Wheeling in the rarified air at thirty-nine thousand feet, Donovan Nash and his entire four-person crew aboard the 'Galileo' marveled at the spectacular brilliance of the Northern Lights. Sitting next to him in the cockpit was Michael Ross, flying their precise track in the empty airspace miles above Northern Manitoba, less than five hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle. In the eastern sky, the sun was only minutes from rising above the horizon, yet the remnants of the Northern Lights continued to swirl and dance with ethereal green and red tendrils. The largest solar storm ever recorded was in progress, bombarding Earth with massive solar radiation, and those aboard the 'Galileo', Eco-Watch's highly modified Gulfstream IV, observed the celestial extravaganza from the front row.
From the right seat, Donovan caught a momentary flash from far away. He squinted into the sun, a narrow sliver peeking above the eastern horizon, and saw nothing. Then it blinked again, a brief point of light in his peripheral vision. He turned to find what looked like a solitary contrail that blended perfectly with the snow-covered ground. Donovan followed the unfurling vapor trail until he found its source. What seconds ago was a glimmer on the horizon, quickly became a Boeing 737 closing in on them at nearly the speed of sound.
"Climb, Michael! Climb!" Donovan yelled.
Without hesitation, Michael pulled hard on the controls and simultaneously pushed up both throttles. They hurtled upward out of thirty-nine thousand feet, and Michael banked the 'Galileo' to the left just as the Boeing flashed beneath them.
The sound of the stick shaker reverberated through the cockpit, warning of an imminent stall. Michael lowered the nose, trying to gain the speed he'd lost avoiding the Boeing. In one violent action, the Gulfstream descended into the Boeing's wake turbulence. The two horizontal tornadoes that streamed back from the 737's wingtips enveloped the 'Galileo', and the powerful vortex flipped the Gulfstream upside down before the inertia just as quickly flung them free. Michael kept the Gulfstream rolling all the way around until they were once again wings level.
Donovan watched the Boeing angle away from them holding a northwest heading. Behind them, in the back of the 'Galileo', were two scientists using the Gulfstream's complex sensors and optics array to record as much data about the solar storm as possible. A glance over his shoulder told Donovan that both men were still at their stations.
"Dear God, that was close," Michael said. "Do you still have him? What in the world is he doing out here?"
"What in hell is that guy doing?" Rick Mathews, the third Eco-Watch pilot, said as he rushed from the cabin into the cockpit. "It happened fast, but that looked like a private 737."
The severe atmospheric conditions prevented any communication with air traffic control. "They're descending. Follow him," Donovan said, his fear tapering off, his adrenaline mixed with anger.
Michael added power and brought the speed of the Gulfstream up to redline. Traveling over five hundred miles per hour, the 'Galileo' closed on the Boeing. "I think it's best if we come at him from above and behind," he said. "There's something really off about all of this. I want to get a good look without him knowing we're here."
"I like that plan, Michael," Donovan said. "Rick, did you get a look at his registration? Do we know what country he's from?"
"No, all I saw was a 737 with what looked like green and gold stripes."
Donovan picked up a telephone that served as an intercom to communicate with the two researchers seated in the back. "Dr. Samuels, is everyone still in one piece back there?"
"Captain Nash, what in the hell was that all about?" Dr. Samuels asked. "Is everything okay?"
"Everything's fine, we had to take evasive action to avoid a midair collision with another airplane."
"I thought Canadian air traffic control said there would be no traffic for the entire time we were on station?"
"That's what they told us, which is why we're following this guy. He's flying without a working transponder, which is why there was no collision warning. With the sun coming up, I was wondering if you could use some of our optical equipment to help us identify them."
"Let me see what I can do," Samuels replied. "Exactly where is he right now?"
Donovan looked up and spotted the 737 just as it vanished into a deck of clouds below them. "He just went into the clouds. I'll get back to you."
"I'm going to offset our course a few degrees so we don't run into this guy if he slows down," Michael said as he swung the 'Galileo' to the left to parallel the Boeing.
"I know we can't communicate with the outside world via radio right now," Donovan said to Rick. "But how far south do we need to be, to get someone via satellite connection?"