Mayday - Chapter One

Silhouetted against the deep blue horizon of the stratosphere, Trans-United Flight 52 cruised westbound toward Japan.

Below, Captain Alan Stuart could see pieces of the sunlit Pacific between the breaks in the cloud cover. Above was subspace--an airless void without sun or life. The continuous shock wave generated by the giant craft's supersonic airspeed rose invisibly off its wings and fell unheard into the mid-Pacific Ocean.

Captain Stuart scanned his instruments. It had been two hours and twenty minutes since the flight had departed San Francisco. The Straton 797 maintained a steady Mach-cruise component of 1.8--930 miles per hour. The triple inertial navigation sets with satellite updating all agreed that Flight 52 was progressing precisely according to plan. Stuart picked up a clipboard from the flight pedestal between himself and the copilot, looked at their computer flight plan, then glanced back at the electronic readout of position: 161 degrees, 14 minutes west, 43 degrees 27 minutes north--2100 miles west of California, 1500 miles north of Hawaii. "We're on target," he said.

First Officer Daniel McVary, the copilot, glanced at him. "We should be landing at Chicago within the hour."

Stuart managed a smile. "Wrong map, Dan." He didn't care for cockpit humor. He unfolded the chart for today's mid-Pacific high-altitude navigation routes and laid it on his lap, studying it slowly with the motions of a man who had more time than duties. The chart was blank except for lines of longitude and latitude and the current flight routes. Flight 52 had long left behind any features that mapmakers could put on a chart. Even from their aerie of over twelve miles altitude, there was no land to be seen over this route. Captain Stuart turned to First Officer McVary. "Did you get the fourth and fifth sectors in?"

"Yes. Updates, too." He yawned and stretched.

Stuart nodded. His mind drifted back to San Francisco. His hometown. He'd done a television talk show the previous morning. He'd been anxious about it and, like an instant replay, snatches of the conversation kept running through his brain.

As usual, the interviewer had been more interested in the Straton than in him, but he'd become accustomed to that. He ran through the standard spiel in his mind. The Straton 797 was not like the old British/French Concorde. It climbed to the same altitude the Concorde did, but it flew a little slower. Yet it was measurably more practical. Armed with some aerodynamic breakthroughs of the '90s, the Straton engineers had aimed at less speed and more size. Luxury coupled with economy of operation.

The aircraft held 40 first-class and 285 tourist-class passengers. For the interview, he remembered to mention the upper deck where the cockpit and first-class lounge were located. The lounge had a bar and piano. One day when he was feeling reckless he would tell an interviewer that it had a fireplace and pool.

Stuart had spouted the advertising hype whenever he couldn't think of anything else to say. The Straton 797 flew faster than the sun. Slightly faster than the rotational velocity of the earth.

At a cruise speed of close to 1,000 miles per hour, Flight 52 should arrive in Tokyo at 7:15 A.M. local time, though it had departed San Francisco at 8:00 A.M. At least that was usually the case. Not today. They had departed San Francisco thirty-nine minutes late because of a minor leak in the number-three hydraulic system. While the mechanics changed the bad valve, Captain Stuart and his flight crew spent the delay time reviewing their computer flight profile. An updated winds aloft forecast had been sent to them, and Stuart had used the new wind information to revise his flight plan. They would fly south of the original planned routing to stay away form the worst of the newly predicted headwinds.

Time en route would be only slightly greater than usual, at six hours and twenty-four minutes. It was still impressive; grist for the media's mill. Across seven time zones and the International Date Line in less than a working man's day. The marvel of the decade.

But it was a little frightening. Stuart remembered the time he had been candid during a magazine interview. He had honestly explained the technical problems of supersonic flight at 62,000 feet, like the subtle effects of ozone poisoning and the periodic increases in radiation from sunspots. The interviewer had latched on to some of his points, exaggerated others, and had written an article that would have scared the hell out of a Shuttle astronaut. Stuart had been called in to speak to the Chief Pilot about his candor. Never again. "I did another one of those damned TV interviews. Yesterday morning."

McVary looked at him. "No kidding? Why didn't you tell us? Not that I would have gotten up that early…"

The junior pilot in the cockpit, Carl Fessler, who sat behind them at the relief copilot's position, laughed. "Why do they always pick on you, Skipper?"

Stuart shrugged. "Some idiot in public relations thinks I come across good. I'd rather fly through a line of thunderstorms than face a camera."

McVary nodded. Alan Stuart was every inch the image of the competent captain, from his gray hair to the crease in his pants. "I wouldn't mind being on TV."

Stuart yawned. "I'll suggest it to PR." He looked around the flight deck. Behind McVary, Fessler was typing into a portable computer--an electronic equivalent of a ship's log--with backup data from the instrument panel. McVary had returned to staring blankly ahead, his mind, no doubt, on personal matters.

The usual mid-flight routines had laid their blue veil over the crew. The blue mid-Pacific blues. The doldrums, as they were called by seamen--but this ship was not becalmed as a ship caught in the doldrums. It was ripping along at close to the velocity of a bullet. Yet there was really nothing, at that moment, for the three pilots to do. At 62,000 feet, all the weather was beneath them. An hour before, they had flown over an area of bad weather. Some of the towering cumulus clouds had reached up high enough to at least give any of the crew and passengers who cared to look at them something to see. But there had not been even the slightest turbulence at those altitudes. Stuart would have welcomed a little bump, the way truck drivers did on a long haul across endless smooth blacktop. He glanced out the front window again. There was one thing to see that never ceased to fascinate him: the rounded horizon line that separated earth from subspace.

The autopilot made small and silent corrections to keep the flight on the preprogrammed course. Stuart listlessly laid two fingers of his right hand on the control wheel. He had not steered the 797 manually since right after takeoff. He would not use the control wheel again until the final moments of their landing approach at Tokyo.

Carl Fessler looked up from his portable computer. He laid it down on the small table next to him. "What a lot of crap this backup data is. Most of the other airlines don't do this crap anymore."

Stuart took his eyes off the horizon and glanced back at his relief copilot. "I bet we could find some eager young new-hire pilot to take your place. He'd probably type faster, too." Stuart smiled, but he had been pointedly serious. He had little patience for the new breed. They had a job that was fifty times better than what had come before, yet they seemed to complain constantly. Did they realize that thirty years ago Alan Stuart had to hand-plot each and every route segment before climbing into the copilot's seat? Spoiled, Stuart said to himself. Telling them about it was a waste of time. "If we land in the teeth of a monsoon at Tokyo, you'll earn your day's pay, Carl."

McVary closed his copy of Playboy and put it into his flight bag. Reading was not authorized, and Stuart was starting to get into one of his Captain moods. "That's right, Carl. Or if one of these lights starts blinking, we'll find something useful for you to do real quick."

Fessler could see which way the wind was blowing. "You're right. It's a good job." He swiveled his seat slightly toward the front. "In the meantime, are you guys any good at trivia? What's the capital of Rwanda?"

McVary looked back over his shoulder. "Here's a trivia question for you. Which one of the stews has the hots for you?"

Fessler suddenly looked alert. "Which one?"

"I'm asking you." He laughed. "Look, I'll press the stew call button, and if fate brings you your secret lover, I'll nod. If not . . . well, you have ten left to wonder about." He laughed again, then glanced at Captain Stuart to read his mood. The old man seemed to be taking it well enough. "Skipper, anything for you?"

"Might as well. Coffee and a pastry."

"Coffee for me," Fessler said.

McVary picked up the ship's interphone and pushed the call button.

Flight attendants Sharon Crandall and Terri O'Neil were in the first-class galley in the main cabin below when the light blinked. Terri O'Neil picked up the phone. After a brief exchange with McVary, she hung up and turned to Sharon Crandall.

"They want coffee again. It's a wonder they don't turn brown with all they drink."

"They're just bored," said Crandall.

"Too bad. Walking all the way upstairs every time the cockpit crew needs a diversion is no fun." O'Neil took out a dish of pastry and poured three coffees.

Crandall smiled. Terri was always carrying on about something. Today, it was walking to the cockpit. "I'll go, Terri. I need the exercise. I have to go down to the pit pretty soon to help Barbara Yoshiro." She nodded toward the service elevator that led to the lower kitchen. "There's no room to move down there."

"No. Take a break. If anyone needs the exercise, it's me. Check these hips."

"Okay. You go." They both laughed. "I'll do the cleaning up," Crandall said.

Terri O'Neil picked up the tray, left the galley, and walked the short distance to the circular staircase. She waited at the base of the stairs while an elderly, well-dressed woman worked her way down.

"I'm sorry I'm so slow," the woman said.

"Take your time. No rush," O'Neil answered. She wished the woman would move a little faster.

"My name is Mrs. Thorndike." She introduced herself with the automatic manners of the old, not recognizing or caring that modern travel didn't require it. "I like your piano player. He's quite good," the woman said. She stopped on the bottom step to chat.

O'Neil forced a smile and balanced the tray of coffees and pastry against the handrail. "Yes. He's good. Some of them are even better than he is."

"Really? I hope I have one of the better ones on the flight home."

"I hope you do."

The old woman finally stepped aside and the flight attendant trudged up the stairway. Strands of "As Time Goes By" floated down to O'Neil over the normal in-flight noises. With each step the singing of the more gregarious passengers got louder.

When O'Neil reached the top of the staircase, she frowned. Three of the male passengers stood arm-in-arm around the piano. So far, they were content to sing softly. But she knew that whenever men acted openly chummy while they were still sober, they were certain to become especially loud after they began to drink. Alcohol released the Irish tenor in them. O'Neil knew they would soon get their chance, since she was supposed to open the bar in a few minutes. She wished the airline would go back to the old-fashioned lounge instead of the aerial nightclub.

"Hello," O'Neil called to the young piano player. She could not recall if his name was Hogan or Grogan. He was too young for her anyway. She edged her way around half-a-dozen passengers, across the heavily carpeted lounge, and toward the cockpit. With the tray balanced in her hands, she tapped against the fiberglass door with the toe of her shoe. She could see from the shadow that someone in the cockpit had leaned up against the door's tiny section of one-way glass to see who had knocked.

Carl Fessler unlocked the door for her, and O'Neil walked into the cockpit.

"Coffee is served, gentlemen."

"The pastry is mine, Terri," Stuart said.

Everyone took a plastic cup, and she handed Stuart the pastry dish.

Stuart turned to Fessler. "Carl, see if the passengers' flight-connection information has come in yet." Stuart glanced down at the blank electronics screen on the pedestal between the two flight chairs. "Maybe we missed it on the screen."

Fessler looked over his shoulder toward the right rear of the cockpit. He had left the data-link printer's door open. The message tray was still empty. "Nothing, Skipper."

Stuart nodded. "If we don't get that connection information soon," he said to Terri O'Neil, "I'll send another request."

"Very good," said O'Neil. "Some of the first-class passengers are getting nervous. Having a printout of connection updates works even better than giving them Valium." While she spoke with the Captain, O'Neil could see out of the corner of her eye that Fessler and McVary were looking at each other in a peculiar way, evidently conveying some sort of signal. Terri realized that the First Officer and Second Officer were playing a game--and that she had become part of it. Boys. After everyone mumbled his thanks, O'Neil left the flight deck and closed the door behind her.

Captain Stuart had waited for the coffee and pastry as though it were a special event--a milestone along a straight desert highway. He ate the pastry slowly, then sat back to sip at his coffee. Of the three of them on the flight deck, only Stuart remembered when everything they ate was served on real china. The utensils then were silver and the food was a little less plastic as well. Now even the aromas were a weak imitation of what he had remembered as a new copilot. The whole cockpit smelled different then. Real leather, hydraulic fluid, and old cigarettes; not the sterile aroma of acrylic paints and synthetic materials.

Alan Stuart's mind wandered. He had flown for Trans-United for thirty-four years. He'd crossed the Pacific more than a thousand times. He was a multimillion-miler, although supersonic speeds had made that yardstick meaningless. Now he was losing count of his hours, miles, and number of crossings. He sighed, then took another sip from his plastic cup. "I don't know where the company buys this lousy coffee," he said to no one in particular.

Fessler turned around. "If that's a trivia question, the answer is Brazil."

Stuart didn't answer. In a few seconds his thoughts had slid comfortably back to where they had been. Supersonic transports were not actually flown; they were just aimed and watched. What modern pilots did mostly was to type instructions into onboard computers, and that was how actual flight tasks got accomplished. It had become such a passive job--until something went wrong.

In the old days, there was much more work, but much more fun. There were the long layovers in Sydney, Hong Kong, Tokyo. Some days in the Straton he would sit in his twelve-mile-high perch and look down on the routes he had flown as a young man. Old Boeing 707s--the original jets. And the captains that he had flown with had once flown the DC-4s, DC-6s, and DC-7s on those very routes. Even with the old 707, they needed to make refueling stops everywhere. The lighter passenger loads meant that the flights operated only a few times each week, so they had several days' layover in lots of remote and faraway places. Life, he was certain, had been simpler yet more exciting then.

Carl Fessler tapped his pencil on the digital readout of the Total Airfram Temperature gauge. He was beginning another round of required entries into the portable backup computer, entries of their mid-flight aircraft performance numbers. Records of every sort, to be fed into the company mainframe computer and never to be seen again.

The Total Airframe Temperature needle sat on 189 degrees Fahrenheit, closing in on the red-line mark of 198. The operational limits at 62,000 feet were always a matter of temperatures and pressures, reflected Fessler. The Straton transport's skin was not to exceed its designated limit. If necessary, Fessler would tell the Captain and he would slow the ship down. The environment they operated in was hostile enough. Don't press it. "What's the capital of Japan?" he asked without looking up from his paperwork.

McVary glanced over his shoulder. "Mount Fuji?"

"Close," said Fessler. "But not close enough for you to try to land on it." Fessler entered the final figures into the computer and looked up at the windshield. Just beyond the glass and the aluminum-and-titanium alloy skin of the 797 was a slipstream of air moving so fast that anything its friction touched was instantly heated to over 175 degrees Fahrenheit. Yet the actual temperature of the atmosphere outside was 67 degrees below zero. The air itself was thin enough to be nonexistent. Less than one pound per square inch--one-fifteenth the normal sea-level amount. The oxygen composition was less than one percent. The mass was unbreathable anyway, since the pressure was too low to force the few oxygen molecules into the lungs. Subspace, reflected Fessler. Subspace was not what he'd been hired for five years before. But here he was.

McVary suddenly sat erect in his seat and put down his coffee. "Skipper, what's that?" He pointed to his right front. There was a small dot on the horizon--hardly more than a speck against the cockpit glass.

Stuart sat up and put his face closer to the windshield.

Fessler put down his coffee and turned in his seat to look.

They watched the dot on the right side of the windshield. It was moving across their front, apparently at an oblique angle to their flight path. It was growing slightly, but not alarmingly. It did not--at least for the moment--pose any threat of collision.

McVary relaxed a bit. "Must be a fighter. Some military jet jockey horsing around."

Stuart nodded. "Right." He reached into his flight bag and pulled out a pair of binoculars, a good set of Bausch & Lomb that he had bought in Germany many years before. He carried it as an amusement. He used to watch ships, planes, and faraway coastlines when he flew low enough to see something worth looking at. He'd meant to take them out of his bag long ago, but habit and nostalgia--he'd seen a good deal of the world through them--had postponed the retirement of the glasses. He adjusted the focus knob. "Can't make it out."

"Maybe it's a missile," McVary said. "A cruise missile." He had been an Air Force pilot, and his mind still worked in that direction.

Fessler half stood near his console. "Would they shoot it up here?"

"They're not supposed to," said McVary. "Not near commercial routes." He paused. "We did deviate pretty far south today."

Stuart twisted the focus knob again. "Lost it. Wait… Got it. . ."

"Can you make it out, Skipper?" asked McVary, a slight edge to his voice.

"Funny-looking. Never seen anything like it. Some sort of missile, I think. I can't tell. Here." He handed the binoculars to McVary. "You look."

The ex-fighter pilot took the glasses. Even without them he could see that the object had gotten closer. To the naked eye it appeared to be a sliver of dark-colored metal against the blue sky. He raised the glasses and adjusted them. There was something very familiar about that object, but he couldn't place it. It was hard to get a perspective on its size, but instinctively he knew it was small. "Small," he said aloud. "And at that speed and these altitudes it could only be military."

Fessler stepped closer to the front windshield. "Whose military?"

McVary shrugged as he continued to scan. "The Martian Air Force, Carl. How the hell do I know?" He leaned farther forward. For a brief, irrational moment he thought he might be seeing the opening salvo of an atomic war. The end of the world. No. It was too low, too small, and going toward the open Pacific. "It's got to be a jet fighter … but…"

"If it gets closer, we'll turn," Stuart said. Altering the course of a supersonic transport was no easy matter, however. At cruise speed it would take him nearly four-and-a-half minutes to turn the 797 around, and during that time the ship would have flown sixty-seven miles. At any greater rate of turn, the passengers would be subjected to an unacceptable level of positive Gs. Those who were standing would be thrown to the floor. Those seated would be unable to move. He flipped on the switch for the cabin seat-belt sign, then turned in his seat and wrapped his hands around the control wheel. His left thumb was poised over the autopilot disengage button. He looked at the object on the horizon, then at his crew. The cockpit had changed quickly. It was always that way. Nothing to do, or too much to do. He glanced at his relief copilot, who was still out of his seat and looking out the window. "Fessler. Who played opposite Cary Grant in North by Northwest?"

"I don't know."

"Then get back in your seat and do something you do know. Sit down, strap in, get ready."

"Yes, sir."

Small beads of perspiration had begun to form on the Captain's forehead. "I'm going to turn," he said, but still did not press the autopilot release button on his control wheel. Alan Stuart--like most commercial pilots--was reluctant to alter course, speed, or altitude unless absolutely necessary. Jumping headlong into an unneeded evasive action was a student pilot's stunt.

The fourth being in the cockpit--the autopilot--continued to maintain the 797's heading and altitude.

The object was easily visible now. It was becoming apparent to Stuart that the mysterious missile was not on a collision course with the Straton. If neither of the crafts altered course, the object would pass safely across their front. Captain Stuart relaxed his grip on the control wheel but stayed ready to execute a turn toward the north if the object's flight path changed. He glanced at his wristwatch, which was still set to San Francisco time. It was exactly eleven o'clock.

McVary saw the object clearly now in the binoculars. "Oh, Christ!" His voice was a mixture of surprise and fear.

Captain Stuart experienced a long-forgotten but familiar sensation in his stomach. "What, what. . .?"

"It's not a missile," said McVary. "It's a drone. A military target drone!"

At 10:44 A.M. San Francisco time, the helmsman of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Chester W. Nimitz made a three-degree course correction to starboard. Positioned 2,000 yards astern of the Nimitz were the cruiser Belknap and the destroyers Coontz and Nicolas. Their helmsmen also made appropriate corrections. The fleet steered a steady course of 135 degrees, making a headway of 18 knots. They rode serenely over the mid-Pacific, their position 900 miles north of Hawaii. The midmorning skies were clear and the air was warm. The weather forecast for the next thirty-six hours called for little change.

Retired Rear Admiral Randolf Hennings stood on the 0-7 deck of the carrier's superstructure. Henning's blue civilian suit stood out among the officers and men dressed in tropical tans. The orange ALL-ACCESS pass pinned to his collar made him more, not less, self-conscious.

From the seven-story-high balcony behind the bridge, Hennings had an unrestricted view of the Nimitz's flight deck. Yet his eyes wandered from the operational activities toward the men who stood their stations a dozen feet away inside the glass-enclosed ship's bridge.

Captain Diehl sat in his leather swivel chair, overseeing the morning's operation. He was, at that moment, in conversation with Lieutenant Thompson, the Officer of the Deck, and with another lieutenant, whom Hennings had not met. The helmsman stood attentively at the Nimitz's steering controls.

The flurry of on-deck activities from the dawn practice maneuvers had subsided. Hennings counted half-a-dozen aircraft on the starboard quarter of the Nimitz's flight deck. One by one, they were being taken to the servicing area on the hangar deck below. The plotting board in the Air-Ops Room had shown only one aircraft yet to be recovered. Navy 347. F-18. Pilot Lt. P. Matos. Launched 1027 hours, 23 June. Special test. Estimated time of return, 1300 hours.

Hennings had not liked that "special test" designation. It was too close to the truth--and the truth was not to be openly discussed. He would have preferred something even more routine, like "extra training."

Hennings knew too well why the test was a secret, even though no one had actually spoken with him about it. It was, he knew, because of the new Voluntary Arms Limitation Treaty recently approved by Congress and signed by the President. Hennings had read that the agreement specifically prohibited the development of improved tactical missiles, among other things. Today's secret test would be the first for the updated Phoenix missile. Its range had been doubled to 500 miles, a new self-guiding radar system had been added, and, most importantly, its maneuverability had been vastly increased. All of this was unquestionably outside the limitations of the treaty Congress had decided on. But if the weapon proved workable, it could significantly alter the balance of power in any future air-to-air combat scenario.

Hennings became aware that a young ensign was holding a salute, speaking to him. He glanced at the woman's blue and white name tag. "What is it, Ms. Phillips?"

The ensign dropped her salute. "Excuse me, Admiral. Commander Sloan requests that you join him in E-334."

Hennings nodded. "Very well. Lead on."

Hennings followed the ensign through the hatchway and down the metal stairs. They walked in silence. Hennings had entered the Navy at a time when female personnel did not serve on warships. By the time he left the Navy, it was not uncommon. While in the Navy, Hennings had towed the official line and outwardly approved of women serving with men aboard ship. In reality, Hennings thought the whole social experiment had been and was a disaster. But the Navy and the Pentagon had covered up most of the problems so that the public was never aware of the high pregnancy rate among unmarried female personnel, the sexual harassment, abuse, and even rapes, and the general lowering of morale and discipline. In short, it was a nightmare for the ships' commanders, but it wasn't his problem.

On the 0-2 deck of the conning tower, they stepped into a long gray corridor similar to the thousands that Hennings had walked through in his shipboard career. There had been an incredible amount of technological innovation aboardship since his day, but the old architectural adage that form should follow function was never more true than on a warship. There was a familiarity about naval architecture that was comforting. Yet, deep down, he knew that nothing was the same. "Did you ever serve on an older ship, Ms. Phillips?"

The ensign glanced back over her shoulder. "No, sir. The Nimitzis my first ship."

"Could you imagine what these corridors were like before air-conditioning?"

"I can imagine, sir." The ensign stopped abruptly and opened a door marked "E-334." She was relieved to be rid of her charge, relieved not to have to hear a story about wooden ships and iron men. "Admiral Hennings, Commander."

Hennings stepped into the small gray-painted room packed with electronics gear. The door closed behind him.

An enlisted man sat in front of a console. Standing behind the man and looking over his shoulder was Commander James Sloan. Sloan looked up as Hennings entered the room. "Hello, Admiral. Did you see the launch?"

"Yes. The F-18 was being strapped to the catapult when I arrived on the bridge. Quite impressive."

"That machine really moves. Excuse me for just one minute, Admiral." Sloan leaned over and said something to the electronics specialist, Petty Officer Kyle Loomis, in a voice just a bit too low for Hennings to hear.

Hennings could see that Sloan was unhappy. They were apparently having some technical difficulty. Still, Hennings had the feeling that he was not being shown all the military courtesy possible, but decided not to make an issue of it. Retired, after all, meant retired. He had one mission aboard the Nimitz, and that was to carry back the results of the "special test" to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to carry on his person untitled and unsigned test results, and to commit to memory everything that could not be written. He was a messenger. The execution of the test was not an area he cared to get involved with.

His old friends in Washington threw him these consulting plums as a favor. He had little else to do. This time, however, he was beginning to wish he hadn't been home when the phone rang. Hennings had the feeling that all those soft jobs to exotic places and those generous "consulting fees" had been a setup for the time when his friends might need a special favor. Could this be that special time? Hennings shrugged. It didn't matter. His friends had earned his loyalty, and he would provide it.

Commander Sloan was pointing to a panel of gauges above the console. Loomis mumbled something. Sloan shook his head. He was clearly not happy.

"Problem, Commander?"

Sloan looked up and forced a smile. "Only the usual… Admiral." He paused and considered for a second. "One of our high-frequency channels to San Diego isn't working. Can't figure out why." He glanced at the equipment panel as though it were an enlisted man who had jumped ship.

"Will it delay things?"

Sloan thought it might, but that wasn't the proper answer. "No. It shouldn't. We can go through Pearl. Just a procedural step." He paused again. He wondered how much of this Hennings was taking in. "We could eliminate the step anyway. The things we need are working."

"Good. I'm to be at a conference tomorrow morning."

Sloan already knew that. The famous breakfast meetings of the Joint Chiefs, where bleary-eyed old men turned the talk from golf scores to nuclear holocaust with the ease of a piano player going through a familiar medley.

"I'm set up on a commercial flight out of Los Angeles late tonight. I need to be off the carrier by 1600 hours."

"The mission should be completed shortly."

"Good. Now, do you mind telling me why you summoned me here, Commander?" His tone was as gentlemanly as always, so the words were more, not less, terse.

Sloan was taken aback for a second. "I didn't summon… I mean, I thought you would want to be here."

"This…" Hennings waved his hand around the room, ". . . this means very little to me. I would rather have just gotten an oral and written report from you at the completion of the test. But if you want me here, I'll stay." He sat in a small swivel chair.

"Thank you, sir, I would." Sloan didn't trust himself to say any more. He had treated Hennings in an offhand manner since he'd come aboard, but now he was reminded, in case he had forgotten, that Randolf Hennings had friends. More than that, though, the old saying, "Once an admiral, always an S.O.B.", was brought home.

As Hennings watched Sloan shuffle through some papers, he realized for the first time how much Sloan wanted him to be here, as an actual accomplice in the missile test. They were, Hennings now realized, doing something criminal. But it was too late to turn back. Hennings pushed those disquieting notions out of his mind and forced himself to think of other things.

Sloan turned to the electronics. He peered at the panel intently, but he was trying to recall all that he knew about Randolf Hennings. Action in and around Vietnam. He was considered a likable man by his peers, but you never knew about admirals, retired or otherwise. They could change as quickly as the North Atlantic weather. Hennings was known for having enough perseverance to get his job done but not enough to be a threat to his seniors. Those very seniors who had made it to the top had now picked Hennings to carry out a most sensitive mission. Hennings was known to be the epitome of dependability and discretion. Like a dinghy caught in the suction of a battleship's wake, thought Sloan, retired Rear Admiral Hennings had followed at a speed and course set by others. Yet Sloan had to reckon with him. He glanced back at Hennings. "Coffee, Admiral?"

"No, thank you."

Sloan's mind was still not on the electronics problem but on the politics of the test. He thought about asking Hennings for some information, but decided that would be a mistake. At any rate, Hennings wouldn't know much more that he, Sloan, did.

"Sir, the patch to Pearl isn't carrying."

Sloan looked at the electronics man. "What?"

"The problem might be on their end."

"Right. Probably is." Sloan glanced at Hennings. Hennings was drumming his fingers restlessly on the arm of his chair. His attention seemed to be focused on the video screen that was displaying routine weather data.

Petty Officer Loomis glanced back over his shoulder. "Sir? Should I keep trying?"

Sloan tapped his foot. Time for a command decision. He felt acid in his stomach and knew why officers had more ulcers than enlisted men. He considered. The test elements were nearly all in position. A delay could disrupt things for hours. Henning had to be at the Pentagon the next morning with the report. If the report said only "Special test delayed," Commander James Sloan would look bad. The men behind the test might lose their nerve and cancel it for good. Worse, they might think he had lost his nerve. He considered asking Hennings for advice, but that would have been a tactical blunder.

"Sir," the electronics man said, his hand poised over a set of switches on the console.

Sloan shook his head. "Get back to the mission profile. We can't spend any more time on routine procedures. Send the approval for the release, then get another update from Lieutenant Matos."

Petty Officer Kyle Loomis returned to his equipment. He had begun to suspect that all was not routine here, but as a former submariner, his knowledge of fighters and missiles was too limited to allow him to piece together what was not routine about this test. Without anyone telling him, he knew that his ignorance had gotten him out of the submarine that he'd come to hate and onto the Nimitz, which he found more tolerable. He also knew that his transfer request to the Mediterranean Fleet was secure as long as he kept him mouth shut.

Sloan watched the electronics procedure for a few seconds, then glanced at Hennings, who was still staring at the video screen. "Soon, Admiral."

Hennings looked up. He nodded.

It occurred to Sloan that perhaps Hennings, like himself, wanted to go on record as having said nothing for the record.

Petty Officer Loomis spoke. "Sir, Lieutenant Matos is on-station. Orbiting in sector twenty-three."

"All right. Tell him that we expect target information shortly."

"Yes, sir."

Sloan tried to evaluate his own exposure in this thing. It had begun with the routine delivery of the two Phoenix test missiles to the carrier a month before. He had signed for the missiles. Then came a routine communication from Pearl informing the Nimitz's commander, Captain Diehl, that Hennings was coming to observe an air-to-air missile testing. Not unusual, but not routine. Then came the brief communication that directed a routine practice firing of the missiles. The only exception to the routine was that "procedures and distances" be in accordance with the manufacturer's new specifications for the AIM-63X version of the Phoenix. That was when Sloan had known that there was a top-level conspiracy--no, wrong word; initiative--a top-level initiative among the Joint Chiefs. They were going to secretly ignore the new arms limitation agreement that Congress had enacted. And by a stroke of fate, Sloan had been named the technical officer in charge of conducting the test. Within a year, he'd be a captain… or he'd be in Portsmouth Naval Prison. He looked at Hennings again. What was in this for him?

Sloan knew that he could have backed out at any time by asking for shore leave. But those old men in the Pentagon had done their homework well when they studied his personnel file. They knew a gambler when they saw one. A small stream of perspiration ran down Sloan's neck, and he hoped Hennings hadn't noticed it. "Approximately ten minutes, Admiral." He punched a button on the console and a digital countdown clock began to run.

Sloan had an inordinate fascination, mixed with phobia, for countdown procedures. He watched the digital display running down. He used the time to examine his motives and strengthen his resolve. To rationalize. The updated Phoenix was a crucial weapon to have in the event of war, even though the idiots in Congress were acting as if there would never be any more wars. One discreet test of this missile would tell the Joint Chiefs if it would work under combat conditions, if the increased maneuverability would mean that the kill ratio of this newest weapon could be nearly one hundred percent.

The Navy brass would then know what they had, and the politicians could go on jawing and pretending. American airpower would have an unpublicized edge, no matter what happened in the future. Russia could go back to being the Soviet Union and the Cold War could refreeze; U.S. combat forces would have something extra. And with modern technology, a slight edge was all you could ever hope for. All you ever needed, really. There was also the matter of the Navy finding its balls again, after countless years of humiliation at the hands of the politicians, the gays, and the feminists. Nine minutes.

Commander Sloan poured a cup of coffee from a metal galley pitcher. He glanced at Hennings. The man was looking uncomfortable. He could see it in his eyes, as he had seen it several times the day before. Did Hennings know something that he didn't?

Sloan walked to the far end of the console and looked at the gauges. But his thoughts were on Hennings now. Hennings seemed to be almost uninterested in the testing. Uninterested in Sloan, too, which was unusual since Sloan was certain that Hennings was to make an oral evaluation report on him. Sloan felt that almost forgotten ensign's paranoia creeping over him and shook it off quickly. A seasoned officer turns everything to his advantage. He would turn Hennings's detachment to his advantage, if necessary.

Hennings stood suddenly and moved nearer to Sloan. He spoke in a low voice. "Commander, will the data be ready as soon as the testing is complete? Will you need to do anything else?"

Sloan nodded. "Just a few qualitative forms." He tapped his fingers on a stack of paperwork on the console desk. "Thirty minutes or so."

Hennings nodded. The room was silent except for the ambient sounds of electronics.

Randolf Hennings let his eyes wander absently over the equipment in the tight room. The functions of this equipment were not entirely a mystery to him. He recognized some of it and guessed at what looked vaguely familiar, as a man might do who had been asleep for a hundred years and had awakened in the twenty-first century.

When he was a younger man he had asked many questions of his shipboard technicians and officers. But as the years passed, the meaning of those young men's answers eluded him more each time. He was, he reminded himself, a product of another civilization. He had been born during the Great Depression. His older brother had died of a simple foot infection. He remembered, firsthand, a great deal about World War II, the Nazis and the Japs, listening to the bulletins as they came across the radio in their living room. He recalled vividly the day that FDR died, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the day the Japanese surrendered, the day, as a teenager, that he saw a television screen for the first time. He remembered the family car, a big, old, round-bodied Buick, and how his mother had never learned to drive it. They'd come an incredibly long way in a short span of time. Many people had chosen not to go along on that fast ride. Others had become the helmsmen and navigators. Then there were people like himself who found they were in positions of command without understanding what those helmsmen and navigators were doing, where they were going.

He walked over to the single porthole in the room and pushed back the blackout shade. The tranquil sea calmed his troubled conscience. He remembered when he had finally made the decision that he would have to evaluate his men on their personal traits and then trust their technical advice accordingly. Men, he understood. Human beings did not really change from generation to generation. If his sixty-seven years were good for anything, it was that he had arrived at an understanding of the most complex piece of machinery of all. He could read the hearts and souls of his fellow men; he had peered into the psyche of Commander James Sloan, and he did not like what he saw.

Petty Officer Loomis turned around. "Commander Sloan." He pointed to a video display screen.

Sloan walked over to the screen. He looked at the message. "Good news, Admiral."

Hennings closed the blackout shade and turned around.

Sloan spoke as he read the data. "Our elements are in position. The F-18 is on station, and the C-130 is also in position. We need only the release verification." He glanced at the digital countdown clock. Five minutes.

Hennings nodded. "Fine."

Sloan gave a final thought to the one command check he was not able to complete. If the test had not been a secret, and if delay had not meant possible cancellation, and if cancellation had not meant potential disadvantage in a future war, and his career weren't in the balance, and if Hennings weren't evaluating him with those steely gray eyes, and if it wasn't time for the Navy to get its balls back, and if that damn digital clock weren't running down… then, maybe, maybe he would have waited. Four minutes.

The video screen's display updated again, and Sloan looked at the short message. He read it first to himself, smiled, and then read it aloud. "The C-130 has launched its target and it was last tracked as steady and on course. The target drone has accelerated to Mach 2, and is now level at sixty-two thousand feet." He glanced at the digital countdown. "In two minutes and thirty seconds I can instruct Lieutenant Matos to begin tracking the target and engage it at will."

"Would you like another drink?"

"No, I think I'll wait." John Berry put down his empty glass and looked up at the flight attendant. Her shoulder-length brunette hair brushed across the top of her white blouse. She had narrow hips, a slender waist, and very little visible makeup. She looked like one of those models from a tennis club brochure. Berry had spoken to her several times since the flight had begun. Now that the job of serving the midmorning snack was nearly finished, she seemed to be lingering near his seat. "Not too crowded," Berry said, motioning around the half-empty forward section of the Straton 797.

"Not here. In the back. I'm glad I pulled first-class duty. The tourist section is full."

"High season in Tokyo?"

"I guess. Maybe there's a special on electronics factory tours." She laughed at her own joke. "Are you going on business or pleasure?"

"Both. It's a pleasure to be away on business." Disclosures can come out at unusual moments. Yet, for John Berry, that particular moment wasn't an unusual one. The young flight attendant was everything that Jennifer Berry was not. Even better, she seemed to be none of the things that Jennifer Berry had become. "Sharon?" He pointed to the flight attendant's name tag.

"Yes, Sharon Crandall. From San Francisco."

"John Berry. From New York. I'm going to see Kabushi Steel in Tokyo. Then a metal-fabricating company in Nagasaki. No electronics factories. I go twice a year. The boss sends me because I'm the tallest. The Japanese like to emphasize their differences with the West. Short salespeople make them nervous."

"Really?" She looked at him quizzically. She grinned. "No one ever told me that before. Are you kidding?"

"Sure." He hesitated. His throat was dry. Just the thought of asking this young woman to sit with him was mildly unnerving. Yet all he wanted was someone to talk to. To pass the time. To pretend for a few relaxing moments that the situation in New York didn't exist.

Jennifer Berry's tentacles reached even this far. Her presence stretched across a continent and over an ocean. The image of his difficult and complaining wife lay over John Berry's thoughts. Their two teenaged children--a son and a daughter--were on his mind, too. They had grown further from him every year. The family tie had become mainly their shared name. Shared living space and shared documents. Legalities.

The rest of what was termed these days their lifestyle was, to Berry, a cruel joke. An outrageously expensive house in Oyster Bay that he had always disliked. The pretentious country club. The phony bridge group. Hollow friendships. Neighborhood gossip. The cocktails, without which all of Oyster Bay, along with the neighboring suburbs, would have committed mass suicide long ago. The futility. The silliness. The boredom. What had happened to the things he cared about? He could hardly remember the good times anymore. The all-night talks with Jennifer, and their lovemaking, before it became just another obligation. Those camping trips with the kids. The long Sunday breakfasts. The backyard baseball games. It seemed like another life. It seemed like a lifetime ago.

John Berry found himself dwelling on the past more and more. Living in the past. A 1960s song on the radio made him yearn for Dayton, Ohio, his hometown. An old movie or serial on television brought on a nostalgia so acute that his heart ached.

He looked up at the young woman standing over him. "How about having a drink with me? Never mind. I know… you're on duty. Then how about a Coke?" Berry was speaking quickly. "I'll tell you about Japanese businessmen. Japanese customs. Very educational. Wonderful information. Great stuff to know if you ever want to become an international corporation."

"Sure," she said. "Love to hear it. Just give me a few minutes to finish up. A few more trays. Ten minutes." Sharon Crandall gathered Berry's tray and half a dozen others. She smiled at him as she walked past on her way to the service elevator in the rear of the first-class compartment.

Berry turned and watched as she stepped inside. The narrow elevator was barely big enough for both her and the trays. In a few seconds she had disappeared behind the sliding door, on her way down to the below-decks galley beneath the first-class compartment.

John Berry sat alone for a minute and collected his scattered thoughts. He got out of his seat and stretched his arms. He looked around the spacious first-class section. Then he looked out the window at the two giant engines mounted beneath the Straton's right wing. They could swallow the Skymaster. One gulp, he thought.

His company, Taylor Metals, owned a four-seat Cessna Twin Skymaster for the sales staff, and if Berry had any real interest left, flying was it. He supposed that flying was mixed up somehow with his other problems. If he found the earth more tolerable, he might not grab every opportunity to fly above it.

Berry turned toward the rear of the first-class cabin. He saw that the lavatories were vacant. He looked at his wristwatch. He had time to wash up and comb his hair before Sharon returned.

On his way to the rear of the cabin, Berry glanced out the window again. He marveled at the enormous size and power of the giant airliner's engines. He marveled, too, at the solitude of space. What he failed to notice was that they were not alone. He did not see the tiny dot against the horizon that was rapidly approaching the Straton airliner.

Lieutenant Peter Matos held the F-18's control stick with his right hand. He inched the power levers slightly forward. The two General Electric engines spooled up to a higher setting. Matos continued to fly his Navy fighter in wide, lazy circles at 54,000 feet. He held the craft's airspeed constant at slightly less than Mach 1. He was loitering, flying nondescript patterns inside a chunk of international airspace known to his country's military as Operations Area R-23. He was waiting for a call from Home. It was overdue and he was just beginning to wonder about it when his earphones crackled with the beginning of a message. It was the voice of Petty Officer Kyle Loomis, whom Matos vaguely knew.

"Navy three-four-seven, this is Homeplate, over."

Matos pressed a button on top of his control stick. "Roger, Homeplate. Three-four-seven. Go ahead, over. He began another turn through the tranquil Pacific sky.

The voice of the electronics mate in Room E-334 carried loud and clear. "The target has been released. We estimate an initial in-range penetration of your operational area within two minutes. Operation status is now changed to Foxtrot-alpha-whiskey. I say again, Foxtrot-alpha-whiskey."

"Roger, Homeplate. I read Foxtrot-alpha-whiskey." Matos released the transmit button and simultaneously pulled back on the control stick. Foxtrot-alpha-whiskey. Fire-at-will. He would never see the target, the hit, or the destruction except on his radar, yet the predator's stimuli were there and his heart beat faster. The F-18 tightened its turn, and Matos felt the increase in G forces as he accelerated around the remainder of the circle he had been flying. He leveled the fighter on a northeasterly heading and spooled up the engines again. He felt like a knight charging into the field to do battle.

Peter Matos, like most military men who were not born in the continental United States, was more loyal, more patriotic, more enthusiastic than the native-born Americans. He had noticed this right from the beginning. Wherever the flags of the American military had flown--Germany, Guam, the Canal Zone, the Philippines--young men had rallied to those flags. There was also the Cuban officer subculture, the Mexicans, the Canadians, and others who saw the American armed forces as more than a military organization, more than a necessary expense, or just an organization you sent your tax money to, but never your sons. To men like Pedro Matos, who came out of the most abject poverty that his homeland, Puerto Rico, had to offer, the military was home, family, friends, life itself.

Matos worked hard at his duties, studied his manuals, watched what he said, never bucked the chain of command, expressed opinions only when asked, and carried out all orders with enthusiasm and without hesitation. Outwardly, he was sure he was getting it all right, but inwardly, he prayed to San Geronimo that he wouldn't be passed over for promotion. One pass-over could mean the end of his military career, especially in a peacetime Navy.

Loomis's voice jarred him out of his reverie. "Navy three-four-seven, do you have target acquisition?"

Matos glanced down at his radar screen. "Negative, Homeplate."

"Roger, Navy. Keep us informed."

"Will do." Matos kept an eye on the radar screen as he let his mind drift back to the larger problems. Matos was certain that the results of this test would determine how the rest of his life would run. The test was secret. That much he was told. It was also illegal. That much he had figured out for himself. What he could not figure out was why they had chosen him to fire this missile.

The new AIM-63X Phoenix missiles rode on the belly mounts of his F-18. For this test, the missiles were fitted with dummy warheads of stainless steel and titanium, and the target was a supersonic military drone launched several hundred miles away by a Navy C-130 Hercules turboprop. Except for those facts, thought Matos, he could have been aiming a pair of live missiles at an attacking Tupolev bomber or a Chinese MiG-21. Of course, both Russia and China were friends of the United States at the moment--but like most military people, Matos knew that friends like these could turn into foes in a heartbeat.

Matos glanced down at his radar screen. No target yet. Today's mission was a maximum-range exercise to test the updated maneuverability of the new weapon. The radar's normal 200-mile range had been modified to accept a 500-mile limit. Once launched, the new Phoenix would require none of his usual follow-through guidance. His orders were to fire the first missile, wait for it to stabilize, fire the second missile, then turn 180 degrees and proceed at top speed away from the combat area. The new self-guidance system would seek out the target and continue to track it with no further assistance from Peter Matos.

Tactically, this missile was much safer for a combat pilot. Before the enemy craft knew they had been attacked, the fighter was gone. Matos wasn't sure he liked this innovation. It called for less personal skill than guiding the missile from the F-18, and it was not as… manly… as remaining in the area. Too, there was no longer even a remote possibility of seeing the hit. But none of that was his business.

He focused on the radar. An electronic blip began to track across the outer fringes of his screen. He pressed the radio button on his control stick. "Homeplate. Three-four-seven has preliminary target acquisition." His voice was cool, almost laconic. He smiled at the image of those German and Japanese pilots on the late-night movies screaming into their aircraft's radio, while the American and British pilots always sounded so bored as their craft was falling apart around their ears. Cool. "Do you copy, Homeplate?"

"Roger, three-four-seven. Preliminary target acquisition. Proceed. Out."

Lieutenant Matos punched a console button, then raised his eyes toward the firing control processor. An electronic symbol slewed to the target's blip. Matos watched the screen for a few seconds. Suddenly, another blip appeared. Matos blinked. He looked again. The second blip looked weaker and smaller. It was directly behind the first one. False image, Matos thought.Some screwy transistor or diode a tenth of a degree too warm. Something like that. He'd experienced these electronic aberrations before. So had most of the fighter pilots in his squadron. Glitches, or angels, they were called. False images. Echoes. Bounceback. Reflections from some other radar set. Reflections from the surface of the sea. Apparitions with no more substance than a vapor cloud. Vaporware, in the parlance of modern-day computer-speak.

Matos pressed a button on his console. He twisted a knob to adjust the screen's resolution setting. The aft target began to fade. Then it disappeared. It appeared to have merged with the original, stronger blip, which he was certain was the target. He pressed his radio talk button. "Homeplate, Navy three-four-seven has the target in good resolution. Distance is four hundred and eighty miles. Over."

Loomis's voice was flat, neutral, like every radio operator's in the military. "Roger, three-four-seven."

Matos hesitated. He thought about mentioning the glitch, but decided against it. If there was one thing they didn't want to hear about, it was nonexistent problems. He looked back at the radar screen. Good target. He flipped a safety switch, then lifted a cover that guarded the firing trigger. He was about to fire the longest air-to-air missile shot ever attempted. He pressed his radio button. "Fire number one." He waited a second, took a deep breath, then pressed the triggering button.

The AIM-63X Phoenix missile dropped away from the F-18's supporting structure. For a brief moment the missile appeared dormant as an electronic delaying device allowed the weapon to clear itself from any potential conflict with Matos's aircraft. When the proper interval had passed, a microvolt was internally induced. Flowing down a maze of printed circuit boards, the current reached its goal--the proper solenoids were activated and the rocket engine was ignited.

A stream of orange flame roared out of the Phoenix's tailpipe. Within seconds the missile accelerated to twice the speed of the F-18.

Matos saw the missile streak off. He was about to begin the launch sequence for the second Phoenix. He glanced down at his radar screen. The target had again split into two images.Two targets. Matos pressed the console resolution buttons. No change. He pressed them again. Still the same. Two distinct targets. If one was the target drone, what was the other one? Jesus Christ. The self-guided missile that he had already launched was completely out of his control.

The Phoenix's self-guiding system was working on the problem. The conflict between the two electronic images presented the missile with a quandary. In keeping with a logic and priority array that had been formulated in a conference room thousands of miles away, a trickle of voltage moved down yet another decisive path. The AIM-63X Phoenix with its enhanced tracking and maneuverability, made a slight adjustment in its course. It steered toward the larger of the two targets.

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