A round-faced man in a blue flight suit emerged from behind the building. "Robert Langdon?" he called. The man's voice was friendly. He had an accent Langdon couldn't place.
"That's me," Langdon said, locking his car.
"Perfect timing," the man said. "I've just landed. Follow me, please."
As they circled the building, Langdon felt tense. He was not accustomed to cryptic phone calls and secret rendezvous with strangers. Not knowing what to expect he had donned his usual classroom attire... a pair of chinos, a turtleneck, and a Harris Tweed suit jacket. As they walked, he thought about the FAX in his jacket pocket, still unable to believe the image it depicted.
The pilot seemed to sense Langdon's anxiety. "Flying's not a problem for you, is it, sir?"
"Not at all," Langdon replied. Branded corpses are a problem for me. Flying I can handle.
The man led Langdon the length of the hangar. They rounded the corner onto the runway.
Langdon stopped dead in his tracks and gaped at the aircraft parked on the tarmac. "We're riding in that?"
The man grinned. "Like it?"
Langdon stared a long moment. "Like it? What the hell is it?"
The craft before them was enormous. It was vaguely reminiscent of the Space Shuttle except that the top had been shaved off leaving it perfectly flat. Parked there on the runway, it resembled a colossal wedge. Langdon's first impression was that he must be dreaming. The vehicle looked as airworthy as a Buick. The wings were practically non-existent... just two stubby fins on the rear of the fuselage. A pair of dorsal guiders rose out of the aft section. The rest of the plane was hull... about 200 feet from front to back... no windows, nothing but hull.
"250,000 kilos fully fueled," the pilot offered like a father bragging about his newborn. "Runs on slush hydrogen. The shell's a titanium matrix with silicon carbide fibers. She packs a 20:1 thrust/weight ratio; most jets run at 7:1. The director must be in one helluva a hurry to see you. He doesn't usually send the big boy."
"This thing flies?" Langdon said.
The pilot smiled. "Oh yeah." He led Langdon across the tarmac toward the plane. "Looks kind of startling, I know, but you better get used to it. In five years, all you'll see are these babies... HSCT's... High Speed Civil Transports. Our lab's one of the first to own one."
Must be one hell of a lab, Langdon thought.
"This one's a prototype of the Boeing X-33," the pilot continued, "but there are dozens of others... the National Aero Space Plane, the Russians have Scramjet, the Brits have HOTOL. The future's here, it's just taking some time to get to the public sector. You can kiss conventional jets good-bye."
Langdon looked up warily at the craft. "I think I'd prefer a conventional jet."
The pilot motioned up the gangplank. "This way, please, Mr. Langdon. Watch your step."
Minutes later, Langdon was seated inside the empty cabin. The pilot buckled him into the front row and disappeared toward the front of the aircraft.
The cabin itself looked surprisingly like a wide-body commercial airliner. The only exception was that it had no windows, which made Langdon uneasy. He had been haunted his whole life by a mild case of claustrophobia... the vestige of a childhood incident he had never quite overcome.
Langdon's aversion to closed spaces was by no means debilitating, but it had always frustrated him. It manifested itself in subtle ways. He avoided enclosed sports like racquetball or squash, and he gladly paid a small fortune for his airy, high-ceilinged Victorian home even though economical faculty housing was readily available. Langdon had often suspected his attraction to the art world as a young boy sprang from his love of museums' wide open spaces.
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