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Susan Grant
author of aviation romance

 

The Star KingThe year: 2006. The mission: routine. Or so U.S.A.F. pilot Bree "Banzai" Maguire thinks. Then she's shot down over enemy airspace, captured and put in bio-stasis. When she wakes, everything's changed. It's one hundred and seventy years later--2176--the world is in crisis, and she's a hotly contested prize. Once, Banzai's job was to protect democracy; now a mysterious voice claims she must bring it back.  

Two men vie for her heart. Kyber, her captor, the rich, ruthless Emperor Prince of Asia, has all a man could desire. Then there's U.C.E. SEAL commander and would-be rescuer Ty Armstrong. He has all the right moves. With two such choices, Banzai regrets she has but one heart to give for her country.

The Legend Of Banzai Maguire
APRIL 2004 ISBN 0505525429

 

 

 

 

How Banzai and the rest of the 2176 series came about is a prime example of good luck, great timing, and the good fortune of having a publisher that was faster on its feet than a Starbucks-latte-charged roadrunner.

When I first heard about Silhouette's new Bombshell line, I wanted to write one. This is the kind of story I was born to write, I thought, and, really, what I'd been writing all along. I had an idea for a kick-butt Buck-Rogers-esque tale with the gender roles reversed. After asking permission from my current publisher to write the book, I learned that I would not be able to submit to Bombshell, because the material was too close to what I was already contracted to write. (rules, rules *g*) So, I handed the proposal to my editor, and to my delight, he embraced my idea. It was supposed to be a 2-book series, but Dorchester ended up liking the idea so much that they offered me the chance to write a 6-book (later reduced to 5) series "bible" and to help recruit authors to write the middle books in the series.

Because of the quickness of it all, we're now the very first of the so-called action-romance books to be released. All eyes are on us -- and I hope they like what they see. Publishers Weekly (Mar 8) wrote about Banzai: The "action romance" niche is small but growing, and high-caliber tales like this one will ensure that it continues to do so. A national advertising campaign should put Banzai on many romance readers' wish lists, but the book also holds crossover appeal for sci-fi/fantasy fans.

I sure hope the PW forecast is right! The Legend of Banzai Maguire doesn't follow the traditional plot-structure of most romance books. You don't meet the hero in the first chapters; there are two men for whom the heroine might fall; and the book is most definitely the "heroine's story." With boot-shaking excitement and genuine mortal terror, I'm waiting to see what reader reaction will be for this "genre-mutt!"

Breaking News!» Parlez vous... kick-butt? Oui! The entire 2176 series, including The Legend of Banzai Maguire and The Scarlet Empress sold to France! I'm pleased to announce that all five books in the 2176 action-romance series sold to the publisher J'Ai Lu for publication in France. Word is that they LOVE this series and expect much success selling it to the French market. Merci beaucoup, J'Ai Lu!

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awards

Winner--PRISM, Best Time Travel! (posted 8.08.05)

PRISM--finalist
(posted 6.30.05)

The Star King Bestseller lists:

Waldenbooks Bestseller List
Waldenbooks Romance Bestseller List
B. Dalton Bestseller List
Borders Bestseller List
B&N Bestseller List
Amazon Bestseller List
Sirenbooks, Australia Bestseller List
(posted 6.01.04)

 

kudos

If Grant's faithful fighter jet descriptions don't snag readers from the outset, her fierce, funny, tough-as-nails heroine will. With its cliffhanger conclusion, awe-inspiring characters and droll humor, this book is a strong launch for a very promising series. (posted 4.01.04)

-- Publishers Weekly

Launching what promises to be a terrific series, award-wining author Grant strikes gold with an amazing new heroine. Banzai is a smart, savvy woman who can take care of herself. This fish out of water tale is exhilarating and has fabulous potential for future adventures. (posted 4.01.04)

-- RT Book Club (4 ½ stars, Top Pick!)

[Susan] Grant's superb writing talent shines in this action-packed and though-provoking story. Grant completes the series in December with The Scarlet Empress, which is Cam's story. I can't wait! (posted 4.01.04)

--Tanzey Cutter (former editor of The Old Book Barn Gazette)

 

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The Star KingPrologue

If you have the chance to live life to the fullest, do it. Don't hold back, don't be afraid, take the absolutely biggest bite out of this existence that you can. The rewards are immeasurable, the eventual fulfillment soul-deep. I know. I guess you could say that I'm an expert on the subject. I've lived two lives, both of them to the hilt.

My name is Maguire, Bree Maguire. But you know me as Banzai, even now, after years of accumulated titles, honors, and a marriage have lengthened my legal name to the point where I can't help sighing long and silently at official events attended by those who expect and actually enjoy that sort of pomp, pageantry those closest to me know I'd rather avoid--the same people who know I never would.

Ceremony is a small sacrifice to make, you see. Once, I gave up everything that is important to a person. But, I would have died for my country, if asked. Instead, I was reborn into something better, something stronger. The United States was, too.

My quest took me to places I never imagined--not only geographical, but of the heart. It was how I first met the man who would be everything to me.

Now that I'm one-hundred years into this winding path called life, my children tell me that I should record my memoirs before I pass on and leave the chore to the official biographers, who'll no doubt use the opportunity to make me into more of a legend than I already am--to my dismay, because the men and women I consider the true heroes went on with their lives after their deeds were done, some quite humbly and certainly without the idolization directed toward me and my husband. They are the ones who deserve our remembrance, those men and women. And now, here in this record of what happened, they will receive recognition.

You may wonder if our pasts were as colorful as they seem, if our adventures were truly as fantastic and wild as you learned in school. Why, yes, they were. They were all that, and more....

2006

Chapter One

A can of Coke fell out of the soda machine and into Captain Bree Maguire's hand. She popped the lid and took a drink before rejoining the three other F-16 pilots in the hallway outside the squadron briefing rooms. It was a quick break before they made the trek over to life support to dress for their missions. "Cajun" Coley and his wingman were off to the practice range, but Bree and her wingman Cam "Scarlet" Tucker were headed out for the real thing: a patrol sortie over North Korea.

She delicately muffled a burp with the back of her hand. "Excuse me."

Cajun watched her with amused eyes. "You're sucking that puppy down, Banzai."

"I've got a low-caffeine warning begging to be extinguished." She took another greedy drink of her Coke.

"I thought you only did unleaded."

Bree wrinkled her nose. "Not at breakfast. Have you ever tasted a Milky Way washed down with Diet Coke?" She tore open the wrapper of her candy bar and took a bite. "Mmm. That's better."

"You're the only one I know who can make a Coke and a candy bar a two-course gourmet meal," Cam commented in her Georgian accent.

"Double the sugar-high, double the fun." Bree dug in her pocket for change. "Pick your poison, guys. I'm buying."

Cajun rubbed his stomach. "No thanks. I already ate."

"Let me guess. Corned beef hash and eggs. Enlisted Mess."

"Yup."

The Star KingEvery officer at Kunsan Air Base knew that was where you got the best chow. If only she could quit slapping the snooze button on her alarm clock a half dozen times or more, she might work in a real meal before a morning flight. But sleep always seemed to win out over food. She grabbed eight hours whenever she could get them.

And Cajun wore the extra protein better than she ever could, she reasoned, noting his physique in a casual, red-blooded-American-girl-who-appreciated-hard-bodies sort of way. Cajun lifted weights--all the pilots did, including Bree and Cam, the squadron's only women. Building muscle increased the body's tolerance to high-G forces, which were fundamental to aerial combat. But Cajun must have stepped up his workout lately. Sweet. She ought to thank him for the effort. Stretched deliciously taut over his chest, the green fire-retardant fabric called nomex never looked so fine.

Bree glanced at her watch. "Ten past seven, Cam," she said. "We're outta here." She crumpled her candy bar wrapper and threw it in the trash, took a few more stinging swallows of Coke and did the same with the can. "See you later, sweet thing," she told Cajun.

She pushed open a door that led toward the life-support side of the building. In all his tight-bod glory, Cajun stared after her.

Laughing, Cam followed. "Ooh, he's not going to let that go, Bree."

"I wouldn't expect him to." Bree's mouth tipped in a lopsided grin others said matched her sardonic sense of humor, a humor that certain high-level brass didn't always appreciate. But Bree always considered herself a "fast burner," an up-and-coming flight officer with a bright future. No way would she risk her career for a laugh. True, her love of mischief lured her into throwing an occasional wrench into the system, just to see what happened, but deep down she was the kind of person who appreciated and admired the workings of a good machine. She supposed that was why she'd dedicated her life to keeping the one called the "U.S. of A." well oiled and running fine.

Following in their six o'clock and rejoining fast, Cajun looked downright rattled. "Hey, Banzai." His voice was familiar as a brother's and spiked expectedly with indignation, disbelief and a good dose of challenge. "What d'you call me?"

"Sweet thing," Bree drawled over her shoulder.

"Sweet...thing?"

"Well, you are."

"Sweet, that is," Cam finished for her.

Bree nodded. "From an objective, female point of view, of course."

"Shee-at," he muttered.

"Check him out," Cam said. "He doesn't know whether to squirm or preen." Her Southern accent always gave her banter an incongruous coating of graciousness.

"Is Scarlet right?" Bree smirked over her shoulder. "Are you blushing, Cajun?"

The pilot muttered something undoubtedly graphic. Bree grinned. She liked throwing Cajun off balance. When it came to teasing, no one in the squadron got a break. You had to be able to take the heat--on the ground and in the air. And the women gave back as good as they got, especially with men like Cajun, who'd come into the squadron certain that he was one hot stick, certain he could out-fly everyone there--Bree, especially, because she was "only a female." Ah, but he'd learned humility. At her hands. He'd once told her that not only did she live up to her call sign "Banzai," she deserved it. He was probably right. Japanese ancestry may have won her the nickname, but her flying was the reason it stuck. People could debate all they wanted about the fine line between "insane" and "fearless," but her, she laughed at danger; she loved the rush. As an F-16 driver she pushed the limits, skated on the edge. The more risk involved, the more eager she was to tackle the mission. She was everything she wasn't in her personal life, where she preferred to proceed with caution, yellow warning lights flashing.

But even though she liked pushing the envelope, she never allowed herself to forget that being a good fighter pilot took work, hard work. Without discipline, focus, and an unquenchable passion for excellence, she'd likely wind up in the center of a smoking hole. She was twenty-eight; she hadn't given destiny a whole lot of thought, but one thing she did know was that she didn't want it to be that.

The hallway ended in the squadron life support shop, which was adjacent to a locker room where the pilots dressed for their missions.

"So, what about Cajun?" Cam asked Bree when the men were out of earshot.

The Star King"Cajun? What about him?"

"I think you ought to invite him over to your place tonight."

Bree gave her an incredulous look. "I don't think so."

"Why not? There's a spark there. I saw it."

"That was my libido sparking when I looked at his butt."

"See? You have so much in common. He has a cute ass, and you like them. Asses, that is. Male ones."

Bree laughed. "Shut up and get dressed, Cam."

Grinning, Cam reached around behind her neck and took off a pearl on a chain that the flight surgeon she was dating had given her. She placed the necklace in a basket in her locker. "There's nothing wrong with seeing if there's more to it, you know."

"There's not more."

"If you don't take the risk, you'll never find out."

Bree groaned. "Hello? We're talking about Cajun Coley."

"Admit it, Maguire. You're afraid," Cam teased in her usual refrain. "Afraid to let a man get too close." She turned away, that familiar prove-me-wrong expression on her face.

What could Bree say? She liked to keep her distance, and Cam knew it. Yeah, she'd suffered through her share of crushes, had fallen in lust a number of times, but she'd never been in love. Not really. She figured she'd know when it happened. It wasn't that she was looking for love; she was waiting for it to find her.

Frowning, she twisted off her U.S. Air Force Academy class ring and stored it in the locker. Of course, there was always the option of having a hot little fling with Cajun and be none the worse for it. But if that were the case, why did the whole idea feel so...so unappealing? There was nothing wrong with casual relationships. In fact, most of her recent relationships would fit neatly in that category. But she'd reached a point in her life where she'd grown out of quickie affairs, and yet hadn't found a man with whom she desired more. Lately, the only action she saw anymore was in the F-16.

But for now, the between-girlfriends conversation was over. Both women turned serious as they readied for the mission. If you didn't pay attention when you dressed for a sortie, you might leave something behind that could cost you your life later.

Bree ripped off all the squadron patches from her flightsuit and jacket with a loud hiss of Velcro before stowing the patches in her locker. Now, her flightsuit was a blank slate except for her rank. It wouldn't do to have the enemy find out who paid for the gas in her jet. Name, rank, service number, and date of birth: that's all they had the right to know.

Over her stripped uniform went a G-suit--"fast-pants," trousers with built-in air bladders that filled with the onset of G-forces, helping keep blood in the upper part of the body, especially the head, where its loss could cause a black-out with fatal consequences. Next on were her survival vest and a knife. She'd gone through this routine many times, but it never became rote. She thought about each and every step, making sure she did it right, especially when it was time to sign out a 9mm semi-automatic with one clip loaded and the other to stow in her right-leg pocket. That pocket was full of valuables, in fact: a weather-coated evasion map rimmed with handy-dandy basic survival information, a spare pocket knife, and her blood chit, a note written in fifteen languages promising gratitude--and a wad of cash to back it up--to anyone who helped her out if she were shot down.

The pistol went in a holster against her ribs and under her left arm. Then she removed her helmet from its storage peg and dropped it in the green cloth bag she would use to carry it to the airplane.

She met Cam's eyes. "Packed and ready." Cam nodded, and together they turned on their heels, as if already flying in formation, and walked outside to the flight line. Cajun and his wingman followed.

The Star KingIt was still dark, late winter in Northern Asia. The air was so dry and cold that it hurt going down. To the east, a steel gray glow promised sunrise. In her head, Bree reviewed the mission to come. "This will be a U.N. sanctioned patrol sortie," she'd briefed Cam earlier. "It'll be the usual drill, a flyover of the North Korea's side of the border during the first half, and over the South's for the second. Our mission is to provide a presence--and only that," she'd emphasized, more than once, although she knew Cam was well-aware why they'd spend the next few hours carving racetrack patterns in the sky over the demilitarized zone, a no-man's land in effect since the 1950s between the two Koreas. The sorties were but one aspect of a broad, multi-national plan to dissuade the two countries from starting a shooting war and keep them in the peace process that had dragged on for months now. As flight lead of the pair of F-16s, a position Bree had earned through rank and experience, she'd oversee the overall handling of the mission, tactics, navigation, communication, refueling, and weather, which in early February on the Korean Peninsula was butt-freezing frigid. Fine weather for flying; bad news if you had to eject. Not that she planned to add that particular event to her schedule today, but she always briefed the what-ifs, all the same. Your number came up when you least expected it.

Cajun chucked Bree on her upper arm. "When you get back, I'm buying."

"I'm up for that," Bree said lightly. "I'll have a Diet. Maybe a bag of Cheese Nips. Ask me when we land."

"I meant beer. At the club. I want to hear more about my new nickname before I agree to it."

Bree looked down her nose at him. "Since when is 'agreeing' part of the process?" She turned to Cam. "Right, Scarlet?"

"Too right, Banzai."

Cajun winced, his expression one of inevitability. Just because he'd come into the squadron with a nickname, didn't mean he was out of danger of a new one, and he knew it. Bree and Cam had been around a while, but Cajun was the "new kid on the block" at Kunsan. The squadron's various initiation rites would be fresh in his mind.

"So how did you become Banzai?" he demanded.

"On Pedigree Night." Although it had been a year and a half since that night, she remembered every detail. Forced to buy--and drink--rounds of beer at the squadron's favorite local dive, her mission as the new pilot that night had been to maintain enough wits to offer up a relative worthy of the honor "bad-ass ancestor." Squadron lore said that unless you could come up with a kick-ass relative, you couldn't prove your fighter pilot pedigree. From then on, you were a mixed-breed, affectionately known in the squadron as a pound puppy. But Bree hadn't even broken a sweat. She had Great-grandmother Michiko.

"She was four-foot-eleven, but she put the fear of God in every man in my family, and all of them were over six-feet tall," Bree told Cajun. "The whole family owes our patriotism to her. She drilled it into us from birth." Bree threw her hand over her vest. "You'd better stand when they played the Star-spangled Banner, and put your hand over your heart when you sang it or, oh, boy, Great-grandmother would be all over you. She loved her country. Her motto was 'Don't be afraid of death; be afraid of the unlived life.' Well, she lived hers. She would have gone off to fight in World War Two if they'd have let her. Instead, she spent the war in a Japanese internment camp, even though she was born and raised in Omaha. It tested her patriotism, she said, but didn't erode it. She got out, married a burly Roman Catholic Italian from the Bronx, and sent three sons off to serve in the Marines."

One of them was Bree's grandfather, Sergeant Lou Vitale, a Medal of Valor winner who said his only surrender came after trying to produce a son to carry on the family's military tradition. He fathered seven daughters, none of whom had the remotest interest in the armed services. Then Bree came along.

She was the product of the second youngest of those prim daughters and an auto mechanic of Irish descent. Her mother would buy her Barbie dolls, but she'd give each one a proper military haircut before sticking it in the cockpit of her plastic GI Joe jet fighter. Grandpa Vitale would watch her play, a cigarette clasped in his callused fingers, his eyes shining with delight. He'd told her that she got her sass from her great-grandmother. Sass, Bree later learned, was what his generation called guts in a female. She wished he'd lived to see her accept an appointment to the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Bree zipped her jacket higher against the chill, and to ward off the weird sensation that swelled in the space around her heart. She missed the old man. "So, Cajun, to answer your question, when the squadron elected my great-grandmother, I toasted her victory, and someone shouted banzai! Then they all started yelling it. Ever since, that's what everyone's called me." She winked mischievously at Cajun. "Sweet thing."

"I told you," he said. "If you're going to call me that, you're going to explain it to me later."

"There's always the risk you'll learn more than you want to know."

"We'll see about that, Banzai-baby." He cuffed her again before they separated, headed for their individual aircraft.

"See you up there, Bree," Cam said, and walked off, too. Bree watched her go. Even dressed in a flightsuit and combat boots, her wingman moved with bred-in feminine grace.

Cam's mother was a Southern belle from a wealthy Georgia family and her father was an Army general. Cam was supposed to have gone straight from charm school to hosting soirees for a West-Point-grad husband. Instead, she'd pursued an appointment to the Air Force Academy. Tall, willowy, and blond, she defied expectations every step of the way, graduating at the top of her undergraduate pilot training class and kicking butt all the way through fighter lead-in training. She was Chuck Yeager crossed with Scarlett O'Hara, a top gun soaked with southern charm. Despite enormously different upbringings, Bree and Cam had become close friends.

The Star KingBut the strangest feeling swept over Bree as she watched Cam walk away. What was it? Something like affection mixed with regret, a sense of loss. A chill spun up her spine and she frowned. Stupid. Nothing was going to happen to Cam. But she shook her head as if it would clear her thoughts. Bad karma. She didn't like it.

Just be extra careful out there, she told herself.

Bree dropped her helmet bag by the front nose tire so she could inspect the sleek, gunmetal gray F-16 that was hers for the next few hours. To her, the fighter was breathtaking, like a piece of modern art, all smooth lines and sharp turns--beautiful in a deadly way, like a bird of prey.

She walked around the perimeter of the F-16, checking for general airworthiness, and for signs of possible trouble that could take the form of puddles of fluid on the tarmac below the jet as well as stains on the fuselage itself. But today everything seemed to be in order, as usual.

Finishing up, she waved to the arriving crew chief, the airman who would guide her through the engine start and taxi-out, and then climbed up a ladder into the cockpit, high above the ground. It wrapped around her snugly, that cockpit, as if the jet was custom made for her.

Inside, she connected her G-suit to an air hose. Then, with an assortment of clips and straps, she attached herself to a seat that contained everything she needed for survival in the unlikely event of ejection: more survival kits, a radio, a GPS unit, a life raft, and, of course, her parachute. After her seatbelt clicked closed, she donned her helmet, leaving the mask loose for the moment.

She poked her gloved thumb in the air, telling the crew chief that she was ready to start her engine. As soon as he acknowledged her hand signal, Bree lowered the clear, rounded canopy. It sealed her inside. She ran through her checklists, read from the booklet she'd strapped to her thigh. Everything not bolted, glued, or strapped to something was destined to fly around the cockpit. No pilot wanted that. You had enough to hold your attention outside the jet; you didn't need to create threats on the inside.

With a flick of her finger, the powerful engine rumbled to life. She checked her instruments for the engine's health, then put her hands up and in plain sight so the base weapons folks could remove the safeties on her guns. They wouldn't have touched her aircraft otherwise. She couldn't blame them; it must be disconcerting enough looking down the muzzle of a loaded gun without having to sweat the pilot's finger resting on the trigger.

Then it was time to leave. Bree taxied out, Cam behind her. She always looked over her wingman's aircraft, but she stared at Cam's a little longer than usual as the feeling of foreboding made a return appearance. Cam was fine, she told herself. Everything would be fine. It was a routine sortie. Bree forced her eyes to the runway ahead of her. The sky was turning from gray to blue, clear and cloudless. You were born for this, remember? Born to fly. Bree's spirits lifted with the rising sun. Nothing was going to happen to Scarlet. They were off for a little patrol duty and then would call it a day. That was all. "Razor flight's ready," she told the control tower.

"Razor flight cleared for takeoff."

The tower controller's voice came through her helmet headset. "Roger," she replied. "Razor flight cleared for takeoff."

"Two." Cam's response told her that she'd heard and understood the tower's instructions. Clearance for their "flight" meant clearance for them both. Cam would be rolling down the runway within seconds of Bree's liftoff.

Bree pushed the throttle up. The engine didn't rumble to life; it exploded--a multi-megaton kick in the pants. Acceleration slammed her shoulder blades into the seat, and within seconds she was above a hundred knots and heading for twice that. The sheer force of the fighter never failed to awe her. All that power, in her control.

At rotation speed, Bree wrapped a gloved hand around the control stick of her F-16 and pulled back gently, sending the jet skyward. A glance over her shoulder told her that Cam was airborne, too.

Soon, Cam fell back to a tactical position a mile-and-a half behind her. Together, they headed to the airspace high above the DMZ between North Korea and South Korea, which they'd parallel it from sea to shining sea--in other words, they'd race from the Yellow Sea in the west all the way across to the Sea of Japan, a body of water known as the Eastern Sea to the Koreans.

Bree leveled off at twenty-thousand feet, relatively low, as cruise-altitudes went, but where she'd been ordered to fly. Speeds and altitudes scrolled over the HUD--her heads-up display. The threads of data on a clear canopy showed her everything she needed to know. Down below, a few bomb craters were sooty footprints in the snow, evidence of a conflict that had people across an entire planet sitting on the edges of their seats. Bree got comfortable in hers and began what she hoped would be just another day in the office.

Somewhere high above her jet a modified 747 airliner bristling with radar and intelligence personnel eavesdropped on her radio calls to Cam. Iris could relay warnings to the fighters, speaking to them directly, all while coordinating with the region's military commanders--and Washington, if needed. The integrated battlefield.

Ahead, the Yellow Sea gleamed like a sheet of stainless steel littered with cotton ball clouds. No threats, good weather. So far, so good. Bree thought of the bad vibes she'd felt before takeoff, and blamed them on too much sugar for breakfast. Sweet Thing might be buying the beers at the Officers Club after they landed, but Bree would get Scarlet a drink. It was the least she could do, after having spent the better part of the last hour fretting like a mother hen about the woman's safety. Cam wouldn't appreciate the solicitousness. Most of the time, Bree was better at dampening her predisposition to be overprotective, to manipulate the parameters of her life so that no one got hurt. She was aware that the root cause was a psychological scar from killing her little brother.

Okay, technically, she hadn't killed him, but she'd been responsible: Brendan died while in her protection, and that was almost the same in her mind. The child therapists hired by her parents to help her through the tragedy had anticipated that reaction, and had used everything in their psychological bag of tricks to eradicate it from her six-year-old psyche after she took her brother and the family canoe for a joyride in the local stream. It wasn't the first stunt she'd pulled as a kid, and it wasn't the last, but never again would she have Brendan to take along with her. Spring rains had made the water faster and the canoe harder to control than she'd expected. She'd lost control. The canoe overturned and jammed between river boulders with her trapped beneath it. It was so dark and noisy she didn't realize at first that she was alone. But by then, Brendan had drowned, swept downstream where a neighbor found his body.

It had messed her up for awhile, as a kid. Even now, most of what she'd consider her quirks stemmed from that day. She was an overprotective control freak who was afraid of the dark. Not that anyone would guess that about her. She could be such a "guy" when it came to sharing private doubts and feelings. It was one reason why she was better at flying than long-term relationships. Not that she was complaining; she liked being single. She liked having fun.

The Star KingA burst of random radio static yanked Bree's mind back where it belonged: in the here-and-now, where she didn't have the luxury of letting her thoughts wander. She rolled up on a wing and turned back to the shore. Here, the landscape was very rugged and remote. The forest came almost to the beach, what there was of one: a narrow and rocky strip of sand, decorated she'd bet with mines and barbed wire instead of Pepsi bottles and empty containers of Coppertone. Another burst of static caught her attention as the coastline rolled under the belly of her jet.

Cam shouted: "Razor-two, Radar, RAW, hits bearing two-two-zero!"

Bree's pulse jumped with a surge of adrenaline. RAW was shorthand for radar alert warning. Cam's threat warning system had gone off. A radar site on the ground had turned on to take a look, telling them that somewhere down there a North Korean surface-to-air missile operator was tracking Cam as a cat stalked a mouse. It might want to pounce...or it may simply want to play. You never knew. But you had to treat every blip as a potential threat.

Bree answered quickly so Cam would know that her own jet hadn't picked up anything. "Razor-one is negative." She hated surprises like this. She'd read the intelligence briefing that morning, and it had been clean. Then she remembered a recent report on the North's shoulder-launched missiles. It was impossible to keep track of those. They could be loaded in a car and driven anywhere. Worse, an actual visual sighting of an aircraft wasn't necessary, as it had been in the old days. All anyone needed to complete the deal was a cooperative radar operator to help find a target. Then everyone with a personal missile launcher could fire away.

"Iris, what have you got for Razor flight?" The surveillance plane would have heard Cam's radio call.

"Stand by. We're checking it out."

"Checking it out," she muttered to herself. They could afford to sound that laid-back; they were sitting in a safer place than her wingman. But Bree tried to be patient. The intelligence gatherers were good, very good, and they'd saved her butt plenty of times, but they weren't perfect. They couldn't possibly keep track of every stray missile battery in North Korea.

Bree's threat warning system light illuminated. A swell of adrenaline froze her concentration into absolute focus. Her voice was calmer than she felt. "Razor-one has RAW. Eight o'clock."

"Two!"

She glanced from the warning light to her HUD, and then to the sky. It had been only seconds since Cam had reported her warning. Now someone was looking at Bree, also. But radar alone didn't pose a threat. Every fighter pilot knew it. The guys on the ground could aim all they wanted, but unless they were close enough, anything they lobbed over would fall short--and Bree was going to take care of that right now.

She accelerated, climbing to a higher altitude, anxious to put distance between her and the unknown threat before it became more than that. Cam followed, a half mile behind her. She'd rather go south than farther north, and she hoped Cam realized that, but the people on the ground checking them out were in that direction, keeping them on the northern side of the border. It almost smelled like a set-up. But what could the North hope to gain by shooting aircraft engaged in operation Keep The Peace? With tensions as high as they were, it didn't make sense.

A loud alarm filled Bree's headset. She warned, using the radio, "Missiles!"

"Talley ho!" Cam shouted back.

Bree looked over her shoulder, craning her neck. There! Telltale white plumes of launched SAMs.

The ice in her veins surged like an arctic dam breaking. "Counter, counter," Bree's threat warning system suggested in a female voice. But Bree was already releasing chaff and flying evasive maneuvers. Missiles came at you at supersonic speed. Confusing the little buggers was the only way out.

"Counter, counter."

Bree gripped the control stick, wrenching it sideways, and pulled. Her vision narrowed. The sudden onset of Gs was almost too much for her suit and body to fight. She tightened her leg and stomach muscles to squeeze the blood pooling in her lower body back up to where she needed it most--in her head. Her oxygen mask slid down her sweaty face. Harsh breaths roared in her ears as she sucked air into her squashed lungs.

Radio chatter filled her headset. Bree realized belatedly that Iris was transmitting something about confirmed reports of SAMs in the air. Well, duh. Sorry, no time to chew the fat. Gotta get rid of this missile on my ass.

The aerial battle exerted tremendous forces on her body, alternating between the bone-crushing force of gravity and negative Gs that propelled her insides upward and out. The missile streaked past. Woo hoo! It had missed! Thank you, God. But the missile passed her by only to lock on to Cam.

Bree's mood changed instantly. She was in a position to have a good visual on both of them. "Razor-two--Missile at eight o'clock, low!" But Cam wouldn't have a visual. The SAM was in her blind spot: underneath and slightly behind. "Break right," Bree directed. "Break right!"

Cam flipped over on her right wingtip. The missile followed.

On Bree's HUD, Cam's jet was one of many shapes, whirling in a dizzying video-game battle. With her naked eye, she saw two birds of prey, one guided by mindless, mechanical technology, the other by human hands.

The missile looked as if it would miss, fooled by countermeasures and some amazing evasive flying. But then it came around, its plume of white vapor sweeping in a graceful arc. Bree stared in horror. "Razor-two, reverse left--reverse left!" Sweat stung her eyes. "Missile in your six, closing fast." Come on, Scarlet, come on.

The SAM was a half-mile behind. And then a quarter-mile. Dread tightened her throat. "Harder left!"

Bree jerked, startled as smoke and debris made sudden daytime fireworks. Cam!

Ah, God. There couldn't be a worse thing to witness than watching your best friend take a direct hit.

In the seconds that followed, Bree searched the smoky sky, fighting the emotion that if let loose would shatter her concentration. Then she saw it, an open parachute, and it was the most beautiful sight in the world. Even better was the glimpse of Cam's long legs dangling beneath the silk. Her wingman plunged down toward hills bordered by a U-shaped swatch of darker trees, a crescent of green in a vast sea of grey-blue conifers. At the speed of light, Bree committed the sight to memory.

A warning alarm trilled in her headset. She wrenched her attention back inside. Lights in the cockpit flashed at her. A stoic computer-generated voice urged: "Counter, counter."

The other missile was locked on her!

Cam's ejection had sidetracked Bree--for only a few dozen heartbeats. But that distracted fraction of a minute might have been a fatal mistake. She gritted her teeth and hauled back on the control stick to bank away from the threat. Massive forces crammed her into her seat. Not enough. Need more. After what she saw happen to Cam, she knew it'd take every countermeasure, everything in her bag of tricks to escape.

Bree shoved the stick the opposite way and forward. Her seat belt and shoulder harnesses kept her bottom pressed firmly on the seat cushion, but negative Gs thrust her insides upward, as if she'd just crested the highest hill on the world's biggest rollercoaster. But her tactics weren't working. She'd have to reverse course, fly into the missile, and then hope her angle and speed would be enough to throw it off her tail.

Her threat warning alarm blared. She flew wildly. Ground became sky and the sky ground. Then, a painfully intense flash of light half blinded her. For one infinitesimal slice of a tick of the clock, Bree thought that the missile had missed, and that she was watching its flamboyant suicidal finale from the front row. But when something unimaginably powerful slammed her jet from underneath and threw her forward into her shoulder harnesses, she knew better.

The second missile had found its target.

 

 

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