Tempest Down

Tempest Down

by Jeff Rovin

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781429908412
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 04/01/2007
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 512,845
File size: 471 KB

About the Author

Jeff Rovin is the writer and creator of the New York Times bestselling Op-Center series. Rovin lives in Southern California.

Jeff Rovin has written dozens of novels, most notably Tom Clancy's Op-Center and its sequels, several of which have appeared on the New York Times bestseller list. He's written nonfiction books about myths, religion, and the Bible and brings that research to bear in Conversations With the Devil. Rovin lives in the New York area.

Read an Excerpt

Tempest Down



In 1938, when Maj. Tom Bryan was minus thirty-one years old--including womb time--his fate was determined by some farsighted member of the 75th Congress. This gentleman, whose name Major Bryan did not know, but who was probably from Texas, put together a committee that put together a report that decided the United States did not have sufficient pilot-training facilities to meet a military crisis should a crisis occur. The gentleman further recommended that such a facility be constructed in Texas, in Corpus Christi, a swath of bay-front where it was sunny an average of 255 days a year and not so hot that your ears hurt just from moving when you breathed.
The rest of Congress took a look at the U.S. military, took a look at the world situation with Germany and Japan acting more and more like pit bulls at a rib roast, and said okay. In March 1941, the new naval air station opened for business. Nine months later the Axis gave birth to World War II.
By war's end, thirty-five thousand aviators had learned their skills at NAS Corpus Christi. It was on its way to becoming the world's largest pilot-training facility. Today, Training Air Wing Four lets loose an average of four hundred highly qualified fliers every year. Of course, most of them did not fly the way Major Bryan did. They usually landed back at Corpus Christi and not on a plain some six hundred miles away. Also, their airplanes had engines.
The short, muscular Bryan was alone in the twenty-two-meter-long sailplane, a pearl-white, straight-winged, high-performance glider with a nearly clear, slightly bulbous cockpit. The aircraft looked like a banana on a stick with a high T-tail and long, skinny wings droppedbehind the pilot. The beauty of the plane was that if it showed up on radar at all, it looked like a big bird. With oxygen and a pressure suit the pilot could come in from fifteen to twenty thousand feet. He could launch from Florida and land in Cuba, from Saudi Arabia and land deep in Iraq, or from Pennsylvania and land in Virginia if the states ever went to war and he was called to fight for the home turf. Depending on the thermal currents, he could ride for just about as many hours as he could stand to soar, loop, dive, and rise again.
After being towed aloft by a Cessna, two miles out into the Gulf of Mexico, Bryan swung the gleaming bird around and pushed her toward the northwest. His destination was Brackettville, twenty miles southeast of Laughlin Air Force Base. His mission was twofold. First, he had to try to get into Laughlin's airspace without being asked to ID himself. Second, he had to land in a field and find a parcel that had been left there by a fellow member of his L.A.S.E.R. unit, Capt. Paul Gabriel. Of course, there was a time limit. If he did not find the package by 6:00 P.M., the results--he had been told--would not be pleasant. His commanding officer, Gen. Benjamin Scott, was inclined toward understatement.
The setup was fine with the major. He enjoyed high-risk scenarios. Otherwise, there would be no reason to hold the position of field commander for the U.S. military's new Land Air Sea Emergency Rescue unit. Since L.A.S.E.R.'s formation nine months before, the goal of the multiservice team had been to be able to get anywhere, at any time, to rescue trapped or stranded military personnel. That included extracting undercover intelligence operatives and rearming or retrieving troops under fire, cut off by an act of God, lost in bad weather, or simply broken down where traditional search-and-rescue operations could not reach them. It was not a job for underachievers.
This run, for example.
Bryan was not a pilot. L.A.S.E.R. was stationed at the Corpus Christi NAS for logistical reasons. It was a good staging area for air activity. He left the flying to others who had spent years in a cockpit. But sailplanes were different. There were a stick, two pedal controls for the rudder, and elevator controls. That much he could handle. It was similar to being in a rowboat. The pilot could feel the currents; the air was damn near solid. The one difference--and it was a big one--was that without a rowboat a man could still tread water. But Bryan didn't let that bother him either. Keeping the plane aloft, and intact, was part of the challenge. He had done test runs in two-seaters with an experienced pilot in the backseat. Except for the hard, ass-bonenumbing landings, he had done all right. And even the best pilots had those, Bryan was told.
"The lift at ten feet vertical is not very significant," his instructor--also a man of understatement--had told him. "Setting down at all is pretty impressive."
Bryan figured gravity would take care of that. All he had to do was make sure he was upright.
The major was running silent. If this were a real mission, there would be no communication between himself and his point of origin. The only concession to safety was a transponder that sent a high signal once every twenty minutes. The beep lasted less than a half second. Someone had to be listening for the sound to hear it. Bryan once had to parachute into a Tarlac jungle to evacuate a rescuer. The newbie, a Delta Force lieutenant, John Johns, had broken his leg on a jump to rescue a spy, a Philippine army scout ranger, who had been captured by the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group. Those things happened from time to time, but it was one of the most embarrassing turns extraction personnel could endure. It was far worse than the humid, hundred-plus heat and mouse-sized mosquitoes that called Tarlac's tropical jungle home. Bryan had been to some lousy places--Iraq in the summer, the north pole in the winter--but the four days sloshing through rivers that were hotter than coffee were his least favorite. He managed to save the ranger, then went back for the Delta Force lieutenant, who had found a grove of mahogany trees and stayed buried under a pile of leaves for three days. He'd stayed hydrated and fed by sucking roots and worms. He was proud to have fought and defeated a kingfisher for the rights to the territory.
The trip to Brackettville wasn't fast, but Major Bryan had enjoyed a mostly smooth ride since the towplane had cut him loose just over six hours before. He was following landmarks on a mini-laptop strapped to his right thigh. Linked to a military global positioning satellite, the image scrolled in all directions as the glider moved in those directions. Bryan also had a dome compass on his left wrist, just in case the laptop died or the sun was so bright it killed the display with glare.
For the past half hour the major had been at six thousand feet and holding. When a red star indicating Brackettville scrolled onto the four-by-six-inch LED monitor, Bryan used a combination of pedals and stick to begin his slow descent. The thermal currents were not as active at this hour as they were in the morning. There was relatively little lift though the air was busy. It bumped and rolled under the wings, tilting him several degrees with each knock. He compensated with the pedals and stick as he continued to drop. The digital altimeter clicked past three thousand feet. Clouds were spotty and he avoided them as he watched the ground. Once he dropped below one thousand feet, the heated air would not be ascending with sufficient force tokeep him airborne. There would be nothing for him to rise on. He would have to set down. When he did, he needed to be in the target area.
Holding the stick in his left hand, the thirty-four-year-old officer touched a button on the computer with his right. His blue eyes squinted. His leg had to stay where it was to keep his foot on the pedal, but the sunlight coming through the window threw a glare on the monitor. Bad planning. He undid the Velcro straps to get a closer look at the monitor. He touched a button to overlay a grid.
"Okay, champ," he muttered. "The Nueces River is nine point two miles behind me due east, which means that I need to set down in what is just coming into grid-mark D4, which is three miles to the northwest." Bryan looked out the right window and smiled. "And there are the two knolls in D4. We are on target."
The major tucked the laptop into the small section of seat between his legs. He could still see the monitor there if he needed it. Toggling the elevators and ailerons, he nosed the sleek aircraft down and felt his stomach go up. He pulled back slightly to level off. He would have to circle the target wide to cut his height and still come in relatively level. The lumpy air continued to rock him. He had to hold the laptop tighter with the bottoms of his thighs.
"Those muscles are gonna hurt in the morning."
So would his tarsi, from dancing on the pedals all these hours. The interesting thing about being what was called a versatile mission specialist was that you were continually discovering parts of the body that most people never paid attention to. On the north pole training mission, which involved recovering a dummy missile that had been fired from a military satellite--strictly speaking, not a violation of United Nations resolution 55/122 on the peaceful uses of outer space, since the projectile was unarmed--Bryan had done something he had done countless times. He was using a pocketknife to pry the three-foot-long missile from an icy ledge and matter-of-factly put the thing in his mouth. The knife began to freeze to his upper lip and he had to yank it free. That hurt like red burning hell. What hurt more was that he couldn't kiss his fiancée for a month when he got back. That probably didn't have a lot to do with her breaking off the engagement. The long separations and that he was now working closely with Lt. Woodstock Black were mostly to blame. It didn't help that there was nothing between Bryan and Black except close proximity on role call. But Patty couldn't handle that. She ended up marrying some rich yacht guy who lived on his boat. Bryan hoped they both drowned.
The major punched through a small cloud--it was the most direct route and he was busy keeping the sailplane level--as he dropped belowtwelve hundred feet. There was no time left to circle. He had to commit.
His heart kicked in its adrenaline-rush contribution as his gloved hands clutched the increasingly free-moving stick. It had been cold aloft; now it was warmer, plus he was perspiring from the wrists down. Without air to resist, the stick was disturbingly easy to move. Conversely, it produced little change in his course. He was slicing through the air with increasing speed, or what seemed like increasing speed, as the ground rose to greet him. He did what he could to remain as level as he could. His instructor had told him to keep the nose above the horizon, about ten degrees, to compensate for the loss of lift during the descent. He did that. He was moving forward with a ground speed of about sixty-five miles an hour. He was at five hundred feet and change. A few moments later he was at four hundred feet. He stopped using the altimeter and eyeballed his descent. He picked out a flat stretch of plain. He knew the scrub and gullies would seem a whole lot larger when he was tearing through it, but he would have to deal with that. Or rather, the plane would.
A plane on the plain.
It seemed funny, for the second that Bryan thought about it before the ground closed in and the wheels made rough contact, first starboard, then port, then starboard, then port, then both, each time with an ugly bounce before the nose finally settled in. He felt each jolt in his butt and up his back to his skull, as though he'd thought a chair were somewhere but wasn't and he'd sat down hard on a concrete stoop. The contours of the landscape added to the discomfort as the plane hopped and kicked like a mule. Or at least, what he thought a mule would do. He didn't meet a lot of them growing up in suburban Philadelphia.
Still, it was good to be down. He was still speeding ahead, but Bryan didn't feel as if he'd nose over. It was simply a matter of riding this out.
Bryan kissed the pedals with his boot, as he'd been taught. The wingflaps raised and the sailplane slowed. The major was impressed that the aircraft continued to move dead ahead despite all the knocks it took. The weight of the wings, on the ground, had something to do with that, he decided. They probably served as counterweights. Such a simple machine, but so damn marvelous.
After what was probably about a minute--the seconds counted out by the "knocks and rocks" as they called tear-assing across open terrain in a jeep--the plane just died. It was as though the aircraft had never even been active. There was no hum of a motor, no venting of vapors, no anything. Just stillness. Except in and on Major Bryan. His fleshwas still electrified, sweat had filled every part of his pressure suit and was still leaking here and there, and his hair was soaked and cool under his helmet. The oxygen mask he had been wearing at the higher altitudes was hanging from the right side of the helmet. A moment ago it had been jiggling like turkey wattles. Now it was still.
"The turkey has landed," he said with mock-importance.
The forced-air ventilation had stopped when the plane did. It was getting hot and stuffy fast. Bryan reached to the left, raised the two latches, and popped the dome. The outside air provided no relief. But then, this was Texas.
Bryan strapped the laptop onto his leg and rose. He was used to riding in cramped seats of trucks and cargo planes and military helicopters for extended periods, hitching rides wherever he could get them. But he wasn't typically applying pressure with both feet for that entire period. His legs were so weak they tingled when he tried to stand. He had to grip the sides of the cockpit to keep from dropping back into the seat. After a few minutes he managed to get them under him and climbed from the plane. He gave it an appreciative pat on the side as his feet touched down with a crunch. Dust clouds flew from both feet. He removed his helmet and set it in the cockpit. He drew sunglasses from a vest pocket and slipped them on.
"On laptop," he said as he punched the buttons. "Or are you a thigh-top? Got to be PC with my PC."
He selected LOCAL VIEW from the menu and brought up a map of the region. The computer was too large for his arm but it was awkward looking at the monitor on his thigh. He was standing there with his leg twisted at the ankle as if he were checking a run in his stockings. He would have to tell the R&D guys to come up with something better. A heads-up display for the helmet visor, for example.
He looked at the map, figured out where he was and where he had to go, and started toward it. The local map had a countdown clock on top. He still had forty-two minutes and change to locate whatever it was that General Scott had sent him for. Plenty of time.
The prize was located at square G21. Unlike the laptop's larger view, which plugged into both the global positioning satellite and the sailplane's compass, and kept the picture scrolling, Bryan had to use the mouse pad to move around the local map. Another ungainly action. He could just picture one of General Scott's field units coming out here to plant whatever it was. If it was something important or dangerous, they would probably have been out here today. Possibly before dawn, before it got this hot. They might even be watching. Looking down at the straw-colored dirt and dirt-colored weeds, Bryan flipped a nondirectional bird, just in case they were. The only thing he hatedmore than screwing up was being caught by surprise. The only thing he hated more than that was someone thinking they had pulled a "gotcha"--
G21 was just a few yards away. He stopped. He looked around. He made a sour face. No one had been here. There were no tracks anywhere. Farther in the southwest, where Patton's army had drilled before heading to Europe, tank treads were still visible in the earth. But there was nothing here. No tire treads or strut marks from helicopters. Nothing.
And then he realized what he was looking for. What was supposed to happen.
Bryan looked over at the real-world counterpart to G21. He wanted to know exactly where it was. About ten feet ahead, in a flat stretch of nothing. He knelt where he was and removed the thigh-top. He took his lip-searing Swiss army knife from another pocket. He turned the computer over and used the tiny screwdriver to take off the battery panel.
Two tiny packages were stuffed inside, along with a tiny cadmium battery. Obviously, whatever larger battery the unit had been designed to accept had been replaced by something that would give Bryan just enough juice to get here.
He set the computer on the ground and studied the packets. One of them was filled with silver particles. It had a tiny computer chip and what looked like a small detonator cap attached to it. The other packet was filled with a red powder.
"That devious prick."
Bryan used a knife blade to pry loose the package with the silver particles. There were no wires attaching it to the other package. And why should there be? The device wouldn't need them. Bryan left the computer where it was and strolled toward G21. His legs felt fine now. He was juiced. Avoiding what he had hopefully just avoided was like using steroids.
The major stopped within a yard of G21. Holding the packet like a beanbag, he tossed it ahead. It hit the ground with a spangly sound and a little burst of dirt-cloud. A few seconds later the packet flashed big and white. The global positioning satellite had sent a signal to the computer chip, which had turned it into an electrical impulse. That had triggered the detonator cap, which had ignited the packet of magnesium particles. Had Bryan walked over here with the thigh-top, the same thing would have happened. With one major difference. The flare would have split the second packet, which contained red dye. The tint would have stuck to his suit, hands, and probably his face. It would have stayed there for days.
The popped cherry. A spray of red to signify that someone was no longer a virgin. It was usually planted in pillows, lockers, bath towels, or shaving kits. It left a big, fat, visible sign that kept someone from getting cocky. It reminded them that they were in the game but still new at it. The ribbing they took helped to reinforce that sense of humility. If Bryan had gone back wearing it, the jokes would have gone on long after the dye had faded.
Bryan smiled. He watched as the magnesium flare died to a whitish fog, then sputtered and vanished. He had to admit it was a smart mission. Scott didn't like his people taking anything for granted. Especially senior officers who were often putting other lives in jeopardy. That was worse than virginity. It was irresponsibility.
Bryan kicked dirt on the packet to make sure the fire was out. Then he returned to the glider. A small 3324SE secure phone was tucked behind the seat. It was the same phone Bryan and the other L.A.S.E.R. team members took on missions. It fit neatly in a briefcase and also contained a DSP-9000 tactical radio ciphering system for remote units. He yanked it from the cockpit and walked back along the fuselage. After checking the ground for scorpions, he plopped cross-legged in the shade of the wing. He rang the general's office. Scott's aide put him right through.
"Target achieved, sir," he said.
"Glad to hear that, Major. Did you have a good flight in?"
"Uneventful. It's a nice machine. Oh, and, sir? I did not--repeat--did not acquire a sunburn."
Scott laughed. "So the team from Laughlin reported. They're watching from the hills. They caught your little signal to them. Had you seen the unit up there?"
"No, sir," Bryan replied. "That was a 'just in case.'"
"In case what?"
"In case I was being watched."
"Should I call that to the attention of the med officer, Major?" the general asked. "Are you becoming paranoid?"
"I'd call it a preemptive strike, sir."
"Okay, Major. I'll buy that. What made you suspect the computer?"
"The fire-retardant layer in my suit would have protected me from the flare," Bryan said. "The computer was the only thing outside of it."
"Very good."
"Thank you, sir. Did the AFB pick me up on radar?"
"You were observed but not footnoted," Scott said. "The signature was apparently similar to a circling buzzard. A very clean passage."
Major Bryan felt, then heard, the beat of helicopter rotors. It sounded as though it was coming from the hills. It was difficult to tell because of the echo. Probably the spy boys coming to get him.
"Your ride out will be there in a few minutes," Scott said. "Unless you want to wait for the tow and fly your buzzard to Laughlin."
"No, thank you," Bryan said. "I want something with an engine and a little legroom."
Scott congratulated him again as a black spot of a helicopter appeared in the distance, smudged by the ripples of ground heat. Bryan uncrossed his legs and stretched them full, even the toes. That felt good. The whole thing felt good.
For the moment. And in his business, that was the best he could ask for.
Major Bryan got a lift back to NASCC from Lieutenant Perry, a pilot with the Forty-seventh Aerospace Dental Squadron. They flew a T-37B Tweet, a twin-engine training jet in which the trainee and pilot sit side by side. Perry told Bryan that when his hitch was up, he hoped to run for Congress from his home district in Louisiana. Bryan wasn't sure that service in the ADS was going to be a major asset running for public office, though the lieutenant did have a killer smile. That was just as important.
Bryan had never thought of military service as a means to an end. That seemed crass. To him, it was about serving the nation and its citizens. In that respect, he couldn't have done better than landing with L.A.S.E.R.
The L.A.S.E.R. team was an outgrowth of the Disaster Preparedness Center at the Corpus Christi Naval Air Station. Early in its evolution the base was directed to monitor hurricanes, cyclones, and tropical storms that were moving through the Gulf of Mexico. As defined by charter, the Command Mission was to provide within areas of responsibility as assigned by the Commander, Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command, operational meteorology and oceanography services to the Armed Forces of the Department of Defense. In 1963 that mission was expanded to include rescue operations at sea and in regions of intense flooding, which the NAS was well equipped to do. Their teams were trained expressly for those activities.
When Gen. Benjamin Scott was transferred to NASCC from the Pentagon, he made it a priority to expand the activities of the DPC. He did that partly because it was necessary and partly because he was angry "at being backwatered to the NAS." Apparently, some conflict in Washington had threatened to become a court-martial if General Scott did not request the relocation. At first, Bryan heard, General Scott had resisted. He was a fighter. He liked the work he was doingat the Pentagon, running the National Emergency Airborne Command post. The NEAC was a rapid-response team that responded to domestic crises and worked to prevent them. Those included acts of God, acts of terror, military accidents or security breakdowns, and domestic disasters. Eventually, however, he yielded to direct pressure from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The president was running for reelection and he didn't want Scott's problems to make it seem as if the military were above censure.
It was never proven whether the issue that forced him to request the transfer, that he had slugged a fellow officer, a French officer, was bona fide or not. Major Bryan did not know the circumstances; the complaint and transcript of the hearings of the board of inquiry were sealed. But Major Bryan had a theory about the event. When Bryan was a kid, his favorite novel was The Count of Monte Cristo, in which Edmond Dantes was wrongly persecuted and imprisoned. He fought back with incredible fury, not resting until everyone who had helped to frame him had been destroyed. A man didn't do that if he was guilty. An officer did not start life over again, set himself a formidable goal on an impossible timetable, and succeed unless he had something to prove. He would only do that if he was innocent.
At least, that was Major Bryan's view.
So the sixty-three-year-old General Scott had moved himself and his wife, Wendy--a retired air force captain--to Texas, where he worked the friends he had in Washington, especially those who felt he'd been screwed. Over the next two fiscal years they put more and more money into the DPC so that Scott could refashion and expand it. He collected a team composed of hazardous-duty volunteers from the different services. He selected the best of these and took everything that was wrong with NEAC--including the noncentral location, the shared personnel, and especially the bureaucracy--and created L.A.S.E.R. Within two years, NEAC had been so severely downgraded that virtually all of its activities were being run from the NASCC. By General Scott.
Scott had already gone home by the time Bryan arrived. The general obviously considered the phone debriefing to have been sufficient. Bryan went to his quarters on the base, took a shower, then went to the mess hall for dinner. Though he had been here for nine months, Bryan did not know many of the officers outside L.A.S.E.R. It was a curious thing. In times of peace, the rivalry between services was intense. In times of war it was even more intense. Everyone wanted to be the first ones in, wherever "in" was--a beach, a bunker, a city. Support for whichever unit took point position was absolute, but the competition was still there.
L.A.S.E.R. was multiservice. Among members, the rivalry came second to the needs of the unit. Outsiders had a somewhat different view. Rather than pick and choose the L.A.S.E.R. members they would associate with, the sailors at NASCC avoided them altogether, save for the obligatory salute or the occasional "good morning" among equals. There was nothing impolite about it; that's just the way the services were run--"We're number one and you're not." It didn't make for easy socializing.
Bryan grabbed two cold sandwiches that were left in the racks--pinkish, pig-looking meat of some kind, on whole wheat for the grainy needs of the now health-conscious navy. He sat on a plastic chair, wincing as he settled on a seat that was still sore from the sailplane landing.
Fewer than a dozen people were spread among thirty-odd tables. One of them was a member of L.A.S.E.R., army lieutenant Woodstock Black. Woody hadn't noticed Bryan enter because she had her back to the door and was reading. The twenty-nine-year-old explosives specialist did not know the meaning of the word "downtime." If she wasn't reading scientific papers and journals--chemistry had been her college major--she was studying engineering or geology textbooks to teach herself about stress points and where structures, metals, and natural formations were most vulnerable. She'd once freed soldiers from a cave in Afghanistan because she'd recognized the feldspar wall as plagioclase and knew how to punch through it using just detonator caps. Woody once said that she was the worst nightmare of her former-hippie, UC Berkeley, philosophy-teaching unmarried parents: a politically conservative soldier who blew things up for the Establishment. Maybe her parents had had a different plan for the young woman, but Bryan liked having Woody at his back. Any details he missed in training, during planning, or on a mission he knew his sharp-minded subordinate would sweep up.
Halfway through his second sandwich, Bryan saw Paul Gabriel stride in. Gabriel was a marine captain and house-in-motion, thick and solid with arms like oak trees. His head was the dormer, no neck with these big window-eyes. He was L.A.S.E.R.'s strategic offense officer. Scott had taught his people to look at rescue operations like combat: the enemy was a situation, not a group of individuals, but it was still powerful and unpredictable, it still had to be contained, and lives had to be preserved. Like Bryan, Gabriel was a veteran of the first Gulf War. Unlike Bryan, Gabriel was sorry to leave. Like General Patton, who had wanted to fight the Russians after World War II while he already had troops in Europe, Gabriel had wanted to go into Kuwaitand seize the oil fields, then double back and finish Iraq after they figured they were safe. It would have saved the United States a second trip.
"It made tactical sense," the six-foot-five Gabriel had explained to Major Bryan and General Scott when he was first interviewed for L.A.S.E.R. "If we had that extra oil, we wouldn't have to care what the rest of the oil-producing countries did, didn't do, thought, or wanted."
Gabriel's outspokenness concerned Bryan a little, but Scott had responded to it. The general's happy embrace of Gabriel's USA-centric idea was the one and only time Bryan had wondered whether Scott really had punched that French officer.
The captain tapped Woody on the back as he passed. She turned, saw him, smiled warmly, and saw Bryan at the same time. The smile broadened. While Gabriel got a can of Dr Pepper from the dispenser, Woody closed her magazine and walked over. She pushed short blond hair from her eyes as she sat down.
"You made it," she said. Her eyes held his. They were looking for the answer to a question she hadn't asked.
"Yep," he replied.
"No excitement?"
He rolled a shoulder. "Nothing. Certainly not a red-letter day, if that's what you're asking."
"Yes!" she said. "I knew you'd dodge the bullet."
"So. Did everyone know about the dye but me?"
"Not everyone," the lieutenant replied.
"Who's 'not everyone'?"
"Gabriel, the general, and me. We knew." Woodstock added apologetically, "Someone had to rig the packet to blow."
"Patriot. Orders."
"I see."
"But I did it under protest," she said, "and I'm glad you weren't tagged. Especially with the Laughlin boys watching."
"Tell me, did the general have anything else planned if I took a paint ball? He's big on follow-through."
Gabriel arrived. He threw his log of a leg over a chair back and saluted as he sat down. "Major--it would have been bad for us all."
"How so?"
"Public humiliation." Gabriel popped his Dr Pepper. "Pure Benjamin Scott. A gentle kick in the pants. I'm not sure what, but one we wouldn't forget. The bad thing is, not many people will know that you succeeded."
"Why is that a bad thing?" Bryan asked.
"People should know you're the best," Gabriel said. "They'll respect you."
"If people think you're the best, they'll watch even closer to see you stumble," Woodstock said. She picked up her copy of Product Engineering and leafed through it. "Or they'll call you out to prove themselves. I'd rather just do my job and feel like I earned sack time."
"I'm not convinced," Gabriel said.
"Let me ask you something," Woodstock said.
"You're lying on your deathbed--"
"Hear me out," she said. "You're lying on your deathbed and your final thought is about your life's work. Would you rather be thinking, 'Paul Gabriel, you did your best' or 'Paul Gabriel, you got your name in lights'?"
"Both," he replied.
"No. One or the other."
"One leads to the other," he insisted.
"Not necessarily," the lieutenant said.
"Then I can't answer that," Gabriel said. "Life isn't so clear-cut."
Bryan grinned. "Sometimes it is. You get painted red or you don't. We succeed on a mission or we don't."
"Exactly," Woodstock said.
Gabriel shook his head. "There are textures to everything."
Bryan drained the plastic container of orange juice and rose. "This is too heavy for me right now. I'm turning in. Do we know what time we're getting dunked tomorrow?"
The first Monday of every other month was big-scale disaster rehearsal for the full L.A.S.E.R. team. Typically, Scott organized the destruction of specially built structures or mothballed planes, trucks, buses, choppers, tanks, or other vessels. Tomorrow was an old destroyer.
"Eight A.M. call," Woodstock said. "I've got to get there early to punch a hole to let the bay in, so you get an extra two hours' sleep."
"Excellent," Bryan said.
"I'm still waiting to get that midair transfer the general's been talking about," Gabriel said. "I've got a twenty-dollar bet with Captain Puckett that says there's no way he's going out at the end of a canvas tether, getting banged around the atmosphere as he's lowered into another plane, and not blow chunks."
"And you base this opinion on what research?" Woodstock asked. "The man is a pilot. I've seen him do tight barrel rolls, one after another after another."
"I know. It's just a psych. I want to see if it works."
"You pull him down a notch in the L.A.S.E.R. big sausage-hang ranking, and you rise, is that it?"
"He'd do the same to me."
"You're both insane," Woody said. "But speaking of bets, pay up."
"Shoot, I don't have any--"
"I saw the wad when you put a buck in the pop machine. Pay."
"Okay, okay." Gabriel wore an unusually contrite look as he shoved a large hand in his small pocket. He used two fingers to fish out a thin wad of bills and peeled off a ten.
"What's that for?" Bryan asked.
"Nothing," Gabriel said.
"He bet you'd come back looking like a lobster," Woody said.
Gabriel frowned at her. "Thanks."
"What, I can't play sausage hang with the big boys?" she asked.
"Excuse me, but you bet against me?" Bryan complained.
"It was just a 'bet,'" Gabriel said.
"Against me."
"Not really. It's not like it was a wish or what I thought would happen. It was just a wager."
"Against. Me."
Woodstock smiled at Gabriel to soften the blow as she rolled her magazine, said good-night, and left the mess hall.
Gabriel watched her go. "That was good."
"She kicked you in each nut, ping and pong, and then left to hit the hay." Bryan clapped the larger man's shoulder. Then he grabbed his juice container, tossed it in the trash can, and walked off.
"Sir?" Gabriel called after him.
Bryan turned.
"I just want to say, Major, that my balls notwithstanding, I'm glad."
"About what?"
"That I lost."
Bryan grinned. "Now that's the measure of a big man, Captain. Good night."
"Good night, sir."
Major Bryan left the mess hall feeling not so bad about his bruised tailbone. Come morning, that would be healed.
TEMPEST DOWN. Copyright © 2004 by Jeff Rovin. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

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