A Matt “Ace” Black Thriller by Thomas Belisle
THE PATIENT’S EYES TWITCHED, fluttered, ever so slightly. Subtle, nearly imperceptible movements at first. Indications of a body coming back to life. The fact that he was even alive, almost inconceivable. The odds of surviving the horrific aircraft crash, infinitesimal. Yet somehow, he had cheated death. It wasn’t his first time.
He was being closely watched. Cared for. Treated the best way possible with the limited rudimentary medical resources the clinic had to offer in the desolate area. Given the scarcity of any form of intensive care capability there, prayers had been said for him when he had been brought in. It was, at least, something they could offer. Few of the staff, if you could call them that, believed he would ever recover, given his battered condition.
Khalil slowly peeled back the layers from the unconscious state he had been in. Neurons within his brain began firing erratically. As his body repaired itself, the connections within his neuronal structure knitted themselves together, working as intended, electrical impulses providing the critical messaging needed for a body to function normally. There was more eye movement beneath his closed lids. He became aware of his own strained breathing—and then the pain, seeming to emanate from every inch of his damaged frame. He turned his head slowly to the right, just enough to convince the medical staff that he would wake soon.
He opened one eye, then the other. His mind tried to comprehend what he saw through his blurry vision. And what he was feeling. He was on his back. Where was he? In some sort of room with a few pieces of what appeared to be medical equipment nearby. A tube extended from a bag hanging on a metal stand near him, fluid coursing into his arm. His vision slowly cleared. He could see daylight spilling through the partially open canvas door flap. The bright sunlight outside was further blocked by the dark corrugated metal cover that served as the roof over the small wood-framed clinic.
“He is awake, doctor,” a female voice blurted out. “It’s a miracle!”
Khalil was confused. The voice was not familiar. Nor was the place his eyes managed to gradually bring into focus. Some sort of medical facility, a hospital? He looked at the balding, bespectacled man in the white smock approaching him. A doctor?
“Welcome back to the world. How do you feel?” the physician asked as he checked his patient’s pulse.
“What is this place?” Khalil nearly choked on the words, his dry throat rudely expelling a raspy sound from a voice that had long been silenced.
The doctor placed a wet cloth to Khalil’s lips, careful not to induce an involuntary gag reflex with too much liquid. The injured man’s tongue tried desperately to capture the cool droplets to soothe his parched throat.
“You are at the Danbi clinic, three weeks now. We are the only medical facility for about fifty miles. We don’t have much here, but it appears it was enough to keep you alive.”
“Where am I? What country am I in?” Khalil questioned, his voice becoming a little stronger.
“Azerbaijan. You were brought here by a shepherd who saved your life. You were very badly injured—there was not much hope you would survive. You stopped breathing shortly after arriving here, but we managed to get your heart beating again. I did the best I could to tend to your injuries. I haven’t treated anyone before with such severe trauma who managed to live. Yet somehow, Allah has blessed you with another chance at life.” He paused as Khalil appeared to process the information about his condition.
“What is your name?” the doctor asked.
Khalil hesitated, not sure if he should divulge his real name, but in his weakened state he told him.
He looked at himself. The cast on his left arm. The crude pins protruding just below the knee of his immobilized right leg. As he focused on the pins he became aware of the pain, his stare triggering his brain’s acknowledgment of the primitive but effective surgery that had taken place. He tried to take a deep breath and felt a stabbing sensation in his chest. He touched what felt like a large bandage on his shoulder with his free hand and winced.
“Most of your ribs were fractured. They will take time to heal, along with the rest of your injuries,” the doctor cautioned. “Your leg had compound breaks, and I was forced to use pins to secure the bones. If I had not done that, you likely would have never walked normally once you recovered. Even so, the injury may prevent you from ever achieving full mobility. Your skull also appeared to have been fractured, although I can’t determine how severely without an x-ray—a capability we don’t have here.”
“You said a shepherd brought me here. How? From where?”
“The shepherd carried you away from an airplane crash site several kilometers from here. The others on the aircraft were not so lucky. I was told they were clearly dead.”
Khalil became silent. Others? Crash site? He touched his forehead, then the large bandage covering the sutures in his head, trying desperately to clear his foggy memory. Things slowly solidified in his brain. Fragments of thoughts. Bits of disconnected information. He vaguely remembered being on an airplane. Something had happened while he was on it—maybe an explosion? He wasn’t sure. He remembered nothing more about the airplane or any other passengers.
“The army has been looking for you. At least I think it is you they have asked about. We hid you. We told them nothing.”
Khalil jerked up in the bed. He was instantly jolted by excruciating pain and immediately regretted the abrupt movement. It felt like a searing bolt of lightning raced up his leg and into his back. His chest felt like a spike had been driven into it and his head seemed like it was about to explode. He winced, his body revolting against the ill-advised movement, his brain informing him of the need for more rest, time to heal.
But the pain jolted more memories. His escape from Iran. That was why he had been on the plane. He didn’t remember the crash. The moment the aircraft had fallen from the sky. Or why it had crashed. He wondered who the others on the doomed plane had been.
“Why did you help me? Why did you not turn me in to the army?”
“From the scraps of Iranian Army uniforms the shepherd brought to me, I presumed you all were trying to escape the carnage there. The fact that you somehow survived is a message from God—that you are destined to do more with your life. Turning you in would have served no real purpose.”
Khalil nodded, his memory now gradually coming back. A few random thoughts were connecting into something meaningful about why he was in Azerbaijan. Perhaps this was a planned escape route.
“We can protect you here and keep you from being discovered. The army comes here on very predictable dates. There are places nearby where we can hide you, where you will not be found.”
He was fading into unconsciousness again, the pain shutting down his ability to remain awake, and allowing an escape from the agony he was experiencing.
“Should I give him the drug?” the medical attendant asked the doctor.
“Let him sleep, but monitor him closely. When he wakes again, we will see what level of pain he is in. For now, rest is the best thing for him.”
Deep in sleep, Khalil’s brain began stitching together the past memories. His parents and brothers had been killed in Syria when he was a child. An American fighter bomber attack on his village had been the cause—the pilot who had led the attack was a man named Alec Black. Khalil and his young sister had somehow survived. They had been rescued by their uncle, who had brought them to England first and then to the United States. The final tragedy in his life had happened when his sister, following many years of mental trauma from a vicious attack in her Texas high school, had been accidentally killed on a Dallas street. For Khalil, it was the culmination of heartbreaking life events that had turned his anger into hatred for America—and made him the perfect candidate for manipulation by a cleric in a Texas mosque and for Khalil’s subsequent radicalization.
When he eventually awoke, the pieces of his past would solidify in his mind and become a call to action.
United States Air Force Major Matt “Ace” Black shuffled the papers across his desk at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Hampton, Virginia. As a relatively new major, the job was painful for him. He was “flying” a desk. He was out of the cockpit—out of the environment where he felt truly alive. In fact, escaping the bonds of earth in an advanced fighter jet made him believe he was superhuman, possessing not just the gift of flight but the awesome power of the warbird he piloted, which became a natural extension of his own body.
The base was not new to him. It was a return trip. He had been stationed here in 2016 as a combat pilot with the call sign “Ace,” flying the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter. The three-plus years he had spent at the sprawling base had special meaning for him. He flew the most powerful aircraft in the world here, it was where he had met the love of his life, Julie, and it was the place where his three children had been born.
He was doing his time, as many officers called it, a prerequisite to continuing his advancement in rank and responsibility. His job was to help develop the next generation of advanced technology for the Air Force. In the end, if he couldn’t be flying, this was still a great gig until he could claw his way back into a jet.
When he escaped the monotony of the headquarters’ briefing rooms and managed to get to the base fitness center, he at least had a chance for solid physical release. And some time to reminisce about how he had gotten to where he was. He would often think back on what had transpired over the past five years and his combat time in the Raptor.
The war in the sky over Iran was a distant memory, but he could still remember the highlights. The utter enjoyment of piloting America’s premier stealth fighter. Testing his skill against an adversary. The thrill of combat. The excitement of winning in battle, in life-or-death confrontations. He could also never forget nearly getting killed, shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile while he’d led combat forces to prevent a rogue ayatollah from starting a potential nuclear holocaust. The time might have slipped away, but the memories were still there.
When Ace had returned from his wartime stint, he’d already had military orders to proceed to his next assignment, the Air Command and Staff College in Montgomery, Alabama. The one-year break from flying operations was a refreshing change which included plenty of social interactions with U.S. and international military students.
Ace had been greatly disappointed at graduation when he’d received notification of another nonflying job assignment in South Korea. He would be assisting the South Korean armed forces in procuring new weapon systems from the United States and coordinating joint US–South Korean military training exercises supporting counterterrorism operations. While there, he’d developed a strong working relationship with a United States Navy Sea Air Land (SEAL) team. Ace quickly bonded professionally with the team’s leader, a powerfully built frogman who shared the same sense of commitment to helping an important US ally. Their relationship had grown especially tight when off duty in the smoky Busan steakhouse bars.
When not working Ace had kept his fitness in top form, spending a considerable amount of time learning the fine art of tae kwon do. He had also picked up some advanced techniques used by the Israeli Defense Forces that would serve him well later in life.
Two years in Korea had ended on a high note. He had almost exploded with excitement hearing he was headed to F-22 refresher training, and then on to Nellis AFB outside Las Vegas, Nevada, for an assignment at the USAF Weapons School. As an instructor at the desert base, he’d helped Raptor pilots fine-tune their combat skills. That assignment was pretty unusual for a senior captain, but his success leading combat missions in Syria and Iran had secured his place at the premier fighter pilot base.
He had been selected for promotion to the rank of major while there, just before heading to his current assignment, back to his old Virginia stomping grounds.
“Hey, boys, I’m calling it a day,” Ace announced to his office staff. It was Friday, and the week had seemed like it would never end. Now he was eager to get home and begin packing for his vacation.
He and the family were heading south to Port Canaveral in Florida. This trip had been in the planning stages for months. It was a celebration of his wedding anniversary with his beautiful wife Julie and their three children—Claire, age seven, and the twins, Roman and Nick, who had just turned six. They were all ecstatic to be hopping on a large luxury cruise ship bound for the sunny Caribbean.
He spotted his 1970 Boss Mustang quickly by its shiny vintage Grabber Blue paint job. He backed out of the parking space and pulled onto the street. The throaty rumble of the 375-horsepower, 429-cubic-inch V-8 engine of his angrily announced his departure. Ace had restored his deceased father Alec’s Mustang years before and kept it in prime operating condition. He did his best to keep the straining beast under the twenty-five-mile-per-hour speed limit.
Ace headed around the east end of the airfield runway on the perimeter road, slowing to admire the two F-22 Raptors streaking skyward for an evening mission. The circuitous route took him by the Back River waterway and past what used to be the Lighter-than-Air port of Langley’s history, where helium-filled dirigibles had been flown in the 1920s and ’30s. That area had now been replaced with military support facilities and homes for Air Force families who chose to live on the base. He continued his drive, proceeding past the base’s Eaglewood Golf Course, through the entry gate to the NASA Langley Research Center, and finally toward Yorktown, to the home he had purchased in the historic colonial region.
When he arrived at his house, it looked like a tornado had torn through the children’s rooms. Clothes littered the floor, pulled from bureau drawers in a futile attempt by the kids to choose what they thought was needed for the trip. Julie looked a bit frazzled as she tried to restore order and ensure they were taking only what they really needed for their early Saturday morning departure. Tomorrow they would be on their way, providing her a well-needed escape from the day-to-day grind and an opportunity to spend some time with her parents who were joining them on the cruise ship. Matt’s mother, Cathy, would be meeting them as well.
Other, surprise, guests would make the cruise vacation truly memorable for Matt.
In the five years following the war in Iran, Khalil had stayed openly camouflaged in Tajikistan. Once he had regained his health after the crash, he had linked up with Mustafa al-Alawi, a radical sheikh in the Ar Qetar mosque in Baku. The imam was linked to a terrorist cell in the Tajik countryside and had already communicated with the group’s leader in Dushanbe. Khalil had been secreted across the Caspian Sea, through Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and across the border into Tajikistan, to eventually arrive at his destination in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe.
Dushanbe, the country’s largest city and capital, had a distinctly European flair—modern buildings, streets, museums, cafés, and education centers. Additionally, its concentration of technical excellence suited Khalil perfectly. He was just one of thousands of other professionals blending in, nearly invisible among the one million other city inhabitants.
Khalil often thought about his work at Omega, the world-class software development and integration company. He had been their best, their brightest engineer. He had managed a US government contract to upgrade America’s F-22 Raptor stealth fighter aircraft but had given the Air Force a bit more than what they had paid for.
When the United States military had begun their attack on Iran, Khalil trusted his efforts to sabotage the Raptor’s software would cripple their stealth capability and strike a mighty blow against them. He had hoped also to exact some retribution for his personal family tragedies from the Americans who had taken everything from him.
The Syrian engineer had been given his direction by Asmaradov, known as the Viper. He was requested—strongly encouraged—to apply his skills to a very specific project. Within the academy’s computer lab, Khalil had developed and tested the myriad ways to breach the ultra-secure networks of large integrated ship systems. Reference to a specific ship type—freighter, tanker, passenger vessel—was masked, initially. The Viper was hesitant to provide any further information, part of his quest to keep secret the final details until the time was right. Khalil would become aware the target was indeed a cruise ship.
The plan was complicated and extremely detailed. It would rely on precise execution, and depend on insiders embedded years earlier into the cruise ship industry—specifically, into Pleasure Cruise Lines. It also depended on penetrating multiple levels of security on a cruise ship. Khalil was about to gain the critical insight that would make his task much more executable.
The logistics of moving people into key positions was also crucial to success—laying the groundwork over time for their subsequent assignment to work on the targeted ship, placing them in position to pull off one of the greatest terror attacks ever seen on the high seas.
Asmaradov had acquired the ship’s blueprints—CAD construction plans and electronic wiring diagrams—following a substantial cash payment generated from the radical cell’s generous benefactor in Moscow. A pliable Pleasure Cruise Lines engineering supervisor had the requisite access to obtain them and had been more than willing to provide them for the right amount of money. Most significantly the Viper had obtained, through his Russian supporters, the one crucial element needed to achieve success in the upcoming mission—the ship’s software program. Russia’s president Putonov’s deep reach into Bulgaria’s political leadership, including leverage over energy holdings in Gazprom, gave him the influence to covertly acquire the software for a purpose it had never been designed for.
The Bulgarian company, AI Global Software Ltd., located in Sofia, had produced the latest hybrid autonomous software technology, acquired by Pleasure Cruise Lines and installed in their fleet of ships. The Dream Spinner was one of its ships with the software. Now in possession of the critical control element for his upcoming mission, Asmaradov had chosen his specific target.
The plan was bold. Not since 1985 had a cruise ship been successfully hijacked, its passengers held hostage and threatened with death if terrorist demands were not met. The Achille Lauro, a vessel of Italian origin, had been overtaken off the coast of Egypt by members of the Palestine Liberation Front. The hijacking had resulted in the brutal death of passenger Leon Klinghoffer before the ship was freed. The Viper had an entirely different expected outcome for his planned endeavor.
The Viper had put in place nearly all elements needed for success. The last few would require timing, speed, and maybe a little luck. He had faith in the last element. He had engineered his own luck by careful preparation and intense commitment by all participants. He knew that he was born for this plan, this mission.
A large black sedan pulled up toward the ship’s gangway entrance. Its dark tinted windows made it impossible for anyone outside to see what happened next.
Thomas Belisle is a career military veteran of the United States Air Force. The author of two novels, he incorporates his experiences serving on five continents around the world to write his fast-paced action-thrillers. He infuses realism, mystery and intrigue into his writing—his goal—to make his readers feel like they are actually in the middle of the non-stop action. His first novel, Raptor Bloom, introduced father and son fighter pilots Alec and Matt “Ace” Black, as well as their mutual enemy, Kahlil Ruffa, whose story continues in Taking the Dream Spinner. Tom has completed the first draft of the third Ace Black novel, which he says will complete the saga. Then: a murder mystery!
Belisle’s post-retirement senior positions in in the aircraft industry have enabled him to blend just the right amount of technology into his exciting stories, giving his readers pause to consider how the future might actually play out. He has been a Viera, Florida resident since early 2008. Visit his website here.