Rachel Sexton stood alone on the threshold of the isolated Wallops hangar and peered into the blackness beyond. She felt like she was on the cusp of another world. A cool and musty breeze flowed outward from the cavernous interior, as if the building were breathing.
Hello? she called out, her voice wavering slightly.
With rising trepidation, she stepped over the threshold. Her vision went blank for an instant as her eyes became accustomed to the dimness.
Ms. Sexton, I presume? a mans voice said, only yards away.
Rachel jumped, wheeling toward the sound. Yes, sir.
The hazy shape of a man approached.
As Rachels vision cleared, she found herself standing face to face with a young, stone‑jawed buck in a NASA flight suit. His body was fit and muscle‑bound, his chest bedecked with patches.
Commander Wayne Loosigian, the man said. Sorry if I startled you, maam. Its pretty dark in here. I havent had a chance to open the bay doors yet. Before Rachel could respond, the man added, It will be my honor to be your pilot this morning.
Pilot? Rachel stared at the man. I just had a pilot. Im here to see the administrator.
Yes, maam. My orders are to transport you to him immediately.
It took a moment for the statement to sink in. When it hit her, she felt a stab of deceit. Apparently, her travels were not over. Where is the administrator? Rachel demanded, wary now.
I do not have that information, the pilot replied. I will receive his coordinates after we are airborne.
Rachel sensed that the man was telling the truth. Apparently she and Director Pickering were not the only two people being kept in the dark this morning. The President was taking the issue of security very seriously, and Rachel felt embarrassed by how quickly and effortlessly the President had taken her off‑the‑grid. Half an hour in the field, and Im already stripped of all communication, and my director has no idea where I am.
Standing now before her stiff‑backed NASA pilot, Rachel had little doubt her morning plans were cast in stone. This carnival ride was leaving with Rachel onboard whether she liked it or not. The only question was where it was headed.
The pilot strode over to the wall and pressed a button. The far side of the hangar began sliding loudly to one side. Light poured in from the outside, silhouetting a large object in the center of the hangar.
Rachels mouth fell open. God help me.
There in the middle of the hangar stood a ferocious‑looking black fighter jet. It was the most streamlined aircraft Rachel had ever seen.
You are joking, she said.
Common first reaction, maam, but the F‑14 Tomcat Split‑tail is a highly proven craft.
Its a missile with wings.
The pilot led Rachel toward his craft. He motioned to the dual cockpit. Youll be riding in back.
Really? She gave him a tight smile. And here I thought you wanted me to drive.
After donning a thermal flight suit over her clothes, Rachel found herself climbing into the cockpit. Awkwardly, she wedged her hips into the narrow seat.
NASA obviously has no fat‑assed pilots, she said.
The pilot gave a grin as he helped Rachel buckle herself in. Then he slid a helmet over her head.
Well be flying pretty high, he said. Youll want oxygen. He pulled an oxygen mask from the side dash and began snapping it onto her helmet.
I can manage, Rachel said, reaching up and taking over.
Of course, maam.
Rachel fumbled with the molded mouthpiece and then finally snapped it onto her helmet. The masks fit was surprisingly awkward and uncomfortable.
The commander stared at her for a long moment, looking vaguely amused.
Is something wrong? she demanded.
Not at all, maam. He seemed to be hiding a smirk. Hack sacks are under your seat. Most people get sick their first time in a split‑tail.
I should be fine, Rachel assured him, her voice muffled by the smothering fit of the mask. Im not prone to motion sickness.
The pilot shrugged. A lot of Navy Seals say the same thing, and Ive cleaned plenty of Seal puke out of my cockpit.
She nodded weakly. Lovely.
Any questions before we go?
Rachel hesitated a moment and then tapped on the mouthpiece cutting into her chin. Its cutting off my circulation. How do you wear these things on long flights?
The pilot smiled patiently. Well, maam, we dont usually wear them upside down.
Poised at the end of the runway, engines throbbing beneath her, Rachel felt like a bullet in a gun waiting for someone to pull the trigger. When the pilot pushed the throttle forward, the Tomcats twin Lockheed 345 engines roared to life, and the entire world shook. The brakes released, and Rachel slammed backward in her seat. The jet tore down the runway and lifted off within a matter of seconds. Outside, the earth dropped away at a dizzying rate.
Rachel closed her eyes as the plane rocketed skyward. She wondered where she had gone wrong this morning. She was supposed to be at a desk writing gists. Now she was straddling a testosterone‑fueled torpedo and breathing through an oxygen mask.
By the time the Tomcat leveled out at forty‑five thousand feet, Rachel was feeling queasy. She willed herself to focus her thoughts elsewhere. Gazing down at the ocean nine miles below, Rachel felt suddenly far from home.
Up front, the pilot was talking to someone on the radio. When the conversation ended, the pilot hung up the radio, and immediately banked the Tomcat sharply left. The plane tipped almost to the vertical, and Rachel felt her stomach do a somersault. Finally, the plane leveled out again.
Rachel groaned. Thanks for the warning, hotshot.
Im sorry, maam, but Ive just been given the classified coordinates of your meeting with the administrator.
Let me guess, Rachel said. Due north?
The pilot seemed confused. How did you know that!
Rachel sighed. You gotta love these computer‑trained pilots. Its nine A.M . . . sport, and the sun is on our right. Were flying north.
There was a moment of silence from the cockpit. Yes, maam, well be traveling north this morning.
And how far north are we going?
The pilot checked the coordinates. Approximately three thousand miles.
Rachel sat bolt upright. What! She tried to picture a map, unable even to imagine what was that far north. Thats a four‑hour flight!
At our current speed, yes, the pilot said. Hold on, please.
Before Rachel could respond, the man retracted the F‑14s wings into low‑drag position. An instant later, Rachel felt herself slammed into her seat yet again as the plane shot forward as though it had been standing still. Within a minute they were cruising at almost 1,500 miles per hour.
Rachel was feeling dizzy now. As the sky tore by with blinding speed, she felt an uncontrollable wave of nausea hit her. The Presidents voice echoed faintly. I assure you, Rachel, you will not regret assisting me in this matter.
Groaning, Rachel reached for her hack sack. Never trust a politician.