Velocity, p.1

Velocity, page 1

 part  #1 of  Judd Bell & Corey Purchase Series

 

Velocity
 



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Velocity


  ~ * ~

  Velocity

  [Purchase & Bell 01]

  Steve Worland

  No copyright 2013 by MadMaxAU eBooks

  **

  STEELY-EYED MISSILE MAN

  (phrase)

  Place Of Origin: Houston, Texas.

  Circa: Early 1960s.

  Type: NASA slang.

  Definition: An astronaut or aerospace engineer who quickly devises an ingenious solution to a life-or-death problem while under extreme pressure.

  **

  PROLOGUE

  He’s smart and good-looking with a satisfying, desirable job. He has a wonderful girlfriend, is liked and respected at both his place of work and in the wider community, and he drives a DeLorean, his all-time favourite car. Simply, Judson Bell’s life is awesome and he couldn’t be happier about it.

  Why, just a moment ago a man randomly high-fived him. A man he didn’t even know. It happened as Judd returned to his office at Johnson Space Center. As NASA’s youngest shuttle pilot he’d been the face of its recent public-relations tour. It had been a rousing success and garnered NASA a boatload of positive press, especially the 60 Minutes piece, hence the random high-five from an enthusiastic coworker.

  So thirty-year-old Judd Bell is walking on air. Rhonda Jacolby, his partner, who’s just as smart and good-looking with the same satisfying, desirable job, is right there beside him. Around NASA they are considered the future of the space program and Judd can’t think of a single reason not to agree.

  Rhonda glances at her Seiko, turns to Judd. ‘The landing.’

  ‘Of course.’

  ‘There’s a monitor in here.’ She directs him to a nearby door, pushes it open.

  The television in Conference Room Two is already surrounded by a crowd of back-office staff. Judd and Rhonda stand behind them and watch the big Toshiba widescreen.

  On its screen a small white dot followed by an elegant comet tail rips silently across a faultless blue sky. The small white dot pulses, then splits in two.

  Judd blinks, to check his eyes aren’t playing tricks, then focuses on the screen again.

  Two white dots. No tricks.

  ‘Christ.’ The grief hits like a fist, overwhelms him. He doubles over, puts his hands on his knees.

  A woman within the small crowd says, to no one in particular, ‘Gee, that chase plane is high.’

  ‘It’s too high to be a chase plane.’

  The woman turns to Judd. ‘What is it, then?’

  He glances at her security pass. She’s a PR flack. Young, new. He doesn’t answer, just looks at Rhonda beside him. Her elegant face is stricken. She knows.

  ‘So what is it?’ The young flack’s voice betrays no sense of alarm, no hint that she may not want to hear the answer.

  ‘Debris.’ Judd says it the only way he knows how to deliver bad news. Simple and direct.

  ‘Debris?’ She still doesn’t understand.

  ‘It’s breaking up.’ He can’t believe he’s saying the words.

  ‘You’re not serious.’ The flack turns back to the screen. One of the white dots pulses again and then there are three. The crowd cries out in anguish.

  Judd runs a hand through his cropped hair, his life no longer awesome. Rhonda turns to him, her eyes wet with tears.

  After years of training they all knew the risk, but only in the abstract. No matter what they’d been told, or how often, nothing could prepare them for this. For today.

  The first of February 2003.

  The space shuttle Columbia is lost and Judd Bell’s best friend dead, 60 kilometres above Texas, sixteen minutes from home.

  **

  1

  Gerhard Krawl draws the long-handled wire-cutters from his backpack and slices into the tall chain-link fence.

  As he works he takes in the Boneyard. He’d surveilled the place for months but still found it spectacular. Row after row after row of US military aircraft, over 4000 of them, all resting in the dry desert air of Tucson, Arizona - the perfect place to dump a big lump of metal if you didn’t want it to rust.

  The Boneyard, or Aerospace Maintenance And Regeneration Center (AMARC), had been the storage location for military aircraft that were surplus to requirements since the end of World War II. Some were stripped for parts, others sliced up and sold for scrap, but most became home to rattlers and scorpions.

  Gerhard carves a large slit in the chain-link, then pulls out his iPhone. He taps the screen, sends a one-word text, then looks south down Kolb Road. The full moon illuminates a Mack truck that rumbles towards him. Headlights off, it tows a long cylindrical tanker. Gerhard points at the hole in the fence and the Mack’s air brakes hiss. It turns off the road, crunches over a small creosote bush and nudges its radiator against the opening.

  Gerhard climbs onto the driver’s step and peers into the cabin. The towering Cobbin Wiseman is behind the wheel. Beside him sits the man in charge, 56-year-old Frenchman Henri Leon. Gerhard nods to him. ‘No problems.’

  Henri signals Cobbin, who nudges the Mack through the hole in the fence, the jagged wire scraping the length of the tanker’s matte black paint. Gerhard follows it through then leaps back onto the driver’s step and grabs the side-view mirror for balance. Cobbin hits the gas and the Mack kicks up a rooster tail of dust as it accelerates.

  Henri takes in Cobbin. Always reliable, he drives the way he does everything: with a single-minded purpose. He’s not subtle, but he gets the job done.

  Henri’s eyes move to Gerhard. The jury’s still out on the young Austrian. A new addition to the Frenchman’s crew, he’s willing enough and has performed well in the simulations, but you never could tell a man’s character until you observed him under pressure. Gerhard’s future with the crew will be decided tonight.

  Henri’s eyes flick to the horizon and he sees it, allows himself a faint smile, the one his wife called the ‘Mona Lisa smile’.

  In an increasingly XS world, the giant C-5 Galaxy is unashamedly XXXL. When released in 1968 it was the biggest aircraft in the world. Still one of the largest today, it has been in service for over four decades, the backbone of the US military. Henri was twelve and playing on a beach in Guam when he first saw one. As he splashed around in the warm clear water early one morning, a Galaxy soared overhead, turning the sea black with shadow. Three minutes later there was another, then another, like clockwork all morning. In the afternoon they were back, approaching from the opposite direction, shaking the beach, searing his ears with their exquisite sound.

  It would be many years before he realised those jets had been ferrying men and supplies from Guam’s Andersen Air Force Base to the misguided folly in Vietnam. He wonders if he saw this particular plane as a boy. Henri knows it was one of the first built, delivered to the air force in September 1970, the last of the ‘A’ models to be retired. It landed at the adjacent Davis-Monthan Air Force Base earlier that afternoon, was towed to AMARC and left at this spot. Tomorrow air-force personnel planned to dismantle and inspect it to determine the life expectancy of the remaining fleet.

  The Mack pulls up beside the Galaxy’s fuselage and is swallowed by the left wing’s shadow. To the right is a small hangar. No lights on, nobody at home. Protecting thousands of acres of decommissioned aircraft, many in pieces, none airworthy, was not a US military priority. During the day there were dozens of employees at AMARC, but at night only three soldiers guarded the sprawling complex without the aid of video surveillance. Even so, Henri knows there’ll be plenty of security soon enough.

  The Frenchman checks his vintage Rolex GMT-Master, a fortieth birthday present from his wife, then turns to Cobbin and Gerhard. ‘Ten minutes.’

  They nod, no need for words. They have painstakingly rehears
ed exactly what will happen next. They each slip on their two-way radio headsets then climb out of the Mack.

  At the front of the tanker Cobbin unspools a long, thick hose that’s attached to a Masport pump. The nozzle at the other end is large and unwieldy, specifically machined for one job. Gerhard heaves the hose to his shoulder and lugs it towards an area low on the Galaxy’s fuselage above the landing gear. He tugs open the fuel cover, slides the nozzle on to the vent - and can’t get it on. Cobbin watches him struggle with it, then finally lock it down.

  Cobbin flicks a switch and the pump whirrs to life. Type A aviation fuel sloshes up the pipe into the Galaxy’s tanks. The tanker holds 34000 litres of avgas and it will take no more than eight minutes to empty it into the Galaxy. It isn’t much compared to the 195000 litres the jet carries when fully fuelled, but it’ll be enough for tonight.

  **

  Henri scales a ladder to the Galaxy’s forward-entry hatch, swings the door open and extends the built-in ladder to the ground. It’s heavy but he has no trouble with the weight.

  He draws a P7 Lenser torch from the pocket of his flight jacket, illuminates the empty 37-metre cargo bay, exactly 30 centimetres longer than the Wright brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903, then climbs the internal ladder to the flight deck and slides into the copilot’s seat. He takes in the aircraft’s controls: nothing digital here, just a sea of analogue switches, buttons and gauges. A nightmare of options if you didn’t know what you were doing. Henri knows, feels right at home, yet he has never sat in a Galaxy before. Bill Gates was rich beyond the dreams of avarice because his company had created, amongst other things, the Flight Simulator software that taught Henri how to fly this beast.

  He flicks switches, turns dials, runs through a pre-flight checklist he knows by heart. The flight deck lights up, gauges spring to life, a muted glow from above illuminates his thinning pate. He glances at his GMT-Master then speaks into his headset’s microphone. ‘How long?’

  Cobbin’s voice crackles in his ear. ‘Three minutes.’

  Behind Henri, in the walkway that connects the flight deck to the troop bay, a figure appears, silhouetted against the darkness.

  Henri swivels, a Glock pistol in hand, finger tense on the trigger - then lowers the weapon when he sees who it is. ‘You’re late.’

  ‘But I’m here.’ Kelvin Atwater slides into the pilot’s seat and they continue the pre-flight checklist in silence.

  Though outwardly impassive, Kelvin is in fact a bundle of nerves and regret. This is not how he expected his life to pan out, but then who expected to be diagnosed with inoperable prostate cancer and told they had six months to live?

  Kelvin loved being a member of the air force, loved flying this elephantine jet, but after the diagnosis he realised how little he had to show for his life of service. He’d flown for his country for over thirty years, had done everything asked of him, indirectly, by five presidents, and yet he had only $4163 to his name and a little house in Central Louisiana that, thanks to Katrina and then the GFC, was worth peanuts. So he had agreed to help the Frenchman and take the million dollars on offer - he wanted to retire in style, hopefully die somewhere in the Pacific. An island resort would be nice, a piña colada in one hand and a tanned native girl in the other, staring at a glistening ocean as the sun baked his life away.

  ‘We’re in.’ Cobbin’s voice buzzes in Henri’s ear. ‘Fuelling complete.’

  ‘Copy that.’ Henri turns to Kelvin. ‘Ready?’

  ‘As I’ll ever be.’ Kelvin triggers a sequence of switches. Far behind him the turbofans churn to life as a light shudder vibrates the cabin. His left hand eases the throttle levers forward. The engine note builds and the jet rolls.

  **

  At the Galaxy’s open hatch Gerhard pulls a large black remote control from a backpack. He extends its aerial, flicks a switch and a green LED illuminates. He presses a red button and looks back at the Mack.

  He can’t hear its starter motor over the Galaxy’s turbofans but he can see smoke blast from the exhaust stack as the diesel engine cranks to life.

  ‘Remember it’s sensitive. Don’t stall.’

  Gerhard doesn’t need Cobbin to remind him that the remote is sensitive, he built the thing. He pushes the throttle lever forward. The Mack rolls - then lurches to a stop. ‘Shit!’ It stalled.

  Cobbin throws Gerhard a dark look. The Austrian ignores it, wipes his forehead, presses the red button again. Black smoke bursts from the Mack’s exhaust stack. He eases the throttle lever forward again. The Mack rolls. Gerhard exhales, more relieved than happy. He delicately moves the remote’s control wheel and feeds in more throttle. The Mack speeds past the Galaxy.

  The strange convoy turns south-west onto the taxiway and rolls on through the cool night.

  **

  Henri must lean forward to see the taxiway through the Galaxy’s windscreen. Directly in front of the Mack is the 70-metre-long, six-metre-high motorised gate that separates the Boneyard from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. To the left of the gate is a small guardhouse. Inside a soldier shouts into a telephone.

  Henri speaks into his headset. ‘Do it.’

  The Mack accelerates hard, strikes the centre of the gate even harder. A section catapults right and spins into the night like a deranged frisbee. Another section catches hold of the Mack’s grill and jams there as the truck continues on its merry way. Yet another section flips left and slams into the roof of the guardhouse.

  The giant aircraft rolls through the new gap in the fence, the stubby guardhouse passing under its left wing just as it was designed to. Then the jet wash from the turbofans hit. The guardhouse, made of little more than painted plyboard, glued and screwed together by the lowest bidder, loses its roof as the guard cowers inside, hands clamped over ears to protect his hearing from the shrieking engines.

  **

  Gerhard strains his neck to keep his eyes on the Mack as he works the remote. The truck leans into a wide turn and the slab of metal fence slides off its nose and clatters to the tarmac. Then the Mack slows and falls in behind the Galaxy. The pair trundle past the alert pads and head towards the runway.

  Henri turns to the right and locks eyes on a pair of taxiing fighter jets on the far side of the airfield. They’re F-16 Fighting Falcons from the 120th FIG. Each week they rotate from their home in Great Falls, Montana, to Davis-Monthan. They can scramble from their hangar in under five minutes to identify, intercept, and, if necessary, destroy any airborne threat to the USA. As the Galaxy is a very large threat they will not let it take off.

  They’re too far away to fire yet but Henri knows they’ll soon be in range. They’ll use the 20-millimetre Gatling guns first, hoping to stop the Galaxy before it leaves the ground. If that fails they’ll launch the wingtip-mounted AIM-9 Sidewinders and blow it out of the sky.

  Gerhard plays the remote, eyes glued to the Mack truck. It’s 150 metres behind the Galaxy. He steers it to the left to avoid the turbofan’s jet wash as the jet rolls onto the runway’s threshold, its tarmac scarred black by decades of tyre rubber.

  Henri’s eyes stay fixed on the taxiing F-16s. Bobbling over the uneven tarmac they pass behind a line of parked Hercules C-130s. In thirty seconds they’ll clear the aircraft and have an unimpeded shot at the Galaxy.

  Henri speaks into his headset’s microphone. ‘Gerhard, are you in position?’

  ‘Yes, sir.’

  ‘Good.’ Henri looks across at Kelvin. ‘Do it.’

  Kelvin feels sick to his stomach. He knows those approaching F-16s mean to blow this jet out of the sky. Only now does he fully appreciate what he’s a part of.

  ‘Now.’ The Frenchman’s firm command yanks Kelvin back to reality. He pushes the throttle levers forward. The four General Electric turbofans bite the air and jolt the Galaxy onto the runway.

  Gerhard braces himself within the open hatch as Cobbin straps in to a nearby jump seat. ‘Make sure it’s in position. And easy with t
he throttle —’

  ‘I know what to do.’ Gerhard fails to disguise the anxiety in his voice as he pushes the throttle lever forward. The Mack gathers speed, rumbles towards the runway’s threshold - then lurches to a stop.

  No! Too much throttle. Fear slices through the Austrian. His hand shakes as he stabs the red starter button and focuses on the truck’s exhaust stack, watches for the burst of smoke that will tell him the engine is running.

  He sees no smoke. The truck’s out of position and its engine is dead. In fifteen seconds everyone on this plane will be too.

  The Galaxy accelerates as 164000 pounds of thrust shove 350000 kilograms of aircraft down the runway.

 
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