Disclaimer: See part 1, nothing's changed!
Not quite as fast as I'd hoped, but certainly not as slow as I feared, here is the next instalment. Thank you very much for your patience! Part 5 should be with you in a couple of weeks.
Dawn was just barely breaking over the airfield as Taylor climbed out of Airwolf. Ahead of her, Hawke had already achieved quite a lead, but just when she thought she was going to lose him altogether, his progress was halted. The door into the building swung open and, to Taylor's amusement, Hawke found himself having to step back a couple of paces to allow no lesser person than Peterson himself to exit.
Taylor hurried to catch up as Hawke began to vent his annoyance on a visibly weary but no less annoyed Peterson.
"You done?" Peterson demanded as Taylor joined the group.
Hawke glared but said no more.
"Good." Peterson folded his arms across his chest and stared at Hawke. "Now, you're going to listen to me, and you're going to pay close attention because I am not saying this twice: I agree with you. I think this whole thing stinks of a set up. I think Grigovic wants to get his hands on Airwolf and he's trying to use this stolen data as leverage."
Hawke's jaw had hinged open in outright shock during this diatribe. It was an emotion that, Taylor suspected, Hawke wasn't all that used to.
"If you're sure it's a trap," she said, seizing on the moment of silence to announce her presence to both men, "then why are you sending Airwolf after the data?"
Peterson's shoulders slumped. "Because trap or not, that data needs to be back in our hands sooner rather than later."
"And Airwolf's the best way to get it?"
"It's the only way to get it without this whole mess becoming an international incident," Peterson answered.
Taylor blinked. "Am I missing something here? I'd have thought this already was an international incident."
"Hawke wasn't far wrong when he said the data was the son of the son of Star Wars," Peterson admitted. "It's an experimental satellite that, officially, records weather patterns and climate change. Unofficially---"
"Unofficially, you're snooping into our allies' backyards," Hawke finished, his face having returned to its more normal impassive expression.
Taylor waited for Peterson to deny it, but the older man simply looked sheepish and said nothing. Taylor wasn't sure whether to be shocked by the tacit admission or if she should perhaps just pretend it hadn't been made.
"So what's Grigovic threatening to do?" Hawke asked. "Tell on you?"
"Worse," said Peterson with a grimace. "He's threatening to sell the information to the highest bidder. The auction's going to be held tomorrow. We need to have the data back before it happens."
Taylor frowned. "Why not just send someone to the auction?"
Peterson smiled wryly. "That's plan B. I'd rather it didn't come to that – I'm not sure I could explain several millions of my annual budget being given to someone like Uri Grigovic."
It was Taylor's turn to gape open-mouthed. "Millions?" she squeaked.
Peterson shrugged. "It's data that any one of several hundred terrorist groups and rogue states would like to get their hands on, and most of them have a bigger bankroll than the national product of a large country."
"So what's the plan?" Hawke asked.
"Well, if you're finished chewing me a new one," said Peterson dryly, "I have a full briefing waiting indoors. I don't know about you, but I don't find pre-dawn in the desert exactly toasty warm."
Peterson had a point, Taylor decided. It was cold standing there. She hadn't noticed it before; she'd been too wrapped up in trying to make sense of everything Peterson was saying. Since he'd drawn attention to it, however, she now realised that her hands had long-since gone numb. "Indoors sounds good," she murmured.
Hawke shrugged and said nothing.
After giving Hawke a long look, Peterson shrugged and led the way.
The inside of the building was a surprise to Taylor. She'd half been expecting the place to look at least slightly similar to the Silver Guardian's headquarters, but it didn't. Instead, it looked like at least half the corporate head offices she'd ever seen. The walls of the hallways had all been painted a soothing magnolia colour and, here and there, were various potted ferns and rubber plants. If anything, it reminded her more of Biolab's offices.
Somehow, that struck her as being wrong.
After a quick trip up a flight of stairs and along another magnolia-coloured hallway, Peterson came to a halt outside one of the offices and pushed the door open.
"Ladies first," he directed, ushering Taylor in.
The room beyond was plush with a thick carpet covering the floor and a wide window that looked out over the flight apron. In one corner of the room stood a wide wooden desk while the latest in computer equipment took up another corner. The third corner contained a long, tall cabinet, while couches and a door, which clearly led into the next-door office, filled the fourth.
"Take a seat," said Peterson, retrieving a file from the desk, "and we'll get started."
Twenty minutes later and Taylor was convinced that at least one person the room was insane; she just wasn't sure whether it was her or whether it was Hawke and Peterson. They were seriously plotting to fly a sortie into heavily defended territory with an untrained crewman onboard. Maybe she was the insane one; she'd agreed to do it!
She'd also seen far more satellite photographs of obscure bits of the former USSR than she'd ever imagined she'd need to look at. Most of the photos showed the land in and around Uri Grigovic's compound, which was very heavily defended. There was just one that specifically focussed on that complex and that was the one she was currently studying.
The compound was right in the heart of Kasmiristan, surrounded on three sides by mountains, leaving only one truly viable approach by air. That one approach was heavily guarded by anti-aircraft guns, which included something that Hawke blithely called a "chopper chomper".
"Chopper chomper?" she echoed. "That doesn't sound good."
"It's not," said Peterson dryly. "It's a reference to a particular arrangement of artillery that was dreamed up thirty years ago and is still effective. The official name for it's The Hammer." He rounded on Hawke. "And what makes you think there's a Hammer set up there?"
Hawke snorted. "Grigovic isn't dumb. Three sets of high ground surrounding his compound, only one logical entry point; it's a classic chopper chomper set up." He pointed to the three mountains on the satellite photograph and jabbed a finger down onto it in three specific points. "Gun there, there and there."
Taylor looked. The three places he pointed at showed a tiny bright spot, almost like sunlight glinting off a piece of glass, like a watch face. She blinked. Was that what it was? Or was it, perhaps, sunlight glinting off the glass of an anti-aircraft gun's range finder?
"I've got no intelligence reports of guns being placed there," Peterson pointed out.
"They're there," Hawke retorted, certainty lacing his voice.
Taylor looked again at the satellite photograph. If Hawke was right, and those were guns, there was no way to actually penetrate the area they covered and get to Grigovic's compound. Whichever way you went in, you always had all three guns pointing at you. She shivered. Suddenly, Hawke's nickname for the arrangement made sense.
"Can you beat a hammer?" Peterson asked, doubt in his voice.
"You'd better hope we can," Hawke retorted, "else you're going to lose a little bit more than just that data." He jabbed his finger down onto the photograph again. "Any idea where in the compound the data might be?"
"No," Peterson admitted. "Best guess is with Grigovic himself but---" He shrugged.
Hawke grunted. "All else fails, I can blow the compound sky high, I guess."
"That would deny the data to anyone else," Peterson agreed. "Though it's not exactly my preferred method."
Before Taylor had really considered what she was going to say, she began, "What if Hawke sets me down out of sight of the compound and I go in by foot?"
Two pairs of eyes suddenly fixed themselves on her.
"No," said Hawke, frowning heavily.
"What are you thinking?" Peterson asked.
Trying to ignore the glower Hawke was now giving her, Taylor ticked points of on her fingers. "You don't know where the data is; that means someone's got to go in and get it. I have intrusion experience and training. I'm betting Grigovic is expecting Hawke to be flying alone. Lastly, it's pretty clear Airwolf will fly without me; it won't fly without Hawke."
"No," Hawke repeated, more force to his denial.
"Why not?" When Hawke didn't answer, Taylor added, "Is it because you don't think I can?"
"It's because it's Grigovic," came the terse answer. "Do you have any idea what he would do to anyone he caught snooping around?"
"Fine," Taylor snapped. "I won't get caught. Do you have a better idea?"
Hawke opened his mouth to respond, but Peterson got in first. "OK. Much more of this and I'm just going to shoot the pair of you," he muttered. "Hawke, this isn't fifteen years ago and Taylor is not your brother."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Hawke snarled.
Peterson's eyes narrowed. "You know damn well what I mean. You've read her file. She's a fully trained operative and she's fully fit. She can look after herself." Then, to Taylor's surprise, he turned to fix her with the same, annoyed gaze. "And you need to figure out that not everything that happens to you is because you're female. You don't need to prove yourself to me and you don't need to take part in any damn pissing contest. Am I clear?"
Before she could quite stop herself, Taylor answered, "Yes, sir." Then she remembered that Peterson wasn't her commanding officer and she wasn't actually back in service. She blushed.
Peterson, for his part, just rolled his eyes. "Hawke?"
"I don't like it," the pilot muttered. "Grigovic's going to be expecting someone." He grimaced. "With more time there'd be another option."
"But there isn't," said Peterson.
Hawke muttered something that sounded as if he was questioning Peterson's parentage. "We'll need fuel pick ups."
"Already arranged," Peterson replied. "One in Anchorage and one at the base in Kazakhstan."
And just like that, Taylor realised, it was all settled. She shivered. She was right; she was the insane one.
TO BE CONTINUED...