"Commander Rabb? There's a ship-to-shore call for you."
Surrounded by his old squadron mates, Harmon Rabb, Jr. looked up from his coffee to find a perky young petty officer standing at the doorway to the pilot's wardroom. "You can take it there if you'd like, sir." She waved toward the black and gray phone bolted to the wardroom wall.
Harm nodded. "Thank you, Petty Officer."
The girl nodded and disappeared. Harm shook his head. "How old was that sailor?" he asked Skates, who was seated to his left. "Fourteen?"
Skates laughed. "Try twenty, Hammer. You're getting old."
Harm flashed her a wounded look before standing to answer his call. He picked up the phone. "Commander Rabb."
"Hey, sailor." Mac's rich contralto came across the line, bringing an immediate smile to his face. "You having fun showing the young punks how it's done?"
Harm had to laugh. "Geez, what is this? Pick on the old man day?"
"Why? Is Skates giving you trouble?"
He cut a glance at the newly-pinned lieutenant commander, raising his eyebrows when she noticed his gaze. "Nothing I can't handle."
Skates stuck out her tongue at him as Mac laughed. "Listen, I've only got a couple of minutes before my flight leaves." In the background, a cultured female voice made an announcement over some kind of loudspeaker.
Harm blinked. "Mac, where are you?"
She chuckled at his surprise. "London. I had to scramble to make the flight out of Riyadh so I didn't have time to call. Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that I'm headed home."
"Your investigation wrapped up already? I'm impressed, Marine." Mac had been sent to Riyadh two weeks earlier to assist with the investigation into an incident involving a Syrian fighter that had nearly collided with the U.S.S. Coral Sea. The carrier had shot it down with its Phalanx 20mm guns less than three hundred yards from the hull. The Syrian government claimed it was an accident, their own government suspected the attack was deliberate but didn't know whether it was the pilot acting on his own or at his government's instruction, and the intelligence community continued to track possible terrorist connections.
"Yeah, pretty much."
"Conclusion?" Harm didn't try to hide his interest. Though Syria wasn't technically an enemy of the United States, the countries were far from friendly. Skirmishes happened, most often between aerial assets, and each, though a minor event on the larger scale, was quite immediate for those in the cockpit. The fighter pilot in Harm wanted to know everything he could about the potential threat.
Mac sighed. "There's no evidence the Syrian pilot was acting on any initiative but his own when he dove toward the Coral Sea. He might have had orders and he might not have. I doubt we'll ever know."
Harm leaned his shoulder against the cool metal of the wardroom wall. "You ruled out any kind of technical problem with his aircraft?"
"He never signaled an emergency. His flight profile didn't seem to suggest it, either." She paused, her voice turning somber. "Makes me glad you're not out in the Gulf right now."
Invisible to her, Harm shook his head. But he knew better than to argue the point. "Yeah, I'm sure things are a little crazy out there." He decided to change the subject. "Hey, what's your flight information?"
Her voice took on a distinct I'm-a-Marine tone. "You don't need to have someone meet me at the airport, Harm. I can take a cab."
"That wasn't what I was thinking at all," he protested. And he hadn't been. He wasn't nearly as overprotective as Mac seemed to think. Mostly, he asked questions to make sure she'd thought about her own needs or her safety, whichever was appropriate to the situation. As long as she took sensible precautions, Mac could generally take care of herself. He brought his thoughts back to the topic at hand. "I'm going to be going up in about—" He checked his watch. "—nine hours, so I'll probably have your aircraft on my radar, at least for a little while."
"And I'll bet you think that's romantic." The laughter was back in her voice. "Oh, all right. I'm on United Airlines Flight 958. It's a straight-through from Heathrow to Dulles." She paused. "There's the boarding call. I've got to go."
"Have a good flight," Harm told her. "I'll see you in about nine hours."
She chuckled. "And I guess I'll see you when you get back to D.C."
He started to hang up the phone when her voice stopped him. "Harm?"
He put the phone back to his ear. "Yeah?"
"Good luck on your quals." Her voice was quiet and deadly serious.
He smiled a touch sadly. Mac was never going to forgive herself for that. "Thanks." He forced himself to adopt a light tone. "Stop worrying, Marine. Nothing's going to happen."
Mac's confident persona snapped back into place. She laughed, the sound full of warm affection. "Famous last words, Butch. Just be careful."
Harm hung the phone back in its cradle then went to rejoin the group at
Unfortunately, sleep eluded her. It wasn't hard to figure out why, either.
He's not even flying right now! Frustrated with herself, Mac sat up. She
glanced past the businessman to look out the window. Pure, almost stark
sunlight reflected off wispy clouds far below. Despite Harm's voice in
her head telling her she shouldn't get out of her seat unless she had
to, she decided to take a short walk around the airplane. The Boeing 747
was outfitted in a standard two-class configuration, which allowed her
to roam nearly the entire length of the passenger cabin. She stood and
stepped past the kid with the headphones who barely noticed her passage.
Straightening her uniform, she headed forward.
"What in the—?" Petty Officer Third Class Joey Davidson stared at his equipment, startled.
"What is it, petty officer?" The operations officer, Lieutenant Commander Benson McCollum, looked over at him.
"Sir, a commercial airplane just disappeared off my scope."
A frown forming between his brows, the commander walked over to where Davidson sat. He looked over the younger man's shoulder at the air plot, which displayed the position and heading of every aircraft in the carrier group's air-defense area. At the moment, that area eclipsed one of the commercial lanes crossing the Atlantic, adding nearly two dozen aircraft to the petty officer's display. Unbeknownst to the airline pilots, the Navy often used those aircraft as opportune targets for their various armament systems. Better to chase a real—if innocent and friendly—target than one conjured by a computer's imagination.
"What was it?"
"United Airlines 747, sir. It was right there." Davidson indicated the proper position on the screen with his grease pencil.
McCollum frowned. "Could they have lost their transponder? What does radar say?"
Davidson turned his attention to the traditional green scope. It was simple radar, most often used for weather determination, rather than the more sophisticated infrared systems used for the ship's targeting systems. However, it would tell them if there was still an airplane where one was supposed to be.
The petty officer frowned. "It's pretty crowded up there, sir, but it
looks like that's our 747." He tapped an innocuous-looking dot.
"For my diabetes," he told her in heavily accented English.
She quickly returned her attention to her magazine as if embarrassed to
be caught watching.
Next to her, the businessman continued to snore as he had for the last three hours. The kid on her far side had his eyes closed, music still pounding, but his only reaction was to raise one hand to scratch his nose before letting it fall back into his lap.
Closing the magazine, Mac looked around, keeping the motion casual with an effort. People sat in their seats, unaware and unconcerned. The in-flight movie played silently on a screen mounted to the cabin divider. Somewhere a young child cried, a lackluster wail born of discomfort and exhaustion.
Quietly excusing herself, Mac rose and stepped past her row mates into the aisle. She brushed at the wrinkles marring her uniform skirt as she looked around. A flight attendant stood near the forward divider, bent over as she talked with a passenger. Mac was just about to take a step in that direction when something caught her attention.
The man in the window seat in the row ahead of hers was holding a syringe. That fact alone didn't immediately strike her as a threat, but it was an oddity that required explanation. She turned to look more closely, and her eyes immediately picked out the irregular outline of what looked like a melted hole in the window. No, not the window—the plastic inner pane. The real window appeared to be slagging under some kind of chemical assault.
The man holding the syringe looked up at Mac. For an instant their eyes met. A cold hand of fear touched her spine. She'd seen his expression before, in the eyes of men who were about to die, and who welcomed it.
"Stop!" Mac lunged for the man's arm. As if in slow motion, she saw a smile flicker across his face as his thumb drove the syringe's plunger the rest of the way down. Liquid squirted onto the bubbling glass.
Mac's hand closed on his wrist. Off balance, she yanked his arm back, causing the last few drops of the chemical to splatter across both their hands. One droplet struck Mac like a heavy-gauge needle being driven into the bone. She reared back with a cry of pain.
Beside the man, the chemical completed its job as the first tiny hole appeared in the oval-shaped window. Unable to withstand the pressure differential, the glass filled with spidery cracks then exploded outward in a cloud of shards.
In an instant, the interior of the aircraft became a maelstrom.
"Cabin depressurization," his co-pilot, a capable Brit named Carl St. James, reported as he grabbed the emergency oxygen mask and fitted it over his nose and mouth.
Several staccato thuds shook the cockpit wall behind them. The two men exchanged alarmed looks. The blowout panels were designed to help relieve a sudden pressure differential between the cockpit and cabin, which meant they had a real—and severe—depressurization in the passenger area.
Carl grabbed the yoke. "My airplane."
Andy released the controls as the co-pilot initiated an emergency
descent. Carl shoved the yokes forward, sending the aircraft into a
steep, curving dive. They were cruising at 38,000 feet, which meant the
passengers would be unconscious from lack of oxygen in less than a
minute if they didn't drastically reduce their altitude. Andy was
already starting to feel a little dizzy. He grabbed his own emergency
mask, but the plastic seemed to have a life of its own. It slipped out
of his fingers, tumbling to the floor beside his chair. Groaning, his
head swimming, Andy bent down to retrieve it.
"Sir, the aircraft is deviating from its flight path." Petty Officer Davidson looked up at the Operations Officer, real alarm on his face. "They're losing altitude fast."
"Bearing?" Commander McCollum demanded. A commercial aircraft falling out of the sky was a bad thing.
Davidson looked at his instruments. "Bearing is one-niner-zero."
McCollum stared at the radarman as a cold hand squeezed his stomach. They're headed straight for us. "Are you sure, petty officer?"
He watched as Davidson double-checked. "Yes, sir."
Swearing to himself, McCollum grabbed the radio off the wall. "This is Commander McCollum in CIC. Get me the bridge," he told the com officer on the other end of the line.
"What's going on, Commander?" The ship's XO, Commander Ernest Ballantine, came on the line a couple of seconds later.
"Sir, we've got a commercial aircraft headed toward the battle group. It changed bearings a few seconds ago and has gone into a steep dive."
"Sir! Sir!" Davidson shouted from behind him. "It's not the 747. Target is now squawking a Syrian ident."
McCollum whirled to look at the Davidson, whose eyes had gone wide with horror. "It's a MiG, sir."
McCollum didn't waste any time trying to figure out how a Syrian fighter had gotten within five hundred miles of the American coast. The fact was, it was there.
What happened to the 747? a dreadful voice in his head asked.
He didn't have time to wonder, though. "SM-2s on line," he directed. Distantly, he heard the grinding whir as the MK 41 Vertical Launch System became active, elevating the missile launchers.
"I'm on my way," the XO said into Commander McCollum's ear.
McCollum hung the radio back on its hook, his eyes riveted to the screens that filled the small CIC.
"Target acquired," the fire controlman reported from his station.
McCollum spared a glance for the young seaman manning the radios. "Adjibli! Any chatter from United Airlines Flight 958?"
The seaman, whose skin was the darkest McCollum had ever encountered,
glanced up at him. "No, sir. Nothing yet." His expression said that he,
too, wondered if they would hear from the aircraft ever again.
The shooter flashed him the signal that all was good, so Harm pushed the throttles forward. The roar of the Tomcat's two engines enveloped him, vibrating the entire aircraft and making him grin. A moment later, the cat officer saluted. Harm returned the salute and turned his gaze forward. The cat officer knelt on the tarmac, touched the deck then pointed down the bow. At that signal, the launch button was struck and the catapult immediately began to fill with steam.
With a snap that hurled them from zero to 130 knots in two seconds, the cat launched them off the bow. Harm raised the landing gear as the CAG's voice filled his ears.
"Commander, an aircraft identifying itself as a Syrian MiG 29 just entered our airspace. It has initiated a powered dive toward the battle group."
Harm didn't have time to be surprised by the sudden change in his mission.
"I've got him on radar," Skates reported over the cockpit mike. "Turn on heading three-zero-zero to intercept."
Harm did so, knowing his wingman—who happened to be Tuna this time around—was doing the same. Together the two fighters raced toward the oncoming threat.
"ROE?" Harm asked the CAG.
Captain Pike's voice was grim. "If it gets within a half mile of any American ship, kill it."
Just then, Harm saw the telltale bloom of fire coming from one of their cruisers—the Vella Gulf—as two missiles powered into the air on billowing columns of smoke.
"Vella Gulf is firing," Skates reported.
Automatically, Harm's gaze jumped ahead of the missiles' flight path, searching for their target, and his. His aircraft was closing the distance faster than the newly launched missiles, and as they climbed his eyes picked out a hint of silver that quickly resolved itself into the distant shape of an aircraft. His heart froze as he recognized the distinctive humpbacked shape of a Boeing 747.
"Abort missile!" he yelled into his mike. "Target is friendly! I repeat, target is friendly!"
The two missiles arced up behind the commercial aircraft, closing the
distance in the blink of an eye. Harm heard the command to abort being
echoed across the communication channels, but it was too late. He
watched in horror as the first missile slammed into the outboard engine
on the 747's port side. The wing was engulfed in a brilliant ball of
flame as the engine and the outer portion of the wing disintegrated. The
second missile, a few seconds behind the first, exploded just shy of the
starboard wing. The 747 staggered.
The captain of United Airlines Flight 958 had finally managed to get his oxygen mask into place. The dizziness was receding, and he had just about decided he was coherent enough to radio Dulles Tower to let them know what was happening when the aircraft shook violently.
The two pilots shared a brief, frightened stare. "Explosion," Andy breathed.
In its wake the control panel lit up like a Christmas tree—Number 1 engine failure, outboard aileron, hydraulics and a half dozen other major warning lights went red. Audible alarms started blaring, creating a cacophony. As Andy watched, the Number 2 engine failure light winked on.
"We've lost the 1 and 2 engines," he told the co-pilot. "Shutting off fuel." He reached for the appropriate controls.
Carl nodded, his attention focused on his instruments as he fought to control the airplane. "I've got full rudder in to compensate." Both men were well aware that the decompression and the sudden cascade of major system failures probably meant their aircraft was coming apart mid air. The strain of holding the rudder pedal down showed in the co-pilot's voice. The pedal forces required for extreme rudder travel were high as a safety precaution, and with their current speed, he was using pure muscle to keep the rudder at the blow down position. "We need to slow down."
Another jolt shook them, adding a new set of alarms to the mix. "Number 4 engine failure." Carl swore as the airplane began to roll. He backed off on the rudder, concentrating on the feel of the airplane to cue him.
"Bringing the nose up," Andy told him as he grabbed the yoke. The airplane was still descending. The altimeter scrolled through ten thousand feet. "Come on, baby," he coaxed the 747 as he pulled back on the yoke.
Shuddering, the grand dame of the skies slowly responded. "We're losing hydraulic pressure," Andy said. The controls were mushy. They were also still sinking, though their descent rate had dropped to a mere seventy feet per minute. The airframe continued to vibrate, a jarring rattle that told both pilots their aerodynamic shape had been altered in some fashion. But, slowly, the situation stabilized and Andy began to hope that they'd be able to keep Flight 958 in the air.
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