Drone – M.L. Buchman

THE FLİGHT ATTENDANT stepped up to her seat—4E—which had never been her favorite on a 767-300. At least the cabin setup was in the familiar 261-seat, 2-class configuration, currently running at a seventy-three percent load capacity with a standard crew of ten and one ride-along FAA inspector in the cockpit jump seat. “Excuse me, are you Miranda Chase?” She nodded. The attendant made a face that she couldn’t interpret. A frown? Did that indicate anger? He turned away before she could consider the possibilities and, without another word, returned to his station at the front of the cabin. Miranda once again straightened the emergency exit plan that the flight’s vibrations kept shifting askew in its pocket. This flight from yesterday’s meeting at LAX to today’s DC lunch meeting at the National Transportation Safety Board’s headquarters departed so early that she’d decided to spend the night in the airline’s executive lounge working on various aviation accident reports. She never slept on a flight and would have to catch up on her sleep tonight. Miranda felt the shift as the plane turned into a modest five-degree bank to the left. The bright rays of dawn over the New Mexico desert shifted from the left-hand windows to the right side. At due north, she heard the Rolls-Royce RB211 engines (quite a pleasant high tone compared to the Pratt & Whitney PW4000 that she always found unnerving) ease off ever so slightly, signaling a slow descent. The pilot was transitioning from an eastbound course that would be flown at an odd number of thousands of feet to a westbound one that must be flown at an even number. The flight attendant then picked up the intercom phone and a loud squawk sounded through the cabin. Most people would be asleep and there were soft complaints and rustling down the length of the aircraft. “We regret to inform you that there is an emergency on the ground.

I repeat, there is nothing wrong with the plane. We are being routed back to Las Vegas, where we will disembark one passenger, refuel, and then continue our flight to DC. Our apologies for the inconvenience.” There were now shouts of complaint all up and down the aisle. The flight attendant was staring straight at her as he slammed the intercom back into its cradle with significantly greater force than was required to seat it properly. Oh. It was her they would be disembarking. That meant there was a crash in need of an NTSB investigator—a major one if they were flying back an hour in the wrong direction. Thankfully, she always had her site kit with her. For some reason, her seatmate was muttering something foul.

Miranda ignored it and began to prepare herself. Only the crash mattered. She straightened the exit plan once more. It had shifted the other way with the changing harmonic from the RB211 engines. Chengdu, Central China AİR FORCE MAJOR Wang Fan eased back on the joystick of the final prototype Shenyang J-31 jet—designed exclusively for the People’s Liberation Army Air Force. In response, China’s newest fighter jet leapt upward like a catapult’s missile from the PLAAF base in the flatlands surrounding the towering city of Chengdu. It felt as if his crotch had just been grasped by Chen Mei-Li. Never had a woman made him feel like such a man. Fan hadn’t known that he could be taken past the ultimate peak so many times in a single night. More than once he’d half feared that his given name would come true and he would die between her legs—his fellow test pilots often teased him about his first name, Fan, meaning “mortal.

” Of course, never before had he been with a woman who cost a week’s salary. It would take at least a month to hide enough money from his insipid wife—now revealed to be so much less skilled than he’d thought—to buy another night with Mei-Li, the beautiful red gem. Perhaps if this flight went well, he would get a promotion from Shao Xiao to Zhong Xiao—major to lieutenant colonel—and the money that came with it could simply never be revealed to his wife. It was possible. After all, Lieutenant General Zhang Ru was his wife’s uncle. Hadn’t he lifted Fan from the officer corps to be a test pilot, and introduced Fan to his own niece and encouraged her to become his wife? Uncle Ru personally had chosen him to be first in the Chinese Air Force to fly the new J-31—a great honor indeed. Each successive flight in the long week of testing had built neatly on the one before. Today he had finally been given permission to truly test the J-31’s limits. And now Uncle Ru had arranged his night in heaven with Chen Mei-Li. Fan had felt truly immortal when he stepped up, flipped aside her robe, and entered her from behind this morning as she’d been bent over to set their breakfast table—white rice scattering wide at her surprise.

With his every thrust, steamed buns had fallen upon the blue-and-white floor tiles depicting ancient gardens and elegant courtesans, each pork baozi exploding in slow motion like a tiny bomb. Forevermore, the fiery blend of ginger, sesame, and five-spice would season his memories of that purest sexual perfection. The floor-to-ceiling window of her condo overlooked the heart of Chengdu city. Maybe those dining in the restaurant on the three-arched Anshun Bridge—that in one form or another had spanned the Jin River since before Marco Polo’s time in the thirteenth century—had gazed up to watch the glory of him taking Mei. He hoped so. For in the moment of that crashing release like no other, he had indeed entered Tian and become Yùdi the Jade Emperor taking Mazu the Jade Empress right up her heavenperfect ass. He hadn’t been Wang the prince (as his surname meant) nor even king—he’d been a god. For the gift of last night alone, he would do anything his uncle asked. As the first Air Force pilot to fly the J-31 Sŭn, Gyrfalcon in the English that Uncle kept pushing him to learn, he would also have a pilot’s bragging rights for a long time to come. That too he owed to Honorable Uncle Ru.

The twin Chinese-made WS-13E engines delivered 200 kN, over 46,000 pounds of thrust, all driven straight into his aching member as a single roar of glory. The sixteenmeter-long fifth-generation fighter jet leapt for the heavens. It was only the fourth fifthgen jet fighter in the world—and personally he felt Russia’s Sukhoi Su-57 was overrated. Besides, the Russian jet was still no more than a prototype, so the J-31 was the third of the new breed (he didn’t count the J-20, even though it had flown first, because with the arrival of J-31, the two-year-old jet was already obsolete). The two American fifth-gen aircraft were, sadly, very impressive. Now it was time to put them in their place. The Gyrfalcon looked ungainly on the ground, more wing than plane. The shapes were all wrong when compared with the PLAAF’s other aircraft. But like the American F-35 Lightning that had been the inspiration for the superior Chinese engineers, its looks didn’t matter. It did indeed fly like its namesake, the largest of all falcons.

“Crossing five thousand meters, Mach 0.9. All systems nominal,” he continued his running report. He wouldn’t radio it in, because the foul Americans would be listening with their satellites even here in Chengdu, a thousand kilometers from any border. It was also why they were testing here rather than in Shenyang so close to the American listening posts in South Korea and Japan. Instead of broadcasting back to base, he was to keep a running commentary of the test flight for the internal cockpit recorder. All of the sensors attached for this test flight would record far more information than he could ever grunt out against the brutal g- forces, but they wanted him to make the verbal recording anyway. No, Uncle Ru had wanted that. And he was the one who had ordered radio silence despite the advanced encryption systems on his radio. Why? Think, Fan.

Think like the leader Uncle Ru is grooming you to be. Ah! His silence would be so that no other commander could get any information ahead of Uncle Ru. He was a very wise man and Fan still had much to learn from him. Fan would capture as much as he could, then make sure the tape was delivered only into his uncle’s hands. “Flight is smooth,” at least compared to the Russian RD-93 engines with fifteen percent less power that had been in the prototypes. The J-31 didn’t offer the stable ride rumored on the ever-so-similar American F-35 Lightning II, but it was the first production model delivered to the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, and for now, the seventy-million-dollar aircraft was all his. “Impressively clean transition through Mach 1.” Normally the transition was a hard shake, like taking his CFMoto 650 motorcycle down an untended dirt road. This transition was more like the way he’d left Chen Mei-Li—still sprawled facedown on the breakfast table and gasping beneath the tangled swirl of her long, thick hair from the pleasure he’d given her, unable to rouse herself after his final shuddering release. He detailed the differences from the Shenyang J-16 (copied from the Russian Sukhoi Su-35—with all of its engine problems that had almost killed him in testing) and the Chengdu J-20 (China’s first homegrown supersonic stealth aircraft—except for some “acquired” details from the American’s own stealth jet program).

Every single time he broke the sound barrier, it amazed him how noisy it was to fly beyond the transition. The arrowed tip of the jet’s nose cracked the air, which the hard chines of the stealth hull split into sections for smoother supersonic flow. The roar of the mighty engines, rather than being left far behind, was transmitted through the hull and couldn’t be outrun. “Mach 1.5 at ten thousand meters. Preparing for agility tests.” Chen Mei-Li had grown up inside the state-sponsored gymnast program for eighteen years. Now too old to compete at twenty-one, she had brought her lithe form and all of that incredible agility to the bedroom. The jet felt just as responsive, and he was just entering his prime. The J-31’s design was primarily for air-to-air combat.

Intended for lower altitudes than the bombers, it delivered exceptional maneuverability even at supersonic speeds. He started with a simple twist—flying in a straight line and rolling the aircraft sideways wing over wing. S-turns and loops became second nature as he learned the feel of the jet’s behavior at supersonic speeds. He finally aimed straight up and opened the afterburners wide. The jet drove into the sky until there wasn’t enough air for its engines to push against. He gradually slowed until, for an instant, he hung suspended with his momentum wrung dry, perfectly balanced: twenty kilometers into the sky on 46,000 pounds of thrust. He held out a fist with only his pinkie finger raised toward the satellites that circled in space. “Your dick is smaller than this, America!” He half hoped that their cameras were powerful enough to see his gesture. They knew nothing of the meaning of power. Maybe he would quietly remove some funds from his private savings account and celebrate this flight in Chen Mei-Li’s arms.

He’d tell his wife he was needed at the base for debriefing. Or maybe he would just take his wife as hard as he had Mei-Li this morning—until she too cried out in unison with him at such intense pleasure that it was almost pain. Finally toppling, the jet plunged downward, ramming back into the thicker atmosphere. At Mach 1.7, nearing the aircraft’s top speed, he leveled out close above the vast patchwork pools of Sichuan Basin rice farms. He imagined the cracking sonic boom rolling over farmers and their wives as the newest jewel of the PLAAF rushed by so close overhead. Perhaps the sheer power of the Gyrfalcon would cause the farmers’ daughters to orgasm at his passage. Fan carved a hard turn and raced into the foothills of the Hengduan Mountain Range. They started abruptly to the west of Chengdu, building rapidly until they crested over seven thousand meters in the fearsome Gongga Shan. Far taller than any puny peak in North America, it rose only fifteen hundred meters less than mighty Everest.

The next stage of the test was to ease deeper and deeper into those valleys and gorges to test the jet’s agility against the real world. If India became an enemy rather than a tenuous ally, the battle could well occur in the Himalayas. Low-level high-speed flight was the greatest adrenaline ride there was. He flung himself into the testing range, rattling the mountains themselves with his flight. An area covering thousands of square kilometers had been cleared of indigenous hill tribes and it was strictly for pilots to test new aircraft to the limits. Rumors said that the American pilots didn’t need to touch the controls. That they could steer their flight with simple motions of eyes and head. Where was the fun in that? Wang Fan could feel the Gyrfalcon vibrate and shudder just like a woman as it submitted to his commands. Slewing around a peak that rose a thousand meters above him, he volleyed hard from right to left to avoid the next. At eighteen hundred kilometers an hour, he covered a kilometer every two seconds.

The peaks of the Hengduan Range crowded very close together at that speed. Unable to fully catch his breath despite the pressure suit that compressed his legs and lower torso to force blood to reach his brain, he stopped his audio narration and left the instrumentation to record his actions. Uncle Ru had been a great pilot in his day. He would understand. Fan raced into the Daxue Range, the highest part of the Hengduan. How easy would it be to climb over that last snowy crest onto the Tibetan Plateau and at long last fully subjugate those rebellious primitives with a fleet of jets like this one? Not on today’s planned mission, but someday he’d take them down just as he had taken— Close by the icy edifice of mighty Gongga Shan, so proud in her glacier-shrouded glory, a shadow fell over his cockpit. One moment the sun had been shining strong from the southeast, then it had blinked out. He twisted to look aloft. A needle-shaped plane with a broad delta wing blocked the sun. The heat of anger flashed through him.

No one was supposed to be using the test range other than himself. Who dared presume? Mottled gray, it had an unusually long nose spike that must help crack the supersonic air apart. Smooth lines sleeker than even the finest woman. The fuselage was too slender to hold a pilot. It must be a drone! It certainly wasn’t AVIC. The Aviation Industry Corporation of China might be one of the largest companies in the world—one tiny division manufactured the magnificent J-31 Gyrfalcon—but he knew their drones. Unless it was some other division of AVIC trying to show him up? No. China’s first supersonic drone, Dark Sword, was still in the early stages of development. And the mockup didn’t look like this one at all. The same fifteen-meter length as his jet but it was no configuration he’d ever seen before.

He held his heading until he was close enough to the glaciers of Gongga Shan to see down into individual crevasses. He slammed aside at the last moment, hoping that the drone would overfly its course into the mountainside. No such luck. It eased in closer until it flew directly above his head. Less than twenty meters away, it seemed to fill the sky. Flipping his KLJ-7A radar from beyond-visual-range to close-in mode revealed… nothing. Impossibly, though he was close enough to read the markings—if there had been any—it barely registered as more than a patch of turbulent air. Its stealth was already a generation or more ahead of the J-31’s. Nothing he tried could move it from its position directly above his cockpit. He slammed through maneuvers that he didn’t know he had in him: twists, rolls, and aborted dives.

The J-31 behaved magnificently. But the drone mirrored his moves with unreal perfection. At first he thought it was simply locked on to his aircraft for guidance. Except there were moments when it made small, unpredictable adjustments that meant somewhere there was a pilot in active control—a pilot with reaction times like none he’d ever seen in an entire career of dogfights. Fan had made test pilot because of his own exceptional reaction speed, but he couldn’t match the drone’s pilot. And for the first time since Mei-Li had heated his blood until he’d thought it might turn to steam, he felt a cold chill. Uncle Ru must be told of this, but the radio returned nothing except static when he ignored orders and tried it. The drone was blocking his transmissions, which wasn’t supposed to be possible. The drone wasn’t Chinese. And it wasn’t Russian.

Especially not a thousand kilometers into China. It must be American—and it was hunting him. There was no weapon he could bring to bear on something flying closer than his own shadow. As if reading his thoughts, the drone pulled ahead of him. He heard no sonic boom as it passed, though he should have. Stealth and boomless? Formidable indeed. At Mach 1.79—two thousand one hundred and forty kilometers per hour at this altitude—it descended abruptly to ten meters in front of him. Less than a hundredth of a second ahead. The precision of the move astonished him for a moment too long.

Wang Fan tried to turn aside, but it was too late—too late the moment the drone started its move. He knew that he’d never make lieutenant colonel and that he’d never again bury himself in the glory of Chen Mei-Li. The turbulent air of the drone’s supersonic wake shattered his plane as surely as flying into the ground. Wang Fan reached for the emergency handle but didn’t pull it, knowing that even ejecting couldn’t save him now. Today his name—the Mortal Prince—would come true. The last thing he ever saw was the drone twisting aside to reveal a final look at the icy crevasses of Gongga Shan straight ahead. He would leave no more impression on its mighty edifice than a pork baozi splattered on a blue-and-white tile floor. CIA, Langley, Virginia CLARİSSA REESE SAT ALONE in a secure observer’s room three stories beneath the New Headquarters Building. She watched the massive avalanche as it continued to bury any sign of the Shenyang J-31 and its pilot deeper and deeper. The Chinese would never find it there.

Her pilot, deep in a Nevada control bunker, had flown his drone into formation with the J-31 when the high peaks were blocking all of the Chinese surveillance satellites. From that moment on, only the closest inspection would reveal the drone as anything other than an oddly dull reflection off the J-31—because nothing else could be that close to a supersonic craft performing high-g maneuvers. The Chinese would believe that right down to their boots. Her source had alerted her to, and a CIA analyst had confirmed, the escalating series of J-31 tests over the last few days, giving Clarissa enough time to have the drone flown deep into China the night before. That had allowed her to pick the place and time of the meet up. Those three minutes of the close-in flight had offered alarming information regarding the J-31’s true capabilities. The Chinese had started from stolen plans for the F-35 Lightning and they’d done a fine job of copying it. By theft and massive effort, they had closed a technological advance that should have taken them another decade to achieve. Like the Japanese of the ’70s and ’80s reverse engineering electronics and personal computers, the Chinese were now the masters of copying American ingenuity. There’d been no detectable transmission by the pilot for the forty-seven minutes they’d been tracking the jet since its departure from Fenghuangshan Airport in Chengdu.

Once in formation, the drone had blocked the J-31’s radio frequencies but left the instrumentation reporting systems active. She imagined the horror of the Chinese as they watched their precious jet run wildly out of control—the pilot’s attempt to save his life—then disappear. The force of the jet’s impact with the mountainside had guaranteed that nothing bigger than a rivet would survive. The final crash had again been timed to be wholly out of view from any satellites other than the CIA’s own USA-224 KH-11 keyhole sat—an Earth-facing copy of the Hubble Space Telescope and one of the four active real-time capable craft. Actually, the Hubble was a space-facing version of the earlier KH-11. The drone certainly detected no emergency locator signal on a close flyby. She spoke into the secure link to the Nevada control bunker that had remained silent throughout the flight. “General Harrington, bring it home.” “Yes ma’am.” She closed the link.

Freezing the best image of the avalanche from the drone’s final pass on her screen, she tried to see any sign of the Chinese plane. There wasn’t even a hint of its ultimate resting place. No blemish of a fuel explosion on the face of the pristine fall of ice. It was simply gone. The Shenyang J-31 hadn’t had enough fuel to reach a border, so their military would be forced to cross off a possible defection. It had simply behaved chaotically, as if the pilot was fighting for his life against a failing aircraft that then disappeared forever up the narrow mountain valley. No search would find any evidence until it fell out the bottom of the glacier decades or even centuries from now. Clarissa would make sure her operative at Chengdu convinced Lieutenant General Zhang Ru that it was a fault with the plane. The next time Ru was in the operative’s arms, she’d drop a hint of trouble that the pilot had “happened to mention to her” during their night together. It would lay the seeds of doubt.

Perhaps of something he had discovered—though been vague about—not wanting to shame his commander by pointing out the jet’s flaw. Yes. That should work nicely. And the highly detailed volume of classified information the pilot had divulged into the former gymnast’s recording equipment would be for Clarissa’s people alone. Should the operative cry for the lost pilot on Ru’s shoulder or shouldn’t she? The girl would know; she was perfect. Chen Mei-Li’s coach had made it easy to recruit the lovely gymnast at the last Olympics. He’d struck her to the ground (just out of sight of international television) for placing a single tenth-point off the gold to a meticulously drugged Russian wind-up doll. That the bastard had made himself her sexual coach from a young age, as well as her gymnastic one, had only made Clarissa’s job all the easier—she’d proven an unslakable hunger for revenge on the institutions of her native country. Clarissa had cemented the Chinese waif’s undying gratitude by arranging for the coach’s car to crash horribly before the games had ended. For strictly personal reasons, she’d made sure his death was slow and exceedingly painful.

With a well-placed Agency med-tech, she’d arranged for acid to be mixed with the transfused blood, accompanied by under-dosed painkillers. The girl’s coach had burned to death from the inside and felt every single second of it. Too sad for him that he’d lost the ability to scream during the wreck. Clarissa purged all records of the drone and satellite session from the observation room’s secure server’s memory—one of the many advantages of holding a director-level clearance—then checked that there were no stray strands from her trademark blonde ponytail. The slick look combined with her five-ten height before donning heels said, “Mess with me at your own peril.” She hadn’t had to prove it more than two or three times before her reputation proceeded her. Men were always thrown off balance when she turned and they saw the rest of her hair. It wasn’t some neat, short, athletic ponytail. Instead her hair went thickly wavy where it passed her shoulders on its way to the middle of her back. In 2001, a Journal of Experimental Psychology article—read between sessions of teenage slavery on her father’s office couch—concluded that men perceived long hair as a sign of sexual health.

The day of her father’s death—that she wished in retrospect she’d made ten times more painful than the coach’s—she’d begun growing it out in earnest. No longer was her hair bobbed short to avoid being a handhold for her father’s fist, but neither would any of the imprudent minions who dared cross her path ever get to touch it. She only let it down for very special occasions. With a sharp clack on the marble floors, her high heels heralded her approach as she strode toward her top-floor office. In the world of low-profile women, it announced that the CIA’s Director of Special Research was on her way and everyone should fear her. As well they should; she’d just set the Chinese fifth-generation jet program back by years. Enemies were to all be erased with maximum prejudice. Her country was all that mattered. Lovers? Occasionally. Friends? Who had the time?

.

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