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       Hawx (2009), p.17

           Tom Clancy
 
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  "You didn't tell me you were the doctor who invented it," Troy said, shaking her hand.

  "As you gentlemen can see, there is a similarity between Shakuru and the NASA ERAST aircraft, especially Helios," she began, gesturing at the aircraft.

  "Yeah, we were talking about Helios yesterday," Arnold said apprehensively.

  "You're thinking about the crash," she said knowingly.

  "Yeah," Arnold said warily, nodding at the huge wing. "Um, I was hoping that you had figured out how to design it so it doesn't warp into a chronic high dihedral."

  "We learned a lot from what NASA did wrong." Dr. Meyers chuckled. "This one's a spanloader, not built with a wing that's got a point-loaded distribution of mass on the same structure."

  "So it bears the load evenly across the wing," Troy added. "Like the British Zephyr solar UAV."

  "Right, and it's bigger than Helios and a lot more robust," she said. "Helios had a 247-foot wing, bigger than a C-5 or a 747, but Shakuru spans 296 feet. Helios weighed only about 1,400 pounds--it was made out of Kevlar and Styrofoam--but Shakuru weighs more than three tons, mainly in the crew support module. Helios didn't need pressurized oxygen tanks, but you will when you get up to 130,000 feet. To keep weight down, Shakuru is not equipped with ejection seats, but if you have to egress, you'll be doing so at a speed slower than what you'll find with most skydiving planes."

  "That's a lot higher than Helios, isn't it?" Troy asked.

  "The first two words in HAWX are 'High Altitude,"' Dr. Meyers said. "That's what we do here. That was the mandate when they created HAWX. Helios set an unofficial world record altitude at 96,863 feet, and executed sustained flight above 96,000 feet for extended periods. We're here to top that."

  "But one-thirty is way over the ceiling of the SR-71, even," Troy said, excited at the prospect of setting a world altitude record.

  "With solar-powered electric motors, you don't need air for combustion like you do with jets or piston engines, so there's no limit," Arnold said, emphasizing the obvious.

  "And unlike rockets, which don't need air but run out of fuel in a few minutes, solar engines never run out of fuel," Dr. Meyers added.

  "Until the sun goes down," Arnold replied.

  "You just switch to your lithium sulfur battery." She smiled.

  "Doesn't that add a whole lot to the weight?" Arnold said, scrutinizing the huge airplane.

  "Lithium sulfur has a high energy density because of the low atomic weight of lithium."

  "How high has it been flown to date?" Troy asked, thinking more and more about the idea of being part of a world record.

  "It's only had three flights, just to prove it works," Dr. Meyers said. "They got it up to twenty-eight thousand, but that's all . . . so far."

  "Well, let's crank this baby up." Troy smiled.

  "We don't actually 'crank up' an aircraft with a top speed of ninety knots," Dr. Meyers said, as though correcting a student.

  "That's . . . all?"

  "I know that you boys are used to fast jets, but as I said, the mandate under HAWX is high altitude, not necessarily high speed."

  "High altitude and high speed are not mutually exclusive," Troy interjected.

  "Certainly not," Dr. Meyers agreed, nodding toward the razor wire--enclosed hangar that Troy had noticed that morning. "The HAWX Program has some of the fastest . . . but ummm . . . enough on that topic."

  Troy and Aron Arnold exchanged glances. What was it about this high-speed aircraft that made her bite her tongue, about which a mere mention was saying too much?

  After a change of subject, a walk-around, and a close-up look at one of the solar-powered engines, Dr. Meyers led the two pilots up the scaffolding for an inspection of the cockpit. Because the Shakuru was a massive flying wing, with essentially no fuselage, the cockpit was centered on the leading edge of the wing.

  As she lit up the displays on the control panel and went through the various nuances of the operation of the aircraft, Troy noticed that the altimeter was calibrated to two hundred thousand feet.

  Chapter 37

  Cactus Flat Air Force Auxiliary Field, Nevada

  "CAN'T BELIEVE WE'RE AIRBORNE," TROY SAID AS HE felt the Shakuru lift lightly from the Cactus Flat runway.

  When you're used to flying Mach 1--plus jet fighters, an aircraft with a takeoff speed below that of a highway speed limit can be a bit disconcerting. So too was the turn radius. Although a highly maneuverable F-16 couldn't exactly turn on a dime, the expansive wingspan of the Shakuru meant that it took the contents of a sizable number of piggy banks to make a left turn.

  "Damn, this turn is slow," Aron Arnold said.

  "This is Shakuru control . . . you can't bank Shakuru like a fighter and maintain stability on a wing that size and that light." The impatient voice of Dr. Elisa Meyers crackled in the headsets of Shakuru's two crewmen. "But check your altitude."

  "Shakuru flight here, we're already at fifteen thousand."

  "That's what that big, oversize wing is good for, Shakuru flight."

  Shakuru spiraled quickly upward. The radius of their spiral was about eight miles, but for an aircraft so slow, the rate of climb amazed the two veteran pilots.

  Outside the canopy, the darkening of the sky above them was perceptible as the atmosphere thinned. They passed effortlessly through forty thousand feet, higher than most airliners routinely travel--not that there were any airliners in the controlled skies over the Nellis Air Force Base Test Range.

  "This is a real astronaut view from up here," Troy said. "Level out at eighty thousand and set a course due west," Dr. Meyers ordered.

  As they emerged from the spiral, both pilots were at an altitude higher than either of them, or most pilots, had ever experienced. The sky above was black, and the curvature of the earth below was clearly visible. The Pacific Ocean could be seen in the distance, even though the California coast was more than three hundred miles away.

  "I FEEL LIKE AN OLD MAN," TROY SAID TO THE CREW chief as he emerged from the Shakuru. It was nearly dark as they touched down after the long flight. "Guess I'm not used to sitting in one place for eleven hours."

  "That's part of what we're evaluating in these flights," Dr. Meyers said as she approached the aircraft.

  "You're evaluating joint pain?" Arnold said calmly.

  "We're evaluating the exposure of long-duration flights on the human body. With its solar power, Shakuru can stay aloft for a week. Pilots have a greater fatigue factor than the aircraft."

  "Weakest link?" Troy quipped.

  "I didn't say that," Dr. Meyers replied.

  "How was the flight?" Mike Dehnland said, arriving at the base of the ladder as Dr. Meyers began her walk-around of the big aircraft, studying each of the solar-powered engines with her halogen flashlight.

  "Totally awesome," Troy said as a ground crewman began helping him out of the super-high-altitude "space suit" such as both pilots had worn for the flight. "Except for sitting in one place for half a day in this cocoon. It was a great view from up there."

  "How did Shakuru handle?"

  "Seems pretty slow and sluggish at first," Arnold told Dehnland. "But it sure can climb."

  "That because it's light as a feather . . . comparatively .. . and all wing." Dehnland smiled. "Even in thin air up at eighty thousand, you have enough wing to keep you going."

  "Very stable up there," Troy interjected. "Although I gotta admit, I kept thinking about Helios and that wing mangling into an unstoppable dihedral."

  "There's a lot of wind under the old airfoil since that happened," Dehnland said as the three men began walking toward the building where Shakuru briefings were held. "Preventing that was one of the first mandates handed to the Shakuru design team."

  "Not to change the subject, but what's going on down there?" Arnold interjected, nodding in the direction of the hangar with the razor-wire perimeter. For the first time since he and Troy had been at the Flat, the doors were open, albeit just a few feet. Light was streaming out, an
d people were coming and going.

  "Where?" Dehnland asked.

  "There," Arnold said, this time pointing at the hangar. "That building doesn't exist," he said, turning away from the mystery hangar.

  "Then Raymond Harris doesn't exist," Troy added. "I see him down there."

  "You're welcome to ask him about it, then," Dehnland said. "In the meantime, we have a Shakuru flight to debrief."

  "ARE YOU ENJOYING BEAUTIFUL CACTUS FLAT?"

  Raymond Harris grinned as he turned from the enormous coffee urn in the Cactus Flat officers' mess. It was the first time since Troy had arrived in Nevada that the two men had come face-to-face. Harris was his usual gregarious self, but the stress lines on his face were noticeably more pronounced.

  "It's excellent," Troy said sarcastically. "Can't get enough of it . . . but we had a good view from Shakuru yesterday."

  "Isn't that Shakuru something?"

  "Yes, sir." Troy nodded, pouring himself a cup of coffee. "It's slow on the uptake, but it sure takes you up there eventually."

  "It's the near future of manned recon," Harris said. "And it's the long-term future of clandestine strike missions."

  "I had no idea that it was being planned for offensive ops. I didn't see any provisions for weapons."

  "Not yet, but that's where we're headed . . . eventually."

  "Maybe that's why I didn't see anything about weapons in the briefing papers that Dr. Meyers handed us." "There are briefing papers and there are briefing papers."

  "How so?"

  "It's all need-to-know, but there are a lot of things that Dr. Meyers isn't cleared on," Harris said, lowering his voice.

  "I thought she designed Shakuru? How is it that she doesn't know . . . ?"

  "There are two levels of need-to-know," Harris said, as though explaining gravity to a schoolboy. "There is the official level, the one that the government knows about--and the level that only Firehawk knows about."

  "If the government is the customer, and Firehawk is running the HAWX Programs for the government, why are there aspects of these programs that they don't know about?"

  "Remember why the U. S. Air Force transferred HAWX to Firehawk in the first place?" Harris asked. "To avoid nitpicking from Congress?"

  "Right. And just as there are things that the bluesuiters want obscured from the pointy heads on the Hill, there are things that Firehawk needs to keep .. . ummm . . . proprietary."

  "Secrets from the government?"

  "If you want to put it that way. In business, you never tell your clients everything. It makes you seem more useful if you're able to get things done that they don't know exactly how you got them done."

  "When were you planning to tell them that Shakuru is going to be used as a strike aircraft?"

  "You always have to hold some of your cards close to your vest," Harris explained. "It's a fluid world. Situations change. Remember Guatemala? Remember how we were at war with Svartvand BV one day, and sitting around the table with those guys the next? One day back then, you and Arnold were shooting at each other. Yesterday, you were flying as his copilot."

  "What does that have to do with--"

  "Not all the changes swing like they did in Guatemala. Sometimes your friends yesterday aren't your friends tomorrow."

  "But you're holding back from the United States government," Troy reminded him. "You don't expect to be `not friends' with them."

  "The problem is that the United States government and the United States of America aren't the same thing. Ideally, the United States government has in mind the best for the United States of America. Sometimes they don't."

  "I see," Troy said. His head was spinning. Maybe the two spooks from the CIA had been right about Harris on that awkward morning back at the Marriott Courtyard in Arlington. This was probably not a good time to change the subject to the mystery hangar.

  "I figured you did," Harris said. "You're a quick study."

  Chapter 38

  Las Vegas, Nevada

  NO WAY I'D BE A SNITCH FOR THE COPS, MAN.

  The words of Yolanda Rodriguez echoed in his head even as Troy sat in the same bar at the Palazzo where he had been with Jenna Munrough on that night so long ago.

  After two months at Cactus Flat, he had gotten a fortyeight-hour pass, and he had done as most denizens of the Flat did. He took a quick hop to Sin City on Janet for a little R& R.

  Troy had stopped into this bar, of all those on the Strip, for a drink--and for old times' sake, unsure what memories of Jenna it would bring back to him.

  Instead, the words spoken by Yolanda were crowding Jenna from his conscious thought.

  Troy had other things on his mind as well.

  After two months of listening to Harris and his cryptic comments about the U. S. government, he was ready to believe that what the CIA had told him was true.

  What should he do?

  No way I'd be a snitch for the cops, man.

  He could hear Yolanda's pleasant but emphatic words.

  What had seemed like sound advice that morning when she spoke those words seemed less and less likely to fit the circumstances. Troy found himself debating whether to cross the line and to become a snitch for the CIA.

  When he was in the U. S. Air Force, he swore his allegiance to the United States and its Constitution and its government. Was his allegiance now primarily to Fire-hawk and to Harris?

  The meeting in Arlington had not happened--the CIA men had said so. But they had also given him instructions for contacting them when--not if--he wished to not have a second meeting. Did that mean that what he was about to do was not actually happening?

  Troy asked himself why, if he was never going to use it, he had kept the number the CIA stooge had given him.

  Two drinks later, he decided.

  The bartender looked at him as though he were nuts when he asked where to find a pay phone. When he explained that his cell phone battery was dead, the guy sent him to the last surviving bank of pay phones within a quarter mile of the hotel. His battery wasn't dead, but he decided that in anything having to do with the CIA, paranoia was just common sense.

  "Nagte," the voice said.

  "Who?"

  "Nagte . . . who are you?"

  "Troy Loensch."

  "Where are you?"

  "Is there anywhere in Vegas where we can meet . . tomorrow?"

  "Stay where you are."

  TROY DID AS HE WAS TOLD. HE HUNG OUT AT THE END of the remote hallway where the pay phones were, pretending to scrutinize a piece of faux Byzantine sculpture as a handful of people came and went to and from a group of elevators down the hall.

  He watched as a woman approached. She was wearing a low-cut top, a shiny leather miniskirt, and four-inch heels.

  They made eye contact, and she smiled broadly. Could this be the local CIA handler?

  Things could be worse. Troy would not have minded being manhandled by her.

  Giving Troy a suggestive wink, she got into the elevator and was gone.

  After her, he hardly noticed two tipsy guys in Hawaiian shirts who seemed to be lost as they argued about the way back to their rooms.

  Before he knew what was happening, he found himself between them and being shuffled through the open door of the elevator.

  Inside, neither said a word to Troy until the elevator doors opened again on an upper floor.

  "This way," one said, walking briskly down a corridor.

  Troy knew the drill.

  Once inside, their tipsiness evaporated.

  "You called?"

  "Yeah," Troy said. "You guys got here in a hurry." "It's our job to stay on top of things."

  "I assume that you know who I am and where I work . . . and how I got your number?" Troy asked.

  "Yes," the first man said impatiently. As in Arlington, there was one in the pair whose job it was to do all the talking. "What do you have for us?"

  "When I met your other guys, they suggested that I keep an eye on Raymond Harris."


  "Have you?"

  "That's why I called."

  "And?"

  "Your buddies may have been right."

  "How so?"

  "At first, I didn't see anything astray about Harris," Troy explained. "As I told the other guys, Harris always seemed like a dedicated soldier . . . loyal to the United States. They said that he was going to try to use Firehawk to overthrow the United States. I told them I thought it was just paranoid bullshit."

  "You're thinking different now?"

  "Maybe . . ."

  "You're not sure?"

  "I'm sure that he's said things about Firehawk maintaining a contingency capability within the HAWX Program . . . just in case."

  "In case of what?"

  "In case the government of the United States reaches a point where it no longer has the best interests of the United States--"

  "Who decides when that is?"

  "I guess it would be Harris?" Troy postulated. "What steps has he made with regard to this contingency?"

  "How much do you know about what we do out at Cactus Flat?"

  "More than most."

  "Do you know about Shakuru, the super-highaltitude, solar-powered--"

  "Yes, we do," the CIA man said impatiently. "There have been press releases published."

  "Did you know that he's talking about an offensive capability for Shakuru?"

  "I can't see that," the man said. "It has a top speed that wouldn't even get you a ticket out here on Highway Fifty," the CIA man said dismissively.

  "But it can fly higher than any aircraft you know of that has an air-breathing engine. If anything, it's much more efficient up there with its solar cells."

  "How high?"

  "I've personally flown it above ninety thousand, and the altimeter is calibrated to two hundred thousand . . . not only that, it's stealthy because it's made mostly of plastic. Radar wouldn't be looking for anything above a hundred thousand feet and wouldn't notice it if they did."

  "That's useful to know." The CIA man nodded.

  Troy realized that he had now crossed the line. He had shared "useful" information with the CIA. He had snitched to the cops. What would Yolanda say?

  "There's also a hangar out there that I've never been inside," Troy continued. "It's surrounded by wire and heavily guarded. I've been told on a couple of occasions that it doesn't exist."

 
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