gave Robert a shot of morphine, wrapped pressure bandages tightly around his chest, and flew him to the 12th Evacuation Hospital at Cu Chi Base.
The "12th Evac" that served Cu Chi, Tay Ninh, and Dau Tieng bases had four hundred beds in a dozen wards, housed in Quonset huts arranged around a U-shaped compound connected by covered walkways. The hospital had two intensive care units, one for surgery cases, the other for burns, and each unit was seriously overcrowded. When Robert was brought in, he left a bright red trail of blood across the hospital floor.
A harried surgeon cut the bandages from Robert's chest, took one look and said wearily, "He's not going to make it. Take him in back to cold storage."
And the doctor moved on.
Robert, fading in and out of consciousness, heard the doctor's voice from a far distance. So, this is it, he thought. What a lousy way to die.
"You don't want to die, do you, sailor? Open your eyes. Come on."
He opened his eyes and saw a blurred image of a white uniform and a woman's face. She was saying something more, but he could not make out the words. The ward was too noisy, filled with a cacophony of screams and moans of patients, and doctors yelling out orders, and nurses frantically running around ministering to the savaged bodies that lay there.
Robert's memory of the next forty-eight hours was a haze of pain and delirium. It was only later that he learned that the nurse, Susan Ward, had persuaded a doctor to operate on him and had donated her own blood for a transfusion. They had put three IVs into Robert's ravaged body, and pumped blood through them simultaneously, fighting to keep him alive.
When the operation was over, the surgeon in charge sighed. "We've wasted our time. He's got no more than a ten per cent chance of pulling through."
But the doctor did not know Robert Bellamy. And he did not know Susan Ward. It seemed to Robert that whenever he opened his eyes, Susan was there, holding his hand, stroking his forehead, ministering to him, willing him to live. He was delirious most of the time. Susan sat quietly next to him in the dark ward in the middle of the lonely nights, and listened to his ravings.
"... the DOD is wrong, you can't head in perpendicular to the target or you'll hit the river ... tell them to angle the dives a few degrees off target-heading ... tell them ..." he mumbled.
Susan said soothingly, "I will."
Robert's body was soaked in perspiration. She sponged him off. "... you have to remove all five of the safety pins or the seat won't eject. Check them ..."
"All right. Go back to sleep now."
"... the shackles on the multiple ejector racks malfunctioned. God only knows where the bombs landed ..."
Half the time Susan could not understand what her patient was talking about.
Susan Ward was the head emergency operating-room nurse and the best. She had come from a small town in Idaho, and had grown up with the boy next door, Frank Frescott, the son of the Mayor. Everyone in town assumed they would be married one day.
Susan had a younger brother, Michael, whom she adored. On his eighteenth birthday he was sent to Vietnam, and Susan wrote to him every day. Three months after he had enlisted, Susan's family received a telegram, and she knew what it contained before they opened it.
When Frank Prescott heard the news, he rushed over. "I'm really sorry, Susan. I liked Michael a lot." And then he made the mistake of saying, "Let's get married right away."
And Susan had looked at him and made a decision. "No. I have to do something important with my life."
"For God's sake! What's more important than marrying me?"
The answer was Vietnam.
Susan Ward went to nursing school.
She had been in Vietnam for eleven months, working tirelessly, when Commander Robert Bellamy was wheeled in and sentenced to die. Triage was a common practice in emergency evacuation hospitals. The doctors would examine two or three patients and make summary judgements as to which one they would try to save. For reasons which were never truly clear to her, Susan had taken one look at the torn body of Robert Bellamy and had known that she could not let him die. Was it her brother she was trying to save? Or was it something else? She was exhausted and overworked, but instead of taking her time off, she spent every spare moment tending to him.
Susan had looked up her patient's record. An ace Navy pilot and instructor, he had earned the Naval Cross. His birthplace was Harvey, Illinois, a small industrial city south of Chicago. He had enlisted in the Navy from college, and had trained at Pensacola. He was unmarried.
Each day, as Robert Bellamy was recuperating, walking the thin line between death and life, Susan whispered to him, "Come on, sailor. I'm waiting for you."
One night, six days after he had been brought into the hospital, Robert was rambling on in his delirium, when suddenly he sat straight up in bed, looked at Susan, and said clearly, "It's not a dream. You're real."
Susan felt her heart give a little jump. "Yes," she said softly, "I'm real."
"I thought I was dreaming. I thought I had gone to heaven and God assigned you to me."
She looked into Robert's eyes and said seriously, "I would have killed you if you had died."
His eyes swept the crowded ward. "Where ... where am I?"
"The 12th Evacuation Hospital at Cu Chi."
"How long have I been here?"
"Six days."
"Eddie ... he ..."
"I'm sorry."
"I have to tell the Admiral."
She took Robert's hand and said, gently, "He knows. He's been here to visit you."
Robert's eyes filled with tears. "I hate this goddamn war. I can't tell you how much I hate it."
From that moment on, Robert's progress astonished the doctors. All his vital signs stabilized.
"We'll be shipping him out of here soon," they told Susan. And she felt a sharp pang.
Robert was not sure exactly when he fell in love with Susan Ward. Perhaps it was the moment when she was dressing his wounds, and nearby they heard the sounds of bombs dropping and she murmured, "They're playing our song."
Or perhaps it was when they told Robert he was well enough to be transferred to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington to finish his convalescence, and Susan said, "Do you think I'm going to stay here and let some other nurse have that great body? Oh, no. I'm going to pull every string I can to go with you."
They were married two weeks later. It took Robert a year to heal completely, and Susan tended to his every need, night and day. He had never met anyone like her, nor had he dreamed that he could ever love anyone so much. He loved her compassion and sensitivity, her passion and vitality. He loved her beauty and her sense of humour.
On their first anniversary he said to her, "You're the most beautiful, the most wonderful, the most caring human being in the world. There is no one on this earth with your warmth and wit and intelligence."
And Susan had held him tightly and whispered in a nasal, chorus-girl voice, "Likewise, I'm sure."
They shared more than love. They genuinely liked and respected each other. All their friends envied them, and with good reason. Whenever they talked about a perfect marriage, it was always Robert and Susan they held up as an example. They were compatible in every way, complete soulmates. Susan was the most sensual woman Robert had ever known, and they were able to set each other on fire with a touch, a word. One evening, when they were scheduled to go to a formal dinner party, Robert was running late. He was in the shower when Susan came into the bathroom, carefully made up and dressed in a lovely strapless evening gown.
"My God, you look sexy," Robert said. "It's too bad we don't have more time."
"Oh, don't worry about that," Susan murmured. Arid a moment later she had stripped off her clothes and joined Robert in the shower.
They never got to the party.
Susan sensed Robert's needs almost before he knew them, and she saw to it that they were attended to. And Robert was equally attentive to her. Susan would find love notes on her dressing-room table, or in her shoes when she started to get dressed. Flowers and little gifts would be delivered to her on Ground Hog Day and President Folk's birthday and in celebration of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
And the laughter that they shared. The wonderful laughter ...
The pilot's voice crackled over the intercom. "We'll be landing in Zurich in ten minutes, Commander."
Robert Bellamy's thoughts snapped back to the present, to his assignment. In his fifteen years with Naval Intelligence, he had been involved in dozens of challenging cases, but this one promised to be the most bizarre of them all. He was on his way to Switzerland to find a busload of anonymous witnesses who had disappeared into thin air. Talk about looking for a needle in a haystack. I don't even know where the haystack is. Where is Sherlock Holmes when I need him?
"Will you fasten your seat belt, please?"
The C20A was flying over dark forests, and a moment later, skimming over the runway etched by the landing lights of the Zurich International Airport. The plane taxied to the east side of the airport, and headed for the small General Aviation Building, away from the main terminal. There were still puddles on the tarmac from the earlier rainstorms, but the night sky was clear.
"Crazy weather," the pilot commented. "Sunny here Sunday, rainy all day today, and clearing tonight. You don't need a watch here, what you really need is a barometer. Can I arrange a car for you, Commander?"
"No, thanks." From this moment on, he was completely on his own. Robert waited until the plane taxied away, then he boarded a minibus to the airport hotel where he collapsed into a dreamless sleep.