Sixteen

July 11, 2024
1200
Raphine, VA
United States of America
Daniel drove onto the tarmac of a decrepit airport on the very far mid-eastern edge of Virginia. Once used by crop dusters, few knew about this tiny deserted airfield. Its pavement needed some of those herbicides now. Weeds were growing up everywhere, cracking the taxiways and even the runway itself. The office buildings and hangers had fallen into similar disarray, with rotting paneling, and torn roofing. Daniel ignored the decrepitude, and spotted Gideon standing on the tarmac. He drove his truck directly out and close to the standing Gideon, obviously awaiting Daniel’s arrival.
The sky was blue, the sun was shining, and a few fluffy clouds could be seen in the sky. Daniel was not impressed. If there were no stars, it was a waste of his time.
Gideon was in civilian gear, but for a moment sun glinted off Gideon's standard issue sidearm which was tucked under his right arm. Gideon never strayed from his 1911. Gideon didn’t seem very concerned about carrying an illegal firearm openly. If the CPC knew, he could go to jail for fifteen years, and that was just for the pistol.
Daniel got out of the truck and went to stand by his friend. Gideon looked stony, but Daniel saw worry underneath. Daniel hurried to grab his gear out of the back of his rugged old truck.
Approaching within earshot, Daniel let out a simple impatient question. "Well?"
Gideon responded with a shrug, still trying to keep up the stony face. “Dunno.”
Right before them, the two men saw a large craft emerge with something of a shimmer.
Daniel and Gideon found themselves looking at a slate grey Emerson Transport RX48. There were few craft on earth anything like the behemoth. Over the years, Daniel had seen and flown in a lot of aircraft. The C-5 Galaxy, a 747 or a 380 Airbus were ho-hum to him. One time he had even watched the famous Antonov 225, originally designed for the Soviet space shuttle program, load up a mini submarine.
Daniel figured that the craft was about the same height as a C-5 Galaxy, an Emerson Airlines XP44 Mercury or an old Boeing 747, about four stories high. But the plane fuselage was wider than any of these. This was no simple metal tube with wings. It had a sleek design, a blended wing body that made it look more like a spaceship than a cargo hauler. The four engines, two on each wing, were contained within the semi-wing portion itself, but instead of facing forward, these were pointed straight up, toward the sky. These engines could be rotated to position themselves independently, allowing for vertical takeoff and landing.
Daniel had seen several RX48’s, but this one appeared to have a few more unusual protuberances than usual around the bottom of the craft. There were two large blisters over the wing that also piqued his interest.
While they were assessing the suddenness of its silent appearance, a side door opened noiselessly, and a platform extended. The imposing figure of Markus Gallery stood securely on the platform which lowered him gently to the ground.
Gallery was a tall, powerfully built man with sandy hair that was slightly longer than regulation length. Daniel was impressed by his ramrod straight military bearing. He was wearing a unique camo outfit that seemed to comprise all the usual elements of combat gear.
"Good to see you again!" Markus shouted with a smile that showed the laugh lines in the corners of his eyes. His tanned face exaggerated the grooves and made him look older than he was. Desert did that to faces.
Gideon and Daniel looked at each other for a moment, unsure how to respond to such a familiar greeting from a man that neither recalled ever meeting before.
Markus stepped off the platform and shook Daniel's hand. Daniel figured Markus for a hard handshake, and he was not disappointed. He refrained from grimacing as the man shook his hand. “Daniel," Markus said as he let go of the punishing handshake. "I've heard a lot about you. I know you do good work. In fact, I owe you and Gideon a debt of gratitude."
"I just do what I do," Daniel said. He let himself grimace slightly. "I take no pleasure in it."
"You, like so many others," replied Markus diplomatically.
Daniel looked briefly at a scar on the man’s right hand. Daniel knew what that scar meant. That was a scar from trying to put out a fellow soldier who was on fire. Those scars never faded, no matter how much time passed.
Markus decided it was time to jog their memories. “Venezuela. 2019. Ring any bells?”
Daniel and Gideon looked at one another quizzically.
“You were on the Beta team. You defied your standing orders, and you saved my life.”
Daniel thought back to that day. The strike team had been compromised before their mission was given a green light. Daniel and Gideon had made it to safety, but they’d received word that a second CIA team was in deep trouble. They’d ventured out of their second safe house, defying good sense and risking their lives that night. With an RPG, they’d managed to pick off a vehicle in pursuit of the Alpha team.
Gideon piped up. “How did you know? That was a top-secret CIA operation. Our teams never even had contact with one another!
“My investors have access to all kinds of privileged information and technology,” answered Markus, clearly hiding something. He tried changing the subject. “On that note, climb on board the Norseman. I'll give you a tour."
Gideon excitedly gave Daniel a fist bump as they entered the aircraft. Whatever his worries were, Gideon always looked forward to new missions in a way that Daniel never had, and probably never would.
"Did I call it or what?" Gideon whispered into Daniel's ear.
Daniel mulled that over. He hoped Gideon was right and that Markus could be trusted, but one of Daniel’s favorite sayings was “Trust but verify.”
The group stepped onto the transport and entered a cavernous space inside. Daniel and Gideon gaped like tourists.
Markus led them up a flight of metal stairs to a platform that overlooked the bay. Daniel and Gideon followed slowly, studying their new environment intently. Two pilots swiveled around to evaluate the newcomers as they finished the climb. From the top of the stairs, Daniel could see a bank of computer stations ranked around the walls. A large center table held the equipment for projecting a hologram. Daniel could not quite tell what placeholder image was currently on display. It seemed to be corporate or governmental logo or insignia. It was in constant motion, and it seemed vaguely familiar, though he couldn't see it from his current angle. At any rate, the technology was impressive, and Daniel could tell from Gideon's expression that he thought so as well.
One of the pilots stood up to greet them and shake hands. She was of average height, a brunette with soft skin, a secure grip, and a brilliant smile. "I'm Costanza Rossi," she offered in a tangibly Italian accent spoken with sharp clarity. Stunning smoky eyes sparkled, and she flashed Daniel a flirtatious grin as he shook her surprisingly strong but small hand. Daniel could feel small callouses on her hands from many hours at the controls of flying machines. Her curves were only accentuated by the tight-fitting flight suit that she had unzipped halfway, revealing a tightly fitted army green shirt underneath.
"This is my navigator and ace gunner, Ye Joon." She gestured at the slightly doughy man she had been sitting beside. Joon, a short Korean man, awkwardly stood to greet them, offering a shy smile and a soft handshake.
Daniel nodded to both, trying to keep his face neutral while looking at Costanza. Attractive women generally made that difficult, especially those with a smile like Costanza, not to mention her other physical attributes. "A pleasure," Daniel said as he smiled again at the well put together pilot. "You fly an impressive ship. Where on earth did you get it?"
"It is impressive," Costanza agreed. "We call her the Norseman, and she’s the best thing in the air."
"And where did you get all this gear?” Daniel asked in wonder. “I've never seen anything like it, especially inside an aircraft."
"Yeah, our employers somehow have access to technology the likes of which I have never seen before. This aircraft was apparently a prototype Special Forces insertion base. The adaptive camo system can not only hide the craft; it can also impersonate the liveries of cargo companies that use the RX48. We can sneak in and out of any commercial airport without raising any eyebrows."
"Hardcore," Gideon enthused.
Costanza nodded. "Yes, it is. It has all the capability of the largest transports with the firepower of four AC-130 Spectre gunships. I’m told it was commissioned by a private military company a few years back, but they couldn't afford it. Couldn't even pay for its upkeep, I heard."
She paused, and then turned slightly to speak directly to Daniel, her eyes sending a message that might be a warning. "Somehow our investors acquired her."
“Stuff happens,” he said lightly, quickly moving the conversation on from what might have been an indiscretion. "It's none of my concern."
"You're right, of course," she agreed at once and pivoted toward the aft of the craft. "Check out the view."
Daniel looked down from the command center and into the gigantic cargo bay. He saw two vehicles. One was a solid-looking, but sleek MRAP of a make and model he'd never encountered before. He couldn't see the underbody, but it was plainly equipped with a large rotating turret on top. It was painted in a desert tan color with small protected windows on the sides and a small windshield facing front. Just behind it was an armor-reinforced dune buggy that looked fast and agile.
A lanky man with long black hair was inspecting the dune buggy, bending down to examine its undercarriage and then standing to enter his findings on a tablet computer. Looking up, he waved to the men above. He attempted a bad-ass smile, to a negligible effect. To Daniel he appeared of Southeast Asian descent, most likely Thai.
Markus somehow materialized at Daniel's shoulder. "That's Lawan Tawsin. He's a bit green, but still an asset.”
Daniel grimaced a little when he thought about others he’d known who had been green and lost their lives because of it.
In the belly of the giant craft, Daniel and Gideon eyes wandered about until they found themselves looking at a section of the plane that appeared like a compact clinical setting. Varied emergency equipment was available, heart paddles and oxygen tanks, as well as a select array of treatment gear. Daniel could see a portable ultrasound, and what looked like a setup for doing echocardiograms or something similar. But none of that held Daniel's attention. His eyes were focused on a miniature bay with a sealed glass door.
Inside were four undersized humanoid robots, side by side. Each were hooked to what looked like a juiced-up charging station for household cleaning equipment. An array of blinking lights danced along the walls of the bay, apparently meant to indicate the state of readiness of the pair of automatons, each about the size of a chimpanzee. Daniel pointed this spectacle out to Gideon.
"What are we looking at there?" Gideon wondered aloud.
"Looks to me like we're soon to be replaced," Daniel replied with a smile.
"Hey, Gallery," Gideon called out. "What are these things?"
Markus leaned over, excited to tell them all about his pride and joy. "Our little friends? Those are our prototype Detectors, series 3T3. We haven't had a chance to use them yet, but I have deployed the prior generation quite successfully. This model and its successors will revolutionize warfare. No more will the powerful send grunts like you and me to fight and die."
“So, a robot,” countered Gideon dubiously.
“No. A robot is controlled by a computer, a so-called artificial intelligence. There is no creative thinker on earth better than a human. A combat situation is far too complex for a computer to be making decisions.”
Despite Markus’s enthusiasm, Daniel had doubts about these 3T3s. There was no substitute for being there. Situational awareness would be dramatically impaired. Running a Detector must in some ways be like driving a car, in other means like playing a video game. It would take practice for sure, but Daniel was slightly hopeful. He remembered how many buddies he had lost. It was like losing a member of his family, except worse, because his buddies were always there for him when his family was not. With these, perhaps warfare could be changed to be something that only robots engaged in.
"So, somebody has to boss the things," Gideon said defensively. "Somebody has to tell them what to do and how to do it."
"Yes, you are correct, to a degree. Like any drones, these are remotely piloted and controlled from a station; basically, each is a remotely operated soldier. But enough of this," Markus directed. "We need to move. Take seats and strap in."
Markus made a spinning signal to dark-haired Costanza to begin take off. She nodded and took her place at the console. Joon also took his place at her side. They spoke to one another tersely and without emotion, as fliers do, running efficiently through their preflight checklist. Almost immediately, the cabin air filled with a growing hum and a light vibration.
Then, all at once, the Norseman lifted off with a roar from its powerful engines.
Daniel looked through a small portal and could see the exterior wing of the aircraft. He watched as the two engines started to rotate towards the stern of the plane as they flew through the sky. Soon the engines were parallel with the ground, flying as any other ordinary aircraft would. Then, the wings began to rotate backward, turning the craft into an enormous delta wing for high-speed. “A variable geometry wing,” mused Daniel. “This plane is full of surprises.”
Markus spun a chair that was anchored to the floor and took a seat. The others gathered round for a clue as to their next move.
"As you know, we're en route to extract a hacker with the codename Loki." Markus said, smiling at the thought of a hacker naming himself after the Norse god of mischief and mayhem. "He's currently in a hotel in Hong Kong, laying low. He's being pursued by the local authorities who think he has information on the whereabouts of Debyan Radchenko."
"Does he?" Gideon asked.
"At the very least, he has a superb lead.” Markus looked down at his watch. “We’re traveling at Mach 2. We're about five hours out.” He looked up at the team and regarded them for a moment before continuing. “There're some racks below. Grab a few hours of rest."
Daniel and Gideon sauntered down the stairs to the lower level. Daniel looked over at a far section of the bay and noticed that there seem to be a private cabin. No doubt it was for the use of Markus Gallery. Directly across from the private pod, past the two vehicles several pods were open, revealing some comfortable looking accommodations.
Daniel pulled himself up onto an upper pod and settled down inside. He pressed a prominent switch and a pneumatic door enclosed the space. The pod was quite comfy, and he figured it could even accommodate Gideon’s enormous bulk. He was thankful for some privacy. Lying down he noticed above him was a monitor which he presumed he could have used to surf the Internet, access mission information or watch some other form of entertainment. He wasn’t particularly tired, but he tried his best to drift away.
His thoughts turned to Sana and he found himself thinking about their first date, on the Shenandoah Vista.

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