Authors: Tom Young
GOLD HAD NEVER SEEN ANYTHING
like the inside of that Rivet Joint aircraft. And she never would have, either, had she not maintained her top secret clearance. The jet sat connected to external power on the military ramp at Manas. The Rivet Joint's interior consisted of a long row of crew stations: seats where linguists and other operators could listen on headsets and monitor banks of computers and electronic equipment. A maze of wiring connected all the components. Interphone cords and oxygen hoses hung like vines in an electrical jungle. The air-conditioning system and cooling fans gave off an industrial hum, and the whole place smelled like a new television.
Someone had left a flight jacket draped over the back of a crew seat. A sleeve patch displayed the shield of the 55th Wing, with its motto:
Gold knew the Latin.
We See All.
Irena showed Gold the work stations, along with the bunk and galley at the back of the aircraft. Not nearly as roomy as Parson's C-5 Galaxy, Gold noted, but comfortable enough for long missions. She felt a little strange wearing civilian jeans inside a sophisticated spy plane. Irena, with her flight line badge clipped to her flight suit, had escorted Gold to the aircraft.
“My goodness,” Gold said, “I could have joined the Air Force and spent the war sitting in one of these things, drinking coffee with you.”
“Never too late,” Irena said.
As much as the airborne linguist job intrigued Gold, she would not have traded places with Irena. True, she could have served in relative comfort, listening through those ubiquitous David Clark headsets the Air Force issued. A clean uniform every day, a clean lavatory just steps from her seat. Plenty of sandwiches from the fridge. Long hours, no doubt, but above the fray. That assignment would have spared Gold a lot of toil and misery, and a tremendous amount of pain.
But she never would have known Afghanistan as she knew it now. She never would have come to love some of its people as she did now. And she never would have met Parson.
The clomping of boots coming up the crew entrance interrupted her thoughts. Parson appeared at the front of the line of work stations. Webster, Cunningham, and one of the Rivet Joint pilots climbed up behind him.
“Damn,” Parson said, “look at all this.” Gold supposed he, too, had never seen the inside of this type of aircraft.
“Good morning, sirs,” Irena said.
Irena and the pilot explained the layout of the plane in more detail. In addition to stations for linguists, other crew stations seated electronic warfare officers and in-flight maintenance technicians.
“They'll fly a sortie this afternoon,” Webster said.
“Wish I could go with them,” Parson said.
“Me, too,” Webster said.
The pilot appeared to think for a moment. “I could ask,” he said. “It would be out of the ordinary, but so is this mission. Do you have TS clearances?”
“Yep,” Webster said.
“Oh, yes,” Parson said. He pointed to Gold. “Sophia, too.”
“Is she a civilian?” the pilot asked.
“Not entirely,” Parson said. He described her Army background and her reserve status.
“I can't promise,” the pilot said, “but I'll call the ops desk at Offutt and ask.”
To Gold's surprise, the request got approved. The pilot must have emphasized the role of Webster and his team in the investigation, to establish their need to know whatever intel the Rivet Joint picked up. True enough. Webster knew how to use evidence, and Parson understood the logistics of shipping things by air, especially from Afghanistan. And the whole thing had started with an accident on their turf. Perhaps it made sense to keep them in the loop. Gold got included as their ad hoc aide.
After lunch, Gold strapped herself into an unused work station beside Irena and put on a headset. Webster sat at Irena's other side, and Parson took a jump seat in the Rivet Joint's cockpit. Gold had eaten only a salad; she anticipated a little queasiness in the windowless cabin, especially if the air turned rough. But after the jet powered through turbulence near the ground, it climbed into smooth levels of the atmosphere. With no way for Gold to see outside, only the rush of the slipstream gave any hint of movement.
Irena opened some sort of checklist, adjusted volume settings on her comm box and on Gold's. Parson, naturally, wanted to follow the pilot stuff on the flight deck. But to Gold, the real action took place back here with the language specialists. Webster apparently thought so, too. He leaned to watch Irena's fingers tapping a keyboard, adjusting knobs on receivers.
The plane seemed to level off. Gold saw nothing that indicated altitude, but the engines quieted as if the pilots had eased the throttles back to a cruise setting. Then one of the officers, presumably a mission commander seated somewhere forward of Irena, called, “Oxygen check.”
Irena pulled a quick-don mask over her head, adjusted the mask. Her crewmates took turns checking in on interphone. Eventually, Irena pressed her talk switch and said, “Markovich up on oxygen.”
“Good check,” the commander called. “Discontinue.”
Irena removed the mask, then adjusted the boom mike of her headset. A drill for the primary crew members, Gold realized. In the event of a rapid decompression, they wanted to make sure everybody's oxygen and comm systems worked.
“You guys got here quicker than I expected,” Webster said. “Did you come all the way from Nebraska?”
“No, sir,” Irena said. “We were in Europe, supporting KFOR.”
Gold remembered that acronym: Kosovo Force, NATO's peacekeeping contingent in Kosovo. Serbia had never recognized Kosovo's secession, and the UN administered Kosovo as an autonomous region. Border skirmishes had broken out on occasion between Kosovo and Serbia, and tensions there remained high while most of the world focused on Afghanistan and Iraq.
“Yeah,” Webster said, “I imagine Kosovo's still a sore subject for a lot of people.”
“Yes, sir,” Irena said. Then she pressed her talk switch and said, “Markovich going off headset for a minute.”
Another crew member said, “Copy that, Irena. We'll listen for you.”
Irena took off her headset and went to the galley. She came back with cups of coffee for Webster and Gold.
“Thanks,” Gold said. She took the foam cup, sipped. Not as good as Green Beans, but it would do.
Irena donned her headset, buckled back into her seat, and said, “Markovich back up.”
“Rog, Irena,” came the answer. “Nobody wants to talk to us so far.”
Static crackled on the channel as Gold listened in. She heard snatches of what she assumed was Kyrgyz, along with some Russian. Clicks, pops, then a hiss at a higher tone. The Rivet Joint crew was apparently adjusting receivers, scanning circuitsâa vastly different world from the life Gold had known as an Army linguist. She caught a conversation in Pashto. Someone said, “I will return in three days. I must take my goats to market.” Gold liked the sound of that. Somebody was having a peaceful afternoon, attending to matters of commerce. The rest of the conversation got cut off as the receiver switched to something else. Goats did not interest the Rivet Joint crew today.
Another language came through the static. Like Russian, but somewhat different. The syllables rose and faded as the signal strength wavered. Gold understood none of it, but Irena sat up straight, harness straps tight across her shoulders. She stared down at her keyboard, and it became clear she was listening closely. With her right hand, a pen angled between her fingers, she pressed two buttons on her console. When the voice stopped, she said to Gold and Webster, “That's Serbo-Croatian.”
“What did he say?” Gold asked.
Irena smiled. “âThe food here is awful,'” she said. “He's just chitchatting, but we'll try to locate the call anyway.”
“You can do that?”
“Man,” Webster said, “this whole week is turning into a blast from my past.”
“How's that, sir?” Gold asked.
“Last time I heard that language, I was in The Hague. Part of my work on the civilian side.”
“What did you do there?” Gold asked.
“I helped prosecute Slobodan MiloÅ¡evic. But before the trial could end, he entered a plea of dead.”
Irena looked at her console as if she were staring at something far beyond the airplane. She sat silently for several minutes, jotted on a notepad, tweaked a volume knob. Finally she said, “He didn't speak for all Serbs. Never did.”
“I'm sure he didn't,” Webster said.
Irena's eyes narrowed. She appeared to wrestle with emotions she could hardly express.
Gold could imagine Irena's mixed feelings on the subject. To come from a proud and rich heritage, and to have that culture associated in the media with war criminals. To hear your parents tell of losing their home in a war they didn't start. And to know that those who did start the war, in large measure, were politicians with the same ancestors as yours.
Bosnia and Kosovo were not part of Gold's area of expertise. But she'd read enough to know a bit of the history and how that history informed the present. This aircrew had just come from monitoring communications over Kosovo, a place of powerful symbolism for Serbs. In 1389, an Ottoman army defeated a Serb prince in Kosovo at the Field of Blackbirds, opening the way for centuries of Muslim domination. Gold pondered about how something that had happened more than six hundred years ago helped drive events today, helped determine the makeup of the crew of this surveillance jet. The thought reminded her of William Faulkner and his line about how the past is not even past.
“What was MiloÅ¡evic like?” Gold asked.
“Arrogant,” Webster said. “He said he didn't recognize the court's authority, and he kept refusing to enter a plea.”
“He died in his cell, didn't he?” Gold asked.
“Yes,” Webster said. “That wasâlet me thinkâ2006. MiloÅ¡evic wouldn't even talk to his lawyers. He was defending himself at trial. You know the old saying about that, Airman Markovich?”
“No, sir,” Irena said.
“If you represent yourself, you have a fool for a client.”
Irena smiled politely, but Gold could tell the Serbian-American linguist didn't consider any of this history a laughing matter. The receivers and interphone fell silent, and for a time Gold heard only the baritone of the engines. The aircraft banked slightly, then rolled out of the turn.
Irena made adjustments on her console, jotted figures onto a form on a clipboard. New voices wafted through the circuits. Gold heard what sounded like a radio broadcast in Russian, and more cell phone conversations in Kyrgyz. Then the Serbo-Croatian voice came back. Irena turned up the volume, pressed a button.
“Is that the same phone?” she asked on interphone.
“I think so,” a crewmate answered. “I know it's coming off the same cell tower.”
Irena scribbled on her notepad as she listened. Gold could not read the notes; her young colleague wrote in Cyrillic. The phone call went on for several minutes. One voice sounded commanding, the other supplicating.
“You got a position?” Irena asked a crewmate.
When the call ended, Irena pressed another button, reviewed her notes.
“Did you guys pick up something good?” Webster asked.
“Maybe,” Irena said. “I never heard a name or a location, but they were definitely talking about supplies of something.”
“What did they say?”
“The boss wants more. The other guy doesn't know if he can do it.” Irena ran her finger down the notepad. “Boss says, âYou better find a way.' Other guy says, âWe're having trouble replacing the drivers we just lost.'”
“Whoa. Did you record it?” Webster asked.
“Did they sound like they were Serbian military?”
“The guy called his boss âLieutenant,' but the boss said he wasn't a lieutenant anymore.”
“And did I hear you guys say you had a position marked?”
“We do,” Irena said.
“I'll ask.” Irena spoke on interphone with her crewmates and wrote down a set of coordinates. Webster leaned in to look at the numbers.
“Hmm,” he said. “I think that's kind of familiar. Airman Markovich, good work. Can you put me on interphone with the front-enders?”
“Yes, sir.” Irena flipped a switch on Webster's comm box, and on hers and Gold's. “You're on with the pilots, Colonel.”
Webster listened for a moment, then pressed his talk switch and said, “Hey, Parson. You up on headset?”
“Sure am,” Parson answered. “That you, Terry?”
“Yeah. You got an extra set of approach plates up there?”
“Lemme check.” Parson's voice went off line for a few seconds, and when he came back he said, “Got 'em right here. What do you need?”
“Can you bring me the plates for Manas?”
“Yes, sir. I'll be right there.”
Irena pulled her boom mike away from her lips, leaned toward Gold, and whispered off interphone, “Does he always call full-bird colonels by their first names?”
Gold smiled, whispered, “Sometimes. Don't pick up his bad habits.”
After a few minutes, Parson made his way aft to Webster's seat. He carried a booklet of navigational charts; aviators used so many different formats and sizes of charts that Gold couldn't keep track of them. Parson leafed through the booklet, stopped on a page, and handed the booklet to Webster. The two men conferred off headset, and Webster cross-referenced with Irena's notes. He raised his eyebrows and gave a thumbs-up to Parson, who took back the charts and returned to the flight deck. Webster pressed his interphone switch and said, “That call came from Manas.”
So the trafficking operation still went on, Gold concluded. And Belgrade wasn't just a transshipment point. Apparently, that's where the orders came from. Gold watched Irena continue to work, monitoring circuits and tweaking knobs. Irena wasn't smiling, but she looked content. Gold remembered that feeling:
I got this. I know what I'm doing.
She saw a lot of her younger self in Irena.