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       Hawx (2009), p.16

           Tom Clancy
 
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  "Cool," she said, sitting cross-legged on the bed and looking him in the eyes with the beautiful dark eyes that always sent Troy around the bend. "Hypothetical? That's like when you make up something that represents something, like testing out some theory that you suppose is true, huh?"

  Her perfect breasts looked almost better when framed by the thin, lacy bra than they did on their own.

  "Yeah that's right," Troy said. "Using you and Richard as an example, what would you think if somebody . . . like the cops, for instance . . . came to you and said that Richard was mixed up in some criminal wrongdoing at the bank?"

  "I'd ask them, 'What's that got to do with me?"'

  "And they said it was real serious and they thought he was going to do something really bad that would affect lots of people . . . people you knew and loved . . . like your family?"

  "Like if he was gonna take all the money and run off to the Bahamas, huh?"

  "Yeah, something like that."

  "Is somebody threatening your family, baby?" Yolanda asked. "If they are, I'll call my cousin, and him and his friends would kick the guy's ass."

  "Nobody's threatening my family," Troy assured her. "This is kind of a work thing . . . so what if the cops asked you to spy on Richard?"

  "You mean, be a snitch?"

  "Yeah, sort of."

  "No way I'd be a snitch for the cops, man," Yolanda explained. "You don't even rat out your enemies to the cops."

  "Even if he was gonna run off to the Bahamas with money that belonged to your family?"

  "Even if Richard was that kinda asshole, I wouldn't snitch to the cops. I'd call my cousin, y'know. I'd figure out some way to stop him so he didn't do it."

  "That's sound advice, Yo."

  "You must sure work with some assholes down there where you work," she said, stroking the stubble on his cheeks with her hand and beginning to breathe more heavily. "I sure wish you'd get another job and get your ass out of there if those people are like that. I sure wish you weren't going out of town again so soon, babe."

  Chapter 35

  Cactus Flat Air Force Auxiliary Field, Nevada

  LANDING AT MCCARRAN AIRPORT REMINDED TROY Loensch of the last time he had been in Las Vegas. Hal Coughlin was still very much alive back then, and Jenna was far more alive. A fire had burned in her deep-blue eyes in those days, and robust eagerness and excitement about life permeated her being. The last time that he saw her, her eyes seemed vacant, drained of their vibrancy by the despondency of loss, and of guilt, a guilt for which Troy held himself responsible.

  As much as he enjoyed Yolanda, the warmth of her friendship and the heat of her body, Troy felt that he had fallen in love with Jenna. Yet, while Yolanda was his for the asking, willingly and at any time, he imagined himself never seeing Jenna again, and it was tearing him up inside.

  When he was flying with Golden West, Troy had landed often at McCarran. Each time, he had shared ramp space or airspace with one of the white Boeing 737 jetliners known only as "Janet." Unmarked except for a single red stripe on each side of their fuselage, the Janet 737s were operated by Edgerton, Germeshausen, & Grier, a longtime contractor to the government agencies operating at the Nevada Test Site and the adjacent Nellis Air Force Base Range--the place the outside world knows as Area 51.

  After all the stories and tall tales about Area 51, today he had discovered that this was what the white 737s actually do. For the first time, he had not only watched a Janet taxi anonymously across the McCarran tarmac, he had boarded one.

  They had flown north, he and his fellow passengers, wearing uniforms and not, making their first stop at Groom Lake, the place where the Air Force tested the SR-71 back in the sixties and numerous other "black airplanes" in the half century since. It is here, the conspiracy buffs insist, that they still have the aliens from the 1947 Roswell crash. For Troy, Groom Lake was just another airline stop. He glanced out the window at the closed hangars, finding them so disappointingly ordinary. It was rather like Dorothy discovering that the Wizard of Oz was no big deal.

  The Groom Lake stop was like any commuter airline stop, quick and routine. About a dozen of the passengers who had gotten on at McCarran deplaned, and four people got on.

  Troy glanced up idly, watching as the new people stowed their luggage and sat down. Suddenly, there was an unexpected flicker of recognition. It was a thin man about Troy's age with short-cropped dark hair. Who was behind this vaguely familiar face?

  Aron Arnold.

  Aron Arnold from Svartvand, with whom he had dueled over the Peten jungle.

  As they made eye contact, Arnold nodded his recognition and took a seat across the aisle from Troy.

  "Aron Arnold," he said, extending his hand. "We met down in Guatemala."

  "Troy Loensch. Yes, we did meet . . . a couple of times down there. What are you doing here?"

  "Harris invited me to get involved in a special project up in Cactus Flat . . . I'm guessing that by the fact that this plane's last stop is Cactus Flat, that you and I may be headed to the same place."

  "That's probably the case," Troy said. He shouldn't have been surprised, but the irony of the easy cordiality of Aron Arnold still seemed a bit eerie. "What do you know about this program?"

  "Not much. It's about experimental aircraft, but then this whole desert out here is about mystery aircraft, both black and white."

  A half hour north of Groom Lake, Cactus Flat Air Force Auxiliary Field was much the same as Groom Lake, with clusters of low, khaki-colored buildings, some closed hangars, and a long runway. The desolate landscape in which it lay was more like Sudan than it was like Mundo Maya or Kota Bharu. Everything about this part of Nevada appears brown and monotonous. The mountains have no trees and seem virtually devoid of any perceptible vegetation, except sagebrush, which is also dull brown.

  It's a lot colder than Sudan, Troy thought as a blast of icy air hit him when he exited the door in the front of the cabin. It can be quite cold in the wintertime out in the high desert of central Nevada.

  The other passengers, mainly engineering types carrying laptops, hurried off the plane and scurried purposefully in different directions.

  "I take it by the way you're gawking around that you're the two new guys for HAWX? My name's Mike Dehnland. You must be Arnold and Loensch."

  "Must be," Troy said. "I'm Loensch, he's Arnold,"

  Dehnland, a man in his midforties with ex-military written all over him, greeted them with a firm handshake and an admonition to collect their gear and follow him. He gave them a half hour to settle in before the obligatory briefing that always comes early on one's first day at a new duty station.

  Troy found his quarters quite spartan, not unlike a cheap motel room, although the room was a cut or two above what he had endured in Sudan or at Kota Bharu. At least the walls seemed to be sealed up well enough to keep out the blowing dust.

  The briefing room was regulation U. S. Air Force issue, although all the personnel were in civilian clothes. A Firehawk logo hung on a patch of wall where you could tell by the mismatched paint color that the shield of an Air Force unit insignia had once hung there.

  "Welcome to the Flat, gentlemen, home of the 24th Test and Evaluation Squadron of the U. S. Air Force," Dehnland said, delivering what was obviously a speech he'd given to newbies before. "Until three weeks ago, the 24th was involved in the testing and evaluation of some of the most advanced high-altitude aircraft in the world. As you know, this activity has been transferred in its entirety to Firehawk, LLC. Basically, all of the facilities, operations, and most personnel remain as they were; we just wear civilian 'uniforms' to work. The 24th still exists, but only as the host unit here at Cactus Flat, and as the cover for what we do here."

  "Almost like being in the Air Force," Troy said sarcastically.

  "Almost, but not quite," Dehnland replied. "I suppose you can blame it on the president."

  "Fachearon has certainly screwed things up," Arnold said, noticing a raised eyebrow from Dehnland.
"Don't look at me like that . . . I voted for him."

  Indeed, it seemed to many that President Albert Bacon Fachearon had lost control of the government. Like a squirrel in the headlights of an oncoming car, he was vacillating, unsure which way to turn. The economy was in disarray, and Fachearon was unable to reassure the electorate. Around the world, America was facing challenges that went unhandled. Embassies had been burned, but Fachearon seemed confused, unable to respond.

  "Seemed like a nice guy," Troy interjected. "A nice guy who's not up to the job."

  "Officially, I'm still enough Air Force that I'm not gonna criticize the commander in chief," Dehnland said. "My job is with the HAWX Program. It was government . . . now it's not, but like him or not, Fachearon's still the commander in chief. Besides, it doesn't matter who's in Washington, we still have a job to do."

  "That's what we came to do," Troy said. "I have no interest in politics."

  "Your duties here will consist of operational flight testing of new equipment as it comes in," Dehnland said, changing the subject from politics. "All of the aircraft that reach us will have been through their initial flight test program at other remote locations and will be passed along to Cactus Flat when they are deemed ready for operations."

  "Are these all prototypes?" Troy asked.

  "Some are, some are not," Dehnland replied. "If a prototype got through initial flight testing with minimal tweaking, it may come here. If a prototype demonstrated a tendency to fall out of the sky during initial flight testing, DOD may decide to terminate the program or to have the manufacturer develop a completely new variant. When we get the airplanes, we know they fly. Our job is to determine whether they can fight."

  "Where are the planes that we're gonna be flying?" Arnold asked.

  "That's a good question," Dehnland replied. "I was just getting to that. Let's take a walk."

  He led them into the first of the line of hangars that flanked the Cactus Flat taxiway. The door was secured by combination lock that made it look like a bank vault.

  Inside were several aircraft of types they had never seen before.

  "In most cases, these are one-of-a-kind, although occasionally they build two for operational testing," Dehnland said.

  Closest to the door was a strange, lozenge-shaped airplane with acutely angled wings that Troy recognized as being similar to Boeing's top secret "Bird of Prey" stealth demonstrator that flew back in the 1990s.

  From here, they stepped through another door and entered the main part of the hangar, a vast room containing a huge structure that was not immediately identifiable as an airplane. On second glance, they noticed a dozen propellers and realized that this immense object was a long, straight wing.

  "This puppy is based on the aircraft that were developed for the NASA Environmental Research Aircraft and Sensor Technology program a few years back," Dehnland said proudly. "You may remember the Pathfinder and the Pathfinder Plus . . ."

  "I also remember the Helios that fell into the Pacific back in 2003," Troy interjected, referring to the follow-on development of the two aircraft that Dehnland had mentioned. Like others in the family, Helios had been a solar-powered, unmanned aircraft.

  "They ran into unexpected heavy turbulence and the Helios wing deformed into a persistent, high dihedral configuration," Dehnland explained, describing an airplane whose flexible wings were bent almost straight upward. "This obviously made it unstable and hard to control. It also put so much stress on the outer wing panels that the whole thing broke apart."

  "I'm sure glad I wasn't the pilot," Arnold said, looking up at one end of the huge wing.

  "Helios was an unmanned aerial vehicle," Dehnland reminded him.

  "I know, I was talking about the guy sitting in the trailer running the thing," Arnold said. "I bet he caught all kinds of hell for losing that airplane."

  "Not to mention the guy who decided they had to fly a fragile-looking thing like that in bad weather," Troy added.

  "We learned a lot from that crash," Dehnland said, nodding toward the aircraft. "Shakuru here has benefited a lot from the loss of Helios."

  "Shakuru?" Troy asked.

  "Helios was the sun god of ancient Greek mythology," Dehnland said. "Shakuru is the solar deity of the Pawnee Indians."

  "I take it that Shakuru is also solar powered," Troy surmised.

  "Clever deduction," Dehnland said cynically. "But unlike Helios, it carries a crew, and I bet you can deduce who they are."

  "I bet we can," Arnold said, knowing that it was he and Loensch.

  Chapter 36

  Cactus Flat Air Force Auxiliary Field, Nevada

  TROY LOENSCH AWOKE EARLY ON HIS FIRST DAY IN the desert. His mind seized on Jenna. Was she a missed opportunity, or had her interest in him been merely the same hot, but transitory attention that characterized his ongoing relationship with Yolanda Rodriguez?

  Sleep would not return to embrace him, so Troy decided to take a run. Sunrise was still an hour away, but in the east the cloudless sky had already turned a pale salmon. Most of the stars had winked out, but some of the brightest ones still burned faintly. As he ran, Troy fixed his gaze on the horizon, where tiny Mercury, the planet that people call a morning "star," still glowed bravely.

  The sun was just topping the eastern horizon as Troy was making his way back to his quarters. He passed the hangar that Mike Dehnland had shown him yesterday, and another that was surrounded by razor wire and a guard tower. How odd, he thought, to have a hangar protected in this way in the center of one of the most secure bases in the world.

  The Cactus Flat tarmac was nearly deserted, except for a woman in glasses and a baggy college sweatshirt who looked as though she too had been out for a run. Troy was about to greet her when she spoke first.

  "Up early to avoid the rattlesnakes and tarantulas?" She smiled.

  "Whoa, I hadn't thought of that," Troy replied. "Cold-blooded invertebrates," she said. "In this climate, they're dormant until the sun warms them up." "Where I've spent most of the past year," Troy said, "the bugs and snakes are up all night long."

  "Where's that?"

  "Tropics . . . mainly Southeast Asia, but I did short tours in Central America . . . and Zambia."

  "You must be one of the Firehawk pilots who came in yesterday."

  "I sure am, my name's Troy Loensch."

  "My name is Elisa Meyers," she said, taking the hand he offered. "I work for Aeroworks, on the Shakuru Project."

  She was a small woman, only about five foot five or so, with a warm, engaging presence. There were strands of gray in her dark hair, which she had tied back carelessly. Troy guessed her to be around forty.

  "How long have you been out here dodging rattlesnakes and tarantulas?" Troy asked.

  "Here? Only a couple of months, but I've been with Aeroworks for eighteen years, most of them spent at bases out in the desert . . . Yucca West . . . Groom Lake .. . and other places that officially don't have names."

  "How do you like it out here?"

  "I hated this place when I first came." She laughed. "But it grows on you . . . especially jogging in the desert before the sun comes up. There was a great writer once who said that the desert at dawn, in some mysterious way of its own, speaks of things eternal, a message whispered through the changing colors of sand and shadows of rocks, and through the air, at once fresh and seductively cool."

  "That's poetic," Troy said. "I spent a few months in Sudan a while back. Can't think of any poetry that makes that place seem appealing."

  "The desert's like the moon would look if it were brown instead of gray." Elisa Meyers smiled. "But remember what Buzz Aldrin, the Apollo Eleven Lunar Module pilot who was the second. Human to walk on the moon, said of the lunar landscape after that walk; he called it desolation, magnificent desolation."

  TROY SHOWERED, GOT A PLATE OF LINKS AND EGGS AT the mess hall, and arrived in Mike Dehnland's office with his coffee in a to-go cup.

  "Today, you go to work," Dehnland said, looking first at
Troy, then glancing at Aron Arnold, who also carried a to-go cup. "I'm going to turn you over to the Shakuru people. They'll bring you up to speed. We'll go over and I'll introduce you to Dr. Meyers; she designed the Shakuru and has been running the program."

  "Dr. Meyers? Would that be Elisa Meyers?" Troy asked.

  "Yeah, that's her," Dehnland confirmed. "Do you know her?"

  "Just met her this morning when I was coming back from my run."

  "What was she doing?"

  "Coming back from a run."

  "Do you know who she is?"

  "She didn't say she was a doctor. Said she was with Aeroworks, on the Shakuru Project."

  "Yeah, she was one of the great aviation industry whiz kids about a dozen or so years ago . . . brilliant aerodynamicist, earned her master's degree in aeronautical engineering from Caltech. Worked for NASA, got a doctorate at MIT. She was the one who first came up with the theory of a three-hundred-sixty-degree-symmetrical airframe."

  "I remember," Aron Arnold said. "That was the YF-27."

  "Yeah, somebody at MIT slipped a copy of her thesis to Dave Carlstrand, the electronics guy who was just then working with some venture capitalists to start Aeroworks."

  "Whatever happened to the YF-27?" Troy asked.

  "It was stolen by a Russian," Dehnland said. "Spectacular caper . . . got shot down over Alaska. As far as I know, they never built a second one. Dr. Meyers went on to other things."

  "Including manned, solar-powered airplanes," Troy said.

  "Which brings us here today," Dehnland said, gesturing for them to follow him.

  She was in the Shakuru hangar, talking to some people and gesturing at a wing section as the three men approached.

  "Dr. Meyers, I'd like to introduce your flight crew," Dehnland said. "This is Aron Arnold, and I guess you've met Troy Loensch."

  "Yes, we've met," Dr. Meyers said, smiling at Troy. She was still wearing her oversize sweatshirt and still had her hair tied back, but without her owlish, Coke-bottle glasses, Troy could see that she had been, and was still, an attractive woman. "You didn't tell me that you were going to be working on the Shakuru Project."

 
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