Authors: Jim DeFelice
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, jammed the pedals.
Nothing worked. 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!
“Starts fast and keeps getting faster, with fascinating characters and a great finish…I loved it all.”
New York Times
bestselling author of
Dale Brown’s Dreamland
(by Dale Brown & Jim DeFelice)
(by Dale Brown & Jim DeFelice)
(by Dale Brown & Jim DeFelice)
(by Stephen Coonts & Jim DeFelice)
A Date That Will Live in Infamy
First to Fight I & II
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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Copyright © 2003 by Jim DeFelice
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For the guys putting their lives on the line…
To properly thank everyone who’s helped me get this book in shape I’d need another four hundred pages. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a few people who have helped me, some in ways I can’t begin to adequately acknowledge.
First and foremost, I have to thank Dale Brown, who’s been an idol of mine even before I started pounding computer keys. Just talking with Dale is like taking a graduate seminar, and I was extremely lucky to catch a few pointers from him as I worked on this book.
I’d also like to acknowledge another long-time hero of mine, Stephen Coonts, whose kindness and generosity buoyed me along the way. Larry Bond also added some critical moral support at a crucial moment.
My editor, Kevin Smith, had many useful ideas and kept me moving in the right direction. He also provided important baseball commentary, though it didn’t make it into the book.
Publisher Louise Burke has been a real source of support and an enthusiastic ally; no writer could ask for more. Art director Paolo Pepe and designer James Wang blew me away with the cover and the “package.” Copyeditor David Chesanow prevented me from making many embarrassing mistakes. And a big thanks to the rest of the Pocket Books team for their help and hard work on my behalf.
My agent Jake Elwell not only made the whole thing happen but helped me sort out the initial story-line. Plus he smokes a mean cigar.
Thanks also to Tom, Bob, the Motion Poets, “Blaze,” Mark, Beefy, Fred, and to various and sundry E-mail correspondents who have provided counsel, cheer, and technical data, as well as kindly pointing out errors. Also, a big wave to the folks in Green Bay, especially Marty and Larry.
Finally, thanks and love to Deb and Bobby, as always.
Though real technology is discussed and detailed in this book, it is a work of fiction. The commercial entities, machinery, and procedures described do not exist in real life; nor do the people. As always, I’ve taken some liberties in concocting the yarn.
Some of the details regarding the firebombing of Tokyo were inspired by my reading of
by Edwin P. Hoyt. While I respectfully disagree with some of his opinions, his work is provocative and well written.
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
He giggled. For some reason the engineer thought
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
-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.