Island Mine - Cover

Island Mine

Copyright© 2013 by Refusenik

Chapter 14

Crystal City, Virginia

The emergency video conference was thrown together in a hurry. Not all the members were available on such short notice, nor at that time of the night.

Captain Arnold, United States Navy, retired, was wearing jeans and an old Naval Academy sweatshirt. He hung up the secure phone and glanced at his terminal. He hadn't been able to gather any new information before the meeting started. His aide entered the room, looking remarkably fresh, carrying a thin folder.

Arnold scanned its contents quickly, "Is this all?"

"Yes, sir."

"Damn," Arnold looked at the screen in front of him. Four members out of eight wasn't a good turnout. "Let's get started."

One of the blank spots switched on, and a very rumpled CIA representative took a seat in front of the camera, organizing his notes as he sat down. "Sorry, I was trying to get the latest from our operations center."

Claire Chellos from the National Security Council broke in, "Can somebody tell me why I've been dragged out of my bed at midnight for some damn flight plan? Is this related to their latest space launch?"

Captain Arnold cleared his throat and took a drink of water, "Their space vehicle is still in orbit. We can address their second launch during our next regular session. This meeting is about their suborbital aircraft. It will begin a transit over American territory in a matter of minutes."

"Can they do that?"

Arnold tried not to wince. The woman was a mid-level member of the NSC, supposedly headed for greater things. Her job required competence, but he had learned not to expect it.

"They can, and it looks like they are. Freehold sent a courtesy notice to NORAD and NATO. That covers most of their flight path. They alerted the EU, through Eurocontrol, and even the Russians just to cover their bases. As a matter of law, they have no requirement to notify anybody. The flight is well out of American, or anyone else's, controlled airspace."

"I apologize for snapping at you, Captain Arnold. We've all been inconvenienced by this late hour. Can you explain what exactly we're looking at?"

Arnold activated a map projection. "It's a classic great circle route because the shortest distance between two points across the surface of the planet is not a straight line. If the Freehold aircraft were at a much lower altitude, it would enter American airspace off the coast of California. They'll clip the northern edge of the state, overfly Oregon and Washington, and exit our territory at the Canadian border. They'll travel over Canada, into the Arctic Circle, down across Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, the Black Sea, and end up over the Eastern Mediterranean.

"I want to emphasize, that while the aircraft is briefly overflying U.S. territory, it will not be entering our airspace. Also note that they did give us advance warning, although a few hours heads up is cutting it pretty fine. Nobody got excited until our long range radars picked them up."

"Will you engage in a hypothetical, captain?"

"If I can," Captain Arnold said cautiously.

"Could we stop it?"

Arnold made a show of studying his papers before answering, "No. It's coming from the wrong direction. We can track it, but all of our interception capability is elsewhere. We're focused on threats emanating from the Western Pacific."

From her expression, Arnold wondered if the woman had been drinking earlier.

"We can't shoot down one plane? My god, should we alert the National Command Authority?"

It was Captain Arnold's turn for a sour stomach. She was talking about the Secretary of Defense or the President of the United States.

"It's not our place. If the threat warranted, the Pentagon would alert the NCA through proper channels. While the event is interesting from several different angles, in my opinion, this does not rise to the level of a threat. I think our Air Force friend is best suited to address exactly why your hypothetical action isn't feasible."

The Air Force representative's head popped up at that comment, clearly not thrilled at having to address such a touchy subject.

"We'll get excellent tracking data," the man said. "This kind of thing is what 7th Space Warning Squadron at Beale does. That's Beale Air Force Base in California. The Western Air Defense Sector at Lewis-McChord in Washington will also get a good look. Captain Arnold is right about the threat axis. Given several days warning, we might be able to launch something out of Vandenberg, otherwise our missile defense assets are badly out of place and the program is currently in disfavor. I'm not making a political comment, only stating a budgetary fact. The Air Force will try to launch a surveillance asset out of Beal and the Navy may get an aircraft from Whidbey Island off the ground."

The Air Force Man looked to the side as someone spoke to him from off camera. "We'll do the best we can, but you shouldn't expect much. You'll have good tracking data from our ground stations, maybe some usable imagery. The Navy bird will be half a state away and what Beal is launching is geared to look down, not up. NASA can't help, most of their west coast tracking equipment was mothballed at the end of the shuttle program."

Claire Chellos leaned toward the camera, "We can't get something in place? I find that remarkable. Are the right people not awake?"

The Air Force man shifted in his seat, "Ma'am, this thing is thirty miles up. The U-2, our highest flying aircraft, has an operational ceiling of over thirteen miles, less than half that altitude. It's not that we can't track it. We did that regularly with returning space shuttles. They flew higher and faster, but we knew about them well in advance and had plenty of preparation time. We're simply not prepared. Our best bet will be to get a good look at them on the other end of the flight. This aircraft will only be over U.S. territory for a few minutes. It's travelling in excess of mach six. That's five thousand miles per hour and it's doing it in a region of the atmosphere called the stratopause."

The man let out a breath. "I can't begin to tell you how strange that is. This zone is the boundary between the stratosphere and the mesosphere. Our science and technology people are clamoring for data. It makes no sense to operate there. This vehicle could just as easily climb into mesosphere where it's cooler and the flight conditions are better, so why don't they? It's forcing us to rethink what we know about hypersonic flight and atmospheric dynamics."

The Air Force representative stopped talking, and looked lost in thought.

Claire Chellos threw her hands up in the air, "I didn't understand half of that."

Captain Arnold checked his computer. "The aircraft crossed over the American coastline one minute ago."

The CIA man raised his hand on camera.

Arnold nodded for him to go ahead.

"Our people are just as interested in the technical aspects, but we need to change our focus to the purpose of this flight."

"What does the CIA think is going on?" Arnold asked.

"Ostensibly, it's a trade mission to Israel. Their notice has them leaving Israel and flying to Macau. They've done that before. If they hold true to form, expect a quick run to Singapore afterwards. Then it's back to Freehold, and they'll have done it in less than twelve hours. For the geographically challenged, it means they're circumnavigating the globe. It's a hell of a statement about their technical prowess."

"It would be a world record," the Air Force man added. "In fact, they could shatter several world aviation records, but they've made absolutely no move to have them certified. The records will never be official. I think that says something very interesting about them. They've done it and don't care about the bragging rights."

"What are they going to do in Israel?" Claire Chellos asked.

Arnold interrupted the dialog. "Interesting message traffic just in. Our NATO partner, Turkey, has denied Freehold permission to overfly their territory. I would say that's probably because of the destination. Wait ... Freehold has already replied. That's damn fast. Quote, 'Freehold's courtesy flight notification was not a request for permission.' That's going to get some attention."

"What does the State Department have to say about all this?" the National Security Council woman asked.

"They haven't answered the bell, I'm afraid," Arnold replied, indicating the list of conference participants. "CIA may be able to answer those questions."

"It's early morning in Israel, and we've not gotten any responses to our inquiries," the CIA man replied. "I agree with Captain Arnold's assessment of Turkish actions. Relations between the two countries are frosty at present. I wouldn't read too much into it. We don't have much sway either, given the current international climate.

"On the other hand, the answer may be found in where they're headed. Hatzerim Air Base, it's at the top of the Negev Desert and a key Israeli Air Force installation. They wouldn't be landing there without official government sanction. Then there's the next leg to Macau, or more precisely, what they have to fly over to get there."

Over the Mediterranean

Waylon had opted for a wide turn over the Mediterranean to bleed off speed and altitude. Felix Truong was in the copilot's seat and Rowen Dalgliesh was in the jump seat. They relaxed as the aircraft came out of the turn.

One of his screens was showing an impressive mix of air defense radars that crowded this region. One particularly strong icon indicated a NATO operated E3-A AWACS orbiting over Turkey.

"What does AWACS mean?" Felix asked.

Waylon had really hoped nobody would ask that after he explained what the flashing icon was on Felix's display.

"Airborne warning something or other—"

"Airborne Early Warning and Control System," AI Barry said in Waylon's ear.

"—it's a flying aircraft control tower and command center with its own radar. Looks like a passenger jet carrying a big Frisbee. They can see everything in a huge volume of airspace and direct fighters to intercept enemy aircraft."

"Like us?"

"Well, sure, if we were the bad guys."

Israeli air traffic control contacted him with updated heading, altitude, and the latest weather information.

"Keep a sharp eye out, our escort is about to join on us," Waylon said.

Felix craned his neck checking both sides of the aircraft. Even Rowen leaned forward to get a look.

"There it is. My side!" Felix shouted as he dug out his phone to take pictures. He waved and the Israeli fighter pilot waved back. "We should paint our tails like that."

"An F-15I, of the famous Hammers squadron," Waylon said after a glance. The vertical stabilizer, on the side of the American made fighter facing them, had the head of an eagle painted on it. "They call their version the 'Thunder.' You know, we're landing at their home base. Maybe he'd let us borrow it for a few minutes and take it up for a spin."

Waylon motioned for quiet as he made sure he was on the common frequency and exchanged greetings with the fighter pilot.

Rowen snorted, "What he isn't telling you is that if we turn out to be hostile, our 'escort' will blow us out of the sky."

"Felix, that wonderful sense of optimism is why we brought Rowen along."

"I thought you brought him along for his gun?"

"That too," Waylon replied.

They were descending rapidly while approaching the coastline.

"Waylon, did you stop carrying a gun because you killed two people?"

"Felix!" Rowen said from the jump seat.

Felix shrugged when Waylon looked over at him.

"Let's concentrate on landing this thing."

"Okay," Felix grumbled. "How come the sections look so different?"

Rowen leaned forward to see what Felix was talking about. "The green stuff is Israel, that rough bit directly ahead is the Gaza Strip."

"What's with all the funny shapes?"

Waylon and Rowen exchanged looks. Felix had been raised in a tropical paradise and had never seen the effects of irrigation, or for that matter, a desert.

Rowen explained things to Felix while Waylon started to line up for his runway approach. They had a priority all the way in and the surrounding airspace was clear. Their fighter escort peeled off as they approached the main runway.

Touchdown was routine. Waylon tested the aircraft's brakes after the aircraft had slowed. He heard Felix ask Rowen what time it was locally.

"Local time is exactly ten hours ahead of island time," Waylon said as he looked for the ground vehicle the tower said was coming to them. "There's our 'follow me' jeep."

"Why's it called that?" Felix asked, looking at his watch.

Waylon pointed out the cockpit window. The jeep had a large sign in English on the back of it that said simply, 'Follow Me.'

They taxied to a large hangar complex. The jeep slowed, and the driver pointed toward a man standing nearby. The ground handler signaled that Waylon should stop and cut the engines.

Waylon unbuckled his belts. He thanked the tower and told them they'd be a couple of minutes before popping the hatch.

Felix grabbed his tablet computer and they started the shutdown checklist. Felix and Arman were interested in the flight training Waylon said he'd pay for, and they were eager to learn all they could. Waylon had tried to tell them they wouldn't have fancy computer tablets or all glass cockpits if they went for official training, but it didn't diminish their growing eagerness.

With shutdown complete they stowed their tablets and backup flight charts. Through the cockpit windows, they could see a welcoming committee approaching the plane.

"Will these flight suits be okay?" Felix asked.

"I think we look sharp," Rowen replied.

Waylon agreed. "Okay, we'll do the meet and greet. When the time comes, Felix, you'll supervise the cargo transfer. Rowen, keep me on my toes. Remember, we're guests."

"Relax, Waylon. We know what we're doing," Rowen said.

"I'm glad somebody does. Okay, let's get the gifts and go meet our new friends."

Waylon cracked the hatch and a gust of cool, dry air blew in. He activated the stairs and waited for them to extend. The outside temperature was supposed to be a brisk 55F, but it felt a lot cooler. He'd gotten too used to life in the tropics. The lack of humidity was also a shock.

He descended the stairs followed quickly by Felix and Rowen, who both had their hands full.

One of the men waiting for him stepped forward, "Mr. Eckermann, welcome to Israel. I'm Zvi Ben-Artsi, we've spoken before. This is Max Abramski, he's from Economic Affairs at the Foreign Office and General Lavi, our military host. It's his base."

Zvi Ben-Artsi looked to be about the same age as Rowen, but with shorter dark hair which emphasized the fact that part of his left ear was missing. An old battle wound judging by the scarring, Waylon thought. The man from the Foreign Affairs office was younger, and wore lightly tinted glasses. The general had a salt and pepper crew cut and the impeccable bearing of a man of long military service.

They exchanged handshakes while Waylon introduced his crew.

"Mr. Eckermann, the Rapid X is a beautiful aircraft. May I ask the duration of your flight time?" the general asked.

Waylon noted that all of their hosts spoke excellent English as he glanced at his watch, "Two hours, twenty minutes by my watch."


Behind them, Waylon heard the F-15I taxiing toward a hardstand. "We were equally impressed by our escort."

"Would you mind if our photographer... ?" the general motioned toward a man with a camera.

Waylon was surprised they had asked, "Could we get a group photo first to mark the occasion?"

"Excellent idea."

The group posed for a couple of quick pictures. After which, the photographer retreated a discreet distance and began taking photos focusing solely on the aircraft.

Mr. Ben-Artsi guided the group toward the one open hangar. Tables and chairs had been set up inside. There were a handful of Israeli troops scattered about wearing their monochromatic green uniforms. They were working uniforms, and Waylon had the brief thought that their fitted look was much sharper than the often shapeless BDUs that most U.S. troops wore. All the Israeli troopers were armed. They were alert, but relaxed. The flag of Israel hung limply from a flag pole standing next to the table.

"Your passports please?" a balding man asked them as they entered the hangar.

Waylon took his Freehold passport from his flight suit. The man examined his and the others handed to him.

The man hesitated with a stamp in his hand, "Would you prefer your visa stamps on a separate piece of paper?"

Waylon remembered a long forgotten tidbit about problems travelling to certain Middle East countries if your passport had Israeli entry stamps. He had always travelled on his military ID, and had never been to Israel, so it was never an issue.

"Not necessary," he replied.

The others shook their heads as well.

Zvi Ben-Artsi smiled. "May I offer you refreshments?"

Felix zipped his flight suit to the collar and rubbed his hands together, "Could we get coffee?"

A steward hustled around the table and began setting out cups and saucers, while another retrieved a pot of coffee from a service table near the hangar wall.

Waylon motioned to Felix and took the package he was holding.

"A couple of modest gifts from Freehold," Waylon slid the folded flag out and handed it, and a smaller package, to Mr. Ben-Artsi.

Their host snapped his fingers and two soldiers jumped into motion. One ducked inside an open doorway and the other took the flag. The soldier quickly returned with a flag pole and stand. They unfurled the flag, hung it from the pole and placed it by the Israeli flag.

All the Freeholders were impressed with the speed and efficiency of what had just taken place.

"It's a striking flag, bold colors," Ben-Artsi said.

One of the soldiers held the corner of the flag for display, before releasing it and stepping back.

Felix whispered into Waylon's ear, "That soldier is a girl!"

Rowen shook his head and looked away.

"She has a big gun too, I'd watch what you say," Waylon replied softly.

Their hosts, and the female soldier smiled, the acoustics in the hangar were particularly good.

The group moved back toward the tables and took their seats, the Israeli's on one side, and the Freehold delegation on the other.

"May we dispense with formal address?" Mr. Ben-Artsi asked.

"Please," Waylon replied.

"I find informality helps these sorts of meetings go much easier. Before we get too involved, this other package is... ?"

Mr. Ben-Artsi was holding the small, but bulging envelope by its corners.

"Hibiscus seeds. Our master gardener is producing his own strain and these are seeds from his latest variation. The flower is particularly colorful. We would have brought a live plant, but didn't want to run into any quarantine issues."

"I know several gardeners, including my wife, who will be very eager to cultivate such a beautiful flower. Thank you for a thoughtful gift."

The next half hour was spent refining the final details on the commercial transaction that was the basis for the meeting. For public consumption, Israel was buying several exotic rare earth alloys, and discussing future deliveries. In truth, what Waylon and crew had transported would supply Israeli industries for several years. The materials were so exotic that they were often used only in minute quantities.

At one point during the conversation, AI Barry informed Waylon that one of the Israeli photographers working near the parked aircraft was carrying a small air sampling kit in his camera bag. It was an eventuality that they were prepared for. The AIs had the 'engine' pods release some interesting vapor. Israel's technical exploitation team would be busy trying to understand the exotic fuel the Rapid X was supposedly powered by when they analyzed their samples.

With the deal concluded, Felix was excused so that he could supervise the cargo transfer. The base commander wished them a safe journey home and departed as well.

One of the stewards refreshed their coffee and Waylon took the opportunity to reassess their progress. So far, he thought the meeting had gone as smoothly as they could hope for. He still didn't know what exactly it was that Zvi Ben-Artsi did. He was obviously somebody of importance in the government. The others all deferred to him.

Waylon dropped a hand to his thigh. A light tap caused the communications overlay to be displayed in his field of vision. He typed a quick message, 'Thoughts?'

"We calculate a sixty-five percent chance of success based on the progress thus far," AI Barry said. "Their security is excellent by the way. There are no computers within the immediate area containing sensitive information. We have looked. Their personnel are also respecting the aircraft. They are examining it closely, but have not overstepped propriety. We believe this is because they wish these negotiations to succeed."

Mr. Ben-Artsi finished doctoring his cup of coffee and extended his hands, palms up, across the table, "Waylon, with our preliminary business out of the way, perhaps it's time we discussed the rest?"

"How should we start?"

"What does Freehold want most?"

Waylon finished stirring his coffee and placed the spoon on the saucer while he formulated his response. "Landing rights for our space program, or our suborbital flights, if an emergency were to arise."

"And in return?"

"In return we would offer the same to Israel. I realize that the remoteness of Freehold and our facilities makes that portion of our agreement unbalanced, at best."

The negotiator brushed an invisible piece of lint from the tabletop. "Reciprocal safe harbor, so to speak?"


"Israel has global interests," Ben-Artsi replied. "Safe harbor could apply to an individual, or a small group, perhaps even a ship requiring a friendly port."

"Freehold could definitely be such for Israel in the South Pacific," Waylon said.

"Then I would suggest, were we to agree, that a reciprocal arrangement would be balanced, in intent, and not dependant on convenience," Zvi replied.

Max Abramski had been mostly quiet to this point, but it was apparently his turn to speak. "What about exchanges of information or technology?"

Technology exchange had been part of the preliminary discussions. The Israelis mentioned something they were interested in, and Freehold had done the same. There was no guarantee of quid pro quo, but it was implied.

Waylon turned his attention toward Max, "An area I'm sure we can come to agreement on. I am particularly impressed with the agricultural success that Israel has enjoyed. Flying over green crops in the middle of the Negev Desert really drives that home.

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