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Cyclops One DeFelice Jim




2

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.

“Three-five-zero.”

“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.

Nothing worked.

The Velociraptor’s control system had gone off-line. That ought to have been impossible.

Engines gone.

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.

Out!

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.

Nothing.

Out!

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.

2

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