Authors: Jim DeFelice
He had very big hands. They folded over hers the way her father’s had, and that memory made her vulnerable. Memory was a weakness, just as emotions were.
She longed for him now, even though she knew he’d been a mistake, a last-minute indulgence.
Not an indulgence. A temptation, a suggestion of what might have been had her fate been different.
Megan York spun her head around the cockpit quickly, checking on the crew.
“IP in two miles,” warned the copilot. The IP was the initial point for their run, similar to the point an attack plane would use when calculating a bombing mission. It signaled the ingress into the actual target area, generally the most dangerous part of the mission and necessitating a series of precise maneuvers so the bomb or missile could be launched. In this case, the IP was 309 nautical miles from the actual target, and the maneuvers were mind-numbingly simple: The plane had to fly around a three-mile track at precisely 34,322 feet.
“We’re there,” said the copilot.
“Starting turn,” said Megan, tugging gently on the controls. She executed a very shallow bank, coming south about twenty degrees.
“Two F/A-18s,” said the weapons officer, whose screen interpreted passive intercepts from the radar warning receiver or RWR as it compiled target data.
“They have us?”
“Negative. Well out of range; they’re headed east.”
“Gun up,” said Megan.
“Gun up,” he said.
I’m ready now,
she thought to herself.
The delays had caused considerable complications, but they weren’t a factor now. Others would deal with them; she wouldn’t. Her job was here.
“We have target data,” said the laser operator. He exchanged a few words with his assistant, who was sitting next to him.
“On course,” said the copilot.
Megan took one last look at her instrument readings. She had to turn the aircraft over to the computer while the weapon was fired.
“Engines are in the green,” said the copilot. “We’re on beam.”
“Turning control over to the computer in zero-five,” said Megan. “Counting down.”
If it weren’t for the tone in her headset, she wouldn’t even have known that the computer had taken the plane. Megan leaned back, a spectator now on the most important flight of her life.
Second most important, maybe. The first had been the one when she’d stolen Cyclops One.
“Tracking target…. Calculated firing time is ten seconds,” said the laser operator.
Megan looked at the target screen as the seconds drained off. When the timer hit zero, a tone sounded in her earphones. It cut off about half a second later, replaced by a tinny static and then utter silence.
“We have a hit,” said the laser operator jubilantly.
“Yeah!” shouted the copilot.
“My control,” said Megan calmly, taking the helm back from the computer.
“Target destroyed!” The laser operator’s voice had gone up two octaves.
“Oh yeah,” said the copilot.
“Coming to course,” said Megan. “We have a long way to fly, gentlemen, and considerably more to do. I suggest you postpone your celebrations until we land.”
Blitz put his head back on the couch, jostling the headset as the conference call continued. He’d been on the phone since boarding the 747 in Hawaii two hours ago, discussing the Indian-Pakistan situation with various analysts. Things had moved so fast, he wasn’t completely confident the two countries wouldn’t be at war by the time he touched down.
He was fairly certain of one thing, however: If they did go to war, it would be extremely nasty.
If the CIA and NSA were interpreting the most recent Orion Elint intercepts correctly, a unit of Indian paratroopers had just practiced blowing up a mock radar site several hours ago. The exercise had included live ammunition, helicopters, and aircraft.
In and of itself, the exercise wasn’t particularly interesting; everybody conducted live-fire exercises now and again to keep the snake-eaters tuned up. Nor was it more than simply alarming that the site had been set up to look like a specific Pakistani early-warning radar—one that the analysts said covered a key alley or path to Pakistan’s two suspected nuclear-missile launching sites in the far northeastern corner of the country.
What was truly ominous was the fact that the unit conducting the exercises could not be identified within the Indian chain of command. And that several Indian Air Force units had “disappeared” from their normal bases in the south and were believed to be in Kashmir.
Given political developments over the past few weeks, Blitz concluded that a small group of Indian military officers had decided to plan a preemptive strike against Pakistan’s nuclear forces. It was undoubtedly seen as a way to prevent the increasingly belligerent forces in the Pakistani military from trying to take advantage of the deteriorating political situation in India. The plan was a solid one: The special forces would take out the radar; Indian jets would come across the border a few minutes later. Within twenty minutes they would be at their targets—just before the missiles could be launched if a warning was received.
There was only one problem: The Pakistanis had secretly relocated two missiles to a base deeper in the country. Augmented by a booster shipped from China three weeks before, the missiles could obliterate any part of India.
The Indians obviously hadn’t picked up on it yet. Their preemptive strike would do just the opposite of what was intended: ignite a nuclear exchange, not head one off.
Blitz had just debated with the secretaries of state and defense what to do. State wanted to find some way to warn the Indians off. Defense wanted to do the same for Pakistan. Blitz argued that there was no way to do either without both compromising future intelligence-gathering operations and making the situation even more unstable.
They had to come up with something. The military analysts examining the plan believed it had been set up for a moonless night, the first of which was five days away.
“Professor?” Mozelle ducked her head around the partition across from the couch. “You wanted General Bonham. He’s on two.”
The other major headache.
“All right,” said Blitz. “Could you get me some water?”
“I think I’m going to give up caffeine.”
Mozelle rolled her eyes. Blitz went off coffee about once a month.
His earphones clicked, and General Bonham’s basso came on the line.
“Dr. Blitz, this is Bonham.”
“General, thanks, I know you must be busy. Where are we?”
“Still no change.”
“The President is asking about this,” said Blitz. “He wants a resolution.”
“I believe one’s in sight, sir. Colonel Gorman is optimistic. It is, technically, her ball game.”
Mozelle reappeared with a bottle of Pellegrino and a glass. She mouthed the words
All I could find,
then set the glass down on the table at his side. There were small indentations to hold the glass and bottle during turbulence.
“I understand that there’s a theory that the aircraft was stolen by the Russians,” said Blitz.
“There’s little to support that theory,” said Bonham. To his credit, his voice was remarkably even.
“The crash is still unexplained?”
“I’m afraid so. My technical people, and everyone who’s been sent here—we’re working on it around the clock. You can assure the President of that.”
“I’ll try,” said Blitz. Mozelle was once more at the partition. “I’d appreciate it if you’d keep me informed.”
Blitz killed the connection.
“McIntyre on one. And the President wants to know when you’ll be back in D.C.”
“Better ask the pilot.” Blitz took a sip of the water. It reminded him of being on vacation—which reminded him he hadn’t taken a vacation in three years. “McIntyre?”
“Professor, this place is hell.”
“I’m not interested in cosmology, McIntyre. How close are these people to war?”
“Couldn’t tell you. I just got into Delhi. You know what the temperature is?”
“You’re whining an awful lot.”
“I am, yes.”
“Did you start on those bases?”
“Well, no. Not yet.”
“Get an update at the embassy, then get moving. There’s an Indian general who’s offered you a plane. Take advantage of it.”
“How did the tests go?” McIntyre asked, tacitly surrendering.
“Jolice hit a home run. Then we had bad weather and canceled the other two shots.”
“Really?” said McIntyre.
“There were so many delays, it was agreed to scrap them. Only the Jolice people were upset,” said Blitz. “We’ve rescheduled the tests for a week and a half from now. We’re moving them up to Test Area D, south of the Aleutians. I don’t want a vendor circus ever again.”
“Is Jolice going to take part?”
“Absolutely,” said Blitz. “I want to make sure their hit wasn’t a freak shot.”
“Did they complain?”
“They’ve come out of nowhere, missile-wise,” said McIntyre.
“You think they screwed with the tests?” asked Blitz.
“I don’t see how. But I’m with you about rerunning the tests.”
Until now Jolice’s claim to fame was manufacturing very small parts in rocket motors. Some of the other partners were fairly major players: Ferrone Radiavonics, for example, had done a great deal of work on Cyclops. But Jolice and the rest were newcomers in the ABM field.
“A minor problem, compared to India,” Blitz told him. “Keep me informed. I want you to check in six hours from now.”
“But it’s four in the morning here,” managed McIntyre before Blitz clicked off the line.
The national security advisor picked up his glass of water and took another sip. Three more lines were lit with waiting calls.
“Line two is your friend from New York, Kevin Smith, wondering about that ball game next Monday,” said Mozelle. “The Yankees?”
Blitz grimaced. Smith had field box seats right behind the dugout. But there was no way he’d get a chance to get to New York with everything that was going on.
“Better tell him we’ll reschedule,” said Blitz. “Who’s on two?”
The northern Wyoming airport had been a military base back in the sixties. All that remained were a few low-slung hangars dating from the forties or fifties. Even from the distance, it was clear that weeds had overgrown the runway—though the expert on forward air fields Fisher had persuaded to accompany him explained that wouldn’t be a real problem. The pavement itself was in good condition, clear of debris and not even dusty, as if it had been swept recently.
Which Fisher thought very possible.
“You could put a C-17 down on this,” said the sergeant, walking along the cement with him. The Air Force Special Tactics or Special Forces squadron member was trained in combat control tactics, or landing aircraft in hostile or potentially hostile areas near the front lines. A lanky Texan with a scar on his cheek, Sergeant Bowman preferred Marlboros to Camels but didn’t turn down free-bies. “You might even get a loaded C-5A off. Nice long runway. Good shape.”
“You think it’s been used lately?” asked Fisher as they walked toward what had once been a hangar area.
“Well, something’s been in and out: We know that just from what the sheriff was telling you,” said Sergeant Bowman. “But uh, pinpointing it to a 767—that all’s detective stuff.”
“Where we going to find one of those?” said Fisher. He bent down to examine a spot on the pavement.
The local sheriff had told him that the strip had been used by pot smugglers during the nineties. The sheriff claimed he’d put a stop to it; Fisher figured that meant his price had started eating too far into the overhead.
There had been two reports of low-flying jets in the general area called in to the dispatcher three nights before, which would be the night after Cyclops’s disappearance. They’d actually sent a car out but of course found nothing.
“Fuel truck was there,” said the sergeant. He walked to a stained spot near the cement about twenty feet away.
“When?” asked Fisher.
Sergeant Bowman got down on the pavement. “Recent. Real recent.”
“Well, don’t taste it.” Fisher walked to the edge of the pad, then around toward the wall of the large building that sat at the corner of the ramp. The weeds weren’t all that high and a few were brushed back, but whether a truck had driven over them recently was anybody’s guess.
Fisher took a fresh cigarette out and lit up. The main entrance to the base was up a road to his left. They’d seen another service road farther south when they’d been in the air. There were all sorts of tracks running across a spot at the north side: ATVs, it looked like.
The next-door neighbors were a good twenty or thirty miles away. They had to be interviewed, even though it was unlikely as hell they knew anything.
The sheriff had offered his help. That’d be a laugh, almost as big as the one he’d get when he called the local Bureau office, surely undermanned, for help.
Fisher studied the tip of his cigarette. Was the dry air affecting it, or were his Indian friends doing something to make them burn faster?
The large hangar in front of him had no doors, but its roof was intact. Fisher walked to it and went inside.
The floor was so clean, it could have been vacuumed.
“Pilot wants to know how we’re doing,” said Bowman, who was wearing a radio headset.
“Tell him we’re ready to go,” said Fisher. “And ask him if he saw a good place for a burger.”
“Are you part of the investigation or what?” demanded Gorman as Fisher got off the helicopter back at North Lake.
“Both,” he told her.
“You can’t just go around commandeering helicopters, Andy. You’re part of a team. There’s a procedure.”
“Yeah, well, listen, Jemma, I found out where our plane’s been, or was, for a couple of days. Bitch of it is, I was about three days too late.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“Maybe more—hard to tell. I’m thinking we can get those guys to do that thing with the contrails and radars again, only change the area. Then we backcheck that against the legitimate flights, because this was probably camouflaged as a legitimate flight.”
“What the hell are you talking about, Andy?”
“Buy me some coffee, Jemma. You owe me big-time.”