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       Hawx (2009), p.1

           Tom Clancy
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Hawx (2009)


  Tom Clancy

  David Michaels


  "FALCON THREE . . . LOENSCH . . . DO YOU HAVE A shot?" Jenna Munrough shouted as she banked her F-16 away from the target. With jammed guns and both of her air-to-air missiles expended, she was out of action. Everything now depended on her wingman.

  "Gotta get a lock-on," Troy Loensch said, gritting his teeth. Hitting the Raven was like trying to hit a mouse with a hammer in a dark room. Like most recent jet fighters, the Raven had suppression systems that physically masked the heat signature of the engines. The only way to achieve the radar lock-on necessary to launch heat-seeking missiles against the stealthy aircraft was to get in directly behind it.

  As a HAWX Program bird, the Raven was fast-probably capable of something north of Mach 3--but he knew that his quarry had to slow down to below Mach 1 to deliver his deadly payload against his highest of high-value targets.

  Troy could not let this happen.

  There was no way in hell he could let this happen.

  How had it all come to this? After flying, fighting, and proving himself in four brush-fire wars, Troy had joined the HAWX Program to fly the fastest and highest-flying combat aircraft in the world. Now it had come down to his chasing and trying to kill the single fastest and highest-flying aircraft in the HAWX arsenal.

  It was the mother of all ironies, but Troy had no time to ponder the sick paradox in which he found himself. He had to kill the damned Raven.

  Troy could not let the Raven get to its target.

  There was no way in hell he could let this happen.

  As the two aircraft scissored across the Maryland landscape, Troy knew that if he could coax the other guy into maintaining his defensive turn, rather than reversing and turning the other way, he would have the opening that he sought. But this wasn't working. The other pilot could not be coaxed.

  Again and again, Troy turned and watched the other aircraft slip away.

  Gotta try something, Troy thought.

  As he got behind the other aircraft, and just before the guy reversed his turn, Troy throttled back, allowing him to stem their lateral separation and turn with the Raven.

  The two aircraft rocked and rolled, the Raven staying just a split second and a couple of degrees out of the bull's-eye in Troy's heads-up sight. He had to find that opening, that opening to a no-miss shot!

  "Lock on now!" Jenna urged. She was barely two miles away, also on afterburner and following Troy into battle.

  "Fuck it," Troy shouted. "This is it. Missiles hot!"

  "Roger, Falcon Three," Jenna confirmed, angrily wishing that her two Sidewinders had not been eluded by the Raven. "You are a go with missiles hot."

  The Sidewinder air-to-air missile had an effective range of around ten miles, but to take a no-miss shot, Troy would have to be a lot closer.

  The bad guy still had the advantage. His maneuverability options increased proportionally to his slower speed. Because he had only one vulnerable spot--straight back--any evasive action, no matter how slight, was potentially effective. He could remain on course to his target, weaving slightly, and still interrupt the F-16's lock-on.

  Troy watched his lock-on stop and start, flicker and hiccup, like a bad connection on his iPod jack.

  There was nothing he could do but put the pedal to the metal and get closer to the Raven.

  Seven miles separated the two aircraft.

  Rocking and rolling, the Raven raced onward as Troy screamed forward on full afterburner, gaining on him. Five miles.

  When? Troy sweated the decision to shoot. He was almost there. He could ride the lock-on all the way. Three miles.

  Okay, dammit, this is it.

  "Fox Two!" Troy shouted.

  He felt a slight wobble as the Sidewinder left the rail. He watched as the Raven banked hard to the left and saw the fast-moving contrail of the Sidewinder arc left.

  Chapter 1

  Northridge, California

  "I'LL GIVE YOU THREE GOOD REASONS WHY THIS IS A bad idea!" Carl Loensch growled angrily, holding up his left hand. "Count 'em."

  Of course, Troy could not count them.

  They weren't there.

  His father had left those three fingers in the sands of Kuwait a quarter century ago on the same day that Troy was born.

  Through the years that Troy was growing up, his father had almost never mentioned that day when he was with the 3rd Battalion of the 3rd Marines during the liberation of Kuwait, or the split second of cartwheeling shrapnel that maimed Carl's hand and killed his best friend.

  During those years, he knew that his father was different, but he was no less a man, no less a father for having just a single finger and thumb on that hand. It was something that was never mentioned, because there was nothing to be said. It just was what it was.

  For all those years, his father had never let his disability interfere with his life, nor with his successful career in sales with a major Southern California office supply chain--nor with the time that he spent tossing the football with Troy.

  "Count 'em!" Carl demanded.

  Troy had rarely heard his father make even a passing reference to his disability. He had never heard his father speak so angrily about it. Carl's stoicism through those years was in such stark contrast to this moment that Troy now felt his body trembling. The star wide receiver for the UCLA Bruins had never felt so caught off guard.

  "I've lived the better part of my life knowing that I went through hell on earth in that goddamn desert so my son wouldn't have to . . . ever have to . . . put on a uniform and go into a war."

  Troy could see tears streaming down his mother's face.

  For Barbara Loensch, this was one of the most awful moments of her life. It was certainly one of the worst since those terrible months just after Carl came home. She had been with Carl as he worked through his anger and pain, and she had watched him bottle it up and contain it as their baby grew into a boy. She had watched Carl reinvent himself as a good father and a better-thanaverage husband. Now, it was as though it were all coming apart.

  "Dad, I really have run out of options here," Troy tried to explain. "My life is kinda coming apart, y'know."

  "What the hell do you know about your life coming apart?" Carl shouted. "It's only a friggin' game!"

  Barbara knew that football was more than just a game to Troy. Ever since he was a little kid, tossing the ball around with his dad, you could tell there was something special. From the moment that he lettered as a freshman in high school, it seemed that everyone realized something special was about to happen when Troy Loensch stepped onto the field.

  "Well, Dad, that friggin' game was my whole life," Troy shouted. "For the past eight years, my whole life was built around that friggin' game."

  After he had gone to UCLA on a scholarship, there had been plenty of talk about Troy's NFL prospects. Last fall, there had been the visits from the scouts. The people from the Atlanta Falcons had taken the whole family to dinner at the Biltmore. The Eagles flew in to woo Barbara's only son. The Broncos came and talked about the wonders of playing in Denver, and the San Diego Chargers visited the modest Loensch home in Northridge twice.

  It seemed as though a pro career for Troy was just a matter of waiting for the formalities of the NFL draft in April.

  Then, in the blink of an eye, things changed.

  "Everything I did for those past eight friggin' years, built around that friggin' game. Now I don't have that friggin' game. The whole course of my life has changed."

  "Whose fault is that?" Carl asked angrily.

  They both knew.

  The way the course of Carl Loensch's life was irrevocably altered in Kuwait was out of his control, but Troy had done this to himself.

  If he cou
ld take it back, he would.

  In retrospect, it was an inconsequential remark, but it pissed Troy off big-time.

  Lots of punches get thrown in locker rooms. Lots of punches get thrown in locker rooms with minimal consequences. The coaches rant, but hands are reluctantly shaken and incidents are forgotten. This time, however, there was a dislocated jaw and permanent nerve damage.

  No amount of anger management counseling could take back the punch that Troy wished he had never thrown.

  No charges were filed, and nothing hit the papers about the star wide receiver's indiscretion, but the word got around. The NFL scouts never said anything, but that is the point. They said nothing. They stopped calling. The draft came and went.

  "You had that one offer . . ." Barbara said, her voice shaking a little.

  "The CFL?" Troy replied as though his mother had just cursed at him. The goddamn CFL?"

  The Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League called, but Troy refused even to consider the humiliation of playing in a second-tier league.

  "So you're too good for Canada, and you go out and throw your life away by goin' into the military?" Carl said disgustedly.

  Troy almost reminded his father that he himself had once made this same life choice over his father's objections. Once Carl had made the decision to become part of the toughest of the tough and join the Marines, there was nothing that his father could say.

  Troy almost mentioned this, but he knew that it need not be said.

  "Why don't you just get a regular job?" Carl asked.

  "It's the Air Force, Dad. It's Officer Training School. It's not like I'm joining the Army to be cannon fodder somewhere. This is something that when I get out, y'know, my job prospects are a whole lot better after being an officer . . . you know that . . . you always say that the best hires you've ever made were former officers."

  "Yeah, I know," Carl said reluctantly.

  The whole family just stood in silence. The venting was over. There was nothing more that could be said.

  Chapter 2

  Pacific Coast Highway, Seal Beach, California

  "MAYBE WE SHOULD JUST . . . Y'KNOW . . . GET MARried," Troy Loensch suggested.

  "That was the lamest proposal I could ever imagine!" Cassie Kilmer said with mock disgust that hid the real disappointment.

  It was a warm Southern California afternoon, and neither of them had any classes. Cassie had suggested that they just go take a long drive down the coast and jump into the surf for a while.

  "We've been talking about it since before--" Troy began.

  "We've been talking about it since before you decided that you were going to take off and leave me for four years." Cassie laughed, finishing his sentence.

  "You're the only one who supported my decision at all."

  "I supported your decision, big guy, because I thought it was the right thing for you at this point in your life."

  "So, does that mean you don't wanna get married?"

  "No, it just means that I don't wanna get married before you go off for four years to fly jets or whatever you do in the Air Force."

  "I thought you've been saying that you thought this was the right thing for me to do with my life?"

  "Yeah," Cassie said. "I think it's the right thing for you to do at this place in your life, but it isn't the right thing for our lives . . . right now."

  Cassie and Troy were at a crossroads in their intertwined lives. In a matter of weeks, they would both graduate from UCLA and step into a distinctly different phase in which their lives would no longer be intertwined. They had long since considered themselves a couple, and with that, there had been a comfortableness and talk of commitment, of permanence and of marriage. Yet, as much as these things were a topic of many conversations, they remained just that. Each knew that with graduation, their lives would change, and both of them wondered whether there would be a place in those changed lives for the comfortableness they had enjoyed, and the permanence they had once craved.

  "Does that mean . . . ?" Troy asked as he stopped at a red light, pushed up his sunglasses, and looked at Cassie.

  "That you wanna, y'know . . . does this mean you wanna break up?"

  "No, big guy, I don't wanna break up with you . . . It's just that I want to marry a guy and be with a guy .. . I want to not have you gone or out of town for the first four years I'm married to you. We talked about getting married when we both thought you'd sign with some franchise or other . . . y'know . . . and we'd be together somewhere."

  "Lotsa guys in the Air Force are married--"

  "I sure as hell don't wanna be living in some barracks somewhere."

  "We shoulda talked about this before you talked me into joining up."

  "I didn't talk you into joining up," Cassie said crossly. "You talked you into it. You wanted to have some purpose in life, some big way for you to shine like the star you've always been . . . I just agreed with you."

  Troy pulled the car into the parking lot at Huntington State Beach, and they both got out. He looked at Cassie as she took off her sunglasses and marveled at the way her tan torso slithered out of her T-shirt.

  "What are you staring at, big guy," Cassie asked as Troy admired her body in the skimpy, coral-colored two-piece. Even after knowing her for nearly three years and sleeping with her for almost as long, he just couldn't keep his eyes off that body.

  "You're really awesome." He smiled.

  "Don't you forget it, big guy." She winked, playfully snapping at him with her beach towel.

  She allowed him to grab her and relished the feel of those wide receiver arms as he wide-received her.

  As she rewarded his bear hug with a wet and passionate kiss, she thought about how much she would miss him. She resented not having tried harder to talk him out of joining the Air Force, but she realized that it would have been impossible. She knew, as he did, that it was a decision toward which the momentum of his life had propelled him. She also admitted to herself that it was something that could not be altered without a change in his essence that neither of them could accept.

  She wondered--as she imagined that he was wondering too--how the relationship they shared would look as it emerged from those four years.

  She gently touched his cheek and saw him start to relax. For now, though, there was only now.

  Chapter 3

  Colville National Forest

  LIEUTENANT TROY LOENSCH WAS IN THE MIDDLE OF the wilderness, seventy miles north of Spokane, Washington, and running for his life.

  Over the dozen months since he'd put his future with Cassie Kilmer on hold, his life had gone through so many twists and turns that he found it hard to remember the long-ago simpler days.

  Not that he had time to think about it. At the moment, there was no opportunity for reflection. Troy was on a slippery mountainside with a sprained wrist, a complaining companion, and an unknown number of bad guys on his trail. He was wet, cold, and hungry. During four years of football, his body had been tested and he had triumphed. But out here, there were no time-outs, no locker room, no ice chests full of Gatorade, and no steak dinner at the end of a couple of hours of exertion.

  "Man, this is awful," grumbled Lieutenant Halbert Coughlin as he stumbled up the hillside. "How far you suppose we've come?"

  Walking up a forty percent grade on wet rock and mud was bad enough, but with the tangle of brush, half the time you couldn't see where you were stepping. It seemed like there was as much slipping and falling as stepping.

  "Not far enough," Troy replied. "We gotta make the top of the ridge before dark."

  "Shit, man," Coughlin replied, looking up the slope. "I don't see how . . ."

  "We made it this far, Hal," Troy said, taking a deep breath and looking back into the spruce-choked chasm from which they had been climbing all day. "At least it's not a hot day."

  As far as the eye could see, it was a vast landscape of heavily wooded hillsides, with fog nesting in the valleys and a light drizzle blurring t
he more distant, higher mountains of the Kettle River Range.

  Over the past year, Troy had aced the Air Force Officer Qualifying Test (AFOQT), and despite being a C-plus student at UCLA, he had come through the more than three months of Officer Training School (OTS) near the top of his class--a class in which four out of five who started didn't make it out at all.

  Flight training at Laughlin AFB in Texas had gone well for Troy, who had cleared all the hurdles and qualified for a coveted slot in the track wherein fledgling pilots graduate as fledgling fighter pilots.

  Then, these fledgling fighter pilots were dropped into combat survival training at Fairchild AFB near Spokane. After a couple of days of deceptively cushy classroom work, they suddenly take you up over the Colville National Forest in a C-130, tell you to survive, and kick you out the door--and there's one more thing, you also have to evade capture by the teams of 22nd Training Squadron instructors who play the role of bad guys for the fledglings.

  The Combat Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) exercise is just as difficult as it is straightforward. All you have to do is parachute into a national forest and walk out. The not-so-easy parts include the terrain and the fact that under the best of conditions, it's a four-tofive-day hike.

  To be captured means four days of browbeating interrogation in a mock POW camp. Here, the mock bad guys from the 22nd were tasked with tormenting their captives with experiences that simulated the worst that might be inflicted upon them in a real prison camp. The point of SERE is to prepare downed pilots to be captured, but most of the people who go through it do their damnedest not to be captured.

  A lot fewer than four out of five who start actually evade capture--almost nobody ever does.

  Most get caught.

  "We better get going," Troy said. "It's gonna be dark soon."

  "Man, I just need to rest awhile longer," Hal Coughlin complained. "We been climbing this ridge all day."

  "So have they," Troy said, nodding at their unseen foe, who were somewhere below them on the slope. "And they aren't stopping for anything until they catch us. They're better equipped than us, and they know this country like the backs of their hands. They know all the shortcuts, and they probably know where we are."

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