Russell watched Jorgenson watching him walk through the door of his office. The old man seemed wary of him, as if he was expecting him to bring up again the issues he’d raised the last time they talked.
He was right, at least on that score.
“Just some thoughts about the operation, as it’s presently structured,” Russell said. “It seems we’re betting very heavily on that plane coming in on time,” he began, mentioning only the most problematic item in a plan riddled with questionable assumptions. “And even if that isn’t the case, we’re talking about an unknown aircraft operated by an unidentified party, according to a dated record. A lot can happen in that time, the schedule getting advanced or delayed, or the flight being canceled outright. The team would be put in harm’s way for nothing.”
“The Operations staff has already considered those problems, and a great many others besides, and we will be using every available resource to make sure that doesn’t happen,” Jorgenson said, cutting him off. Russell took this to mean that either Argus or some unnamed collaborator would monitor the base and its surrounding airspace for any indication of a change like that. “Still, it’s a fantasy to think we can eliminate every risk.”
“Yes sir, but operations like these are prone to failure, even in much more favorable circumstances.” Better-equipped, better-prepared and frankly better planned operations, Russell thought, though it was more than he was willing to risk to be so blunt.
“What’s your alternative?” Jorgenson asked in the tone of one cutting to the chase.
The alternative Russell wanted to suggest was one he couldn’t suggest given the company’s mission: that they inform the Russians and assist them in the recovery of the object. Better that it stay where it was than foment a crisis pointlessly trying to grab it.
Fortunately, there were others.
“Instead of the assault discussed here we can just have our team monitor the scene and identify the aircraft. We then turn over the information to our CIA liaison, and they can take things from there,” Russell thought, thinking that if they had any sense, they’d do what the company couldn’t and assist the Russians in recovering the thing.
“I don’t see that they’d be in a position to do much,” Jorgenson said. “Satellites can’t follow planes in mid-air, and a U-2 flyover just isn’t going to cut it. We’d need a lot of assets in the area and along probable flight paths, starting with an AWACS practically over the airfield. We don’t have anything like that in position, and we’re not going to because Russia’s too big to cover that way. We can’t count on a lot of the surrounding countries either, most of which are barely functional. Which is why we can’t have that plane take off again with the ellipton inside it in airspace we don’t control.”
“Then we could use the records our people in Russia went to such trouble to get, let Stepanenkov know how much we’ve learned about his operation,” Russell suggested. “Make him deal with us.”
“And if he refuses, where are we then?” Jorgenson demanded. “We’ll have tipped our hand for nothing. There’s no substitute for physical possession of the object in question. Which is why the operation goes ahead as scheduled, and you and the rest of your team will confine yourselves to analyzing the data required of you. In fact, your section is to give priority to assisting the planning in any way possible – particularly with regard to getting the plane back out of Russian airspace. That means identifying the closest secure field, and contributing anything relevant to the development of back-up plans – by Operations – in the case of a mishap.”
“Yes sir,” Russell said, then took his leave. Walking out he no longer felt like they were just being cavalier with the lives of their people and the risk of blowback. He felt like they were sending the team on a suicide mission, melodramatic as the phrase sounded, and despite his increasingly apparent misgivings, Jorgenson was still holding back the real reasons – if he had anything to hold back.
Listening to Jorgenson talk when he’d first entered this building, Russell had allowed himself to think his job would be a cozy one. It would have been no more than the karma in which he didn’t believe balancing things out, with the frustrations of the past decade balanced by a run of good luck. He didn’t think so anymore, and the early retirement he’d hoped for now looked very, very far away.