Nick of Time

What if a group of friends happen to open Pandora's box and are forced to close it down before things have gone too nasty? What if things going too nasty means the defamation, or rather, the annihilation of the most powerful country in the planet?


2. Prologue

Edwards Air Force Base, Rosamund, California

February 13 2012, 09:55 pm PST


“Five-minute-tentative until take-off, sir.”


“Thanks, Eddie,” Matthews answered without looking back. He inched closer to the domed glass wall. His hands were clenched together behind his back in a seeming manner of exuding authority, but one was actually restraining the palsy of the other. He was surveying the heavy blackness outside with a kind of childish fascination, wondering why he had to be on the other side of this boundary, this glass wall, which easily separated the welcoming peace of night from this abominable chaos he was a part of. His reflection in the glass that he had been ignoring with some effort grimaced at the thought.


Brigadier General Roger J. Matthews was getting older, a fact people around him were only too enthusiastic to point out. The signs they looked for were all there - lines turning deeper across his face, his hair growing thinner with interspersed tufts of gray, his hairline receding up his balding pate - yet, Matthews was sure he was years away from the onset of senility. He never said this out loud to anyone. His response for his buddies’ remarks on his age would be a smile, one that served as an asserting gesture to their comments, and they grinned back with more content. Matthews knew he would be as snappy as the young lieutenant he once was as long as his main assets functioned properly; his eyes. The accuracy of their vision had been looked up with awe and envy even by many other accomplished pilots. It gave Matthews a queer sense of pride though it was none of his own achievement, like the beauty of a pretty girl gave her pride. His sharp eye sight, along with his love for flight and his determination to thrive, had been the blessing of his career, which spanned twenty years now in United States Air Force. He had innumerable successfully completed missions to his name as Experimental Test Pilot of F-15s and F/A-22s, more than 3500 flight hours, combat experience in F-111 and F-15E and many more accomplishments in his repertoire, most of which he himself had forgotten.


When Roger Matthews was named the Commander of 412th Test Wing a year back, he was the happiest man on the USAF. It had all the elements he loved the most. It had hours and hours of testing pilots and flights. It brought him closest to the magic of upcoming technologies in aviation. It gave him the chance to develop and evaluate F-22s and F-35s, but most importantly the bombers, B-2s and B-52s; he loved the bomber crafts. His office as the commander of the Wing brought under his direct control the second largest military air force base in United States, Edwards Air Force Base. All the more welcoming reason to be of service, he had thought. He was sure he was going to see much action in the Air Force Test Center, the prime section of the base, in the coming days, and he took up the challenge of preparing the air crafts to combat with interest. His office had been good, giving him all the adventure he expected of it, until tonight.


The nightmare started almost a month back. It certainly was a nightmare, because it started at a night and awakened him from his sleep. Matthews was a methodical man; he lived by ironclad time schedules. For him, an unwelcome lapse in his routine at any point of time put the whole order of the rest of his day at risk, much like a misplaced brick put the whole building standing above it in jeopardy. A disturbance even before the day started placed the faulty brick right at the base of the building. He scrabbled for his cell phone, jammed an angry finger into its touch screen, and demanded who the hell it was. A sweet female voice on the other end asked if it was Brigadier General Roger J. Matthews. He said it was. “Apologize me to call you at this late hour, General. This is Holly Smith from The Pentagon. The Secretary of Defense wishes to speak with you. Would you be so kind as to answer?”


In the days that followed, Matthews was debriefed by various four-star people about the mission he was to look over in almost a month’s time. His part was simple, he was told, it just involved a transportation. His security clearance was suddenly declared high, and he was led into paneled rooms far away from his command, was made to take oaths of secrecy in front of people he had known only by titles. He understood he was going to play a small part in the execution of a mammoth leap his country’s defense was preparing itself to take. He could also see the small part he was going to play relative to the stupendous plan in the background, nevertheless, would be a determining factor in his own career.


He looked into his watch. Three more minutes.


A semblance of order was slowly creeping into the flurry of activity that had been going on behind him. He turned around and swept a leisurely look across the whole chamber. For a clandestine activity taking place in an unadorned corner safely away from the snooping eyes of the media, he observed, it involved a lot of people. He had not realized it while he was in the midst of the crowd and making himself a part of it, but now he saw the room was pretty populous. There were people everywhere. People hunched over monitors, people yelling into the mouthpieces of microphones stemming from their ears, people running around with sheafs of papers disgorged by printers and people pawing at the consoles mounted on walls. Some of them were clad in USAF blues, some in service dress like himself, and a few in plain clothes. Each of them was buried in his or her own work, fully aware that each had been handpicked by higher command on account of his or her security clearance and skill level, backed up by careful study of background, and that the piece of work he or she did was indispensable in its own way for the whole machinery to run properly or else they would not have been here at all. They paid scant attention to the man in control.


His eyes were drawn to the pair huddled together on the other end the room. They were facing away and into the darkness of the night as he had been. One of them was the most powerful man in the room at present; General Stephen Wright, The Chief of Staff of the Air Force, CSAF. The woman talking in hushed tones at his side was General Danielle Cunningham, Commander of Air Force Material Command, AFMC, which controlled the base. General Cunningham had arrived at Edwards Air Force Base this morning from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, where the headquarters of AFMC is situated. She held a hour-long meeting with Matthews immediately after a breakfast she relished and he skipped. She explained him, all too courteously, about how things had been arranged in his favor with meticulous deliberation by many unnamed specialists across many of their sister agencies and United States Armed Forces. Her lecture had the sound of being informative, but Matthews could read between the lines. She did not say anything he had not known, but her earnest tone made him uneasy. It was only after that meeting his anxiety for success sidestepped to portray him a grisly image of failure. If he succeeded, the day would be nothing more than addition to his numerous achievements. If he failed, however, everyone would be at his throat.


He pushed the thought away and let his eyes wander to the only other prominent person in the room. She was talking animatedly on phone, probably with one of the technicians in the ramp regarding the after-checks he had to do once her handiwork had been fixed to its place. She was Chitra Venkatesh, the director of DARPA. Standing next to her was a guy named Noah Barocas. Venkatesh was gesturing at him to verify if her instructions on phone were correct, and he was nodding energetically at her. Barocas and his team had designed the deadly weapon that must have been affixed by now into the belly of the most advanced air craft in USAF’s history. He was the creator of the technology that had elicited all this fuss.


“Gentlemen, we have our pilots on board now.” Edward Harris, the chief of Air Traffic control team for tonight’s mission, announced in the mike by his monitor. People hurried to their places. Air Traffic controllers to the consoles overlooking the radar transmissions and monitors showing the overviews of the base, Communication squad to its final check of the communication equipment, and the rest to their respective stations, each of which would start sending its report to ATC in a moment’s time. Matthews went over and stood behind Harris. Cunningham joined him. He glanced at her side and she gave him a tense smile. Venkatesh and Barocas now stood behind another controller, pointing at and commenting on something showing up on his monitor. From the corner of his eye, Matthews saw General Wright still standing beside the curve of the glass wall, his arms folded now, his face still turned away.


“Control, this is Escort One, filling in for the Trident.” A voice came floating from Harris’s console.


“Hello, Escort One, this is Control. Other arms of the Trident, please copy and respond,” said Harris into his mouthpiece.


“Copy Control. This is Escort Two.”


“Hello Control,” Matthews winced a little as the voice came over. “This is Pegasus. How ya doin’??”


Harris looked uncertain for a moment. Matthews took a cursory glance at Cunningham and she raised an eyebrow at him. None of them expected a pilot with his ass perched on a 900-million-dollar worth of bomber craft, with the deadliest weapon imaginable buried in its entrails, to be in high spirits like this. Matthews was sure the other guy in the craft, the co-pilot of this fool, would be strung out so hard right now with the weight of this huge responsibility that he might be pissing in his pants. Nothing wrong with  him; so was everyone, except this lad here. Matthews had not heard of him until two weeks ago. His jaw fell when Cunningham told him, with a barely restrained urge to roll her eyes, that the fate of the mission would depend on the prowess of a Captain in his late twenties. He started to complain the role and age were both inappropriate for a mission of such a magnitude. Cunningham held up her hand at him. “It is the Big Guy’s decision,” she said, referring to General Wright. Big Guy was how they called him; it was not entirely a figurative name per se. “He says this guy might be young but he got the thing in him. We might as well go along with his instincts,” she said. The fact Ralph Caldwell, the Captain in question, had a dossier that screamed of numerous cases of insubordination and unconventional flight plans helped only to worsen Matthews’s fears.


Harris recovered immediately. “Doing good, Pegasus.” Then, as an afterthought, he added, “Good flight to you.”


“Thanks, boyo,” chimed Caldwell.


Harris cleared his throat, and spoke into the mouthpiece. “Trident, Escort One will stay with tower, filling in for all the three of you. The three of you are to copy and acknowledge the instructions from the tower. Escort One will respond in behalf of you all. Is that clear?”


“Roger that,” Responses came one after the other from the three aircrafts.


The computer monitors of all the controllers were bathed in streaks of green, celluloid outlines of the base’s overview. Harris was organizing the inputs from other operators and managing them with a dexterity Matthews envied. He was also barking instructions to the pilots concurrently as if the action was executed by a separate department of his brain.


“Control, Escort One ready to copy IFR to Andrews AFB,” said the pilot of Escort One. His name was Julian Reed.


“Escort One, cleared to Andrews AFB via radar vectors as filed. Fly runaway heading. Climb and maintain eight thousand feet; expect one five thousand ten minutes after departure. Depart on 133.9, squawk 0334.”


“Cleared Andrews AFB via radar vectors as filed, fly runaway heading, up to eight thousand feet, departure 133.9, squawk 0334, Escort One.” repeated Major Reed.


“Control Tower automated weather information Zulu,” Another controller sitting next to Harris spoke into his mike. “Winds 300 at 6. Visibility at 2. Few clouds at 8000 feet. Temperature 10, dew point 5. Altimeter 29.90.”


Matthews looked at the miniature replicas of the aircrafts in the hangar glowing green on the screen. Radar detection had been activated.


“Control, Escort One ready to taxi IFR, with Zulu.”


“Escort One, steer onto taxiway lima to two two.”


“Steer onto taxiway lima to two-two, Escort One.”


The radar projection of Escort One, an F-15E Strike Eagle, moved from the domain marked ‘HANGAR’ towards the runway marked ‘22L’ in halting steps. Matthews could visualize in his mind’s eye the sleek figure of the fighter craft trundling along the tarmac, its wings heavy with AIM-9 Sidewinders and AIM-120 AMRAAMs, its progress looked over by a group of airmen with their arms gesticulating to clear up the way or to signal the pilot. It was a perfect replica of Escort Two, which waited in the hangar behind Pegasus. The lineup of two F-15s would provide the air security for the transportation. The pilots, Major Reed in Escort One and Major Zachary Lynch in Escort Two, were personally chosen by Matthews. His recommendation was followed by an assessment session presided over by General Wright. Both the Majors, Reed and Lynch, had been under the covert surveillance of FBI since then.


“Control, Escort One ready for takeoff IFR, runway two-two lima,” Reed announced once the green icon of Escort One entered the runway 22L.


Harris leaned forward to the microphone, his eyes lingering for a silent moment on his screen. Then he said, “Escort One, winds three zero zero at seven. Cleared for take-off.”


“Cleared for takeoff, runway two-two lima, Escort One.”


The F-15 drifted along the runway, its progress step by hesitant step. But Matthews knew that down below, far ahead in the lighted confines of hangar, the fighter would be racing down the runway in breakneck speed with a grace that belied the threat it possessed. The altimeter suddenly stirred to life, and he knew Escort One had taken off. The height displayed in the altimeter climbed swiftly as the plane soared high in the air and into the night. The figures continued to rise until the Eagle reached eight thousand feet, now settling into a fluctuation of ten feet on either side.


“Escort One, climb and maintain one five thousand now,” said Harris.


“Roger. Up to one five thousand, Escort One.” The numbers increased accordingly in the altimeter.


Harris patiently repeated the process with the other two arms of the Trident. The Pegasus came in second. The aircraft had been named ‘C-3’ unofficially, since it took after most of the features of B-2 bomber including a semblance of its looks. On the radar display, its electronic representation looked just like a moth. Its radar signature was red against the surrounding green.


“That asshole must be thrilled like hell,” Cunningham leaned closer and whispered. She meant Caldwell. She cast a quick, wary look over her shoulder at General Wright. He stood statuesque, still looking away into the night.


“Clear to take-off, Pegasus.”


“Taking off now, Control. Up we go, Pegasus.”


Matthews wished he were standing at the tarmac below right now to witness the grace with which C-3 took off, albeit he had seen it happen a hundred times. The bomber came into his command to be tested in Air Force Test Center three months back. Matthews had been debriefed that the C-3 project was launched a year back in Air Force Plant 42, led by Boeing, and it was a clandestine activity shrouded carefully from the outer world by the command of Joint Chiefs of Staff. This was the deadliest plane ever to take to air. Perhaps by a twist of fate, its first mission involved carrying the most threatening weapon in American arsenal from Edwards Air Force Base to Andrews Air Force Base in Virginia, where it would be presented to the President and the Secretary of Defense. Matthews never imagined he would be weighed with this much responsibility within a month’s time.


“Pegasus on air,” proclaimed Captain Darren Mitchell, Caldwell’s co-pilot in the mission.


“Pegasus, climb and maintain one five thousand.”


Mitchell copied and repeated it. Pegasus’s height rose to 1500 in the altimeter. Matthews turned sideways to look at the towered structure standing four hundred yards away from the control tower, by the old control tower. It was erected in a month’s span. The specialized radar the tower housed, the one named ‘the Beacon’, was giving the feeds that showed Pegasus here in screen. This bomber, C-3, was the apotheosis of stealth technology. B-2 was also a stealth bomber, yet no stealth bomber is completely invisible. You just have to see the pattern of birds flying, or filter out the small anomalies. A seasoned radar operator would find your stealth aircraft given time if he pleased and persevered. C-3, however, was miles past that limitation, and that was what made it very special. No radar would be able to track C-3. Once it rose into air, it would be lost in the air space. Completely invisible. They tested it countless times with many test pilots in the Test Center, but not even the most experienced radar men could triangulate the craft. Pegasus was bound to the control tower only by Beacon. The Beacon was an advanced radar tailor-made to improve the tracking of C-3, or rather, execute it. Beacon could barge in and zero in on the sleek body of C-3 where normal radar waves could not reflect from its smooth edges. They developed the most ambitious plane on the planet, Matthews thought, fixed the weapon of the century into it and put a half-baked fucker on top of them both.


Five minutes later, all three planes were airborne. They were flying in tandem, a span of a quarter of a mile separating one from the next. Escort One led the line up, Pegasus followed and Escort Two brought up the rear. The Eagles had turned on their stealth mode, too. They were invisible now, but not quite. Pegasus was stained red by the Beacon. A huge, collective sigh had escaped in the control room as the Trident took off successfully and settled nicely into the preordained flight plan.


“Six hours, people.” a controller announced. “Our boys would be aloft for six hours.”


Matthews nodded thoughtfully. Cunningham patted lightly on his back. “That went well,” she said. He looked up at her and offered a tired smile. “It’s far from over, Danielle,” he said. She did not reply. She moved away from the console, taking up her place in Wright’s side again. They resumed their quiet talk. Matthews stayed a moment longer. He watched Harris communicate with the pilots in a language of runaway jargons, his subordinates assisting him with weather and conditions. Then he moved away towards the glass again, this time to peer at the distant outline of the giant compass rose beside Dryden Flight Research Center of NASA. Indeed, it was far from over as he had told Cunningham. Yet, Matthews thought he had done more than acquit himself well. The main threats had been to shield the operation from external influence and media, maintain the secrecy and put the fighters and the bomber in the air with the package intact. He had done that. Pegasus would take care of the rest. Nobody would know of it except for the fellows packed up here, not any other intermittent air bases, not any commercial airliners, nobody. And when the Trident came within ten miles of Andrews Air Force Base, it would be someone else’s problem. The only glitch to the plan, if any were there at all, sat in the C-3’s cockpit. Unless Caldwell did something really foolish, everything would go smooth. Matthews allowed himself a tiny smile. That was when something he had heard while he prided himself but did not strike him as particularly peculiar came again.


“Pegasus, I repeat, do you copy?” Harris was calling out into the mouthpiece he held closer to his mouth. A frown was creasing his forehead. Not good. Matthews hurried to the console.


“Pegasus, do you copy? Please respond.”


No response at all.


“Respond, dammit!” Matthews muttered to himself. The unknown frightened him. He looked around to see Cunningham and Wright, their heads cocked inquisitively in his direction.


“Escort Two, have you got a visual on Pegasus?” Harris tried.


“Control, this is Escort Two. I got Pegasus nice and clear at my twelve o clock.” came Lynch’s electronic voice.


“Pegasus, this is Control. Please respond. Do you copy?” Harris repeated in mechanical succession.


“What is it, Eddie? Something wrong with the communication?” Matthews asked.


“No, sir. The system is fine. Pegasus could hear our dispatch. They are not responding back.”


“Oh, shit.” It was the controller whose screen Venkatesh and Barocas were looking at. His pallid face looked up at them. “He’s arming the AMRAAM.”


Nobody moved a muscle for one shocked moment. Matthews did not have to ask whom the controller meant. The only glitch in his plan was proving to be more than just a ripple. It was primed to jeopardize the whole plan now. All the three planes were loaded with air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles for defending Pegasus which carried Barocas’s weapon. Caldwell was arming one of those missiles now, making no noise, giving no indication, throwing the protocol to the winds. “Damn,” someone said. Matthews could hear the click of Cunningham’s shoes as she approached. This time though, the click was accompanied by the squeal of another pair of shoes. The show got Wright’s attention at last.


“Override Pegasus’s system,” said Matthews to Harris. “Keep trying. Make him respond.”


Harris typed something into his console, waited for a while. His eyes did not leave the screen as he said, “Negative, General. Pegasus’s system has already been overridden by its pilot and has been locked. We cannot access it. Our feeds are all locked up.”


Matthews could feel his superiors’ gaze weighing down upon him. The reins had slipped away from his hand now, and he felt naked. Caldwell was on his own, with only Darren Mitchell to stop him.


“Jesus, Control. Escort One here. I am locked on!” It was Julian Reed’s desperate voice.


Matthews cringed. He did not expect this in the least. He expected Caldwell to make a mess, yes. He expected him to make a fool of himself, yes. He even feared he would blow himself up with the plane(fear for the plane, not the pilot). Trying to bring down one of Air Force’s fighter was the last thing he expected Ralph Caldwell to do. It made no sense at all. He wished the earth would open up and swallow him right there.


“Pegasus, what the fuck are you doing?” He stooped over the console, his forearm heavily pressing down on Harris’s shoulder. He was not a man to give in to profanity easily, not particularly in his superiors’ presence, but he was on edge now. Not that anybody in the room cared much about conduct at present. “Respond now, and stop th—”


Matthews did not finish it. The glowing IR signature of a launched AMRAAM missile cut him off. His mind went blank. A female voice gasped; he thought it was Cunningham. He kept watching, his posture hunched, his eyes unblinking, his attention fixed at the glittering orange dot that broke away from Pegasus’s red icon and was cutting across the grids of the screen in a rush towards Escort One, which was slowly banking away. Too slowly. It was only a second, or two at most. Pegasus was in perfect position and AMRAAM moved four times the speed of sound. All of them watched transfixed as the missile caught Escort One astern, and shattered it to a ball of flames. The fighter went off the screen instantly. Reed’s voice came in an unintelligible garble a second before impact, and then was gone forever.


“Escort Two,” It was Wright’s voice. The command in it broke everyone’s trance. “This is General Stephen Wright. Arm yourself and take out Pegasus. I repeat, take out Pegasus.”


There was no response for five full seconds. “Roger, General,” Lynch said at last. His voice was hoarse. He had just witnessed firsthand the bomber that had been termed as a promising future take out their own fighter in seconds’ time.


Matthews knew there was no question of the mission being successful now. The only option now was to not make it too unsuccessful by leaving the dangerous technology at Caldwell’s mercy. The weapon had to be retrieved unscathed from under his arm and the chances of doing that were wafer-thin. Or, as Wright had ordered now, the wonderful technology should go down with him. His whole body shivered now. Not out of fear, but anger. He peered into Harris’s display. C-3 had started to bank away after shooting the missile. It would not be an easy task for Lynch to bring it down now.


“Control, Pegasus is at my two o’ clock now, Escort Two.”


“Roger, Escort Two.” Harris confirmed nervously. He was dwarfed now by Matthews and Wright, both stooped over his console on either side.


The two deadly aircrafts circled each other now over the skies of Mojave National Preserve. C-3 was turning quickly to get to the tail of the Eagle. F-15 was a lighter craft than C-3, hence faster, yet it was no match for C-3’s efficiency. Lynch maneuvered his fighter in a cautious circle, informing ATC of his every move. Harris was busy confirming back and keeping his eyes riveted to the action. A chilling dogfight ensued once the Pegasus came within the shooting range of F-15. Lynch blasted away a fusillade of machine gun fire. Pegasus slipped away from them in a tight turn.


Lynch kept shooting for the better part of a minute. No munitions came out of C-3 in reply. F-15 was racing around in a furious attempt to get behind C-3, but the bomber kept revolving in dangerously tight circles. Matthews marveled at Caldwell’s skill in flying the craft. Considering the angle in which the bomber turned, its wings must have been tilted to such an inclination that the safety of the flight was on its edge. A little more speed or a little more deviation in the angle, then the bomber’s weight would work against its lift and douse its engines to leave the craft plummeting down as dead stick. The son of the bitch was walking a tight rope and walking good.


After a few minutes, Lynch got a lock on. He launched a Sidewinder missile at the bomber.


“He’s finished.” Matthews said.


“I doubt that, General,” said Wright, looking at Matthews for a moment, straight in the eye. When Matthews turned back to the display, he understood why he said that.


The missile had come within yards of the bomber when flares rained out of C-3’s back end. Flares in themselves were not so effective. C-3 shot forward impetuously, its nose dipped lower in the screen, and for the first time in his life, Matthews witnessed a heavy bomber go upside down as the missile was lured into explosion by the flares high above. Caldwell had pushed the bomber beyond its limit, he thought, he had dug his own grave. He was going to say it out loud when, to his utter amazement, the bomber whizzed in air upside down, and righted itself in a graceful arc. It came as no bigger surprise for Matthews when Lynch’s voice raved in a frenzy that Escort Two had been locked on. In another three seconds, a second AMRAAM missile materialized in the screen and wiped the Eagle out.


“Goddamn it!” Wright pounded a fist on the sheaf of printouts on Harris’s desk.


Matthews sat down heavily beside Harris, his arms cupping his balding head. His whole plan had been shattered into a pile of detritus in less than a minute. Hundreds of questions buzzed inside his head, each threatening to reveal a fearsome number of horrifying possibilities. On top of them all, the impact of the defeat pressed down upon him like an immovable burden.


“General, it’s coming back.” Harris said.


Matthews looked up. “What?”


“Pegasus. It’s coming back.”


Matthews shot up quickly, and fixed his eyes on the screen. Indeed, the bomber was tracing back its route to Edwards Air Force Base. Matthews swirled around to look at Wright. “The Beacon,” Wright whispered.


“Shit,” Caldwell said.


“Oh, hell,” Matthews breathed.


“What is it?” Chitra Venkatesh spoke for the first time.


“He’s coming in for the Beacon.” Matthews said, his hands holding his head in a helpless gesture. The bomber was seconds away, closing in with furious speed, and none of his armaments were up and ready to bring it down. Surface-to-air missiles were sleeping away peacefully in bunkers only meters away from the control tower, but miles away relative to the predicament at hand.


“His missile bay is opening, General.”


Matthews felt an overwhelming urge to whack Harris in the head; he had announced enough bad news for one day. Instead, he just turned around and looked deadpan at the screen. Harris turned away from the screen for the first time since it all had started, and looked him in the face. “It’s the JASSM, sir.”


Matthews could not help but let slip a forlorn smile. Clever bastard, he thought.


The C-3 hovered safely away from the base, and disgorged another pinpoint of orange. This one showed up with a sign marking it as ‘AGM-158 JASSM’. The air-to-surface missile stuck its wings out in mid-flight a mile away from where they all stood motionless, waiting tacitly for the worst to be over. It blinked on and off across the screen, its trajectory leaving no doubt about its target. Matthews walked away from the scene towards the side of the room facing the Beacon. The deadly calm of the night remained unchanged for five more seconds. Then he saw a brief flash of white streaking towards the structure, and the Beacon exploded. A bright flame of orange erupted from the point of impact, mushroomed away into the whole building, hurling it off its place with a savagery only the latent power locked up in a missile could possess. The raucous explosion threatened to tear their eardrums, and the shock wave followed. The glass wall facing the explosion cracked in a number of places, but held. The control tower shook for a precarious moment. Electronics choked up and corrected themselves. Everyone in the room held their breath for a while, more concerned about their necks than the Beacon, and relaxed. Smoke billowed out of what was once the Beacon into the night. C-3’s only link to the base, and the country, had been obliterated.


“Sir, I see something here,” Harris called out, and Matthews knew instinctively that the night was far from over.

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