My first novel, Engineered Underground, will be available by the end of March. It’s the first in a five-book science-fiction series, and I’m excited to share a sneak peek at the first chapter of the book with you. Enjoy!
Chapter 1: The Pilot
Carter Air Force Base
Captain Dessa Rae Andrews was light on her feet. Today was the big day. Everything she’d ever worked for was about to come to fruition. She was going to pilot the most advanced aircraft in the world.
She hopped on the tram, punched up the menu, and tapped her destination: HANGAR 4. The tram was ancient but it still worked, and with all the budget cuts, the Air Force wasn’t about to replace functional equipment, even if it was several decades old. She was settling into her seat when First Lieutenant Connor Hamilton, her weapons systems officer, strode toward the tram. He tossed a knapsack onto an empty seat and then slid into the seat beside it. He tipped his hat to her, and she gave him a giddy grin as the tram took off, its old engine rumbling as it bounced across the airfield.
Dessa Rae stretched her legs and rolled her head around to loosen her muscles. It helped her relax and eased the excitement that was coursing through her body. Hamilton was busy watching a video on his e-glasses, probably a message from his fiancee. A devilish smile spread across his face and Dessa Rae rolled her eyes. Hamilton and his woman were worse than rabbits.
Dessa Rae had more important things to focus on. As one of the most promising young pilots in the Air Force, she had been selected to pilot the WASP. The Wingless Air-Space Plane was a top-secret military project—and it was a gorgeous machine. Triangular in shape, its angles were curved with a black body that shone like obsidian. It was downright sexy. The WASP’s functionality was even more impressive. It hovered and soared through Earth’s atmosphere and into space, and it was the first military vehicle equipped with a fully functional laser weapon and force-field defense system. Just thinking about flying it made Dessa Rae feel superhuman.
As they pulled up to the hangar, Dessa Rae gripped the edge of her seat and prepared to jump out of the tram. Her feet hit the pavement before Hamilton had a chance to gather his things. He hopped out a couple of seconds later, laughing.
“I get it. You’re excited. I am too, but don’t let the big dogs see how eager you are. Play it cool.”
Dessa Rae grinned and gave him a sarcastic two-finger salute. “Don’t I always?” she asked.
He laughed and nudged her shoulder, and they entered the hangar together.
Inside, mechanics were scurrying around, quadruple-checking everything. The forty-billion dollar WASP stood proud in the heart of the hangar. Dessa Rae’s heart leapt when she saw it. She’d spent countless hours in the virtual reality simulator, which was built to scale with a full hydraulics system, but nothing compared to the real thing. Thinking about what she was about to do took her breath away.
“We’d better not mess this up,” Hamilton whispered.
Colonel Kell and his right-hand man, Major Nichols, were milling around near the hangar’s office. Lieutenant Smith was never far from those two during operations like this. Dessa Rae looked around and spotted him leaning against a doorframe, tinkering with an electronic tablet. He looked up, and when Dessa Rae caught his eye, he smiled his crooked grin at her and tipped his hat like an old-fashioned cowboy. She nodded and then bowed her head to hide her blushing cheeks.
“Come on, let’s check in with the boss,” Hamilton said, oblivious to Dessa Rae’s flirtations.
She took a deep breath as they approached Colonel Kell, their commanding officer. Dessa Rae was still surprised he’d approved this assignment, although Hamilton had suggested Kell might not have had a choice. “Everybody has a boss,” Hamilton had said, “And everybody knows you’re the best pilot in the Air Force, even if Kell refuses to admit it.” It was an exaggeration, but Dessa Rae accepted the compliment and the implication about Colonel Kell.
She had suspected Colonel Kell didn’t like her since the moment they had met. Dessa Rae and a dozen other airmen recently assigned to Kell’s unit at Carson Air Force Base had been lined up on the field, standing at attention as the Colonel inspected each of them, eyeing them from head to toe, demanding their attention and their respect. He had looked at her and spoken to her in a manner laced with disdain. Dessa Rae had gotten the distinct feeling that he didn’t think she deserved to be there. In the years since, as Dessa Rae rose through the ranks, the tension between them had become increasingly uncomfortable.
Kell tried to act like Dessa Rae was just another officer, but his veneer was thin. In his most unguarded moments, he talked down to her with a sneer, like she was a child. It didn’t happen often, but it had happened often enough that Dessa Rae was certain he had a problem with her.
She examined the colonel’s face as she walked toward him. It was hard and weathered. His icy blue eyes gleamed with arrogance and his paper-thin lips rarely smiled. She couldn’t imagine any woman marrying him, but she’d heard he was widowed.
“Reporting for duty, sir,” she announced, clicking her heels together and giving him a proper salute. Hamilton mirrored her greeting.
“At ease, Captain,” he said. “You too, First Lieutenant. Just relax. I want you to enjoy this flight.”
Dessa Rae blinked her eyes. Had she heard correctly? He wanted her to enjoy this flight?
“The team’s waiting for you,” Kell said, and then he dismissed them, saying, “Good luck.”
“That was weird,” Dessa Rae whispered as they walked toward the bird.
“Maybe he finally got laid,” Hamilton quipped, and then he gave her a high five.
Dessa Rae didn’t know what she’d do without Hamilton. He was older and had been in the service three years longer than she had, but she outranked him and was a better pilot. Hamilton put that on his own shoulders instead of blaming Dessa Rae. He wasn’t the jealous type.
They got prepped and went through several last-minute checks before climbing into the cockpit. Dessa Rae let herself take a moment to revel in its glory.
As long as the WASP was on the ground, it was physically impossible to tell the difference between the interior of the simulator and the real thing, but knowing she was about to fly this futuristic marvel made Dessa Rae’s heart race. She eyed the controls and felt like she was in a science-fiction movie. But this wasn’t a movie. She was sitting in the cockpit of an actual spaceship.
Directly in front of her, there was a primary touchscreen that she would tap, swipe, and pinch to control the WASP. This was supported by an array of screens and panels lined with buttons and switches. The system also allowed her to take off, fly, and land on autopilot. She didn’t intend on using that feature unless she was ordered to do so, although Hamilton had bet her that once she got into space, she’d want to turn on autopilot so she could enjoy the view.
She settled back in her seat and tugged on the shoulder harness to make sure it was secure. After checking in with the control tower over the com system, Dessa Rae fired the starter, checked all the systems, and then gently swiped the ascension slider on the touchscreen.
The WASP lifted off the ground, hovering in mid-air. Hamilton hooted, “Woo hoo!”
Dessa Rae gave him a sideways glance. “So much for keeping it cool,” she muttered with a grin, restraining herself from hollering. The excitement was almost unbearable. She lifted the WASP higher and brought the bird half a dozen feet off the ground. Then she eased it forward and they floated out of the hangar.
Past the hangar door, she took them on a slow trajectory straight up, up, and up until they were two hundred feet in the air, and then, following the test-flight protocol, Dessa Rae guided the WASP on a slow, ascending tour around the perimeter of the base. When they came full circle and were once again directly above the hanger, she hovered the WASP for two minutes.
“Damn,” Hamilton whispered.
Damn was right. The view was spectacular. The sun’s rays reached out from the horizon, casting a dim orange glow that reflected against the sparse clouds in pink and purple hues.
She brought the WASP straight down until all the officers, mechanics, and airmen huddled outside the hangar door were visible. Then she ascended again, until the people on the ground were specks of dust and the hanger a small dot below.
Dessa turned her head and looked at Hamilton.“You ready, Ham?”
“I’ve been ready for this my whole life,” he said.
She kicked the engine into full gear and braced herself for the pitch of the flight. Within seconds, the WASP was hurtling toward the edge of the sky.
“Check out the rear view.” Hamilton’s voice was quiet with awe and wonder.
Dessa Rae toggled the monitors and watched, mesmerized, as the earth’s surface shrank behind them. It was an image she’d seen many times before, but witnessing it in person was marvelous.
She checked the tiny clock at the corner of the screen. “Entering space in eight minutes, fifteen seconds.”
The WASP’s engines were nearly silent, but as the craft adjusted its speed to prepare for exiting the atmosphere, there was a rumble she’d never heard in the simulator. The plane stalled, hovered for an instant, and then jerked from side to side and up and down before it dipped and then glided into a slow and wide downward spiral.
“That’s not right,” Hamilton said as Dessa Rae flicked the controls.
“WASP, this is control tower…” The voice cut in and out. “Altitude dropping…emergency protocol…respond.”
“Control tower, this is WASP, please acknowledge.”
Dessa Rae furiously went through the emergency protocol while Hamilton continued trying to contact the tower, but there was no response. The WASP quietly descended in wide arcs. They had lost control of the aircraft.
“I got nothing,” he said, and Dessa Rae could hear the terror in his voice. Her heart raced as she flicked the manual switches, but the WASP didn’t respond. It started twirling and picking up speed.
Within seconds the descent became dizzying. She could barely make out the scene beyond the windshield, everything was turning and moving so fast, but one thing was clear: the ground below was getting closer and closer.
“Eject!” Dessa Rae screamed.
Even as the word came out of her mouth, Dessa Rae knew it was too late. The WASP had entered a deadly spin.
Her heart lurched into her throat, and she broke out in a sweat as she simultaneously pressed the ejection button and braced herself for impact. She gripped the armrest as
Colonel Kell’s words echoed through her mind: “I want you to enjoy this flight.”
And that was the last thing Captain Dessa Rae Andrews remembered before she became somebody else.
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