Aboard SeaAir 122, in flight, over the Gulf of Mexico, 180 miles southwest of Tampa, Florida 11:43 A.M. local/1643 Zulu
Karen Briant suppressed a smile as she watched Jim Olson struggle. His athletic body was stretched to its six-foot limit, his jeans just inches from her face as he stood on tiptoe and yanked again at the door of the overhead compartment. It opened at last, and she heard him unzip his carry-on bag and rummage around. He grunted with satisfaction and reclosed the bag before looking down at her.
"Good. I feel better now," he said, snapping the compartment shut.
"And what, exactly," she began as he slid back into the window seat, "were you afraid you'd forgotten, Sir?" She ruffled her shoulder-length auburn hair and looked at him with mock suspicion. "Not another self-indulgent gift from Victoria's Secret, I hope?" Another bikini would be too much. She was already feeling overexposed in the revealing sundress that he'd bought for her.
He smirked and shook his head in response as he scanned the right wing of the huge three-engine Boeing/McDonnell-Douglas MD-11 jetliner, noting the towering cumulus clouds in the distance. He turned back to her sparkling green eyes, his laugh coming easily. It was a feature of him she particularly treasured.
"Not important, young lady," he said, tuning out a routine PA announcement.
"Sure it's important!" Karen coaxed. "When I agree to spend a week in the Canary Islands with a man, I want to make sure he's got the right stuff."
"How do you mean, 'right stuff'?" Jim asked, raising his eyebrows.
"Well, you're a pilot, and pilots are supposed to pack the right stuff, right?"
"I'm an airline pilot, not Chuck Yeager."
"Maybe that's not the 'stuff' I'm talking about. You obviously have something in that bag up there you were worried about leaving."
"And now I'm not," Jim said, suppressing the urge to give her the engagement ring now as he rode the small wave of relief that he hadn't left it back in Houston.
No, he cautioned himself. It all depends on this week together.
He had to be sure.
She squeezed his hand and chuckled as Jim looked out the window, mentally calculating the distance to the line of 60,000-foot-high cumulonimbus clouds towering over the Gulf of Mexico to the north of the jetliner's course. He wondered what the pilots were seeing on radar. The small but vicious hurricane north of that line was threatening New Orleans, but they should slip safely to the south of it-according to his check of the weather map a few hours ago.
Relax, for crying out loud! Jim told himself. This isn't even your airline! Besides, we're on vacation. They can handle it just fine without me.
He squeezed Karen's hand in return, breathing in the soft hint of her perfume and letting a warm tingle of anticipation wash over him.
This was going to be a wonderful week.
Key West Naval Air Station, Florida 11:43 A.M. local/1643 Zulu
Retired Chief Master Sergeant Rafe Jones looked up from the complex instruments of the mobile test van he operated under civilian contract for the Air Force. He squinted through his sunglasses, trying to focus on the aging F-106 fighter/interceptor as it sat at the far end of the runway, its image undulating in the heat, waiting for his remote control team to start the takeoff.
Rafe took a deep breath, savoring the signature aroma of the Gulf of Mexico wafting in on a hint of fresh salt air, the heat a balmy pleasure. He double-checked the data link between the mobile control van and the aircraft, satisfied it was steady on all channels. His mouth was dry again, and not for want of water. This was the part that always unnerved him: launching a full-sized pilotless airplane over a populated area with nothing to keep it safe but a data stream of radioed commands. Sometimes the F-106 target drones his team operated carried a live Air Force safety pilot, but today only a dummy crammed full of sensors occupied the cockpit.
Reprinted from Blackout by John J. Nance by permission of Putnam Pub. Group, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 by John J. Nance. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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No Man's Land
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