Read an Excerpt
Out of the Sun
By Ben Bova
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 1984 Benjamin W. Bova
All rights reserved.
The fighter plane was nicknamed Arrow One. It was cruising eight miles high above the frozen white of the Arctic Ocean, not far from the North Pole.
Hundreds of miles away, the long-ranged radars on the coast of Alaska picked up an unknown bomber. Ground command sent Arrow One to check on it.
"Got him," the radar man said to the pilot, and he pointed to the screen in the middle of his control panel.
The pilot, sitting on the left side of the two-man cockpit, glanced at the blip of light on the radar screen. He pushed the throttles forward and winged over toward the oncoming bomber.
Arrow One raced ahead at Mach 3, three times the speed of sound. Within minutes the bomber was in sight.
"No markings on him," the pilot muttered. "Better radio back to ground command that ..."
He never finished the sentence.
Arrow One fell apart. Instantly. No warning, no chance of escape. The plane shattered into a thousand pieces. The pilot and radar man were dead before they could take another breath.
Paul Sarko edged along the narrow aisle of the big jet airliner. His suitcase felt heavy and clumsy. He held it out in front of himself so that it wouldn't bang on the seats as he walked through.
He smiled at the stewardess who was standing at the main hatch, then ducked through into the bright springtime sunlight.
Standing at the bottom of the stairs, squinting up at the passengers as they left the plane, was Dr. Ratterman. Sarko hurried down the stairs and shook hands with his ex-boss.
"Hello, Leon! You finally finished building your swimming pool, didn't you?"
Dr. Ratterman looked surprised. Then his hand went up to touch his tanned and peeling bald head.
With a smile, he said, "You're still a detective, Paul."
Sarko laughed. He had a roundish face with large, alert, dark eyes that seemed to probe everywhere. His hair was straight and black. He was a lanky, restless six-footer; much bigger than the short, thin Dr. Ratterman.
A jet roared off from the runway as they started across the airport parking apron. Dr. Ratterman pointed toward an Air Force helicopter standing off to one side of the terminal building.
Sarko's eyebrows hitched upward. "You must be in a hurry, Leon."
The older man nodded, dead serious now. An Airman ran up to them and took Sarko's suitcase. They followed him to the 'copter and climbed in. The pilot started the engines as they strapped themselves into the bucket seats. As soon as the Airman had hopped aboard, they lifted straight up.
"Why all the mystery on the phone?" Sarko asked, over the whine of the turbine engines. "What's so important that you have to yank me away from my job? And why me, anyway? I'm not ..."
Dr. Ratterman waved him into silence. "You'll see in a few minutes."
The 'copter cut straight across a small town and out over several miles of farmland. Then the huge runways of the air base slid into view. Beyond them was a fair-sized city of gray cinder-block buildings and white frame houses and barracks. Sarko knew every building, inch by inch. Especially the research labs. He had spent six years of his life there. He had left nearly a year ago, thinking that he'd never come back.
They landed at the far end of one of the runways, next to a giant hangar.
"They'll take your luggage," Dr. Ratterman said, nodding at the Airman and pilot. "You'll be living on the base for the time being."
"For the time being?" Sarko began to feel uneasy as he climbed down from the helicopter to the cement paving. "What's this all about, Leon? What's the secret? I had a good job in Seattle, and now ..."
But Dr. Ratterman didn't answer. He headed for the hangar. Sarko had no choice except to follow him.
Through a set of double doors. An Air Policeman stood between the doors, with an automatic pistol strapped to his hip. Inside ...
Sleek. Dead black. Two huge fan-jet engines with afterburners. Stubby, swept-back wings. Flat-bottomed delta-shaped body squatting on three sets of triple wheels. She could fly twenty miles high, travel two thousand miles without refueling, at three times the speed of sound. The Air Force's fastest fighting plane, the Mach 3 Arrow.
Despite himself, Sarko felt a thrill. He walked slowly alongside the plane and put out a hand to touch the smooth black metal that he had created. It had taken six years of his life to make that metal perfect.
"This is the first time you've seen her, isn't it?" Dr. Ratterman's voice rang hollow in the vast, quiet hangar.
"She's your baby, as much as anybody's."
Sarko turned on the older man. "No, she's not! She's a weapon. I didn't work on a weapon. I did a research job. I just wanted to make a metal alloy that would stand up to Mach 3 speeds. You turned the metal into a weapon. The Arrow is yours, not mine."
"All right," Dr. Ratterman said, raising his hands. "All right. So now you're out of the Air Force and working on Mach 3 airliners."
"I was — until you drafted me. What did you tell my boss? He looked as though World War Six had just hit him."
Instead of answering, Dr. Ratterman said, "Come up here with me."
They climbed a metal staircase to a catwalk that ran around the inside walls of the hangar. Their footsteps clanked on the metal deck. Dr. Ratterman led Sarko back to the farthest end of the hangar. There they could look down into a section that had been screened off from the main hangar floor.
Sarko looked down, and felt his knees wobble. "What ... what happened?"
Spread across the floor was wreckage. There wasn't enough left to tell what the plane had looked like before its crash, except that it probably had been painted black, and might have had stubby, sweptback wings.
"It's an Arrow." Dr. Ratterman said flatly. "We've built four. That was the first one. She crashed over the Arctic Ocean two weeks ago. That's all the Navy could find of her. The rest is at the bottom of the ocean."
Sarko leaned forward and grabbed the handrail in front of him with both fists. For a moment he thought he was going to be sick.
"It ... how did it happen?"
Dr. Ratterman shook his head. "That's why we need a detective. A detective who knows about the metals in that plane. Two more Arrows are flying right now. You saw the fourth one when we came in here. We've got to find out why this one crashed ... and make sure the same thing doesn't happen to the other three."CHAPTER 2
They walked in silence out of the hangar, into the hot sunlight. A million questions were boiling in Sarko's mind, but he didn't speak. It was too much. Six years of work lying twisted and smashed on the bare floor of the hangar. What had gone wrong?
They climbed into a waiting jeep and drove off along the two-mile-long runway toward the control tower. A huge B-52 scorched down the runway, its engines screaming and pouring out black smoke.
It lifted off the ground just as it passed alongside them. The thunder of its engines was so loud that Sarko could feel the noise as well as hear it. And down at the far end of the runway, another plane was already starting to roll through the haze of the bomber's exhaust fumes. It was a KC-135 tanker, filled with kerosene for a mid-air refueling of the B-52, thousands of miles away.
Sarko saw the planes take off, and heard them, and felt the blasts of wind they made. But his thoughts were still in that hangar. He was still looking at the wrecked Arrow, still hearing Dr. Ratterman's voice, "... and make sure the same thing doesn't happen to the other three."
The jeep stopped near the control tower. Dr. Ratterman stepped out first and pointed toward a two-story building.
Sarko followed him inside. The air conditioning made him shiver slightly as they hustled up the steps to the second floor. Dr. Ratterman walked halfway down the long, drab hallway and stopped at a door marked Maj. F. D. R. Colt.
He knocked once and was already turning the knob when the voice from inside said, "Come in."
"Hello, Doc," Major Colt said. "This is your friend?"
Dr. Ratterman nodded. With a wave of his hand, he introduced the two men to each other.
Major Colt was sitting behind a gray metal desk. The only other furniture in the room was a metal bookcase, a gray filing cabinet and two chairs. There were no windows in the tiny office; the walls were covered with maps.
The Major stood up and reached for Sarko's outstretched hand. He was about Sarko's age, a little taller, and much bigger in the shoulders and chest. He wore the wings of a flier on his blue jacket. His skin was a smooth, dark coffee color. He had a high forehead, a broad face, and a quick, bright smile.
"Sit down," Major Colt said. "Is it Mr. Sarko or Doctor Sarko?"
"It's Doctor," Sarko answered as he sat down, "but I'd rather be called Paul."
"So you did the structural engineering for the Arrow," the Major said, cupping his chin in his hands.
Sarko replied, "I did the research work on the metals that went into her. I didn't do any design work."
"I showed Paul the wreckage," said Dr. Ratterman. Major Colt nodded.
"You think it's some sort of structural problem with the plane?" Sarko asked.
"Don't know." The Major shrugged. "We have fourteen dozen different kinds of experts working on the problem. Doc here wanted you to handle the structural end of it."
"Not structural, exactly," Dr. Ratterman corrected. "Material. The metal alloys in that plane are mostly new, never been flown before. They tested out all right in the laboratory and wind tunnels, but ..."
"But they might have fallen apart in flight," Sarko finished the thought.
"It's possible," Major Colt said.
Sarko shook his head. "Not really. There's nothing wrong with those metals. I know it and Dr. Ratterman knows it."
"But Paul ...," Dr. Ratterman began.
Major Colt stopped him. "Wait a minute, Paul. You could be right. But we just don't know. We don't know why she crashed. And we've got to find out. Fast."
"There must be two hundred materials and structural engineers in the labs here on the base. Why drag me in?"
"Because that's your metal in the Arrows," the Major answered firmly.
"Hold on now. Just because ..."
"Listen," Colt said, getting up from his desk chair. "This isn't just an ordinary plane crash. The Arrow is supposed to be the best fighter plane in the world. And something's wrong with it. Maybe it fell apart in mid-air. Maybe it's a flying death-trap."
Sarko didn't answer.
"But what's even worse," said the Major as he walked around the desk, "is that the plane might not have simply crashed. She might have been shot down."
Pointing to the Arctic on a map on the office wall, Major Colt explained.
"Look. We've been flying patrol over the Arctic for years, and so has the other side. They know we have supersonic bombers, so they've put up supersonic fighters to show us that our bombers couldn't get into their country without a fight. We've also seen their bombers around the North Pole. Their newest ones fly twice as fast as sound — Mach 2."
Sarko shrugged. "So?"
"So we built the Arrow and sent it out over the Arctic to show them that their bombers can't get past our newest fighter."
"It sounds like some kids' game," Sarko said, frowning.
"It's a game, all right," answered Colt. "A dead serious game. Now our newest fighter has crashed. Okay, it was only one plane. But there was a bomber from the other side on the scene when the Arrow went down! One of our long-range radars picked it up. What if they've got a bomber that can shoot down our fighters so easily that they can get through our defenses and bomb us? They might start a war this afternoon!"
"But we've got other defenses," Sarko said. "What about our antiaircraft guns and missiles ..."
Coit shook his head. "If they can get past the Arrow, I'd bet that their bombers can get past anything else we've got. That's why we've got to know why Arrow One crashed. We've got to know!"
The phone on his desk buzzed. Major Colt picked it up. After a few words, his whole body seemed to stiffen. His face went blank with shock. Without another word, he slowly put down the phone.
"What is it?" Dr. Ratterman asked.
Colt blinked a few times before he could find his voice. "Arrows Two and Three. They're down — both of them — over the Arctic."
"Down?" Sarko snapped. "You mean crashed?"
Colt nodded, his eyes still wide and unbelieving. "According to the report, there was another plane in the area. DEW-line and BMEWS radar both spotted it. Not one of our planes. The two Arrows went over to see what it was, and ... and they crashed."CHAPTER 3
Paul Sarko lay stretched out on the bed of his room, in the unmarried officers' quarters of the base. He was fully clothed and wide awake. His hands were clasped behind his head and he was staring at the ceiling.
It's not the metals, he told himself. It couldn't be; they were tested for years before the plane was built. Wind-tunnel test, stress tests, fatigue tests, heat tests ...
There's nothing wrong with the metals! Sarko told himself again. Whatever happened to the planes, it happened because of enemy action. So there's nothing I can do, and they shouldn't expect me to hang around here for nothing.
He sat up on the bed. It was dark outside, and he realized that he was hungry.
Taking the telephone from the table, he got the number for Thornton Airlines from directory services then made a reservation on the next day's flight back to Seattle.
An hour later, he was sitting in a booth at the base's officers' club. He had finished his dinner and held a half-empty coffee cup in one hand. A six-piece band was blasting away at the far end of the room. People were dancing and listening. Sarko beat time to the music with his free hand.
"You look relaxed."
Sarko looked up and saw Major Colt.
"Is that against the law?" Sarko had to raise his voice to be heard over the pounding music.
The Major shook his head. "No ... not for civilians, anyway. Mind if I sit down?"
Before Sarko could answer, the Major had slipped into the booth across the table from him.
"You might as well know," Sarko said, "I'm leaving on tomorrow's plane."
Colt's eyes locked on Sarko's. "Leaving?"
"I've spent the whole afternoon thinking about it. There's nothing wrong with ..."
"Don't say it!" Colt hissed. "Remember, the whole business is Top Secret."
Sarko pointed to the bandstand. "Everybody's listening to them. Besides, you can barely hear yourself think."
"Just the same," Colt said, hunching over the table, "don't say anything you shouldn't."
"Well, I'm leaving anyway," Sarko repeated. "It's not my problem. There's nothing wrong with my end of the job."
"You know that for sure, huh?"
"I'm certain of it."
"One hundred percent certain," Colt said. "Not even curious enough to see if you're right or wrong? You think the lab work and the wind-tunnel tests are right and what's happened the past few days is a bad dream?"
"Now wait a minute ..."
"If you ask me," Colt went on, "I'd say that there just might have been something missing from those wind-tunnel tests, something that didn't show up until those planes had been flying for a while."
"What do you mean?"
"Never mind." Colt got to his feet. "Like you said this afternoon, we've got two hundred materials engineers around here. We don't need one more. Not you, anyway."
He turned and walked away. Sarko watched him leave the club.
For more than an hour, Sarko sat in the booth alone, turning thoughts over and over in his mind. At last he got up. He called Base Information and found out that Colt lived on the base, in the married officers' quarters.
It was a long walk, but the night was warm and calm. The married officers' quarters made up a little village within the base: small, white clapboard houses set neatly on a grid of wide streets. The smell of freshly mown lawns hung in the air. A few scrawny trees stood along the sidewalks, and Sarko could see children's swings and bikes out in the backyards and driveways. The houses were all built exactly alike, but in the soft moonlight they looked almost pretty.
He found Colt's home. The lights were still on downstairs, so he knocked on the front door.
Mrs. Colt came to the door. She was slim and pleasant-looking, her dark skin a good contrast to the bright-colored dress she was wearing.
"Is the Major in? I'd like to see him. I'm Paul Sarko."
She looked surprised for a moment, then puzzled. But she said, "Come on in, I'll call him." There was a hint of the South in her voice.
She showed Sarko to the small but comfortable living room, then excused herself and went to the kitchen. In a moment, Colt came in. He was wearing a sport shirt and slacks.
"I wasn't expecting a visit from you," he said. He looked wary, on guard.
Sarko said, "I ... I think I owe you an explanation."
"Sit down, sit down." Colt pointed to the sofa. He pulled up a rocker for himself as Sarko tried to relax on the sofa.
"Would y'all like something to drink?" Mrs. Colt asked from the doorway.
"How about some beer?" the Major suggested.
Sarko nodded. "Sounds fine."
Mrs. Colt soon returned with the frosty glasses. Then she went upstairs. The Major said, grinning: "She knows we'll be talking about Air Force business, and she shouldn't hear it. Gets her awfully curious, though."
"Look," Sarko began, without any buildup. "I don't want you to think that I'm just running out on you. Or that I'm afraid that I'd find that my metals caused the crashes."
Excerpted from Out of the Sun by Ben Bova. Copyright © 1984 Benjamin W. Bova. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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