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Cyclops One DeFelice Jim




56

She was starting to fade away.

“Asset Mike-Charlie is off the air.”

The words seemed to break through a fog, rays of sun separating the clouds.

“Repeat, Asset Mike-Charlie is off the air.”

Howe fought against the adrenaline that jerked through his veins. “Monitor, do we have a fire?” he asked the RC-135, which was looking for the laser burst.

“Negative, Bird One. No shot, Colonel.”

Voices filled every circuit. Mike-Charlie was a UAV patrolling the southeast quadrant of the test area. Two Navy fighters selected afterburners, hustling in that direction; two others swept around to back them up. The Hawkeye closest to the area reported no contacts. One of the surface ships had a possible visual sighting but then lost it.

The mission boss stopped the ABM launch at T-minus 2:31 as the patrol vessels and aircraft scoured the area where the UAV had been. After a few minutes with no fresh contacts and the covering aircraft now mustered around the area, he let it proceed.

“Still clean,” Monitor told Howe as the countdown returned.

“Bird One,” acknowledged Howe, starting a bank as he reached the southernmost point of his patrol area.

Chapter 7

Megan was now much too far away from the drone to know if the Amos/X missile she’d launched scored a hit or not. She could tell from her passive radar receiver that at least one of the aircraft over the test area was reacting; she took that as a hopeful sign.

She was already too committed to turn back. Following the precisely computed flight plan, she selected afterburner and began to rise from her track fifty feet over the waves. The weapons officer meanwhile acknowledged that the weapon was operational and prepared to fire.

“We have a launch,” said the weapons officer. “Their target is airborne.”

“Radar’s clean,” said Rogers.

Megan didn’t reply, concentrating on flying her aircraft. The more they climbed on this course, the closer they got to the AWACS radar. She suspected that they would be detected before the ABM missile was fired; she just hoped it was close enough so the launch couldn’t be aborted.

Her hand steadied against the stick. Megan thought of her uncle and his last mission over Tokyo. The way he described it, he’d been an automaton, more mechanical than a flight computer.

She was that way now.

“ABM launch,” said the weapons officer. “I need ten miles.”

He gave her more directions, asking her to take a hard turn to the east and continue climbing. There was no doubt now they would be detected. Megan pushed the stick, making the correction. The maneuver bled speed off the wings, but the plane moved precisely as she wanted, still rising in the air.

“Preparing to fire. I’m locked,” said the weapons officer.

Megan reached forward, her thumb edging toward the button that turned control of the plane over to the automatic pilot circuit, allowing the weapon to fly the aircraft on a very straight and predictable path as it fired. She hesitated — it felt almost like a surrender — but there was no way for the laser to fire without pushing that button.

Go,she told her thumb.

A thick bar flashed at the top of her HUD and an icon appeared in the lower part of the screen. Megan leaned back, a passenger in her own jet.

“Firing!” reported the weapons officer. His excitement seemed to shake the aircraft, though it was actually the discharge of the weapon, ramping through the system and unleashing through the clear glass at the tail end.

To fly through that smoke over Tokyo, to kill all those people — you could justify their deaths in the end, add them up in the awful calculus of human survival. But if you didn’t resolve to get beyond those grim equations — if you didn’t work to end all war — weren’t you as guilty as the butchers who had started it all?

That had been her uncle’s and her father’s arguments. It was her birthright, her debt.

Paid now.

“The missile hit,” said the weapons officer.

He said something else but the words garbled in her ears, too far from her thoughts to penetrate. Megan took back control of the aircraft from the computer, rolling her wings and tucking back to the west in a twisting dive that put nearly 9 g’s of stress across the frame, overloading even the overengineered Russian design. The Blackjack groaned but held, possibly unaware of the fate that awaited her a little over an hour and a half from now — assuming, of course, they made it back to the base.

Megan pushed the engines into afterburner. Fuel gushed into the engines, taking the semistealthy Blackjack from just under three hundred knots to over nine hundred. Megan had to assume she’d been spotted, and so she needed every second’s worth of acceleration to get away. But she could sustain her burst for merely a minute; otherwise she’d consume too much fuel and risk ditching. Megan punched her watch’s preset; her arms moved like levers as the time drained to zero.

“Looking good,” she told Rogers as she backed off power. “We’re on the home stretch.”

Chapter 8

“Bird One, Bird One! We have a positive fire! Positive fire!”

Howe’s heartbeat jumped, chasing away the fatigue that just a few moments ago had been pushing him low in the seat.

“Location?” he said, consciously trying to slow his tongue down.

“Working on that.”

Howe hailed the AWACS controller, who was reporting a contact to the northwest, maybe 350 miles from the track the ABM target had taken. Meanwhile the mission boss reported the ABM missile had struck home.

“Monitor, you have that vector?” Howe asked the RC-135.

“Definitely north of you,” said the crewman. “He should have been out of range, though.”

“I’m going north.”

“Screw that,” said someone over the circuit. “Head toward the Kurils. Got to be.”

Howe clicked his mike to ask who had said that, then realized it was Fisher.

“The UAV was a deke, a fakeout,” said Fisher. “Don’t worry about where they were: Worry about where they’re going.”

“How do you know where they’re going?”

“I don’t. We just take our best guess and see what happens.”

“Fisher—”

“Don’t give up on me now, Colonel.”

Howe hesitated for a second, then banked into a turn that would take him in the islands’ general direction off the coast of Russia.

* * *

Fisher gripped the map and folder in his hand as he worked his way down the ladder to Tyler.

“Has to be one of these three places,” he told the Special Forces captain, pointing at the map. He had the satellite pictures at the top of the folder and took them out. Only two of the islands looked as though they had landing strips, but the photo interpreter had assured Fisher that the third had a long, flat surface as well. In fact, he seemed to feel that what looked like a rock line and hills at the northeast were in fact painted shadows. Like the other two sites, the reconnaissance satellites did not cover the island 24/7, and their schedule could be pinpointed by someone in the know.

“My guess is it’s this one with the phony oil rig and the Escher painting in the middle that looks like hills,” Fisher told Tyler, pointing at the third and explaining the camouflage. “But they’re all long enough. We can land anywhere they can.”

“How long will it take?”

“Pilot says a little over an hour,” said Fisher.

“I have to talk to Colonel Gorman,” said Tyler.

“Tell her I said hello. Hey, are there smoke detectors down here?”

* * *

The Velociraptors’ long-range scan remained clean. Howe was now roughly three hundred miles from the nearest of the small islands Fisher had claimed the laser plane would be heading toward; he should have it in sight in less than twenty minutes.

Had the laser plane escaped? Or had Fisher simply been wrong?

He checked his course. The Kurils stretched in a semicircle toward the Russian coast, a scythe pointing toward the northernmost island of Japan. Many of the islands were uninhabitable atolls, but a few were large enough for small fishing villages and settlements. Perhaps a dozen or more were somewhere in between and at various times had been used for military installations. Fisher had ID’d three as possible targets, including two that had been used by the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Howe would sweep over the northernmost target and arc south with Timmy on his tail. He had a search pattern laid out, and they’d already worked out a rendezvous with one of the tankers, which would take up a station to the west.

A flight of F-15s were heading north from Japan to join in the search. They hadn’t contacted Howe yet; at last report they would be near the target area about fifteen minutes after he got there, and would probably be too low on fuel to hang around for very long.

The radar kicked up a contact at extreme range, flying at roughly thirty thousand feet; after a few seconds the contact disappeared, their courses taking them in diverging directions.

“Think that was our boy?” asked Timmy.

It was possible, but if so, the plane was heading over Russia. Howe told him to ignore it, and a few minutes later they fell onto the course he’d plotted to overfly the first island. The AWACS plane accompanying the task force was a good distance behind them, and even the nearest Navy aircraft was well outside radar range. They would have little warning if the Russians managed to spot them and decided to jump them.

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56

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