I sob. I tried to scrape a split squirrel off the windshield wiper in the red emergency light. I turned down the car’s sound system, which had otherwise been blasting continuously – Wagner had spurred me into a race with myself.
“Hello, my name is Roger Christensen – I just hit a squirrel. I’m sending my coordinates.” He trembled, crackling in the receiver. “No, it’s completely dead.”
The insurance will pay for a new windshield. I drove on carefully, nodded to the guard at the electric wire fence, looked into the pupil-scanner, then lowered a hatch to an elevator, drove many floors down below the surface – until I reached my crew, who as always sat apathetically in a light blue sofa arrangement under a wall decoration with a knight’s glove embracing lightning watching Godard or football. I pick at a plate of dry vegetarian tapas.
My pilot David hummed along to a hair-metal ballad – probably Bon Jovi – as navigator Paul picked his nose – which was uncomfortable for Kim, our EWO, who had dyed her hair with henna recently. “Nice hair, ginger – sorry I’m late…” The team looked up from a Superbowl rerun and exclaimed: “500 dollars in the penalty box” in unison. What the hell, someone has to pay for their snotty brats’ pizza at our next summer party.
The alarm goes off – but it’s not the fire alarm. It’s a high-frequency pulsating howl, I routinely grab a napkin, roll it and block my ear, then we grab our helmets and head towards the elevator: “Damn, another damn exercise. Good thing I’ll be retiring in 2 months.”
When we hit the dark surface, a cart is ready – we are dropped off in front of a ladder leading up to a stinking cockpit. I strap myself in – synchronize my system with Kim’s, we sit tandem on the lower deck of the aircraft without windows in front of banks of screens. The engines roar, we roll down the concrete, pushing the 300-ton heavy plane upwards.
Kim’s screens doesn’t update. “Have you heard any rumors about this exercise?” She smiles – “It’s probably just the usual gas – a few air refuelings over Greenland – and then back home – or a round trip from Texas to Bornholm and back?” The captain curses on the radio. Finally, my screens update – I see 12 missiles under the wings and two antiquities and some drones in the bomb bay. WTF? I beep the captain: “Can you explain what we’re doing?”
“Code purple!” He mumles gravely. The purple procedure requires all radios to be turned off now, so we cannot be influenced by false AI-generated orders or emit traceable signals. I look over at Kim, but her screen doesn’t show any course directions, only sensors picking up radar, radio, and infrared signals around us, mostly civil traffic, tele- smog and mobile masts.
“Any idea what’s going on?” Kim looks worriedly at me: “I haven’t heard anything – but I don’t keep up with the news anymore – my best guess is a training mission with the old stockpile, maybe a show of force parade run against China or near Ukraine?” She points at my screen, which shows our cargo: “Fortunately, we don’t have to bomb anyone today – those antique weapons are massive – maybe there’s an airshow with a Cold War theme somewhere in the southern states?”
We press the full auto menu and eat our pre-packaged sterile lunch boxes and doze off as if there were sleeping pills in them. We wake up when the fuselage is hit by a fuel hose from a massive tanker drone. The screen shows we circle over the the North Sea now.
The captain has placed a red box in our laps. We open the boxes – there are 5 pills – probably some caffeine and valium to increase our stamina on long voyages – they usually feels quite pleasant. But there’s also a chip, we break it open to find a hidden code inside.
We enter the code into the terminal, which then show Severomorsk on a satellite map – a northern submarine base near Murmansk, only 1500 km away. My stomach churns as the plane automatically goes down to treetop level over the almost endless Norwegian forest.
I put on my helmet and fasten the seatbelts again as everything starts to vibrate and jolt around. Through the headphones, I can hear the radar signals grazing our heavy iron eagle, despite endless modifications, still designed in the 1950s.
Kim activates the new jammers, my Chinese digital wristwatch dies. I guess she just fried all non-NATO chips within a 20 km radius. Even though the wind resistance and machines are loud, screams from the pilot’s deck overpower everything. I crawl up the ladder but get blinded, put on sunglasses that don’t work, and then hit a button that releases the cockpit curtain. I throw myself flat and shout: “Gain altitude – incoming shockwave.”
I crawl over to the pilots, fumble for the morphine and inject needles into their thighs, then drag their limp bodies down to the rest berth at the back of the cockpit so I can strap them securely. Then, the shockwave hits. It’s as if everything in the cabin is boiling for a few seconds, as we are pushed through the sound barrier with a blast, the wings creak and flutter like a seagull. Fuck.
Kim pops her head up on the pilot’s deck: “I’ve put everything on full auto and synchronized our screens with the cockpit, we might have to take over the mission.” We take over the pilots’ seats and cautiously roll up the curtain. The light is strange. We stare fearfully at the screens, but they update slowly – thankfully, a “mission aborted” message pops up – phew…then a chilling “await new target.”
The plane banks and goes down to treetop level over an endless snowy landscape – we see radar tracks ahead on the map, then our SRAM missile shoots out from under the left wing, accelerating to Mach 3 and disappearing a few hundred kilometers into the horizon.
“Fuck, the AI has taken over – maybe because I’m not in my correct seat…” We see a bright ball of light at the end of our missile’s trajectory, about 120 km away. “There goes some of Russia’s air defense.” The EMP radiation has significantly reduced all electronic activity outside the plane, but the Geiger counter starts to click like a woodpecker.
We turn the plane so we can surf on the shockwave from our missile’s explosion. The AI takes over again, and as the dark clouds below us disperse, an incinerated city is revealed. Kim starts sobbing: “While we were asleep, the fools fought a nuclear war…”
I try not to think about what it looks like on the home front right now – and decide to try to squeeze her clammy hand, as we can’t hug strapped into our seats. Maybe we should take more pills now – before the others stop working?
“I guess we’re circling around, waiting for the satellites to see what’s left of Russia – so we can finish them off…” Kim clenches her teeth now. A couple of missiles drop from the pylon under the left wing and fly left and right – probably to suppress the ground air defense systems and scorch everything living around them. At the end of their trajectories a few hundred kilometers away, small suns ignite. We still have 9 missiles left under the wings. I dare not think about what’s in the bomb bay.
Kim starts pounding the keyboard as if in a bad movie where the protagonist hits the steering wheel of a car in impotence. I consider laying her down, as she could compromise the mission, but get distracted as our two blind colleagues in the back start moving, so I give them morphine again, then water drops.
A gray haze covers the landscape, the sun’s rays cannot penetrate. Hundreds of smoke columns rise towards the stratosphere. Our GPS no longer works, the satellites were probably smashed by the enormous EMP discharges from detonating nuclear weapons and various ABM and anti-satellite weapons.
We’ve been flying for over 12 hours now…I guess the first wave of submarine-based Trident missiles has neutralized the Russian missile silos – hope they didn’t have time to react to the radar and shoot back. I silently hope we also managed to eliminate their submarine-based nuclear missiles before they could destroy my homeland. My guess is that we’re now waiting for coordinates for Russia’s mobile systems in Siberia – it would make good sense to boil them now. I jab Kim in the thigh with morphine, she must not disturb me now with humanistic sentimentality.
I cruise down to treetop level again, it’s feels like a giant rollercoaster. The plane automatically releases flares and chaff to distract shoulder-launched heat-seeking missiles, as our sensors have detected life down there.
The plane jerks as the bomb bay doors open, completely changing our aerodynamic profile. The camera shows a city and automatically drops a 4-ton barrel-shaped B53 bomb, which immediately deploys a huge parachute – so we might have a chance to get away. The timer delays the explosion for 240 seconds – at a speed of 800 km/h, I can only get about 50 km away from the detonation. I try to override the automation, turn on all self-defense systems, gain altitude, and push the throttle to the max.
The rear-facing camera shows the bomb standing on its flat nose with a long parachute tail on the roof of a factory-like building surrounded by residential areas. I pray the bomb’s timer is set for the longest possible delay. I put earplugs on under the headphones and cover my eyes with a sleep mask.
Even though we have our backs turned to a fireball with a 2.3 km radius over 50 kilometers away, everything turns white in the cockpit. Then all liquids boil – thankfully, our fuel is in fireproof tanks, but our drinking water evaporates. The rear-facing camera melts, and the tail rudder gets stuck. Then the shockwave comes. Balckout.
I wake up and vomit on my boots. Concussion – and a ringing in my ears. Kim is bleeding from the mouth but twitches. A smell of burnt flesh comes from the berth behind the cockpit. I press the terminals and find that only the the old system that determines star positions works, a map appears. I do a search. We have enough fuel to reach an island in the middle of the Baltic Sea, in NATO territory, I fly manually and glide over an intact cliff landscape.
The Geiger counter is silent, so I head towards a civilian airport where we might be able to refuel – or at least where they have doctors, water, and food. During the approach, I see a burnt-out Russian Hind attack helicopter surrounded by what looks like NATO forces at the control tower.
Damn. I had hoped for a paradise island with a functioning analog telephone booth so I could call home. Naive dream – I think the shit hit the fan globally.
The runway is a bit too short for us, as I brake, the rear landing gear punctures, the rubber is probably melted – we end up with the nose only 30 cm from a concrete wall. I reverse and turn the plane back into starting position, take Kim’s pistol, I’ve always been wary of having only a single handgun on foreign ground.
No reason to move the rest of the crew until I know the area is safe. There’s a civilian waving about 200 meters away – he seems friendly. I put everything on high alert so I can start quickly, then lower the ladder.
It’s strange to be on the ground again after so many hours in the air, I stumble over my numb legs. The civilian comes closer, wearing a blue sailor sweater and a bizarre beanie.
He helps me up and stammers something resembling a Dutch dialect: “Hello new American friend, are you ok?”
“I could use water – and a doctor, please…”
He leads me through the empty terminal to a vending machine with canned soda, but my credit card doesn’t work, so I smash the window with a fire ax and then fold my jacket so I can use it to carry a bunch of cans of water and coke.
The sweater guy looks frightened – maybe it would have been more elegant to ask if he could lend me some coins. He utters some gibberish to a rentacop who shows us a van forward – we hoist the limp pilots into the trunk – the rentacop promises to take them to the hospital nearby. I want to go with the rest of the crew, but the last man must never leave a loaded plane.
I thank sweater guy for his help – he tells me he’s a potter and points to a small house close to the runway. “Hungry?”
I wake up Kim, who is silent and in shock. We go into sweater guy’s thatched house and sit down at a plank table in his pottery workshop – jazz plays through a tube amplifier, and a crackling fireplace warms the room, he opens a bottle of schnapps – I don’t feel like it – and then serves smoked herring with scrambled eggs on homemade rye bread with seeds that are about to crack my teeth.
Kim finally stammers: “Any news?”
“No, radio and the internet are down – but our island was attacked by Russian commandos in helicopters… they tried to control the airport.” He pauses for a moment… “but they underestimated our national guard. We’ll bury the poor souls tomorrow – or burn their corpses…”
Kim bangs her head down the table and sobs. Our polite host shows us to a annex with spiders, a double bed, wilted flowers in quirky vases, and a colorful thick handwoven bedspread.
I look out onto a beautiful cliff landscape that reminds me of Scotland. We awkwardly hug and sob – Kim brushes against my groin, but my penis feels like an ice shrimp – maybe it’s her fake red hair. Neither of us dares to say that we might have killed a few million people – and that we might have to fly on and continue the doomsday work – even though our families, everyone we know, yes, our entire world – is probably gone. I lie awake and all the possible events that triggered this war spins in my head…russian first strike, technical glitch, tactical nuclear exchange in Ukraine, AI takeover?
In the distance, I see the wind turbines turning – they’re turning towards the east. After we listen to some crackling vinyl staring at the ceiling trying to sleep, the Geiger counter starts to crackle.
We get the sweater-pottery-artist indoors – I seal the windows with duct tape and block the extractor fan with plastic bags. We play chess in the bedroom, then I go to check the fridge for food. The kitchen sink is filled with long white hair – the pottery man must have combed himself and sits bald in the sofa, reading Celine with a bottle of cognac. I spare him the full story.