Carlton blew the landing. Blew it completely. For a moment, he thought he may have blown out one of the tires, the landing was so hard. A second later, with the craft slowing and responding to rudder commands as normal, he shelved that idea. But damn, he had not landed that badly since… Hell, not since before his first solo.
He was nervous as hell.
It had taken a lot of doing to get here. He had filed half a dozen separate flight plans, all of them legitimate, taking students from Luna to Earth then to Gagarin and back with landings in ten separate airfields all across the globe. It was all legal, and completely normal. He had embarked on training flights like these countless times over the last year.
The only problem was there was no student in this flight. The student did not exist. Carlton had, with help from one of Isaac’s companies, completely fabricated the hopeful young man who was not flying this night, right down to his Social Security Number. He even had a photo ID, somehow. He was an average looking guy; he would go unnoticed pretty much anywhere in the world, which Carlton supposed was the point. He was no expert, but all the documentation Isaac’s people created looked pretty legit, and impressive, to him. The folks from the company had assured him that he was correct, and the documents would stand up to the deepest scrutiny.
It made Carlton wonder exactly what those people, and their company, really did for a living. He decided he did not want to know.
“Delta Eight Seven Kilo Lima, taxi to parking on Charlie.” The voice in his headset could have been any one of a thousand controllers, anywhere in the world, except for the Aussie accent.
Carlton acknowledged and steered the craft to the taxiway and then to a small hangar on the far side of the field. Delta kept little hangars on most of the larger airfields around the globe, just for circumstances like this. Training flights often landed late, requiring the pilots to spend the night, and leaving the expensive craft out in the open just invited mischief, whether from vandals or thieves or just bad weather. Maintaining a hangar was relatively inexpensive compared to losing a transorbital transport, so it just made sense.
Ground personnel met his craft at the entrance to the hangar, which opened at an electronic command from the craft, and guided him in with their glowing batons. Then they left him in peace to shut down and close up the hangar. They worked for the airport, not Delta, and had no interest in what he did as long as he didn’t violate any airport rules. Which was just as well, considering.
Carlton secured the craft’s systems and hit the keystroke that would close the hangar door, then climbed the stairs from the craft to the interior of the hangar. As he did, the parallel between this night and the night, weeks ago, when he met Jo and Malcolm in Boston struck him.
The whole thing was just so surreal. Was he really doing this? He had meant what he said then: it was insane. Morally correct, absolutely. Necessary, very likely. But insane nonetheless. He was covered; there should be no way to link him to what Jo and Malcolm were up to, from what he could see. But it was still a huge risk.
At least Alison had plausible deniability. Worst case, she and the boys would be ok. Slightly-less-bad case, McAllister had called periodically over the last year, trying to lure both of them back. If it looked like the heat was going to come down, they could just…slip away on a starliner.
There was no sense griping or worrying over it now. He had made a commitment. Jo and Malcolm were relying on him, and if he backed out now they were screwed. Completely. He could not do that to them.
Squaring his shoulders, Carlton strode across to the door that led from the hangar to the parking lot beyond. Next to the door was a trio of key rings hanging from small hooks. Delta always kept cars for visiting aircrews to use to get to and from the hotel, if necessary. He took a moment to log the car out using a terminal near the door then took one of the key sets, fished one particular key off another set, and exited the hangar.
Before he got in the car, he flipped through the keys, really just small cards containing encryption algorithms that would tell the door’s computer to unlock, and fingered the one that he had taken from the second set inside the hangar. Then he shrugged and got in the car.
He drove away with the windows rolled down and the music blasting. In the wake of his car’s passage, that one key, the key to the hangar door, fell to the ground and settled at the edge of the road.
* * * * *
Jörgen found the key after only a few minutes of looking. The truly impressive part is that he never appeared to be searching for it at all. He was simply walking down the road, slowly, but then it was late at night or very early in the morning depending on one’s perspective, and then stopped to tie his shoe laces. When he stood up, a single infrared flash from one of the gadgets he wore on his belt signaled his success.
Jo lowered her spyglasses and whistled softly. “He’s good.” Like she did not know that already, after everything that had happened the last several days.
Beside her, Thomas chuckled, but did not reply.
The vans sat back a kilometer from the airfield’s fenceline, inside a small copse of trees that provided extra shadows and cover from prying eyes and passing aircraft. The NSA surely had surveillance craft up, or would soon enough if they did not already, which seemed highly unlikely. Jo’s team sat there for an hour before sending Jörgen out to clear the way, watching for even the smallest hint that security had been notified about them. But again, the secrecy of the NSA’s operation at the Lab appeared to be working for Jo and her team. In any other situation, every law enforcement agency on the continent would have been called by now, every airfield shut down or at least tightly monitored…
But doing that would bring up questions as to what was going on. Questions that would be too hard to dodge, especially since the news media would inevitably descend on the scene. No, just like the car chase in Quito, their pursuit now would be a job done strictly within the NSA’s confines. Which gave Jo a significant advantage. As long as she did not squander it.
Jo raised her spyglasses again and waited the second or two it took them to focus in on the hangar building. Jörgen was fiddling with something next to the door. Why did it take so long to unlock a simple door? What was he…
The lights went out all over the airfield.
Jo’s internal monologue shut up.
“That’s the signal,” Thomas said, and started the van up.
Jo quirked an eyebrow at him, but did not argue. Jörgen had said he would signal when the hangar was ready; she just had not realized it would be so dramatic. That was certainly his signal. But damn…
It was a good thing this airfield was not busier. Many of the busier fields had control towers manned twenty-four seven, and grounds crews on call all night. But they had picked this one specifically because the tower shut down, and with it the rest of the airport, at 01:00 each night. No one would be around to notice the power outage. And by the time everyone returned at 05:00 – just two hours from now, said Jo’s inner monologue in annoyance – Jörgen would have reset the lights and the only record of their outage would be on the electric bill at the end of the month.
Thomas drove slowly back through the copse and across a short field until he reached the road. A short distance later, he came to the road leading to the airfield entrance and turned right, headlights off and driving by lowlight goggles, as he had the whole way from Camp Tycho. It was still unnerving, but Jo found herself less fidgety over it than she had been. Good timing on that, since she was about to leave the van behind for good.
They passed a darkened sign naming the field, and a low, squat building next to the control tower that Jo presumed was the airport administration building. A quick turn to the right brought them onto a long road that circled the runway and led past a number of hangars and buildings containing air and space-craft maintenance, rental, and flight training facilities. Or at least that’s what Jo presumed they were; that was the typical fare for businesses at airfields. Somewhere there was probably a small cafe or restaurant, where pilots flying in from other airfields in the region could get their “Hundred Dollar Hamburgers”.
She found herself smiling as she recalled Carl bitching about that old monicker. It made no sense, he always said, since no one had used dollars, or dinars, rubles, or whatever for centuries. But just as seafaring terminology and tradition lived on in starliners and other spacecraft, so did other old time sayings elsewhere. It was hardly surprising. He never wanted to hear that, though.
Thomas stopped the van in front of the Delta hangar and secured the engine. Wasting no time, Jo hopped out and pulled open the side door, allowing Courtney and Malcolm to spill out. Both stretched for a moment, restoring circulation to limbs that had been squeezed between bags of equipment and half-empty jugs of fuel for several hours, while Grant pulled the second van in beside them.
No one spoke; they all knew what to do. Grant, Thomas, Malcolm, and Courtney headed to the rear of Grant’s van and began unloading the incubator while Jo headed into the hangar.
She found the interior still dark and stopped just within the door, suddenly hesitant to proceed for fear of running into something.
“Jörgen?” Jo called, quietly as she dared.
The noise of someone moving in the blackness to her right preceded his voice by a second. “Looks like your man did his job,” Jörgen said.
That was good. Not that Jo expected Carl to lay down on the job, but in a caper like this… She shook her head. That did not bear thinking on. All was well, that was what was important.
“Step to your right.”
Jo moved to obey instinctively. Or maybe it was the tone of quiet command in Jörgen’s voice. Or the fact that he had lowlight goggles on and she did not. Regardless, a second or two after she moved, the light from outside, faint though it was, was blocked out by the forms of her teammates lugging the incubator through the door. Like her, they paused a short distance inside the hangar. Unlike her, they were panting. That damn thing was right heavy.
The door shut with a solid-sounding click and then, a second later, the interior lights turned on.
Jo winced, blinking at the sudden brightness while her eyes adjusted.
“Fuck, man,” Grant snapped, his voice strained from the effort of carrying the incubator as much as from sudden annoyance. “At least warn us!”
Jörgen sniffed, but remained silent.
“Come on, let’s get this damn thing loaded,” Thomas replied.
Carl’s craft had a cargo hatch in its underbelly. It was lowered, forming a short ramp into the craft’s rear, where its small cargo hold lay. It was, in fact, a very small cargo hold. The incubator almost did not fit inside. And wouldn’t that be a suitable bit of irony, if they went to all the trouble of stealing the damn thing only to be unable to make a getaway because they picked the wrong kind of vehicle? It took several long minutes of grunting, cursing, and adjusting, but eventually they managed to get the thing in and secured.
Jo glanced at her wrist chronometer. 04:15. That took a lot longer than she thought. They were cutting it close.
“Thank you all,” she said to her team, and gave them a weary smile.
Somber nods, and a grin from Malcolm, were the only responses. This bunch had never been particularly talkative; that was Jo’s only complaint about them.
“Do you two need anything?”
Jörgen glanced at Courtney and quirked an eyebrow at her. She shrugged in response and turned her gaze to Jo. “Just don’t screw the pooch up there,” she replied. “Don’t want all my effort wasted.”
Jo could not help but smile a bit wider at that. “I’ll try not to.” She shook hands with first Courtney then Jörgen and added, “Be careful out there.”
They nodded and, without another word, turned and walked to the door. Jörgen pressed the door’s control pad, and the lights turned off. A moment later, the door opened and they were silhouetted for a second in the comparatively brighter light outside. Then they were gone, and the door clicked shut once more. The lights turned back on.
Jo breathed in deeply and turned to the remainder of her team. “Right. Let’s get onboard and get ready.”
* * * * *
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