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MacKenzie's mission (Chapter Nine)

Joe was in a rage when he strode into the control room, but his rage was cold, ice-cold. His eyes were blue frost as he fastened them on the laser team. "What the hell happened?" he snapped. "The laser cannon isn't even supposed to be activated, much less go off by itself."

They were all at a loss. The systems had checked out perfectly on Friday afternoon.

"Well?" The single word was as sharp as the crack of a rifle. "I nearly lost a man because of it. An eighty-million-dollar aircraft is in tiny pieces all over a square mile of desert. Do any of you have any idea what the hell you're doing?"

The control room was dead silent as everyone waited for a reply, any reply. Yates said softly, "We don't know what happened. But we'll find out."

"You're damn right you will. I want a report on this within thirty-six hours, your analysis of the problem and what you've done to fix it. All flights are scrubbed until I know what happened and I'm satisfied it won't happen again." He didn't even glance at Caroline as he turned and walked out, still as furious as he had been when he had entered the room.

Someone whistled softly through their teeth. Yates' face was drawn. "We don't sleep until we know," he said simply.

The loss of the aircraft was bad enough, but it was Daffy's close call that had stretched Joe's control perilously close to the snapping point. Daffy was lost to him anyway: he'd been too low when he ejected for his chute to adequately deploy, and he had landed too hard and too fast. He was hospitalized now with a concussion and a broken left leg.

Bowie, badly shaken, swore he hadn't touched either the lock-on switch or the trigger, and Joe believed him. Bowie was too good, too careful, but the damn laser cannon had somehow locked on and fired by itself, and Daffy had nearly died. The computers would tell them exactly what had happened, but what Joe wanted to know was why. The lasers weren't supposed to be activated yet, but the one on Bowie's bird, at least, had been. Had peak energy been used, the F-22 would have been destroyed in the air and Daffy wouldn't have had any chance at all.

Joe's anger was intensified because the misfire was probably linked to the lock-on problem they'd had the

Friday before. Caroline had said the problem was a simple break in the electrical signal and that it had been corrected, but obviously the trouble was much worse than that, and, far from being corrected, it had nearly killed a man. His fury included Caroline; she was part of the laser team, and his relationship with her had nothing to do with her responsibility as a team member. It wouldn't win her any special favors or leniency.

The laser team wouldn't be the only one working late. The loss of an F-22 and the injury of a pilot weren't things the Air Force took lightly. He had to make a report to the base commander and to General Ramey in the Pentagon. Moreover, they couldn't afford this kind of trouble with the Night Wings, not with the vote for funding coming up shortly in Congress. He had to get the tests completed and the kinks worked out; one of the major pluses the project had going for it was that it was coming in on time and under budget, and delays meant money. If the Night Wings were over budget and not working properly when the vote was taken, the project would be in trouble. Funding depended on how well he did his job and demonstrated both the feasibility and dependability of the buds.

His call on a secure line to General Ramey only underlined his concern. "You have to find out what happened with that laser cannon and make damn sure it never happens again," the general said quietly, but those who knew Ramey knew that he meant what he said. "The vote is close, too close for us to afford this kind of snafu. What good is it to have the first feasible

X-ray laser cannon if it's uncontrollable? We have to have it, Joe. The Night Wing project is too important."

"Yes, sir," Joe replied. Having flown the birds, he knew exactly how important they were. An aviator going up in a superior aircraft had a much better chance, all other things being equal, of coming back alive. The Night Wing buds gave a huge advantage to American pilots, and to Joe that meant American lives saved as well as wars won. He had already been in two wars and he was only thirty-five, and the world situation was even more volatile now than it had been when he had entered the Academy back during the Cold War. Brushfire wars sprang up overnight, and all of them had the potential of dragging the rest of the world into the maw, while technology was exploding. Within five years the F-22s would merely be equal to other countries' fighters, rather than vastly superior. The Night Wings would get that edge back-in a big way.

"Is there any indication of sabotage?" the general asked.

"There haven't been any alarms triggered, but I've asked the security police for an analysis of the work patterns to see if there's anything suspicious."

"What's your gut feeling?" General Ramey had the utmost respect for Joe's instincts.

Joe paused. "A catastrophic situation developed without warning. We don't know yet if it involves only that one laser cannon or if it's common to all the aircraft, but it's either a major problem with the system, or someone deliberately caused it It's fifty-fifty, so I can't ignore the possibility of sabotage. I'll know more after I get the computer analysis."

"Call me immediately when you know something."

"Yes, sir, I will."

Joe sat back in his chair, his eyes thoughtful. Sabotage. No one ever liked to consider it, but he couldn't afford to discount it. Technology constantly created new techniques in spying and sabotage. The security police had gone to great lengths to keep Night Wing under wraps, which was why every entrance into every building, both doors and windows, contained sensors linked to a central computer that kept track or who was in each building at any given time, recording both entrance and exit times. Guards were also posted at the hangars at night and no one had approached the planes without proper clearance, but if the problem was sabotage, that meant only that the saboteur had the required security clearance.

If he were lucky, the laser team would find the problem and it would be something mechanical, something explicable. If not, he wanted to have the security check already in progress.

What a bitch. If they didn't find out what was wrong immediately, it would ensure that he wouldn't see Caroline tonight, and last night without her had been pure torment. It was amazing how quickly his body had become accustomed to frequent gratification, and how strong his sexual hunger for her was. He'd never wanted a woman that way before, like an incessant fever that refused to be cooled. He'd never enjoyed a woman that way before, without any boundaries or restrictions. She was vital and electric, as straightforward with her loving as her thoughts and personality were. It had been a mistake to let his thoughts slip to her. His pants had become very uncomfortable. Down, boy, he thought wryly. Now was definitely not the time or the place.

No matter how they checked, they couldn't discover how the laser had been activated by accident. Caroline's actual expertise was with the laser itself, not with the triggering mechanism. That was Adrian's field, and he was surly because of it. If the problem was laid at his door, he might be recalled from the project or possibly even fired. Typically, he took out his frustration on Caroline.

"What are you, a jinx?" he muttered, scowling as he painstakingly checked every detail of the firing mechanism. "Everything was going fine, just a few minor kinks now and then, until you showed up. Things started falling apart as soon as you started working on them."

"I haven't worked on that mechanism," she pointed out, refusing to let him anger her or to get embroiled in a finger-pointing episode. She didn't have to say anything else, however, because Adrian took her comment to mean that he had been working on it, so therefore it was obviously his fault.

"Let's stop the bickering," Yates ordered. "Cal, is anything showing up on the computer?"

Cal looked exhausted, his eyes bloodshot from staring at a monitor screen and stacks of dim printouts for too many hours. He shook his head. "It's all checking out on paper."

They were standing grouped around the laser pod on the belly of the aircraft Bowie had been flying. Caroline stared at the pod, deliberately blotting out what everyone else was saying as she tried to sort things out. The laser seemed to be in perfect working order, as did the firing mechanism. The lock-on was also performing perfectly, but then, they already knew that. After all, it had locked on to Daffy's bird and blown it out of the sky. But what had told it to lock on? According to the computer record, Bowie definitely hadn't touched the switch, so the lock-on and firing mechanisms had both operated automatically, something they weren't supposed to do. Nor was the laser supposed to have been activated; actually firing the lasers hadn't been scheduled for another ten days. Three things had gone wrong simultaneously: the laser had activated, the lock-on had targeted Daffy's aircraft and the thing had automatically fired. None of those three things was supposed to have happened at all; for all of them to have happened at the same time went beyond chance or Murphy's Law.

She didn't like the direction her thoughts were taking. If it wasn't logical for those three things to have happened by accident, then they had to have happened by design. The laser couldn't be activated by an accidental bump, and it certainly didn't have an outside switch labeled On and Off. Activating the laser was something the laser team had to do with a precise set of commands to the computer. Because of the security involved, they were the only ones with access to those commands.

Inescapable logic indicated that one of the team had activated the laser.

Caroline didn't believe in leaping to conclusions. Her work habits were orderly and painstakingly precise. Before she let herself begin thinking that one of the three men she worked with was deliberately sabotaging the laser, she had to make certain there was no way anyone outside the team could do it. Everything was computerized now, and though safeguards were built into the programs and elaborate precautions taken, nothing was impossible. There were a lot of things so difficult that no one had done them yet, but that didn't make them impossible. It was feasible that if someone could get the activation commands, he or she could also get into the program and use them. And it would be child's play for anyone that knowledgeable about computers to add commands that would override the pilot's physical keying of the lock-on switch, say if another aircraft came within a certain distance. Maybe Bowie had been flying a ticking timebomb today, just waiting for the right set of circumstances. It had been Daffy's bad luck that he had been assigned to shadow Bowie, but it could as easily have been Mad Cat, or even Joe, who had been shot down.

Yates had been watching her thoughtfully for several minutes. She was standing motionless, her gaze locked on the pod but not seeing it, with all her concentration turned inward. He could almost see that computer brain running down a checklist and inexorably narrowing the possibilities.

"What is it?" he finally asked when he couldn't stand the suspense any longer. "Any ideas?"

She blinked, and her eyes slowly refocused on him. "I think we should check the computer program," she finally said. "If it isn't the equipment, it has to be the program."

Cal looked positively haggard. "Do you know how long it will take to check this entire program?" he asked incredulously. "This thing is huge. It's the most complicated program I've ever worked on."

"Maybe a Cray…" she murmured, looking back at the pod.

"Book time on a Cray supercomputer?" Yates made it a question, but he was already mentally running through the logistics. "Expensive as hell."

"Not as expensive as stopping the program."

"It could take forever to get a booking, unless the Pentagon can line up some priority time."

"Yeah, that's a fine idea," Adrian said impatiently, "but you people are forgetting that the big man gave us thirty-six hours, of which we have already used ten. I don't think he's going to be satisfied with a possibility."

"We've come up with nothing everywhere else. Do you have a better idea?" Caroline replied just as impatiently.

He glared at her without answering. The truth was, they had all reached a dead end.

Caroline didn't mention her other conclusion, that if the solution to their problem was in the computer program they still had to discover whether it was a basic error in programming or if someone had deliberately programmed it in, but running everything through a Cray would give them the answer to that. By comparing the working program with the original, the Cray could tell them if the working program had been altered in any way. If it hadn't, then it was back to the drawing board for DataTech; if it had, then they had to find the person responsible for the changes.

"So what do we do?" Cal asked, rubbing his eyes. "Stop looking and just assume we're going to find it in the program, or stay up all night looking for something when we don't know what we're looking for?"

Despite herself, Caroline had to grin. "If you're as groggy as that sentence sounded, I don't think you can stay up all night."

He gave her a bleary look and an equally bleary grin. "Sad, isn't it? In my younger days I could carouse all night and work all day, then go back out for more carousing. What you see here is a shadow of my former self."

"I'm glad you two don't find this serious," Adrian snapped.

"Knock it off!" Yates ordered, temper in his usually calm voice. They were all tired and frazzled. He moderated his tone. "I mean it literally as well as figuratively. We aren't accomplishing anything except exhausting ourselves. We're calling it quits for the night, despite what I said earlier. I think we've eliminated everything it could be except the program, so that's our logical next step, and we can't do it here. I'm going to clean up and have a good meal while I think about this, then I'm going to have a talk with Colonel Mackenzie. Let's get some rest."

Captain Ivan Hodge, head of security, said without preamble, "We have a very suspicious pattern here, sir."

Joe's stem face showed no emotion, though he wished the captain hadn't found anything.

Major General Tuell's flinty eyes became even flintier. As base commander, he was ultimately responsible for everything that happened, and he was intensely concerned with whatever had caused the crash of an F-22. "Show us what you've found."

The captain was carrying a thick log. He deposited it on Joe's desk and flipped it open to a premarked page. "Here." He noted an entry he had already highlighted in yellow. "This is the security code number for a member of the laser team, Caroline Evans. She arrived last Tuesday as a replacement for a worker who had a heart attack."

Joe's guts knotted up and his eyes went blank as he waited for Captain Hodge to continue.

"She has a pattern of arriving in the morning before everyone else and being the last to leave," the captain said, and Joe relaxed a little. Caroline was a workaholic; hardly damning circumstances, and he himself had walked in on her unannounced several times, catching her doing nothing suspicious… although she had quickly cleared the computer screen that one time.

He had briefly wondered about it, then forgotten it, until now.

"You yourself have that pattern, sir," Captain Hodge said to Joe. "In itself, it doesn't mean anything." He flipped to another premarked page. "But here, on Thursday night, the sensors show Ms. Evans entering the laser work area shortly before 2400 and not leaving until almost 0400. She was alone the entire time. She reentered the building at 0600 for her normal workday. The birds went up that morning and for the first time experienced some malfunction with the lasers, isn't that right?"

The ice was back in Joe's eyes. "Yes."

"She left the area late that afternoon with the other members of the team and didn't return until Sunday night, again shortly before 2400. Again, she was the only person there. She left the building at 0430, returned at her usual time of 0600. This time, Major Deale's aircraft was shot down. Hell of a lot more disruptive than the lasers not working at all. These midnight appearances in the work area, combined with the fact that the trouble didn't start until she arrived, don't look good." The captain hesitated as he looked at Joe. The colonel's expression was enough to make any sane man hesitate, and Captain Hodge considered himself very sane. Nevertheless, it had to be said. "I understand you've taken a… uh, personal interest in Ms. Evans."

"We've gone out together a few times." They'd done a hell of a lot more than that, he thought savagely. She had given herself to him with a completeness that had shattered his memories of other women, reduced them to nothingness. And after they had returned from Vegas Sunday night she had slipped out to the work area and… done what? Secretly activated the laser on Bowie's aircraft? Had the laser on the bird he'd been flying been activated, too? Could he just as easily have been the one who shot down a friend?

Captain Hodge looked uncomfortable. "While you were with her, did she say anything? Ask any questions pertaining to Night Wing?"

"No." He was certain of that. Work had been mentioned in only the most general way. But then again, why should she have to ask him anything? "She has the clearance to find out anything about the project that she wants without having to ask anyone else."

"That's true. But did she say anything that, in retrospect, you could construe as being a reason for wanting the lasers to fail? Or for wanting to scuttle the Night Wing project?"

"No." But she wouldn't; Caroline was too smart for that. Caroline was brilliant. Caroline was perfectly capable of activating the lasers; she was not only an expert, she had access to the codes. "She has the knowledge and she had the opportunity," he heard himself saying. "Do you have anything else? Motive, anything suspicious in her past, any current money problems?"

"Her background is clean as a whistle," the captain admitted. "We're going to do a total recheck to make certain it's correct and none of it has been fabricated, but that's only a precaution. Everyone connected with this project has been verified down to the fillings in their teeth."

"Clarify this for me," Major General Tuell said. "She could activate the lasers from the work area, without actually being in contact with the lasers themselves? The birds are under twenty-four-hour guard."

"Yes, sir," Captain Hodge said. "By computer command. And Ms. Evans carried a double major in college. She got her doctorate in physics, but she also has a master's in computer sciences. She knows her way around computers."

"I see." The general sighed. "What are your recommendations?"

"We won't file formal charges, sir. We can prove opportunity, and the timing is very suspicious, but we haven't as yet proven that the computers have actually been reprogrammed to arm and fire the lasers. There's still a possibility that it's a mechanical snafu."

"But you don't think so?"

"No sir. The problems began when she arrived, and in both instances they occurred after she had made midnight visits to the work area. She's a civilian. I recommend that the FBI be notified and that she be restricted to base, but not yet taken into custody. As a precaution, I would also restrict the entire laser team from the work area until this is settled."

"Why is that, Captain?"

"As I said, sir, as a precaution. She may not be the only one involved."

"The logs don't show anyone else entering the work area at suspicious times."

"That doesn't mean they didn't know about it. I think Colonel Mackenzie will agree with me that it's less expensive to halt testing for a few days than to lose another F-22, or maybe even one of the prototypes."

"Yes." Joe's voice was hard. "Are you going to question Ms. Evans?"

"Yes sir."

"I'd like to be there."

"Of course, sir." Captain Hodge thought wryly that Colonel Mackenzie didn't have to have permission; he had supreme authority on this base with anything concerning the Night Wing project. He would defer to Major General Tuell, but it would be by choice.

"When?"

"I can have my people escort her here now, if you'd like."

"Then do it."

Major General Tuell stood. "Gentlemen, I'm leaving this in your hands. I trust you'll both make certain of our position before charges are filed. However, do whatever has to be done to solve this. The project is too important."

They both saluted, and he returned it. As he left, Captain Hodge gestured to Joe's telephone and said, "With your permission, sir."

Joe nodded curtly. Captain Hodge lifted the receiver and pressed a code. "Have Ms. Caroline Evans, C12X114, escorted to Colonel Mackenzie's office. Verify."

Whoever had answered the phone repeated the code number. Captain Hodge said, "Correct. Thank you."

He hung up the phone and turned to Joe. "Ten minutes," he said.

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