Chapter 1 - Code Name Uisdean by A.J. Hall
Danny started to walk, even though his every instinct screamed to run. He turned one corner and then another, keeping his head held high, moving out of the bustle of the main concourse, towards the remote stands used by small charter operators and people against whom the airport stand allocation computer had taken a serious grudge.
Nothing to worry about. He was an air steward in uniform and this was one of the busiest airports in the world. Protective camouflage. Simple. Foolproof. After all, camouflage had worked so brilliantly for the Bengal tiger, hadn’t it? There must be at least three thousand of those still left alive in the wild. Probably.
Another man came abruptly out of an adjoining passage and cannoned into him.
“Oh, sorry. Oh. You’re a steward! Like me. That’s a funny coincidence. I’m Arthur, by the way. MJN Air. What about you?”
Danny’s shoulders slumped. “I’m — I was — I don’t know what’s going to happen to my plane, actually. I think I’m stuck here.”
Arthur’s brow creased and then his expression brightened. “Tell you what, come and have a cup of tea on GERTI. We were supposed to be taking the dead body of this really rich bloke back to England so they could have a service in Winchester Cathedral and bury him next to Jane Austen, but we’ve been on standby for the last three days, because when his family switched the respirator off he just kept on breathing, and eventually Mum said she wasn’t hanging on until the corpse made its mind up whether it wanted to be flown home in the hold or the cabin. So we’re back to Fitton this afternoon. Perhaps you can come with us!”
Danny felt, for a moment, as if he’d been wrapped in warm towels after an icy outdoor swim. Reality intruded almost immediately. He had seen much too much. The CIA were hardly just going to let him go.
Still, could he compromise someone simply by having a cup of tea? And there was something about Arthur’s guileless expression and innocent air of friendliness, like a dog hoping to be taken for a walk, which seemed almost irresistibly appealing.
“I could kill for a decent cup of tea.”
Arthur beamed. “Brilliant!”
MJN Air seemed to consist of an elderly business jet. Currently, the only person on board was a middle-aged man in first officer’s uniform, who looked up from the newspaper he was reading and said, “Do you realise, with this ‘not dying’ business, if Martin manages to put us into the side of a mountain we’ll end up as a collection of charred semi-pulverised lumps of human flesh listening to him second-guess himself for all eternity? And who’s this?”
“This is Danny, Douglas. He’s a steward, like me.”
“Not completely like you, one imagines. ” Douglas scrutinised Danny’s uniform as if cataloguing him. “Decent outfit, yours. The airline, not the suit.”
“I thought it was.”
Douglas’ eyebrows rose. “Ah? And what caused you to change your mind?”
“It turned out the CIA had chartered our plane to render a couple of prisoners to the US.”
Douglas whistled. “I can certainly see that de-gilting anyone’s gingerbread.”
Danny frowned. “Well, to be honest — it has happened before. We weren’t told that was what those charters were, but in retrospect it’s obvious. But this flight, things went really bad, really quickly. It began when a passenger started throwing up.”
Arthur paused in his tea-making, craning his head back into the cabin from the galley. “Had he eaten the fizzy yoghurt?”
“Doing food on your plane must be fantastic! Mum would never let me put arsenic in ours.”
“Though, ” Douglas observed, “despite these pettifogging restraints on his culinary genius, Arthur in the galley is still a force to be reckoned with.”
Danny wondered if perhaps he should pass on the tea. “Anyway, for some reason everyone thought the passenger really was going to die — he certainly looked like it — so two of the other passengers started ripping the plane apart to get the ingredients for an antidote.”
“And how does one assemble an antidote to arsenic poisoning only from ingredients found on one’s average jet aircraft? Enquiring minds demand to know.”
“They used de-icing fluid and landing gear grease. And a bit of cyanide. Injected.”
“Ah! Another first-aid assignment successfully handled by the St John’s Ambulance Brigade, Cesare Borgia’s Own Ninja Squadron.”
Danny managed a weak smile, but then the thought of the last few hours intruded.
“I should be going. If the CIA find me here, we’ll probably all be dragged off to Guantanamo Bay and waterboarded.”
“Brilliant!” Arthur said. At their expressions, he waved an explanatory hand.
“When we had that surprise outing for Mum’s birthday and went to Alton Towers, the waterboarding was the best bit.”
“No, Arthur, I think you’ll find waterboarding is not a ride at Alton Towers. What you’re thinking of is Congo River Rapids.”
“And that’s not like waterboarding?”
“Only, I suspect, if you happen to suffer from a really strange form of inner ear problem. Ah, Martin. We were just talking of you.”
Danny looked up to see a young man wearing a captain’s uniform and an expression somewhere between resignation and hysteria entering the cabin.
“Were you? And who’s that?”
“This is Danny. He followed Arthur on board and Arthur wondered if he could keep him. He’s a spare steward in need of a lift home. His last passengers went berserk on the outward flight and ripped out the de-icer fluid lines and the greaser conduits.”
“They did WHAT? Why?”
Douglas shrugged. “Apparently so they could mix the resulting mess together, season it with a soupçon of cyanide and inject it into a passenger.”
“Oh.” Martin blinked. “But then they must have done the landing with two crucial mechanical systems offline! They should have gone to full emergency landing protocol at once. His captain’s going to be in dead trouble if those Civil Aviation Authority blokes I met at the top of the ramp start asking him questions.”
Danny gave a strangled yelp and bolted into the toilet. At the last second he remembered not to bolt the door — closed was fine, but anyone would be suspicious at an aircraft toilet apparently in use while it was on a stand. Voices came clearly through the flimsy folding door from the cabin outside.
“Martin, are you quite sure they said ‘CAA’? I mention it because, with this being Washington Dulles International Airport, United States of America, the level of authority possessed by the UK’s aviation regulator in these parts is approximately equivalent to Arthur’s authority to act as the Downing Street head of communications.”
“Ooh, brilliant! Can I?’
“Stranger things have been known. So, Martin, think carefully. How — precisely — did the gentlemen in question introduce themselves?”
Before the captain could answer, there came the sounds of footsteps. New arrivals.
“Agent Lynch. And this is Agent Frost. CIA.”
Danny pressed himself back against the sink at the sound of the American accent just outside the toilet door.
“I think it’s important to be clear about this. The otters were only a thought experiment, and even so I never had any of them on the flight deck,” Martin said.
“Sea otters or river otters?”
“Asian short-clawed. At least, in the overhead lockers,” Douglas’s mellifluous tones cut in. Danny clutched at the edge of the sink to remain upright and wondered when, precisely, he had stepped through the looking-glass.
“Frost. Get Langley on the line. We’ve no time to lose. We’ve gotta get out of here.”
The two women rounded the corner, puffing slightly.
“Not very much further — sorry we’re out on the Western spiral arm of the airport terminus, but that’s what you get for travelling with an air-dot.”
“Don’t worry about that. Carolyn, this really is extremely good of you.”
“Nonsense! Can’t leave an old St Cath’s girl in the lurch. ‘Specially not in a crisis. Only glad GERTI was in the right place to give you a lift home. Look, before we get on board, I’d better warn you about the crew. Martin, I’m afraid, is a fusspot. In fact, when it comes to regulations, he’s a stickler.”
“That makes a nice change from my chaps. Especially Bond. He wouldn’t be able to find a stickle if I supplied him with twenty metres of shrimping net and the Grand Union Canal.”
“Ah! Now that sounds more like Douglas. He —”
Her companion flattened herself suddenly against the nearest wall, turning her head and scrabbling in her handbag in a way which obscured her features from view. Two muscular young men, barking incomprehensibly into mobile phones, ran obliviously past.
“Oh, damn! Those were Company guys. And they can only have come from GERTI. I’m afraid my chances of sneaking unnoticed back to my lot and not being dragged into some high-level pow-wow this side of the Pond just took a bit of a nosedive.”
Carolyn squared her shoulders. “What, CIA snakes on my plane? Come on.”
As they boarded GERTI Carolyn caught the words, “…and, Martin, not a word about Arthur’s invisible steward friend, understood?”
She turned to her companion and hissed, “Don’t ask. I can assure you that whatever the answer may be, direct digging is not the answer. But at least it appears I still have a crew and they haven’t been dragged off to Guantanamo Bay. So, we’re still ahead of the game.”
“Now that’s the girl I remember from the Speech Day percussion caps on piano pedals incident.”
Carolyn glared at her, marched into the main cabin and cleared her throat. “Well, chaps. Who were those two dubious specimens I just saw leaving GERTI?”
“They said they were from the CAA —”
“CIA, I still think you’ll find — “
“Anyway, I don’t think they’re a problem. They dashed off as soon as I mentioned the otters.”
“The hundred otters we had to fit on GERTI!”
“Perhaps if I explained. If you recall, Carolyn, last week, when you and Herc were off cavorting with your cockapoo — “
“Thank you, Douglas. If you mean the occasion when the three of you decided to swipe GERTI for some nonsense involving taking her to Devon to deliver a piano, I recall it very well indeed. What I don’t recall is it having anything to do with our fish-eating furry friends.”
“I was the one who thought of putting the last one in the fridge.”
“Why does this not surprise me, Arthur? But, since I didn’t come back to discover incriminating webbed paw-marks all over the fuselage, or a cabin covered in otter dung —”
“Spraint,” Douglas interrupted. At their combined stare of disbelief he ducked his head and muttered, “Technical term for otter dung. According to the latest edition of Otter News, spraint has been spotted on the shores of Budworth Mere, which gives very promising hints of a resurgence in the otter population of West Cheshire.” Their bafflement led him to add, “A well-meaning godmother gave my daughter a sponsored otter for her last birthday. Unfortunately, ever since she’s been on at me to hijack GERTI, fly to Skye and break the beast out of the Broadford Otter Sanctuary so she can take it home and keep it in her bathroom.”
“That’d be brilliant!”
“No, Arthur, it would not. If we were not mired in the midst of a world-shattering catastrophe I would sit here and invite you to count the ways in which the word “brilliant” could not possibly apply to the scenario depicted by Douglas. But, since we have neither world enough nor time, I will merely observe that, given the absence of — spraint — in the cabin, I take it the otters represented some sort of parlour game? So why did two hardened operatives from the Central Intelligence Agency hot-foot it out of here at the very mention of the word, ‘otter’?”
“I think I can help there.” Her friend’s satisfied, almost gloating smile took Carolyn back more years than she cared to count. Douglas cocked an eyebrow in her direction.
“Excuse me, I don’t think we’ve been introduced —?”
“You can call her Barbara. That’s because it isn’t her name. No, Arthur; I do not propose to explain. ‘Barbara’ is an old school friend in need of a lift home.”
“Oh, you mean, like Danny. Ow! Douglas!”
“He’s Arthur’s invisible steward friend, Carolyn. Nothing to worry about at all. Anyway, ‘Barbara’, might you elucidate?”
“Last I heard, ‘otter’ was high-level code for ‘impending bioweapons attack’. Did you specify what sort of otters you had in mind?”
“Well, I may have happened to mention Asian short-clawed otters in passing —”
“Because they’d also featured in the current edition of Otter News?”
Barbara’s mobile trilled. She picked it up and put it to her ear in one smooth movement. “M here. Ignore the Chinese Ebola attack rumour. Black ops propaganda. But don’t disabuse our friends in Langley for a few hours. Give me time to clear US airspace. M out.”
Carolyn glared around her assembled crew. “Right. Take off as soon as we can get a slot. Martin, do the figures and feed them through to the authorities.”
“Yes, OK. Yes. Right away. So, that’ll be six on board, and —”
“Five of us, Martin. You, me, Douglas, Arthur and Barbara. If you insist on doing the weight calculations to allow for Arthur’s invisible steward friend I can’t stop you, but in that case you might also wish to allow for a hundred purely conceptual otters and the half-tonne of virtual anchovies we’re carrying for their figurative mid-Atlantic snack. But whatever numbers you intend to crunch, Martin, get down to it. The airport is currently open but since there is every likelihood that matters will degenerate into civil commotion and world-wide anarchy any moment now, I’d strongly prefer to be contemplating the collapse of civilisation from a country which doesn’t consider a cup of lukewarm water and a Lipton’s bag apparently stuffed with floor sweepings as an adequate substitute for a decent cup of tea. So move it.”
“If we’d had a yearbook at St Cath’s I’d have definitely nominated you for ‘Girl You’d Want Next to You in the Zombie Apocalypse’,” the soi-disant Barbara murmured. “And speaking of tea, Arthur, could you possibly oblige me with a very large straight Bourbon, no ice?”
“I really think you can come out now,” M said. Nothing showed through the cabin porthole except blue-grey sea, lightly flecked here and there by wave crests and the odd wisp of cloud. Improbable as it sounded, they had been permitted to depart from Washington and no-one seemed to be marking their passage onwards.
After a moment or so the toilet door folded back and a crumpled, terrified figure who, to M’s experienced maternal eye, seemed slightly shy of twelve years old emerged. M patted the seat next to her (Carolyn was dozing across two seats at the back and Arthur was engaged in the galley, on some task which involved much chirruping, some humming and the occasional sotto voce “Oops!”).
She eyed him for a moment, wondered whether forcibly blowing his nose for him would detract from the prestige of MI6, and settled for handing him a bundle of paper napkins.
“Arthur’s invisible friend Danny, I presume.”
Danny managed a watery smile. He waved a hand generally down his body. “Not very invisible, I’m afraid.”
M shrugged. “Invisible to the CIA, which is the part that counts. So, why did they have such an intense interest in you?”
Gradually, in fits and starts, the story emerged. At the end of it she nodded, slowly. “Well, I suppose I should be grateful Harkness is still alive. I was expecting to come under pressure to reactivate Torchwood for the crisis; now I can tell the Home Secretary with a clear conscience that those clowns are outside our jurisdiction literally as well as figuratively. And I’ll bet before they’re done with Torchwood, the CIA will wish they’d settled for a hundred short-clawed otters instead.” She stood up. “Carolyn!”
“Yes?” Carolyn was instantly awake and completely compos mentis, a talent M had always envied her in their dormitory, when only early morning lacrosse practice and not the fate of the world hung on it.
“We filed a flight plan for Fitton, didn’t we?”
“How will your captain take to an unscheduled diversion — and, by unscheduled, I also mean, unannounced, unheralded and not a word to air traffic control?”
“A diversion where to?”
“The island of Uffa.”
“Where the hell’s that?”
“In the inner Hebrides. There’s a man holed up there at present who might be of incalculable use in the current crisis. I’ve just had word that he’ll consent to work with us — Six, that is — provided no hint of his doing so is passed to the CIA, Five or — certain branches of HM Government I prefer not to dwell on. I’d normally send some of my people to bring him in, but since Arthur’s invisible friend has told me his very interesting story, I think I ought to introduce the two of them as soon as possible. He’ll get more out of Danny’s information if he hears it directly and untainted by avoidable delay.”
“Hm. And the landing facilities on Uffa?”
“Grass airstrip. I can have my people download the most up-to-date data for you. And get some of the locals to clear off the deer. Apparently deer outnumber people on Uffa by about ten to one.”
“Well, I’d certainly prefer not to put GERTI through an impromptu version of the elk test, however fond of venison I may be. But that’s not the point. The point, I’m afraid, is Martin. As I mentioned, Martin is a stickler. And an unscheduled deliberate diversion to an uncharted airstrip in an out-of-the-way location is going to ping all his stickle alarms, and not in a good way. I foresee turbulence on the flight deck.”
“But we’re in the middle of world catastrophe on a scale I’ve never contemplated before; in fact, on a scale I daren’t even attempt to contemplate too closely in case it reduces me to a state of helpless gibbering terror at the sheer enormity of it all.”
“Yes, but from what I can gather that’s the normal state of the inside of Martin’s head, whether the existential crisis in question is a cockroach in the bathroom or discovering the galley milk is a day past its sell-by limit. You can’t suddenly expect him to grow a sense of proportion just because the world’s ending.”
“Well, what do you suggest?”
“A stratagem, obviously. But, first, a cup of tea. The twenty-five-year-old Talisker cuppa, I think. One beneficial side-effect of impending world collapse, the woman in duty-free couldn’t be bothered to keep her pricing straight as between indifferent gin and premium single malt. I made hay while the sun shone. Arthur!”
“So, Carolyn, let me get this straight. You wish me to return to the flight deck, disable one of our less crucial systems —”
“I wish you to produce the appearance of disability in one of our less crucial systems. Whether this requires you actually to take a hammer to it or simply creatively re-route the wires to the warning light panel I leave entirely to you. Provided, of course, any actual damage caused by you is reasonably reversible using only the resources available —”
“To Her Majesty’s Government when in full-blown emergency alert mode,” Barbara’ interrupted. “We can helicopter in any spares you need. Along with your dog, Carolyn; I wouldn’t want you distracted by worrying whether your dog-minding service can cope during your extended absence. But I’d prefer it if we didn’t crash GERTI getting there.”
Douglas snorted. “Wherever ‘there’ may be.”
“That’s part two of your mission, Douglas, should you choose to accept it. Having convinced Martin that one of our non-life-threatening systems has gone on the blink, you are then going to ‘remember ‘, from the infinite depths of your knowledge of Air England practices and procedures, that despite all appearances to the contrary the safest, most sensible, by-the-book approach to whatever crisis it is you have managed to manufacture the appearance of is to land GERTI on a grass strip on a remote island in the Inner Hebrides. Uffa, to be precise.”
“And how do you expect me to manage that? Martin may be neurotic, but he isn’t a complete imbecile.”
“Oh, did someone mention me?”
“No, Arthur. We were simply talking about how to reconcile Martin to the unscheduled diversion we’re planning.”
“But surely, if we’re planning it, it must be a scheduled diversion, mustn’t it?”
“This is not the time, Arthur, for you to start grasping the principles of applied logic. The natural order is in enough turmoil as it is. Suffice it to say, it’s a planned diversion from the perspective of the cabin, but from the perspective of the flight deck and everywhere else in the known universe it is a happy accident. An accident about which ATC must never become aware. We are, in short, flying under the radar.”
“Fantastic! Are there going to be polar bears again?”
“Not without a diversion of truly unscheduled proportions. Anyway, Arthur, why don’t you go and look out the Monopoly things. I’m sure both Barbara and Danny would appreciate a game. And meanwhile, Douglas and I can finalise our arrangements. Well, Douglas?”
“What’s in it for me?”
“Ah. I suspected we would get there in the end. What’s in it, as you put it, is not merely first dibs on the soft cheese for this flight and the flight after but — shall we say — a very advantageous forward position on Camembert futures for the foreseeable. Contingent on results, of course.”
“You do realise, Carolyn, given Miracle Day you could just be offering me pole position for the onboard Camembert until the end of time?”
“That sounds as if the Milk Marketing Board had recruited Meatloaf to write them a jingle. In any event, yes; I am prepared for that contingency. If MJN Air should last for a thousand years, men will know, Douglas, that you have first dibs on the Camembert. Now get in there and get this plane diverted to Uffa.”
He sketched her a salute, and vanished towards the flight deck. Danny, worn out by the events of the day, had fallen asleep on ‘Barbara’s’ shoulder. Carolyn grinned down at her friend.
“Seems like MI6 one, CIA nil.”
“Ah, well. You catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Or so they tell me. Which may be why my man on Uffa is coming in to Six not to Five, come to think of it.”
“And who is this mystery man, then?”
‘Barbara’ smiled. “Sorry, Carolyn. Even though it’s you, if I told you his real name I’d have to kill you. But for present purposes, he’s ‘Code Name Uisdean’.”
“Code Name Uisdean it is, then.”