I hope you have been enjoying my husband’s new book Serenity: Full Circle. Here are the next two Chapters!
CHAPTER TWENTY- SEVEN
Into The Black Hole
Late evening, two days later, both aircraft were on approach to Osan Air Base, South Korea. Marc was at the controls of the G150 after just receiving clearance from the tower and given approach headings. Dara was along for the ride on this mission. She had drawn the short straw, and was to be the communications liaison in the Company’s facility at the air base.
After touchdown, Jon rounded up the group and ushered them off to a trademark large, black SUV. After darting between several hangers and small buildings, they arrived at a medium-sized hanger. As they pulled in, the doors rolled to a close behind them. The hanger was obviously not what it appeared to be! As they exited the vehicle, a large double door swung open, two men (sans jackets), wearing shoulder holsters, greeted Jon by his Company name.
The team, now consisting of five, including Cliff and Bob, followed the others into a massive, dark control room. It was ablaze with multiple ten-feet tall video displays. One was dedicated to the entire Korean peninsula; others appeared to be live-streaming from multiple aircraft, assumedly drones. The entire room was manned by only five people, including the two that had answered the door.
It was a totally self-sustained facility; the upper two floors contained the galley, bed and bath for all operatives working within the building. A large planning room was on the main floor next to the control room. Jon gave the group a quick tour, ending at the galley, so they could all have a bite to eat.
Afterwards they all gathered around the meeting table in the planning room. Cliff took the lead, giving the team a synopsis of the hybrid drone and some of its capabilities. The unit was large enough to have a payload in excess of three hundred pounds. The real impressive features were its speed, vertical takeoff and landing abilities. One of the extra features was onboard flight control. Cliff inserted a flash drive and launched a top-secret video, shot in the Nevada desert. Each unit was about eight feet across and in the center was a sling seat with support straps and a flexible joy stick capable of right or left mounting. Attached next to the seat was a light weight helmet equipped with a heads-up display. It also had infrared night vision and radio capabilities, both long-range and Bluetooth-limited range.
At the table, Marc and Akil were putting things together. Jon spoke up saying, “The two drones will be delivered and assembled by tomorrow morning. We start the flight training in the afternoon. For the time being, here’s manuals we’ve thrown together. Bob and Cliff will work with each of you, one-on-one. They have been on this project since its inception; no one knows more than they do about how these things work. They’re the only ones to ever fly in them, so I suggest you listen up.”
Bob took the lead saying, “OK, we can do ninety percent of the flying from this control room. When it’s time to land, considering it will be nighttime, no moon and, more than likely, total cloud cover at this time of year, you’re going to be at the controls. These units are fully autonomous drones and can fly themselves home, even without Cliff or I. All it takes is flipping one switch, then sitting back and enjoying the ride or stepping back, watching it disappear in the distance. Now, I know you’re both pilots, but these things are downright touchy – more so when the ground effect comes into play. We should be able to train you in a day, maybe two.” After an hour of Q&A, they adjourned to their sleeping quarters and hit the manual until late in the evening.
Dara and Jon started going over the general logistics of the mission and listing equipment that might be needed. The list was short and light for obvious reasons. Based on the earlier meetings, two of the first pieces of equipment were M107 (LRSR) – Long Range Sniper Rifles – with Leupoid 4.5 x 14 variable power scopes. Dara, then got on the Sat phone and called Akil’s uncle, Ricardo Ruiz, requesting an overnight shipment of 500 rounds of match grade Nammo, Raufoss, MK211 ball ammunition. This ammunition, more precisely shell casings, could not be traced back to U.S. as they were manufactured in a Norwegian / Finnish military complex. This ball-type ammo is considered to be the most accurate long-range 50-caliber round available. After placing the order with Ricardo, she stopped by the galley for a hot cup of green tea, before joining Marc upstairs.
The sun was still only a promise of the new day, when the team gathered their chairs around the large conference table in the main meeting room. Cliff and Bob started their rundown on the reading material from the previous night with both Marc and Akil. The modified joystick the controller used to fly the drone, was the crux of the night’s reading material. They moved the training session to an area on top of the hangar where the drones were parked. They were somewhat larger than either Marc or Akil had envisioned. For fear of top secret drones being seen, the flight training had to be done between one and four a.m. at night. Considering the mission insertion would take place during nighttime hours, this would work out fine.
After the meeting, Marc and Akil, unpacked the new M107’s and began to neuter them, removing all markings, both letters and numbers. The procedure also included refining the trigger mechanisms and then removing the mechanical sights and also mounting the Leupoid scopes. They would only take two magazines for each weapon. Each had the potential for ten rounds, however the optimum load was known to be eight. Superstition runs deep with competitive shooters, not to rule out when your life is on the line. By noon, Marc, Akil and Jon headed to a make shift range for some live fire. Jon had pulled some strings, arranging for a special shooting range to be set up alongside the main landing strip taxiway. From the brace position to the target was 2,750 meters, 1.7 miles. As the competitive ammunition had not arrived as yet, they began with XM1022 military grade munitions. The Leupoid scope had the latest computer circuitry with flash memory for the latest metro weather updates. It also could compensate for earth rotational effects and local magnetic variations. They would take turns firing, each time tweaking the handheld computerized information. The microcomputer that was connected via Bluetooth to the M107’s scope was constantly compensating the ultra-human factors.
For Marc, to close on the target, was a matter of five rounds. Akil was an accomplished marksman, but did not have the training that Eyan had. It was necessary for Marc to spend some time coaching him. Akil, as in the past, was a fast study; he knew that Marc was one of the best at this. He listened and learned well. Over the next hour, he began pulling his grouping tightly together. At this range, that meant a four-foot circle. But this was not good enough; he needed more time. Perhaps the match grade ammunition would help, Marc thought. Sometimes, minor adjustments make a big difference. After three and a half hours at the range, it was time to pack it in. A 50-caliber round has a way of quickly beating up one’s shoulder.
Just as they arrived back at the hangar, a delivery truck was pulling away. Dara was standing at the entrance way checking over the order. Ricardo, as usual, was dependable and efficient; the order had been doubled, just in case. Dara had already conferred with both Cliff and Bob about the mission necessities and its load demands. Now it was time to scrutinize the equipment and weigh in the men themselves.
After this was completed, it was early evening. Jon had slipped out for several hours before reappearing just before dinner. As they sat around the table, the conversation turned to that of the firing range. Jon asked how much time Marc thought it would take for Akil to come up to par. After a short pause, Marc replied, “Two, or maybe three, weeks!” Instantly he felt Akil’s foot kicking his leg under the table. It was Akil’s way of returning the comedic gesture. Then Marc said, “Most likely by tomorrow afternoon.”
Jon, with a grin, said, “Two bits says he does it first shot and every shot he takes tomorrow.” This was something that neither of them expected him to say – he was a man of few words and not prone to levity. Marc said, “I’ll take that bet.” Before anything else was said, he slid a fully loaded M107 magazine across the table, stopping just in front of Akil. Looking it over, his first inclination was, OK, what’s this? Then he noticed the weight of the Mag; as he looked closer, he noticed markings on the rounds he had never seen before. This was unusual, considering the fact he had been an arms dealer his entire adult life. He snapped two bullets out of the Mag, handing one to Marc. The look on Marc’s face was telling the same story. They both looked across the table at Jon, who now sat with a full smile on his face. He said, “Have either of you ever heard of a government agency called DARPA?” Marc said, “Yeah, back when Eyan and I worked for the Secret Service. It was some kind of think tank for developing military toys.” This information was a bit left of Akil’s knowledge base. Jon interjected, “OK, DARPA stands for Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, and you’re right – they make all kinds of special toys – like that bullet your holding. By the way, I wouldn’t drop it. It’s worth about $15,500 a round.” Marc replied, “Impressive price; what does it do?” “Well, it’s called an EXACTO round – Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance. Inside that 50 cal. is a microcomputer that controls steering fins that allows it to adjust trajectory in flight, keeping it on target even if the flight path is altered by wind or uncontrolled variables, like the target moving. It works using optical sensors in the nose of the bullet to track the target and altering the pop-out fins’ angles to change directions. Do you think these might help the mission?” Marc asked. “What time are we going to the range? I’ll let you know ten minutes later.”
In May, the sun rises early in Korea, and one must rise even earlier when work is to be done. The sky was just beginning to turn orange in the east when they arrived at the make-shift range about a mile from the hangar. It was just the three of them and they were all anxious to try out the munitions. By the time they had traversed the distance to setup targets, then returned to the firing position, the day was bright. Knowing that most likely the firing position on the mission would from an elevated location, they chose to fire from a table. This would eliminate the ground effect imposed upon the bullet as it exited the rifle’s barrel. Virtually everything affects the flight of a projectile that is meant to travel such distances. Late the prior evening, they had retrofitted the M107’s with new barrels, sans the lands and grooves, to facilitate the bullet’s requirements. They exchanged the standard scopes for laser scopes, as they were required to designate the targets for the new munitions.
Marc started off the shooting match, firing his first round about five feet to the right of the intended target. As soon as he fired, he adjusted the laser scope on to the stationary target; this would be the reverse of an actual event where the target would have moved. The bullet impacted on target, near center mass. Both Akil and Jon were observing with field glasses. The reaction was unanimous –grins all around. Now it was Akil’s turn. He repeated Marc’s footsteps, aiming away from the target, firing and then re-designating. Once again, less than two seconds later, the bullet arrived center mass. Marc turned to Jon standing to the far side of Akil, flipping him a quarter with his thumb and index finger, saying, “A bet’s a bet.” At this point they were all smiling. After firing two more rounds each, Marc said, “I don’t see the need to play around with these any longer, not at $15,000 a pop; what say we pack it in?” Jon’s reply, “Sure, as soon as I try one for myself.” Jon was no sniper; however, he was no stranger to firearms either. Marc gave him a quick tutorial and then he fired his round with the same results. After shooting, he said, “The word ‘sniper’ may disappear from the books with this type of ammo,” referring to the military tech manuals.
After dinner, at a meeting, Cliff and Bob were the center of attention. Bob told them that at 01:00 hours, the first flying lessons with full gear (including firearms) was scheduled on the roof. As the hour approached, Marc was in the quarters Dara and he shared. He was laying out his gear on the bed when Dara came up from the control room. She flopped into a chair, displaying her exhaustion. Marc took one look at her, shaking his head, saying, “I know, we all feel the same; it’ll be over soon. Jon said he thought the parade for this turkey is supposed to be in the next four or five days. I hope we can learn to fly these buckets of bolts in time to get there.” Dara, looking at the items Marc had laid out, said, “You should forget the 17,” referring to the Glock. “Take the 43; it’s half the weight, so you can carry twice the ammo.” Marc nodded in agreement with her train of thought. Dara was, when it came business, a person of cold logic. The next thought to come forth had even more depth. “When you were at the range, did you and Akil ever fire at the same time, what happens if both of the projectiles optic sensors home in on the same laser paint? That would be extremely awkward.” Now, Marc began to realize just how tired they all had become. Something so basic, but horribly impactive, and everyone but Dara had glossed right over the possibility.
Both Marc and Akil had spent in excess of ten hours of time on the makeshift simulator flying the drone with the joy stick. Now it was time to apply that to the real deal. Just after midnight, they all assembled on the upper deck where the drones were now moored. They had been fully double-checked and then flight tested by Bob the previous night. They started the evening out with a re-briefing. Then, one at a time, they began by powering up and learning to hover at three to four meters above the deck. The power cells were a hybrid lithium paste, infused with polymorphic gel. Neither of them really understood how it worked, but they were told the batteries had the ability to regenerate to one hundred percent within eight to ten hours, without the need of external interaction. The units were able to sustain full powered flight for just over three hours at maximum load capacity. By the time both men had achieved a reasonable core competence at hovering, more than two hours had elapsed. It was now approaching a twenty-hour day for all involved. The decision to knock off for the day was welcome.
Marc had voiced his concerns to Jon about the lack of rest and Dara’s point about the ammunition. The next morning’s schedule was pushed back several hours. With lunch behind them, the crew headed off to the firing range. After firing the first set of rounds, it was more than obvious that a problem was at hand. As Dara had thought, both bullets had homed in on the same laser, several times. As they worked on an answer to the problem, it became clear, if the two targets were closer than six to eight feet from each other, the risk of duality existed. They needed to find an answer, and quick. By late afternoon, reality had set in. Marc would need to revert to conventional munitions. This would also necessitate changing out the barrel of the weapon and also added weight, which was at a premium. A decision was made for Akil to use the EXACTO munitions and Marc would use the conventional type. That evening Marc re-fitted his rifle with the standard barrel and scope before going up for the night’s flight training.
Cliff regurgitated the flight protocols again before the flight. Both Marc and Akil suited up and loaded all the gear aboard, then proceeded to lift off. After they were airborne, using the headset communications, Marc remarked, “OK, Akil, let’s see what these things can do.” An immediate response from Cliff came blasting over the system saying, “This is only a basic flight, proceed around the hangar’s perimeter and land back here.” To which, no reply was returned.
Marc keyed his mic three times indicating to Akil to go up two radio frequencies channels. This was one of the basic operational practices that the Serenity Group had adopted for live-fire field use. Akil checked back in as soon as he was up on the channel. Marc began, saying, “How does yours feel? This one handles like a Convair 240 in a cross-wind. Akil just said, “Copy that.” After thirty minutes, both were getting more adept at the quirkiness of the drones. As they approached the hangar, they returned to the base frequency and announced their impending landing. After landing and shut down, Cliff was in Marc’s face immediately, starting to say something that he could regret. Marc raised his hands, palms out, saying, “Cliff, whose life is on the line here? No disrespect, but you fly a desk; we deal with this kind of shit on a regular basis. We don’t have the time nor the inclination to always play by the rules. Get it?” Cliff with a stern look, said, “Got it.” Jon was standing on the far side of the landing platform watching the confrontation with a subliminal smile. This was one the things he liked and respected about Marc and his whole group; they were all business.
As they made their way down the stairs, Marc was saying to Jon, “We need an hour in the morning to hit the range. I need to zero in the scope and barrel I replaced, and check the match ammo Ricardo sent us.” “OK, do you think we can be ready to move this show out to the ship by tomorrow night?” Marc, stopping on the stairs, said, “We’re as ready as it gets, Jon.”
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