Authors: Jim DeFelice
They put Fisher and the rest of the investigators up in what passed for VIP quarters in a building near the base of the mountain, reachable via a road obviously built for a donkey cart.
here apparently meant you were entitled to running water—cold and colder—in the bathroom. There was a personal coffeemaker on the bureau; its carafe looked like a shot glass with handles. The coffee itself was World War I surplus; if he’d had the equipment, Fisher would have ground up the furniture’s cardboard drawers to add to the aroma.
The only thing that ticked him off, though, was the lack of a brew-and-pour device on the coffeemaker. The FBI agent was as much a traditionalist as anyone, but there were some pieces of technology that you just couldn’t live without. A Mr. Coffee without brew-and-pour was not only anachronistic, it was practically a torture device.
Fortunately, Fisher was adept at dealing with such problems, managing a shuffle with two paper coffee cups that caught most of the dribbling liquid. What missed the cup added a nicely burnt aroma to the room’s musty odor.
Coffee depleted, Fisher ambled out of the room into the long, dimly lit hall, where he was immediately assailed by Kowalski.
“Not going to be fashionably late?” asked the DIA agent.
“I try not to miss breakfast,” said Fisher.
“No, for the briefing. Gorman didn’t call you?”
“I have a policy against answering phones in VIP suites,” said Fisher. “And I was probably in the shower.”
“You don’t smell it.”
“You’re getting funnier, Kowalski. Be joining the circus any day now.” Fisher lit a cigarette as they approached the steel doors leading outside. A pair of Humvees were waiting at the dust that passed for a curb in front of the building. As soon as they reached the entrance to the underground complex, the strong scent of burnt caffeine tickled his nostrils, pulling him in the direction of the conference room.
Two large coffee rigs had been set up outside the room. The sight and smell restored Fisher’s faith in the Air Force; finally a grouchy chief master sergeant had arrived and taken things in hand. His opinion was confirmed by the lavalike liquid that spewed from the urn. Fisher filled three cups, tripling them to keep from burning his fingers, then brought them into the small lecture room. Unfortunately, all the good seats were taken, and he wound up sitting in the front row.
“Glad you could join us,” sniped Gorman as she strode across the room.
“Your health,” saluted Fisher as he sipped the coffee. Its temperature had now dropped to five hundred degrees kelvin, just where he liked it.
“You have anything new?” she asked Fisher. She was in good form for such an early hour; her voice sounded like a cross between a snake and an injured lion.
“Found a few hot porn sites on the Internet. All amateurs.”
Gorman gave him one of her middling frowns. “You’re not being helpful.”
“Would you be willing to interface with the Mounties, flesh out reports about low-flying planes?”
“I don’t speak Canadian,” he told her.
Gorman shook her head, then walked to the podium and began her meeting. She ran through the usual administrative diddly, then briefly summarized the present status of the search. As the team leaders gave their own updates, she stuck her nose into her notes.
“Hey, guest speaker coming up,” whispered Kowalski, who’d managed to find a second-row seat almost directly behind him.
“How do you know?” said Fisher.
“She always checks her notes for pronunciation before mangling somebody’s name.”
Sure enough, Gorman did have a guest, whom she introduced when everyone else was through. “For those of you who don’t know him, Stephen Klose is from the NSA. He doesn’t have a job title.”
That was obviously meant as a joke, since all of the Air Force people whose evaluations she could affect laughed. Klose came forward with an ultra-serious face, launching into the usual NSA bullshit about what he was going to say being “VSK”—
very secret knowledge
was the actual term the crypto-dweebs used at their dark castle in Maryland.
must not be used in any way that a normal human being might actually use it, and had to be permanently erased from the listeners’ brain cells upon the end of its period of usefulness, which by definition had already passed.
Klose then launched into a fairly technical ramble, which meandered through various alphanumerics before his tongue stumbled on the words
a code variant common in high-level VPO connection communications.
“Whoa fuck,” said Kowalski with more than his usual eloquence. “You’re telling us the Russians stole the plane?”
“No. There was, uh, uh spying operation, and the transmissions came from them,” stuttered Klose amid gasps from the service people and titters from everyone else. “We’d have to decrypt the transmissions to be sure. We’re working on that. But given previous patterns, we’re reasonably sure.”
Klose rambled on about possible Russian motivations, clicking different maps and pictures onto the large screen. The spy plane’s route had been tracked: It was nearly a thousand miles away.
“It’s picking up telemetry with a towed antenna probe,” said Klose.
“Can it?” asked someone from the safety of the back row.
Klose shrugged. “Not effectively. But maybe. Definitely maybe. The capabilities—”
“So, basically, you’re just pulling our puds here,” said Fisher.
Gorman’s hiss was so perfectly snake-like, Fisher expected her tongue to poke him in the eyes. That hideous thought sent him back to his coffee, which, though considerably cool, was still pleasantly acidic.
Klose added a few technical details about the probable strength of the radio that had transmitted the signals, an explanation that involved sine curves and something about amplitude. The bottom line was that the Russians were probably aware that something had happened, but thus far there was no evidence that they had had anything to do with it. A thousand miles was, after all, a thousand miles.
“Fits with your stolen-plane scenario,” Kowalski told Fisher out in the hall when they broke for coffee.
“Nah,” said Fisher.
“The Dragon Lady thinks so,” said Kowalski. “Didn’t you see her eyes glowing when Klose started talking about the intercepts?”
“What Dragon Lady?” said Jemma, coming up behind them.
“Colonel Gorman,” said Kowalski, “I think you mis-heard.”
“I’m sure I didn’t.” Her glare drove the DIA agent away. “Andy, if we start looking in those lakes, can you head the team?” she asked.
“Bonham is pushing the theory that the plane is in one of the lakes. He wants to start close to the base, then work north.”
“He’s in charge?” said Fisher.
After he got the frown he expected, he added, “How does it fit with the Russian theory?”
“What Russian theory?”
“That wasn’t a theory,” said Gorman. “The Russians were monitoring the flight. It’s just information.”
“You think they caused the malfunction?” asked Fisher.
The idea actually seemed not to have occurred to her. “I don’t know.”
“Well, I don’t think so,” Fisher said.
“Andy, don’t do that.”
“You float out an idea and then clam up. I can’t tell if it’s serious or not.”
Fisher shrugged. “Neither can I.”
Howe applied full military power, rocking the F/A-22V upward as the first phase of the check flight was completed. The readouts were green and glowing; the engine absolutely purred and the jet seemed eager to erase any doubt that she was fit. He rode the monster thrust from the P&Ws through thirty thousand feet, roaring toward the stars with an acceleration that would have made an Atlas-series rocket envious. He started to level off as the HUD laddered through 35,000, still burning a healthy share of dinosaurs and still nailing every indicator to its sweet spot.
The techies on the ground gave him a verbal thumbsup as the Velociraptor’s thick shark’s skin brushed off a stream of turbulence at 43,000 feet. Howe slid into an orbit over the Montana wilderness, keeping the base in the center of his circle. Sweeping his eyes across the multiuse displays that flanked his tactical screen, he carefully examined each digit.
There were now about a dozen theories for the flakeout. Most involved some as yet unexplained energy spike through the shared radar-avionics system that somehow took out the main flight computers. But no simulation had been able to duplicate the problem.
Strip away the high-tech jargon and arcane formulas, and what the eggheads were saying came down to:
Damned if I know.
Howe’s own opinion was that something in the telemetry exchange unit freaked out when the Cyclops weapon cycled up. The engineers, of course, said this was impossible—but they would find out for sure in a few minutes, when they cycled up the unit in Cyclops Two, sitting safely on the ground on the ramp in front of its bunker.
Howe pushed his head down, stretching the muscles in his upper back. His right shoulder had started to cramp; he could use a good back rub.
Megan’s fingers, sliding across his shoulder blade, diving into the pressure points.
“Bird Dog One, you’re looking good,” said Robert Jerome. The Air Force major was in the knockdown tower, monitoring the test flight visually, while most of the technical people were in the bunker control room. “You still got your chops, Rock.”
“Roger that,” replied Howe. Few people used his old nickname, but Jerome had flown with Howe early in his career; they’d even teamed up in a Strike Eagle squadron over Iraq.
Like many call signs, “Rock” had not initially been a compliment. It came from one of his early flight instructors, who’d described his maneuvers during a flight and what they had done to the plane’s flying characteristics. Inevitably, it stuck with his mates, but had gradually become something of an honorific.
The mission boss gave him his new course heading and altitude, duplicating the leg of the Cyclops test where the problem had occurred. Howe’s shoulder spasmed; he pushed his head around slowly, trying to relieve it, mad at his body for tensing up. He hit his marks perfectly, but the knot in his shoulder had grown to the size of a boulder, and his hands were wet and jittering.
He was nervous—beyond nervous. He was having trouble breathing right.
Howe had flown over two dozen combat missions, shot down two planes and had a hand in a third, and this had never happened to him. But those engagements had been so quick, almost literally bang-bang, that he hadn’t had time to think.
Now thinking was all he could do.
“Not a peep of a problem,” said Jerome. He sounded a little disappointed.
“Yeah, roger that.”
“All right, we want to go around again. Use the synthetic view hologram this time,” said Matt Firenze, one of the scientists in the control room. He was asking Howe to switch the HUD into the synthesized view so they could run an additional suite of tests.
Howe traded some data verbally with the ground people, duping what the sensors were telling them as he pulled the big aircraft back around. One of the women on the ground somehow reminded him of his ex-wife, Carmen, with her sharp rasp. He thought of her now, her pouty frown, her cigarette hanging out of her mouth in the hotel room they’d had their honeymoon down in New Orleans.
He hadn’t thought of Carmen in quite a while. She was a bona fide nutcase, manic-depressive with borderline and narcissistic personality disorders: She had the diagnosis from not one but two different shrinks, their agreement apparently some sort of milestone of psychoanalysis.
The relationship had quickly disintegrated into a cycle of wild verbal fights, heartfelt apologies, and great sex—followed by weird accusations, wild verbal fights, heartfelt apologies, and even better sex. Howe had stuck it out sixteen months, but the marriage lasted that long only because he’d been overseas for much of the time.
He started to laugh, remembering her another morning sitting at their tiny kitchen table, hungover, breasts falling out of a gauzy, see-through nightshirt, arranging her tarot cards while the coffee poured through the machine next to the sink. She was beautiful in moments like that, unconsciously beautiful.
Very different from Megan.
Howe’s hands were so wet with sweat he pulled off his flight gloves, even though he habitually wore them when he flew.
He’d miss them if he had to eject. Involuntarily, his eyes hunted the yellow handle near the seat.
His marriage hadn’t thrown him off women completely. Sexwise, he’d had his share. He was far from a stud. Some guys could just walk into a bar and they’d be knee-deep in women. Howe wasn’t like that; he’d never been like that. But he had seen women since Carmen—plenty of women—gone to bed with them, made love.
No one like Megan, though. She was beautiful, drop-dead beautiful. Her breasts a little small, if you were unbiased about it, as she herself used to say.
She talked about different things. She told him about a painting by Matisse; who the hell was Matisse? he’d wondered, and had to find out so he didn’t look like a total schmuck.
What card had Carmen used to tell his fortune? King of Swords?
“Telemetry is ready on our side,” said Firenze.
Howe had to punch a two-button combination on the right side of his instrument panel to change the HUD mode and initiate the test. He checked his speed and altitude first, gave the other flight instruments a quick read—went back over them more slowly, comprehending the numbers this time—and reached for the buttons.
The King of Swords wasn’t a good fit. Too airy, she said, too flighty. Fiery. Prone to crash.
Prone to crash.
Carmen’s eyes as she said that—accusing him of betrayal.
“I see a confused future,” she said.
“We’re ready for you, Colonel,” prompted the ground controller. Howe’s fingers still hovered over the buttons. His muscles had suddenly tightened to the point it hurt to move his fingers.
Jesus, what’s happening to me?
He saw Megan’s body on the bed, then pushed the buttons.
Matt Firenze watched the numbers pop onto the second screen, raw assembler code blossoming before him. The functions were being translated in the first screen, and an array of monitors to his right were actually summarizing the data and its effect (or noneffect) on the aircraft. But Matt’s job was there on the twenty-one-inch cathode ray tube. Hexadecimals—the computer used a base-16 integer number system, corresponding to the physical registers—sloshed across the screen. Firenze had preprogrammed the computer to alert him to a difference from the expected sequence: The green numbers would turn red.
Green. Green. Green.
He kept staring.
Howe’s breath physically lifted the mask off his face. His arms and legs were moving—he was still flying the plane—but his head felt as if it were beneath a heavy blanket. His tongue sat dry at the bottom of his mouth.
This was the point where she’d gone out. She’d been flying to his left; it was his left, wasn’t it? If he looked in that direction now, if he dared it, would he see her vanishing into the clouds again?
Her perfume lingered in his head.
As he regained control he’d come up there—and the plane loomed right before him.
How was that possible?
Its engines were working. Definitely working.
He’d trade places if he could. Surely he’d trade with her; let her live.
Carmen held the card out. Death: the grim reaper in a boat.
“Not death—change,” she said. “Big change, but not death in a literal sense. Psychic change. Like love.”
“Looking very good down here,” said Firenze. “Can we run over it again? Just the way you did it originally, turning the HUD back to standard setting at the right point.”
“Roger that,” Howe told them. “Coming around for take two.”