Sunrise. Light was a line of gold on the horizon, a luminal outlining of the soft, slow swell of the sea. Above the aircraft carrier's radio masts, a single seagull cried out, its harsh voice cutting through the hum of auxiliary engines and the muffled throb of rhythmic music. The carrier rode the sea without a single riding light, but fifty feet above the dark glimmer of her flight deck, the windows in her executive offices burned bright with the extravagance of unlimited power.
The carrier's nuclear power plant could power her, unsupported, for twenty years. Launched in the early years of the millennium, she was equipped for cyber warfare and subatomic threat. Her communications array was precise to a laser point, capable of isolating a cell phone conversation half a world away or picking a single key word from a million terabytes of data. Her weaponized ability encompassed unmanned sea and air defence drones, surface to air and surface to surface missiles, torpedos and the capacity for nuclear weapons. Together with the seventy F/A-18E and ten F/A-18F Super Hornets of the flight deck, she carried four combat ready Blackhawk helicopters. She had, when fully crewed, a compliment of 6,000 staff. Fully stocked, her freezers and storage bays could feed her crew for 70 days before resupply. Within the armored steel plates of her hull, the great hall of her main concourse encompassed six recreation rooms, four franchised fast food outlets, a Starbucks, a dentist, two barbers, and an internal store that could supply everything from tank turrets to toilet paper.
She was a city in miniature, and partaking of the quality of cities, her steel decks encompassed both an enforced and inescapable lack of privacy and an overpowering solitude.
At dawn, at the tipping curve of the flight deck, fighter pilot Lieutenant Pete "Maverick" Mitchell was seeking that solitude. Testimony to the carrier's exceptional deployment, the decking under his boots was scuffed and scored. Paint peeled from the cold steel of the railing, a rough swell of rust bubbling under layers of Navy whitewash. Flakes, spinning into the sea, were briefly struck to gold by the sunrise: the silver wings on Maverick's flight suit shimmered above the shadows and pinpricks where his squadron badges had once been sewn.
Ahead, the carrier's bow plunged towards a shadowed sky. The towering clouds were lined with light, the sea, dark under their weight, glimmered in the dawn. The ocean was empty. The carrier sailed alone, shorn of her usual supporting supply ships and destroyer escort. It was the forty-fifth day they had been at sea without resupply.
Hidden by the bulk of his overalls, Maverick was holding the only wireless enabled device he and Goose had managed to retain; a tablet that bore little resemblance to the child's gift it was once going to be. Goose wrote the software. Maverick tested it. He was trying and failing, as he had tried and failed at unpredictable intervals over the last six weeks, to bypass the carrier's signal jamming protocols without being discovered.
Today was not that day. Tomorrow could be. Maverick slid the tablet into his breast pocket, forcing his anger through the grip of his hands into the steel of the ship, tuning his face into the wind. On the carrier, the privacy of the flight deck at dawn was the closest he could get to the freedom of an open road and the power of his bike between his thighs.
His peace was brief. Above Maverick's head, one of the officers partying in the offices had opened a window. Sound, music, electric with rage, slammed into the morning. The singer's voice was backed by a bass beat so heavy the deck seemed to throb in sympathy. "White America," he sang. "White America-" The dense, leaf-sweet smell of a lit cigar wafted across the rails.
"Hell," Maverick muttered to himself. He thrust his chilled hands into his pockets. Inside, he'd find hot coffee and pancakes, artificial maple syrup and a butter substitute that melted so sweetly it might as well be the real thing. There would be feature films in two of the cinemas and soft porn in the third, an endless recycling of Playboy blondes in miniscule bikinis. He could turf his decimated, patched together squadron out of their racks and start up a game of craps, a scratch basketball team, a chess club.
"Brock," Maverick acknowledged.
"What's up? Early for you flyboys, ain't it?" Brock was flight crew, one of the mechanics who kept the planes functional, his overalls stained with oil and his fingers notched with the small scars of unceasing maintenance.
"Thought I'd get an early start," Maverick said.
"Right," said Brock, shrugging.
Someone closed the window. The words of the song were gone.
Brock jerked his head at the superstructure. "Dude, those guys sure know how to throw a party." Rueful admiration tinged his voice.
"Yeah," said Maverick.
"Scuttlebutt says pilots get VIP passes," Brock said. He waited. "Because, if you ever wanted to trade..."
"I hear you," Maverick said. He balled his fists in his pockets.
"Cannot confirm or deny, huh?" Brock said. "Man, I tell you, those girls-"
The music cut out.
A heartbeat later, the air attack warning wailed into the silence. Over the rise and fall of the siren, scratched with static, the Captain's voice said, "All stations. All stations. We are under attack. This is not a drill. Repeat. This is not a drill." A second later, "Who turned that noise on, I can't hear my own voice." And, louder, "Defend the ship! Remember New York!"
The siren stopped. His last word rang out across the deck.
"Well," muttered Brock, turning to the stairs down to the hangers. "See you on the other side."
The clouded sky hid any approaching aircraft. Maverick, surveying it, squinted into the rising sun. Behind him, men ran to the anti-aircraft guns, struggling into flak jackets and cotton gloves. Hydraulics whined as the guns lifted. The seagulls, disturbed, wheeled and called above the deck. The loudspeakers were silent.
He could hear it before he saw it, the heavy whine of a helicopter, steady and getting louder.
"Hold fire." It was the XO's voice on the loudspeaker. There was noise behind him, a confused echo of voices and the rising tone of an argument.
Maverick leaned forward on the rail. Descending below the cloud base, only a hundred feet above the waves, the helicopter was a pin-pick of a silhouette. Then a cardboard cutout. Finally, as the pilot dipped its nose, it revealed itself as a Russian-built Mi-8, a military transport with a hundred variants. It was flying slowly, low over the ocean and taking no evasive maneuvers, as obvious as a LCAC in a duck pond.
It was the first aircraft, other than those attached to the ship, he'd seen for five weeks.
"What did you say?" said the Captain, very clearly, over the loudspeaker. "Radio contact? Friendly? Friendly what?"
The helicopter began weaving from side to side in long, wide curves, a skillful, tightly-controlled display that verged on aeronautics, as far from an attacking position as a Labrador with a Frisbee.
"Hold fire. Maintain position. Helicopter has permission to offload."
"Not on my deck!" shouted the Captain. "Hold the line!"
"Helicopter will not land," said the XO. "Repeat. Helicopter does not have permission to land."
"What the hell," Maverick said. "What the actual, freaking-" He was running towards the landing zone, watching the helicopter turn and ride the air above the waves, parallel to the ship. The doors were open, revealing a group of people, a woman - kids. There were kids in that helicopter.
He found himself shouting. Armed marines were forming up around the zone, taking cover behind the turrets. "There are kids in there!"
"You heard what the man said!" roared a familiar voice. Maverick's immediate commanding officer, Commander Mike "Viper" Metcalf, was in the firing zone. "Offload is permitted. Do not, repeat, do not fire unless fired upon. Johnson, see the man down. Sergeant, get your marines out of the LZ yesterday, do you hear me?"
"Helicopter does not have permission to land," repeated the XO.
The helicopter swung in over the deck, low enough that Maverick could see the pilot, a white shirt, a shock of blond hair above dark sunglasses.
Maverick's fellow USAAF pilot was watching the waves, timing the helicopter's hover to the heave and roll of the ship, and doing it brilliantly. Fingers were crowding the cabin door, women and children, their imbalanced weight just another hazard in a world of them. Kazansky's skids were six feet above the deck, five, two....
Maverick was holding his breath.
Two feet above the deck, the helicopter held steady against the crosswind in a breathtaking display of virtuoso skill. A boy, a teenager, leapt from the cabin. He turned, reaching up for a woman in a dress the color of the sunrise, catching her as she jumped. There was another woman after her, and then a little girl, and two more boys, and finally as the deck rose and the helicopter rolled with it a woman was tumbling onto the deck, a woman, clutching a baby. Marines had already broken formation. It was Sergeant Ruiz who reached out to break the woman's fall. Other marines were hustling the kids away from the wash of the rotor blades, heads bent, running. One of them was carrying the little girl, his hand protectively over her head.
The helicopter lifted, spinning out to port, the leeward side of the ship. As Maverick watched, Kazansky opened his door and looked down at the waves. The rotors, with their tremendous uplift, flattened the sea. Spindrift blew across the deck. "He's going to ditch," Maverick said, incredulous.
"One hell of a thing," said Goose, panting, at his side.
"One hell of a pilot," said Maverick.
"Marines!" roared the Commander. "Man the nets! That's Lieutenant Kazansky in that helicopter, and I want him on this ship!"
The loudspeaker crackled, and was abruptly switched off. Kazansky was taking off his helmet, tucking his sunglasses into his shirt pocket. Marines were lining the side of the ship, unrolling the great rope mats of the boarding nets and heaving them over the side.
"There's no time," Goose said. "He won't make it."
"They'll slow the carrier down," Maverick said. Anything else was murder. "Even if they're making him ditch. They have to." He could see the fierce concentration on Kazansky's face as he brought the helicopter down, lower, almost touching the waves. Anything could flip the machine into the sea. A minute sheer on the controls, the slightest contact of a rotor blade to the sea, a rogue wave. Kazansky had to get the angle right, roll the helicopter so the lethal blades fell away from the ship, allow himself time to exit the cabin.
The carrier was not slowing. "Get those ropes!" Maverick said. There were coils at the rails, left after the third time the hanger lifts had failed and they'd had to tie the planes down on the deck.
Waves were breaking over the helicopter's skids. It was still keeping pace with the ship, holding steady against the battering local updrafts.
Years ago, in a different country, Maverick had pitched. Now he hefted the rope in his hands, weighing the length of the throw, as Goose stood braced by the rail with the trailing end.
Thirty feet away, Kazansky looked up from the control panel. He was smiling. He saluted. And with a single touch on the controls, as the helicopter rolled away from the carrier, stately as a whale, as Kazansky stepped out of the cabin and dived into the sea - the rotors hit. The sea exploded, water sheeting upwards in great white waves, the helicopter imploding.
"Where the hell," Maverick yelled. "Get him. Get him!"
Beyond the crash zone, a blond head broke the water. Maverick was running down the deck, rope in his hands. Marines were frantically rolling out more nets. Kazansky was swimming, head down, splashy and powerful, as the carrier swept past him. "Iceman!" Maverick shouted, and let the rope fly out.