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At least fifty yards separated Colonel Thomas Howe from the dozen people clustered around the nose of the test plane, but even at that distance she seduced him. A thick flight suit and a layer of survival gear obscured the soft curves of Megan's body, but he could still sense the sway of her hips. His lips tasted the perfumed air around her; his thumb caught the small drop of sweat forming behind her ear. Megan York had her back to him, but she pulled him forward like a mermaid singing to a castaway.
If he'd stopped there, fifty yards away -- if Howe had turned and gone across the cement apron to where his own plane waited at the edge of the secret northern Montana airstrip -- a dozen things, a million things, might have been different. Or so he would tell himself later.
But Howe didn't stop. He continued toward her, drawn by the warmth he had felt the night before as he had undressed her. Blood rushed to his head; the air grew so thick he could barely breathe.
When he was about ten yards from her, Megan turned. Seeing him, she frowned.
Her frown was a bare flicker, lasting only a fraction of a fraction of a second, but in that instant a hole opened in his chest. Despair, then anger, erupted from it.
Had he been alone in a house or a building, Howe would have punched the wall or whatever fell in range. But he was not alone, and this fact and his training as a combat pilot made him cock a smile on his face.
"Hey," he said.
"What's up with you?"
The others standing nearby seemed to fade back as they stared at each other. Finally, Howe blinked and slung a thumb into the side of his survival vest. His anger returned for a half moment, and then he felt a great loss, as if they hadn't made love for the first time only a few weeks before but for the ten thousandth time, as if they'd grown old in each other's arms and now she wanted to leave.
Until that moment he hadn't realized he was in love. It hadn't been real, like a bruise on his arm or a broken rib. Until that moment desire had been just sex, not something that could cling to his chest like a tight sweater you could never take off.
"Looks like it's going to rain," she said.
"Hope so," he said.
Rain -- heavy rain -- was the purpose of the exercise today. The Cyclops laser in Megan's modified 767-300ER had not been fully tested in foul weather. Developed as a successor to the airborne laser (ABL) missile-defense system, the weapon's COIL-plus chemical oxygen iodine laser projected a multifaceted beam of energy through a nose-mounted ocular director system that was in many ways reminiscent of the nose turrets on World War II aircraft. The laser could strike moving and nonmoving objects approximately three hundred miles away. Using targeting data from a variety of sources, it could destroy or disable up to fifty targets on a mission, at the same time directing advanced escorts in their own more conventional attacks, thanks to a shared avionics system.
The escorts were themselves impressive weapons systems: F/A-22Vs, specially built delta-wing versions of the F/A-22 Raptor prepared by the National Aeronautics Development and Testing Corporation (NADT), which was also overseeing Cyclops's final tests before production. The F/A-22Vs -- generally called Velociraptors -- traded a small portion of their older brothers' stealth abilities for considerably greater range and slightly heavier weapons carriage, but their real advance lay in the avionics system they shared with Cyclops. With a single verbal request, the Velociraptor pilot could have an annotated, three-dimensional view of a battlefield three hundred miles away, know which targets Cyclops intended to hit, and have suggestions from a targeting computer on how to best destroy his own. The system was scalable; in other words, it would work as well with two Velociraptors as with twenty.
In theory, anyway. Only four F/A-22Vs currently existed in all the world, and there were only two Cyclops aircraft, though presumably today's test would lead to funding for a dozen more.
"We ready?" Megan asked Howe.
"You pissed at something?" Howe said instead of answering. Besides flying chase, he was in charge of overseeing the system's integration for the Air Force, the de facto service boss of what was in theory a private program until it proved itself and was formally taken over by the military. He was the top "blue suit," or Air Force officer, on the project, though the hybrid nature of the program diluted his authority.
Dominic Gregorio pushed his big jaw between them, saying something about how they'd better hit the flyway before the weather got too tremendously awful. The forecast had the storm continuing for two or three days.
"Pissed?" asked Megan. "Why?"
A phony answer, he thought.
"We ready to hit the flyway?" repeated Dominic.
He giggled. For some reason the engineer thought flyway was the funniest play on words ever concocted in the English language.
"Kick butt," Megan told Howe. She slugged his shoulder and swept toward her plane.
By the time the altimeter ladder on Colonel Howe's heads-up display notched ten thousand feet an hour later, he had nearly convinced himself he hadn't seen her frown. Howe pushed the nose of his F/A-22V right, swinging toward the south end of the test range. Megan's 767 was just settling into its designated firing course about three hundred yards ahead, wings wobbling ever so slightly because of the severe turbulence they were flying through. The synthesized radar image in Howe's tactical display showed the plane as well as its course; its annotations critiqued Megan's piloting skills, noting that she was deviating from the flight plan by .001 degree.
Howe's Velociraptor, with its delta wings and nose canards, had been designed to work with Cyclops as a combination long-distance interceptor and attack plane, able to switch seamlessly from escort to bombing roles. The long weapons bay beneath its belly would include a mix of air-to-air AMRAAM-pluses and air-to-ground small-diameter GPS-guided bombs; the bays at the side would have either a heat-seeking Sidewinder or an AMRAAM-plus, an improved version of the battle-tested AIM-120. Roughly a dozen feet longer than a "stock" Raptor, the Velociraptor's massive V-shaped wings allowed it to carry nearly twice the fuel its brother held. Its rear stabilizers were more sharply canted and included control surfaces operated with the help of a hydrogen system to radically change airflow in milliseconds, greatly increasing the plane's maneuverability.
"Birds, this is Cyclops. We're in the loop," said Megan, alerting Howe and his wingman that the test sequence was about to begin.
"Bird One," acknowledged Howe. He looked down at the configurable tactical display screen in the center of his dash, which was synthesizing a view of the battle area ahead. The computer built the image from a variety of sources over the shared input network of the three planes; Howe had what looked like a three-dimensional plot of the mountain below. The large screen showed not just the target -- an I-HAWK MIM-23 antiaircraft missile site -- but the scope of its radar, a yellowish balloon projecting from the mountain plain. A red box appeared on the missile launcher, indicating that the laser targeting gear aboard Cyclops was scanning for the most vulnerable point of its target; the box began to blink and then went solid red, indicating it was ready to lock. Had this been a real mission, they could have fried it before it presented any danger at all.
Howe pushed his head back against the ejection seat, trying to will his neck and back muscles into something approaching relaxation.
Far below in the rugged Montana hills, the Army I-HAWK battery prepared to fire. The missile launcher was twenty nautical miles due north, a thick dagger in Cyclops's course. When the 767 drew to within five miles, the battery would fire its weapon. A millisecond after it did, the phased-array radar built into Cyclops One would detect it. The turret at the nose would rotate slightly downward, like the giant eye of the Greek monster the weapon had been named for. Within seconds the laser would lock on the missile and destroy it between three and five hundred feet off the ground.
The only thing difficult about the test was the thick band of storm clouds and torrential rain between the plane and the ground. The rain was so bad the normal monitoring plane, a converted rc-135, which would have had to fly at low altitude through the teeth of the storm, was grounded. Cyclops had handled simultaneous firings from two I-HAWK batteries handily in clear-sky trials three weeks before; it had nailed SAMs, cruise missiles, tanks, and a bunker during its extensive trials. Only the bunker had given it problems; the beam was not strong enough to defeat thick, buried concrete, and the system relied on complicated image analysis to attempt to find a weak point, generally in the ventilation system. The analysis could take as long as sixty seconds -- something to work on for the Mark II version.
"Hey, Colonel, what's your number?" said Williams over the squadron frequency.
"Got five even."
Howe snickered but didn't acknowledge. The crews had a pool on the altitude where the laser would fry the missile. Three-five-zero was 350 feet, and happened to be the average of the last four trials; five meant five hundred, the theoretical top of the target envelope. Given the results of the past tests, a hit there would be almost as bad as a complete miss. Williams was just a hard-luck guy.
"I can't see a thing here," added Williams. "What do you think about me dropping down to five thousand feet?"
"We briefed you at eight," said Howe. "Hang with it."
"I'm supposed to see what's going on, right? My video's going to get a nice picture of clouds."
"Okay, get where you have to get. Just don't get in the way."
"Oh yeah, roger that. Don't feel like becoming popcorn today."
Howe flicked his HUD from standard to synthetic hologram view, in effect closing his eyes to the real world so he could watch a movie of what was happening around him. The grayish image of the sky blurred into the background, replaced by a blue bowl of heaven. Bird Two ducked down through faint puffs of clouds, its speed indicated as functions of Mach numbers in small print below the wing.
The holographic view could not only show the pilot what was happening in bad weather or night; using the radar and other sensor inputs, the Velociraptor's silicone brain could synthesize an image of what was happening up to roughly 150 miles away. The image viewpoint could be changed; it was possible to essentially "see" what Williams saw through his front screen by pointing at the plane's icon in the display and saying "first-person" to the computer. (The command was a reference to point-of-view directions in movies and books.) And this was only a start: The real potential of the computing power would be felt when unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs were integrated into the system, which was scheduled to begin after the Air Force formally took over the program; for now, UAV data could only be collected aboard the 767 at a separate station.
Howe found the synthetic view distracting and flipped back to the standard heads-up ghost in front of the real Persipex that surrounded him before scanning his instrument readings. Speed, fuel burn, engine temperature -- every reading could have come straight from a spec sheet. The F/A-22Vs had more than a hundred techies assigned as full-time nannies; the regular Air Force maintenance crewmen, or "maintainers," were augmented by engineers and company reps as well as NADT personnel who were constantly tweaking the various experimental and pre-production systems they were testing.
"Alpha in sixty seconds," said Megan.
Something in her voice sparked Howe's anger again. He squeezed the side stick so tightly his forearm muscles popped. For a moment he visualized himself pushing the stick down and at the same time gunning the throttle to the firewall. An easy wink on the trigger would lace the Boeing's fuselage with shells from the cannon. The plane's wings, laden with fuel, would burst into flames.
Why was he thinking that?
Why was he so mad? Because she hadn't smiled when he wanted her to? Because he was in love and she wasn't?
Screw that. She loved him.
And if not, he'd make her love him. Win her, woo her -- whatever it took.
Howe nearly laughed at himself. He was thinking like a teenager, and he was a long way from his teens. At thirty-three, he was very young for his command but very old in nearly every other way. Emotionally mature beyond his physical years, Clayton Bonham had written when picking him from three candidates to head the Air Force portion of the project. Steady as a rock.
Except when it came to love, maybe. He just didn't have that much experience with it, not even in his first marriage.
Megan did love him. He knew it.
"Thirty seconds. What's Bird Two doing?" snapped Megan.
"Dropping for a better view," he answered, his tone nearly as sharp as hers.
"That's not what we briefed."
Howe didn't bother answering. They were flying into the worst of the storm. Lightning streaked around him. A wind burst pushed on the wings but the flight computer held the plane perfectly steady, making microadjustments in the control surfaces. Forward airspeed pegged 425 knots -- very slow for the Velociraptor, which had been designed to operate best in supercruise mode just under Mach 1.5.
"Fifteen seconds," said Megan.
More lightning. The only thing he could see in the darkness beyond the glass canopy were the zigs of yellow, heaven cracking open.
"Ten," said Megan.
An indicator on the RWR panel noted that the I-HAWK radar had locked on the stealthy chase planes as well as Cyclops.
"Five seconds," she said.
Howe blew a full wad of air into his mask. He felt her legs again, her smallish breasts against his chest.
Blow her away with something special: a week in Venice. They were going to have some downtime once these tests were done.
"Alpha," said Megan.
His HUD screen flashed white. In the next moment, Howe's Velociraptor plunged nose-first toward the ground.
He couldn't see. He couldn't breathe. Everything Thomas Howe had ever been furled into a bullet at the center of his skull. His head fused to his helmet and for a brief moment his consciousness fled. His heart stopped pumping blood and his body froze.
In the next moment something warm touched the ice.
Megan. Smiling, last night on the bed.
It was only a shard of memory, but it made his heart catch again.
Gravity slammed Howe against the seat as he fought to regain control of the plane. Bile filled his mouth and nose; it stung his eyes, ate through the sinews of his arms. He pulled back on the stick, but the plane didn't respond.
He wanted to cough but couldn't. The helmet pounded his skull, twisting at the temples. The F/A-22V threatened to whip into a spin. He pushed the stick to catch it and jammed the pedals.
The Velociraptor's control system had gone off-line. That ought to have been impossible.
Backup electricity to run the controls should automatically route from the forced-air rams below the fuselage.
Nothing. Too late.
Out, time to get out!
But the engines were still working. He could feel the throb in his spine.
Out -- get out! You'll fly into the ground.
The computer controlled the canopy. If it was gone, if that was the problem, he'd have to go to the backup procedure.
Set it. Pull the handle.
The controls should work. Or the backups. Or the backups to the backups.
Howe hit the fail-safe switch and clicked the circuit open manually.
Howe forced his head downward and forced himself to hunt for the yellow handle of the ejection seat. The blackness that had pushed against his face receded slightly, enough to let him think a full thought. Without control of the plummeting plane, he was no more than a snake caught in the talons of an eagle; the yellow handle was his only escape.
The fingers on his right hand cramped hard around the stick at the right side of the seat. He looked at them, trying to will them open.
They were locked around the molded handle. He looked at them again, uncomprehendingly: Why were they not letting go?
He pulled back on the stick, then pushed hard to each side several times. If the controls worked, the plane would shake back and forth violently, trying to follow the conflicting commands. But it did nothing.
A black cone closed in around his head. Let go, he told his hand.
Finally his fingers loosened. He reached for the ejection handle, wondering if the F/A-22V had started to spin. He could no longer tell.
Augering into oblivion.
Something stopped him as his gloved finger touched the handle. He looked up and saw the large hulk of the Boeing bearing down straight at him.
Instinct made him grab the stick again. It was a useless, stupid reaction in an uncontrollable airplane; if he pulled the eject handle, he might at least save himself. The dead controls had no way of stopping the collision.
Except that they did. The F/A-22V responded to his desperate tug, pushing her chin upward and steadying on her left wing. The 767's tail loomed at the top of the canopy for a long second, the stabilizer an ax head above his eyes. Then it disappeared somewhere behind him.
Two very quick breaths later Howe had full control of the plane. He wrestled it into level flight. He called a range emergency -- it was the first thing he could think to say -- then tried to hail Cyclops.
Empty fuzz answered.
"Bird One to Cyclops," he repeated over the frequency they had all shared. Ideas and words blurred together, his mind several steps behind his instincts; he couldn't sort out what he needed to say, let alone do. "Two? Williams, where are you? Cyclops? Bird Two? No joy! Shit -- lost wingman! Break off! Shit."
Howe sent a long string of curses out over the radio before finally clicking off to listen for a response. He put his nose up, trying to get over the weather. Worried that he would hit either his wingman or the Boeing, he kept his gaze fixed on the sky over the heads-up display until he broke through the clouds. Only then did he look back down at his instruments.
Everything was back, everything. All systems were in the green. The only problem seemed to be the radar: completely blank.
The techies would pull their hair out over this one. He reached for the radar control panel on the dash, manually selecting search and scan mode. The auxiliary screen flashed an error message listing several circuit problems.
Then it cleared. The screen tinged green before flashing a light blue, the color of empty sky. no contact appeared in the right-hand corner. His position indicator showed he was now over Canada, just north of the intended test area.
Howe keyed the self-test procedure for his radar. As it began, he tried reaching Cyclops again.
"Bird One to Cyclops. Hey, Megan, you hear me or what?"
Howe waited for her to snap back with something funny. He felt ashamed of his anger now.
"Bird One, this is Ground Unit Hawk. What the hell is going on up there?"
"I had a major equipment flakeout," he told the ground controller at the I-HAWK station. "Controls just disappeared. Looks like I still have a problem with my radar. Until your transmission I thought my radio was gone as well. I can't reach Cyclops or my wingman."
"Neither can we."
"Give me a vector," he said, twisting his head around to look for the planes.
"Negative. We don't have them on our radar."
"We have you and that's it. Cyclops and Bird Two are gone. Completely gone."
Copyright © 2003 by Jim DeFelice