Flight 630 at 37,000 feet
12 nautical miles north of
Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA
The flight attendant stepped up to her seat—4E—which had never been her favorite on a 767-300. At least the cabin setup was in the familiar 261-seat, 2-class configuration, currently running at a seventy-three percent load capacity with a standard crew of ten and one ride-along FAA inspector in the cockpit jump seat.
“Excuse me, are you Miranda Chase?”
The attendant made a face that she couldn’t interpret.
A frown? Did that indicate anger?
He turned away before she could consider the possibilities and, without another word, returned to his station at the front of the cabin.
Miranda once again straightened the emergency exit plan that the flight’s vibrations kept shifting askew in its pocket.
This flight from yesterday’s meeting at LAX to today’s DC lunch meeting at the National Transportation Safety Board’s headquarters departed so early that she’d decided to spend the night in the airline’s executive lounge working on various aviation accident reports. She never slept on a flight and would have to catch up on her sleep tonight.
Miranda felt the shift as the plane turned into a modest five-degree bank to the left. The bright rays of dawn over the New Mexico desert shifted from the left-hand windows to the right side.
At due north, she heard the Rolls-Royce RB211 engines (quite a pleasant high tone compared to the Pratt & Whitney PW4000 that she always found unnerving) ease off ever so slightly, signaling a slow descent. The pilot was transitioning from an eastbound course that would be flown at an odd number of thousands of feet to a westbound one that must be flown at an even number.
The flight attendant then picked up the intercom phone and a loud squawk sounded through the cabin. Most people would be asleep and there were soft complaints and rustling down the length of the aircraft.
“We regret to inform you that there is an emergency on the ground. I repeat, there is nothing wrong with the plane. We are being routed back to Las Vegas, where we will disembark one passenger, refuel, and then continue our flight to DC. Our apologies for the inconvenience.”
There were now shouts of complaint all up and down the aisle.
The flight attendant was staring straight at her as he slammed the intercom back into its cradle with significantly greater force than was required to seat it properly.
Oh. It was her they would be disembarking. That meant there was a crash in need of an NTSB investigator—a major one if they were flying back an hour in the wrong direction.
Thankfully, she always had her site kit with her.
For some reason, her seatmate was muttering something foul. Miranda ignored it and began to prepare herself.
Only the crash mattered.
She straightened the exit plan once more. It had shifted the other way with the changing harmonic from the RB211 engines.
Chengdu, Central China
Air Force Major Wang Fan eased back on the joystick of the final prototype Shenyang J-31 jet—designed exclusively for the People’s Liberation Army Air Force. In response, China’s newest fighter jet leapt upward like a catapult’s missile from the PLAAF base in the flatlands surrounding the towering city of Chengdu.
It felt as he’d just been grasped by Chen Mei-Li.
Never had a woman made him feel like such a man. Fan hadn’t known that he could be taken past the ultimate peak so many times in a single night. More than once he’d half feared that his given name would come true and he would die collapsed upon her—his fellow test pilots often teased him about his first name, Fan, meaning “mortal.”
Of course, never before had he been with a woman who cost a week’s salary. It would take at least a month to hide enough money from his insipid wife—now revealed to be so much less skilled than he’d thought—to buy another night with Mei-Li, the beautiful red gem.
Perhaps if this flight went well, he would get a promotion from Shao Xiao to Zhong Xiao—major to lieutenant colonel—and the money that came with it could simply never be revealed to his wife.
It was possible. After all, Lieutenant General Zhang Ru was his wife’s uncle. Hadn’t he lifted Fan from the officer corps to be a test pilot, and introduced Fan to his own niece and encouraged her to become his wife?
Uncle Ru personally had chosen him to be first in the Chinese Air Force to fly the new J-31—a great honor indeed.
Each successive flight in the long week of testing had built neatly on the one before. Today he had finally been given permission to truly test the J-31’s limits.
And now Uncle Ru had arranged his night in heaven with Chen Mei-Li.
Fan had felt truly immortal when he stepped up, flipped aside her robe, and entered her from behind this morning as she’d been bent over to set their breakfast table—white rice scattering wide at her surprise. Steamed buns had fallen upon the blue-and-white floor tiles depicting ancient gardens and elegant courtesans, each pork baozi exploding in slow motion like a tiny bomb.
Forevermore, the fiery blend of ginger, sesame, and five-spice would season his memories of that purest s****l perfection.
In the moment of that crashing release like no other, he had indeed entered Tian and become Yùdi the Jade Emperor taking Mazu the Jade Empress right up her heaven-perfect ass. He hadn’t been Wang the prince (as his surname meant) or even king—he’d been a god.
For the gift of last night alone, he would do anything his uncle asked.
As the first Air Force pilot to fly the J-31 Sŭn, Gyrfalcon in the English that Uncle kept pushing him to learn, he would also have a pilot’s bragging rights for a long time to come. That too he owed to Honorable Uncle Ru.
The twin Chinese-made WS-13E engines delivered 200 kN, over 46,000 pounds of thrust, all driven straight into his aching member as a single roar of glory. The sixteen-meter-long fifth-generation fighter jet leapt for the heavens. It was only the fourth fifth-gen jet fighter in the world—and personally he felt Russia’s Sukhoi Su-57 was overrated. Besides, the Russian jet was still no more than a prototype, so the J-31 was the third of the new breed (he didn’t count the J-20, even though it had flown first, because with the arrival of J-31, the two-year-old jet was already obsolete).
The two American fifth-gen aircraft were, sadly, very impressive. Now it was time to put them in their place.
The Gyrfalcon looked ungainly on the ground, more wing than plane. The shapes were all wrong when compared with the PLAAF’s other aircraft. But like the American F-35 Lightning II that had been the inspiration for the superior Chinese engineers, its looks didn’t matter. It did indeed fly like its namesake, the largest of all falcons.
“Crossing five thousand meters, Mach 0.9. All systems nominal,” he continued his running report. He wouldn’t radio it in, because the foul Americans would be listening with their satellites even here in Chengdu, a thousand kilometers from any border. It was also why they were testing here rather than in Shenyang so close to the American listening posts in South Korea and Japan.
Instead of broadcasting back to base, he was to keep a running commentary of the test flight for the internal cockpit recorder. All of the sensors attached for this test flight would record far more information than he could ever grunt out against the brutal g-forces, but they wanted him to make the verbal recording anyway.
No, Uncle Ru had wanted that. And he was the one who had ordered radio silence despite the advanced encryption systems on his radio.
Think, Fan. Think like the leader Uncle Ru is grooming you to be.
His silence would be so that no other commander could get any information ahead of Uncle Ru.
He was a very wise man and Fan still had much to learn from him. Fan would capture as much as he could, then make sure the tape was delivered only into his uncle’s hands.
“Flight is smooth,” at least compared to the Russian RD-93 engines with fifteen percent less power that had been in the prototypes.
The J-31 didn’t offer the stable ride rumored on the ever-so-similar American F-35 Lightning II, but it was the first production model delivered to the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, and for now, the seventy-million-dollar aircraft was all his.
“Impressively clean transition through Mach 1.” Normally the transition was a hard shake, like taking his CFMoto 650 motorcycle down an untended dirt road.
He detailed the differences from the Shenyang J-16 (copied from the Russian Sukhoi Su-35—with all of its engine problems that had almost killed him in testing) and the Chengdu J-20 (China’s first homegrown supersonic stealth aircraft—except for some “acquired” details from the American’s own stealth jet program).
Every single time he broke the sound barrier, it amazed him how noisy it was to fly beyond the transition. The arrowed tip of the jet’s nose cracked the air, which the hard chines of the stealth hull split into sections for smoother supersonic flow. The roar of the mighty engines, rather than being left far behind, was transmitted through the hull and couldn’t be outrun.
“Mach 1.5 at ten thousand meters. Preparing for agility tests.”
Chen Mei-Li had grown up inside the state-sponsored gymnast program for eighteen years. Now too old to compete at twenty-one, she had brought her lithe form and all of that incredible agility to the bedroom.
The jet felt just as responsive, and he was just entering his prime.
The J-31’s design was primarily for air-to-air combat. Intended for lower altitudes than the bombers, it delivered exceptional maneuverability even at supersonic speeds.
He started with a simple twist—flying in a straight line and rolling the aircraft sideways wing over wing. S-turns and loops became second nature as he learned the feel of the jet’s behavior at supersonic speeds.
He finally aimed straight up and opened the afterburners wide. The jet drove into the sky until there wasn’t enough air for its engines to push against. He gradually slowed until, for an instant, he hung suspended with his momentum wrung dry, perfectly balanced: twenty kilometers into the sky on 46,000 pounds of thrust.
He held out a fist with only his pinkie finger raised toward the satellites that circled in space.
“Your d**k is smaller than this, America!”
He half hoped that their cameras were powerful enough to see his gesture. They knew nothing of the meaning of power.
Maybe he would quietly remove some funds from his private savings account and celebrate this flight in Chen Mei-Li’s arms. He’d tell his wife he was needed at the base for debriefing. Or maybe he would just take his wife as masterfully as he had Mei-Li this morning.
Finally toppling, the jet plunged downward, ramming back into the thicker atmosphere. At Mach 1.7, nearing the aircraft’s top speed, he leveled out close above the vast patchwork pools of Sichuan Basin rice farms. He imagined the cracking sonic boom rolling over farmers and their wives as the newest jewel of the PLAAF rushed by so close overhead. Perhaps the sheer power of the Gyrfalcon would cause the farmers’ daughters to orgasm at his passage.
Fan carved a hard turn and raced into the foothills of the Hengduan Mountain Range. They started abruptly to the west of Chengdu, building rapidly until they crested over seven thousand meters in the fearsome Gongga Shan. Far taller than any puny peak in North America, it rose only fifteen hundred meters less than mighty Everest.
The next stage of the test was to ease deeper and deeper into those valleys and gorges to test the jet’s agility against the real world. If India became an enemy rather than a tenuous ally, the battle could well occur in the Himalayas.
Low-level high-speed flight was the greatest adrenaline ride there was. He flung himself into the testing range, rattling the mountains themselves with his flight. An area covering thousands of square kilometers had been cleared of indigenous hill tribes and it was strictly for pilots to test new aircraft to the limits.