Out above the ocean, the aircraft swung low, below the clouds, and banked to a new heading—away from the security of UN-controlled territory, and into the hazardous and uncertain north. For Major Will Boone, Army Special Operations, the trip had been long and hard enough already without adding danger to the mix. He was too tall to be a jet jockey—assuming that he would ever have wanted to do something that stupid—and in any case the FA-16 wasn’t designed to carry passengers. He’d spent the journey so far crammed into the jump seat behind the pilot, with his knees up around his ears.The voice of the pilot came over the audio link in Boone’s flight helmet. “Stand by. We’re about to enter the hot zone.”Not long now, Boone thought. As always, he felt a surge of adrenaline, combined this time with sheer relief at the prospect of finally getting out of his uncomfortable seat.
The heads-up display in the fighter’s cockpit showed a trace of color forward—false color, Boone knew, computer generated and projected on the inside surface of the cockpit bubble. With the FA-16 shrieking along at 1.2 times the speed of sound, the symbolic images didn’t take long to differentiate. One of the blobs of color morphed into a blue wall beginning a little above the water’s surface.
“What’s that up ahead?” Boone asked.
“Blue’s for sensors,” the pilot said. “Things that show up in blue can’t hurt us themselves, but they’ll get the word out to people who can. That one there’s a patrol boat with SUREPAVE radars.”
“What’s the usual procedure?”
“If we duck down under, we can get detected by Mark 1 Mod 3 eyeballs anyway, plus our fuel efficiency goes straight to hell. So we’re going through.”
“Damn straight. Countermeasures, stand by, deploy.” The pilot turned a switch on the control panel, and the blue wall in the heads-up display faded to perhaps half its previous intensity, becoming a pale blue mist. The pilot continued talking himself through the checklist. “Stand by, flares. Stand by, execute.”
A thump, more felt than heard, sounded from the after part of FA-16’s airframe. A hole of clear air appeared in the center of the misty blue wall, dead ahead of the aircraft.
“Hey diddle diddle, right up the middle.” The pilot goosed the throttles to zip through the apparent hole before it closed. “And here we are.”
Low and green—true green this time, and not a projected image—the China coast appeared on the horizon beyond the cockpit bubble. At almost the same time, a host of red shapes popped up in the false color display: inverted cones, bright red at the bottom point and diminishing in intensity as they grew wider; scarlet mushrooms hovering just above the ground; and an assortment of crimson trees, spider-webs, and pillars, all mixed in with more blue sensor images. Where the red images overlapped the blue ones, the color was purple to magenta.
“Party time,” the pilot said. He sounded almost happy—more proof, Boone decided, that all zoomies were crazy. “All those red shapes are things that can hurt us.”
“What exactly are we looking at?”
“A regular mixed fruit cocktail. The upside-down cones over there are gun emplacements. Max range at the wide end of the cone, max accuracy at the point. The mushroom shapes are missile launchers. Those are hazardous to your health everywhere inside their lock-on zone, but a good pilot can take you down under the mushroom cap, below the minimum lock-on range.”
“And you’re a good pilot.”
“That’s what they tell me.”
“What’s yellow?” Boone asked, as the pilot slewed around the trunk of a red tree, impossibly high.
“Command and control. Their comms systems. Want to have some fun?”
“I want to carry out my orders,” Boone said. He didn’t know what a jet jockey might consider “fun” under the circumstances, and he didn’t want to find out.
“Understood. Deliver you to CommOps, say adios.”
They banked hard right, then left, to slalom around two more red pillars. Abruptly, on the heads-up, a wall appeared dead ahead—a dark red-purple wall, covered with yellow vines. It stretched from horizon to horizon on either side, and rose up from the bottom of the display to vanish out of sight overhead.
“The Great Wall of China, coming up,” said the pilot. “Hold on to your ass.”
Boone didn’t feel an answer was needed. The wall got nearer and nearer. It must be huge, he thought, for the approach to take so long. In the seat ahead, the pilot was talking his way through another checklist.
“Stand by flares. Stand by ACM. Stand by PCM. On four. Three. Two. One. Execute, execute, execute. Afterburner, engage.”
Boone felt himself pushed back into his seat as the FA-16’s afterburners dumped raw jet fuel into the tailpipe. Then the horizon scrolled up, and Will’s stomach hit the back of his throat. The pilot pushed down into a steep dive, trading altitude for speed.
In the heads-up display, orange lines rose from the surface, and white lines streaked down from overhead. Black balls appeared in the matrix of the wall.
“Target zones. Gotta stay out of them,” the pilot said, his voice very calm.
He twisted and yawed left, putting the aircraft into a sideslip to ease around something that appeared in the heads-up display as a black cylinder. The unknown object slid below the FA-16’s starboard wingtip. Without warning, the black cylinder filled with white light, and the plane shuddered in the grip of a shock wave.
“That white stuff was real,” the pilot said. Then, “Dammit.”
A black ball had appeared ahead of them in the display. There was no room to turn right or left, no way to climb above the ball or dive below it.
“Missile lock, trace, fire,” the pilot chanted, like a man reciting a prayer. A double thump sounded—coming from under the wings this time. Two streaks of light shot away forward, then zoomed up to intercept one of the white lines falling down from above. A moment later, they entered the black ball, and the heads-up display greyed out in every direction. In short order came a blast, a shock, and the unmistakable feeling of metal fragments hitting the airframe.
“Close but no cigar,” the pilot said. He was flipping switches, turning new-burning red lights on the control panel back to green. The grey-out vanished.
Then they were out of the magenta wall, and facing only red mushrooms and inverted cones. The aircraft was still doing a roller-coaster imitation, banking and twisting around the 3-D projections. A red pillar appeared before them as a new weapons system came on line. With a stomach-twisting maneuver, the pilot avoided that threat as well.
Then a new color appeared in the display: a pure emerald green, overlying the mottled grey-green of the natural landscape.
“Friendlies, ahead,” the pilot said. “Into the slot, and we’re home.” He keyed up the recognition routine, and the green began to flash. “They’re expecting us.”
Then the red markers were all astern, and they were in a green wedge, flying down to an airstrip deep in the Chinese hinterland. The touchdown was fast, smooth, and professional. Once the FA-16 was on the hardstand, its canopy opened. Will and the pilot descended a ladder that the ground crew rolled up. As an aircrewman led them both away, Boone glanced back at the plane. Its port wing had a half-moon shape chewed out of the trailing control surface. That near miss had been pretty near.
The base itself was nothing special—a huddle of drab-colored prefab buildings inside a chain-link perimeter fence surmounted with barbed wire. Boone had seen a dozen or more like it over the course of his Army career. It existed to service the airstrip, and to house on a temporary basis the men and materiel passing through the base to points further in-country. Once conflict in the area died down, the whole setup could be dismantled almost overnight, and shipped back to the States as containerized cargo.
At base ops, Boone saluted the officer of the day and presented his orders. The officer of the day looked over the orders, then looked at Boone.
“So you’re the SpecOps guy?”
“We were told to expect you. Well, here’s the drill. Word is that Dog Company is in trouble, and you’re the poor SOB who’s going to pull them out.”
“A simple extraction?”
“Extraction, yes. Simple—remains to be seen. They were last heard from out past the Kush, no word since.”
“Three weeks? They could be anywhere by now.”
“That’s why you’re here,” the officer said. “You’re supposed to be some kind of hot operator. Well then, hotshot, operate.”
Boone suppressed a sigh. “Give me as much intel as you’ve got, then.”
“Come to the sitrep briefing at fifteen hundred and you’ll get all the intel we have. Meanwhile, we have space for you in the Bachelor Officers’ Quarters. Report there, and settle in. You’re not going to be going anywhere before tomorrow morning anyhow. Where’s your kit?”
“I’m wearing it.”
The officer of the day looked dubious. “Bare hands and an Army uniform?”
The last thing that Will Boone heard as he left the operations shack was the officer of the day saying to one of the techs, “More balls than brains,” before the door swung to.
When the briefing came, Will Boone wasn’t at it. Nor did the guards at the perimeter, human and electronic, see him go. Boone wasn’t above telling a fib or two, even to the duty officer at an advance base who didn’t really, when you got down to it, have the need to know. One way to elude pursuit is to disguise the time the chase begins—so when the people who were hanging around waiting to tail Boone got started on surveiling the intel hut and waiting for him to come out, Boone was already twelve hours west, dressed in a safari jacket and carrying a camcorder whose logo identified it as the property of Global News Affiliates.
Boone knew that there was no way that a man with his height and his Western features was going to blend into a predominantly Asian crowd. Instead, he’d made a virtue out of his difference. People would see him, but they wouldn’t see Will Boone, Special Ops Major; they’d see a reporter, one of dozens covering the current phase of the Sino-Indian conflict.
In a war fought primarily over the control and context of information, news reporters were valued resources for both sides, and passed freely back and forth. The guy Boone had gotten the camera from hadn’t been a GNA employee any more than Boone was, except maybe on paper. Boone suspected that he was a GRU man, from the ex-Soviet Union. A lot of them had gone into private practice when the old USSR came down, selling their expertise to anyone with a checkbook. Not that it mattered—the man had the sign, the countersign, and the goods, and that was enough.
Boone caught a train out of Tengchun, riding in the second-class compartment along with a crowd of other passengers—all the ones who could afford to buy their way out of third class, but who didn’t have enough money or clout to get themselves a private compartment up in first. He made himself as comfortable as he could, flanked by an old woman reading a Mainland Chinese paper-and-print magazine and a huddle of adolescents in quilted jackets. The teenagers had a handheld game set they were passing back and forth, with much noise and high spirits; the sight of them reminded Boone that it was time to give the folks back in DC a status report.
He pulled out his global, the combination cell-vid-phone that had made Jonathan Doors the richest man on Earth—surpassing even the titans of past centuries—and made a call. The call was going to a drop address, and the global itself was clean, but the message would reach those who needed to hear it.
“Rover is in,” he said, and broke contact. Now the people back home wouldn’t worry for a while. The simple message would serve to let them know that he was alive, not under duress, and on task.
He reviewed the mission in his mind. A few days ago, Dog Company, off in old Tibet, had started reporting anomalous data, and then had gone completely dark. Now Boone was supposed to check up on them and, if necessary, to pull their asses out of the fire.
Boone frowned slightly. The base ops guy had known the name of the extraction target. That was bad. The fewer people who knew Boone’s business, the better he liked it.
He put his global away and looked out the window. To the north, the sky was blue along a flat horizon; cultivated fields growing some kind of low green crop stretched out as far as the eye could see, dotted by a few structures—very few—situated too far off for him to tell for sure what they were.
The train swayed into a curve. Except for the teenagers, no one talked. The train was full, but the people in it had the dulled expressions of people who had been traveling too long, for reasons that they didn’t like.
Boone glanced again toward the north. What was it over there?—something out there had drawn his attention, that much he was sure of. He looked closely, trying not to stare. Staring would draw people’s attention, and that he didn’t want.
There it was. A flash in the sky, like something reflecting the sun. He judged that the flash had a about a ten degree elevation above the horizon. He put the dot of bright light into alignment beside a scratch on the window glass, and waited. Whatever the object was, it wasn’t moving relative to the train, but it was getting larger: something inbound, constant bearing, decreasing range . . .
Missiles, thought Boone. Coming this way.
—text of message sent from Kate Boone to Major William Boone via the United Nations Expeditionary Force Network (UNEF.Net)
Darling -- I saw on the news today that they were fighting in [DELETED BY UNEF.NET SECURITY BOT]. Since I don't know where you are -- the only letter I've gotten from you so far had so many security-bot auto-deletes in it, I think it was more holes than text -- I'll pretend that you're safe behind the lines in [DELETED BY UNEF.NET SECURITY BOT], drinking sake and reading other people's mission reports. I know it's going to be weeks and weeks before you get a chance to download this, since I don't think they have secure terminals over there in [DELETED BY UNEF.NET SECURITY BOT]. But I'm going to keep on writing to you just the same. That way you'll have a nice full mailbox waiting for you when you get back to sort-of-civilization. I started my new job this morning. I don't know for certain what I'm doing there -- nobody tells us data wranglers anything anymore -- but at least it's closer to home, and the new boss can't possibly be as bad to work for as the Weasel used to be. Mr. [DELETED BY UNEF.NET SECURITY BOT] definitely isn't a weasel. More like everybody's favorite uncle -- except that kindly grey-haired uncles don't have the sort of clout it takes to get their pet project assigned [DELETED BY UNEF.NET SECURITY BOT] data wranglers and a [DELETED BY UNEF.NET SECURITY BOT] full of dedicated hardware in the middle of a shooting war. So far, I like him, even if he does have more political connections than an octopus has tentacles. He lets people with friends overseas browse the UNEF open data feed during their lunch breaks. The connection at work is [DELETED BY UNEF.NET SECURITY BOT] than anything we can get at home -- [DELETED BY UNEF.NET SECURITY BOT] than anything the Weasel ever had, too. I don't know what the project did to rate that kind of a hookup. For all I know, the Octopus has [DELETED BY UNEF.NET SECURITY BOT]'s private phone number and a collection of blackmail photos. In the meantime, you can amuse yourself by envisioning me wrestling with the Octopus's data. I still don't know where it all comes from. Some of it's government-generated material, I can follow a trail well enough to see that, but a lot of it is private-sector stuff. Expensive stuff, too. I always thought that [DELETED BY UNEF.NET SECURITY BOT] and [DELETED BY UNEF.NET SECURITY BOT] refused to sell their proprietary data to anyone, period. The Octopus must have a budget big enough to buy half of [DELETED BY UNEF.NET SECURITY BOT] -- either that, or he knows where to go for really good freelance data-acquisition. Anyhow, starting the new job was the high point of my week so far. First runner-up was buying some more flowers for the yard -- the nursery is right on the way home from work. So far, though, it's been raining too hard for me to go outside and plant them, and I think I'm coming down with a cold anyway. I hope the weather is better over there in [DELETED BY UNEF.NET SECURITY BOT], or wherever you really are. Love, Kate