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The Right Stuff
By Merline Lovelace
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Pegasus Control, this is Pegasus One."
"Go ahead, Pegasus One."
U.S. Coast Guard Lieutenant Caroline Dunn tore her gaze from the green, silent ocean flowing past the bubble cockpit of her craft. Her heart hammering against her ribs, she reported the statistics displayed on the brightly lit digital screens of the console.
"The Marine Imaging System reports a depth of eighty feet, with the ocean floor shelving upward at thirty degrees."
"That checks with our reading, Pegasus One. Switch to track mode at fifty feet."
"Aye, aye, Control."
Cari whipped her glance from the marine-data display to a screen showing a digital outline of her craft. There it was, the supersecret, all-weather, all-terrain, attack/assault vehicle code named Pegasus. It was in sea mode, a long, sleek tube with its wings swept back and tucked close to the hull. Those delta-shaped wings and their tilted rear engines would generate a crazy sonar signature, Cari thought with grim satisfaction. The enemy wouldn't know what the hell was coming at him.
Once Pegasus completed testing and was accepted for actual combat operations, that is. After months of successful - if often nerve-racking - land and air trials, Pegasus had taken his first swim at a fresh-water lake in New Mexico, close to its secret base.
Now the entire operation had moved to the south Texas coast and plunged the craft into deep water for the first time. It was Cari's job to take him down. And bring him back up!
Her palms tight on the wheel, she brought her glance back to the depth finder. "Seventy feet," she reported, her voice deliberately calm and measured.
"We copy that, Pegasus One."
Her steady tone betrayed none of the nervous excitement pinging around inside her like supercharged electrons. Pegasus had proved he could run like the wind and soar through the skies. In a few minutes, Cari would find out if the multi-purpose vehicle would perform as its designers claimed or sink like a stone to the ocean floor with her inside.
"Sixty," she announced.
"Confirming sixty feet."
The green ocean swirled by outside the pressurized canopy. A coast guard officer with more than a dozen years at sea under her belt, Cari had commanded a variety of surface craft. Her last command before joining the Pegasus test cadre was a heavily armed coastal patrol boat. This was the first time, though, she'd stood at the wheel of a vessel that operated equally well above and below the surface. Pegasus wouldn't dive as deep as a sub or skim across the waves as fast as a high-powered cutter, but it was the first military vehicle to effectively operate on land, in the air and at sea.
So far, anyway.
The big test was just moments away, when Cari cut the engines propelling Pegasus through the water and switched to track mode. In preliminary sea trials at New Mexico's Elephant Butte, the craft's wide-tracked wheels had dug into the lake bed, churned up mud and crawled right out of the water.
Of course, Elephant Butte was a relatively shallow lake. This was the ocean. The Gulf of Mexico, to be exact. With Corpus Christi Naval Air Station just a few nautical miles away, Cari reminded herself. The station's highly trained deep-water recovery team was standing by. Just in case.
Her gaze zeroed in on the depth finder. Silently she counted off the clicks. Fifty-five feet. Fifty-four. Three. Two ...
"Pegasus One, shutting down external engines."
Dragging in a deep breath, Cari flicked the external power switch to Off. The engines mounted on the swept-back wings were almost soundless. Even at top speed they caused only a small, humming vibration. Yet with the absence of that tiny reverberation, the sudden, absolute silence now thundered in Cari's ears.
Momentum continued to propel Pegasus forward. Silent and stealthy as a shark after its prey, the craft cut through the green water. The depth finder clicked off another five meters. Ten. The sonar screen showed sloping ocean floor rising up to meet them dead ahead.
"Pegasus One switching to track mode."
With a small whir, the craft's belly opened. Its wide-track wheels descended. A few seconds later, the hard polymer rubber treads made contact with the ocean floor.
"Okay, baby," Cari murmured, half cajoling, half praying. "Do your thing."
A flick of another switch powered the internal engine. Biting down on her lower lip, Cari eased the throttle forward. Pegasus balked. Like a fractious stallion not yet broken to the bit, the craft seemed to dig in its heels. Then, after what seemed like two lifetimes, it responded to the firm hands on the reins.
The wheels grabbed hold. The vehicle began to climb. Fathom by fathom. Foot by foot. The water around Cari grew lighter, grayer, until she could see shafts of sunlight spearing through its surface.
A few moments later Pegasus gave a throaty growl of engines and broke through to the light. Waves slapped at the canopy and washed over the hull as Cari guided her craft toward a silver van positioned almost at water's edge. The mobile test control center had been flown in from New Mexico along with most of the personnel now manning it. They'd staked a claim to this isolated stretch of south Texas beach to conduct their deep-water sea trials. Heavily armed marines from the nearby naval air station patrolled the perimeter of the test site. The coast guard had added its small Padre Island fleet to the navy ships that kept fishing trawlers and pleasure craft away from the test sector.
By the time Pegasus roared out of the rolling surf, a small crowd of uniformed officers had spilled out of the van. They hurried across the hard-packed sand as Cari killed the engines. Blowing out a long breath, she patted the console with a hand that shook more than she wanted to admit.
"Way to go, Pegasus."
Excerpted from The Right Stuff by Merline Lovelace Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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