77

Kbely Airfield, near Prague

“It’s just like a real plane,” said the Czech. “With real fuel and everything.”

“It is a real plane!” said Turk, indignant. He turned to Chief Master Sergeant Crawford, who headed the Tigershark maintenance team. Crawford was nearly red, trying not to laugh.

“You put him up to this, Chief?” Turk asked.

“Hey, not me, Cap.”

The Czech, who’d just finished loading the Tigershark with jet fuel, looked puzzled.

“It’s a real plane,” Turk told him.

“Captain Kirk,” said the Czech. “Star Wars.”

“Kirk is Star Trek,” said Turk.

“Very fast?” asked the Czech.

That was too much for Crawford, who practically exploded in laughter. He had to grab the airplane’s landing strut to keep from falling over.

“Uh, when you’re finished laughing, Chief Master Sergeant,” said Turk, “tell me when my plane will be ready.”

“You can fly it now,” said Crawford. Tears were flowing from his eyes. “Oh, God. Oh, jeez. Real plane. Real plane.”

Another maintainer, Tech Sergeant Paul Cervantes, came over to see what the fuss was about.

“The Czechs,” managed Crawford. “They’re too much.”

“What happened?” Cervantes asked.

“I can’t explain. It’s too much. And Turk—” Crawford started curling with laughter. “Captain Mako. He’s too much, too.”

“Hey, I’m glad I’m part of the entertainment,” said the pilot. He was more baffled now than angry.

“Hey, Cap, Shelly told me your gear’s like A-one ready to go,” said Cervantes.

“Thanks, Sarge. At least someone here is serious.”

Turk checked his watch. The Ukrainian minister wouldn’t be back for another two hours or so, but he had a lot to do — including figuring out who he needed to talk to in order to make sure his flight didn’t interfere with the rest of the air show. He was just about to go look for the show boss when his cell phone rang. He pulled it from his pocket, saw the caller ID, and flipped it open.

“Hey, boss,” he told Breanna, hoping she was going to tell him that Zen would join her for the fly-by.

“Turk! There’s a helicopter that just took off. It’s a Mil — it’s flying southeast. Southeast! Zen’s in it. We have to follow it.”

* * *

A minute or two later Turk pulled himself into the Tigershark’s cockpit.

“Engines,” he told the flight computer after plugging his oxygen and com gear in.

The top of the cockpit snugged down with a hard snap and the consoles powered up. The aircraft computer blew through the diagnostics, data flying across the screens.

The aircraft claimed it was in the green. That was good enough for him.

“Tower, this is U.S. Air Force Tigershark Oh-one, requesting immediate emergency takeoff,” he said over the control frequency.

“Tigershark Oh-one, repeat?”

“I have an emergency,” he said. “I need immediate takeoff.”

“I’m sorry, Tigershark. We have language difficulty. Thought you said flight emergency. We have you at base, at hangar. Please restate.”

“I need immediate clearance for takeoff,” he said, pulling off the brakes. He rolled forward about forty meters to the end of a taxiway, jammed the brakes and pushed up his engine power. Then he checked the control surfaces.

Working.

All systems green.

Get the hell into the air!

“Tigershark. We have a line of aircraft waiting on runway twenty-four,” said the controller. “You can join line.”

“How many planes in line?” he asked, starting forward. The runway was off to his left. He zoomed the Tigershark’s camera in that direction.

“You should be six when you get there,” said the controller. “Or maybe seven.”

The hell with that, thought Turk.

He had an open taxiway ahead — a good fifteen hundred feet — three hundred more than he needed balls out.

“Tower, I’m taking off from here,” he said, jamming the engine into full thrust.

Whatever curse words the controller replied with were lost in the roar of the engine. The Tigershark bolted forward. Within seconds it was near takeoff speed.

Turk tried to relax, keeping his pressure on the yoke light, waiting for the plane to tell him when it wanted to take off.

On his left he saw a blur moving in his direction.

A 757, turning onto the taxiway ahead of him.

In the way.

“Up!” he yelled, grabbing the stick.

The Tigershark jerked her nose upward. For a long, long second her rear end stayed on the ground.

The Boeing pilot was oblivious — if he’d even seen the small jet, he never would have believed it was moving so fast.

“Now!” yelled Turk, his hand firm against the electronically controlled stick. “Up, up, up!”

They cleared the tail of the airliner by a good two inches.

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