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"Reilly has a gift for sustaining momentum that never lets up." —Publishers Weekly
Copyright © 2002 Matthew Reilly.
All rights reserved.
The three helicopters thundered over the arid desert plain, booming through the early morning silence.
They flew in tight formation—like they always did—shooting low over the tumbleweeds, kicking up a tornado of sand behind them, their freshly waxed sides glinting in the dawn light.
The giant Sikorsky VH-60N flew out in front—again, like it always did—flanked on either side by two menacing CH-53E Super Stallions.
With its pristine white roof and hand-polished dark-green flanks, the VH-60N is unique among American military helicopters. It is built for the United States government in a high security "caged" section at the Sikorsky Aircraft plant in Connecticut. It is non-deployable—meaning that it is never used in any operational capacity by the United States Marine Corps, the branch of the military charged with its upkeep.
It is used for one thing, and one thing only. And it has no replicas on active duty—and for good reason, for no one but a few highly cleared Marine engineers and executives at Sikorsky can know all of its special features.
Paradoxically, for all this secrecy, the VH-60N is without a doubt the most recognized helicopter in the Western world.
On air traffic control displays, it is designated "HMX-1," Marine Helicopter Squadron One, and its official radio call-sign is "Nighthawk." But over the years, the helicopter that ferries the President of the United States over short-to-medium distances has come to be known by a simpler name—Marine One.
Known as "M1" to those who fly in it, it is rarely observed in flight, and when it is, it is usually in the most demure of circumstances—taking off from the manicured South Lawn of the White House or arriving at Camp David.
But not today.
Today it roared over the desert, transporting its famous passenger between two remote Air Force bases located in the barren Utah landscape.
Captain Shane M. Schofield, USMC, dressed in his full blue dress "A" uniform—white peaked hat; navy-blue coat with gold buttons; medium-blue trousers with red stripe; spit-polished boots; white patent leather belt with matching white holster, inside of which resided an ornamental nickel-plated M9 pistol—stood in the cockpit of the Presidential helicopter, behind its two pilots, peering out through the chopper's reinforced forward windshield.
At five-ten, Schofield was lean and muscular, with a handsome narrow face and spiky black hair. And although they were not standard attire for Marines in full dress uniform, he also wore sunglasses—a pair of wraparound antiflash glasses with reflective silver lenses.
The glasses covered a pair of prominent vertical scars that cut down across both of Schofield's eyes. They were wounds from a previous mission and the reason for his operational call-sign, "Scarecrow."
The flat desert plain stretched out before him, dull yellow against the morning sky. The dusty desert floor rushed by beneath the bow of the speeding helicopter.
In the near distance, Schofield saw a low mountain—their destination.
A cluster of buildings lay nestled at the base of the rocky hill, at the end of a long concrete runway, their tiny lights just visible in the early light. The main building of the complex appeared to be a large airplane hangar, half-buried in the side of the mountain.
It was United States Air Force Special Area (Restricted) 7, the second Air Force base they were to visit that day.
"Advance Team Two, this is Nighthawk One, we are on final approach to Area 7. Please confirm venue status," the pilot of M1, Marine Colonel Michael "Gunman" Grier said into his helmet mike.
There was no reply.
"I say again, Advance Team Two. Report."
Still no reply.
"It's the jamming system," Grier's copilot, Lieutenant Colonel Michelle Dallas, said. "The radio guys at 8 said to expect it. These bases are all Level-7 classified, so they're covered at all times by a satellite-generated radiosphere. Short-range transmissions only, to stop anybody transmitting information out."
Earlier that morning, the President had visited Area 8, a similarly isolated Air Force base about twenty miles to the east of Area 7. There, accompanied by his nine-man Secret Service Detail, he had been taken on a brief tour of the facility, to inspect some new aircraft stationed in its hangars.
While he had done so, Schofield and the other thirteen Marines stationed aboard Marine One and its two escort choppers had waited outside, twiddling their thumbs underneath Air Force One, the President's massive Boeing 747.
While they waited, some of the Marines had started arguing over why they hadn't been allowed inside the main hangar of Area 8. The general consensus—based solely on wild unsubstantiated gossip—had been that it was because the facility housed some of the Air Force's top-secret new airplanes.
One soldier, a big-smiling, loud-talking African-American sergeant named Wendall "Elvis" Haynes, said that he'd heard they had the Aurora in there, the legendary low-orbit spy plane capable of speeds over Mach 9. The current fastest plane in the world, the SR-71 Blackbird, could only reach Mach 3.
Others had proffered that a whole squadron of F-44s—ultra-nimble, wedge-shaped fighters based on the flying-wing shape of the B-2 stealth bomber—were stationed there.
Others still—perhaps inspired by the launch of a Chinese space shuttle two days previously—suggested that Area 8 housed the X-38, a sleek 747-launched offensive space shuttle. A black project run by the Air Force in association with NASA, the X-38 was reputedly the world's first fight-capable space vehicle, an attack shuttle.
Schofield ignored their speculation.
He didn't have to guess that Area 8 had something to do with top-secret airplane development, probably space-based. He could tell it from one simple fact.
Although the Air Force engineers had concealed it well, the regulation-size black bitumen runway of Area 8 actually extended another thousand yards in both directions—as a pale concrete landing strip hidden beneath a thin layer of sand and carefully placed tumbleweeds.
It was an elongated runway, designed to launch and receive aircraft that needed an extra-long landing strip, which meant aircraft like space shuttles or—
And then suddenly the President had emerged from the main hangar and they were on the move again.
Originally, the Boss had intended to fly to Area 7 on Air Force One. It would be faster than Marine One, even though the distance was short.
But there had been a problem on Air Force One. An unexpected leak in the left wing's fuel tank.
And so the Boss had taken Marine One—always on stand-by for precisely this situation.
Which was why Schofield was now gazing at Area 7, lit up like a Christmas tree in the dim morning light.
As he peered at the distant hangar complex, however, Schofield had a strange thought. Curiously, none of his colleagues on HMX-1 knew any stories about Area 7, not even wild unsubstantiated rumors.
No one, it seemed, knew what went on at Area 7.
Excerpted from Area 7 by Matthew Reilly. Copyright © 2002 by Matthew Reilly. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.